Kevin Kelly is senior maverick at Wired magazine, which he helped launch in 1993. For six years he edited and published the Whole Earth Review. Kelly lives in Pacifica, Calif., where he writes about long-term trends and social consequences of technology.
When I was in my 20s, I would hitchhike to work every day. I'd walk down three blocks to Route 22 in New Jersey, stick out my thumb and wait for a ride to work. Someone always picked me up, and I was never late. Each morning, I counted on the service of ordinary commuters who had lives full of their own worries and yet, without fail, at least one of them would do something generous, as if on schedule. As I stood there with my thumb outstretched, the only question in my mind was simply, "How will the miracle happen today?"
Shortly after that job, I took my wages and split for Asia. I've lost track of the number of generous acts aimed at me there, but they arrived as dependably as my daily hitchhiking miracle.
I have developed a belief about what happens in these moments and it goes like this: Kindness is like a breath. It can be squeezed out, or drawn in. To solicit a gift from a stranger takes a certain state of openness. If you are lost or ill, this is easy, but most days you are neither, so embracing extreme generosity takes some preparation. I learned to think of this as an exchange. During the moment the stranger offers his or her goodness, the person being aided offers degrees of humility, indebtedness, surprise, trust, delight, relief and amusement to the stranger.
One year I rode my bicycle across America. In the evenings I'd scout houses for a likely yard to camp in. I'd ring the bell and say, "I'd like to pitch my tent tonight where I have permission. I've just eaten dinner, and I'll be gone first thing in the morning." I was never turned away, not once. And there was always more, like an invitation into their home. My job at that moment was clear: I was to relate my adventure, and in the retelling of what happened so far, they would get to vicariously ride a bicycle across America — a thrill they secretly desired but would never do. In exchange I would get a place to camp and a dish of ice cream.
When the miracle flows, it flows both ways. With each gift the threads of benevolence are knotted, snaring both giver and recipient. I've only slowly come to realize that good givers are those who learn to receive with grace as well. They radiate a sense of being indebted and a state of being thankful. As a matter of fact, we are all at the receiving end of a huge gift simply by being alive. Yet, most of us are no good at being helpless, humble or indebted.
As with my hitchhiking rides, the gift is an extravagant gesture you can count on. No matter how bad the weather, soiled the past, broken the heart, hellish the war, I believe all that is behind the universe is conspiring to help us — if we will humble ourselves enough to let it.
Independently produced for NPR Digital Media by Jay Allison and Dan Gediman with John Gregory and Viki Merrick.
Kevin Kelly's 2007 Christmas Card
Kevin Kelly's This I Believe essay was adapted from a Christmas card he sent to family and friends in 2007. Below you can read his essay in full:
Dear Friends and Family,
Before the news of this year, a little personal story. When I was in my twenties I would hitchhike to work everyday. I'd walk down three blocks to Route 22 in New Jersey, stick out my thumb and wait for a ride to work. Someone always picked me up. I had to punch-in for my job as a packer at a warehouse at 8 o'clock sharp, and I can't remember ever being late. It never ceased to amaze me even then, that the kindness of strangers could be so dependable. Each morning I counted on the service of ordinary commuters who had lives full of their own worries, and yet without fail, at least one of them would do something kind, as if on schedule. As I stood there with my thumb outstretched, the only question in my mind was simply: "How will the miracle happen today?"
Shortly after that rare stint of a real job, I took my wages and split for Asia, where I roamed off and on for the next 8 years. I lost track of the number of acts of kindness aimed at me, but they arrived as dependably as my daily hitchhiking miracle. Random examples: In the Philippines a family opened their last can of tinned meat as a banquet for me, a stranger who needed a place to crash. Below a wintry pass north of Gilgit in the Pakistan Hindu Kush, a group of startled firewood harvesters shared their ash-baked bread with me when I bounded unannounced into their campfire circle one evening. We ended up sleeping like sardines under a single homewoven blanket. In Taiwan, a student I met on the street one day befriended me in that familiar way to most travelers, but surprised me by offering me a place at his family's apartment in Taipei. While he was away at school, I sat in on the family meals and had my own bedroom for two weeks.
One remembrance triggers another; I could easily list thousands of such gestures without much trouble, because – and this is important – not only did I readily accept such gifts, but I actually came to rely on them being offered. I could never guess who the messenger would be, but kindness never failed to materialize once I put myself in some position to receive it. As in my hitchhiking days, I began my days on the road in Asia and elsewhere with the recurring question: how will the miracle happen today?" After a lifetime of relying on such benevolence I have developed a theory of what happens in these moments and it goes like this. Kindness is like a breath. It can be squeezed out, or drawn in. You can wait for it, or you can summon it.
