Anne T. Donahue is the author of Nobody Cares.
I’m very comfortable flirting with cynicism. I’m not usually surprised when I’m let down, and I prepare for the worst because I’m terrified of seeming foolish.
My emotional armour is very real. I’ve built mine up over time and I tell myself that I’m strengthening it every time I get hurt or disappointed. Plus, the more those things happen, the easier it is to assume that people are arguably the worst, that they will sell you out or abandon you before doing anything else, and that to be an emotional island is the only thing that will ensure your survival while navigating the treacherous path of being alive.
This, of course, is as lonely as it is untrue. To try and live as an untouchable or to lock one’s heart away as a means of self preservation can make the pain of disappointment even greater. After all, to be proven right about a worst-case scenario is never a victory, particularly since it perpetuates the ideology that the only people we can rely on are ourselves. Plus, as much as I tried to believe it, I’ve never really believed that other people are generally bad.
After all, in moments of hardship or grief or despair or disaster, I’ve still always reached out to those closest to me because they’ve always reached back. But to say that out loud has felt far too risky; if I actually admitted that maybe people could actually be kind and generous and supportive, I would jinx everything and condemn myself to learning that I was wrong. And what could possibly be worse?
A car accident, to start.
For the record, no one was killed or even seriously injured; sometimes miracles really do happen. One night last November, I careered into the back end of a car that was stopped in my lane, after it just hit someone else’s car. I spun out and bounced down the shoulder of Highway 401, hitting the concrete median over and over until I finally slammed into it head on. My airbags went off and I managed not to hit my head. As I gave myself the once-over, hoping I wouldn’t see any bones protruding or freakish amounts of blood (I didn’t!), my passenger door opened and a young man looked inside.
“Are you okay?!” he asked me.
“Was this my fault?” I asked 429,258 times over the course of the next two hours. (Thankfully, it wasn’t. There were a few factors involved in this crash, and my involvement was a result of terrible timing.) The man who invited me into the warm car with his wife and son had pulled over after seeing the first crash. There, I sat in the backseat of his toasty sedan next to a two-year-old who seemed confused about all of it. But shock, as it turns out, will always trump your emotional armour. And I quickly felt tethered to the family who’d not only approached a car that could’ve contained a very injured person, they stayed to make sure I was emotionally and physically okay. In minutes, they’d proved so much of my public ethos wrong. In only a few gestures, they’d proved you could simply be kind.
Even more shockingly, they weren’t the last. From the tow-truck driver who dropped me off at my parents’ place (“Don’t cry, you could be dead!”) to the restaurant server the next morning who had the kitchen make me strawberry/banana pancakes, to the incredible people who started reaching out after I posted a few shots of the crash on Instagram story, I started to notice that people genuinely cared. Even if there was nothing I could do to reciprocate their concerns and kindness. Even if all I could say was thank you. The world is filled with terrible souls, absolutely. But it’s also filled with the absolute opposite. And even now, over a month later, I’m still seeing it.
Had I looked before, of course, I likely would have, too. But it’s terrifying to acknowledge kindness or goodness or even the overwhelming instinct to ask if somebody’s all right when you think they may not be. Mainly because if those things are lacking, even for a second, it’s completely heartbreaking. So we tell ourselves the aforementioned isn’t the norm because the letdown of playing witness to selfishness or apathy is a pain unlike any other.
I’m finally ready to admit that among the trash is an abundance of kindness; there is an innate impulse for most of us to reach out and ensure that anyone who is hurting or vulnerable or even a little quieter than normal aren’t alone. As Kristin Scott Thomas’s character says in Fleabag, “People are all we’ve got.” To my own surprise, I agree. I can’t navigate the reality of being alive all by myself. I can’t even navigate a car crash completely alone. And I don’t think I’d want to. I’d rather trade in the armour I’ve built for the chance to band together. I’d rather assume the presence of kindness than shipwreck myself on an emotional island, convinced that isolation is my only means of survival.
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