I was listening to an old Hindi film song not long ago in which a man addresses a woman thus. “You, who are smiling so, what sorrow does your smile conceal? Tears in your eyes, laughter on your lips…” The original is much more elegant than my translation, but the idea is clear. There are people who might be some of us, or all of us at some time or another, who are — despite appearances — swimming upstream through a river of sorrow.
There’s a poster I saw in an office window once that speaks to this: “Be Kind, for We are All Fighting a Hard Battle,” or something to that effect. And it’s true that for people like the woman in the song, it takes tremendous effort to get through the day, to function, to smile as though all was well — so that one verbal jab, one cold turning away, one casual dismissal, can bring that carefully wrought control down like a house of cards. Then our protagonist must climb slowly and tortuously up from the pit of despair to the place where the day can be faced once more.
I was sitting in Starbucks yesterday, and happened to overhear part of a conversation at the next table. The woman was upset enough that she didn’t bother lowering her voice. It was a sad story of an old parent with dementia, and financial issues, and lack of support. Her companion was listening intently. I was moved by the woman’s situation, and her friend’s empathy. After a while they started to talk about more casual things, and smiled and laughed like normal people. It made me think that if I’d happened to sit next to them at that moment, not having heard about the tribulations of the older woman, I’d have never imagined the sea of sorrow that woman had to swim through every day.
We are complicated creatures, we humans, and empathy is not something that is consciously or carefully inculcated in us, at least not in modern urban culture, which emphasizes individual needs to an extreme, while ignoring the fact that one crucial individual need is the forging and nurturing of multiple meaningful connections. I wonder if there has been any other era where humans have felt so alone in a crowd.
So yes, we, some of us, or all of us at some point or other, are swimming upstream. Our facades might be necessary for us to go out and function in the world, and sometimes function really well, but they are facades after all. Behind our eyes is some sorrow, some loss that accompanies us every minute of every day. Ordinary kindness then becomes not merely the ‘nice’ thing to do, but the essential thing, to keep us going so we might hope for a better day.