Maybe I’m just more in tune with the natural world than you are, but lately, I’ve noticed that squirrels have been acting a little out of sorts. To me, squirrels have always been suspiciously undomesticated and populous creatures. And what with winter around the corner, I can see how the pressures of impending hibernation might put anyone on edge.Or maybe something stranger blew in with the Santa Anas, something that has made our bushy-tailed friends a little nutty. There’s an extra erratic jump in their stride, a new urgency in their mating dance, a franticness I’ve never seen before in my many years of observation.
Still, I hadn’t put much thought to this change in squirrel demeanor until I nearly stepped on a dead one. I’ll say that the shock was great. Here he was—dearly departed, in fetal position, with tail tucked under stoic body—in the middle of the sidewalk. I watched as my classmates stepped over him, as if he were nothing more than a slight inconvenience.
I too might’ve forgotten these were creatures with a nervous system all their own, if I hadn’t stopped to look into those beady eyes and seen this squirrel for the lost soul he really was. I imagined the circumstances of his death: perhaps he was chasing after nothing more than a nut or a cute co-ed when a single misstep ended his short life. Perhaps he was in pursuit of a bigger dream, one never to be realized.
I know that it’s difficult to care about a squirrel. Squirrels are instinctual animals. They don’t appear to exhibit any sense of compassion or outward conscientiousness. As my mother told me in my very first driving lesson, we do not slow down for bikers, and we certainly don’t brake for squirrels. Don’t do them any favors they wouldn’t return if they were behind the wheel.
Next to all the other cruelties of our world, this squirrel’s fate was no great concern. And yet, I couldn’t help but feel a bit deflated all day. Have we become so callous that we are indifferent to the small tragedies of the world? I was reminded just how easily and often we forget to exercise our own uniquely human capacity for kindness.I don’t know if it’s because I’m especially sensitivebut I find that even a bit of unkindness can really dampen my mood. It’s like the sadness you feel when you trip and fall: fleeting but heavy. Sure, you pick yourself back up, but you do so knowing that your legs failed you.
Sometimes, too, I worry that our modern life puts a premium on what is expressly mean: the free market, a spirit of cutthroat competition in a depressed economy, speed dating, the StairMaster, steak night.
It was Albert Einstein or someone of similar brainpower who said that to our great detriment, we tend to value intellect over kindness. I know that’s no theory of relativity. And it’s certainly not rocket science to say that kind people are better company than arrogant and pretentious brainiacs. But there is an original genius in these words. Smart is an effect, nice is a personality, but kindness is a genuine and rare quality. Kindness goes down to the soul; it infects every action. It colors a world view so that every small act of injustice somehow merits more reflection.
Kind is considerate. It’s considering the effect of what you say and what you do and how you can hurt someone. Kind is forgiving of, say, a typo in a resume, of a minute of tardiness to a job interview, or $124 in overdue book fines to the library. (Believe me, it was a bad week.)
Kindness is an open door, a friendly wave, a shooting star, the get away car, and [fill in any other Michael Buble lyric]. I see kindness everywhere on this campus: in an environmental flash mob and the extra room made at a crowded dining hall table for a late-comer. In a shared laugh over a drink at Pub or a congratulatory embrace at the end of a particularly contentious game of racquetball. I see kind people from every geographic region (but mostly the Pacific Northwest) participate in the work of paying it forward, holding a door open for the girl with her hands full or running after the boy who dropped his keys, or doing any one of those things people do in the Liberty Mutual commercials about “responsibility.”
It’s kindness that makes us human, that separates us from the flying squirrel, and we should strive to be ambassadors of such a wonderfully human quality.We should also remember that squirrels are unwilling subjects in our human-centric universe. We’d do well to set them at ease, to pause more often to consider their pint-sized, but still significant, lives. Because you never know when the tables will turn. There are so many squirrels …