Sunday, June 5, 2011

Acts of Kindness: Does Size Matter?

One morning I noticed a tiny insect drowning in a cup of water and rescued it. As I watched it drag itself to safety, a flood of emotions took me by surprise: love for the little creature, joy that it didn't drown, and gratitude that I happened to notice it and could help. Fortunately, I had to leave for work before I really started wallowing in feelings.

I walked to work with a glad heart, and a sort of koan took shape: What effect does saving the short life of a tiny being have in the grand scheme of things? When I reached the office, more pressing matters took my attention and I forgot about it.

That evening, I read a beautiful blog post over at ZenDotStudio called Gladdening the Heart which reminded me of the question. A couple of days later, a simple but moving story called Three Gifts at Mind Deep reminded me again that the question was not going to go away.

One of my all-time favourite movie scenes is near the end of Schindler's List where Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley) gives Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) a ring made from a gold bridge given by one of the 1,100 Jews he saved from the gas chambers by employing them in his factory. He essentially bought their freedom with his own money. He realizes to his dismay that he still has an expensive car and a gold pin that he could have sold, and in that heart-wrenching moment he breaks down, crying "I could have got more out, I could have got more - but I didn't!"  (Watch the scene here - make sure you have hankies.  It gets me every time.)

The inscription in the ring is from the Talmud:  "Whoever saves one life saves the world entire."

That line is reminiscent of the statements attributed to the Buddha: "On the day I became enlightened, the whole universe became enlightened," and to Jesus, referring to feeding the hungry and caring for the sick: "Inasmuch as you have done it to the least of one of these, you have done it to me."

One thing is for sure: because of the interconnectedness of every single thing with every other single thing, there is no way that our tiny intellects can ever calculate every possible outcome of a simple action. Science fiction stories have described how a seemingly trivial event could prevent Hitler from being born, averting the second world war. Perhaps a child watching you rescue a stranded worm from the wet pavement will be inspired to become another Mother Teresa. Or perhaps the child will just think you're a nut.

You could say that saving an insect matters because it's connected to everything, or that it matters because it is everything, or, that it doesn't matter.

So the question remains: In an act of kindness, does size matter?

The ox goes through the window
But it's tail does not
Why was the little bug saved?


  1. this is lovely David - I like your mindfulness when you rescue the bug! I don't understand koans at all - will I ever?

    That movie was incredible and brought home to me how compassion in action is powerful. I was a teenager when I saw it and its impact was far reaching. I recently saw "Defiance" with much the same reaction. You might like it too?

  2. I'm not a Size Queen - any act of kindness is huge for the giver, for the receiver, for all of us as that kindness radiates outward and touches all beings. Notice the difference in your heart, in your chest, when you do a kindness versus create harm by your actions. What a relief, a joy, to be a mindful, loving visitor to this existence.

    Thank you David for an inspiring post!

  3. Lovely post. It recently took me a number of days to save a daddy long legs spider that had found it's way into the downstairs bathtub. It resisted at first and I knew if I touched it I would mash it's delicate body. So I had to wait until I could get it to crawl onto a kleenex and carry it to the door. This transpired over a number of days and at several points I thought it had died. A tenderness toward this tiny being developed over the days. It was interesting to watch.

    I have never thought of saving tiny insects in the way you describe. I always liberate them when I can but now have a new thought to go with the mission!


  4. I appreciate the piercing clarity of the Schindler's List clip right alongside the soft sweetness of worm rescue. This makes for a big, wide gate of compassion to go through.

  5. BB thanks - I haven't seen Defiance, but I like Daniel Craig's other stuff. I'll check it out.

    Thanks, Tara. I'm new in the blogging world, but I'm learning from you guys!

    Thanks Carole - I love hearing about how other people save little critters too!

    Jomon - thank you. Gate of compassion - what a neat image! I think we are surrounded by so many gates of compassion that it's hard not to stumble through one occasionally...


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