If you listen, sometimes wisdom comes from unexpected places.
Last month, comedian and talk show host Conan O’Brien signed off from his seven-month tenure as the host of The Tonight Show after NBC bumped his show to a later time slot in order to move Jay Leno out of prime time. He went out with dignity and style, thanking the network for providing him with more than 20 years of professional opportunities. He also encouraged his viewers, especially young people to eschew cynicism.
The other thing he said was just as surprising: “If you work really hard and are kind, amazing things will happen to you.”
So, whatever happened to kindness? Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius called kindness humanity’s “greatest delight.” The Hebrew word ‘chesed’ is variously translated as kindness and mercy and was what the prophet Micah meant when he told the people that God was no longer interested in the sacrificial system of the Temple, but instead wanted people to “do justice, love kindness and walk humbly.”
In their book On Kindness, Adam Philips and Barbara Taylor ask the same question about kindness and why acts of kindness come as such a surprise to us. Often stories of kindness are trivialized as if kindness was anything but a greatest delight.
Classical ideas about benevolent living and reaching a higher plane of existence through the cultivation of altruism have come to appear quaint, unrealistic and unimportant. “Nice guys finish last” seems to be a common perception in the post-modern world. If you are kind, you will end up a doormat.
Philips and Taylor sought to answer a very old question: Are human beings by nature kind from birth and become hardened by life, or are they by nature self serving and only a few learn kindness as a virtue?
They accepted that the dominant cultural world view is that it is a tough world out there, and that the first priority of any individual is to look out for themselves – a survival-of-the-fittest mentality. Taylor writes, “We’re not saying that people have stopped being kind, but that kindness has been under a great deal of pressure. What is striking is that people have stopped thinking of human beings as kind.”
Born in the middle 4th century in the British Isles, Pelagius brought a different perspective to the doctrine of original sin. He disagreed with his contemporary Augustine on the nature of humanity. Pelagius argued that creation is essentially good but that sin clouds the goodness of creation. This was in sharp contrast to Augustine’s position that humanity was hopelessly fallen and unable to choose the good. Augustine won the debate, and Pelagius was condemned as a heretic and banished from Rome.
In their research, Philips and Taylor concluded that children actually begin their lives naturally kind, and that as they grow into contemporary society they learn self-centeredness. If kindness is understood as the virtue of losers, this conclusion is no surprise. But does it have to be that way? And what about Micah and Conan O’Brien; is it our journey to do justice and love kindness? Is it possible that if we work really hard and be kind, that amazing things might happen to us?
Steve Hammer is the associate pastor at Esperanza Lutheran Church in Ahwatukee Foothills.