Day 3 – The Selfish Gene – Arundel to Chichester

My Pain, Her Gain

Miles walked through a weather forecaster’s nightmare. Each time we put on our waterproofs the sun blazed down and then more or less instantly starts a Noah scale downpour.

Eight miles in I told Jane that I was stiff all over like an ancient cart horse just taken from the summer’s corn. Each muscle shrieked, “Forget about collecting £200, I want to return to go!”

Jane then voluntered with an irritatiing smile:

“I feel totally fine,. No discomfort at all”

“Thanks very much! That’s all I need.”

Great wife I have.

The Selfish Gene

We are a profoundly selfish species. Incurvatus in se is the fancy Latin phrase that underlines this fact. The idea was identified by Augustine and developed by Luther. The fact is, dear reader, that we are all bent inward towards ourselves and are only really interested in furthering our own interests.


Luther concludes we are so totally obsessed with number one that we consider this state of profound selfishness to be perfectly normal. Dawkins would agree. He calls it the “selfish gene”. This is why the Christian commandment “to love your neighbour as yourself” is so revolutionary – easy to say and more or less impossible to follow.


There’s None So Blind…

The theme is explored by the poet Auden in his poem “Musée des Beaux Arts”– in it he claims that the old masters knew all about this bleak aspect of the human condition. Auden tells us there is a painting that demonstrates the fact by the sixteenth-century painter, Brueghel. In Greek myth, Icarus flew too near to the sun and his wax wings melted – Brueghel depicts him falling into the sea. In the foreground there are various people busy and seemingly oblivious: one is ploughing, another is fishing and there is a ship sailing along. All are preoccupied and don’t give poor old drowning Icarus a second glance.


I see this bleak prognosis of man’s selfishness working out in Zimbabwe. Pensioners are more likely to seek ZANE’s help than to ask their children or family for support. Of course, at root that’s all about pride. The default position of an elderly person is often to seek help from an anonymous charity rather than approach their family. The sad fact is that the children often don’t want to see what’s bang under their noses. Apart from paying occasional lip service or indulging in the odd spasm of nostalgia, they often choose to more or less forget the people they left behind in Zimbabwe – particularly, it so often seems, their aged parents.


Picture the scene: the children ring at Christmas and after discussing the weather they might enquire: “How are you Mum?”


“I’m fine,” comes the answer.


The parents don’t want to admit their desperation to their children because they “don’t want to be a burden”. How sad is that?


After the brief call, the children convince themselves that everything is fine and leave it there. There’s none so blind as those who don’t wish to see: often these children just don’t want to read between the lines and discover a desperately lonely and aged pensioner who is stranded with no food in the house, no medicines for, say, a heart condition or prostate problems… and no money to pay the bills.


When ZANE workers come across someone in need, their first step is to contact the children. Why do that? Well ZANE is not serving our generous donors by ignoring dysfunctional families who don’t communicate, and we hunt for cash from wherever we can find it. If there are any close relatives, we track them down to wherever they may be living to gently tell them that their father or mother – or whoever it is – is more or less destitute. They often express astonishment – and I am pleased to say that nine times out of 10, they accept their responsibilities.


Incurvatus in se about sums it up. Bloody stupid selfishness I call it.


Everybody’s Doin’ It

We all need ceremony at the great punctuation points in our lives – birth, marriage and death. One of the great sadnesses of our time is that many do not understand the crucial significance and value of ceremony to the family and community.


Our neighbour’s children left home to go to university. The next thing our friends knew was that Emily was living with someone – just like that and before they had even met him (never mind approved of him!). Then – a number of partners later – Emily announced that she was in (yet) another relationship, likely (but not certainly) to be long lasting – though no marriage was in sight. Then sometime later, she introduced Fred, her “partner” as a sort of fait accompli. Then a baby just appeared and a family had simply and seamlessly morphed into being.


We are told that this “informality” is the new way of doing things, the implication being that the old ways are old hat and presumably restrictive to the liberty of the young. Today it seems that the measured introduction of the intended to the family or the carefully planned dinners so that everyone could get to know the potential new member have vanished. Also swept aside is the announcement of a formal engagement, and out goes yet another excuse for a party. Often there is no marriage ceremony or any celebration of the couple’s union. Perhaps some time afterwards, a baby is born – there is no baptism, and yet another opportunity to mark the occasion and have fun is lost.


You don’t have to be a hand-waving Christian believer to mourn the loss of the ancient customs of our tribe. And the scrapping has been swift and comprehensive. There was a song by Irving Berlin with the chorus, “Everybody’s doin’ it, doin’ it, everybody’s doin’ it now” – and so it seems that without much thought at all, traditional ceremonies –deemed now to be old fashioned and stuffy – are simply ignored. Yet the new ways of doing things lose opportunities for a vast amount of fun. Does dumping custom make anyone any happier? Do relationships last longer as a result? Are any of the children that arrive from “morphed” relationships any more secure or settled than hitherto? I doubt it – and in fact I am sure the reverse is often the case.


When children drift into relationships with no parental involvement or approval sought, and when there is no engagement party, marriage ceremony or baptisms, family cohesion becomes unglued: uncles, aunts, cousins and family friends (and parents!) feel sidelined and remain uninvolved. It’s all very sad. And for what purpose?


The great poet Yeats understood all this. In “Prayer for my Daughter”, he writes:


“And may her bridegroom bring her to a house

Where all’s accustomed, ceremonious;…

How but in custom and in ceremony

Are innocence and beauty born?

Ceremony’s a name for the rich horn

And custom for the spreading laurel tree.”


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