The Collapse of Meaning

How our Western culture short changes us as human beings.

It’s a difficult ask to condense the huge volume of material written on this topic, and do justice to its breadth and depth. Certainly impossible in a thousand words or less. In these circumstances all that is possible is a conversation starter, which is what this post is intended to be. Whether that conversation is with me, or in the reader’s own mind, is not important.

I’ve drawn on a book by Mark Sayers: “Disappearing Church” (Kindle). It’s an interesting and thought provoking read, but I’ve just picked up a few ideas and expanded on them. The book itself covers far more ideas than are discussed here. I recommend it to you.

Quotes are from the book are indicated in the usual way. Page numbers are not given due to the digital format of the book.

(Gold Coast Australia. My photo. An icon of secular consumerism)

Sayers’ book observes and critiques the culture that enfolds and forms us in the west. That culture considers itself sophisticated and highly evolved; superior in most ways from cultures that preceded it, and those that continue to flourish in non western societies. It is a culture full of contradictions: Fiercely secular, yet soaked in early religious traditions of gnosticism, animism and paganism; Indifferent or hostile to traditional Christianity, yet celebrating diversity of other traditional world religions; Devoted to the power of the individual, yet gathering itself into tribes where conformity of opinion is demanded; and desperately searching for transcendence and enlightenment, yet generating alienation and despair at the purposelessness of life lived according to its values.

Sayers delves deeply into the controlling beliefs driving our western secular culture, and pinpoints where the innate contradictions of our lives reveal themselves. These beliefs, principles, doctrines are regarded within the culture as self evident and beyond challenge. Those bold enough to challenge them can expected to be silenced and ostracised by the weight of social pressure, and/or legal sanctions.

The controlling beliefs of our western zeitgeist are seductive, powerful and ultimately deceptive. They promise happiness but bring us emptiness; preach self actualization but dehumanise us; offer freedom, but enslave us.

“So distracted by the phony war between left and right, conservatives and liberals, we have failed to notice that a new power had seized control of both our imaginations and the halls of power.

This new power swirls around a small yet widely held set of beliefs**:

1. The highest good is individual freedom, happiness, and self-expression.

2. Traditions, religions, received wisdom, regulations, and social ties that restrict individual freedom and self expression must be reshaped, deconstructed, or destroyed.

3. The world will inevitably improve as the scope of individual freedom grows. Technology—in particular the Internet—will motor this progression toward utopia.

4. The primary social ethic is tolerance of everyone’s self-defined quest for individual freedom and self-expression. Any deviation from this ethic of tolerance is dangerous and must not be tolerated.

5. Humans are inherently good.

6. Large-scale structures and institutions are suspicious at best and evil at worst.

7. Forms of external authority are rejected and personal authenticity is lauded.

So, recognize any of them? Maybe you can add more. Maybe also, you don’t fully endorse each and every one of them and would like to qualify here and there. Fair enough. I’m not here to defend the list, but to claim that, like it or not, be aware of it or not, our culture does shape us. It corrals us into certain ways of thinking, it limits our dreams, and in some ways diminishes our human potential. I don’t have the space (or perhaps the ability) to present a knock down argument for what I just wrote.

I think that its possible to live in the midst of a culture like ours, and be unaware of the beliefs that drive it.

How often have you heard or seen written, “Be true to yourself” or “It’s all about You”, or “You’re worth it”? The words change, but the principle behind it is a powerful one in our culture, shaping millions of lives every day. Of course, it’s not necessarily all bad to believe and follow that principle, but as an overarching principle for life it seems more than a little deceptive and shaky to me. What does it tell us is important about our relations with, and responsibilities toward, others?

The worship of tolerance is another phenomenon in our culture, except that we’re not really tolerant at all, are we? Well, as long as people share our beliefs, which, if they happen to be the socially responsible, earth friendly, diversity celebrating beliefs embraced by the elite, then all is rosy. Except I have never been able to understand how elevating tolerance above all else can not lead to anything but a clear example of intolerance.

If individual freedom and self expression are the highest good, and the self is the reference point for what is good, then what does that say about who we are as human beings? Are we then our own gods? The problem arises, and it always does, when the god in me and the god in you disagree on what “good” means.

We are encouraged in a host of ways, subtle and overt, to see ourselves as sophisticated and enlightened when we reject the notion of a transcendent creator God. If we continue to believe in such ‘fairy tales’, as the message goes, we ought to have the decency to keep that belief to ourselves. Our secular cousins can have free range for their beliefs, but ours are to remain hidden and private. Seems fair, or does it?

