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The world does not need saints

“My country is the world, and my religion is to do good.”

These words by the Norfolk-born political writer Thomas Paine are as relevant today, I believe, as they were when written more than 200 years ago.

It has long been a source of sadness for me that “do-gooder” exists as a term of derision – and I fear it puts otherwise well-meaning people off doing good (such as the “do-gooder” who wants to clear snow from outside her home but fears being criticised for it, or the teacher who wants to put a reassuring arm round a distraught pupil but fears for his job).

We need brave people whose ability to care is set free from the straitjacket of personal, corporate, religious, political or national concerns, and embraces all of humanity.

We seem to have a mixed relationship with doing good: if an action is well-meant, but fails, the “do-gooder” is vilified; if it turns out well, they are heroes. The result is that too many people, who do not see themselves as heroes, do nothing for fear of being condemned if they fail.

The problem may lie, in part, in the belief in absolute good and absolute evil – that actions are either one or the other. It may also lie in a need for heroes or saviours to come along and sort everything out for us – so we don’t have to. The truth is, life’s saviours are human beings too – and fallible, just like us. And we don’t like that – because it is easier to blame than to take responsibility. Someone can go from hero to zero in the blink of an eye because they don’t live up to our impossibly high expectations of them. The baby can then get thrown out with the bathwater - whatever good they did, or tried to do, being forgotten. The solution, I believe, is to learn from, and celebrate, the “do-gooders” among us, but not to idolise (or demonise) them.

We all have our faults, but that does not mean we cannot do some good - as long as our actions are motivated by kindness and compassion for those we seek to help, and as long as we offer our help, but do not impose it.

“Do as much good as you are able, and cause as little suffering as you can.” I have found this advice from the Dalai Lama to be quite liberating: it encourages us to do as much good “as we are able” – but we don’t have to be saints, and we shouldn’t expect others to be saints either.

The pages of any newspaper are full of inspiring stories of ordinary people doing extraordinary things: jumping into rivers to save someone; raising funds for, or awareness of, good causes; sharing traumatic experiences so others may learn from them.

But life is also full of small wonders. I have found that even someone opening a door for me, or picking something up that I have dropped, can lighten my mood for the rest of the day. I am then far more likely to do something similar for the next person I meet, and so a good deed ripples out into the world like a pebble dropped into a puddle. 

And I know that, in engaging in such small acts of kindness myself, I have been left with what I can only describe as an inner glow: “The fragrance always remains on the hand that gives the rose,” as Mahatma Gandhi once said.

The world does not need saints; it needs fully-rounded “humane” beings; ordinary people doing extraordinary things in their everyday lives, people with the courage to be compassionate, and the patience to make the world a happier place... (as says a bumper sticker I once saw) one peace at a time.


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