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When Kindness Becomes a Dilemma


It's no secret that rudeness is on the rise--in stores, in traffic, along the sidewalk. We wistfully recall a time when civility was a common assumption rather than a gift. A cycle develops: When others are unkind to us, or reject our efforts to be kind, we shut down and think maybe it's safer to be just as chilly.

Recently, I had an experience that left me standing on a borderline: Should I be resolute and decide I want to be a nice person, or should I say no, too risky, I'm not reaching out to anyone again?

It happened when I met a man--a friend of a friend--whose father is dying. We had a couple of brief conversations about it, enough for me to learn that death was imminent. I also saw that this man was in the first messy stages of grief, and anger. "Hellish" was the word he used. I'd been there, too, I told him, but there are stages beyond that: There is, down the line, a sense of awe at experiencing the cycle of life and death, at going through this rite of passage.

I thought back six years, when it was confirmed that my father had Alzheimer's. Two friends who had each lost a parent told me that after the grieving, the messiness, the hurt, there is a sweetness, a sense of being in touch with something so much greater than this world. I stored away their words. Over months and years, I moved into the stages they were describing, and I have always been grateful for what they shared with me. Now, the tables had turned, and I had an opportunity to do the same for someone else.

Because I didn't know this man that well, and because I express myself better in writing, I chose to send him a letter. In it, I said that I know from experience what he's feeling now, and I know it feels like drowning in a dark lake. But he will break to the surface and it won't be as dark as it is now. I told him I had experienced moments of profound beauty with my father during these years of illness--moments that have transcended disease and time and the stuff of our past. I was glad that with this letter I could provide some solace in the same way others had given solace to me.

The man has never spoken to me since. His occasional curt hellos as he passes me leave no room for doubt; I am now someone he wants nothing to do with. At first, and for a while, I felt humiliated. I went over in my mind what I had written but couldn't think of anything that might be construed as inappropriate. I didn't write the letter in order to get a response, yet I was shocked to be frozen out, as if I had leveled insults at him. I began to slip into a mind-set that said, I won't ever extend myself to anyone again. But that wasn't the person I wanted to be.

I had come to one of those moments, when you know that the decision you make about how you feel will inform who you are in the future. I believe we are linked by common experiences, and the most poignant have to do with losing cherished loved ones, wrestling with our pain, our anger, our grief, our fears. There are always those who have traveled further than we have, and always those who are coming up behind. If we don't pay attention to both, we cheat ourselves. We end up locked inside our own circumstances, isolated, alone.


My father used to write letters--often to people he had never met. He did it for as long as I can remember, sitting at his desk composing handwritten letters, gazing out the window while he chose just the right words. He would see a story in the newspaper, or hear about someone's sorrow or misfortune, and he'd sit down and write a letter to them, offering whatever comfort he could. I don't know if anyone ever reacted to his letters the way this man reacted to mine.

I have, recently, wished I could talk to my father about that, but Alzheimer's has made it impossible. So instead, I have imagined what he would do if he were me. I think he would not be deterred from future acts of kindness. I think he might tell me that there are always going to be situations in life that test the heart, that tempt it to shrink, close itself off. But that's a harsh way to live--refusing to reach out to another person who is going through a difficult time because you might be rebuffed.

The kindness of my father's heart is something I not only want to honor but to emulate. It tells me that it's an act of faith to live your life according to what your heart says is the kind thing to do. The results, as I have now discovered, may not always be favorable. But what matters is believing that the intent behind the gesture--in my case, a letter--will linger on, bringing comfort at some point.

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