A Reflection on Kindness from Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See

Series: The Lord and Literature 

by Grace Pike November 18, 2021

Anthony Doerr’s Pulitzer-winning novel All the Light We Cannot See promises a story that “illuminates the ways, against all odds, people try to be good to one another.” This intricate work of historical fiction delivers on that promise and provides a compelling journey for any reader; but for the Christian, I believe it offers enduring lessons about kindness.

Kindness transforms us.

In January of 1941 in Saint-Malo, a young French girl named Marie-Laure is unable to get herself out of bed. Her circumstances weigh so heavy even simple tasks prove impossible:

She becomes unreachable, sullen. She does not bathe, does not warm herself by the kitchen fire, ceases to ask if she can go outdoors. She hardly eats.

Like others throughout the book, the cruelty of the world threatens to crush her.

The cook and maid of the Saint-Malo home, Madame Manec, sees this and refuses to watch her suffer alone any longer. Though it is not her responsibility, she takes Marie-Laure out of the house and down to the Breton coastline. As her lungs fill with crisp sea air and her curious fingers trace the frames of surrounding barnacles, Marie-Laure slowly comes back to life.

Madame Manec risks going out of her home during wartime to stand on a cold beach for three hours so a child not her own can feel again. This is kindness: to love another selflessly and without expectation of return.

Reading simple and profound acts of benevolence from All the Light We Cannot See during my own season of depression comforted me. Those who have tasted the bitterness of life know the sweetness of a hand reaching out through the fog of suffering. In many ways, these fictional glimmers of goodness lifted my weary chin to gaze at the transformational kindness of Jesus.

The gospel of Jesus Christ is for the despondent. It is right for our hearts to break when relationships are severed; for sobs to wrack our bodies when death steals the life of one we loved; for us to acknowledge the sheer wrongness of pain’s existence.

We could have been left in the despondent darkness of sin, but God in his lovingkindness sent Jesus to be the light of the world that those who believe in him may be saved.[1] Tasting communion upon our lips regularly reminds us of this love: the body of Christ broken for us, and the blood of Christ shed for us. By Christ’s ultimate act of kindness in laying down his life for us on the cross, we are given new life.

Though it is right for us to recognize the effects of sin, we cannot stay chained by doubt or trapped in despondency, lest we get so caught in looking to ourselves we forget to behold the kindness of the Lord.[2] The Spirit of God graciously helps us in this endeavor: melting our sorrows with the promise of who God is as revealed in General and Specific Revelation.[3] Standing by the measureless sea of God’s grace, our hearts are no longer embittered by this world, but instead long to gift the kindness we’ve been shown in Christ.

Kindness transforms the world.

What greater kindness can we offer a broken world than to guide it to Jesus? As ambassadors of the Kingdom of light, we are entrusted with caring for believers that they may be comforted and unbelievers that they may be saved.

Believer, if you have been transformed by the kindness of Jesus it is your responsibility to demonstrate kindness to others—no matter the cost.

Nestled between the pages of Marie-Laure’s story of pain and healing is a demonstration of courageous compassion from a boy attending a Nazi school. His decision to acknowledge the humanity of another person has devastating consequences for his own life, but the boy still chooses to consider them more significant than himself.

In times of war, famine, and trial, how often is kindness the first thing to go? It is easy to be unkind in the face of difficulty. We see it every day: people choosing to wield their tongues as weapons or sacrificing character while claiming righteousness. Yet true strength is not found in the gritting of teeth or clenching of fists, but in the willingness to lay down at the foot of the cross and trust God as we choose the course of kindness. When the flesh tempts us to raise our voice in justification, the kindness of Jesus whispers for us to die to ourselves and embrace meekness. This kind of response takes humility.

The humility of Christ has direct implications for our kindness to one another. After the Apostle Paul implores the church at Philippi to love others in light of Christ’s willingness to humble himself in love, he gives this command:

Do all things without grumbling or disputing, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world…[4]

Kindness looks different from the rest of the world. Those who do not know Christ may be blind to the beauty of the gospel, but our choice to demonstrate unmerited kindness may be the very thing God uses to pull them into the light. Your decision to speak up for the forgotten, dwell with the outcast, or sit silently with the sufferer may cast the first rays of gospel warmth into a life clouded by shadows of death.

My prayer for us as believers is for us to cherish kindness as we ought. Doing so will enable us to more earnestly treasure God and, by the power of the Holy Spirit, help fellow broken humans awaken to all the light they cannot see.

[1] John 3:16-17

[2] This is a reference to the Slough of Despond and Doubting Castle in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress.

[3] To understand more about General Revelation and Specific Revelation, read “The Poetry of Earth is Never Dead” by Jason G. Duesing: https://ftc.co/resource-library/blog-entries/the-poetry-of-earth-is-never-dead/

[4] Philippians 2:14-15