A Generous Spirit

Yesterday’s announcement that, at the age of 95 and after a lifetime in the public gaze, the Duke of Edinburgh is to step down from public duties had a predictable result. There was general amusement at the cloak-and-dagger antics surrounding the breaking of the news (all those staff summoned to Buckingham Palace in the middle of the night); some fine tributes to his service of Queen and country and the intiatives with which he has been involved, such as the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme; recollections of some of his more memorable utterances (including those that make us squirm); and some mean-spirited sneering, mainly by those too young to have fought in the last World War and with no idea what, in personal terms, his life may have cost him since he was smuggled out of Greece in an orange box. The reaction to the Palace’s announcement has made me think again about what it means to have a generous spirit.

There is a tendency in all of us to believe that our judgements of others are perfectly reasonable, just and, though we may not use the word, charitable. Public figures, most of whom we have never met, are lauded or dismissed according to our own ideas of what is right and proper. We do not hesitate to ascribe to them views they may or may not hold but which we believe their conduct somehow ‘justifies’. Thus, in this country, all Tories are bad and all Labour supporters are good, or vice versa, and Theresa May is an arch hypocrite and full of hubris, or Jeremy Corbyn is pathetically weak and wrong-headed; and we know, without a shred of evidence other than what is in our own minds, how evil they are and how evil their deeds. We use Social Media to proclaim our indignation or spill our bile through the comments sections of blogs and online news sites. The more definite we are in our opinions, the more we congratulate ourselves on being good, compassionate and wise citizens. Those who have more than we do in material terms are especially vulnerable to this kind of critique, but we also have a difficulty with those who are more intelligent, better educated or more talented. We do not like to feel in any way inferior, do we? And what is true of the way we treat public figures is, alas, also often true of those we meet in our everyday lives. Like it or not, we are sometimes mean.

I am quite sure that some readers will not see themselves in the above description, but I trust you will be content to let me say that it is true of me. We need to make judgements about other people’s truthfulness, reliability, goodwill and so on, and it would be very surprising if we didn’t sometimes let a little worm of envy or distaste (though we’d never call it that) creep in. After all, we are being altruistic, aren’t we? We are concerned about others as well as ourselves and we need to state our opinions plainly. I wonder. A generous spirit is a beautiful thing. It doesn’t mean we are any the less aware of faults or failings, any less on our guard against manipulation or wrong-doing, but it does mean we are prepared to be magnanimous, big-hearted, noble. Those adjectives have a smile about them, and that is so much more attractive than a sneer. In a world where it seems that, as individuals, we are able to do less and less to affect the course of events, we can make life kinder, more bearable, by our own conduct — and that is not a small thing. I am not advocating some kind of quietist retreat from the world, non-involvement or suspension of our critical faculties, only a readiness to pause, to give the benefit of the doubt, to hold back the cruel word and the instant verdict. In short, to allow the Holy Spirit a little space in which to act. What do you think?


Envy: Left Out of the Party

Today’s the day when lots of Christian folk who are enthusiastic users of social media and the internet will feel left out of the party. They will not be at CNMAC13, the Christian New Media and Awards Conference taking place in London. Having attended a couple of conferences in the past, I know it will be an excellent opportunity to learn from others, share ideas and generally be encouraged. So, we are who are not there physically will be doing our best to be there virtually, following the #cnmac13 on Twitter and any subsequent blogs and videos. But we shall still feel ‘left out’, and not only because we shall not be meeting old friends or making new ones in the intervals of talks and workshops. Whether we like it or not, we shall be in the grip of envy.

Envy is a dewy-eyed old hound in comparison with the green-eyed monster, jealousy. Envy desires what another has, whereas jealousy would rather destroy what another has if it cannot be its own. Envy longs to share; jealousy will brook no rival. The danger, of course, is that envy may easily become jealousy if allowed too free a rein. That is why the psalmist reminds us that our every desire is before God, who is constantly scrutinizing heart and mind — not to catch us out, but because he cares about us and wants us to live free and joyful lives. The jealous person is not free and not joyful: he/she lives in a shrunken universe bounded on all sides by self. But we who are ‘merely’ envious are not let off the hook entirely. The roots of the word ‘envy’ are to be found in the Latin for ‘looking maliciously’ and ‘begrudging’. Malice and begrudging are not attractive qualities. They lead to sin, so let us be on our guard. There is an even greater party none of us would wish to be left out of.


Envy, Jealousy and the Morality of Money

Envy is wanting what another has and being resentful one doesn’t possess whatever it is oneself; jealousy is wanting what another has and not wanting anyone else to possess it if it cannot be one’s own. That simple definition would never pass muster with a dictionary-maker, but I think it highlights an important distinction between the two: envy is not very nice; jealousy is plain nasty.

Politicians are adept at appealing to our envious tendencies. David Cameron’s latest pronouncement on tax avoidance may well backfire, but for the moment it is grabbing headlines. Jimmy Carr is richer than most of us will ever be. Stoking up public opinion against him (or more correctly, his accountant and tax lawyer, surely) is easy. Suggest a little moral outrage into the bargain, and once again you have a potential vote-winner on your hands.

The trouble is, life is not so simple. Mr Cameron is taking a calculated risk. What if envy becomes jealousy? Next in the firing-line may be political donors (again), millionaire members of the Cabinet (again), even perhaps M.P.s expenses (again). We are particularly sensitive to the ‘morality of money’. Bankers’ bonuses, chief executives’ pay and benefits, they are all under the spotlight of public examination at the moment, and, as you might expect, those who have less are not convinced that others need more, or at any rate, not so much more. One reason the doctors’ day of action hasn’t gained much popular support is that doctors’ salaries and pension schemes look very generous by most people’s standards.

Is there a knee-jerk quality to all this? Are we really thinking through the bases on which we make decisions about pay and salaries? In a monastery goods are apportioned according to need, which it is for the abbot to determine. Those who need less are not to grumble or be downcast; those who need more are not to become puffed up at the mercy shown them. That wouldn’t work in secular society, for we could never agree who should decide, still less agree the degree of need. There is one idea we could take from Benedict, however, and apply to our discussion of salaries and rewards: accepting responsibility for our own actions and the effect they have on others.

We cannot change how other people regard money; we cannot make others honest; but we can be honest ourselves; we can be generous ourselves. We sometimes lose sight of what we actually do with what we earn. The man or woman earning millions may be spending it all on self-indulgence, or they may be giving their wealth away in order to help others. Envy can easily become jealousy, almost without our being aware of it, and when it does, we lose the good along with the bad. Is that a risk worth taking?