WVXU's This I Believe
91.7 WVXU, November 2006
Download the audio version.

I believe I can be both honest and kind, even when the two seem to contradict.

Honesty often throws kindness for a loop. From telling someone there's food in their teeth all the way up to telling someone you don't love them even though you know they love you, honest statements, although said with kind intentions, can often seem cruel.

I was 16 years old, working a summer job at an amusement park, when I met Joe. He was older than me, had cheek-length blonde hair and drove a motorcycle. The first time he called me at home I smiled so hard my cheeks ached by the end of the conversation. He soon became my first boyfriend.

We dated the entire summer. By early fall he had said "I love you." I couldn't return the words. They were too important. In the battle between kindness and honesty, honesty won.

The months following our break-up, Joe left love notes on my bedroom windowsill. In college, he called twice. The first time we talked on the phone together. The second time, he left a voice-mail message. He sounded distraught. I returned his call and left a short message on his answering machine. I never heard from him again.

Several years later his sister called with news: Joe had committed suicide. He had recently been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. It was summer, and the funeral had happened that past fall. Joe had written a few lines about me in his suicide note, and only now had she had the strength to call. His twenty-seventh birthday would have been in a few weeks, she said. There was to be a party to celebrate his life. She asked if I wanted to come.

I went. I did all the things Joe had wanted me to do years ago. I met his extended family. I looked at old family photos. I was intrigued to hear about the man he had become; we could have been great friends.

I hated myself for choosing honesty over kindness, for not writing more, for not calling more, for not doing more. I wasn't so bold as to think I could have fixed him. Rather, I was sad that I had to be unkind and tell him I didn't love him.

Several days later, worried I would never find peace, I reread what he wrote to me in his note: "How people should be... wonderful and I'm glad I had the time with her-still I have a wonderful feeling inside."

It was then I realized that Joe thought my honesty was kind. His words to me were his way of telling me so, his way of being honest, and kind, to me.

A year later, on a hot, July day that would have been his twenty-eighth birthday, my husband and I put flowers by his grave. I thanked him for a lesson I'll always hold dear: I can be honest and still be kind. This, I believe.