Miserable Is the Enemy of Kind

November 19th, 2008

Behavior 101

For some reason, when I couldn’t sleep last night (as opposed to when I couldn’t sleep every other night this week), I started thinking about whether or not I’m a kind person.

I want to be.  Which maybe sounds obvious but isn’t.  I know plenty of people who would choose “successful, respected, powerful, charismatic, etc” over kindness as the trait they most want to be known by.  I desperately want people to think I’m nice–so much so that if I feel like I’ve angered someone–even someone who ALREADY angered me–it’ll torment me for ages.

But here’s the thing: I’m not always as nice as I should be.   When I’m stressed or overwhelmed or in a bad mood or hormonal (did I just give the men ammunition in the PMS wars?  Damn it!), I’ll be much less nice than when I’m in a good mood. 

Obvious, right?  But still disconcerting when you think about it–my kindness is relative, not absolute.  I’m not a kind person, I’m a person who is sometimes kind.  And sometimes not.

A few months ago, a kid e-mailed me asking if I would mail him a copy of one of my books for a fundraiser.  I’ve donated plenty of my books in the past and was willing to do so again.  I just . . . didn’t.  I kept looking at that e-mail and it seemed like so much WORK to package up a book and figure out the postage and mail it.  Laziness and a sense that at that point in time I had more on my plate than any woman should have to deal with turned me into someone who couldn’t perform a simple act of kindness.

I’m sure if you asked that kid what kind of person Claire LaZebnik is, “nice” wouldn’t be the adjective he would use.

Decades and decades ago, my family all went out to eat together.  The waitress was awful–rude, resentful, unhelpful.  My sister couldn’t take it anymore and complained to the manager.  The waitress came over and tore into her.  Soon they were yelling at each other.  Suddenly, the waitress dissolved into tears.  Something awful was going on in her personal life–I think a boyfriend had just left her–and she confessed that it was affecting her in every way and that’s why she had been acting so horribly.  She and my sister ended up hugging each other.

I could easily use this story to illustrate the difference between men and women–I don’t think my husband has any stories about his brothers hugging tearful waiters (or maybe he just keeps them to himself)–but I’ve always seen it more as the perfect illustration that when people are rude to you, it’s often because of something going on in their lives that you don’t know about.  In simple terms, it’s more them than you.

That philosophy has come in awfully handy with the kids.  When a stranger is snarly, I’ll remind my kids that we don’t know what’s going on at home.  Maybe he or she has every reason to be miserable that day.  (Same goes for the crazy person who cuts you off on the road–maybe his wife is in labor.  Probably not, but doesn’t it help to think that way?)

Lord knows that when I’m feeling depressed, I shut down, don’t want to talk to people, rush through a school pick-up avoiding eye contact and appearing–yes–RUDE.   Even though I want people to be nice.  Sometimes nice feels simply out of reach. 

Maybe I should have a sign made up: “Nice person having a bad day.”  I bet those would sell like crazy.