Monday, June 19, 2017

Learning addicts?

I am currently pondering the (a?)morality of learning, thanks mainly to the addictive and enlightening Sapiens.

The connection between humanity's woes and its obsession with knowing more, knowing everything, has always intrigued me. Our intellects can make us really miserable and yet being 'smart' is nearly always what we desire.

In the book, Harari discusses knowledge as power: the successful colonialists were those who learned most carefully about terrain and culture. Knowledge has given mankind mastery (great word!) over its world.

In my faith tradition, the founding myth concerns (wo)man ingesting more wisdom than was her lot. The curses that follow are: painful childbirth, female dependence, hardship in labour, conflict between man and animal, divorce from a God-ordered world. Such demonstrable realities help make a case against the pursuit of too much knowledge.

According to Harari, there is little or no evidence to suggest people are happier now than they were in their less well-informed hunter-gatherer days.

But ... the direction of cultural travel is always towards increased wisdom and education. Can we condemn this? Admitting to and wanting to remedy areas of ignorance has led to much good stuff - like huge reductions in child mortality. Or breathtaking excellence in innumerable fields, that bring joy to many.

If someone (individual or corporate) tries to stop you gaining knowledge or self-advancement, or rails against society doing so, they are usually suspect; motivated by self-interest.

It is also worth asking how bad was Adam and Eve's behaviour? Genesis doesn't neatly condemn their attempt to gain divine wisdom. Read Chapter 3: 1-7 and you'll be surprised by the lack of judgement. We add, or at least enhance, that tone with hindsight, to help us wrap our instinctively judgmental and insecure minds around the difficulty of the story.

Our pursuit of knowledge as a means of mastering our world is certainly problematic. I suspect it is also a part of human nature we will never escape. You can argue that the 'morality' of learning depends on the motivations but you don't clear up the problem. Motivations are almost always mixed. We all at once want to understand someone else better because we care for them and because we want to control them. Flowers and weeds grow together.

I suppose it is good to consider our own relationship with the pursuit of knowledge. We can think about learning more of what really makes us and others happier, rather than what we feel driven to know by fear. We can avoid using our learning to control or belittle others - or puff ourselves up.

And, if the one maxim that Knowledge is Power is true, we do well to consider the other, Know Thyself. In my busyness, distractedness, susceptibility to believing life is best spent gathering more, I can get trapped in a state of real ignorance about my true identity. I might spend a bit more time learning who I am and what I have to offer, and a bit less scrutinising and judging others / the world for what they lack.

Monday, April 24, 2017

You're wrong but I love you.

I suspect I'm getting old on this topic of disagreeing well. Unsurprisingly, with a general election now imminent and our media (nation?) apparently incapable of sensible conversation, it keeps cropping up. 

Atheism for Lent - another of my favourite drums - began with an excerpt from a graphic novel set in a pub frequented by Batman, the Joker et al. By some kind of magic, violence and seeds of violent intent were prohibited in this hostelry and so, even for sworn enemies, it was a place of safe encounter.

This excerpt set the tone of AfL, encouraging participants to declare truce while ferociously analysing our ideas about (No) God.

Two tangential TED talks were flagged by coursemates. Megan Phelps-Roper describes how conversations on twitter, of all places, gently led her away from the fundamentalist beliefs she cherished at Westboro Baptist Church. She lists the ingredients of Good Disagreement. Along with the more obvious - thinking the best of the other person, for example - she exhorts us to actually say what we think. Sounds obvious .... but how often are we courageous enough to do this? To be braver than the quick "I disagree" followed by swift departure? Or the quiet gossip with an ally later? To spell out carefully why we disagree and attempt to articulate what it is we believe?

Margaret Heffernan goes on to say that honesty without disagreement is actually futile. You can express as many heartfelt, informative, accurate points as you like and it doesn't change anything. You need a worthy adversary to uplift your point by disagreeing with it, if it is to shine with any useful kind of truth. This committed, brave disagreement is in fact a type of love.

I suspect most of us disagree badly because of our own insecurity about whether the other person likes or loves us or, more fundamentally, whether we are loveable at all. This is human nature. So we need to create places like that fictional pub where we can practise disagreeing well and try to face those who do the same.

