Random Acts of Hope

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Years ago, when my now 21-year-old son Oliver was in fourth grade, I took him to some long-forgotten appointment in the middle of the school day. His wise teacher suggested that, rather than rush back to school after the appointment, I take Oliver out to eat. After lunch, we came across a mother duck and a mess of ducklings frantically circling a concrete cul-de-sac several blocks from the nearest lake. So, embarking on our own Make Way for Ducklings adventure, we escorted the family back to water. On the way we encountered all sorts of challenges-barking dogs, high walls, cats, busy streets-and had to work together closely to succeed in our mission.

It was one of my finer moments as a mother and remains among Oliver's fondest memories: 'doing God's work,' as he jokes.

Arriving at the water's edge, we faced one final challenge-a strong headwind causing daunting waves. Mother duck plunged in, while her progeny agitated on the sand. Finally one brave duckling stepped up, biding time like a jump roper waiting for the right moment, and plopped in; the rest followed, one by one.

Oliver and I headed back to school, flush with pride at our accomplishment. The final cinematic moment came when we looked up, and there, on a billboard, was this maxim: Commit Random Acts of Kindness.

I thought of this story while I was taking in the 17th annual Bioneers conference. Bioneers, which was founded in 1990, is a gathering of scientific and social innovators who present visionary, practical, and proven models for restoring the earth and its communities. The event is now broadcast via satellite to 18 locations, reaching more than 12,000 people, and each of the sites melds national and local programming. I attended the East Coast Bioneers-by-the-Bay in Dartmouth, Massachusetts.

I heard pagan author and National Public Radio host Margot Adler talk about how religions are based on what people believe, while customs and culture that have evolved from pagan and tribal roots are based on place and on practices connected with agriculture or initiation or healing. The gods or higher powers are local, not universal, so there is no point to proselytizing. (Author and entrepreneur Paul Hawken put a similar idea elegantly: 'All ideologies lead to 'isms' and all 'isms' lead to schisms.')

New York Times writer Michael Pollan celebrated the growth of farmers' markets and local food systems, suggesting that the best way to safeguard our food is not with technology or regulation, but by establishing local relationships. Janine Benyus, an expert in biomimicry-the art and science of incorporating nature's best processes into human design-said that the solutions to the problems besetting us involve a deep change of heart, not just technology.

In the final plenary session, Hawken observed that the technological solutions to our problems are at our fingertips, so the obstacle must lie elsewhere. 'Fixes won't fix,' he said, 'unless we fix our souls.'

Hope lies in what he sees as an invisible worldwide spiritual awakening. He cited research from the Natural Capital Institute that documents a million nongovernmental organizations and nonprofits. 'What is common to all of the organizations,' he says, 'are two principles, albeit unstated: First is the Golden Rule; second is the sacredness of all life.' Perhaps, he suggests, this phenomenon is evidence that our collective human immune response is alive and healthy. The sheer number of organizations implies a massive iceberg of a movement, one that begins to meld environmentalism and social justice and recognizes that addressing suffering requires action, not dogma.

The real basis of religion and the real goal of spirituality are not building institutions or enlightenment, Hawken says, but the transformation of each of us into a person who will help save the world through acts of kindness, compassion, and generosity.

The theme that was woven through the conference is both simple and profound. Each of us has the ability to scatter seeds of kindness. Walking through life with the intention to do so-and acting on it-is the most radical and effective action we can take.

So, Oliver, we were, in fact, doing God's work.

Nina Utne is Utne Reader's editor at large.