The weakness of man, and the way in which he is at the mercy of external accidents in the world, has always been a favorite topic with the moralists. They have expatiated upon it with so much amplitude of rhetorical exaggeration, that it has at last produced in our minds a sense of unreality, against which we rebel. Man is no doubt very weak. He can only be passive in a thunderstorm, or run in an earthquake. The odds are against him when he is managing his ship in a hurricane, or when pestilence is raging in the house where he lives. Heat and cold, drought and rain, are his masters. He is weaker than an elephant, and subordinate to the east wind. This is all very true. Nevertheless man has considerable powers, considerable enough to leave him, as proprietor of this planet, in possession of at least as much comfortable jurisdiction, as most landed proprietors have in a free country. He has one power in particular, which is not sufficiently dwelt on, and with which we will at present occupy ourselves. It is the power of making the world happy, or at least of so greatly diminishing the amount of unhappiness in it, as to make it quite a different world from what it is at present. This power is called kindness. The worst kinds of unhappiness, as well as the greatest amount of it, come from our conduct to each other. If our conduct therefore were under the control of kindness, it would be nearly the opposite of what it is, and so the state of the world would be almost reversed. We are for the most part unhappy, because the world is an unkind world. But the world is only unkind for the lack of kindness in us units who compose it. Now if all this is but so much as half true, it is plainly worth our while to take some trouble to gain clear and definite notions of kindness. We practice more easily what we already know clearly.
Being a teacher, I am able to exercise this one power of humanity on a daily basis. Children come to me from a range of different environments and daily events. Some come hungry; others come angry. Some come feeling betrayed; others come feeling abandoned. This hunger, anger, betrayal, and abandonment — and the hundred and one other emotions and experiences–can be taken literally, figuratively, or both. This, in a sense, unites us: we all feel hungry, angry, betrayed, and abandoned at some point or another in our lives. And all this stems from the unkindness of the world that we experience every day, with some of us experiencing more of it than others.
So I have to ask myself: when these kids come in grouchy, disrespectful, high-strung, or any other of a million little things that might or might not irritate or anger me, how do I react? Not knowing why this boy is scowling and daring me to say anything at all to him, why this girl is instantly angered by the smallest thing, how can I do anything but exert the one power that I as a human possess? The world is only unkind for the lack of kindness in us units who compose it. I can add to that, or take away from it.
Yet there’s more to it than that. My actions are the best teacher for these kids. We practice more easily what we already know clearly. If I show it clearly, perhaps they will know it clearly; if they know it clearly, perhaps they will begin to show it clearly.
The reading is from Father Frederick Faber’s Spiritual Conferences, excerpted here.