Good lord, I’m back!! In every sense of the word. I’m here in LA, the jet lag is over, my brain has unfogged, and I’m writing (FINALLY!) because my mind was triggered into reflection after re-reading George Saunders’ convocation speech that popped up in my Facebook feed again recently, almost one year to the date from when it was delivered to the eager baby birds at Syracuse University. (If you don’t know George Saunders, Google the shit out of that man and devour all of his words. Now, please.)
What struck me, again, about his beautiful speech was not the advice he gave, although not swimming in rivers filled with monkey feces is now committed to memory, but more about the very simple observation he made about life. As he unpacked the idea of regret, the main building block for advice in the form of “don’t do what I did, do this instead,” he landed upon something so sweet and so simple that its truth was just hanging there ripe on the tree. “What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness,” he said. Why did this strike me this morning of all mornings? (Oh, the Passover phrasing embedded into the soul.) Because when I was traveling, I was kinder.
Okay, so I consider myself to be a pretty kind person overall. I notice haircuts, I keep in touch, I’m there for you in a crisis (like really there for you, unafraid and unphased by the gross, inappropriate, and profane), but there is always, always room for improvement. When traveling, after all of the stress and pain had melted away and my shoulders had exhaled their grip on my gut, I was calm. (Are you stoned? Nope. This is what happiness looks like.) I could feel the difference, but more importantly, people could see it. And it manifested itself in all kinds of wonderful ways. I watched while people cut in line and rushed around and I knew that I used to be that way, or at least smashed into the fist of constant hurrying up, and I just let it happen around me, this time as an observer. I let them cut. I didn’t care—like, truly didn’t care. Because I wasn’t in a hurry. I didn’t need to be first, or even second or third, I just had to get there and I knew I would reach there eventually. I grabbed the bull by the horns, except this bull was Ferdinand and we were going to enjoy the flowers in the shade under the tree for a while.
I’m sitting here in my house in the sinkhole of my old couch in my living room in my pajamas, writing. The stresses of real life are slowly creeping back, but I’m trying my damndest not to let them in. Last Thursday night, I drove downtown to meet up with my friend Chris and his coworker Dan for dinner. It’s only 14 miles away, but this is Los Angeles, so it takes a while to get there. I left 45 minutes before I was supposed to meet them, and was only 5 minutes late, which in LA is basically like being early. There wasn’t even that much traffic for a Thursday night, but there were pockets of it, and I could feel myself tense up when things would slow down, particularly when someone in front of me was doing something stupid. Therein lies the difference between me before and me now: I could feel myself tense up now. It was such a foreign feeling, that stress, and I noticed it creep in like fog across the bay.
I remember one moment in particular. Someone in front of me decided to turn right, without signaling of course, and this caused a back up because someone was crossing the street so they had to wait to turn. The car in front of me could have gone around the person turning, but they didn’t. In the past, I would have found this irksome. Why wait there for no reason and back up an entire lane of traffic? Almost like an out of body experience, I observed this process happening in my body and in my mind, and then I made a choice: I was going to be okay with waiting at that moment. Just be okay with it, not happy, not sad, not mad, not anything more than neutral towards it, as one should be with things that are not impactful and not in one’s control. I sat there in the car, waiting, processing, actively being okay. And in that moment I knew that I would have to continue to do this forever, or at least until I’ve retrained my brain not to think this way. So now I’m working on being okay with that too.
What does all of this have to do with regretting failures of kindness? Everything, actually. I look back at the mountain of moments exactly like that, mundane, everyday, stressful moments that occupied my mind and took me away from what’s much more important, and I wish that I’d made kinder choices for all involved, especially myself. While that may sound self-involved, I’ve realized that kindness starts from within and emanates outwards, so starting with myself benefits everyone, not just me. I thought that traveling would be like pressing the do over button, but it’s really like pressing eject and then restart, which is essentially do over’s expensive but worthwhile cousin. I bought myself a window of time during which I get to see things differently and attempt to repattern my life to be closer to what I want it to be. Effectively, I bought myself a massive and valuable dose of perspective.
As with any tool, you can choose to use it for good or for evil. The cynic in me wants to make a joke here, but sincerity is winning at the moment. At first I thought about extending my first doses of excess kindness to the people who had trespassed upon my happiness the most, forgiving them first to make the most room for happy things, like my brain is some kind of hard drive where you can delete the biggest files and leave space for photos of beautiful quilts and smiling friends and hamsters wearing tiny sweaters and other joy in the world. But forgiveness doesn’t work that way (more on that another time). Plus, that is the quintessence of biting off more than you can chew. So I’m starting with traffic, since that’s an oldie but a goodie in Los Angeles, and I need a serious dose of kindness there. In addition to that, I called a person and stood up for someone I love the other day because that’s what I want people to do for me, so I’m leading by example. I’m also going to try to tell the truth more. Like when someone asks me to do something but I don’t want to do it, instead of agreeing to do that thing and then being secretly unhappy that I’m doing it, I’m just going to say no thank you right from the beginning and save us both unneeded fakery. I figure that’s as good a place to start as any, and it can only get better from there. Right?
Now, I’m sure at least some of you are calling bullshit on my new Zen outlook thinking it’s silly, or it won’t last, or worst of all, it’s not worth even trying because ultimately I’m going to fail. To that I say, you’re mostly right. I will certainly fail sometimes and it may not last, but it’s not silly or foolish to at least try. Because I know in this very moment that I don’t want to regret any more failures of kindness than I have to, so I’m gonna really really cross-my-heart try to be kinder.
Someone asked me recently if I was excited to come home at the end of my travels. The honest answer is sort of. I was really looking forward to seeing my friends again, and to being in a place where I don’t have to figure anything out before I go somewhere, I just have to leave enough time to get where I’m going. I was excited for a comfortable bed and a consistent shower. (I was shocked by the abundance of water pressure here, for what that’s worth.) After London, I was looking forward to warmth and sunshine. But if you told me that I could head out next week to somewhere new and exotic and fun, my heart would leap and it would thrill me to my bones. And yes, I would be tickled pink to be going alone. But right now that would be cheating. Because that’s simply a shortcut to my kinder self. It doesn’t matter that it’s just so damn interesting to be out in the world, because it’s pretty interesting to be right here at the moment with all of this wacky newfound perspective. So I’m okay with doing a little more work to shorten the distance between my home and away selves. And maybe one day they won’t be that different.