The challenge that is faith...
"Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths."
If only that were possible. My training in looking after my own mental health is all about finding the same peace mentioned in the bit of Philippians just before my favourite quote of all:
"Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus."
The argument I had with the therapist was precisely that it - peace - surpasses all understanding, and my inclination is to seek understanding in everything I undertake, including my own mind. The armour that I had worn for 30-odd years of my life up to that point was that I could seek a deeper understanding and, usually, find it. And if understanding didn't bring comfort, at least it brought a type of knowledge of the world that could lead away from disappointment, frustration and anger. To be stripped of that armour by a mental illness that I didn't understand and couldn't conceive of a way of countering was as devastating as any grief I have experienced. It might be better to say that it encapsulated all the grief I have experienced, or that it - the illness - was a kind of conduit to the front of my thoughts for all that grief.
I have been in danger, since being trained to be mindful, of feeling something approaching peace. Aided occasionally (and indeed currently) by the softening, cushioning effect of anti-depressant medication, I have been able to hold off some of the introspective dwelling on negatives that is so destructive in my personal experience. I have learned to accept that the things in the past cannot be altered, and that those things that have happened - including the ones where I did wrong, or failed to be kind, or otherwise let myself or someone else down - bring me to the point I am at today. Some of those reflections have the odd character of bringing on a smile, followed by emptiness or sadness. The best way I can characterise it is the excitement and promise of something great about to happen - that is real enough, and it is enjoyable when it is happening - then the disappointment of that promise remaining unfulfilled. Some people seem to be able to accept the disappointment without it tarnishing the enjoyment that came before, but not me. But the point is that at times I have felt able to distance myself from those reflections, able - as the therapy trains - to step back from the thoughts, to disengage, to let them go without grasping on to them. To hand them over to God, I suppose. And that is the great promise of Christianity, the idea that it will bring salvation to those who truly believe in it. I don't disagree with the moral teachings of Jesus himself - because they amount, as I have stated before, to not much more than 'be nice to everyone as much as you can' - but the promise that this will be rewarded with an eternity of peace does not ring true, because I can't swallow the metaphysical commitment that it needs.
But peace is short-lived, fragile, easy to upset. Peace that is based on faith and hope in people is prone to disappointment when those people, inevitably perhaps, don't live up to the faith that is placed in them. I would love to be one of those people who can build a sort of castle of immunity around themselves, a set of mental (and physical) barriers that prevent harm by stopping you opening yourself up to it in the first place. But for whatever reason I seem to not be able to. Sometimes that is what I like about myself, although it causes me problems as well. It allows the connection I make to be deep and fulfilling, immune to the effects of distance, time, prolonged and even enforced silence. But it makes you vulnerable. 'So human', perhaps, as my departed colleague and friend once described me.
So - and this is an undertaking, a wishlist rather than a promise, let me finally decouple myself from the desperate struggle I have had with faith, with the idea of a personal God judging me in the world, with the sense that good and bad done are answerable to some higher power or that those things done might be the route into heaven (or the barrier to it). Let me instead have faith in the life I have, in the people I have shared a few moments with, whatever the circumstances. Let me find peace when things around me go wrong, whether they be mundane or significant, let me be free of anger and guilt and judgement.
Life is long, and there is time for things that are wrong to be righted. "Live, then, and be happy, beloved of my heart, and never forget, that until the day God will deign to reveal the future to man, all human wisdom is contained in these two words, 'Wait and Hope'."
2020: half the year when nothing happened, half the year when all fucking hell broke loose
It's probably the case that everyone carries some prejudices with them. What marks out people who have made progress in the art (or is it a science?) of being a good person is that when they detect a prejudice working in them, they examine it, challenge it, and perhaps dismantle it so that next time they can encounter a new situation featuring familiar types without the assumptions that might make them get it wrong. People further down this line of development seem to be able to challenge instances of prejudice when they encounter it. 'Challenging' should be very carefully handled here, because it does not - and I stress that in using this language I am both representing the reality of the situation on some social media platforms and intentionally trying to achieve shock value - involve calling someone a cunt, or threatening to rape them, or telling them to go suck a dick. Challenging anything on Twitter is impossible to do effectively, because you basically don't have the room to call out something like an instance of racial or homophobic prejudice without getting into a corollary argument about freedom of speech - more of which later - or sounding like Donald Trump, sarcastic, mean-spirited and lacking intelligence. A tweet that starts 'are you aware that you seem to be showing an outmoded racial prejudice...' can't help but sound, well, patronising. That's why a lot of this is better done in person. You can use tone, body language and all the other non-verbal cues and clues that help someone to see that you're on their side, just trying to adjust their attitude to the world. Adversarial exchanges on Twitter (in particular) do nothing to move a debate forward.
