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On the buses

Angry, angry, angry! Sickened, repelled, repulsed, incensed, enraged, incandescant, disgusted, frustrated, despairing, despondent, dejected, discouraged, downhearted...[1] (and: glumly and slowly resigning myself to the fact that I share in the heinous malfeasance by which I have come to be wearied and riled...)

The offending article? This television ad. Transcript:
Gary's cat is missing. [sad music] Hang on, you don't know Gary, do you? [happy music] Well, don't worry then. You can forget about things that don't affect you. Like with the new Peugeot 208. You can forget car insurance -- it's covered for three years. So is all this. Only with the "Just Add Fuel" finance package…
Huh?! What? WHAT??! Who got to decide this, and announce it on national TV with such cheerful assurance? It is nothing short of a statement of far-fetched faith posing as universally-accepted fact (with no attempt to provide supporting evidence). The advert takes for granted that we all (or at least, Peugeot's target market, or the television-viewing strata) 'know' this to be a basic reality of human existence: people we aren't acquainted with don't affect us and therefore we can forget about them. Well, not according to my worldview. And not, I easily deduce, according to those of many, many people that I am grateful to have encountered or heard about, who demonstrate by their actions and attitudes towards others that they evidently believe something quite opposite. Even expanding the sample more broadly, it would seem that there are reassuringly few who are truly committed to the belief system under-pinning the brash, irrational assertion of the advert -- the logical conclusion of which, I envisage, would be quite, quite horrific if taken up en masse.

John Donne expressed beautifully (and famously) something of the fundamental connectedness of each of us to each other of us:
No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were: any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee. (From Meditation XVII)
Difficult, difficult, lemon difficult. [2] I am repeatedly painfully confronted with my failure to action this belief. Take public transport, for example (which I do, in fact, daily -- whilst walking continues to be an issue). The buses seem to be a hotbed of bewildered, dishevelled, malodorous, muttering people who don't seem to have a clear idea of why they got on in the first place or where they're supposed to get off. It is not obvious that anybody knows them any better than I do in that moment of reluctant encounter. If we're all looking out for our "own" and they are "nobody's" and nobody is "theirs" what happens to them? I fear we are not talking small numbers, either. I have mastered the art of underestimating the size of the marginalised, disenfranchised, unbearably troubled masses: I simply train my eyes to linger longer over reassuring sights than over unsettling ones, thereby producing a cleverly biased sample in which the troubled and their troubles appear fewer and smaller in relative terms. The sight of "them" is no more bearable for the knowledge that it could just as easily be has been me, in fact, in some respects, at certain times. To my gratitude, thus far I have always had network and material provision enough to see me out the other side, but who knows? -- it may not always be so. So it's not really a them; it's an us. They are one of me; I am one of them. And between us who's to say whether we are more or less deserving of each other's 'lots' than we are of our own. They at one time may have been among those looking on in horror, and their current experience is as acute as mine would be in their place, no matter how much I would like to believe otherwise.

I don't know about you but I find I am never so ready to justify myself as when I feel guilty. I don't know these people; they're somebody else's responsibility; there's too many of them and their problems are too big for my help (whatever that might possibly look like) to make a difference. These arguments (which include the view presented by the Peugeot advert) spring from a latent worried recognition that there are great needs, and that those of us with resources (not necessarily material) probably should be engaging with them more the very least being intentional about viewing and interacting with "these people" as an "us" and not a "them".

Perhaps something of this conflict was going on in the heart of the lawyer who asked Jesus "who is my neighbour?" (which is to say, "who is it that I am commanded to love as myself?"). "Good, clean-living, law-abiding Jewish citizens who agree with you theologically and politically and know how to show appropriate gratitude and reciprocation" would have been a nice, manageable, socially-acceptable answer. Jesus' actual response (nowadays known as the "Parable of the Good Samaritan") does not allow him (or us) such an easy ride. In fact -- to shame him(?) -- Jesus tells a story in which the person setting the example of neighbourly love was one of the very people from whom the lawyer might have sought to exempt himself from loving (relations between Samaria and Judea were not good):
And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbour as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.”
But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbour?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’ Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbour to the man who fell among the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.” (Luke 10:25-37)
In other words, to ask the question at all is to miss the point. The command "love your neighbour as yourself" [3] is not there to reduce the scope of love to a manageable subset so that we can say "I've done it now"; it's there to broaden the scope of love to include, well, anyone and everyone, in a sense -- as and when an opportunity or a need presents itself and it is within our power to respond to it (accepting, of course, that it won't always be). We'll never be "done". For me, I guess it begins with an attitude of heart: learning to ask "where is the opportunity?" rather than "where is the obligation?".

[1] And fond of thesauri. In fact, I recently finally reluctantly got smart (an HTC Android to be precise) -- and was delighted to discover that it is basically a device for portable access.

[2] To quote Chris Addison's character in In The Loop.

[3] A related teaching of Jesus in Luke 6:31 is the 'Golden Rule': " you wish that others would do to you, do so to them". I have to be careful how I apply this in my own life, though, because, well, I take obscure delight in many things which provoke profound irritation in others. For example, I would derive great joy from a steady stream of inane but friendly electronic communication. The more ridiculous the better: lipogrammatic, anagrammatic, cryptic, iambic, dactylic, in limerick, fully alliterative, internally rhyming...assonant, consonant, resonant, insolent...contentious, pretentious, incautious, intellectually over-adventurous...a haiku or two, a conundrum, a famous quotation, a perfectly-suited occasion-specific cat picture... Erm. I guess that those who don't share my predilection for experimental emailing (i.e., well, most everyone) may not be prepared to take my incessant such efforts as demonstrations of well-meant affection. "Do unto others" in this case I suspect means "respect the communication preferences of others" not "inundate the inboxes of others with inanities"... Hmmm :-/