Hannah Rich reflects on the difficulty of caring when we know we’re a drop in the ocean.
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A man passed away this week on the stairs of Westminster tube station where he had been sleeping rough. He lived and died on the front doorstep of power, where politicians and tourists bustle past together. It was Ash Wednesday, when thoughts turn to almsgiving and loving neighbours. It was also Valentine’s Day, when hearts dwell instead on love for those closest to home. The tragic symbolism of the whole scenario is heavy and needs little explaining. Even the flowers and tribute left by Jeremy Corbyn outside Westminster referenced the parable of the Good Samaritan, noting that ‘as a country, we must stop walking by’.
“Teach us to care, and not to care,” wrote TS Eliot in his poem Ash Wednesday. This line, I think, encapsulates neatly the desire to change the world coupled with the humbling realisation that we cannot help everyone. We need our hearts to be sufficiently broken by the troubles of the world to provoke us into action, but not so broken that we are unable to act.
Perhaps we unconsciously teach ourselves not to care on a daily basis. The number of rough sleepers I pass on the short walk between the tube station and my office every day runs into double figures. I often try to rationalise it and reason with myself that I could not possibly stop to help every single one of them, every single morning and evening.
Jesus seems to have expressed some of the same hopelessness we feel when faced with the scale of the world’s problems, when he told his followers, ‘the poor you will always have with you.” (Matthew 26:11). This verse is sometimes used as a reason we should learn not to care; if even Jesus recognised that poverty and injustice are inevitable in our world, maybe we should give up now.
In context however, the fuller reference is to a verse in the Torah:
“For there will never cease to be poor in the land. Therefore I command you, ‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and the poor, in your land.” (Deuteronomy 15:11)
Framed this way, it is not an excuse for resignation to the way things are but rather a recognition that we might always have a job to do. There is much more to loving the poor than a glib suggestion that we should each buy one hot drink or sandwich for one homeless person and thus be a drop in a much bigger ocean, but it’s a start.
It might not be such a bad thing to learn to care and not to care, if that leaves us free to care in a small way and to accept that however many times we stop, there will still be occasions and people when we do find ourselves walking on by.