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How to Be a Decent Human Being

The art of lovingkindness

Black paint and white chalk sketch of head of Mona Lisa
Mona Lisa - a decent human being (one hopes) and a work of art. Chalk on paper image by Rob Ainsworth.

Hi everyone! This article was posted a year ago and it's been one of the most popular ones. Having a sketch of the Mona Lisa done by Rob adds to its appeal. I hope you enjoy and benefit from rereading it or reading it for the first time. All the best for the lead-up to the holiday season!


As we settled into bed for the night Rob said, ‘It’s quite an art being a decent human being.’

I couldn’t sleep after that. The phrase repeated itself several times and I found myself wondering about decent human beings and works of art, and trying to combine the two concepts.

Can a human being become a work of art?

I skimmed through six decades of memories, trying to find a connection, and it dawned on me that it is possible for a human to become a piece of art, a thing of beauty and purpose.


Through acts of lovingkindness.


I’ve been the recipient of countless acts of lovingkindness. I’ll mention two here, one when I was a gauche seventeen, and another when I was almost sixty.

Picture me at seventeen in the early 1970s. Curling brown hair. Freckles. Quiet green eyes. I’m in a Physical Education class which has turned into a dance instruction session for the upcoming school ball. The girls sit self-consciously while the boys prop themselves along the wall. Teachers demonstrate the waltz, foxtrot, and quickstep, then tell the boys to select a partner. They are to say, ‘May I have the pleasure of this dance?’. The boys huddle and groan as they flick assessing eyes over their choices.

I know I won’t be asked. What teenage boy would choose to stand up with a girl whose skirt flaps below her knees at the height of the mini-skirt craze? I’m the odd one out. The strange girl. Not worth a second glance.

The music starts. I stare ahead at nothing, pretending I don’t care.

‘Please may I have the pleasure of this dance?’

Shocked, I stand up on shaky legs and Peter hesitantly slides his arm around my waist and takes my right hand in his left. We move jerkily across a room that blurs as I view a suddenly changed world through tears of relief. I try not to blink so they don’t spill down my face as our limbs begin to find a matching rhythm and Perry Como croons, If you were the only girl in the world, and I were the only boy . . .

Looking back, I realise that Peter, at a very young age, had perfected the art of being a decent human being.

Now picture me almost sixty. Grey hair. Faded freckles. A lacework of wrinkles. I’m unexpectedly unemployed because the bookshop I’d worked in for fifteen years closed its doors. I apply to the local tertiary institution to study Community Services, but I’m rejected. I phone Andy, the department head, who arranges an interview with me. And, despite my age, my lack of experience in the field of study, and my unverifiable credentials because the overseas college that had given me my degree forty years before no longer exists, he overrides the selection board, accepts me into the course, shakes my hand, and changes the direction of my life.

Andy was another person who’d perfected the art of being a decent human being.

In her New York Times bestseller, Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation, Sharon Salzberg devoted a chapter to lovingkindness. She wrote:

[Lovingkindness] is the ability to gather our attention and really listen to others, even those we’ve written off as not worth our time. It is the ability to see the humanity in people we don’t know and the pain in people we find difficult.

What Rob said before we fell into dreamless sleep was true. It’s quite an art to be a decent human being. It requires focus, a dash of experience, adaptability, and a splash of inventiveness. You must pay attention to what is going on, notice how people are feeling, and carefully assess what is needed.

Then you step in to create a beautiful, artistic moment.

You become a decent human being.

With love, Marlane

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