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The People of the Lie

Posted by Simon Parke, 20 November 2019, 11.02am

In the recent leaders’ debate between Johnson and Corbyn, there was open and derisive laughter from the floor when Johnson was asked about the issue of trust.

This is not surprising; Johnson’s commitment to truth is fleeting at best. More on that anon. But even the Tory journalist, Peter Oborne – he of the far-right Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail - is disturbed as he surveys the massacre of candour.

‘As someone who has voted Conservative pretty well all my life,’ writes Oborne, ‘this upsets me. As the philosopher Sissela Bok has explained, political lying is a form of theft. It means that voters make democratic judgements on the basis of falsehoods. Their rights are stripped away.’

In theory, of course, Johnson should not be able to get away with this scale of deceit. In a keen-eyed democracy, liars should be exposed and held to account, surely?

But clearly this isn’t happening in the UK, just as it isn’t in the United States. Neither Johnson nor Trump pay any political price for lying. So why would they stop?

The permission granted them by the media is disturbing. Oborne notes that Andrew Marr recently allowed Johnson to go unchallenged in saying the Tories ‘don’t do deals with other political parties’.

‘What about the coalition government with the Liberal Democrats in 2010?’ asks Oborne. ‘Or the £1bn “confidence and supply” deal struck with the Democratic Unionist party just two years ago? Marr let Johnson get away with it.’

And there are other examples, too many and too spineless to mention. I find colluding interviewers as hard to watch as the dissembling politicians.

The danger to democracy is that we normalise dissembling, normalise Johnson, by shrugging our shoulders and saying ‘Well, all politicians are the same.’

Not all politicians are the same; for many, the truth matters; but in the present climate, like a dog in a flea circus, they are liable to suffer by association.

‘Politicians, eh?!’ And democracy is quietly strangled.

It is power that matters to Johnson, not truth. It is the journey to power that sets his moral compass, and he’ll happily use both truth and lie to that end, without distinguishing between the two.

‘Why bother?’

When I interviewed Johnson in 2004, what struck me most, beneath the meandering bluster, was his interior despair and the accompanying cynicism towards life.

And not much has changed since then; the brutal and systematically dishonest election machine he has created echoes that inner state.

In his disturbingly truthful book, ‘The People of the Lie’ Scott Peck looks at ordinary people doing terrible things.

These are not ‘criminals’, but often high-functioning and highly-regarded individuals willing to behave appallingly towards certain people.

They are people willing to disregard their conscience either to protect their self-image or to further their journey to power.

Here is what Peck describes as ‘the lazy reptilian torpor’ of denial. It can be shocking to meet. We witness it in many; and we certainly witness it in Trump and Johnson. If we can lie to ourselves, lying to others becomes a great deal easier.

The colluding media in this bleak Circus of Deceit is disturbing; but perhaps more disturbing is the fact that we, the electorate, don’t seem to mind. The more Johnson lies, the higher he climbs in the polls.

It happens. It happened for Trump in the States; it happened for the Nazis in Germany. If a lie strikes some chord in us, we may waive it through and dance with it around the fire in dismal celebration.

So the first act of political resistance and creativity is not to get hysterical about others, not to leap into ‘denounce’ mode… but rather, to be honest with ourselves. We might then be able to be honest with others.

The Labour party has struggled with this as a community in the past few years, and here is their present weakness as an opposition. Their sword of truth is tarnished.  Experience shows the Tories do not have a monopoly on denial.

So we start with self-honesty, demand it in others, and see where the journey leads.

I hope the current political scene is a high-water mark of deceit; if it energises truthfulness, then all is far from lost.

There is such energy in truth, as Buddha, Socrates, Jesus, Hildegard of Bingen, Hafiz, Julian of Norwich, Shakespeare, Gandhi, Mandela, Greta Thunberg, etc etc please add your own, remind us.

A glorious cloud of witnesses…and such energy.


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Handling pressure

Posted by Simon Parke, 18 November 2019, 4.22pm

The theme of the day conference was ‘Surviving Job Pressure’.

