Listen to Lucy’s ‘Thought of the Day’ on BBC Radio 4 which was broadcast on Shrove Tuesday – Tuesday 1 March 2022.
BBC Radio 4’s Religion & Spirituality podcast providing reflections from a faith perspective on issues and people in the news.
Listening to the news from Ukraine, hearing the experience of families hiding in underground carparks, or queueing at the border, or learning how to shoot a gun, one of the questions those of us who are civilians are confronted with is a conditional one: What would I do if I were faced with the decision to stay or go, to kill or be killed, to fight or to yield.
The ‘what would I do?’ question can be helpful to us: we deepen our empathy for others by imagining ourselves into their situation. This is no bad thing at all in itself. But it has a danger hidden within it which the season of Lent addresses head on.
The problem with only asking ourselves ‘what would I do?’ is that it can leave us with a sense that because we’ve considered it, we’ve done something. We stay in the realm of speculation. We can express ourselves on social media or in the pub, or while watching the news, but in the end, the danger is that we acknowledge our powerlessness, turn away and perhaps even guiltily feel a measure of relief that it’s someone else in the room not us.
By contrast, Lent begins with a process of shriving. An ancient practice which is not about wondering what we would do if we were someone else, but is about facing the reality of being us and making real change in the real world today. Asking not what would I do but what am I doing? How am I living? What should I stop doing? Shriving is an old English word for repentance which begins an empowering process of personal reflection and decision making called confession, and is a spiritual practice focussed on change.
Honest introspection in the bracing company of others, and in the compassionate presence of God is a gift offered by good religious teaching and practice. It will not allow us any kind of hand wringing naivety which avoids rather than confronts our own complicity in the violence of the world, which has its roots in every human heart.
This introspection isn’t a retreat into an unhelpful private spirituality either; because the answers to those questions include whether and how I vote, my willingness to engage, create or protest; my decisions, insofar as I can make them, about what I do with my money and time: the degree to which I add my voice to, for example, the debate about the responsibility to refugees or the sanctions regime or the deployment of lethal force.
The profound challenge of Ash Wednesday and the 40 days of Lent is not just to speculate what would I do if I were someone else. But to insist that change is possible, even today, in the one precious life that, connected with all humanity, I live myself.