Hope

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“Hope, like every virtue, is a choice that becomes a habit that becomes spiritual muscle memory.” Krista Tippett

There are so many contemporary wisdoms about hope I couldn’t help but draw some of them together in this piece. These references turn the idea of Hope on its head.

Brene Brown talks a lot about hope, arguing that hope is not an emotion but rather it is ‘a cognitive behavioural process that we learn when we experience adversity.’ (Becoming Wise)

Rebecca Solnit, author of Hope in the Dark, writing in the Guardian underpins hope with the significance of memory. She sets out in bold terms to show hope as something more than a fantasy and wishful thinking which seems to be the common thread in these references. Hope inhabits mystery and complexity.

“Memory produces hope in the same way that amnesia produces despair,” the theologian Walter Brueggemann noted. It is an extraordinary statement, one that reminds us that though hope is about the future, grounds for hope lie in the records and recollections of the past. We can tell of a past that was nothing but defeats, cruelties and injustices, or of a past that was some lovely golden age now irretrievably lost, or we can tell a more complicated and accurate story, one that has room for the best and worst, for atrocities and liberations, for grief and jubilation. A memory commensurate to the complexity of the past and the whole cast of participants, a memory that includes our power, produces that forward-directed energy called hope. (The Guardian)

This is enormously powerful and the last couple of lines speak of the enormity if we are to be open to it. I had never seen Hope in those terms before. Rebecca Solnit says something similar in her interview with Krista Tippett in Onbeing:

“Well, I really wanted to rescue darkness from the pejoratives, because it’s also associated with dark-skinned people, and those pejoratives often become racial in ways that I find problematic. So I wrote a book called Hope in the Dark about hope where the — where that darkness was the future, that the present and past are daylight, and the future is night. But in that darkness is a kind of mysterious, erotic, enveloping sense of possibility and communion. Love is made in the dark as often as not. And then to recognize that unknowability as fertile, as rich as the womb rather than the tomb in some sense… …and so much for me of hope is not, as I was saying, not optimism that everything will be fine, but that we don’t know what will happen.”

https://onbeing.org/programs/rebecca-solnit-falling-together/

Until the other day I didn’t even know that there was Hope Theory until I read a reference made by Brene Brown to CR Synder.  Mindtools.com has a neat summary of the work that Snyder did:

Hope Theory argues that there are three main things that make up hopeful thinking:

Goals – Approaching life in a goal-oriented way.

Pathways – Finding different ways to achieve your goals.

Agency – Believing that you can instigate change and achieve these goals.

I love these ideas because they clearly point us in the the direction of agency which, in fact, sits in all three words.

But, finally, in this small step into an understanding of Hope, Krista Tippett writes compellingly about what Hope is:

“My life of conversation leads me to reimagine the very meaning of hope. I define hope as distinct from optimism or idealism. It has nothing to do with wishing. It references reality at every turn and reveres truth. It lives open eyed and wholeheartedly with the darkness that is woven ineluctably into the light of life and sometimes seems to overcome it. Hope, like every virtue, is a choice that becomes a habit that becomes spiritual muscle memory. It is a renewable resource for moving through life as it is, not as we wish it to be.”

Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living

Wow! A renewable resource? What power resides in this sentence, leaving us with a memory.

It is a renewable resource for

moving through life as it is, not as we wish it to be. 

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I can see beyond the words

DSCF2191I can see beyond the words now which is more important than not letting go.

‘Your best is not good enough,’ my father used to say and I once believed him.

No longer.

I used to rail against him and decry this awful way of being – this scarcity culture – but after years of coming to terms with it and him, I have stopped railing and have let go.

In the letting go, I now see that he was making his own way in a context that was, for him, an over-correction for the upbringing he had where he was told by his mother that she would always provide him with a home, even if he failed.

This over-compensation was simply his allergy to his mother’s protectiveness. In his inadequate and limited way he was trying to make us resilient and robust, ready to face all the challenges – but the ‘not good enough’ approach has meant that some of his offspring have struggled with self-esteem.

I remember the scathing way in which he recounted his mother’s mantra, much like the way I used to be scathing about his.

No longer.

