Old, Unhappy, Far-Off Things

Memory plays an important role in forgiveness — or lack of it. The anniversary of the Battle of Culloden may be historically remote from today, but the feelings it evoked and continues to evoke are still powerful. Quietnun has often explained to me, as  something self-evident to anyone less intellectually challenged, why many Scots loathe the English. Being English myself, and therefore by definition phlegmatic to the nth degree, I have never quite understood the intensity of feeling to which memory of

Old, unhappy, far-off things
And battles long ago

may give rise. Perhaps living here, in the border country where England embraces Wales, I may come to understand better. At least I shall try.

Today it is not Culloden that we are thinking of so much as the tragic events in Boston, or the endless suicide bombings in Afghanistan and Pakistan or the seemingly irreconciliable differences between Israelis and Palestinians which so often lead to violence. We do not know whether the Boston bombings were the work of someone with a grudge against the U.S.A. or ‘simply’ the work of someone very sick. Either way, there will be calls for vengeance, usually described as calls for ‘justice’. I sometimes wonder what we think we are doing when we make such calls, especially when the calls are made by people who were not actually involved in the original event. Recently, we have seen several instances of the kind of thing I mean in Britain, where the vicarious anger directed at the Philpotts or the late Margaret Thatcher has disclosed a troubling ugliness below the surface of ‘civilized’ society. If we are no longer our brother’s keeper (a position I dispute), we are certainly not our brother’s judge, jury and executioner.

As we pray for those killed or injured in Boston, it would be good to ask ourselves about our own record on peace and forgiveness. Holding a grudge, wanting to get even, paying others back just means more suffering — for ourselves as well as for others. We drink the poison we mean for them. The posturing we have seen in North Korea in recent weeks is a reminder that when such attitudes are combined with access to weapons, the security of the whole world is placed in jeopardy. The planet on which we live is small and fragile. Whatever our religious beliefs or lack of them, surely we need to learn to get along together? And sometimes, to do that, we have to be the first to drop the hatchet.

I cannot rewrite the history of Culloden, but I can learn from it.

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23 thoughts on “Old, Unhappy, Far-Off Things”

  1. And we can all learn from your wisdom, Sister.

    There should be more people who would want to listen to more wisdom, then I think there would be a better chance for peace in our world.

  2. Thank you Sister. Living in N.Ireland as I do, and coming from both Irish and English heritage, I have grown up with, and continue to see a lot of, what you describe here. Even down to football and rugby matches (tho less so Cricket). Everybody is happy so long as the English do not win.

    “If we are no longer our brother’s keeper (a position I dispute), we are certainly not our brother’s judge, jury and executioner.” struck me very firmly – you have simply put something that was in my mind, but that I couldn’t have worded have so coherently.

    Thank you again. I shall be passing this on!

    • We all have our tribalisms, but the older I get, the more ridiculous some of them seem to me to be. Love of country/village/family is wonderful, but none of them requires me to hate or disparage another, does it?

  3. I too live in the Border lands – the lands of the ‘Revier’, and as a Scot I’ve been ‘invited’ to get back over the wall on more than one occasion!

    Last Thursday evening, quite unexpectedly we found ourselves at the Queen’s Theatre for a production of Les Misérables. (For some inexplicable reason neither husband or I really knew much about the theme of Hugo’s great work!).

    We’ve been struck by the contradiction that for 28 years the musical has played to a packed house (rightly so), a performance which is uncompromising, gritty, the story that forgiveness, love and God’s Grace deliver freedom. Law and justice do not deliver freedom. And yet the current news delivers the same stories of cries for ‘justice without mercy’, for ‘wanting to get even’ that were around in 1746 and here in Northumberland in the 16th century.

    The theme of Les Misérables is surely the same as is proclaimed in every church each week (audience figures may differ!). Why do we pack into a theatre and not a church?

    Perhaps we consider God’s Grace ‘too good to be true’. Perhaps it is easy to pay our money and be entertained.
    Perhaps like Javert we say ‘People like Jean Valjean cannot change, and cannot change people like him…’

    • A very good question, Fiona. Would a partial answer be that we can leave the theatre without any ‘call to action’, but week after week ‘love thy neighbour’ is drummed into us, seemingly with limited effect?

  4. I enjoy your introspective posts and the comments that follow. I especially liked FM Forsythe’s comparisons to “Les Mis” (mostly because my husband LOVEs that show). And I think their comment that “perhaps we consider God’s Grace ‘too good to be true’.” is on target probably because of man’s own selfishness. We cannot fathom the depth and breadth of His Grace because we have a hard time with it ourselves.

    Another post regarding the Boston bombings from a friend’s Facebook page read:
    “I have an issue with this whole “what has the country become” business. I have a bigger question: what has it been? We neither bemoan nor do penance for the horrors committed by the U.S. over the last 240 years, most of which are way beyond the idiocy in Boston today. The U.S. has a LOT for which it should be profoundly ashamed. Its not what the country has become. Its what is IS that is the problem.”

