A migraine violently assaults me as I’m walking along Acton High Street. I need to get out of the bustling crowd and noisy traffic immediately, so look for the closest sanctuary. I cross the road and enter Our Lady of Lourdes Church. I take a seat in a pew, open my handbag, swallow my medication and close my eyes. I can hear some murmuring from the confessional booth at the back, but otherwise I’m surrounded by a still and welcome quiet.
Though I’ve not been to Mass in a few years, Catholic churches are familiar environments for me. I’ve fainted in them, I’ve giggled in them, I’ve daydreamed in them. I’ve even listened in them. They always calm me. In Church I was surrounded by friends and family, I knew what was taking place, and what was coming – I liked the safety, the routine, the familiar friendly faces. Church was a place of happiness and fun. I hear of “Catholic guilt” and of the Catholic experience being that of fear and looming repercussions, but mine was all about appreciating the joy of life, and making other people feel good whenever you could.
I look at the empty altar and recall a priest telling a story that has stayed with me. Precisely where I heard the moral tale is long forgotten (Saint Augustine’s, Kyabram? Saint Brendan’s, Shepparton? Saint Mary’s, Mooroopna?) But the North American fable is tattooed in my memory. As I prepare to depart to Australia in a few days, that story feels poignant.
Two travellers and the farmer
A traveller came upon an old farmer hoeing in his field beside the road. Eager to rest his feet, the wanderer hailed the countryman, who seemed happy enough to straighten his back and talk for a moment.
“What sort of people live in the next town?” asked the stranger.
“What were the people like where you’ve come from?” replied the farmer.
“They were a bad lot. Troublemakers, and lazy too. The most selfish people in the world, and not a one of them to be trusted. I’m happy to be leaving the scoundrels.”
“Is that so?” replied the old farmer. “Well, I’m afraid that you’ll find the same sort in the next town.”
Disappointed, the traveller trudged on his way, and the farmer returned to his work.
Some time later another stranger, coming from the same direction, hailed the farmer, and they stopped to talk. “What sort of people live in the next town?” he asked.
“What were the people like where you’ve come from?” replied the farmer once again.
“They were the best people in the world. Hard working, honest, and friendly. I’m sorry to be leaving them.”
“Fear not,” said the farmer. “You’ll find the same sort in the next town.”
When I first heard this story, it struck a chord and I agreed with every word of it. I was a child surrounded by decent and kind people; I assumed everyone was the same. I still agree with about 80% of the sentiment. But when I was a child my world was one of greater uniformity and shared values. I assumed cultural and socio-economic similarities. At 8 years of age, I wasn’t aware of the Taliban, for example. As much as I find people to be generally pleasant, I know I wouldn’t find the Taliban to be the same! Equally, life has taught me that financial circumstances and social environments play a large role in the attitudes of people – and how they treat others. Sometimes no matter how positively you approach people, your goodwill won’t be reciprocated.
I’m off to Australia soon where I find people extremely likeable, excruciatingly irritating and frequently ridiculous. I live in England where I find people extremely likeable, excruciatingly irritating and frequently ridiculous. For me, at this point, the farmer’s words are true.