Have you ever had a song get so stuck in your head that no matter where you are — washing dishes, grocery shopping, even in the midst of a great conversation with a friend — the lyrics and melody just keep coming back? A friend of mine who is a clinical psychologist told me that it has to do with gestalt.
(Before I foray into how I understood what he was trying to explain, I must add the disclaimer that what I am about to reflect upon could be far distant from what he tried to teach me, and even more distant from what is actually true in psychological theory! But it's been a fruitful spiritual exercise for me, and it is the spiritual context out of which I write.)
Gestalt theory holds that when something in our experience doesn't reach full conclusion, we make continual attempts to bring it to closure so that we can move on. With regard to music, if I reach my destination before the song on the radio has finished, and I turn off the engine in the middle of one of my favorite tunes, it is pretty likely that I will continue to play that song over and over in my head in order to allow for it to reach its conclusion. Something in our psyches doesn't like loose ends, it seems.
Lately, I have had a song lyric from the 1990s repeating in my mind almost continually. The song is called "Hands" by Jewel, and I actually haven't heard it in a really long time, but there it is in my consciousness nevertheless.
The refrain includes this phrase: "In the end, only kindness matters." This short lyric has echoed in my mind, my heart, and my prayer for the past few weeks, and no matter what other songs complement, replace, or intrude upon it, this lyric keeps returning.
Contrary to the gestalt theory of trying to complete the unfinished phrase, I don't really believe it's because my psyche is attempting to bring the tune to conclusion. So what could this be about?
Only kindness matters. Do I really believe that? Well, when it comes to relationships, I can argue that lots of things matter. Truth matters. Prudence matters. Mutuality matters. Generosity matters. And yes, kindness matters. But do I believe that in the end, only kindness matters?
I have had the grace to accompany a few of my loved ones to their entry into eternity. I have been to the gates of heaven and watched them walk through those gates to the other side, leaving me to turn around and go back to something that was supposed to resemble "life as normal."
In that journey "to the gate," I have been in awe of what becomes important in those last days. Past arguments disappear; words become mostly noise; the distinction between giving and receiving blurs; what is "right" or "wrong" has more to do with attentiveness and presence than with accuracy or error. And yes, in the end, it does seem true — only kindness matters.
Maybe the reason that lyric won't leave me is not because I have a hard time believing it, but because I have a hard time living it. "Kindness" can seem weak. Melanie Wilkes from Gone with the Wind is one of the kindest characters I've encountered in literature, but she never struck me as being very strong. She always seemed a little too paltry for me, a little too washed out.
Scarlett O'Hara, on the other hand, now she was the attractive one — the one with spunk, energy, charm. But she also had a streak in her that leaned into unkindness. The friendship of these two women has intrigued me from the time I first read the novel when I was 10 years old. What did Scarlett learn from Melanie? I think she learned how to be softer, gentler, and a bit less strident. And what did Melanie learn from Scarlett? Perhaps how to be a bit bolder, a bit more daring, a bit more spontaneous.
I can learn from kindness. Indeed, I must learn from kindness. We must become not just friends as were Melanie and Scarlett, but partners. I must welcome her into my thinking, my judging, my feeling, and my speaking. I must learn from her how to be softer in the ways I look at others, gentler in the ways I treat others, and less strident in the ways I perceive others. And I must ask forgiveness for calling her weak.
But, actually, I believe kindness can learn something from me and my fumbling ways, too. She can learn how to be bolder, more daring and more spontaneous. Kindness need not be relegated to soft smiles and warm sentiments; kindness can be fierce. She can be relentless in the face of violence; she can be resilient toward all ugliness and rejection; she can be mercy to the undeserving.
I'm guessing kindness may always be at risk for seeming weak. That's ok by me; I still believe in her. Because — you know what? In the end, only kindness matters.
[Virginia Herbers is an Apostle of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. She has master's degree in pastoral studies and has ministered in education at both the elementary and high school levels in Connecticut, New York, Missouri and Taiwan. She currently serves as the vice-provincial for the United States Province of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart.]