Wednesday, January 25, 2017

On Kindness

I am reading a book called, "Congratulations, By The Way," by George Saunders. It's one of these reflection books, written by someone old and wise with the intention of passing on lessons to we, the young and green. In it, he writes, "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." Which made me think back to a time where I not only failed to be kind, but was really an outright bitch. Now I've been called a bitch many times in my life - more often than not by my brothers, who in my defense, were always ganging up on me anyway. Now in my thirties, I don't even mind being called a bitch. Because as a famous comedienne quipped and my co-workers and I often quote, "Bitches get shit done." I'm not trying to defend every act of bitchiness with the pretense that I was misunderstood. My brothers will happily tell you that many times the title was well earned. But this incident has been something I will always remember with shame. 

In Basic Training for the Air Force, I was consistently paired with a girl who seemed to lag in all areas. I think we were paired because we were both entering the Air National Guard instead of Active Duty like most of our companions. This girl got on my every last damn nerve. Because if you don't know, in Basic Training, as a part of the mind fuckery, everyone pays for one person's mistake(s). And this girl was always making mistakes. And as the closest person in proximity, I lived in dread of this girl being noticed. 

As it happened, we were in our final days of Basic Training when the Training Instructors ease off from the role of Devil's Henchmen to the roll of Devil's Distant Cousin. And yet, this girl had to make life difficult. We left our dorms and were marching off somewhere when she realized she needed a tampon asap. Lo and behold, I was sent to accompany her back to the dorms. This meant we would have to leave the safety of our group and intersect the paths of unknown Training Instructors (who were always far worse than your own) and then try to regroup with our own flight. I was fuming. I was so fucking over my life being made difficult by this woman. 

I don't remember the specifics up to this moment, but while we were in the dorm, she turned to me with tears in her eyes and said, "Why do you always have to be such a bitch?" I was floored. I instantly hated myself. I was so focused on getting in and out of Basic Training, so stressed out from the mind games and lack of sleep, so aching to be out of there, that I never considered that she was going through the same thing. And that while I was constantly annoyed by her making my life difficult, I was in turn making her life more difficult. And to add insult to injury, none of her actions were intentional. If I'm being honest with myself, a lot of it was just normal Training Instructor "whatever you do is wrong" Catch-22 bullshit. While I, on the other hand, was really just a bitch. 

It's been 12 years since I went through Basic Training, and I still feel ashamed with my behavior. I feel ashamed that in a stressful situation, I was self-centered. I try so very hard to care for others and be empathetic and be an uplifting force. During that period, I was anything but that. I don't have this woman's contact information, but if she ever happens to come across this blog, I'd like her to know that I am so incredibly, incredibly sorry for the way I treated her. I can't say that I caught on to how awful I was as soon as I was home and the stress was over. I can't even say that I caught on in the next few years. But eventually, recently, I did get it. And now when I'm stressed out and feel myself wanting to lash out at the people who are making everything more difficult than it needs to be, confounding and complicating the things I'm trying to do, I try to think of how she looked in the moment that she called me out.

So, no, I'm not some zen master or the queen of cool, but I'm trying. As the book reminded me that when the dust settles, we are responsible to ourselves for failures of kindness, I hope someone out there reads this confession of weakness and uses it to rectify or prevent a failure of kindness on their own part. 

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