“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, 23 January 2015

The Clarity of Distance

Yesterday, I went to Wild, a new-ish film starring Reese Witherspoon as Cheryl Strayed. It is based on the latter's memoir, which tells how, following the death of her beloved mother and the breakdown of her marriage, she decided to just walk away from her everyday life and hike the Pacific Crest Trail, up through California and Oregon to Canada.

The Pacific Crest Trail
It was beautifully shot and very well put together.  The scenery was spectacular, and I'd like to bet that Reese Witherspoon will win awards for her acting. It reminded me a little of Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love although rather more raw. And I can remember thinking "That's the way to do it - to get away from it all, and walk it all out." I'm sure that distancing herself from the life she was entirely unable to deal with helped her to gain some clarity, and to think things through. And to bring back some balance into her life. Nature's rather good at giving us another perspective.

But of course most of us never get the chance to just walk out of our everyday lives, and move into a completely different situation. And those same everyday lives are made increasingly complicated by the demands of modern technology, and by today's social media. A few days ago, I came across a fascinating article by neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin, which argues just this: that the constant switching of the attention from one thing to another - between e-mails, and Facebook, and Twitter, and Instagram, and whatever else bleeps to alert us - is damaging our efficiency, and making it hard for us to concentrate on just one thing when we are working, or to let go and properly relax when we're not.

I know myself that if I'm working on an address or a blogpost or an essay, and the phone goes, or an e-mail alert pops up, it takes some willpower not to switch my attention away from what I'm doing. But I'm beginning to realise how insidious this constant barrage of alerts can be. So I'm starting to let the ansaphone pick up phone calls and to ignore e-mail alerts, until I come to a natural break in what I'm doing. Facebook is the other great seducer, of course, the great time-waster, at least for me. I understand that you can get software which blocks social media programs for particular periods, to help you stay focussed for longer chunks of time.

It's about being entirely present, in a very uncomplicated way. About concentrating on one thing at a time, and giving our whole selves to it, and then going on to the next thing, and giving our whole selves to that. I know that this sounds hopelessly idealistic, but we can at least try. Because it is in the present moment, and only in the present, that the numinous lives.

I guess we have to do what we can, where we are, with what we've been given. And just do our best to be there, and to notice the moments going by.

Friday, 16 January 2015

Trying to Make Sense Of It All

Recent events, such as the attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris, which was orchestrated by Al Qaeda, and the Boko Haram massacre in Nigeria, have made me feel a profound need to try to make sense of it all.

The thing that started me thinking was my perception of the widely different reactions of the Western media to these events. We were swamped with coverage of the Charlie Hebdo story when it broke on 7th January, and the subsequent Je Suis Charlie campaign. It was only too easy to be swept up in the media storm, and I too shared some cartoons on Facebook on the Je Suis Charlie theme. Freedom of belief? Freedom of speech? Of course they're important! As are the untimely deaths of seventeen people.

A few short days later, while the media were still obsessing over every tiny detail of the Charlie Hebdo story and its aftermath, more than two thousand people were massacred in the North East of Nigeria, in and around the city of Baga. They were murdered by the militant Islamist group Boko Haram. Most of the dead were women, children and the elderly, who could not flee in time. It made the news alright, but the sense of outrage just wasn't there.

And I was shocked. So what I want to muse about today are the issues of how far freedom of speech should be paramount, and how dualistic our Western world vision is. You may not agree with me, and that itself is a cherished freedom, not available to all.

Let's start with Charlie Hebdo. It is a French satirical weekly magazine, featuring cartoons, reports, polemics, and jokes. According to Wikipaedia, it is "Irreverent and stridently non-conformist in tone, [and] describes itself as strongly anti-racist and left wing, publishing articles on the extreme right, religion (Catholicism, Islam, Judaism), politics, culture, etc." A bit like our own Private Eye, in fact.

There is no doubt that satire is a useful political and sociological tool, pointing out injustices and hypocrisies in our societies. The question is: where should the line be drawn, between what is 'fair game' for the satirist's pen, and what is vicious and harmful and inciting hatred? For example, I personally found the comedian Dave Allen to be very funny, but he regularly received death threats from the IRA for his sketches mocking the Roman Catholic Church. And I find most political cartoons funny, although I think that some sometimes cross that line. I think that very few people would find cartoons about certain subjects, such as the Holocaust, or slavery, funny. My other point is that, particularly since 9/11, Muslims have been in danger of becoming the West's go-to scapegoats, as the Jews were in 1930s Germany. 

Just saying.

Each of us has a duty to think this stuff through, and to decide where our own line should be drawn. I also believe that while freedom of speech is very important, respecting others' beliefs is also very important. Think of the Golden Rule: do not do unto others what you would not like done unto you. I wonder how being satirical and disrespectful about the dearly-held beliefs of others fits into this. And whether, ultimately, the world is a better place because of satire? OK, it has an important role in highlighting injustices. But I believe we need to be careful that we aren't making judgements from a position of Western non-understanding and privilege. There are at least two sides to most issues, and it is very easy only to see one, because that is the only one portrayed in the Western media.

