The Cost of Kindness
Dear Parents, Guardians, friends of Exeter Cathedral School,
Arguably one of the greatest novels of all time is by Fyodor Dostoevsky: ‘The Brothers Karamazov’. To describe it is one of the greatest novels of all time is not an exaggeration, raising as it does universal ethical and religious questions.
One passage in the novel has a disturbing conversation about a child. One of the principal characters asks: “If it was demonstrated to you that humanity could experience peace and love together through the suffering of one child, would you choose the suffering of one child?”
The answer to that may appear obvious. No one in their right mind would make that choice. However, I’m not sure.
In a recent disturbing revelation, the brutality meted out to 6 year old Arthur Labinjo-Hughes by those who you might expect to have loved him most, defies any understanding. The appalling treatment of rat boy may have arisen from a frustration, diseased minds which wanted relief from responsibility. Who knows? No explanation can remotely justify such terrifying behaviour. And yet, the maltreatment of children is much more prevalent than you might think.
Strength and gentleness
And what about this statement? ’….humankind owes to the child the best that it has to give, declare and accept it as their duty, that beyond and above all considerations of race, nationality or creed…’ This is a quote from an important International agreement. Have a guess when it was written. The answer is at the end of my letter.
In a sense the Birth of Christ was in the middle of circumstances not entirely dissimilar to those in many parts of the Middle East now: occupations, war, ethnic animosity and, of course, poverty. At least, Jesus Bar-Joseph was loved and cherished, unlike Arthur. No matter the insecurities and threats, loving care and nurture were of infinitely greater importance for the child Jesus than any financial or physical security.
Indeed, it may have been the lack of securities that led to an even deeper loving. There was a level of acceptance and consequent strength and gentleness that formed a strong inner psyche for a child who, when he was about 30, would carry agonies and rejection that most psyches couldn’t even contemplate doing.
Both these stories perhaps serve as an awakening to the importance of creating an environment where children don’t only feel safe – important though that is – but also loved and cherished.
The Christ-child’s experience of such a loving led to him facing realities in a way that they can be held with strength and trust. That strength is not an unfeeling insensitivity, but can remain at the heart of a crisis, fearful maybe, but having that poignant forbearance and attention that is for others and not solely for personal survival.
The Christmas story and Exeter Cathedral School
Perhaps that’s what the Christmas story has to suggest about Exeter Cathedral School.
For me, while keeping important boundaries, the school is a place of acceptance and gentle challenge that creates an inner strength. Of course, there are areas of the school life where that’s inevitably not always the case. The task of the staff is to have a deep awareness of these and be prepared to change and develop so that the gentle challenge can be experienced by as many of the children as possible.
The word ‘kindness’ has been used a great deal in the school. But that kindness is not simply a chemistry between people who are friendly towards each other, but also to those who are less attractive and perhaps even unfriendly. That’s costly, of course. ‘In the bleak mid-winter’ is Christina Rossetti’s Christmas Carol that may have particular resonance this year, what with the various national, international and personal challenges that face each one of us. Creating a loving, gentle and challenging space for children at home as well as at school is even more of vital importance.
As the carol comes to an end, we sing:
‘If I were a shepherd, I should bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give Him; give my heart.’
If I love the children in my life, I love Christ himself.
It’s as simple as that. That’s not such a difficult idea! But challenging and gently so!
Blessings on you, the children for whom we all care and for all your families and friends,