Thursday, 30 June 2016
Small Wrongs and Great Consequences
I’ve been in a bad mood today, and it’s mostly (although by no means entirely) aimed at myself. The reason is this: I was standing at the bus-stop this morning. The only other commuter was a young man, eating what I assume was his breakfast, consisting of a packet of cocktail sausages (each to their own I suppose). The bus appeared in the distance, and he finished the last sausage, and threw the packet onto the floor behind him. A tide of righteous indignation swelled up within me, but being far too British (and cowardly), I said nothing, instead subjecting him to a particularly vicious glare, the heat of which should have been enough to vaporise him, but which, annoyingly, he did not appear to notice. I know that we’re told not to judge, but really, some people just ask for it! The bus arrived and we both got on (me maintaining my glare, which he still didn’t notice).
I am now far more annoyed with myself for not having said something than I am with him, but it has brought my thoughts back onto something I was pondering a while ago. I have written here in the past that I consider the many, many tiny unrecorded goodnesses inspired by religion to far outweigh the numerous great evils done in its name and recorded by history. However, if that is the case, then I think that the same is true of evil. That they also outweigh the great evils that is, not that they outweigh the great goods.
Great evils have been done in the past. Genocides, persecutions, wars, the avoidable suffering of millions, maybe even billions. The thing is though, that a great evil is obvious for what it is, even to those who perpetrate it, and therefore requires a justification. Hitler believed that the holocaust was not only necessary but even laudable, that he was doing it for the good of his nation, perhaps even the world. Inquisitors and witch hunters tortured and executed, but they did so in the belief that they were doing good, maybe even doing it for the good of the very people they were torturing and killing. Wars have led to the deaths and suffering of whole nations and continents, but they were waged for Freedom, Crown, Country, God. Because they were so great, they needed large reasons, and as a result (assuming that the people committing them genuinely believed in their reasons, rather than using them cynically for their own ends) I wonder whether they will not weigh less in the scales than the tiny wrongs that have no justification at all.
The young man at the bus stop dropped his litter on the ground, and as a result, in his own petty, idle way he made the world worse, grubbier, more tawdry. There was a bin perhaps twenty yards away. The bus was approaching, true, but it was still some distance off. The only reason he can have had (or that I can think of) is mindless idleness. The driver who goes through a puddle and splashes a pedestrian ‘because it was funny’ has made that person’s day worse, and has gained nothing from it other than a brief, sadistic amusement. The bully who insults or jeers because they can and it amuses them and gives them a brief sense of power, the vandal who destroys something, depriving others of it, but getting nothing but the enjoyment of destroying it, the person who smokes in a bus-shelter, regardless of others, even the person putting their feet on the seat of a bus or train, making it dirtier for the next person to sit on it. I wonder if the tiny, petty wrongs that make the world an infinitesimal bit worse for everybody else, that have no justification at all, do not tarnish and corrode a soul far more than the great wrongs worthy of being recorded by history.
They are also more likely to be habit-forming. No-one makes a habit of genocide. I was trying a different bus-stop this morning, so for all I know, this young man litters regularly and without even thinking about what he’s doing. I suspect that there’s no thought process of “Hmm, no bin here. I guess I’ll just drop it on the floor then.” He just finished his food, dropped the packet, and didn’t give it a first thought, let alone a second. It’s partly that mindless lack of consideration for others that I find so annoying.
And yes, I have been, and will no doubt continue to be, guilty of those small cruelties and inconsiderations myself, I make no claim whatsoever not to be. They’re so easy to do, which is of course part of the problem. It’s not easy to commit genocide (I assume, I’ve never tried, myself), or start a war or a persecution. It’s very easy to make a cruel remark or avoid doing something because it would require slightly more effort. They are also easy to avoid, in most cases. Not making a cruel remark is no more effort than making it, barring a certain degree of mental self-watchfulness. However, in the case of the young man at the bus stop, putting the packet in the bin was marginally more effort than just chucking it behind him.
I am also, of course, not suggesting for a second that the great evils are not just that, very great evils indeed, and the perpetrators worthy of God’s judgement, but nonetheless I can’t help but wonder whether the easy, tiny, petty, grubby, indefensible evils won’t be held to be just as bad as the great, vast ones, which at least required a justification, even if it was pure self-deception.
If God sees every sparrow that falls, then surely he also sees every food wrapper as well, and takes note of it. That makes God sound a bit like some sort of pedantic moral accountant, tallying up the dropped litter and the splashed pedestrians in a ledger, but it’s not the dropped wrapper or the wet person that concerns God, but what it says about, and what it does to, the person that did it, and to other people. It bespeaks that basic lack of consideration, of love, for others, that lazy selfishness, that little streak of cruelty that is present in every single person, but seems stronger in some than others, and which Christians are called upon to resist. I’ve said that such things are habit-forming, that the more you do them, the less they seem to matter, and I believe that to be true, and you feed that habit every time you repeat the action, every time you jeer, every time you drop some litter. You normalise it, and you act as an example to others.
The little sins are the easiest to commit, but they can also be the easiest to avoid, the easiest to see for what they are, if you care to think about them, which so many people seem unable or unwilling to do.
It is the great evils that everyone remembers, but I increasingly believe that it is the little, easy, everyday evils that will be held against us when we are finally called to account.