The Kindness Test
Mo Willems likes to hide pigeons in his books. When I first started to notice this, much to the delight of my children, I thought that it was as an homage to the series of books that launched his career. I didn’t know much about Mo Willems at the time, and this seemed a plausible explanation to me. In thinking about this more, especially with how much Mo Willems offered kids during the early lockdown days of The Pandemic, I was curious about the origin of this iconic character. So, as one does, I fell into a rather pleasant and slightly hilarious rabbit hole of research on Mo Willems. As it turns out, The Pigeon, according to Willems, is a “jealous egomaniac who sneaks into [his] work when [he] is not looking.” (Today.com) This was not what I expected to find out about The Pigeon, although having read the books to my kids, the characterization makes sense. The Pigeon does show hints of narcissistic personality disorder, and perhaps, could benefit from early intervention.
I wondered, knowing the beautiful not-so-hidden messages of Willems’s stories, why such a character would exist in his works. Further down the rabbit hole, I discovered stories shared by the author about his own childhood, and his experiences of being embarrassed, shamed, and ridiculed by many adults in his life. Many of whom, based on his descriptions, likely also could have benefited from an excellent therapist and early personality intervention. The story of the art teacher who ripped up his cartoons is particularly wrenching. In his own words, Willems says “my basic feeling is that childhood sucks” — this feeling is what inspired the humor in his stories, as well as to not-so hidden messages to kids that they have the power to change their own destiny. (The New Yorker)
One of my favorite Mo Willems stories, and one of his earliest works, is called Edwina The Dinosaur Who Didn’t Know She Was Extinct. I love this book for a few reasons — the first being the way that Edwina battles the not so hidden hatred of the books’ antagonist, Reginald Von Hoobie Doobie, with none other than presence and kindness. The book is about a well loved character named Edwina, who happens to be a dinosaur. She bakes delicious cookies, and is generally loved by the town in which she lives, but this love has somewhat of a fantastical quality — one seems to sense that Edwina, perhaps, does not feel close to anyone in particular. No one seems to mind that she is a dinosaur, and that technically, dinosaurs do not exist. No one, of course, except Reginald Von Hoobie Doobie. He makes it his mission to prove that dinosaurs don’t exist, therefore negating her very existence. Much to his dismay, however, no one listens to him — and he is left despondent. This moment in the story highlights the character’s deeper wound — a child who would not be listened to by the significant grownups in his life, whose feelings were not validated, and perhaps whose own existence was not understood. Then, a quiet voice says to him, “I’ll listen to you” — and this voice is one of none other than Edwina herself. It then becomes clear that the story isn’t about who believes what — but rather two slightly misunderstood characters coming together and sharing a moment of kindness to each other. Edwina hears him out, and he feels so relieved that someone finally listens to him, that he no longer cares about whether dinosaurs are extinct.
Everytime I read this book to my children, or just re-visit it for my own purposes, I think about the power that this moment of kindness from one misunderstood being to another had on the development of the story, and likely to the development of their lives henceforth. Both characters are seen at the end of the story sharing cookies in Edwina’s house, intimating that they had become close friends. Had Reginald’s breakdown been met with scorn rather than kindness, the story would have taken a much darker turn.
As I thought about writing this piece, I was thinking about the many moments in our lives where we are invited to interact with others in ways where how we choose to engage could radically change the outcome of the interaction. It is really hard to be kind with someone when the dominating emotion you are feeling towards them is anger. It is even harder to be kind to oneself when what we feel is shame, embarrassment, and despair. However, I have found that especially in these situations, leading with kindness allows the space for empathetic conversation on both sides, and ultimately some kind of growth. When meeting oneself with kindness, for example, we may invite parts of ourselves that have, in the past, been fearful of our own fiery emotions.
In this week’s Torah portion, there is a small interaction in which a person’s character is tested with regard to their kindness. When Avraham sends his servant, Eliezer, to find a wife for his son, Isaac, he asks the boy to only bring back the woman who will be right to continue Avraham’s lineage. While Avraham has several more children, G-d promises him that his great lineage will come from Yitzhak. Therefore, you need the right woman for the job. Eliezer wonders how he will know which woman is right, and in the end, decides to offer a test of kindness. He decides to approach women by the well, and the one who offers water not just for him, but also for his camels, will be the one that is right for Yitzhak.