Uncovering the context and working out why he would have said this sort of thing is a liberating experience. He was trying to inoculate us so we would not fail and he took the tough line. I wish that he had, instead, talked about failing and being vulnerable in a completely different way.

But he didn’t.

He made us afraid that we were never good enough and the damage was that we could never work out what ‘our best’ was. Learning our own limits and learning when we were at the top of our game might have been a better way to impart wisdom.

But he didn’t have a clue.

Although he is long gone, I now feel some sadness that he saw the world and success in such stark terms.

But that’s okay. I can see beyond the words now which is more important than not letting go.

An unknown country

I have been thinking about unknown countries and I suppose that’s what being in a liminal space is all about. Reading Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living has opened up new territory for me.

It has taken me to the borders of this unknown country where I think it is okay to be comfortable with not always knowing and understanding. I have been writing a lot about liminal spaces and now Krista Tippett has brought a further dimension in which mystery is part of it.

The book has put me on high ground and I can look across and see the new landscape: this much I know at this stage, I still have a considerable way to go.

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This new wisdom which I see through a glass, darkly has begun to widen the scope into an excavation of the mystery in and of our lives and and that we can feel all sorts of things, experience all sorts of contradictions and not yet have it all figured out as Shane Claiborne (who also appears in Becoming Wise) intimates.

Mystery has everything to do with uncertainty. And uncertainty’s fellow traveller is vulnerability. It also sits in liminality. They all bump into each other.

Robert Coles, in conversation with Krista, uncovers it more clearly, suggesting that mystery is ‘an invitation, and it’s a wonderful companion’.

Until I read that I had never seen mystery as a wonderful companion. In this vein, Krista writes with unerringly clarity, ‘Once upon a time I took mystery as a sensation best left unexamined. Now I experience it as a welcome.’

This openness to something as big as mystery is something that has been, for me, an unknown country.

This is strange, particularly when I was getting to understand the liminal spaces in which we find ourselves. In fact, the recovery of mystery has helped me to connect to other parts of the personal work I have done round these themes: everything that I have been reading and experiencing recently says this about how we make our way – it’s okay to examine things we don’t fully understand yet and may never do fully or even in part.

Yes, it is complex and inhabits perplexity and I no longer feel afraid to also welcome the spiritual.

It is fascinating how we love a narrative where there is an enigma, a disruption and then a quest to solve that mystery. Happy to watch a drama unfold where there is a real pleasure in trying to work out the mystery – solve it and find some kind of resolution.

I am hooked on Designated Survivor because of the real pleasure in wanting to solve the mystery. But, unlike life, it is mystery at arm’s length.

As the guru that is life teaches, reality is much more messy and resolution is not always possible and the mysteries of stuff are often damned hard to understand or comes to terms with.

David Whyte in Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words provides a fascinating angle on destiny which, to me, is also mystery’s companion.

Destiny is as big as a word as mystery and is dependent on ‘brave participation, a willingness to hazard ourselves’ as he demonstrates here:

It is still our destiny, our life, but the sense of satisfaction involved and the possibility of fulfilling its promise depend upon a brave participation, a willingness to hazard ourselves in a difficult world, a certain form of wild generosity with our gifts.

Discovering the destiny of our lives in this great big mystery that we come face to face with daily needs a bit of grit and self-awareness, an important component in our understanding, and seems to only come with what David Whyte says ‘a familiarity with our own depth, our own discovered surprising breadth and always, a long practised and robust vulnerability equal to what any future may offer.’

And the familiarity with a ‘robust vulnerability’ is also very much part of destiny, mystery and, of course, liminality.

Pema Chodron, Brene Brown and countless others in this trope talk about befriending stuff and while Krista was talking about the spiritual life in this particular reference, she too writes of ‘befriending reality, the common experience of mystery included. It acknowledges the full drama of the human condition’.

I think they are all right. The examined life, uncovering the unknown country of mystery in /of our lives requires self-awareness; Krista puts it in such poetic terms that we can’t but be inspired to at least get to the border post.

 

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The French Pyrenees, looking towards Spain, 2009

References:

Brene Brown, Rising Strong

Pema Chodron, Living Beautifully

Krista Tippett, Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living

David Whyte, Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words

http://www.onbeing.org

Children of war

How can I speak about something that is bigger than me, bigger than all of us in this room and do it justice?

