I’ll start this out with something negative about myself in order to temper your reaction. By ruining the purity of the later sentiment in advance, I hope to ensure you don’t think this is merely a lengthy list of my finer points. Pour some salt the whole thing, like how you kill little slugs. That sound okay? So we’ll begin.
When I get really bad anxiety after drinking too much, I fixate on the embarrassing things I’ve said and done, cataloguing them meticulously, working them over and over in my mind like kneading dough. It occurred to me during a recent obsession that what I’m stuck on is probably the least of it. It was liberating (but terrifying) to consider that the stuff I really ought to be ashamed of, I probably can’t remember, or didn’t realise was even significant.
My sister asked me once, years ago, if I’d ever had the experience of someone repeating my own words back to me with added weight — words you had long since completely forgotten, but that meant a great deal to another person. Ironically enough I couldn’t relate at all at the time, but her words have come back to me many, many times since. A fucking cosmic joke.
Throwaway comments or actions that stick. The not-so-comforting idea that the actions and words that shape our impression in other people’s minds are the ones that won’t stay in ours.
Last weekend, I remarked to a friend that we’ve known one another for ten years. He said, “The first time I met you, Fiona, I was complaining that I didn’t have any money and would have to go home. When you went to the shop, you came back with a four pack of Carlsberg for me.” I don’t remember this at all. I ruined this story by gabbling over him, embarrassed by a story of my own forgotten kindness, unearthed like Tutankhamun.
My mother told me with something approaching pride that she had bumped into a mother of a boy I went to school with. “Mrs Hyde? Fiona’s mother? What a nice girl. She used to help my son Conor with his homework all the time.” I twist with mortification. I don’t remember this either. I ruined that story by tweeting about it sardonically, removing the sting of acknowledgement by removing myself from the memory entirely.
It makes me uncomfortable to dwell on these tiny acts of decency because… Well, I don’t know. It feels a bit like being at your own funeral, hearing your own eulogy, overhearing a compliment from another room when it was not intended for your consumption. Things you’ve done for other people that expend such little mental energy that they don’t even stick in your mind.
It made me hopeful, I suppose. For myself. These stories, they make me realise that maybe I’m not (all) the terrible things I tell myself I am. At least not the the whole time, which might be enough. None of us are the black and white versions of ourselves we mentally construct. And we’re not the pictures we imagine others hold of us. We don’t know what people will remember of us, and that’s to be embraced in all its horrifying glory.
We’d all let someone pass if they moved by us urgently. A small demonstration of manners, that’s all. But who knows where that person was going and how badly they needed for someone to let them get there easily?
We have such little time. I find myself stuck on repeat, replaying times I was boorish and unkind and fatuous and rude. It’s so valuable to know that even the smallest good action has counted somewhere, for someone. Not in some divine abacus somewhere in the clear blue sky, with Santa allotting us brownie points for our penance or pity, but in the memory of other people walking around in the world, held longer in their heads than we will ever know.
As I stand here in front of you in technicolour and grey, all my good deeds circle back and fly to me like doves.