Assembled were IT consultants, doctors, nurses, teachers, social workers, HR managers and many others.

They had an ‘Inspirational Speaker’ giving them tips… and one of the tips was this:

‘Act as if…’

When at work, act as if it’s going well…act as if you’re confident…act as if that person didn’t just say something that upset you.

And people found this helpful.

There are dangers with this advice; the same dangers that cluster around all ‘positive thinking’ messages. If our working life is simply pretending things are great when they’re not, then something will have to give.

A plaster does not stop the flood; nor a happy face make good an unhappy soul. 

We need to deal honestly with things when they are not well; and a cheery mask of pretence really isn’t dealing with them.

Our smile will not reach our eyes.

But where this advice is strong is in encouraging us away from negativity or collapse under pressure; in the invitation to reach for a bigger/calmer/truer/more magnificent place inside us.

Pressure affects us in different ways.

It might make us turn in on ourselves in blame or maybe on another; perhaps the pressure is making us anxious as to what others think or about how things will work out.

Perhaps it’s making control freaks of us.

In our different ways, we can be overwhelmed.

But if we take ten deep breaths and live the moment as if things are OK, as if this too shall pass, as if there is nothing here to fear, as if you really do have worth, as if no flames of circumstance can harm you, as if you really are strong…

...then our speaker has a very good point.

For all these things are true.

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My recent visit to A&E

Posted by Simon Parke, 13 November 2019, 6.03am

‘Please wipe up the blood.
Don’t leave it for someone else.’

It’s not a common sign on an office wall, but this is no ordinary office.  I’m sitting in one of the A&E cubicles in Eastbourne hospital and, in a sad bid for a sense of control, I’m trying to work out exactly who everyone is by their uniform – and I’m failing.

There are just too many, as one coloured shirt passes me on to another coloured shirt. I have no idea who is who.

Earlier, I’d experienced chest pains while warming up for my run, and was wisely advised to have them checked out, so here I am, early Saturday morning…though the pains had quite gone by the time I got to the hospital.

Always the way, eh?

But as I say, the ‘who’s who’ of an A&E ward - like Boris Johnson’s appeal - is an unsolvable mystery. My first treatment is by someone who earlier, I’d imagined to be a cleaner, given her track suit and jeans.

Well, she may be a cleaner, and good luck to her if she is – she’s competent and cheerful and we won’t get hung up on labels. (Until we get to the operating theatre, maybe.)

But yes, so many uniforms, as I’m passed from black shirt to light blue shirt to light green shirt to darker blue to fading yellow to – ta da! – smart casual clothes. Yes, we have finally reached the Junior Doctor!...with a smart casual supercilious manner to match..

It would help her if I had a heart problem, I do know this. Case solved. So she asks heart problem questions. ‘Did you feel sick/pain in jaw/pain in left arm/shortness of breath/bowel movements regular? What had I eaten recently? Swelling anywhere?’

My answers are not satisfactory because I’m saying ‘no’ the whole time. It isn’t fitting in with the her heart theory, and I can see this is irritating her – like when the detective’s prime suspect, who they don’t like much, is discovered to have an alibi. 

In fact, I begin to worry for her blood pressure as she takes mine. If she were a client, I’d ask about her relationship to anger.

Over the following hours, blood tests too numerous to mention…three ECG’s… pulse monitored constantly, chest X ray – it’s a pretty decent overhaul.

My nurse – well, I say ‘my nurse’ ...she’s wearing a light blue shirt, which is a bit ‘nursey’. Anyway, she’s getting off at 8.30 this evening, after her twelve and a half hour shift - and then her and her boyfriend are driving up to Oxford, not for the dreaming spires, but to go moto cross racing the next day.

‘After all this rain, it’s going to be pretty messy,’ she says.

‘Do you get hurt much?’

‘I come off the bike every week’ – it’s a 250cc, if you’re still awake and interested – ‘but it’s usually OK. I broke my collarbone last year - had to have surgery to re-align it.’

‘How long did that take to heal?’

