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?