Muhammad Ali tells us in his autobiography, “The Soul of a Butterfly: Reflections on Life’s Journey” that “People say that I gave away too much money during my boxing career.” He goes on: “They write about how some people took advantage of me, stole from me, and how I let them get away with it. Even when I knew people were cheating me, what was important was how I behaved, because I have to answer to God. I can’t be responsible for other people’s actions. They will have to answer to God….I have never sought retribution against those who have hurt me because I believe in forgiveness. I have practiced forgiving, just as I want to be forgiven.”
Parker J. Palmer writes (“Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit”) about listening to the late black Senator John Lewis as they travelled together in a bus.
In 1961, he and a friend were at a bus station in Rock Hill, South Carolina, when several young white men attacked and beat them bloody with baseball bats. Lewis and his friend did not fight back, and they declined to press charges. They simply treated their wounds and went on with their Civil Rights work.
In 2009, forty-eight years after this event, a white man about John Lewis’s age walked into his office on Capitol Hill, accompanied by his middle-aged son. “Mr. Lewis,” he said, “my name is Elwin Wilson. I’m one of the men who beat you in that bus station back in 1961. I want to atone for the terrible thing I did, so I’ve come to seek your forgiveness. Will you forgive me?” Lewis said, “I forgave him, we embraced, he and his son and I wept, and then we talked.”
As Lewis came to the end of this remarkable and moving story, he leaned back in his seat on the bus. He gazed out the window for a while as we passed through a countryside that was once a killing ground for the Ku Klux Klan, of which Elwin Wilson had been a member. Then, in a very soft voice — as if speaking to himself about the story he had just told and all of the memories that must have been moving in him — Lewis said, “People can change . . . People can change . . .”
In the Introduction to his translation of the Upanishads (“The Principal Upanishads”), S. Radhakrishnan writes: “A forgiving attitude frees the individual. We should grudge none, and forgive all.”
In “Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life”, Karen Armstrong writes that “one small act of kindness can turn a life around.” Jack London explains why in “White Fang”, a story about a wolf-dog, published in 1906. He writes that “Human kindness” is the “sun shining”, which helps us flourish “like a flower planted in good soil.”
Naomi Shihab Nye observes, in the poem “Kindness” (one of the poems in in “Words Under the Words: Selected Poems”) that “it is only kindness that makes sense anymore….”
In the commencement address to the 2013 graduating class of Syracuse University’s College of Arts and Sciences , the writer George Saunders tells his audience:
It’s a little facile, maybe, and certainly hard to implement, but I’d say, as a goal in life, you could do worse than: Try to be kinder.
Guy Stagg narrates, in “The Crossway”, his pilgrimage-walk from Canterbury (the UK) to Jerusalem — a walk (probably about 5000 kms) he set off on trying to recover from a nervous breakdown when he was about 23 years young. Towards the end, we read what is probably the main illumination from his pilgrimage : “In the end, the kindness was all that mattered.”
In his 1865 novel, “Our Mutual Friend”, we read Charles Dickens on the spirit of kindness — it is having “a heart that never hardens, and a temper that never tires, and a touch that never hurts….”
We listen to Swami Vivekananda (“The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda”) exhort the Graduate Philosophy Society of Harvard University on 25th March 1896: “Love everyone as your own self, because the whole universe is one.” What does this loving mean?
Thich Nhat Hanh, in “How to Love” teaches us that “True love includes a sense of responsibility and accepting the other person as she is, with all her strengths and weaknesses. If you only like the best things in a person, that is not love. You have to accept her weaknesses and bring your patience, understanding, and energy to help her….”
The psychologist Erich Fromm writes in “The Art of Loving” that “the main condition for the achievement of love is the overcoming of one’s narcissism.” Thomas Merton explains this in “No Man is an Island”: “The beginning of love is….the resolution not to twist them to fit our own image. If in loving them we do not love what they are, but only their potential likeness to ourselves, then we do not love them: we only love the reflection of ourselves we find in them.”
In a letter to his son (14 years young), written on 10th November 1958 (“Steinbeck: A Life in Letters”), the author and Nobel Laureate John Steinbeck writes: “There are several kinds of love. One is a selfish, mean, grasping, egotistical thing which uses love for self-importance. This is the ugly and crippling kind. The other is an outpouring of everything good in you — of kindness and consideration and respect….The first kind can make you sick and small and weak but the second can release in you strength, and courage and goodness and even wisdom you didn’t know you had.”
If we want the world to heal and bloom, we would do well to ponder something in Swami Vivekananda’s lines deeply — he says love “everyone”….
Kate Marvel, climate scientist at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, writes in a 2017 OnBeing piece that “We should never have called it Earth. Three quarters of the planet’s surface is saltwater….”
W H Auden ends the poem “First Things First” (in “Collected Poems”) with this immortal line: “Thousands have lived without love, not one without water.”
Shannon Lee begins “Be Water, My Friend: The True Teachings of Bruce Lee” with the following words from Bruce Lee, her father:
Be Water. Be formless, shapeless, like water.
You put water into a cup, it becomes the cup.
You put water into a bottle, it becomes the bottle.
You put it into a teapot, it becomes the teapot.
Now water can flow or it can crash! Be water, my friend.
