I had a friend in college who used quotes as a footer in her e-mail signature. One of them was, "Be kinder than necessary, for everyone you meet is fighting some kind of battle." By the time I met this friend, I already knew only too well what that quotation means, but I still have to remind myself every day of why it's important, why I must never forget, why I cannot stop striving to be kinder than necessary to every person.
I don't remember much about middle school. But even today, I still remember James. James was in my Spanish class when I was in ninth grade. That class was the center of my life at the time. I sat in a corner of the classroom with three other people: my friend Melissa; my first real crush, Matt; and James. Since the class consisted of a lot of little group exercises and study activities, the four of us spent a lot of time talking about things that were not always class-related.
At that point in time, James was a source of major irritation for me. He was frequently interrupting when I was trying to work my pathetic middle-schooler "magic" on Matt (who was reasonably friendly but never ended up "noticing" me). James was constantly asking really awkward and personal questions. He was like a class clown with feelings, someone who could laugh along with the people who were laughing at him but who also clearly wanted a personal connection. We weren't mean to him, but we still rebuffed him somewhat. He used to say hi to me in the halls, and I would feel so self-conscious and embarrassed. There weren't very many people lower on the social scale than me, and I was desperate for friends and acceptance. I didn't want to be stuck with unpopular James who made me squirmy with his direct commentary and his desire to be in my personal emotional space. I was a fourteen-year-old, and frankly, I was a bit of a self-centered idiot.
The next semester when we had new classes, I didn't see James around very much. I didn't notice when he was gone. Not until the day that I found out that he was really and truly gone—James had killed himself playing Russian roulette. It turns out that there was a lot I didn't know about the battle James was fighting until after he was dead. James had come from an abusive family, and I had no idea about the scars on his body because I had never seen him shirtless. He had been living with some kinder relatives while he was in Spanish class with me, but something in James' emotionally scarred mind made him run away from the people who loved him and go back to visit the crazy people who had abused him. That's where he was when he died.
I felt like a monster, a hypocrite, a terrible Christian. I went home and cried and cried. I still cry sometimes when I think about James. It was only after he died that I learned how to love him. Beyond his awkwardness, James was a nice boy. He was kind to me, going out of his way to recognize me and to give me his attention, and I did not give him much kindness in return. I'm not going to tell you that it was my fault that James died, that if I had been his one true friend he might have been OK. I don't know what would have happened. But I do know that kindness might have helped him, and that my kindness can still help others today.
I don't know who has been abused. I have no idea who has just lost a loved one or whose dear friend is sick or who is secretly dealing with depression. I don't know who is questioning faith or losing hope or desperate for a lifeline. I can't tell who is having a bad day or who feels invisible or under-appreciated. I do know, however, that it's likely that every person I meet will struggle with something like this, and every single person, no matter who they are, carries some care or pain on their hearts. Kindness is a salve that costs me very little to give but can make a world of difference to the recipient.
Since I have grown up, I have realized that I shouldn't need suicides to get my attention. People shouldn't have to be destitute for us to put forth extra effort and goodwill on their behalf. We should think not only of how to avoid wounding the vulnerable but also of how to build up all people in the service of a healthier and happier population. If there is one thing I can do to honor James's memory, it is to try to be kinder to all people, no matter how much or little I know about them—to be friendlier and more patient, understanding, and compassionate. Every single person is worth my time and effort, and they all deserve to be treated with love and respect. I want to be an ally to more of my neighbors in their daily battles both great and small.