By Dr. Joseph Chuman
“…little, nameless, unremembered, acts
Of kindness and of love.”
The title of my address this morning comes from a line in the poem “Tintern Abbey,” written by the British romantic poet William Wordsworth. But the inspiration for my address is profoundly personal. It emerges out of the death of my beloved wife, Linda, who was known to many of you and who died about three and a half years ago. For me, and I suspect most other people who have lost their intimate partners who shared their life with them–in the case of Linda and me, it was a relationship of more than 40 years–one is left with a profound sense of grief. I won’t speak of grief this morning. It’s an emotional phenomenon I have found that is like no other, with its own unique character and its distinctive dynamics. It is a phenomenon that, I conclude, one cannot fully understand unless one has experienced it. I know that I didn’t.
I am writing a short book about grief and the multitude of feelings and thoughts that accompany it, in great measure because I have found very little writing that actually describes those feelings and thoughts in ways that I can identify with. I have read quite a lot about grief since Linda died, and there are many self-help books, which I found not very helpful when confronted with the harsh reality of the death of my intimate partner. Let me just say that in my experience the death of a loved one is an amputation. And at its least, it leaves an emptiness that will be with me for the rest of my life. One, I believe, doesn’t get over such a loss. The best one can do is grow around it, make adjustments, try to fill up as much empty space as one can, and move on day to day as best one can. But this is not what I want to speak about this morning.
This morning I want to touch upon one, and only one, thing that has emerged out of my loss. But first, I need to say something about myself and my temperament, which helps to frame my values. The philosopher William James had once noted that “life is serious business.” And I believe that. I am not a pessimist, at least not in the long range. Rather, I strive to be a realist, and aspire to have my emotions be proportionate to the realities that I confront. When circumstances are affirming, I want to be happy. When events speak to misfortune, I want to feel sad. I want to laugh and I want to cry when laughter and tears are called for.
Temperament molds our emotional response
Needless to say, different people interpret and respond to reality differently. There is a huge range of subjectivity with regard to how people interpret, internalize, and respond to their circumstances. There are people who live in poverty and struggle with great adversity and maintain a happy outlook. On the other hand, there are people who live lives of luxury and objectively have everything going for them, yet are fundamentally miserable. So much of how we respond to the lives we lead is based on what I call “temperament.” Some people are simply by nature more upbeat, and others more dour and saturnine and it is their inner temperamental template, so to speak, that molds their emotional responses to the world they engage with.
On the other hand, I am guessing that there is an objective consensus of humankind that material comfort is better and ultimately more conducive to happiness than poverty, that it is better to be healthy in body and mind than to be sick and infirm, better to be surrounded by people who love and care for you, and to be supported by friends, than it is to be isolated, alone, and lonely. Friedrich Nietzsche once said “that which does not kill you makes you stronger.” That may sometimes be true, but I think few people would invite any form of adversity in order to test and augment their fortitude. Few people would wish to contract cancer in order to emerge stronger from having endured it. Indeed, I am a cancer survivor, but whatever characterological fortitude has accrued from having engaged my cancer, I assure you, it was not worth the price of having it in the first place, and mine was a readily treatable case.
Where I am personally leading is that I am not compelled to put a sunny gloss on realities that seem to me to be downright, if not objectively, negative, miserable, or awful. There is a great deal of tragedy and suffering in the human condition, both that we endure individually and we experience as a species across the board. And my general approach to such reality, as I see it, is not to deny it but to accept it as real, and when necessary, confront and deal with it as best I can. One consequence of my emotional outlook is to recoil from being cheery when I think there is nothing to be cheery about. And I am certainly not a Pollyanna. It is definitely not who I am.
But, this is not to say that I am at all depressed, and I affirm that there is much in life to celebrate and be happy about. Whether we find it or not, of course we are led to pursue happiness. And I personally love to laugh.
