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.

Advertisements

A Cheeky Manifesto

(Looking up towards the Old Man of Stour, Isle of Skye, Scotland. One of my favourite places)

[Manifesto A public declaration of intentions or opinions. A list of principles.]

I’ve challenged myself to distil some principles for living authentically and faithfully in a secular culture. I am me, and I am comfortable in my skin. I am not an exceptionally holy or good Christian, as I’ve tried to make clear in what follows. I wrote this as an exercise in reflection, not to dismiss people who think differently. It’s more a checklist that helps me clarify what I can and should bend with, and what warrants my active resistance to the status quo.

It’s not complete of course; more a living document than a definitive one. I hope you find it interesting or food for thought.

So, to begin, in no particular order.

Some things matter. Some don’t. Things like wealth and possessions seem like they matter, but they don’t. On the other hand, people always matter. It’s wise to hesitate before putting principles and things ahead of people.

Winning arguments doesn’t matter, but giving in and compromising values in the face of bullying is cowardice, and does matter greatly.

It’s tempting to look for simple solutions and pat answers. It can also be foolish.

There are all sorts of simple remedies for complex problems. Some would be effective if people were willing to listen to them. Be kind. Work hard. Give generously. Have respect. Spend wisely. Avoid blaming. Drive carefully. But then I guess we don’t like listening to advice, do we?

Life is complex and messy. People are too, and sometimes they need some slack cut for them. Certain behaviours and choices don’t warrant my approval, but neither do I need to spend my life running around condemning them.

I will resist the temptation to apologise for who I am. Admitting to having Christian faith carries a social cost. It is regarded variously with degrees of embarassment, amusement or contempt. The surest way to silence a social gathering is to mention the God or Jesus words. I will be polite and sensitive, but I will say what I think and believe regardless of any social cost.

Religion and faith are two quite different things. One does not presuppose the other. Religion is about outward conformity with ceremonies, rules, dogma, and power structures. Churches generally do religion quite well. Faith on the other hand is an intensely personal thing, not governed easily by those rules, dogmas or power structures. In my experience, churches do not do faith as well as they do religion. As I grow older I am becoming less religious and more faithful.

Life is a gift. It is not to be taken lightly or thrown away. Killing someone is wrong, whether it is done in retribution, in a fit of temper, or for social convenience. Abortion and euthanasia come to mind here, as although both practices have powerful emotive justifications, killing is what they involve, and killing is what they are. I should and will speak out against the unjust taking of life.

Having said that, I can think of a few scenarios when I would be sorely tempted to take someone else’s life.

I’ll take miracles when they come, every time. Some would rather tell me at length and tediously why miracles are impossible and that only stupid people would believe they occur. I leave them to their opinions. May they bring them comfort.

A lot of people I know have dismissed Jesus Christ on the basis of caricatures met as a child, or as a result of abuses committed by churches in his name. They would do well to reconsider with adult eyes. His message of radical love transforms lives and undermines the power structures of secular society (and churches). Today the establishment ignores him, ridicules his followers and thinks it has won. They have never understood who they are dealing with.

Prayer is not just a wish list, like something I might once have left in a Christmas stocking. Closer to me than my breath or my heartbeat, it transcends time and space, and opens dimensions of experience those bound in the everyday could not imagine. When I pray I can be completely myself, open to my creator God. That’s on a good day. Sometimes I admit I stare at my hands and wait for inspiration that doesn’t come.

Truth is not determined by popular or majority opinion. Wrong does not become right, or right become wrong simply because 51% of citizens vote that way. My conscience and values are not manipulated by popular opinion. That doesn’t mean I don’t listen to and learn from others, or never change my attitudes. It means just what it says.

Evil is real. It is personal and it walks among us. Those who ignore or deny the existence of evil aren’t paying attention.

It’s not all about me. Our culture has been obsessed with self gratification for so long now, it seems natural and a self evident good.

It is not. We have allowed ourselves to be conned.

How often have I heard “I/we should be able to do whatever I/we like as long as we are not hurting anyone else” trotted out to justify a self indulgent choice? It is a nonsense; a deceptive argument. How can I know I’m not hurting anyone else? I am not a reliable judge of whether others are unaffected by my selfishness. The ‘not hurting anyone’ defence of self indulgent, decadent life choices deserves nothing but contempt. Having said that, I’m rather fond of wine and can become a tad defensive when my wife suggests I might be too fond of it.