This is the text of a talk that I gave on ‘Children of War’. Having had my own experience of war, I thought this would be an easy gig and it turned out to be massively difficult.

It has been difficult. I didn’t know where to start: if it were easy it would not be worth doing, I tell myself.

I confess, from the outset, that this speech is not light. When I was  invited to do the speech I was delighted to have been asked and then, when it came to prepare a talk on children in war and children as soldiers, I got stuck.

How can I speak about something that is bigger than me, bigger than all of us in this room and do it justice? How can I speak about something for which I have no qualification at all?

I have no ground underneath me. It is impossible to capture the pain and suffering of children in war. We tolerate a double standard. We protect our own children, we have elaborate systems to do so. But not all children are protected.

I have no recourse but to begin with gratitude – a deep sense of gratefulness that there is no war where I live. There are no shells dropping on our heads. There is no gunfire keeping us awake all night. There are no planes carrying the luggage of death in the sky above us. We are as safe as we can possibly be. I am grateful.

I have experienced violent conflict as a child but do not remember it. The Mau Mau – the Kenyan rebels – used the bottom of our garden as a route to move to meetings. This was reported to me by my father when I was older.

I have been in the proximity of a war. I have been in a war. I have dressed in the uniform of a soldier. I have handled the weapon of war.

The war I was in was to be on the wrong side.

I am grateful that I never had to kill anyone.

I am lucky.

I remember this war, half a life time ago ….

The Puma stutters out of the sky, black-metallic against the winter thorn trees, African sun-browned. The dust is parched, lifted by the swish, swish of the helicopter blades. Inside, I hold on to the rifle that consummates with the lethal machinery, alien to the haunting beauty of a land of deep-blue-sky, rocky-treed outlines.

We sit-tight for the fifteen minute helicopter hop. This is no joy-ride. I am not sure how to feel and the roar of the blades become my thoughts. Then we drop in on the red-splash-buds of musasa, awakening on the late August morning. An opening appears and the swirl-dust rises below. We make for the radio station , Oscar Alpha 3. We are about to hear the war on the radio.

This was Rhodesia in the midst of a civil war, August, 1979. Rhodesia was a white settler state that rebelled against the British and took independence unilaterally. An illegal act, an act of massive self harm, an act that led to a war of liberation by the dispossessed. African nationalists called it the Chimurenga. White Rhodesians called it the Bush War, the war against communist terrorists. Charlie Tangos in military radio language. Terrorists, freedom fighters, guerrillas.

That was August 1979. The new Zimbabwe, although we did not know it, was nine months away.

October, 1979. The ceasefire was three months away, although we did not know it.
I remember … in that wide-awake moment, pulled out of that trance between the dream and consciousness, I became aware that the thunder was too regular to be natural. And then, as if to make a point, a shell flew above the building in a shrill screech and I jetted out of bed not waiting for the coming explosion.

We knew the drill. Get to the safest place in the building. Sleepy schoolboys staggered from their dormitories and quietly and efficiently hauled themselves into the sanctuary. The wheeze of the shells a couple of hundred yards above our heads signalled that there was a major night fight but fortunately we were not the target. Adams Barracks, just down the road, was returning fire with a ferociousness that equalled the attackers.

Leaf-shaking legs somehow got me to have a sneak-look towards the sound of the mortar fire on the hill overlooking the boarding house. And there it was, in the night, a burst of a red flash, followed by the awful sound of iron and steel in friction with the air and then, not too long afterwards, the explosion.

A life-time later it was over and the guns were quiet. A stiff brandy infused the blood-stream in lightning speed and the pulse returned to a more pastoral beat. Then, a hush descended lightly on the night as if nothing had happened.

Durban, South Africa, 1974 …  Forty three years ago next August – so I was hellava young, three school boys – Grant, a fiend, John – my brother – and I – roamed the beaches and prowled the arcades, gawking at the bikinied girls darkening in the Durban sun.

The Indian Ocean roar is unchanged from then.

