Love, Kindness, and the Healing Power of Well Wishes

I listen to the Dear Sugar podcast regularly, but when their recent episode When Politics is Personal: Friends & Family went live, I wasn’t sure I wanted to download it. Why? Because election season is so hard, and this one particularly so. Some days I can barely stomach the vitriol in my own stream; did I really have the ability to absorb that of others?

But I downloaded and listened to the episode during my run yesterday and quickly found that the episode was as much about political disagreements as it was about conflicts related to relationships, racism, and personal boundaries. And ultimately, the personal lesson I pulled from the episode was not what I expected.

The episode shares the story of a woman named Kay, who learns that her uncle is racist. He ambushes her (and her adopted African-American son) on the Christmas Eve following Barack Obama’s election (why oh why is the human condition to ambush one another during the holidays??). Kay is shell shocked, refuses to tolerate that level of toxicity, and writes her uncle a letter expressing her concerns and drawing boundaries. She never hears back from the uncle and later learns that her aunt has intercepted the letter. The family modus operandi is to sweep problems under the rug, or address them briefly and hope they go away. Kay is viewed as the problem not the victim.

The general arc of this story struck a nerve because I have a sibling with whom I have experienced deep conflict. I refuse to tolerate his toxicity and have written letters to draw boundaries. Given the chaos of our growing up, my family also tends towards an avoidance m.o. and I for sure know that at least my mother thinks I just need to let my issues with my brother go (i.e., that I’m the problem in this particular situation).

But whether it’s due to aging, personal growth, and/or the fact that my priority is to focus on my immediate family -- quantified as my husband and the small people I have gestated vs. the family I was born into -- in the past couple of years, I’ve found that my feelings towards my brother have shifted. I used to be angry at him but I’ve moved from a place of anger to simply wanting him to get help, live a good life, and be well.

And here’s where the unexpected lesson from the episode came to me. Later down the road, Kay learns that her aunt has cancer and despite the tense relations, she sends her aunt a get well card. Dear Sugar co-host Cheryl Strayed talks about how much she respects that gesture. Strayed feels that you can still wish a person well even if you don’t want to have a relationship with them. That it’s easier to do this when you’ve moved past anger and into forgiveness, and that extending yourself with love and kindness can help dissipate anger -- it can heal your own heart, and perhaps even the relationship over time too.

This was very, very humbling.

Over the last few years I have not sent my brother a holiday card or issued birthday greetings. (In fact, it occurs to me I don’t even know his street address.) I’ve not done these things because it’s felt enormously awkward and perhaps fake given that we have no relationship. But maybe that’s not really the full story. Maybe I’m carrying vestiges of resentment. Maybe I’ve been worried about opening the communication door even via the tiny crack of a happy birthday e-mail because some days I am so damned tired I don’t want to deal with more hard things.

But hard things are the thing of life. And quite frankly, some of my hard things are puny compared to hard things I’ve seen around the world. So, at the next holiday or birthday I will send my brother well wishes. I won’t expect change or anything in return. I will simply remain mindful of the abundance of love and opportunity in my life, extend love and kindness forward, and hope for the best for him. And healing for both of us.