Which brings me on to the second issue which is troubling me - the privileged viewpoint of the Western media. It is only too easy to take it for granted that the view of the white, Christian, straight majority is the right one. But it ain't necessarily so. The satirical stories and cartoons printed in magazines such as Charlie Hebdo and Private Eye can be very amusing if you are a member of the privileged class / race / gender. Perhaps not so much otherwise. It's worth thinking about.

In the few days after the Charlie Hebdo killings, there were fifteen attacks on Muslim communities all around France. And after the death of Private Lee Rigby in this country, innocent Muslims were attacked, just for being Muslim. And I think the comparative lack of reaction to the more than 2000 deaths of innocent women, elders and children in Nigeria is another symptom - "after all, that's just what happens in Africa." It's "over there" and hence not our problem.

But we are all human beings. We were all made in God's image. Whether we are Muslim, Christian, Jew, Buddhist, Atheist, or even Unitarian. I totally condemn the murders in France. I totally condemn the murders in Nigeria. I totally condemn every killing of one human being by another. And I totally condemn the evil people who have chosen to turn their backs on God, and to preach hatred and put weapons into the hands of young men who know no better, or no different. 

We each only have one precious life, which we should be allowed to live, in peace.

In trying to make sense of it all, I have to reluctantly conclude that I cannot support absolute freedom of speech in all circumstances, especially if its purpose is solely to mock and satirise the dearly-held beliefs of others. Respect for others is also important. I have to prioritise the values of the Charter for Compassion, which asks us to walk a mile in the other person's shoes, before commenting on their actions. And to avoid deliberately causing pain to another, at all costs.

I do not condone unnecessary deaths, but neither to I condone stirring up hatred and intolerance, through the publication of articles or cartoons, on the one hand, or through indoctrination and radicalisation, on the other. We are all unique, precious, sons and daughters of God, and we need to respect that of God in each other. And I believe what I was taught as a child, that two wrongs do not make a right, and that revenge killings and attacks just make matters worse.

In the words of Gandhi: "An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind." Amen

Friday, 9 January 2015

Don't Take It For Granted

For the last 48 hours, I have been in some considerable pain. I had been prescribed some painkillers for an on-going problem with my arm, and my poor tummy didn't like them. I had a bad reaction to them, which started on Wednesday morning, and only subsided on Thursday evening.

But it's left me feeling tired and listless and disinclined to do anything. But I know that I must, so I'm trying to summon up some mojo from somewhere.

But the last couple of days, and how grim I've felt during them, have made me appreciate anew two things:

1. my wonderful body, which usually holds up marvellously, doing all the complex tasks that a body does, and lets me get on with my life. I am grateful for her.

2. it has made me understand (just a little) how tough it must be to have a serious, on-going medical condition, and to live with pain, and all that pain brings, every day of your life. I have friends who manage this with such spirit and resilience and courage. I am lost in respect and admiration for them.

Because I do realise how very blessed I am, to have nothing seriously wrong with me - just the aches and pains of age. And I can still hope that Something Can Be Done, whereas some people I know just have to live with their conditions, day in and day out, forever and ever.

And that is grim. Huge respect to you all. If there is anything I can to to make your life a little easier, just call.

Monday, 29 December 2014

"I know what love is"

Yesterday, I watched Forrest Gump for the very first time with my kids, and was blown away by it. I was utterly captivated from first to last. Tom Hanks is superb, and never steps out of character for an instant. The reviewer in The Radio Times calls him "the semi-literate Everyman who drifts through recent American history", which sort of describes him, but it misses his beautiful simplicity.

What sticks with me is his oft-quoted: "Mamma said: 'Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're gonna get.'"

And he never does know. He is the ultimate example of somebody who goes with the flow, so long as it doesn't interfere with his loyalties and principles, which are fierce and fundamental. He never quite realises the incidental impact his actions have on others.

Among other things, and purely by accident, he teaches the young Elvis Presley to dance, participates in civil rights history at the University of Alabama, gives John Lennon the lyrics to Imagine, and helps to trigger the scandal that was Watergate.

His impact on those he loves is much greater, but again, how much of it is deliberate, and how much is just a by-product of his character, is open to question. He only ever wants to be happy with the people he loves and respects, and who have been kind to him. And the results are extraordinary.

In a way, I quite envy him. As he says, "I'm not a smart man - but I know what love is." There are worse ways of going through life.


