Being Kind–a Kind of Being

I once had a Volkswagen camper and I felt somewhat obliged by the tradition to put stickers on it. I ordered a whole slew of what I thought were witty and wise sayings to plaster on the back to amuse and enlighten any traveler who got too close on our road trips. What’s interesting that the only sticker others commented on (and often) was the sticker that just said, “Be Kind.”

Even as I write that, I feel softer in my Being. Although the human race seems to be racing to self-destruction in many ways, I also sense that at the core of being human is the need for kindness and also the actual need to be kind to others–that in being kind we fill out our humanness–particularly when we are kind to those who have been unkind to us; that is when we may even tiptoe toward our divinity. I’m inspired to write about kindness today because someone was kind to me today. And I felt my whole self lighten up in response. It was such a small thing but I felt of worth. Being kind is a kind of being in the world, an orientation toward life that just may keep us on the planet a little longer.

And I’m also writing on kindness because I ran across a poem by Naomi Shihab Nye that I have loved for a long time but then let it become dusty in memory. It comes from her book Words Beneath the Words and you can hear her speak about this poem on the podcast On Being with Krista Tibbet. She suggests that our kindness comes from knowing the suffering of life, that this breaks us down past our ego defenses to a vulnerable heart capable of forgiveness and understanding (my words). I think at times I have been kind under false pretenses; I have given of time or money to salve my guilt. I have helped out to make myself feel good about myself. I have stopped to listen because I thought it was a responsibility. But there is so much humility in kindness for it to be pure. Nye seems to speak to me, telling me that it is the human experience of suffering that has to be shared to know “what kindness really is.” I also love her prompting to “see the size of the cloth.” We all have suffered and suffer in this moment in obvious and in hidden ways, tragic and small. I remember feeling it so acutely and sweetly after the earthquake last November; kindnesses so purely shared. I hope this poem speaks to you as well.


Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

Brief Answers to the Big Questions

I read two very different ideas on big questions today; one of the existence of God and the other the why we are here. I guess it was a day for the big questions.

The first article was from a posting I follow called Brain Pickings. It reviewed Stephen Hawking’s last book Brief Answers to Big Questions. I wasn’t going to read the article because I knew from a prior news article that at his death, Hawking didn’t believe there was a God, which isn’t my experience. But in my quest to be more open to differing views instead of assuming I understand where he is coming from, and because I found his prior books fascinating, I read it all the way to the end. I’m glad I did. Hawking sums up his book by saying, “It’s my view that the simplest explanation is that there is no God. No one created the universe and no one directs our fate. This leads me to a profound realisation: there is probably no heaven and afterlife either. I think belief in an afterlife is just wishful thinking. There is no reliable evidence for it, and it flies in the face of everything we know in science. I think that when we die we return to dust. But there’s a sense in which we live on, in our influence, and in our genes that we pass on to our children. We have this one life to appreciate the grand design of the universe, and for that I am extremely grateful.”

He does say earlier in the book that perhaps you could define God by the laws of nature, but based on his experience, he can’t scientifically come to a belief in anything behind the Big Bang. It’s a fascinating read on the science of his view and I came to appreciate how he arrived at it. But it still didn’t explain Love to me. Yet he does come to something else at the end of his life that we agree on entirely- gratefulness for the present moment. Now that is deep wisdom for living life on this planet that is revolving in a vast Universe!

The second reading was far more brief and it came off a picture on the wall in my kitchen, posing an answer to the question of the meaning of life.

Story People Art

I’m not sure why and I have no scientific evidence, but this answer always gives me joy. It might be true.

Unoffendable? Is it possible?

My granddaughter deeply offended by the new edition 5 years ago.

Recently an old acquaintance told me he had retired and was delighted to find that what he really enjoyed was having time to read—at any hour and for any length of time. I had to ask then what he was reading and he answered “Unoffendable” by Brant Hansen.  I haven’t read the book yet, but the word, the idea of being “unoffendable” has bound itself to me.  I’m so intrigued. What would it be like to be truly “unoffendable?” What if no political viewpoint or theological stance or lack of moral character or abuse of any sort left me unoffended? Or even not offended by getting cut off in traffic or waiting for someone who is chronically late or an unreturned phone call? I could get even more insignificant than that. I’ve begun to count the ways I can be offended!

But then, if I am not offended, what am I? Someone with no sense of social or personal responsibility?And if I am unoffendable, do I have any response to that which is truly offensive in the world? Do I become an island, safe and secure in my not being aroused by what I formerly deemed offensive? 

