I have been known to be a fairly critical and/or judgy person, and also one who isn’t afraid to voice those criticisms and/or judgments. When I was much younger, basically, that meant I was a total asshole. Kindness was not my first instinct. And it’s really no wonder that, in hindsight, I wasn’t particularly well-liked or good at making friends.
Now that I’m much older (y’all, it’s my birthday tomorrow!), I can see that maaaaaybe that wasn’t the best way to be. I can also see it was a behavior rooted in insecurity, essentially a big protective shield to deflect all the things I felt self-doubt about.
Being brutally honest when you don’t really have to be isn’t thoughtful or kind for anyone involved.
I’m not exactly sure when the tide started to turn for me, but certainly in the last several years, I’ve softened. I’m almost always hopeful, optimistic, compassionate, and understanding. I see the good in people before I assume the worst. I put myself in their shoes and believe they’re doing the best they can and they don’t intend me any ill will or inconvenience on purpose. I’m able to recognize and set aside my insecurities. I’m also more apt to gently (or sometimes not so gently, perhaps annoyingly) point out when someone else is being critical or judgmental, assuming the worst of humanity immediately, and invite them to soften too.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m still forthright. But I’m much better at not being a schmuck about it. (99% of the time.)
I guess it’s true what they say about aging. Probably everything about it, but mostly that you begin to figure out what matters. And I guess, to me, people matter, and kindness matters. The world is cold and lonely enough.
Last week, we were on a flight and I was starkly reminded of this. In such a way, I got angry, physically agitated. And I can’t stop thinking about it.
Now, to acknowledge the obvious, airplane travel is kind of the worst. It’s definitely most people at their worst. Tired, cranky, hungry, sore, uncomfortable. And that generally doesn’t bode well for kind or polite human interaction. But still, I’d argue it’s actually a case to remember that, and be the one person who doesn’t act like a total jerk, y’know?
Anyway, it was late. Everybody’s last flight of the day. Most of the four hours were in darkness, people sleeping or watching movies on their laptops, me reading 17 books. As I said, people are tired. A little sweaty, a little stinky, and maybe finally either actually finding a way to relax a little or just plain giving up after a long day.
There may have been some farting involved.
I say “may have been” because it’s true, and we’ll never unequivocally know. We were in first class, and there’s a bathroom five feet away. Sometimes, it’s the plane, not a person. No one can really be sure.
And yet, as we pulled up to the gate and tiredly waited for the jet bridge and door to open, a lovely-I’m-sure gentleman decided it was an appropriate time to make a special pronouncement:
“Whichever one of y’all decided to fart for the whole fucking flight, you are seriously inconsiderate. The whole fucking flight. I had to ask the flight attendant for a cup of coffee grounds to smell it was so bad. Seriously. What is wrong with you?”
I was floored.
A flurry of thoughts ran through my head. What did he just say? Why did he feel the need to say it at all? What point does this serve? This guy must have no clue about the THINK framework. Does he realize it was probably just the bathroom anyway? What if someone was sleeping and didn’t realize they were farting? What if the person has terrible IBS and was so uncomfortable and embarrassed throughout the whole flight but couldn’t do anything about it? What if someone just got over food poisoning on their trip or something? Why would you be so cruel? How could you be? What is wrong with him?
I thought about saying something, but didn’t. Yes, I realize I could’ve, and maybe should’ve. But I, too, was tired, and at this point, appalled, and shaking with anger. Did I really want to get into a fight with an agitated white man at 10pm at night in a confined space? No, I did not. Perhaps this was my kindness to him, to let his experience and his rudeness ride.
But God, I was so disappointed in that moment. And perhaps, I still am, seeing as I’m sitting here writing a story about it. But I also know that this was my reminder. A reminder of why kindness and compassion matter so damn much. And a reminder of how far I’ve come and how much I’ve changed, and how important that change has been, why it’s meaningful. I’m by no means perfect or always the kindest and most compassionate person in the room, but I can find that space far sooner than before, and I’m proud of that. It matters. And I can pass it on instead of poo-poo it.
(Example: On the flight before this one, a young couple had a baby in first class, which is rare, obviously. I complained to my husband about it as we got on the plane, and he gently reminded me it was no big deal, we had noise cancelling headphones. I relaxed when the baby stopped crying after takeoff – poor thing – and indeed, it was no big deal, and yet another reminder for me to not be a judgy a-hole. Good for them for upgrading and making a shitty travel situation just a teeny bit more comfortable for everyone.)
When this man made his little announcement, several people commiserated with him. They laughed and made jokes. Others were more like me, awkwardly surprised and upset and cringing at how unnecessary and hurtful this callout was. It did strike me that a decade ago, I probably would’ve been one of the ones going along with this misguided shaming endeavor. Now, it makes me sick to my stomach.
So listen, this isn’t a misguided attempt to share platitudes like “remember that everyone is going through something” and harp on kindness and compassion and understanding for all. (Though that stuff obviously does ring true.) Or to preen myself because I’m a kinder person in my near-middle age (OMG!). This is fully guided, actually. Here’s your reminder.
It does no one, including you, your children, your coworkers, or total strangers, any good to be anything but kind, first. If you’ve got to judge or criticize, keep it to yourself, release it like an ugly little bug into the air, and move on.
I have a friend who once shared while we were on a walk that in this fucked up world, the one thing she’s trying to instill in her two-year-old is kindness. If she could just teach him to be kind above all, that’s something. At first, I thought that sounded so naïve, indulgent. But the more I think about it, the more I agree.
Maybe kindness really is the main thing.
And maybe it’s so important and notable and meaningful because it’s so hard in this world. Like, we’ll practice a hundred other things before we ever entertain this. And it’s easy to post Dalai Lama quotes on social media, but it’s much more difficult to apply them in your real life. I mean, kind people are either celebrated because they’re exceedingly rare, or they’re looked down upon because they must be foolish and idealistic. What does that tell us about kindness? I don’t know, but I think it’s something like this:
Maybe kindness is what we need to learn, what we need to practice, all we need to know. At the least, maybe it’s where we need to start.
It’s worth thinking about. Really, anything we’re quick to dismiss out of hand is worth another look, and kindness first qualifies. I mean, you can be that guy on the plane, or you can be someone else. Only you know what matters to you as you collect more days in your life, but for me? Basic human kindness does. It’s not easy, especially given my old, ingrained tendencies, but I get better at it every day – kindness first, toward myself and others. And as I do, life just feels better. It might work for you too.