Kindness in the 21st Century

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“Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”
–Kurt Vonnegut, God Bless You Mr. Rosewater

This is one of my favorite Vonnegut quotes because of the last line. I think this last bit of advice gets lost quite a bit, especially when we look at the way we talk about and comment on others online and in the media. Just scan the comments section on many news stories, and you will see how easily people abandon kindness. Comments sections are full of attacks on the author, name calling, insults and all manner of hurtful speech. Even comments on articles with no political content can easily turn into readers complaining about the president, immigration or the current political issue du jour. It’s also surprising to see how quickly commenters on social media can turn on a person and attack them simply for expressing a different viewpoint.

In theory, online forums should be a way to debate and discuss different ideas. There is a lot of value in conversing with those who hold opposing viewpoints. But this is not what a lot of online discussion is. This is also true in the media where a lot of attention seems to be on slamming the opposition or deriving great joy out of someone’s failures. If you look at our media and online content, it would seem that we are a bunch of angry, hurtful people. But that’s not entirely true. I have seen many acts of kindness out in the world, so I know that deep down we are not a society of hateful people.

On a recent episode of This American Life, Jezebel writer Lindy West tells a story of an Internet troll who went so far as to set up a Twitter account with the name of her deceased father. He used the Twitter account to post some mean things about West as though he were her dead father. West explains that she is used to nasty comments on her articles, and that it is part of the job when you write online. She is usually able to let it go, but the fake Twitter account really affected her. West’s troll reaches out to her, and she ends up having a conversation with him. The conversation gives good insight into how we all think when we are tempted to write something mean online.

At the end of her story, West says, “Humans can be reached. I have proof. Empathy, boldness, kindness, those are things I learned from my dad.” Because, in the end, West’s own kindness was what helped her move through some very hurtful comments and to have a conversation with the man who wrote some very unkind things. With an example like this, I would like to think that there is still some possibility that kindness will win out.

But it’s a challenge. When I turn on the TV and hear hosts ripping apart a woman for what she wore to an awards show or see commenters on social media posts saying nasty things about the original poster, it is hard to see kindness winning out.

It used to be that when we thought someone on TV was stupid or we received bad service at a restaurant, we would tell a few friends and that would be the end of it. The Internet has given us a tool to post those comments in a forum where thousands of people might read what we say. The validation for our feelings is often quick, and it is easy to post comments in a place that the target of our attacks will see them. At what point did this become an acceptable way to have a public dialogue when we disagree?

It is important to remember the advice from Vonnegut’s quote at the start of this post. We’ve got to be kind. This doesn’t mean we can’t disagree with someone. We just need to remember kindness when we do.

All Night Reads

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I was recently up late at night finishing the last few chapters of Helene Wecker’s beautifully written book, The Golem and the Jinni. When I closed the book on the final words and put it down on my nightstand, the clock showed a bright red 2:35 a.m. It was late, but not quite what I’d clocked with some other books. As I struggled to keep my eyes open the next day while I updated a sick leave policy for a client, my mind began to wander through my bookshelves. Working on HR policies has a way of making one’s mind take off and find other, more entertaining activities. I thought about those books that beg the reader to stay up all night as though the characters lives depended on it.

One of my favorite all night reads is The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman, the third book in the His Dark Materials trilogy. I have read this quite a few times, and each time finds me turning pages into the wee hours of the morning. It’s as though Will and Lyra finding their way out of hell is dependent on my reading them out of that sad, dark place. Even though I know how the story is going to end, I still find myself afraid that putting the book down in the middle of Will and Lyra’s journey through hell will result in them getting stuck there. So, I sacrifice a good night’s rest for reading. It’s the least I can do for two characters that ultimately go on to save humanity, right?

I also felt this way about The Long Walk by Stephen King (writing as Richard Bachman). In this book, 100 teenage boys start walking. We learn pretty quickly that stopping can have deadly consequences. True to form, King does not let you down and takes you along on a terrifying journey as you watch the long walk progress. Reading this is an intense experience, which results in feeling like you must keep reading in order to keep the walkers from stopping or falling down.

The Long Walk gave me weird dreams like I had when I read The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. Such is the risk when one falls asleep reading. The characters in the books have a way of jumping into our dreams as though to say, “Just to get back at you for giving up on my story so you can go to bed, I’m going to bug you while you sleep and fill your head with all kinds of crazy dreams.” When I first read The Hunger Games, I was working in a stressful HR job in a warehouse. I had a crazy dream about battling other employees in an arena that looked strangely like the warehouse. After that, I jokingly referred to that building as the Arena.

Not every all night read is an adventure story with characters that need to be read out of dangerous predicaments. There are some books made for curling up in a nest of pillows and blankets–preferably with a flashlight to illuminate the words. Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre is one such book. I also enjoy reading many of Kurt Vonnegut’s books this way.

I cannot end this post without mentioning some of my favorite series that are all night reads. J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books were all night reads for many fans (including me). Stephen King’s Dark Tower series had me pulling similar all nighters, but fortunately all seven books were out by the time I started reading that series. It’s always tough to stay up all night reading a really good series book only to find out that the next book has not been published yet. Thanks, J.K. Rowling for making me wait so long for the fifth, sixth and seventh Potter books!

What are some of your favorite all night reads?

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Reading & Writing Resolutions for 2015

I am not usually one for New Year’s resolutions. New Year’s Eve never quite seems to live up to the anticipation. We countdown to midnight only to find out that January 1 is just another day. Perhaps I’m being a bit too cynical about the new year, but I have never really been the kind of person to use the change to a new year as an opportunity to reset–except when it comes to reading and writing goals.

Every year I have a plan to read more books. I think every book nerd has that goal, and there never seems to be enough time to read all the books we want to. I got Stephen King’s Revival for Christmas, so that’s on my reading list for 2015. I also really want to read Diving for Pearls by Kathleen B. Jones. Of course I always have a long list of favorites I want to reread, which includes Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions among other things.

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I just moved to a new place. I’m not a big fan of packing and moving (who is?), but I do enjoy unpacking my books at a new location and spending time figuring out where they will go. Getting my books set up by the new year is a big goal for me. There is an art to a good book shelf that requires a little more than just throwing books up on a shelf. I prefer alphabetical order, but I like to get creative with stacking and placing pictures and curios on the shelves along with my books.

As for my creative writing, I am starting a new project. It’s in the realm of creative nonfiction. I am not sure yet if it will be something I see through to the end. I have many unfinished writing projects that started off as good ideas. Somewhere in the depths of my computer and on the pages of notebooks lurk zombies, time travelers and other fictional children waiting for me to finish their stories. This new idea is more personal, and I feel strongly about seeing this through to the end. For now I have a new notebook specifically for this writing project because I believe every new writing project begins with the perfect notebook. Just as the wand chooses the wizard, so too does the notebook choose the writer.

Happy New Year! May 2015 be filled with creativity and lots of books.

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