The humanity of Manchester – and us all.

In the wake of the horrific act of terrorism in Manchester on Monday evening, a wave of inspiring stories of altruism and humanity have emerged. Of the taxi drivers offering free lifts, the medical staff voluntarily returning to their place of work on hearing of the incident, of homeless men caring for the injured and dying, of Manchester residents offering their homes as a place to stay to people caught up in the chaos. We have all been stirred by this wave of compassion, of generosity, of altruism – of humanity, in the wake of the utterly inhuman act of one individual.

George Monbiot is right however to point out that we shouldn’t be surprised by these acts. They are part of what it means to be human. The ability to empathise and relate closely to the predicament or another, even someone unknown to us, is part of what makes us unique as a species. It is in our very nature to act as so many have acted in the past 48 hours. That does not make it any less laudable that people do. Nor should it refrain us from praising and highlighting these acts of generosity. They may be natural, but they are worth celebrating all the same, especially in the face of an act designed to erode our solidarity and abuse our humanity.

A Monbiot says:

‘Altrusim and empathy are what binds us together, and what defines us. We should let no one distract us from the central fact if our nature: neither terrorists not those who, in response to them, demand we slam our doors in the faces of an entire community or an entire religion’  

We must believe in the innate nature of our altruism in an age when political forces prey on our tendency to favour fear over trust. We must live and act in faith that to be human is to experience and empathy and offer love. That means not only being empathetic and loving ourselves, but living on the basis that we will receive it from others.

Which is why I was alerted yesterday by a friend’s testimony from some work he was doing in our own community. We are exploring the possibility of setting up a community resource called a Street Association. These are groups of 5 -6 people in streets and small neighbourhoods who work together to bring greater neighbourliness by throwing street parties and BBQs and addressing some of the felt needs of that street. In Birmingham 7 have been set up with the support of the local council. A recent analysis suggests that in one year they have saved the Council £36,000 in public resources through greater neighbourliness, experienced as reduction in the use of police time on issues of neighbourhood disrupted, anti-social behaviour etc. In other words, by at least this measure, they work.

My friend asked residents in a local social housing tower bloc two simple questions: ”How many of your neighbours do you know? Would you like to know more of your neighbours?” The answer in a depressingly high proportion of cases was; “very few” and “no”, respectively. This area, of a coastal Dorset town, not exactly a centre of cultural and ethnic diversity, shows the need for faith in the humanity of humanity. And it shows perhaps the silent work of fear, created not so much by terrorists but by the same forces that have brought us into a place where Brexit was possible and the rise of far-right parties a reality.  Which is perhaps why we shout all the louder when we see acts of humanity from stranger to stranger, from the homeless man to the affluent woman, from the Muslim taxi-driver to the white-British man. For it takes an attack on a whole community to bring that latent humanity to a level that, for a period at least, seems to embrace the whole community. And that is something we long for.

So what do we need? We need leaders. People who believe in the inherent worth of community and solidarity that they will lead others in the reinforcing the local networks and other forms of social capital that have been eroded in the past few generations. We need people who will perhaps forgo or adjust the atomised life of the affluent commuter in order to plant their feet firmly in their own community for the common good. We need organisers who will not allow the insidious effects of individualism and consumerism stop them from believing in the innate value all human-beings place on community and solidarity. We need people who will remind us again what community looks like by showing how to get there again.

The American farmer and poet Wendell Berry once said ‘what I stand for is what I stand on’. We all stand with Manchester this week. Let us also commit to standing with and standing for the communities, neighbourhoods and gatherings of  humanity that inhabit the same ground we stand on.

 

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Beasts of the Northern Wild

Stranded whalesLike so many people I was really moved by the pictures of sperm whales washed up on beaches at Skegness and Hunstanton this last week. One picture (left) moved me profoundly –  the two enormous whales, captured as though nestled into one another in a final embrace, their huge levered mouths open as though at the end of a final long exhalation, their small grey eyes caught in a kind of eternal look of surprise. And all around them ordinary people picking around their sheer size, looking utterly insignificant by comparison.

