The ease of kindness and imagination

This post is not about the big, challenging sort of kindness – the sort where you take lots of time out of your day, or dedicate your life to volunteering, or donate large swathes of money and time to helping people who need it. This isn’t about the huge passionate kindness that understands the kind of cruelty that drives so much of the world and seeks to address it.

This is about small kindness; and it relies – I realise now – on imagination. It requires only tiny sacrifices, and yet I think perhaps the fact that they are so small is what makes it so difficult for some people, because they are sacrifices of self-image, in a way: seeing yourself as the better person, the wronged party, the one who sees things as they are.

I don’t need imagination to know what it’s like to be that person, because I have been – and doubtless will be again – a judgemental, self-righteous prat. I think people who haven’t been are in the minority.

That teenager taking a posed selfie out in the street? Bloody narcissistic kids. Or…

…their friend’s going through a rough time, and they know this will make them laugh.

…they’ve not been able to leave the house in a week and here they are, and goddamn, it’s an achievement that deserves to be posed and celebrated.

…they really enjoy it and it harms no-one.

That woman with the screaming baby who won’t take it out of the café? Selfish bloody parents, right, only thinking of themselves and their spawn? Or…

…she suffers from post-natal depression and desperately needed to leave the house and see other adults and talk to a friend.

…she knows that if she waits five minutes, kidlet will self-soothe and it will be fine, and she’s going to give that a chance to happen.

…she is actually deaf, and doesn’t know at all what screaming baby sounds like (not common, but does actually happen!).

That person driving slowly in the right line?

Is about to turn right, and is slowing down for the turn.

That person with their headphones on who misses some auditory cues?

Is autistic and needs to reduce sensory stimulus in their environment to avoid physical pain.

People who are blocking the path outside a store?

…maybe just navigated a large group of people and are working out when they can move without walking into someone.

Yes, I get it. You’ve had a hard day. It’s been a long one. Maybe you’re tired, and you don’t deal too well with loud noises yourself. It is hard to find patience when you’re at your wit’s end, when you have your own problems, but I find that when my patience has run out, my imagination is still running full steam.

I can usually imagine, well enough, what a person might be going through to cause them to behave in a way that I somehow find objectionable. I can generally find a pretty benign explanation; and somehow, when that happens, when I find that explanation, something in me eases. The tension, the frustration, the judgement – it just loosens. That person is just trying to get through the challenges of their day – challenges I know nothing about – in the same way that I have to.

Yes, I get frustrated by people driving 10-20 below the limit in the right lane – until I see the indicator go on. Then I’m embarrassed, because I’m the arsehole.

Yes, I get distressed by loud screaming babies in echoing cafes. I actually can’t filter that noise out, and it goes straight down my spine and rips my brain out through my ears. My whole body stiffens up. It’s painful. I hate it. I can’t fix it or change it. But that is not anyone else’s fault. It’s for me to bear, and since most parents really do take kidlet for a walk after a few minutes, or the kidlet actually settles, it’s not a big deal. I’m not selfish enough to assume parents must remain housebound.

Yeah, I’m mystified by selfies too. It’s not my generation. I don’t quite get it. But then, my dad’s generation don’t quite get me either, and I wish they’d extend more patience sometimes, so I roll with it. It’s also none of my business.

There are things I can’t find enough imagination to excuse. Bigotry, for example. Body-shaming. Failure to do head-checks before changing lanes and nearly side-swiping me (oh, the adrenaline. So much adrenaline). Actual rudeness. People being mean to get the laughs. There are things which are not okay.

But the small stuff? You don’t need patience. You just need imagination.

I write this post to make sense out of something that happened to me a few days ago. It was incredibly upsetting, and it did trigger a spiral into depression and insecurity that I’m still fighting my way out of, because it woke a few of my sleeping serpents (they lurk in that portion of neural tissue referred to in scientific parlance as “the jerkbrain”).

I squeak when people surprise me.

Sometimes it’s just a jump and a gasp. Sometimes it’s a shriek. That’s pretty rare these days.

It’s an overdeveloped startle reflex, to call it one way. To call it another way, it’s a conditioned fear response to unexpected stimulus. Let that sink in.

It’s partially borne of my tendency to hyperfocus; when I’m focusing on something, I only see that thing in front of me. I am not aware of changes in the external environment. This is part of how I’m put together – I’m not neurotypical – and it is in the basic architecture of my brain. It is not changeable.