It is not wise to worship myself. If I value my choices, my desires, my interests, above those of my fellow travellers (and don’t we all, here and there and now and then), I am effectively worshipping myself. Placing myself at the centre of things is delusional and ultimately destructive.

In the same way, trying to control other people, in whatever way I try to do it, is self defeating, as the very intention and act diminishes both myself and those I seek to dominate. Humility doesn’t come naturally, but anything less is inevitably an abuse of power. Removing myself from the throne of self regard is a step on the road to genuinely appreciating others and becoming fully human.

Turning the other cheek’ is a misunderstood and misused Christian principle. It does not mean Christians should make wimpy doormats of themselves. Turning the other cheek can be an act of defiance when my adversary seeks to make me cower. It is a metaphor for non violent resistance. Meekness is a world away from subservience. However, in confronting evil, I should be careful not to become that which I resist by fighting evil with evil. I should be careful, for example, that my blog posts do not reflect the ugliness that characterises much commentary on social media. Abuse, name calling and demonising those who see things differently is always counter productive. It never leads to a just solution, or brings people together. However, driving in traffic, sitting in meetings, or waiting in supermarket checkout lines, I can tend to forget this.

I should remember that confronting evil can exact a high personal price. Talk is cheap. Standing up in the face of evil can not only cost me my peace of mind, my friends and my reputation. It could cost me my freedom and my life. I am not a particularly brave person however, and am not prone to poking my head above the parapet, except in blog posts.

I could go on, but will content myself with an executive summary:

Western culture seeks to have me adapt my faith to fit with its norms. Ultimately, when push comes to shove, I reserve the right to refuse. I hope the necessary courage is there when I need it.

Thanks for reading.

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.

Spirit Gallery

I have about 10000 photos stored from the last few years. I sometimes browse through them for inspiration or to make sense of whatever is on my mind. Sometimes words fall short you see.

These seven below say things from within me that I suspect I would struggle to express in a truckload of words.

In different ways they speak of humanity, human failings, feelings of loss and of love. As I sit here and think about it, they also pretty much distill my values.

While some are self explanatory (I hope), the child’s tricycle was one taken from the ruins of Hiroshima and it leaves me indescribably sad; and the final three are of (most of) my grandchildren, every one of whom fills me with indescribable joy.

Little Steps

(Hill of Crosses, Lithuania. August 2017)

If you ever find yourself driving in north west Lithuania, you may stumble upon a very unusual site a couple of kilometres off the main road north of Siauliai. Sadly, it is poorly signposted and unless you were looking for it you would probably drive straight past.

It is a low hill, no higher than a three storey building and a few house blocks in area, and covered by hundreds of thousands of wooden crosses. Tourist buses and private cars jam into an adjacent carpark, bringing thousands of visitors and pilgrims, many of whom leave crosses (as we did) to add to the collection already there.

The practice of leaving crosses there began in the nineteenth century after a peasants’ revolt. Last century soviet authorities bulldozed the place three times, only to see more crosses appear after their machinery was gone. Today it’s a place of pilgrimage, commemorating among other things non violent resistance to the years of soviet rule.

I had almost forgotten about the Hill of Crosses until I wrote my most recent blog post. You might recall I was asking myself some questions about how I should respond to a culture increasingly hostile to my values and unsympathetic to expressions of faith. (Well, that was, more or less, what I was saying).

Since then I’ve been reminded that I have no right to expect the world to conform to my values or give me an easy ride, although for as long as I remember that’s been more or less the case. Until recently, there has been a broad public consensus on values and belief. Governments and their laws reflected this consensus. Not any more. There has been a tectonic shift in recent years. I accept that. I also understand that I can no longer rely on having my values reinforced by government. The result of the national survey on homosexual marriage confirmed this and it shook me. But if I’m honest, I will concede that this survey was simply the latest in a long series of steps western society has taken away from the umbrella of Christendom that has existed since the time of the Roman empire. The shift has been gathering pace for years, is now unstoppable, and may not be wholly a bad thing.

Now that I’m over the shock, I can stand back and begin to see things in perspective. I am sensing a way forward: Not to start building a hill of crosses, but to be inspired by the people who did.

Some observations that occur to me, in no particular order:

Followers of all religions, but most definitely Christians, are going to have to get used to living in the midst of a society at best ambivalent towards them, and at worst openly hostile. So get used to it, I tell myself. In a way, I think it will be a good thing for Christians to be on the outer. It is exactly where the early church found itself. Early Christians coped and the church thrived under oppression, and so, I suspect, will we.

