Leaf of the Tree

Finding the Divine in the Details


The real universal language


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

understanding.   ~ Bahá’u’lláh

When I saw the Chinese New Year decorations in a favorite restaurant this week, I was transported back to one of the most powerful lessons I ever received, from one of my youngest teachers. During the semester that I taught English to kindergartners in China, the curriculum I used also introduced another more universal language that I believe all human beings are pre-programmed to speak: the language of virtues.

China3.2009 216When you live in a place where you can’t speak the language, you gain new appreciation for spiritual attributes as stepping stones for communication. Kind looks and encouraging smiles are something we can all recognize and such gems of human goodness 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 sudden illness that left me weak and dizzy in the midst of Shanghai’s spinning streets, on the verge of collapsing. I arrived at the school with no idea how I’d get through the afternoon of classes ahead of me.

2005 China Trip 248I 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, 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. Settled in the hospitable embrace in which he immersed me with such unspoken wisdom, I felt my symptoms lifting off of me as I basked in the oasis of calm he had created. Then I experienced a surge of energy that lifted and carried me through that class and those that followed.

Storm 205Remarkably, I can feel that same warm, healing strength today as I remember his kindness.

More than ever, humanity needs a universal language. 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.


Adapted from Life at First Sight: Finding the Divine in the Details: