The title of Thomas Hardy’s famous fourth novel came to mind as I manoeuvred my way among the sauntering Sunday-strollers enjoying the unseasonal – if the stentorious complaints from the majority of natives of this “green and pleasant land” are to be believed – sunshine. Except that I consciously changed the word “madding” to “maddening”. I ask you: How can I raise my heart rate to physician-acceptable levels – opening up the blood vessels and thus lowering the blood pressure – when people are not only strolling leisurely, but doing so three abreast, effectively blocking my progress and forcing me to slow down to less-than-physician-acceptable speeds? If they want to stroll leisurely, surely a leisure centre is the place to do it, rather than along the Thames. Maddening, indeed!
But, I digress. I got to a particularly congested spot and began to think of the aptness of Hardy’s title, as the “madding” – meaning “frantic”, “frenetic”, frenzied” – crowd bustled in the narrow lane and I heard a lad shout: “Someone touched me!”. Immediately, I was transported back in my thoughts to the incident in the Gospels where, in the middle of a boisterous crowd, Jesus exclaimed something similar and the disciples were as incredulous as the parents of the lad in the lane – “There are people pushing into you all the time – everyone’s touching you!”
I looked at the crowd again. Now, with my “Gospel glasses” firmly in place, I saw them differently.
The blurred image reflected my amended view of them - not sluggish, pulse-slowing obstructions now, but unfocused wanderers, like sheep without a shepherd. (I recalled the Gospel description of the crowd Jesus observed.) I wondered who they were behind their clicking cameras or local London languidness. What stories lay hidden behind those masks? What searching was hidden in those souls? What brokenness was carried in those hearts?
I confess, I did not weep, let alone lament loudly, over the crowds as Jesus grieved and groaned when he looked over Jerusalem and saw their defiant past, their distracted present and their desolate future. But, I certainly felt for the anonymous, faceless marginalised in the crowds – not the “visibly marginalised” (surprisingly, there were none of the “visibly marginalised” on the Embankment or, at least, I never saw them). I mean the isolated, the disoriented and the desperate, who have all the outward trappings of having it all together and whose struggles, therefore, are compounded by their need to mask their marginalisation with smiles and the accoutrements of success as they strolled along the riverbank on this Sunday afternoon.
I thought about the irony of having so many people living in the same city – most likely, London’s population has never been so large in all of its long history – while, increasingly, people are struggling with loneliness. The streets are so crowded that we are literally touching each other as we hurry past, but we don’t reach out to each other. The “Gospel of Individualism” has been preached and practised so effectively that we glory in our segregation rather than in the congregation. Neighbours – generally speaking (and please be grateful for your own circumstances if they are different) – smile politely when they are unfortunate enough to end up in the same lift, but seem reluctant to want to exchange more than first names. The theory of helping one’s neighbour is difficult in practice in large cities, because we don’t even know our neighbours, let alone their needs.
It seems that, for a number of us, there is a serious danger that we can become distanced from those around us – despite their close proximity to us - and that the only reaching out we do is to prevent them from bumping into us. Yet, our calling is to “move into the neighbourhood” as Jesus did - to incarnate the Word in the world and to live there with all of our being as he did, not just our physical presence. Unlike the Levite and the priest in Jesus’ story of the good Samaritan (which we came across in Thursday’s reading in our Bible Challenge), we should not be ‘elsewhere’ in our focus and our thoughts when those in our physical presence could do with our undivided attention. Otherwise, despite living right next door to them, we’ll end up being too “far from the madding crowd”.
Makes you think, doesn’t it?