Does kindness have real, practical value in a hard, harsh, contentious world? Is it a strength or a weakness?
Consider the story of Aldous Huxley.
Despite failing health, Julia Huxley poured her life into educating her son, Aldous. She died when he was 14.
Before she died, she gave him this advice:
“Be not too critical of others and love much.”
Aldous would go on to write more than 50 books, including Brave New World. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize seven times.
During the 1930s, he moved to Los Angeles and made up to $3,000 a week (a phenomenal sum at that time) writing screenplays. He used much of this money to help get Jewish refugees out of Germany as World War II loomed.
In the 1960s, when Aldous was dying of throat cancer, he wrote:
“It’s a bit embarrassing to have been concerned with the human problem all one’s life and find at the end that one has no more to offer by way of advice than ‘Try to be a little kinder.’”
Across the decades, through a lifetime, his mother’s simple advice paid substantial dividends.
As Ian McClaren, English author and theologian put it:
“Be kind for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”
It’s tempting to sometimes feel that kindness and humanity simply have no place in a tense, harsh situation.
“That person is just too ornery.” “The environment at work is just too tense.” “This relationship is just too difficult.” “The world is just too hard.”
But in reality, the opposite is true.
The harsher the world, the more difficult a relationship, the more tense and stressful a situation, the crankier the person—the greater the need for kindness.
Today’s selection is a poem by Meister Eckhart (1260-1328), from the book, LovePoems from God: Twelve Sacred Voices from the East and the West, selected and translated by Daniel Ladinsky.
LOVE DOES THAT
All day long a little burro labors, sometimes
with heavy loads on her back and sometimes just with worries
about things that bother only
And worries, as we know, can be more exhausting
than physical labor.
Once in a while a kind monk comes
to her stable and brings
a pear, but more
he looks into the burro’s eyes and touches her ears
and for a few seconds the burro is free
and even seems to laugh,
because love does that.
Here’s my only comment.
In the next 24 hours you will live 1,440 minutes.
Why not spend at least one of those minutes—just 60 seconds—truly being with someone and looking into their eyes and letting them know just how special they are. Why not spend one minute being with them in a way that will perhaps spark laughter and lighten their burdens—even if just for a moment.
After all, we’re all unique. We’re all valuable. We’re all special. And we all have burdens.
This week’s quotation is from a commencement address given several years ago by the writer, Joan Didion. I feel it is especially relevant today.
“What I want to tell you today is not to move into that world where you’re alone with your self and your mantra and your fitness program or whatever it is that you might use to try to control the world by closing it out. I want to tell you to just live in the mess. Throw yourself out into the convulsions of the world. I’m not telling you to make the world better because I don’t believe progress is necessarily part of the package. I’m just telling you to live in it, to look at it, to witness it…Take chances, make your own work, take pride in it. Seize the moment.”
I think Didion is right. Sometimes it’s a real temptation to close ourselves off to the world and its problems.
But Didion is saying that there’s no future in closing off. The future is in opening up and stepping out.
Yes, finding work you love is difficult. Yes, relationships are difficult. Yes, politics are difficult. Yes, figuring out what you think and believe is difficult. Yes, figuring out who you want to be and what you most value and what you want to live for is difficult and messy and problematic.
It has always been so. Didion is encouraging us to plunge into life-as-it-is with our eyes and ears and hands open—as opposed to going through life with blinders on or with our fists closed.
She’s urging is to move away from maximum comfort and security and move toward maximum involvement and engagement with life.
She’s encouraging us to find joy and meaning in embracing the problems and challenges of living.
As the German poet, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe put it:
“Plunge boldly into the thick of life.”
And as another German poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, wrote:
“What is required of us is to learn to love the difficult.”
“Everyone talks about the weather but nobody does anything about it,” goes the old cliché.
But what about the “weather” in relationships…and inside our own heads?
Today, it feels like temperature levels are rising in human hearts and minds, in attitudes and interactions. There’s a lot of anger in the air—and we can find ourselves being affected.
Gerard I. Nierenberg, American lawyer and expert on negotiation, believes this is a kind of “climate change” we can all do something about. He wrote:
“Don’t let them push your button.” The one trying to get you angry wants to control you. If you meet a negative approach positively, you are not letting the climate get out of your hands.
I like the idea that I can choose the climate I want to help create in a relationship or group. I can use patience, kindness, humor to help lower the temperature.
Of course, that’s easier said than done. Anger can be difficult to control. So here are two thoughts that can help:
First, The Twenty-four-hour Rule: Sydney Smith, the 19thcentury English writer and cleric wrote:
We are told “Let not the sun go down on your wrath,” but I would add, never act or write till it has done so. This rule has saved me from many an act of folly. It is wonderful what a different view we take of the same event four-and-twenty hours after it has happened.
Very true. The thing that feels huge right now might very well appear trivial by this time tomorrow. I might find myself thinking, “What was I so upset about?”
Second, The Last-day Rule: Famed 18thcentury English scholar Samuel Johnson wrote:
Life is but short…Let us not throw away any of our days upon useless resentment or contend who shall hold out longest…It is best not to be angry; and best, in the next place, to be quickly reconciled.
Ask yourself: If today was my last day…would I really want to fight over this?
You can count on this: the things that will matter to you on your last day are the things that really matter today.
Perhaps it would be wonderful if finding happiness would always be as easy as it sounds in this popular song by Dorothy Fields and Jimmy McHugh:
Grab your coat and get your hat
Leave your worries on the doorstep
Life can be so sweet
On the sunny side of the street
Can’t you hear the pitter-pat
And that happy tune is your step
Life can be complete
On the sunny side of the street
Of course, it does help to think positively, turn loose of worries, and cultivate a taste for cheerfulness and the sweetness of life. As Mark Twain wrote:
“Most of the things I worried about never happened.”
But then there are times when we wake up and the sweetness has turned bitter on our tongues.
Psychologist Stanley H. Cath, M.D., writes about how to deal with the bitterness that can sometimes come with the aging process. But I think his words have some relevance for all ages—especially in times like these.
“The problem for some can involve how you maintain your humanity in the face of bitterness…about yourself and your perceived failures, or your wish that the world were a better place for yourself and your children to live in. One compensation is to integrate and to broaden one’s perspective. A new vital connection can be made with grandchildren, for example, or in passing on one’s knowledge to the next generation. There are very few things you can do to defy the aging process. Keeping your hopes alive is definitely one of them.”
I find it encouraging that even the taste of bitterness can be accepted as part of life’s banquet. I like the idea that we can respond to the experience of bitterness in ways that helps us broaden our perspective, maintain and deepen our humanity, and stay vitally connected.
Maybe it takes both bitterness and sweetness for us to develop the sophisticated palate that lets us come to the place where, as the song says, “Life can be complete.”
The more the bitterness in the world, the more important it is to balance that by staying in touch with life’s sweetness.