Posted Tuesday, January 14, 2003
From the book: The Promise of Virtue
A Virtue We Can Never Grow Weary of Practicing
Author: Eugene Hemrick
Ave Maria Press, Notre Dame, IN.
I'm always puzzled how certain incidents stick forever in our memories while others are forgotten the moment they end. One such memorable happening occurred in a parish I serve. During the summer, we housed a young deacon preparing for the priesthood. I remember standing outside of church after his first homily and watching the congregations pour in. They were apt testimony to the work he had put into it. He was beaming with joy when along came a dour looking parishioner who said, "I could not disagree with you more on what you said. You sure missed the point today!"
What happened next reminded me of the phrase sombra de muerte that is used in the Spanish version of the Canticle of Zechariah. It is the shadow of death Zechariah prophesied that the Christ child would conquer as the Light of the World. The deacon's chin dropped to his chest and his bright cheerfulness became like sombra de muerte. As we walked back to the rectory, all he remembered was that one negative comment.
After this incident, I came jup with the saying, "Don't ever let isolated unforgettable barbs get under your skin and reduce you to sombra de muerte!"
The causes of sombra de muerte that crop up in our lives are many. We may wake one morning and find a spouse to whom we gave total love no longer loves us. All the money or counseling in the world cannot repair the psychological and physical toll this may take on us. We literally experience a thousand deaths.
Children for whom we have sacrificed everything may turn against us, leaving us wondering where we have gone wrong.
Neighbors or friends in whom we trusted may lie or deceive us, making us leery of ever placing confidence in anyone again.
Jobs to which we devoted our lives may be taken out from under us without the courtesy of being thanked and cause us to never again want to be loyal to an institution.
Even our church can be a cause of sombra de muerte. All it takes is one bad sermon, an episode with a rude clergyman, or parishioners who model anything but being Christian.
The list of dark clouds that can cover our lives is endless. Once they move in on us, they can disrupt our inner relationships as well as destroy relationships with others, and worst of all, with God. These clouds need not be bit. As one person aptly summed up sombra demuerte's sinister power: "It's not always the big things that get you; rather, it's usually that one small sticky mishap you can't get out of your mind that murders you."
The antithesis of sombra de muerte is the virtue of kindness. Simply defined, kindness means well disposed toward life — we are thankful for it, welcome it, look forward to living it, and see mostly beauty in it. When we look it up in the thesaurus, other words that describe it are: benevolence, compassion, goodwill, generosity, altruism, and goodness. In the scriptures its translates into unconditional love, civility, promoting others, tough love, and giving without counting the cost.
If there is any one virtue that our culture needs at this time, it is kindness. If it were ever practiced to its fullest potential, most of our problems would be cut in half. It has the power to counter polarization that is tearing us apart, to heal festering wounds, and to stop us from shouting at each other from a distance rather than talking with each other in a civilized manner. It encourages us to resist disappointments and frustrations that tend to sour our dispositions by whispering to us, "Don't let that chin of yours drop to your chest; stand firm and nip in the bud that which threatens to taint your healthy disposition."
Most important, kindness has the power to keep our dignity intact in often hurful and cuthroat environments. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe best summarizes its human and spiritual worth: "Kindness is the golden chain by which society is bound."