Archive for the ‘Religion’ Category

If stories like this don't explain to the knuckle-heads why gay marriage is right, then nothing will. Gay people don't want to be "partnered", they want the right to be married.

If stories like this don’t explain to the knuckle-heads why gay marriage – we prefer the term “marriage equality” – is right, then nothing will. Gay people don’t want to be “partnered”, they want the right to be married, like everyone else.

 

What a beautiful story. Life affirming. Heart warming. Gentle.

More than seven decades after beginning their relationship, Vivian Boyack and Alice “Nonie” Dubes have been married. Boyack, 91, and Dubes, 90, sat next to each other during Saturday’s ceremony.

old hands“This is a celebration of something that should have happened a very long time ago,” the Rev. Linda Hunsaker told the small group of close friends and family who attended.

The women met in their hometown of Yale, Iowa, while growing up. Then they moved to Davenport in 1947 where Boyack was a teacher and Dubes a book-keeper.

Dubes said the two have enjoyed their life together and over the years they have traveled to all 50 states, all the provinces of Canada, and to England twice. “We’ve had a good time,” she said. Boyack said it takes a lot of love and work to keep a relationship going for 72 years.

Longtime friend Jerry Yeast, 73, said he got to know the couple when he worked in their yard as a teenager.

“I’ve known these two women all my life, and I can tell you, they are special,” Yeast said.

Iowa began allowing gay marriage in 2009. The two women say it is never too late for a new chapter in life.

Amen.

This very important article in Vox, based on Russian research, reveals an apparently staggering level of support for ISIS in Europe, and in France in particular, where one in six people report supporting the extreme terrorist Sunni group that has been slaughtering Christians, Shias, Sunnis who don’t agree with them, and anyone else who gets in their way.

And the level of support rises as respondents get younger.

 

Very, very worrying.

Very, very worrying.

 

We somewhat doubt the veracity of the research and wonder if people are confabulating “ISIS”, “Gaza” and “Hamas” in their minds. In any event, it’s a sad and sorry finding even if it’s only partly accurate, and the radicalisation of Islamic youth is one of the most distressing and tragically predictable outcomes of the growth of so-called “identity politics”, which is now playing out throughout the West, and increasingly in a new black-white divide in America, as well.

But despite this survey it would be wrong to see this phenomenon as something unique to young followers of Islam. Indeed, as one of the sources quoted in the article remarked:

The rise of identity politics has helped create a more fragmented, tribal society, and made sectarian hatred more acceptable generally. At the same time, the emergence of “anti-politics,” the growing contempt for mainstream politics and politicians noticeable throughout Europe, has laid the groundwork for a melding of radicalism and bigotry. Many perceive a world out of control and driven by malign forces; conspiracy theories, once confined to the fringes of politics, have become mainstream.

It is so. This isn’t a religious thing. It’s all about contemptuous disenchantment and disempowerment.

That said, the fact that we actually find most interesting in the graph above is the much LOWER figure – virtually negligible, in fact, in polling terms – in Germany.

In our analysis, this can be explained by three simple factors.

Whilst there is racial tension within Germany – particularly where the Turkish immigrant population is concerned, it is less of a problem than elsewhere.

Even with the persistent (if small) growth in Neo-Nazi skinhead violence, the vast majority of Germans utterly reject the balkanisation of politics based on race. Given their recent history, and the efforts the State makes to prevent racial abuse or anything that smacks of it, this is laudable and not at all surprising.

Another differentiator, of course, is that much of the Islamo-fascism currently being exhibited in the world is explicitly anti-Israeli and by extention anti-Jewish, and expressing sentiments that could possibly be interpreted or misinterpreted as anti-Jewish in Germany is still well-nigh impossible, again for very obvious reasons.

The third reason, and this is very significant, is that the German economy is significantly wealthier and more successful than the British, or the French. There is plenty of education and work to be had, and both are the perfect balm for the vast majority of young people, of all racial backgrounds, who might otherwise be led into more extreme conclusions about society.

Recent riots in France were painted as "Islamic" by commentators, in fact, as the placard being carried by one demonstrator, it was more accurately an explosion of frustrated youth violence, like previous riots in the UK and elsewhere.

Recent riots in France were painted as “Islamic” by commentators, but in fact, as the placard being carried by one demonstrator says, it was more accurately an explosion of frustrated youth violence, like previous riots in the UK and elsewhere.

Unemployment – especially youth unemployment – is the perfectly fertilised and endlessly productive seed bed for extremism of all kinds, whether you look at 1789 France or France last year, 1917 Russia, 1933 Germany, 1970s Northern Ireland, the “Arab Spring” of 2011, or America, France and Britain today.

And where that unemployment falls most onerously on any particular racial or religious groupings, particularly a grouping that considers itself as a minority, then you have a recipe for immediate and predictable disaster.

But even when that miserable judgement is made, it is the generalised “anti politics” trend that concerns us most – even more than any passing fad for Islamic extremism that threatens us today.

The simple fact is that when people perceive their leaders as corrupt, when people perceive them as petty, when people perceive them as habitual liars, (with plenty of evidence), when people perceive them as lacking in required levels of intelligence or leadership skills, then they do not blame the individuals as much as they blame the system. And variously, they turn (and they can turn very quickly) to revolutionary creeds – Marxism, Fascism, religious extremism: whatever is around and easily grasped as a panacea, really.

Anti-democrats don't start out carrying a sign saying "crush democracy". They know it frightens the horses. And they can be alluring - Stalin was quite a hunk as a youngster.

Anti-democrats don’t start out carrying a sign saying “crush democracy”. They know it frightens the horses. And they can be superficially attractive – Josef Stalin was quite a hunk as a youngster, for example.

This is precisely why we have frequently labelled America a ‘pre-Fascist” state* – not because we believe there are organised groups of people seeking to subvert the American constitution and replace it with some Hitler-style figure – there are such groups, but they are still largely fringe dwellers, and there are also big money groups that wield far too much malign financial power over the political system, such as the Koch brothers, but their influence is still basically visible and trackable – rather, it is because the fracturing of America into potentially warring tribes is so very palpably obvious when viewed from a distance, matched (equally obviously) by an increasingly careless disregard for civil rights and privacy from the authorities.

A frightening realisation that often comes later in life is that democracy, in all its expressions, contains within it the seeds of its own destruction. The very thing that makes democracy so worth preserving – freedom of opinion and the resulting freedom of speech – is the very weapon that can tear it down.

History teaches us, again and again, that there is a tipping point when a majority of people despair of the system and when they do they are prepared to consider a replacement – any replacement. Or it can be a highly motivated minority, with good organisational skills.

Shorn of the wonderful, soaring rhetoric of its core principles by the behaviour of its key players – our political leaders, and the media – democracy simply seems increasingly and hopelessly out of touch and irrelevant. All it needs is a half-credible populist to repeat the people’s complaints alluringly, and the complaints are worldwide, and they are devastatingly simple and enticing:

“I don’t trust them”, “They’re all just in it for themselves”, “They don’t know what to do”, “They’re just taking the piss out of the rest of us, and we’re paying”, “They don’t care about us.” “What can I do? They won’t listen to me.”

At one and the same time, powerful cabals in business and the military foolishly consider they can take advantage of such unrest to position themselves to take over as “a strong voice”, to run things (skimming off the top, of course) while the hubbub of dissent dies down, until – inevitably – they realise they have seized a tiger by the tail, and they can’t control it. “Temporary” restrictions on freedom become permanent, and apply to these fellow travellers as much as they do to the rest of us. They imagine themselves isolated from the crackdown by their money, except – as they invariably discover – they are not.

Anti-politics. It is louder in the West than we can remember at any time since we started paying attention in the 1960s.

“They don’t care about little people.” “Just a bunch of snouts in a trough.” “They’re all stupid.”  “There’s no real difference between them, anyway. It’s all a game.” “I just don’t trust ‘em. Any of ‘em.”

Indeed, as we write these phrases, it is all we can do to stop from nodding in agreement. They are so seductive.

A son of the aristocracy, Churchill never lost his early passion for democracy that was often found in those days in the ranks of the independently wealthy.

A son of the aristocracy, Churchill never lost his early passion for democracy that was often found in those days in the ranks of the independently wealthy.

Except if we are seduced by them, we will hate what comes after. As Winston Churchill supposedly famously remarked:

“Democracy is the worst form of government, it’s just better than all the others.”

Actually, and somewhat ironically, the most famous defender of modern democracy might not have actually generated those words, although in his lifetime he did say a lot about democracy, especially when its survival was threatened with the horrors of German and Austro-Hungarian Nazism, Italian and Spanish Fascism (amongst others), and Soviet-style “marxism”.

Churchill did say something like this in the House of Commons on  11 Novem­ber 1947) but it appears he was quot­ing an unknown pre­de­ces­sor. From Churchill by Him­self, page 574:

Many forms of Gov­ern­ment have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pre­tends that democ­racy is per­fect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democ­racy is the worst form of Gov­ern­ment except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.

So, although these are Churchill’s words, it is an amusing historical footnote that he clearly did not orig­i­nate the famous remark about democracy. We wonder who did. Anyhow, here are some orig­i­nal things that the great man did say about democracy over 70 years in public life:

If I had to sum up the imme­di­ate future of demo­c­ra­tic pol­i­tics in a sin­gle word I should say “insurance.” That is the future — insurance against dan­gers from abroad, insur­ance against dangers scarcely less grave and much more near and con­stant which threaten us here at home in our own island.
Free Trade Hall, Man­ches­ter, 23 May 1909

At the bot­tom of all the trib­utes paid to democ­racy is the lit­tle man, walk­ing into the lit­tle booth, with a lit­tle pen­cil, mak­ing a lit­tle cross on a lit­tle bit of paper—no amount of rhetoric or volu­mi­nous dis­cus­sion can pos­si­bly dimin­ish the over­whelm­ing impor­tance of that point.
House of Com­mons, 31 Octo­ber 1944

How is that word “democ­racy” to be inter­preted? My idea of it is that the plain, hum­ble, com­mon man, just the ordi­nary man who keeps a wife and fam­ily, who goes off to fight for his coun­try when it is in trou­ble, goes to the poll at the appro­pri­ate time, and puts his cross on the bal­lot paper show­ing the can­di­date he wishes to be elected to Parliament—that he is the foun­da­tion of democ­racy. And it is also essen­tial to this foun­da­tion that this man or woman should do this with­out fear, and with­out any form of intim­i­da­tion or vic­tim­iza­tion. He marks his bal­lot paper in strict secrecy, and then elected rep­re­sen­ta­tives and together decide what gov­ern­ment, or even in times of stress, what form of gov­ern­ment they wish to have in their coun­try. If that is democ­racy, I salute it. I espouse it. I would work for it.”
House of Com­mons, 8 Decem­ber 1944

Stirring stuff. And how unlike any modern politicians that come to mind, except, perhaps, the trio of dead American heroes, JFK, RFK, and MLK. Little wonder that they seized the imagination so thoroughly, and are still revered to this day, even though their feet of clay have been comprehensively documented. They talked about the principles of Government, not just the outcomes.

Democracy is more than a system, it is a concept.

Democracy is more than a system, it is a concept that breeds a system.

In today’s world, once again – and urgently, in our view – we need to make the argument for democracy itself. Not for nothing do the appalling leadership of extremist Islam, epitomised at its most horrible by ISIS, reject the very concept of democracy at the very same time as so-many of their co-religionists seek to acquire and embrace it. ISIS and others of their ilk know they are engaged in a death struggle for their narrow view of the universe against the very principles that democracy uniquely espouses: the principle of protection under the law whoever you are, whatever your creed, sex or colour, true justice that is separated from the government and which can hold the government itself to account, freedom to express oneself fearlessly, genuinely participatory government, the rights of women and minorities to be treated as equals, and much, much more.

For our own internal stability, and in defence of those who dream of democratic freedom everywhere, we need to make our passion for democracy loud and clear, recapturing why we believe it to be superior to the alternatives.

Even if we don’t care about personal freedom, let us carol from the rooftops that it has been shown to be more economically successful – and more sustainably – than any other system.

Even Communist China, containing fully one-third of the world’s
population, enjoying its hugely successful democracy in chinaexperiment in State-directed capitalism, is increasingly recognising that it cannot endlessly stifle the opinions and behaviour of the governed.

They have recognised that they can release a gale of innovation and improvement by asking the opinion of their own people (a truly alien view for the whole of Chinese history thus far) and thus they are taking faltering steps to introduce more freedom into their system without triggering a cataclysm of change.

As just one measurement, the level of openly critical comment in China today is measured in vast multiples compared to even ten years ago, as is the nationwide passion to tackle corruption, which has been endemic in China since time immemorial.

How ironic that the People’s Republic of China – until recently a vile and periodically vicious autocracy – is cautiously embracing a belief set that we seem essentially content to see wither on the vine. Certainly when measured by the public behaviour of our elite.

If nothing else, our leaders and opinion formers should be arguing for the success of liberal democracy as an economic vehicle – not, please note, arguing in favour of unfettered capitalism – as the proven way forward for humankind.

The evidence is that democracy spreads wealth better than any other system, to the widest possible number of people, even while it grapples with the excesses of the runaway freight train of capitalism. Democracy actually restrains the worst features of capital’s behaviour – environmental vandalism, for example. (And if you want to see the results of capitalism that is not fettered by democracy, both in terms of economic failure, cronyism, violence, and environmental vandalism, just have a look at Russia today.)

But more than mere words, more than argument, we need to make democracy work for the governed.

As a beginning, we need to act with utter ruthlessness when evidence of corruption or rorting the system is uncovered.

Sad Statue of LibertyWe need to be deeply suspicious of centralising power, and passionate and enthusiastic about devolving power to the lowest practical level concomitant with effective decision-making.

(For this reason, we are tentatively in favour of Scotland voting for its independence next month, despite acknowledging that it might not appear to be a sound decision economically, at least in the short term. Not that we think it will.)

We must watch our security services and police like hawks, ensuring that the work they do is effective, but that their understanding of the proper limits on their powers is thorough and genuine.

We must defend and encourage media diversity, because a plehtora of opinions expressed openly is the best possible way to generate the ideas we need to successfully navigate our new century and beyond. Anything that compresses media ownership into fewer and fewer hands, blithely covered up with promises of editorial independence that everyone knows are false – is actively dangerous. NewsCorp, and those like unto it, are bad for the health of democracy. “State-owned” news outlets – unless protected by the most rigorous legislation – are a contradiction in terms, wherever they are.

We must encourage bi-partisanship, not because we want our democracy reduced merely to fudge and lazy compromise, but because the public needs to see – to witness – people of good faith working together on their behalf or the social compact with the governed will collapse.

It follows that the role of Opposition is to oppose what it truly believes to be wrong, rather than simply “everything”, and that Government should habitually respect and consider the opinions of those who disagree with it. The impasse between Obama and the Congress in recent years was an economic annoyance, to be sure. But it was a political catastrophe.

Where disagreement is genuine, then the debate should be conducted with civility. Even when one considers another person foolish in the extreme, misguided, or lacking perception, the skill is to make that point in such a manner that they will at least consider you may be wiser or in possesion of a better idea, and also so you may carry public opinion with you. And so that the public can see your good intentions, and not just your muscular antagonism.

We “dumb down” our debates at great cost and at our peril.

If something is “dumb”, the people know they can do without it. When politicans dumb down their discourse, when they are relentlessly trite or scathingly negative, encouraged, aided and abetted by a media that has an increasingly – vanishingly – small attention span, they are not playing some clever stratagem.

In risking a backlash against democracy itself, they are lining themselves up to be thrown in a prison, or worse, by the tidal wave that replaces what they blindly thought was inexorable and irreplaceable. They are beating ploughshares into pikes, and putting them into the hands of those who – when they aren’t even offered complex, thoughtful or educated opinion to consider – can see no reason why they shouldn’t adopt simpler ideas expressed in slogans.

working mensAs democracy swept across Europe in the mid-late 19th century and into the 20th century, it was buttressed by wise souls who ensured that every village, every town, had facilities for the dis-semination of ideas and knowledge, for the edification of the working poor, (such as with the Working Men’s Institutes of Britain), so that they would become participatory members of a new compact.

The privileged who led these conscious efforts to uprate the skills and learnings of the poor were driven by belief, not by an empirical calculation that they were providing a safety valve for the expectations of the people. They believed that a government of all cannot exist if the all is disenfranchised through ignorance or lack of opportunity. So they set about creating the knowledge that would let people fully participate.

Yet today the efforts of those great communicators have been hijacked. Today they are largely directed into providing an endless diet of sport, or reality TV, or mind-numbing time-consuming soap opera and unedifying “popular” drama. Modern media resembles nothing more than an electronically-delivered diet of “bread and circuses” – a tactic for mind control, remember, employed by the Roman dictatorship very successfully for 400 years. “Don’t worry about how we are governing, or who for – here’s a load of bread and a free ticket to watch the gladiators. Come back tomorrow for more of the same.”

And today, devoid of any understanding of why democracy matters, the governed have essentially lost interest, and satiate themselves instead on a diet of moronic “entertainment”.