If there were any evidence at all that the rise in the number of people who reject faith in God is accompanied by a rise in general happiness, mental health and peaceful coexistence in society I would stop and take a good look at it. Alas the opposite is true. As we throw our faith away in the west and install ourselves as gods, we enjoy all the meaninglessness and ultimate hopelessness that attends that. Our lives are pointless, apart from the goals we set ourselves: wealth, power, self actualization and so on and so on. None of these things brings a sense of meaning, of connection, of being fully human.

“This is a culture in which we (are encouraged to*) believe that ultimately, life is meaningless, but we are insulated from the full horror of such a belief by the distracting and anesthetizing qualities of our public culture. Our existential angst is drowned out by cooking shows, discount airfares, smartphones, and celebrity gossip.” (Sayers quote)

“Without God, humans attempt to create a beautiful world, filled with fine foods, craftsmanship, fulfilling work, elegant forms, and creativity. Yet this beautiful world becomes a prison as humans are possessed by the things that they create. We are unable to understand or even see the world correctly as a gift from God, to be enjoyed, but not owned.” (Sayers quote)

Our western culture is leading us (or are we leading ourselves) into a place we do not want to be. I believe we were not made to be gods. We were not meant to live stunted alienated, meaningless lives. We were made to be fully human. That is one thing that many of us in the west today can not be sure we are any more.

* My insertion.

** I have edited some of the principles from the book, mostly to simplify them.

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Tough Love 2

(Grabbing some rest in Jaipur, India)

This post begins with a poem I’ve published previously but I’ve reworked it and here it is in a revised form. It sets the scene for the rest of the post.

Tough Love 2

Madness swells and seeps under doors.

The darkness in each of us seeks out its own.

We are blind mice

feeling for the exit

in a warehouse stalked by cats.

 

The anger of a thousand stolen childhoods,

shames inaction and smashes every excuse

for child sexual abuse.

Aromas of respectability become the stink

of yesterday’s household garbage.

Exposed and stripped of defence,

failed shepherds

spread their hands

and evade responsibility.

 

Transitioned into care,

yesterday’s people outlive their usefulness.

Independence reigned in to a choke hold.

Dignity denied them by others’ decisions;

all legal, sensible, faux compassion.

The children who consign them there,

confirm their own decline

in turn and in time.

 

A termination

on the strength of a prenatal scan.

Imperfect parents will try another time

for a perfect child.

This one flawed;

airbrushed out of a family’s history.

Binned as biological waste;

the child spared, at least,

the obscenity of parents like these.

 

Fragments of a hundred butchered innocents

lie on a hot black road;

litter left by soldiers of Allah.

An unfinished jigsaw of heads and limbs

sorted and ripped by beaks and talons.

Forget love and kindness.

Cruelty and violence are the price

of entry to paradise.

Who’d have thought?

 

Somewhere,

love is not set aside for the greater good,

explained away by self interest,

dishonoured through selfishness,

or perverted by pustulant ideology.

 

Somewhere,

people can be

who they were created to be.

……………………………………

 

“Somewhere love is not set aside . . .

This is an article of faith for me and my reason for writing this post. Somewhere there is a place where love is not set aside in favour of chasing other goals. A place where people can be safe and free to be who they were meant to be. I understand that place to be the kingdom of heaven; not a place in the sky with clouds and harps, but the kingdom of heaven right here, as Jesus described it.

I seek that place, and I’m committed to doing what I can to help the world be such a place. It’s not there yet. Not even close. The world continues to be a place where evil roams free, even as patches of light and hope shine through, giving hints of what might be possible.

(Friday afternoon drinks. A small patch of light and hope in the world.)

What sort of world do we live in?

The worlds of our parents and grandparents are gone, and to be honest, they were no more idyllic than ours is, just quite different. We would have to look hard now to find any of the things they would have seen as givens. Automatic respect for authority figures; heterosexual marriage and mother-father families being the norm; Sunday observance; social sanctions attached to divorce, and promiscuity, to list just a few.

In our world authority figures do not receive automatic respect. Their decisions and pronouncements are challenged routinely and defied openly. Marriage is no longer exclusively heterosexual, and marriage itself shares the stage with a variety of arrangements of varying formality. The term ‘partner’ is used in preference to ‘spouse’.

