This article first appeared in the February edition of Itchen Valley New
The word which came to me as the year turned was ‘optimism’: optimism both as a personal aspiration and as a hope for a new decade! I think most of my family will find it a little surprising that I say this. After 25 years as a commercial lawyer I have been hard-wired to look at the things that can go wrong, however unlikely. Although I would not see myself as a curmudgeon, I have spent many a lunch or dinner over the years at home turning a perfectly enjoyable conversation to news of some impending disaster or apocalyptic view of the world usually learned from too much attention to the news media with the result that my wife and daughters are inclined to say ‘thud’ when I do this and resolutely turn to brighter subjects! Quite apart from this sort of line of conversation being very boring (and an indication of creeping old age), it is absolutely not acceptable for a priest. I have realized (perhaps rather late in the day) that what we talk about and indeed the approach that we take in conversations is really a matter of self-discipline, that we can choose not to be a misery guts, and indeed we can choose to be brightness and light to all those that we meet. In doing so we can make the world a better place.
I was particularly struck by going to the Post Office in WH Smith in Winchester the other day and meeting the manager. I suppose it helped that she had a passing resemblance to Audrey Tautou, the star of the 2001 movie Amelie (which Is now a stage show in the West End); but what really stood out was the cheerful way in which she dealt with each of those ahead of me in the queue: two elderly ladies, one struggling with an anti-virus program on her computer (who would imagine that the Post Office should have to deal with such things) and the other trying to send a small parcel abroad. I was so impressed by the upbeat manner in which she spoke to these two ladies, that I said to her ‘it’s so wonderful to see someone who is so obviously enjoying her job.’ ‘Yes, and I have been here 11 years now,’ she replied. It was a delight to meet her. On January 15th we said goodbye to Lady April Rivett-Carnac. Even when she had every reason to be despondent, she was someone else who brought light to so many people’s lives. She often even blessed, with her cheerfulness, those whose company she did not find easy.
Of course, we have had a tough three years of Brexit uncertainty and many of us might be feeling rather gloomy about the future. We may have an apocalyptic view as to what will happen to our economy and we could easily end up blaming the outcome on our neighbours and relations and (erstwhile) friends, for the stance that they took in the EU Referendum. Even if we don’t do that, we can go around being despondent to those we meet. But Jesus’ teaching was that we should love not only our family and friends, but also our neighbours (in other words everyone we encounter), because whatever their faults, as we perceive them, they were made in God’s image. We should love them as we love ourselves. We should even love those we would see as our enemies. As Bishop Graham Tomlin writes in his new short book Looking Beyond Brexit, Bringing the Country Back Together this may not be easy, but, fortunately, love is not about feelings, which are less under our control. Love is a set of actions (including the line we take in conversations) which we choose to take. The feelings come afterwards. It’s about self-discipline. We need to choose to recognize that it is OK for our neighbours to have differing opinions to us.
Loving takes practice. But as we make the effort to pour the light into our conversations with others, like the Amelie of the Post Office and April Rivett-Carnac, and to be optimistic about the future our characters will change and, as they do so, the world will open up for us as the exciting and beautiful place that it truly is, and we will appreciate that, for all its faults, it is a world in which we are blessed to live.