We need to make spaces where church leavers and almost-leavers are listened to very carefully with no desire to change them. Where backslapping, self-congratulatory, tribal politics is undermined by those from within each and every 'side'. Where friends and family are encouraged to make us defend our opinions, to keep us on our toes.

I do not want to go through life being told and allowed to believe that I'm right. I mean, I do. But I don't. Get me?

Monday, April 03, 2017

Capitalism, sex and the church.

Following a bit of 'erm, so?', I'm getting to the wonderful juicyfruit stuff in Atheism for Lent. It's now political, economical and psychoanalytical and has perhaps unexpectedly chimed with some Radio 4 sex talk (ha ha, the raciest kind!)

In Sunday's seminar, Pete Rollins discussed the work of Todd McGowan. McGowan argues that Capitalism is a strong system because it will always motivate us to get up and go (you need to acquire more) with promises (you can acquire more). It is a deadly system - not because it doesn't fulfil us but because it makes miserable the pursuit of fulfilment. It makes us feel inadequate.

Radio's Thinking Allowed discussed the impact of Capitalism's beauty industry on women. Mostly, ladies getting HD brows done believe these look good, in some objective sense. Really, cosmetics companies select the latest fad and send us to the beautician. We are driven to look better by spending on products and procedures. We do not grow up learning techniques for sexual fulfilment or how to accept our bodies. We grow up learning to despise ourselves, expensively groom ourselves to death, expecting this will somehow lead to good relationships, sex and self-esteem. To link back to McGowan, capitalism drives us to the salon (you want to look better) with its gorgeous magazine models (you can look better) but the process makes us ashamed.

You might think the church would liberate women from this stuff. Often, as with so many other things, it mimics capitalism, keeping us inline by making us insecure and miserable. We aren't pressurised from the pulpit to get Botox or cosmetic gynaecology. But we are told we are not 'naturally' good enough to have successful relationships; we must train our minds and bodies out of sexual depravity; we must suspect and hide the flesh. This mirrors, rather than challenges, the Capitalist messaging: 'you must work to be a good woman', 'if you follow these rules, you can be a good woman' and yet we are constantly made afraid that we are not, deep down, really good women.

This is just one way the church copies capitalism, making people miserable in order to protect its own structures. The evangelism business is another (for fear of hell, you must win more attendees; the bible promises that you can get more attendees; and yet you are failing to get more attendees). The exhortation to give more time and money is a third (to avoid backsliding, you must come every week; God promises he will help you and you can be a better Christian; Why oh why are you not doing enough?) I could go on.

Whether it is as a woman, churchgoer or passionate human being, AfL has inspired me to learn how to enjoy the process of changing and seeking. I accept that I am motivated to accrue (I am driven to want more and better) by never-quite-fulfilled promises (I always believe I can get more and better). But I also want to learn to love my current, imperfect state and therefore relish the journey onwards.

Monday, March 20, 2017

In praise of sleep!

There's a place in the world for The West Wing. But boy-oh-boy, does it promote the common misconception I see around me that the brightest and best of us must get over our need for sleep!

Almost every episode about these ridiculously noble, witty and intelligent super-characters sees them working well into the night; arriving at the office before dawn to find they're the last in; discussing how long it is since they saw their bed; scheduling meetings for 11pm; functioning brilliantly on a massive sleep deficit.

I don't claim to be the calibre of White House senior staff ......but if I worked that way, I'd be dribbling and blacking out through my potentially-globally-destructive press conference.

Articles on how to fight fatigue are everywhere. It seems half the world is forever too tired. Lack of sleep is not the only reason: stress, lack of exercise, lack of variety in work can also make us weary. But we now know that in West Wing's America, 34.8% of people do not get the seven-hour minimum that they need. And yet many still buy into the idea that sleeping as much as possible, seeking out employment that allows us sufficient sleep, or prioritising sleep over keeping-up-with-the-Jones's is 'lazy'.

