Monday, 16 January 2017

Faith and Reason

by Ian Harris                      Otago Daily Times                    Jan. 13, 2017

I have a problem with new year resolutions. It's easy enough to make them. They're always super well-intentioned. The problem is that by the middle of February I've forgotten what they were. Even jotting them down somewhere doesn't help, because the "somewhere" has a way of quickly losing itself amid a paper miscellany. So what's the point?

This year, however, I am surprised by a resolve to revive the custom. Just one resolution, mind, but growing as it does from a couple of cameos in the news late last year, it seems one worth sharing.

First was a comment on television in October by former trade union leader Helen Kelly, broadcast a fortnight before she died. The interviewer raised the question of leadership and, switching the focus to values, she drew on the Trump phenomenon in the United States election to make her point.

What she hated about Donald Trump, she said, "is that he's so unkind. I want him just to be kind."

It left me wondering what incidents in her life of championing those at the bottom of the pay scales lay behind such a remark. Disputes where safety was the issue? Or exploitation? Or fairness? Or respect? In a healthy workplace those issues place demands both ways, employer to employee and vice versa. They're to do with personal decency, where questions of what is humane, what is responsible, what is just, what is kind are not only relevant but central.

The second cameo comes from the very different circumstances of November's Kaikoura earthquake. Residents were well and truly shaken, visitors stranded, businesses disrupted. How to respond?

Jeff Reardon, who moved to Kaikoura after experiencing the Christchurch earthquakes and had stored crayfish to celebrate his wife’s birthday, thawed them, cooked them, and handed them out to tourists whom the quake had prevented from moving on. Asked why, he said simply: "It's not hard to be kind, eh!" The phrase flashed around the world, and was quickly given pride of place on local T-shirts.

Kindness again. How human relationships thrive on kindness, whether in families, schools, workplaces, wherever! Spreading wider, kindness to pets, bobby calves, hens (free-range, please), porkers does something unique and positive for both the owners and their charges.

Kindness to the environment does likewise – everyone who tends a garden knows that. The natural world has an intrinsic value both in itself and for human sustenance, enjoyment and restful calm.

In her Christmas broadcast, the Queen echoed the theme, highlighting the myriad acts of kindness that are neither dramatic nor showy, but part and parcel of everyday life. She praised the quiet dedication of ordinary people who do extraordinary things, adding: “The cumulative impact of thousands of small acts of goodness can be bigger than we imagine.”

So can neglecting to do them, since that opens the way to unleashing a range of more malignant impulses. Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth presents that murky alternative most graphically when she worries that Macbeth is “too full of the milk of human kindness”, lacking the steely resolve to sweep others aside in his desire to be king. And she saw to it that the milk of human kindness curdled in his being.

A pity neither had the chance to ponder the line from Tennyson that “kind hearts are more than coronets”. But they would have ignored it. They were already caught in the quicksands of ambition and the lust for status and power.

Nor would wise words attributed to French-born American Quaker Stephen Grellet early in the 19th century have moved them. He wrote: “I expect to pass through this world but once. Any good thing therefore that I can do, or any kindness that I can show to any fellow-creature, let me do it now; let me not defer or neglect it; for I shall not pass this way again.”

As with the Macbeths, cynical moderns might sneer at such a sentiment. That would be as damaging as it is sad, because failure to nurture it, or worse, a determination to get ahead by foul means if fair won’t serve, corrodes character and corrupts relationships.

Which brings us back to new year resolutions. Last week, as revellers around the world counted in the new year, many joined in singing Robert Burns’ turn-of-year chorus:

We’ll tak’ a cup o’ kindness yet, for auld lang syne.

Capital! All they need do now is project that intention into the everyday circumstances of the year ahead. It’s not hard to be kind, eh!

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