"Give them not Hell, but

Hope and Courage."

Friday, December 2, 2011

"Saving Starfish" (Sunday, November 27, 2011)

One writer puts it this way: "Kindness is contagious and warms the grateful heart."

Have you ever seen those bumper stickers that remind us to "Practice Random Acts of Kindness"? Well, it seems that the idea all began with a woman named Anne Herbert, as she sat in a restaurant in Sausalito, California in the early 1980s:

She had been turning a phrase-- a few words to sum up her view of life-- over and over in her mind for several days. Finally, as she sat in the restaurant, she scrawled on the placemat in front of her the words: "Practice Random Kindness and Acts of Senseless Beauty."

"That's so wonderful!" the man sitting next to her exclaimed. And he copied it down carefully on his own placemat, and tucked it away in his pocket. Herbert explained her idea further to the man: "Here's the idea," she said. "Anything you think there should be more of, do it randomly... Kindness can build on itself as much as violence can."

In 1982, Herbert, a Berkeley writer and peace activist, published the phrase in the CoEvolution Quarterly (which is now the Whole Earth Review). There it sat for about nine years, attracting little attention, apparently, until in 1991, Adair Lara, a columnist for the San Francisco Quarterly, came across it, tracked down Herbert, and wrote an article about her. The article was picked up nationally by the Reader's Digest (a radical publication if there ever was one!), and reprinted. That got noticed by the editors of Conrai Press, a small publishing house in Berkeley.

Inspired by the people involved in the movement, the editors at Conrai held a reception one evening, and invited their guests to record and share their stories of "Random Acts of Kindness". These stories were combined with others collected from around the country, and in February 1993 was published as a book, title (aptly enough) Random Acts of Kindness. In the years since, the book has sold hundreds of thousands of copies, and the phrase has entered the popular vocabulary of our time.

It's nice to know that kindness can sell. It's even nicer to know that it can transform our hearts. And maybe, even, change the world.

Berkeley, the home of the “counter culture", became home of the "kindness culture". Perhaps at this point in the life of our world, there may be few things as counter-cultural as kindness.  

Maybe we could use a dose of kindness in this world: not more loud and strident voices-- not more zealots and ideologues-- but more gentle hearts-- and more gentle souls—with no other concern in life than to help one another.

“I am saddened by all enterprises which seek to save the world,” the Italian writer Ignazio Silone once said, “for they seem perhaps the surest way to lose oneself.” We think we have to save all the starfish on the beach for our lives to be worthwhile, when there is so much real need, right there before our eyes.  

In the face of an incessant culture of selfishness, which tells us that our only reason for being here is to get as big a piece of the pie for ourselves as we can-- maybe the most counter-cultural thing we can do is to say "Enough!":

To remember that, more often than not, smaller is better; to shop at small stores; drive small cars; eat little meals; to do our little jobs with full engagement of heart and mind and soul; to touch those closest to us; love every person we meet to the full degree we can; to remake the world from the inside out-- by changing our hearts first and doing what we can to be kind to one another.

In his book Hymns to an Unknown God, Sam Keane writes:

"Creating a political community based on kindness may seem like an impossibility... [But] We are discovering lately in American society that we can't build a good society on the principles of self-interest and entitlement alone. Without generosity there can be no community. Without the kindness of strangers, a society is turned into an armed camp... The atmosphere of compassion that transforms a mass of alienated individuals into a caring community is created by countless acts of kindness and charitable foresight."

Caring and kindness may seem counter-cultural; but they are also values carved deeply in our innermost souls. Science shows that, as young as 18-weeks, infants will respond instinctively to the perceived pain of those around them. Compassion is part of our hard wiring, as it were.

But I'm enough of a realist to know that sometimes history is cruel, and that compassion can lie crushed and beaten down, and the light seems to go out.

The fire smolders, but is not extinguished. Always the forces of love lie in wait-- to emerge again, breaking through this hard, crusted-over ground. For we know there is within us this Spirit of Life which is always, ultimately, stronger than any forces that can be mounted against it. In the end, we see this Spirit most clearly in the caring and kindness we extend to those around us.

It amazes me sometimes to think of how many opportunities we have to be kind to one another-- how much good we can do in the lives of those around us-- even in the lives of those we don't know.

