If we were tomorrow snowed up in the street in which we live, we should step suddenly into a much larger and much wilder world than we have ever known. And it is the whole effort of the typically modern person to escape from the street in which he lives.
First he invents modern hygiene and goes to Margate. Then he invents modern culture and goes to Florence. Then he invents modern imperialism and goes to Timbuctoo. He goes to the fantastic borders of the earth. He pretends to shoot tigers. He almost rides a camel.
And in all this he is still essentially fleeing from the street in which he was born; and of this flight he is always ready with his own explanation. He says he is fleeing from his street because it is dull; he is lying. He is really fleeing from his street because it is a great deal too exciting. It is exciting because it is exacting; it is exacting because it is alive.
He can visit Venice because to him the Venetians are only Venetians; the people in his own street are men. He can stare at the Chinese because for him the Chinese are a passive thing to be stared at; if he stares at the old lady in the next garden, she becomes active.
He is forced to flee, in short, from the too stimulating society of his equals—of free men, perverse, personal, deliberately different from himself. The street in Brixton is too glowing and overpowering. He has to soothe and quiet himself among tigers and vultures, camels and crocodiles…
The complaint we commonly make of our neighbors is that they will not, as we express it, mind their own business. We do not really mean that they will not mind their own business. If our neighbors did not mind their own business, they would be asked abruptly for their rent, and would rapidly cease to be our neighbors… What we really mean… [is that] we do not dislike them because they have so little force and fire that they cannot be interested in themselves. We dislike them because they have so much force and fire that they can be interested in us as well. What we dread about our neighbors, in short, is not the narrowness of their horizons but their superb tendency to broaden it.
GK Chesterton, Heretics
Reflection – ‘On the virtues of being snowed in’ – that is a timely seasonal subject for a blog post. Oddly enough, while we’ve had no shortage of severe cold weather up our way this winter, and plenty of snow, we’ve had very few real winter storms—all of that has been going on to the south of us. But oh my, it has certainly gone on to the south of us with a vengeance—Mother Nature appears to be in quite a temper this year, over a great deal of continental North America.
So GKC gives us one good perspective on this, as this winter forcibly confines us to quarters, ‘sends us to our room to think about what we’ve done’, so to speak. Namely, how about going out and getting to know your next door neighbors? Not because they’re all such wonderful people and you’ll all get along marvelously once you break the ice (no pun intended). But precisely as he says, because they are quite different from us, may be quite gloriously uncongenial to us and constantly challenge our notions, our habits, our comfortable assumptions about things.
There is nothing quite as bracing as being ‘stuck’ with a bunch of people who are really very different from you, and trying to forge some kind of human society out of the clash of personality and individuality. There is nothing quite so stifling as living one’s life either among people who are virtual echo chambers for oneself, continually reflecting back one’s own temper and mind, or the kind of shallow cosmopolitanism Chesterton critiques here, where one races about the world and in doing so skims along the surface of life and relationships, essentially alone and unengaged in so doing.
Again, I can allude to my own experience of Madonna House, where we really are cooped up together by the exigencies of our communal way of life and the work we are doing here. Yes, we are all a bunch of Catholics, and so come together on some fundamental levels. But. My goodness. It is truly amazing how much room Catholicism provides for differences of opinion on just about everything besides those fundamentals of faith, and even within the shared fundamentals, the mode of expression and emphasis.
I can testify that it is not the weakness and dullness of my brothers and sisters that challenges me, but their forceful, fiery, boundless strength. We are just all so… very different, and it never ceases to amaze me what a constant work it is to stick it out with each other and work things through.
Patience, flexibility, humility, forgiveness, and perhaps above all a darned good sense of humor—all of this is profoundly needed if we are going to be ‘snowed in’ together, stay in proximity to the people you happen to find yourself with in the street where you live, and endeavor to get along with them. Frankly, the jungles of Borneo do in fact start to look tamer in comparison. GKC is precisely right on this point, and it is a point worth pondering in this long winter of 2014 when we are all feeling, maybe, a bit pinned down and immobilized.