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The smart phone creed

Posted by Simon Parke, 23 May 2018, 10.57am

I believe in my phone, and smart technology Almighty,
creator of heaven and earth, as I now experience it.

I believe in - Jesus Christ! Have you seen the latest story about Victoria Beckham?
Conceived by the newsroom
born of public demand
suffering celebrities
crucified, dead and buried - and all on my brilliant phone
which descends to the dead when it’s battery is low.

But on the third day, (well, hopefully much sooner,) when re-charged, it rises again
and ascends me to heaven,
and seats me at the right hand of the all information, instantly accessed.

And it will judge the living and the dead, though not necessarily with proper evidence.

I believe in the wholly distracted spirit,
the wholly catholic sex scandal - not another one?!
the communion of people like me ( I do need them to be like me) in virtual relationship
the forgiveness of sins - only joking, let’s screw the bastards!
the resurrection of old stories, brushed up for popular view

And my phone everlasting. (whilst near a power point.) Amen.

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'That sermon' and the learning of love

Posted by Simon Parke, 21 May 2018, 3.38pm

The wedding of Harry and Meghan will be remembered for many wonders.

And one of the wonders was the sermon by Bishop Curry.

No one - least of all some of the open-mouthed royal party – was expecting that.

‘Inspirational’ was the sense on Twitter. Ed Miliband even said he was tempted to become a believer. (Steady there, Ed.)

And the lead story was love. 

Towards the end of the thirteen minute oration, (it was meant to be six) the bishop quoted Teilhard de Chardin.

If human beings ever ‘harness the energies of love,’ he said, ‘then for the second time in the history of the world, we will have discovered fire.’

And earlier, in a similar vein, the bishop had drawn on Dr. Martin Luther King:

‘We must discover the power of love, the redemptive power of love. And when we discover that, we will be able to make of this old world a new world. Love is the only way.’

Apparently the bishop mentioned love over sixty times; this sermon was a love story, which moved many.

‘Yes, yes, yes!’ we declared.

So why don’t we? And why won’t we? Because, to be honest, not much has changed since MLK.

What lies beyond our post-sermon emotional high? Back to the same old, same old, with a little guilt now thrown in?

We need inspirational speakers, inspirational people. You’ll have your own.

They somehow point a way for you, give you something to aspire to; they energise, draw you into the journey, give you hope.

But beyond inspiration, it’s the ‘How’ of love that begs attention. 

‘I want to love but how will I do that? It’s no use telling me to love, if you don’t also tell me how…because most of the time I don’t.’

My sense and understanding is that we are made of love; this is our composition.

We are made of different sorts of love, of course, so each of us will express it in different ways.

And that’s OK, it’s still love.

But then stuff comes along…possessiveness perhaps, or the need to control, extinguishing other people’s space; or anxious manipulation; or feelings of insecurity… a bid for power, slothful deceit, an exhausted and intolerant spirit, a fear of outcomes, depressed cynicism, social anxiety, hysterical over-reaction… or a head fucked by wheedling negativity.

(And that’s just before breakfast.)

And suddenly, instead of being what we are, which is love, we become what we are not - though we may dress it as virtue to ourselves.

Truth is nothing more than the awareness of error, (for truth pre-exists)... and so it is with love.

It’s not about adding things or reading more or trying harder or feeling guiltier… or blaming others for not doing it.

It’s simply about removing attitudes from our own lives; letting them go and then letting them go again.

And what is left is love.

The sooner we dare notice unhelpful energies arising in us, attitudes from damaged pasts, then the sooner we return to love… to what and to who we are.

Beyond inspiration, which is lovely, is the ‘how’ of love. And with patience and self-kindness we are learning.

It is the learning of love, the learning of how we ourselves might be love, in our own way.

And in such letting go, in such glorious subtraction, behold!...

We make the old world new every day.


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Men and their despair

Posted by Simon Parke, 21 May 2018, 10.38am

Twelve men will kill themselves today, as twelve do every day, in England and Wales.

An awful sentence to write.

And words cannot describe the confusion, anger, grief and self-recrimination they will leave behind. The trauma of the left-behind is profound and long-lasting.

Yet the young, the loved and the successful still kill themselves, able somehow to isolate themselves from the consequences.

No one ever believed the note: ‘It is better that I go.’

