This post is Part Three of a three-part series written by Emma Uebele, an alumnus of American University Chi Alpha. Emma lives fully, embracing art, stories and people as she seeks to know more about God, herself, and the world.
One last letter,
Rigorous academic institutions do not appear to breed kindness. It's too bad really. The world would look a lot different if they did. Instead, college did a better job of teaching me to be competitive, timely, serious, occasionally cutthroat, overachieving, busy, important, and intellectual. At AU it was nearly effortless for me to live this way (apart from the timeliness that is). I was after something important after all, my education! Self-betterment! Self-discovery! I was on a path to better myself and naturally as I improved so would my positive impact on the world. What could be kinder than that?
College is fundamentally a self-centered experience. YOU are the learner. YOU are figuring out who YOU want to be. What YOU want to do. What mark YOU will leave on the world. Kindness is rarely the effortless option. Kindness transforms interactions and relationships. Sometimes it even begins relationships. Kindness is essentially an others-centered approach to the universe.
I tried not to live into this self-centered academic lifestyle but no one necessarily taught me to and I did not always succeed. It took effort to oppose the nature of that culture. Thankfully, I had Chi Alpha as a balance. But even so something was missing from my conception of what being kind meant and could achieve. Kindness was something I did not a lifestyle I intentionally lived.
I interact with far fewer people on a daily basis now, than I did in college. I have less opportunity to make up for unkindness. I find myself more drawn to strangers because my community is smaller and I am always looking to enlarge and expand it. I have fewer relationships, which peculiarly has led to more of an urgency to be kind. So, I've started experimenting with kindness.
On August 27, I took the Amtrak Cascades from Portland to Spokane for a wedding. The whole affair moved at the lovely lethargic pace that only accompanies train travel. I situated my belongings on the upper deck and brought my trail mix to the observation car. Sun streamed in through the all-glass walls and roof. Hushed conversations mixed with the thrum of the engine lulled me into a contemplative stupor. As I took in the beauty of the Columbia River Gorge I was startled by the raised voice of a middle-aged woman:
"Young lady! Young lady!"
I turned to see a woman standing in the middle of the car gripping seatbacks on either side for balance. I evaluated her in a moment. Fanny pack, backpack, too many layers, too many maps, and generally disheveled appearance: another obnoxious American traveler. I turned back to my window. Then,
"Young lady! Look! It's gorgeous!"
I turned again and was shocked to see her staring at me. Gesturing wildly at the indisputable beauty of the landscape. I was the young lady.
"Isn't it just amazing?"
"Well, yes. Yes in fact it is. It's beautiful."
I had no idea what this reply would spawn. It wasn't even a terribly kind act. Especially considering my prior judgment. This says more about God's graciousness than my kindness. But I could have ignored her. I had never seen her in my life. But I had decided to be open and kind of this journey. So I offered recognition and a sliver of solidarity.
The woman proceeded to comment on the passing beauty and I echoed her praise. She disappeared briefly to the dining car and then came to sit with me. We were both alone after all. I talked to Carol for the next hour and a half. She is an incredible artist and art critic from Memphis who has led an extraordinary life. We talked about art and God and life and death and how we make sense of the darker things in this world. Her husband's death. My brother's deployment. She shared a play she's writing and I showed her some of my poetry. She asked if I had a collection out yet. One thing led to another and she decided to take my poem to share at a soiree in Memphis this month. She promised to return with the feedback and admiration of all her artist writer friends.
Nothing like this has ever happened to me before. It was the last thing in the world I was expecting. But so wildly full and rich and wonderful. Carol and I have exchanged emails and I'm planning to drive down to Oregon City to see the production of her play this spring. I haven’t heard back about my poem yet.
I don't know if I would have had this conversation and interaction at school. I took the train numerous times and was content to sit quietly and inwardly. My community, which has blessed my life in innumerable ways, was so vibrant and affirming and fulfilling that I was less compelled to be kind in such an outward fashion. To transform and create relationships beyond my community.
Even though university culture may seem to oppose it that ground, too, is ripe for kindness. Any ground filled with humans is. It's the only adversity that shifts. We dwell in a fallen world. There will always be opposition. I don't think choosing kindness will disappoint you. I've discovered that conversation is one of my primary currencies for kindness. Maybe that's not the case for you, I don't know if that's a universal thing. But find what is. Work against the self-centered culture you live in.
Live outwardly and see where it takes you.