Huge numbers of people travelled out to see these amazing beasts. Some were similarly moved and awed by the spectacle. Others took the inevitable selfie. Jeremy Vine tweeted his disbelief wondering what the world has come to when out immediate reaction to such an awe inspiring sight is to trophy the event by taking a photo of ourselves in it. Perhaps he is right. But I am left wondering what drew people out onto the sands to cry, to wonder, to experience the spectacle of two dead beasts.

I suggest three reasons

  1. Transcendence.

We experience a kind of transcendence when we are confronted by an experience so strange, so overwhelming, even mysterious. This is fascinating when any number of documentaries or online material can give us access to footage or imagery of a sperm whale. But there is of course nothing like experiencing the real thing. Witnessing these beasts in all their utter size and scale is a zoological equivalent of going to space, or standing on a mountain with the Milky Way streaking above our heads. These are transcendent experiences. And for all science’s ability to explain them and tell us what these are, we still experience them as something akin to a spiritual experience.

  1. (Re)Connection

These monsters of the deep remind us that we are connected to the rest of creation in an incredibly integral way. That connection, intrinsic to generations of humanity has been stretched and stretched by the powerful forces at work in the world over the last few hundred years. Perhaps the tide is turning with movements emphasizing the disconnecting practices of our supermarkets, tourism, and our urban way of life. However, for vast numbers of our majority city dwelling population it is not just whales that are a mystery in our experience, it is the local beach, the farm where our milk comes from, the bees that pollinate our fruit trees. When people cry at the sight of whales dead on a beach they express the unfelt grief of a society for a relationship with nature that has been utterly broken.

  1. The deep

The whale has a long cultural and literary history. Whales capture our imagination, they symbolise something profound for us. They stand for everything overwhelming, beyond us, frightening, dangerous. And they emerge mysteriously and fleetingly from that chaotic swirl of the sea, which despite our progress, remain very much that uncharted and undiscovered territory which we have yet to truly master. Old maps used drift off into uncharted areas ‘where there be monsters’. Nothing has really changed.  The sea, the deep, is still a place of darkness and mystery which from time to time throws up reminders of our frailty and finitude.

And the thing is that the deep, its chaos, its darkness, its propensity for producing forces that are beyond us, is critical for our thriving as human beings. Our thirst for control, for bringing everything ‘down to size’, in our grip, under our command, is ultimately unhealthy. There is an appropriate smallness to our place in the universe, the forgetting of which has the propensity to make us very unpleasant indeed. The famous whale story of the Bible is the book of Jonah where the ‘great fish’ is provided by God to save Jonah, thrown from his ship of convenience, as he sinks into the chaos of the sea. Three nights in the dark and skanky belly of this great beast is exactly what Jonah needs to reset his own particular version of hubris and renew his relationship with God.

Whether you believe in the literal truth of Jonah’s whale or not, the lesson of Jonah is that our growth as human beings sometimes requires precisely those places that we would rather not connect with at all. The darkness. The deep. The belly of a whale. But connect we must if we are to kick the habit of growing too big for ourselves, grasping too much false control.

The whales of Skegness and Hunstanton of course were very real indeed. They were super-real. Almost supernatural. But perhaps that is a rather apt word to use. In their unnatural dying, on the sands of an English beach, they offer us a needed reminder of the depths of life, physical, spiritual and eternal, we are rapidly losing touch with.

A song of the wild

Nightingale‘There is a tendency for us to flee from our wild silence and the wild dark, to pack up our gods and hunker down behind city walls, to turn the gods into idols, to kowtow before them and approach their precincts only in official robes of office. And when we are in the temples then who will hear the voice crying in the wilderness? Who will hear the reed shaken in the wind?’ Chet Raymo

I recently invited a group of people via Facebook to come and listen to nightingales. It was on a bit of a whim. I didn’t really expect anyone else to drive an hour from where I live to listen to a bird signing from the depths of a bush. I was also careful not to guarantee even hearing one at all. Nevertheless about 12 of us wandered into a wood in north Dorset at dusk and were treated to 10 minutes of a single nightingale unfurling his full and utterly fantastic repertoire. Some of his vocal acrobatics made us gasp with astonishment, others made us laugh. It just doesn’t seem possible for one small brown insignificant bird to be able to unleash such a symphony of sound.