‘Couldn’t do anything for about three months.’

Later, while waiting for my chest X ray, I notice another sign:

The Radiology Department cannot be responsible for child care while X rays are being undertaken.’

I enjoy the idea of a number of white-coated radiologists knee-deep in messy play…

But I do get bored of telling everyone about my pulse. The alarm keeps going off when it drops below 40, and there’s clearly no communication between anyone.

‘We’re worried about your heart rate.’

‘I run. It is low.’

‘Yes, but it’s abnormally low.’

‘It’s always like this,’ I say. ‘It’s quite normal.’

And then two minutes later, another colour shirt comes in:

‘We’re worried about your heart rate.’ Repeat…and repeat again…and again.

Though I learn about blood pressure, about which I know very little. You will already know this, of course, but I always assumed that when my doctor took it - well, that was sort-of that.

But I realise that with it being taken every half hour, it is significantly different each time, going down and down and down as the day wears on. Context matters.

And the time-line of things? I went into A&E at 7.00am. I leave, thoroughly and wonderfully tested, a little after 3.00pm. Tests like this, with their remarkable science, would have cost the earth had I gone private.

I’ve felt right as rain throughout, which makes me an impatient patient – though with moments of acceptance; but they are no nearer to explaining the chest pains as I leave than when I arrived.

So that’s a mystery, as well as the shirts.

And to help narrative continuity, my smart casual junior doctor remains repressed anger to the end, telling me as she rips out my cannula that only women know about pain.

It wasn’t the Saturday I asked for, but the Saturday I was given, in the kind and chaotic arms of the NHS – this fragile and imperfect miracle of care.

I scream gratitude in the afternoon rain.

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Ted Hughes' beautiful letter to his son

Posted by Simon Parke, 12 November 2019, 4.09pm

The poet Ted Hughes wrote a letter to his son Nicholas on his 24th birthday.

He was a fragile young man, vulnerable to the world, child-like. Here are his father’s words, describing how the ego forms a secondary self around our true self; and the problems this causes…

‘It’s something people don’t discuss…it’s something most people are aware of only as a sense of inadequacy, or helpless dependence, or pointless loneliness, or a sense of not having a strong enough ego to meet and master inner storms that come from an unexpected angle.

But not many people realise that it is, in fact, the suffering of the child inside them. Everybody tries to protect this vulnerable two three four five six seven eight year old inside, and to acquire skills and aptitudes for dealing with the situations that threaten to overwhelm it.

So everybody develops a whole armour of secondary self, the artificially constructed being that deals with the outer world, and the crush of circumstances. And when we meet people this is what we usually meet. And if this is the only part of them we meet we’re likely to get a rough time, and to end up making ‘no contact’.

But when you develop a strong divining sense for the child behind that armour, and you make your dealings and negotiations only with that child, you find that everybody becomes, in a way, like your own child.

It’s an intangible thing. But they too sense when that is what you are appealing to, and they respond with an impulse of real life, you get a little flash of the essential person, which is the child.

Usually, that child is a wretchedly isolated undeveloped little being. It’s been protected by the efficient armour, it’s never participated in life, it’s never been exposed to living and to managing the person’s affairs - it’s never been given responsibility for taking the brunt. And it’s never properly lived.

That’s how it is in almost everybody. And that little creature is sitting there, behind the armour, peering through the slits. And in its own self, it is still unprotected, incapable, inexperienced.

Every single person is vulnerable to unexpected defeat in this inmost emotional self. At every moment, behind the most efficient seeming adult exterior, the whole world of the person’s childhood is being carefully held like a glass of water, bulging above the brim.

And in fact, that child is the only real thing in them. It’s their humanity, their real individuality, the one that can’t understand why it was born and that knows it will have to die, in no matter how crowded a place, quite on its own.

That’s the carrier of all the living qualities. It’s the centre of all the possible magic and revelation. What doesn’t come out of that creature isn’t worth having, or it’s worth having only as a tool — for that creature to use and turn to account and make meaningful.