When we became parents of twins, obviously, there was sleep deprivation. I mean, I discovered levels of anger I never thought myself capable of! But I also saw lots of new mums striving away with ironing, cleaning, shopping and social commitments that were unenjoyable and unnecessary when they could have been sleeping. In conversation, there was competition about who had least sleep. I saw spouses (myself included) getting annoyed if the other one napped, as if a couple can tackle sleeplessness by doubling it.

In my case, as time went on, Rowan and Willow actually taught me how to nap. I was never good at it. I'm a bit scarred by the Protestant work ethic: my personality tends towards over-achievement. But as I napped out of pure necessity, I saw how beautiful it was. I am a better person on a nap! Sadly, they hardly ever nap now. But when they do, I still grab a bit of shut eye.

They say parenting is the hardest job you'll ever do. I don't know about that - I'm pretty sure it's easier than working for either Donald Trump, given his politics, or Jed Bartlett, given his lack of respect for catching zs.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Faith Fast.

Building on the year I gave up church, 2017 sees me being Atheis[t] for Lent. No mere introductory heresy for me, thanks!

AfL's main aims:
  1. to encourage participants to freely examine their own faith position, unsettling them by creating space where unacknowledged uncertainty and repression can be faced
  2. to show that history's deepest atheistic and theistic thinkers are not as polarised as we might presume and, arguably, belong side by side.
I'm not sure I get 2) yet...... though it is true I feel more kinship with some atheist and agnostic friends than with some Christian people on my radar. I'm all for 1), as a means of going deeper and setting oneself free.

So far, I've two favourite reflections. One was a lecture on how little it means and how problematic it is to tell someone what we believe. When I say 'I believe in God', do the words communicate anything reliable? What am I really trying to say? What does the other person think I mean? Why am I saying it? Spoken beliefs are notoriously misleading. I may say, for example, that I 'believe' in community or 'care' about the environment but live an individualistic, wasteful life. What we are saying, often, is: "I want you to think I am the kind of person that believes and cares...."

The other was a fairly complex argument by Antony Flew against the existence of God. It goes something like: if there is nothing I could ever say or that life could ever throw at you that would convince you your faith position is wrong, then it is a priori fantasy. Wow! What hypothetical event or argument would lead me to decide I've been wrong, all these years? If I answer "nothing could ever do so", surely my position is ideological and totally fenced off from reality?

The problem with a lot of AfL, perhaps by its very nature and perhaps only so far, is its cerebral bent. Thinking is a tiny part of being human. And faith, for me, is not primarily if at all about having the right (orthodox) set of beliefs (doctrine). It is about chasing down and testing out whatever sense of relationship with the Divine you have been given. I cannot imagine AfL will deter me from that ... but I would like to think I'm open to the possibility!

Monday, March 06, 2017

Desperately seeking reassurance.....

We are an anxious society, as is fairly well documented. Excessive reassurance-seeking, I realise, is a manifestation of anxiety - repeatedly seeking the same reassurances from the same people about the same stuff.

No doubt everybody does this. Most of us are insecure. In my case, my husband absorbs it. ("Do you really like my blog post? It doesn't make me sound stupid / arrogant / unkind does it? Are you sure? What about this sentence?" Every time! Ha ha! Long-suffering chap!)

In most other relationships, I am quite objective about my strengths and weaknesses. But people don't expect it. When I do share a weakness, it's assumed that I want reassurance. The statement: "I always get unreasonably angry with my son in xyz scenario", is met with: "None of us is perfect, you're a great mum, I'm sure you're behaving brilliantly."

There is a lot of reassurance-seeking on Facebook, of course. In face-to-face interactions, too, I notice it more and more. I suspect I don't deal with it very well. I tend to pursue rather than pass over comments I disagree with, I fail to pooh-pooh a fretful apology, I miss the unspoken request for a compliment.

And yet, it seems reassuring people too readily is to collude with their anxiety, enable it to prosper and therefore hold them back. So maybe there's something to be said for being a bit awkward? Even being brave enough to deny your child reassurance......

Reassurance-seeking can be confused for an apology but is in fact a a barrier to genuine contrition, change and freedom from our fears and anxieties. In Season 3, episode 9 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Willow waits anxiously by Oz's locker to apologise for cheating on him. He refuses to engage - her guilt isn't his problem. If she's genuinely repentant, he says, she will go away and wait, refraining from further bothering him with her need for reassurance.