In praise of persistence
But as I grow older, I must confess that I see that whatever happiness there is in life transpires against a background that is often tragic and involves a great deal of coping. Much of life is sheer coping. And of course, many of the hardships that people face go on in private and out of view. I contend that if you scratch the surface, and peer underneath, you will find scarcely a family that is spared great hardship, whether it be a devastating illness, children with monumental problems, chronic disabilities, and the loss that comes with the death of those we love. Hence, I have come to the conclusion that the greatness of the human spirit is not to be found in heroics, or even in triumphing over adversity, but in the sheer doggedness and persistence that people express that enables them to persevere and go on in the face of hardship and tragedies that appear otherwise overwhelming. It is in that doggedness, often carried on silently, privately, and unknown to others, that human greatness is to be found.
It is my commitment to this kind of hard-headed realism that refuses to allow me to see a silver lining behind much of human suffering when there is no material or concrete warrant to affirm that silver lining. I don’t believe that every problem has a solution. And I don’t believe that every crisis or misfortune has a happy ending. In short, bad things happen to good people through no fault of their own. Nature is totally indifferent to our suffering, and reality is not so constituted that things are fated to work out just as we would want them to. To believe that they do, I assert, is a form of magical thinking, and my experience and reason do not permit me to accept such a favorable view of life, fate, and circumstance.
By contrast, Christians may find something redemptive in pain, suffering and death. This was a mainstay of Mother Teresa’s approach to those most marginalized of the poor and the sick and the dying she cared for in Calcutta. She saw their suffering as a gift and their death, if they accepted Christ, as a thing of beauty. Needless to say, I am not a Christian and such is a value orientation that I do not accept. In truth, I find it somewhat repugnant.
And so, turning to myself for a moment, I do not and cannot put a positive spin on my loss and my grief occasioned by Linda’s death. There is nothing good I can say about that. It has been uniquely painful and my life has been immeasurably diminished because my beloved wife is gone and gone forever. Being grief-stricken has not changed me for the better–except in one small particular, which is the inspiration and substance for my talk this morning.
After Linda died I opened my small home for six evenings and I was visited by hundreds of people, in fact, many of you. More than 150 people came to a gathering in my backyard a few weeks later, which was in accordance with Linda’s wishes. Scores of people, some of whom I had never met and were anonymous and remain anonymous, so generously provided support to offset the expenses I incurred after Linda fell ill in London and was hospitalized for six weeks. People continued to come to the home for months afterwards. When Linda became ill, one friend called me every single day for more than a year to offer support. I received more than 200 cards of condolence. The outpouring of kindness, concern, and support was simply extraordinary, and well beyond what I would have anticipated, and I am left with a nagging disturbance that I have not been able to find an adequate way to thank those who were so generous, kind, and supportive of me, and giving of themselves in my time of greatest need.
In the grip of anguish, fear, and grief
At the time, needless to say, I was very grateful for the support I received. But if truth be told, at the time of my wife’s death I was so completely in the grip of anguish, grief, and even fear, that those emotions impeded my ability to fully absorb the kindness that was being bestowed at the moment, even though I could recognize its presence. All I felt was the compelling need to tell over and over again, seemingly endlessly, what befell Linda in her final weeks, including both the catastrophes she suffered and which I witnessed, and the extraordinary compassion of the doctors and nurses at Charing Cross Hospital, who struggled so hard to save her life. For months, I feared being alone and yet I could not be in the presence of more than one or two people at a time.
Three years later, my grief is still with me, and I continue to strategically organize my time so that I don’t find myself isolated at home for too long. But that is a long, detailed story that I don’t want to get into. What I do want to say is that time changes things, and it has changed me in one particular way, which focuses on the point I want to make this morning.
With the passage of time, I have become more sensitive to the kindness of others, and beyond that more appreciative of the importance of kindness in the human experience. The operative word here is “sensitive.” I think I am the type of person who has always been appreciative and moved by acts of kindness, whether bestowed on me or in general. What has changed is that my appreciation has become heightened and almost visceral, like the person who has a heightened sense of taste or a unique ability to experience the beauty in things or has a finely attuned ear for music.
