Friday, 5 January 2018

Gratitude at New Year

Years ago an elderly nun gave me a bit of advice. 'Keep any cards you get thanking you for something you've done. Put them in a box and when you have a really bad week, get some out and read them.' Up to a point, I've followed her advice. I've kept a lot of the unexpected cards of appreciation that people have sent - thank yous for things I didn't even realise I'd done or notes from people whose lives very briefly intertwined with mine and who wrote to say, 'That was significant', letters from people with whom I've journeyed at what turned out to be a special time.

Very occasionally, I look at them. They bring back all sorts of memories of precious people, happy and sad times, places and projects. They remind me, too, of words and gestures that have communicated appreciation and a shared sense of achievement. The time someone marched up to me, looked me in the eye for a full 5 seconds said, 'Thank you,' and disappeared. The time one of the doctors I worked with said something so encouraging I've never forgotten it. The time someone looked round at an event and said, 'This is my idea of the Kingdom of God.'

I find that in the days around New Year I'm often drawn to this kind of reminiscing, possibly because early January tends to be one of the parts of my year when there is more time for reflection. My bit of advice to add to my elderly friend's is that as you go over these memories in your head, it's sometimes nice to write a card to someone who has meant a great deal to you and say, 'Just been remembering that time when .... Thank you.' It means perhaps even more to receive a message that someone still remembers a significant exchange years later. It colours the future more brightly with refreshed hope and maybe even renewed friendship.

Tuesday, 2 January 2018

More Questions than Answers

What a very strange year 2017 has been politically. It's felt as though we've been waiting for something all year - waiting for the outcome of an election, waiting for answers to our many questions. And they are slow in coming.

A review of the papers over the past few days shows that, while there has been an upturn in the global economy, the British economy is bucking the trend. It also suggests that we are already spending £340 million a week on exiting the EU (Financial Times, The Real Price of Brexit Begins to Emerge, Chris Giles 18th December here) and that even the Brexit Secretary might be having second thoughts about a 'hard Brexit' or leaving at all (Daily Mail, Britain Might Not Leave the EU David Davis Privately Admits, Brendan Carlin 31st December here.) I'm usually pretty skeptical about what I read in the Mail but when it prints a story like this which is so contrary to its usual line, you sit up and think there must be something in it. In addition we have, of course, Lord Adonis' words in his resignation letter to the Prime Minister, 'Brexit is a populist and nationalist spasm worthy of Donald Trump. After the narrow referendum vote, a form of associate membership of the EU might have been attempted without rupturing Britain's key trading and political alliances' BBC News, 29th December.

We have statements from those responsible for the NHS to the effect that there has already been a serious 'talent-drain' caused by key staff returning to EU countries and there are not, in fact, plenty - or indeed any - British doctors and nurses queueing up to take their jobs; rather, there are pressing concerns about how we increase the number of people we are training over the next five years, bearing in mind that it takes four years to train a nurse and six to train a doctor (Why Brexit Britain Needs to Upskill its Workforce, Financial Times, Simon Kuper, 16th November here). Other industries are similarly finding that British people are not trained or willing to do jobs that have already been vacated, in particular in construction and agriculture. Building, land management, food production and health care all appear rather vital to the well being of any country and certainly not things to be left to wishful thinking and chance.

The thing about Brexit is that it has created a whole heap of uncertainties about job security, access to essential services, safety and employment standards, gathering inflation and the extent to which people we all rely on are welcome to remain in the UK. This is undermining, to say the least, despite the fact it all comes to us accompanied by repeated encouragements to 'be positive' and to make the best of new opportunities. I have yet to begin to form any real notion of how these opportunities might be created or accessed or how they might repair some of the damage already done to the fabric of 21st century Britain.

From where I stand, the care industry in which I work has already lost valuable workers along with the kind of dedication to working long hours that is not easily replaced. The farmers among whom I live are in the dark as to where their markets will lie in 18 months' time (try planning what stock to buy and what crops to grow in that scenario!) The city I live near was among those denied the possibility of becoming the European City of Culture with all the investment and publicity that might have brought. My fortnightly shop now costs about £20 more than it did in 2015 and other bills are going up at an alarming rate. Alongside this, people I know are uncertain about the continuance of joint projects on the European mainland while other friends work in services and industries that have been making plans to open offices in mainland Europe at the expense of employment opportunities for scores of British workers.

Where are the plans to recruit and train the workforce we need? Schools and life experience have not prepared many young people for the kinds of employment required. Where are the new industries and markets wanting to partner with the UK from other parts of the world? (Huffington PostMinisters Cannot name a Single Country that Asked UK for a Post Brexit Trade Deal, 1st January 2018 here). How will our financial quarter and public services be maintained, let alone developed? How will an ageing population (who voted for Brexit in relatively larger numbers) maintain good relationships with the younger members of society who have markedly less sympathy for this new isolationist turn the UK seems hell bent on taking?