It seems harsh because we've all stood in Willow's shoes. But he's right: if our 'sorry' is only an attempt to be reassured and feel better, it isn't real and can only add to our burdens.

We all need reassurance ....but I guess we also need to be aware of how that need can limit us and compromise honest relationships.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Bishops and bash-ups.

Following on from an earlier post, and the appointment of a new Bishop in Sheffield, I have been wondering how to disagree well.

There are many ways to disagree badly. Here are four:

We can deny, pretending there is no disagreement. When a contentious topic rears its head, we put our head down and ignore it, move the conversation on or explain away the row with double-speak. I don't advocate being argumentative but we need to have the courage to challenge assertions we deem questionable when they are made. Failing to do that may be a means of self-protection - it also keeps relationships superficial.

We can get defensive. Often, in our enlightened, left-brain, Protestant culture, we conflate our 'selves' with what we believe. A different opinion, then, becomes one and the same as its host, who therefore becomes an opponent, potentially capable of extinguishing us. So, we fight and lash out, attempting to 'crush' the (views of the) perpetrator, losing all capacity for playfulness.

We can manipulate. Rather than engage with a challenger head-on, as a respected and interesting equal that we do not fully appreciate, we use them and any flaws in their argument as an opportunity for promoting our opinion. We look for ways to humiliate them, write them off as quacks or win them over to 'our side', all for the sake of an ego boost or few extra supporters.

We can either brown-nose or uncritically support the underdog. Depending on our inclination, our desire to curry favour or stick up for someone makes us treat any 'truth' or merit on the other side as an insignificance.

What, then, does a good disagreement look like? A readiness to grapple with the matter at hand. An ability to step back from our views, recognising we and the Other person are more than they. A refusal to use conflict for selfish gains. A preparedness to question one's own instincts.

The appointment of a Bishop who opposes the ordination of women is one high-profile example, in my view, of the church mishandling disagreement. My own opinion on lady vicars is probably obvious but I hope it isn't the point. Rather, when I look at the above list, I don't see how people who feel forced to submit can possibly engage in an ongoing, healthy disagreement about such a fundamental and emtionally-charged issue. The appointment will lead to denial, defensiveness, manipulation and tribalism.

I'm really a bit baffled by it.......

Monday, February 20, 2017

Hopes for a great Emergence

According to Phyllis Tickle (et al) we are in the middle of an unsettling, seismic transition in church - and culture.

Tickle (hee hee!) relies heavily on Bishop Mark Dyer's theory that "about every 500 years the empowered structures ... become an intolerable carapace that must be shattered in order that renewal ... may occur".*

A symptom of all this is that we no longer know where authority lies. This unnerves us: we seek out guidance in new, untested places and / or cling desperately to ageing structures we silently fear are old wineskins.

Battles over and confusion about authority have certainly characterised my time in church institutions. If the Reformation wrestled down popes and corrupt institutions with Sola Scriptura and the priesthood of all believers, many of us now wrestle with the idolisation of the bible, the confines of denominational rules and the unrealised equality of every worshipper.

It seems to me very promising that the general direction here is of people daring to take more personal responsibility for their faith. Of frustrating attempts to palm off choices on our leaders, the bible, culture at large or any other authority external to ourselves.

I am not suggesting any woman is an island. Of course, we are social creatures. But taking responsibility for oneself seems, today, to be a rare and valuable gift. We blame:
  • immigrants for our joblessness
  • our circumstances and personality for our bad behaviour
  • those who think differently for our anger
  • new-fangled ways for our obsolescence
  • the bible for our inhumanity.

If Tickle is right, surely in spite of all the dispiriting immediate evidence, mankind is steadily moving towards a rejection of authoritative structures that allow us to evade personal responsiblity?

(Possibly, I am optimistic. Possibly, it is simply the case that in moments of transition, we fall back on taking personal responsibility because a new authority has not yet emerged!)

It seems to me that accepting personal responsibility for our universe is to accept the gift Christ offers us and offered us four chapters ago, when he showed us how to make choices, live a life and accept all its consequences. All to the beat of a very different drum from those followed by frightened clerics, politicians and peers.

