The Selfishness of Kindness
(The first passage is from “North of Hollywood”)
Abigail (my daughter) telephones at one o’clock on a Saturday morning. She’s in a phone booth, weeping, gasping to get her words out. I can barely understand her. All I can make out is “Cahuenga exit.” I’m a half-decibel away from not being able to understand where she wants me to come get her. The line goes dead. I tell Linda what I think I heard her say, what I’m going to do, then get in the car and drive seven miles to the Cahuenga exit off the 101 Freeway, in Hollywood. I see no phone booth near the base of the off-ramp, so I keep on driving a couple of blocks.
I see a gas station/convenience store and pull in.
Abigail reels out and gets into the car. She’s still crying, but there’s something very odd beneath the tears.
“Where’s your car?” I ask her.
“How’d you get here?”
“I walked.” Venice is about twenty miles away. She’s wearing once-pink rubber sandals; the sandals and her feet are black with grime. I believe in some unlikely way that it may be true.
“I’ll take you home.”
“Okay.” She doesn’t look at me, just out the passenger-side window—down at the pavement disappearing behind us. “I’ve got to get out of this. I saw God.”
“Out of what?”
“This! I saw God. I talked to him!”
“You saw him?”
Still not looking at me: “That’s right.”
“What’d he look like?”
When I ask her, she doesn’t tell me what He said, but I don’t think I’d have taken it very seriously, whatever it was. I don’t believe in visitations from God.
At home, I bring up the notion of rehab. She does a fifteen-minute rant on how she doesn’t want to “talk about all this shit anymore,” says it only works the opposite way it should with her.
After several stop-and-go conversations, I give up, go into my bedroom, close the door and start making calls to see if I can get her into her third rehabilitation center. There are people out there who care about her and want to help her.
A therapist who’s been working with her recently tells me about a place in Mississippi that has a very good record of resuscitating people from the near-death state Abigail is in and puts me in touch with a guy whose business it is to escort addicts to treatment centers. He’s a private contractor at that kind of work. He’ll be here tomorrow morning. I imagine tying my daughter up if necessary to keep her here until the escort guy arrives………..
After dinner, the counselor calls and Abigail says, “Is that her?”
I nod, she reaches for the phone, takes it from me and says, “Hi. I want to go to that place in Mississippi.”
I wonder if maybe God did show up and talk to her.
TEN YEARS LATER:
Today, Abigail is happily married, and the mother of Frances, (8). They live in Hattiesburg Mississippi. Abigail is an activist, an advocate for free creative expression. She’s Director of the Children’s Division of the Hattiesburg Arts Council and the lead coordinator of Smart Space, which is an outlet for kids who are made to “be still,” and “don’t wiggle,” at their tiny desks during the four or five daily hours in public school. (this is not the school’s fault or the teachers’—they’re just trying to keep their funding. The kids have to pass government sponsored tests.) Meanwhile, those kids spend ALL their time in school, filling in the correct boxes, staying 100% between the lines. In order to keep them from “wiggling,” half those kids are medicated, given class 2 drugs. KIDS!
In Smart Space, the kids are allowed to do art, express themselves, emote, jump, holler, dance, sing, get messy.
They’re allowed to wiggle.
The rest of what Abi does as an arts activist is equally positive, equally worthwhile. Maybe I’ll talk about it some other time.
I asked her why the rehab in Hattiesburg worked. She said, “They told me to ‘Fake it till you make it.’ and ‘Do the next right thing.’” Those are just words. She knows that. There are so many neat little aphorisms and proverbs that are great if you listen to them, meaningless if you don’t. Until that time, Abi had not been able to listen. It’s hard for most of us to really hear the important stuff,” it’s especially hard for a drug addict.
“Do the next right thing,” means no matter how lousy you feel about yourself, after you wake up, the next right thing to do is to get out of bed. After that, you do whatever feels like the next right thing. You take a shower. You have some breakfast. Then later—even though you’re tempted to do something negative or damaging or hurtful, you don’t. You do the next right thing—even when it feels entirely foreign to you—and you fake being the person you imagine, at your best, you might be.
And you keep on faking it (everybody knows this is easier said than done) until one day, the sun comes up and you realize it’s a tiny bit less complicated to do the right thing, and with baby-steps, you begin to comprehend that you just might be able to turn that germinating ability to cope into something substantial, something second nature.
For me, when Abigail was on drugs during that seemingly endless time, I was sometimes tempted to react angrily and therefore hurtfully. Linda always told me, “You won’t like yourself if you do that.” And I saw she was right. At any rate, I tried to do the best I could—not for myself, but for Abigail. (There were lots of other people who did likewise, especially her mother.) I faked being kind, even when I didn’t feel that way—it’s awful being an addict, it’s not a whole lot more fun for those who love them.
Anyway, in the end, most of us were kind, and with Abigail’s natural courage—and that’s for sure part of the equation—she did the next right thing, and the next one…
And she faked it till she made it.
Looking back ten years, with my ant’s-eye perspective, I see something spectacular; I see a woman, my daughter, who is being who she can be. It’s joyful.
Kindness is selfish.
I’m convinced Abigail did see God that night.
When I wrote “North of Hollywood,” I said that the word I used when I tried to become quietly spiritual was “meditation.” The word “pray” made me uncomfortable.
Now I pray for myself, for others, for the world. Not always in that order. I don’t do this because I find virtue in it. I do it because it works.