The only ‘should’
The only ‘should’

The only ‘should’

There is a certain centre, it seems to me, around which the Anne Shirley books revolve. There is something we are called to do, or at the very least encouraged to do. What lies at the centre of Anne’s value system? What informs her actions and what drives her instincts? Anne Shirley, still in her teens, tells us:

Mrs Allan is one of the naturally good people. I love her passionately. You know there are some people like Matthew and Mrs. Allan that you can love right off without any trouble. And there are others, like Mrs. Lynde, that you have to try try very hard to love. You know you ought to love them because they know so much and are such active workers in the church, but you have to keep reminding yourself of it all the time or else you forget.

Anne of Green Gables, ch. 22

Loving and being kind to people who are on your wavelength is easy. Matthew and Mrs. Allan are easy to love because, as Anne expresses it elsewhere in the books they “understand” her. But loving those others who criticise us, are sarcastic towards us or push us to try harder or try different in some ways, that’s a tougher call. That requires strength – since it is then that we might need to face our inner demons and insecurities. Admitting to ourselves that we might quite be all that we can be is the strongest calling of all.

Yet Anne says we “ought” to love them. What she says is that she looks for the best in them; not their faults, failings and shortcomings, but those things that we can admire about them. She looks for the positives, not the negatives. She expresses her belief in “loving her enemy”, except, of course, once you love your enemy, the enemy is no longer an enemy. Mrs. Lynde knows so much and works hard for the local community and any past “carrots” skirmishes with Mrs. Lynde are thus, if not forgotten, then certainly not foregrounded.

In Anne of Avonlea, Anne tells Mr. Harrison that she became friendly with Mrs. Lynde once she began to understand her. Once you understand a person, you can see how they are after doing good, but they have a very different idea about it than you might. Yet, what connects us all, Anne believes, is the desire for good.

As she says, “you have to try very hard to love them”. Being kind and compassionate become more important than what should be. The only “ought” is to exert yourself in the pursuit of kindness. All else relies on it – freedom, yearning for justice and equality all branch out from the stem of kindness.

Kindness and love, then, become the only ‘should’ around which Anne’s life philosophy is built. Her actions are the evidence of this belief in action. Her relationship with Miss Josephine Barry, striking friendship with the very different Mr. Harrison and saving Katherine Brooke from the life of bitterness and malevolence. In all these cases, Anne is able to see what’s best in them, shine light on it and use it as the foundation for her relationship with them. She demonstrates, fervently, the belief in the goodness of the human heart.

We can try to live by that example. The argument that kindness is weak, which is sometimes advanced, is easily countered by carrying out the following exercise: Think of a person you last had a proper argument or somebody who perhaps offended you in some way or undermined your authority. Now, pay that person a compliment. See how easy that is.

Kindness and benevolence unites people. Too often, we are angry or spiteful because we are afraid or hurting. Hurting makes us put up barriers that divide us and drive us further apart – just so we do not hurt any longer. This vicious circle makes us lonelier and more fearful. Anne’s way is to bring down the defences, brick by brick, oftentimes by exposing herself to bitterness and ridicule. Although she does have her fits of temper, as she says to Mr. Harrison in Anne of Avonlea, she would not hurt others deliberately. She is on a quest to find others’ hearts. People fascinate her in their variety and in how they think and emote. She wants to limit their suffering and bring more light and joy into the world. This is very different to wishing or insisting that other people should be a certain kind. It’s the desire for others’ happiness, whoever they are.

The only should is kindness.

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