Over the course of the year, the sense that we do not seem to be any nearer answering these questions has grown, along with anxiety that there does not seem to be much public awareness of the direction of travel required to find solutions. At the beginning of the year I was more ready to trust that the government was making progress, even if behind closed doors. However as we draw nearer to March 2019 there surely ought be information emerging - and there is scant sign of that.

Not a very cheerful reflection for the start of 2018, perhaps, but an honest assessment of how many people are feeling. Of course we want to be positive and to contribute to whatever scenarios lie beyond 2019. However, there is a sense of 'waiting in the dark' which has increased rather than reduced during the past 12 months. All we can do is to go on making the best contribution we can in our particular fields of expertise and work, trying to keep ourselves as open as we can to the people and relationships around us and to opportunities that do exist. And, of course, there is no sense in which we are called to give up campaigning for a re-assessment of the disastrous decision to leave the EU suddenly and without due planning - a campaign that will continue to be fought with vigour.

Finally, a huge thank you to all the members of other EU countries who have and are contributing to the life of our country in so many ways, not least in the NHS and Social Care sector. May you find that there is still a welcome for you in the UK and may we all work to overcome narrowly isolationist attitudes and policies. Heaven knows, we need to for the health of our future society! 

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Disclosure and Silence

I read Diarmaid MacCulloch's seminal book Silence: A Christian History about a year ago. At the time I was very struck by the amount of space he gives to the silence of not naming, forgetfulness and shame. It was an aspect of silence I had not previously considered very much and especially not in connection with whole traditions or institutions. As he points out it is possible to build whole identities through 'things casually or deliberately forgotten' and this often happens for the sake of institutional survival at the expense of the individual. 'Life is rarely comfortable for the little boy who says that the emperor has no clothes.'(p.191)  

MacCulloch explores, in particular, three acts of forgetting, namely Christian attitudes to slavery, the Western churches' attitudes to the Nazi Holocaust and the concealment of clerical child abuse in the Roman Catholic church. He identifies these as 'circumstances which no amount of historical relativism can condone' and looks at the way shame and silence have become tangled in both the causes and the retrospective evaluations of these phenomenon. I was interested at the time I read the book because I was involved in work on modern day slavery. Sadly, the upturn of far right movements in Europe and the USA and the on-going disclosures about abuse in society and in the churches mean that his observations have stayed very much at the front of my mind. In the current climate of disclosure his words seem prophetic. 'As we know from many walks of life, the powerful often have a lot to hide, and they strive to regulate the right to silence.'

But there is another side to the story of silence and the book also explores that. Silence often lies at the heart of religious experience and, for Christians, the silence of Christ at his trial and in his crucifixion is more powerful than any power 'of this world or even the next.' (p8) There is at the centre of Christianity a profound paradox in the Christ who is called the 'logos' or Word and who comes with a message and the same Christ whose very message leads to crucifixion and is the cause of his voicelessness. W.H. Vanstone has written at length in his book The Stature of Waiting about the silence and powerlessness of Christ from the moment that he was betrayed and handed over to the authorities; it was a silence in death that led to resurrection and the establishing of Christianity. Christian traditions from the Desert Fathers and Mothers through the mystics to later movements such as the Quakers have understood silence to lie at the very heart of the human experience of the Divine and as such to precede anything that can possibly said.

And this is where I have begun to wonder about the true nature of silence and words and their relationship to power. In many parts of the Christian tradition it seems that words precede silence almost as though the purpose of the silence is to allow space for meditation on the words. What then very quickly grows up is a whole enterprise that is directed to examining, explaining and defending particular words and concepts and using them 'correctly'. But what is their source and who or what controls the notion of 'correctness'?

In a few traditions there is an emphasis on the emptiness of silence and a recognition that the practice of silence (and rather a lot of it too) is the most valuable thing that a seeker after truth can participate in. From this flows a quietude that results in certain states. One is the state of what I can only describe as reserving judgement - a recognition of the respect due to the vision of another person as they too emerge from silence. It may be that two people try to speak of what they have each experienced but there is no preconception of content. What is heard is then weighed in further silence. From this brief description it is obvious that any power relationship between prescribed teachings and doctrines and the insight of individuals is non-hierarchical. It is also obvious that discernment of truth takes a great deal of time and continues to evolve in ways that are the responsibility of all concerned. Anyone who has attended a Quaker business meeting, for example, will know both the strengths and the frustrations of such a process and they will be struck by how counter-cultural it all is.

Yet, to continue with my example, it is not ultimately true that traditions who ground their being in silence are without influence in the wider world. In fact, quite the opposite. Quakers are a small group, world-wide, and are probably best known for their largely silent worship. They do speak and they speak in measured and careful ways, occasionally to great effect. The work of the Quaker United Nations Office is one example of this happening. Jonathan Woolley explains the work of the office in a short video here outlining the distinctive work of Quakers in bringing representatives of the many NGOs and offices at the UN together in unthreatened space where they can 'connect as human beings'. From this and the research undertaken by the Quakers flow practical and political initiatives which reshape attitudes. Work is currently going on in peace building and the prevention of violent conflict, climate change and its human impact, human rights and the plight of refugees, disarmament and resource distribution.

