The banality of good

It can at times take an atheist to remind us of some of the true messages in Christmas. Thus with Russel Norman in Parliament last Wednesday.

Christmas is “an enduring part of our culture,” he said, commemorating “the start of some unlikely trouble” — a revolutionary new sect — “and the start of new hope.”

The Christmas story, he went on, “speaks to values I share”. The “story of change arriving in the form of a baby has resonance in my life”. He became a father in March.

“In our children we find our own awe at the beauty of our planet; they show us what it is to be truly open-minded and in their ferocious capacity to learn and grow and change we see that things could truly change and be better.”

Norman the atheist reminded us that “the hopes and values Jesus Christ articulated are too important to belong only to Christians. They belong to us all, believers and non-believers alike. They are embedded in our culture.”

Norman’s list: “love and compassion towards each other”; “live with truth and justice between one another”; “awe and respect for the natural world”.

Norman belongs to a sect that sees itself as revolutionary. The Greens are against “economic growth at all costs” which generates “gross inequality” which Christ didn’t accept — he upended the tables of the money-changers (read, bankers). Greens want, he said, a “clean economy”.

By that point in his speech he was clearly no longer speaking for others beyond the Greens. To be partisan is human nature.

Here are two other contrasting elements of human nature, both from the New York Times columnist David Brooks this year.

One is the story of a 13-year-old Syrian boy who tagged along at a protest, got arrested and over a month was savagely tortured to death: “burned, beaten, lacerated and given electroshocks … his jaw and kneecaps shattered … shot in both arms”.

He clearly was not a ringleader, knowing secrets critical to the security of the Syrian state. It is hard to resist the conclusion that at some point the boy’s attackers began to take pleasure in inflicting horrendous pain.

Some might see a part-parallel in Mel Smith’s report to Paula Bennett last week on the mother who tortured her children. Human nature can be unsightly.

Brooks’ other article scanned what makes an altruist. One of his examples, drawn from out-of-sight aid workers’ experiences in poor Kenya, was of a “stick-thin girl, with missing clumps of hair” who, unasked, cleaned the soiled pants of a sick aid worker just a week before she died of aids and was buried in a communal (read, anonymous) grave. When he asked why she had done that, she said: “Because I can.”

Brooks went on: “The greatest and most essential virtue is thanklessness, the ability to keep serving when there are no evident rewards — no fame, no admiration, no gratitude.” Human nature can be giving.

We heard an echo of that message of doing thankless things well in the address-in-reply speech on Wednesday by new Cook Islands National MP Alfred Ngaro.

He recounted his mother telling him off for “not emptying bins properly” when helping her at her second job, cleaning the Newton post office at night. “It doesn’t matter what job you are doing,” he recalled his mother saying. “You should always do your best.”

Cross to Tariana Turia, speaking by video on December 3 to the awards presentation to people with disabilities who had passed a leadership course (leadership in the able world, that is): “[Change] happens through people believing in their own potential.”

Minnie Baragwanath, the visually-impaired CEO and inventor of the Be. Institute which initiated the course (against huge odds), picked up Turia’s line: she spoke of “people of all abilities”.

The focus that evening in the fine Auckland Art Gallery was not on what could not be done. It was on what could be done.

At a different level we saw that attitude in the Arab world this year as nobodies took on tyrants and, in some cases, won. This month some villagers in China chased out cruel authorities and even won concessions from that country’s ruling thugs.

Talk of thugs leads to a 1946 novel by Hans Fallada, only recently translated into English, based on a true story in Nazi Germany. A couple, their only son having been killed in the opening weeks of the war, distributed around Berlin anonymous handwritten cards attacking Hitler and his regime.

The Gestapo eventually tracked the couple and had them tried and executed. Their notes had no effect: few were seen by the public before being confiscated. They did something “thankless”, with “no fame, no admiration, no gratitude”, but of intrinsic good, the best and most they could think to do.

In a postscript to the translation, Geoff Wilkes, of the University of Queensland, adapted Hannah Arendt’s finding of a “banality of evil” in Nazi terror to see in the couple’s humble action a “banality of good”.

Simple — banal — things done well without wish for reward: that makes the glue in the good society.