Nicole Law finds inspiration in Dickens’ words to have a soft heart, an even temper and gentle touch – even when times are trying.
Covid restrictions are back in Singapore. I could spend my time moping or I could make virtue of necessity. So, with this new curb on social engagements, now’s the moment to pick up some of those books I have lying around the house.
I chanced upon an old read from my school days – Hard Times by Charles Dickens. I initially read the book as a literary text for the purposes of academic analysis, but I returned to it again in the last month. The three parts of the story are marked ‘Sowing’, ‘Reaping’ and ‘Garnerning’. While one might argue that this gardening metaphor has little to say to us modern city folk, I now see how it parallels the seasons of life we encounter. Yet, the one line that struck me particularly was
“Have a heart that never hardens, and a temper that never tires, and a touch that never hurts …”
When I first read this line as a teenager, it was simply sage advice that I did not understand, weighty words of wisdom one would expect from an older person and which I laughed off as unnecessary.
But the current circumstances have given me a new perspective. I see people around me struggling to make ends meet as restrictions result in the closure of livelihood sustaining businesses. I follow news reports of millions of Indians gasping for breath due to the shortage of life-saving oxygen cylinders. And I can spot the worry lines on the face of a friend of mine who has been fighting on the front line as a junior doctor. In the midst of all this, that quote reminds me of the necessity of hope.
There are many reasons why our hearts might harden: we may have become apathetic about the situation we find ourselves in; we may have experienced hurt and betrayal by those we trusted. Despair, the opposite of hope, can sink in in the face of one’s impotency to bring about any meaningful changes. There’s nothing to be done, so you give up.
Despair becomes a form of self-defence. It’s too painful to feel for others, so I try to stop feeling.
There are many reasons why our temper may fray: we may lose patience with our family members as they share their anxieties with us at the end of a long working day, and we may be quick to judge the actions of others.
There are many reasons why our touch may start to hurt: we may internalise the wounds inflicted upon us and project them onto others in a vicious cycle; we may lash out at the people who truly love us. There are so many reasons why we may lapse into cynicism. It can seem easier to shut ourselves off from the complex and messy realities of life rather than engaging with these challenges.
Yet, I glimpse a faint glimmer of hope in the rubble of broken dreams, shuttered stores and cries of pain.
To choose consciously to keep our hearts soft, to be sensitive to the needs of others, to continue to look at the ugliness of the world around us and keep loving, is an act of courage in itself.
I, for one, find myself falling into the comfortable temptation of apathy from time to time. How well I understand that biblical image of the ‘hardening of heart’. The metaphor makes us think of the organ itself drying up, becoming like dried leather, losing moisture, and so ceasing to function. Likewise, at a spiritual and emotional level the heart needs constantly the moisture, the dew, of compassion and of hope. Hope keeps the heart pumping love when it might feel inclined to give up beating.
The challenge for all of us lies in keeping our hearts soft, such that we continue to give of our time, efforts and gifts even when it does not seem clear that we are having an impact. I did not know how my small donation to the charity appeal to support pandemic efforts in India would affect the lives of the Indian people, yet I made it anyway. I did not know what the impact of a short check-in text with a friend would be, yet maybe that is what she needed in the difficult time she was going through.
When I feel tempted to react with indifference to pain and suffering around me, I am reminded of the simplicity of Dickens’ words and the need to continue to harbour hope and to keep doing small things with love, because maybe that’s what our world needs most today.
To nourish hope in these hard times is almost like rebellion.
But let’s remember that our individual decisions every day to show up and to retain our sense of hope amount to a collective movement which can turn ‘hard times’ into times where the human spirit can triumph over even a Goliath-like giant.
If there is one thing we retain in spite of our circumstances, it is our decision to have hope, knowing that a soft heart, even temper and gentle touch may be the salve our divided world desperately needs.
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