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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To My Son, Age Six: Storm Rider

Pago Pago6I wrote this poem long ago, and never shared it with anyone until today.

Patterned Dark and Light: To My Son, Age Six

You’re such a lovely boy, so structured like
a flower: skin so white and bones so light–
one breath and you might be forever blown.
Yet in this face of innocence you hide,
lashes unfurled like canopies to shade
your eyes—strange pools where secrets swim and dive.
For you are patterned dark and light. Storms brew
in you and lie along your shadowed face
where I can’t see. I wonder where they rise?
And where, in what far sea, they’ll rage and die.

I was trying to capture this strange phenomenon who happened to be my son. He mystified me, all that beauty and innocence, the sweet hugs and kisses, the dark furrowed brow and swirling emotions, all clashing together, in a stormy rage.

I was never satisfied with the poem though, and especially with how it ended–the word “die” disturbed me, even though it referred the storm’s end, not him.

So later I added this second part:

Sometimes I gather you to lap to find
That I can never hold the length of you:
Your fullness spills with ambiguity
And races toward dimensions past my grasp.
I must confine content to legacies
In lap. How is it I still hold what you
Outgrow? So well I know that spiraled shell.
I turn it feeling fine and subtle threads
of you, while at its core, all that’s true.
I lift that hallowed lip and wait to hear
Intuitions of you, forever near.

While I could never fully know the extent of him, I felt I knew his core. I could not hold onto him, but I could hold onto that, even if that was only the faint whisperings of what I knew him to be. What I cherished in him.

I’m holding onto that still.

But an insightful reader of my last post said something that made we realize that I cannot separate out his darker and lighter sides. He wrote:

“Looking at people with duality can help cope in crisis but it’s ultimately our single all-encompassing selves that we have to see to heal.”

“Remember HE is just another man trying to cope with this life. The problem is probably that he was too sensitive at too young of an age to learn healthy ways to cope.”

I think he’s right. I used to quip to other mothers how my son entered his “terrible twos” when he was only one and never outgrew them. At one point I felt I should never have a second child because I would never be able to handle two of him, nor could I love another child as much as I loved him.

It turned out not to be true, of course, when my daughter was born. But it shows not only how deeply I loved him, but how helpless I felt, even then, in my mothering of him, in helping him find healthy ways to cope with those swirling emotions.

Looking back, those difficult times with him were nothing compared to what we nave been going through coping with his addiction.

Perhaps it’s not surprising he has tattooed across his chest the words: “Rider on the storm.”

On his back below the nape of his neck rests a compass rose with true north pointed upward.

He’s still riding his storms, and I’m still there by his side, riding them out with him. We’re both waiting for them to end.

Or perhaps, more realistically, learning to find more healthy ways to weather the forever wind-tossed seas we sail.