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 forty 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 2016 J.M. DeMatteis