From a lot of the reading and writing I have been doing later, I have become acutely aware of how easy it is, and how frequent it is, to mistake one thing for another. My last article discussed the differences between personal strength and personal power. One of my favourite expressions, ‘mistaking activity for achievement’, is a paraphrase from something I heard a long time ago on an English programme, ‘Yes, Minister’. It was intended as a joke, but it stayed with me because that is what many people do—mistake activity for achievement. There were many truths mixed in with the humour in that series, and its sequel ‘Yes, Prime Minister’.
Just as people confuse power with strength, and activity for achievement, they confuse sex with love, piety with sanctity, opinion with fact, appearance with substance, and ethics for morals. They will rule others, rather than rule themselves. The first is generally superficial, the second comes from deep within.
The Gospels speak of doing good and giving alms in secret, yet many people ‘give alms’ to get their name on highly public lists, or are conspicuously generous to improve their public image (and get tax write-offs). Many books on Eastern philosophy discuss ‘holding fast to the centre’, which, applied here, means avoiding the superficial to reach the substantial. Anyone can make a kind gesture, and many do, but there is no heart in that gesture. In genuine kindness, there is mutual awareness of the giver giving of him/herself. Georges Bernanos, author of Diary of a Country Priest, wrote: When the Lord has drawn from me some word for the good of souls, I know, because of the pain of it.
For many years I had a friend who lived alone, half-way across the country. We spoke on the telephone regularly, and in the last years of his life, daily. He rarely had visitors. At Thanksgiving and Christmas, his next-door neighbours delivered a holiday meal. They didn’t stay and eat with him, they had other things to do, and during the rest of the year, saw him only if they bumped into him in the hall. He had little contact with his children until he had been hospitalized for many months, but they gathered around at his death. All these people made gestures, but there wasn’t much evidence of commitment or devotion to my friend. I may be wrong; I know only what he told me, and how unhappy he was toward the end.
In recent months there have been numerous atrocities, foreign and domestic, which have enraged and frightened people. Social and news media reflect this fear, opinion is rife and venomous, but actual fact is conspicuous by its absence. The response is almost immediate, whereas facts appear slowly. I refer to no specific event—there are too many from which to choose—and in trying to describe this state, the only phrase that comes to mind is ignorance becomes wisdom. So often, uninformed knee-jerk reaction merely makes things worse.
If people do not give adequate consideration to what they’re doing, or to the result, unpremeditated injuring will continue. There are many people who give to charity, donate time to one cause or another, and yet are blind to the pain and neglect they inflict on those near them. How many of us know people who are so busy with things that interest them—perhaps even helping them grow as individuals—that they don’t see the desolation around them that their inattention causes? Sadly, we often miss that which lies immediately before us.
Some will say this focus is much too narrow, and they may be correct. However, it is a real problem that affects a large number of people, regardless of how small a percentage of the populace they constitute.
Confusing one thing with another is resolvable. It requires, first of all, that people WAKE UP! and give deliberate attention to their actions and reactions. The things we feel and believe should be reflected in our actions and choices; our actions and choices should not be superficial. (What concerns me is that people’s actions and choices actually may reflect what they feel and believe.) Actions should have substance, not appearance. Strive for commitment, not convenience. Perhaps we will not do as much, but what we do will be richer, more effective, and more substantial.
I had a meeting with a man recently who would not allow the meeting to end until he felt he had done something good for me (in which he was quite successful). Only then would he feel the meeting had been worthwhile.
We are often moved by stories of people who risked or gave up something for the benefit of others. The Russian Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna gave up her riches and life of privilege to open a convent and minister to women and children. During World War Two, many people risked execution by helping Jews escape from Germany and Eastern Europe.
Is this something we honestly see ourselves doing in any way?
Can we try?
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