(The Nationalist, 09 March 2007)
The psychologist, Abraham Maslow, once said that the average mental age of a believer (in God) is eight, and of an unbeliever, three. A three-year-old is self-centred and no one expects it to be otherwise, whereas an eight-year-old is beginning to grow up.
Until recent years, Ireland’s countryside was littered with plastic bags. I remember walking along the banks of the River Nore in Kilkenny in the Spring, and seeing the bushes and banks littered with plastic bags, marooned by the falling water level as Winter rain eased. Appeals to civic spirit, school education programmes, or Tidy Towns competitions had little effect. Then came the levy on the bags; we had to pay for them, so we stopped dumping them. Problem solved.
Similarly, when road safety becomes a topical issue, people commonly blame the government of the day: it should enforce traffic laws more rigorously. But we don’t wear a seat belt, we drink and drive, we don’t keep the speed limits, and we say that we forgot – as if that excused everything. Are we demanding that government should do for us what we are able to do for ourselves? Isn’t that like a child expecting mother to hold the hanky while s/he obliges by blowing its nose?
We scream at governments about A&E departments, but what about our behaviour in them, especially at week-ends – abuse or assault of hospital staff by drunken patients, or by relatives seemingly copy-catting the antics of the TV soaps? How should we respond? More security guards, or grow up? (I have seen a statistic that half of all Irish people who make an appointment with medical professionals fail to keep it, and that 95% of that half are people who are on medical cards. I find the first figure hard to believe, but if it is anywhere near the truth, then the finger points at you and I.) Here in Belfast where I live, a notice at a local medical practice states that 163 people failed to keep their appointments this January and did not phone in to cancel. Another draws attention to unused medication in home medicine cabinets, a danger to children and visiting grandchildren.
Similarly in the church. When the rules on Lenten fast and abstinence were changed in 1966, we read the freedom to make a personal choice of penance as the freedom to do no penance, even though there isn’t any Christian living without it.
Many of Ireland’s adults are in a state of tantrum, locked into moods, with little awareness of others. We make demands on others, few on ourselves; we want rights, not responsibilities, individual self-seeking at the expense of community, wilful irresponsibility in the name of personal freedom. Those are the ways of a child.
The above has taken place against the backdrop of a drift from the Christian faith. I don’t think it’s coincidental. Loving God and neighbour is at the heart of Christianity. That’s about being other-centred, not self-centred. One of the many paradoxes of the Christian faith is that it preaches self-surrender rather than self-control, yet the surrender of the self to God brings self-control as a side-effect. (Similarly in Islam, a word which means surrender.) When God says, ‘You are my child, my chosen one’, and the person responds with a commitment to following God as shown in the life of Jesus, the rest follows: ‘Seek first the kingdom of God and all these things will be added unto you.’ (Matthew 6.33)