“I am only one, but still I am one.
I cannot do everything, but still I can do something.
And because I cannot do everything,
I will not refuse to do the something I can do.”

Edward Everett Hale

Friday, 18 April 2014

What Really Matters

It has been a strange week. I have encountered more judgement than compassion, both in myself, and in others, and that makes me sad. Which is why I was heartened to read a quote from J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter books, which has helped me to regain some perspective: "Is fat really the worse thing a human being can be? Is fat worse than vindictive, jealous, shallow, vain, boring, evil or cruel? Not to me."

Vindictive, jealous, shallow, vain, boring, evil and cruel are some of the nastier characteristics of humankind. I was horrified this morning to read that Jews are being required to register with pro-Russian forces in the east Ukrainian city of Donetsk, or face being deported. The report (in the Daily Mail) states: "A pamphlet handed out in Donetsk orders 'citizens of Jewish nationality' over the age of 16 to pay $50 to register and be issued special passports 'marking the confession of faith'." Inevitably, I am reminded of the horrors of the Holocaust, and I pray that the Ukrainians are not heading in the same direction.

I feel the need to examine why this sort of persecution (of one human being or a group of human beings) happens. I believe that one of the major reasons for religious intolerance and religious strife (or at least for intolerance and strife in the name of religion) is fear of the unknown.  The vast majority of people know very little about other religions, and it is part of human nature to fear the unknown (or the different). 

I'm now going to embark on a wild generalisation. When a person brought up in the Christian tradition (for example) looks at a Muslim person (for example), they probably won't know any of the beliefs in common that Muslims and Christians have. They may only see that the outside trappings are different - the mosque instead of the church, the taking off of shoes, the Halal meat, the wearing of headscarves by women and so on and so on. Muslims are Different to Us, (capital D, capital U) and therefore cannot be trusted, and are therefore feared. Or to take an example closer to home, until not so long ago, many Northern Irish Protestants and Catholics regarded each other as spawns of the devil.

Ignorance breeds intolerance, which in turn breeds fear and hatred, which can easily turn into all-out strife. Unfortunately, many unscrupulous politicians who sit at particular points on the religious divide, see it as their job in life to foment intolerance and fear, so that they can whip "their" people up to commit acts of aggression and violence in the name of religion or communism or the Russian Way of Life - whatever! The links between states and religions are very strong; the dividing line between tribalism and nationalism is a very thin one.

What really matters is that as many people as possible try to follow the precepts of the Charter for Compassion, both in their private lives and on a larger scale. Which means treating each other as we wish to be treated ourselves, and not treating each other as we would not wish to be treated.

What really matters is that we are all human beings.

At our General Assembly meetings this week, Jane Blackall used a beautiful benediction by Erika A. Hewitt to finish her morning devotions, which I repeat here:

"The hand in yours belongs to a person
whose heart is sometimes tender,
whose skin is sometimes thin,
whose eyes sometimes fill with tears,
whose laughter is a beautiful sound.

The hand that you hold belongs 
to a person who is seeking wholeness
and knows that you are doing the same.

As you leave this sanctuary,
may your hearts remain open
may your voices stay strong
and may your hands remain outstretched. 

This is what really matters. I pray that it may be so in the days and weeks that follow.

Friday, 11 April 2014

Respecting Others' Boundaries

On the eve of our Unitarian General Assembly meetings, a timely post popped up on Facebook. It was written by Ramon Selove, a member of the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Shenandoah Valley,
who is also autistic.

In it, he explains some of the issues he has with meeting people, touching people and with general noise levels. It is "stressful for me to be in the presence of a large number of people and it is much worse when many conversations are going on at the same time." The link to the full article is below.

Another issue is being touched by people. I was surprised to learn recently, from a fairly extrovert friend, that the kiss on the cheek with which I customarily greeted her was not really welcome. I was distressed that I had unwittingly disrespected her boundaries. Selove covers the "welcome levels of touch" issue in some detail, and suggests icons on name badges to indicate what an individual is comfortable with. For example "hugs welcome" or "handshake only" or "no kissing".

He concludes: "There is, of course, a much simpler approach: encourage everyone to 'ask first'."

