The Life Saving Power of Kindness

April 27, 2008

A short talk given in celebration of the Legacy of Mary Lou Cook
Santa Fe, NM

Let us talk today about a great misconception, or rather two misconceptions. One is the misconception of what is power and the other is the misconception of who has it.

Governments today spend trillions on rockets and armor, tanks and planes, ammunition and walls, all in the name of defense and they think that that is power. The Department of Homeland Security spends billions trying to find the hidden dangers in our emails and our library cards and our books and think they are defending power. But power leaks away from them because truth erodes power and truth spreads through a completely different medium, through the medium of the human connection, the desire to be a community, the un-eraseable human desire to share our hopes and fears, to share our care for one another, and such truth cannot be defended against by someone reading our emails or monopolizing our TV screens. Truth that travels from word of mouth and our inner knowing cannot be suppressed with tanks. Our desire to find a purpose in life and our knowing that that purpose is, at least, to preserve life itself, and our knowing that there is a power in life that is greater than the power in suppression, cannot be drummed out by the evening news, or the ring of patriotism or even with the forces of autocracy or tyranny. The yearning of life for itself is genetic; it is part of our human make-up.

All government spending on “defense” is an attempt to protect power, to maintain power, to keep power immune from attack. And all such effort is ineffective against the greatest danger to power of all, the danger of kindness, or of truth and harmlessness.

It has always been so. It has always been that those who dwell in delusion and insecurity hope that they can build walls that will keep out their enemies and the dangers of the world, and it has always been so that patriarchal governments have amassed armies and sought to eliminate the dangers of the world before the dangers of the world could eliminate them.

But there is one danger to the powerful that armies and weapons have never been able to overcome, never been able to see clearly, and never been able to defend against.

When Samson wanted to go see Delilah all the patriarchs told him not to do so because she was “not our kind of woman,” meaning that she would not take him to her for his wealth or power or to maintain the pure family line, maintain the patriarchal line of “begats” in the Bible. She would take him for the joy of love alone. Love of that kind, love of Eve’s kind—for Eve herself did not originate from the patriarchs—was not the sort of love that empire could be built upon and so Jehovah did not approve. But the patriarchs were powerless against such love because it was genetic, part of the package we came in with.

And we know from the great Greek poet Homer that when Odysseus was with Calypso on her glorious island, it was not that Calypso loved Odysseus because of his wealth or power but rather for who he was as a man. And in that love was a promise of immortality; said Calypso. Love can make a man immortal, she said. Oh, no, said Zeus, it is a man’s estates that make a man immortal, and he should get home thereto.

And ever since those earliest stories, western patriarchy, in response to the Calypsos of the world, has been trying to find a substitute for love’s immortality or the endless effects of kindness, hoping that property or armies or empire might make a man immortal as well. But life’s yearning for itself, the effusion of kindness from the very soil we walk upon that gives us the grasses and the flowers, is greater than property’s dry, tasteless promise; compassion is greater than gold and so all the stories of our armies and our empires have not erased what was deeper and more human even than wealth and power.

The eleventh century Persian poet, Nizami Ganjevi, writes of a time when Alexander the Great was invading the territories on his way to the Caspian Sea. Everywhere Alexander went, he was destroying armies, laying waste kingdoms, killing and plundering, which was necessary because it was plunder that was the reward for his armies. When he came to Queen Nashubaa’s kingdom in the mountains of Azerbaijan, he was prepared to lay waste again, but having heard that here was a queen of great beauty and wisdom, he decided to disguise himself and sneak into town and find out for himself how strong were the ramparts, how great the defending army.

Alexander walked alone to the court of the wise queen and strode in dressed as a servant messenger. But he did not act like a servant. He went straight to the Queen’s throne. Now was a moment of great tension; a servant messenger, or so he appeared, wanted to sit on the throne, displacing the very Queen. Gracefully, Queen Nashubaa, stepped aside; “Here, Sir, sit here,” she said, offering to the messenger who was Alexander her throne. And Alexander, sitting down, became just a little nervous; for he did not understand exactly who was in control here.

Then Queen Nashubaa turned out for Alexander a great feast of wines and meats and tasty breads and fruits , but before the meal she spread before the great Greek general a row of four precious goblets, one filled with gold, another with rubies, another with sapphires and a fourth with amethysts. “Drink, my lord,” said the Queen to Alexander.

“You have got be kidding,” he said, “those are stones.”

“And is your empire not all in search of such stones?” the wise queen—who was also beautiful—replied. “And is any of these more than the stones that lies in the road in front of your carts? And do you now do war everywhere for all these stones? Here, take what we have and drink your fill and they will never be separated from you.”

Now Alexander was even more nervous and uncertain just who was in control here. He bowed to the Queen, and Nizami tells us that he quietly left the lovely Nashubaa behind, and left her kingdom behind, and killed no one until he was gone somewhere where he could find someone who would resist him. Nashubaa had penetrated great power with truth and harmlessness.

Something had gotten hold of Alexander that he could not understand and that he could not control. That is the way it is with kindness. It comes naturally from all of us and no one can control it. It flows as the gentle rains of heaven and no one can control it. It comes at the street corner when we give dollars to the men and women who wait there for our help to buy a dinner. It comes out of us unbidden when a weary mother rises in the night to nurse her baby or the exhausted father rises from the couch to play catch with his son.

