Ordered Love

Here’s a nice passage from Chapter Four of Bleak House by Charles Dickens, on the virtues of the great Mrs. Jellyby:

““In-deed! Mrs Jellyby,” said Mr Kenge, standing with his back to the fire, and casting his eyes over the dusty hearth-rug as if it were Mrs Jellyby’s biography, “is a lady of very remarkable strength of character who devotes herself entirely to the public. She has devoted herself to an extensive variety of public subjects, at various times, and is at present (until something else attracts her) devoted to the subject of Africa; with a view to the general cultivation of the coffee berry — and the natives — and the happy settlement, on the banks of the African rivers, of our superabundant home population. Mr Jarndyce, who is desirous to aid any work that is considered likely to be a good work, and who is much sought after by philanthropists, has, I believe, a very high opinion of Mrs Jellyby.”

However, as the chapter continues, the characters actually arrive at the house of the great Mrs. Jellyby, only to find one of her own children with his head stuck in the railing:

. . . and we all three laughed, and chatted about our inexperience and the strangeness of London, until we turned up under an archway, to our destination: a narrow street of high houses, like an oblong cistern to hold the fog. There was a confused little crowd of people, principally children, gathered about the house at which we stopped, which had a tarnished brass plate on the door with the inscription JELLYBY.

“Don’t be frightened!” said Mr Guppy, looking in at the coach-window. “One of the young Jellybys been and got his head through the area railings!”

“O poor child,” said I; “let me out, if you please!”

“Pray be careful of yourself, miss. The young Jellybys are always up to something,” said Mr Guppy.

I made my way to the poor child, who was one of the dirtiest little unfortunates I ever saw, and found him very hot and frightened and crying loudly, fixed by the neck between two iron railings, while a milkman and a beadle, with the kindest intentions possible, were endeavouring to drag him back by the legs, under a general impression that his skull was compressible by those means.”

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The language is a bit dense, I know. And the example is exaggerated–but that is how Dickens works: he magnifies human faults to enable us to see them more clearly. The lesson here is that “charity begins at home.” God does call on Christians to love everyone; nevertheless, within that universal goodwill, we are primarily responsible for loving those with whom we have the most interaction: our family members, friends, coworkers, etc.

It does not mean that you ignore someone else who needs help when you encounter such a person. But it does mean that you take the time to clean the bathroom and help your own kids with their homework first; then, if you have time left over, feel free to worry about whether your coffee has been responsibly harvested.

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