Social sanctions are now applied for totally different reasons than they used to be. Divorce remains an unpleasant, damaging experience, but no longer carries the social and legal sanctions it once had. Promiscuity is now celebrated and assumed to be the norm, although some interesting ethical acrobatics are needed to avoid being caught up on the wrong side of ideology (#metoo).

Not that such changes are all regretable. Easy divorce has had an upside for some people trapped in intolerable circumstances, but the proliferation of divorce has shaken families and weakened our culture. We like our Sundays the way they are. Not so much days of rest anymore, but still we enjoy them.

Promiscuity? We are saturated with messages, overt and subtle, that a promiscuous lifestyle is normal and desirable. Does experience tell us that promiscuity leads anywhere beneficial, or that widespread promiscuity is something any society can be proud of? Seriously

While some of us view these changes with some sadness, many more celebrate what we see as the overthrow of oppressive structures and traditions. Some of us are in both camps. We see the dishonesty, the hypocrisy and the injustice threaded through the institutions of earlier generations. We also see and give credit for the stability and the meaning they gave to people’s lives.

Turning our faces away from traditional values, we might have believed that by doing so we would be free to live more honest, moral lives.

Is that what’s happened?

Convincing ourselves more enlightened than our forebears, embracing our whims and preferences as the guiding moral compass for our lives, we have put ourselves at the centre of everything.

How’s that going for us? Sweetness and light is it?

Lest you think you smell sanctimony, I have more than enough to regret and be ashamed of. I listened to the whispered silky justifications, I was seduced by the promise that it was all about me. As long as I wasn’t hurting anyone, I should have been free to do what I liked. I had no right to judge anyone anyway. After all, aren’t right and wrong so passé? Surely such old fashioned ideas belonged in an earlier time? I remember one self assured woman correcting me for using the word ‘adultery’. “Do they still call it that?” she asked mockingly.

It occurs to me that’s what the western world has come to believe. By changing the language, the social mores and traditions, we consider we have moved to a higher moral plane. We have rewritten the moral code to suit our own preferences and we are free to do that which we are inclined to do. But does it change human nature, or does it make us the fools, blind to predictable consequences?

So, yes. There was much to condemn in the values and mores of the world of our parents.

There is much to be thankful for in new ways of looking at the world and in the lifting of oppressive, hypocritical laws and practices, but have we have got it right yet

Living life as an extended pursuit of indulgence, freedom to make our own choices, our own happiness and fulfillment, as if we were not dependent on others and they on us, has become the reason for being for many of us. Our pursuit of personal fulfillment can see us dismiss the trail of hurt and damage we leave behind, if we think of it at all, as collateral damage, regretable maybe, but an acceptable sacrifice for the greater good (our wants).

Be true to yourself.

Don’t judge.

Follow your heart.

If it feels good, do it.

No one has the right to tell you what to do.

Each of these memes contains some truth, but that does not mean they are the whole truth, or that they are the best way to organize our lives

For all the ways we are encouraged to think of ourselves as free and uninhibited, are we as free as we think? In our culture diversity is seen to be a self evident good; except of course, diversity of thought. Try expressing reservations about some of the memes above and note the reaction

So how do I go about countering a worldview that’s seduced the western world so thoroughly that many people now see it as self evident, beyond questioning? A big ask, I know.

It’s just when you stop, step outside, and look around, you realise that it’s a seductive facade. It’s a lie. An attractive and seductive one, but a lie nonetheless. One leading us away from the kingdom of heaven I mentioned earlier; the place where love is not set aside; the place where we can be fully human.

We are more than our cleverness, the nastiness we cultivate, the selfishness we flaunt, and the misery we ignore. These things do not define who we are.

There is an answer of course. There is a path to follow. So many of us have rejected what we imagined was the Christian message. We rejected a caricature. The established church has much to answer for in that.

The Christian gospel is far more shocking and subversive than any adolescent arrogance could have imagined.

Maybe it’s time to look again with adult eyes at Jesus and to weigh his message in the light of your experience. Like me, you may be blown away.

A Life Worthwhile

A Life worthwhile.
 
I've posted on this theme before, but this afternoon I feel the need to continue the conversation, even if this post maybe needs more time spent on it.
 
(Waterfall in Erawan National Park, Thailand)
 
 
Might there be a recipe for a worthwhile life? A formula? A user's manual? A hack?
 
Don't know really, although I suspect there is some good advice here and there.
 