– only the strip of Golden Mile – the endless mile of sun kissed beaches- is now re-cultivated – no more Cuban Hat – a fast food joint – and the awful whites only signs have also (thank God) gone.

Grant, our companion, is gone too – silent now these thirty six years cut down in his prime in a senseless war.

The ghosts of the three of us sun-waltz down that same mile
Carefree, life-loving expecting something different.

All three of us experienced war. I was the lucky one. I was in it but not the thick of it. I carried a weapon, wore the camouflage, flew in a helicopter but I heard the war through the radio.

Like Grant, my brother was in the thick of it too, in the heat and dust of war.

Often, I have been down that road in memories that usually catch me out.

I went to visit John when he had R and R, the military language for Rest and Recuperation.

I wrote this remembering when I said goodbye at the end of the weekend…

Often, I have been down that road in memories that usually catch me out. If I were to go back again, I am sure it would look different. Then – a dirt, rutted road that made its way from the barracks into the village of Inyanga. Pastoral almost.

It had been the Rhodes and Founders weekend – commemorating the British pioneers – what a memorial to a joke that we no longer believed in – and I was walking away from the barracks in a cold, biting wind.

I looked back and waved to him – camouflaged-trousers, the shock of blond hair and youthfulness strikes me now all these years later. I wept for him as I turned down the road.

An army truck threw up dust, signposting its journey, and I simply cried. They were tears in the wells of a terror that had no name. (People die in wars). And I was thinking that this would be the last time I would ever see him again on that cold winter’s morning.

Since then – in recent months – we have talked in snatches about the time he saw things that in a sentence make me weep again for the innocence that was lost to protect something – white rule – we no longer gave a damn for. I weep still for my brother and me.

I am grateful for my brother who survived that war. Grant, and countless others did not. Thousands of people were to die in a war that had the single purpose of protecting a way of life that was unjust and unfair and intolerable to millions of people. People died to gain freedom from white settler rule. People died to protect it.

I have written about these times to make sense of things. You have to write out the pain. WG Sebald who wrote Ring of Saturn said … “Memories lie slumbering within us for months and years, quietly proliferating, until they are woken by some trifle and in some strange way blind us to life.”

Strange how a memory lurks and without warning jumps out to scare us. This is …about how sometimes I go back to the loneliest road I have ever been on. It was October 1979.

The war is everywhere. My skin is drenched in fear. I hide it even from myself.

I simply only remember that the context was madness, foolhardy even – the loneliest road on the planet.

The war is everywhere. My skin is drenched in fear. I hide it even from myself.

We drive through a valley, washed in an intoxicating beauty.

Any moment, the cadres might appear on the road, bristling with their weapons – AK47s, barking out a cry of freedom. Their blood is up.

The wind strangles our voices and we shout above the engine din of the buggy, miles away from any beach. (Off-road dune ramping is left long ago in the innocence of youth.)

The sound accelerates into the silence of the hills from which eyes watch, startled in the watercolour of a blue sky painted in an African October.

Not one car passes us and I know this is the craziest thing I have ever done.

The arrival at the destination – fortunately no deaths were reported – comes briefly in a whisper.

We had diced with something that was way beyond us.

I often ride back into that time in a yellow buggy that has taken up residency in my memory and I am still unsure quite what to make of it.

It was like yesterday I was there …

I want, this evening, to revisit that road and what I spoke about with you of this experience.

I want to re-read a line: Preparing for this has caught my breath.

‘The sound accelerates into the silence of the hills from which eyes watch, startled in the watercolour of a blue sky painted in an African October’.

Notice how, when I wrote this, I capture the feeling what it was like in that beach buggy. We knew we were being watched. But look – look at how I have not given the people any form.

I see them rather as threatening, menacing. I say clearly – from which eyes watch. I have stripped away their humanity.

I know there were women and children watching from those hills but I gave them no form in my writing. I have turned them into ‘eyes watching’.

Is this what happens when we are in the middle of danger? Do we lose our humanity?

What is equally shocking is that the driver has no form either.

He was an 18 year old school boy whose parents I knew and we were travelling to Juliasdale for the weekend – this was through country that was over run with Robert Mugabe’s cadres. A pretty dangerous place.