Ask yourself: where are the civics classes in our schools and universities? Where are our unions, who taught people not just how but why they should defend their rights? Where are the rhetoricians, stirring our minds with ideas and concepts? (Answer, making a “Ted Talk” to their fellow intellectual and financial elite.) Why have our political parties shrunk to be miniscule mockeries of their former selves, with memberships so ludicrously small as to make them nothing more than stripped-down bureaucracies, homes for duelling apparatchicks?

Un-engaged and uncomprehending, the people are ripe to be captured by that simplest and most terrifying of ideas.

“It’s all their fault. Let’s go get ‘em.”

Who “they” are varies from theatre to theatre, of course. Alarmist? Look at that graph at the top of the page again.

Democracy is not the natural form of government for humanity. Violence is. Democracy has been hard won with the stout arms and often the lives of millions, for over 2,000 years.

Democracy will not persist if it is dysfunctional. Democracy will not persist if it is not protected. Democracy will not persist if we lose the argument.

Think about it. Discuss.

 

*For history buffs, there is a famous quotation, “When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.”

  • Many variants of this exist, but the earliest known incident of such a comment appears to be a partial quote from James Waterman Wise, Jr., reported in a 1936 issue of The Christian Century that in a recent address here before the liberal John Reed club said that Hearst and Coughlin were the two chief exponents of fascism in America. If fascism comes, he added, it will not be identified with any “shirt” movement, nor with an “insignia,” but it will probably be wrapped up in the American flag and heralded as a plea for liberty and preservation of the constitution.
  • Another early quote is that of Halford E. Luccock, in Keeping Life Out of Confusion (1938): When and if fascism comes to America it will not be labeled “made in Germany”; it will not be marked with a swastika; it will not even be called fascism; it will be called, of course, “Americanism.”
  • Harrison Evans Salisbury in 1971 remarked: “Sinclair Lewis aptly predicted in It Can’t Happen Here that if fascism came to America it would come wrapped in the flag and whistling ‘The Star Spangled Banner.'”

hand

We have come to the realisation, Dear Reader, that fear is a bloody miserable thing, and that we suffer from it.

When the treadmill of life slows down long enough for us to actually stop and think – read: reflect, brood, ponder, worry – it is easy for fear to creep in, especially if one is on one’s own, or the blood sugar is a tad low, or it’s just been a shitty day.

In the case of your indefatigable correspondent, the fears are often about the process of growing older, and death. And then, nigh-on simultaneously, the death of loved ones. And then the disastrous state of the world, and how it’s all going to pot.

But it is the first one that can utterly paralyse us. After all: death is the one unavoidable conclusion of all lives. It’s going to happen. And with it, bang goes the achievements, the fun, the striving, the connection with everyone, the adored family. Doesn’t it? Life. What was that all about, huh? Why bother, just to die and leave it all behind?

As we get older, our faculties also decline. This isn’t a pretend fear, it’s a real fear. No amount of positive thinking or even age-appropriate exercise will totally prevent it.

Joints get less flexible. (Puhlease don’t tell us about 80 year old gymnasts on YouTube – most of us don’t keep fit enough in the early years to make that happen – I am being realistic here – and by the time we realise the body is beginning to creak it’s too late to stop all the creaking. Some ageing can be overcome, but not all. Just tell my left shoulder that you’re thinking positively about it and listen to the laughter.)

The brain unquestionably slows, too. Which is a real bugger, if one has used one’s brain to make a living since, like, forever.  And it’s very noticeable. Undeniable. It becomes harder to bring words to mind instantly. Sentence construction is more laborious, too. And when one rushes in panic to the experts worrying about early-onset Alzheimers, they reassure you with the most annoying advice imaginable: “Don’t worry, you’re just getting older, it happens to everyone.”

Well, poo to that. And this isn’t even to touch on the myriad anxieties that afflict people about their social interactions, phobias, and 1001 other things.

There is even a specific phobia for those who fear death, called thanataphobia. We don’t think we would quite describe ourselves as phobic on the issue, merely mildly obsessed. OK, make that “aware” and “thoughtful”.

So what to do about fear, and specifically fear of death?

We are sure religious faith helps with the whole death thing, at least to a degree. We remember hearing someone say once, “We are mortal beings living immortal lives” and being charmed by its simplicity. Nice thought. If it’s true. Life becomes much more bearable – death becomes much more bearable – if it is just a prelude to a sort of eternal holiday-camp shared with those we love, or perhaps a chance to come back and do better next time. But doubt is at the core of all faith – that’s why they call it faith – and on days that the awareness of death and loss bears down on us, it often seems that the nagging demon of doubt does, too.

Cancer support groups often talk about working towards a “good death”, rather than hoping against hope (and logic) to try and endlessly prolong life. A good death is one where one is resigned to the inevitability of our dying, where we have made our peace with those around us and been able to spend quality time with them, and where our affairs are as much in order as possible. Where death does not dull our mind with terror, and we can maintain dignity, calm, and acceptance of our fate. We are reminded of a dear friend, Senator Sid Spindler, taken from us a couple of years ago with liver cancer, who was discussing an article in the local paper with his wife when quite clearly only a few days from death. An indefatigable campaigner, he murmured “Perhaps I should write a letter?” Those around him rolled their eyes in disbelief and amused admiration. But was he postponing the inevitable – clinging to one last vestige of relevance – or merely accepting his imminent death but refusing to be cowed by it? Or a bit of both? Only Sid could tell us, and he isn’t here any more.

In olden times, someone would have cheerily, at this point, said something like “Make the most out of every day!” as a response to the fact that one day the days will simply run out. Indeed, there are web pages dedicated to telling you exactly how many productive hours one has left in one’s life when one has removed sleep, showering, going to the loo, travelling, etc., to encourage everybody to “make the most” of life. Fair enough. Personally, we have stopped looking at them. It looks like we’ve got enough time left to make one more decent pot of bolognese sauce before we cark it.

We also ponder the fact that until relatively recently in human existence, within the last poofteenth of human time in reality, we would almost certainly already have been dead, and many people in today’s world still have a life expectancy below the amount we have already lived. And in the moments when we remind ourselves of this, we manage to be grateful and worried simultaneously.

allenNot for nothing is our favourite celebrity quotation from Woody Allen, a man so obsessed with these matters that he wrote two theatre plays, one called God and the other Death. The quote runs thusly: “I don’t want to become immortal through my work. I want to become immortal through not dying.” Hear hear.

The Wellthisiswhatithink collective is by no means alone in this angst-ridden introspection, of course.

Existential death anxiety is the basic knowledge and awareness that natural life must end and it has fascinated writers and philosophers since humankind climbed down from the trees. It is said that existential death anxiety directly correlates to language; that is, “language has created the basis for this type of death anxiety through communicative and behavioural changes.” Or in other words, over millenia we notice that we die, learn how to describe it, and then talk about it.

There is also “an awareness of the distinction between self and others, a full sense of personal identity, and the ability to anticipate the future, which includes the certainty of death. Humans defend against this type of death anxiety through denial, which is effected through a wide range of mental mechanisms and physical actions many of which also go unrecognised. While limited use of denial tends to be adaptive, its use is usually excessive and proves to be costly emotionally.”

Or to put it more simply, it’s better to face up to it.

As Wikipedia would have it, “Awareness of human mortality arose through some 150,000 years ago. In that extremely short span of evolutionary time, humans have fashioned but a single basic mechanism with which they deal with the existential death anxieties this awareness has evoked—denial in its many forms.

Fear of - and discussion of - dying goes back to Neanderthal times. Not that it gets any easier.

Fear of – and discussion of – dying goes back to Neanderthal times. Not that it gets any easier.

Thus denial is basic to such diverse actions as breaking rules and violating frames and boundaries, manic celebrations, violence directed against others, attempts to gain extraordinary wealth and/or power — and more. These pursuits often are activated by a death-related trauma and while they may lead to constructive actions, more often than not, they lead to actions that are, in the short and long run, damaging to self and others.”

Or as we call them in Wales, “wakes”.

This is before we even tackle the concept of Existentialism proper, (as opposed to Existential anxiety), and it’s various concerns that life is inherently meaningless anyway, not to mention Absurd. That’s a topic for another day. Or days. Or lifetimes.

Anyway, this latest in a series of ramblings on this topic is coming to no great or profound conclusion, Dear Reader. We merely report that at this point in time we have decided to focus on a couple of related issues.

Firstly, we have decided to stop worrying about the fact that one cannot control death, because in reality one can only control a few outcomes in one’s life, and death surely isn’t one of them. Believing we are in charge of everything is a uniquely human conceit, and it is clearly not true.

In the Wellthisiswhatithink household we call this the “A Plane Fell On My House” syndrome, recognising that random acts can and do disrupt our neatly ordered existence.

Accepting this as a fact is a vital step towards dealing with events that catch us unawares.

kindnessSecondly, we are trying to make more of an impact on our world by being more concerned about other people than ourselves, by being kinder, by being slower to anger or frustration, by trying to see things from the other person’s perspective, by celebrating the good we see around us and building up those responsible for it.

It was Aesop (he of Fables fame) who once said “No act of kindness, however small, is ever wasted”. There’s a big mouthful, right there. And yet more proof, if proof were needed, that things don’t change much as the centuries roll by.

Deep in the last Millenium we saw “making an impact on the world” as ending up as Prime Minister of somewhere (or at least a senior panjandrum of some description), becoming the world’s greatest writer of film scripts, the most creative businessman in town, the “next big thing” in poetry, and a bunch of other grandiloquent outcomes. It would be fair to say we have now changed our focus, and in doing so, we have become more content, and by many measurements, more successful.

We may yet do something “famous”. Or we may not.

We’re taking it all a day at a time. And that helps, too.

Tara MohrMeanwhile, Tara Sophia Mohr is a San Francisco-based women’s leadership personality. We found these comments on her website, and thank her for her thinking. There is some big “applied commonsense” here.

1. Create a character. Create a character that symbolises the voice of fear within you. Maybe she’s a frail recluse or an eight-year-old bully or a fire-breathing dragon. Maybe it’s the lion from “The Wizard of Oz” or the Wicked Witch or the Wizard himself. Pick a character that illustrates how the voice of fear feels in you, and name your character. When you hear the voice of fear, greet it: “Oh,Cruella, I see you’ve come to visit. Hello.”

Why does this work? Creating a character helps you separate the real you from the part of you that’s afraid. Your fears come from that instinctual part of the brain that seeks to avoid risk at any cost–not from your core self, your inner wisdom, or your dreams. Naming the voice of fear, visualising it as a character and observing it helps you get back in charge.

2. Follow the fear through to the end game. Fear holds us hostage, making threats that if you do X, a disastrous outcome will occur.

The remedy is to imagine how you’d handle that outcome, and evaluate just how bad it would really be.

This involves asking “so what?” again and again. If, for example, you’re afraid that your request for a raise will be turned down, ask yourself, “So if I was turned down, so what? Then what?”

You’ll probably hear yourself thinking something like, “Well, I’d be disappointed, and I’d think about whether that means I need to change jobs. I guess it wouldn’t be the end of the world.” You’ve just taken a great deal of power away from your fear.

Or, you might find this outcome still feels super scary, and your answer to the question is “I’d feel horribly embarrassed around my boss every time I saw her!” Then ask the question again: “So I’d feel embarrassed and awkward, then what?” Keep following the fear through to the endgame. You’ll find your resiliency and sense of perspective as you keep asking, “So what?”

(We heartily concur with this advice in a whole host of areas of business and life generally. “So what?” is an incredible powerful tool.)

3. Ask, “Is it true?” Whatever the little voice of fear is saying, it’s probably not true.

The fearful part of us is irrational and over-True or falseprotective. It might be saying you are likely to fall flat on your face if you take a risk, or that no one will like your ideas. It might be saying that moving to a new city could ruin your children, or choosing the wrong job could wreck havoc on your life. When you hear fear-based thoughts, ask yourself, “Is what this voice is saying true?” or, in Byron Katie’s approach, “Can I be absolutely sure that this thought is true?” The answer to these questions — especially the latter one — is most often “no.”

4. Connect to love. Here’s the very cool thing about our human consciousness.

We can’t be in a state of fear and one of love at the same time. They can’t co-exist. Each one blots out the other. When we are really connected to that mysterious energy that is love, we connect to a softness, a safety, a comfort, a healing. Fear vanishes.

So when you are stuck in fear, re-connect to love. Listening to a favourite song, doing something you love, focusing on a picture of a loved one, or connecting with nature are all good ways to do this.

Many people find that a short meditation on their own breathing or reaching out to a higher power in prayer reconnects them to love. Giving — time, money, a gift or a heartfelt compliment — to another person also connects us to love.

Use whatever process works for you. You’ll know you’ve re-connected to love when you feel that sense of harmony and comfort and softness returning.

If you aren’t sure what helps you easily and swiftly reconnect to love, start experimenting. All of us need a set of strategies for connecting to love when we get fearful, anxious, resentful or off-balance.

5. Let fear be your travelling companion. Much of the time we can soften or even entirely lift our fears using the tools above, but sometimes, fear persists.

Then it’s time for this tool: let fear be your travelling companion. Let it be there, but not in control. Let it be there, but don’t take direction from it or stop moving forward because of it.

This is a skill. It’s a skill to learn to act in the face of fear, to allow it to be present but not to interfere.

You know when you are driving on the highway, and right next to you, one lane over, there’s some guy hanging out the window, keeping pace along side of you? He’s not in your way but he’s in your field of vision?

Think of fear that way: as the guy in the lane next to you. You are in the driver’s seat, in your own lane, moving forward. He’s next to you, not blocking you but just there, somewhat irritating, palpably present. The ride would feel more enjoyable and free if he wasn’t there, but you are getting to your destination just fine anyway.

Learn to walk with fear this way — as if it’s your uninvited traveling companion — intrusive, but not in the way.

(This last one is one we are personally working on. It is impossible to banish all fear. And we shouldn’t want to, anyway. After all, fear serves a purpose, too. It stops us wandering blithely into the middle of a pride of lions while we’re picking daisies. The trick is not to let fear – or, indeed, any thought – dominate one’s life to the exclusion of others. And sometimes, to accept that we actually can’t control or change everything. Much of the “self help” advice coming out of the USA (in particular) likes to pretend that we can do anything, be anything, achieve anything, overcome anything, just with an act of will. That is simply nonsensical, and dangerous, because not being able to overcome something that is insurmountable is a sure way to become depressed. If someone dies, for example, no amount of willing them back will change the fact of their death. How we DEAL with our distress and fear about the future will determine how successful our life is thereafter. That’s why “Feel the fear and do it anyway” is sometimes – sometimes – very good advice.

After all, what’s the worst that could happen? So what?)

For reasons which need not concern us here, we were this morning browsing the Victorian Police crime statistics for the last year on offer, 2012-13.

We came across this staggeringly depressing statistic:

Incidence of rape against minors

This year 542 +0.71%

Last year 538

Incidence of rape against adults

This year 1,106 +1.5

Last year 1,090

child abuseYou might imagine, Dear Reader, that we are about to fulminate against the growth in the incidence of rape in both cases, in a sort of Colonel Mustard-like “Disgusted of Tonbridge Wells” manner.

But although we deplore the fact that the figures are rising rather than falling, we suspect the slight rise recorded is due to natural population growth.

 

Yes, we would have hoped that we would be seeing a steady decline in these stats, given that we are all supposed to be becoming more “aware” of the disgusting nature of sexual violence. But it appears it is a very slow process.

Something for those with the purse strings of Government advertising budgets to consider, perhaps.

We should see all domestic violence and rape and sexual assault as part of the same patriarchal continuum, and until men take it seriously, it will continue.

But what really horrifies is the raw number of more than 500 rapes against children in a year. Coming up for one-third of all rapes.

500? Five HUNDRED?

How many of these are against sexually active teenagers isn’t the point.

Rape is rape, it is never justified, and no excuses or attempted slut-shaming of the victims is ever acceptable. And although they were all against people who are legally children, ie under 18, and so there will be some mid-teens in there, it’s a pound to a penny that many of these crimes were against what you and I would recognise as children. Kids. Little tackers.

And this is the REPORTED cases. Ye Gods, the mind boggles. Unreported cases would run into the thousands.

Given the high profile given to many of these types of cases in the UK in particular, and in the various enquiries into child abuse in Australia, especially involving religious and community organisations, not to mention the recent brouhaha in the UK press about whether or not there was a high-level pedophile ring operating at the top of British Government (involving, allegedly, those close to at least two Prime Ministers, and perhaps even one (now deceased) Prime Minister), we simply suck in our breath in disgust and horror that this most avoidable and heinous of crimes, which leaves lives shattered sometimes beyond repair, is so persistent and pernicious despite the obvious fact that for the offenders the advice is utterly simple and unavoidable: don’t.

Just don’t. Do something else for your kicks, don’t do that. They are KIDS, for fuck’s sake.

To steal the innocence from a child, to betray their trust, to warp and bend that child’s value system until it is unrecognisable, to sometimes terrify the child into silence: these are crimes which demand the most urgent enquiry and vigilance, and an unrelenting determination to root out the offenders. Not one adult offender in this area can possibly imagine, for one moment, that their activities are anything more nor less than utterly destructive and illegal.

