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.