The Wrong Kind of Kindness

I do my best thinking when I’m driving. I’m not sure why this is. Perhaps it’s the silence (I very rarely listen to music), or perhaps it’s because no one can hear (I tend to think out loud), or perhaps it’s because a car is a strange, in-between place which feels familiar and comforting, but is anonymous enough to soak up all your thoughts, and when your journey ends, it allows you to leave everything behind and walk away.

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This week, I went to an event in Manchester, and as I was driving home, I started thinking about my car accident. I have no idea why. I wasn’t on the road where it happened. It wasn’t something that had been on my mind recently (although it’s always there somewhere, hiding in the landscape). I had mentioned it, in passing, earlier that evening, when someone suggested getting a taxi (rather than the train) back to my car. I blurted out the usual ‘I was in an accident years ago and I don’t like other people driving me anywhere’ speech, and I had that familiar surge of anxiety I experience each time I am involved in a decision about how to get from A to B. Each time I have to explain my (perceived) failure to be a balanced human being to someone I don’t know especially well. Whatever the reason, as I drove across the bleak hills of North Derbyshire, with not another car in sight, I started to think about it.

It’s strange, isn’t it. When you go through an incredibly traumatic experience, something that alters the course of your life forever, your brain seems to sieve out all the big details and it leaves you with just a residue of tiny memories. Sounds. Smells. Textures. I don’t remember the accident itself, but I remember (very clearly) the moments beforehand. I remember driving along a straight, country road and being overtaken by a number of cars – because I am, thank heavens, a very slow driver. I remember climbing a hill. I remember it was a cool, clear night and I remember wondering what I might have for my tea when I finally got home.

The next memory I have, is opening my eyes and realising the car wasn’t moving anymore. I was perfectly still. Right in front of me, only an inch away, my headlights lit up a dry stone wall. It was so bright – like the stage in a theatre – and I studied the blanket of moss that covered the surface of the stones. Tiny and flowerless, yet so beautiful. How have I never noticed this before, I thought, on a journey I travel every day. But I knew something was wrong. I knew I shouldn’t be facing a different way in the middle of a road, marvelling over the beauty of moss, and so I reached out to put on my hazard lights. That was the moment I first saw the blood on my hands.

I must have lost consciousness again, as I was trying to make sense of everything, because when I next opened my eyes, a man was standing next to the car. He told me he was a policeman. He said it was the second accident he’d stumbled across when he was off-duty. So, I thought, I have had a car accident. I wanted to ask him questions, all of the questions, but he didn’t look at me the whole time he was speaking, and so I stared at the loose button on the sleeve of his jacket instead, and I thought how easily that button might disappear and be lost forever.

Eventually, I was lifted out of my vehicle. They sat me in the front of a police car, and I was left alone, with the smell of chewing gum and hoovered upholstery, trying to arrange the jumbled, concussed thoughts that were swimming around in my brain. There was a hiss of a police radio somewhere nearby and amongst the clutter of words I couldn’t decipher, I heard it say that this was a fatal road traffic collision. Fatal. I didn’t realise then that there was another vehicle involved, and my mind charged into a panic, trying to think who might have been travelling with me. Who might have died. I went through everyone I knew. Everyone I cared about. I exhausted every possibility, until I finally satisfied myself that I was alone in the car. But, I thought, if I was alone in the car and it was a fatal accident, then the person who died must have been me. I held on to this thought for a very long time. It was probably only moments, but they were the most terrifying, surreal moments of my life, thinking this must be what it feels like to be dead. Being cold and alone in the dark. Listening to the voices of strangers in the distance.

It wasn’t until they put me in the ambulance, until they strapped me into a narrow, blanketed space filled with machinery, that I accepted the fact that I was alive. I was still here. I just didn’t realise until much, much later how unlikely that was. Just like the off-duty policeman, the paramedic didn’t look at me either. He stared at his boots. He stared out of the tiny window in the back of the ambulance. The window was made out of that strange, frosted glass you get in emergency vehicles, and I remember wondering why anyone would stare out of a window when it didn’t offer them a view. I tried to talk to him, but I’m not sure the words ever left my head. He certainly didn’t answer. I wasn’t in any pain at that point, and the only thing I could feel was a wetness around my mouth. It felt as though my nose was running, and I kept trying to wipe it with the back of my hand.

