BBC Radio 4:Canon Angela Tilby - 09/05/2018


Good morning.

Yesterday on this programme the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, spoke of how his ‘thoughts were with’ the victims of recent violent CRIme. That phrase ‘my thoughts are with’ has become quite common in expressing concern for people who are suffering along with ‘our hearts go out to’. There’s something vivid, even visceral about such words. You can almost feel the heart reaching out beyond the chest, the thoughts radiating from the mind. Mind, heart, the centre of the personality, is suddenly called into engagement by another person’s pain. We want to touch, enfold, embrace; not necessarily in a physical sense, but in the sense implied by the word empathy. Our heart goes out, our thoughts are with, because just for a moment we can project ourselves into the other person’s situation. This is a very natural and human impulse, and it is why we respond so quickly to images on television of hunger or war or desperation, why we can care about situations thousands of miles away which have nothing directly to do with us. But though our empathy can be easily awakened it doesn’t always sustain itself. We speak of compassion fatigue when we just can’t take in one more horror. In fact the point about ‘our hearts go out’ and ‘our thoughts are with’ is that they operate in the present moment. They have no power to change a situation, to take a grief or a loss away. And yet in spite of this they have a power to communicate. Often people caught up in sorrow or disaster speak of feeling buoyed up by the thoughts of others. They feel held in an invisible web of concern.

Which suggests to me that our human consciousness is not wholly private or individual. We do in some sense belong to one another, our thoughts flow in and out of one another, and we pick up on other people’s condition far more than we realise. Psychology has a rich language for desCRIbing how we inhabit the lives of those around us. So of course do the various traditions of philosophy and spirituality. The Stoic philosophers traced our sense of fellow-feeling to their belief that everything in the cosmos was part of a single body, an image taken up by St Paul. Some societies and cultures take this connectedness for granted; but ours has tended to favour autonomy and individualism over this deeper sense of solidarity. Which is why we are sometimes surprised by how strong our instinctive connectedness remains. You don’t need to be religious to experience this connection, but often when people say ‘my thoughts are with’ they add ‘and prayers’ because praying for, praying with another person is simply an interpretation of that basic human impulse; it connects my heart going out to you with trust in the divine spirit within ourselves, the Spirit which as St Paul said so poignantly is known through ‘inward groaning’ and ‘sighs too deep for words’.

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