Evil in our world is as widespread and pervasive as it has ever been. It permeates every corner of society including, of course, the established Christian church. Notwithstanding the evil of the sexual predators, the church compromised its moral authority completely in the eyes of the wider society when it completely mishandled the issue of sexual abuse in its institutions. People are no longer listening to moral pronouncements from the church, and why, I ask myself, would they?

Evil is having a field day. It stretches its arms to infect our society at all levels and in all places. It takes many forms and it is absolutely real. I’m not going to try and prove that. If you don’t believe me, there is no point in a conversation and you are unlikely to be still reading this anyway.

Christians have a role and a duty to confront evil however and wherever they find it; not with violence or any of the methods evil itself uses to oppress people. Christians are called to follow the example of Jesus who confronted evil at every turn by reminding its victims they counted, by refusing to follow dictates that oppressed people, and most importantly of all, by standing up to evil and staring it in the face, without offering violence in return.

Confronting evil calls attention to it and leaves it nowhere to hide. Offering violence is simply returning evil for evil and increases rather than decreases it. Choosing not to return the violence that evil does is the way of Jesus and is the only way it can be defeated. Confronting evil is not an easy thing to do. It does not come without a price, often a heavy one, and a Christian should ask themselves what price they are willing to pay. I am beginning to understand this. I have been a slow learner.

In this sense I think organisations like the Australian Christian Lobby, although their intentions are noble, do themselves and their cause a disservice by trading insults with political enemies. Abusing or denigrating your political opponents is repaying evil with evil. Seeking to oppress your enemies through legislation favouring Christians is counterproductive and misguided.

I rather like the example of people like Martin Luther King and Mahatma Ghandi in this regard. Both understood that responding to violence and oppression with violence is self defeating; it simply escalates the violence. Both also understood that evil needs to be confronted, not condoned, accepted or ignored.

I realise of course that non violent confrontation and protest have a chequered history too. It is a very difficult thing to do to counter violence and oppression (evil) by not resorting to the very same methods. Few manage to do it well. Nevertheless the way of nonviolent confrontation seems to me to be the way a Christian might most effectively and (to their faith) authentically respond to evil in all its forms. A few examples off the top of my head. They range from the general to the specific:

Confronting selfishness by being unselfish.

Confronting greed by turning away from materialism.

Confronting bullying in all its many forms by summoning the courage to intervene.

Confronting alienation by listening more to people and talking less.

Confronting loneliness by saying hello to strangers and smiling at them.

Confronting tribalism by listening to and giving the time of day to those with different beliefs.

Confronting secular propaganda in schools by assertive approaches to governing bodies.

Confronting addictions of all kinds by holding a mirror up to society.

Confronting bad laws by picketing a government office peacefully and quietly.

To sum up, living the Christian life authentically by being true to my calling, confronting evil and oppression, and being difficult to ignore.

Little steps. It’s worth a try I think.

Certain Delusions

 

 

 

 

The decades have passed almost without my noticing. I’ve mellowed. Those powerful youthful certainties, towering passions and cruel emotions have ebbed away with the hormones that stirred them. I’m comfortable in my own skin now, more or less. I’ve learned to recognise the battles worth fighting, and ditches worth dying in.

 

While there are certainly still battles worth fighting, there are now fewer ditches I would choose to die in. Those that remain seem so clear to me, so fundamental, so bleeding obvious. If only people would listen! But they don’t.

 

They wont, any more than the younger me did when truths were simpler, possibilities were many, and freedom was a word that resonated through my soul.

 

I ask different questions now. I value different answers.

 

Which is the bigger delusion then? The brittle arrogance of youth or the patronising wisdom of age? Is it possible they are flip sides of the same thing? Who would have wanted to miss out on the power and the impetuousness of their youth? Who at the time would have swapped it for sensible, safe and cautious?

 

Some of us don’t survive our youth. A few of us never outgrow it. For the rest of us, caution and wisdom grow from the seeds of mistakes that went with the territory. I speak only for myself here, but I don’t want my youth back. I grieve for it, but like a butterfly in the wind, it’s gone. Wisdom is the compensation. Wisdom, and acceptance, starting with acceptance of myself and extending it to others.

 

I should clarify something. Acceptance is not the same thing as approval. Far from it. This is where wisdom begins for me. Accepting other people as they are does not mean that I need to approve of them or things they do. They do not need my approval, any more than I need theirs. It’s nice of course, but unnecessary, and counterproductive if we make it an overarching aim to be approved of by others. For me, approval is a personal thing, a testament to who I am down deep. I’ll award or withhold it as I see fit.

