The Beginning of Kindness
A Story of Five Enemies
As I sit at my desk after a long weekend of writing, editing, designing and reflecting, I am most palpably aware of how insufficient it all often feels. Particularly in these days. Regardless of one’s political persuasions it would be an abdication of reality to ignore the escalation of fear and the ease of offense which permeates our existence. We are all on the edge of caring about everything a little, but only because we’ve grown so weary of caring about only ourselves a lot. This is the power of fear, it only pushes us outside ourselves long enough to see what’s wrong with everything else, then like Puxatawny Phil on Groundhog’s Day, we are back into the shadows.
Sitting on my desk, just inches from my computer as I type is a compendium of writings entitled Love Alone is Credible (a selection of response to Hans Urs Van Balthasar for those who know or wish to know the material.) It is the title today which strikes me. Love Alone Is Credible. This is, arguably, always true, but I can’t help but believe that it is even more true in these tumultuous times. These days when we all huddle with our people a little closer, risk a little less, and circle our ideological wagons a little nearer. “Thank goodness we believe what we do,” we say, “and how much better the world would be if others did to.” This confident entrenchment in our way of thinking (mine as much as any) seems a logical next step in the face of uncertainty and change. And the hegemony inherent in our belief that others would do well to follow us to our camp is the most familiar voice in the cacophony of ideals.
But how will ideas win? Yours, or mine or those people who we daren’t imagine winning the day? If Balthasar was right that it is love alone which gives us standing, then is it not the LAYING DOWN of our ideals which makes us winners, not the fighting for them? This, if you’ve been reading up to this point, is increasingly my central thesis. The morning after the election I raised the call for us to drop our arms and cry #notmyenemy in the face of easy attacks on people with opposing views. But as many of you have written or reached out in light of the post, one central question has emerged along the way. It is one thing to post and hashtag our way to bridge-building (if that were even possible) but what does one actually DO to embrace those who oppose you, fear you or even put your way of life in danger?
The war will be won by a million small victories. Strategic and intentional kindnesses that lack the frivolous randomness so often called for by celebrity. We must look in the face of those who we could easily oppose and lay down arms. #Notmyenemy is about more than words, it is about actions which put our sense of control at stake. In the end, this surrendering of control and of power puts us squarely in the communion of the King of Surrendered Power – Jesus.
So I thought we might, together, consider a day. Hypothetical certainly, but realistically possible all of us. When we start to see how our own preferences and moral codes automatically make enemies of those in our way, we find that there are endless and real opportunities to stand at the edge of the banks of meaning, To find the beginnings of kindness.
Your youngest child is awake well before normal. You haven’t slept well and despite endless lessons on the importance of staying in bed until 6:30am, she is up and LOUD. Slowly but surely the house is awake and your chance to skulk into Monday is gone with the wind. Why can’t she understand and follow clear direction? What does it say about you as a parent that she seems to so blatantly disregard clear boundaries? Your under-slept mind races, not at the needs of your children, the job you have to face, but rather—if you are honest—your own sense failure as a parent. Are you meeting your own standards? The questions send you into high levels of sensitivity. Every sound, every squabble from your children irritates. What is wrong with this family? If these children don’t perform better, there must be something wrong with you. Suddenly, they are your enemies. You snark. Shout a little. Snipe at them to move faster. This seems like just another parenting moment gone wrong, but there is something more afoot. Your commitment to your high parenting standards have made anyone who undermines them the opposition. The game you’ve chosen has a built-in opponent. But could there be a better game? A game where you and the frustrated, now-exasperated over-tired children in the car on the way to school are on the same team? The team of tired people who want to care for each other but don't know how? This imagination of a better story to live into is the beginning of kindness.
You’re off to work. Just you and the road and enough time for the Starbucks drive-thru. 5 cars, not too bad. A couple cars pull in behind you and now you’re land-locked in the line. The car in front is ordering… and ordering… and ordering. OK, we’re in trouble. The clock ticks by. Your quick chance for coffee after the sleepless night is now turning into a 20 minute detour you don’t have time for. This is a nightmare. What is wrong with people? Why do they pull into a busy line full of professionals who have places to go and make all those orders? She’s driving one of THOSE vehicles. So she must be one THOSE people. THOSE people are always making it hard for you to get things done. Must be nice to be able to be so leisurely and order 20 triple cappa mocha choka lattes. All you wanted was a cup of coffee. Now you’re trapped. Trapped in a story, really. A story about your own importance up against the frivolousness of the other. You have named them an enemy for no other reason than the length of their order, the type of their car. You’re not the kind of person to stereotype, except when you are. What if their project in the Starbucks line was as important as yours? What if they are as stressed about time as you are? What if you are co-contributors to a system of rushing and ranting that is making slaves of you both? This imagination of an allegiance in the face of prejudice allows you to see them as victim instead of perpetrator and is the beginning of kindness.
