George Saunders recently wrote, “What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness.”
As a general rule, I don’t really do regret. My brain is obsessive enough that when I think to do something, I generally do it, because I live in fear of the “what if” rabbit hole. I prefer the concept of asking forgiveness rather than permission (within reason), and I also operate with that whole “life is short” thing. If I want to do something, I try to do it, rather than endlessly weighing the consequences — because few things are worse than that gnawing “what if.”
And I don’t regret most of the choices I’ve made. Even when they’ve been “mistakes,” I can usually recognize why I made the choices I did and/or what I learned from them.
But the one thing I regret the most — which thankfully has lessened with time — is the way I treated an ex of mine. We had recently moved to NYC, straight out of college, and he was going through a rough time and refusing to help himself. I was still so new to New York and the post-college world that I felt, had I stayed, that I might drown along with him. His constant refusal to do anything about his situation left me powerless, and so I left. I abandoned him. I fled in my own inflatable raft, leaving him to drown on his own.
To this day, I regret not being stronger, not digging deeper within myself to find the compassion and kindness that would have helped me stay, to pull him out of his rut, to get him back up above sea level. This regret is largely responsible for why I stayed with a more recent ex for almost six months after our breakup to help him get out of his own rut. I went to therapy sessions with him (his therapy, not mine or couple’s therapy, because we were no longer a couple). I let him stay with me when he felt suicidal. I even brought him to class with me when he felt he could not be alone. The months dragged by, during which I was in post-breakup limbo, unable to move on — something about “Hi, new date, this is my ex, he’ll just be sitting near us, because he can’t be alone” doesn’t work — and unable to let go.
Maybe it was kindness. Maybe it was penance for the way I had treated the earlier ex. I don’t know. What I do know is that I don’t regret it. The recent ex may have treated me like shit, but I have no regrets for the way I treated him. I may have provided more kindness and staying power than he deserved, but let’s not nitpick. The issue is that I treated him the way I felt one human being should treat another.
As George Saunders says, “I’d say, as a goal in life, you could do worse than: Try to be kinder.”
And yet, I feel like kindness has been lost in the shuffle. It’s been downgraded, upstaged by productivity and ambition and money and success and all those far more glamorous things the twenty-first century tells us to strive for.
After all, we are very busy people. And the side effect of being so busy is that there aren’t as many people with time to look out for us, so we have to look out for ourselves, which creates a vicious cycle of each man to his own life raft. If no one is looking out for us, then, dammit, we’re going to have to do the job ourselves. Which, of course, usually means that we forget to look out for other people.
But there are moments, glimmers in the matrix, when kindness seeps through. When people go the extra mile. When people drive across town(s) to support each other, when people send the extra email or give the extra hug or take the extra time to show love and compassion. And when they do, it’s a beautiful and majestic thing.
There are many things which are horrible to regret, but not giving enough kindness is one of mine.