In search of kindness

“Unkindness involves a failure of the imagination so acute that it threatens not just our happiness but our sanity.” ― Adam Phillips, “On Kindness”

The board meeting to approve or disapprove a motor sports venue is barely underway when my friend turns to the man behind us to whisper sternly, “Sir, excuse me. Sir, you are being unkind.”

We are in the basement of the Anderson County extension office for a meeting of the Board of Zoning Adjustments. The chairs are mostly full and the microphones aren’t working. You can feel the tension amongst neighbors, those for and against a proposed track which will feature tractor pulls, truck pulls, and more. Folks are speaking out of turn, in violation of the rules, including a gentleman who is not only talking but approaching the board chairman and refusing to sit. It is this gentleman the elderly man behind us is making fun of until my friend shushes him.

In the end, the board approves a conditional use permit and that’s it. It’s over. The woman who owns a wedding venue near the proposed track rushes out a side door, in tears. Another woman whose house stands a half mile from the track looks bereft, defeated. “Our house will shake,” she tells me. We disperse, mostly in silence. Neighbors with nothing more to say to one another.

Sadly, this was not an anomaly. Two days earlier I’d attended a packed-to-capacity library board meeting. The pastor of a small church had voiced his opposition to the library’s Pride Month display—two tiny tables in the back of the room—prompting an outcry. And like the gathering to witness the vote on the motorsports venue, there we all were, crammed into the library, nerves on edge, neighbors at odds.

Call me naive (really, go ahead) but this is not the way I envisioned re-entry into small town life after four years of political division and a year-plus of pandemic separation. It feels heavy. What happened to taking the temperature down? Surely we missed one another, didn’t we? We would come out of this more generous, more gracious, more kind, right?

I am reminded of a paragraph from the final pages of Wendell Berry’s “The Memory of Old Jack”: “He walks with the effort of a man burdened, a man carrying a great bale or a barrel, who has carried it too far but has not yet found a place convenient to set it down. Once he could carry twice this weight. Now half would be too much.”

Had these last years been too much? What were we all carrying in those meetings? What is still weighing us down?

On the road out of town, on my way home from the zoning fracas, I spot a friend on his porch. He is a new friend, one I don’t know well, but I whip my car into his driveway and walk right on up. He calls for his wife to come out, “Teri’s here!” and returns to the swing. His wife offers me a chair. Their two dogs wag their tails and beg for pets. And it is in that moment I realize, I am not solely in search of community. I am in search of kindness.

For the next hour, we visit on their front porch like our parents and grandparents and great-grandparents used to do. Every now and again a car or truck drives by. Rarely does anyone wave. The couple tells me how someone “just this week” slowed their truck and yelled “F*** Biden!” The wife takes in a big, visible breath. “We talk about moving,” she says, “but where would we go? I mean, we love South Carolina but then we think, they may not want us there either. And I love my house!” We all laugh, but it is more a laugh of uncertainty than joy. I know it well. Being a democrat in Anderson County, where your neighbors still fly giant Trump flags and randomly yell obscenities at you or your house, can weigh a person down.

As dusk settles along the tree tops, I stand. Time to let these nice people get back to their evening. On the ten mile drive home, I keep an eye out for deer and I think about the kindness of most speakers at the library and of my friend in the zoning meeting, the friend with the courage to shush the elderly bully behind us and the temerity to walk up there, to gently and with no drama get the out-of-order gentlemen to take his seat.

That’s a start, I think. That, and front porches.