Humanitarianism: The Greatest Art


Henry Thoreau, the 19th century American poet, naturalist and philosopher once remarked: “It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look to affect the quality of the day—that is the highest of arts.”

He was pointing out that great art is not restricted to painting, music, sculpture, and writing, rather there are still greater arts by which certain people add to the quality of life. This brings to mind people like St Francis of Assisi, Gandhi, Florence Nightingale and Mother Teresa who, through the nobility of their lives, made an impact on the world. There is no end to the number of such artists. It includes the countless number of obscure, good people who quietly affect the lives of those around them without even being aware they are doing so and winning no commendation for it.

Everyone must, at one time or another, have known people—strangers as well as friends—who have changed the quality of their day. It could be the school teacher, the family doctor, the colleague in the office, the neighbour or even a total stranger we meet at a picnic, in a lifeboat, or in a hospital waiting-room, these people who manifest kindness and generosity through their lives. They may visit us in a sickroom or on a deathbed, or merely come at a time when we are lonely or discouraged. They may say little if anything, but the shining quality of goodness radiates from them.

These, according to Thoreau, are the greatest artists, for they practice the highest of the arts—the art of the well-lived life. Indeed, everyone has a wonderful gift which they alone can give. It may be a heartfelt smile to the people around us, our family or just showing a little kindness to those who come our way. We all have an immense capacity for love, and it costs nothing. “To love someone,” says Fyodor Dostoyevsky, “means to see him as God intended him.”

One of the greatest tragedies of the modern age is the alienation and abandonment that haunts us. This is an ailment which no hospital can treat, no medicine can heal, no surgery can cure; neither the ancient wisdom of the East nor the modern science of the West has an answer for this. Kindness and love are not about giving away money or buying expensive gifts, although it may be necessary to do these things on certain occasions.

A sympathetic ear, a smile or a helping hand in times of distress are often what people need the most. Attention is the most basic form of love. There is no greater teacher of morals than love itself, for the first lesson that one learns from love is, “I am not, you are.” According to Dr. Richard Moss, “The greatest gift you can give to another is the purity of your attention.”

Love is a golden coin, a highly precious thing which can work magic. Learn to pay it graciously and gladly, and the dividends will come pouring back to you. To use the beautiful message of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees: “All the state subsidies in the world will never be able to replace the warmth of assistance rendered by one individual, one human being to another. It is man alone by his personal charity who can really bring succour to his neighbour in need. Without the individual who offers bread to the hungry, who cares for the sick, who brings help to the refuges, all assistance is devoid of soul.”

In one shocking experiment, researchers found that senior citizens who didn’t feel useful to others were nearly three times as likely to die prematurely as those who did feel useful. This points to a broader human truth: we all need to be needed. This helps explain why pain and suffering are sweeping through prosperous countries.

Loving your brother or sister means more than feeling properly disposed toward them. Loving your neighbour means taking the time to see that your brother and sister have enough to eat, a place to sleep, adequate healthcare, a world in which to be safe with the ones we love. We need to realise that our first identity is human and our first allegiance is to humanitarianism.

The modern struggle will be a long and difficult one, but we should take comfort from the knowledge that we are all of us together capable of turning the tide in this struggle, through the simple power of compassion. John Donne echoed the same message when he said, “Because Angels could not propagate, nor make more Angels, God enlarges his love in making man, that so he might enjoy all natures at once, and have the nature of Angels, and the nature of earthly creatures in one person.” 

Moin Qazi is the author of the bestselling book, Village Diary of a Heretic Banker .He has worked in the development finance sector for almost four decades .He can be reached at [email protected]


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