March 19, 2013

Kindness and Wisdom

A while ago, I started a discussion about Kindness and Wisdom. My question was: "Does kindness need wisdom?" Today a message from an old friend triggered an unpleasant memory of mine, which I thought was relevant to this topic: 3 years ago, I broke up with an old friend to whom I had friendship for almost 30 years. The reason seemed to be very simple, I did not satisfy her invitation to dinner.

For years I had problem of shortness of breathe. When this symptom occurred, which used to be very often, I simple had to reject (politely) for all the invitations of any social gatherings. This friend of mine was from my high school. After all these years we ended up to the same place in America, it was a "miracle" which we both appreciated very much. And going to dinner in her home with all her family members was extremely pleasant for me (needless to mention foods were all homemade by her parents and delicious). However, there were time that I could not go. First a few times seemed to be OK, but soon after she did not appear to be happy about this, and often complained about my mental state, implied that it was psychological issue that prevent me from living a normal life, also suggested that I did not like to be with her family. I tired my best to let her understand my situation. Instead of gaining her understanding, I faced judgement, include some from other friends, such as: "You seem to ask too much understanding from friends", "How could others people always understand YOUR special condition?" "What's wrong with inviting you to dinner?" "Is it a bad thing to invite you to dinner?" So at the end I just got too much, and decided to end our friendship by not responding her last invitation (it happened to occur when I was suffering symptom, and later I just did not bother to explain same thing again).

By Chinese tradition, it is utmost important to appreciate others "good will". I also had this "faith" in my life and sacrificed as much as I could to "appreciate" my friends' good will to me. i.e., once this same friend helped me by offering teaching in her After-school. I repeatedly told her that the maximum classes I could have in a row is 2 classes. But she insisted to offer me 3. Somehow for "appreciating" her "kindness", I agreed to try, and immediately got sick after. Even situation like this, did not change my friend's mind, that I was mentally problematic.

Sometime I had to wonder, is it my chronic health problem too extreme for many people to get it? Or it is just I got some friends that lacked basic ability of understanding? What made words like such: "I cannot come", being taken as "I do not want to come"? It is true that this friend of mine is physically very strong, so it would be a little hard for her to imagine how a person who is chronically ill feels like. It's possible that she used her own condition/experience judge mine. I once imagined, if situation reversed, if I had a friend told me she/he were too sick to come to dinner with me, do I have problem to take their words just as they were? I don't think so. Not only that, further more, if my friend got chronic ill like this, I could easily make some foods bringing over, and left without much talking. Of course, I would not ask anyone do such thing to me, but simply to say that this is something not so hard for me to do. Do I really possess virtue of a Saint? I don't think so.

I would not condemn this friend of mine. It is true that she tried to help me. However, what she did only create opposite consequence. And the reason is obvious: her helps were not based on what I needed, but what she believed I needed. I just cannot grant her actions as "true kindness", though she is nice, and the reason for that I think is that she lacks some basic ability of understanding, which by my current understanding is a combination of intelligence and imagination, or simply put: wisdom.


  1. Those are interesting questions. I think of kindness as emotional intelligence driven by compassion. Doing something for someone else without conditions or expecting anything in return doesn't require a whole lot of thought, IMO. Your friend's reaction seems like disappointment that was taken too personally.

  2. yunyi, I agree with Kris. I think your friend was frustrated and going through a kind of grieving process over the loss of your friendship as it had been. She found it hard to adjust to the alterations brought on by your illness. Maybe given enough time she would've been able to accept your condition and its implications. I think really that's all kindness is-not judging people, not trying to change them, but accepting them as they are.

  3. Thanks Kris for your understanding!

    np, I emailed my friend about 2 years later, when my health condition improved a little, explained why I could not take her "kindness" any more, but I received no response. I just found I am much better now without this kind of obligation, really.

  4. Good post, Yun Yi. My father had shortness of breath so I understand how it can affect your health and why you’d decline a social invitation because of it. Seems to me that your friend’s response to you was very unkind. After all, she knew you well for many years. She should have realized you were not just declining without good reason. I was rather taken aback by the harsh criticism you received. How can one ever ask “too much understanding” from friends? That should never happen with true friends, but you are not alone, under different circumstances, I’ve seen it happen.

    I believe you are a much kinder and more understanding type of friend than this other person is and perhaps the reason may be because you have suffered chronic illness. You understand and appreciate others because you have been there. Are your chronic health problems too extreme for many people to get it? I want to say “no” because it would not be too extreme for me to get it, but sadly, some people are not able to accept chronic illness in others, they perceive it as a weakness and have no patience for it. I have seen this far too many times. It isn’t you. You are not the problem. Their lack of understanding is the problem. I believe your perception is correct, your friend lacks some basic ability or wisdom to understand what you are going through.

