Kindness

In Cormac McCarthy’s novel Blood Meridian, a young man called only “the Kid” falls in with the notorious Glanton Gang as it marauds across the West under the pretension of protecting settlers from the Comanche.  In truth, the Glanton Gang rob, rape, and murder whomever they please, including the very settlers they are paid by the Mexican government to protect.  For the most part, the Kid refrains from participating in the Glantons’ worst atrocities, as they slaughter with abandon.  Like St. Paul before his conversion, the Kid holds the proverbial coats of the others, but he throws few stones himself.

Cormac McCarthy’s style of storytelling offers no pause for reflection.  We don’t know the Kid’s thoughts.  We’re not aware of whatever, if any, internal moral struggle he experiences in the midst of so much blood.  Although, using our own lives as analogy we can imagine that the Kid rationalizes and justifies as he goes along acquiescently with the gang.

blood-meridian

Towards the very end of the novel, years after the Glanton Gang have broken up (and mostly been killed), the Kid (now fully grown to manhood) still lives in the hardscrabble West.  One day as he rides alone, a sect of Christians passes by him carrying a wooden cross into the wilderness.  The following day he comes upon their corpses, slaughtered in the desert sand by someone unknown.  Their cross lies on the ground, broken.

As the Kid investigates the grisly scene, he notices an old Mexican woman sitting tucked into a niche in the surrounding cliff face.  Her eyes are downcast.  And the Kid, strangely and unexpectedly moved, speaks to her.  Here is what Cormac McCarthy tells us:

[The Kid] spoke to her in a low voice.  He told her that he was an American and that he was a long way from the country of his birth and that he had no family and that he had traveled much and seen many things and had been at war and endured hardships.  He told her that he would convey her to a safe place, some party of her countrypeople who would welcome her and that she should join him for he could not leave her in this place or she would surely die.

He knelt on one knee, resting the rifle before him like a staff.  Abuelita, he said.  [Can you not hear me?][1]

After such a relentlessly brutal story, this tender interaction serves as an unexpected confession of sorts, a desperate redemption-seeking action by the Kid.  But McCarthy goes on:

[The Kid] reached into the little cove and touched her arm.  She moved slightly, her whole body, light and rigid.  She weighed nothing.  She was just a dried shell and she had been dead in that place for years.[2]

In Cormac McCarthy’s bleak narrative, the woman symbolizes the Kid’s life.  For the Kid, it is too late.  The book of his life has been written.  The Kid has been formed unwittingly into a certain kind of person, and here, near the end, his late and feeble attempt at kindness meets only a hollow shell, like a cicada’s carapace clung to tree bark, ready to crumble into dust.

blood-meridian-2

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.  It is on this day that begins the season of Lent that God grants us what Cormac McCarthy does not: a time to pause, reflect upon, and ponder the book of life we are writing.  On Ash Wednesday, when we are reminded that we are dust, the question is begged whether even now there is nothing but dust left of us, whether we are already a hollow shell merely waiting to crumble.  Have we already written the ending to the book of our lives?

No question could be more crucial.  How can we answer it?  Perhaps by asking: When was the last time you—or I—extended kindness?  I don’t mean here superficial nicety.  We define our days by that, and we know deep down the difference between nicety and kindness.  Nicety smiles at another and then immediately turns and mumbles a curse under our breath.  Nicety extends a tentative helping hand and then begrudges when it is grasped.  Nicety preserves decorum even when it witnesses pain or horror.  Nicety is the mask that denies our own sorrow.

Kindness, by contrast, walks into the desert of another’s life, where the cross that is borne may have become so heavy as to have fallen and broken, and offers to take up that cross.  Kindness kneels before the one who is tucked in fear between the rocks and offers to walk side-by-side to the safe place. Kindness refuses to hold the coats of the bullies and the thieves, both those as obvious as the Glanton Gang and as subtle as those who hide behind their social nicety.

All this is to say, kindness includes the solidarity that comes through empathy, which means that kindness experiences—rather than denies—loss and sorrow.

The poet Naomi Nye says,

 

Before you know what kindness really is

you must lose things,

feel the future dissolve in a moment

like salt in a weakened broth.

What you held in your hand,

what you counted and carefully saved,

all this must go so you know

how desolate the landscape can be

between the regions of kindness.[3]

 

It was too late for the Kid, because he never experienced sorrow.  Early on, he inured himself to violence and pain.  He allowed himself to believe that the horrors perpetrated around him were part and parcel of a lawless world.  He grew accustomed to holding the coats of those who abuse.  Ironically, the literally desolate landscape never looked so to him.  He could not extend kindness, because he did not recognize loss.

ash-wednesday-2016

But blessedly, our landscape is not so bleak, and the finality of fiction is not so in real life.  Scripture promises that it is never too late for us!  Until our dying breath, when we truly return to dust and ashes, the book of our life is not fully written.  What remainder of us may appear as a hollow shell, God can fill with life.  C.S. Lewis says that so long as there is a mere spark under all those ashes, God can give it breath until the flame shines brightly again.[4]  If we will notice and experience loss; if we will grieve when the world around us and the lives around us crumble to dust; if we will live through kindness, God will, the Prophet Isaiah says, “satisfy your parched places and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water whose waters never fail.”[5]

It is so much easier not to feel.  It is so much easier to smile nicely and hold the coats.  Kindness is hard work.  It can be the discipline of Lent, and it can begin on this day when we are reminded that we, too, are dust.

[1] McCarthy, Cormac.  Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West, 315.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Nye, Naomi Shihab. “Kindness.”

[4] Lewis, C.S.  The Great Divorce, 74.

[5] Isaiah 58:11.

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