“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

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Time passes; listen: time passes

I have just been to the Unitarian General Assembly Annual Meetings, which this year were at Swansea University. The warmth of the welcome from the Welsh Unitarians will remain with me for a long time. And the setting was lovely - all we had to do to get to the beach was walk out of the front gate and cross the footbridge, which for someone who lives in rural Northamptonshire, just about as far away from the coast as you can get in England, was a delightful novelty.

One morning, I went for a run along the Prom Walk, which stretches for miles along Swansea's seafront. I was just about to turn back when I saw a sign for "Mumbles" and knew that I was in Dylan Thomas country. My parents had the original Argo recording of Under Milk Wood, starring Richard Burton and a very distinguished all-Welsh cast, and I have recently managed to get a copy of it on CD. Thomas was one of the people long years ago who taught me to love words, and to marvel at their ability to move human minds and hearts. I used to have the opening speech of the First Voice by heart - it is mesmerising in its hypnotic beauty and vividness, brought to life by Richard Burton's wonderful frayed-velvet voice.

Words have so much power, especially in conjunction with the human voice. They can be used to encourage, sustain, energise and uplift; or they can be used to arouse hatred, bitterness, despair and all other kinds of bad feelings. On the one side, look at someone like Martin Luther King and his "I have a dream" speech. On the other, turn on any documentary about World War II, and listen to Hitler mesmerising his German subjects into going along with policies of vengeful genocide.

Words have so much power. With one word of praise or blame, one human being can build another one up, or fling him or her into the pit of despair. The human memory has an uncanny knack of remembering words spoken in anger or despite, which can cause people with fragile self-esteem (that is to say, all of us, deep down) to think badly of themselves; whereas words of praise may be shrugged off. How many times have you heard an actor or singer say that they only remember what is said in the bad reviews, even if those are out-numbered ten times by positive ones?

Words have so much power. We all have the responsibility to use them wisely and well.

Thursday, 7 April 2011

Wrestling with ethics in Pizza Hut

My son passed his driving test on Tuesday, so I decided to take him out for lunch today to celebrate, and he chose Pizza Hut. We had the all-you-can-eat buffet, and I was looking idly at the bill (you know the way they leave it on the table part way through the meal) and noticed that they had only charged us for one buffet (i.e. £6.99 instead of £13.98). So I pointed this out the next time the waitress came over to see if we were OK, and she took the bill away and amended it.

So far, so simple. My son commended me on my honesty, and I said something about not being able to do anything else. This led, I cannot say how, to a long and involved discussion about comparative approaches to ethics, deontological versus teleological, which David said meant according different degrees of significance to principles or consequences. I argued that there were some things that were always right or wrong, regardless of consequences, and he proceeded to pick very large holes in my arguments by giving specific examples.

For example, I have always maintained that the dropping of nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was inexcusable and unforgiveable, and that nuclear weapons should never be used under any circumstances. He argued that if those bombs had not been dropped, many more thousands of people on both sides would have died in a war which would have lasted until 1950. In other words, the consequences of dropping the bombs were less bad overall than not dropping them. I still don't agree with him, but he has a point.

Why is our world so complicated? Why aren't ethical decisions simple and straightforward and obvious? Wouldn't it be a much better world if they were - if there was an obvious right and wrong decision to make? My inner child would love things to be that simple; if there were only one obvious source of evil (like Sauron in The Lord of the Rings) and all the "goodies" would be on the other side, and good would always triumph over evil. That would be so much more satisfying, and easy to pontificate about.

But our world is not simple (thank goodness). There are no black and white answers to any complex questions - there are always and only shades of grey. The problem with seeing things in black and white is that it is such a narrow point of view; in order to judge wisely (notice I don't say "to judge rightly") you have to look at all sides of a question and use what Karen Armstrong calls empathic compassion - putting yourself in the other person's shoes. Maybe if more of us tried to do this for more of the time, there would be less anger and hatred and misunderstanding and deprivation in the world.

The Charter for Compassion http://charterforcompassion.org/ is an important step in the right direction. And if supporting it means always seeing the other person's point of view and acting according to the Golden Rule, then maybe David was right and I was wrong, and consequences are more important than principles.

But then why are we taught that some things are right and some are wrong? I still could not have walked out of Pizza Hut without saying anything about the bill, because that would have been dishonest and that is wrong. (Even though, as he pointed out, Pizza Hut makes massive profits and wouldn't have missed my £6.99). But in another circumstance, would dishonesty be right? David gave me the example of Robin Hood, who robbed the rich to give to the poor, (which was technically a dishonest crime) and many of us today (including me) support the Robin Hood Tax. But isn't that condoning legalised theft? My brain is hurting already.

I think that the biggest wrong that we can do is not to think about these things, but to judge hastily and without thought, according to what someone else tells us. I think that in most cases there are no absolute right or wrong answers, but that our absolute duty is to consider each individual case carefully and empathically, on its merits. That is perhaps the best we can do.

Friday, 1 April 2011

Doing it for me

I've always been a competitive person. My parents brought me up to have high standards, and to aim high, to try to be the best, and to work hard to achieve that. I'm not saying that is bad, but one result of this is that it has taken me many years to learn the lesson that people aren't judging you all the time by what you achieve.

The revelation has come from two sources:
1. I recently attended an Enneagram workshop run by Oxford Unitarian Josephine Seccombe, and she lent me a book about the different personality types. I am definitely a 3 "Achiever", who is motivated by success and by the praise of others. One key phrase in the personal development section brought me up standing: "Realise that love comes from being, not from doing and having."

"Realise that love comes from being, not from doing and having."

That is such an important message for all of us, but particularly for driven types like me. What? People like me for who I am, not just for what I do? A real Eureka moment.
And then I start to think that this has broader ramifications - I must also return the compliment to others, and love them for who they are, not for what they achieve. Doasyouwouldbedoneby, love as you would be loved.

2. Six weeks ago, I gave up smoking and started running again. Running for me is not about exercise, it's not about winning races, it's not about being the fastest or the best, it is for the pure love of being able to put one foot in front of the other and run a certain distance, knowing that the only person you are competing against is yourself. And often, I'm not even competing against myself, I just go out because it's a nice day, and I need to feel the sunlight on my skin and the wind in my hair, and experience the effort of running for itself. After a good run, I feel like God on the seventh day - just uplifted and good and the sense of achievement doesn't need to be validated by anyone else. It touches parts of my soul that nothing else does.

So I will continue to do my best, and to value success, and bask in the praise of others, but will try to remember that I am worthy for myself, and so is everyone else. "There is that of God in everyone"