Ok, you’ve calmed down from the Starbucks incident. The baristas were very quick, unlike normal, thankfully. You have twenty-minutes to prepare for your most important meeting of the day. But HE has been pacing the halls. Mondays are generally not good for him. He always looks ragged. He’s not a very good parent, his kids run roughshod over him. And by Monday he’s usually looking for a shoulder to cry on. Not yours, not today. You have things to do. Damn it! You made eye contact. He’s walking over. Here we go. Troubled teenagers, stayed out late, had to bail the oldest out of jail…AGAIN. Why can’t this man have any boundaries? Doesn’t he know that his kids are taking advantage of him over and over again? You want say all these things, but instead lie with a smile as he keeps talking. You’re trying to be nice, but if he makes you late for your meeting… Rage starts to seep under your skin at the thought. In the important work of getting to your meeting, a meeting that will do so much good for him and for the rest of your team, this teammate of yours is not your ally but your enemy. But then a new thought enters in. In the same way that he doesn’t help his kids understand the consequences of their actions, you aren’t helping him understand the consequences to the whole team of him talking to you at this exact moment. I bet he doesn’t want to ruin your important meeting. I bet he doesn’t even know. This imagination of an opportunity to help him be an ally instead of an obstruction is the beginning of kindness.
You don’t think it went very well. You could feel your lack of sleep catching up with you. Why didn’t you eat breakfast anyway? You should have had more coffee. They didn’t ask any questions, didn’t even say, “Thank you for the presentation.” Just silence, a few warm smiles, and then a “Well, we’ll definitely be reaching out to you after we discuss.” That can’t be good. You rush into the bathroom to collect yourself. Looking in the mirror you look worse than you thought. Stupid puffy eyes. Straggly hair. There’s someone’s oatmeal on your shirt. Jesus. What is wrong with you? Why can’t you get it together? First you start out the day sucking wind as a parent and then you have a chance to at least be a functional professional and blow that too. What a wreck. Who is that person in the mirror? The same person who is standing in the way of your success. An enemy. Oh the irony. In a world full of those we see as our oppressors, it is for the one in the mirror we retain the deepest disgust. In this lowest of moments an opportunity arises. That same person in the mirror is also the one working their tail off to perform to your blessed expectations. The person you’ve pegged as failing you more than anyone is also the one working harder than anyone to please you. In this imagination, a role reversal presents itself, an in it, the beginning of kindness.
By late afternoon at your desk the only mental energy left is a quick scan of Facebook. You couldn’t possibly do Instagram because all of those frescoes of perfect happiness might just make you retch at this time of day. You need a drink. Hoping that with the election’s end Facebook will have calmed down you go scanning for some news or a picture of a puppy or something. About 15 posts in is a 23 comment thread about one of those people acting the way they always do. Half the commenters feel justified in hating the person in the article and the other half are rising to defend the class of folks the person represents. One of these two sides draws you in. They’re right, you know. People like that are exactly what’s wrong with this country. We wouldn’t be in this mess without those kinds of people. You jump to your keyboard to start typing. You notice that in the last couple of posts the person’s name from the article is linked in each comment. They are seeing every word. Part of you, if you are honest thinks maybe it’s good for them. Sure the comments are a little much, some of them are even hateful, but isn’t it good for people in the wrong to hear about what they can do to be right? But wait, is it? You re-read the last three comments. Is there anything here that recognizes this person as a person and not a representative of a class of enemies? Is there anything that can be said by a near-stranger in a forum such as this which would change anyone’s mind about anything? Isn’t the fight just going to create more fight? In this imagination a slowness to speak presents itself as you step away from the keyboard, and with it comes the beginning of kindness.
Your Monday night group is boisterous as usual. Everything inside of you wants to talk about your day. To rant about all the things that have happened, the ridiculous kids, the stupid people at Starbucks, the crappy presentation and how lousy you did, the unbelievable story you read on Facebook. Shouldn’t all these people know what you’ve been through today and all the opposition you’ve faced? Shouldn’t they know that your stories are important and funny and satirical in all the right ways to make you sound bright, a little pitiable, and yet resilient in the face of all odds? But there’s no window to get in. Other people’s stories are coming off so interesting and smart. They’ve got better tragedies, nastier villains. Their false humility rings a little truer than yours might. They sound nicer than you would sound in your stories. Maybe you should leave early. Or at least sit in the corner. These people don’t even want to listen to you they’re so busy talking about themselves. Why can’t anyone be a good listener anymore? Why are there so many enemies to good conversation? But you could listen. You could ask questions and hear past their protestations and hear their hearts. You could take the time to understand all that they are saying without saying it, thereby rendering pointless all that they are trying to say. And in this possibility of you, you standing for others in the way that you wish they would stand for you, lies the beginning of kindness.
There is a continuity to all these beginnings. They all require us to empty ourselves when we are already near our bottom. Or so it feels. They all require us to take one more risk than we thought possible, build a bridge one foot farther than we could reach, stand as allies to our oppressors. And the great beauty in all of this is not the kindness that you would bring to the world, although it will be great. The great beauty flourishes in the frame of the Son of Man you would stand in to live with such exuberant Grace. You would have to be like Him. And like Him you would have to know how deeply you are loved and free to love. All this because of the embrace of Your Father. This is the beginning of kindness and the only liberation possible to say, #notmyenemy.