 
Hundreds of priests, sages, gurus and life coaches will tell you such things exist. Not all of them will charge you for the information.
 
You will be pleased to know I'm not in the business of charging for sharing wisdom. Nor am I in the business of preaching, advising, or (hopefully) patronising. Nevertheless I do have some thoughts on the topic, and here they are, incomplete and hopelessly generalised:
 
A life that is worthwhile is one for which I am grateful. I could leave it at that, because that sentence, properly understood, is the key to much wisdom. But since I've begun, thoughts flow from this.
 
A life worthwhile is one in which I stay humble, in which I take time to think, to weigh up. I realise my life isn't and never was all about me.
 
I know my own mind, my values, and what I would be prepared to die for. It is a life in which I recognise and remember what is important and what is not.
 
Through many false starts and blind alleys, I begin to understand that how materially successful I am, how much I earn, how much I own, how attractive I am, has no bearing on how much I matter in the scheme of things. I learn to accept others (who all also matter in the scheme of things).
(Street sweeper in Delhi)
 
 
Because I understand its not all about me, I have time for others. I hold their love and their dreams gently.
 
I don't know why I am, or even what life is, so I accept all of it as a gift. I accept I have been created by a loving God whom I worship naturally instead of myself. I realise not everyone will agree. I have given up worrying about that. Religion has a bad press in some arenas, and deservedly so. There is too much temptation to strangle ourselves in misunderstood dogma and to create a monster that imprisons us, rather than frees us. I'd better stop there or I might begin to preach.
 
((Taken in a UNESCO protected temple complex in Kanchanaburi, Thailand)
(Lady in a village in Armenia)
 
 
I know the world is not perfect and that many of my brothers and sisters have not seen justice and love in their lives as I have. I talk to God about this. I don't often understand God's answers.
 
 
Notice I've used “I” exclusively?
 
You need to work out your own path. Hard work, but you don't need to do it alone.
 
 
(We're all different. Each of us matters.)
 
 
 
 

Early Birds have Irrational Thoughts

 
 
The day has barely begun. There's not much happening at the coffee shop.
 
The sun is yet to make an appearance but it's light enough for street lamps to be redundant at 6.15 am. The proprietor is busy arranging furniture and adjusting signage as I walk in, but smiles as he sees me. As is customary, mine is the first coffee of the day to be served.
 
Our conversation is as bright as it is predictable. I find a seat: Is it always the same table? I resolve to vary this detail on my next visit. I did realise I might be habit bound when he told me I was 'late' one morning. That was some time after he had begun ringing up my order on the till before I had given it.
 
It's not that I seek out predictability. Mornings however, need to have a structure. My brain needs time to warm up, just like car engines used to, until they were ready to purr smoothly. I remember one superior officer's less than subtle observation many years ago that the young recruit in front of him was not a morning person. Not much has changed since. Kind of comforting in a way that the old me is still there.
 
This morning sees moored boats swing with the tide, pelicans slice wakes through glassy water, walkers in pairs and single joggers, crisp air, and coffee in a warm mug. By the time the coffee is finished, the sun is up and glaring, seagulls are wheeling and vehicle traffic is beginning to interfere with the serenity. I am ready to face the day.
 
In this precious half hour or so, before my brain is functioning at full efficiency, thoughts surface that might otherwise stay lost in the background. I nudge them and turn them over, before deciding if they are worth pursuing. Maybe my early morning brain is sort of like a slow cooker: The ingredients need to sit for a while before they're ready for the table.
 
Rumours of thoughts materialise gently, presenting themselves almost like debutantes, anxious to make an impression, but not expecting to be taken too seriously.
 
For example, as I rotate the coffee cup on its saucer and rearrange the teaspoon, I begin to wonder at how incredible it is that I am here at all. This morning. This cafe. This city. This planet. Why am I at all? Why am I? Why?
 
What is my life? Is it something to be endured before dropping onto the ground and shriveling like a discarded apple core? Am I something more than a set of quantum interactions? For that matter, why do quanta interact at all? Why is there something rather than nothing?
 
(At about this time the coffee is usually getting low and the day beckons).
 
Lot's of half formed thoughts. The permutations are as many as there are mornings to sit here drinking coffee. Precious few useful answers though . . . except for one:
 
After my share of lived experiences, a (very) little wisdom has found its way to my door. This wisdom tells me not to give up wondering, or to give up thinking thoughts for which there are no neat answers. It also tells me that it is good to remember that the world can get on really quite well without me at the wheel.
 