 

Now, where was I?

 

Lost in my delusions, that’s where. In my more expansive moments, I concede the arrogance of youth is no more a delusion than my thinking I have now tamed wisdom. We grasp at certainties, and having caught some, cling to them at all costs, even at the expense of discounting the humanity of those who see things differently.

 

In so many ways I see us divided into camps, dismissing those holding opposing views as stupid or perfidious (one commonly applied cliche is ‘hateful’ I believe). We deny the personhood of those in the opposing camp. Politics has descended to this. Look around you and say it’s not so. We have done this to ourselves, at least partly because we crave certainty and are uncomfortable with ambiguity.

 

I sit comfortably with ambiguity. I do not and never will have enough insight to be able to judge other people with authority (although I admit I haven’t always remembered that). I don’t approve of everything I see around me, but I don’t believe I hold all the answers either. Nevertheless I hold some beliefs deeply and without compromise.

 

This does not of itself make me a bigot. My certainties do not imprison me; they free me to accept and make allowances for those who are so certain of themselves they would deny me my humanity.

 

So, which ditches would I die in now? As I said earlier, not too many, but I’m wise enough to keep my powder dry and not list them here. If and when they come for me, I’ll be waiting in one of my choosing.

All Sorts of Believers

What truth will raise you
above bigots, beyond hate;
apart and superior
to all with a different take?

Might you find it in a sacred book,
or some mystic’s secret locker;
your own personal dragon slayer
and conversation stopper?

Or

imagine rights and justice,
deliverence for the poor,
and imagine others never stood
on a pedestal as sure?

Or

join the righteous and enlightened,
freed from superstition.
Deify science, misrepresent it
and fight all opposition?

And

blind to your arrogance;
oblivious to your prejudice;
jump to condemn
the truth quest in others.

Start a truth collection.
Grasp and shape your prize.
Gaze at its reflection;
watch the ugliness rise.

Two more Poems

Gazing at Buddha

A small Buddha

sitting calmly

in the morning gloom;

taking shape in early light.


The black resin idol,

composed and serene,

stares past me

to where I cannot see

and cannot go.


Sitting impervious,

untouchable, inanimate.

Its atoms no more or less exceptional

than the miracles dancing

in my bones.

We share that at least.

I look through Christian eyes

and see in you nothing to recoil from.

You are not the risen Christ

but you point me to him.

I think of people you inspire

and warm to them;

if not brothers and sisters; my friends.

A model of contentment.

Untouched, transcendent,

you exist in harmony with all things

just as I do not.

You don’t manipulate, obligate,

retaliate, pontificate or desecrate.

You simply are;

take you or leave you.



Many kinds of Hell

Tell and retell

the tired tales that serve us well.

Grievance, grief, remorse, regret.

The mind recasts, renews

pasts more wisely left;

that stunt and choke a soul.

Private little hells,

factory fitted,

home delivered.

Deep thought pits

with vertical walls

and slippery bits.

Everyday hells;

returned to habitually,

invoked mindlessly.

Repeated insanity,

drifting endlessly,

clung to hopelessly.

No images from Dante;

mostly less heroic;

not the least bit romantic.

Hells up close and personal.

Tawdry, tragic, ordinary

hells right here and now.

Many kinds of hell

in the stories we tell.

Real, imagined,

accepted, denied.

Each resonating

with the shriek of a shackled soul.

This might seem like two posts in one. When I began to write the second one, the first suggested itself. They share a theme but in a way maybe only I can understand. See what you think.

​​
I am growing old. 
That should be no surprise to me. It certainly doesn’t bother me much. After all, I’m on the same train as everyone who ever was, is, or will be.

Every one of us grows older with each passing hour and each receding day, as years blur into memory. Of course I didn’t always admit that. Neither does our culture which is obsessed with youth and denies the reality of ageing. It’s easy to go along with that narrative when you are in your early decades. I was immortal. If I thought about it at all, the idea of ageing was an academic one, and in my case was so far in the future it didn’t seem real. Old people I came across had surely always been that way. I could not imagine them as once having been my age, with passions, uncertainties and dreams not too different from my own. To do that would have confronted me with my own mortality. That simply would not have done. 

I don’t think I am too different from anyone else. A little strange maybe, a trifle eccentric, but essentially human. And so I can be charitable and smile inside when young people look through me now as if I were not there; some silly old bugger with white hair who has nothing of interest for them. I did the same thing once you see.