And so my talk is really a brief meditation on kindness and its importance in the human experience. For me, when constructing a platform address at the Ethical Society, the unpardonable sin is to be platitudinous or simple. Yet, when it comes to kindness, its importance comes from its simplicity. Kindness is very basic, fundamental, and uncomplicated. The problem is that we need more of it.
It seems to me that we all live both public and private lives. Our public lives partake to a noticeable degree of our actions and achievements that, by definition, are visible to others. Our private lives are conducted among family and friends in relations of intimacy and by definition away from the view of others. Yet, and it’s not surprising, we tend to measure a person’s life more by their public achievements than those that go on in their private lives. The private sphere, understandably, gets less attention and is perhaps construed, therefore, as in some sense less important.
I am an inveterate obituary reader. And when one reads the life story of notable people the emphasis of the biography is almost always on their public achievements; their public contributions, or how they were outstanding in the their field. Seldom does one read in obituaries that so-and-so loved and was kind to his children or that she was generous and supportive to her friends. These things are deemed not so notable, yet who is to say that this side of a person’s life is not of equal importance, even if the consequences of their private relations may influence far fewer people?
To use an example very close to home, when we are asked to describe Ethical Culture, what most often comes to mind first and what we place at the top of the list are our notable public achievements, having created the Visiting Nurse Service, having built settlement houses and schools, and having been involved in founding the ACLU and NAACP, and a host of other achievements of which we are duly proud. But seldom do we define ourselves by our pastoral caring, by the support we give to each other in times of need, and the ways in which thousands of people have been helped and enriched by acts of interpersonal caring through the years, by what they have given and received from others over many years.
Ethics dwells, too, in smaller, quieter deeds
These are the acts that stitch lives together. Yet, if we as Ethical Culturists contend that we are committed to ethics above all things, who is to say that these smaller, quieter deeds are of less ethical importance than the grand public and political ones? Ethics is measured not only by the numbers of people who benefit, but by the nature of the act itself, and there may be more ethics in the kindness we bestow with a generous heart on others in need than in the performance of great public deeds that find us in the spotlight and bring us public acclaim.
When Felix Adler created Ethical Culture, he affirmed that its ultimate purpose was not vested in public acts of social justice, though this is essential to Ethical Culture, but in the cultivation of what he called “ethical personality” in each of its members. And certainly being kind to others, and to ourselves, is a component of ethical personality.
I have often noticed that we can think of two kinds of values. There are what I would call the “harder” ethical values, identified with, among others, justice, equality, fairness, and courage. Then there are the softer values such as love, compassion, caring, and kindness. I suspect that the softer values are sometimes disparaged in that they are equated with weakness, and there may be more than a hint of sexism in that. They are often identified with feminine traits that speak to an opposite of strength, aggression, and manliness, which are much prized in our dog-eat-dog world in which success is measured so often in terms of power and wealth and not by one’s fundamental humanity.
If we speak in a political context, I think now is a time that especially calls out for the cultivation of these softer values. We all know that we live in an era that has become extraordinarily nasty and mean, in which there is a hardening of public discourse and a coarsening of attitudes, especially targeting those who are different. But beyond that and aggravating it, we also live in a time of greater social breakdown, in which institutional life and affiliations have grown weaker, whether it be unions, fraternal organizations, clubs, and I will give churches their due here, as well. I think more and more people feel isolated and alone and, indeed, lonely. Most graphically, we witness an increase in what has come to be called “deaths of despair,” that is, people dying in staggering numbers by suicide and opioid addictions, which I surmise has something to with the weakening of communal and institutional life. It is these coarser social realities related to individual isolation that makes communities such as our Ethical Society so very important. Indeed, I would argue that in our communal function we are more important than we may ostensibly realize and appreciate.