We must be unyielding in our attempts to cure this plague. Period. Full stop. That’s it. End of.

(Post scriptum: this article obviously talks about Victoria, Australia. I would be very happy to publish statistics from elsewhere if you can look them up. I urge you to find out how prevalent this crime is in YOUR community. And if you know of a community where it is LESS prevalent, perhaps we can all learn why.)

Two quite different stories making news today reveal how the descent of political debate into hatred and abusive propaganda can have an awful effect on innocent lives.

At the Wellthisiswhatithink desk we are often in discussion with friends, colleagues and commentators who essentially believe in unfettered free speech. We often hear an argument which runs something like this: “The correct response to this nonsense is ridicule: given the oxygen of publicity, these people condemn themselves out of their own mouths. It is more important to preserve the liberty of all at the price of allowing nutters to say what they like, rather than curtail freedom of speech.” This argument is advanced regularly by the right in America, but is by no means limited to there. It occurs in all corners of the blogosphere, it is evidenced by recent moves by the Australian Government, just as one example, and it is a favoured line by libertarians worldwide.

Disgusting "humour" like this is freely available all over the internet. Should concepts of "free speech" protect those who produce it from sanction? In our opinion: No.

Disgusting “humour” like this is freely available all over the internet. Should concepts of “free speech” protect those who produce it from sanction? In our opinion: No.

We respect the passion of those who advance this argument against, for example, anti race-hate legislation, but over many years we have come, reluctantly, to disagree with it.

Yes, we recognise that the “elephant in the room” is “Where do you draw the line once you start to censor free speech?” but we nevertheless also believe that a line must be drawn.

And the reason for that line being drawn is the encouragement given to those who would take extreme ideals and translate them into real-world violence, whether because they take the comments to their logical conclusion, seeing no moral distinction between holding a violent thought and acting on it, or merely because they are mentally unhinged.

We see no desperate need to be able to advocate ridicule and violence that justifies the fact that it leads, as night follows day, to real injury and death for innocent people.

For example, in recent days we have seen yet another shooting perpetrated by members of the far-right in America.

A day before going on a shooting rampage that left two Las Vegas police officers and a bystander dead, Jerad Miller, one of the killers, posted this on Facebook:

“The dawn of a new day. May all of our coming sacrifices be worth it.”

Amanda Miller created and posted this Bitstrip comic to her Facebook six months ago.

Amanda Miller created and posted this Bitstrip comic to her Facebook six months ago.

Witnesses reportedly said Miller, 31, and his wife, Amanda, shouted, “This is a revolution” and “We’re freedom fighters” when they ambushed the officers who were on their lunch break at a pizza restaurant.

If their social media accounts are any indication, rants about attacks and disgust with authority were a common thread in their lives.

“To the people in the world…your lucky i can’t kill you now but remember one day one day i will get you because one day all hell will break lose and i’ll be standing in the middle of it with a shot gun in one hand and a pistol in the other,” Amanda Miller posted on Facebook on May 23, 2011.

 After killing Police Officers Alyn Beck, 41, and Igor Soldo, 31, who were having lunch having clocked off, and taking their weapons, police said the Millers fled across the street to a Walmart store, where they shot and killed customer Joseph Wilcox, 31, who apparently confronted the shooters with his own weapon, before apparently taking their own lives in a suicide pact.

SurvivalistThe couple, who married in September 2012, moved from Lafayette, Indiana, to Las Vegas, Nevada, in January of this year. Photos on 22-year-old Amanda Miller’s Facebook page shows the couple celebrating Christmas with family two weeks before departing for Nevada. In one photo, she poses with copies of the “Shooter’s Bible” and “Extreme Survival.” “My new books that my Grandma Paula got me!” she wrote on Facebook. The merging of influences between the “survivalist” community, gun aficionados and extreme militia-style groups, laced with racist and white supremacist groups, is a key concern for both community organisations and law enforcement in America.

It is not the lawful promotion of legal activities or legitimate opinion that causes concern, rather it is the ability of those on the fringe of those movements to hijack the genre and spread concepts of ‘legitimate’ violence to the soft-minded.

According to the Lafayette Journal & Courier, Jerad Miller had a long history of arrests and convictions for drug offences while in Indiana.

In a July 8, 2013, video he posted to YouTube, he vents about the government making a profit from an ankle monitor he has to pay for and wear while under house arrest. He also rants about the local courthouse and questions why citizens need permits.

“You have to go down to that big stone structure, monument to tyranny, and submit, crawling, groveling on your hands and knees,” he says on the video. “Sounds a little like Nazi Germany to me or maybe communist Russia.”

On Monday, the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported that a neighbour said the Millers might have been planning a larger attack on an unidentified court building. According to the story, the couple’s next-door neighbour and friend was holding documents for the couple that included detailed plans to take over a courthouse and execute public officials. Other reports link the couple of the recent Cliven Bundy ranch saga when armed militia lined up against government officials to protect the ranchowner’s right to continue to illegally graze his cattle on public land, although hard evidence has yet to be produced that they were there. UPDATE 12 June, video has now emerged of Jared Miller speaking at the Bundy ranch, from which he and his wife were asked to leave because of their extreme views.

JokerJared Miller used the handle “USATruePatriot” on another YouTube account where video titles included “second amendment logic,” “Would George Washington use an AK?,” and “Police confiscate guns and threatened to kill me.”

In two videos, he stands in front of an American flag dressed as the Joker and rambles about what it would be like to be president of the United States.

“A new world order under the Joker,” he shouts while belting out an evil laugh.

Jerad Miller’s profile picture on Facebook is of two knives behind a mask and the word “PATRIOT” in stars and stripes. Much of his social activity was centered on Second Amendment gun laws, government spying and drug laws. Six days before Sunday’s rampage, he posted on Facebook that, “to stop this oppression, I fear, can only be accomplished with bloodshed.”

“We can hope for peace. We must, however, prepare for war. We face an enemy that is not only well funded, but who believe they fight for freedom and justice. … We, cannot with good conscience leave this fight to our children, because the longer we wait, our enemies become better equipped and recruit more mercenaries of death, willing to do a tyrants bidding without question. I know you are fearful, as am I. We certainly stand before a great and powerful enemy. I, however would rather die fighting for freedom, than live on my knees as a slave.”

Investigators with the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center aid the Millers’ web writings were typical of right-wing, militia-type thinking. But the SPLC’s intelligence files don’t show the couple to be members of an organized group.

“It’s just the two of them doing this crazy thing that the two of them decided to do,” the director of the SPLC’s intelligence project commented.

The ADL says in the past five years, there have been 43 separate incidences of violence between domestic extremists and U.S. law enforcement. All but four of the attacks were perpetrated by right-wing extremists, according to the ADL.

“The two police officers who lost their lives are only the latest in a series of casualties in a de facto war being waged against police by right-wing extremists, including both anti-government extremists and white supremacists,” Mark Pitcavage, ADL director of investigative research, said in a written statement. “Some extremists have deliberately targeted police, while others have responded violently when meeting police in unplanned encounters. The killings are not the effort of a concerted campaign, but rather a series of independent attacks and clashes stemming from right-wing ideologies.”

It is the propagation of these ludicrously extreme ideologies – of left and right, which is where strands of political thinking actually merge, in our opinion – that needs to be carefully examined. The capacity for unhinged individuals to create mayhem is simply too obvious to allow their mental furies to be whipped up. Indeed, anti-terrorism experts now say that the ability of propaganda materials to provoke murderous behaviour by previously unobserved and not-formally-aligned individuals is actually their biggest headache. As “spectacular” attacks on a more alert West have declined, so the capacity to use words to enrage and empower lunatics becomes a more ever-present threat. One madman with a “dirty” low-blast nuclear weapon (which apparently is not that difficult to create if you can access the right materials) could take out the population of a small city. Anywhere.

pakistan attackMeanwhile, the other end of the scale was also on tragic display. Thirty people – ten of them insurgents – were killed as Pakistan’s military fought an all-night battle Monday with Taliban gunmen who besieged Karachi airport.

The assault has left Pakistan’s nascent peace process with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in tatters and officials in the northwest reported that some 25,000 people had fled a restive tribal district in the past 48 hours, fearing a long-awaited ground offensive.

The assault on Karachi’s Jinnah International Airport was just the latest spectacular offensive to be launched by the TTP in an insurgency that has claimed thousands of lives since 2007.

Authorities were checking reports that seven airport workers were trapped in cold-storage facilities after apparently shutting themselves inside to escape the carnage.

“We are looking into this and according to the families some seven people were trapped inside the cold storage and were in contact with the families on cell phone,” said Abid Qaimkhani, a spokesman for the Civil Aviation Authority.

bodiesThe attack began just before midnight Sunday. Some of the gunmen were dressed in army uniform, as authorities put their mangled bodies, assault rifles, grenades and rocket launchers on show for the press. At least three detonated their suicide vests, witnesses said, and one severed head formed part of the grisly display.

“The main objective of the terrorists was to destroy the aircraft on the ground but there was only minor damage to two to three aircraft,” Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan told a press conference at the airport late Monday. “Pakistan’s national assets are safe and secure.”

The administration in Washington condemned the attack and offered to assist with the investigation. UN chief Ban Ki-moon also condemned the airport siege and a separate attack in the southwest targeting Shiite Muslims which a local official said killed at least 24 pilgrims.

Ban was “deeply concerned by this upsurge of violence across Pakistan” and urged the government to increase its efforts to address terrorism and religious extremism, his spokesman Stephane Dujarric said in a statement.

The bodies of the 18 victims – including 11 airport security guards and four workers from Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) – were taken to a Karachi hospital where another 26 wounded people were being treated, a hospital official said.

The charred remains of two cargo terminal employees were later recovered on Monday night, to bring the total dead to 30, Qaimkhani said.

PIA spokesman Mashud Tajwar said no airline passengers were caught up in the incident.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s office issued a statement “commending the bravery” of security forces and saying normal flight operations would resume in the afternoon, while Afghan President Hamid Karzai – who is battling his own Taliban insurgency – condemned the attack in a statement.

The attack took place just three kilometres (two miles) from the Mehran naval base, which the Taliban laid siege to three years ago, destroying two US-made Orion aircraft and killing 10 personnel in a 17-hour operation.

The group also carried out a raid on Pakistan’s military headquarters in the garrison city of Rawalpindi in 2009, leaving 23 dead including 11 troops and three hostages.

Latest revenge

The TTP said the brazen attack on the airport was its latest revenge for the killing of its leader Hakimullah Mehsud in a US drone strike in November. TTP spokesman Shahidullah Shahid said the government had used peace talks as a ruse, and promised more attacks to come in retaliation against recent air strikes in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan.

Talks to end the TTP’s bloody seven-year insurgency have been under way since February, after Sharif returned to power last year, but little clear progress has resulted and more than 300 people have been killed in militant strikes since then. Analysts say Sharif is under pressure to act and risks angering the army if he does not authorise a swift retaliation.

Thousands flee tribal district

In restive North Waziristan tribal district some 1,000 kilometres north of Karachi, residents and officials told AFP 58,000 people, mainly women and children had fled the area for different parts of the northwest, fearing a long-awaited offensive was imminent.

The exodus has increased rapidly in recent days, with more than 25,000 fleeing their homes in the last 48 hours alone, a government official in Peshawar said.

“I am taking my family to a safer location,” said one resident who did not wish to be named.

The latest rumours of an operation began after government talks with the TTP broke down in April, and were further stoked by the air strikes and the widespread distribution of a leaflet from a local warlord last week warning residents they should leave their homes by June 10. An offensive in North Waziristan has been rumoured for years but analysts remain cautious about whether the military has the capacity to attempt such a move without assistance from the Afghan side of the border where militants are likely to flee in the event of an attack.

What do we think?

Well, this new survey revealing that 92% of Pakistanis report having seen hate speech online is sobering indeed. We cannot imagine it is much different elsewhere. It may well be that we are crucially under-estimating the role of hate speech online in creating real-world violence.

Whether it is three dead in a shopping mall, thirty dead in Pakistan, or tens of thousands maimed, made homeless, or killed in conflicts all over the world, it is surely the power of words to justify the unthinkable that should concern us.

A challenging question that demands an answer.

A challenging question that demands an answer.

Whatever the root causes of societal tensions, and the world is full of injustice, to be sure, both minor and major, the casualacceptance that “violence is the answer” is a cancer that grew up in the relativist 1960s and has been growing and spreading ever since.

It must be said that the instinctive resort to violence is, unquestionably, exacerbated by the wanton use of government force, official and unofficial, whether it is foolhardy killings of people by gung-ho police officers, (a trend which seems to be increasing), the assassination of leaders such as Salvador Allende and Patrice Lumumba, drone strikes, dis-proportionate attacks on the Palestinian community by the IDF, the fuelling of the contras and others slaughtering hundreds of thousands in Central and South America in the 1970s and 80s, the massacres of Chechen civilians, the slaughter of Tamil civilians, and so many more examples the list could be virtually endless.

 

We are concerned here with the knee-jerk resort to violence, with the assumption that such violence is warranted in all cases by national interest, rather than the admittedly more complex discussion of when and if violence could be justified. Governments everywhere seem, to our eyes, to be becoming far too wedded to the idea of “shoot first and ask questions later”, both domestically and internationally. It is a slippery slope, and we seem to be sliding down it, willy nilly.

And while government continues to behave as if life and liberty are irrelevant to their own interests, so individuals will consider they are similarly exempt from moral restraint, as we saw with Baader-Meinhoff and the Red Brigades.

Hate speech does not equal free speech. In our opinion.

Hate speech does not equal free speech. In our opinion.

And yet, none of us are exempt from moral restraint. When we all cry, in bewilderment, “How could someone do such a thing?” it is because we are from the sane majority, those who would no more shoot a fellow citizen on the streets over a political or religious principle than we would try to fly to the moon by flapping our arms.

And yet, that same sane majority cowers silently behind the free speech argument while others pour mental filth into our communities unchallenged and unrestrained.

In our view, it is not enough to outlaw someone actively arguing and presumably planning for armed revolution, it is also necessary to curb the enthusiasm of those who “wink” at the concept of it, who pat elements on society on the head and murmur “There, there, settle down children”, when they should actually be as outraged as us that anyone can actually voice the type of vile propaganda that leads individuals to gun down women’s health practitioners, attendees at a Holocaust museum, or a Jewish school.

We do not pretend to know where or how the line should be drawn in each and every case. We simply feel we know hate speech when we hear it, and we don’t want to hear it. So as a starting point for the debate:

Killing people is wrong. Always wrong. Under any circumstances. It is an inadequate, tragic and awful way for us to resolve our differences, whether with a neighbour over a wall or a neighbouring country over a border.

Killing people is just plain wrong. And saying it’s sometimes OK to kill people is wrong, too.

Let’s just start there, and work on?

In a case which has shocked the world, CNN reports a Christian in Sudan has been sentenced to death for her faith; ‘I’m just praying,’ her husband says.

Watch this video

STORY HIGHLIGHTS

  • Meriam Yehya Ibrahim’s lawyer says she refused to recant her Christian faith in court
  • Husband tells CNN: “I’m so frustrated. I don’t know what to do.”
  • Ibrahim, 27, has been convicted of apostasy and sentenced to death
  • She considers herself Christian, but a court says she is Muslim
Hours after a Sudanese court sentenced his pregnant wife to death when she refused to recant her Christian faith, her husband told CNN he feels helpless.

“I’m so frustrated. I don’t know what to do,” Daniel Wani told CNN on Thursday. “I’m just praying.”

This week a Khartoum court convicted his wife, Meriam Yehya Ibrahim, 27, of apostasy, or the renunciation of faith.

Ibrahim is Christian, her husband said. But the court considers her to be Muslim because her father was.

The court also convicted her of adultery and sentenced her to 100 lashes because her marriage to a Christian man is considered void under Sharia law.

The court gave her until Thursday to recant her Christian faith, something she refused to do, according to her lawyer.

During Thursday’s sentencing hearing, a sheikh told the court “how dangerous a crime like this is to Islam and the Islamic community,” said attorney Mohamed Jar Elnabi, who’s representing Ibrahim.

“I am a Christian,” Ibrahim fired back, “and I will remain a Christian.”

Her legal team says it plans to appeal the verdict, which drew swift condemnation from human rights organizations around the world.

In the meantime, Ibrahim, who is eight months’ pregnant, remains in prison with her 20-month-old son.

“She is very strong and very firm. She is very clear that she is a Christian and that she will get out one day,” Elnabi told CNN from Sudan.

Ibrahim was born to a Sudanese Muslim father and an Ethiopian Orthodox mother. Her father left when she was 6 years old, and Ibrahim was raised by her mother as a Christian. However, because her father was Muslim, the courts considered her to be the same, which would mean her marriage to a non-Muslim man is void.

The case, her lawyer said, started after Ibrahim’s brother filed a complaint against her, alleging that she had gone missing for several years and that her family was shocked to find she had married a Christian man.

A family divided

The court’s ruling leaves a family divided, with Ibrahim behind bars and her husband struggling to survive, Elnabi said. Police blocked Wani from entering the courtroom on Thursday, Elnabi said. Lawyers appealed to the judge, but he refused, Elnabi said. Wani uses a wheelchair and “totally depends on her for all details of his life,” Elnabi said.

