CC Issue 46 / Reflections / Theology / Faith

The Stiff Upper Lip

In the classic comedy series Blackadder Goes Forth, set in the First World War, General Melchett turns to Private Baldrick in a conversation about going on a new offensive and says:

“Ah, tally-ho, yippety-dip and zing zang spillip! Looking forward to bullying off for the final chukka?”

Throughout the series, the comedy of Stephen Fry’s character lies in the combination of his complete stupidity in military tactics with his absurd denial of the seriousness of the situation. A battle in which thousands of men are going to be mown down by guns is little more than a public school rugger match, where all that is needed is a bit of fortitude washed down with a cup of tea.

In some ways General Melchett is an absurd and incredibly funny caricature of British stoicism, the ‘stiff upper lip.’ The term stoicism comes from a group of Greek philosophers called the Stoics, who felt that emotions like fear and anger came from errors of judgement and aimed to be free from them. The emotions were something to be wary of.

My reflections on the stoics and this strange characteristic of the British have been triggered by the recent death of my grandmother. She died after a long hospital admission for a broken hip, an admission which saw her go from an independent 91 year old who still worked half a day a week in a charity shop to someone who was bedbound. I was struck how for so much of her ordeal she never uttered a word of complaint- she just ‘got on with it,’ passing the time knitting for her great- grandchildren as antibiotic after antibiotic was pumped into her. In many ways she was the kind of patient us doctors love to treat- she didn’t fuss, didn’t moan, accepted what was told to her. Patients like her are quick to speak to on the ward round, rarely question our judgement, and are ‘sensible’ about the realities of their disease.

Emotions are tiring, time- consuming and complicated. Yet they are part of the very fabric of our humanity. The Bible talks about God getting angry, grieving, loving, even getting jealous, and as human beings we are made in the image of God. So as I sat by granny’s side, seeing her getting visibly weaker and weaker, it suddenly struck me that the stoical ‘just get on with it’ approach to this desperate situation was not how it should be. While there was an admirable fortitude in her, there seemed to be an increasing disconnect between her emotional response and the reality of the situation. I sometimes wonder if this contributed to her finding the last days of her life, when it was clear life was ebbing away, so difficult to face.

A writer and preacher who I hold in high regard, John Stott, who died a few years ago, often spoke of ‘the integrated Christian.’ By this he meant that God made all of a person, their mind, emotions, conscience and will. All are important, and all need to be transformed by His loving grace. Emotions are such a fundamental part of our God- given humanity, and while the modern obsession with a self- absorbed wallowing in one’s emotions is far from God’s created ideal, so is a denial of our personal anguish and grief in the face of a broken world.

Do you know what the shortest verse in the whole Bible is?

‘Jesus wept.’ John 11: 35

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