Apropos of nothing in particular, I have been thinking about getting people to work together effectively for the common good.
Take the Church of England, for example. The Bishop of Sherborne suggested its members should aim to be grapes, as alike as peas in a pod. But they aren’t, are they? They are more like the stones in the arch in this illustration- different shapes and sizes but, in an ideal world, linking together to form a constructive whole.
Based on a traditional story, it tells us about a man standing at a crossroads who was asked by a passer-by what it was like in the town up ahead.
The narrator responds by asking what it had been like in the town the passer-by had come from: Oh, it was a dreadful place, was the reply.
The narrator says: You will find the next place just like the last.
A few minutes later, another man approaches; he too asks if the place ahead is a good place to stay.
The narrator again asks him what it had been like in the town through which he had passed. Oh, it was quite wonderful, was the reply.
The narrator again says: You will find the next place just like the last.
Rabbi Haim of Romshishok was a preacher who traveled from town to town delivering religious sermons:
I once ascended to the firmaments. I first went to see Hell and the sight was horrifying. Row after row of tables was laden with platters of sumptuous food, yet the people seated around the tables were pale and emaciated, moaning in hunger. As I came closer, I understood their predicament. Every person held a full spoon, but both arms were splinted with wooden slats so he could not bend either elbow to bring the food to his mouth. It broke my heart to hear the tortured groans of these poor people as they held their food so near but could not consume it. Next I went to visit Heaven. I was surprised to see the same setting I had witnessed in Hell — row after row of long tables laden with food. But in contrast to Hell, the people here in Heaven were sitting contentedly talking with each other, obviously sated from their sumptuous meal. As I came closer, I was amazed to discover that here, too, each person had his arms splinted on wooden slats that prevented him from bending his elbows. How, then, did they manage to eat? As I watched, a man picked up his spoon and dug it into the dish before him. Then he stretched across the table and fed the person across from him! The recipient of this kindness thanked him and returned the favour by leaning across the table to feed his benefactor. I suddenly understood. Heaven and Hell offer the same circumstances and conditions. The critical difference is in the way the people treat each other. I ran back to Hell to share this solution with the poor souls trapped there. I whispered in the ear of one starving man, ‘You do not have to go hungry. Use your spoon to feed your neighbor, and he will surely feed you.’ ‘You expect me to feed that detestable man sitting across the table?’ said the man angrily. ‘I would rather starve than give him the pleasure of eating!’ I then understood God’s wisdom in choosing who is worthy to go to Heaven and who deserves to go to Hell.
As Luciano de Crescenzo observed: We are all angels with only one wing; we can only fly while embracing one another.
Geese understand perfectly the need to help each other for the sake of helping the group as a whole, and thus helping themselves, as Louise Durack here describes:
When you see geese flying along in a V formation, you might consider what science has discovered as to why it is they fly that way. As each bird flaps its wings, it creates an uplift for the bird immediately following. By flying in the V formation, the whole flock adds at least twenty per cent greater flying range than if each bird flew on its own. People who share a common direction and a sense of continuity can get where they are going more quickly and easily because they are travelling on the thrust of one another. When a goose falls from formation, it suddenly feels the drag and resistance of trying to do it alone. It then quickly gets back into the formation, so as to take advantage of the lifting power of one another. If we have as much sense as geese, we will stay in formation with those people who are headed the same way as we are. When the head goose gets tired, it rotates back in the wings and another goose takes its place. It is sensible to take turns with long demanding jobs, whether with people or with geese flying south. Geese honk from behind to encourage those up front to keep up their speed. What messages do we give when we honk from behind? Finally and most importantly, when a goose gets sick or is wounded by gunshot and falls out of formation, two other geese fall out of formation with that goose and follow it down to lend help and protection. They stay with the fallen goose until it is able to fly or until it dies; and only then do they launch out on their own or with another formation to catch up with their group. If we have the sense of geese, we will stand by each other like that.
Like geese in formation, we can perhaps sympathise with the problems that beset the Court of Appeal in the nineteenth century:
The judges discussed the draft of their address to Queen Victoria on the occasion of her opening the new court.
To the words ‘Conscious as we are of our shortcomings’ it was objected that they ill fitted the dignity of the Bench. ‘Suppose’, said Lord Justice Bowen, ‘that we substitute ‘ Conscious as we are of one another‘s shortcomings…’
Biography of Bowen by Sir Henry Cunningham…
But most of the time, charity reigns and, with John Wesley, we all endeavour to:
Do all the good we can.
By all the means we can,
In all the places we can,
At all the times we can,
To all the people we can,
As long as ever we can.
A good resolution, but one that is difficult to carry out unaided. A well-known morning prayer by ‘Anon’ recognises this:
So far today, I’ve done all right. I haven’t gossiped, lost my temper, been greedy or grumpy, nasty, selfish or overindulgent. I’m very thankful for that…but in a few minutes, God, I’m going to get out of bed. And from then on, I’m probably going to need a lot more help…
Brian Patten’s literary agents (Rogers, Coleridge & White) only allow one quarter of the poem to be quoted . It is quoted in full in ‘Favourite Wisdom’ by Deborah Cassidi, page 116, and the hyperlink will take you to the extract from this page from her book.
The illustration is ‘Stone Formation’ by Menna via Shutterstock.