Wednesday, March 22, 2017

`Do Not Differ About Trifles'

“Opposites often attract each other but the attraction seldom lasts if the full extent of the opposition is ignored. It is as neighbours, full of ineradicable prejudices, that we must love each other, not as fortuitously `separated brethren.’”

Hubert Butler’s “Divided Loyalties” (Independent Spirit: Essays, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1996) is characteristically pithy and commonsensical. Utopians with little experience of human nature will fault it as cynical, a dark slander on humanity. The rest of us hope its optimism is justified. Butler is writing in 1984, deep in the Irish quagmire, and I was reading him on Tuesday when I learned of Martin McGuinness’ death.

Ignoring differences proves as delusory and dangerous as exaggerating them, so Butler’s choice of “neighbours” is shrewd. He might have said “family” or “friends,” but was never naïve. Think of your neighbors, the ones you like and trust, who collect your mail when you’re out of town; the ones you cordially detest, who are loud or dirty; and those about whom your feelings are neutral because you’re hardly aware of their existence. By nature, neighbors are heterogeneous, even when they share an economic niche. Neighbors make demographics seem trivial. Even the most solitary among us make arrangements with neighbors.

The Rev. John Taylor was Dr. Johnson’s friend from childhood, outlived him and read the service at Johnson’s funeral. He was also known to be disputatious. In a letter dated July 31, 1756, Johnson congratulates him for resolving differences with a neighbor, and tells him:

“. . . to have one’s neighbour one’s enemy is uncomfortable in the country where good neighbourhood is all the pleasure that is to be had. Therefore now you are on good terms with your Neighbours do not differ about trifles.”

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