It really was quite an evening. Most of us had never heard a nightingale before. The faces of most of the urban dwellers we were with opened up in wonder. It was magical and utterly life-giving.

And it reminded me of why I took up birdwatching 10 years ago. A counsellor I was seeing at the time asked me about life outside of work. The reality was at that stage in my life that time for interests that had sustained me at other times had been squeezed out. ‘So why not take up something else?’ ‘What would you do if you decided to do something you’ve never done?’

So I began birdwatching with a cheap pair of sports binoculars and it was one of the best decision I’ve ever made. Perhaps the greatest revelation in this growing passion was the world that opened up to me when I began to learn the songs and calls of birds. Suddenly the background sound world of birds that lies there unobtrusively but consistently in even the most unwild of environments began to reveal its secrets. It was like learning a new language. Like switching to short wave and discovering a foreign station suddenly making sense. It was as though this dimension of wilderness that had seemed so distant had crept closer and I was party to its presence whilst others carried on regardless. It was a transforming discovery.

Much has been made of the loss of darkness in our urban world. But less has been made of the loss of the sounds of the wild in a world increasingly noisy with the drone of traffic and the roar of jet planes. A recent article however argues for birdsong to be taught in schools as a means of trying to reconnect us with a wilderness we are increasingly estranged from. This is in response to a sense that we are losing the ability to hear, recognise and appreciate the sounds of the natural world. It argues; “We are conditioning ourselves to ignore the information coming into our ears, and as a consequence we are losing the ability to engage with the environment in the way we were built to”

I agree. It’s not just that those sounds are being pushed more and more to the margins, though that is part of it. There is still an abundance of birdsong in even the most intensely built environment, indeed some birds (swifts, gulls, even peregrines) have learnt to thrive in it. It is that our senses have become dulled to the point of deafness to these sounds that were once part of the very day experience and knowledge of most people. The sheer volume of noise we encounter everyday means that our ears and brains make a choice and our attentiveness to the irrelevant noises of birds gets unlearned.

And with it something else gets lost. Something of our humanity, something of our soul, that is made to engage with the natural world. All spirituality starts with attentiveness. It starts when we lift our attention away from our little universes, stop and pay attention to something beyond us, something which doesn’t need us, something that just is. For me learning birdsong opened up a world that helped me reconnect with the wonder and diversity of the natural world that had been there all the time if only I had stopped to listen. It also helped me enhance my ability to forget myself and my petty concerns and pay attention to something else.

As the world of birdsong continued to open up to me I was constantly reminded of those words of Jesus in concluding many of his parables; ‘He who has ears to hear, listen…’. It is not that we cannot hear the call of the wild, the invitation of the natural world, the beckoning of something sacred in creation. It is simply that we have stopped listening. And when we stop listening the danger is we actually lose the ability to listen at all. I wonder to what extent along with birdsong we are losing the ability to hear other things, our true selves, others, and even God himself.

Screen presence?

mobile phone walkingWe live very near a primary school and witness the twice daily rush of parents and children arriving and leaving. I remember this daily routine. It was frequently a point of stress, getting two children out on time and navigating our way on foot with the requisite supplies for the day was always a challenge; lunches, PE kit, homework bag, money for non-uniform day, forms for the next trip etc. etc. I don’t miss the pressure of that every day.

On the other hand I do miss the fact that the school run afforded me a good hour of time with my children that was uninterrupted. The mile(ish) walk to school every day was an obligatory opportunity just to be with my kids, attending to their agenda, listening to their stories, embarking with them on their imaginative adventures, playing their games. I’m not perfect. There were times when I was in a hurry and the school run felt like a chore. Times when I got crabby at the endless need to dawdle for some other reason of unnecessary wonder. But there were also times when wandering home from school, taking our time, stopping at all the irrelevancies that children discover, was a treat and a privilege.

