I have often thought that in some ways it is easier to love a stranger than a relative with whom we have had differences. I will not embarrass the relative I am thinking of by naming them here. I will only say that this individual has a long history of falling out with various people, starting with her ex-spouse, and finally Mom and I have been booted out of the group of people she would call a friend. For me this is reminiscent of something I noted about my hero, Charles Dickens: he would help a complete stranger find a job or do lots of volunteer work for people whom he owed nothing, and yet he could not make his relationship with his wife work. Perhaps the reason I feel for him despite his supposed “hypocrisy” because of this is because I have had the same problem with different relatives and long-term friends for years. I shined as a volunteer at Breakthrough working with mentally ill people I never knew before I met there. I could not make my relationship with my father work, or feel any real sorrow when my stepdad died. And unlike Charles Dickens, I did not have the strength to have the stiff-upper-lip that people prefer in their friends… or the ability to forgive my father.
I believe, however, that despite what some people believe, the “hi!” a person greets a stranger or an acquaintance met in the street is key to what it takes to be a good person. Likewise, “Pocket book philanthropy” is almost as good as volunteering and volunteering is not time wasted. Taking part in religious services and rituals, and believing in them, revitalizes life. More, for those of us who are Jewish, keeping Kosher and Kosher-for-Passover is important–but for Muslims it might be keeping Halal, for Buddhists and Hindus their own dietary rules, or for Roman Catholics giving up meats or sweets for Lent. Keeping weekly observances is a mitzvah, but so is keeping even minor holidays.
Life should be a prayer, but it should not be a prayer said in the dark only. It should be a flame, shared with other candles of other believers. Yet believing is not merely a system of beliefs put together for their own sake: it is a living, breathing experience, in which God breathes a second soul into the body. And God knows that our frailties–in my case, my family problems–do not shut God out.
And perhaps in recognition of my own hero’s flaws, I have a book on my shelf that I must read sometime in honor of its Unitarian author: The Life of Our Lord: Written for His Children During the Years 1846 to 1849. It proves that Dickens’ beliefs were heartfelt, whether he was devout in the conventional sense or not.