To solicit a gift from a stranger takes a certain state of openness. If you are lost or ill, this is easy, but most days you are neither, so embracing extreme generosity takes some preparation. I learned from hitchhiking to think of this as an exchange. During the moment the stranger offers his or her goodness, the person being aided offers degrees of humility, dependency, gratitude, surprise, trust, delight, relief, and amusement to the stranger. It takes some practice to enable this transfer when you don't feel desperate. Ironically, you are less inclined to be ready for the gift when you are feeling whole, full, complete, and independent!
One might even call the art of accepting generosity a type of compassion. The compassion of being kinded. One year I rode my bicycle across America, from San Francisco to New Jersey. I started out camping in state parks, but past the Rockies, parks became so scarce I switched to camping on people's lawns. I worked up a routine. As darkness fell, I began scouting the homes I passed for a likely candidate: neat house, big lawn in the back, easy access for my bike. When I selected the lucky home, I parked my bag-loaded bike in front of the door and rang the bell. "Hello," I'd say. "I'm riding my bike across America. I'd like to pitch my tent tonight where I have permission and where someone knows where I am. I've just eaten dinner, and I'll be gone first thing in the morning. Would you mind if I put up my tent in your backyard?"
I was never turned away, not once. And there was always more. It was impossible for most folks to sit in their couch and watch TV while a guy who was riding his bicycle across America was camped in their backyard. What if he was famous? So I was usually invited into their home for desert and an interview. My job in this moment was clear: I was to relate my adventure. I was to help them enjoy a thrill they secretly desired, but would never do. My account would make an impossible dream seem real and possible, and thus part of them. Through me and my retelling of what happened so far, they would get to vicariously ride a bicycle across America. In exchange I would get a place to camp and a dish of ice cream. It was a sweet deal that benefited both of us. The weird thing is that I was, and still am, not sure whether I would have done what they did and let me sleep in the backyard. The "me" on the bicycle had a wild tangled beard, had not showered for weeks, and appeared destitute (my whole transcontinental trip cost me $500). I am not sure I would invite a casual tourist I met to take over my apartment, and cook for him. I definitely would not hand him the keys to my own car, as a hotel clerk in Dalarna, Sweden, did one mid-summer day when I asked her how I could reach the painter Carl Larsson's house 150 miles away away.
The many times I was down or dazed, and a stranger interrupted his life to assist me is a less perplexing mystery to me that when, for no reason I can comprehend, an impoverished legendary Chinese painter I had met only 20 minutes previously insists that I take one of his treasures. I'd like to think that I would, without hesitation, drive way out of my way to bring a sick traveler to the hospital, but I am having trouble seeing myself emptying my bank account to purchase a boat ticket for someone who has more money than I do. (Yep, that happened to me.) But this kind of kindness happens when you travel with an openness to the gift.
Yet while I rely on miracles, I don't believe in saints. There are no saints even among the gentle monks of Asia, or I should say, especially among the monks. Rather, generosity is rampant in everyday lives, but no more in one place, race, or creed than others. We expect altruism among kinfolk and neighbors, although the world would, as we all know, be a better place if neighborly and family kindness happened even more. Altruism among strangers, on the other hand, is simply strange. To the uninitiated its occurrence seems as random as cosmic rays. It seems like a hit or miss blessing that makes a good story. For that reason the kindness of strangers is gift we never forget.
But the strangeness of "kindees" is harder to explain. A kindee is what you turn into when you are kinded. Curiously, being a kindee is an unpracticed virtue. Hardly anyone hitchhikes any more, which is a shame because it encourages the habit of generosity from drivers and nurtures the grace of gratitude and patience of being kinded from hikers. But the stance of receiving a gift – of being kinded — is vital for everyone, not just travelers. Many people resist being kinded unless they are in dire need, or life-threatened. Since I have had so much practice as a kindee, I have some pointers on how it is unleashed.
I believe the generous gifts from strangers are actually summoned by a deliberate willingness to be helped. You start by surrendering to your need for help. That we cannot be helped until we embrace our need for help is a law of the universe. Receiving help on the road is a spiritual event triggered by a traveler who surrenders his or her fate to the eternal Greatness. It's a move from whether we will be helped to how: how will the miracle unfold today? In what novel manner will Good reveal itself? Who will the universe send today to carry away my gift of trust and helplessness?
When the miracle flows, it flows both ways. When an offered gift is accepted, then the threads of love are knotted, snaring both the stranger who is kind, and the stranger who is kinded. Every time a gift is tossed it lands differently – but knowing that it will arrive in some colorful, unexpected way is one of the certainties of life.