Perhaps then, it might be ok for me to relax and accept my existence as irrational; beyond my ability to explain it, since it seems to be real anyway.
 
Just as I have an irrational trust in love and friendship.
 
Just as I marvel irrationally at the power of forgiveness.
 
Just as is my irrational faith in a God I cannot understand.
 
I could go on.
 
Never mind. It's a start, and the coffee's good.
 
 
 

A Life of Dreams

(Image of the Carina Nebula – Wikicommons)
 
 
I'm the first to admit it. I'm a nerd. A dreamy nerd, but a nerd.
Have been, on and off, right through my life. Now in my sixties I'm more adept at reading social cues than I used to be, and have learned to temper the hard angles of my nerdishness, but looking back at the nerdish boy-man of yesteryear I see a pattern.
 
As a boy I liked to read much more than to play sport. Still do, but that's more of a physical imperative now, with aches and pains and such. I lived in my mind then, designing intricate palaces, imagining great adventures in this world and out of it. I would spend hours inventing board games and playing them by myself. When encyclopedias were books, I revered them, leafing through and vacuuming up information about everything and nothing.
 
As I said, I was a little different . . . to say the least. A nerd.
 
Gadgets fascinated me; not so much fixing them, but using and understanding them. I was pretty much clueless when it came to repairs. The only workshop I felt comfortable in, was the one inside my mind.
 
And then I discovered astronomy. With a school friend who shared my passion, we would spend nights in the back yard gazing through small telescopes, entranced by what we saw and developing an encyclopedic knowledge of the night sky.
 
Yeah, I know . . . risk takers we were . . . adventurers. When other young teen males were dreaming of their sporting heroes, pop music, cars they would like to own, or girls, our dreams were extraterrestrial.
 
Astronomy was the first of a series of interests to grab me and inspire me to dream. As it turned out my mathematics scores did not let me realise my dreams of becoming an astronomer, and in hindsight that was no bad thing. You see, although I didn't know it, I was barking up the wrong tree as they say. Along with the wonder and physical beauty of the universe, which I love to this day, I had absorbed a trusting belief that the answer to my dreams was out there somewhere waiting for me to discover it. Sort of like Douglas Adams' boffins in his book “Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy” when they asked the great god-like super computer for the answer to 'life, the universe and everything'. The answer they got was 42.
 
Just as I did eventually, those boffins walked away glumly, disillusioned, except it took me a good few years, a physics degree, wrong turns and blind alleys to realise I'd been sold a pup. Ever slow to see the really important things in life, it was only in the fullness of years that I began to appreciate that although there might be exciting dreams aplenty in science and technology, my dreams were now to be found in an entirely different direction.
 
Mind you, I admit I remain prone to bouts of nerdish indulgence. I'm more excited about the latest toy drone I'm flying in the lounge room than is my grandson who has just received it as a birthday present. I'm interested in reference material of all types: Data tables of vehicle performance; Google Maps; Google Earth; optical devices; wiring diagrams of all types. These are but a few of my remaining guilty pleasures. Furthermore I read books on byzantine history, political analysis, German and Italian language learning, and I am learning to play classical guitar. There, I've said it! What a weight off my conscience. Us nerds carry a lot of guilt about being different.
 
But, where was I? Yes, my dreams. Nerds have them no less than most people, you know.
 
I used to dream about gadgets. It seems to me that gadgets are gadgets, and as fascinating and addictive as they may be, they remain gadgets. Computers, wireless devices, CAT scanners, GPS modules, hadron colliders, telescopes. Some of them produce data and information. Some of that is meaningful to me. None of it is the stuff of my dreams now.
 
Which begs the question: What does a nerdish old man dream?
 
My old school friend reminded me this morning via email of our shared interest in astronomy as boys and it inspired me to write this blog entry. Not surprisingly, my dreams have evolved along with me in the decades since those evenings in the back yard with a telescope. Dreams of what I would do with my life are no longer relevant. Such dreams have been rendered obsolete by the passage of time. I know what I am doing with my life now, and I am content.
 
Possibilities of meeting alien life forms or communicating with them via sophisticated gadgetry no longer seem quite so likely. The answer may be out there somewhere, but I didn't ever find it, and my questions, and dreams, are different now.
 
