Saturday, 25 April 2009


I once tried out one of my Dad's ideas on a Christian I respected, suggesting degrees of helpfulness described actions better than "good" or "bad". I was firmly put in my place and told the Bible was very clear that actions were either good or evil. Ok, wanting clarity is good; but at the expense of truth?

The world is as it is, regardless of how we view it. I have shared accommodation with bishops and beggars; been bullied and beaten, robbed and ridiculed. But among the many thousands of people I have known, I have never come across one that wasn't doing what they thought was best at the time. (Admittedly, sometimes it was only their best that was considered. And often their actions hurt others. But even when this was known it was not as real to them as the benefits they imagined.) The idea that there are "evil" people out there whose sole purpose in life is to harm us simply doesn't square with the facts.

My Dad used to talk in terms of circles: our horizons for care and action. The circle in the middle holds me, myself and I. Around it are the people close to us, either through daily contact, blood or relationships. Then there are those we live amongst; the people "like us" who live "around here", but we don't actually know. Further out are our city/county, country, race and so forth.

People like Nelson Mandela or Mahatma Gandhi work within wide horizons, but it is more usual for our care to not extend much beyond our families. The scandal of politicians or religious figures having extra-marital affairs is said to be because they have been caught lying. That may be true. However, I think the problem is their apparent care has been revealed as fake. They try to act in a wide arena, but if their circle of care doesn't even include their own partner, how can it extend to us?

Acting with Care

So what is "care"? It can masquerade as being interested, but that's just nosiness. It sometimes knows best how someone else should live, but that's just arrogance. Even worrying about people can be manipulativeness if you let them know. However, true care is known by its fruit. It produces possibilities, not constraints. It encourages growth, not compliance. It gives opportunity and freedom rather than proclaiming some moral code, even "for their own good".

Care always seeks the best for the other whatever it may cost. It cannot help but accept the other, yet it is more than simply unconditional positive regard. Care implies an embracing, an involvement where the other is granted power over us because what they do matters. It implies attention. For example, a home that is "cared for" has had time and work willingly spent on it. So with people.

Authentic care can be thought of as the eyes of the soul. Just as we need vision to move safely in the world, we need the sensitivity that caring brings when acting among people. Of course, our care is often patchy. We can do things with good intentions that turn out to be unwelcome. But those on the receiving end can easily tell whether the care is genuine, and such mistakes are not hard to forgive.

On the other hand, acting outside our horizon of care, we are like a monster truck oblivious of the traffic: an accident waiting to happen. Some personal motivation, unrelated to our field of activity, drives us on. Powerful actions have powerful consequences and care-less actions are almost certain to cause trouble.

Sure, the results can be good. But even the good is meager, minimal and mechanistic compared with the abundance born of care. It is like comparing the effectiveness of well-meaning bureaucracy with the natural ability of love to heal, grow and bring joy. Years ago there was a saying, "If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem." We are part of the solution when working within our ability to care. Work outside our ability to care and we are part of the problem.

Yachts and Motor-boats

Dynamic people are respected. There is pressure on us to be doing, and to be doing good. Also, we see problems all the time and are tempted to rush in and fix them. Where those actions are guided by genuine care, we may make small mistakes but the main things generally work out well. However, where such care is not the guiding principle, the action still has a motivating force. It has a direction and power that is very likely to cut across the needs of others because it simply doesn't see them.

Good action is like a sailing boat: it get where it is going by co-operating with the wind and waves, accepting there are some directions it cannot take. In contrast, a motor boat forces its way straight there, powering through whatever seas are in its path.

We need sensitivity to recognise the limits inherent in co-operation, and grace to submit to them. The "motor-boat" approach has neither, so it cannot tell when action is ok and when it is not. The co-operative "sailing boat" way is not only safer, it is sustainable. Just as motor-boats need fuel, proactive behaviour requires an external source of power, too.

Its not that "motor boat" action is inherently bad, just that it provides the opportunity for badness, along with temptation to use short cuts with questionable merit. When, in the Lord's prayer, we say "Lead us not into temptation" we are asking for the "sailing-boat" rather than the "motor-boat" way.


If this concentric circles idea is right, there are two sources of trouble. The first is that all horizons are necessarily limited. The second is that bad things happen when we act outside our horizon of care.

The ripple effect of actions in a complex world means wrong-doing is inescapable. We stand at a specific point within the social landscape, with an horizon beyond which we cannot act and another beyond which we cannot see. No matter how high a position we choose, there will always be issues we cannot perceive and actions beyond our ability.

One consequence is that it is best to maintain an humble attitude, keeping in mind that others around us may be able to see or reach further. Thomas Merton defined humility as being content to eat ordinary sliced white bread from the supermarket, just like everybody else. This acceptance that we are nothing special might be seen as an acceptance of both our horizon of care, and its limitedness.

The answer to the second source of trouble is meekness. Humility and meekness are often confused. Where humility relates to perception, meekness concerns how we behave. It involves accepting our horizon of action and its limitedness. As we have seen, confining our actions within our horizon of care is a good thing. This is meekness.

Avoiding the temptation to "make our mark in the world" is possibly one of the most powerful decisions we can make. In willingly limiting our sphere of activity to those who already know us, we are already co-operating, acting the "sailing-boat" way. The "motor-boat" way of forthright action is self-destructive, so ultimately can have no future. Only the "sailing-boat" way is sustainable enough to win in the end. Jesus put it like this:

Blessed are the poor in spirit,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
    for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
    for they will inherit the earth.