I struggle with optimism. The suffering in the world is overwhelming if you allow yourself to notice it. How many thousands daily die the senseless deaths of poverty—malnutrition, preventable disease, the tipping over of a truck that is one’s only option for transportation?
How many billions live lives of a sort of quiet desperation that even Thoreau did not envision? The daily struggle for food and water and shelter being all-consuming. The work of staying alive eclipsing what we might call the work of living.
Yesterday in Uganda I saw a man, probably 60 years old, riding an old steel bike up a hill. Strapped to the back were heavy sacks of charcoal. And on the man’s face, as he was passed by all variety of vehicles, was the saddest, wisest look I have seen. The terrible coming-to-terms of a man with a fate that lies far below his capacity.
Those who do have ‘enough’ wage wars of religion, wars of relationship, wars of pride and greed and opportunity. Big international wars and small interpersonal wars. Wars against each other and wars within themselves.
Life is not given special treatment on our planet. Life struggles. The elements wear down life far more quickly than they do a stone.
But against what often seem terrible odds, life persists. Mothers have babies and teach them to be good. Babies grow and try to make a difference. People find each other and commit to love each other for life. Communities gather to encourage and support and build safety nets for one another. People care for each other.
Somewhere deep in this human thing is a drive to care, a realization that alone before this universe we will perish, but together, somehow, we will persist. And so kindness blooms. Kindness in the face of lives too short, kindness in the slums of poverty, kindness across all manner of political, cultural and religious divides.
Kindness because it is the admission that I need you, and that you need me. And that whether we would have chosen it this way or not, we are together on this planet right now, and that this is how human beings must live if we are to live at all.
This quote from Vassily Grossman, whose history I do not know well, is honest about the struggle of humanity. And it is nonetheless optimistic, assuring us that within humanity is a light that will not be extinguished, no matter the difficulty or duration of the struggle. And that is why I love it.
“I have seen that it is not man who is impotent in the struggle against evil, but the power of evil that is impotent in the struggle against man. The powerlessness of kindness, of senseless kindness, is the secret of its immortality. It can never be conquered. The more stupid, the more senseless, the more helpless it may seem, the vaster it is. Evil is impotent before it. The prophets, religious teachers, reformers, social and political leaders are impotent before it. This dumb, blind love is man’s meaning.
Human history is not the battle of good struggling to overcome evil. It is a battle fought by a great evil, struggling to crush a small kernel of human kindness. But if what is human in human beings has not been destroyed even now, then evil will never conquer.”
- Vassily Grossman, as quoted in Chris Hedges’ “Empire of Illusion“