Tuesday, April 29, 2014

All I needed to know about Kindness, I learned from my Mother

“You look like Grandma,” exclaimed my niece. We were visiting mother’s niche at the columbarium. My sister and I and members of our family make it an annual ritual to do so around this time – between Easter and Mother’s Day.

Yes, I do look like my mother, and I hope I am as kind and gracious as she was. May I share with you some of the lessons on kindness and graciousness I learnt from her.

“Always be respectful – know your place,” I can hear her saying in Teochew. Recently, Prof Tommy Koh, who taught me Criminal Justice when I was a final year law student, introduced me at a university forum as his friend. I felt very complimented but I could never bring myself to call him by his first name. “Once a teacher, always a teacher,” my mother would say. My mother’s idea of respect is to address your senior respectfully, so “Prof Koh” he is and will always be to me.

My children are no longer children, of course. They are professionals in their chosen fields, and two of the three have teenage children of their own. But when they are introduced to my peers, my friends are still “uncles” and “aunties” to them. Maybe it is old-fashioned. If to be respectful is old- fashioned, I am happy to be old-fashioned.

My mother also taught me to be grateful for all good things, and even for the not-so-good, for we can always learn something from that too, she would say. “Take nothing for granted,” she often reminded me. Even on my facebook, I make it a point to say “Thanks” when my request to befriend me is accepted. “Thanks for what?” I was asked now and then. “For just being my friend!” I would say. I know that facebook friends are often only virtual friends. But truth be told, some have become real friends too. In any case, nobody needs to be my friend and I want to be grateful for the gift of friendship, virtual or otherwise, because my mother has successfully inculcated in me the attitude of gratitude, and I am all the better for it, I feel.

Gratitude helps me to lower my expectations because it helps me to avoid an entitlement mindset. Because I do not feel entitled, I am more likely to feel grateful. If I do not expect too much, what I do receive is the unexpected. Because it is not expected, it is a bonus; and because it is a bonus, I naturally feel grateful.

And yes, my mother taught me by example what it means to be considerate. About 25 years ago I was working in the United States. My mom was taken ill and I was told that she was in a rather critical stage of her illness. I flew back immediately and to my great joy, she pulled through. A couple of years later, she fell ill again, but this time I did not hear from my sister at all. It was only after she passed on that I was told, and I took the first plane out from Washington DC.

I was naturally furious, wondering why I was kept in the dark. Soon enough, I found out the reason behind it. Apparently my mother had told them not to let me know because I would be worried for her. Furthermore, she had said that I am a busy person and that I should be told only after she passed on. She even left instructions for me to conduct her funeral service. That was my mother – ever thoughtful, ever considerate even during the last days of her life on earth.

As I approach Mother’s Day, I cherish fond memories of my mother who taught me everything I need to know about respect, gratitude, consideration and much more. My hope is that all mothers will be cherished, loved, respected and be thanked every day, and not just on Mother’s Day.

Happy Mother’s Day!

Thank you Mom

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Kindness in Literature

Kindness is a virtue valued by almost all people across all generations and cultures. These days, when I read books of interest, be it novels or biographies, I almost always make a note of kindness that is mentioned in the works, and I find them rather instructive. Let me share some of my recent readings.

My friend’s daughter Laura Hillenbrand, an award-winning author, has written another blockbuster. Unbroken is a World War II story of survival, resilience and redemption. The mind, body and spirit of Olympian Louie Zamperini were tested to the extreme limits when he was a Japanese prisoner-of-war. In the midst of cruelties and atrocities, Louie found brief relief in one of the few happy encounters in the POW camps.

Kawamura was a new guard who slipped two pieces of hard candy into Louie’s hand. He then moved down the hall and gave two pieces to his fellow POW, Phil. “A friendship was born,” writes Hillenbrand.

“Kawamura brought a pencil and paper and began making drawings to illustrate things he wished to talk about. Walking back and forth between cells, he’d draw picture of something – a car, a plane, an ice cream cone – and say and write its Japanese name. Louie and Phil would then write and say the English name. The prisoners understood almost nothing of what Kawamura said, but his goodwill needed no translation. Kawamura could do nothing to improve the physical conditions in which the captives lived, but his kindness was lifesaving.” 

One of my inspirations for reading law 45 years ago was the late David Marshall, defence counsel extraordinaire. In Kevin Tan’s biography, Marshall’s legendary kindness was spontaneously manifested throughout his illustrious life.

Marshall never forgot kindness shown to him. While studying in London, he was a beneficiary of the generosity of the Solomons. In appreciation for the kindness shown to him by Rose (who was his first love and who remained single) and her widowed mother, Marshall bought them a house in London in later years.

Marshall’s kindness towards children is well known. He often arranged and paid for special shows for the benefit of children. When Devan Nair was detained as a union activist, Marshall offered $100 a month to Mrs Nair help look after his family even though he did not know him very well. The Nairs repaid him but never forgot his kindness.

If kindness breeds kindness, Marshall’s influence in this regard is most remarkable. Kong Seng Kwong, one of his many eminent pupils, referring to many incidents of kindness shown by his master on the latter’s induction as an honorary fellow for life of the Singapore Academy of Law, has written,

“It helped me find a niche in my heart for such a precious thing called humanity and care and concern for fellow human beings…For these reasons, I will always remember you as a great lawyer of charity and humanity. A legend for showing kindness and humane concern for the common folks.” 
David Marshall

Indeed, the former criminal lawyer, Chief Minister and ambassador, was known for his service to humanity and his biographer attributed this noble trait to “his wartime experience and his innate kindness and generosity…”

In The Notebook, novelist Nicholas Sparks painted a poignant and deeply moving portrait of two people in love. It is based on the true story of the lives of his wife’s grandparents. At the end of their journey, Allie was suffering from dementia and slipped in and out of lucidity. In one of her best moments, she wrote about her husband Noah in such endearing terms – something that we who are married should be writing about our partners at the end of our long journey together:

“You are my best friend as well as my lover…You have something inside you, Noah, something beautiful and strong. Kindness, that’s what I see when I look at you now, that’s what everyone sees. Kindness. You are the most forgiving and peaceful man I know. God is with you, He must be, for you are the closest thing to an angel that I’ve ever met.” 

May the power of kindness be with you in everything that you say and do.