What I think comes across the most is the madness and fear and the danger but not the humanity. That’s what war does. It distils everything to survival.

When I wrote about this experience I admitted that I was unsure what to make of it.

This evening I can say that for, the first time, I am seeing ‘the eyes watching’ as flesh and blood, as humanity and the driver is more than a voice where we are both shouting above the din of the engine. We too have humanity.

This is my only qualification in speaking to you tonight. I have been there. Ultimately though, looking back, I seemed to be on the periphery. Yes, it affected me – but I am an adult, able to attempt to make sense of it.

What disqualifies me from speaking this evening is that I was not a child going through this. The only experience I have of what it feels like to be a child has been filtered through television. I can only imagine what it must feel like to be a child terrified out of their wits. Sure I have felt terror but let’s accept that the only thing that terrified me when I was a child … all my blankets were fished out of the window when I was sleeping or I had bad dreams; I was definitely scared of a grumpy father and certain teachers who did not like children. That’s the sum total … I am not diminishing my fears. I am just putting them into perspective.

All I can say is that no child – no child should have to go through hells created by adults.

But they do.

No child should be harmed. But they are.

I could offer you testimony tonight directly from war children or child soldiers. Their experiences are harrowing and, hearing what they have been through, is heart-breaking. I do not feel qualified enough to say it this way. War Child, Human Rights Watch and many organisations have a website that will be better able to give you a wider insight.

I will offer you a reminder from correspondents in the field about what happens to children … this is from Chris Hedges who writes for TruthDig.

“I saw small boys baited and killed by Israeli soldiers in the Gaza refugee camp of Khan Younis. The soldiers swore at the boys in Arabic over the loudspeakers of their armored jeep. The boys, about 10 years old, then threw stones at an Israeli vehicle and the soldiers opened fire, killing some, wounding others. I was present more than once as Israeli troops drew out and shot Palestinian children in this way. Such incidents, in the Israeli lexicon, become children caught in crossfire. I was in Gaza when F-16 attack jets dropped 1,000-pound iron fragmentation bombs on overcrowded hovels in Gaza City. I saw the corpses of the victims, including children.”

All I can say is that no child – no child should have to go through hells created by adults.

But they do.

No child should be harmed. But they are.

The picture of the dead child on the beach in Turkey – his name was Aylan Kurdi – is an awful reminder of what does happen to children but, even if that image shocks and moves us to action, to donate money, to demand of the British Government that they do something – for God’s sake do something – nothing really gets done – so we have to tolerate a double standard ensuring our own children are as safe as possible in a world that is pretty unsafe for children. Even in Britain some children have to be protected from some adults.

That is the reality and that’s why a charity like War Child calls us to arms to do something, to give something even when it seems so overwhelming.

War Child states categorically: “No child should be part of war. Ever.” They empower children to claim their rights and the charity and children and young people are in a partnership to make their voices heard.

I hope tonight I have done that in part. It has been difficult – pretty raw even – but why do things if they are easy?

I am grateful to you all for bearing with me this evening. I am sure it wasn’t easy for you either.

Becoming awake on the road to becoming wise

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Just put down Krista Tippett’s Becoming Wise and I don’t think I will ever be the same again.

It will live long into my memory, with its impact almost impossible to tie down in words and sentences. The book brings together the wide arc of the world’s wisdoms in beautifully crafted language that is often so exquisitely poetic that it almost hurts.

This book is more than an inquiry into the mystery and art of living – it’s a tour de force and opens up new frontiers that create a new space and consciousness in our mind’s eye that is so important in these times of uncertainty that makes it an imperative to excavate. But the excavation will take time to work into the memory that this book leaves.

You know when you have come across something seminal when a book gives you the language and thinking that makes a gigantic breakthrough away from an old way of thinking.

Krista Tippett captures the wisdom of so many things … like our interconnectedness: “The question of what it means to be human is now inextricable from the question of who we are to each other.” I am spell-bound by the idea of the question of who we are to each other, importantly bringing a profound new language to the idea of compassion that is indeed life-saving and life-giving.

Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living is such a joy to read, an unparalleled pleasure and constantly surprises.