‘Don’t touch your face,’ he told me.

They were the only words he spoke for the entire journey. At that stage in my life, the one reference point I had for a paramedic was Josh in Casualty. The paramedic from my accident was no Josh. In my second book, there is a whole scene involving a paramedic. The paramedic in my book is kind and reassuring, and thoughtful, because I think as writers, we sometimes retell the experiences of our lives and turn them into what we hoped they might have been.

When we reached the hospital, I was wheeled through a waiting area filled with staring, and into resus, where a cluster of people gathered around my trolley. I couldn’t see who they were. I could only see their forearms and the navy blue of their sleeves, their scrubbed hands, and the things they passed over my head. I could see the blur of strip lights in the ceiling, as I was wheeled down a corridor to be scanned and x-rayed, and all the time, I was hoping someone would just wipe my nose for me. It was all I remember wanting them to do.

After it was decided I was stable, the cluster of blue uniforms drifted to the periphery, and I was left alone again. It was then she appeared. The junior doctor. She was very young, perhaps only a little older than me, and she leaned over the side of the bed.

‘Don’t worry,’ she said. ‘My friend did exactly the same thing to her face on some rocks, when she was scuba-diving in Greece.’

I remember her exact words. I remember the compassion spilling from her eyes.

‘It looked awful at first, but you’d never know,’ she whispered, ‘looking at her now.’

It’s just a scratch on my face, I wanted to say. It’s nothing. They’ll probably put some butterfly stitches in and send me home. Why are you saying this to me? Why are you looking at me with so much concern?

But I didn’t say any of these things. I just stared at her. Because her words made me realise, in that small moment of a stranger’s reassurance, that I had turned into someone who needed to be pitied.

Now I understand it, having been a junior doctor myself. I understand that you are constantly surrounded by people who are far wiser, far more experienced than you think you’ll ever be. You feel pointless. Redundant. You feel you have nothing to offer a situation, and so you give the only thing you feel confident in giving. You give compassion. You give words. And you over-give those words in order to compensate for your sense of helplessness. The junior doctor in resus was just trying to be kind. But her kindness terrified me.

Much later, I realised why she had said it. When I had been taken to a ward, and I had persuaded the nurses to let me to go the toilet alone. When I had stood in that toilet, and looked up into the mirror over the sink. When I saw my new face for the first time, and I took a step backwards in shock, because I thought someone else had walked into the room. I discovered, finally, why it felt like my nose was running. The impact of the accident had crushed the entire bonnet of the car, and I’d gone down on to my knees in the footwell. The crash threw me head first into the dashboard and, in the days long before air bags, I had broken the steering wheel with my face. The hard, sharp pieces of plastic had torn into my mouth and nose, and ripped flesh from the bones. So much so, you could – had you wanted to – lift my face from my skull, like a mask. The only reason I wasn’t in agony, was because there were no nerve endings left to tell me I was in pain.

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I thought about all of these things as I was driving home the other night. But I didn’t think so much about the injuries, about the months of rehabilitation and the many years it took me to get used to my new face. I thought mostly about the junior doctor in resus. I thought about how her misplaced kindness, with all its best intentions, terrified me at a point in my life when I didn’t think I could possibly be any more terrified.

I thought about the dangers of kindness.

There’s a wonderful piece in The Guardian today, about kindness in fiction. ‘Up-lit’ is a new trend. Everyone is turning to kindness in an age when the world stage seems filled with only hatred and prejudice. It’s wonderful, I think, that kindness is becoming a sub-genre (and very wonderful that Goats and Sheep gets an unexpected, but very lovely mention). I just think, like many other things in life, kindness needs a little more thought. Because kindness, also like many other good things in life, can be dangerous.

Dangerous kindness is usually related to appearance. ‘You look great,’ people say, ‘have you lost weight?’ or ‘you should treat yourself to a holiday, you look really tired’ (usually said to someone after they have spent ages getting ready, and have left the house that morning believing they look the best they can possibly look). Shortly after my accident, someone patted me on the knee and said, ‘you are so brave to leave the house, looking the way you do.’

(no, really).

But it doesn’t always have to be about appearance. I have also had people tell me, when I say I don’t have children, that they are ‘really sorry’.