According to the charity, Campaign Against Living Miserably (Calm), men account for more than three-quarters of all suicides in England and Wales, 4,590 deaths – the single biggest cause of death among males under 50.

And people don’t tend to see it coming with men. Three out of four male suicides had no contact with mental health professionals prior to their death.

When my friend killed himself, he seemed to have everything. But clearly for him, on that morning, there appeared to be nothing.

There may be clues, which hindsight sometimes sees: signs of depression like lack of energy, sadness, negativity and self-destructiveness.

But perhaps a bigger issue – and the issue which makes all other issues more dangerous - is the male inability to seek help to work things through.

A survey by Calm revealed that 69% of men said they preferred to deal with problems themselves, 56% didn’t want to burden others. ‘The traditional strong silent response to adversity is increasingly failing to protect men from themselves,’ said Jane Powell, Calm’s chief executive.

Shortly before his death, the psychiatrist Anthony Clare wrote a book, On Men: Masculinity in Crisis. He concluded with a plea to men to place ‘a greater value on love, family and personal relationships and less on power, possessions and achievement… to find meaning and fulfilment’.

In the end, every suicide arises from a belief that this present situation is the end of the story, that there’s no way out.

It is a state of utter despair, the fox at the end of the run… and perhaps familiar to some of us. It need only kidnap us for a moment to be fatal.

The genius for all of us is to remember - against all odds and perhaps despite the evidence - that nothing is the end of the story, that this too shall pass; that there is a future…

...and if a future, then a present.

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Present difficulty

Posted by Simon Parke, 21 May 2018, 8.43am

In The Gospel of Thomas, the followers of Jesus say:

‘Tell us who you are that we may believe in you.’

Like us, they were constantly searching for meaning outside themselves.

They just needed more information on which to base a decision.

Jesus just needed to get his shit together and explain things rather more clearly than he had done, so an informed decision could be taken.

The only way, surely?

Jesus answers them:

‘You search the face of heaven and earth but you do not recognise the one who is in your presence and you do not know how to experience the present moment.’

Ahh…

It is reassuring to know that we’re not the first to be so busy searching for explanations that we miss the meaning of now.

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A good use of blame

Posted by Simon Parke, 16 May 2018, 4.25pm

We will not conflate blame and agency.

Such conflation makes things unclear, when clarity helps.

‘I’m sure she didn’t mean to do it,’ some people say, not daring to blame. And yet they remain shackled by what she did for years!

No blame…yet no agency either.

But both blame and agency are important. Blame for clarity; agency for growth.

We can blame someone for their treatment of us, lay responsibility at their door for what was done; it’s a good place to start.

But we still have agency in the situation; there is life and freedom beyond what was done.

‘My mother is very manipulative,’ says the middle-aged man, accurate in his observation but depressed. He speaks as if he must always play this game.

But just because she manipulated him yesterday, it doesn’t mean he has to allow it today. He has agency in this matter. He can choose to live differently; he can take responsibility for himself.

There is a helpful energy in blame, but by itself, it is not enough.

What someone did to us matters; but what matters more is what we do with it.

We are all victims, but we don’t live in victimhood, because daily, we claim our agency, not as the done-to, but as the growing, on the long road to freedom.

I am not responsible for the behaviour of others towards me; that’s their bag, and it may be a heavy one.

But I am responsible for what I do with it.

In the end, personal blame dissolves not because it didn’t happen, but because we have simply left it behind, left their behaviours behind.

Thank you for coming, thank you for going, as the Swedish say.

We have outgrown it…like a child growing out of their clothes.

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Why a horse made Nietzsche cry

Posted by Simon Parke, 14 May 2018, 4.52pm

It is a January day in 1889. We are on a quiet street in the Italian town of Turin.

Freidrich Nietzsche – philosopher, cultural critic, Greek and Latin scholar - watches as a coachman brutally whips his horse, before he throws himself between them.

He now cradles the horse, his arms around him in protection, before he begins to weep uncontrollably. Anger and sadness wells up.

And he cannot cope.  The man who has spent his life suppressing and denying his feelings cannot cope with the emotions that now arise and run terrible riot through his body.

On a quiet street in Turin, faced with a suffering horse, the labyrinth of his clever intellect is flooded like an abandoned mine shaft.

And he sobs and sobs and sobs.

Had they known who he was, onlookers might have been surprised.