I don’t know the author’s stance, but when I sense into being unoffendable, I can also see a certain surprising freedom in it. What if, say, a political belief diametrically opposed to mine, no longer caused the usual tension and tightness in my body or triggered my mind to explode with justification for my way of thinking? 

It seems to me that if I wasn’t offended—and that offense usually due to some past life experience or beliefs taught to me—I would be free to be curious about 1) how that person came to that belief and 2) how I came to that belief. 

Beyond these beliefs, which are all in the mind, I have a heart and soul. The other that offends me has a heart and soul. But these are all clouded by convictions and self-righteousness and certainty—defenses I have come to understand often come from some early experiences of hurt and fear and hate in one’s life.

. If I could come to such a place of being unoffendable, could I more easily touch the humanity of the other person, the real person, not the personality? It feels like then, my response would be in alignment with Divine Will and with my true will for a world that seeks the common good. Otherwise my offended position just adds to the offense, to the anger, to the violence I am offended by! 

I recently listened to a song by Lucinda Williams entitled “Compassion”. The words go, 

“Have compassion for everyone you meet, 

even if they don’t want it. 

What seems conceit is always a sign,  always a sign.

 For those you encounter, have compassion, 

even if they don’t want it and what seems bad manners, 

is always a sign.

Always a sign of things of things no ears have heard, no eyes have seen;    

you do not know what wars that are going on, 

down there where the spirit meets the bone, 

where the spirit meets the bone.  

For everyone you listen to have compassion, even if they don’t want it, 

what seems cynicism is always sign, always a sign.

Down there where the spirit meets the bone.   

She touches on what I have long known; we just don’t know each others’ stories, the really deep ones that shaped us in that deep dark place near the bone. It was part of the reason I started the Listening Post. I heard myself say back then, “If I just listen to the other person’s story all the way to the very end, I think I could love anyone.” 

Where my spirit meets my bone, I want enough healing and awareness and love to move toward being “unoffendable” by the other. And yet that same intention to heal, to be aware and to love then free to turn to that which is in need in this world.  I don’t know how to get there, but it starts with being aware of when I am offended. And then turning to it and seeing what “no ears have every heard or eyes have ever seen.” What’s been hidden even from myself?

(And I plan to actually read the book!)

A Gentleman From Moscow: Book reflection

I finished this book over a month ago but other travel and some tendonitis kept me from getting back to this blog. Yet the book lingers with me and I want to remember a few things that hold a bit of legacy for me.

I’m not surprised that Amor Towles’ other book is called the Rules of Civility. It was that enduring civility of the main character in this book that let me breathe easier. There is a way to be true to one’s self and yet be civil to others, in small and in momentous ways. I don’t think I realized how tired I am of the direction of our public discourse, no matter what political persuasion. Civility is closely related to the practice of listening that I have long supported and promoted. It is the recognition of the other as a human being first and that each of us deserve not only to be listened to, but to open ourselves to be changed by it. And if we still disagree, to look for that which might bind us anyway instead of only springing on that which sends us to the far poles of opinion. Yet unlike listening, civility also informs how one verbally responds and also one’s actions. I was enheartened by the Count’s integrity in response to unfairness, discrimination, and house imprisonment. He maintained civil to those who oppressed him and even amused to watch how this new Bolshevik government of the people began to operate decidedly like the governance it overthrew. I am left with this desire toward more civility in my stance in this world especially with my speech.

The quote from this book now in my journal is from the Essays of Montaigne that the gentleman takes to read: “The commonest way of softening the hearts of those we have offended, when, vengeance in hand, they hold us at their mercy, is by submission, to move them to commiseration and pity. However, audacity and steadfastness–entirely country means–have sometimes served to produce the same effect. ” And from the same page (23), “Life will entice after all.”

And I loved that it prompted me to watch Casablanca again with Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman. How that was surprisingly woven into this story of a man relegated to live his life in a Moscow hotel and never leave it intrigued me. (And interesting to see a very young Peter Lorre). And here is the quote from the book reflecting on a scene from Casablanca:

“And in the center of oasis was Rick. As the Count’s friend had observed, the saloonkeeper’s cool response to Ugartes’s arrest and his instruction for the band to play on could suggest a certain indifference to the fates of men. But in setting upright the cocktail glass in the aftermath of the commotion, didn’t he also exhibit an essential faith that by the smallest of one’s actions one can restore some sense of order to the world?”