A few days ago I attended a funeral. I’ve been trying for weeks to write something about kindness and why it matters. Everything seems trite, not enough, or like it doesn’t fit together. Ultimately, though, it does, and I’ve done my best to make sense of what feels senseless.
This is going to be a messy post, because I have messy thoughts. I had the bones written a while ago, but loss has that way of making everything look different. Some things are unimportant and fade away. Others come into sharp focus.
Before I lost my health, I was privileged (and uninformed) enough to think that my life wasn’t political. That nothing I did had political impact, nor did anything anyone else did have particular impact on me.
I’ve learned, for better or for worse, that nearly everything is political, whether we want or mean it to be, whether we consider it to be, whether it effects us personally or our particular social groups or not.
Kindness is a political act.
On one hand, kindness is an amorphous concept, difficult to define, sometimes considered with derision in the same way as sensitivity. We shy away from naming it. It rarely feels valued in the way it should.
On the other hand, I’ve just been at a memorial for a man who epitomised it. Everyone who spoke about him talked about this quality, how he cared for others, always had time for them, taught with patience, loved with laughter and devotion. Of the many wonderful things he did with his life, this is a golden thread in the rich quilt of how he will be remembered. A crucial way he impacted the lives of everyone around him.
My own life has been enabled by kindness, from many people. If you asked me what has kept me alive in the years since I became ill, I could not say the medical system, the mental health system, the welfare system – though there has been individuals within those bureaucracies who have made all the difference.
No. I would say it is kindness that kept me going – in bigger gestures, and in many, many small generosities I have been and continue to be indescribably grateful for.
Kindness is a foundation stone for me, a principle by which I try to live my life, and one I seek out and appreciate deeply in others.
There’s a lot of different opinions in the world today about what “the best way forward” is. Politically and personally, we turn away from kindness. We perceive it as weakness. In fact, it takes extraordinary strength and courage and be kind in the face of vitriol, panic, systemic failure and oppression.
I’m not advocating we side with our oppressors. I’m not advocating we try to see the good in systems or people when the bad is causing active harm. Kindness is not a blanket statement. Nazis need not apply.
Jacinda Ardern is the only the third politician I have ever heard talk about kindness. The first were Marama Davidson and Metiria Turei. Unfortunately they were not leading the country at the time – but she is. And I think the fact she uses the word kindness in reference to government scares the hell out of some people.
Because kindness is considered an emotion, emotions are considered a “feminine” trait, and if a woman as strong, educated, astute and charismatic as her can be using kindness in politics – and having people respond so positively – what does that mean for power? What does that mean for the patriarchy, here and all around the world?
Patriarchy has always won off the back of brute force, the inciting of fear, character assassination, and war. Patriarchy doesn’t fuck with kindness, because the men in power are the ones who are afraid. Men who believe that ruling from a platform of kindness would lead to uprising, to shattering the current systems of control. Instead of ensuring that large groups of people don’t become marginalised, oppressed and disenfranchised in the first place, they choose to use an iron fist to keep them down. I do not believe this is “the way forward.” I do not believe kindness has no place in leadership or public policy.
It’s too easy to conflate gender with kindness. There is no scientific basis for women being more emotionally literate or attuned; it’s a learned behaviour, and one that has enormous unsung social and political value. It plays a pivotal and often silent role in the development and maintenance of healthy social structures and healthy individuals. If it is given its due, women would be recognised as key players in politics, now and throughout history – but there’s zero reason for men not to be learning and embracing it too.
For me, kindness is something like an infinite feedback loop or a self-fulfilling prophecy. Being kind to others helps me be kind to myself – in fact, I’m better at being kind to others, but when I model that, sometimes it helps me feel meaningful and worthy (take that, depression), which then gives me more emotional resource to extend support.
One of the reasons I found this post so difficult to write was because it felt important to me to give thanks for some of the people and acts of kindness that continue to make a big difference in my life, but I’m afraid of leaving something crucial out. I have poor memory due to my illness and medication. Please, please know, if I don’t acknowledge you here, this doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate you.
My family. Thank you for always listening, for fixing my car, for mowing my lawn, for driving the cat to the vet, for supporting my work.
Nik. Thank you for your unending patience, kindness and generosity. You’re the best role model.
Bill. Thank you for being my grandfather, for far too brief a time.
To everyone who contributed to funding the MRI that confirmed my illness. That gave my pain a name and changed my life.
To everyone who has been been a Patron of Writehanded, now and in the past. You paying for my writing gives me so much more than vital income.
To Tanya for setting up writehanded.org, helping me with technical issues, and so much patience. To Anthea for setting up sarahlinwilson.org.
To Dan, who’s taken over the technical support for writehanded.org, who is also generous and patient, and has supported me in over the past five years. (If you need WordPress support, I unequivocally recommend him).
To Marianne and Gio, who started the fund-raiser to purchase my mattress, which has been probably the single most valuable thing I own, because it provides the only place I can be without pain.
To everyone who donated to the above.
To everyone who donated to allow me to fly to Wellington a few years back, when I was so ill I could barely leave the house, but desperately missed my Wellington friends and life.
To anyone who’s ever responded to my call for support on twitter, whether it be helping with research, supporting my writing, giving free legal advice – the list goes on.
To my friends. To the most amazing people in the world, who stick by me when things get tough, who have never abandoned me when I can’t physically socialise, who reach in, who show me constantly that they care and won’t stop caring. I don’t know what I did to deserve you, but I damn sure hope I never stop.
Death has that way of making you re-evaluate what matters. Very suddenly, you discover that very little does. You think about what you will remember the person who is gone for. You think about what you want to be remembered for.
Kindness might not be a currency given the worth it deserves, but to me, it’s what matters more than anything. It wasn’t medical expertise that saved my life five years ago, and again last year. It was someone caring enough to not give up. If it weren’t for kindness,I wouldn’t have vital things like medicine, my bed, a place to write. If not for my family and friends, I simply would not have been able to keep going.
In the face of loss, that is what I am left with.
That’s the way forward. That’s what matters.