Because of this state, a lot of the time, all external stimulus is unexpected.

Now, if the external stimulus is, say, my phone, I will be surprised, but I won’t jump, gasp, squeak or shriek. I might startle in some way, especially if it’s a particularly shrill sort of noise.

If it’s a human being unexpectedly approaching me, I have a fear response. This part is a legacy of some life experiences I don’t wish to address in more detail. Unexpected touches, unexpected speech – if I’m in hyperfocus and think I’m alone in my space (this is key), I will be scared. Even if there are other people around and I think I am functionally alone (i.e., I’m not expecting anyone to touch me or speak to me), violations of those expectations will frighten me.

This is irrational in one sense – none of these people wish to hurt me. It is entirely rational as far as my brain is concerned, though, because it was a reasonable association to form, over time, for many years. In fact, sometimes even if I’m prepared for it – if I know someone is going to playfully poke me in a certain way – it will still happen. I don’t claim to understand the process fully. I can steel myself and be determined not to let it happen, and it will often happen anyway, and deafen surrounding people in the process. It’s hard-wired.

I do not, in any way, hold people who make me startle like this responsible. I’ve thought about it a lot, and there’s not anything they can do to avoid it. I don’t mind the playful approach, either – it makes the whole thing fun and lighthearted, which is a gift when this reflex comes from such dark and painful origins. People can joke about it, in a warm friendly way, because it’s a weird quirk, and that’s fine. I laugh it off and make fun of it, because that’s the easiest way to smooth over an embarrassing issue that can’t be changed and is too personal to explain in public.

It gets better over time. It’s taken twenty years for it to become something as mild as it is right now. A full shriek is rare these days.

It’s annoying for the people around me. Most people don’t like sharp, loud noises, be it out on the street, or in an office or laboratory environment. It’s a little disruptive. I’m aware of that, just as I’m aware that it’s not something I can control, or change. I can talk myself down afterwards, sure – I usually don’t need to, because “so-and-so isn’t going to hurt me” is patently obvious – but I can’t actually talk myself down ahead of time.

I used to feel really guilty and embarrassed about it, about how silly it all was, how juvenile it made me look, how disruptive it was.

I actually managed to let go of that. Feeling guilty and embarrassed solved nothing. It wasted time and energy I could spend on other things.

A few days ago, a co-worker took it upon themselves to deliver a full lecture on this particular quirk of mine. I explained that it was involuntary, that I had tried to control it for over twenty years with no success, and considered the matter closed. I was told to keep trying. To try harder. I was told this was a childish idulgence; that it was manipulative. I was told – and this puzzles me – that people will ignore it if I’m not careful (“But… I want people to ignore it? That’s actually the end goal?”). It was basically made clear to me that, at thirty five years of age, all I needed was some plain talk to overcome my juvenile behaviour and bring me in line and re-wire my trauma response.

Here’s where imagination and kindness come in:

I don’t believe that it takes much imagination to come up with many reasons why a person might have an over-developed startle reflex; and it certainly doesn’t take much imagination to find that a good subset of those reasons are really, genuinely awful and personal. I can find dozens and dozens of reasons in my own story-telling brain that aren’t “they’re doing it for attention” or “they think they’re super quirky” or “they just don’t care that it’s disruptive.”

It is the work of mere seconds to come up with this.

The conversation should have stopped when I said “This is involuntary. I cannot fix it.” Instead it turned into a diatribe on my inability to control my response to some of the most painful and scarring events of my life, events that have changed me irrevocably; a diatribe on my inability to change the hard-wiring of my brain; a reminder that I don’t quite fit in, in spite of years of hard effort and work and therapy and research and personal sacrifice; it was a scathing indictment of the effort I put in to heal from the past and just be human.

To the speaker, I imagine they just thought there were delivering their plain talk, on something that annoyed them, for which they imagined there was a very simple solution: stop doing the annoying thing. But there was no imagination there; there wasn’t a pause to come up with an alternative explanation, to consider that I might actually be telling the truth about my own state of mind; and because there was no imagination, there was no kindness.

I talked at the start of this post about the small sacrifices that need to be made for this sort of kindness. In reality, sometimes it’s so small that it’s enormous.

You have to sacrifice the idea that there is always someone to blame.

When you stop blaming people, when you can imagine what might have led to this situation, it is a lot easier to be kind.


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