Apropos of nothing at all, a story from days in Ireland as I pushed my trolley around Sainsbury’s.
The story is of a man who lived in the Ireland of the 1950s whose two best friends had left the country to find work in the United States. Each Saturday evening the man would come into the pub, sit up at the bar and order and drink three pints of Guinness, one for himself and one each in honour of his absent friends.
One Saturday evening, the man came in as usual, sat up at the bar, and ordered two pints instead of three. The order worried the barman, had some ill fate befallen one of the man’s friends. “Excuse me,” asked the barman, “are both of your friends in America well?”
“They are,” said the man, “I had a letter this week. Why do you ask?”
“It was you ordering two pints instead of three. I thought perhaps that something had happened to one of the men for whom you drink a pint.”
”Ah, no, not at all,” said the man. “The missing pint is my own. I have given up drink.”
Heading down the bakery aisle of the supermarket, I wondered how much there was, that we did, that was symbolic, for appearance, for the sake of it. How many of our actions are symbols without substance?
There is a local man who has a flagpole in the garden, from which, for sometime, he flew a Union Jack. He made no attempt to take it down at sunset, nor to prevent it tearing to shreds in winter weather, suggesting a lack of respect for the national flag. It was difficult to avoid the conclusion that he flew flags for the sake of it when the Union Jack was replaced by the Somerset flag, a red wyvern on a yellow background, and, more recently, an NHS flag.
There seems much that we do that seems a symbol without substance. The attachment to the idea of being “Church of England” does not bring with it any sense of obligation, it does not stir any feeling of a requirement to believe anything, and certainly no belief that they should attend church.
The doing of things for the sake of it is perhaps a way of retaining a sense of identity, a mark of belonging to a community, a choice not to step out of line with those around, a decision not to discomfit those for whom traditions are important. But sometimes it seems as sensible as a man drinking two pints instead of three in the name of abstinence.