The Impossible Beauty of Human Kindness

These have been bad, hard days so I want to share with you a story I listened to while taking a walk that is so full of the beauty of human kindness that it made me cry in the middle of a crowded street. This story is taken from Jack Kornfield, who tells it in his lecture series “Awakening Is Real.” He was told this story by a man who works with juvenile offenders – especially killers – in Baltimore.

A young man in Baltimore joined his local gang when he turned 15, and as part of his initiation he had to kill someone. He did it, he went out and killed another young man that he didn’t even know, a total stranger to him.

The cops caught the killer and he was brought to trial. Every day of the trial the dead boy’s mother sat in the gallery, watching. When the jury returned the guilty verdict the mother stood up and loudly said to her son’s murderer: “I am going to kill you.”

The killer was sent into the juvenile prison system. Not long after he arrived in juvie the mother showed up, bringing cigarettes and gifts. At first the boy didn’t want to go see the mother of the kid he had killed, but she kept showing up every week and no one else did, and eventually he went to sit with her and accept her gifts in person. He would sit quietly while she talked to him.

After three years the killer’s sentence was almost up, and the mother came to visit him like she had been doing every week. She asked him if he had a job lined up for when he got out. “I don’t have anything,” he confessed to her.

“I know a man who will give you a job,” she told him. “So that’s taken care of. Now, do you have a place to stay?”

He didn’t – he had no one on the outside.

“Well,” she said after thinking a moment. “I have a spare room. You can come stay with me.”

So he did. He got out of prison and stayed in the mother’s spare room, and he took the job she had arranged for him. He showed up every day and worked diligently, and he was good at the work, and he liked the work. It made him feel useful.

Every day after work he would return to her house. She would make him dinner every night. At first it was awkward, but over time he got used to it. At first he would retreat to his room as soon as dinner was finished, but over time he started sitting with her, watching television and talking.

This went on for many months. He would get up early and go to work, work hard, and return home. At home he would eat heartily and talk with spirit. She cooked the food and he washed the dishes. And after that they would watch their favorite programs and laugh and gasp together at whatever was happening that week.

One day, as he was doing the dishes, the mother asked him, “Do you remember when I stood up in the courtroom and said I would kill you?”

“I think about that every day of my life,” the boy – now a man – said.

“I did it,” the mother told him. “I killed that boy who was on trial. No part of him is left in you anymore, and the murderer of my son is gone. But I still am missing a son, so I want you to stay here with me and be that son.”

And he did, and she legally adopted the man who had murdered her only child, because he was no longer the man who had murdered her only child.

Yesterday I talked about how sometimes punching a Nazi is compassionate. I believe that is sometimes what needs to be done in the immediate moment. But I also believe that the big work of changing the world, of really altering the way human beings relate to one another, is the work of love and forgiveness.