Silence is a necessary condition for the emergence of truth and attitudes that transcend conflict, separation, dissembling and shame. It seems we have ever needed people of silence but we are slow to recognise it and slower to dare to sit in profound and protracted silence as a precursor to action. Only through the silence of heart and mind that precedes the humility needed for respect can a way forward be found between parties caught up in the abuse of power. That journey will start with the recognition that the exercise of power must change.       

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

The Kitchen Table

With thanks to Aisha Coppack
for the photo

When a table is set it stands as an invitation. Friends from afar, family, the cat who jumps from the stairs onto guests' shoulders, the unexpected caller who sits at the corner with a bowl of soup. The sharing of food and the exploring of ideas, the telling of events and the hearing of moans and groans about this week's grind. A table stands as a reminder that time and food are precious, that people are even more precious and that more can aways be squeezed in. Chipped crockery and odd assortments of glasses - three of this kind, five of another - stand as testimony to other meals, to the passing of time and to the ups and downs of life together. Scorch marks and writing gouged into the wood are reminders of long-gone culinary experiments and last-minute letter writing. And on the table are presents, food and drink brought by others, to be shared and the left overs to be enjoyed tomorrow. The table stands at the heart of life together. Tables are always best with two or more sitting together. But even when there is one, there are good memories and hopes that more will come another day.

Monday, 6 November 2017

Why Write Poetry?

On holiday I indulged in the luxury of scribbling in my journal, reading and musing on what it is I'm trying do in creating poetry. Introducing an article about W.H.Auden's insights into the work of the poet Maria Popova says this, 'The Commonplace Book has been particularly beloved by poets, whose business is the revelation of wholeness through the fragmentary' (A Certain World: A Commonplace Book, W.H.Auden).Throw-away line though it is, I warm to this as a definition of what the poet is trying to do - the revelation of wholeness through small details, the communication of something universal through specific moments of life, the power of reflection on keen observation to see beyond what lies on the surface of an event. Auden says that what the poet has to convey is 'not self expression, but a view of reality common to all, seen from a unique perspective.'

Auden also talks about truth emerging from 'moments of enchantment'. These are moments when we are most truly ourselves, drawn into a sense of certainty that transcends both belief and doubt; we just know. He warns about the possibility of false enchantment (when we desire to possess or be possessed by the object of enchantment) but, I think, sees that the best poetry grows from a true enchantment in which we desire nothing other than that the object of enchantment exists and is communicated. 

Alan Lightman writes about similar moments of suspension between belief and doubt, seeing clearly and stumbling blindly, when he says, 'Faith is the willingness to give ourselves over, at times, to things we do not fully understand....the full engagement with this strange and shimmering world.' Poems so often start with a moment of fascination which, when remembered, worked on, expressed, leads to quite another place than expected.


Cultures that turn a blind eye to abuse of power linked to sexual harassment are being called out in a dramatic way. I nearly wrote 'finally being called out', but is this, in fact, the final push? Judging by the stories that are emerging, this kind of behaviour is even more endemic than imagined and potentially touches almost every kind of institution, organisation and informal group. And that's an understatement; it appears to be at the heart of many, the modus vivendi for some of the successful and powerful men at the top. So it would be a shame if the current climate of willingness to speak out were to dissipate before action has been taken in the worlds that stand accused.

© Bristol Post

The energy behind the Women's Marches was largely galvanised by the recognition that the USA has a president who has been recorded boasting about sexual harassment. This fresh new burst of energy marked by the participation of so many millions in the #METOO movement is a follow-on from that. It perhaps delineates the point in history where women are recognising that the only way to change cultural assumptions about behaviour towards anyone who has less physical, economic or social power than you is to call out bad behaviour with the support of others who have experienced and observed the same kind of abuse. Never before has this been such an accessible option as it is today due to social media and the internet.

Up until now the privatisation of this sort of behaviour has enabled it to thrive. My mother's generation were only too aware of such things but largely 'didn't talk about them in public' and dealt with them by avoiding contact with the perpetrators and shutting up. In the 70's when I was a young woman, there was still a kind of objectification of harassment; it was something that happened to someone else so the shame that it had happened to you kept you silent. You might tell a girl friend and try to laugh it off or you might just worry over it on your own - 'what's wrong with me?' 'what did I do to attract that kind of attention?' But the remarkable thing was that all of us knew several people to whom it had happened. As we grew older we realised that this kind of experience was one of the factors preventing us from doing so many things from walking home alone at night to applying for promotion to getting our voices heard in the organisations where we worked.

Women fall into two distinct groups when it comes to dealing with the (often subtle) harassment and sexual abuse of other women. There are the 'I believe Anita' people who are predisposed to take the victim's story at face value and to acknowledge resonances with other such stories (and maybe their own experience). Then there are the 'Don't make a fuss/it isn't that bad/you'll only make it worse for everybody' people who advise caution or inaction and, by so doing, effectively deny the true, persistent and cumulative power of such experiences. 

