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These Days

Active Love or The Simplicity of Human Kindness

by Dr. Richard Prystowsky

"My teacher told me one thing, ‘Live in the soul.’ " -- Lalla

n recent years, I have given a number of homeschooling-oriented workshops and talks on the theme of "helping persons in need." A central part of my presentations has been that, to paraphrase a line from Mother Teresa, although most of us cannot do great things, all of us can do small things with great love.

The other day, my wife and I visited some relatives who are caring for my wife’s Aunt Virginia, who has brain cancer and is now living with her daughter and son-in-law — Kelly and Steve — and their children. Perhaps because we humans often seem to have returned to us that which we have put forth, it didn’t surprise me that, having been a nurse and caregiver who had always walked a path with heart and love, Virginia — herself now in need of tender care-giving — is living with a family who gives to her beautifully from the depths of their hearts and souls. Kelly and Steve’s teenage daughter, Devon, for example, even gave up her bedroom so that her grandmother, Virginia, could use it for the duration of Virginia’s last months on Earth. Those of us adults who remember what our own bedrooms had meant to us when we were teenagers — the Beach Boys memorialized our sentiments in their famous song "In My Room" — can probably appreciate the love-centered gift that Devon has given to her grandmother. Such heartfelt gift-giving runs in the family.

For example, when several years ago one of her grandsons needed a secure home environment, Virginia took him in and raised him, despite the fact that, at the time, she herself was struggling, having been recently widowed. Years earlier, when my wife’s mother, Doris, was dying of cancer, Virginia and her husband traveled to Southern California so that Virginia could help take care of her. I was greatly moved by Virginia’s heart-centered care for Doris, my soulful mother-in-law, with whom I was very close and whose death to this day remains painful for my wife and me to bear. How fortunate that Doris (herself a loving, compassionate, giving person) had Virginia there to care for her, and how grateful to Virginia I have felt all these years for her tender and devoted gift of care-giving to Doris. Now, it’s Virginia’s turn to rely on others. Fortunately for her, she has turned for support to a wonderful, welcoming, caring family.

To me, Steve, Kelly, Devon, and the rest of their family demonstrate both the practical feasibility and the spiritual power of Mother Teresa’s teaching. As I talked with Kelly and Steve, I learned that they give of themselves not just to members of their family, such as Virginia, but also to young persons and families with whom they work in their various Christian church-related service activities. Giving to persons in need, regardless of who they are — that’s the teaching; that’s the practice.

I greatly admire Steve, Kelly, and their children’s walking their talk. Their actions demonstrate their understanding of the action-oriented nature of Jesus’ teachings on love, such as those found in Matthew 25. In this chapter, Jesus talks about persons who will have fed or not fed the hungry, who will have clothed or not clothed the naked, and so on. In what is perhaps Jesus’ most trenchant teaching on the nature of interdependence — or, on the nature of "interbeing," to use a term coined by the contemporary Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh — Jesus teaches that whoever does or does not perform such actions on behalf of "the least" of persons, ultimately performs or fails to perform them on behalf of Jesus himself. In short, according to this teaching, what one does unto others one does unto Jesus.

This concept of what we might call "active love" exemplifies the notion that one ought to put into practice one’s ideas about doing good in the world, a notion that is central to many spiritual traditions, if not to most or all of them. In Judaism, for example, we learn a great deal about the importance of peace; more significantly, though, we are commanded to act, to "seek peace and pursue it." But we are also taught that, to be powerfully effective and deeply meaningful, our actions on behalf of others need not be undertaken on a grand or global level and that they can, in fact, be successfully undertaken in the simplest of ways. Consider, for example, the following lesson that we learn in the Talmud, in which we see how one great rabbinical teacher answered the question "What do you call ‘profaning God’s name?’" "Rav said: In my case, since I am reputed to live strictly under the discipline of Torah, it would be failing to pay the butcher promptly" (qtd. in The New Union Prayer Book, p. 234). Conversely, then, and by implication, paying the butcher promptly would constitute for this great teacher an act of sanctifying God’s name.

This concept of "love in action," a phrase that is the title of a book by Thich Nhat Hanh, has a central place in Buddhist practice as well. As Thich Nhat Hanh emphasizes, our ability to put love into action derives from our ability to practice mindful living. As he explains in his book Peace Is Every Step, our mindfulness helps us to look deeply into the nature of a problem and therefore allows us to understand both the problem and its root causes; with this thorough understanding, we will be in a good position to use skillful means that will help us solve the problem. Thich Nhat Hanh further teaches that putting our insight into practice is not optional. Rather, as he writes in Peace Is Every Step: "Mindfulness must be engaged. Once there is seeing, there must be acting. Otherwise, what is the use of seeing?"

As do other Buddhist teachers, Thich Nhat Hanh teaches that all of us have within ourselves seeds of every kind, including seeds of love, seeds of hatred, seeds of kindness, and seeds of meanness. The particular types of human interaction fruits that spring forth from us will be determined by the particular sorts of our internal seeds that are watered most often and most intensively. Do we generally and with commitment water our seeds of love, understanding, and compassion? Or, in general, do we commit ourselves to watering our seeds of hatred, ignorance, and cold-heartedness? Especially if we want to act nobly, we need to keep in mind that, as is taught in the Jewish and Christian traditions, we reap what we sow.

If we honor others by recognizing them as fellow human beings deserving of our love and care, then we will be demonstrating our deep understanding of the teachings being discussed here, which Steve and Kelly’s family practice, and which homeschooling families can easily practice as they pursue their family- and community-empowering daily lives. For it is in the small acts of our everyday lives that we either succeed in attaining or fail to attain a committed life of active loving. We succeed in this pursuit whenever we acknowledge the librarian who makes a special effort to work with our homeschooling support group. We succeed every time that our children and we participate in community-oriented charity events. We succeed each time that our children or we lend a sympathetic ear to the neighborhood school kids who directly or indirectly alert us to their unhappiness. In practical terms, what ultimately counts is not whether or not we understand that we should love our neighbors as ourselves, but, rather, whether or not we practice loving kindness in our daily actions and interactions.

* * 

As my wife and I prepared to leave Steve and Kelly’s house, I hugged Virginia good-bye, knowing that this could be the last time that I will have seen and talked with her. As I think about Virginia’s current condition, although I am saddened by her suffering and by the thought of her impending death, I am also very grateful that she has the opportunity to spend such quality time with her loving family. Steve, Kelly, and their children not only remind us of our ethical obligation to help others, but also model for us how we ourselves might engage in simple demonstrations of active love. Taking our cue from them and from others like them, let us all travel together on a path of committed caring, a path of simple human kindness that we co-create anew each time that we treat each other as sacred beings who all walk the same earth. -- R.P.


Dr. Richard Prystowsky and his wife, Charlie Miles, homeschooled their two younger children, both of whom are now in college. Formerly a professor of English and humanities at Irvine Valley College, Richard currently is the Division Chair for Math, Science & Engineering at College of the Redwoods. Richard also is the author of the college writing text "Careful Reading, Thoughtful Writing" and formerly was the editor of the education magazine "Paths of Learning." A very popular, long-time homeschool conference workshop presenter, Dr. Prystowsky has written about and given many inspiring workshops and talks on a variety of educational issues and topics, some of which he will address in his forthcoming columns for The Link.