By Dr. Joseph Chuman
“…little, nameless, unremembered, acts of kindness and love.” –William Wordsworth
We direct much public attention to the big things, to those things that are, after all, public—the achievements, the triumphs, the great events in the life of society. This is the stuff that news is made of, and these days it comprises much of the substance of our conversation with others.
To give an example closer to home, when describing Ethical Culture, our self-identification often makes reference to the social-justice achievements of our movement, of which we are rightly proud—the Visiting Nurse Service, the settlement houses, the schools, the work on behalf of immigrants and labor, and all such accomplishments that are part of the record.
In our individual lives we celebrate our accomplish-ments, the tasks completed, the goals fulfilled, the skills we have mastered, especially when we have something concrete we can show for them. We bring accolades to others who achieve great things. Sometimes we publicly honor them and even give them awards for what they have accomplished and what they have done for us. And we should. It is good for them, for us and for society.
But in these acknowledgements of the public side of the human experience, what are often lost, and by their nature go unrecognized and under-appreciated, are those experiences that are not public, those that do not attract the spotlight and that go on in the quiet corners of human relations. We do not see them; we overlook them. And when they are considered, they are often trivialized, or perhaps even dismissed as the expressions of mere sentimentalism, lacking in the strength and significance of more public accomplishments.
What I am referring to are the experiences suggested in the lines that introduced this essay. It is a simple phrase pointing to simple experiences. It is phrase that, for whatever reason, resonates with me and has touched me—I almost want to say it has touched my heart. It is a line from William Wordsworth’s poem Tintern Abbey, which describes the simplicity and sublimity of nature. In the poem, Wordsworth returns after an absence of five years to a place characterized by the tranquility of woods, meadows, waterfalls, hedges and streams. If there are people in this scenario, they are far off, rural types in harmony with nature. Being in this place, surrounded by nature’s simplicity, Wordsworth finds inner peace, feelings that he has internalized even when he is not there and that exist only in his memory.
In the presence of undisturbed nature, the poet finds not only peace but something that is lasting, something that endures. But beyond that, Wordsworth feels that in the sublimity of nature there is also a linkage to something in us. And so he notes, “For I have learned to look on nature, not as in the hour of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes the still sad music of humanity.” The “still sad music of humanity and the “…little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and of love,” I think are beautiful images that lead to the point I wish to make.
While we may focus on the noticeable, public achievements for which we strive and which we may celebrate, perhaps the more important share of human experience is lived out in “the nameless, unremembered, acts of kindness and love,” both which we receive and which we bestow on others. My point is a simple one. Just as Wordsworth came to see a deeper wisdom in nature that in his impetuous youth he could not see, so as I grow older, I feel the greater importance in the acts we engage in with others in the smaller corners of life. I see it in the small acts of kindness which I extend to others. I see it in the recognition and acknowledgement of the needs of others whom we know and who will be comforted by our smile and our presence. I see it in the small gifts of ourselves we may give to others when they are needed but unasked for. I see it in acts of kindness, which the world will not recognize, or celebrate, which may make a great difference to the lives of our friends, acquaintances, or even strangers. Perhaps these will be acts of kindness for which we will receive nothing in return. Rather than trivialize them, these little acts of kindness and love, too small, perhaps, to even be named, are among the most important things we can do.
I will try to shed light on this under-appreciated aspect of the human experience on Feb. 3 in my address, “Little, Nameless, Unremembered Acts of Kindness and Love.” I hope you can join me then.
Dr. Joseph Chuman is leader of the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County.