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On Thursday, the world’s most famous and longest-serving modern day monarch passed away.
Queen Elizabeth II died at the age of 96, having served 70 years as the queen of the United Kingdom and its Commonwealth. With her passing, her 73-year-old son Charles takes the symbolic throne.
Since her coronation at age 26 (and even before that, as princess) Queen Elizabeth lived her life in the public eye – even to the point of having movies and a Netflix drama (The Crown, now in its fourth season in a planned series of six) based on her life.
— Romilly Weeks (@romillyweeks) September 8, 2022
In the UK and over the world, people mourned. A double rainbow broke through the London gloom above Buckingham Palace the day she died. Over the weekend, supporters threw flowers along the cortege’s six-hour journey from Balmoral Castle to Edinburgh, where the public paid their respects at St Giles Cathedral earlier today (Sept 12).
Tomorrow (Sept 13), the coffin will be flown to London with the queen lying in state before her burial at Westminster Abbey on Sept 19.
But amidst the outpouring of grief were some who had mixed feelings, like this young woman who was brutally honest in a live interview on CNN.
Her matter-of-fact response: “It’s pretty sad… you wouldn’t want that to happen to your own family member… but I wasn’t the biggest fan of the queen or the monarchy in general…”, citing the effects of colonialism and more recent scandals that have hit Britain’s royal family.
In fact, in some countries that have suffered the most during Britain’s colonial times, people recounted stories of oppression that occurred during the queen’s reign. And with her passing, there are concerns with the fate of Britain’s royal family, with Prince (now King) Charles being a less popular figure than his mother.
It is difficult, some may say even unfair, to define a person’s life, especially someone who has lived in full view in the judgemental eye of the public, based on singular events – historical or otherwise.
Queen Elizabeth was a monarch, ruler, a mother, a grandmother. Like it or not, as a public figure, she has come to symbolise much of what the United Kingdom – the good and the bad – is to the world.
By all accounts, the queen was warm, kind, humorous – the quintessential grandmother figure, so to speak.
Former US president Barack Obama, in his official statement, recounted how she has seen so much of global history – even serving active military duty during World War II.
He wrote: “…through periods of prosperity and stagnation — from the moon landing, to the fall of the Berlin Wall, to the dawn of the digital age — she served as a beacon of hope and stability for the people of the United Kingdom and the world.”
Yet he recalled how she would wear her responsibilities and titles with a light touch and expressed how lucky he was to know her personally.
He said: “Time and again, (Michelle and I) were struck by her warmth, the way she put people at ease, and how she brought her considerable humour and charm to moments of great pomp and circumstance.”
Other tributes from world leaders also came pouring in. Current US president Joe Biden said how “she charmed us with her wit, moved us with her kindness, and generously shared with us her wisdom”.
India’s prime minister Narendra Modi said that he would never forget her “warmth and kindness”.
I had memorable meetings with Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II during my UK visits in 2015 and 2018. I will never forget her warmth and kindness. During one of the meetings she showed me the handkerchief Mahatma Gandhi gifted her on her wedding. I will always cherish that gesture. pic.twitter.com/3aACbxhLgC
— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) September 8, 2022
And in Singapore, both President Halimah Yacob and PM Lee Hsien Loong wrote letters of condolences, with President Halimah writing how “All those who have met Her Majesty recall her grace, hospitality and good humour.”
PM Lee wrote in a similar fashion: “Her Majesty always showed warmth and friendship through her natural affection and spontaneous good humour.”
Yet in our age of social media, when armchair critics pour over nuances in video clips or parse public and private conversations in excruciating detail, with cancel culture lurking in the background, ready to pounce on a misstep or poorly worded statement, it is not easy to to hold the court of public opinion.
Perhaps that is why during her tenure, the queen had always kept a distance (albeit warm and charming) from the people – in her 70 years of rule, she gave few official interviews, choosing instead to rely on speeches like her annual Christmas messages to spell out her vision for a better world.
It is through these windows into her life that we can see her true heart for kindness.
Lessons of kindness
So what lessons can we learn from Queen Elizabeth?
One, she used her royal position to further acts of good in the world. During her reign, Queen Elizabeth was a patron or president of more than 500 charities worldwide.
According to the Charities Aid Foundation in 2012, Queen Elizabeth has helped raise more than US$1.66 billion (S$2.32 billion) for charities she was a patron of. Furthermore, the non-profit’s research showed that of the entire Royal Family, the Queen is the member most likely to inspire a donation to charity, with 15% of respondents saying they would donate to a charity supported by her.
Her commitment to charity and its benefits – not just to society but for personal growth – over the years never wavered.
In her 2008 Christmas message, she said: ““Over the years, those who have seemed to me to be the most happy, contented and fulfilled have always been the people who have lived the most outgoing and unselfish lives.”
Two, she gave credit to other people, constantly.
In her 2016 Christmas address, she said: “I often draw strength from meeting ordinary people doing extraordinary things: volunteers, carers, community organisers and good neighbours; unsung heroes whose quiet dedication makes them special.
“They are an inspiration to those who know them, and their lives frequently embody a truth expressed by Mother Teresa, from this year Saint Teresa of Calcutta. She once said, ‘Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.’”
Three, she loved animals!
The Queen was always described as being more at home in the countryside: “More at home in tweeds than in tiaras” ran one description.
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Of course, this doesn’t mean that you must love animals to be kind. But it does speak of a certain gentleness that pet owners and animal-lovers know so well: To care for another living being, to prioritise its needs and to enjoy simple companionship without asking for a quid pro quo.
Four, in a world that is gradually becoming more and more fragmented into “us” and “them”, she consistently espoused a message of unity.
In the early days of her rule, she said, in her 1957 Christmas message: “It has always been easy to hate and destroy. To build and to cherish is much more difficult.”
Almost 20 years later, in her 1974 message, she said: “We may hold different points of view but it is in times of stress and difficulty that we most need to remember that we have much more in common than there is dividing us.”
And in 2004, weighing in on religious tolerance, she said: “Everyone is our neighbour, no matter what race, creed or colour. The need to look after a fellow human being is far more important than any cultural or religious differences.
“Most of us have learned to acknowledge and respect the ways of other cultures and religions, but what matters even more is the way in which those from different backgrounds behave towards each other in everyday life.”
Lastly, and most importantly, she stayed true to herself.
Of course, naysayers can twitter away about how her public persona is all a carefully curated PR campaign, like her candid participation in the 2012 Olympics opening ceremony in London.
But if everyone, from world leaders to the commoners who have met her, says the same thing, that Queen Elizabeth was gracious, witty, humorous and kind, then there might be some truth in that.
As the old saying goes, you can’t fool everyone all the time.
And the easiest way of being genuine, is to embody the traits you want to be.
In short, be the best version of yourself, in public and in private.
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As Queen Elizabeth II said: “Our modern world places such heavy demands on our time and attention that the need to remember our responsibilities to others is greater than ever.”
That’s a legacy that anyone would be proud to leave behind.