In his novel Life and Fate, the 20th-century Soviet writer Vasily Grossman writes:
Human history is not the battle of good struggling to overcome evil. It is a battle fought by a great evil struggling to crush a kernel of human kindness. But if what is human in human beings has not been destroyed even now, then evil will never conquer.
We might take a more forgiving attitude toward the fatalism of Grossman’s view of history by understanding the historical moment in which he wrote. As a war reporter, Grossman was an eyewitness to the battle of Stalingrad, the single bloodiest and most consequential battle of the Second World War. The backdrop of Life and Fate is the collision, at Stalingrad, of the 20th century’s two dominant authoritarian states, Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union. Yet Grossman shines a light on small acts of kindness through it all: a Russian woman hands a captive German soldier a crust of bread; enemies who meet in chance encounters experience each other’s humanity. Even as he depicts the most brutal of human activities, Grossman recollects for us, without sentimentality, the seed of kindness that is an ineradicable feature of our deepest nature.
Like nearly everyone I know, I have been increasingly alarmed in recent years: the looming catastrophic consequences of climate change; the rise of authoritarianism at home and abroad; the rolling back of established rights and protections—these and other trends have at times felt overwhelming. I cannot compare the challenges the world presents to me with the horrific events to which Grossman was witness; I can, though, find guidance and inspiration in the capacity for goodness that he affirms.
I think spiritual practice and art can meet on this ground (see “Existential Creativity”). Although people have devised countless ways to make one another miserable, that is not the entirety of our story. We have also, in the midst of it all, established legacies that support us in awakening to and nurturing these seemingly fleeting and fragile moments of kindness—indeed, all that is good in us.
Buddhist tradition, for all its imperfections and shortcomings, is one such legacy. And for all my own imperfections and shortcomings, it is one I’ve come to treasure, perhaps never more so than when events in the world seem the most heart-crushing. Over the years, I’ve come to feel that we Buddhists have much to learn about how we might best translate our esteemed values into meaningful responsiveness to a world in crisis. As things in the world change, so will our responsiveness to them. And I know that we will have much disagreement about what this entails. I have learned, over and over again, that attentiveness to what Grossman calls a kernel of kindness—and what some Buddhists might call buddhanature—can help keep us grounded in good faith and can transform disputes into dialogues.
Our capacity for good is spoken for in the multiple streams of cultural heritage to which we are all in various ways heir. Buddhism is one, and for me it is a particularly rich one. But the capacity for good is not the possession of any one group or religion, let alone any individual. It belongs to all equally and without qualification. Mindfulness of that principle can, I think, serve to guide us as we move forward, no matter how the winds of the world may blow.