  5. Yunyi, it seems to me that the quality your friend lacks is empathy, the ability to project oneself into how another person thinks and feels. Losing touch with friends is bad enough, but it must have been very painful to deliberately break off a friendship because of the other's lack of empathy for your condition.

  6. Yun Yi, I agree with all the comments here. I think that there are some people who believe they are doing all they can to help and/or heal you. It is as if they are your personal doctor, and when you don't respond to what they want, they get upset because you are not taking their advice. Furthermore, they make it look as if you are to blame.
    I also believe that some people don't feel you are 'that' ill, so when you say you can't attend, they believe it's because you don't want to be around them instead of thinking that you are seriously suffering from an illness. When you have done this a few times they take great offence, and once again they blame you.

    True friends would give you an invite to all events (because you do actually turn up to some) and not be offended if you can't make it. A true friend would accept that you have stated you are ill, and spend time trying to do other things with you instead. They could email you, phone you and skype you just to say a quick hello. They could offer dinner at your house and they bring the food or simply ask what you would like to do in order to stay more in touch. Just watching a movie at home with them is a good thing or even reading a book apart then meeting up to discuss it.

    I would have stopped the friendship like you did as it was only bringing more stress. And it would have been painful but.......

  7. @Jerseylil, thanks for understanding. You are also right that not all people are like that. For example, some of parents of my students were extremely kind, even brought food to me. And many other people who are not close to me, also understand my declining their invitations, tell me to tell them anytime when I feel better so I could go out with them.

  8. @Dennis, I agree that "empathy" could be a more specific term for this case. Indeed, it was not easy for me to make decision. To deliberately break my friendship, this dinner invitation was just one cause, there were some other reasons as well. Simple put, I just could not take it anymore.

    @RPD, thanks for understanding. Yes, there were lots of alternatives she could do if she really meant to help me. The problem really was that she focused too much on herself, could not accept she was not "appreciated". I think anyone in my situation would have no other choice than what I chose. As matter of fact, I believe many people might break the friendship earlier than I did. I was pushed to the dead end.

  9. It is very unfortunate that your friend was unable to accept your reasons for not joining her in her home at face value. I agree with you - if there is no wisdom in applying compassion or kindness, it can get skewed and misplaced so easily. Who of us can understand another's situation and circumstances and motivations, except the person themselves? Unfortunately, I find that we often project our own ideas onto others, even when that projection is ridiculous. I'm sorry that your friendship was so adversely affected. I hope you have since found more generous-hearted people with whom to enjoy a more free and honest relationship!

  10. Yun:

    it seems that everyone here understands that is was your friend who lacked empathy.

    Many people are lucky in that they do not have to deal with ongoing health issues such as depression, chronic fatigue syndrome or many other things that never seem to go away.

    I think many people who have suffered serious illnesses or bad experiences tend to be more understanding of others.

    I am sad that your friend could not accept you were telling the truth but like others have said, I think you did the right thing. Maybe some day she will understand you and will try to contact you again (I hope so). But if she doesn't, I think it is better to remove someone from your life if they end up harming you (even if they have good intentions).

    I think you are a wonderful person and if I lived closer to you, I would come over to watch movies with you but if you were feeling unwell, I would just leave a WHOLE BOX OF PEPPER CHICKEN on your doorstep then ring the doorbell an run away so you could eat it in peace without me bothering you! :-)

    If you ever want to talk on Skype, you have my Skype address and email.

    We don't talk much because we are both busy but I am very glad I met you all those years ago, Yun. :-)

  11. Tom, I miss our PEPPER CHICKEN lunches! You certainly are one of the most understanding friends I ever have. And I will never forget your "Caucasian hug" when we said goodbye to each other after our "pepper chicken" lunch:-)

  12. HAHA! "Caucasian hug?" I don't remember me calling it that! :-)

  13. tom, you did not call that when we said goodbye in Troy, but you said something like that in facebook, though i don't remember what was the occasion. I just did some special "combination" here:-)

  14. Interesting post, but even more interesting is the almost universal chord it struck with everyone. I perfectly understand why you did what you did, but of course it didn't bring 'closure' to the friendship and you acknowledged this, with the attempt to contact via email. The memories of many a friendship that ends in ambiguous circumstances will stay with us for years. Part of the irony of life I guess.

  15. thanks Neil Killion for your understanding. yes, i guess it happens universally, more or less. and friendship just doesn't die suddenly like that.