It’s not easy to be kind here in the United States, where we are being ravaged by a pandemic that some people still believe is a hoax. In a country — and a world — that has gone to hell, that seems to be constantly on the verge of civil war, how can we be expected to practice kindness?
My 30-year-old brother, Paul, lost his life to covid-19 just a couple weeks before the vaccine rollout. Whenever I encounter someone who refuses to get vaccinated, the last thing I want to do is extend kindness to them. Don’t get the shot, then, I want to say on days when I feel exhausted from a fight which is happening only in my head. I hope you die, I think, on my bad days when I’m missing Paul a little extra.
What’s important, I think, is that I never say those things — nor do I believe them. Of course I want everyone to get vaccinated. Of course I don’t want anyone else to die from covid-19. If I had to guess, most people who go viral by co-signing baseless vaccine conspiracy theories don’t have any malicious intent for others, either. But why do we still fuel those fires? Why do we fight with one another instead of putting our heads together to find a way to hold the powerful responsible for problems that we can’t solve on our own?
Paul and I argued. Like many arguments, ours were political and they really escalated at the Thanksgiving table. The difference between Paul and me? I got heated, was probably red-faced as I called him stupid, called him irresponsible for casting a third-party vote in the 2016 election. But Paul, although stubborn in his convictions, remained calm. He never stooped to name-calling or swearing at his little sister, incessantly passionate about things she couldn’t control.
Those Thanksgiving arguments with my brother were a waste of time I took for granted, a waste of breath that I thought we could afford to expend frivolously. But here’s another difference in the way Paul and I fought: Ultimately, after shots of whiskey and a slice or two of pie, Paul would always pivot: Did I remember that time when he threw a toy dripping in fake blood at Brandon (our brother) and convinced him he was bleeding? Do I remember when brother Greg carved the words “we go wee-wee on seats” into a windowsill and blamed it on another brother, Max, after Mom screamed at the boys for peeing on the toilet seat? I remembered, yes. And our arguments always concluded with warm, whiskey-fueled laughter.
I share George Saunders’s utmost regret: failures of kindness. If it hadn’t been for Paul’s refusal to make an enemy out of me for those trivial reasons that family members so often do, if he hadn’t insisted on loving me unconditionally in spite of our differences, I would have bigger regrets to make peace with.
My brother’s unrelenting kindness, his ability to incorporate laughter and show love at the height of our most heated arguments is, even in death, his greatest gift. So, to argumentative Thanksgiving-goers: When the other arguers you love bait you at the table, remember that you love them. Don’t take the bait. Please, for the love of love: Try to be kinder.