I recently witnessed the misuse of male power by the utilisation of derogatory language about women and the stereo-typing of male/female gender roles. It happened through the actions of one man in a group where there were five times as many women as men. The group was made up of some very articulate, capable and mature people but it took four days and the absence of the culprit for the behaviour to be named. Promises were made about dealing with it but up to this point I have heard nothing from the organisation concerned about whether or how the situation was addressed. If it is this difficult to call out an abuse of power, no wonder lone victims tremble at the thought of coming forward.

The uniquely new thing about the #METOO hashtag is the possibility of calling out abuse publicly at the same time that others do so. If 500 people had joined in, it would not be perceived as a matter of public interest. If 100,000 had joined in it would have been possible to dismiss the concerns raised as my mother's generation did, by branding them regrettable, minority behaviour thus proving the point that too much was being made of the matter by a few sensitive souls. The fact that millions and millions of women across the world have joined in says, loud and clear, this is normal everyday behaviour, routinely encountered by women who are then left to deal with the problem without any kind of structured support. The law, the prevailing culture of organisations, the teaching of many religions and philosophies, the assumptions of police, medical and educational institutions are all stacked against the woman who says 'I was touched/unfairly dismissed/raped/exploited for another person's sexual gratification without my consent.

What has changed? Women are beginning to say not 'We ought to hear her', 'we think her story is like ours', 'perhaps it happened the way she describes', 'how dreadful' but 'ME TOO'. 'I am willing to tell my story of the way I have been treated'. Is this the point at which history evolves to become her-story too? Theologians like Elizabeth Schussler-Fiorenza pointed out, decades ago, that women's stories are simply edited out of history as being of no interest by male editors. (My mother's generation were colluding in this centuries-old phenomenon every time they said, 'Don't make a fuss.') It's remarkable that some stories of women have crept into most patriarchal cultures but, again, the scholar always needs to ask, 'Is this being told from the view point of the women or the prevailing patriarchal culture?" 'Why is is being told?' (Think about it - the story of rape in Judges 19, who benefitted from that story being told?) In the #METOO hashtag we have a pivotal moment. At last women are telling their stories in enough numbers and enough ways to subvert the over-riding narrative. Up until now we have all lived with a meta narrative that tells the story of a society constructed for the good of both women and men (perhaps needing a little tweaking here and there). This is not the experience of several million women. 

The writer Roxane Gay is currently editing a new anthology of essays about rape and sexual harassment called Not That bad. Although I most certainly do not look forward to reading it, I do believe that it is now down to the writing community to do our bit in normalising the stories of women's experience that include all the minor and major harassments our mothers would have said 'keep private'. Of course, our own psyches also shout or whisper 'go carefully' but there has to be an outing and a naming and a telling that encompasses the reality of the completeness of our relationship to male power if anything is to change.

Just like the Women's Marches, the #METOO moment could simply wind down and lose its power. The Women's Marches, contrary to what many predicted, continue to spawn significant new departures in political thought and activism. So, I hope, will the #METOO hashtag, becoming  a groundswell for sea change. The dam is breached and there comes a flood of disclosure, the moment for a powerful shift in balance between history and herstory. 

Post script
In searching for an image for this blogpost, I was struck by the fact that, at a quick glance, I could find French, Spanish, Italian, Indian, Latvian, Dutch, Swedish, Japanese, Kenyan, South African and Canadian versions. I am grateful to the Bristol Post for the one I chose.

Friday, 3 November 2017

Thought About Thought for the Day

A verbal battle royal seems to have broken out over Thought for the Day, a 2 minute 45 second slot on BBC Radio 4's Today programme. The presenters have branded it 'deeply boring' and 'all roughly the same'. Various deliverers of the slot have risen to the bait, defending its alleged ability to show a view of the world 'as seen through a religious lens'. See, for example, BBC Says Thought for the Day is not About to be Axed in The Tablet

Objections seem mainly based round the sheer repetitiveness and lack of teeth displayed in the content and the fact that atheistic perspectives are not included which, in a multicultural society, suggests imbalance.  Support for the slot is focused round accusations of an animosity toward faith-based view-points in broadcasting and the allegedly ever decreasing airtime given to religion by the BBC.

© Hearing Voices Cymru network

In our household, Thought for the Day is often the moment we remember the cat needs a clean litter tray or some item has to be printed off urgently for work. I agree with the presenters who've pointed out that you can almost guess what many of the slots will convey. There are one or two shining exceptions among the speakers and I would argue that the whole enterprise would have more impact if the programme kept a sparkling, incisive or entertaining Occasional Thought but got rid of the rest. And please do let's be fair to atheists, philosophers and ethicists if the thing is about belief in a multicultural society. (I was under the impression that we do hear from humanists sometimes?)