“He cannot live without her,” said the lawyer.

The couple’s son is also having a difficult time in prison.

“He is very affected from being trapped inside a prison from such a young age,” Elnabi said. “He is always getting sick due to lack of hygiene and bugs.”

Ibrahim is having a difficult pregnancy, the lawyer said. A request to send her to a private hospital was denied “due to security measures.”

There also is the question of the timing of a potential execution.

In past cases involving pregnant or nursing women, the Sudanese government waited until the mother weaned her child before executing any sentence, said Christian Solidarity Worldwide spokeswoman Kiri Kankhwende.

Rights groups, governments ask for compassion

Amnesty International describes Ibrahim as a prisoner of conscience.

“The fact that a woman could be sentenced to death for her religious choice, and to flogging for being married to a man of an allegedly different religion, is abhorrent and should never be even considered,” Manar Idriss, Amnesty International’s Sudan researcher, said in a statement. ‘Adultery’ and ‘apostasy’ are acts which should not be considered crimes at all, let alone meet the international standard of ‘most serious crimes’ in relation to the death penalty. It is a flagrant breach of international human rights law,” the researcher said.

Katherine Perks with the African Centre for Justice and Peace Studiessaid the verdict goes against Sudan’s “own Constitution and commitments made under regional and international law.”

“Meriam has been convicted solely on account of her religious convictions and personal status,” she said.

Foreign embassies in Khartoum are urging the government there to reverse course.

“We call upon the Government of Sudan to respect the right to freedom of religion, including one’s right to change one’s faith or beliefs, a right which is enshrined in international human rights law as well as in Sudan’s own 2005 Interim Constitution,” the embassies of the United States, United Kingdom, Canada and Netherlands said in a statement.

“We further urge Sudanese legal authorities to approach Ms. Meriam’s case with justice and compassion that is in keeping with the values of the Sudanese people,” it read.

‘Egregious violations of freedom of religion

Attempts to contact Sudan’s justice minister and foreign affairs minister about the Ibrahim case were unsuccessful.

Sudan is one of the most difficult countries in the world to be a Christian, according to international religious freedom monitors.

Under President Omar al-Bashir, the African nation “continues to engage in systematic, ongoing and egregious violations of freedom of religion or belief,” the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom said in its 2014 report.

The country imposes Sharia law on Muslims and non-Muslims alike and punishes acts of “indecency” and “immorality” by floggings and amputations, the commission said.

“Conversion from Islam is a crime punishable by death, suspected converts to Christianity face societal pressures, and government security personnel intimidate and sometimes torture those suspected of conversion,” said the commission, whose members are appointed by Congress and the president.

The Sudanese government has arrested Christians for spreading their faith, razed Christian churches and confiscated Christians’ property, the commission said.

Since 1999, the U.S. State Department has called Sudan one of the worst offenders of religious rights, counting it among eight “countries of particular concern.”

“The government at times enforced laws against blasphemy and defaming Islam,” the State Department said in its most recent report on religious freedom, from 2012.

The State Department’s other countries of concern, all of which impose strict penalties on Christians or other faiths, are: Myanmar (also known as Burma), China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan.

Among all religious groups, Christians are the most likely to be persecuted worldwide, according to a 2014 report by the Pew Research Center.

Between June 2006 and December 2012, Christians were harassed by governments in 151 countries, Pew reported. Islam was second, with 135 countries. Together, Christians and Muslims make up half of the world’s population, Pew noted.

Lawyer says he’s gotten a death threat

Elnabi says he got a death threat a day before the controversial court hearing, with an anonymous caller telling him to pull out of representing Ibrahim or risk attack.

“I feel very scared,” he said. “Since yesterday, I live in fear if I just hear a door open or a strange sound in the street.”

Still, the lawyer said he’ll continue representing Ibrahim.

“I could never leave the case. This is a matter of belief and principles,” he said. “I must help someone who is in need, even if it will cost me my life.”

As soon as we discover where people can register a protest against this barbaric judgement, Wellthisiswhatithink will post the details. If you happen to know, please tell us.

UPDATE We are indebted to Marian for providing us with this link to an Amnesty USA PDF which refers to the case and provides email addresses for the relevant Sudanese officials. We urge you to email them politely asking for the ruling to be reversed.

http://www.amnestyusa.org/sites/default/files/uaa11814.pdf

Please share this story as widely as you can.

UPDATE It has been reported that Meriam has had her baby in prison, where her 22 month old is also living with her. Her husband was not allowed to attend the birth.

Two items caught your indefatigable correspondent’s eye today, Dear Reader.

The first is a YouTube video (currently 65 million hits and rising) in which 20 strangers volunteer to kiss someone they have never met before. And we mean, properly kiss: real tonsil tangling, spit-swapping snogging.

It is really rather beautiful and life affirming and funny and wistful and weird and vaguely erotic and heart warming. See what you think.

It’s the work of someone called Tatia Pllieva and it’s the first video she has posted. I suspect we’ll be hearing more from her. Well done.

The second is the death of Fred Phelps, the founder and thoroughly awful leader of the Westboro Baptist Church who became famous for celebrating the death of American soldiers (and picketing their funerals) as punishment from God because gays exist in America.

If you really want to refresh your memory as to his drivel, you can watch this.

He thinks he’s going to Heaven. I was never more certain of anything but that he is going straight to Hell … do not pass Go, do not collect $200 … and people like Tatia Pllieva are going to Heaven.

The one thought that cheers me this morning more than any other is that Fred Phelps is today standing in front his Maker, hearing in no uncertain terms exactly how much of an un-Christian asshole he was.

Phelps died on Wednesday in a Kansas hospice at the age of 84. “People die – that is the way of all flesh,” a blog post on the church’s website said.

Earlier this month, his son Nathan, who ran away from home as soon as he turned 18 and later became a gay rights advocate, said in a Facebook posting he had learned Phelps was near death in a hospice and that he had been excommunicated in 2013. The church would not confirm the excommunication report, saying membership issues were private.

Phelps’ church was widely denounced as a hate group and was not part of any mainstream Baptist organization. Its membership has been estimated at about 100, many of whom were related to Phelps.

By Phelps’ reasoning, cancer, the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, school shootings and the deaths of soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as other tragedies involving Americans, were God’s retribution for a lax attitude toward what he called “the modern militant homosexual movement”.

“God Hates Fags” was the overriding slogan for Phelps and his followers, as well as the name of their primary website. They carried that message to protests, brandishing signs declaring “Thank God For AIDS,” “America Is Doomed,” “Thank God For Dead Soldiers” and “God Blew Up The Troops”.

“Look, you can’t preach the Bible without preaching the hatred of God,” Phelps said in a 2010 Huffington Post interview.

The news of his death was met with an outpouring of comments on social media, including many who said Phelps’ teachings inadvertently served to promote tolerance.

“I’d like to thank Fred Phelps today, for accidentally inspiring me and countless others like me to fight for tolerance and against hate,” Russell Hainline, a screenwriter in Los Angeles, tweeted.

Phelps’ rhetoric was hotter than fire and brimstone. He called President George W. Bush a “Bible pervert,” Barack Obama a “bloody beast” and conservative TV commentator Bill O’Reilly a “demon-possessed messenger of Satan”.

Phelps’s church gained notoriety in 1998 by picketing the funeral of Matthew Shepard, a gay man who was beaten outside a bar in Wyoming and left to die. His story was turned into a movie and play.

SUPREME COURT RULING

Phelps and his congregants had their biggest impact at military funerals, where they faced an angry backlash from veterans’ families and their supporters. Their right to picket led to action by the U.S. Congress and a freedom-of-speech legal battle that the church won at the U.S. Supreme Court.

The father of a Maryland soldier killed in Iraq took on Westboro, seeking damages and saying church members had turned his son’s 2006 funeral into a circus. But in an 8-1 ruling in 2011, the court said that even though the Westboro protest was hurtful, it was constitutionally protected. Phelps’ daughter, Margie, argued the case.

To curb Westboro, Congress in 2006 passed the Fallen Heroes Act, which prohibited protesters from coming within 300 feet of a federally administered cemetery within an hour of the beginning or end of a funeral. States passed similar laws.

Phelps based his ideology on an Old Testament passage – the book of Leviticus, chapter 18, verse 22 – that says, “Thou shalt not lie with mankind as with womankind; it is abomination.”

Phelps, however, was mis-informed and wilfully ignorant, as you can read here: http://wp.me/p1LY0z-wX

If you’re feeling research minded, (or just irritated by bigoted fundamentalist neighbours) you can also read how it is now scientifically proven that the Bible is not literally true by clicking here: http://wp.me/p1LY0z-1Y5

Or even how the Roman Catholic Church no longer believes the Bible is literally true: http://wp.me/p1LY0z-ud

On its website the church claimed to have held almost 50,000 demonstrations since 1991. Westboro would send protesters on the thinnest of premises. A store in Topeka was a regular target because it sold vacuum cleaners made in Sweden, where a preacher had been prosecuted for his anti-homosexuality message. Phelps’s church even sent a contingent to Pittsburgh in 2003 for the funeral of Fred Rogers, the mild-mannered host of the children’s TV show “Mister Rogers Neighborhood,” on the grounds that he was “a wuss” and had not denounced homosexuality. Other protest targets included churches and synagogues, rock concerts, NFL games, Twitter headquarters and the school attended by President Barack Obama’s daughters.

British journalist Louis Theroux lived with the Phelps clan for three weeks while making the 2007 documentary “The Most Hated Family in America”.

“The dominant note in his personality was a bitter contempt for humanity in general and me specifically,” he wrote in the Guardian newspaper.

Theroux said the family did not always seem hateful.

“Away from the pickets, they were – much of the time – very, very normal,” he said. “Not just normal, but intelligent and urbane. They’re not hillbillies, they’re urban professionals.”

Well, anyway, he’s gone, Thank God.

And now I think I’ll go and watch the 20 strangers kissing again and make my mind feel just a little cleaner, and creep a little closer to my understanding of God at the same time.

"I just became the most controversial issue in twenty plus centuries of religion. Really, who knew?"

“I just became the most controversial issue in twenty plus centuries of religion. Really, who knew?”

In major news breaking now that will shake up both the Jewish and Christian religions – assuming their adherents are interested in facts rather than merely having a fundamentalist obsession with literal truth – evidence has emerged that the early chapters of the Old Testament were written long after they have sometimes been suggested to have been written. And they are historically inaccurate.

In short, the chapters were not eye-witness accounts, and even if they were brought down by oral tradition, they were later embellished by the actual writers, which contradicts long-held dogma that they were transmitted without a word being changed or added from the earliest story tellers.

Biblical scholars have long been aware many of the stories and accounts in the sacred book were not written by eyewitnesses, and according to new research, further evidence of that historical distance has appeared in the form of a hump-backed camel.

New research using radioactive-carbon dating techniques shows the animals weren’t domesticated until hundreds of years after the events documented in the Book of Genesis.

The research was published by Erez Ben-Yosef and Lidar Sapir-Hen, archaeologists from Tel Aviv University in Israel. They believe camels were not domesticated in the eastern Mediterranean until the 10th century B.C.

And yet, the hump-backed creatures are mentioned repeatedly alongside Abraham, Jacob and Isaac, indicating the Bible’s writers and editors were portraying what they saw in their present as how things looked in the past. These camel stories “do not encapsulate memories from the second millennium,” said Noam Mizrahi, an Israeli biblical scholar, “but should be viewed as back-projections from a much later period.”

While there are conflicting theories about when the Bible was composed, the recent research suggests it was written much later than the events it describes. This supports earlier studies that have challenged the Bible’s veracity as a historic document, for example, by pointing out that the destruction and plundering of Jericho actually occurred some centuries distant from the life of the long-asserted Hebrew general and leader Joshua.

The new biblical questioning wasn’t the focus of the recent research, though, just an after-the-fact observation.

The question over “phantom camels” is not new one, according to TIME magazine. Biblical scholar William Foxwell Albright “argued in the mid-1900s that camels were an anachronism.”

In an opinion piece for CNN, Joel Baden writes that there was no deliberate deception intended on the part of the Bible’s authors.

“Biblical authors,” Baden writes, “simply transplanted the nomadic standards of their time into the distant past. There is nothing deceptive about this. They weren’t trying to trick anyone. They imagined, quite reasonably, that the past was, fundamentally, like their present.”

A similar conclusion was reached by Smithsonian.com author Colin Schultz, who wrote, “these findings don’t necessarily disprove all the stories of the Bible. Rather, knowing that there are camels where there definitely shouldn’t be shows that the Bible’s authors, working thousands of years after the events they were describing were supposed to take place, took a modern lens to these ancient tales.”

At long last, can we focus on the eternal truths in the book that affect how we treat our fellow humans, rather than worrying about every dotted 'i' and crossed 't'?

At long last, can we focus on the eternal truths in the book that affect how we treat our fellow humans, rather than worrying about every dotted ‘i’ and crossed ‘t’?

Nevertheless, the findings confirm again that the Bible is not LITERALLY true.

This should not really come as a surprise to Jews and Christians. Authoritative figures in the Roman Catholic Church have already said it, in plain language. Like their acknowledgement that Adam and Eve never existed.

With this latest finding, it is simply scientifically impossible for us to see the Old Testament as entirely, immovably factual.

And we now also have categorical evidence that the Old Testament authors were operating based on their current world view, which would undoubtedly reflect predominant cultural mores, too.

Here’s the key point: if we can unarguably subtract one fact from the Bible, then it is logically consistent that we can subtract others, too.

For example: the few lines that are (incorrectly in my opinion) supposed to be about homosexuality, which have caused misery, persecution and death for millions of good people down through the centuries.

Or, most dramatically: creationism. Specifically “young Earth” creationism.

Today is a day for celebration. The moment we acknowledge that the Bible need not be literally true to be true, we free humankind from mindless, meaningless intellectual navel gazing, and set free our own critical faculties, to lead us closer to the Divine.

Now, to coin a phrase, that’s Good News for Modern Man.

Atheism

Even as someone convinced of god’s existence, I understand this challenge, I really do. I would simply insert “Agnostic” instead of “Atheist”. What do you think?

As one does, I got involved in a bruising little debate between “Lili”  and “Mike” on Facebook today.

Lili, a feisty and opinionated mid-teens schoolgirl was being taken to task by Mike for posting one of those silly greetings cards that pop up all over the Net.

This one had a 1950s family of Dad, Mom and two kids leaving an old-style church with the headline: “Well, that was a bunch of bullshit.”

She repeatedly challenged Mike to “prove” God’s existence. Mike repeatedly ignored her. This was my response: I’d be interested to know what you think.

“I think, respectfully, Mike, that you are not providing answers to Lili’s challenge. Because the only possible answer to “Prove to me that God exists” is surely “I can’t.”

But not because, in my considered opinion, that he/she/it doesn’t exist.

But rather because if we could prove God exists then there would be no point in faith, and faith is what makes life meaningful. Jesus makes this point himself with the Doubting Thomas episode … it is one of the most significant passages in the Bible.

Lili, I applaud your scepticism. I would simply suggest you keep an open mind, not a closed one. To me, as a believer, the appropriate response for someone who is not convinced that God exists is agnosticism, not atheism. Atheism is a very hard row to plough. It means you have to dismiss the vast literature and experience of God throughout human history.

Please note, I say God, not religion.

Plenty of skeptical, liberal people, plenty of scientists, for example, in all different cultures around the world, nevertheless report having experienced something so other-worldly as to be both beyond coincidence and inexplicable.

To be an atheist is to accuse ALL those people, every single one, of being either deluded or stupid. Big call.

I believe that no one ever reaches a knowledge of God through study, or even through the remonstrations of others. Jesus said “I stand at the door knocking, if you open it, I will come in.”

agnostic-cemetaryIt is my life experience that many people answer that challenge at some stage of their life, and become, through it, convinced that God exists.

Not that they understand “It”, or that, even, they are particularly comforted by the experience.

Simply that they experience something they cannot otherwise explain.

I would therefore urge you, simply, to leave enough of the door ajar to consider that all those people are not idiots.

Agnostic I can definitely understand. Atheist? That seems much more problematical for me.

Oh, and by the way? I think God enjoys your questioning, and your intelligence, and your compassion. Go for it.”

Does my argument have any value? I’d like to know what you think. If you disagree with me please be as blunt as you like, but keep it nice :-)

old-and-new-year-cover-table-calendar-for-1905.jpg!BlogIt is customary for bloggers of all shapes and sizes to reflect about – in this curious interregnum between Christmas and New Year’s Eve – something vaguely along the lines of “That was the Year that was”.

There is an almost universal urge, driven no doubt by a general sense that the timing is somehow significant, to review what went right, what went wrong, and what just didn’t really go anywhere at all.

In reality, of course, the end of one year and the beginning of another is of no real significance at all. It is merely a human construct, signifying very little, except, perhaps, the pressing need to get one’s tax affairs in better order.

aztec_calendarCalendars are a fascinating human invention, and as you can see from this ancient Aztec version, once they were imbued with fine detail like days, weeks and months (as opposed to Man merely splitting the year into “cold/hot, wet/dry, winter/summer” and so on) they basically allowed us to organise two things: religious celebrations, and commerce.