Delilah and Calypso and Nashubaa are figures of the ancient past who symbolize the power in compassion and caring that the new patriarchies could not repress but would try forever to demonize.

And we think of the power of kindness when we think of Mahatma Gandhi who would speak the truth but would not speak evil of the British Viceroy or the colonials that beat and harassed and oppressed his people. He said of them that he knew that they were trying to do right, and that by their lights they would ever try to do right, and that in trying to do right they were causing great suffering and that he knew that they would want to undo that suffering when they became aware of its magnitude and its horror.

When he went to the sea to pick up salt Gandhi did so because salt was a useful preservative and the right of every person and could not be auctioned and controlled by empire, and that was a truth, but he did not go to the ocean chanting slogans of hatred or abuse so much as to remind the world that “we are people here,” and because his message was of the people and their needs, his power could not be defended against. No number of jails, no number of beatings, no enormous disproportion of what the Empire thought of as power could be sufficient to oppress the power of people united in the simple slogan, “we are people, here,” and we will take care of each other and there is no thing in the world that you can do to keep us from taking care of each other. Gandhi accomplished with the power of decency and compassion and truth something that could never be accomplished in hundreds of years with guns and vilification.

When I was working in the Soviet Union, I worked with a man who had fought in the second war as a partisan, who went to the woods to defend his villages in Belo-Russia from the invading Nazi armies. He had gone to the woods and picked up a rifle when he was sixteen and then went off to war, watching German armies burn whole villages of people, rounding them up in their barns or churches. It was an unspeakable horror. And when he came home after the war, he began to work with others like me and one day a woman in Los Angles asked him how he had gotten to be such a kind man, how he had come to b a man of compassion.

He told them this story: That after the war when he went home to his village where a group of German prisoners of war were working on a pipeline outside the back door of his house. Every day the prisoners came and every day they sweated away, digging in the hot sun. One day my friend’s mother said to him, “Ales, set the table with our china and flatware and bring those boys inside for lunch.”

“Mama!” Ales cried, “They are Germans!”

“And they are people, too,” his mother replied, and Ales set the table and went out and brought the prisoners in for lunch, and the prisoners were in no danger of forgetting how they had done a wrong thing in the war, but for one brief afternoon they were treated as if they were people, too.

Now the power of kindness had not only been to release those German prisoners from the hatred of some local villagers, it had also released my friend from his own bondage to hatred and in the years after the war he had gone on to become a writer and novelist and a great moral force in the Soviet Union and eventually was elected to the Duma, or parliament. His compassion and wisdom and truth telling had made him a leader against whom the communist regime had no defense. No tank or gun could silence him; his words were already out in the stories the people told, and these stories were being shared from one person to another, through the relationships of caring that were a vast network underneath the terror of the Soviet Union. My friend was a simple village boy who had followed the example of his mother, and all of us are in some way simple village boys or girls who have the power to follow the examples of our mothers, or fathers, and all of us have that authority if we will take it.

Down through time, from earliest Calypso, to the empires of Alexander the Great, to the empires of today, there has been a misconception that the spear, or the sword, or the will of the conqueror is greater than, is stronger than the compassion of the people, but through all this time it has been the unsung mother rising in the night, the unsung village boy becoming a poet and singer of tales of compassion that has knit us together as a people and it is in the knitting us together as a people that we have had power all along.

That is, therefore, the first misconception; that power comes from wealth and guns and doctrine and control. But all along power thus constructed is slyly de-constructed by the humor of Stephen Colbert, or the generosity of Mahatma Gandhi or the compassion of the my Russian friend’s mother.

The second misconception is that only some certain people have such power, or the ability to wield the power of kindness and compassion.

The power we have in us to be together and not just a “me” or a “you”—to be a community, a people, in companionship and mutual endeavor—is innate. I remember a time in Moscow when I saw a blind man being helped down the street by a paraplegic. The paraplegic could barely walk, but he could see. The blind man could not see, but he could walk. And so the blind man propped up the paraplegic and the paraplegic told him where to go and together they maneuvered the heavy traffic and subways of frantic Moscow. And that collaboration is more natural than any yearning for power, or to be alone, or to be in total control. Every one of us has a blind man and a paraplegic within, and every one of us has the innate knowledge that we lead, and see, for each other, and that that is how life survives.

I remember the time someone I know caught a man cutting the lock and stealing his bicycle. Instead of turning the thief in to the police, he gave the thief a job in his own office and the thief went to work and before the day was done the thief went out on the street and spent his wages and bought the employer a new lock for his bicycle.

These are the stories of the ordinary and common amongst us; stories of compassion that all of us know, and all of us could recite from our own lives. The great military machines and the great patriarchal machines and the great tyrannies of wealth and property would like us to believe that they have power, but they do not have the power that any one person has who reaches out in the darkness to bring light, reaches out to lend a hand to a friend, or to a stranger. Everyone here has that power. Mary Lou Cook has spent her whole life exercising that power. The misconception might be that only she has that power. She will tell you, and I will agree with her, that that power comes with your genetic makeup; it is within you and cannot be taken from you.

For such power from Mary Lou, and from all those around us who have awakened into it, we are all grateful, and we are all more alive, we are all more ready than ever, to do what is needed of us.