    I was sad because this person failed to see the good that the United States has done. His view was not balanced. My response was “Its not just about this country. In every age, in every generation the same questions get asked. From before Christ until now. Because humans make choices based upon selfish desires without concern for others.” And that too is about vengeance and so called justice.

    • Indeed. Once we start talking about ‘this country’ as though we had no share in it (other than to condemn), I think we lose sight of something I tend to insist on rather often: our personal responsibility for what it is. If we want to claim the good things, we must acknowledge the bad too, even if it is only to say we see what is lacking and want to do what we can to make things better.

    • On the evening of 4th May I am going to place lit candles in all windows in my home. A tradition that has survived to this day, beginning on the evening of 4th May 1945, which marked the end to the German occupation of Denmark during World War II.
      My father was a member of the Danish Resistance Movement, and both he and most of my mother’s family spent time in a German internment camp. I wasn’t born at that time, but I was brought up with a deep thankfulness towards the people and nations that helped Denmark to regain its freedom.

      The significance of the ultimate price that so many American soldiers (and so many of other nationalities) paid, will never be forgotten by the Danes. I can thank both the British and the Americans that my parents could raise me in a free country.
      Therefore I honour the now 68 year old and beautiful tradition, of having candles in my windows on the evening of 4th May. By doing this I honour those people who gave their lives for my country. Among them the Americans…

  5. I suspect Culloden is not a very good example of why so many Scots loathe ‘the English’, since it was similar to the English Civil War in that brother fought brother, Catholic fought Catholic, Protestant fought Protestant etc. Trouble was, where did you place your loyalty? Did you follow King, country, family, church, language? A tragedy any way you look at it, but blaming the English is a convenient get out.
    The oppression which followed Culloden could , however explain that loathing, but folks, it was a long time ago and all those baddies are long dead, so why cannot we try to see some of their less evil ways and forgive the past? Lets face it there is enough bad feeling in the world without adding to it.

    • Oh, Stan, Stan, my introduction was intended to be IRONICAL, a light-hearted (and I hoped topical) way into the subject of grudges and forgiveness, not a historical essay to be taken literally as explanation of cause and effect! I didn’t want to go straight to the subject of the Boston bombings or any other agony people are currently going through. When wounds are raw, it is cruel to add to the pain.

      • I am so sorry if my comment was cruel or gave pain, I tried to say that Culloden was the same kind of people on both sides, English against English, Scot against Scot, so no reason to blame the English.
        I write so many comments for this page, but do not send because or re-reading them I realise they can be misinterpreted. This one should have gone to the trash can, also.

        • Not at all Stan. I was trying to explain I was making a gentle joke. You were not in the least cruel, and I’m sorry if I’ve given you the wrong impression. I value your comments greatly.

  6. Culloden took place a long time ago, as did the Irish potato famine. My late father, born of a Scottish mother whose people were victims of the clearances, and Irish father, often spoke of the famine, stating while the potato blight was the result of nature, the famine was the result of the English refusing aid and allowing the Irish to starve to death. As a descendent of famine survivors, I do not feel as strongly as my father did, who bore a hatred for the English even though he was born in Yorkshire. According to him they could never be trusted as they’d proved themselves bloodthirsty killers time and again. He believed that to forgive was to forget, a disrespect to the memory of those who starved while others enjoyed their Sunday roast. There is a fine line between remembering and holding a grudge, human nature finds it easier to hate than to love an enemy, but the essence of our Christian faith requires that we do just that, relinquish all to God, forgiveness after all is a gift we give ourselves even if it doesn’t appear so at the time.

  7. I’ve been thinking about your post throughout the morning, and it seems to me that our memories do not always serve us as well as we believe when it comes to holding grudges. How often do we rewrite events in our minds, consciously or otherwise, either to justify or to make sense of nonsensical events? Oral tradition is not always objective in the retelling, either, and as in the case of my father and his recounting of the Irish potato famine, he was not there to experience it, though it would rouse him to table pounding rage. How often is justice mistaken for revenge, and is that why we don’t drop the hatchet, because there is never enough evil to satisfy the demands of revenge?

  8. When my family first visited the battlefield of Culloden when I was a child, we discovered that my (English) mother’s ancestor had fought opposite my (Scottish) father’s clan. My brother wouldn’t speak to Mum for two days!

    One hopes to grow out of such a black and white way of looking at the world, though. Scots have long memories but, to misquote, if we cannot forgive the past, we are doomed to repeat it: as we see daily in every corner of the world. Hate begets hate. I pondered long on forgiveness during Lent. It can be a real, hard challenge. But the alternatives are – literally – desperate.

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