On a dog walk this summer, I strolled through a local Catholic university, and there it was: a sign with a Dalai Lama quote that said "Be Kind Whenever Possible. It is always possible."
As the Institute for Spirituality and Health (ISH) celebrates its 60th anniversary, we asked more than 30 Americans a series of questions centered on spirituality, health, and inspiration.
On a daily basis, the Institute is immersed in spirituality-centric conversations with everyone from long-term associates to the drive-by visitor who stops in, wondering what ISH is about. We wanted to know if the language we encounter each day is echoed by the wider population that does not walk through our doors. What does spirituality mean for people, and how much does it matter?
We found that the landscape of spirituality is textured and sometimes complicated, but what inspires people is not. For individuals throughout the country, kindness is a social imperative - and a spiritual one. But getting there can be hard.
"This may sound cliché, but one of the things that really inspires me is random acts of kindness. It's so rare that when it happens you are surprised and taken aback," says Sandra, a recent college graduate.
"This weekend I was in NYC and only had ten dollars. The cab driver accepted it for a fifteen dollar cab ride. At the end he gave me a couple bucks in case I needed any cash for anything. I was so taken aback that I don't even think I sounded that grateful. But it inspired me to be kinder to the next passerby I saw."
She is not alone. Almost everyone pointed to kindness as the most poignant source of connection with others. It inspires joy, faith in humanity, and for many, carries a transcendental quality. Some call this love, others, spirituality.
"There's a power out there that drives us as humans to want to help each other and want to be good and to be connected. Some kind of a force," says Karen, an artist in New Mexico.
This feeling shows up for all respondents as a stream of consciousness, regardless of their spiritual orientation. It is particularly true for the secular, who look to one another for reassurance in humanity through tangible acts and connections.
"Spirituality can feel judgy, and sound a little kitschy," says Ellen, a Project Manager in San Antonio. "If we could all just be humanists, and treat each other kindly... Let me in the lane ahead of you instead of speeding up so I can't get in. Make eye contact with me and understand that I am another person."
Jennifer, a California-based writer, reflects: "I wish I had had a more spiritual feeling. I think in my day to day I'm happy. But believing in a higher being, it would help me have hope for humanity."
This convergence of kindness, spirituality, and inspiration is not a surprise. Dr. Robert Cloninger, a psychiatrist at Washington University, says true well-being comes with the convergence of body, thought, and soul. "We must live meaningful lives," he says, "which means meaningful work, relationships, and spirituality."
People are less happy or healthy if they - or those around them - are guided by selfishness. The problem, according to Cloninger, is that, when it comes to Maslow's hierarchy of needs, sometimes we get stuck in the self, never quite making it to the transcendent. Experiences of kindness, compassion, honor, and justice help us get unstuck.
Bridging the Human with the Spirit
The good news, according to our respondents, is that simple acts of kindness can have a positive long-term impact. We each have the power to help foster hope and harmony for the collective. A demonstration of kindness can inspire faith, not just in a particular moment, but as part of a direction.
The flipside is that small acts of insensitivity can also have a weighty impact. While we have the power to reinforce optimism through a small gesture, it also means one wrong move can be hard to recover from. We will get our feelings hurt and feel unappreciated, and despite our best intentions, we will also make someone else feel that way. Anyone who braves the world risks disenchantment.
To Love & Be Loved
Each generation conducts its own investigation into long-standing wisdom. Language changes, new music becomes popular, and rituals evolve. But the relevance of spiritual insights around compassion and the call to love our neighbor is timeless. What reveals itself time and again as a central need, both individual and societal: Do Unto Others.
Tara Brach, a leading teacher of western Buddhism, says: "One of the wonderful teachings of the Dalai Lama, something he says quite regularly, is 'My religion is kindness.' When we hear that, it resonates, because it points to something at the core of all spiritual and humanistic paths. If we just dedicated our lives to kindness, to the qualities of friendliness and care, we would be directly serving peace on earth."
Paolo, a Houston small business owner, motions his hands toward the sky, and the world around him: "Spirituality is about love. It's all about love. To love yourself, love people around, like you want to be loved."
Chances are high that today, you can make the world a better place - or you already have.
For research confidentiality, all names have been changed.
Author & Organization
Susana McCollom is an Ethnographer & Director of Workplace Chaplaincy at The Institute for Spirituality & Health (ISH) in Houston, Texas. ISH is dedicated to increasing awareness of the role that spirituality plays in health and healing. ISH brings scholars, healthcare professionals, religious leaders, and the public together to engage cross-disciplinary and interfaith dialogues through education, research, and direct services. In March 2016, ISH will host The Conference on Medicine and Religion in Houston. See www.ish-tmc.org for more information.