Needing 'A Spark of Kindness'

September 7, 2021
Dean David N. Hempton
Dean David N. Hempton. / Photo: Stephanie Mitchell, Harvard Staff Photographer
HDS Dean David N. Hempton delivered the following remarks at Morning Prayers in Harvard's Memorial Church on September 7, 2021.


Good morning everyone and welcome to this new academic year. The reading is from a poem called "Once the World was Perfect" by American Poet Laureate, Joy Harjo, from her collection, Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings.

We destroyed the world we had been given
For inspiration, for life --
Each stone of jealousy, each stone
Of fear, greed, envy, and hatred, put out the light.
No one was without a stone in his or her hand
There we were,
Right back where we had started.
We were bumping into each other
In the dark.
And now we had no place to live, since we didn’t know how to live with each other.
Then one of the stumbling ones took pity on another
And shared a blanket.
A spark of kindness made a light.
The light made an opening in the darkness.
Everyone worked together to make a ladder.
A Wind Clan person climbed out first into the next world,
And then the other clans, the children of those clans, their children,
And their children, all the way through time ---
To now, into this morning light to you.

Earlier this summer I partnered with Ray Hammond, Pastor of Bethel AME and co-founder of the TenPoint Coalition in Boston, to offer some reflections for a talk on the theme of "looking back while looking forward." It was a way of taking a sober and honest look at where we are at this challenging time in our collective consciousness, while offering some kind of hopeful roadmap for the future. He came up with the metaphor of a car journey, which he embellished from his experience as a pastor and me from my vantage point as an educator.

We started our car journey with a look in the rearview mirror to see where we were coming fromemotionally, psychologically, intellectually? As you can imagine, the view from the rear-view mirror is not very encouraging. It has to reckon with at least five major crises of our times.

The first and most obvious is the Covid-19 global pandemic, which has taken such a toll on our lives over the past 18 months. As with all public health crises in our world, this one has disproportionately hurt those at the bottom of the economic and social pyramid. The pandemic has also brought into sharp focus what we already knew that there are enormous structural inequalities in our social fabric resulting in profound inequality of care and opportunity.

A second crisis facing us is perhaps the greatest racial justice reckoning since the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. So far, the signs are not at all clear that we really understand the depth of this crisis or have any genuine, as distinct from performative, intention of doing anything about it.

A third crisis is perhaps the deepest polarization in American politics since the Civil War era culminating in the Capitol Hill insurrection. We still cannot agree about what actually happened, or even how to find out what happened.

The fourth crisis is global warming. We have just come through the hottest decade on record with dire predictions for the future as we cope with the tragic realities of the present, with fires, floods, and fury all over the country and the world.

Fifth, we have a profound sense of unease about the international order and the role we should be playing in it. Last month’s dismal departure from Afghanistan seemed to be a depressing finale to two decades of violent American foreign policy constructed in response to, and partly in revenge for, the terrorist attacks on 9/11. Our news stories have been dominated by these five crises for as long as we can remember.

All this can leave us feeling tired and discouragedprofessionals call it "crisis fatigue." We talk about "languishing," "muddling through," or "sucking it up." Many of us are just plain tired and fed up. Mental health concerns are top of our agendas as never before.

Unfortunately, the traffic chaos we see in our rearview mirror is still all around us and will be for the foreseeable future. How do we negotiate this traffic? How do we take care of ourselves and each other in the meantime? How do we travel safely and well? Crucially, what are our side-mirror blind spotsproduced by our backgrounds; our unacknowledged privileges and assumptions; our ideological certainties and our cultural conditioning; our sense of self-righteousness reinforced by our social media communities. How do we come to know what we don’t know? Universities, at their best, can be great places to discover our blind spots, which we all have, and to reckon with them. Universities are not and should never become silos for a single point of view.

So, what does the road ahead look like? Where are we going from here and what excites us about the journey ahead? Let’s be honest, the big crises facing us are going to take sustained and disciplined thought and action over all of our lifetimes to make a difference.

What can we do now to promote human flourishing for ourselves and our communities? In addition to the wisdom embodied in our faith traditions, there are piles of experimental data from college campuses and other communities showing that we flourish best when we cultivate gratitude; when we perform acts of kindness; when we volunteer; when we celebrate and savor small things; when we find meaning and purpose in everyday routines; when we maintain our sense of adventure and curiosity by trying something new; when we feel we belong somewhere and not just attending or passing through. The philosopher and ethicist, Peter Singer, summarizes much of this under the phrase "effective altruism," which not only makes the world a better place, but makes us happier and more fulfilled people as we engage it.

In our journey, the traffic all around us is noisy and ugly. As you start this new and strange academic year, settle in gently. Be safe. Take care of your physical and mental health. Pay attention to public health protocols. Evaluate risk carefully, not just for your own safety, but for the wellbeing of others. This year more than most we are going to need each other. In Joy Harjo’s words we desperately need "a spark of kindness" to bring in the light.