The softer values, the acts of more private outreach that convey them, are the more communal values that bring people closer together and enrich the fabric of the social bond. And, as suggested, values such as kindness can be cultivated by certain behavioral choices we make and by putting them into practice.
Let me make some basic observations as to how kindness can be cultivated.
One way to be kind to others is simply to pay attention and engage in simple acts of affirmation of the other person. One study I came upon was conducted by a psychologist, John Gottman, who investigated why some marriages thrive while others don’t. The former he referred to as “masters,” and the latter “disasters.” An article in the Atlanticmagazine summarized the point of the study. An excerpt is as follows:
“Gottman wanted to know how the masters created a culture of love and intimacy, and how the disasters squashed it. In a follow-up study in 1990, he designed a lab on the University of Washington campus to look like a beautiful bed-and-breakfast retreat. He invited 130 newlywed couples to spend the day at this retreat and watched them as they did what couples normally do on vacation: cook, clean, listen to music, eat, chat, and hang out. And Gottman made a critical discovery in this study—one that gets at the heart of why some relationships thrive while others languish.
Throughout the day, partners would make requests for connection, what Gottman calls “bids.” For example, say that the husband is a bird enthusiast and notices a goldfinch fly across the yard. He might say to his wife, “Look at that beautiful bird outside!” He’s not just commenting on the bird here: he’s requesting a response from his wife—a sign of interest or support—hoping they’ll connect, however momentarily, over the bird.
The wife now has a choice. She can respond by either “turning toward” or “turning away” from her husband, as Gottman puts it. Though the bird-bid might seem minor and silly, it can actually reveal a lot about the health of the relationship. The husband thought the bird was important enough to bring it up in conversation and the question is whether his wife recognizes and respects that.
People who turned toward their partners in the study responded by engaging the bidder, showing interest and support in the bid. Those who didn’t—those who turned away—would not respond or respond minimally and continue doing whatever they were doing, like watching TV or reading the paper. Sometimes they would respond with overt hostility, saying something like, “Stop interrupting me, I’m reading.”
These bidding interactions had profound effects on marital well-being. Couples who had divorced after a six-year follow-up had “turn-toward bids” 33 percent of the time. Only three in ten of their bids for emotional connection were met with intimacy. The couples who were still together after six years had “turn-toward bids” 87 percent of the time. Nine times out of ten, they were meeting their partner’s emotional needs.
Cultivating kindness by paying attention
These acts of turning toward the other, rather than turning away, of paying attention and affirming the other person are very simple interactions, which, I contend, are basic expressions of kindness. Not paying attention, ignoring the other, is to be unkind. And what pertains to marriage, I contend, pertains to human relations more generally, whether we are talking about other family members, friends, acquaintances, co-workers, fellow members of the Ethical Society, even strangers. Through effort and practice we can cultivate the ability to attend to focus on the other and so enhance our ability to be kind.
So being attentive and focused, I contend, is a way of cultivating kindness. So is being present. In my role as leader of the Ethical Society, a member, knowing that someone is in the hospital or has a need that is limiting them, will sometimes ask me whether it is appropriate for to pay this person a visit. They are sitting on the fence. And I have found that unless we have compelling evidence that such a visit would be unwanted, my response is that it is almost always better to err on the side of being present. Going out of one’s way, changing one’s routine, to simply be present and share time with the other person who may be in the hospital or home-bound is a simple expression of kindness that can go a long way.
A third practice is finding ways to commend the efforts of others rather than criticize. This is one way in which I think this community has gotten much better and has become much kinder over the four decades that I have been involved in it. For some people, the penchant to criticize comes too easily and is expressed too glibly. Certainly, there are times to criticize the performance or the acts of others. But how one does it becomes of paramount importance. We can render criticism in a gratuitous and superior way, or we can be critical, when it is necessary, in ways that respect the intentions, the humanity, and often the hard work of the other, and we can start off by acknowledging what was positive in what the other has done.
