Saturday, October 07, 2006

Increasing the quantity of kindness

Here’s the final section of Theodore Zeldin’s An Intimate History of Humanity.

‘My life is a failure.’ Those were the words with which I began this book, and I finish it with the story of a murderer who repeated that phrase many times, until one day …

Half a minute is enough to transform an apparently ordinary person into an object of hatred, an enemy of humanity. He committed a murder and was sentenced to life imprisonment. Then in his desolate jail, half a minute was enough to transform him again, into a hero. He saved a man’s life and was pardoned. But when he got home he found his wife living with someone else and his daughter knew nothing of him. He was unwanted, so he decided that he might as well be dead.

His attempt at suicide was also a failure. A monk summoned to his bedside said to him, ‘Your story is terrifying, but I can do nothing for you. My own family is wealthy, but I gave up my inheritance and I have nothing but debts. I spend everything I have finding homes for the homeless. I can give you nothing. You want to die, and there is nothing to stop you. But before you kill yourself, come and give me a hand. Afterwards, you can do what you like.’

Those words changed the murderer’s world. Somebody needed him: at last he was no longer superfluous and disposable. He agreed to help. And the world was never the same again for the monk, who had been feeling overwhelmed by the amount of suffering around him, to which all his efforts were making only a minute difference. The chance encounter with the murderer gave him the idea which was to shape his whole future: faced by a person in distress, he had given him nothing, but asked something from him instead. The murderer later said to the monk: ‘If you had given me money, or a room, or a job, I would have restarted my life of crime and killed someone else. But you needed me.’ That was how Abbe Pierre’s Emmaus movement for the very poor was born, from an encounter of two totally different individuals who lit up a light in each other’s heart. These two men were not soul-mates in the ordinary, romantic meaning of that word, but each owes the other the sense of direction which guides their life today.

It is in the power of everybody, with a little courage, to hold out a hand to someone different, to listen, and to attempt to increase. Even by a tiny amount, the quantity of kindness and humanity in the world. But it is careless to do so without remembering how previous efforts have failed, and how it has never been possible to predict for certain how a human being will behave. History, with its endless procession of passers-by, most of whose encounters have been missed opportunities, has so far been largely a chronicle of ability gone to waste. But next time two people meet, the result could be different. That is the origin of anxiety, but also of hope, and hope is the origin of humanity.

Image: The Creation of Adam, by Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel, Rome.


Yves said...

The story of the murderer reminds me of a thought I never got round to expressing anywhere till now. The worst and most pointless punishment for a convicted criminal is to have no chance to make amends. Here in UK, it's on the news that the prisons are all full. The Lord Chief Justice is advising judges to sentence offenders where possible to community service orders because overcrowded prisons aren't of any use in rehabilitating their populations.

If I were running the administration of justice, I would sentence an offender to penance, reparation and expiation. They should play a part in designing their own projects to achieve these objectives, and in some cases the projects would last for many years.

All punishment should be motivated by kindness.

rama said...

Yes, Yves, prisons and how crminals are treated - remains the great un-addressed question of our times.

But some efforst are on in different parts of the world to do something different. Imprisoned criminals, motivated by expiation and reparation - could also be seen as a valuable resource in society. Perhaps one day, such a view will be more widely shared, esp by govts and prison administrations.

Best, rama

Bonita said...

I hope everyone, everywhere, will experience that which will 'light up the heart'. Our sorry world surely needs it. And, sometimes we cannot question the outcomes. We just pray that goodness will be served.

I recall my mother-in-law, bedridden and elderly. She spent hours every day making phone calls, soliciting money from organizations that could help free unjustly-held prisoners in foreign countries, like Guatemala, etc. She raised thousands of dollars, yearly, yet she was housebound, like a solitary prisoner. She received peace awards in her community for her outstanding efforts.

Gangadhar said...

Great post,Rama.
Hope is necesary, for without it, we find no courage to endure at all. We will; we will always hope. Even when a man seeks death to escape the pain of his life, he hopes that he will find some comfort in death. But your story nicely narrates how hope would be the vital solution for humility.