Greatest Regret – “Failures in Kindness”

George Saunders by Damon Winter New York Times

George Saunders by Damon Winter New York Times

It’s not often you get major writers speaking of such mundane things as “the need for more kindness” to students graduating from ivy-league schools. But that’s what George Saunders spoke about in a speech that went viral last year.

As the mother of someone suffering from addiction and the stigma of addiction, Saunders’ words touched me deeply. More kindness is what we all need when we are suffering.

You can read the whole speech HERE.

Saunders starts out with this amazing statement:

What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness.
Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded . . . sensibly. Reservedly. Mildly.

We’ve all been there, I think. But kindness is something we can learn, he says, and lists ways how to do that:

Education is good; immersing ourselves in a work of art: good; prayer is good; meditation’s good; a frank talk with a dear friend; establishing ourselves in some kind of spiritual tradition – recognizing that there have been countless really smart people before us who have asked these same questions and left behind answers for us.

Because kindness, it turns out, is hard – it starts out all rainbows and puppy dogs, and expands to include…well, everything.

Yet kindness, as hard as it is, becomes easier as we grow older. As life kicks us around a bit we learn to become more kind, because we realize how much we need it, and depend upon it, and want it for our loved ones.

Most people, as they age, become less selfish and more loving. I think this is true. The great Syracuse poet, Hayden Carruth, said, in a poem written near the end of his life, that he was “mostly Love, now.”

And so, a prediction, and my heartfelt wish for you: as you get older, your self will diminish and you will grow in love.

YOU will gradually be replaced by LOVE.

Wow. To be replaced by love. I can’t think of a more worthwhile goal to strive toward for anyone starting off in life.

Or for anyone whose life is winding down, for that matter. Here are the first 12 lines of that poem by Hayden Carruth that he mentioned:

So often has it been displayed to us, the hourglass
with its grains of sand drifting down,
not as an object in our world
but as a sign, a symbol, our lives
drifting down grain by grain,
sifting away – I’m sure everyone must
see this emblem somewhere in the mind.
Yet not only our lives drift down. The stuff
of ego with which we began, the mass
in the upper chamber, filters away
as love accumulates below. Now
I am almost entirely love.

(From “Testament” by Hayden Carruth)

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Bearing Witness – Refusing to Turn Away

A Beggar

Italian painter Gaspare Traversi (1732-1769) Mendiant accroupi or A Beggar – Courtesy of the Narbonne art museum.

I found this painting of a beggar at the blog site of an artist that I admire. She found it on a rainy day in Narbonne, France where she’s traveling, and wrote:

It is the emotion and compositional strength of this image as well as pure skill in foreshortening that had me coming back to this painting several times. Every centimeter of this canvas is in full use and allows you no room to shrink from the image. The beggar has seen us. We must respond in some way and whatever that way is he and the world will know. It is our human condition we are facing in this painting. (Terrill Welch – Creative Potager)

It struck me how often we are tempted to turn away from images, people, situations, that seems too horrible, too hopeless, that makes us feel too helpless to even think about it, let alone do something ourselves to help. Like extreme poverty, hunger, homelessness, addiction, rape, human trafficking, mass murder, mental illness . . . the list goes on.

It’s human nature to do so, to turn away from the ugly faces that our human condition sometimes shows us. To pretend it’s not there, or doesn’t affect us, or isn’t us, or won’t be us, or someone we care about, some day.

But it’s important to resist that urge to turn away, even if we have no way to address it. It has to do with what I’ve come to think as “bearing witness.” It has to do with, not only, bearing witness to an atrocity that should not be forgotten nor repeated, as the holocaust survivors have done, as we’ve come to regard the towers falling on 9/11.

It also has to do with simply being there for another human being in pain, “bearing” that pain with them, in that we acknowledge it and in whatever small way we can show them they are not alone. That we stand with them, if only in spirit, if only in refusing to turn away, to pretend it doesn’t exist, or that they don’t matter.

I’ve found myself returning to this motif in my writing again and again: the need to look, to not turn away, and the importance to bear witness to another’s pain and suffering.

I wrote about this on another blog site in a post called “The Deer’s Scream – Beauty and brutality in the Backyard and the Hills of Vietnam.” I wrote:

“I don’t know why I’m writing this. Perhaps just to bear witness to the beauty and brutality rolled into one all around us everywhere. We can’t separate it out. We have to swallow it whole. There’s no other way.”

I wrote about it in “13 Ways to Look at Dying, Just Before, and the Moment After” about care for my mother, a difficult woman, during the last few months of her life when she was dying of cancer. It begins this way:

She streaks past me naked in the dark hall. Light from the bathroom flashes upon her face, her thin shoulders, her sharp knees. Her head turns toward me, her dark eyes angry stabs. As if daring me to see her, stop her, help her. 

And I’m writing about it now, on this blog site, my determination not to look away from, but to bear witness to the suffering caused by drug addiction. To not turn away from my son’s suffering, or mine, or from my own culpability.

I see so many other bloggers doing the same thing: facing down a painful past or something that haunts them still, or is hurting a loved one, or destroying a community.

I love how Kaze Gadway in her blog bears witness to the struggles of the homeless in her community.

I love how Art Mowle in Drinking for a Lifetime bears witness to his own struggle to overcome addiction and create a new life.

And there are so many other writers and artists and activists who are doing the same thing. Who are refusing to turn away, and instead bearing witness to the pain they see and experience when encountering the dark side of the human condition. As this artist was doing when he painted “The Beggar” so long ago.

I’m touched by all the readers who have left comments on the blog posts I’ve written here, who have responded to my struggles, and shared theirs. Sometimes it’s all we can do to help another. Bear witness. And sometimes it’s all that’s needed.

Somehow I feel blessed by the artist’s painting on this page. His refusing to turn away, to reveal the humanity he saw in the face of suffering, reveals his own humanity, and challenges us to do the same.