post office bay“Conscience is the inner voice that warns us somebody may be looking.” ~  H.L. Mencken

Somebody is ALWAYS looking. YOU! The most pure form of morality is when you do what you love, and it feels right to you and it meets the needs of people around you and you feel no need for any praise or reward because the joy of authentic kindness is its own reward.

I dream of living in THIS sort of society, where we could trust each other to do the noble thing without so many checks and balances because everyone loved the feeling kindness created.

This is more than a dream in Post Office Bay on the island of Floreana in the Galapagos Islands. Since the 18th century everyone from fishermen to sailors and tourists have been dropping letters and postcards in the box. That’s not strange, what is amazing is that no stamps are needed. People who visit the beach leave an addressed post card or letter in the barrel, and then take mail out of the barrel to send on to its destination. If you see one addressed to your hometown, you might even hand deliver it when you get home.

I love this because there are no rules. It’s an unwritten code of common decency. There are no punishments if you don’t want to participate and no rewards if you do. It just feels awesome to take part, so why wouldn’t you?

Most tourists never return to the mailbox, and no one is checking anyway. The mailbox survives, decade after decade, and almost every visitor leaves a letter and forwards another one. The mailbox succeeds because it appeals to people’s sense of community. People WANT to participate in the process and feel a part of it.

Take me to Post Office Bay, or better yet bring the spirit of Post Office Bay to the rest of the world, a spirit of intrinsic morality and barely any need for ethics because no one needs to be told.

Generally speaking morality is your personal belief system, the issues that are important to you and your perspective on them. Ethics is the common code that makes sure the greatest number is treated fairly.  The best definition I’ve heard of morality and ethics is that morality is the way you treat people you know and ethics is how you treat people you don’t know.

All of us have to make decisions that affect people we don’t know. The whole job of a politician is to consider people they don’t know. It’s the same for a CEO of a large company. But all of us make decisions that affect people around the world (the food you eat and clothes you wear as examples), and future generations (consumption and ecological decisions) as well as other species.

Training ourselves to think about people we don’t know is the way we could instill the Post Office Bay mindset into our everyday lives. Smile at strangers. Give a little money to people begging on streets. Perform random acts of kindness to strangers. Don’t wait around for thanks, and don’t waste time judging if people deserve your kindness or not. Do it to exercise your ethical muscles and practice for the really big decisions where ethics can so easily be lost.

There’s an awesome story about kindness to strangers. It took place in Munich in Nazi Germany. Sussie, a German Jew, was riding a city bus home from work when SS storm troopers suddenly stopped the coach and began examining the identification papers of the passengers. Sussie began to tremble, tears streaming down her face. When the man next to her noticed that she was crying, he politely asked her why. “I don’t have the papers you have. I am a Jew. They’re going to take me.” The man had an instinctive response and creative solution. He exploded with disgust. He began to curse and scream at her. “You stupid [idiot],” he roared, “I can’t stand being near you!” The SS men asked what all the yelling was about. “Damn her,” the man shouted angrily. “My wife has forgotten her papers again! I’m so fed up. She always does this!”

The soldiers laughed at their fighting and moved on. Sussie never saw the man again. She never even knew his name. Rabbi Lawrence Kushner tells this story and calls it “Stranger on the Bus”.

We need an ethic of strangers as an antidote to our disconnected and over legislated society. We’ve forgotten that we belong to each other. The more we forget this, the more legislation we need to force us to be nice to each other. What a pity we need this! We live in a world where politicians shut down governments because they’re not getting their own way, a world where the rich avoid taxes, a world where immigrants are treated as second class citizens.

If we cared for strangers in the same way we would want to be cared for, this world would be a totally different place. And it all starts with everyday choices to do the noble thing just because someone needs to.

Philip Hallie, who studied the inhabitants of Le Chambon, a French village that sheltered many refugees during the Nazi period  writes,

I learned that the opposite of cruelty is not simply freedom from the cruel relationship; it is hospitality…. When I asked them [the villagers] why they helped these dangerous guests, they invariably answered, “What do you mean, ‘Why?’ Where else could they go? How could you turn them away?”

It’s the only reason to live a noble life; if not you, who? If not now, when? If you don’t, then who are you? How could you not?

It’s impossible to make everyone happy all the time, but it is totally possible to treat everyone fairly all the time. This should be our aim.

Subscribe to Grapevine Back to Grapevine page

  1. Joan Cook-Howe says:

    I love these anecdotes and the questions with which you end this piece Ian. Thank you.

  2. josho says:

    Truth be spoken !   Stay free of judgment,  bring your senses to the moment to spread kindness and selflessness to others.