The Beggar and the Birds

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My friend Lisa once taught me that there is nothing more important in the world, than to be kind to those around us.

But there are three ways "to be kind," each more important (and more difficult) than the last.

To act kind. To be kind. And to be of a kind. 

The third of these is the most important. It is also the most difficult to grasp. Because the word “kind" is most often used as an adjective -- a description of our actions ("act kind") or disposition ("be kind") towards others. But “kind” as a noun is the original form of the word. And this noun form refers, not to our acts or our disposition, but rather to our connection to others. Indeed, “kind” shares an etymological root (the Old English word “cynd”) with the related word “kin.” “To be kind”, under this original meaning of the word, turns the other two meanings of kindness on their head. Because the mantra is no longer an admonition to act or be a certain way towards others, but to break down the barriers that separate us from others in the first place — “to be (of a) kind to them.”

Consider this story: A stuttering and aged homeless man, in ragged clothing and reeking of body odor, stumbles toward you and asks for some change. What do you do?

The first form of kindness (i.e. to act kind) looks at this man disdainfully, as something dirty and beneath you. But you feel obligated, by your liberal conscience, to help. You flip the man a quarter and then rush along the sidewalk as quickly as you can, relieved that the distasteful encounter is over. 

The second form of kindness (i.e. to be kind) sees this man as a subject of pity and charity. Perhaps he has a psychiatric disorder, or was abused as a child. Perhaps he never had a stable family, or a friendly shoulder to lean on. You do not know what has made him so desperate and strange (not to mention smelly), but you genuinely want to help. You offer the man $10, smile at him, and then shake your head as you go on your way.

The third and most profound form of kindness, however, sees this man with a fundamentally different set of eyes, eyes that look beyond superficial differences to find common hopes, dreams, and fears.


This last form of kindness notices the old man has a button on his too-thick fall coat. Defying expectations, it says “I visited the Field Museum!” You tell the man that you love natural history, too, and that you’re planning to study evolutionary biology in college.

The man’s eyes light up.

“I l- l- love th- th- the F- F- Field Museum. I g- g- go there every fr- free admission day to look at the b- birds!”
He proceeds to tell you about 4 different species of bird common to the Chicago parks.

Intrigued, you offer to buy the man lunch at the diner across the street. You discover that, though he does not read well, he goes to the public library every day to peer through books with pictures of plants and animals. He is fascinated, especially, by Darwin’s finches — their wondrously diverse beaks and heads and feathers. You learn that he dreams of going on an expedition to the plains of the Serengeti, or the rain forests of the Amazon, or the islands of the Galapagos… to see and smell and touch the flora and fauna of these distant, vibrant ecosystems. He dreams of the fierce lions, the playful bonobos, and the ancient, massive tortoises. But especially, especially, especially, the birds, in all their infinite, fantastic variety. To him, there is nothing better or more beautiful in the world than a little bird.

“S- s- someday, I am g- going t- to open up a l- little garden sh- shop. And then I’m g- gonna s- s- save up some money to go s- s- see the birds!”

You learn, too, that there are fears that accompany his dreams. He is afraid that, even if he manages to save some money, it will be taken from him. (Like many of us, when he sees a group of street kids, jostling and cursing at one another, he crosses to the other side of the street.) He worries about his health. (He is terrified by swine flu and wonders if he can get it by eating pork.) He struggles with isolation. (There are times when he cannot get to sleep at night, because of the crushing loneliness of life on the street.) But above all, he tells you, he is scared for his beloved birds.

“The city w- w- won’t let me f- feed them anymore. They passed a l- law against it. And th- th- they even l- l- locked me up once for giving them f- f- food in the park! B- b- but in the w- w- winter those poor p- p- pigeons will starve w- without me…”

He pauses and looks at his feet.

“I f- f- found a little one… j- j- just y- yesterday… d- d- dea-….”

He stops. Tears begin to stream down his cheeks. There is pain in his face. And for a moment, you and this homeless man see with a single set of eyes. You both see a small pigeon — just a child, really — struggling to walk in the face of a stiff Chicago wind. She is scared and starving. The mother who raised her has long abandoned her; the old man who fed her, is long lost to her. Young and inexperienced, she knows not the warm, safe areas of the harsh Chicago streets. So she stumbles along, desperately pecking at pebbles and used cigarettes in search of something — anything — that will provide her nourishment or comfort. Soon her rail-thin body collapses from hunger, exhaustion, and cold. She quivers, faintly, and shuts her sad eyes one last time.

All this, you see in the blink of a shared set of eyes. And as this poor old man sits there, quietly crying for his little birds, you feel a tear form and trickle down your own face as well.

You both collect yourselves, and finish your food. You walk out of the diner together. The man shuffles his feet and looks down at the ground. He is not sure what to say. You tell him about a nonprofit adult education center you volunteer at, that might teach him to read, or help him find a job at a local gardening store. The old man’s eyes glow with youthful glee.
“D- d- do you think t- they’d let me feed the b- b- birds with some of the s- seed?”

You tell him they might. And he almost leaps into the air in joy. He grabs your hand, and shakes it vigorously.

“Th- th- thank you. N- n- no one has ever been so k- k- k-…. k- k- k-…”
“Y- y- yes. Kind.”

You part ways, both smiling the smile of friendship.

And as you walk away and ponder this man’s hopes and dreams…. you realize that he, too, has been kind to you. Because “to be kind,” in its most fundamental sense, always runs both ways. It is a connection; an equality; a kinship. And you and this man — illiterate, homeless, and ragged though he may be — are similar in so many important ways . He may look different. He may act different. He may even communicate in ways that you sometimes do not understand. But in his most basic passions and aversions, his most fundamental fears and aspirations, you and this seemingly strange man, are of the same kind.

This message of kinship is the third and greatest meaning of Lisa’s mantra. And this, I would submit, is the true message of the animal rights movement — a message that has been carried down, by blood and sweat and tears, through hundreds of years of human history, by brave activists like Garrison and Pankhurst and King. It is a message that continues to grow and spread to even the darkest and most oppressive corners of this Earth. And it is a message that is worth devoting a life to... a message that is worth struggling, and fighting, and even dying for.

I’ll let you work out, for yourself, all the implications — what any of this has to do with non-human animals, for example. But if you need a philosophical starting point, let me suggest Princeton Prof. Peter Singer’s groundbreaking article, All Animals are Equal.
But that’s all from me. Thanks for reading my little novella! I hope you found it provocative and interesting. I hope, also, that you have a wonderful week. But most of all, I hope that, as you wander the streets, if you happen to run into a stuttering, old homeless man, or a poor young pigeon pecking desperately for food, or even just an acquaintance of yours who’s having a bad day, remember to be kind. Always, be kind, be kind, be kind.
Because, as Lisa taught me so many years ago, to be kind is the most important thing in life.