A Conscience This Holiday Season
“…you’ve got to be kind.”
In the book God Bless You Mr. Rosewater, or Pearls Before Swine, the millionaire Eliot Rosewater develops a conscience and dedicates his fortune to helping anyone who comes to him for help. The founder of The Rosewater Foundation and volunteer firefighter goes against the wishes of his family, who then hires a lawyer to prove that Eliot Rosewater is crazy in order to serve the lawyer’s greedy ends and the self-preservation of the Rosewater family. The Rosewater clan accumulated their fortune basically through forced labour at low wages. Being rich, they accumulate great wealth and a great name, but it’s wealth and a reputation built on the lives of the working poor they’ve take advantage of for generations. Eliot Rosewater’s conscience creates great problems for the standing and the fortune of the Rosewater family.
One of Vonnegut’s most famous quotations comes from God Bless You Mr. Rosewater:
“Hello babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. On the outside, babies, you’ve got a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies-‘God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.’”
To me, this is where true greatness lies. Be kind, dammit, is a great reminder that we lose sight of this basic principle in our day-to-day interactions with people. As the American poet Charles Bukowski says in The Crunch, “People are not good to each other/one on one/people are just not good to each other.” It’s a grim reminder of the truth of this statement, one we can recognize in our news reporting, in what we observe in situations around us, and even in our own lives. Kindness is not a universal habit, it’s safe to say. But what if it was?
If God Bless You Mr. Rosewater teaches anything, it’s that a conscience, being kind, is not the way of the world, to the point the world wants to prove such kindness is craziness. We tell ourselves in our everyday lives that being kind matters, but how often do we truly live it? Kindness is more than charity and charitable giving; Eliot Rosewater gives as much time to the so-called town kooks as the serious representatives of his own family. He listens intently to their troubles and commiserates with them. He asks them what they need, and then he gives it to them. Basically, everyone thinks Eliot Rosewater is mad. The fact is, he just might be, because such basic caring looks mad to a material world: why on earth would you give away everything? Why would you give an audience to the most down and out? Why would you ruin your family’s great name by making a mockery of the institutions they’ve built? Eliot’s basic answer is it makes him happy to make other people happy. So, he becomes a kind of Christ-figure in the book: anyone can make an appointment with Eliot and his Rosewater Foundation, for whatever they need. Eliot pays a reputational price as Mushari, the lawyer, and the Rosewater family try to brand him as insane and try to get power of attorney over Eliot. Meanwhile, he continues to give away his time and his fortune to the disadvantaged.
So, is kindness crazy? No. Do we sometimes, in real life, make excuses for being less than kind? Yes. How can we all be more kind in our everyday lives, even if we don’t have the millions of Eliot Rosewater? Well, I think what we can really do is listen, be present, and understand how what we do, or do not do, has consequences. If we care about and we’re kind from the most ‘down’ to the ‘highest’, it helps us become higher ourselves: more present and understanding at every interaction. People who have hard times might need food, shelter, clothing, a job. Those of us with more, might need to remember how lucky we really are, how accidental that luck is, and that we need to be kinder to everyone because that kindness is also our gift to ourselves, our own being, and how we become more, instead of less, human.
Kindness shouldn’t be random. Kindness is a state of being, a state of self that everyone can achieve if you put your mind, heart and soul into living it and giving it to others. Happy holidays everyone!
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