The Strangeness of Kindness

I haven’t felt particularly kind in recent months and feel guilty about it

Photograph by Getty Images

I can’t recall the first time I heard the phrase “random acts of kindness,” but I’m guessing it’s 20 years ago or more. Even then, it struck me as odd. To some of us, the concept of helping wherever it's needed is obvious, though I understand the ways in which the idea of randomness holds appeal. It adds a touch of magical thinking — and what's not to love about that?

As admirable as I may find the principle of the Good Samaritan, shouldn’t we be practicing intentional acts of kindness? We talk a good game when it comes to lending a hand, building community or extending kindness. The golden rule and all that. But unsolicited good deeds seem to fall by the wayside when we’re stressed or distracted. Or simply self-absorbed. And, let's be honest about it, we’re a country that’s extremely self-absorbed.

“Where did you go?” my lover asks.

He’s sitting across from me and I’ve been staring at the Christmas tree behind him, my eyes beginning to blur, my mind wandering. I’ve been distant lately. At least, that’s how I perceive myself. I haven’t been a “me” that I particularly like, a “me” that’s fun, a “me” that’s compassionate. I want that “me” back — for him.

“I was thinking about you,” I say. “I was thinking about how you treat me. I was thinking about kindness.”

“What does that mean?”

“You’re a good man,” I say. “And you’re kind — the way you are with your mother, with me, with my kids. Patient. Tolerant. Finding humor in tough situations.”

He smiles.

“Isn’t that just being human to each other?” he asks.

“It’s more,” I say. “It’s a sort of selflessness without losing yourself. And I want to be kinder, especially to you.”

"You're one of the kindest people I know," he says.

I understand the reason for that response; I’ve helped with his aging mother who suffers from Alzheimer’s. He hasn’t asked for that assistance, not ever, yet it seems only natural to step in for the person you love. Besides, my own mother is deceased. She was abrasive and critical. His mother is her polar opposite — on her worst day, even with the dementia, she’s affectionate and appreciative.

Our interactions are a gift — to me.

Yet I haven’t felt kind in recent months. Not generous of spirit. Not sufficiently attentive. Certainly not selfless. I’ve been unable to look beyond my budgets and to-do lists, my Skype meetings and writing deadlines, the comings-and-goings of my college kid, his tuition bills, his upcoming study abroad. I’ve been irritable and distracted.

I tell myself that circumstances are at play: The man I love is often at my place on the weekends when I’m trying to work; if he turns to me and speaks, I'm immediately annoyed. “I’m working,” I’ll say. And then he apologizes. Twenty minutes later, he wants to share an article he’s just read, but he breaks my train of thought again and I repeat: “I’m working.” If he interrupts a third time, I snap. Then I'm the one to apologize. I feel like a bitch. I feel unkind. I feel guilty.

I consider the humanizing power of a tender word, recalling the times I’ve been on the receiving end: after my father died suddenly, after the breakup of my marriage, when I was worried about money or a child or my own health. Kindness can come as a surprise: A woman I barely knew drove me around town for months after I totaled my car in an accident. Occasionally, my son calls from college — to check on my well-being, rather than the other way around.

"You're gone again," he says.

“The way I spend my days and nights at the computer,” I say. “I’m short with you. I could be kinder. I feel guilty.”

He’s quiet for a moment. Then says: "I understand that the way you work makes things more challenging. But I’m happy with you and I’m happy with us. So don’t feel guilty. Guilt is your problem, not our problem.”

"Maybe I need to be kinder to myself," I murmur.

"Maybe you do," he replies.

Tags: marriage

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