You know when you have come across something seminal when a book gives you the language and thinking that makes a gigantic breakthrough away from an old way of thinking. I will never see diversity in the same way again and most certainly will find it impossible to ever use the word tolerance in helping people to understand the necessity of understanding otherness.

Krista writes, “The virtue of tolerance told us to keep observations of moral or spiritual imagination to ourselves, to check them at the doors of our places of vocation and learning. We held them close and starved them of the oxygen of living questions as well as answers, communally, in a corrective interplay with each other.”

What these lines do is to ventilate and oxygenate the questions and takes ideas and notions to an expansive view which is breathtaking. Here, as elsewhere, Krista asserts the simple truth that words so often fall far short of what they are meant to do.

Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living is such a joy to read, an unparalleled pleasure and constantly surprises. Krista Tippett creates new frontiers of meaning between what we once held as true and what she reveals to us of her understanding that creates a new space around how we re-see.

You see this again and again through out these pages: “Our spiritual lives are where we reckon head-on with the mystery of ourselves, and the mystery of each other.” I just love these juxtapositions and the multilayeredness and how she takes complexity into a territory of unequalled simplicity. Perhaps it is understanding this mystery of the shared human condition that we can begin to appreciate otherness.

What is awe-inspiring is that she never strips an idea of its complexity but unerringly finds new pathways of getting a new angle or perspective but all awhile retains the very essence of its simplicity.

This review does no justice to a piece of work that deserves as wider an audience as possible. Dare I say, our very lives depend on it. It helps us hugely to become awake on this road to becoming wise.

Other horizons

On being present.

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We see the need to be present with who we are, living the dream of road trips and camping by a river, with the Chenin blanc wrapped in the cooler box.

Perfectly chilled, horizons wide in written passages of poetry and prose and a breath-taking view of a world, far away from the consequences of Boris buses with wild claims, demagogues (the other blonde) wanting to turn back the clock and messianic messages of fiction trying to re-create a rose-coloured-spectacled future.

Our little place on the planet, guy-roped to the earth, seems more in tune with what is important.

Dystopia is in novels and in the White House or Downing Street, not in this place that we call our heaven on earth by a river that eases its way gently past us as it has done for ever.

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Tarn

 

Being comfortable with difficult things

I am reading a lot these days about how to cope with being comfortable with difficult things.

Our first urge is to escape – but the problem with this is that we usually escape into things that are unhelpful. We can escape into obsessiveness or being aggressive or flipping out and the thing that we are trying to escape from in the first place stays with us constantly.

It is ok to be present with that which is problematic, uncomfortable or difficult

Escaping into obsessiveness ensures that everything keeps on going around and around – and it is not at all pleasant. It is self-defeating. Soothing ourselves with things to make us feel better depends on what the thing is. It can create havoc if it is not healthy.

Only through self-awareness work can we see the signs.

All that I am reading, including Pema Chodron, is saying that it is ok to be present with that which is problematic, uncomfortable or difficult and that in so doing we become very aware of and familiar with it.

I think it was Brene Brown that argues that we should be curious about our feelings. I don’t think for one moment she is arguing that we wear our feelings on our sleeves – but rather that at that moment of being hooked, we stop and think and allow ourselves a moment to breathe.

Pema Chodron writes a whole book  on this topic – The Wisdom of No Escape. Here she looks at how meditation helps us to be present with these feelings. Mindfulness is another way. What is important is that we do not try to escape. Instead we are urged to look at what hooks us – acknowledge it, ‘see it clearly, experience it fully—without acting out or repressing’. (Pema Chodron) The repressing is the thing that we use to escape, to find ways to sooth ourselves, to act out, to obsess. We all have a choice.

Being comfortable with difficult feelings then becomes the new habit.

imagesI read somewhere that you can use the SOS method – stop, oxygenate and seek – and the seeking is acknowledging that particular moment that you have been through. The snag, the being caught in a moment, the hook. This method helps you to quickly unhook but we have to train our minds to be constantly self-aware.

Of course there are moments where we forget. Often long moments but we can bring ourselves back to the present by being gentle with ourselves.

Being comfortable with difficult feelings then becomes the new habit.

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