So there it is. And the sense of itself, in that little being, at its core, is what it always was. But since that artificial secondary self took over the control of life around the age of eight, and relegated the real, vulnerable, super-sensitive, suffering self back into its nursery, it has lacked training, this inner prisoner.

And so, wherever life takes it by surprise, and suddenly the artificial self of adaptations proves inadequate, and fails to ward off the invasion of raw experience, that inner self is thrown into the front line — unprepared, with all its childhood terrors round its ears.

And yet that’s the moment it wants. That’s where it comes alive — even if only to be overwhelmed and bewildered and hurt. And that’s where it calls up its own resources — not artificial aids, picked up outside, but real inner resources, real biological ability to cope, and to turn to account, and to enjoy.

That’s the paradox: the only time most people feel alive is when they’re suffering, when something overwhelms their ordinary, careful armour, and the naked child is flung out onto the world. That’s why the things that are worst to undergo are best to remember.

But when that child gets buried away under their adaptive and protective shells—he becomes one of the walking dead, a monster.

So when you realise you’ve gone a few weeks and haven’t felt that awful struggle of your childish self — struggling to lift itself out of its inadequacy and incompetence — you’ll know you’ve gone some weeks without meeting new challenge, and without growing, and that you’ve gone some weeks towards losing touch with yourself.

The only calibration that counts is how much heart people invest, how much they ignore their fears of being hurt or caught out or humiliated. And the only thing people regret is that they didn’t live boldly enough, that they didn’t invest enough heart, didn’t love enough. Nothing else really counts at all.’

In 2009, 47-year-old Nicholas hanged himself in his home in Alaska. His sister, Frieda, told the press upon news of his death: “Despite the vagaries that life threw at him, he maintained an almost childlike innocence and enthusiasm for the next project or plan.”

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The so-solid crew

Posted by Simon Parke, 11 November 2019, 4.00pm

It’s like close magic: we’re left wondering ‘How?’

Some would call it a miracle even - that as we empty ourselves we become more solid.

How can this be?

We sometimes say so-and-so is a ‘big personality’...‘You sure know when they’re in the room!’

But while it sounds like a compliment, it rarely is.

The phrase generally describes someone who’s rage or ambition, need for attention or strong opinions spill everywhere, filling the space within them and without.

Perhaps you know such people at work, at home, or - God forbid! - in the world of politics. Given the chance, they climb determinedly to the top; or anywhere they can be seen.

But these are not solid people, we’ll not assume that, for there is no inner space in them; and inner space determines our capacity for creative life.

You cannot be both full of your spilling self and solid.

If our space is filled by rage or ambition, by a need for attention or opinions posing as certainty, there is no capacity in us for fresh creation or newness.

We become like a newspaper that prints the same stories day after day – stale, claustrophobic, with no capacity for anything but the spouting of some distant yesterday.

As we breathe in space, and breathe out all else, we let go of our unexamined compulsions;and we breathe in present strength, strength for all things; and the creativity necessary for this particular moment.

In such breath; in such inhalation and exhalation, we become solid people, world ready, with capacity for living today.

It is strange that as we empty ourselves, we become solid.

Strange but true; the so-solid crew.

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The ego and child

Posted by Simon Parke, 05 November 2019, 5.56am

Beneath every straining ego is the crying child.

The ego cannot stop them crying, that’s not its role; but it can protect the poor little thing.

It can look down the path ahead, foresee dangers and put in place the necessary plans.

It has done faithfully this for years. Indeed, it’s been doing it for so long, the moves are automatic now, not even a decision.

Sometimes the child asks ‘Can I stop crying now?’

But that sort of question makes the ego uncomfortable, so it closes down the discussion.

‘Trouble ahead,’ it says, ‘But don’t worry, I’ll sort it. If you get back down into the cellar, you’ll be safe. No one will see your tears.’

Privately, the ego dreads the idea of the child ceasing to cry. For what would it then do and what would it protect?

Everyone needs a reason to be.

That day must never come, it says to itself, wearily closing the cellar door.

