The Milk of Human Kindness

We are living through unprecedented times, trying to accept and acclimatize ourselves to a way of life none of us could even have imagined just a few weeks ago.  “Way of life” is not the same for everyone.  It would take a great deal of empathy on our part to appreciate what another person might be experiencing.

Migrant workers in India, Singapore, the Middle East or elsewhere – mostly treated not as humans, but tolerated because they keep the wheels of retail, construction or other businesses moving – lead a life that most of us cannot even begin to imagine.  Toddlers clinging to their parents scrounging for discarded scraps of food to survive, bombed-out refugees huddled outside outposts of the civilized world, people with limited or no means of survival … the list is endless.

We have also seen lows in human behaviour – countries blaming one another for originating and failing to control the spread of the virus, populations opting to pin the blame for its communal transmission on other minority groups and “nationalists” trumpeting individual rights over social responsibility under the guise of “give me liberty or Covid-19” (a la Patrick Henry’s 1775 quote “give me liberty or give me death”) etc.

Fortunately, it is the overwhelming goodness around us that is prevailing.  To paraphrase Lady Macbeth, “… thy nature; it is too full of the milk of human kindness.”  Front and center are the “front line, essential services” like the healthcare providers, grocery-store and delivery staff, garbage collectors, postal and police services personnel, office workers and public servants who are risking their own well-being by going above and beyond to serve those in need. It is equally heartening to see individual and collective acts of compassion and kindness everyday across all communities. Putting aside ideological and political differences, the Canadian Federal, Provincial and Local Governments have come together to provide direction, reassurance and support to those in need.  People are coming together as never before to extend a helping hand best as every one can and demonstrate that we care.

We will emerge from this situation only with greater empathy, acceptance of and caring for those “others”.  As my Muslim friends prepare to fast during the holy month of Ramadan that has just started, I am reminded of the following “ash.aar” (couplets) by the legendary Urdu poet, Mirza Assadullah Khan “Ghalib” (1797 – 1869):

Iftar-e-saum ki jise kuchh dast gaah ho,

uss shakhs ko zaroor hai rozaa rakhaa karey

One who has the means to break the (Ramzan) fast, that person must surely (keep the) fast
Jis paas rozaa khol ke khaane ko kuchh naa ho, rozaa agar naa khaaye to naachaar kya karey One who has nothing to break the fast with, other than being constrained to “eat the fast” what option does that forlorn person have

Ghalib’s pecuniary difficulties are well documented. Perhaps, this couplet reflects his own struggles and empathy for others in a similar predicament.  “Eating a fast” is a local expression in India and Pakistan to indicate the complete absence of any sustenance, leaving a destitute to eat nought.  This nuanced couplet delicately reminds us to not be quick to judge because what we might perceive may not be the truth; fasting by choice is not the same as remaining hungry because there is no other option.

Ghalib was known for his wit.  When asked how many days had he fasted during the month of Ramzan (Ramadan), he is reported to have replied “Ek naa rakhaa” (I did not keep one).  Such a play on words!  Ghalib’s response could have meant that he fasted on all days except one; or, that he did not observe a fast for even one day!

Steve Martin, the famous actor and humorist was being particularly “empathetic” when he wittily stated as only he could, “Before you criticize a man, walk a mile in his shoes. That way, when you do criticize him, you’ll be a mile away and have his shoes.”

We are all in this together and the chain we use to pull us through the pit we find ourselves in, is only as strong as its weakest link.

2 Replies to “The Milk of Human Kindness”

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