The hardest lesson

Wednesday July 20, 2005

A lot has changed in the almost sixty years that have elapsed since the event I described in yesterday’s entry. Not all of it for the better.

I suppose I ought to clear up a few matters arising. Had I gone home that night in tears, stammering out an account of the encounter, my father would have been out in the street, hunting the bloke down. He’d have been closely followed by my mother, brandishing the big stick with a nail through it she kept handy for the defence of her family. Not that she ever needed it, but then the sight of my mother wielding that big stick would frighten off even the most ill-intentioned of intruders. She was a fierce lady.

Apart from an interview with the local bobby, that’d have been the end of it, chances are. Except of course that, when we got home, I’d probably have received a not-so-mild beating ‘just to teach me a lesson’. I’d have remembered that lesson, and I truly don’t think I’d have had such a pain-free transition into adolescence and on into adult-hood if that had been the way of it. Like as not I’d have developed an aversion to people I didn’t know, turned in on myself, and ended up a miserable old man instead of the happy old geezer I have become.

But it didn’t happen like that. My parents knew full well that something odd had happened that night but judged, rightly so in my view, that since I was in no way hurt or upset by it, least said soonest mended. I’m eternally grateful to them for their good sense.

As to the bloke himself, I shall say nothing further on him. From later knowledge I’m convinced it was a one-off stupidity committed by a lonely young man, a stranger in a foreign land. He became a worthy and well-respected man and I sincerely hope that this one event didn’t blight his life any more than it blighted mine. It’s worth remembering that those were the days when such an offence, had it gone on to prosecution, would have resulted in his being confined to a lunatic asylum for the rest of his life. Not just that, but it was not uncommon for the same fate to be visited upon the victim. Back then, society believed in tidying these matters up, finally, and ruthlessly.

All that was over half a century ago. An awful lot of received wisdom has flowed under the bridge since then, replacing the old-fashioned kind when people thought about these things instead of resorting, mindless, to the repetition of the mess of standard pseudo-psychological babble that has grown up around the subject. I shudder to think of the way my small, insignificant encounter would be treated today.

I have a problem with received wisdom, quite disconnected from the subject of child abuse. I’m as instinct-driven on that subject as anyone, my fingers itching to reach for the castration irons at the very thought of it. Fortunately my powers of reason have not been entirely overcome and obliterated by received wisdom. I’d take some time for calm, collected thought before condemning anyone, and much longer still before undertaking any form of punishment.

See, my problem with received wisdom, of which I’ve seen so much in that intervening half-century, is simple. Simplistic, even. How come, if we’ve received so much wisdom, the world isn’t a much better place at fundamental levels?

As a society we have grown to accept hasty judgement and instant, severe punishment as the desirable norm. That’s not an improvement, not at any level.

We stamp all over the planet, meting out instant, severe punishment on the basis of hasty, ill-considered judgement, with the most appalling and devastating of consequences. Look at Afghanistan. Look at Iraq. Get out the history books and look at Vietnam… For local, small results of the culture of received wisdom look around at the poor souls in our own society who’ve been blighted by hasty judgement and indiscriminate punishment. It’s not a pleasant thing to do.

Some experts on the world stage have declared that we are already engaged in the early stages of the Third World War. They may be right. Time will tell.

Right or not, I think that the culture of received wisdom, of knee-jerk reactions, and pre-formulated judgement is doing fundamental harm to us all, personally, locally and at a world level.

Do I have a solution? Yes, as a matter of fact I do. It’s time we looked once more at our approach, and adopted slower, older forms of wisdom. In biblical terms, God reserved vengeance to Himself but gave us the grace of sharing the virtue of forgiveness with Him. Don’t look to punish, look to heal. Reverting to that practice is the easiest, surest cure for the ills of the world, at all levels. And, sadly, the hardest lesson to learn.



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