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After the storm

Posted by Simon Parke, 04 November 2019, 5.40pm

You wouldn’t believe what it was like, unless you were there, unless you felt it.

The sea is possessed, a swirling, rolling terror. When it comes like this, no one can survive.

Don’t argue with it or dare, it’s insane.

Wild water surges through and over our defences; we’d thought them strong and they were… in the calm.

Sea and wind throw grit in our eyes, heads down to survive; we have no clothes for this, no protection against this rage.

We watch the shingle pushed and dragged, pounded and altered; thick white foam oozing across the road, pushing us back.

We see cars consumed, we can’t go on; trees bend and break on the retreat home, a face-smacking leg-lifting south-westerly.

Though the following day is quiet

The trees stand still and silent; the sea, a mill pond touched gently by the autumn sun.

It’s quiet as a cathedral; the shingle, a silent prayer. 

We cut up fallen branches, good for the fire one day; and pick up leaves, forced against walls in obedient piles.

Nature’s mess and still the sense of shock; but no madness here today.

We tidy a little, handle the broken with care, restoration begun.

Storms, they come, they smash and they go.


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'The Gustav Sonata' - a review

Posted by Simon Parke, 04 November 2019, 10.14am

The hero, if that is the word, is Gustav. And the story greets us with his childhood years in the small Swiss town of Matzlingen, still recovering from WW2.

Switzerland had been terrified of its Nazi neighbours. The Germans had taken Poland, they had taken France – would they come also for the Swiss?

Deals needed to be made…and one of the deals brought an end to Jewish access to the safety of Switzerland, which so many of them sought.

But while the government directive was clear – ‘No more Jews; Jews to be sent back’ - it was not easy for Swiss citizens in a position to help. They knew the fate of Jews sent back to their homeland.

So which law to obey – national or moral? The dilemma facing the Swiss police chiefs impacts significantly on Gustav’s young life.

It is a perplexing childhood, trapped and controlled by a bitter and self-centred mother. He learns to love – this is required of him, always to care – but not to be loved, a theme of this sonata.

Though away from his mother, moments of kindness and delight along the way, children do find it – and a childhood friendship with Anton, an anxious Jewish boy, which he can never let go of.

His mother does not encourage the friendship. Instead, Gustav is told by his mother to ‘master himself’.

‘You have to be like Switzerland,’ she says. ‘Do you understand me, Gustav? You have to hold yourself together and be courageous, stay separate and strong. Then you will have the right kind of life.’

The story is a sparse sweep through sixty years of altering family dynamics, with revelations, past and present, scattered along the mountainous way. Gustav becomes a hotelier in Matzlingen, providing good food, warmth and care for his guests – things little Gustav would have liked.

While still waiting - as the snow falls and guests come and go - for his mother to love him…

Here is withheld passion and repressed desire, all sadness and hope; and a beautiful noting of motive and consequence as family unravels, tectonic plates shift and ever-new familial formations appear, surprising alliances.

The Gustav Sonata is a short and wonderful novel by Rose Tremain, in minute detail and broad sweep, full of memorable scenes crisply told – as aspiration and reality travel together towards this hotelier’s twilight years; while we, from the enthralled sidelines, so wish the best for him.

Will he break free?

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Spiritual Direction

Posted by Simon Parke, 24 October 2019, 12.03pm

I’ll shortly have the privilege and honour of reflecting on Julian of Norwich with some spiritual directors in the Diocese of Europe.

Spiritual Direction is a particular task, both for the receiver and giver, and I have been both.

Here’s a piece I wrote on the transactions a few years ago. They still feel true.

‘Do you have a spiritual director? Have you been encouraged to find one?

They’re not always called spiritual directors these days, of course. In our democratic times, some prefer to call themselves spiritual companions.

I have no issue, however, with the ‘director’ title… if they know their craft. Why wouldn’t I want to be directed by someone who knows this territory better than I?

So what is spiritual direction?

Spiritual direction is a relationship of two absolutes: absolute support for you and your journey and absolute challenge for you and your journey. (This was Jesus’ approach, affirming and dismantling.)