So as we greet old friends and make new ones at our meetings, maybe we should bear all this in mind. I am certainly going to try.


Friday, 4 April 2014

Enough Already

You know how it sometimes happens: you receive a certain message / hear a certain idea. It can be from a Facebook post, a talk, an article, an address And once you have heard / read it, once it has squirreled its way into your consciousness, every other thing you hear or read seems to chime in to back it up or elaborate on it. Some may call it synchronicity, but I'm not so sure.

And it has happened to me this week, with the concept of Enoughness. At our District Annual General Meeting at Shrewsbury last Saturday, our Guest Speaker was Brighton Unitarian John Naish, author of a marvellous book called Enough: Breaking Free From The World Of Excess. In his entertaining and inspirational talk, John preached the doctrine of "practising enoughness in a world of more, more, more." He explained that instead of forever chasing after the next goal, the next project, the next gadget, we should appreciate what we have and be grateful. And that we should grow our gratitude by appreciating our bounty.

John commented that "gratitude is one of the select number of things in life for which we cannot actually get enough". Another is spiritual commitment. He argued that we needed to take the time to go deep spiritually, rather than skating over the surface, always trying out the next spiritual practice that promised peace and contentment. He illustrated this by joking: "There would have been little opportunity in 2nd century Nepal to say, 'Buddhism? Yeah, I've been exploring that. Really great, inspirational stuff. But then I wanted to try 'Shamanic Whirling', and both those classes are on a Wednesday evening, so ..."

He argued that spiritual exploration only bears fruit if we commit to certain practices, and stick with them. And he concluded by saying that "For me, and for many of you, I trust, Unitarianism has provided a central thread, a community, a tradition, and a discipline from within which we can explore the spiritual wisdom of all the world and of all time, in order to develop our own ideas, build our own faith, nurture our consciences, and set our moral compasses. ... Unitarianism is enough. ... So keep the faith. Keep fast to the heart of your Unitarian practice. For faith is something that sustains us. And it is something which, surely, we can never have enough."

Once that note had been struck, on the Saturday, it has continued to sound over and over again during this week. Enoughness is about knowing when you have enough and then being content, whether you are talking about food, or information, or entertainment or work. Enoughness is good. Except for those spiritual "never-enoughs" which John talked about, such as gratitude and commitment and love.

Thursday, 27 March 2014

Permission To Be Vulnerable

A week ago, I had a minor operation, to remove a benign but occasionally painful fibroma from my left thigh. The operation went well, under local anaesthetic, and I was told to come back in  a week, to have the stitches taken out.

image: crowe-associates.co.uk
Well, yesterday I went back. The kind nurse took the dressing off, and I looked at the bruised but healing wound beneath. I'm a real wuss about these things - I don't like blood and guts & icky stuff - and I was dismayed at how yukky it looked. But I could see that the doctor had made a good job of it, and that in time I would be left with a small, neat scar.

Then the nurse dropped her bombshell. "I don't think it's healed quite enough to have the stitches out. Let's leave it for another few days. But leave the dressing off, if you can, and let it get some air, to speed the healing process." I explained that I would be doing a lot of driving over the weekend, so please could I cover it then - yes that would be fine.

So I went home, with the three dressings (one each for Friday, Saturday and Sunday) tucked in my bage. And intended to go about the rest of my daily business, as I had been doing for the last few days.

And was slightly (OK, quite) shocked to realise how vulnerable I was feeling, now that the dressing had been removed. What if I knock it? What if it splits? After a couple of hours of futile and pointless worrying, I phoned the practice number, and asked to speak to the nurse. Fortunately she was still there. I explained how vulnerable and worried I felt with the wound exposed, and her compassion was warm and instantaneous. She told me not to worry; to put a dressing straight back on; and that my leg would heal anyway.

I got off the phone bathed in relief, and so grateful for her kindness and understanding. And then a strange thing happened: the very fact that my vulnerability and worry had been met with compassion and kindness seemed to give me permission to carry on being vulnerable, to take that risk. And 24 hours later, I have still not re-applied that dressing, and the amount of healing overnight is reassuring.

But without that permission to be vulnerable, I would not have had the courage to leave the wound uncovered. And this was made possible by the compassion of the nurse. I thank God for the grace of the kindness, and for the gift of courage.