Here was a man famous for his dazzling and savage intelligence; and his intellect had undoubtedly helped him survive his childhood.

It had taken him from his difficult feelings. For young Freidrich, abstract thought, safely in his head, had offered the chance of survival.

He had endured the sternest of Protestant upbringings, with many beatings to help silence the boy’s curiosity.

And the beatings worked.

In his diary, aged twelve, he recounts walking home from school, when it is raining. Though he is getting wet, he does not quicken his pace, but maintains a slow walk, his head erect.

As he explains, ‘On leaving school, one must go home in a calm and orderly manner. That’s what regulations require.’

He was told much about Christian virtue, but probably wondered, on some unconscious level, why it was never practiced on him.

To ask the question would be against regulations. And when you have no support and no witness, obedience to regulations is one way to survive.

Later, he would tear into a religion with real ferocity, never linking his assaults with either his family or his past.

But for now, it was his body that paid the price for repression.

In one year, 1879, (aged thirty five) he was sick 118 times, enduring throat infections, persistent bouts of rheumatism and almost intolerable muscular tension.

Yet how could his muscles relax with so much fury in his body?

And brought up by five women who were less than tender, it was no surprise that as an adult, he could never find a woman he could trust.

But the horse whipping in Turin proves a terrible watershed.

Emotion pours out, the screaming genie finally released from the bottle. He identifies totally with the horse… but with no bridge from his intellect to his feelings, Nietzsche loses his mind.

He will live another eleven years, but only in a state of total dependence first on his mother and then his sister…not his best healers.

In his days of fearless prose, he wrote, ‘We all fear the truth.’

And Nietzsche was fearless in his pursuit of intellectual truth, a thundering gong across Europe.

But his personal truth was a more buried affair, feared above all things… and quite unreachable.

And so on a street in Turin, like a flooded mine shaft, his intellect finally gives up the fight and jumps ship.

The thundering is over; breakdown has arrived.

‘The terrible and almost unceasing martyrdom of my life makes me thirst for the end,’ he wrote, aged thirty six.

His body had spoken, his past had come up for air; but there was no one who could help him home to hug little Freidrich.

Certainly not his mother…

 

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Concentrate! And don't concentrate!

Posted by Simon Parke, 14 May 2018, 9.10am

Concentration was always celebrated at school…and encouraged loudly.

‘Concentrate, Parke!’

And concentration, or focus, is good for getting things done.

As Alexandra Horowitz writes: ‘It eases our cognitive overload by allowing us to conserve our precious mental resources only for the stimuli of immediate and vital importance, and to dismiss or entirely miss all else.’

Concentration gears us to notice only what is relevant now, which can be helpful and necessary.

(I’m having to focus on this piece at present.)

But while all this focus might make us more efficient in our goal-oriented day-to-day, it also leads us into a life of ever-narrowing awareness.

To put it bluntly, we don’t notice very much.

And to be blunt again, we miss a great deal - whether it’s the sky line, our feelings about last night, the sadness of our colleague, the architecture in our road, the tension in our shoulders, the child at the bus stop, the door in the wall, the hum of the lawnmower or the bird on the park bench.

Often in the day, we’re asked to close down to everything but the task; and that’s fine.

But sometimes, quite deliberately, it’s good to do the opposite, to open up to everything and listen to the many languages of the world around us.

We don’t focus on what’s relevant; instead, we simply notice what is, in all its rich variety…whether we’re on the bus, in the park or on the way to the supermarket.

Sadly, no teacher ever shouted at me, ‘Notice what is, Parke!’

But it can be refreshing, just for a moment, to step away from my present fixation…and notice this many-levelled world.

It’s like a holiday for the spirit, random delight, the cool breeze of unedited awareness.

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Mediation

Posted by Simon Parke, 09 May 2018, 12.08pm

I’m sometimes involved in mediation.

And it’s a fool’s game, really.

You’re always waiting for someone to pull out, storm out…or simply not turn up, either physically or emotionally.

And normally one side wants it more than the other, which doesn’t help.

But it’s a fool’s game of significant nobility and wonder.

By the time the mediator arrives, everyone else wants to leave, there’s a sense of exhaustion, battles lost and won down the months or years…but no peace.

Whether it’s a marriage, a work dispute or a friendship gone sour, we gather in our exhaustion to look after the ending of something - and in so doing, we look after the beginning of something else.