When I was eleven, I stood at the bottom of the dining hall stairs at school, waiting for my friend (bear in mind I went to a Harry Potter school filled with black gowns and cloisters). One of the (more traditional) masters approached me, and when I told him what I was doing, he said I had ‘no savoir faire’.

‘Do you know what that means?’ he said.

‘No, sir.’

‘Then look it up, look it up. It will come in useful later on in life.’

He thought he was being helpful, being kind (at least, I hope that’s what he thought). I did look it up and. although I didn’t really understand what it meant, I decided he was right. I had no savoir faire. I had found the ultimate definition of myself hidden in a French dictionary. That small conversation has followed me around ever since. As an adult, I am the person who trips up over their own feet, who spills food down themselves, who says the wrong thing, who embarrasses themselves in front of the very people they are desperately trying to impress. The person who never knows when to shut up. I was recently with a group of people who were all making fun of themselves and their social inadequacies. They built a whole, hypothetical scenario around mine which led to much hysterical laughter, but all the time I was laughing (because it would look very odd, wouldn’t it, not to laugh at yourself), I was thinking – no, no this really is me. I am genuinely that ridiculous. You think it’s a joke, but I would totally be this gauche and embarrassing in real life.

Because someone told me I was like this, when I was eleven, as a small act of kindness.

And I believed them.

I still believe them.

You could, of course, suggest that people can be over-sensitive, but I don’t think over-sensitive should even be a word. We are who we are. It’s a bit like saying a tree is over-green.

For many months after my accident, I couldn’t eat because of the damage to my mouth (I had to sip those awful banana flavoured Ensure drinks through a tiny straw). I couldn’t speak, either. Or at least, I could speak, but the noise that came out was completely incoherent to everyone else (even though it sounded perfectly understandable to me). So I was forced to write down all the things I wanted to say. Writing down all the things you want to say is a wonderful exercise. It teaches you to be less grumpy. Less snappy. More mindful. As unhappy and frustrated as I was at the time, writing my thoughts down first meant I didn’t let the unhappy, frustrated words go free without a great deal of consideration. I think if we all chose the words we speak with as much care as we choose the words we write, the world might be a much more bearable place in which to live.

So as much as I love the idea of everyone embracing compassion and running around being lovely to one another, as much as I like the hashtags and the wonderful ethos of small acts of kindness, you can’t sling kindness around like mud, and hope it sticks to the right place. Kind words, like all the other words that come out of your mouth (and your keyboard), need care and placement. You really can have the wrong kind of kindness. Kindness isn’t a one-size-fits-all. Kindness isn’t a bandwagon to be jumped upon, and whilst kindness might be one of the most powerful, and most empowering, qualities we possess, without consideration, it can be just as debilitating as the most brutal and well planned-out act of cruelty. Because the echo of a kindness really does last forever, for the good or the bad, and you might find that words that you gave with the very best intentions in the world, will be remembered by a stranger many years later, as they drive over the bleak hills of North Derbyshire, with not another car in sight, on the long drive home.

Comments

  1. That’s such a thoughtful piece. It must have taken a lot of courage to put all this down on paper. I agree its the small things, the random acts of kindness that make such a difference. And I so sympathise with that part about teachers (or parents let’s be honest) being able to wound without thought. It takes a lot to get over casual cruelty and perhaps the antidote is careful gentleness? We met in York FOW a few years ago and you were so kind to someone starting out on a writing career. And I didn’t notice anything at all about your face apart from the nervousness you were obviously feeling at having to speak in public! Looking forward to your next book. x

  2. Oh Jo, you’ve reduced me to tears again – this is such a beautiful, thought-provoking piece of writing and all the more poignant because you have made yourself so vulnerable in sharing it.

    I have loved every post you have made about your interactions with your patients – I always thought they would make a wonderful text for student medics but this post would be a MUST read. The power of apparently kind words to be inappropriate is huge and their impact, as you have just shown, can be lifelong.

    You are one BEAUTIFUL, in every sense of the word, woman.

  3. Oh Jo – what a very moving account of an absolutely terrifying event in your life. The wrong sort of kindness – I am sure I have been guilty of this in the past. Do you think its caught up in this weird thing we do when we feel we must say something, anything, be it re-assuring or inane – when sometimes a friendly quiet moment is more appropriate? I dont know. But thankyou for sharing your feelings, and letting me look at things in a different way. Sending you good thoughts as I am sure this has stirred up emotions that may have surprised you with their strength.