But the point I really want to make here is that we need to cultivate the art of commendation. When someone does a job well, or even when she hasn’t but has made her best effort, I think to acknowledge that act is an act of kindness that is important to convey. But it needs to be conveyed with honesty and without the intent or impression that one is offering praise because they expect something from the other in return. Commendation rendered at its best needs to be sincere and heartfelt and not syrupy or false.
Acts of grace ease harried lives
Finally, I want to make a concession to pop culture. I do believe in the performance of what has come to be called “random acts of kindness,” especially when they are unexpected. Life is hard, and much in our harried, busy lives is overscheduled, stress-inducing, and often tedious. Small acts of kindness are like gifts, and as such, acts of grace. I am always moved with a special kind of joy when a friend calls by surprise and asks if I am free to go out to lunch today–not three weeks from next Thursday with 45 minutes wedged between all-important business meetings. Such acts of kindness I find are all too rare and when I am on the receiving end they feel liberating.
There are an endless number of such small deeds, from doing the laundry for someone who may be temporary indisposed, to bringing someone homebound a meal, or just paying a visit. We may bring someone to the doctor who needs a ride, or call to check up on a friend who has been ill, or attend an exhibit when her artwork is on display, help a mother carry her baby carriage down the subway stairs, or simply extend a smile or a kind word to a stranger at an appropriate moment. The cultivation of kind deeds so understood does not mean locking yourself into a lifetime commitment. Often, just a single gesture is all that is needed. My wife taught me that. It is the nature of the human experience that a little bit can go a long way. If we all cultivated this style, I conclude that we would lighten the burdens of the human condition, make our fellow human beings that much happier, and we would strengthen the human bond.
We all occupy a small planet and the ultimate destiny of humanity is unknown. And for those of us who do not affirm a divine custodian or a heavenly companion all we have is one another. And so doing right by one another should be our highest aim. In a similar vein, Einstein once said:
“How strange is the lot of us mortals! Each of us is here for a brief sojourn; for what purpose he knows not, though he sometimes thinks he senses it. But without deeper reflection one knows from daily life that one exists for other people–first of all for those upon whose smiles and well-being our own happiness is wholly dependent, and then for the many, unknown to us, to whose destinies we are bound by the ties of sympathy.”
This is a kind of humanist creed. We are here for one another and we are tied to others by fellow feeling, and I would add that acts of love and kindness in the private sectors of lives are what bind us together and what we should strive to live for.
I would like end where I began. Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey” is a nature poem. It’s an expression of what we might call nature mysticism. Returning to that rustic and secluded place surrounded by trees, hills, streams, and hedges, after an absence of five years, the poet intuits that coursing through nature there is a type of pure spirit that he senses links nature to what is morally best in human beings. In the presence of undisturbed nature, the poet finds not only peace but something that is lasting, something that endures. But beyond that, Wordsworth feels that in the sublimity of nature there is also a linkage, as noted, to something in us. And so he notes, “For I have learned to look on nature, not as in the hour of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes the still sad music of humanity.” The poem continues with… “that best portion of a good man’s life, his, little, nameless, unremembered, acts of kindness and of love.” That line has always stayed with me and has moved me since I first read the poem many years ago. For it speaks to a something so very true in the human experience; something that deserves to be recognized but so seldom is–the small, commonplace acts of kindness that make for human goodness and speak to what is best in us.
And so my message is, let us not take them for granted. But with modesty let us practice kindness, and thereby strive to lighten the burdens of our fellow human beings and bring to others greater joy and a sense of well-being, and the knowledge that in this world, which is so often harsh and indifferent to our tender needs, there is still goodness to be found.
Dr. Joseph Chuman, leader of the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County, delivered this platform address on Feb. 3, 2019, at the Society’s meetinghouse.