In the delivery of the speakers, you can usually hear sincerity and a desire to communicate that which is precious to them. But is this what's required? In the middle of a programme which doesn't dodge the sharp issues of the day, why does the 'religious bit' so often not rise above the level of illustrated platitude? I, for one, would like to learn about what each religion's impact actually is (not what believers wish or think it might be.) So, heavily supplement the academic, clerical contributors with more ordinary, practising believers (and atheists) engaged in professions that throw up tricky dilemmas. Hunt out the leaders of faith-related projects that have demonstrably changed some or other situation. Use religious correspondents and journalists. Let's hear from people who live with challenging difficulties because of their faith. And please can we  actually have some news? (I mean that in the sense of 'something that is new to us'.) If this can be accompanied by well researched comment, so much the better. The religious presenter ought to respect the serious journalistic enterprise which characterises the rest of the programme. Comment can be drawn from a faith's tradition, but let it be more than wishful thinking and let it be engaging and motivating. This is a challenge to the speakers but also a challenge to the programme's editors to do a bit more digging around to find suitable contributors.

Finally, before I cut myself off by exceeding my limit, there's a serious pitfall for the would-be religious broadcaster. It's nigh-on impossible to deliver a credible message of the 'there-is-much-to-be-recommended-in-our-faith' variety to a world that sees religious extremism and intolerance, religious bickering and persecution and abuse in religious institutions. Yes, some of us would accept that we should expect to find sin/wrong-doing everywhere (others would not) but there's a huge turn-off factor in attempting to present the 'religious world view' or one's own faith as theoretically offering privileged wisdom; humility is required. Put simply, no-one would accept lectures on behaviour from a corrupt and misbehaving faculty. People are convinced by true stories about what has been achieved, what has been changed, what is admitted to be wrong and what is dreamed of by exceptional visionaries (who usually have clay feet and not much status.)     

Sunday, 17 September 2017

Where Would We Be Without Forests? A Book Review

We live on the edge of Sherwood Forest, possibly one of the most famous forests in Britain and certainly very ancient. Pollen sampling suggests that there has been a forest here since the end of the last Ice Age. Recently there has been a massive outcry against proposals for fracking under the forest. Actually it's a bit more complicated than that. There are plans to undertake seismic surveys in the forest which could lead to prospecting for shale gas and, eventually, fracking. 

©Janet Henderson 2016

So I was pleased to come across the wonderful book by Peter Wohlleben The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate: Discoveries from a Secret World, published in translation from the original German by Harper Collins, 2015 here 

I grew up with trees; my father was a forester and my husband always teases me because wherever we go I'm prone to comment on the health and beauty of the trees before noticing anything else (even a volcano!) But, whatever you think you know, this book will absolutely change the way you regard trees, forests and life! It's been a Sunday Times Bestseller and the lady in Waterstones said, 'It's amazing how many people are commenting about this one book!'

It's written by someone with years of experience as a forester. He has an intimate knowledge of one particular forest in Germany - his affection for it shines through. That doesn't stop the book being extremely well and widely researched with illustrations from many contexts. It's hard to know where to start in terms of the impact on any preconceived ideas you may have about nature. What the book does, and does very powerfully, is undermine any notion that there is no communication, capacity for feeling, or social networking outside the world of animals, birds, fish and insects.

I was especially struck by the story of how the infant tree grows to maturity and the odds that are stacked against this ever happening. Drawing on scientific evidence, Wohlleben shows how trees parent their offspring, communicate using chemicals, electricity and, yes, sound, and support each other through times of sickness and drought. They do this most effectively when they are gathered together in a forest and where there is minimal disturbance or interruption from outside influences. Forests manage themselves far better than humans manage them! He explores the delicate balance of the forest ecosystem and demonstrates how trees have learned a lesson humans have yet to learn, 'an organism that is too greedy and takes too much without giving anything in return destroys what it needs for life and dies out' (p.113). The forest prospers as each tree takes just enough space, light, nutrient and water, limiting its growth so that others have space. They can indeed 'learn' in the sense that their experience will alter their behaviour and create 'memory'. Once a tree has suffered a drought, it will behave in ways that make its take-up of water more economical, saving what water there is for times when it is really needed.

The book is choc full of similar insights. The longevity of trees and 'the leisurely pace at which they live their lives' is reflected in the slow speed of their communication (electrical impulses travel at about one third of an inch per second). This means that they develop strategies for procreation and survival with the long term in view, preparing things like seed production two or three years in advance in some cases. This relationship with time allows them to develop extraordinary partnerships with their environment. For example, many trees share communication systems and even, on occasion, nutrients with fungi that have networks spanning whole sections of a forest. 

The life cycle of the tree throws up big questions for evolution as we humans tend to think about it. Species that procreate often and do not live long demonstrate the maximum capacity for speedy adaption. A tree might ask, 'Why the rush?' They can withstand extreme changes in climate and temperature and their aim is to use adaption and genetics in their favour to live to be ancient - workers near Zurich found fresh tree stumps that turned out to be from trees that had lived 14,000 years ago! Imagine what climactic changes they have withstood and the mind boggles! Trees can use genetics to their advantage to save a species: unlike animals, trees of the same species can have very different genetic structures and so those that die 'favour' those that have the genetic capacity to survive. In a whole forest, this can lead to something akin to the self-sacrifice of some for the sake of the survival of others who will carry the species forward. And, yes, there is a bit of competition between species!    

