Tuesday July 7, 2009
Several years ago, I went to visit a friend of mine who lived in a flat overlooking the Tyne river in Newcastle. As the seagulls squabbled outside, we drank tea, and my friend told me about a falling-out that he had had with a mutual acquaintance. “Oh, Will,” my friend muttered as he sipped his tea, “I’m such a terrible person.”
I had to admit that he had a point. Of all of the people I knew and counted amongst my friends, of all the people I had ever met, this particular friend seemed to have the most impressive knack of causing trouble. And yet, of all the people I knew, he was also one of the kindest and the most generous, one of the people whose company I enjoyed the most, and one of the people who cared most passionately about others and about the world.
When it comes to our virtues and our shortcomings, it does not seem to me as if we are dealing with the kinds of things that can be counted up, so that we can be given a final mark on how we we are doing in our lives. There are two reasons for this, I think. Firstly, it is because our acts of thoughtlessness do not cancel out our acts of kindness, nor do our acts of kindness cancel out our acts of thoughtlessness. It was true that this particular friend was trouble, but it was also true that he was immensely kind and generous. Neither of these facts excluded the other. But there is another reason as well, and that is that those things that we notice most of all are frequently all those things that go wrong: the words that we speak out of turn, the unkind thoughts, the clumsy acts that we later regret. What we don’t notice are the everyday kindnesses, the moments of ease, the small acts of generosity. These things are not invisible to us because we are gloomy or ungrateful, but because they have kind of natural ease to them. What we notice are the bumps and the ruts and the knocks, the things that break with the flow of our lives. We don’t notice when people manage to get by with each other in a crowded street, stepping out of each other’s way, or letting each other be; we notice the rare times when people snarl or snap or come into conflict with each other. The virtues, that is to say, appear quietly, and without fanfare – so quietly, in fact, that it takes a degree of attention to notice them at all.
No doubt it can be useful to notice the things that go wrong, the acts of clumsiness, the words we should really not have said. But at the same time, it can also be useful to notice that this is not the whole story, to recognise that our life is not an examination, that we are not going to be given a final mark, and that even if it were, we might already be doing rather better than we realise.
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