Sunday 16 January 2011

So shines a good deed in a cruel word

A misquote from Shakespeare (thanks Bridget), these are the words of Willy Wonka at the pivotal  moment of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, the Gene Wilder version (1971), I was watching with my children the other day.  Grandad has just castigated Willy as an 'inhuman monster!' and Charlie and his Grandad are leaving the factory with nothing.  At this point Charlie Bucket turns around and gives Willy his last sweet.

A couple of days before my father died, we were visiting him.  None of us knew what to do or say, as we saw him conscious but weak in his hospital bed.  Jago, then aged 2, knew exactly what to do, stepping forward and giving his grandad his new (and treasured) toy car.  Perhaps a child's kindness should not be so surprising - On Thursday night I watched the second of Michael Mosley's 'The Brain: A Secret History'.  He shows footage of a key experiment in the 1950s, where an orphan monkey is given the choice of 'mothers'.  One is made of wire mesh with a milk bottle attached.  The other is wrapped in a cuddly towel.  While the monkey would feed from the mesh 'mummy', nearly all of his time was spent with the cuddly one, and the monkey clearly became attached to it.  At the time it was used as proof that love was in some way innate. Later experiments also showed that feelings like love and fear can also be induced or reduced through life experience.

I have been shamed by my children.  In December we passed a beggar with no arms.  Arthur (aged 7) was shocked we were walking past - 'We must give him some money!'  But last Friday, 2:00 in Small Heath, I didn't need my children to experience guilt.  I was stuck in traffic and I caught the eye of an old lady with a stick in one hand and a polystyrene cup in the other.  She began hobbling over to my car.  The lights changed, and I was slightly relieved to move off.  Minutes later I saw another old lady begging on the streets.  I could have stopped, but I didn't.

I understand that my actions may have little actual influence on events around me, but from a selfish point of view, there is something to be gained by showing small kindnesses, and something lost by walking on the other side.  I can wallow in my powerlessness to change the world, my inability to make the world a fairer place.  Or I can 'revel' in those feelings of guilt and failure, be frustrated, but know that I am responding to them.  My last year's resolution was to be nice to people.  This year I think I'll try and do more kind things too.

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