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The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Rick Mor­ton

In their own pe­cu­liar ways, each gen­er­a­tion be­lieves it­self to be clos­est to end times. The an­cient Greeks were al­to­gether prag­matic about the dis­so­lu­tion of civil­i­sa­tion and be­lieved that not only had the world ended be­fore but it had done so many times. It’s a com­fort­ing thought, if you wish the apoca­lypse — their word — to be well prac­tised.

The su­per­nat­u­ral fire and brimstone un­ease was later re­placed by the man-made kind and, post World War II, most of the world lived in the shadow of mu­tu­ally as­sured de­struc­tion.

These days the ex­is­ten­tial dread comes from a Cold War 2.0 and a splin­ter­ing dis­course based on con­ve­nient ver­sions of the truth. Not to get all “dooms­day prep­per” about it but it is hard to be ex­posed at length to acidic dis­course and global ten­sions with­out won­der­ing, at least once, if there are any aban­doned oil rigs left on which one could set up a sov­er­eign na­tion.

The Stoic philoso­phers ar­tic­u­lated a cop­ing mech­a­nism of sorts, which was to fully recog­nise the world is ter­ri­ble and just get on with what­ever it was you had to do.

To my mind, Nero’s ad­viser, Seneca, said it best. “What need is there to weep over parts of life? The whole of it calls for tears,” he wrote.

It’s all well and good to have a phi­los­o­phy of en­durance in dif­fi­cult times but to de­ploy this with­out bal­last en­sures the sta­tus quo. Bal­last, I’m think­ing, is kind­ness. That’s what is miss­ing. There’s a rea­son di­a­logue has moved to the ex­trem­i­ties in the modern world, where people and their es­sen­tial hu­man­ity are hid­den on­line. Kind­ness re­lies on a built-in un­der­stand­ing of per­son­hood and, in any case, we’ve all been di­vided into cat­e­gories. Crazy con­ser­va­tive, loopy leftie, re­li­gious mi­nor­ity, per­son who claims their re­li­gion is in a mi­nor­ity, dog per­son, cat per­son, her­mit crab evan­ge­list.

Poet Naomi Shi­hab Nye has a great verse on this sub­ject in which she es­tab­lishes this em­pa­thy as the foun­da­tion for gen­eros­ity of spirit: 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.

One doesn’t need to be sad to be kind, though we’ve all known sor­row. Nye is sim­ply ask­ing us to plumb the depths of our own low­est mo­ments and trans­pose them on to others. In such cir­cum­stances it is dif­fi­cult to be any­thing other than gen­tle. Many would think it weak to live in or­bit around the vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties of others. These people, how­ever, have spent so long in fear even their mail is de­liv­ered there.

Sci­en­tist Ge­orge Price lost his mind try­ing to find out the evo­lu­tion­ary ba­sis of al­tru­ism. He couldn’t imag­ine a world in which pure acts of favour ex­isted with­out any re­ward. In a way, he found one. He proved that even acts of al­tru­ism by a per­son served to help their fam­ily, or the ex­tended fam­ily and the so­cial group — hu­man­ity — it­self. There was no such thing as pos­i­tive ac­tion with­out ben­e­fit, his equa­tion sur­mised. Price even­tu­ally gave away ev­ery­thing he owned in an ap­par­ent at­tempt to dis- prove his equa­tion and ended up home­less. He later killed him­self in a Lon­don squat.

Per­haps he found it all dis­heart­en­ing, but the gene has no feel­ings. We are no more aware of what it wants than we are the sound of our own mi­to­chon­dria. But it acts in ser­vice of more than it­self, and that’s kind of the point.

People think of ran­dom acts of kind­ness when these sub­jects come up, and they have a heal­ing power all of their own. This week, a man in front of my mother at the petrol sta­tion paid for her jerry can of fuel. He didn’t know she was short on cash and that it meant a great deal. Mum went off cheer­ily to re­fuel the lawn­mower and do the lawns, a yard-based pas­time that has al­ways made her in­or­di­nately happy.

But there is kind­ness, too, in the sim­ple act of speak­ing with an­other per­son, es­pe­cially an­other with a dif­fer­ent world view, in a man­ner that says: “I see you, I see where you’ve been and I know how you came to be here.”

Re­cip­ro­cated, there emerges a view from the meet­ing point that is un­like any other.

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