Never has the contrast between the scale of world events and my own little personal concerns been so great. While millions flee bombardment, and the world economy faces implosion, with all the hardship that such an implosion will inevitably bring in its wake, I do my exercises, twice a day for twenty minutes, to avoid the muscular stiffness and joint pains that a certain minor illness from which I have begun to suffer would otherwise cause. Furthermore, I anxiously taste the fish soup that I have just made to test whether it has enough salt (God forbid it should have too much, that would be an irrecoverable disaster). My life is composed of such pettinesses.
Of course, it wouldn’t help anyone very much if I desisted from my daily round. The bombardments and the fleeing would go on regardless. I learned, or taught myself, this lesson in personal insignificance early in my life when I was a horrible little child. I was told that I should eat up the food on my plate because there were hungry children in Africa. How, I asked, would it help them if I ate up? The potato left on my plate divided between the hungry children, even if it could be delivered to them, which seemed to be doubtful, would assuage their hunger not at all.
I realized only decades later that I was told to eat up not to help the children in Africa, but because I should not take the food on my plate for granted. It is difficult for people who have never known shortage to imagine it. But this was not explained to me at the time, and so I was pleased with my own smart reply.
However, I learned another lesson from this. While the Bible tells us that a soft answer turneth away wrath, I discovered that a clever answer increaseth it, especially when it cometh from the mouth of a horrible little child. As the Bible goes on to tell us, grievous words stir up anger; and there are no words more grievous than those of a child who thinks himself clever.
In this connection, I remember an acquaintance of mine who was homeschooling his children. An inspector arrived at his house to check that he was really teaching his children: The bureaucracy does not like anyone to escape its clutches. The inspector, a woman, asked his 10-year-old daughter what she was reading.
“David Copperfield,” she replied.
“Oh, I hated that as a child,” said the inspector, no doubt in the hope of uncovering evidence of the father’s cruelty toward his daughter.
“I love it,” said the child. “I expect that’s because I’m more intelligent than you.”
To return to our subject, however, I did as a child listen to the story of a relative who had been a prisoner of the Japanese during the war. He had come near to starvation, and many of his fellow captives did in fact die of it. Even now, sixty years later, his story haunts me, though it took decades to explode in my mind, as it were. When, for example, I see a grain of rice on my plate—a single grain, isolated from everything else on the plate—I think of how precious he would have thought it, how it might once have been the difference between life and death, and I look on it with respect rather than disdain. The waste of food now appalls me; it is said that in Western countries, a third of food that is bought is thrown away.