Cleverness and Kindness

The Jewish philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel is often quoted as having said, “When I was young, I admired clever people. Now that I am old, I admire kind people.” I’m not that old yet, I wouldn’t say, but I’m also realizing these days that I’m not exactly young, either. And I find that I’m with Heschel in experiencing this shift in perspective as my age has increased.

In Margaret Atwood’s truly fabulous novel Cat’s Eye, the protagonist, Elaine, after some scarring experiences with the cruelty of a friend when she was a child, for some period develops what she calls a “Mean Mouth” of her own. She notes that far from driving her friends away, it brought them in closer, as they didn’t want to be the victims of her cutting comments. I have to admit that I read that with an uneasy sense of familiarity.

As a teenager, I had an experience in a particular Sunday school class that to this day makes me cringe to remember. I genuinely liked the teacher—I thought he was smart and funny and interesting. And I wanted him to like me, too. So, in an effort I think both to impress him and to connect with him, I made clever comment after clever comment. For week after week, I engaged in what I thought was friendly teasing, involving a lot of put-downs. Then finally one week, after he’d said that he was going to do some particular activity, and I said (thinking I was being funny) something like “don’t waste your time,” he just lost it, and told me directly that he had no idea why I was coming to class when clearly I hated it and him and was bringing everyone else down. He told me that the week before, I’d made him so enraged with my mocking behavior that he’d gone outside afterward and the rain had “sizzled on his face.” That phrase has stuck in my mind.

I was absolutely horrified. I had had no idea, honestly no idea, that I was coming across that way, so caught up was I in my quest to be extremely clever in a way that would impress everyone around me. Somehow it hadn’t occurred to me, especially given that he was an adult and I was only a teenager, that he might be vulnerable, that I had the power to hurt him. I felt terrible, just terrible. I apologized profusely and explained that I really had thought the whole thing was in good fun. And he was remarkably gracious and forgiving, and after that we got along fine (that’s my memory at least, and I really hope that was his experience as well and there were no more awful rain-sizzling-on-the-face incidents).

It wasn’t an easy thing to be called out like that, but in retrospect it was so important for me, and so needed. Because that’s just how I talked at the time. I came from a family which valued teasing and wittiness, and while often it was light-hearted and good-natured, I think at times there were darker undertones to the dynamic. As a teenager, I coped with my insecurities by being incredibly cynical about and dismissive of basically everything that people valued and took seriously—and the church was high on that list. I was good at making fun of things in a way that made people laugh, and that made me feel affirmed, of course, so I kept doing it.

I didn’t realize, however, the toll it might be taking on my relationships. I remember a friend once saying to me in an unusually candid moment, that she never knew when to take me seriously, that she couldn’t read me at all. We were pretty close friends, and I was quite taken aback by her saying that, because in my mind it was obvious when I was just playing around and being deliberately provocative in an attempt to stir up trouble. It was one of my first real encounters with the painful human reality that people might be interpreting you in a way that is drastically different from your intended meaning.

I won’t say that I completely reformed as a result of conversations like these, but they did impact me. Especially after that experience with my Sunday school teacher, I do think (hope) I dialed my behavior down at least a notch; if nothing else, I’d been awakened out of my teenage self-absorption to the reality that other people were affected by what I did, and that my obsession with being master of the clever but cutting insult was not actually a victimless crime, as I think I’d rather naively assumed.

As someone who’s had her time in the sun of being highly accomplished academically (at least before it all crashed and burned a few years ago), my identity throughout my life has been deeply intertwined with my intellectual abilities, particularly in the verbal realm. All my siblings are quite verbally adept, and interplay centered around language was (and remains) a staple of family interactions. I really do value that; to this day, fun back-and-forth Facebook conversations with my siblings (and other daring people who jump in where angels fear to tread) are a real bright spot in my day. But over the years, I think I’ve become much more wary of the culture of insults, in which the most points go to the person who is the master of the burn. I’ve had a couple of friends in my life who were legitimately brilliant, whose writing simply oozed cleverness—but who used it as a weapon, and a way to keep people at a distance—and in the end, I’ve found myself preferring to hang out with people who were less emotionally exhausting. The people who I really want in my life these days are the ones who are good listeners, who are caring and supportive and willing to be vulnerable. I may still admire verbal fireworks from a distance, but they’re just that: fireworks. For a sustained relationship with someone, kindness is a much, much better fuel.

