Lent

James Tissot, Jesus Tempted in the Wilderness, c. 1890.

James Tissot, Jesus Tempted in the Wilderness, c. 1890.

What am I giving up for Lent? I’m going to try giving up cynicism and unhappiness.

Cynicism is worn as a badge of maturity in 2010s Britain. To dare to be optimistic, to dare to hope, is a sign of being a tragically naïve mug; and there’s nothing worse in our oh-so-sophisticated-and-worldly culture than being naïve. Actually things can and do get better; wrongs are often righted and the mistreated ultimately vindicated, often when their cause seemed utterly lost. People do choose to be good and kind and selfless, rather than being mean-spirited and grasping, and they do it all the time. The public narrative that everybody is only out for themselves isn’t just wrong, it’s damaging: if we are convinced that we live in a selfish world then we begin to conceive of living kindly and generously as a dangerous act of rebellion rather than the stance that makes us happiest.

I’m going to spend Lent trying to see the best in people, in institutions, and goodness help me in the run up to a General Election, even in politicians. Call me naïve, but I don’t think there’s anything sophisticated in thinking everyone is heartless and shallow and selfish (except of course for deep and meaningful me). It’s actually incredibly juvenile. How come the material and sexual liberation of the past half-century has made us regress into being grown up teenagers?

And I’m going to try really, really, hard not to be unhappy. Because, viewed objectively, I don’t have a lot to be unhappy about. I have a job, and somewhere to live, and enough money for a few beers now and then and, most importantly, good friends. I live in an incredibly beautiful part of the world and, when I go home to visit family, it’s to another incredibly beautiful part of the world.

All that reads a bit too much like vague and woolly waffle. It’s the sort of thing that makes people in the Guardian comments zone spit venom about “platitudes from believers in sky fairies”. Well, so what? I’ve done my fair share of heavy lifting in trying to change the world and no doubt will continue to do so.

As for the Church and platitudes – well, I’m hardly its most uncritical member, and habitually skirt the limits of what someone in my sort of job should say publicly. But, actually the last body to be fairly labelled as pushing platitudes is the Church. The foodbank movement? Invented and largely run by Christians. Support for international development and global solidarity? Enormously disproportionately Christian. As are the housing associations trying to light a candle against the dark hurricane of the Southern English housing crisis, the people who visit failed asylum seekers waiting to be deported and criminals guilty of the vilest crimes who no-one else wants to see.

Government cuts mean that Wiltshire Council (to give one small local example) has all but abandoned youth provision. So the C of E alone is the largest provider of youth services in the county and all the churches together are providing the overwhelming majority of what remains.

And in among all that heavy lifting to change the world, you do need to pause and at times and remember that it is already a good world, and the human race for all its faults is a remarkable and usually loveable species, and it really is worth the effort of making the world and the way it works for people even a little bit better. It’s worth it whether you’re a believer who thinks this life is but a small part of the reality that awaits us or an atheist who thinks this fragile little biosphere and frighteningly short life is all there is.

I’m now going off to church to be marked with ash on my forehead so that I might “remember, o man, that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return”. But before I return to dust, I want to spend a few more decades being happy in this beautiful world, where the snowdrops shine in the frosty morning sunshine to remind us that winter is nearly over, and new life is always just around the corner.

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