In fact, I'll set a challenge. If anyone can provide me with a documented case of someone saying something on Twitter, getting a reply challenging the opinion, and then admitting that the original statement was wrong and thanking the intervener for their help, I'll send you a prize. As yet to be determined, mind, but a prize nevertheless.
What's harder to challenge is where prejudices are built in to institutions, whether that be the difficulty of women building their career at the same rate as men due to the effects of maternity leave and the fact that mothers tend to be the ones doing the part-time work after that leave ends, or the collection of factors which make it harder for black British students to get into Oxford and Cambridge. On a personal level, you can identify these prejudices in some cases, you might even be able to point them out to a suitable authority figure, maybe a manager or master of a college, or an MP. But the shift required in attitudes across a vast range of people to level playing fields in both of these regards is huge. That doesn't mean it shouldn't be done, but it does mean that doing it is difficult.
And so we come to an interesting discussion that is going on at the moment about how to argue with someone whose opinions are very far removed from your own. Although I have never attempted to engage her on any subject, it is a fairly succinct explanation that if Katie Hopkins has an opinion on a subject that I know nothing about, I will probably take the opposite side of the argument. Whatever she thinks, I can be pretty confident I will think the opposite. Although that used to be the case with Piers Morgan, and, yes, I do feel a quiver of revulsion saying it, but Morgan-as-mouthpiece for criticism of the current government has been surprisingly effective. So how do you begin to argue with such a person? It's a mark of the sort of person you are that you take up the argument against people who spout hateful stuff, but it's much more of a mark that the argument happens in the calm, clear way. Hence Twitter being such a poor debating platform. It goes directly from blunt assertion to flat denial to personal abuse. There's no subtlety. To the extent that on the few occasions that I have taken people up on something, they are generally surprised to see an actual criticism of the argument and sometimes even attempt to address it. They were expecting, to repeat a phrase, to be called a cunt. Katie Hopkins, apparently, has been banned from Twitter altogether. It's not the loss of her opinions that I find to be an issue, it's the fact that she is such a draw. She had over a million followers. And she is dragging them to another platform, supposedly. Shutting her up on that platform - where there are enough people getting after her and trying to argue with her - might be a news story, but the real news ought to be that loads of people hear what she has to say and think it's worthwhile. I had always assumed that both her and Morgan were much more intelligent than their expressed opinions, and that both of them just said what they thought a particular section of the public wanted to hear. Now, I'm not so sure, but I'm still considering it. I wonder what I would do if I had a book or a painting that was particularly beautiful, a spectacular piece of art, complete in both conceptualisation and realisation, and I found ought that Katie Hopkins was the artist. I'm not sure I wouldn't suffer from the sort of prejudice that says bad people can't do good art. Or at least I can't like art by bad people. It'll be interesting to see how the JK Rowling fiasco continues, because some have pegged her as a bad person, denying the essential woman-ness of a trans woman. The sense of the argument I have is that whatever a trans woman is, being a woman isn't just a state of affairs, it's a kind of process, and so it can't just be decided on. I don't know whether that is the right way to look at it, and I certainly don't know whether it should shape the law or the moral landscape, but I certainly don't think she should be shouted down for having that opinion. Whatever the challenges - and that might mean moving the argument off Twitter - the disagreement needs to be firm but gentle, rather than threatening and insulting. A criticism needs to be of the idea and the argument, not of the person.
