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.


  1. Hello Java ;),

    I'm really interested in your article, this is actually one of my current internal research :).

    But there is some things I don't really agree.

    "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."

    In fact those actions are studied by psychology. Our brain is driven by chemical. We are like feather in wind, we can control some states but direction is always blur. So in fact when we are taking any decision, it is mainly our mood decision. Futhermore our occidental philosophy seperate mind and body which is ridiculous according to modern science (not only). This means that people who leave together can't really control there own life cause they don't know what will be next state of their own mind. Maybe they will be angry or something, this will describe what we commonly call personnality.

    But thinking that way is being blind cause as long as we don't know this, we think that all is normal. Some stuff happen but this is life.

    That's why we begin an other way of thinking. "Maybe we should care about people". Then we develop a long list of things we should do to leave together.


    The interesting thing in your article is that the conclusion is finally the same as we learn from catholic. We have to care about other people around us. But not just some cheap stupid care but the true one. The one Daila Lama is thinking of it. This is also a state of mind ! Some research are done in this field and conclusion are really interesting.


    There is an other point I would like to talk about. Saying that all people should care, all people should have compation. This is utopia ! I mean you can't say ok people just practice some meditation and then come back to earth you'll see that we will live better. In fact we have build an other society that will permit to live together without carrying the state of mind you are ... I thought about studying social movement with evolution concepts ...

    This is happening right now, people all around the world are trying to change this place. I'm just worried if we will take the sailing way, and if we can make it just in time ....

    Only thing I

  2. Hi Baptiste, thanks for your interesting comments. :-)

    I totally agree about our not really being in control of what we do (we only think we are).

    For me, that only produces one recommendation: forgiveness. We should be slow to judge and always prefer to give people the benefit of the doubt.

    Beyond that, though, I would strongly fight against any "rules" of how to live together. That's already been tried by the Church, and it wasn't exactly a success!


    You mention utopia, but I don't see what I was writing as utopian. It isn't necessary for everyone to behave the same way for it to work.

    It works in a society with all kinds of people in it. The beauty of humility and meekness is that these are things aggressive and domineering people actively avoid. Most people don't seek the lowest place, leaving lots of space for those of us who do!

    See The Fruit Tree for how this sort of "bottom up" approach actually needs the bad behaviour of other people, because it feeds on the crap to produce the good fruit. That's the beauty of it. Once we realise we don't need what we were told we need, the whole world opens up before us. Neat!

  3. I enjoyed this post Chris. Hey I could understand it too! ;-)

    You wrote:
    "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."

    So what do you say about a situation like mine where I advertise to tutor children and parents, who I do not already know, come to me and I tutor their child? All parties are happy with this situation (including the children).
    Also, people who I do not already know, may (hopefully) come for an EFT session.
    I think I am being a sailing boat in both situations but I am 'making my mark on the world' both times.

  4. Yes, I see your point.

    First, doesn't "making your mark" comes in both flavours? The difference is whether the new contact feels supported (empowered, free) or used (threatened, trapped).

    I would class all blanket advertising in the second category. When we need something we know that we need it — its part of the definition of "need". So a company telling us we "need" their new product is not treating us honourably. Like false care, it feels bad when you're on the receiving end.

    But that's not what you are doing. Your aim is to support and enable your clients. In this case word-of-mouth (or some other human-scaled) outreach is usually most appropriate and effective.

    Second, I think your aims are different. Rather than "advertising for customers" you are inviting people into your circle of care.

    You are only secondarily trying to make a name for yourself. Once you have as many clients as you could personally support you wouldn't wish to recruit more (unless you've trained an assistant to your satisfaction). If you couldn't serve them as they expect you wouldn't take their money.

    I see it as part of a cosmic cycle of give-and-take; quite different from seeing customers as sources of profit. Someone offering a service should have their needs met in return; by their clients giving them money in lieu. IMO the difference is whether there is genuine caring for the potential clients or whether they are just being used to boost the provider's profile or income.

    I believe meekness provides a viable, genuine business model. Instead of the value of the business being measured in money, it is measured in customer satisfaction. I see no reason why such a business could not be extremely prosperous.

    As far as I can tell, Google is still an honourable business. (They aim to make everyone's life better and raise money so they can be more effective). One clue is the modest, almost self-effacing way they advertise: trying to offer information rather than undue influence. Do you know of a Google customer that feels used or constrained or belittled by the company? It will be interesting to see if they can pull it off.

  5. I initially alienated myself from my family because I thought I was different, as time went on it then became a habit ........ how wrong was I.

    My dear Chris I totally agree with (and practice) everything you've so eloquently said.

    However word of mouth advertising is a very slow process. Surely if your intentions are pure and your only informing people of your abilities e.g. Google then any form of advertising is good.

  6. Well, yes. But I still think that is adding to the clutter. One of our difficulties today is there is simply too much information. I would much prefer the onus to be on the consumer.

    But we live in the world we live in, and I suspect I'm being too idealistic there. As you say, the intention counts for a lot: I think people are quite sensitive to that and modesty (even unsolicited) generally speaks well of us.