© Dr. Chris Schriner 2002
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
November 10, 2002

When the novelist Aldous Huxley was nearing death, he said, "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 than: Try to be a little kinder." (Tom Owen-Towle, Spiritual Fitness, p.343.)

In this sermon, I'd like to treat Aldous Huxley's deathbed message as if it were a Biblical text, and try to draw out the significance of his words. When he urges us to "Try to be a little kinder," what does this mean? First of all what does it mean to be kind? I think that kindness starts with our inner motivation, our desire to be good to others. And when we act on our desire to treat people well, we will do things that help them, support them, and encourage them.

A person who is kind creates a connection that bridges the gap between two separate selves. And we need to make these connections. So many of us live on the edge of life, on the outside looking in. It's as if there is an invisible bubble around us. But we want to participate, to join life fully, to feel closeness and kinship.

So kindness means caring, and when we act on our caring, our world is expanded. We reach through the bubble and touch other people.

Notice that Aldous Huxley also says we should TRY to be kinder. This sounds paradoxical since kindness tends to be something we express spontaneously, following our compassionate impulses. As Mary Webb put it, "If you stop to be kind, you must swerve often from your path." (Random Acts of Kindness, Conari Press, p. 110)

Here is an example of an impulsive, instantaneous act of compassion:

I am a corporate lawyer, and several years ago I was at my first closing. The investment banker came to deliver a check for $55 million to my client, and before my client arrived, I went to the Xerox machine to copy the check for our records. I put the check in the feeder of the copier, and it promptly shredded it! I told the banker about the mutilated check, and a moment later my client arrived, eager to receive the money. The banker looked at me and said to the client, "I can't believe it! I forgot the check!" He left and returned an hour later with a new check, and I kept my job. (Random Acts of Kindness, Conari Press, p. 72)

So an investment banker sees a green young lawyer make an embarrassing mistake. The banker didn't mind looking dumb in order to give this kid a break. And he figured out what to do in a matter of seconds. How could he have tried to do something so spontaneous?

And also there's another problem with trying to be kinder. The whole idea of trying to be good seems questionable. Using willpower to alter the way we act is notoriously ineffective. When we want to change our own behavior, we need more to do more than just try. What we need is a practical strategy, a plan that will work. So when Huxley urges us to try to become kinder, I interpret that as meaning, "Find practical strategies that help you become a kinder person, a person who often swerves from the usual path and impulsively acts out of caring." In this way the practice of active compassion can become a spiritual discipline. As Eric Hoffer wrote, "We are made kind by being kind. (International Thesaurus of Quotations, compiled by Rhoda Thomas Tripp, p. 335.)

Last week some of you committed yourselves to go out and perform random or impulsive acts of kindness. So let's hear some examples of how you practiced this spiritual discipline. [Discussion.]

By the way, don't be surprised if you forgot to try this out. To forget is so very human. Some day we should talk about how to do better at remembering our good intentions.

All right, so far I have been suggesting that kindness involves caring and connectedness, and that it is something we can practice. And one way to learn the habit of being kind is to become more conscious in our relationships with others. To be conscious is to be aware, to be alert, to notice other people. Here's a story from the Internet about the value of paying attention to everyone:

During my second month of college, our professor gave us a pop quiz. I ... breezed through the questions, until I read the last one: "What is the first name of the woman who cleans the school?"

Surely this was some kind of joke. I had seen the cleaning woman several times. She was tall, dark-haired and in her 50s, but how would I know her name? ... one student asked if the last question would count toward our quiz grade. "Absolutely," said the professor. "In your careers, you will meet many people. All are significant. They deserve your attention and care, even if all you do is smile and say 'hello'."

I've never forgotten that lesson. I also learned her name was Dorothy. (Thanks to Cindy Bruhn for this story.)

When we meet people do we even bother to introduce ourselves and ask their names? Here in Silicon Valley I often see people skip over those basic steps toward making human connections. The cultural climate of this area encourages us to make contact only when it serves our purposes. But we don't need to be like those around us. We can reach out and meet people, just because they are people, even if we're a little shy about doing that.

So we can train ourselves to be conscious of others. And even though it may seem paradoxical, we can even practice spontaneity. If we pay attention to our own impulses toward being helpful, we will notice that many of those impulses never turn into actions. The urge to reach out bounces off the inner wall of our bubble. So we can teach ourselves to act spontaneously by following through on the spontaneous impulses that are already inside of us. When we feel ourselves starting to move, let's take off the brakes and go forward.

A few years ago I had been shopping in a department store for half an hour, and I heard one more of the endless stream of obnoxious announcements that spew out of the public address system in that store: "Will the owner of a red Honda, license plate number 2THP194 please come to the main entrance." That was my car! I had left my lights on, and fortunately the battery held up that long. In the length of time I had been in the store at least fifty people must have walked past my car. Presumably some of them felt a twinge of sympathy for my predicament. But it was the person who was not only aware, not only sympathetic, but who followed through who saved me from a great big hassle.

Here is another example of someone following through on an impulse, from the book Random Acts of Kindness:

I was living in Chicago and going through ... a particularly cold winter both in my personal life and the outside temperature. One evening I was walking home from a bar where I had been drinking alone, feeling sorry for myself, when I saw a homeless man standing over an exhaust grate in front of a department store ...

I was too immersed in my own troubles to deal with him so I crossed the street. As I went by, I looked over and saw a businessman come out of the store and pull a ski parka out of a bag and hand it to the homeless man ... Then the [homeless] man looked across the street at me. He shook his head slowly and I knew he was crying. It was the last time I have ever been able to disappear into my own sorrow. (Random Acts of Kindness, Conari Press, p. 64)

By the way, this story illustrates an important side effect of treating others with compassion. Those who witness these actions also benefit.

