Wednesday, March 24, 2010


According to one influential wing of modern secular society, there are few more disreputable fates than to end up being like everyone else”—for everyone else is a category that embraces the mediocre and the conformist, the boring and the suburban. The goal of all right-thinking people, so this argument goes, should be to distinguish themselves from the crowd and stand out in whatever way their talents will allow.

But being like everyone else is not, if we follow Christian thought, any kind of calamity, for it was one of Jesus central claims that all human beings, including the slow-witted, the untalented and the obscure, were beloved creatures of Godand hence deserving of the honour owed to every example of his work. In the words of Saint Peter, each of us has the capacity to be a partaker of the divine nature, an idea that in and of itself audaciously challenges the assumption that some are born to mediocrity and others to glory. No one is outside the circle of Gods love, Christianity insists, attributing divine authority to the notion of mutual respect. What we have in common with others comprises what is most cherishable in ourselves.

Christianity bids us to look beyond our superficial differences in order to focus on what it considers to be a set of universal truths, on which a sense of community and kinship may be built. Whether we are cruel or impatient, dim or dull, we must recognise that we are all detained and bound together by shared vulnerabilities.

Beneath our flaws, there are always two driving forces: fear and the desire for love. To encourage fellow feeling, Jesus urged his followers to learn to look at other adults as they might at children. Few things can more quickly transform our sense of a persons character than picturing him or her as a child; from this perspective we are better able to express the sympathy and generosity that we all but naturally display towards the young, whom we tend to describe as naughty rather than bad, cheeky rather than arrogant. This is the same sort of softening we may feel towards anyone whom we see sleeping: with eyes closed and features relaxed and defenseless, a sleeper invites a gentle regard that in itself is almost loveso much so, in fact, that it can be unsettling to gaze at length at a stranger asleep beside us on a train or plane. That unmasked face seems to prompt us towards an intimacy that calls into question the foundations of civilized indifference on which ordinary communal relations rest. But there is no such thing as a stranger a Christian would say; there is only the impression of strangeness born out of a failure to acknowledge that others share both our needs and our weaknesses. Nothing could be nobler, or more fully human, than to perceive that we are indeed fundamentally, in every way that really matters, just like everyone else.

The idea that other people might be at base neither incomprehensible nor distasteful carries weighty implications for our concern with status, given that the desire to achieve social distinction is to a great extent fuelled by a horror of beingor even being thought—”ordinary: The more humiliating, shallow, debased or ugly we take ordinariness to be, the stronger will be our desire to set ourselves apart. The more corrupt the community, the stronger the lure of individual achievement.

Since its beginnings, Christianity has attempted to enhance, both in practical and in theoretical terms, the value its adherents place on belonging to a community. One notable way it has achieved this is through the repetition of rituals, from the saying of the service to prayer to the singing of hymnseach an opportunity for a large number of unrelated celebrants to feel their suspicion of one another abate thanks to a transcendent intermediary.

Music in any form can be a great leveller. We might, for example, imagine joining an unfamiliar congregation within the walls of a cathedral to hear Bachs Mass in B Minor (the greatest work of music of all ages and of all peoples, in the view of Hans-Georg Nageli, writing in 1817). Much may separate us: age, income, clothes and background. We may never before have spoken to one another and may be wary of letting anyone catch our gaze. But as the Mass begins, so, too, does a process of social alchemy. The music conveys feelings that had hitherto seemed inchoate and private, and our eyes may fill with tears of relief and gratitude for the gift given us by the composer and musicians in making audible, and hence available to us and to others, the movements of our collective soul. Violins, voices, flutes, double basses, oboes, bassoons and trumpets combine to create sounds that evoke the most secret, most elusive aspects of our psyches. Moreover, the public nature of the performance helps us to realize that if others around us are responding as we are to the music, then they cannot be the indecipherable enigmas we imagined them to be. Their emotions run along the same tracks as ours, they are stirred by the very same things and so, whatever the differences in our appearance and manner, we possess a common core, out of which a connection can be forged and extended far beyond this one occasion. A group of strangers who initially seemed so foreign may thus in time, through the power of choral music, acquire some of the genuine intimacy of friends, slipping out from behind their stony facades to share, if only briefly, in a beguiling vision of humankind.

But of course, our sense of who other people are is seldom so flattering outside the cathedral. The public arena is usually more decrepit and threatening, sending us scurrying in search of physical and psychological cover.

There are countries in which the communal provision of housing, transport, education and health care is so inferior that inhabitants will naturally seek to escape involvement with the masses by barricading themselves behind solid walls. The desire for high status is never stronger than in situations where ordinary life fails to answer a median need for dignity and comfort.

Then there are communitiesfar fewer in number and typically imbued with a strong (often Protestant) Christian heritagewhose public realms exude respect in their principles and architecture, and whose citizens are therefore under less compulsion to retreat into a private domain. Indeed, we may find that some of our ambitions for personal glory fade when the public spaces and facilities to which we enjoy access are themselves glorious to behold; in such context, ordinary citizenship may come to seem an adequate goal. In Switzerlands largest city, for instance, the need to own a car in order to avoid sharing a bus or train with strangers loses some of the urgency it has in Los Angeles or London, thanks to Zurichs superlative tram network, which is clean, safe, warm and edifying in its punctuality and technical prowess. There is little reason to travel in an automotive cocoon when, for a fare of only a few francs, an efficient, stately tramway will provide transportation from point A to point B at a level of comfort an emperor might have envied.

One insight to be drawn from Christianity and applied to communal ethics is that, insofar as we can recover a sense of the preciousness of every human being and, even more important, legislate for spaces and manners that embody such a reverence in their makeup, then the notion of the ordinary will shed its darker associations, and, correspondingly the desires to triumph and to be insulated will weaken, to the psychological benefit of all.

In an ideal Christian community, the dread of losers having to live alongside the winners will be tempered and contained by basic equality of dignity and resources. And the dichotomy between succeeding/flourishing and failing/withering will lose some of its excruciating sharpness.

- Alain de Botton

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