In speaking of kindness last week, a quotation from the late educator, John Holt, came to mind. I looked it up and I’ll include it here. “I think that the social virtues are an overflowing,” he says, “they are a surplus; people have enough kindness for others when they have enough kindness for themselves –otherwise not. Holt adds: “My very strong sense is that if children are allowed to grow up in a way which enables them to become adults with a sense of their own dignity and competence and worth, they will extend these feelings to include other people.”
What is presupposed for kindness, compassion, generosity, or a sense of justice, towards others is the conviction of our own worth, as Holt stresses. Theologian Monika Hellwig writes in a similar vein that, along with some degree of physical well-being and personal safety, one of the requirements for a genuine concern for others is “positive self-image.” “Love and generosity do not come people with a negative shame-plagued self- image.”
Where a sense of self-worth is present, there is an undertone of gratitude in our life. This gratitude contains an at least implicit sense that life is a gift and a gift that is valuable. From an early age, for example, a small child will ask: “Where did I come from.” This question contains a recognition that they did not originate themselves but came from something or someone else. A colleague once remarked to me as well that any time someone thinks of themselves as a self-made person, they need only look at their navel for a reality check.
As I have recalled before, many years ago, a young woman told me how, as a young child, she ran to her mother one day to ask, “where did I come from?” Her mother, wishing to be responsive to the child’s curiosity in a healthy manner, calmly explained to the child the facts of procreation, gestation, and birth. The child then darted off to pose the same question to her grandmother, who responded in a somewhat different matter. “Well,” she replied, “a few years ago, there was a feeling here that something was missing, and that a new child was needed to round off the family. So one day we all went out to the garden patch behind the house, found the biggest, roundest cabbage, brought it into the house, and plunked it down on the kitchen table. We all gathered around, and pulled back the leaves, and there you were!”
The young woman told this story with an obvious delight, and recalled how, after that time, she never bothered to ask her parents where she came from, but returned again and again to hear the grandmother’s version. After some reflection, it dawned on me that the child did so because the grandmother answered her real question. When a child inquires about origins, he or she is not really seeking a technical report. The child is looking for a story, and a story in which he or she is the main character and is welcomed into the family. In more abstract terms, the child is essentially asking, “Am I important?” and “Do I belong?” The child’s question really comes out of the child’s longing. From the very beginning, it seems that there is deep-seated human yearning to be of value, to be worth something. Yet it is a yearning that comes with a question mark, a degree of uncertainty, a need for affirmation of that worth. And the way in which that worth is most tangibly imparted is to convey to the child a sense that the child is welcomed and wanted, that the child has a home in the heart of another. Perhaps the most vivid image is that of the excited child rushing into the arms of a caring person who delights in his or her presence.
The story of Sleeping Beauty also gives a positive answer to the child’s question, using the image of the child as a gift. The story begins with a king and queen longing for a child. Then, as the queen bathes in a pond, a frog emerges and says that their wish will be granted and that a child will be born to them within a year. This image implies that the child is not merely a product of the parents but a gift entrusted to them. The bathing image also suggests that a washing or purification of mind and heart is essential to receive this gift in a worthy manner. The gift image further suggests that the child is, from the beginning, a distinct person, entrusted to the parents, and also someone to be received with gratitude. To do so is to respond positively to the implied question of the child: “Am important and do I belong.”
There are other implications of the story as well. The father’s unsuccessful attempt to banish all spindles from his kingdom reminds us that we cannot prevent our children from experiencing their own pain. Yet this pain does not detract from but may be a pathway to greater meaning and therefore greater gratitude.
The period of sleep, the surrounding by a hedge of thorns, and the subsequent re-awakening through love, suggest that sometimes the pains in our life may lead us to withdraw, and to build protective walls around ourselves. Yet if we are able to see beyond the hedges of thorns around one another and recognize the beauty that is there, however dormant or sleeping, we may awaken one another to our own worth and the possibility of love, the sharing of that worth with one another.
In other words, as Viktor Frankl came to stress, the suffering we may experience in our lives does not take away its meaning, but may in fact, enrich us, at least over time, and with the help of one another. In this sense, life is a gift even though it may sometimes hurt. Yet we may need one another to that come to and accept that realization, and experience the gratitude that follows.
Gratitude flows from the recognition of life and of our own life as a gift, and as a worthwhile or precious gift. From this experience comes as well a generosity, and impulse to share that gift. It also flows into compassion, a recognition of and response to the sacredness of others who are hurting.
May you always experience a gratefulness for life and for the unique person that you are, and may you learn more and more to share the gift of who you are and your particular gifts with others who in some way enter your life.