I have a friend I haven't always deserved.
We met over a decade ago, and I wrote her off too quickly. She was so earnest, so bubbly, so interested in the people around her, so nice. At the time I was in a place where I was struggling to be TOUGH and ON MY OWN, and was very protective of the "I don't need anybody" exterior I was attempting to cultivate. I was so wrapped up in my own issues that I judged her sweetness as cloying, suspect, "overdoing it". I think I was friendly enough to her, I hope I was, but deep down I know I was at times cold and dismissive. All in the name of protecting myself.
This was a time when I was hurting, and though many people saw it, I wouldn't let anybody close enough to help. In retrospect, I think I sabotaged many of my long-term friendships because I was unwilling to let anybody too close.
I would be there without question for my closest friends, listening to their problems, comforting them, rushing to their side if they needed it. But it was a one way street. I would never let them reciprocate.
I wanted people to trust me, but I couldn't trust anyone. That's not how friendships work.
This woman, this kind person I'll call "Erin", didn't encroach too much on the forcefield I set up around me, but she also always made it a point to ask me how I was doing.
It seemed like such a little thing, "How are you doing?"
"Fine," I'd say, then deflect with some funny comment. I think it was well known amongst my circle of friends at the time that I was a little sad, a little lonely, and more than a little guarded.
She'd accept my response, laugh at my joke, then often follow up with the statement, "Ok, good! Well, if you ever need someone to talk to, I'm here." And she'd leave it at that.
I thought she was weird. Maybe she was. Who offers kindness to someone who is throwing up roadblocks? Could there really be people out there who just care? Who takes the time to recognize someone who is silently screaming for a shoulder to cry on? I was always struck, unnerved really, by the way she saw through me; her offer never seemed hollow or to have ulterior motives.
Erin frightened me.
For most of my adult life, demonstrations of genuine kindness towards me have made me feel like my brain is short circuiting. I don't know what to do, I immediately feel undeserving. I'm still that person who often fights back tears when someone is kind to me.
However, I'm fighting to change this. Everyday I try to be gracious, accepting, and give kindness in turn to the kindness I'm given — it isn't easy. Sometimes care and concern from others still cause me anxiety, but I'm learning more and more that receiving kindness isn't all about me.
Once, when at work a few years ago, I got chewed out by my boss for an oversight on my part. After she was done talking at me, I walked to the bathroom and broke down. Less from being caught in a mistake, but more because the talking-to from my boss triggered a domino effect of anxiety and self-loathing. A work friend followed me into the bathroom and stood outside my stall, quietly talking to me, asking what she could do to help.
This infuriated me, confused me, horrified me. I opened the stall door, and looking her square in the eye I asked, "WHY ARE YOU BEING SO NICE TO ME?"
As soon as the words left my lips and I saw her eyes go wide, I knew that my question had sounded like an accusation — "How DARE you be so nice to me."
I expected her to leave me to my ugly-cry, but she instead stood her ground and said firmly, "Because you're my friend and I want to help you. It's okay to be upset, Louise. You're allowed."
My ability to accept kindness didn't entirely change that day, but I started to consider my behavior. For the first time I started to see the selfishness in my actions. I was throwing good will and empathy back in people's faces in the name of "I don't deserve that." Though I thought I was communicating, "You don't have to do that for me," I think that many times my reactions came across more as "Fuck you."
Perhaps I'm being hard on my former self — I feel as if that "other Louise" is an entirely different person whom I now wish I could help — but it was that harshness of thinking that jolted me into the desire to change.
It was, and continues to be, a slow change. When I met Erin, I still didn't know quite what to do when she reached out to me, so I just did what I always did, deflect and dismiss. But unlike others, and much like my work friend, she quietly stayed the course.
As time went on, we saw each other more and more through mutual friends. We would casually chat about people and things we had in common, but every time she tried to deepen our friendship I balked. At some point I realized that her company was a comfort, her presence felt safe, but I couldn't bring myself to let her in.
When I moved away, a part of me mourned that we would never really be friends. I believed that living in separate cities would certainly be the end of our fledgling, one-sided friendship.
And for years it seemed I was right. We'd wish each other happy birthday on social media, we'd like each other's posts, but nothing beyond a passing online acquaintance. Occasionally she'd send me a message or email on Facebook, but I rarely gave more than a brief response. Even from thousands of miles away, she alarmed me a bit.
Why does she continue to be kind to me? What does this person see in me? She's seen me be a really lousy person, why does she care?
As I found a way to see beyond my fears and create a solid a give-and-take with my dearest friends, I continued to avoid Erin. She reminded me of a painful time in my life, of how awful I had been to her and others like her.
Then one summer, years after I'd last seen Erin, there was a death in my family. I don't want to offer too many details, as the privacy of my family in this matter is paramount, but the death of my loved one deeply affected me. I felt like I had lost that one person who was always on my side, that person whose kindness to me was such a force that I was helpless against it.
For some reason, in the midst of my grief, I turned to Erin. A part of me wondered if reaching out to her was a selfish decision. Who was I to ask for comfort NOW, after so many years of keeping her at arm's length?
But without hesitation she was there. She listened to me, held my hand (long distance), and talked me through my grief. At one point, I poured out an apology to her for being such a shitty person to her for so long. I tried to explain to her, without making excuses, all my hangups with trust and relationships.
Her response surprised me. While she made it clear that she held nothing against me, she fully acknowledged how unfair and callous my behavior had been. "At one point I thought I would write you off too," she told me. "It was like you were trying really hard to be unfeeling. But, I can't explain it, you seemed like you needed a friend. I thought I could be that friend. Sometimes people think I'm dumb because I'm nice, but really I just don't let as much stuff get to me."
I was floored, humbled. WHO WAS THIS PERSON?
Over time I've come to learn that this person, "Erin," is someone who is not a saint, indeed has limits and shortcomings, but who also is that rare person who endeavors to see the best in people before skipping to the worst.
I think we have an equal friendship now. She is there for me, I am there for her, and neither of us feel like the other is owed anything. It is the kind of friendship that has been instrumental in disarming my sense of trepidation when kindness is directed at me. In turn, I believe I am a better friend and I am more genuine when I offer kindness to others.
I still struggle with accepting kindness from people in my daily life. Sometimes when I'm caught off guard a forgiving or understanding word from someone can reduce me to a bawling mess. But instead of shutting down and avoiding these situations, I try to embrace them.
As I've learned from Erin and people like her, there is no sense in protecting myself from kindness.