That’s mediation.

Sometimes, for instance, looking after how they end their marriage is the most creative thing a couple do.

But the process asks big questions of those involved.

In life, we pay attention to our own hurt, and discriminate against the hurt of others.

Our hurt is entirely real; theirs is stupid, uncalled for, an over-reaction…not real.

We do this to protect ourselves, to protect our self-image, our ego. It’s about self-justification, about being right and about survival - forceful drives in the human animal.

But the challenge (and the glory) of the mediation process is that it asks of us something different.

It invites us out from behind our barricade to consider the hurt of the other…and our part in it.

And to witness this, if it occurs, is to witness nobility and miracle.

The mediation process treads the sometimes stony ground between the ideal and the real… in search of a new real.

To get to the new, there will need to be difficult honesty; listening; the taking of responsibility; the letting go of agendas and self-justification; and the quiet putting away of self-image such as ‘I am good’ ‘I am a victim’ ‘I am right’ etc

And who will dare take off such well-loved clothes as these? Nobility and miracle indeed…

‘We’re here to look after the end of something, and in so doing, we look after the beginning of something else. I don’t have a plan for that beginning. But I know it’s out there, if we can just look after the ending.’

Mediation.

It’s a fool’s game… but as Van Gogh said, ‘Heaven is for the daring.’

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Through the wardrobe

Posted by Simon Parke, 08 May 2018, 11.07am

By the time CS Lewis stepped through the wardrobe and into Narnia, he’d had a few adventures of his own.

The youngest son of a colourful, needy and ultimately disengaged Belfast solicitor had survived the madness of both English private education and the WW1 trenches to find fame beneath the dreaming spires of Oxford.

Though it was a recent encounter in the university which left him shattered and caused his leap into children’s fiction.

He did need to get away to another land.

The great debater Lewis, the intellectual bruiser who loved knocking others down, had recently been knocked down himself in debate with the philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe.

She dismantled his cerebral attempts to defend Christianity – witnessed in such books as Mere Christianity, The Problem of Pain and Miracles.

There was no going back for Lewis and the imaginative world seemed a better option - just as his friend and colleague, JRR Tolkein had always said.

Though by the time the Narnia books arrived, their friendship was strained to breaking, they’d lost whatever they’d had…and Tolkein hated the Narnia chronicles.

But Clive Staples Lewis had been looking for another land for a long time, some misplaced Eden.

He was the Ulster boy who lost his mum when he was eleven and two weeks later – yes, two weeks – he was sent away across the water to appalling boarding schools in England.

He never really went home again, childhood was prematurely done… and all feelings needed to be sealed in.

And how effectively they were!

Later in life, when a Fellow at Magdalen College, Oxford, he had a close circle of friends - but Lewis ensured no emotional issue was ever discussed. He was happy to discuss Chaucer’s narrative structure, but not Tolkein’s marriage struggles.

This was a men’s club that discussed men’s things – like literature. Private lives, private feelings, were off limits.

The boy who had been a literary prodigy, with a remarkable breadth of reading, had become a highly respected academic, diligent tutor, popular lecturer.

He had also become a man with a big secret: namely, his thirty-year relationship with Mrs Moore, an older woman who was both his mother and his lover.

She also made sure the academic did not forget the household duties like cleaning, cooking and shopping. It would be normal to be called away from his desk, (she didn’t hold back) to go and buy a light bulb or mend the towel rail.

‘He was as good as an extra maid,’ she said.

Also depending on him at home in ‘The Kilns’ was his alcoholic older brother Warnie, for whom a whisky bender was the only solution to difficult issues.
Warnie’s reliance on Jack (Lewis’ home name) was almost total.

Lewis did not write from an ivory tower, but from messy reality.

On Mrs Moore’s death, when things might have become simpler, Jack got involved with Joy Gresham, an American pen-friend - a story recorded movingly (if not always accurately) in the play Shadowlands.

Joy was rude and aggressive towards Lewis’ friends, alienating them; but as with Mrs Moore, Jack found something in her no one else could see. They married in secret. (Yes, more secrets.)

On the surface, here was a successful life. Lewis, a generous man, was never short of devotees either in life or in death…particularly Americans.

(Everyone finds in Lewis what they want to find and disregards the rest. Evangelicals studiously ignore his heavy drinking…and his final book.)