The first need was born of a widespread conviction that if we didn’t appease the Gods on a given day, all hell would break loose. And that belief continues to this day, where, for example, in the Roman Catholic Church, there are still “Days of Obligation” – days that are so important to be observed that it is a venial sin to miss going to mass on them. The dates themselves have no historical significance whatsoever, of course – Jesus wasn’t really born on December 25th – they are merely of symbolic significance. Of this, more in a moment.

treehouses-of-the-world-2013-wall-calendar

Want.

The second need for detail was born of a very practical understanding that if you don’t know whether it’s Monday or Tuesday, it becomes increasingly difficult to guess whether one is supposed to be buying, selling, receiving, building, delivering or resting on any given day.

Thus, in a very real sense, calendars marked our change from subsistence farmers and hunter-gatherers to beings who lived or died by the efficacy of their trade arrangements, and as such, they are a much more significant historical marker than they are generally given credit for.

So when you bump blindly into one of those displays of dubious photographic ephemera clogging up the aisles in your local shopping centre, think “Ascent of Man”, and marvel at our forebear’s innovative spirit.

Now: back to all hell breaking loose.

The process by which human beings ascribe relevance to random or irrelevant events or images is called apophenia.

It is one of the more fascinating human urges. Essentially, we are disturbed by the concept of randomness, and thus seek to give meaning to events that may be significant but are actually entirely accidental, or which may be entirely unimportant, such as an unusual date on a calendar, but which we nevertheless need to bring within some sort of human control, through acknowledgement, ritual, or some other action.

As recently as a couple of weeks ago we experienced a curious moment when the time and date could be written 9:10 11.12.13. (Well, it could everywhere in the English speaking world except America.) That’s “9.10 am on the 11th of December, 2013″ by the way.

Acres of forests were destroyed so the popular media could speculate on the likelihood of fireballs from Heaven, whether or not it was a good moment to buy a lottery ticket, and should you pop the question to your intended, or, indeed, arrange a marriage (as many did). Result? No fireballs, still didn’t win the lottery, and as for the effect of the date on the marital outcomes for numerous superstitious Asian couples getting hitched at a furious rate in the parks and gardens of downtown Melbourne, well, only time will tell, but we strongly suspect: nothing.

Apophenia - the same impulse that leads us to see significance in certain dates is why we see Christ or the Virgin Mary in toast.

Apophenia – the same impulse that leads us to see significance in certain dates is why we see Christ or Greta Garbo in pieces of toast.

Apophenia. Just as it meant nothing hundreds or thousands of years ago when a tree toppled onto the chief’s hut or wig-wam on the Umpteenth of Zog, so that henceforth and forever on the Umpteenth of Zog the tribe had to hold a tree-pacifying ceremony lest the tragedy happen again, so the need to review the year to find meaning, solace or importance in our individual lives, or, indeed, in the collective life of our community, is entirely fallacious. The year is an artificial construct. New Year’s Day, which is two days away as I write, is no more significant than any other day, except for those killed or injured in drunken car wrecks, or for those falling over and banging their bonce, for whom it will be very significant indeed. Resolutions could just as easily be made today, or in three day’s time. The old is not new again, it is merely old. The new is not new, it is merely now.

That such way-stations on the calendar give us pause to reflect, however fallacious the link between a given date or ceremony and the process of internal reflection, is nevertheless surely a helpful phenomenon. Apophenia has its uses. Non-religious people are nevertheless nicer to each other at Christmas-time than at other times of the year. A welling up of social awareness, which translates into practical charitable effort, is very obvious. The same is true during the key ceremonies of other religions. The cultural imperative “Just because it’s Christmas” has a benign outcome that needs no deep analysis: we can just welcome it gratefully, perhaps sadly pondering what it would be like if it was “Christmas all year round.” And no, we do not mean the shopping and over-eating.

Equally assuredly, in direct proportion to the richness of the fare consumed around the family dinner-table, millions of diets will be started on January 1st and just as certainly abandoned in a few days, but that momentary focus on living a healthier life cannot be a bad thing. The urge to create a better world starting on date ‘n‘ cannot be gainsaid, either. One might only wish that people felt so moved more often, or on any other given date.

All of which is the longest and most rambling introduction to a blog ever. Because what I really want to write about this morning, Dear Reader, is that your Loyal Correspondent lately found himself sitting out the back of Chez Wellthisiswhatithink, contemplating, if not one’s navel, then at least the blank page calling out “write on me”, lazing in the shade admiring the sunshine and looking quietly around the yard, when suddenly one was overwhelmed by a sense of gratitude.

For a brief instant, despite having a bag of worries and woes to carry around just like everyone else – better than some, and worse than some – I did not have a care in the world, and I found that I was profoundly, deeply, content.

It was actually quite shocking. Delightful, but shocking.

It is necessary to understand, at this juncture, that your Dutiful Scribe could not normally be described as the most patient nor the most contented of beings. For all of my life thus far, I have striven, clawed, fought, opined, scrabbled and argued in favour of the things that matter, and sometimes things that don’t, and through not inheriting any great wealth of note I have struggled and sought to make a decent living for oneself and one’s dependents.

It is also necessary for you to know, as regular readers will, that in the past the demons of both depression and OCD have visited me with irritating regularity, and one always senses that they are just the other side of the barricades that have been erected to keep them at bay, and that therefore to experience such a moment of transcendent contentment is a matter of some note. For me, at least.

It was a butterfly that set it off.

butterfly

As I sat enjoying the mild breeze – it is truly, exquisitely beautiful here today – and admiring Mrs Wellthisiswhatithink’s vegetable patch, which is currently bounding into maturity at a great rate under the blissful southern Sun, a small white butterfly hove into view, daintily picking its way between the plants. It is in this photograph, though I doubt you can see it. Ten points to anyone who can spot it.

As I watched its progress, fluttering backwards and forwards vacuuming up the nectar from the flowers, I became slowly aware of other things.

Of the delicate daisies on the camomile. The intensely bright yellow flowers on the zucchini. Buds by the dozen on the passionfruit vine. Of the soothing balm of a wood dove coo-ing insistently from its nest nearby. The contented caw of a crow, somewhere, calling to its mate.

We have put a fair bit of work into the back of our home in the last couple of years – or rather, I should state for faithful accuracy, Mrs W has. It is only a tiny space, to be sure, but as I looked about I saw how her vision was coming incessantly and inexorably and magnificently into shape.

lemongrassA vast tub of lemongrass, growing like the crazy tropical invader that it is, enough to flavour a dozen curries and stir-fries. Lettuces of all kinds thrusting upwards in abundance. A promise of a tomato crop so egregiously large as to require the ritual making of chutney again this year, ensuring that the unctuous  wonder of the fruit lives on, magically enhanced by black peppercorns, vinegar, sugar and curry leaves, till it is transformed into that sour, sweet delight without which no crusty cob bread roll and hunk of cheddar cheese should ever be brought to the table.

Instead of rushing on to the next thing on the list (this article) I allowed myself the time to think. To look around.

I paused.

fig treeI noticed, as if I had never seen it before, the fabulous contrast of the fig tree in the corner against the azure, cloudless sky.

Not just any green, or any blue.

These breathtakingly new colours seemed twinned by a mutual passion, as if their whole existence seemed bound up in the other, as if without the blue the green would wane and wither into some ordinary thing, and that without the green the blue would simply be … blue. Unremarkable. But together, they were like a glorious song, a soaring soprano duet of crystal clarity. The branches reached up to the sky, and the sky leaned down to embrace them. Today I was seeing their marriage as if for the first time, with new eyes.

shoesI wandered around slowly, quite thrilled, willing the epiphanistic moment to last.

I came upon a small pair of muddied but washable runners, so tiny, so … delicate, almost … left conveniently by the back door so that she who works so quietly and determinedly to create little miracles can plod around in the mud tending her plants without ruining too many pairs of shoes.

Suddenly, I realised that instead of a just a pair of shoes I actually saw steadiness. Stickability. I saw that most admirable will – the will to both begin and finish a project.

I saw how joy in simple things – successfully coaxing an aubergine from our barren clay soil for the first time – can form a meaningful part of our daily round, and lift our spirits. And I was suddenly seized with gratitude that I share my life not with any person, but with this person, whose desires are so different from mine, and yet so complimentary. Not that there is only one person for any other given person – I do not, in all conscience, believe that – but that through lucky accident I have been given the privilege of sharing my life with one who is a natural counter-balance to me – a completion, a rock, an anchoring place. And how empty and less joyful my life would be without that muddied but treasured pair of shoes and what they represent.

washingI looked at the washing she had hung up. Suddenly, it wasn’t just a pile of washing on the line. It was yet another chore quietly completed, unseen, unremarked upon, to support the household. Patiently hung there to take advantage of the gorgeous natural sunlight rather than waste a few cents using the electric dryer, because “that’s what the sunlight’s for, and those few cents can be better used elsewhere, and anyway we don’t need to use the energy, haven’t you heard of global warming?”

Amen.

And behind the washing, the plum trees – a birthday gift from me to her – which had just yielded a crop so generous that they needed to be given away to all and sundry, yet despite the enthusiastic gathering in they still offered us the occasional purple globe swaying invitingly in the wind.

pathI walked a few paces. I realised, with a start, that when we had first moved in this would have been a dangerous decision.

The bluestone path beside the home had previously had no mortar between the stones, inviting a twisted ankle with every excursion, or worse. We used to hop from one to the other like stepping stones across a river.

I looked now at the cement we had brushed into the cracks, unable to afford a builder to do it properly, without any friends to advise us on technique, and without the faintest idea, in reality, what we were doing, and how, ten years later, the path was a rather ugly but enduring testament to that vital mantra of “trying something” rather than doing nothing.

Of how, stumbling and falling and getting up and carrying on and winning and losing, sometimes small things, and sometimes big things, this wonky path somehow symbolised our years together, and how I actually rather preferred that it wasn’t perfect, but that it was real, like us.

For a moment – a moment that has endured, astoundingly, throughout the two hours it has taken to me write this – almost as if, once created, the moment continues to expand until we forget it – I experienced the bliss of little things.

Today, then, is the 30th December, 2013. I could mark it, forever more, as the day I really learned, even momentarily, to truly be thankful for small matters, to give thanks for the inconseqentia of existence that gives, of course, true meaning to life. And how, in my surprise at this discovery, I felt very grown up, and wise, and above all, like I finally knew something important.

I have had a revelation, to be sure. I could declare it in ringing tones as International “Just Be” Day and insist it be carried on every calendar.

But in reality, it could of been yesterday, or tomorrow, or next week. The only difference with today was that today, by happy circumstance, I decided to genuinely listen.

So I will not be giving this date any special significance. Instead, I will pay it deep respect, by remembering today, and making space for more days like it.

"Everything I have learned about life I can sum up in three words. It. Goes. On." Robert Frost

“Everything I have learned about life I can sum up in three words. It goes on.” Robert Frost

 

And all the other stuff? What of that? What of all the writing and the politics and social justice and business and social interaction and love – Love! – and families and loss and international relations and society and this and that – oh, Lord, all the years of this and that – well, yes, they were important. Are important. They were and are the woven canes of my life, holding it up, precariously, like a tent. But compared to just sitting still and being, it is all, one profoundly suspects, very often a great deal of stuff and nonsense. As Macbeth dolefully noted, “sound and fury, signifying nothing”.

butterflyToday is the day. Listen: listen hard. Listen before it’s too late. Is that the beat of a butterfly’s wings? Be still, I pray you, and look around you.

Life. Life going on. Life is its own meaning. It has its own cadence.

You know the irony? Occasionally we exhort ourselves to stop and smell the roses, but succeed only in stressing ourselves that we are not stopping to smell the roses.

So just sit. Just look. Just wait.

Just be.

Something wonderful might happen. In fact, maybe it’s happening right now.

I hold your doctrine of Memento Mori.
And were an epitaph to be my story
I’d have a short one ready for my own.
I would have written of me on my stone:
“I had a lover’s quarrel with the world.”

                                           Robert Frost, The Lesson for Today

The Pope has given his blessing to breastfeeding.

Telling a Vatican website that he encouraged a young mother to breastfeed her baby he said:

“There was a young mother behind one of the barriers with a baby that was just a few month s old. The child was crying its eyes out as I came past. The mother was caressing it.

I said to her: madam, I think the child’s hungry. “Yes, it’s probably time…” she replied.

“Please give it something to eat!” I said.

She was shy and didn’t want to breastfeed in public, while the Pope was passing. I wish to say the same to humanity: give people something to eat!”

The Pope kisses the feet of a drug-addicted youth. Quite a remarkable man: score one for the Holy Spirit.

The Pope kisses the feet of a drug-addicted youth. Quite a remarkable man: score one for the Holy Spirit.

A fresco depicting Guru Nanak

A fresco depicting Guru Nanak

Today, President Obama tweeted that he hoped Sikhs would have a happy time celebrating the birth of their religion’s founder, Guru Nanak.

Over here at the impeccably Christian Wellthisiswhatithink chapel, it reminded us that we don’t have a clue what the Sikh religion is all about, apart from their very groovy turbans which we have always sneakily been rather jealous about, so we wandered over to Wikipedia to have a look. What we read there was fascinating, so we decided to share. A little understanding goes a long way, we think, in reducing world tensions. Or just tensions in one’s own street.

Guru Nanak  pronunciation (Punjabi: ਗੁਰੂ ਨਾਨਕ; Hindi: गुरु नानक,Urdu: گرونانک, [ˈɡʊɾu ˈnɑnək] Gurū Nānak) (15 April 1469 – 22 September 1539) was the founder of the religion of Sikhism and is the first of the ten Sikh Gurus, the eleventh guru being the living Guru, Guru Granth Sahib. His birth is celebrated world-wide on Kartik Puranmashi, the full-moon day which falls on different dates each year in the month of Katak, October–November.

Guru Nanak travelled far and wide teaching people the message of one God who dwells in every one of God’s creations and constitutes the eternal Truth. He setup a unique spiritual, social, and political platform based on equality, fraternity love, goodness, and virtue.

It is part of Sikh religious belief that the spirit of Guru Nanak’s sanctity, divinity and religious authority descended upon each of the nine subsequent Gurus when the Guruship was devolved on to them

 Family and early life

Nanak was born on 15 April 1469, now celebrated as Guru Nanak Gurpurab, at Rāi Bhoi Kī Talvaṇḍī, now called Nankana Sahib, near Lahore, in present day Pakistan.

Today, his birthplace is marked by Gurdwara Janam Asthan. His parents were Kalyan Chand Das Bedi, popularly shortened to Mehta Kalu, and Mata Tripta. His father was a patwari (accountant) for crop revenue in the village of Talwandi, employed by a Muslim landlord of that area, Rai Bular Bhatti.

He had one sister, Bibi Nanaki, who was five years older than him and became a spiritual figure in her own right. In 1475 she married Jai Ram and went to his town of Sultanpur, where he was the steward (modi) to Daulat Khan Lodi, the eventual governor of Lahore during the Afghan Lodhi dynasty.

Nanak was attached to his older sister, and, in traditional Indian fashion, he followed her to Sultanpur to live with her and her husband. Nanak also found work with Daulat Khan, when he was around 16 years old. This was a formative time for Nanak, as the Puratan (traditional) Janam Sakhi suggests, and in his numerous allusions to governmental structure in his hymns, most likely gained at this time.

Commentaries on his life give details of his blossoming awareness from a young age. At the age of five, Nanak is said to have voiced interest in divine subjects. At age seven, his father enrolled him at the village school as was the custom. Notable lore recounts that as a child Nanak astonished his teacher by describing the implicit symbolism of the first letter of the alphabet, which is an almost straight stroke in Persian or Arabic, resembling the mathematical version of one, as denoting the unity or oneness of God. Other childhood accounts refer to strange and miraculous events about Nanak, such as one witnessed by Rai Bular, in which the sleeping child’s head was shaded from the harsh sunlight, in one account, by the stationary shadow of a tree or, in another, by a poisonous cobra.

On 24 September 1487 Nanak married Mata Sulakkhani, daughter of Mūl Chand and Chando Rāṇī, in the town of Batala. The couple had two sons, Sri Chand (8 September 1494 – 13 January 1629) and Lakhmi Chand (12 February 1497 – 9 April 1555).

Biographies

The earliest biographical sources on Nanak’s life recognised today are the Janamsākhīs (life accounts) and the vārs (expounding verses) of the scribe Bhai Gurdas. The most popular Janamsākhī were allegedly written by a close companion of the Guru, Bhai Bala. However, the writing style and language employed have left scholars, such as Max Arthur Macauliffe, certain that they were composed after his death.

Gurdas, a purported scribe of the Gurū Granth Sahib, also wrote about Nanak’s life in his vārs. Although these too were compiled some time after Nanak’s time, they are less detailed than the Janamsākhīs. The Janamsākhīs recount in minute detail the circumstances of the birth of the guru.

