How to Persist in Kindness while Living in a Culture of Meanness

As we got out of our car last weekend to go to a new tumbling class (which both kids refused to do – but that’s another story), the woman in the car in front of us came over and said, “I’m random acts of kindness-ing you” and handed me a parking meter stub to put in our car.  I had already paid via our app, because that’s how we do, but wasn’t that just the nicest?  I promised her I would continue her kindness.

It seems so many – I would wager to say most – of us are treading water and trying to keep afloat in this culture of mean.  This culture where it seems the Biff Tannens of the world are prevailing. Where it seems that nothing is off limits.  Nothing is too outrageous or offensive.  Nothing seems to be enough.  And there don’t seem to be any repercussions.  Nothing is punishable.  It just keeps getting more and more over the top hurtful and aggressive.

The danger in being somewhat enlightened about the human condition is that I want to give people the benefit of the doubt.  I want to look deeper and conclude that they must not be so terrible. I want to grant the grace that was freely given to me when I was in a terrible place. I want to believe in people being fundamentally good.  But they aren’t. Terrible acts are terrible. Perpetuated by a spark and then groups of people get swept up – either by fear or hatred or both as they go hand in hand – and they carry them out. Terrible. There isn’t always a reason. That’s a hard pill to swallow for me.

Those of us with kids, well, we’ve got the biggest responsibility.  I recently had the honor of seeing Roxane Gay speak and read from her new book – Difficult Women. My friend Sheila and I were in the audience as people asked her questions and she thoughtfully answered each one –

Several questioners touched on body image, one asking about Gay’s appearance on This American Life’s episode about fatness. Gay said that host Ira Glass “just didn’t get” her points, and she feels compelled to think very carefully about how she writes about her size.

“People really hate fat people,” she said, explaining that she felt like she had to do the work of 10 people to get where one skinny woman might go. To another questioner, Gay said she felt that being a fat woman of color required working against stereotypes, and “a constant renegotiation of my humanity.” She told the audience that occasionally event hosts don’t realize who she is until she introduces herself. “They’re as shocked as shit it’s me,” she said.

Other audience members seemed more curious about self-improvement. To a question about empathy in writing, Gay responded that it was “being willing to give people the benefit of the doubt.” When someone asked about how academia could contribute to greater acceptance of people’s differences, Gay replied with something akin to scorn.

“I don’t think any of that can be taught in academia,” she said, and opined that academics can be better gatekeepers by breaking down the gates. For Gay, the key to heightened acceptance was raising better children. “There should be a manual for how to be human you get when you take the babies home,” Gay declared.

About halfway through the Q&A, a young woman asked Gay for some tips on how to be more intersectional. Gay acknowledged that the world is full of different people with different concerns, but pointed out that knowing one’s own identity is the starting point for intersectionality.

“Be honest,” Gay admonished. “When I’m honest, I’m offering up something that no one else can. Your truth is all that is needed.”

Windy City Times article by Liz Baudler

SO MUCH IN HERE.  The prodigious Ms. Gay doesn’t have children, but she has the absolute right idea because she is human.

“….the key to heightened acceptance was raising better children.”  I mean, has there ever been anything more true?

It is our responsibility as parents to mold these kids into decent human beings.  There are plenty of “what to expect” books out there, but not too many give us the keys to producing a completely healthy, well adjusted, kind kid.  If I had one wish, it would be to produce such a kid.  It’s impossible of course, because human beings are flawed and messy and all that is part of what is so appealing and repelling about all of us.  We are no one thing.  We are not good and we are not evil.  We are all things.  What we put out into the world is within our control though and it’s up to me as a parent to try to guide these kids to a kind path.  It’s terrifying and gratifying all at once.

This is the sign we saw at the event by the Women and Children First Bookstore at Senn High School in Chicago –


LOVE.  More of this please.

I’m watching 13 Reasons Why right now and it is so triggering in taking me right back to high school and the pitfalls and pressures. It was hard for just about all of us. I wrote about my own “mean girl” and bullying experiences here – Where do mean girls come from?  When you’ve been to hell and contemplated suicide and wanting out, you understand how vitally important all this is.  And there is no one person to blame.  Let alone 13.  But the sadness and depression and bullying leading to these actions by these kids (and adults)? Well, they need to be taken in and paid close attention to by all of us.  People are hurting all around us.  Not every time, but some of the time, we can help.