In the same way, one might read a book that someone essentially good has written, where the book isn't up to much. You have to be firm but gentle. 'It's horrific, and not in a good way,' is perhaps to be avoided. 'It's some way short of being ready for publication' carries with it the optimistic but probably ultimately wrong thought that any book can be brought up to that standard. My issue is a different one, and that's the fact that this book is creepy. And it doesn't acknowledge it. I'm finding it hard to shape a sentence that can get the point across. And to level the accusation that hero is in fact just as bad as the baddies because of his choices... Not sure how to deal with it. The real world is full of moral ambiguity and the need for a guiding principle is great, because so few of the people who manage to achieve things like power, wealth and influence do so with a clear guiding principle in place, except perhaps for 'get me more power, wealth and influence'. It's never been clearer than it is now, with the government desperately trying to find something to say that people will like, but not having the balls to say the difficult stuff or to ask people who might say that what people like is also a terrible idea. We might all be back in schools in September (we might not, I hasten to add) but it won't be because government has consulted with schools, headteachers, unions and scientists and found out that it is doable, however difficult. It's because government has decided it needs to say that, and they're quite happy to stitch up schools (etc) later when it turns out not to be a very good idea. If only it were the case that these politicians actually had a principle to work to, but I don't think many of them do. So I'll leave a couple here:
Be excellent to each other...
Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.
Although given the current progress of things, perhaps this one would be better:
Do us a favor... I know it's difficult for you... but please, stay here, and try not to do anything... stupid.
"You know, for having such a bleak outlook on pirates you are well on your way to becoming one: sprung a man from jail, commandeered a ship of the fleet, sailed with a buccaneer crew out of Tortuga, and you're completely obsessed with treasure."
Continuing the theme that I began over five years ago which is that the title is a phrase spoken by one of the characters, I've finally got it.
Curiously apposite at the moment, and I can't help but feel that might have helped me reach a decision.
So here we go:
Truth to Power.
Watch for more updates as I put the 'finishing' 'touches' (that is, write the fifteen or twenty thousand words it still needs) to book IV of These Matters, Truth to Power.
So I have been taking my 8-year-old daughter on the road to cycle quite a bit just recently. She is possessed of a determination, a wilfulness of spirit, that I almost entirely lack, and her progress from struggling up the smallest hill to making her way up to Fox House or Owler Bar from our house, a full five miles and a really big hill for each, has been quite gratifying. She is not, though, a road user in the most robust sense. She can cross a road, but really wants an adult there to help. So I fulfil roughly that same function - being the road user - when we're out cycling. And I am consistently disappointed with the decision-making of some of the drivers who use those same roads, going for tiny gaps that they shouldn't have, overtaking when there's something coming the other way, and generally not accepting the small delay in their journey that we present. Here's a thought for anyone who is a driver and not a cyclist: your insurance won't be happy that you wrecked your car and the one coming the other way because you were too impatient to wait for a decent gap and a straight bit of road. That's if you choose to do the right thing and drive into the other car. If you choose wrong and knock me off to avoid hitting the other car, then you might just have to deal with the hysterical 8-year-old as you scrape me off the road, and a lifetime's guilt (and a prison sentence) for ending a life just to save 15 seconds. And that's the least worst outcome. Cars seem to armour people against consequence, whether that be using weapons-grade swearing to describe someone who slowed you down or came out of a junction when they shouldn't, right up to failing to consider the potential effect of splattering through a couple of cyclists to overtake when there wasn't room. It doesn't seem to occur to people that they are, in all honesty, endangering the lives of more-or-less innocent people, particularly small ones who perhaps don't need to be intimidated off the road. Even if the sole purpose of our journey was to slow down a bunch of cars - even if we set out with that specific intent - it wouldn't make smashing a little girl off the road morally acceptable. And, of course, all we were actually doing was a bit of exercise. So there you go. Be nice on the roads, even if the other person is a thunder----. I have a bit to learn from my own rant here, I'll own. When your child asks you, "Daddy, what's 'fuxache'?", you know you've gone a bit far. Children are often instructive in this regard, and very rarely anywhere near as judgemental as adults.
