A Little Grumble About Stereotypes

I have a grumble, only a little one. It stems more from puzzlement than anything else. Several times during the past week I have come up against our failure as individuals and as a community to meet the expectations others have of us, yet the matters in which we have ‘failed’ have been so trivial as to be baffling. I think our experience begs the larger question of stereotyping and the injustice — I hope that is not too solemn a word — not only of trying to make others conform to our ideas about how they should live their lives but also of making assumptions about them. When challenged about the stereotypes applied to ourselves, we react in different ways. If skin colour is involved, we cry ‘racism’; if sex is involved, we cry ‘sexism’; if religion, we have a much more complex reaction. For Christians, in particular, there can be a feeling that we ought not to defend ourselves. We must try to be forgiving, even to the point where we cease to be human.

I suspect some readers will respond with indignation, ‘Of course we must forgive always, no matter how hard it is!’ I don’t disagree, what I’m saying is that in our forgiveness we mustn’t run beyond grace, we should not become doormats. To forgive is a process, not a once-for-all act (unless you’re very unusual), and really to forgive, rather than just put others on probation, requires courage as well as generosity. It means allowing Christ to forgive in us, and sometimes we get in the way of that. We forget that fake holiness is no holiness. ‘Assume a virtue if you have it not’ requires rather more than pretence, no matter how well-intentioned. It asks for a change of heart, and that’s not done just by wishing.

Perhaps spending a few moments today thinking about how non-Christians perceive Christians could be fruitful. It would alert us to the ways in which our responses may be (mis)understood — and anything that makes for better understanding among people generally is surely a Good Thing. It may also help us to see that sometimes we conform to other people’s stereotypes because that is the image we have (or want to have) of ourselves. That is a Bad Thing, because it means we are not living truthfully; and whatever else anyone may say, Truth matters.

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A Domestic Matter

Today I am hoping to get some painting done in the monastery and I have been amused, and occasionally puzzled, by the reactions of online friends. There have been imaginative suggestions about how Bro Duncan might aid the process;  witty suggestions for colours with a liturgical twist; and the inevitable, ‘I suppose you’re painting it all magnolia’ (no, not a drop of magnolia in sight) and ‘those are pricey paints you’re using’ (not really: good paint covers better, faster and lasts longer). What has genuinely puzzled me are the people who think that nuns never have to bother with decorating, or somehow manage it all by magic (I wish we could).

Which brings me to my thought for the day. Our prayerline and, indeed, our email inbox, are always full of requests for prayer. We regularly receive requests from people wishing to discuss their faith or lack of it, or some other perceived difficulty in their lives. In other words, a lot of people engage with us in times of distress and anxiety. Many we never hear from again; others say thank you for what they have received. Not one of them has ever sneered at us for ‘not living in the real world’ (a charge frequently heard from those who disagree with the opinions we express) or questioned our ability to understand the lives they lead. Clearly, when we are needed, we are ordinary people. But mention something as everyday as decorating, and some people are evidently baffled. It doesn’t fit their idea of what we should be.

What I say here of nuns obviously applies to everyone, and that is my real point. Do we box other people in with our view of them? Do we effectively demand that they conform to our ideas about what they should be and do? The parents who want their child to be a doctor or a lawyer, when the child actually wants to be a dancer or a musician; the husbands and wives who want their partners to be what they cannot; the expectations we have of others which can never be met. Sometimes we use this kind of thinking to excuse ourselves from responsibility: ‘he wasn’t what he should be, so why should I . . .’ It is easy to think about these things in the abstract, but we need to start with the reality nearer home. Today is CAFOD’s family fast day, when we are asked to fast in order that others may eat. I daresay many of us think of the hungry in terms of stereotypes: the starving in Africa or Asia, for example. Perhaps today we could take a fresh look at the people we pass in the street. There are many in Britain today who go hungry and whom we need to help, as well as those in other parts of the world. Hunger is a domestic matter, not something we can pretend only happens elsewhere.

How will you help today?

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