Saturday, 8 September 2012

Cathedral Address - 'Be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger.'

Address given to Senior School in Cathedral, Wednesday 5th September. 
Based on James 1: 17-27

“Be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger.”

Famous words of advice from the Book of James but what do they mean and why should we listen?  The phrasing is, of course, deliberate – it is often human nature to act in exactly the opposite way.  Think back to the last time you felt angry.  How long ago was it?  Last month?  Or last week? Or in the last 24 hours?  What was it that made you angry?  Not being allowed to do something you wanted?  Feeling that you were not being taken seriously or that someone was being deliberately unkind?  Anger is a very human emotion, and when it is uncontrollable it is the cause of most human suffering from fights between friends to wars between nations.

Notice the way that this passage is looking at a particular cause of anger – when we do not listen, or seek to understand a situation properly, when we are quick to answer back or jump on the offensive – then we become angry in a way that escalates very rapidly and often leaves us looking rather foolish later on.  Think back to a time when you have jumped to the wrong conclusion and jumped off the deep end.  Be honest, we have all done it and we all know how embarrassing it is when we realise our mistake.

Shakespeare describes this sort of anger in his tragedy play ‘King Lear’.

Lear, the aging king of Britain, decides to step down from the throne and divide his kingdom evenly among his three daughters. First, however, he puts his daughters through a test, asking each to tell him how much she loves him before he will give them their inheritance. Goneril and Regan, Lear’s older daughters, give their father flattering answers. But Cordelia, Lear’s youngest and favourite daughter, remains silent, saying that she has no words to describe how much she loves her father.  All she can say is that she loves him and there is nothing she can add because her love is total.  Lear though is angered by her response.  ‘Nothing will come from nothing’ he warns her and she is exiled to France.
Lear allows himself to be deceived by his eldest daughters who tell him what he wants to hear.  Being too quick to jump to a conclusion he does not understand that Cordelia’s love for him is truer than her sisters and that because her heart is pure she is unable to dress up her feelings in false words just to keep him happy.  Lear flies into a rage and disowns Cordelia but quickly learns that he made a bad decision. Goneril and Regan begin to undermine the little authority that Lear still holds. Unable to believe that his beloved daughters are betraying him, Lear slowly goes insane. He flees his daughters’ houses to wander on a heath during a great thunderstorm and this is when his madness becomes total.  He shouts at the sky, bemoaning the cruelty of his daughters but is still unable to accept that his vanity and quickness to judge is the root cause of his demise.  Lear is unable at this stage to take responsibility for his own situation.  During the storm he cries out, ‘I am a man more sinned against than sinning’.  After the storm has subsided, full of self-pity, he moans that,
‘As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods.  They kill us for their sport.’
Meanwhile, Cordelia returns from France with an army she has raised in an effort to save her father’s kingdom for him.  However they are defeated and both Lear and Cordelia are captured. In true Shakespearean style there is a lot of death in the closing acts. Lear and Cordelia are reconciled and he is finally able to appreciate his foolishness and to ask her forgiveness.  Goneril poisons Regan out of jealousy but then kills herself when her action is discovered. But in the final scenes, Cordelia is executed in prison and the play reaches it point of deepest tragedy.  Lear is totally broken and dies in despair and grief.
Shakespeare’s point is that the tragedy at the end of the play was inevitable from the moment Lear was ‘slow to listen, quick to speak and quick to anger’. 
There are times when anger is right.  There are things that happen in the world which are unjust and wrong and we are right to be angry about them.  But the Greek philosopher Aristotle was correct when he said:
“Anybody can become angry - that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right amount and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way - that is not within everybody's power and is not easy.”

So, the next time you feel angry.  Before you jump to any rash conclusions or over-react, take a little time and think thorough the situation.  Ask yourself whether being angry is a productive route forwards.  Avoid being like King Lear and instead:

“Be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger.”