  4. I have your sentence in mind as I write this, that we need to think about what we say, what we type: the irony of your wonderful piece, for me, is that it’s only you who displays kindness in believing that to be the motivation for the junior doctor and the teacher. It doesn’t come across to me as kind, that someone should mention their friend diving into rocks without finding out how much you already knew about your state. To me, that’s thoughtless and inconsiderate, despite your kind excuse that they were struggling for purpose. A teacher telling you you lack savoir faire isn’t kind, either. It’s life-shaping and cruel. I don’t think there is dangerous kindness or the wrong sort of kindness. Kindness is kindness and the experiences you’ve described here don’t qualify.
    You’re, actually, being too kind.

  5. The things that happen to us, the things that shake us inside out and flip the world into a different orbit, are anchored in our memory and future by the reactions of others. I am so sorry you had this experience, but thank you for expressing it so honestly and openly. It made me remember the ‘kindness’ spoken to me when, aged twenty three my father died suddenly and a friend told me: ‘it will be the making of you.’ Words. ‘Death and life are in the power of the tongue.’ Proverbs 18:21.

  6. Yours is one of the few blogs I have ever followed…I have never commented or introduced myself, but I am an American who works in the periphery of medicine, and I love your posts. This one especially resonated with me, having been through a great deal myself the past several years with a cancer diagnosis that carries a somewhat poor prognosis, the passing of my beloved father, the severe and ongoing debilitating depression of my formerly well-adjusted husband of 20 years, all the while working and raising two boys, now teenagers. They grew up asking me why I was always so nice to everyone. I have always told them there is so much pain in the world…how is it right to be anything other than kind whenever possible? But what I have noticed is what passes for kind/nice is often not well thought out at all. It hurts. I have noted so many FB posts that could be outright cruel/painful to someone with a different life experience. For example, a post about wonderful mothers on Mother’s Day. For someone like me, with a different life experience, that is painful. Friends who post photos about their fathers, still going strong, in their 90s. Some of them friends with my own father, now deceased. That hurts, though I try to find it in myself to celebrate with them. It hurts. People who claim God has blessed them by healing their own elderly parents, by curing their cancer. That seems to me to be cruel. If you must rejoice about such things, be conscious that many very good people have prayed and not fared so well. Always I try to be conscious of everyone’s varying life experiences before I speak. I believe 100% in the power of kindness, and like you, I give the young doctor credit for at least coming from a place of compassion, as ill-considered as it was. Maybe it is only as we mature that most of us develop a better sense of the unanticipated fall-out of what our words might be, and if we are coming from a place of kindness, we learn to edit thoughtfully before we speak. I do believe for many of us, this takes years. I think for others, like the teacher who made the comment in your formative years, there is no real thought to the possible consequences of what they say. Words are powerful. It seems to me we will remember negative comments for a lifetime, while the positive we forget weeks after they were said. In my 50s, I try hard to forgive people who say hurtful things intending to be kind. And I still carry the scars of thoughtless words spoken carelessly by ordinarily kind people. Joanna, you have an amazing gift with words. As I said, this one especially hit home, though countless posts you have written have brought tears to my eyes, both happy and sad, and have stayed with me to this day. I hope you never stop writing. – Cheri, Colorado Springs, US

  7. Hi Joanna. Thanks for sharing your experiences and for the sincerity and openness of your post. I do think that you are being generous – especially with regard to your teacher! I think that sometimes we say things that are smug, or secretly hurtful, dressed up as ‘kind’. Essentially, these things are just not nice! I have been guilty of this (although try to do better most of the time!). I have also been insensitive, especially when lacking confidence. I suppose kindness comes in many forms, sometimes it’s real and sometimes it’s false, sometimes it’s well-intentioned and falls short of the mark. And sometimes a kindness is the perfect thing that makes all the difference when a painful hurt leaves us vulnerable. I agree that no one should be told they are ‘too sensitive’. But I’ve also learned to be kind to myself, so I am hurt less by the wrong kind of kindness! Thanks for such a wonderful, thought-provoking piece..

  8. A beautiful, thought-provoking piece, and one I can relate to. As I read it, past acts of kindness towards me flashed up. I had one of two reactions to each: either I cried because I felt unworthy of kindness, or I wished the kindness maker would just go away.

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