WHAT DIVIDES US
A woman I have passed occasionally as we walked our dogs (and as I struggled with my nearly 17-year-old pug, often carrying her) stopped me when she saw me walking alone. Tentatively, she asked about my dog. I told her that Gracie died the day before — peacefully in my garden, euthanized by an incredibly compassionate vet and surrounded by a few friends who had known her for many years. I fought back tears as the woman, whose name I still don’t know, wiped tears from her eyes. I’ve had many similar exchanges in the past year as Gracie declined. People would stop on busy sidewalks, or in parking lots, commiserate with me, tell me about their aging pet, or a pet who had recently passed. In what was a difficult, emotionally taxing year I was frequently bolstered by the kindness of strangers. I will never know their names, I may never see them again, but our lives intersected in those slender moments.
As I move through grief, as friends leave orchids and cards at my door, call and text to see how I’m doing, come by and visit for long afternoons of comfort and stories, I’ve thought a lot about kindness and about the absence of it. One person, who called herself a friend, cut me off coldly as Gracie neared the end, telling me she has “trouble being around sadness” and then added a curt, “I wish you well.” I’ve thought beyond my own situation to what divides us in this country, this world. And while it is true that politics drives a wedge between us, I think kindness and the vacuum of its absence is where the ultimate boundary line exists. You are either someone who reaches out to others, who believes we are all linked in the fragile, vulnerable reality of being human, or you believe that your own interests and priorities are paramount.
This divide underlies everything – how we treat others who are different from us, racially, religiously, how we talk about people who are unlike us in sexual orientation or gender identification. It underlies how we treat this earth, whether we operate from greed or the responsibility of stewardship. Obviously on all these fronts, kindness has not prevailed. What is frightening right now is how institutionalized meanness has become, how it is, more and more, accepted as the norm. We think nothing of political candidates and elected officials saying cruel, demeaning things about others. In fact, we expect it.
When I was a young child, I listened to stories about how my paternal grandmother, Nelle Reagan, went into tuberculosis sanitariums and read to the patients, most of whom were completely alone, whose relatives wouldn’t even visit. She did the same in prisons. She believed we are on this earth to connect with others, to give to others, even if we are poor, which she was for most of her life until my father made money as an actor and bought his parents a home. It seems naïve now, but I thought that attitude, that belief, was a predominant force in the world. I thought that, while there was cruelty and inhumanity, the majority of people believed that kindness to their fellow man was the way we should live our lives.
If you have no shred of compassion toward others, there is nothing stopping you from cruelty in its most extreme forms. There are simply no boundary lines. Donald Trump doesn’t just have a mean mouth – he put children in cages after separating them from their parents. And I’m sure he never lost a minute of sleep over it. There will always be unkindness in the world, but our downfall will be if we accept it as our new normal. If we shrug, turn away, and think that’s just how people are these days, we will fall into an abyss that we can’t get out of. We tend to look to political candidates and people in the spotlight to pull us out of the darkness, but stepping out of darkness is a personal responsibility. It’s about how we behave in our daily lives, often when no one is looking.
Mother Teresa said, “There is no such thing as a great deed, only small deeds done with great love.” Maybe someone should run for office with that as their campaign slogan.