Saturday, October 20, 2007

Kindness & Generosity

I read an interview in the quarterly Parabola with a Kenyan woman, Wangari Maathai, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004. She talked about Mount Kenya and how the Kikuyu people around the mountain were overwhelmed by its beauty and power and thought that God must live there. So they protected and revered it.

But then the missionaries came, and her people were persuaded to believe that “God does not live in Mount Kenya. God lives in heaven.” And when that separation was internalized, it became easy for industrialists to cut down the forest and plough the land. The concept of having ‘dominion over’ was new to them, for they were taught to be stewards of the land. Soon “they found themselves literally at the mercy of the forces of those dominators.”

I found the interview to be quite telling and perhaps a clue as to why the world is filled with so much fear and anger these days. It’s like we’ve forgotten who we are. We’ve forgotten that kindness and harmony don’t come from somewhere up in heaven but are right here within each and every one of us. The spirit of a human being, our humaneness, is witnessed not in dominating over one another but in coming together in community for the common good of all.
Everywhere I look on the trail I see examples of compassion and interdependence. This makes me believe that kindness and harmony are in fact not only our true nature but the nature of life itself. Flowers are the source of life for bees and butterflies. Trees are the source of life for squirrels and birds. Streams are the source of life for fish and otters. If everything on this planet is a source of life for others, why would we human beings not understand that we are we are a source of life too? Goodness and kindness aren’t gifts from above; we were born with them in us to give freely in order to nurture and be stewards of each other. That’s the Way. And the more we offer these gifts, the more powerful the gift becomes and the more powerful the giver becomes. Those who are truly powerful are kind, not domineering.

I think some people are afraid and angry because they haven’t drawn on their own goodness or kindness enough and it leaves them with a tremendous feeling of emptiness. They try numerous ways, like food, alcohol and drugs, to numb or distract themselves but these addictions only amplify their despair. The persisting emptiness consequently becomes the perfect breeding ground for both fear and anger to incubate and grow into a sense of powerlessness and inadequacy. And when the inner voice is saying “lack, lack, lack,” deficiencies becomes visible everywhere: in the closet, in people around, and, most devastatingly, in ourselves.

I know a little about this because I was a bulimic and tried everything to fit in – everything but reaching out with kindness and generosity. Fortunately I have learned over the years to first be kind to myself. I am a work in progress and must have patience when I err. I have also learned that I have many teachers around to assist and inspire me. When I focus on wanting to see kindness, it appears all around and I let it motivate me to pass it on.

I’ve also learned that kindness is a form of currency, for what we want in life isn’t more money but more happiness. A note of appreciation, a box of homemade cookies or staying behind to help clean up after a party are just a few ways to assist with that. But those who don’t understand this, those who aren’t aware that they have kindness to give, end up having to pay for everything in cash.

Interesting how vulnerability brings out the best in people. My mother-in-law remembers the Depression as being the happiest of years. Life was simple, nobody had anything and everything was shared. Kindness and generosity were rampant. Perhaps if we felt the sacredness of life at all times, recognized our vulnerability within the great scheme of things everyday, we would draw more on our kindness to make the world a gentler place.

Funny how times change, not long ago people who revered the land were considered primitive and uncivilized and those who dominated over it were called cultured. Now I wonder who the sophisticates and who the savages are.

Jewel in the song, Hands, sings “In the end, only kindness matters. In the end, only kindness matters.” How true. Domination is not the way to happiness, stewardship is.
Anger is bred from fear and powerlessness and fear is bred from ignorance. Maybe our schools should be teaching the importance of reaching out with kindness and generosity - and not just generosity with money, but generosity with our smiles, generosity with giving people the benefit of the doubt, and perhaps most importantly, generosity with patience.

There’s so much anger and worry in the air these days it feels like it will lead to some kind of revolution. I propose this: REVOLT AGAINST FEAR! BE KIND. BE GENEROUS.

R.D. Lawrence

One of the ways I have involved myself in the community is by volunteering on the R.D. Lawrence Place project. Ron's wife, Sharon, donated his manuscripts and other artifacts to the community, and this summer the Sir Sanford Fleming College Sustainable Building students erected a building to house them.

R.D. Lawrence was a man respected by naturalists, conservationists and story lovers around the world. According to his biography, Ron, the youngest of five children, was born in 1921 to a Spanish mother and a British father during a storm aboard ship in the Bay of Biscay. He fought in both the Spanish Civil War and World War II then studied biology at Cambridge University and journalism at London Polytechnical Institute. He moved to Canada in 1954 and was a science reporter for the Winnipeg Tribune and a foreign correspondent for the Toronto Telegram. R.D. Lawrence was a disciplined man and penned more than thirty books, both fiction and non-fiction. He was published in twenty-six countries and translated into fifteen languages. He moved to the Haliburton Highlands in 1984 and remained here until his death in 2003.

After reading a few of his books, what struck me most was his sense of gentleness and how he treated all living things - including himself - with such patience and compassion. I hadn't read anything like it before and was quite touched. In his book about making maple syrup, he had to learn a few lesson the hard way, but he didn't get upset or belittle himself, he just made the adjustments and carried on.

Sharon said he learned this saying from his English tutor when he was a child:
Good, better, best.
Never let it rest.
Until your good is better
And your better is best.

I found myself agreeing with Ron's philosophies, and thinking we would have enjoyed chatting and meandering along the trail together. It's interesting how neither of us had teachers to show us how to observe nature, but we each came to a similar conclusion in our own ways. In my first column, Magnificent Creatures, I wrote how I learned to "stop thinking" and "quiet myself." In The Study of Life: A Naturalist's View, Ron wrote: "when asked to explain my technique for observing nature in action, I begin by emphasizing the need to be fully, totally, at peace. Developing an inward calm is the most important, if at times difficult, "trick" of wilderness watching."

He went on to talk about achieving a "neutral attitude" even when one was "consumed with eagerness" or "fearing to be attacked." This intrigued me because it sounded like an article on meditation I had just finished editing: "When starting a meditation practice and thoughts enter the mind, allow them to passively flow by…"

I guess it shouldn't be surprising that those who spend time in nature and those who spend time in meditation have similar neutral attitudes – they both understand the importance of developing an inner calm. Perhaps that's also why people come to cottage country: sitting quietly at the end of the dock or strolling casually down the trail neutralizes their tension and allows them to relax and slip into tranquility. It's like we all have this inner need, this hardwiring, to restore ourselves and re-connect with our true nature by sitting in stillness.
R.D. Lawrence Place is dedicated to the life and memory of Ronald Douglas Lawrence, but it shouldn't be overlooked how much his wife Sharon was a part of his work. When pet cougars or Arctic wolves were sent to their sanctuary, Sharon was just as involved as Ron in caring for them. When people knocked on the door hoping to have a moment with Ron, Sharon graciously escorted them in and fed them. For this project, she has donated her inheritance, stood before council to get approval and funding, talked before strangers to raise more funds, inspired the Sir Sanford Fleming students, baked treats for our meetings, and publicized the project around the world.

It has been a privilege to have gotten to know R.D. Lawrence through his books and Sharon Lawrence through our meetings. On September 28th at 2 pm, and through the weekend, the public is invited to see what a stunningly gorgeous building this couple has inspired.