Sadly I wrote out the address with the familiar postcode probably for the last time. Over the years wherever we go – even if just for the day – we send Clare a postcard. But yesterday I was sending a sympathy card for her sister and brothers. It was her sister who phoned us, to say that Clare – one of Jacqui’s closest friends - had suddenly and unexpectedly died. They met all those years ago as they trained as nurses together at Broadgreen Hospital. However, long-standing health issues meant that Clare could not manage sustained employment. A committed member of her church in central Liverpool, Claire maintained a lively interest in her friends as well as her wider family. She was always asking us to pray for someone facing surgery or just difficult issues at work. In this she was simply outstanding. “We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, because we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love you have for all God’s people” writes the apostle Paul (Colossians 3:1). This could just as easily have been Clare in her active concern for others.
She was gifted in asking questions and listening to the response. This meant that she was very good at giving context. “That’s just what happened when you were a curate in Heswall,” she would say.
Our conversations as Christians are to be different. It’s so easy to be so self-absorbed that we fail to take genuine notice of the lives of other people, to expect them to listen to our story while giving them little space to tell theirs. Clare was the precise opposite. She invariably knew what was happening in my life and ministry.
Clare was a leading example of what psychologists term other-centeredness. “Others-centeredness is a tendency to put others’ interests ahead of one’s own that is based on a specific way of thinking,” says one leading academic in a recent edition of the journal Personality and Individual Differences.
They continue: “The others-centred person thinks that their own interests are just as important in the grand scheme of things as any other person’s interests. But they also place a high value on interpersonal relationships. Because of this, they tend to prioritize promoting others’ interests when they can’t equally promote their own interests and another person's interests.”
Clearly this is a direct reference to the teaching of Jesus, described by Dietrich Bonhoeffer as “the man for others.” It is Jesus who challenges us: “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them.: (Luke 6:32).
Being other-centred shows in how we live our lives and especially, as Clare demonstrated only too clearly, in our conversations. It would be a fascinating exercise to count the number of words in any given conversation talking about me and compare that with the equivalent number when talking about you.
To quote the old chestnut: "But enough about me. Let’s talk about you. Tell me what you like about me."
I came across this advice from one blog-writer. “Try this experiment -- the next time you have a conversation with a good friend, do not use the words "I", "me" or "my." This simple device prevents you from expressing your opinion and many are astonished both by how difficult it is and by how much the depth of listening goes up when you are no longer preoccupied by thinking of what you are going to say.”
This has all kinds of practical applications in our chats and conversations. Clare was always delighted when other people did well, she shared in their successes. It’s so easy to make everything a competition. “Your church did this, well my church did even better!” Sad when we feel better by outperforming, if only in our imagination.
Which leads us to the dangerous attraction of schadenfreude. As Mr Bennet proclaims in Pride and Prejudice: “For what do we live but to make sport for our neighbours, and laugh at them in our turn?”
In contrast God calls us into unaffected relationships. “Laugh with your happy friends when they’re happy; share tears when they’re down. Get along with each other; don’t be stuck-up. Make friends with nobodies; don’t be the great somebody.” (Romans 12:15)
Then there’s toxic positivity, when we say something that would appear helpful but in fact the very opposite as we dismiss or demean the concerns of others. It’s when we point out the silver lining in order to draw attention to the dark storm clouds.
We all need to be alert to the dangers of being so self-absorbed that we tailor a conversation so as to bring it back to my concerns, my story.. And to refuse when we are not the centre of attention to be visibly bored or just move on to someone else.
As disciples of Jesus we need to be mindful of others “not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” (Philippians 2:4). Our calling in Christ is to be a positive presence wherever we find ourselves, to be salt and light, to be yeast, not least in how we speak.
As the apostle Paul teaches: “Use your heads as you live and work among outsiders. Don’t miss a trick. Make the most of every opportunity. Be gracious in your speech. The goal is to bring out the best in others in a conversation, not put them down, not cut them out.” (Colossians 4:6, Message translation).