Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The tender gravity of kindness

In a recent TV programme called Focus, Nico Smith – formerly a professor in theology at Stellenbosch, who left his academic position during the 1980s for a ministry in a black township – expressed his concern that as South Africans coming from different cultural traditions, backgrounds and histories, we have still not met one another with significant trust and understanding. Even after our transition into a so-called non-racial democracy the expectation that we would become one rainbow nation has not really materialised. In fact, it seems that exactly the opposite is currently happening – partly also due to former social and geographical divisions which are still in place.

What we find now is growing concern about crime and corruption, about economic inequality – things that feed into increasing distrust, strengthening of old prejudices, new forms of racism and even hate speech. All of these make our future in this beautiful country precarious and uncertain. In Smith’s words: “We don’t know what can happen tomorrow…anything is possible in Africa”.

Among the many possible solutions that one can think of to counter this problem, Smith went on to suggest a very straightforward and simple one, namely to take the step of deliberately crossing the boundaries that divide us and to meet one other with kindness. In fact the practice of kindness, of reaching out with a smile and embracing the other with goodwill should, according to Smith, become a national project, a long-term campaign. As with the AIDS awareness campaigns where people wear a red slipknot as a sign of empathy and concern, we should consider wearing a similar sign – perhaps a green slipknot – whereby we indicate our intention to be kind to one another.

There is no more timely call than this one today: that South Africans rediscover and deliberately practice the virtue of kindness, and eventually even make it a public and long-term campaign. Perhaps people with the same concern for a peaceful and sheltered future should come together to organise such a campaign. But then we should also remember that real kindness, however simple it may seem, is much more than just a friendly smile. It is a way of life, an act of ongoing understanding and solidarity, which will also involve some sacrifices – the value and richness of which you won’t always be able to calculate immediately.

Nowhere has the profound richness and sacrifice of kindness been expressed more movingly than in Naomi Shihab Nye’s poetic work “Kindness”. She writes:

”Before you know what kindness really is you must lose things, feel the future dissolve in a moment, like salt in a weakened broth. What you held in your hand, what you counted and carefully saved, all this must go so you know how desolate the landscape can be between the regions of kindness…Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness, you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho lies dead by the side of the road. You must see how this could be you, how he too was someone who journeyed through the night with plans and the simple breath that kept him alive…Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside, you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing. You must wake up with sorrow. You must speak to it till your voice catches the thread of all sorrows and you see the size of the cloth. Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore, only kindness that ties your shoes and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread, only kindness that raises its head from the crowd of the world to say it is I you have been looking for, and then goes with you everywhere like a shadow or a friend”.

If kindness is indeed the deepest thing inside, the only thing that makes sense and can secure a peaceful future, why not try it today?

Carel Anthonissen

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