Humankind is captivated by kindness.
Muammar Gaddafi, before his death, was one of the richest people of the 21st century, with a net worth of around 200 billion dollars. By materialistic standards, he was a champion, raking in wealth through the iron fist of rule, the power of his personality, and the vastness of his oil fields—and quite likely, a host of illegal and immoral activities.
And in 20 years, his name will be on the lips of no one.
The names we remember, the ones which endure throughout all of history—names like Martin Luther King, Jesus Christ, Desmond Tutu, Siddhārtha Gautama, and Mother Teresa—these are the names of people who whose riches were measured in empathy rather than gold.
Contemporary American culture, on the surface, has traditionally uplifted the successful, and has defined success in materialistic terms—things like money, power, and beauty.
Where did this come from? Surprisingly, the original Puritan work ethic.
The Puritans aspired to be worldly saints—they acknowledged material life as their realm of action, even while their ultimate goal was heaven. The quest for holiness was the business of life, whether in church or in commerce.
Puritans considered everyone to have two callings—a general calling and a particular. The general calling, which everyone is pulled by, is the call of Christianity, the call to be saved and become a child of God.
The particular calling of each person, however, is unique—a call to a specific task or occupation that God places on each individual. This is the doctrine of vocation. The Puritans believed that, since God calls people to their work, to work is to serve God. There was no divide between the sacred and the secular for them.
Material gain, too, was looked upon by the Puritans as holy. Richard Baxter, an English Puritan who wrote “A Christian Directory,” writes “If God show you a way in which you may lawfully get more than in another way (without wrong to your soul, or to any other), if you refuse this, and then choose the less gainful way, you cross one of the ends of your calling, and you refuse to be God's steward.” This founding notion of the divine importance of work became an intrinsic part of the foundation of American culture.
Fast forward a century. The filter of the Age of Enlightenment began to strain out popular notions of God and the supernatural, even as it propelled humanity to new heights of rationality, leaving the Puritan work ethic divorced from its theistic roots. That Puritan drive, though—the utter importance of work—that remained.
And so we have our contemporary America—a culture which places massive emphasis on work and achievement, but oftentimes without any underlying purpose. We gain for gaining’s sake, and we don’t stop to think about why.
If we did, we’d find an uncomfortable emptiness.
Human beings need meaning—this is often what people seek through various forms of spirituality. This is a need as old and deep as we are. We’re built this way.
So in a largely post-religious society, what do we have left to hold onto?
Each other. We have each other.
Good people captivate us because they fulfill this need. They bring people together, alleviate suffering, free the oppressed, and end injustice—and often, they do so without resorting to violence. For many, this path seems mysterious and impossible, lending an esoteric air to these individuals.
These are religious figures such as Jesus Christ, who healed one of the men who came to arrest and execute him, who freed His followers from the trap of arbitrary religious law, who loved and healed those who were the least and the oppressed.
And there is Siddhārtha Gautama, also known as the Buddha, who, though travel, meditation, and learning, wrote what is, at its core, a guide to alleviating human suffering through non-harm and a clear, rational vision.
There are more contemporary figures, such as Martin Luther King, who led the civil rights charge to gain equality for African-Americans, using nonviolent civil disobedience to combat racial inequality.
There is Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the first black man to become the Archbishop of Cape Town, South Africa, who then used this powerful platform to wage a nonviolent war against apartheid—legalized racial segregation—in his homeland. Not only this, but he encouraged those oppressed to actually forgive their oppressors. And largely, he has succeeded in breaking what could have been a decades-long chain of violence.
There is the Dali Lama, the spiritual leader of the Tibetan people who advocates dialogue and solidarity amongst all peoples, and who dedicates his life to the promotion of basic human values, inter-religious harmony, and the preservation of Tibet’s Buddhist culture.
Some of these names have resonated for thousands of years, and other will continue to be spoken for centuries, but all are immortalized in our hearts. And it is because these figures have one thing in common—an emphasis on the value of human life, and an emphasis on kindness.
Recognizing and acting on the value of human life improves life for all. But it is also one of the most difficult things that we can do. It requires immense strength to refrain from inflicting insult and injury on those we deem our enemies. This struggle gives us purpose, and we experience that purpose vicariously through good people—this is why they captivate us, why we speak their names in hushed and reverent tones, why we regard them as mysterious or divine.
But they’re not so different than us—even Jesus Christ, considered to be the son of God, Himself, in the Christian tradition, was also, paradoxically, fully a human being. People like the Dali Lama and Desmond Tutu and Mother Theresa don’t have access to some hidden font of knowledge or supernatural power. They’re just people who believe that kindness and hope are far more powerful and effective than violence and unhealthy competition.
That’s what we’re missing. We need that purpose back. We crave it—the day-in-day-out amassing of material wealth has left our mouths dry and parched. It’s why seeing true goodness sometimes makes us weep—kindness is seeing an oasis in the desert.
There is no magic to kindness, only self-control, and a desire to actively promote happiness in others. Truly grasp this, live this, and you’ll find purpose as you’ve never felt it before. Go—captivate the world.
Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.
-The Dali Lama