6 comments / Add your comment below

  1. Kindness

    Before you know what kindness really is
    you must lose things,
    feel the future dissolve in a moment
    like salt in a weakened broth.
    What you held in your hand,
    what you counted and carefully saved,
    all this must go so you know
    how desolate the landscape can be
    between the regions of kindness.
    How you ride and ride
    thinking the bus will never stop,
    the passengers eating maize and chicken
    will stare out the window forever.

    Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
    you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
    lies dead by the side of the road.
    You must see how this could be you,
    how he too was someone
    who journeyed through the night with plans
    and the simple breath that kept him alive.

    Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
    you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
    You must wake up with sorrow.
    You must speak to it till your voice
    catches the thread of all sorrows
    and you see the size of the cloth.

    Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
    only kindness that ties your shoes
    and sends you out into the day to mail letters and
    purchase bread,
    only kindness that raises its head
    from the crowd of the world to say
    it is I you have been looking for,
    and then goes with you every where
    like a shadow or a friend.

    This was written by Naomie Shihab Nye and is one of my very favorites.

  2. I love this post, Lynnette. I’ve come to exactly the same conclusion as I’ve gotten older, although I don’t know that I’ve ever framed or articulated it exactly this way until reading your post. I was much more worried about being the smartest (or at least as smart as I could be) when I was younger. And not that I’ve given up investing ego in it, but I’ve realized with time that I get far more satisfaction out of striving for kindness. For one thing, I feel like the smart/clever stuff is always a contest, and there’s always someone more clever. But kindness really doesn’t work that way. Competitive kindness doesn’t even seem like something people could do, and I guess if they did, more power to them!

    I also love how you tell the story of how you inadvertently insulted your Sunday school teacher while trying to be endlessly clever. I never had such a shocking a-ha moment, but the background to it that you describe matches my experience so closely. I never had an idea as a teenager that adults might be just as vulnerable as I was, and that they maybe felt like they were barely holding it together like I often did.

  3. acw, wow, that’s a great story!

    Zelophehads Daughters Groupie, oh my gosh, that poem is amazing! Thank you so much for sharing it!

    Ziff, I hadn’t thought of it in quite that way, but I really like that point, that cleverness is often intensely competitive, and kindness is just a whole different thing. And yes, it’s funny to look back and see that assumption that adults magically wouldn’t be affected by things like this, because they were adults and above the fray somehow. (You know, it just occurred to me that this could be one factor why I’ve never quite felt like a “real” adult!)

  4. Thanks for sharing your experience, Lynnette. I agree with the sentiment, but I struggle to be kind rather than clever–and, more insidiously, to avoid the anxiety-ridden trap of getting caught up in intellectually grinding out how exactly to be kind. I think that there’s something organic about kindness, and the trick is learning how to trust life enough not to get in its way.

  5. Jason K., that makes sense. I have to admit that even as I’ve come to value this in other people, I still struggle to do it myself! I really like the idea that it might be something organic. I don’t know that this is exactly the same thing, but I once read something by Chieko Okazaki about how “service” (which is a super loaded issue for me, tied up with intense feelings of guilt and obligation) is really just as simple as seeing a need that someone has and realizing that you have the capacity to do something about it. When that happens, she notes, there’s a kind of spontaneity and naturalness to the response of reaching out to help (she contrasts that with the common church situation in which someone sees a need and assigns someone else to take care of it, which of course is necessary at times, but doing service that someone has assigned you has a different feel than when you’re just acting in response to something that you yourself saw). I’m wondering whether there are any parallels here to kindness.


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