In “The Penelopiad”, we read Margaret Atwood: “Water does not resist. Water flows. When you plunge your hand into it, all you feel is a caress. Water is not a solid wall, it will not stop you. But water always goes where it wants to go, and nothing in the end can stand against it. Water is patient. Dripping water wears away a stone. Remember that, my child. Remember you are half water. If you can’t go through an obstacle, go around it.”
The Roman philosopher-statesman, Seneca, who was asked by Emperor Nero to kill himself, writes (“On the Shortness of Life” translated by Gareth D. Williams) around 50 AD that “It’s not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste much of it.”
“Life”, he tells us “is long enough, and it’s been given to us in generous measure for accomplishing the greatest things, if the whole of it is well invested.” He thunders further on in the book: “Men are thrifty in guarding their private property, but as soon as it comes to wasting time, they are most extravagant with the one commodity for which it’s respectable to be greedy.”
As the essay unfolds, we feel Seneca pouring from the depths of his soul. Seize the day, he says. “Even when you’ve seized it, it will still slip away; and so you must compete with time’s quickness in the speed with which you use it, and you must drink swiftly as if from a fast-moving torrent that will not always flow.”
Matthieu Ricard likens time (“On the Path to Enlightenment”), to “gold dust” and cautions us not let it run “through our fingers”. He writes: “Every moment of our lives has tremendous value.” He encourages us to “be aware that every second of our life is inestimably precious”, and asks that we “make the best use of it for our own good and the good of others.”
In “The Writing Life”, Annie Dillard reminds us that this hour, this minute matters. “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing.”
The geologist Hans Cloos wrote in 1953 (“Conversation with the Earth”) of “the harmony between the music of our own soul and the music of the earth.” Sounding like the sages of the Upanishads, he writes elsewhere in book of a path that leads from the “unconscious within ourselves to the imponderable and invisible in the earthly environment.” Hans tells us: “He who walks this trail sees the beauty of the earth, and hears its music.”
In “Underland — A Deep Time Journey”, Robert Macfarlane writes of being deep in a cave and realizing that “Down-here….the boundaries between life and not-life are less clear.” He goes on: “We are part mineral beings too — our teeth are reefs, our bones are stones — and there is a geology of the body as well as of the land. It is mineralization — the ability to convert calcium into bone — that allows us to walk upright, to be vertebrate, to fashion the skulls that shield our brains.”
As realization dawns that we are, in a profound sense, not different from the Earth, not different from Nature, we see what Wendell Berry means in the following lines of “How to be a Poet” (“New Collected Poems”):
“There are no unsacred places;
there are only sacred places
and desecrated places.”
In “An Alchemy of Mind”, Diane Ackerman writes of her creed: “All life is sacred.” She explains: “As basic as that is, for me it’s also tonic and deeply spiritual, glorifying the smallest life-form and embracing the most distant stars”, and exhorts us to improve “our behavior toward one another.”
In “Ingersollia”, the 1882 compilation of thoughts from lectures, and conversations of Robert Ingersoll, the lawyer and agnostic thinker, we read:
A cross man I hate above all things. What right has he to murder the sushine of the day? What right has he to assassinate the joy of life? When you go home you ought to feel the light there is in the house; if it is in the night it will burst out of the doors and illuminate the darkness.
Christophe Andre, the psychiatrist, confesses (“In Search of Wisdom” )that he is “a depressive type who can….reason in a twisted way in order to justify his way of seeing the world.” He goes on to tell us about his daughter who “for two years….had been in intensive classes preparing for university entrance exams”. She led “a hard life” with long hours of commuting as well. Christophe writes: “And every morning I got up with her, made her orange juice, her coffee, her sandwich, thinking it was important for me to be there. She was practically joyous and had a smile on her face, even in the cold and dark winter, even at exam time. Some mornings she would ask me how I was feeling, and sometimes I wasn’t feeling that well but I didn’t want her to see it, so I’d say, “Oh, I’m okay, doing okay.” And she would scold me, saying, “Okay? Your ‘okay’ doesn’t sound very convincing.” Little by little I got the point. And one day it became clear enough for me to articulate: No matter what happens, you find every reason to be happy in the morning.”
In a letter (“The Letters of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett — Volume 1, 1845-1846”) written on 5th March 1845, some time before she met and married Robert Browning, the poet Elizabeth Barrett (who suffered from illnesses and chronic pain from an early age) tells him that she has “after a course of bitter mental discipline and long bodily seclusion” learned “the wisdom of cheerfulness.”
In his talks on Bhakti Yoga (“The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda”), we hear Swami Vivekananda tell us that the person who aspires to the highest realization, “must be cheerful.” Swamiji explains why. “It is the cheerful mind that is persevering. It is the strong mind that hews its way through a thousand difficulties.”
In “The Principles of Uncertainty”, the illustrator, artist, and writer, Maira Kalman, writes of the bravery needed to “take step after step” taking care “not to trip and yet” trip sometimes, “and then get up.”
In “The Fall”, Albert Camus writes that “in this world….Sometimes, carrying on, just carrying on, is the superhuman achievement.”
Alexandre Jollien observes (“In Search of Wisdom”) that
There is a discreet heroism of everyday life: getting up in the morning, being generous, facing difficulties without losing one’s joy.
Swami Vivekananda (“The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda”) tells us that if we “really want to judge of the character of a man”, we are better off looking not at “his great performances” but rather at his life every day. “Watch a man do his most common actions; those are indeed the things which will tell you the real character of a great man.”