On the subject of flowers, I have been bemoaning the fact that I am old and decrepit for some time, occasionally even forcing kind people into saying something to the contrary. I wonder whether the fact that I now not only stop to look at flowers when I see them, but that I am actively trying to grow my own in the back garden, is a symbol of my growing old. There's something almost spooky about flowers. Why has nature evolved this extravagance of beauty? What evolutionary purpose does it serve? Are bees connoisseurs of aesthetic magnificence? On a side note, the fella next door 'keeps' bees, so we do have plenty roaming around our back garden. I say 'keeps', but what I really mean is 'facilitates the occasional mass escape on a hot day'. I think, like some people's cats, the bees are in charge, and the notional human owner is no more than an unintentional slave to their world-domination plans. Flowers seem, in a way that would be unimaginable to my teenage self, to have a calming effect. I've mentioned before the way my brain sometimes overdrives, thinking in bizarrely expanding circles to encompass every bad thing that I have ever experienced, either as the victim or the perpetrator. Flowers seem to allow me a moment of calm, although what is interesting about that is that they trigger happy memories of times past without the associated guilt or sadness that those times have gone, or that I might not have made all the right choices. As a teenager, the notion of going to a garden - Rosemoor is the one that I was dragged to by my parents - just to look at flowers all day did in fact send me into the mother of all face-on mards. No more, and I don't know what's changed.
Interesting point of comparison is the fact that I've started to develop a desire to do some of the things that I did as a late teenager, at least partly in response to having a lot of time in lockdown to think, reminisce, and play guitar. I will - and I don't yet know how - get started with a band that plays my music, by which I mean all the stuff I used to dance to at Corporation 20-odd years ago. It'll be heavy, it'll be immature, it'll be great. Once I've managed to find a bunch of other people who are willing to do the same. I bet it'll be just a touch easier when lockdown comes to an end and everyone just wants to do stuff rather than sit at home playing on Facebook/Twitter/Insert your preferred web-based mechanism of wasting shitloads of time.
And the magpies? You see a lot of them when you're out riding a bike around SW Sheffield. And for some reason, as a broadly not-superstitious person, seeing one on its own makes me think something is wrong with the world. And seeing two together can lift my day. In particular, I find myself wanting to write just that bit more often when I see a pair than when I see one alone. Perhaps the effect is the cause of the superstition... It's as though there is a warmth filtering through nothing, that I am in the thoughts of some unseen power a long way distant, but that nevertheless makes me happy. For whatever reason, I think this is Edward Strelley's only concession to superstition as well. He is a sort of intellectual magpie, as I suppose I am, collecting little trinkets and treasuring them. It feels just right to me that he, an atheist in a much more religious time, should have a little superstition. For him, it is Elizabeth's thoughts that he wants to be in, and yet as he says himself, he wishes to free her of him so that rather than think of him and be sad, she should forget him and smile.
Bloody hell fire...
A lot is going on. The world, it seems, is splitting ever more along party lines, and the sides are taking lumps out of each other. It's hard to even choose a side, because anything approaching a principle seems to be absent in so many of the arguments. Having said that, it's easy enough to believe in the rightness of a cause. One pertinent at the moment might be the end of racism. But it's hard to choose how to do the best in support of that cause. My approach, as I was trying to detail to a neighbour a few days ago, has been to try to win the argument in favour of kindness, of a sort of love that accepts different choices and if a disagreement arises, tries to show the right way. But - and this is the thing I am wrestling with at the moment - sometimes it seems as though that soft approach, that attempt to be the still, small voice of calm amongst the anger and the hate, is not enough.
Should one protest in solidarity? I don't know. I can certainly feel anger on behalf of the oppressed, the downtrodden, the institutionally impoverished, whilst also acknowledging that I am not among their number. The act of protest, whether violent or not, is both very easy to twist in covering it so as to make it appear to be something else, and - for me in my position in the community - forbidden by contract. Even with a seemingly straightforward cause, such as feminism, I have found myself having to take in new arguments about how what I had previously thought was an easy enough position to endorse might not capture the whole picture. I am not the right person to smooth out differences between those who say trans women are women, and those who say trans women aren't women, but my eyes are open to both sides. If I had an observation to add, perhaps it is simply that kindness ought to be the guiding principle. And that might not come up with the same answer in all situations, which could make me appear - ironically - to be unprincipled.
I am not a Christian in the metaphysical sense, as I have written on this very blog before. But I think if there is anything in the Bible that is worth repeating, it is that call to be loving:
But now abideth faith, hope, love, these three; and the greatest of these is love.
Christians might argue about the relative value of faith and acts of love, but the goal, as far as I can tell, is to be loving regardless of any future reward. It should be enough that being righteous is right, and not that being righteous is the path to heaven.
Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal…
So, my call: be good. In fact, be excellent to each other. And just wait for now until this whole Covid-19 business is at an end before partying on, dude.
When to the sessions of sweet silent thought