Wohlleben talks of trees feeling pain. When a dog repeatedly urinates against a tree, the tree probably experiences something akin to the discomfort you or I would feel if a dog repeatedly urinated on our feet - a burning sensation in its bark causing its roots to wither. 'Yuk!' Fracking is described in the dictionary as 'the process of injecting liquid at high pressure into subterranean rocks so as to force open existing fissures and extract oil and gas.' I'm not sure it would be exactly comfortable to have that going on under and around your roots. I'm not too keen on having it going on around my roots of home, hearth and feet. 

If you only read one book between now and Christmas, make it this one! There is much that is new and challenging to our thoughts about how we relate to the natural world and, indeed, it to us. We are not necessarily the dominant species. 

©Janet Henderson 2016

©Janet Henderson 2016

©Janet Henderson 2015

©Janet Henderson 2015

Saturday, 16 September 2017

Online Personalities

What is your online personality? 

There are definite types, aren't there? Some of us post in a way that gives no real clue to our own thoughts, simply recycling the information, comments, jokes, aphorisms and photos of others. It may just be possible to guess something about our mood from our choice of subject. Others do the opposite, bearing our souls to the world by telling stories about how the day has gone, sharing excitements and bemoaning problems at length and, we realise later, with perhaps too little thought for the feelings of others involved in the situations.

Do you control your temper at all times? Or are you given to the occasional exasperated spat with fellow tweeters? It can be surprising what suddenly gets you riled and, just as in 'real life', it can often have more to do with something you read six tweets ago than the actual tweet or post you are responding to. Days when there has been some dreadful disaster or political crisis seem especially prone to this kind of activity as someone picks someone else up for allegedly over- or under-reacting.

Do you wisely steer clear of all talk about personal relationships, or do you find yourself sharing the latest quarrel you've had with your partner and asking for advice and supportive comment? Do you steer clear of mentioning work, entirely respecting principles of confidentiality and loyalty to colleagues, employers and clients? Can you resist the temptation to tell stories that will identify people and situations that have annoyed, betrayed or upset you? Or do you use the internet to administer a good telling-off to companies that have made life difficult by failing in some aspect of their service?

Are your posts mostly political, personal, artistic, religious, humorous, practical or fantastical? Are you the one known for sharing recipes and pictures of garden produce or for bombarding your friends with invitations to sign petitions? Are you welcomed for providing an endless supply of pictures of unicorns or for promoting your own blogposts, pictures and poetry? Or are you famous for your involvement in training for the next sporting event with daily updates and sponsorship requests? Is your choice of subjects balanced and varied or does it suggest a 'specialism' (or perhaps an obsession)?

We all reveal far more than we realise, even those of us who think we're careful and controlled in what we put out on the internet. I find that I'm beginning to have a sort of affection for my internet community and it differs from the kind of affection I have for my real-life network of friends. Among my community there are people I've never met but who regularly contribute insights that I value and that have occasionally had a significant influence on my life. There are people who draw my attention to things I would never normally be aware of left to myself or who direct me to sources of information I now use regularly but would never have found on my own. There are others who can be relied on for an encouraging 'well done' and some who have interjected an unexpected comment that has the power of a 'well-done' simply because it was unexpected and, hey, they've noticed. 

Then there are the folk I've known but seldom see. It's heart-warming to see photos of their growing families, to hear news and to be able to feel a connection across the miles - maybe reaching as far as a different continent. You can of course feel instinctively that you have more in common with someone who lives in another culture entirely than you do with the person sitting across the table from you. And it's great to see projects I've been associated with taking new and different directions, though occasionally disappointing too. I have really appreciated the times that someone has responded to a post - 'You're in the area? Can we get together?' Or I've seen that a friend is on a visit to the UK and been able to set up a meeting. And I love being able to keep in touch with former students - maybe just once in a blue moon - to see that they have made a presentation at the UN or moved to a new kind of work or written a book.

Sadly, too, there have been times when I've become aware of someone's illness or death only through internet contact. On occasion this has resulted in renewed real-time contact and the possibility of visiting a dear friend before their death. At other times news has reached me too late and left me with that feeling of deep regret that the potential to renew friendship has gone - don't we all have past friendships we hope to renew in the future 'when we are less busy' or 'when we both retire'? The grief experienced at the loss of these has, for me, been heightened by the dawn of digital communication. There are a few friends whose families have left their statuses in place (or perhaps this hasn't been a deliberate decision but they have simply not known how to remove them.) This and the existence of 'memorial' sites is a new phenomenon we are coming to terms with. It's worth thinking about - what plans, if any, will you make for your own online persona after your death?

And then there can be times when you inadvertently stumble across something that relates to you that you didn't know was there. Maybe it's a welcome find! Some nice student has quoted you in their dissertation (always flattering) or a friend has made an appreciative comment about you and recommended your breed of wisdom to someone else - or just repeated your joke! Maybe it's not so affirming. Someone has named and criticised you for a past misdemeanour you have no recollection of and do not recognise - clearly their memory and yours do not co-incide. Should you comment? Probably not! Or maybe there is a concerted effort to bring your name into disrepute by a Facebook group or an anonymous blogger? Perhaps someone has misappropriated a photo you took (or one you feature in) for some purpose you really don't approve of? Or you have become the subject of plagiarism or bullying. What does forgiveness look and feel like, what does it require of us in this newly public and almost universally accessible network of relationships? How can we 'forgive' those we have never met or who have never identified themselves? In the pre-digital era it was not possible for prospective partners, friends or employers or indeed journalists and historians to pull our pasts quite so forcefully into the present and have them affect our future for good or ill. When we shape the reputation of others by what we post on the internet, we carry a heavy responsibility. 

