ON Boxing Day last year I went for a hike up Mount Lofty.
It is a relatively short drive from the Adelaide city centre and provided a wonderful vista of the surrounds, as well as the opportunity for me to clear my head of the Christmas carols I had been singing over and over again at every Mass during the preceding 36 hours.
Despite the pained strains of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” that were still whirling through my mind, I was nevertheless in a “Christmassy” mood and fully intended on spreading good cheer and bonhomie among my fellow hikers as we passed each other.
I did not bring a bag of gifts, of course; I simply intended to smile at them and wish them “‘Merry Christmas”.
This, I found was easier said than done.
Almost nobody looked at me; they either averted their eyes or were so entranced by whatever was being streamed into their ears by their headphones that I may as well have been invisible.
Now, I may be flattering myself, but I am convinced that my resemblance to the Elephant Man is not particularly striking – certainly not sufficient to cause people to avert their eyes.
Thus I am led to conclude that, at some as yet unspecified point, we became a society of people who go out of our way to avoid interactions with our fellow human beings – we now make concerted efforts to avoid making eye contact or exchanging greetings.
From what I understand, such behaviour would have been considered unspeakably unacceptable but a short while ago.
In many parts of the Western World we live in a society full of people terribly concerned about all manner of environmental problems and this is commendable insofar as it takes seriously our role as stewards of God’s creation, as Pope Francis has pointed out.
Yet we appear to be missing the much larger catastrophe that is manifesting itself everywhere around us.
Man’s true menace may turn out to be not the temperature of the earth, but of our hearts.
The glacial, interiorly impersonal world into which we are degenerating is a genuine threat to our humanity, our civilisation.
I read a truly heart-wrenching story recently, which recounted the suicide of a man in his thirties who was living in San Francisco.
He killed himself by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge.
When the psychiatrist and medical examiner subsequently went to his apartment they found the man’s diary.
The last entry, ¬written just hours before he died, said, “I’m going to walk to the bridge. If one person smiles at me on the way, I will not jump.”
That line ought to be seen for what it is; a lapidary denunciation of a society which, as the French philosopher Gabriel Marcel would put it, “ignores the personal in all its forms, ignores the tragic and denies the transcendent.”
Now most people, of course, are not malicious; most people do not go out of their way to antagonise and irritate their fellow human beings.
Most people are simply trying to live their lives as best they can and, when all is said and done, that is not always the easiest task set before us.
Yet it seems that many people have embraced the idea – fervently fostered by our society – that the best way to get through the difficulties attendant upon our human existence is to forge on ahead and not become overly involved or concerned with the other men and women in our immediate vicinity.
In fact, there has been a recent spate of publication of very popular works that advocate exactly this idea.
I cannot actually name the books in question because their titles almost invariably contain colourful language, but their advice could be summed up in the phrase, “How not to care.”
They advocate the notion that we draw our strength from ourselves and we should only invest as much of our love, life and energy in our fellow men and women as we deem fit.
And we are exhorted to deem “very little” a fit amount of these commodities.
The paradoxical truth of the matter is, however, that the opposite is the case.
Jesus Christ has made it abundantly clear that love and hope flourish in our own lives insofar as we are willing to give ourselves up for others – to be at the disposal of others.
The pessimism that denies this truth is rooted in a rich soil of anxiety.
In the absence of a belief in God and the salvation that comes through Jesus Christ, people naturally have a tendency to view the world around them with fear and suspicion.
Fair enough; in the absence of our Redeemer, the world is a terrifying place.
And so many men and women respond to their growing anxiety by creating a heavy and exacting mechanism of self-defence.
The isolate themselves as much as possible, in an interior sense, from those immediately around them.
Oh, they may well be terribly concerned about great environmental or ‘humanitarian’ causes – but therein lies the difficulty.
A “human being” is an abstraction. No such thing as a “human being” exists.
As Jean-Jacques von Allmen once remarked, “God does not save anthropological abstractions, but men and women of flesh and blood.”
What exists in the world are men and women and children; our neighbours.
Our society encourages us to engage in something like the telescopic philanthropy of the Dickensian Mrs Jellyby – whereby causes remote and distant seem near at hand, while we are unaware of our own children falling down the stairs.
We remain terribly concerned about grand causes which make no intrinsic demands upon ourselves, while we continually increase our social isolation from our actual neighbours and the people we pass on the street, or while hiking.
We do not smile or look at them.
After all, they might talk back.
Such an attitude is but a poor exchange, for it converts the biblical “love of neighbour” into ‘sympathy for those who are remote,’ as Cardinal Henri de Lubac would say.
We each give and love in accordance with our God-given capacity, and so not everybody is going to express the call to let their love be sincere in the same way. (Romans 12:9)
But we should express it.
We ought not to hold it in reserve for some special and, as yet, unspecified day when it might be needed.
We are called to love our neighbour and the people we pass in the street.
We can start by smiling at them.
You never know; you might help God save a life.