The story unfolds as such — Eliezer approaches Rivkah at the well…
וַתֹּאמֶר שְׁתֵה אֲדֹנִי וַתְּמַהֵר וַתֹּרֶד כַּדָּהּ עַל־יָדָהּ וַתַּשְׁקֵהוּ׃
וַתְּכַל לְהַשְׁקֹתוֹ וַתֹּאמֶר גַּם לִגְמַלֶּיךָ אֶשְׁאָב עַד אִם־כִּלּוּ לִשְׁתֹּת׃
וַיָּרׇץ הָעֶבֶד לִקְרָאתָהּ וַיֹּאמֶר הַגְמִיאִינִי נָא מְעַט־מַיִם מִכַּדֵּךְ׃
The servant ran toward her and said, “Please, let me sip a little water from your jar.”
“Drink, my lord,” she said, and she quickly lowered her jar upon her hand and let him drink.
When she had let him drink his fill, she said, “I will also draw for your camels, until they finish drinking.”
Genesis 24: 17–19
Therefore, Rivkah passes the kindness test, and the generational rest is history.
What if Rivkah hadn’t been kind, though? What if she had refused to give water to this stranger, or forgot to mention the camels? The text implies that the story would have unfolded rather differently, and perhaps I wouldn’t be sitting here typing this drasha here today.
Similarly, had Edwina not approached Reginald with kindness, might he have evolved into the rather unfortunate grown ups that Mo Willems remembers from his own childhood?
I have been thinking about this a lot these days, especially as I have had a couple of instances of feeling disappointment in people and institutions in which I place a great deal of trust. Some of these rifts in trust elicit strong emotional reactions, among them — anger — and it is tempting to lash out from that place.
How dare you do this to me?
How could I ever trust you again?
Will I ever get over the disappointment?
These are real and legitimate questions that arise when we feel that our trust has been broken — whether by a person, or by a place or by a community. It is worthwhile to sit with these questions, mull them over, ponder them and even try to find answers within ourselves as to why the breach has happened. Some of us may choose to abandon the relationships at hand, while others may choose to approach the problem with a confrontation.
In a recent such instance, I decided to approach from a place of kindness. This was not easy, since in this situation I felt quite angry, and even questioned some of the key tenets of trust between myself and the other party. Yet- behind every grown up human action, there is still a child who has once felt deep shame, and wonders how to protect their-self. I thought about how I might approach such a situation with my own children. I realized that my own childhood’s lack of trust in grown-ups even made this challenging. While I am in no way the perfect parent, I know that when I approach my children with kindness in problem solving, we arrive at a solution much more easily than if I approach them when I am still in a place dominated by frustration. So, I approached the other party by first acknowledging — out loud -the many positives in the relationship, remembered the other party’s humanity — and inherent woundedness within that — and led from a place of openness and generosity of spirit. The result was that both parties were able to hear each other out — and this is the key — even if the problem was not in itself, immediately solved — we are still able to maintain a relationship that hasn’t lost strength or trust.
Leaning into kindness in moments where, perhaps, we’d like to reveal our inner “The Pigeon”, is a task of will, and an invitation for growth. Perhaps Mo Willems hides The Pigeon (capitalized, by the way, because The Pigeon is actually his name), in his books that have deeper lessons on growth and resilience, as a reminder that we all have a little bit of that hiding in our interactions. While Eliezer was offering Rivkah a test of kindness, there lies within the text a fear of shame and disappointment at not finding the right wife for Yitzhak. The interaction between Reginald Von Hoobie Doobie and Edwina is tenuous at best — and could have gone in a very different direction. Edwina could have accepted that she does not exist and spiraled into helplessness and depression. Reginald might have felt aggrandized by the experience and gone on to marginalize other fantastic(al) creatures. While I was able to approach my situation with kindness, and from a place of gratitude — the anger still simmered beneath the surface, and it could have gone a different way — perhaps further shattering trust, and altering the relationship.
I offer these questions for thought on this Shabbat:
How do we access kindness when other, more powerful emotions, may be more salient in an interaction?
How do we act in kindness, invite empathy, and open the space for gratitude without forsaking our own emotional boundaries?
Lastly — an invitation to find kindness for yourself today.