Who am I if Not Kindness?

November 30, 2020

By Claude Smith-Kenny

Claude is an artist, educator, and kindness punk based in Indianapolis, IN. They volunteer with many local organizations including Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Indiana, Indiana Futsal, and Girls Rock! Indianapolis. They specialize in working with underserved youth, especially those that are LGBTQ+, and have taught workshops and classes on LGBTQ art and history.

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(Designed by Claude Smith-Kenny)

There are many possible culprits to blame for my identity crisis.

First, and most obviously, we have the setting – United States 2020, during the COVID-19 Pandemic. I am sheltering in place as best as I can, and I have a lot of time to do nothing but think. Who am I?

Next, and this one is also not terribly unique, there is my age. I graduated from college with a BFA in 2019, and I am currently 24 years old. The stage is pristinely set for a good old fashioned quarter-life crisis. What is my purpose?

Enter the more unique variables, the ones that are harder to explain. About a year ago, I was diagnosed with Degenerative Disc Disease, a spinal degradation that is typically a natural part of old age and causes the elderly to bemoan their back troubles, along with Arthritis in the spine. There are a number of factors that can contribute to the early onset of these, including genetics and luck, but above all when asked, the answer is, I simply don’t know why this has happened to me. Why?

For me, being diagnosed with a severe version of this at 23 came by way of constant back pain that went from irritating to debilitating in a matter of months. After several non-invasive treatments failed, a steroidal injection in my spine caused me to lose all feeling in my right leg, from hip to toe, and I could not walk without a walker. My doctors recommended a major surgery to save me from potential permanent nerve damage but warned that the pain would never go away, even if they could restore my mobility.

Fast forward through all that, I have mostly regained the ability to walk. I often use a walking stick for support, and stairs are no longer my forte, but I am incredibly grateful for the doctors who were able to get me back up and able to move again. I am supposed to limit lifting, bending, and twisting, and certainly, I can’t engage in the shenanigans of my previous life. Dropping into splits in performance, climbing trees and rocks, and playing chase with kids are all out of the question.

Having my body as I knew it suddenly swiped away from me has fueled an identity crisis to end all identity crises. I could no longer work at the daycare I worked at, where could I work? Surely somewhere, but my options are incredibly limited, especially with ableist practices like employers slipping “must be able to stand for extended periods of time” and “must be able to lift 50 lbs” into requirements for jobs that, really, should not require either of those things. I wailed and lamented, my mental health worsened alongside the physical, for I was mourning the death of my body, my life, as I once knew them. I expected them to be with me for a great deal longer, and I didn’t know how to exist in this world without them. How could I become a famous gallery curator if I couldn’t help install the work? How could I run a non-profit for bringing arts to underserved communities when my health and mobility are so wildly unpredictable? How could I rise to being a well known Drag King when there is no way I could keep my balance, let alone navigate crowded bars while dancing? To be honest, I’m not sure any of these life paths are completely out of reach for my future. Who knows what my health will look like in a year or five? I could regain strength through any number of treatments and maintain relative normalcy. I could lose all feeling in my legs again. Who knows? Besides, working myself into a panic about who or what I’ll be isn’t exactly new and tied solely to these health issues. But recently, I had asked myself a question that changed my outlook on everything.

What am I besides kindness?

Every day I work towards new ways of being kind. I will never stop learning new ways to be kind and improving and strengthening my current practices of kindness. My drive toward making the world a safer and happier place for all empowers me, and I don’t have to win the award for most kind person on earth, nor do I want to. Because if there are people doing it better than me, that’s just more kindness in the world. No change in my physical or even mental health can stop me from driving forth an agenda of kindness, even when it changes the ways I’m doing that.

I rest easy having faith that I will always be a beacon of light and a Kindness Punk who changes the world, on the micro and macro levels, and nothing can take that away from me.

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