We learn kindness and patience step by step, sometimes in the receiving, sometimes in the giving. And sometimes, even more powerfully, in the shadow experience: through thoughtlessness or impatience, our own or someone else’s. Hurt by hurt, mistake by mistake, we walk forward into the swirl of human emotion and interrelationship. We learn about pain by being hurt as well as by hurting another. Someone else’s anger or offhand remark can cut to the quick. But to see pain in a loved one’s eyes from our own unthinking or harsh words is to know the other side of pain. It can break your heart, but in the breaking is the opening—to compassion, to kindness.
When I look back honestly on my own life, I see moments that have taught me, painfully, to be more compassionate and aware. In the years before my mother’s death, she began to have challenges with both her eyesight (cataracts) and memory. I felt tremendous responsibility and fear around making sure she was okay. Once, after a doctor’s appointment, I was asking her questions about what had transpired (What did he say? Did you ask him about ____?). She couldn’t think fast enough to answer me and finally burst into tears. Abruptly I realized I had to slow down and just listen patiently instead of question her. I could see the pain in her eyes at not being able to answer me quickly. It stopped me in my tracks, and I hugged her. What did the answers matter when my mother’s ease of mind was at stake?
Years ago, my partner Anne and I were traveling in the south of France after visiting a friend in Paris. The morning newspapers brought stories of bombings in Paris, which made us apprehensive about returning. Still, we continued to enjoy our trip before heading north again. After our train reached Paris, we began to walk (a bit nervously) across town to our friend’s apartment, but at a certain point we needed to ask directions. I didn’t want to ask because I couldn’t remember the exact French word (I had lived in France years before and felt I had to say it properly or not at all).
Anne thought this was ridiculous and went ahead and asked anyway. She was understood, answered, and we were on our way. I, however, was angry with her (and myself) about it and insensitively pointed out a mistake in her wording. She began to cry. I can still see her walking by the Seine with her heavy backpack, sobbing. It broke my heart, and I apologized with tears in my eyes. What does perfect French (or potential bombers) matter when you’ve just hurt the person you love most in the world?
This is what it means, I suppose, when they say we relive our entire life, all of it, in a split second before we die. We see the times when we were caring and compassionate as well as when we caused suffering or pain. If we are fortunate, we come to realize before that last moment the ways in which we affect others, and we self-correct to be mindfully conscious of the power of our words and actions. We learn to choose kindness in every situation. Just like the wisdom teaching about asking yourself three questions before speaking: 1) Is it true? 2) Is it necessary? 3) Is it kind? In most cases, a “no” answer to any of those prevents us from hurting another. To quote the Dali Lama: “Whenever possible, choose kindness. It is always possible.”