Plucking up the courage to engage

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I think I may try to talk to someone tomorrow.

This is a nerve-wracking prospect and I should plan my approach. Ideas currently under review include:

  • checking what my neighbour (or someone suitably close with a book rather than a paper) is reading and jovially creating a conversation related to the book. Provided I have read it. Or not, it’s always good to practice the art of the blag
  • wearing a prominent “I heart Obama” type badge/t-shirt/sandwich board and hoping this will provoke someone else to engage me in conversation
  • using the inevitable stumble into a stranger on the way out of Peckham Rye to begin a friendly-type conversation. While hoping the stranger doesn’t assume this is a come-on.
  • praying that God might provide an opportunity to engage my neighbour in conversation. This could be done out-loud while in the train carriage, but success would be slightly less assured.

It may be that the morning commute is a less welcoming environment than the one home, I shall use tomorrow morning to guage the climate.

Sara Miles in her talk on Glorifying the Stranger says that one of the best way to welcome strangers is to include them, to give them something to do. Unfortunately the commute welcomes strangers by inviting them to stand or sit in studied silence. I would be working against this norm. I would be a commuter heretic.

How exciting.

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The grey light of morning

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I have been away from this train journey and platform for a while. The first thing I notice on returning is how grey and statue-like the inhabitants are. It is a cold autumnal morning in suburban London, which casts a steely glow across the faces of my fellow commuters. They stand immobile, like the chorus in an avant garde production played in the round waiting for their cue to come to life. The announcement from another platform drifts over on a gust to say the train to St Albans has been delayed by fifteen minutes. This is clearly not their cue, as barely a flicker of emotion registers on the players of Platform 1. Perhaps this is par for the course. Meanwhile the cue for Platform 3 grinds its way in and as if by magic we marionettes dance to the doors and get on.

More on kindness

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Every night my parents pray that I and my brother might fall in love with someone kind. Not good looking, not rich, not ambitious, not overly spiritual or particularly intelligent, but kind. Their own experiences give rise to the hope that their children might be cared for in ways more long-lasting than the material. Any or all of these other traits are a bonus. Or would be a bonus were it not for the fact that they can spoil a person: beauty creates a beast, riches become blind to rags, ambition stand astride compassion like a colossus, revered by society and far above others’ petty concerns.

Are there good-looking people with money and aspirations who are also kind? Is it possible to remain wealthy or to have your ambitions realised without being a little ruthless, a little unconcerned with the situation of others? It is possible to be a spiritual person and not be kind, hundreds of years of religious burnings and sacrifice and judgement and exclusion have proven that. And perhaps it is the intelligent person who realises kindness is not the way to power and greatness. The kind person is the one who will not be as successful in the world’s eyes as they could be.

It is possible to show kindness without being kind. A broken bag’s contents rescued for a stranger or a marathon run for charity are acts of kindness, wildly different in scope and impact. But unless these are undertaken within the context of a life with many kind acts – both large and small – and a character that performs them with the same ease and motivation as breathing, they are merely a reflection of others’ kindness. That is not to say that showing self-conscious kindness is a bad thing, but that it can be a social construction. Acts of generosity or deference or etiquette are a way of exercising kind behaviour for your own sense of beneficence or even a greater social good. The western understanding of karma emphasises this: do good and good will be done unto you.

When a successful pop star lends their celebrity to a charity event, their ‘kindness’ may appear self-serving. When they provide free tickets for children and families who would not otherwise be able to afford it, their kindness seems more genuine. When they habitually use their celebrity status, with no fiscal incentive, to help individuals or organisations in their good work they may be seen as kind people. And yet, without knowing their behaviours behind the scenes, without being able to see the nature of their relationships with others, it is not possible to know how kind they really are. Same goes for us civilians without the profile of the famous.

The journey into and out of Central London each day provides so many opportunities to see kindness in action – both natural and self-conscious. I’m inclined to think more of the former, since people on a commute have no long-term need to demonstrate their kindness to others. Alternatively it may be easier to convince strangers of a different you than people who know you well. So perhaps the girl offering her seat to the pregnant lady is doing so precisely because it is a demonstrable kindness. It may also be a knee-jerk reaction borne of her kind nature.

I sit and I look for the tiny acts of kindness, whose being is as effortless as breathing. I look for someone kind.

Seeing through the glass, darkly

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Today I turn my eyes to my own face and not my neighbour’s. I am reminded of Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 13:12

For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.

The word for glass is esoptrou (from esoptron – damn wordpress for having no greek alphabet), which can also be used to describe a mirror. Substitute ‘mirror’ for ‘glass’ and I think the whole verse has a new meaning:

For now we look into a mirror, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.

Maybe others have noticed this before, maybe I’ve been asleep when the vicar waxed lyrical on this verse, but I have always read this as looking for God, seeing through a glass darkly to know Him. Now I know it’s not. Now I know that the promise is to know yourself as God knows you. This is not necessarily a comforting thought.

I am on a commute – except I’m not at this moment in time. Instead I am remembering my commute and wondering why I do it. Not the travelling, but the work. Pete Rollins in his latest book relates the story of a priest who finds that everyone he prays for loses their faith. I won’t re-tell the story here because Pete tells it much better (and I’m not sure about copyright laws) but the man who is not the priest in the story is the one I find myself dwelling upon.

To all intents and purposes I am in a role that hard-bitten Christian city types would change to in an instant, were the house prices lower (give it time) and London not quite so expensive. But in this sector there are management failings and public sector schmoozing and bad investment choices, just as in any other. There are wasters on facebook and addictees to Solitaire, there are greedy bastards taking charity money to fund their lifestyle, there are well-intentioned employees with passion but no skills, and there are people like me.

I know I am looking through a glass darkly. Forget darkly, at times it seems opaque. And I wonder what my neighbours see of me.

Walking along, singing a song

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…walking along, singing a song…

There is a wonderful theory expounded in the original radio version of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy that when people are depressed they look down, and when they look down, they see their shoes. So to cheer themselves up they buy new shoes, which means that in an increasingly depressed society the demand for shoe shops will increase, eventually reaching the Shoe Event Horizon. Apparently Douglas Adams found inspiration from this on a shopping trip to Oxford Street, where there were many many shoes shops, but none with any that were the right colour, size or price.

A few years ago my Dad and I were stranded in a small town off the M25. Having escaped the life-quenching congestion of the motorway we turned onto the high street, which was almost exclusively made up of shoe shops. There we were in a suburban reality of the Shoe Event Horizon. The hushed street echoed not with laughter nor housed smiles from its inhabitants. We left as soon as we could.