Sikhism

Rai Bular, the local landlord and Nanak’s sister Bibi Nanaki were the first people who recognised divine qualities in the boy.

Happy Gurpurab

Happy Gurpurab

They encouraged and supported him to study and travel. Sikh tradition states that at around 1499, at the age of 30, he had a vision.

After he failed to return from his ablutions, his clothes were found on the bank of a local stream called the Kali Bein.

The townspeople assumed he had drowned in the river; Daulat Khan had the river dragged, but no body was found.

Three days after disappearing, Nanak reappeared, staying silent. The next day, he spoke to pronounce:

“There is neither Hindu nor Mussulman (Muslim) so whose path shall I follow? I shall follow God’s path. God is neither Hindu nor Mussulman and the path which I follow is God’s.”

Nanak said that he had been taken to God’s court. There, he was offered a cup filled with amrita (nectar) and given the command,

“This is the cup of the adoration of God’s name. Drink it. I am with you. I bless you and raise you up. Whoever remembers you will enjoy my favour. Go, rejoice of my name and teach others to do so. I have bestowed the gift of my name upon you. Let this be your calling.”

From this point onwards, Nanak is described in accounts as a Guru, and Sikhism was born.

Teachings

Guru Nanak’s teachings can be found in the Sikh scripture Guru Granth Sahib, as a vast collection of revelatory verses.

From these some common principles seem discernible. Firstly a supreme Godhead who although incomprehensible, manifests in all major religions, the Singular “Doer” and formless. It is described as the indestructible (undying) form.

Nanak describes the dangers of egotism (haumai- “I am”) and calls upon devotees to engage in worship through the word of God – Naam – which implies God, the Reality, mystical word or formula to recite or meditate upon (shabad in Gurbani), divine order (hukam) as well as listening to the words of gurus and to engage in the singing of God’s qualities, discarding doubt in the process. However, such worship must be selfless (sewa).

The word of God cleanses the individual to make such worship possible. This is related to the revelation that God is the Doer and without God there is no other. Nanak warned against hypocrisy and falsehood saying that these are pervasive in humanity and that religious actions can also be in vain. It may also be said that ascetic practices are not favoured by Nanak, who suggests remaining inwardly detached whilst living as a householder.

Through popular tradition, Nanak’s teaching is understood to be practised in three ways:

  • Vaṇḍ Chakkō: Sharing with others, helping those with less who are in need
  • Kirat Karō: Earning/making a living honestly, without exploitation or fraud
  • Naam Japna: Meditating on God’s name to control your five evils to eliminate suffering and live a happy life.

Nanak put the greatest emphasis on the worship of the Word of God (Naam Japna). One should follow the direction of awakened individuals (Gurmukh or God-willed) rather than the mind (state of Manmukh – being led by self will) – the latter being perilous and leading only to frustration.

Guru Nanak’s Divine Journeys

Although the exact account of his itinerary is disputed, he is widely acknowledged to have made four major journeys, spanning thousands of kilometres, the first tour being east towards Bengal and Assam, the second south towards Sri Lanka, the third north towards Kashmir, Ladakh, and Tibet, and the final tour west towards Baghdad, Mecca and Medina on the Arabian Peninsula.

Nanak was moved by the plight of the people of world and wanted to tell them about the “real message of God”. The people of the world were confused by the conflicting message given by priests, pundits, qazis, mullahs, etc. He was determined to bring his message to the masses; so in 1499, he decided to set out on his sacred mission to spread the holy message of peace and compassion to all of mankind.

Most of his journeys were made on foot with his companion Bhai Mardana, a minstrel. He travelled in all four directions – North, East, West and South. He is believed to have travelled more than 28,000 km in five major tours of the world during the period from 1499 to 1524.

Nanak saw the world suffering out of hatred, fanaticism, falsehood and hypocrisy. The world had sunk into wickedness and sin. So he decided that he had to travel and educate people, pressing home the message of Almighty Lord. So he set out on his mission for the regeneration of humanity on this earth. He carried the torch of truth, heavenly love, peace and joy for mankind.

He visited various centers of Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Jainis, Sufis, Yogis and Sidhas. He met people of different religions, tribes, cultures and races.

His travels are called Udasis. In his first Udasi, Nanak covered east of India and returned home after spending about 6 years. He started from Sultanpur in 1499 and went to his village Talwandi to meet and inform his parents about his long journey. His parents wanted their young son to provide comfort and protection for them in their old age and so they told him they would prefer it if he did not go. But he told them that the world was burning in the fire of Kalyug and that thousands and thousands were waiting for the Divine message of the Almighty for comfort, love and salvation. The Guru, therefore, told his parents, “There is a call from Heaven, I must go whither He directs me to go.” Upon hearing these words, his parents agreed and gave their blessings. So Nanak started his mission.

The five journeys

Below is a brief summary of the confirmed places visited by Nanak:

  • First Udasi: (1499-1506 AD) Lasted about 7 years and covered the following towns and regions: Sultanpur, Tulamba (modern Makhdumpur, zila Multan), Panipat, Delhi, Banaras (Varanasi), Nanakmata (zila Nainital, Uttranchal), Tanda Vanjara (zila Rampur), Kamrup (Assam), Asa Desh (Assam), Saidpur (modern Eminabad, Pakistan), Pasrur (Pakistan), Sialkot (Pakistan).
  • Second Udasi: (1506-1513 AD) Lasted about 7 years and covered the Dhanasri Valley and Sangladip (Ceylon).
  • Third Udasi: (1514-1518 AD) Lasted about 5 years and covered Kashmir, Sumer Parbat, Nepal, Tashkand, Sikkim, Tibet.
  • Fourth Udasi: (1519-1521 AD) Lasted about 3 years and covered Mecca and the Arab countries.
  • Fifth Udasi: (1523-1524 AD) Lasted about 2 years and covered places within the Punjab.

Nanak appointed Bhai Lehna as the successor Guru, renaming him as Guru Angad, meaning “one’s very own” or “part of you”. Shortly after proclaiming Bhai Lehna as his successor, Guru Nanak died on 22 September 1539 in Kartarpur, at the age of 70.

So there ya go, everything you ever wanted to know about Guru Nanak, but were afraid to ask!

moon-pond-ripples

Stephen Yolland writes:

I am often asked – surprisingly insistently, by some people, actually – why I keep on rabbiting on.

Why don’t I just bugger off and make more money, or watch some more football, or make love to my wife or just sit and bliss out. (All attractive options, I must say.) Why must I choose to have an opinion on this and that, and with such ferocious passion, sometimes, and why on earth anyone would care, anyway, what I think?

Why do I feel I have the right to pontificate freely on topics of great diversity, and sometimes topics with which I am not, apparently, personally involved?

The answer is quite simple, and it is threefold.

Firstly, I believe we are all born with innate gifts.

Whether these are devolved to us in some spiritual way or merely the result of genetics, accidental wiring and our birth environment I have no idea. I have a suspicion, but I cannot be emphatic. I believe, nevertheless that it is true. It is why some people grow up to be fine artists, administrators, musicians, farmers, pilots, poets and so on. They have a natural aptitude which gets developed.

I believe passionately that the world requires us to build on our aptitudes: to contribute as much as we can with what we’ve got. That’s how the world keeps turning.

I can write. I have a good ear for tone, for a smart turn of phrase, and even though my memory is not what it was (helas!) I have a reasonably good vocabulary.

I cannot walk through this life alone.

I am interested in other people. I am connected. Whether those people are in Russia, America, Thailand, China, Britain, or my own country. I am interested in what makes them tick, why they think as they do, and what the results of their thinking are. “No man is an island”, and I am not. To be interested in other people, and to care about what happens to them, is in my DNA. It’s partly a spiritual commitment, and partly an observation that this is simply how I wish to be. It is an innate part of my humanity to be interested in others.

I know what I think. Well, I think I do.

Last but not least, I am opinionated. I have that type of mind that cannot look at a situation, or a problem, or an opportunity, and not create an opinion. It’s partly because, as a business consultant, it is my training. It is also because I have, for a “creative” person, a very logical and analytical frame of mind. I simply enjoy examining things from all directions, listening to all points of view, and then forming an opinion.

Once having formed an opinion, I then feel obliged to share it. Otherwise why bother holding it?

Are my opinions always right? No. Do I change them? Yes. Do I change them very often? Possibly not. My mother once said to me “If an opinion is worth holding, it’s worth fighting for”. I never forgot that.

What provoked this introspection, Dear Reader?

Howard Goldenberg

Howard Goldenberg

Well, I was privileged today to take a phone call from my friend and business colleague, Gideon Kline. Last evening, he was pleased to have been in the audience for some humanitarian awards the Jewish Aid community were handing out, and especially to have heard an inspirational speech from doctor, runner, activist, charity fundraiser and author Howard Goldenberg.

Goldenberg was speaking about the need for generosity of spirit, especially as regards our relationships with Australia’s first peoples and with the refugees who wish to live here. And his speech was, indeed, inspirational. Witty, apposite, empathetic, warm-hearted, and meaningful. You can read it here.

The speech is wholly wonderful: but what really hit home was his very Jewish insistence on how we are all beholden to continue to fight for a better world. A world in which the Golden Rule “Do unto others as you wish they would do unto you” is the one that holds sway. (The famous rule appears in all the Middle Eastern monotheistic religions in some form, of course.)

I reflected that it is so easy to become discouraged by the intractability of the problems our world faces. And as I reflected, this comment from Goldenberg really caught my eye, and sent me off to Wikipedia to lean more about the Pirke Avoth.

“Our sages taught, in Pirke Avoth – “The day is short, the work is great…

Lo aleicha ham’lacha ligmor, ve’lo atta ben-horin le’hibatel
mimenna …

It is not upon you to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it …”

Along with others that were listed, I found this phrase extremely moving. And I realised it ultimately describes why I, and so many others, (many much more effectively than me), “keep on keeping on”.

I have also heard the exhortion described in a more contemporary way as “Be sure to be a planter of oak trees”. One never sees the fully grown tree oneself, because one simply cannot live that long, but one day someone will, and marvel at its beauty, and rest under it’s shade, and be glad of it.

“It is not for me to complete the work. but neither am I free to desist from it.”

That’s why.

That, and as many have said “When you cast a pebble into a pond, you never know where the ripples end.”

I have no idea whether my words ever change lives.

I know it would change mine if they were silent.

And yes: having grown one in my own back yard, which every autumn gives me a good crop of acorns, I also plant oak trees, occasionally, surreptitiously, around the immaculately native-strewn and over-politically-correct parks of Melbourne, too. In fifty years, they will be the wonder of all who survey them. As famous, one day, as the elms, alders and other wonderful Victorian imports that still lend such a gracious air to our City today.

So sue me, already.

As we walk through life, we meet many paths.

Some paths just seem to lead ever upward, and are a painful climb. We sometimes forget that from the top of the climb, the view is often clearer.

Some paths just seem to take us back on ourselves, so we never seem to get to where we need to be. On those days, the path can simply seem like too much effort to be worth following.

Sometimes, the path is lonely.

But sometimes, even though the path is lonely, it can make us gasp with the sheer joy of abundant life.

Sometimes the path is mysterious. And we don’t know whether to follow it, because it seems so tempting, and yet so unlike what we have known before.

Sometimes the path just feels like a rollercoaster that we can’t get off, even when we want to.

Sometimes it feels like one side of the path is always richer, and our side is barren, and we think about leaving the path.

And sometimes the path is just plain frightening.

The path can be terrible, and wonderful, and very very frightening. Yet we feel pulled along it, despite ourselves.

We feel pulled along it, the path leads on, and we simply cannot know what is around the corner.

The paths that open up in front of us can lead in many directions. Which to take? The difficulty of the decision can leave us standing still.

So it is always good to remember, that – wherever we walk – someone has surely trodden that path before us. And they, too, felt the wonder, the fear, the confusion, and the joy that we feel. Every day.

And also to remember that sometimes – sometimes without warning, like the unseen breath of an angel – our path will become just a quiet walk in the park.

And that those times are usually when we find others have helped us along the path. Or we have helped them.

So enjoy your path today, Dear Reader.  And my respect to all those who took these photographs.

As someone for whom the words “mid life crisis” have become a daily reality, I read this guest blog from Helen Downing nodding at the shared insights and whistling through my teeth at the apposite and blazingly honest way she encapsulates the middle years of our lives and the search for meaning, especially in the face of profound changes and grief.

I am very proud and grateful to publish her words … and I shall be buying the book! I recommend you read on.

Helen, or her protagonist, confronts a few age old issues.

Helen, or her protagonist, confronts a few age old issues.

Helen writes …

When I was very young, I remember my maternal grandmother telling me that my grandfather had such a hard time when he turned 35 that it became a bit of legend in the small town of Seaford, DE where they lived.

Everyone knew that “Pop-Pop” had just had a big birthday and his reaction to it was pretty foul. Pop-Pop was one of my most favorite people ever. I didn’t get to know him until he was much older, and to me he was bigger than life. Self-confident to the point of being a bit of a bastard, a caustic wit that some found to be borderline insulting but always had me rolling on the floor, and he was the only member of my immediate family who was a businessman instead of clergy. (My interest always lied in business. The clergy seemed entirely too full of poverty and humility for my taste.)

He was my hero, and the thought of him having a hard time turning a particular age was so foreign to me I couldn’t wrap my head around it.

Now of course, I know. Each of us have a number in our head that will make us freak out when that number becomes our age. It probably lies between 30 and 50. But regardless, it’s somewhere in the middle. Once we reach “middle-aged” by whatever standard we’ve set, the words “Happy Birthday” becomes much more ominous, at least for that one year. Middle age is not for the weak of heart. In fact, middle age sucks.

My 40th year was the worst of my life. Not turning 40, that was fine in itself. But that year I found my self-esteem and identity truly tested.

It is not that my life, as every other person’s on the planet, did not have plenty of tragedy, trial, and tribulation, previously. I had failed relationships, sickness and death around me, a few times when I was so broke I considered selling blood for cigarette money, and lots of other things that just come with being a breathing entity on the planet.

But when things happened to me or around me, I would react based on who I thought I was, which had always been a strong, independent, intelligent woman who can talk her way through a keyhole and who could fall into a pile of shit and come up with an ice cream cone. That version of me could handle anything that comes down the pike.

Until I reached what I considered “middle-age”, I was invincible. In the year that I was 40 I had a bunch of firsts.

My daughter, who was my first-born and will always be my baby was grown up and moving out to live on her own.

I was laid off from the non-profit that I worked for due to a bad economy, and my husband of 10 years left me for another woman.

I had spent my entire career being the young executive who came in and opened up new revenue streams or developed innovative ideas to save money. Now I was the 40 year old who was put out to pasture.

In my 20s I was the ingénue who made married women nervous and hold on tight to their husbands. Now I was a 40 year old with mascara tears running down my face while knocking on my best friend’s door with an overnight bag and an old, old story.

My little girl, instead of being set free to experience the excitement of being on her own, was in fact being set adrift, all alone, while the foundation that was supposed to support her and be her safety net was crumbling behind her.

I wanted to bounce back. I wanted to be strong and independent and all of that stuff. I wanted to just overcome and be victorious. But my heart was shattered and my brain could not process what was happening to me. These things just didn’t happen to the version of me that I had built in my own head. And then my demons came out to play.

They sat on my bed at night and discussed my fate while I was lying there sleepless and sobbing. “Maybe she’s done” they’d say. “Maybe this is who she’s been all along. A loser, with no job and no prospects, unloved and alone.”  On top of that, I also felt horrible guilt, as though somehow all of this was not only warranted but deserved.  Maybe I was paying back all the bad karma I had incurred back when I thought that life was not preordained, and that I could be anything? As though dreaming of a greater destiny in my youth was somehow a sin? That is, of course, ridiculous. But guilt and regret became my constant companions.

Meanwhile, my mother who has been battling cancer off and on my entire life, had a relapse.

My father and I decided that I would come home to help him take care of Mom.

Back in the cone of unconditional love that I have enjoyed by having the parents I was blessed to receive, I began to heal. However, I also now had to face aging parents, one of whom had been deemed terminally ill. Now my life was filled with things like “living wills” and “pre-arranged funerals”.

So, fast forward. Several years have gone by now. My mom is still with us and some days I believe that she will outlive me. My children are happy and settled. I have a job that I love and I have renewed dreams and inspirations. Turns out that middle-age doesn’t suck as much as I originally thought.

However, this is what I think I’ve learned through this experience.

Being in the middle of life means literally being caught in between two very powerful influences.

Many of us are dealing with aging parents or parental figures. We also have children, whether they are our own or those of someone else that we feel close to. When we see those younger than us setting out to conquer the world, and making the same stupid mistakes we made, feeling the same sense of invincibility that youthful arrogance affords them, we begin to take stock of our lives. Even those who are ushered into their late 30’s to early 50’s with much less drama than I just described still take a moment to reflect on what they  could have done better or not done at all. Each of us have burdens of regret that we are forced to carry to the top of the proverbial hill right before we establish that we are “over” it.

Being “over the hill” also means that we now go to more funerals than weddings – we have to plan to lose those people that we consider grown-ups – and we have to prepare to become matriarchs and patriarchs of our family units. When you mix regret and death, you have a cocktail for an epic identity crisis that can result in anything from clinical depression to simply having a bummer birthday.

