Parish Universalist Church
790 Washington Street, P. O. Box 284, Stoughton, Massachusetts 02072
Church School: 10:45 AM
As If It Matters
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, March 6, 2011
One writer has put it this way: "Kindness is contagious and warms the grateful heart."
I’m sure that most of you have seen the bumper stickers, and t-shirts, and what
have you that remind us to "Practice Random Acts of Kindness". It’s as good
advice as any, and it all began with a line scrawled on a paper placemat by a
woman named Anne Herbert, as she sat in a restaurant in
Herbert was a thoughtful and considerate woman, and had been looking for a
phrase—just a few simple words-- to sum up her view of life. Finally, as she sat
in that restaurant in
"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. (This was
In 1982, Herbert, a
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.
Or perhaps it is that cruelty and avarice and incivility are never out of style. But nor is kindness and goodwill. And it is in each individual heart that the pitched battle between those two sides of our human nature is waged, constantly, age after age.
In the face of the dehumanizing, alienating, greedy, selfish forces within our culture—those forces which insist constantly that we will never be whole until we have filled all our emptiness with more and more and more-- that everything must grow larger and larger and larger-- that we must hide and hoard whatever wealth and power we have, and keep it all for ourselves—that the most counter-cultural thing we can do is the most personal: to remember that, more often than not, small is better; closer is deeper; 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 own hearts first and doing what we can to be kind to one another.
We think we have to save all the starfish on the beach for our lives to be worthwhile. But our true calling is to save that one struggling creature that is before our eyes right now. The Talmud reminds us: “To save one person is to save a world.” To practice a single act of kindness or altruism, right now, transforms this present moment. That establishes a tiny beachhead of goodness along the coast of modern life. That is the thing that matters most, that matters right now.
Compassion and caring and kindness may be counter-cultural. But they are also carved so very deeply in our innermost souls. (Science shows that, as young as 18-weeks, infants will respond instinctively and compassionately to the perceived pain of those around them.) History is often cruel and unspeakably inhumane. But time and again through our long human story, forces of compassion and kindness emerge, and they redeem the humanity of us all.
Of course, counter-forces fight back. Forces of hatred. Forces of bigotry. Forces of enmity and intolerance. As often as not, various powers that be crush compassion, beat it down, even kill it off, and the light seems to go out.
But it never goes out, really; the fire smolders, but is not extinguished. History teaches that the forces of love and truth always lie in wait-- to emerge again, to break through the hard, crusted-over wasteland of human history.
Life is hard sometimes, and we all have problems and challenges of our own to face. Life is busy; often relentlessly, out-of-control busy for so many of us these days.
Still, it amazes me to think, sometimes, 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—and even in the lives of those we don't even know.
They say it takes half as many muscles to smile as to frown. (I don’t know if it’s true or not, but that’s what they say.) The corollary probably is also true: that it takes half as much energy (and perhaps half as much time) to be kind as to be cruel. But most people, I think, aren’t really cruel to one another. We're just sort of absent, apathetic, unengaged. I’ve sometimes said that if there is a final judgment for each of us, that it won’t be the “sins of commission”—the evil things I’ve actually done—that will do me in. (I’m just not that evil, or that interesting, I guess.) But I think of the “sins of omission” I’ve committed—those times I’ve failed to reach out to another; the times I have not been of as much help as I might have been; the times I have not done my duty—and I shudder: If there is a final judgment, those are the things that are going to do me in. I suspect that’s true of most of us.
So often, we go through life heads-bent, all huddled up against the coldness of life—protecting ourselves against the storms we fear might come our way; knowing that if we see that starfish,-- that problem-- on the beach, next door from us, in our own families, wherever, we own it; which means we’ll have to do something about it, even though we might not want to.
But why do we close in on ourselves so often, and stop the currents of kindness from flowing? Why do we sometimes seem to live our lives as though even in the midst of summer, there is within us an interminable winter, to turn the words of Camus on their head?
Why do we pretend that so many of the things we could do don’t really matter, anyway?
Perhaps we're frightened by the thought of letting people know who we really are, either because we ourselves don’t know who we are, or because we haven't made peace with who we really are yet. So we close in, and hide, and build a fortress around ourselves, lest we be discovered.
Or perhaps we insist on looking at life only through the dull-colored glasses we've borrowed from society. 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 close into our little group. “That same old crowd was like a cold dark cloud, we could never rise above.” So 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 perhaps we're afraid that we won't be able really to do anything for that person in need. 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 become paralyzed by our inability to “solve” the problem. So we retreat from the engagement, and back into ourselves. We can't solve the problem, so we do nothing.
We forget that sometimes-- oftentimes—we’re not called upon to solve anything; we’re just ask to be there. Oftentimes, just being there is enough.
Rabbi Harold Kushner tells this story:
One day, a young son 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, "I didn’t fix his bike. I just sat down and cried with him."
"In the end, only kindness matters."
In Kurt Vonnegut's novel God Bless You, Mrs. Rosewater, one of the characters is asked by a friend to baptize her newborn twins. He pleads with her that he has no influence in heaven, that he's not a religious person, really. But she wants him to do it anyway.
He shares his dilemma with another friend, who asks him "What will you do? What will you say?"
"Oh, I don't know," he answers. "I guess I'll go over to her house, throw some water on the babies, and say, 'Hello, babies, welcome to earth. It's hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It's round and wet and crowded. At the absolute outset, babies, you've got about 100 years here, and probably a lot less. There's only one rule I know of, babies—Damn it, you've got to be kind. There's only one rule: you've got to be kind."
We pile so many complications on things-- on religion, on politics, on life. And there are deep questions that nag at us, and complicated issues we face.
But maybe 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.
Love. Wonder. Gratitude. At the heart of all three of these is compassion. Boil it all down and life is about compassion, pure and simple. As Wordsworth wrote:
[Let us now praise]
That best portion of a good man's life,--
His little, nameless, unremembered acts
Of kindness and of love.
"Sometime in your life," writes Daniel Berrigan, "sometime in your life, hope that you may see one starved man, the look on his face when the bread finally arrives. Hope, pray, that you might have baked it, or bought it, or even needed it for yourself. For that look on your face, from your hands meeting across a piece of bread, you might be willing to lose a lot, or suffer a lot, or die a little even."
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."
It is through blessing others in our lives that we find ourselves most blessed.
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.
Our hands are small. But they are the only hands God has; the only hands this world of ours has.
May these hands reach out, and touch, and bless the world-- and bless each person that we are blessed to know.