Wednesday, November 11, 2009


Here's another piece from the Lost Amazon Archives that I thought was worth re-posting.


The older I get the more I realize that the most important thing any of us can do in life is strive to live compassionately, keeping our hearts open, treating others with understanding and, most important, simple human kindness.  “That which is most needed,” as Buddha said, in words that have echoed through my life for decades, “is a loving heart.”  I truly believe that the microcosm is the macrocosm.  That our smallest acts of compassion resonate across the planet.  That one heart can quite literally change the world.

Of course it’s one thing to make compassion an intention in our lives and quite another to live it.  Oh, I try, I honestly do, to be as good and decent a person as I can—I’ve been consciously working on myself, on my connection to the Divine, for more than thirty-five years—but the truth is, for all my work, for all my striving, I’m regularly astounded by my ability to say or do spectacularly stupid or hurtful things.

I’ve found that ninety-nine percent of the time, when I’ve done something to wound another person, I’ve done it unconsciously:  I was so clueless I wasn’t even aware of my idiotic actions.  When I discover my transgression, my response is usually the same:  guilt, misery, shame, and abject apologies.  (The first three, I’ve decided, are fairly useless.  The abject apologies are absolutely necessary.)  Then—what else can I do?—I get up out of my pool of self-pity and determine to be more conscious of my actions in the future, to open my heart a little wider, to be more aware.

That said, I think that no matter how hard we try to live our highest ideals, we are, at some point—and, I suspect, with some regularity—going to screw up:  say or do the wrong thing.  Make idiotic mistakes.  Hurt someone’s feelings.  The fact is we’re human—if we were meant to be pure and perfect angels we’d have been born with wings—so all we can do is our best.  Sometimes our best is extraordinary, sometimes it’s pathetic; but it’s the effort that counts, I think.

In Kurt Vonnegut’s wonderful 1965 novel, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (one of my all-time favorite books), the main character—a man who cares so much about his fellow humans that it’s driven him to the brink of madness—is asked to baptize newborn twins.  Eliot Rosewater then improvises a succinct, honest and heartfelt welcome to Planet Earth that concludes like this:  “There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—:  ’God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.’”

Those words, like Buddha’s request for a loving heart, have stayed with me for decades.  Neither quote is especially poetic, but both contain enough truth to change the world.

One heart at a time.

©copyright 2009  J.M. DeMatteis 


  1. Well said. It's frustrating that "simple human kindness" can seem so decidedly NOT simple, and rare enough to possibly be an anomaly rather than a trait.

    Elliot's madness, of caring more for others than self, even THOSE others!, might just say more about the madness in our ways rather than his heart.

  2. I really think most of us WANT to be genuinely compassionate and kind in our lives, Tim. I think, for the most part, our fears and insecurities get in the way. But I really am a great believer in the inherent decency of most humans on the planet.

  3. It seems to me that for every inexplicable act of cruelty that makes the news cycle, there's likely a million acts of "random" kindness to counter them.

    You look at all the people who volunteer, from soup kitchens to cleaning highways to coaching kids' sports, it's just overwhelming.

    Kindness is like the sunrise. Until we take the time to look, we just take it for granted.


  4. Thanks for the reminder and the Vonnegut quote.

    “There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—: ’God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.’”

    That's truth and sincerity at its finest.


  5. Vonnegut was often portrayed as a cynic, who saw the worst in humanity. I always saw him as the most compassionate of writers. GOD BLESS YOU, MR. ROSEWATER remains my favorite of all his books because it's also his most heartfelt.