No doubt the school run for today’s parents is still a mixture of hurry and joy. But another key ingredient has now entered the fray – the smart phone. Its addictive qualities in this arena seem to me to be just one way in which smart phones are threatening out relationship in a very fundamental way. I watch as parents pick up children and walk the pavement away from school with one hand in the hand of a small child and the other hand holding a screen in from of their face. One parent parks her car early before the school gates open and spends 15 minutes scrolling on her phone whilst her kids play up on the back seat – every day. Parents take their children from the school and walk to the park a short way down the road and, whilst their children play, remain firmly attentive to their phones.

Now the thing is, I get this, I fight the addictive qualities of my own smart phone all the time. I think I’m winning – my wife doesn’t! And I think that the smartphone and early parenthood are a powerful coincidence of distraction and boredom. Because, let’s face it, parenting kids at that age can be mindless and boring. We get to the end of a day of endless demands, chores and childish monologues desperate for an adult conversation. I am pretty sure that the allure of social media and the convenient way in which the smart phone gives us something to occupy us whilst we carry out life’s mundane chores would have been as much as attraction to me as it is to those parents I observe around me.

Besides, our house, replete with Wi-Fi and a smartphone for each of us is now a similar context in which the boundaries of time and space which make for real connection are constantly challenged. It feels like a constant battle with my two teenagers. But if I’m honest, it is a battle for all of us, to dissect the connecting life-giving opportunities that access to social media afford from the isolating, disconnecting effect of always being lured, virtually, somewhere else.

The marvel of social media is that we can be more present to people on the other side of the world, moment by moment, than ever before. The real challenge of the smartphone and social media is the threat that it is to our ability and willingness to be present to those around us. But the thing is that real presence, real connection with another person cannot truly be made possible through social media. No doubt such connections can point to real presence, be perhaps an introduction or a foreshadowing of real presence, but they cannot be a substitute for the real thing.

However there is no doubt that we are making the connections of social media a substitute for the life-enhancing parent child contactconnection of real presence. The constant white noise of social interaction via our smartphones, some of it significant, the vast majority of it banal, is like fast-food compared to a good meal, elevator music to a Brahms symphony, pornography to true sexual intimacy. It gives the lie to real connection, promises much but under-delivers and lures us into binge consumption of its ersatz fakeness. And why do we do it? Because it costs us very little. True intimacy costs us something of ourselves. Real connection happens when we are willing to be vulnerable and give something of ourselves to the other. True presence occurs, not just when I am in the same space (real of virtual) with someone else, but when I give (sacrificially) my full attention to the other.

Which brings me back to the school run. Like I said, I wasn’t always great at real presence in that daily walk to and from school. Vulnerability and real presence never comes easy, it takes practise and dedication. But when I managed it, it was precious, it was wonderful. And, I believe, it was formational. Truly formational. If children in their early years get the sacrificial presence of their parents they find the world a place in which to thrive – someone else is there for them no matter what, to listen and to care and to make sense of their bewildering and sometimes frightening environment. This is nurturing soil and children can’t thrive without it. Consistently being somewhere else via a smartphone fails to create that crucial context. Not only that, it can have the opposite effect of alienating those who we are with. We all know what it feels like to be with someone who is distracted by a text or a Facebook notification – it has that unerring ability to make us feel we are less worthy, less important than (say) the old school acquaintance who wasn’t much of friend at school anyway. Adult to adult this is annoying and divisive. Parent to child it can be really destructive.

Managing mobile phones and social media is a daily challenge. I sometimes want to throw my lot in with Amish and throw the darn thing off a cliff. But I know I won’t. In fact more challenging and more real is the daily challenge to choose vulnerability and presence with those around me who I love the most. That means making consistent choices to offer my attention to them. And that means putting in some clear boundaries around the use of that wonderful, powerful and irritating slab of black technology which is my phone. In terms of connection and presence to those at a key formational time of life though, I wonder whether that all too brief few years when we make the daily journey to and from school in the company of our children, might not be a mobile free zone.