The good news is that mid-life hands us as many fabulous lessons as puberty does.

At this time, we get to experience forgiveness on a whole new level. Especially how to forgive ourselves.

We also learn to let go, letting go of the past, letting go of old dreams to make room for new ones, or actually letting go of people. Whether that means letting go of children who are now adults and will start their own adventures or letting go of those who brought us to this point and are now transitioning themselves.

We learn to see ourselves in many different roles. Many of us don’t find our groove professionally until we get to this age, as well as becoming grandparents, or being caregivers.

We start to realize that having 40 or so years under your belt can inspire all kinds of things like creative pursuits, an entrepreneurial spirit, or a renewed relationship to a higher power.

We deal with relationships differently, from the married couple now having to deal with empty nest syndrome learning to rekindle their romance, to single folks like me figuring out how to be happy with or without someone else. This is a time to take stock of our lives, but not with regret. Instead we should honor our past with tremendous reverence and gratitude. Then quietly unpack our baggage and leave it at the top of the hill.

That way, instead of trudging down the other side weighted with heavy hearts, we can spread our arms out wide and fly, soaring into our own old age with grace and beauty.

Taking this one on my hols with me …

I wrote “Awake In Hell”, a book about a middle-aged woman who dies and finds herself damned for eternity.

It uses humor, foul language, and a unique vision of Hell to illustrate how I felt about reaching mid-life.

When my protagonist finds herself in a temp agency along with its enigmatic staff, she discovers the most amazing thing – redemption.

I hope you enjoy the second half of your life as much as I am enjoying mine.

I hope that my story gives you something to think about, or comforts you, or at least makes you think “there but for the grace of God” – and I offer it to you with a renewed heart full of conviction and thankfulness.

Helen Downing

Author, Awake In Hell

Find my book here: http://amzn.to/WYOwYv

Find my blog here: http://bit.ly/124uGCR

Like me on Facebook here: http://on.fb.me/Xuf1MO

Follow me on Twitter here: @imtellinhelen

cead

Overnight, Wellthisiswhatithink smashed triumphantly through the “100,000 articles read barrier”. We can only say we are delighted, heart-warmed, humbled, and excited at this major milestone.

One hundred thousand readings of whatever it is we have been burbling about is an astonishing compliment, Dear Reader, and one that we can only respond to with an increased determination to deliver commentary, thoughts and stories that you will continue to find stimulating, thought-provoking and meaningful.

As is customary at such moments, and in the fading light of a blessedly cool and grey afternoon, we turn to Google to find anything else interesting to say about the figure 100,000.

First and foremost, one hundred thousand (100,000) is the natural number following 99999 and preceding 100001. In scientific notation, it is written as 105. So there.

In South Asia, one hundred thousand is called a lakh. The Thai, Lao, Khmer and Vietnamese languages also have separate words for this number: แสน, ແສນ, សែន [saen] and ức [uc] respectively.

In astronomy, 100,000 metres, (equivalent to 62 miles) is the altitude at which the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) defines spaceflight to begin.

In the Irish Language, Ceád Mile Fáilte (pronounced: KAY-ed MEE-luh FOIL-cha) is a popular greeting meaning “A Hundred Thousand Welcomes”. Which seems a neat way to sum up our gratitude to everyone who has visited the blog.

In piphilology, (wonderful word), one hundred thousand is the current world record for the number of digits of pi memorized by a human being.

Lucinda Drayton

Lucinda Drayton

But by far the most delightful surprise we found when scouring the worldwide resources of the interweb for references to 100,000 was this gorgeous song “100,000 Angels” which was originally by a band called Bliss and has been covered by a variety of singers such as here by Lucinda Drayton, (who toured with Bliss), and more recently by Sinead O’Connor.

The more world-weary amongst you may be surprised that I believe angels walk the earth with us, but if one has any religious belief they are mentioned repeatedly in religious documents of all major faiths, and I believe that if we listen, we can hear their guidance.

As someone said: Our “unseen friends” surround us with their love and light daily. You have to reach out beyond the dark periods in your life. Learn the lesson, act with pure intent and listen to your conscience.”

Reach beyond – yes, one must be active to hear the angels. Especially in times of challenge or grief. Whilst you must acknowledge it, you must reach past current difficulty. Look away from the problems, the sadnesses, and the fear. Look for goodness, search for meaning, and celebrate the possible.

Very often, the joy we seek is all around us, we just don’t notice it.

I also believe, profoundly, that the angels sent to us are often simply the people we meet, often entirely unaware that their steps or actions are being guided to help us, and completely un-knowing of the effect their strength, kindness or advice is having on us.

The music is soothing, and ethereally beautiful. The video is rather exquisite, too. Let it in.

Do you
Hear me calling you?
The voice of a mother, a father and a child
Would you recognize the truth?
Do you feel a love that’s falling from my eyes?

Take just a minute
Come and rest you by my side
Let me tell you your own story
Let me walk you through your lives
Only a second
That’s all it takes to realize
There’s a hundred thousand angels
By your side

Do you
Hear me talk to you?
I whisper through the doorways
And pathways of your mind
Clear like the morning dew
And fresh from my journey
Cross an ocean of blue

Take just a minute
Come and rest you by my side
Let me tell you your own story
Let me walk you through your lives
Only a second
That’s all it takes to realize

There’s a hundred thousand angels by your side
There’s a hundred thousand angels here, tonight

If you need an angel, I hope one is near you.

Here’s to the next 100,000 conversations. With love, Stephen.

I have been doing a lot of contemplating of life, recently. This is hardly a surprise for a creative writer and poet; it is, after all, our “stock in trade”.

But sometimes one’s life events conspire to make one even more reflective than usual, and lead to discoveries that one was not deliberately intending to try and make.

Grief, it appears to me, is one of the more unpredictable, distressing and difficult things any of us have to go through.

And like most lives, mine has had its share.

Before my life really got going at all my father died of a massive coronary when I was just two years old.

Psychological prognosticating that I have engaged in as I settle into my middle years suggests that this event may have had more impact on me than I had previously suspected.

L-R Betty Yolland, Derek Yolland, me, Stewart Yolland

L-R Betty Yolland, Derek Yolland, me at a week or so old, Stewart Yolland

Not only was I alone in the home with Dad for a couple of hours after he suddenly collapsed and died rather inelegantly on the toilet – apparently when people came home I was very distressed and kept repeating “Big man won’t get up …” until I was bundled next door, (an event which I think I recall clearly), but I now suspect the subsequent experience of grieving in the household, indeed, in many of the events surrounding my growing up – the plethora of aunts, uncles and friends conferring sadly with my mother on the memory of Dad and the unfairness of his being taken from us at just 46 – had a considerable effect on how I have subsequently processed emotional matters.

My mother, you see, was a “coper”. Indeed, like many of her generation, she “coped” heroically, and made a virtue of it. She didn’t deal easily with the sympathies of others, and habitually turned them away with a self-deprecating comment.

Of solid Lincolnshire stock, and raised in lower-middle-class respectability in Swansea in South Wales, born in the middle of the Great War and growing up with all the national angst and sadness that implied, she was famously independent, ferociously strong willed – she left school at 15 without telling her parents for six months, which says something about both her and her parents – and demonstrated a stoic acceptance of whatever life threw at her, including Dad’s unexpected demise.

She coped heroically with the Great Depression, with living with a young child, (my eldest brother, Derek, 17 years older than I), under the horrific Nazi bombing of World War II, with Dad being away on destroyers for all six years of the war, with the death of a child, (my “middle brother”, Roger), with the ups and downs of life as a small retailer, and then with the trials and tribulations of impoverished widowhood with another young child to look after.

She was from the generation for whom “stiff upper lip” was more than a badge of honour, it was the only expressive option on offer. This meant, of course, that whilst she was a kind and thoroughly hard-working mother, she wasn’t the most emotionally “giving” person. She didn’t wear her heart on her sleeve so much as tucked away in a hidden pocket inside her voluminous layers of undergarments. I am sure many British kids from the era, whatever their social class, can picture themselves in the description I have just offered.

In primary school, I very clearly remember feeling somewhat lost and other-worldly amongst my contemporaries.

Only one other boy in our coterie had lost a father, and he was so fearfully clever as to eclipse even my better-than-reasonable academic performance and I really didn’t like him much, (especially as he was always shoved in my face as a paradigm to aim for), so I felt something of an oddity, as if the other kids somehow steered a little clear of me for fear of catching the disease of dead Dadness.

All the while my mother was busily coping, and my brother had moved overseas, and I recall plainly wondering why it had fallen to my lot to be moderately poor (in a relatively well off area), without the love and guidance of a Dad who everyone assured me was a great bloke, (which just made it worse), with a charismatic and good looking elder brother who lived seven thousand miles away and who I only saw for a couple of weeks every two years or so, and to cap it all not having all that many good mates either.

(I had some, though, and they know who they were and are, and I am forever grateful.)

I was happy enough, till Dad died. That was the start of a long haul.

In retrospect, then, I had grief as an undercurrent in my life for much of my growing up. And I managed it by doing the only thing I knew how. I intellectualised it away.

I was precociously clever, imaginative to a fault, (I could play alone contentedly on my bed with toy soldiers and whatnot for hours, indeed, I remember the elaborate fantasies I constructed in my head as some of my happiest days of childhood), and so I neatly compartmentalised my brain to deal with my life.

The things I grieved over – the absence of Dad, the distance of my adored brother, the un-reachability of the extended family I enjoyed so much spending time with in Wales, even my mother’s odd remoteness – as I write these words I wince at that word, because it seems so unfair for one who attended to her responsibilities with such care, but emotionally remote she undoubtedly was – these things I plonked into cardboard boxes in my head and stuck them down with sticky tape and did my level best to develop into a “coper” myself.

I repeated this process when I was unexpectedly dispatched to an English boarding school at 11, courtesy of having waltzed my way through a scholarship examination, (without any understanding of why I was sitting it – if I had known, I would have failed deliberately), and promptly found myself ensnared in the most emotionally abusive environment yet dreamed up by social engineers to torture sensitive, intellectually-gifted children.

I was bullied. Unmercifully.

Psychologically, physically – by both teachers and students – for my plummy southern accent, for my enthusiastic willingness to answer questions in class, (usually with the right answer, naturally), for the fact that I was not the biggest kid around (I filled out later, some would say as a deliberate subconscious response to avoid getting kicked in the shins by life any longer), for … well, for whatever reason they chose to dream up on the day, really.

First XV

I am prouder of this picture than most – I finally made the First XV – but looking back, at what cost? Anyway, here’s the proof. And I had nice legs, too.

Looking back, the fact that I did not raid the Combined Cadet Force lockers for a Bren gun and take fifty or so of my torturers out is entirely to my credit and to my development as a coper.

Indeed, ask my contemporaries at that school today and they will confirm that whilst they knew I was bullied, they were also impressed by my leading performances in school plays, as a capable top tenor in the school choir, as a moderately good rugby player (I made the First XV once, and played every other game of the final season of my schooling in an “unbeaten” Second XV – I should and could have played all season in the First XV but key individuals didn’t like me) and generally that I seemed like a capable and well-balanced fellow, for the most part, despite the bullying, who was making a pretty good fist of sharing their allotted time in middle-class prison.

And they were right, in a way. I was damned if I was going to let the system beat me, and ultimately it didn’t. I ended up with a passable liberal education and left on the very first day I could, a couple of weeks before the end of the last term (on some pretext or other) and breathed a very cold “And fuck you all.” as the taxi left the school grounds to take me to the quaint nearby station and home.

The pattern was set. I duly coped when a youthful first marriage went disastrously south prematurely (prematurely, that is, in my opinion, at the time; in later years the wisdom of hindsight has convinced me it was the right decision for both of us). I poured my grief out in poem after poem many of which form the first part of my book. I thought the process was cathartic – it wasn’t. I was crafting on the page a simalcrum, a mirror, an expression of the grief I was feeling, but as if that grief was happening to a third party, not me. The poems are good, and even when edited some 20 years later for publication they stood the test of time as worthy explorations of the psyche of lost love, but as a way of genuinely dealing with my grief they were merely sophisticated boxes and tape.

In time I coped with other broken love affairs (like everyone does, to be sure).

I coped with moving to the other side of the world and feeling most insecure to have done so.

I coped with working in an abusive environment that I had to ensure I stayed in because I needed the money, I coped with … well, whatever life threw at me really.

I coped when my brother died suddenly at 52, just when I thought we might get to spend some quality time together one day soon.

I don’t claim any special credit for this coping, nor am I looking for praise; I simply didn’t have any alternative, because that was how I had been brought up, do you see, and in any event, it’s not as if coping is such a bad thing. Any grief I felt at life’s shitty little surprises I neatly packed up and put away, decided on a course of action, and followed it with determination and even occasional élan.

So this was all very well, I guess, and something and nothing and a testament to the upside of coping, except that in later years the pressure of shoving all my distress and grief away into cardboard boxes in my head became too much.

When something really unconscionably close and awful happened – our first daughter got tangled up coming out, and was taken off life support five days later – it turned out the cupboard was full, there was no more room for any more cardboard boxes of neatly disposed emotions, the grief at an event so unexpected, so cruelly unfair, so immeasurably awful and unpredictable, meant I fell entirely, massively, and utterly into a heap.

Yet even then the effect of this terrible and almost unendurable life-moment was delayed by my innate copingness.

I didn’t know how to grieve. So when Rhiannwen Cari Yolland died, my first priority was her Mum.

I knew what I had to do: cope.

And so I did, I coped for 18 months. I strove to live up to, despite the pressure I was under, my image of being a “good man”. I held down a job with some success, I tried to be supportive to my wife, I didn’t allow myself to become overwhelmed when she was, I tried instead to be cheerful, I … coped. In retrospect, with the benefit of 24 years of reflection, my flaws as a husband during this period are all too obvious and cringeworthy, but I assure you, Dear Reader, I did my best; my best as I knew how. I kept going. And even now, inside you, admit that some of you are nodding approvingly at my traditional, male-role-oriented determination to “carry on”.

Leaving the hospital with Caitlin. I was already near to a complete sanity breakdown, and indeed, my smile looks a bit wan. Nevertheless a wonderful gift: this is known, reflecting our earlier troubles, as the “You got a take home one, Daddy!” moment by my daughter.

Except that then, when our second daughter, Caitlin, was born, I promptly lost it. Altogether. The doors of the cupboard broke open, and within twenty four hours, I was pretty much a basket case.

Unable to grieve effectively, to grieve for so many reasons of which the baby’s death was just the most recent and most dreadful, and with grief accumulated inside my head for so long, I overnight developed a crippling case of Obsessional Compulsive Disorder which made life almost impossible to live, (not to mention its effect on the lives of those around me), and I struggled with it for fully ten years or more before a recovery slowly began and persisted.

My mind simply revolted from the pressures to which it had been subjected for all my life, having been refused the outlet of grieving.

OCD is the most pernicious and awful “mental” illness. It seems tailor-made to torture the “coper” with exquisitely precise horrors. Starved of the chemical transmitters that one needs to function rationally (which are “used up” prematurely by years of unresolved tensions and continual low level stress, and, ironically, used up most quickly, it seems, in individuals of high intelligence) the brain instead erects “rituals” designed to put the world back into order.

If only I tap my foot a certain number of times, all will be well with my day. If I count a certain number of telegraph poles correctly while driving to work, and click my teeth between each of them, it’ll be a good day. If I wash my hands, repeatedly, slather them in disinfectant or antiseptic cream, if I avoid touching anything, then I will never become sick or die, even if my hands become red, cracked, suppurating mockeries of hands. If I never say a word beginning with B, if I never use the number 6, if I always count to fourteen before speaking, if I don’t tread on the lines between paving stones, if I turn to the left and never to the right … the rituals and “rules” are as many and as bizarre as the endlessly creative human mind can construct. And all the while, with all the effort involved, they are completely, utterly, ironically incapable of controlling the world around you, of deflecting the real and natural experience of grief, or of protecting you from the future randomness of life.

That’s why OCD holds a special place in the list of “things not to get”. Not only does it turn you into a non-functioning recluse (at best), but it doesn’t even work. It doesn’t help you cope. The rituals solve nothing. Bastard. Bastard bastard bastard fucking illness. I hate it. Indeed, my hatred of OCD is so intense, it prevents it recurring in my life. My emotions over OCD are untrammeled, un-contained, unreduced. It is a bastard trick our own brains play on us, and my hatred of it is healthy and realistic.

You don’t “cope” with OCD – you can’t. You beat it, or it beats you. You smash it into little pieces, no matter how wild or scared or angry you have to become to do so. And every day, thereafter, for the rest of your life, you allow your mind to revel in its disgust at this vile illness, as you encourage everyone around you to fight it too (it affects about 4% of people and is no respecter of sex, age, social station, or any other divider) by facing up to whatever it is that triggered the brain’s response in the first place.

And that’s why, on this pleasantly warm summer’s day in my comfortably mostly-paid for home in the world’s most liveable city, looking forward to enjoying a meal this evening with my endlessly patient and loving wife and talented and adorable daughter, I am allowing myself to grieve.