We are at the receiving end of a huge gift simply by being alive. It does not matter how you calculate it, our time here is unearned. Maybe you figure your existence is the result of a billion unlikely accidents, and nothing more; then certainly your life is an unexpected and undeserved surprise. That's the definition of a gift. Or maybe you figure there's something bigger behind this small human reality; your life is then a gift from the greater to the lesser. As far as I can tell none of us have brought about our own existence, nor done much to earn such a remarkable experience. The pleasures of colors, cinnamon rolls, bubbles, touchdowns, whispers, long conversations, sand on your bare feet – these are all undeserved rewards.
All of us begin in the same place. Whether purified or not, we are not owed our life. Our existence is an unnecessary extravagance, a wild gesture, an unearned gift. Not just at birth. The eternal surprise is being funneled to us daily, hourly, minute by minute, every second. Yet, we are terrible recipients. We are no good at being helpless, humble, or indebted. Being needy is not celebrated on day-time TV shows, or in self-help books. We make lousy kindees.
I've slowly changed my mind about spiritual faith. I once thought it was chiefly about believing in an unmeasurable reality; that it had a lot in common with hope. But after many years of examining the lives of the people whose spiritual character I most respect, I've come to see that their faith rests on gratitude, rather than hope. They exude a sense of being indebted, and a state of being thankful. When the truly faithful worry, it's not about doubt (which they have) but it's about how they might not maximize the tremendous gift given them. How they might be ungrateful. The faithful I admire are not certain about much except this: that this state of being embodied, inflated with life, brimming with possibilities, is so over-the-top unlikely, so extravagant, so unconditional, so far out beyond physical entropy, that is it indistinguishable from love. And most amazing of all, like my hitchhiking rides, this love-gift is an extravagant gesture you can count on. No matter how bad the weather, soiled the past, broken the heart, hellish the war – all that is behind the universe is conspiring to help you – if you will let it.
My new age friends call that pronoia, the opposite of paranoia. Instead of believing everyone is out to get you, you believe everyone is out to help you. The story of your life becomes one huge elaborate conspiracy to lift you up. But to be helped you have to join the conspiracy yourself. You have to accept the gift.
Of course in the daily grind giving is always more holy than getting. That's what a Christmas season celebrating the gift of redemption is all about. Please share your abundance, while you can.
But I've only slowly come to realize that good givers are those who learn to receive with grace as well. None of us deserve what we have; all of us need help. From my perspective, the origins of this Christmas season lie in this eternal offer: although we have done nothing to merit it, we have been offered a glorious ride that will transcend the ills, failures, hates and destruction of this existence, if only we accept it. To accept the gift requires we surrender to our need for the gift, and to the truth that we don't deserve it. The outreach to this charity begins in the same humble position a hitchhiker gets into when he stands shivering on the side of the empty highway, cardboard sign flapping in the cold wind, and says, "How will the miracle happen today?"
We had a lot to be grateful for this year. My brothers and sister and parents are all well. Gia-Miin's mother moved from Taiwan to a house near our neighborhood. To keep her mom company, another of Gia-Miin' sisters lives with her. There is now a critical mass of Fuh family in Pacficia. We all returned to China for second adventure into remote villages. There were 9 of us, including my mother-in-law (80) and my brother's son, Rhy, who came to keep Tywen (11) company. We ate a whole lot of strange food (even for Gia-Miin), got snowed in Tibet, climbed to a high-altitude Yi mountain village, and strolled along the canals beside the Grand Canal. Missing from this trip was Ting (16) who was visiting colleges on the East Coast accompanied and chauffeured by my sister Colleen, and Kaileen (18) who was at school at Pepperdine. This past autumn, Kaileen spent a semester abroad in Buenos Aires, Argentina. She's reluctantly home for the holidays, wishing she was still in BA, as they call it.
I'm traveling a bit more this year, and writing more as well. I'm writing about what technology means, as in, what is the role of technology in our lives? There's more and more technology, but where does it fit in the cosmic scale of things? That philosophy sounds as airy-fairy to me as to you, which is why I am having trouble actually writing it. Just to keep my feet on the ground, I also continue to review tools for my web site, Cool Tools. To relax I made a few new photo books. I'm working on one about Burning Man, which I've been photographing since 1995.
And I am working on being more grateful. I'm aiming my thanks at the thousand of things we take for granted, things that would be a miracle if they only happened once. I noticed a pigeon the other day. It had fantastical colors, incredible bearing, and shimmering feathers. I feel sure that if there were only one of these specimens alive in the world, we would all agree it would be the most beautiful bird in the world. We'd push and shove to see it. Almost every moment in our lives is a pigeon overlooked. May we notice and be grateful. Sometime in the past, our lives intersected in real life (not on the computer!) and I wish we'd intersect again that way soon.