Friday, 21 March 2014

Blessings of Spring

It is another beautiful blue sky day, and Spring is well and truly here. On our walk today, the annual frenzy of growth was evident, at the sides of the path, in the hedgerows, and in the trees. Everywhere, there were buds and flowers and blossoms, and a thousand different shades of green. And it was beautiful. When I opened my ears, the air was full of bird-song. On such a day, it feels good to be alive.

I have a book of meditations for the months of the year, by Dorothea Breitzter-Kings. Part of the meditation for March fits perfectly with my feeling of well-being this morning:

"The wind is still cool, but when it brushes your face there is a freshness and sweetness in it that leaves you in no doubt that winter is turning at least. Open yourself to this stirring sensation ... let yourself tune into the arousing energy of approaching Spring, along with all of nature around you  ... Now the sun comes out from behind a passing cloud: it is surprisingly warm and strong. The first rays of Spring sunshine: remember how you have longed for them on dark, overcast Winter days ... They are heaven's kiss of life to the earth after the long Winter sleep. Enjoy how good they feel. Along with all the growing things around you, let yourself too, be kissed into a Spring awakening by the first warm sunshine."

Spring is a time of renewal and promise and hope.

How wonderful, how full of wonder. I am blessed, and grateful.

Saturday, 8 March 2014

Your Last Shirt

My other half and I are currently on a tour of the south-west portion of Turkey. Our tour guide, Ahmed, is a delight. He not only informs us, he also admonishes and instructs us. Today our timetable included a boat trip on the Dalyan river delta to the famous Iztuzu Beach, where, in the Summer months, loggerhead turtles come in their thousands to lay their eggs.

On the way, we went past some spectacular rock tombs, which had been carved into the rock face by the ancients, to act as mausoleums. They varied in size and elaborateness, from simple holes to miniature temples. Ahmed was explaining that the size of the tomb varied according to the occupant's status in this life, and then exclaimed: "You know, it really doesn't matter. We have a saying in Turkey: 'Your last shirt has no pockets.' In other words, you cannot take anything with you."

I had been feeling a little sorry for myself, as, unlike the previous day, the weather was grey and overcast, and my back was aching from all the sitting. "Your last shirt has no pockets" reminded me to appreciate the moment, and enjoy what was happening as it happens.

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Kicking My Heels

Today we are going on holiday. The journey is planned; the cases are packed; and all is ready to go.

But we're not due to leave until 2.30, and it's only half past ten. So now I am in the limbo of waiting: waiting for something to happen, waiting to leave. It's not really worth doing any work (and I am disinclined to anyway I'm On Holiday!). But I am reminded of the Abbot of the Black Friars, in Neil Gaiman's wonderful book Neverwhere:

"So the day became one of waiting, which was, he knew, a sin: moments were to be experienced; waiting was a sin against both the time that was still to come, and against the moments one was currently disregarding."

I've been reading a lot about living in the present lately, and have come to recognise that "now" is the only time that has any significance whatsoever. The past is over, and cannot be changed, and dwelling on it, either with nostalgia or regret, is a waste of time. And the future is something which is coming at a rate of 60 seconds a minute, 60 minutes an hour and 24 hours a day, whether we are looking forward to it, or worrying about it. I concede that it is important to at least do some planning for future events, but not to the extent that we spend all our time longing for some mythical future time, when everything will be wonderful, and we will have all that our hearts desire, or worrying about some other mythical future time, when we have lost all that gives our lives savour.

No, it is now that matters. It is the present that we should be concerned with. Only the present moment is sacred, and whether we are in grief or in joy or in gratitude or in despair, we need to pay attention. I also find comfort in the belief that CS Lewis explains in The Screwtape Letters - that we will be given the strength to deal with whatever joy or sorrow come our way in the present. But not the strength to cope with worrying about possible future alternatives, most of which will probably not happen.

May we all experience life, moment by moment, being like Rumi's Guesthouse "Every morning a new arrival. A joy, a depression, a meanness, some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor." And may we truly appreciate what we have, today, now, this minute, for very little lasts forever. So I'm off out, for a walk, to get these waiting bats out of my belfry.