So far this morning I've been asking what the word "kindness" means and what it means to "try." But there is one other crucial word in Huxley's statement: He tells us, "Try to be a little kinder."

It may seem depressing that his deathbed message to the world was only to be a little kinder. It does sound realistic, because people usually change in ways that are gradual rather than dramatic. But how can a little bit more kindness be enough? Our world is not working. Humanity needs to change a lot, not a little.

What gives me hope is that we can become a little kinder today, still kinder tomorrow, and more so the month after that. Even if we change slowly, once the change process has begun it can continue forever. There is no limit to how compassionate we can become, no limit to our capacity to be aware, no limit to our creativity and resourcefulness.

Judith Ross has told me about a technique from Insight Meditation that involves repeating phrases such as,

May I be happy
May I be well
May I be safe
May I be peaceful and at ease

This exercise begins with wishing kindness for oneself, but it doesn't stop there. We go on to wish kindness toward a loved one, and then toward a friend, a neutral person, a difficult person, and, finally, an enemy. Do you see how we can progress step by step, starting with what's easy and working up to higher levels?

In this sermon series I have tended to emphasize random or impulsiveness acts of kindness, but I want to say clearly that random actions are not enough. We also need consistent and dependable patterns of compassion. When Jesus said, "Feed my sheep," he didn't mean tossing them a basket of grass today and letting them starve tomorrow. Being content with a kindness here and a kindness there is spirituality on the cheap, and cut-rate spirituality is not what we need. And beware of being content with personal generosity while ignoring the larger social systems that do so much to either nurture human beings or destroy them.

I also realize that not all whimsical acts of kindness turn out well. The late newspaper columnist, Jack Smith, pointed out that what seems kind to one may seem impertinent or obtrusive to another. He wrote:

"Buy a balloon for a ... kid in a grocery store." Angry father: "If I want my kid to have a balloon I'll buy him one."

"Stopping to allow another driver to turn in front of you, even though you have the right of way." Meanwhile, the angry motorists behind you honk up a storm.

And at the suggestion that we could "Clean up a dirty restroom in a gas station," Smith replied: "Have you ever seen a dirty restroom in a gas station? My God! You'd have to have a fire hose." (L. A. Times, May 2, 1994, pp. E-1 and E-6)

Well, should we focus on our fear that a kindness might be taken amiss, or should we boldly believe that this world needs more generosity? Action involves risk, but so does inaction. Even so, we do need to be sensitive and intelligent. Thoughtless kindness can be a curse.

I'd like to tell you a story that illustrates many of the key ingredients of "trying to be a little kinder." The story is told by a taxi driver, and this fellow has clearly practiced being compassionate, caring, and aware. He knows how to follow through on a generous impulse. He is willing to reach out beyond his own personal bubble and participate in the lives of others. Here is the taxi driver's story:

When I arrived at 2:30 a.m., the building was [mostly] dark ... Under these circumstances, many drivers would just honk ... wait a minute, then drive away. But, I had seen too many impoverished people who depended on taxis as their only means of transportation....

So I walked to the door and knocked.... A small woman in her 80's stood before me. She was wearing a print dress and a pillbox hat with a veil pinned on it, like somebody out of a 1940s movie.... The apartment looked as if no one had lived in it for years. All the furniture was covered with sheets....

... She took my arm and we walked slowly toward the curb. She kept thanking me for my kindness. "It's nothing," I told her. "I just try to treat my passengers the way I would want my mother treated. "Oh, you're such a good boy," she said.

When we got in the cab, she gave me an address, then asked, "Could you drive through downtown?"

"It's not the shortest way," ... "I'm in no hurry. I'm on my way to a hospice." I looked in the rearview mirror. Her eyes were glistening. "I don't have any family left," she continued. "The doctor says I don't have very long."

I quietly reached over and shut off the meter. "What route would you like me to take?" I asked.

For the next two hours, we drove through the city.... We drove through the neighborhood where she and her husband had lived when they were newlyweds. She had me pull up in front of a ... warehouse that had once been a ballroom where she had gone dancing as a girl. Sometimes she'd ask me to slow in front of a particular building ... and would sit staring into the darkness, saying nothing.

As the first hint of sun was creasing the horizon, she suddenly said, "I'm tired. Let's go now."

We drove in silence to the address she had given me.... How much do I owe you?" she asked... "Nothing," I said. "You have to make a living," she answered. "There are other passengers," I responded. Almost without thinking, I bent and gave her a hug. She held onto me tightly. "You gave an old woman a little moment of joy," she said. "Thank you." I squeezed her hand, then walked into the dim morning light. Behind me, a door shut. It was the sound of the closing of a life.

I didn't pick up any more passengers that shift. I drove aimlessly, lost in thought. For the rest of that day, I could hardly talk. What if that woman had gotten an angry driver, or one who was impatient to end his shift?

On a quick review, I don't think that I have done anything more important in my life. We're conditioned to think that our lives revolve around great moments.But great moments often catch us unaware. (Thanks to Claudia Pedler for this story from the Internet.)

Yes, in a sense, great moments of potential generosity do catch us unaware, but when we approach each human encounter with awareness, we will catch those rare moments of special opportunity and make a compassionate connection with someone who needs our help, or who just needs a hug. So I close by inviting us all to think small. Lets's try to be a little kinder, and a little more after that. In these small beginnings the world is reborn.

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