Autumn brings a kind of pleasant melancholy. The warmth of summer recedes and the cold nights draw in. The trees, so recently full, lush and green, are now shedding crisp brown leaves for the children to wade through on their way to school, searching for conkers. Bright berries appear in the hedges and scatterings of mushrooms rise amongst the fallen apples.
There is great beauty amongst all the decay. The fruits and nuts now abundant represent nature’s efforts to produce new life. The trees are exhausted after putting their all into this vital task. It’s not unlike what parents of small children do: giving over all their energy, day and night, to nurture their offspring.
We hope that our season of decay is far enough off. Yet every time I call home, it seems there is sad news of some neighbour or relative who has passed away. What do they leave behind? Their bank balance or their property is worth nothing to them now.
The only earthly legacy of meaning is their families. Those of us in midlife now are just a few short decades away from that unsettling age when our contemporaries begin to encounter old age, illness and death. Where do we go when we die? The Christian answer is that this depends, fundamentally, on our kindness – as does the happiness and welfare of those we leave behind.
Giving and receiving kindness is what gives us true happiness while we live. Parents’ kindness gives children the best start in life, creating adults who are secure and happy even in our unstable world.
Even in the autumn of our lives, as we approach death, a life of kindness behind us gives hope of the ultimate spring.
It is an urgent task then, this business of being kind. But it’s not easy. The most saintly parent, stressed and sleep-deprived enough, will lose patience with an obstreperous toddler.
There is no shortage of people in the world who will wrong us, and tempt us to respond with anger and vengeance. Yet these same challenges we face as adults are first encountered in microcosm by our children, when a playmate snatches away their favourite toy, or when they are bullied by a bigger child. We teach them to share, and to forgive, and to be kind, even as we remain forever in need of those lessons ourselves.
Yet our children are often the teachers, and we the pupils. We melt when see them run to the aid of a smaller child, or share their last piece of chocolate, or pray for a sick relative.
We learn from children’s gifts for living in the moment, for seeing the magic in a robin’s flight, and for sitting and staring contemplatively at the fire.
In this, they remind us that the fuel we need for this task of kindness is spiritual. We replenish it by giving our minds the balm of silence, of prayer, of grace and by dwelling a while each day in the deep quiet that surrounds us always – if only we stop a moment to listen for it.