They say it takes half as many muscles to smile as to frown. It probably takes half as much energy (and half as much time) to be kind as to be cruel. Cruelty is hard work! Indeed, it probably doesn't take any more energy to be kind than to be apathetic (let alone cruel). Because I really don't think that most people are cruel to one another. We're just sort of absent, unengaged.

But why do we close in on ourselves so often, and stop the currents of kindness from flowing?

Why do we insist that it's not enough to save just that one starfish... or two... or three... or four... or five... or six... or seven... That we have to save the whole beach, or ours lives won't really matter?

We see things only as we're "supposed" to see them... We interact only with those we know, only those we like, only those like us. We think that people outside of our little boxes have nothing to offer us, so we offer them nothing in return.  We ask ourselves: What could I possibly have in common with someone so much younger than I am... or so much older... or of a different color... or of a different persuasion... or of a different religion? So we close into our little group. And pretty soon, life can grow dull and boring and pretty drear, because we've become too small in our love, and too selective in our compassion...

Or maybe we're afraid that we won't really be able to do anything for someone else. We can't take away their pain. We can't solve their problems. We can't make it all better for them. Throwing starfish back into the water is relatively easy, after all, once you get over the sliminess of the whole situation. What do we do in real human situations, real tragedies, where it seems there's nothing anybody can do? So often, I think, we do nothing. We retreat away from engagement, and back into ourselves. We can't solve the problem, so we do nothing.

We forget that sometimes-- oftentimes-- just being there is enough.

Rabbi Harold Kushner tells this story:

One day, a boy came home and said to his father, "Dad, I'm really proud that I was able to help my friend Billy today.

"Tell me about it," the father asked. "How did you help Billy?"

His son replied, "Well, Billy was riding down the street and took a bad fall, and his bicycle was all twisted out of shape. He couldn't repair it, so he sat down on the sidewalk and he cried."

The father said, "I don't understand. You don't know how to repair bicycles. How did you help Billy?"

The reply was, "Well, I sat down and cried with him."

Oftentimes, the only gift we can offer to a person in need is our presence, so they don’t need to face the darkness alone.

Therese of Lisieux became a revered saint of the Catholic Church, and in 1997 was even named a Doctor of the Church. But she is best known for her “Little Way”. In her quest for sanctity, Therese realized that it was not necessary to accomplish heroic acts, or great deeds, in order to express her love of God. The smallest act, if done in love, reflects as much of God’s love as any great accomplishment. The height of virtue, Therese believed, was to practice small acts of kindness, with a heart filled with love.

Sometimes, we pile so many complications on things-- on religion, on life. Perhaps when we boil it down, it's a whole lot simpler than we realize. Maybe our religion boils down to three simple things, as one of my colleagues has suggested:

Love your neighbor.

Wonder at the mystery of all that is.

Be thankful for the gift of life.

At the heart of all of these-- of love, wonder, and gratitude-- is compassion. There are weaker rocks than kindness upon which to build a life. As Wordsworth wrote:

That best portion of a good man's life,--

His little, nameless, unremembered acts

Of kindness and of love.

 It is through blessing others in our lives that we find ourselves most blessed.

Another writer has put it this way:

"We can resolve [all of us] to be kinder, gentler beings. All day, every day. We can treat those closest to us with the same respect and politeness that we reserve for friends and colleagues. We can refuse to litter the life of others with negative energy. If we do this, we will be doing our part to create a world in which kindness is never a random act, but rather a way of life."

As Gandhi said: We need to be the change that we want to see in the world.  

We must do what we can to help one another where we can. For there lies all the meaning and purpose these lives of ours might ever have.

Richard Gilbert has written:

“The touching of hands is an ancient ritual, written deep within us.

As greeting, it welcomes us into the intimacy of others.

As farewell, it assures us that we shall be missed.

In bereavement, it speaks our common hurt.

In love, it is silent, sure sharing, needing no words.

The touching of hands in a human circle welcomes all into its warmth.

In steep places it gives an receives strength in climbing.

The trembling touching of hands is a cry for help none may ignore.

The tentative touching of hands is an invitation to reach out, to include.

The touching of hands is [no] small thing:

It is the sharing of life with life.”

Our hands are small. But they are the only hands this world of ours has.

In the end, it is, perhaps, only our kindness for one another that matters.

May these hands reach out, and do what they can, and touch, and bless the world.

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