Now I dream of being accepted and valued for who I am: an old guy with nerdy tendencies, some of which he has learned to temper.
I dream of letting go of self importance and of embracing humility.
I dream of letting go of the need to know and to be in control.
I dream my wife, children and grandchildren will know I love them unreservedly.
I dream of being a good and true friend.
I dream of bringing smiles to people who need them.
I dream of being as one with my creator.
 
(Image of the Crab Nebula – Wikicommons)
 
 
 
So, the dreams change, bringing with them different questions that have different answers.
 
 
I guess life is about people, not gadgets. If you knew that all along, why didn't you sit me down and explain it to me when I was young?
 
(Image – Wikicommons)
 
 
In a life of dreams, I have indeed been a slow learner.
 

Beginnings and Endings

 
 
I had the chance to hold my newest grandson, Finn, a week or so ago. I imagined the great adventure his life would be. I won't be able to share more than a little of it with him, but I hope throughout he has someone to love him.
 
I crossed paths recently with a person at the other end of her life, who has not been so lucky.
 
I volunteer at a local hospice for people in the final stages of their lives. I answer phones, greet visitors, get them cups of tea or coffee, and chat with anyone who needs a bit of company. There's a constant stream of people. Most residents stay with us only a few weeks. Faces and identities tend to blur but a small number stay in memory for one reason or another.
 
Sitting alone on a chair in a corner of an unlit room, she travelled light in the world. So light she was barely there. Silent and motionless, it was tempting to wonder if she were a fixture, thoughtfully placed in the room by a decorator, along with prints, cushions and vases.
 
It was hard to be sure, but I guessed she was quite old. Her stranded, untended grey hair fell haphazardly to her shoulders, her face mostly hidden behind a gauze bandage. Her arms were scarred, blotched and unmoving. Beyond the reach of modern medicine, as are all our residents, her file would have been marked 'not for resuscitation'.
 
Her room opened onto an outdoor garden area where colourful birds hopped along branches and squabbled on large green leaves. She didn't notice them.
 
As I said, she travelled light.
 
I don't know how long she had been sitting there. I guess the nurses would have woken her in the morning and helped her into her chair. To count down another day from the few she had left in this hospice for the dying.
 
Sitting. Not moving. Not saying. Not seeing.
 
Thinking? Dreaming? Remembering? Worrying? Hoping? Praying? There was no indication what was happening behind her one uncovered eye.
 
I walked past her door more than once and hesitated. There didn't seem a lot of point going in and speaking to her. I have this issue you see. I would have been embarassed if she had been unable to speak. Easier for me to walk past as she sat statue like, waiting for her life to drain away.
 
As I left at the end of my shift, her silhouette came along with me, like an image on a retina after the eye closes on a bright, glarey object. Who was she? Who had she been?
 
Someone had held her once, just as I had held Finn, and dreamed of what her life would be like. That great life adventure was of no interest to anyone now; maybe not even herself.
 
I'm sorry I didn't walk in and say hello when I had the chance; maybe sitting with her awhile. Cut off from human company and left to sit woodenly in a darkened corner, her life tide ebbing, when the sky outside was so bright and birds tumbled through the leaves.
 
 
 

Moments of Insight

Quiet reflection can be a life-giving activity, but also a subversive one. Mystics have known this for thousands of years. I have not known it for nearly so long.
(Beach just south of Fingal Headland, New South Wales, Australia. A very good place for reflection.)
 
 
I find quiet time can disperse some of the white noise of daily routine; the fog that prevents me distinguishing what is important from what is just pressing. For me, time spent in quiet reflection, away from busyness, clears the bugs; the buzzing, irritating, biting insects that have me swatting and batting at them. Without quiet time, I'm continually distracted by the urgent, and oblivious to underlying reality.
 
But there is a catch.
 
Quiet reflection also creates space for awkward questions to surface in me; questions that remain unasked when busyness crowds them out.
 
Notice I speak for myself?
 
As tempted as I am to generalise, judge and pontificate on a range of topics, a little thinking helps me realise I do not speak for anybody apart from myself on any topic at all. So, with that admission, I share the following thought:
 
(Wood pile in fog near Thiersee, Austria. Another place for reflection.)
 
 
I have a lot to be thankful for.
 