He had a magnificent literary mind, of course, and wrote with effortless clarity, such clear and lucid prose. To read him is to experience a great mind taking time to explain something to you.

His academic work too was well-regarded. He should have been given a Professorship by Oxford – and his Preface to Paradise Lost is still considered a classic.

And of course he’d been a popular radio broadcaster, his short talks on Christianity making him a household name.

But away from a never-easy home life, was his never-easy work place. He didn’t get on with his colleagues at Magdalen.

Some of this was professional jealousy at his broadcasting and book success; no one likes their colleague to achieve in this way.

But Lewis was a bruiser himself, certainly in college politics – and also against all things new. He didn’t recognise any good in 20th century literature, including TS Eliot.

Lewis always wanted the old.

He took up strong positions, put up the barricades - and would lie if it helped him win the argument.

He was still a boy at war with the world, feelings sealed in, and his conversion – which famously occurred on a bus journey up Headington Hill – didn’t release them.

His new found faith was first expressed cerebrally in books already mentioned, with perhaps The Problem of Pain – and attempt to explain suffering – his low-point.

Though it sold very well, and still does, it is an uncomfortable and unconvincing read.

So in a way, his dismantlement by Elizabeth Anscombe was a relief. He would never return to didactic, intellectual argument. Rather, he would leap into the imaginative work of Narnia, the ever-popular children’s stories.

And they start, of course, with the wardrobe, the fur coats, the crunching snow and the lamp post…it is one of the great literary doorways.

There was, however, one further leap to make.

After the death of Joy Gresham, (she died of cancer) Lewis buckled. Like a lanced boil, the long-sealed feelings were finally unsealed - a story frighteningly told in A Grief Observed.

It was originally printed under a pseudonym, NW Clark; and no previous writing by Lewis prepares the reader for this raw scream of rage and despair.

It is shocking, but then grief is and here was a death that both broke him and made him. Lewis’ faith had reached its third stage: from cerebral to imaginative; from imaginative to affective.

He had, at last, touched his feelings, those of the little boy, kept in cold storage down the years, kept out of view - but now greeted again through the tears.

And a rather different man emerged, less the bruiser, humbler in his assumptions for the final three years of his life.

It is one of my favourite Lewis books. I enjoy its searing emotional honesty, of which there is little in his autobiographical Surprised by Joy - written in his cerebral phase, when he was still asking his head to solve his problems.

Here, at last, was an engagement with his inscape, which this clever and clubbable man had been put off for so long.

It’s like a coming home; the screams of the small boy heard.

My other favourite Lewis book is The Great Divorce.

It gives free rein to Lewis the satirist, able to create and destroy a character in just a few lines. I think of the woman who loved to help people, and you could tell the people she helped ‘by the haunted look in their eyes.’

But even more, I like its presentness. While its notionally about heaven and hell, it’s really about the decisions we take every day, in the here and now, which make us either more or less substantial people.

Lewis had long been obsessed by what he called ‘Northerness’ – ‘huge, clear spaces hanging above the Atlantic’. 

It was something about another land, something about Eden, something about a lost childhood.

On his journey back there, through struggle and joy, brilliance and defeat, Lewis had many wardrobes to pass through…

(The biography of Lewis by AN Wilson is the best, by several country miles.)

 

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Down by the riverside

Posted by Simon Parke, 08 May 2018, 5.49am

Here is a simple ten-minute meditation (or longer) towards letting go of unhelpful thought or feelings.

You imagine you are standing on a river bank.

Upstream, there is a tree. It is dropping its leaves into the water, it doesn’t need them.

The leaves float down river, they go past you and on downstream towards the sea.

You place on the leaves any recurring thoughts or feelings you wish to be free from.

Maybe it’s a written word or a picture, you place it on a leaf as it floats by and watch it disappear downstream.

If the thought or feeling returns, you place it on another leaf, and watch it float away.

They’re going to the sea.

During this time, you might be kidnapped by a thought, and find yourself taken from the river bank.

This is not uncommon.

Simply notice this, and then return to your place by the river and the leaves floating by.

If you’re kidnapped again, notice it again, it’s all right, and return to the river again.

Thoughts and feelings won’t stop arising in you; but by the river, you begin to learn to let go, you don’t need them.

Like the leaves, they are passing through, passing by.

They are not who you are.

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