Indeed, more than that, I am co-opting you to share the experience, I am reaching out to you to share it, because it is painful, and it hurts, and I don’t want to go through it alone and silent.

As regular readers will know, my dog was put to sleep eleven days ago, and I am not over it. And my rational mind is telling me that it’s silly to grieve over a dog all that much, let alone for nearly two weeks, you imbecile, and my new, pristine, “don’t always try and cope” mind is telling my rational mind to go boil its head.

I work at home. If I didn’t have meetings out, Zach was frequently the only living creature I would talk to in the day.

He would invariably come and lie at my feet, and usually on my feet, or he would lie as close to my office chair as he could, behind it, which meant I would often absent-mindedly “run over him” when pushing the chair back or stretching. This would invariably result in a plaintive yelp but no lasting damage, and an affectionate admonition from me along the lines of “Well, then don’t lie there, then, you stupid animal” as I massaged his toe, tail, or whatever. He never paid any attention to my warnings.

This morning, as I rolled the chair back, he wasn’t there. It hurt. I got hurt. And there’s no one here but you, Dear Reader, to rub my heart and make it better, so instead of rushing on and ignoring my hurt and putting it in whatever battered old cardboard box I have left up there, I am writing to you instead.

See: a little while ago, just before starting to write this article, I did the dishes.

By which I mean, specifically, I walked to the dining room a few times, rescued the dendritus from last night’s meal, and brought it back to the kitchen and stacked the dishwasher. Except today the dog didn’t ploddingly follow me from kitchen, to dining room, to kitchen, to dining room, to kitchen, waiting for scraps to fall off the plates and dishes, whether deliberately or accidentally, as his expected supplement to his daily diet. And I didn’t have to mutter “for fuck’s sake, dog, get out of the way before I break my neck” as he wandered purposefully towards me, looking up with mournful but expectant brown eyes. And he didn’t sit by the kitchen fireplace, rigidly sat to attention, following me with those huge brown pools of light grown cloudy in old age, just in case a crust, a bit of bacon rind, or a handful of left over rice was about to get lobbed in his general direction as the dishes went into the dishwasher.

And because I have vacuumed, again, there are ever fewer of his silken, golden-white hairs inhabiting the nooks and crannies of our home, needing me to pull them off the furry head of the vacuum cleaner and feed them up its capacious mouth by hand, because we’re gradually getting them all up. And one day, there won’t be a single dog hair anywhere in the house, none stuck to any of my socks, none hiding under chairs or behind tables, none floating past the window on a gentle zephyr, and then he will be totally, erasedly gone. Forever.

And it hurts. It hurts like hell.

Please understand, I don’t want you to do anything with my grief. Except listen to it.

Zach
This photograph was taken a few minutes before he died. Our local vets were magnificent, as they had been since the first day we had taken him there for puppy training, a lifetime ago. (If any of you need a caring vet, and you live near us, I’ll gladly give you their number.) They gently confirmed that his lungs and spleen were riddled with cancer, and even if we got rid of the tumour on his skin then the ones inside him were killing him with inexorable certainty, and that he was almost certainly – uncomplainingly – in considerable pain and discomfort. That was why he was coughing. That was why his back legs had gone wonky. It was time to say goodbye.

To their eternal credit, they arranged for us to gather round him as he lay on a comfortable pair of towels, in soft sunshine under a lovely tree. The vet patiently explained what would happen as he died, that it would be very fast and painless, and that animals don’t fear death as we do, and we should know that he was really quite happy, and happy to be with us.

I took him to a nearby water bowl, and let him have a drink, which he did, gently, and it seemed to me, thankfully. I don’t know why, I just think I thought being thirsty was an unnecessary indignity. I knew he was going to be dead in two minutes, but “there’s no reason for him to die with a dry mouth, is there?” I reasoned to myself.

My wife placed her hand reverently on his panting chest as he lay there, and my daughter massaged his velvet ears, as she had done ten thousand times before, and murmured to him quietly how much she loved him. We all said a small prayer, unsure of whether God has a place for dogs, but hoping against hope he does. And then the green liquid flowed into the catheter in his leg, and his eyes closed, and my wife said “There.” Because his chest was suddenly still.

And it was very sad, but it was OK. They let us leave by a side gate so we didn’t have to run the gauntlet of the people in the waiting room with our tears flowing. I took one look back. His giant body lay so still in the dappled light, and he looked simply and contentedly asleep in the garden, as I had seen him so many times over thirteen and a half years, and more than that, he looked at peace. As if the burden of plodding from place to place with the pain inside him and keeping the love in his eyes constantly there despite his trials had been lifted from him, and now he could really, genuinely, finally rest. And it was very sad, but it was OK.

And eleven days later, I miss him every time he doesn’t stick his great, silly, donkey-like head enquiringly round a corner. And right now, my days seem longer and emptier and lonelier. And you know what? It’s OK to feel that, and it’s OK, even, to say it.

That’s my discovery. It only took 53 years, since the day the big man wouldn’t get up.

Thank you for listening.

420305_10151309048596074_560405609_n
Yesterday, I started reading Viktor Frankl‘s book “Man’s Search for Meaning“, written following his experiences as an inmate of various Nazi concentration camps.

One of the most remarkable thinkers of the 20th Century, Frankl argued that there is meaning in all forms of existence, even the most sordid ones such as incarceration in a prison camp, and thus a reason to continue living. He was one of the pioneers of existential therapy, referring to the problems of the inevitability of death, freedom and its attendant responsibility, existential isolation (referring to Phenomenology), and finally meaninglessness, which built on the philosophical explorations of Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Sartre, and others.

Frankl’s book is, above all, optimistic. It argues that meaning is discoverable, even in the tiniest things, and, indeed, that it is the heart of both survival and contentment.

This thought can be especially helpful during periods of grief.

Dogs are the ultimate existentialists, I suppose. Unable to control their world, they simply accept it, and work to make it as enjoyable as it can be.

When Zach – seen (top left) on the day he was purchased, to the day he died, (bottom left), today – was especially content, he would lie on my feet. And if my feet weren’t available, the nearest pair of feet. He was endlessly accepting. Patient. Ineffably good natured.

And funny, too: sometimes, you know, it almost seemed he knew that he was funny, and played up to it, but such anthropomorphism is probably unwarranted. Then again, who really knows? If we were miserable, or angry, he would stare at us, as if willing us to cheer up. And he would wink. One eye. Both eyes. It always seemed as if it was perfectly timed to puncture either pomposity or sadness.

He would push our front door open with his nose if we weren’t fast enough bringing the shopping in. He wouldn’t walk through the door unless invited – he knew that wasn’t allowed – so as the heavy door swang back he would just nudge it with his nose again. And again. And again. Until we were inside.

He must have been in discomfort for some time, yet never complained. His inevitable reaction to a word, or a pat, or even a glance, was simply utter adoration. Even on his last day, he would take the slightest opportunity to lie on his back, legs waving in the air, inviting the inevitable belly scratch.

For him, to be near us and alive was reason enough for existence.

Everything else he took in his stride, including the sudden and inoperable cancer, and today’s last goodbye.

We can learn a lot from dogs.

burger urge ad

It’s silly. It’s not especially motivational – hardly what you would call appetite appeal – but offensive? Promoting bestiality? Really? Take a chill pill.

There is a growing trend amongst adherents of the largely right-wing evangelical forms of Christianty to leap all over any nonsense in the media to give a “Christian” perspective – by which they mean their own very literalistic, fundamentalist interpretation of what it means to “be a Christian”, and therefore by extrapolation, what our society should be like.

The Australian Christian lobby, long a friend to controversy – and most defnitely NOT speaking for all Christians in Australia despite their self-appropriated name – have now taken this trend to its logical conclusion. Which is: ridiculousness.

In all apparent seriousness, a Brisbane burger company’s advertising campaign has been accused of promoting bestiality.

The Burger Urge ad, which shows a woman licking a cow, was described in the complaint as loathsome, sick, wrong and perverted, according to News Limited and other outlets.

The Australian Christian Lobby group officially registered the complaint via company director Wendy Francis, who said people should be spared the image of “a woman making love to a cow”.

“It’s definitely a sexual sort of image. It says ‘get intimate’ so we’re not talking about a pet thing. The cow is dressed up as a man,” she said.

Burger Urge owner Sean Carthew says it is an over-reaction, and believes an overwhelming majority of people saw what Burger Urge was trying to do and did not have a problem with the campaign.

Ironically, Mr Carthew’s mum received an email from Ms Francis, attacking the advertisement.

“Mum’s quite religious and she doesn’t have any problem with the image of the cow and the girl,” he said.

“We do think quite carefully about our promotions. We don’t want to cause any damage or do any harm, we just want to have a bit of fun.”

Dumb and unnecessarily obnoxious, but that's the point, and the ACL complaintshave simply played into their hands.

Silly, (because it is simply designed to garner attention by being “shocking” whereas in fact it just appears infantile), but that’s the point, isn’t it? They are TRYING to shock, and the ACL complaints have simply played into their hands. I bet Burger Urge are delighted. Look, I’m talking about them, too.

Ms Francis, who also railed against Burger Urge’s condom mail promotion said it had the potential of catching out children who like to check the letterbox.

“I’m not asking for a nanny state. I’m just asking would somebody please make it so that our children are allowed to have their childhood,” she said.

However Mr Carthew said the arrival of a condom in the mail would have no impact on the future behaviour of children.

Bleeding hell. Let me make some things clear to the Australian Christian Lobby.

Burger Urge ran this campaign because they knew some wowsers would complain. It’s a tried and tested tactic, pioneered by other fast food outlets like Nandos, for example.

Now you have achieved giving them country-wide and international notoriety. Simply by complaining, and in such stupidly hyperbolic fashion, you have given this business the oxygen of publicity they so obviously desired. You will make them lots and lots of money, with which to run other ads, presumably.

As specifically stated below, they have obviously decided that they can afford to offend a few wowsers in order to appear “cool” and “alternative” to their core target market, which we can suppose is overwhelmingly teenagers and younger adults.

And this will be a shock to the ACL, but that target market doesn’t find condoms shocking.

Oh, and by the way? Condoms aren’t “dirty” or “wrong” either. They are a valuble tool in preventing unwanted pregnancies and sexually-transmitted diseases. They are legal. They are not controversial for the vast majority of Australians.

Should they be delivered door to door? Why not? If you’re worried about children opening the mail then (a) open your own mail, (b) use it as an opportunity to have a conversation with your kids about condoms, (c) tell them it’s a free gift from their local balloon shop. In short, grow up.

But what really annoys me about your very public chasing after your own oxygenated publicity, ACL, is that in doing so you tar every normal, moderate, adult, socialised, liberal, live-and-let-live Christian with your very particular brush.

No-one – NO-ONE – with half a brain would seriously think this company is promoting bestiality. Everyone – EVERYONE – with half a brain will understand immediately that it’s a poor and clumsy attempt to garner attention in a crowded market, and move on, instantly.

So stop painting the rest of us as being as ridiculous as you. It makes explaining why we are Christians to non-Christians much more difficult than it needs to be.

That’s it. Period.

It’s also very instructive to listen to the owner of this business on the controversy created:

Sean Carthew of Burger Urge with the promotional condoms. He checked with his Mum and Dad - isn't that enough? Picture: Ric Frearson Source: Quest Newspapers

Sean Carthew of Burger Urge with the promotional condoms. He checked with his Mum and Dad – isn’t that enough? Picture: Ric Frearson Source: Quest Newspapers

Mr Carthew said his business couldn’t afford multi-million dollar fit outs or big promotions.

”To be honest, it’s hard enough the retail market the way it is at the moment just staying in business. We’ve got 70 employees who pay their rent and rely on us to be solvent,” he said.

”I feel like us staying in business is our primary objective and if that means that one or two percent of the population might be offended and might boycott our store well then I can still sleep at night.”

The business has also done ”wobble board” promotions targetting Lance Armstrong and Alan Jones, but Mr Carthew said he never wanted his promotions to be grotesque.

”I showed my mum and dad before we put them out and mum went `oh Sean, you can’t do that’ and dad laughed. They both concluded it was a bit cheeky but not anything that was going to change the world. If anything it’s promoting a good cause which is safe sex,” he said.

”People jump up and down like it’s an outrage but there are wars going on.”

And that’s the other point, isn’t it, ACL? If you spent half the energy you expend on social/cultural nonsense like this campaigning against the obscenity of war, then we might have more respect for you. And people might have more respect for Christians, generally.

But pacificism? Peace on earth? Love thy neighbour? Turn the other cheek?

Well, that’s just not quite as easy to grab a headline on, now is it?

BREAKING NEWS

THE advertising watchdog has thrown out a complaint against a Brisbane burger joint after they used an image of a woman licking a cow’s face to promote their premium beef.

The Advertising Standards Board dismissed the complaint which described the Burger Urge image as loathsome, sick, wrong and perverted.

But the Board ruled most people would realise the image had been photoshopped, and while it would be considered distasteful by most people, it was not overly sexualised or provocative.

The Board also found that while the slogan is open to many interpretations, the most likely is suggestive of eating a burger made from premium beef.

Advertising Standards also received a complaint about media reports that Burger Urge delivered condoms to letterboxes across Brisbane, but that did not constitute a formal complaint.

”They hadn’t actually received the advertising material themselves so we confine our cases to things that people have actually received or seen,” Advertising Standards chief Fiona Jolly said.

What is goodness, for you? Focus on that.

What is goodness, for you? Well: focus on that.

Well, now and again, those internet homilies are gold: this one really struck me as both true, and helpful.

I know people generally read my blog for wacky news, hard news, poetry and politics – and not for philosophising – but I really liked this – it talked to me – so just this once, indulge me, eh?

Let goodness flow

The past is over, so let yourself be at peace with it.
Free your energy to be used in making the most of right now.

The future has not yet been determined, so don’t waste your
thoughts worrying about what might or might not happen. Fill
your heart and your thoughts with sincere gratitude, and tap
into the enormous abundance of this day.

Move quickly beyond regret, resentment and anger. Choose instead to
point the power of your feelings in positive, life-enriching directions.

The quality of your life and the welfare of your world
depend on the direction in which your awareness is focused.
So make it your choice to focus on the most positive and
meaningful possibilities.

What you hold in your heart has a significant influence on
what you experience in your life. Open yourself to love,
peace, beauty, truth and caring, and let them continually
fill you.

Let life’s goodness flow in, and then let it flow out from
you with your own special goodness added to it. Feel the
goodness, live the goodness, and make more of it
with each passing day.

I love that image of life’s goodness flowing in, to which we add a dash of our own goodness, and then let it flow out again. Like the ebb and flow of waves on the beach that is our life.

Sometimes, when things are very dark, or frightening, it can be almost impossible to perceive those waves of goodness breaking on our shore, or to find the spark of goodness inside us to pass on to others.

Let goodness wash over you ...

Let goodness wash over you …

Yet the goodness is always there – it exists just beyond the borders of what we are thinking about when we are down, waiting to be discovered, longing for us to notice its existence, and for us to add our own unique essence to it.

We overwhelm it with our worries, and we shut it out with our fears. But I have never met a person in my entire life who did not have goodness in them, somewhere. Even people who were deeply depressed or lost.

And universally, I have seen that when we open our hearts and minds to the possibility of goodness, it manifests itself, as sure as day follows night.

I do not say this in a religious way, although I know many people will interpret it religiously. Whether you personally call it God, the Universe, Life, a meeting of a universal mind, the connectivity inherent in our humanity, or just happy coincidence, when we make ourselves available to the goodness, no matter how difficult or overwhelming it appears our life is at that moment, then the goodness seems to somehow enter us and lift us.

I also love that phrase: “Move quickly beyond regret, resentment and anger.”

“Regrets, I’ve had a few, but then again, too few to mention” as Paul Anka wrote in the most recorded song in history. (There must be a reason for that, right? It must, if you will forgive the pun, “hit a chord.”)

If we do something truly terrible with our lives then some remorse is healthy, of course, if only to square the situation with others, or to set ourselves on a better course with our future actions.

But see what the writer of this homily says. “Move quickly beyond.”

Endless dwelling on the mistakes of the past pushes the goodness away, and makes it impossible to share our own.

Similarly, anger is a deeply destructive emotion which might be useful in very limited circumstances, (as part of a fight or flight response, for example), but when it dominates our thinking it is as destructive of ourselves as it is of anyone else.

Ask yourself: how often are we actually hating ourselves when we are arguing bitterly with someone, when all we really want is to reconnect with them, and have them connect with us?

And resentment? Resentment has to be the emotion most obviously associated either with failing to resolve an issue, or of hanging onto an issue when it is supposed to have been resolved, as some perverse form of self punishment. In either case, it is self-destructive to the nth degree: it has no effect on what or who we resent, it merely hurts ourselves.

None of us gets these things right all the time, or even, very often. But experts – whether they be psychological or spiritual – agree that all of us can “do better”. I firmly believed we are wired to do so.

So once again: “The past is over, so let yourself be at peace with it.  Free your energy to be used in making the most of right now.”

Make the most of right now, hmmm? Time for a swim in the sunshine, I think …


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