Of tolerance & friendship

Fortunately, so far as we are Christian, we do not have to worry much about injustice in this world; only about the injustices that we are personally committing. It is a simple point, but I’ve noticed that it extends beyond the intellectual range of many smart people. The world is the world, and while we were not warned at birth — only a little later when we abandoned Gibberish for other “native” tongues — our power over this place is really quite limited. Even ambitious mass murderers will find that all their best plans go awry, and as the old saying has it, many a slip between the cup and the lip.

Ye olde Law of Unintended Consequences — not yet acknowledged among the laws of physics — guarantees that the most slam-dunk no-brainers will end in embarrassment for the dunked no-brain. And oddly enough, this is because the world is, with respect to action and consequences, not complicated at all, but almost every day, simpler than anyone imagined.

I should like to cite Thomas Aquinas here, but I lack the learning and precision of mind that would be required of a good Thomist. Notwithstanding, I think this was what he was getting at in his teachings on Ethics. Metaphysical questions finally defeat us because they pass beyond the possibility of human understanding. But questions of how to live, and what to do, require much less thought, for they are, in most cases, dead obvious. Scepticism is required only for the exceptions.

We are perversely wilful. The answer being so obvious, our problem tends to be, that we want another answer. This is where extravagant thinking comes in, as we try to find a way to prove that the pig has wings, and is really an angel. “The end justifies the means” is only the beginning of unwisdom.

The ethical precept, “do as you’d be done by,” betokens a right worldly relation to the unworldly God. It was taught by Christ only in passing. It long precedes his coming down from Heaven. It has been known in every culture for as long as we have known of any culture, and has been unanswerable for longer. It is that simple point where mercy and justice meet.

With worldly experience, it indeed becomes deeper than the words portend, but still not complicated. One must know one’s neighbour to do the good for him — and yet, this begins in the most elementary knowledge of pleasure and pain in ourselves.

In the end, our neighbour may not know what is for his own good, or eventual pleasure, and be outraged when we don’t give him what he wants; so be it. It is common knowledge, or should be, that people often don’t know who their friends are; that they count as friends only those who are pliant to their wishes, and may come to detest those who most love them.

There was a lady I once met, a German, who had been raised rather poorly. Her father was a monster whose death brought relief, her mother the kind of aimless woman that monsters “acquire.” From a very early age she was on her own, and predictably fell in with bad company. She became pregnant, and that more than once. Some angel kept telling her to keep the children. This was difficult, because children cost money, and the only way she knew how to make it was through crime. She was not good at this calling, however, so had to spend time in gaol. An unpromising outlook, as any social worker might observe, but what do they know, compared to the angels? Four months “inside” a woman’s prison, at one stretch. That got her to thinking.

She emerged with a will, to recover her children. This involved a dispute with the father of at least one of them. The dispute warmed, until one day it took a physical turn — and as I’m glad to report, she put him in hospital. She was also physically harmed, but less seriously. Since the altercation had begun with him trying to kill her, there were fewer legal consequences for her, this time. Now freed of him (he inside gaol, and her out in this reversal), she gathered up her children, and left town, intentionally for a better one, having dedicated her life to raising those children in as close as she could create to the tight and loving family embrace that she herself had been totally denied.

A “single mom” she became. And one of the best.

I mention her because, in her simplicity, she had detected the error in her parents’ ways. They made poor friends. They were extremely tolerant. They’d let her do anything, including anything that was bad, sometimes even acting as her facilitators. (They “accompanied her,” in the present vicious phrase, the use of which helps us to identify our worst bishops.) But she loved her own kids, and wasn’t going to tolerate any bad behaviour from them. She became the most intolerant mother in her new neighbourhood. When I last heard, the kids were turning out quite well.

Parents must be parents but they must also be true friends.