Inside, Alix Ohlin

Where does empathy get you? In the past week or so, I've been thinking a lot about how to be, perhaps prompted by George Saunders's call to Syracuse University graduates to "err in the direction of kindness" (his address to the Class of 2013 was reprinted on a New York Times blog)

In Inside, Ohlin presents three stories of people working to let others in, to tend to the needs of others with little kindnesses, but I'm not really sure where we come out, at the end. One character, Tug, reveals a bit of himself to the woman so desperately trying to bring him back from the brink of his own great despair, and yet this still doesn't much help him: "'You can tell people your story,' he said, 'or any terrible story, and it doesn't make any difference. Things just keep happening, over and over again.'"

There's a fatalism to this observation, and perhaps it is true---certain patterns seem to govern our lives. But I like to hope that telling and listening, connecting, can make a difference to a person. Saunders wrote, "What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness. Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded…sensibly.  Reservedly.  Mildly." Even if it doesn't seem like much, being present, trying to muddle through it together, might just be enough.