Real life personalities and online ones can be subtly different. Shy people become more dominant, over-users get ignored, infrequent commentators are noticed and listened to, shadow-side attributes and hidden talents come to the fore. The never-angry person always complains, the prosaic administrator turns out to be a fantastically observant photographer capable of portraying the natural world in extraordinarily beautiful ways. Communities form around the most unexpected people and break up suddenly or fade away without anyone noticing except the one person for whom it was a life-line.

Most people don't spend much time consciously thinking about their personality or how they impact other people. It tends to be when we go to team-building events, on a retreat or enter counselling that we self-consciously examine who we are and how we come across. Behaviour on the internet is not an exact replica of behaviour in 'real' life but it has in common with it the ability to impact others powerfully for good or for bad. We all know people whose horizons have been opened up by the internet and we know others who have been damaged by it. Sometimes both are true for the same individual. Most of us, once introduced to it, get into the grip of its fascination in ways that can be challenging and hard to control. 

Before what historians call 'modernity', people acknowledged individual personality but they also understood themselves to be located within an extended family, a local community, a clan or a tribe that had a strong sway over them and defined the possibilities of what it was to be human in that context. Think, for example, of Old Testament sagas like those of Abraham, Sarah and Hagar, Isaac, Leah and Rachel, Joseph and his brothers; individuals are set within a defining tribe or subset of a tribe or they are ejected or displaced and this, at least in part, defines who they are and what is expected of them. During the Enlightenment period which heralded what philosophers describe as 'the turn to the subject', the concept of the individual became that of the person who, through choice, is self-defining and self-referential. Increasingly we have thought of ourselves in terms of people shaped by our genes, our immediate family and our own endeavour, differentiated from one another by the autonomous decisions we make in time and space. The dawn of the internet and the digital world is slowly beginning to make a similarly revolutionary impact on our understanding of the self and we are now just beginning to see the effect of this on personality and our own sense of who we are. What we have previously thought of as our 'real' selves now swims (for want of a better word) along a river with changing currents - at one moment buffeted by the responsibilities of those with whom we are geographically, spatially and practically linked and at the next pulled along by those to whom our connections and responsibilities are partially or entirely non-spatial, located in abstracts such as attitude, reputation, celebrity, anonymity, power to access knowledge, image and internet space. We are becoming people who understand ourselves in a new way and there is no going back as more and more people become deeply immersed in the culture - or some might say cult - of digital personality.                 

An Aid to Meditation

A year or so ago a friend introduced me to a method of meditation based on the Sixteen Guidelines for Life articulated by King Songtser Gampo of Tibet in the seventh century. It works very simply and is based on the idea that our values and our behaviour are formed of the things we habitually think and do, the ways we relate to others and the sources from which we draw meaning. The method focuses on 16 qualities:


right speech

Relating to other people and our environment

Finding meaning

Each day, it has been helpful to meditate on one of these qualities. What do I understand by it? What do I feel about it? How and where does (or doesn't) it show up in my life? It obviously takes 16 days to get through the process and it's interesting that when I've repeated it over the next 16 days the nature of my relationship with each quality has changed. I've found that certain biblical stories have sprung to mind as I've meditated. Of course, many stories are appropriate to each quality, but here are some I've found helpful:

Humility  Matthew 20 The Labourers in the Vineyard
               Mark 10.35-45 The Request of James and John
               2 Kings 5 Naaman is Healed of Leprosy

Patience  Deuteronomy 29.2-5 & 34.1-5 'I have led you 40
               years in the wilderness...'

Delight    John 20.11-18 'Mary! Rabboni!'

Content   Psalm 131   

Right Speech  John 18.28-40 Jesus Before Pilate
                      Matthew 15.1-20 That Which Defiles

Generosity  Leviticus 25 The Jubilee Year
                   Matthew 20 The Labourers in the Vineyard
                   Luke 21.1-4 The Widow's Offering

Kindness    Acts 28.1-2 Unusual kindness in Malta
                  Matthew 5.42 Give!
                  Isaiah 25.6-8 God's Kindness

Respect     Luke 7.1-9 The Centurion's Son
                 Matthew 15.21-28 The Syrophoenician Woman

Gratitude   Ephesians 5.19-20 Giving Thanks at All Times
                  John 6.11 Eucharistic Thanksgiving

Forgiveness  2 Samuel 9 David and Mephibosheth
                    Luke 15.11-32 Father Forgives Son

Loyalty        The Book of Ruth (4 chapters)
                    John 21.15-19 Jesus' Loyalty to Peter

Aspiration    Galatians 1.10 Pleasing People or God?
                    John 13.7-10 and Luke 28.29-36 Peter's
                    Misplaced Aspiration

Principles     The stories of Daniel, Esther and Pilate  

Courage        Luke 8.43-48 The Woman Who Touched Jesus

Service         Isaiah 58.10 Satisfy the Needs of the Afflicted

Monday, 5 June 2017

A Window of Opportunity: Pentecost and Politics

The Eastern Orthodox fill their churches with greenery for Pentecost. This is a reminder that it is the Spirit that greens the earth and brings new life into being. 

