July 12 2020
It is an odd thing, but keeping a social distance, instead of alienating us from each other because of the danger of infection as I initially feared it might, has surprised me by producing a friendlier experience amongst neighbours, and amongst strangers too. And turning out as we used to do on a Thursday evening to applaud the NHS, and on July 5th for its 72nd anniversary, has resulted in a new familiarity among people who live nearby.
As we politely avoid one another on the pavement, we often do so with a smile or a “thank you”.
“All things therefore, whatsoever ye would, that men should do unto you, even so do ye also unto them.” [Matthew 7,12]
Cast your mind back for a moment to last year when we could still attend chapel. As you came in through the door heading for your habitual pew, if you saw someone already sitting in your spot, did it produce in you a very slight twinge of irritation?
Think further back again. Can you remember when we used to travel in those old railway carriages with compartments and sliding doors, how we couldn’t help resenting other people if they came in to join us? Or in a modern train, when they come to sit at our table, although we know they have a perfect right to do so? How many times might we have been more thoughtful, and (as JM Barrie once put it) have been “a little kinder than is necessary”?
I remember a long train journey down to Plymouth. I chose a non-smoking compartment (as they used to be), when another traveller took out his packet of cigarettes and lit up. He was asked to put it out, which he did, but with obvious ill-feeling. It resulted in an uncomfortable atmosphere for most of the journey. When this person eventually stood up to get off, one of the other passengers said to him that he had left something behind. “What?” he asked, looking around. “A very bad impression,” came the reply.
The rule of life with which we started, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”, was explained early on as a kind of utility rule, because there certainly is a strong element of enlightened self-interest involved. We also derive a certain satisfaction from our own acts of kindness
There is an ancient story about Alexander the Great, which tells of how a friend once asked him for a loan of ten gold coins. Alexander gave his friend 50. He was told that 10 would be enough. “It may be enough for you to ask,” he replied, “but it is not enough for me to give.”
In the same vein, I may have told you before how Samuel Taylor Coleridge was once (and not for the only time) in grave financial difficulties. Lord Byron heard about this, and gave Coleridge £100. Coleridge later found out that at that time Byron had only £150 in the world.
Is there specifically something we should do unto others, that they might do unto us? One translation of St Paul’s Epistle to the Colossians reads, “Put on therefore… a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering; forbearing one another, and forgiving one another.”
Spiritual love is not forced upon us; we are not compelled to be kind or good; our love cannot be bought, it has to be spontaneous. The tone of our voice, the manner of our actions, how we choose our moments: all these will affect the reception of what we do or say.
The following story may be of interest to gardeners, and to the rest of us as well.
A man was looking over his neighbour’s fence, and he exclaimed, “That’s a very unruly garden you’ve got there. It’s full of weeds, and you’ve probably got a lot of slugs and caterpillars too by the look of it. I’ll send you a seed catalogue!” This he did, on several occasions, until one day his neighbour said, “I wish you’d send fewer catalogues, and grow more flowers of your own. Who knows, some of their seeds might blow over to my side…”
This story always reminds me of those individuals who, if you ask them for help, will refer you to a website.
Superficial politeness is attractive, but it does not bite deep or go far. To be genuinely effective demands more of us.
You may remember, from Hamlet Act 2, that a group of strolling players have arrive at Elsinore castle in order to perform, and Prince Hamlet instructs Polonius to see that they are properly accommodated and fed, saying “Let them be well used.”
Polonius replies, “My lord, I will use them according to their deserts.” “God’s bodykins, man,” says Hamlet, “much better: use every man after his deserts, and who shall escape whipping?
“Use them after your own honour and dignity: the less they deserve, the more merit is in your bounty.”
All things therefore, whatsoever ye would, that men should do unto you, even so do ye unto them…
[Prayer adapted from We Are Here by Rev Cliff Reed}
Let us pray: Spirit of Love, source and origin of all that is divine, all that is good and beautiful, in you there is calmness, peace and concord. We are at times divided from each other by dissentions, and we ask that you will restore us to fellowship, and bring us back into a unity of love …
You are above all things, and within all things, so make us one in spirit even if we are of different minds. May the embrace of charity and the bonds of affection unify us spiritually, both in ourselves and in each other. For what more have we to give to one another than love and understanding? (1) Amen.
- From Kenneth Patton.