Random acts of kindness are truly beautiful. One Christmas Day a few years ago, a stranger paid for my breakfast, and I felt the kind of warmth that comes in response to a reminder that humanity is, after all, good. But that gives rise to a question: why should I need a reminder? Why am I not constantly aware that humanity is good?
Presumably because humanity is not always good. This idea is not novel, I realize. Miley Cyrus, in fact, referenced our allegedly inherently flawed nature a few years back, singing the line, “Nobody’s perfect!”, and then movin’ her hips like yeah to reiterate the concept. But that gives rise to another question: why is humanity not always good?
Is it that we lack the capacity? Some say yes. Augustine, for example, chalks up his sexual indiscretions to the fact that he is flawed. Thus he cannot be expected to break his sinful habit without the grace of God.
But I beg to differ. My father once passed onto me a story he’d heard from a therapist whose first client was a physically abusive husband.
“I just can’t help it,” said the man. “I’m hard-wired to respond violently when she disobeys me.”
“Now, tell me,” asked the psychiatrist. “Would you respond that way if a policeman angered you by giving you a ticket, or if a Patriots linebacker sideswiped your car and refused to pay for the damage?”
“Well, no. I guess not.”
“Perhaps, then,” the psychiatrist filled in, “you can help it.”
Perhaps, then, we can all help it. Think for a moment of the person in this world whom you love the most. Think about how well you treat that person, and how much you would be willing to give up for that person. A lot of us have the good fortune of having at least one friend for whom we would, in a second, undertake to die—in a touching scene in Macbeth, Lady Macduff points out that even “the poor wren, the most diminutive of birds, will fight, her young ones in her nest, against the owl.” Many of us are lucky enough to know what it means to love like that.
So no, we do not lack the capacity to love absolutely. Clearly, we have the ability to be completely selfless and give away the one thing that allows us all of the other pleasures we have: our lives. Why? Because we value love more life, and nothing else matters to us more. The peerless value of love is also not a novel idea.
But try this: why not treat everyone the way we treat that one beloved person?
That, of course, is an equally worn-out topic: charities, welfare, and basic politeness exist for that purpose. But I don’t think we take the right approach to it. Contemporary culture pushes for the idea of moderation. Take care of yourself, and then use your excess to take care of others. Make a lot of money during the week, and then drop a twenty in the offering basket on Sundays. Give money to charity, but make sure that you yourself can live comfortably. Be good to people, and make as many friends as you can, but drop them if the friendships begin to bring you more anxiety than happiness. Don’t lose your temper, but still demand respect. You deserve proper treatment. Go on a service trip or do a little volunteering here and there; it’ll be good for you. Diet, but in such a way that you can still eat some of the foods you love. Use proper consumer ethics most of the time, but if you really love a piece of clothing, break your rigid buyer morality. You’ve earned it. Do random acts of kindness every now and then. Everything in moderation.
Too much of anything is bad, people say. And I think our culture has officially reached the point of excess moderation.
We are better than that.
We need not stoop to random acts of kindness; no, we have the ability to commit perpetual acts of kindness. This idea that we can only do so much without endangering ourselves is an excuse. At no point in my life have I found that using the phrase “I’m doing the best I can!” has provided a satisfactory response to anyone demanding more of me. Why?
Because we never do the best we can.
I decided to try to take apart my average day, piece by piece. First, I wake up, and change my clothes.
Stop. How much clothing do I own? Too much. Do I need all of it? No. Could I give some of it away? I know I certainly could. Often in the past, I’ve made the excuse that I have no time, but I know that if the person in my life whom I loved the most asked me if I had five minutes to talk, I would drop everything and find five minutes. So, yes, I most certainly have time.
Next, I brush my teeth.
Stop. Do I always remember to turn off the water while I’m in the brushing process? No. Could I not conserve a good deal of water by doing so? Yes. So why don’t I? Because I don’t think about it.
Then I go for a run. I come back and shower.
Stop. How long did I spend in the shower? Probably longer than necessary.
After that, I go to breakfast.
Stop. Did I smile at the cashier, say “please” to the person filling my order? I hope so. But I don’t know.
The list goes on. And yes, it’s absolutely insane to break down every moment of every day like that. But think about all the great men, those whom history has chosen to remember. Were any of them “sane”? Did they live in moderation? Or did they instead do good in unprecedented amounts?
And think for a moment of Christ, the man whom so many of us hail as Savior and Teacher. Did He ever plead the right to fair treatment, or insist upon owning just one or two expensive togas? Did He desire to lay down His life for a few people whom He loved? No, He died for “all men” and did so “while we were yet sinners.” Thus He gave all He had and asked nothing in return.
But surely, surely He doesn’t expect the same from us helpless humans, weak and worthless since the Fall. We can’t be expected to do good all the time. Why, then, should we bother to try?
Because we can.
“Be perfect, as your Father in Heaven is perfect.”
There’s a famous hymn called, “They’ll Know We Are Christians by Our Love.”
Look at your life, and ask yourself. Will anyone know?
No more moderation. We shortchange ourselves, and we treat the people most in need of our love with half-hearted compassion.
As Marianna Williamson once said, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.” For the longest time, I wondered why that should be a fear—until one day I looked at my own life and saw the great gap between who I am and who I have the ability to become. Realizing that I have the ability to be more than what I currently am compels me to ask more of myself than what I currently give.
tThe verse goes, “from those to whom much is given, much will be expected.” Or, of course, the pop culture reference, “with great power comes great responsibility,” expresses the same idea. If we stop seeing ourselves as weak, flawed, helpless, and incapable of rising above moderation, then, yes, we have to change our lifestyles radically.
Society might see us as insane, but that too is our fault to begin with and our responsibility to change. Someone once told me that one of the most common misconceptions people have is that they are “stuck in traffic.” “You fools!” he declared. “You’re not stuck in traffic; you are the traffic!” This invisible force called “society” is made up of millions of little parts we refer to as individuals. We ourselves are society. Society, then, does not oppress us; we oppress us. And to change society, we must each change ourselves by forgetting the concept of normal and instead embracing the concept of right. We must cease to comfort ourselves with the delusion that we are inadequate and must instead grab hold of the terrifying and beautiful truth:
We are powerful beyond moderation.