I wake up each morning (at least so far). I am not as rich as I would like to be, but I have all that I need and much more. Compared to very many of my fellow human beings I am rich beyond words. I waste more than many people need to survive on. I have only occasionally felt hungry, and never been really hungry, that I can remember. I do not live in continual fear. My children are well cared for, safe, and are thoughtful, kind human beings. I am loved. I do not live in pain. I can walk around. I can speak. I have my memory. I know my own value and am comfortable in my own skin.
 
Of course I have had my disappointments and suffered injustices; all neatly catalogued in my mind. But in the times I reflect quietly, I remember I have done things now and again of which I am not proud. I know that I have been the agent of hurt and injustice suffered by others. I am reminded that apart from a series of happy coincidences, my life could have been unimaginably less comfortable, more painful, and without any of the blessings I take for granted.
 
When I take time to reflect quietly, I know that my whole life so far has been a gift that I have not earned.
 
How fortunate I am. And how subdued I feel when I sit quietly and realise that gratitude is not often the first thought that occurs to me. Gratitude? I would prefer to compare myself with others and whinge at how unfair life is. What a stupid waste of time, when all around me is evidence to the contrary if I choose to see it.
 
I have a lot to be thankful for. Not in a smug way; in simplicity and in humility.
 
I realise, on reflection, that taking the time to be grateful doesn't leave me enough time to feel aggrieved or sorry for myself. But it leaves plenty of time to see the distress of others and to respond to it.
 
That is my challenge. I cannot speak for you.
 
 
(Church pews in St Peter's Chapel Perugia, Italy. Made for reflection.)
 

The Sadness of Labels

 
 
I've written on this previously, but the world, by and large, hasn't taken much notice.
 
Perhaps then, one more try will do the trick?
 
Online comments tacked on to the end of media reports often depress me. You know, where readers vent? It's not so much the lack of grammar, spelling, or abusive put-downs (bad as they are), that bothers me, but the almost complete lack of anything resembling conversation. The communication in these venues, if you can call it that, is pretty much like that of pre-schoolers and because of that, is pretty much pointless.
 
One of the comments at the end of one opinion piece this morning, bucked the trend, and pressed my interest button:
 
“So many people talking but in separate orbits often so not really knowing what the whole 'conversation' is. So much for the global electronically connected village, eh?”
 
This wise observation nails my concern. We don't listen to each other. We talk at each other: parallel conversations going nowhere and contributing to the white noise of alienation. As well as filling electronic pages with self centred twaddle, we just love to use labels, don't we?
 
Unfortunately, labels have a down side. They can remove the need for empathy at times when we badly need to show it. Labels can make the people less visible and less human. A nuance, like the value of another person, evaporates in the heat generated when we use labels. We can say things and think things and do things to labels that we would not do to living, breathing people.
 
Labels can be used as weapons against ideas as well as against individuals; quite handy for shutting down communication and stopping debate. Labelling an idea “offensive” places it somewhere we don't need to consider it seriously or respectfully any more. It shuts down debate, and also, most likely, prevents any possibility of resolution. There are others like that one that are quite handy for the same purpose: 'Racist'; 'Homophobic'; 'Islamophobic'; 'Queue jumper; 'Fascist'; 'Subversive'; 'Medieval'; and so on (the list is long).
 
You know the labels people use. Like me, you probably use them too. I am certainly no saint (another label). I can see the failings and the stupidity of others with crystal clarity. Unfortunately, as valuable as such ability undoubtedly is, and however righteous it helps me to feel, I can also see that it serves only to build walls. The labels I assign so freely do a similar thing. Not only do they prevent me seeing my fellow human beings, they prevent me from listening to their wisdom. All right, some have more or less than others, but you get what I mean.
 
 
If I had begun this post by saying I believed the western world faced an existential threat from muslim extremism, would you have immediately reached for a label to attach to me or a box in which to place me?
 
I have a deep seated sadness in me at what has become of us in this messed up world. I don't think we need to sit in a circle holding hands, singing songs of international goodwill. That would just allow the wolves free reign. Some threats need to be identified and dealt with accordingly.
 
That deep seated sadness in me, however, will not be healed by the necessary elimination of existential threats, nor the resort to labels to shut discussion down. For me the path to healing is the path that takes me to my neighbour's door with a listening ear.
 
 

The Spirit of Japan in Six Photographs

Ok. make that Eight Photographs.

My recent short visit to Japan was a rich experience on a number of levels. It left me marvelling at a country that has adapted so well to western culture while keeping its own traditions and heritage intact. Not many countries have managed to do that anywhere near as well.