Would it surprise you to know I am happier in myself now that at any other time in my life?

In my working life I was always climb ladders to impress people who knew me. Every time I achieved more status though, it seemed to have little effect impressing others. I was performing but there was no applause. No one was looking. I undertook a series of projects through the years in the hope that people would admire me when I was successful. Once again, I discovered no one was looking. I realise now, a degree is a piece of paper. Credentials and titles look good in a c.v. Neither compensates for inner emptiness.
I have been receptive to spiritual themes since my late teens. This interest has expressed itself in different ways here and there. My childhood, teens and young adulthood were not the happiest of times in my life. It was not all bad of course, but I write in generalities. My Christian faith reignited in my early forties after my second marriage when I began to attend church again. I remember tears flowing down my cheeks during worship. The awfulness of where I had been and what had happened in my life was all too apparent, but so too was the love and acceptance that was beginning to heal me.
I empathise with people who suffer and struggle. Sadness and melancholy have been enduring states of mind throughout my life, but less so in later years. Now it’s a more gentle acceptance of what is. I am not so wrapped up in myself and the things I missed out on . . . and so on. I no longer wallow in self pity.
These days I am much more content within myself. I am happy to be just me; nobody special. I don’t need recognition, and am happy to saunter along out of the spotlight. When I was younger anxiety and emptiness drove me. Now I don’t feel I need to prove anything. People can take me or leave me as they find me.

I look to my wife, daughters and grandchildren, and can smile inside. What a lovely (undeserved) legacy they are. God has been kind to me.

I am ageing, but I am living, and life, well some of it, makes sense.

Now, for what I started to write about . . . 
See if you can see the link.

I have been learning to play classical guitar for two and a half years now. It’s the sort of thing some people do when they retire and have loads of leisure time. Well, no one else I know has done it, but bear with me.
I love playing. It is the most deeply satisfying activity I can remember. Intellectually and physically demanding, and more often than not frustratingly difficult, it engages me spiritually and aesthetically. I soar when I get a piece ‘right’ and rage when I think I should be able to do stuff I can’t. Who says the passion of youth has been spent? With me it’s found in vibrating nylon strings and a resonating wood lined cavity.

Which brings me to something I have noticed about myself; a trend I have noticed more than once. You see, when I began to study the guitar I approached it like everything else so far in my life. I was determined to master it! I was prepared to put in the hours and the work and I expected the returns. As my wife says to me no one works harder or practices longer on guitar than I do. She also comments on my lack of motivation for other household tasks, but that’s another story.

For two years I worked to bend the guitar to my will. I found an exacting and very competent teacher, swallowed my pride (I thought) and got to work. Sure, I began to play reasonably well, but I did not listen to my teacher when he advised me repeatedly to slow down. I was always wanting to go further, tackle more demanding pieces, and tick more boxes. What he was saying, and what I was not listening to, was that I needed time to master skills as well as effort. Frustratingly he insisted that I marked time spending weeks and months on the same piece, long after I thought I had mastered it. Except that I had not mastered it. I was continually stumbling here and there and never getting anything completely correct. It frustrated me of course (the mistakes) but I did not listen. I kept forging ahead, playing ever more complex music, but playing it in a way that no one, apart from myself, would ever want to listen to.

My teacher was kind but brutal. He observed that I was doing very well and had much potential, but essentially I was playing nothing at performance standard. Ouch! 

An epiphany (look it up if you don’t know) of sorts followed. I have changed the way I look at the guitar and I’m much the happier for it. I have spent the last two months on the same three pieces, noticing things I hadn’t previously. I’ve resisted the temptation to play ahead of my ability (well, alright, mostly resisted). The guitar is no longer something to be bent to my will. I am learning slowly to work with it, and I am playing more gently.

I have begun to see playing and learning music as a process rather than a destination. I am learning to live in the moment and enjoy the music as it is rather than powering on to some illusory goal. Old habits die hard though. Grades, standards and levels have always seduced me, but their allure is waning.

I am growing older. I know I will never be a concert guitarist. Time is against me (and so is talent if I am brutally honest). I will most likely never perform for anyone other than family and friends. That does not concern me. 

What does engage me is what happens when I pick up my guitar and play. Sometimes something magical. Most times not. Always reminding me of the wonder of being alive.
Note to self: There are no prizes, stupid. Life is not a competition. It’s a gift. Enjoy it and smell the roses while you can.

I’ll try and remember that as the years pass ever more quickly and the joints and muscles grow ever less cooperative.

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