Both these absolutes are both crucial. So when only one of these is present, there’s an issue.

I have given up direction in the past because it became nothing more than a cosy hour in someone else’s large armchair.

There’s a time for this, as we all know; but if that’s all it is, we need to call it something other than spiritual direction. Perhaps ‘A cosy hour in someone else’s armchair.’

Equally, however, a director who can only find fault or who is endlessly pushy for spiritual self-improvement, (their issue – not yours)... well, this is equally unsatisfactory.

So the spiritual director holds these two absolutes close to their heart, responding to the needs of the moment.

On a spiritual direction course I did a few thousand years ago, the key question we were asked to hold at the centre of all dialogue was this:

‘Where’s God in all this?’

And it’s a decent question, and one we won’t forget…though I prefer ‘Who is God in all this?’

What picture of God do you currently carry? (Some pictures are best put down and kicked into the river.)

And perhaps even better than both those questions, though intimately related, is: ‘Who are you in all this?’

People can spend a lot of time reading about God; but can have very little sense or experience of themselves.

Yet they are the ones having to live this life. And if you don’t know yourself, how can you possibly know anything of God – for you are the lens through which you gaze on the divine.

Spiritual direction may simply be about helping you to experience yourself more joyfully, something God celebrates with gay abandon.

Spiritual direction is an isolated affair – but in a good way. It’s only spiritual direction if you do not meet this individual in any other capacity. As soon as you have another relationship with them –whatever it is - there are too many agendas in the room, honesty will suffer, and you’ll begin to edit what you say.

End of story.

So neither your husband, wife, family friend, best buddy, football coach, hair stylist, vicar, father-in-law nor line manager can be your spiritual director.

They can all be something else that’s helpful; but it’s a different role. As soon as there’s a dual relationship in the room, there’s another agenda in the room, and it ceases to be spiritual direction.

How often?

There are no rules about how often you’ll visit your spiritual director; though I wouldn’t imagine it more than once a month or less than four times a year.

The simple question is this: how often is it helpful for you to sit in front of a truth mirror? (This is hard to do alone, though not impossible.)

And you may need more than one director on your journey. Not at the same time, that wouldn’t work; but there may come a time when you feel the need to move on, leave one behind to find another.

We’ve already noted how when only one of the absolutes is on show, something is missing.

It might also be that you have changed, and what was helpful once in your director, is no longer so. Once they seemed ahead of us; now they seem behind us.

Or at least, not understanding of us. We have moved on, we walk different territory and need a different guide.

And note that moving on is always the decision of the one being directed. I’m not comfortable when those I see for direction book up more than one or two meetings ahead.

I won’t end the relationship, unless the circumstances are extreme; but they are always free to.

Let it always be a live decision. I’m committed to this meeting, this moment… not a marriage.

And do remember you are not responsible for your director. This is important. Don’t hang around because you think they might be hurt if you left.

Again, that’s their issue – not yours.

Spiritual direction offers safe space to unload our stuff and insightful space to see our stuff more clearly, see through our stuff, find God in our stuff, live our stuff better.

There are some wonderful spiritual directors out there. If you need one, I hope you find one…and one who suits you. (Just because they suit someone else doesn’t mean they will suit you.)

And all this is so because you’re entirely worth it.’

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The Flame-Keeper

Posted by Simon Parke, 21 October 2019, 1.40pm

Keep the flame alive, however fragile it’s dance

However forgotten in difficult days, distracted days

However obscured by the ego’s demands, by others’ demands

Stir the embers again, let stillness stir it to life, this red-hot mystery,

Wake it gently in the quiet, sit with the glow

Guard the fire from the wind

Shelter it from the rain

Protect this flickering glory from the fire-stealers

You’ll know them

For you are the flame-keeper, the keeper of your flame, as the flame keeps you

An inextinguishable blaze, and quite un-put-outable,

A holy flame, holy and strong

This kindly light

This burning gold within

This simple searing flame… and you it’s marvellous keeper

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