It seems to me as if the Japanese might have beaten us at our own game. They have borrowed what they want from us, adapted it, turned it on its head, pushed it to the limits, and sent it back to us sometimes only barely recognisable. Manga culture is a case in point.
 
The neon garishness and hi-tech extravaganza of Tokyo and other larger cities is part of modern Japan, but it is not its soul. There is a much more subtle and noble spirit in Japanese culture that has nothing at all to do with brashness and materialism. It is that spirit which continues to pervade Japanese culture; a spirit the West has largely lost, and is now sadly utterly alien to mainstream western minds. It is that spirit that has left a deep impression on me and, I hope, a life changing one.
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Unlike the culture of most western countries, especially my own, Japanese culture is a deeply religious one. Shinto-Buddhism and its variants remains very much part of life in modern Japan. Family ties seem to be stronger than they are in the West. I haven't consulted any research on that but it seems obviously true to me, even after a short visit. From what I saw, older people are shown respect and children are nurtured lovingly while being trained in courtesy and responsibility.
 
In my country, we worship youth and have thrown away our traditions. Older people are not looked to for advice, but are treated as nuisances. We think it is a regretful, even shameful, thing to be growing old, and we try all manner of strategies to avoid the reality of ageing, not to mention the inevitability of death.
 
The denialism we cling to in such matters is sad, even pathetic when looked at from the outside. We have middle aged and older men dressing like boys on skateboards, and middle aged and older women dressing as if they were in the bloom of maidenhood. Neither group fools anyone except themselves. Both groups embrace the lie that tells them their value is tied up with their appearance and diminishes with age. Wrinkles and saggy muscles are the ultimate taboo in western culture.
 
I sensed a very different attitude and outlook among Japanese people. I am not sure I've got this absolutely correct but it seemed to me their value was tied in to their family, traditions and religious beliefs. These things do not change with the ageing process. An old person has just as valid a place in Japanese society as a young person. It might be a different place, because biology dictates what we can and cannot do physically, but it is nevertheless a place of honour.
 
I found myself thinking about death as a Japanese might. Or perhaps I should say, I found myself thinking about ageing and death from a very different perspective from that which surrounds me in my own country. Here, we avoid mentioning death. When we can no longer avoid it, we talk about 'passing away' or some such ridiculous euphemism.
 
I read somewhere that someone described people in western culture as 'living as if we will never die, and when we come to the point of dying, dying as if we have never lived'. Not an edifying image? Maybe I should google that to check its source, but I can't be bothered. You get the point I hope. The contrast between our western attitudes to ageing and death and those in Japanese culture, cannot be starker.
 
 
Theirs is a gentler accepting approach, knowing they are in the bosom of family, in synch with ancestors, and in harmony with nature. Ours is an adolescent approach out of synch with our companions and with nature, where it's all about us and we are never going to die; except of course, we do.
 
The superficial materialistic way we live our lives in the West seems to me beneath contempt. It is just sad. My visit to Japan confirmed this for me, if I needed reminding.
 
The Japanese way of dealing with grief also left a strong impression on me. My visit to the Hiroshima atomic bomb site and Peace Park taught me a lasting lesson in the space of an hour or so. Initially I felt anger and sadness at what had happened here seventy years ago. As I've said earlier in another blog entry, I understand why the bomb needed to be dropped. I am just so relieved I wasn't in the position of having to decide to do it. I do not think I could have carried that responsibility.
 
 
I'm not sure where I read it, but apparently people who were in Hiroshima on that day said the explosion sounded like the low, deep, resonant gong of a temple bell. Ever since then I have not been able to hear one rung without imagining myself on the ground in Hirishima in 1945, hearing that sound and looking up.
 
Anyway, the sense of peace and acceptance together with undaunted optism for the future that was evident everywhere in and around the Peace Park in Hirishima will, I hope remain with me as long as I live. Not for Hiroshima a grief that is held close and left unresolved to simmer. I did not sense any residual resentment. Yes, there was sadness, but I saw serenity and a preparedness to go forward in hope. Surely this is a lesson to all of us, if we want to hear it.
 
I left Japan with a profound sense of well being and calm. I am not a Buddhist and have no plan to change to become one, but I have learned some things from that tradition. If anything, the Japan experience is working within me to help me become a gentler, more accepting Christian; a Christian more aware of, and at ease with the transitory nature of life and the inevitability of death.
 
For that I am grateful.
 
 
 
 

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