A kindly tongue is the lodestone of the hearts of men. It is the bread of the spirit,
it clotheth the words with meaning, it is the fountain of the light of wisdom and
— Bahá’u’lláh, Epistle to the Son of the Wolf
A smile, a kind look, an encouraging gesture are all something we can recognize wherever we go, whatever our mother tongue.
I’ve re-encountered the truth of this frequently over the last few weeks when my husband and I spent nearly a month in New York City, living out of our suitcases. I encounter the universality of kindness as a mutual language each time we return for visits to Germany, our childhood home.
And I was reminded of how language and communication go well beyond spoken words when I taught English to kindergartners for a semester in China. The curriculum I used there also introduced another more universal language that I believe human beings everywhere are preprogrammed to speak: the language of virtues.
When you live in a place where you can’t speak the language, you gain new appreciation for spiritual characteristics as facilitators for communication. Kind looks and encouraging smiles are something we can all recognize and such gems of human goodness often became more visible when we can’t fall back on words alone.
This happened for me one day in China when, right before the five classes I was scheduled to teach, I was hit by illness that made me feel weak and shaky. I arrived at the school with no idea how I’d get through the afternoon of classes ahead of me.
I was greeted at the classroom door by a five-year-old who, upon seeing me, took my bags and carried them to a place where he pointed for me to sit. Then he disappeared into the next room and returned with water in a beautiful clay teacup. He presented this to me with marked kindness, good manners, and concern, and then stood beside me companionably, patting my back gently a few times as I sipped slowly.
He spoke only a few English words he’d learned from me (none of which applied very much in this situation) and I spoke virtually no Chinese, but the unspoken communication between us in those moments was unmistakably deep. I was flooded with warmth that made me feel stronger, as though my symptoms had disappeared, then experienced a surge of energy that lifted and carried me through that class and those that followed.
Remarkably, I can feel that same warm, healing strength today as I remember his kindness.
I know humanity’s going to need a universal language, and though I don’t know what it will be, I feel as though I’ve caught a glimpse of what must surely be one of its essential ingredients: the vocabulary of virtues that God has treasured inside each of us. It seems to find its best expression in actions and gestures of kindness, and needs no translation at all.