Friday, 26 December 2014

Excuses to Celebrate

Father Christmas brought my daughter a rather wonderful calendar. Which was chosen on the strength of its front cover, which reads: "To do: 1. Change world 2. Eat pizza"

But oh my goodness, it is so much more wonderful than that. The creator, Rachel Bright of Bright Soul Ltd., has included a lot of funny (or quirky) days to celebrate throughout the year. So I've copied some of them into an exquisite Illuminated Book of Days which my dearly beloved gave me for Christmas. Here are some of my favourites:

  • Start a trend day
  • Give a compliment to a stranger day
  • Get out of your comfort zone day
  • Plant something and watch it grow day
  • Simple pleasures day (immediately followed by)
  • Complicated pleasures day
  • Wild abandon day
  • Treat your body like a temple day
  • Make something from scratch day
  • Be lovely to everyone day
  • Notice small things day
  • Start getting excited about Christmas day (3rd December)
I intend to post notices about these on Facebook, throughout 2015, as and when they arise, as I think they're a lovely idea. And no more random than saints' days, or Fair Trade Fortnight, or One World Week.

Sunday, 21 December 2014

Silent Night, Holy Truce

Today I, and other ministers and worship leaders across the country, will be leading a Christmas service with a difference. I will be commemorating that special day in 1914, when ordinary soldiers at the Front "all the way from the North Sea to Switzerland" decided that their common humanity, their common Christianity, was more important than continuing to fight each other.

The Martin Luther King Peace Committee sent round a marvellous resource pack, entitled Silent Night, Holy Truce, from which I have obtained most of the material for the service. And I would like to share some words from this, and to reflect on them:

"Although the most famous, the Christmas truces weren't isolated incidents. They followed weeks of unofficial fraternisation by soldiers who discovered that, rather than being monsters, the other side were men like themselves, with a preference for staying alive rather than dying. Common humanity oftentimes broke through the propaganda images perpetrated by both sides. Throughout the entire war, many combatants managed, through the so-called 'live-and-let-live' system, to reduce discomfort and risk by complicated local truces and tacit understandings that enraged the high commands on both sides. Nonetheless, the truces are a key moment in the history of the period that reopened the possibility of a Europe based on peace and solidarity rather than imperial violence and nationalism.

We argue that the impromptu Christmas worship services held in no-man's land offer a glimpse of the church as it is meant to be, a new nation of peacemakers uniting former enemies in love and friendship as they celebrate the birth of Jesus."

And we Unitarians today can witness for peace too. Many individuals and congregations are members of the Unitarian Peace Fellowship, founded in the darkest days of the First World War. Members of the UPF "witness for peace and against the futility of war. Today our vision includes the ethos and values of the Charter for Compassion. The surest route to peace is through the compassion of human beings for each other, and for all living things. We support and encourage Unitarians in their witness for Peace and Compassion, locally, nationally, and internationally."

In this year of the centenary of the "war to end all wars", various countries around the world are in a state of bitter conflict with each other, or with themselves. The recent tragic massacre in Peshawar is just the most recent example of this. The efforts of everyone who believes in the possibility of world peace are needed, now more than ever. So that the sacrifice that the men in the Great War made, should not be altogether wasted.

I wish you a very Merry Christmas, and a Happy and Peaceful New Year.

Saturday, 13 December 2014

The Gift of Life

Yesterday I did something very simple, which I should have done years ago. It didn't cost anything, it hardly hurt at all, and it didn't take very long. But it could make a huge difference to somebody else.

Yes, I gave blood. I used to be a regular donor, back in the 1980s, but kept passing out after donating (I weighed considerably less in those days) so in the end they told me to stop going. Life went on, and I forgot all about it. Until a friend posted on Facebook that she had given blood, which gave me the nudge needed to go online and investigate.

I have to say, I was incredibly impressed by the professionalism of it all. I had to fill out a long form, and was then questioned about my answers. For example, we had been on holiday to Turkey in March, and they wanted to know which part I had visited, and which airport I had flown out of. I've also just been referred for possible minor surgery on my knee, so there were questions about that. I had to drink a pint of water before donating, and also have a finger-prick blood test, to see whether my iron levels were sufficiently high. Only when the staff were satisfied that I was fit to donate, was I led to a special reclining chair. The actual process took about eight or nine minutes, and I was given a bandage to roll around my hand to stimulate blood flow, and also told to clench and unclench my buttocks constantly (apparently this helps keep the blood pressure low). Between the bandage rolling and the buttock clenching, time passed fairly quickly. It was like trying to rub your stomach and pat your head at the same time. Hilarious!

Then I was returned to the upright position very slowly and waved over to another part of the hall, where I was given a cold drink and told to help myself to any of a selection of high-carb snacks. When they were sure I was OK, and was feeling fine, I was allowed to leave. And was given a little leaflet Important Safety Information after you have given blood. The standard of care at every stage was impressive.

As I say, very professional. So I'm booked in again for the beginning of May - you're allowed to give blood every four months. I'm just glad to have done it, and only wish I hadn't waited so long. Donations drop over the Christmas / New Year season, which is sad, as it is one of the times of peak demand.

If you are fit and healthy, why not give it a try? The website is www.blood.co.uk  This is a case in which the advertising slogan "every little helps" really is true. Apparently, one donation could save three lives.