By Mary James
I’ve often told my kids to “fake till you make it”, knowing there is a lot of benefit from pushing oneself to just get started at a goal, and that to at least make the attempt is better than doing nothing at all when trying to get ourselves out of our comfort zone. While it’s true that we all must start somewhere, and that just starting can motivate us to self improve, I find that often we as humans, will too often take the least challenging option, and sadly this is also in our shallow attempts at kindness.
Sincerity is not just a character trait, it is a skill we must fumble at and then practice and hopefully master. Sincere kindness is no exception. Some lessons we seldom remember but some are those we refer back to again and again. This is one.
I remember as a child testing mom to see if she really did have eyes in the back of her head as I had previously concluded. Mom loved me fiercely, and sometimes I didn’t understand how her attention to detail and dedication to my moral character was just another kind of motherly love). She was a master at seeing through how I had moved my peas around on my plate to look like I had eaten most of them. She amazed me how she knew a wet toothbrush did not mean brushed teeth. Or even how she could know if I was really sorry about being a wiggle worm in church or if I was just saying so to not feel her displeasure. She understood that sincerity was something you could hear, see, as well as feel and I didn’t yet. That is until my attempts at being kind to someone I cared about seemed just not enough. That is when I first remember practicing sincere empathy.
It was the summer of my upcoming sixth grade year and it was a life altering moment that would define the ending of being a child who never questioned life, it’s purpose, or friends or family beyond their word. Maybe it was because nothing significantly awful had happened to me before. I had been safely sheltered by my family from much of life to the point where I didn’t understand or really believe in horrible things happening- especially to good people or innocent children. But now, there I was at age eleven, taking a call about a classmate who had been thrown and then trampled by a horse and had not survived. I couldn’t believe it.
Lisa was a well behaved and funny girl. We used to walk together to flute and piano lessons, compete for chairs and spelling grades, and shared fun make believe games on the playground. She was clever, sweet and kind, and I never remember her saying anything negative about anyone. But I do remember being annoyed with her for being too silly at times. I remember thinking she needed to act more mature, and I had judged her for it. I remember feeling a fake, insincere like for her at least once or twice. I don’t know if she knew, and I still wonder to this day. But as a preteen kid, I felt so guilty. I had not experienced the death of a child or a friend before. I didn’t know how to feel or act. And I felt just awful.
The funeral was a blur. I didn’t feel like I should be there, because I had experienced these thoughts of Lisa and now I could never show her I didn’t really mean them. I felt I didn’t deserve to be called her friend. I could no longer tell her I liked her by inviting her to another play date, or laugh until our sides hurt. I had lost a good friend but I had also learned a rite of passage sort of lesson. I had learned that nothing good is permanent, and that we can lose what we know as our lives, even if we aren’t the ones who die.
Lisa’s mom, Liz was devastated, inconsolable even. I remember seeing her and imagining what that would feel like. She was obviously still in such pain and looked like she wanted to die herself. That is until she saw all of us, Lisa’s classmates at the reception. And then she lit up. She doted on us, dried our tears, talked to each of us about how her only daughter treasured our friendships. She gave us hugs and laughed with us and I thought of my mom and how much I loved her, and my family. I thought of how Liz had lost what I had and cherished, and wouldn’t have it again in this lifetime. I thought of how Lisa’s mom saw through our confusion and loss of innocence and loved us as she loved her child, showering us with concern and the same mothering she had for her daughter. It was there I felt an overwhelming love for Lisa and her mom. And I had to show it some way. Her act of selflessness and kindness sparked it in me as well. To put aside her pain to take a little of ours turned a moment of sadness into a very sweet joy I’ll never forget. I felt a warmth in my heart that made me want to take away her pain, and celebrate her beautiful little girl. So I played a song for Lisa by the oak tree she loved to climb, where her ashes were now scattered, and we all walked away feeling connected to her and her family in a very important way.
Sometimes it is especially frustrating to practice kindness in a world where we feel we have to in order to be socially acceptable. We sometimes are insincere about our feelings, conserving them for our own losses. But empathy, that emotion where we feel another’s emotions, the little things and the big, the joy and the devastating sorrow, is how we can cure the cold apathy that creates this fake, even insulting version of kindness. Choosing to feel nothing but to act as if we do is cheating- and like cheating at school, it cheats ourselves the most. We gain in gratitude and compassion, wisdom and perspective, not to mention friends and social support for ourselves when walking through another’s trials by their side. When we can give a sincere piece of ourselves to fill in the breaks in another’s heart, and ease the difficulties of life, we have practiced and in Liz’s case, modeled how we can not only help others but strengthen ourselves, and build hope for all our futures.
I saw Liz again just a few years ago and we talked of Lisa and how life was now. I told her some of what I’ve shared here and we had another hug and cry together. I still felt that same love for and from her. And I like to believe Lisa was there too.