Thursday, 28 April 2016

The emergency stop

This week, a friend mentioned that she had noticed a homeless man outside her Battersea coffee shop as she went in to buy a morning coffee. She stopped on seeing him. She noticed how cold he looked. And she asked if he would like a coffee too. He did.
Her story reminded me, ever so slightly, of one told by Donald Nicholls in his book 'Holiness'. He relates the story of a group of American theological students undergoing an experiment conducted by psychologists. They were told it was an exercise in verbal retention. Each of the students was invited to a separate room where they were read a passage, then sent to the end of a long corridor outside to another room where they would try to repeat what they heard. Words were recorded and verbal retention would be measured by comparing the student's words with those in the original passage.
In fact the psychologists' aims were rather different. Half the students were read the story of the Good Samaritan. The other half a random story. They had stationed a person halfway down the corridor in a shallow alcove, someone clearly rather battered and distressed.
The proportion of students stopping to help this person was very low, and was no higher amongst those who had just been read the Good Samaritan parable. One further twist - within the 'parable group', a proportion had been told to hurry to the end of the corridor. Of that group not a single one had stopped to help.
Hurry blinds us. Our lives are lived in a hurry; we are continually 'very busy'. As if our busyness is necessarily a virtue. I attempted to sit entirely still for ten minutes on Thursday. It was not as easy as it might have been, and my mental state remained rather rushed, even when my body was still.
Learning to stop is a prerequisite of a spiritual life. If we cannot stop, what chance is there we might experience God? In his compelling chapter on the discipline of solitude, so asks Richard Foster.
Following her act of coffee-generosity, my friend was pursued by a man who enquired: 'what did you do that for?'
What would it take to make us stop?

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