Sunday, 21 April 2013

Unseen Goodness

James McInty, Jeaneatte Mauer, John Mann - all these people have one thing in common with Margaret Thatcher - they all died around 8 April 2013. In fact, millions of people across the world probably died on that day of natural causes.
As insiders, our culture is opaque, and we never think it strange that the death of one individual should be given such prominence, while the deaths of many others goes unnoticed, with barely the briefest of mentions. It is part of our culture to celebrate the passing of notable people, and we think nothing of it.
It is certainly an old custom. The Pharaoh's of Egypt build great pyramids, funeral monuments to leave their obituary in stone. The Roman Emperors were celebrated by statues, and were elevated to the rank of gods. Across recorded time, we see the funerary displays, and the marking of the death of those in power, or who had been in power.
I'm not saying there is always something wrong in that, but like the passing of a Great Ruler, there can be an element that is unhealthy. We don't elevate them to the rank of gods anymore, but they do seem to be elevated to a kind of sainthood. We eulogies them, and neglect their faults. The portrait is an incomplete one, like Oliver Cromwell with the warts judiciously photoshopped out.
And in looking at the lives of the "great and the good", there is also a danger that we might privilege some kinds of virtue or claims to fame above others.
Deputy Rob Bryans was recently using cards which could be passed from person to person, thanking individuals for small acts of kindness. Those are often neglected in the focus on "great people", but that small acts of kindness, of courtesy, of care, of compassion are what makes the glue which binds society together. There is such a thing as society, contrary to Mrs Thatcher's dictate. It is the many small acts of kindness which make it so.
There is a passage in C.S. Lewis book "The Great Divorce" where the narrator sees a great procession in place he find himself, a vision of heaven:
First came bright Spirits, not the Spirits of men, who danced and scattered flowers-soundlessly falling, lightly drifting flowers, though by the standards of the ghost-world each petal would have weighed a hundred-weight and their fall would have been like the crashing of boulders. Then, on the left and right, at each side of the forest avenue, came youthful shapes, boys upon one hand, and girls upon the other. If I could remember their singing and write down the notes, no man who read that score would ever grow sick or old. Between them went musicians: and after these a lady in whose honour all this was being done.
And he notices the "the unbearable beauty of her face"
Surely this must be someone famous? But he is corrected by his guide, who tells him that earthly fame is not the:
"Is it? ... is it?" I whispered to my guide.
"Not at all," said he. "It's someone ye'll never have heard of. Her name on earth was Sarah Smith and she lived at Golders Green."
"She seems to be ... well, a person of particular importance?"
"Aye. She is one of the great ones. Ye have heard that fame in this country and fame on Earth are two quite different things."
Politicians make their mark, and they can shape ordinary lives, so they often receive prominent coverage on their deaths. But ordinary people, the millions who also died on 8 April, have also shaped ordinary lives into which they came into contact with, but quietly, silently, with acts of unseen goodness.

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