* So, going backwards from 2017, there was the Reformation, the Schism, Gregory The Great / the Fall of Rome, Christ. Currently, we are the middle of the Great Emergence.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Of little use or ornament

In Mad Men, Mona remembers full-time parenting: "you sit looking at your child across the tea table, absolutely exhausted by the day. But you haven't done a single, measurable thing to justify such exhaustion."

I paraphrase. Watch Season 7 for the exact quote, which is great.

Ah, they say, but parenting is SO important. What could be more so than raising a person? So demanding. So rewarding. So worthwhile. All probably true....

Somehow, though, this kind answer doesn't quite address the issue. Which is that non-achievement, a lack of public recognition - not to mention small people - are exhausting. And usually, early life only prepares us for the exhaustion of over-achievement.

A parent never knows for sure what he's 'done'. The link between his input and a child's life is extremely complex. (Thank goodness - we are judgemental enough without a clear relationship between Mother's teasing and Jack's anorexia or Father's stories and Rachel's literary brilliance.)

Pre-parenthood, we (are taught to) assess ourselves in gaugeable terms. School and work life facilitate this. Often, so does home life, where adults critique themselves in terms of societal good-standing, promotions and mortgages or even happiness. Children are rewarded (not necessarily with money) for meeting the required standards of behaviour, mood, morality, performance, sociability or whatever. We use these superficial ways of accruing value, of achieving, to propel ourselves through life. They are energising, if superficial.

Sitting at home with infants offers you no purchase whatsoever on the slippery slopes of progress. The slow fall can be liberating, if you embrace lessons offered up by this intense, hidden, purely relational existence. It is also quite terrifying and wearisome.

Most of us parents need to break free, go back to our safe zones and achieve somewhere, sometimes - in career, social life, religion, possession-accumulation, hobby or however we shored up our ego in days gone by.

Even though we cannot reliably discern the fruits of parenting in our children's lives, we can learn things from this chapter. Having allowed ourselves to feel the exhaustion of non-achievement, for example, we might develop more compassion not just for other parents but for those facing even harder chapters of 'uselessness' - unemployment, illness, old age.

We might sit at the tea table with them, proving we're quite at home in the company of the useless and exhausted.

Monday, January 09, 2017

All By Myself

For Christmas, I got a book about being a hermit. Doubtless somebody is trying to tell me something......

Hermits: caves; brown sackcloth; bad teeth and temper; crazy hair (yep, somebody is definitely trying to tell me something.......) The public image isn't great.

At root, the word hermit refers to a person 'of the desert'; a hermit today is defined (at least, by Catholic practitioners) as a person who chooses a solitary life for spiritual reasons. Grumpy old women and Robinson Crusoe do not count!

A friend in church employment once told me he didn't get the secluded religious life thing. It seemed so dull, on the one hand and, on the other, like an irresponsible escape from real life. I suspect this is the majority view. And he was referring to religious communities - the solitary thing is a step further into crazy, right!?

Personally, I am a bit in awe of these folk who respond faithfully to a desire to live simply, prayerfully and alone. The desert is scary! I can't face that much reality about who I am. But I like to paddle in the shallows of these deep sands because the little bits of separation from the world that I manage are always life-changing.

For example, periods of fasting from social media. Depending less on screen time for relaxation. Incorporating silent solitude into life. (This is boring because it is difficult to be alone with oneself. It bears down on you, makes you realise how scattered you are. Try sitting still in silence for 20 minutes, focusing on what you're doing rather than what you have to do when you get up again! It's hard. I've been practising for nearly ten years and 20 minutes still eludes me.)

Learning how to turn my back on the crowd of judgemental voices in my head. Refusing to dwell on what (I think) others think of me. Rejecting paths that take me to prestige, popularity or acceptance.

The biggest challenge of hermit life, I read, is living contentedly in the knowledge everybody thinks you're mad and useless. Having the humility to laugh at the bad teeth and bad temper jokes when, actually, you're staring the realities of life full in the face, at the spiritual coalface.

Seriously, though, if I disappear, you DO need to come looking.....