It’s incredibly hard out there for our kids. We need to be there every step of the way. With them, for them, about them.  And now with social media adding onto the ways to bully and torment each other, the stakes are monumentally high.  The bullying culture of mean is having a field day right now because people in authority say and prove each day that it’s ok.  Those of us trying to raise strong, confident, KIND kids are the ones playing defense.  These kids in no way need to be told to “suck it up” or “man up” or “pull up their big girl panties”.  UGH.  Just writing those things gives me the heebie jeebies rage.

But does it have to be just defense?  Proactively being kind to each other and shutting down this kind of intolerable behavior in our schools, on our streets, in our homes (because so much of this happens at home and kids are watching), is vital to this next generations success.  Paying it forward and random acts of kindness don’t seem trivial anymore.  What we don’t hear about on the news each day are the best things.  The acts that happen in our neighborhoods and schools and doctor’s offices and homes.  The relationships and the people that weather these storms are the real heroes.  No spotlight.  No pat on the back necessary.

Oh my heart.

We are living in a culture of mean and I am feeling powerless against it.  I am so angry and tired and sad but I refuse to stop rising up.

So what do we do?  How do we combat this culture that under new leadership has made it ok to mock, harm, discriminate, and bully people.  Right out in the open.  Those left open and vulnerable to the harassment seem to have little in the way of protections.

How am I supposed grant grace in this culture of meanness?  How am I supposed to be kind in the face of entitlement and cruel intentions?

I am not very powerful.  I have words and I have actions.  I don’t have money and I don’t have backers and corporations behind me.  I have ears to listen, words to speak & write, and I have actions to back them up.

I have ears to listen, words to speak & write, and I have actions to back them up.

You can know a person by the company they keep is a good one my mama taught me and it’s stuck.  Stick with the winners.  Reach a hand out to those in need and check on people.  Do an “are you ok” check every so often.  Kindness is often very very small.

Look people in the eye.  Talk with them.  Listen.  Just engage a little bit, and you’ll feel the shift.  Even healthy arguments can be good.  We all need to feel like we are being heard and seen.  I can give that to people.

For every terrible act there are good-hearted acts that don’t get the attention. Look around. I’ve been looking offline more for the things that people aren’t sharing. The non-viral stories. All the ways people act terribly are just guidelines for how I want to act in opposition.  For every evil, bullying act, I will turn around and lift someone up or spend my time engaging in hopeful, encouraging activity.

My fire is fueled because I signed up for this as a human being.  I signed up for the continuing education – the masters degree if you will – when I had children.  It is my responsibility to raise these children in a way that they can ward off evil and do good in spite of it.  That they can be the helpers.  I used to say I didn’t want to bring children into such a terrible world, but then when they got here, the world suddenly became less terrible because of them.

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again –

This is not just politics.  It’s EVERYTHING.  This is not normal.  We need to keep rising up and resisting.  And white people, I say this with all the humility I have – we need to rise up next to our brothers and sisters of color and stand arm in arm.  We need to listen to them. They’ve been fighting these fights their whole lives and we are just catching up. 

More than listening, we need to fight.  We need to stand up against injustice and bear the weight.  We are all responsible.  So I continue to be kind, seek out places where I can be of service and stand up to the Biff Tannens of the world.  On a daily basis, all day long.  It’s exhausting.  But you never know when someone might have a change of heart.  I’ve seen it happen.  In the case of protecting ourselves and standing up for what is right and true for others?

Kindness is not a weakness.  Kindness is power that will keep replicating over and over if we share it.  Kindness and hope and gratitude are my weapons.  I don’t know what else to do.  I don’t know how else to live, because I’ve tried shutting down. I’ve tried spite.  I’ve tried bitterness.  I’ve tried acting out in anger. It doesn’t work for me.  Kindness and hope – as sickly sweet as it seems at times – works for me.  I hope like hell it works for these kids.  I will carry on in hope and love.



What does a whore look like?

3 things I tell my kids before preschool that I’m trying to live myself

Being a human is hard – the golden rule is so simple

You are funny smart clever kind – the words we use matter

When they go low, we go high – Thank you Michelle Obama for helping me parent my kids with hope and kindness

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