Stretensky Monastery, Moscow

In John's Gospel, Jesus says, when speaking of the Spirit, 'The wind blows where it wills and you hear the sound of it but you do not know where it comes from or where it blows. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.' (Jn 3.8) We suffered some ferocious gales a few years ago when we were living in Yorkshire. On one occasion a massive tree was blown down just missing houses, a road and some people out walking in the vicinity.  A traumatic, potentially dangerous event which caused a great deal of damage and, to boot, a bit of a rumpus in the village about whether other trees should be felled. The absence of the much-loved sycamore was mourned. The area around it - gardens and a churchyard - seemed bereft. Where the tree had stood, new light flooded in. Other trees and shrubs shook out their leaves and expanded in all directions, wild flowers began to move into the space and eventually a new tree - a horse chestnut with red candles - was planted. Disaster, conflict and new life in the very short space of a couple of seasons.

Many of us reflected on the extremists' attacks on Manchester and London yesterday, the day of Pentecost which marks the coming of the Holy Spirit. It is hard to hold together, on the one hand, the horror of the attacks and dark thoughts about the grief caused and the state of mind of people who could so arbitrarily go out to bomb, run down and stab and, on the other hand, the kindness, bravery and solidarity shown by so many of those who were involved or who lived nearby. But no easy links between evil and good, death and hope suffice. 'The wind blows where it wills and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it blows.'

I found myself focusing on the ways in which opportunity is created and fanned and experienced. We have the Prime Minister's words, 'Enough is enough,' ringing in our ears but is tough talk, escalating security and more money spent on arms to sell and to protect ourselves what is needed? There is a growing number of voices calling for a new approach to the kinds of extremism that produce terrorism and violence. Unpopular as such initiatives were, breakthroughs came in South Africa and Ireland only when Nelson Mandela and the British government, respectively, began to talk to P.W. Botha's government and the I.R.A.

Are these attacks, coinciding with an election, the opportunity to begin to back new ways of organising our foreign and defence policy and our security and community policing? Talk, listen, challenge threatening ideologies that lurk in our communities. Stop selling arms, refuse to bomb other countries, disentangle ourselves from American foreign policy. 
Recognise that focus on deterrence and retaliation does nothing more than stoke up resentment among those who feel themselves to have suffered as a result of the policies and actions that result. In such changed behaviours lie the green shoots of peace and they will be costly. They require a revolution in our thinking but then Pentecost is all about a revolution of the spirit. Those caught up in it were laughed at and called naive and mad and traitors of their tradition, and they faced persecution. The voices that are calling for this kind of revolution were well represented this week by the woman who, during Question Time with Jeremy Corbyn asked, 'Why are you all talking about killing millions of people?' A growing body of millions of voters want no more to do with policies based on aggression and retaliation. Voices everywhere are being raised in bewilderment that, in our society, the unthinkable notion is to question the basis of our security being supposed military superiority and the underlying cost of this for us all.  This Thursday is the time to use your voice to unite with others and grasp a unique opportunity to begin a different kind of politics as well as a different way of responding personally to threat, conflict and violence.    

Tuesday, 23 May 2017


We were practising handbells in the village church in Oxton tonight when someone came in to light a candle and say a prayer. It occurred to me that all over Britain, indeed all over the world, people are praying for the people of Manchester and the visitors who were at the Ariana Grande concert last night. In countless homes, churches, mosques, temples, halls, cars, schools, town squares, cathedrals, stadiums people have gathered or stood quietly on their own to remember the people who died. As night falls here in the UK, relatives and hospital staff are keeping their vigil and the police and emergency services are facing another night when they have to carry on with their demanding tasks.

Photo St Magdalene Chapel, Ripon
©Janet Henderson
I know it is small comfort, but I pray that everyone affected by the horrific action of the terrorist last night will be aware that there are people of goodwill everywhere thinking about them tonight, wanting to stand in solidarity, unable to imagine how they feel yet grieving at the awful result of this heartless, callous act.

God, be with all who grieve, 
wait with all who are at their wits' end searching for a loved one, 
watch with all who sit beside a hospital bed not knowing what tomorrow will bring, 
calm all who cannot get the images, questions and 'whys?' out of their minds, 
help the broken hearted feel the warmth of love that holds them despite their pain,
and send us all out to shape a more generous, respectful, caring world 
so that the shadow of this tragedy will not darken into night
but, through our tears and outrage, be turned into a search for the kinds of justice
and understanding that remove the scourge of terrorism from this and every nation.