"When our hearts are small, our understanding and compassion are limited, and we suffer. We can’t accept or tolerate others and their shortcomings, and we demand that they change. But when our hearts expand, these same things don’t make us suffer anymore. We have a lot of understanding and compassion and can embrace others. We accept others as they are, and then they have a chance to transform." - Zen Buddhist teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, on how to love.

For quite a few years, I actually tried to deny my Northeast upbringing. Mostly because I never really considered myself a typical East Coast girl. Despite being born and raised in the direct center of New Jersey, I am fully devoid of the expected accent, I pronounce water correctly (wädər) and I have never once worn head-to-toe black. I’ve also never teased my hair or worn acrylics, but these more recent stereotypes are the less common ones, outside of MTV’s narrowed-in point of view.

New Jersey. Everyone seemed to utter the state’s name as if it left a bitter taste in their mouths, as if they knew exactly why they hated it without ever having been there. Someone always brought up the alleged smell, a phenomenon that always sparked in me both an immediate defensiveness and denial. In time, I got over it. New Jersey won’t ever be the love of my life, and yet it will, at least in some way. Somewhere along the line, it got in a little.

I recently returned from my second trip to Phoenix, Arizona since the new year. My younger sister and her husband live there now (also both born-and-raised North-Easterners) and while wandering around that corner of the desert I was struck with a sudden revelation as to why I previously tried to shun my association with the Garden State: people from the upper Atlantic coast are mean.

All people? No, of course not. But generally speaking, our demeanors are a little snarkier. We have a touch more attitude than necessary. And what made me realize this? While in Arizona, I took a short walk to the nearest grocery store. While walking, I passed a handful of locals (each at different points along the way) who all, all, greeted me warmly, smiled and wished me a pleasant day.

And what was my standardized East Coast reaction to this human nicety? Something along the lines of half-befuddled, half-irritated wondering, “What do they want?

“Practice kindness all day to everybody and you will realize you’re already in heaven now.” - Jack Kerouac

I’m not a mean person most days. At least, I hope I’m not. I actively fight against what feels likes a natural inclination to bite back. But these few, tiny interactions made me realize that if not a generally unkind person, I am a little skeptical of kindness on the whole. Most of the communication with strangers that I’ve encountered in my home state and those nearby fall under either someone trying to tell me off or just about breaking their neck to avoid eye contact. In fairness, I’m not exactly dying to make eye contact with them, since I know how these moments usually pan out.

But why? I thought about this a lot as a strolled on that evening to pick up some ingredients for dinner. Is it the overpopulated areas that get us stressed out and ready to crack? Do we snap each other’s heads off because of the weather, because we want more space? Is the steady sunlight in Phoenix what keeps everyone there smiling?

"Most of the time, most people are not crying in public, but everyone is always in need of something that another person can give, be it undivided attention, a kind word, or deep empathy. There is no better use of a life than to be attentive to such needs. There are as many ways to do this as there are kinds of loneliness, but all of them require attentiveness, all of them require the hard work of emotional computation and corporeal compassion." - Jonathan Safron Foer on the necessity of kindness, even when it's difficult.

Maybe. Maybe I just ran into the only four nice people in the city and everyone else is grumbling about the incessant heat. Who knows. Maybe the majority of the people I meet in New Jersey seem pissed because the traffic is a nightmare and we’re all trying to find a piece of unpopulated quiet. I really couldn’t say. But what that morning revealed to me is that kindness is a choice. And maybe no one “back home” has been all that nice to me because I haven’t been that nice first. This thought stung a little, because I knew that it contained at least a partial truth. Instead of waiting for someone else to smile in my direction, instead of building up my defenses against a generally angry population, couldn’t I be the one to smile first?

"Please don’t think that I’m giving you moral advice, or that I’m saying you are supposed to think this way, or that anyone expects you to just automatically do it. Because it’s hard. It takes will and effort, and if you are like me, some days you won’t be able to do it, or you just flat out won’t want to." - David Foster Wallace in his 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College

As simple as this idea seems, I know it won’t be painless. As I write this, I’ve been back for less than a week and I’ve already felt that familiar tightness in my chest that I’ve come to associate with this packed in corner of the world. Suddenly, I’m a little less easy going. I’m tight-fisted and ready for a run-in. But I’ve tried to unclench a little, tried to show my teeth in a less threatening way and believe me, I’ve already encountered a handful of what’s-this-girl’s-game stares. Their confusion makes sense to me because it’s the same as my own has been. And sure, maybe instead I could just skip town and settle into a slower life pace somewhere else. But I’m guessing if I picked up my salty self and dropped it somewhere in middle America without at least trying to be a little more open first, then I probably won’t be doing anyone any favors. Maybe my attempt at kindness can start here, where I already am, with me, even when it’s easier said than done.

Which is just the thing I have thought to myself every time I’ve smiled at a stranger in a way that felt unnatural, in a way that made them glance warily in my direction before hurrying by. But I have a feeling, an undeniable hope, that one of those times, someone will smile back.

Further reading:

  • Jack Kerouac on Kindness, the Self Illusion and the "Golden Eternity" (via Brain Pickings)
  • Creative or Neurotic: What's Your State's Personality? (via LiveScience)
  • The Three Kinds Of People Who Live In The United States (via National Journal)


Helen Williams is the Community Love Director at Holstee. She is passionate about cooking and writing which pair well together on her vegetarian food blog, green girl eats. She's strives, every day, to be less sorry

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