Saturday, April 26, 2014

True mentors are often hidden

I've come across this scenario time and again in well-known books which focus on reflection and philosophy. The earnestly seeking author, with a thirst for knowledge, is willing to travel far to seek the meaning of life. He (or she) eventually stumbles across a wise old guru in some secluded, non-western country, who genuinely doesn't want to be drawn to the world's attention. So the author promises to keep their identity secret if the guru will spout off his immense spiritual insight (which the guru seems quite willing to do). Then the author goes home (usually to America) and writes a book which goes on to hit the big time and earn millions.

In 'The Monk who Sold his Ferrari' the main character, Julian Mantle, stays with a hidden Indian tribe who enable him to turn his life around so that by the time he gets home, he is unrecognisable. In 'Eat, Pray, Love', Elizabeth Gilbert inserts a note in the preface telling readers that her personal guru and Ashram director would prefer not to be named, and asks readers to please respect that person's privacy by not attempting to dig around and find out. There is also her medicine man friend, Ketut, who presumably still lives his simple tribal lifestyle, unchanged by the success of the book in which he features. Just recently, I came across a similar theme in a book by a young woman who was supposedly told the secret of vibrant, glowing health beyond the age of 100 by an old tribeswoman who simply wanted to be known as 'Teresa.'

When I started planning this blog post, I wondered why I felt a bit indignant and annoyed. I think the whole subject seemed to reek of exploitation. The poor mentors, whose wisdom is drawn from, get nothing, while the opportunistic authors make a fortune, enabling them to have book tours around the world and mansions in several different countries. That doesn't seem fair at all. Then, with further reflection, I realise that I'm thinking about it from a limited, western materialist perspective myself.

The mentors themselves probably think they've got off lightly, and wouldn't exchange their modest, hidden lifestyles for those of the authors for all the world. It would be far too high a price to pay. At present, they have the freedom to go where they choose when they choose, have hours at their disposal for reflection and prayer, are free to observe the pattern of the days and have no demands on them to change or adapt their treasured personal rhythms for anybody. Exchanging this for a celebrity's lifestyle, in which every journalist or media mogul wants a piece out of them, their words and photos are splashed over the pages of magazines to be criticised and pulled apart, and every minute of their time is quickly accounted for with no space for personal care would be a nightmare for them. Having to live this way for the mere praise of men would mean nothing to many of them, who would be quick to declare that they prefer to live for 'an audience of One'. They possibly even pity their famous author friends, for being willing to settle for all this.

Are these anonymous gurus onto something, in their choice to pull back and enjoy obscurity? I really think they are. The way God seems to have designed the world bears this out. Where do miners usually find the most precious gold? It is buried deep under the earth, and not generally lying around on the surface for any old casual hiker to trip over. God seems to want to provide us with the need to search for our treasure, so that we value it all the more.

It's the same with literature. Sometimes, the little old, plain-covered book by some unknown author you find crammed back on the dusty shelf of a second hand shop has more value than the most famous best-seller on the New York Times list. And sometimes, even though you've been studying your Bible, or other sacred historical text, for years and years, a very subtle insight may suddenly hit you in the face, making you exclaim, 'How could I have missed this, all these years?' God could have had one of his prophets spell it out so it would be impossible to miss, but then it wouldn't be so precious. The very hidden quality gives it much of its value.

I'm not saying not to listen to the words of our celebrities and admired thinkers, whose faces smile at us when we turn on our TVs. The world is full of quotable wisdom from famous figures such as Winston Churchill, Abraham Lincoln, Helen Keller and Martin Luther King, who got their positions deservedly. It's just handy to sometimes give a thought to old monastery care-takers, devout peasants in Italian coastal villagers, and even the people we rub shoulders with on our own streets and meeting halls. Any one of them could be potential gurus. If we simply brush past, assuming that they are nothing more than plain John or Jane Does like the rest of us, we never know what we may miss.

For that matter, let's not be quick to shrug off those sudden thoughts that seem to well up from deep in our own minds and hearts, and resonate with something inside us. Don't forget, we're told that we ourselves are temples of the Holy Spirit, and St. Paul tells us in the book of Colossians that the biggest mystery in God in us. Let's not get so caught up looking for someone big, important and famous enough to tell us what we ought to think and do, that we forget about the mentor who is as close as our next breath.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Not to focus on the soap suds

For the month of April, I've been working hard on something I've never done before, a blog tour for one of my novels. It's not even over yet. There will still be a few posts running into May, but I'm relieved that I can see the end of the tunnel. It's been a terrific experience and I've even made some new friends, but I've been thinking about the gauges we find ourselves using to determine whether or not something like a blog tour has been successful. These are things like number of comments left on each of the blog posts, amount of sales, quantities of reviews and other feedback resulting from the attention the book has received. I'm determined not to fall into the trap of believing that if these are not forthcoming every time, the tour has been a flop. These gauges all depend on the whims of other people, and when we find ourselves focusing on them as a measure of success, I've learned that our alarm bells should be ringing.

Recently, I came across an anonymous quotation which said, "Impressing people should a side-effect of the way you live, not the main goal." Yes, that sums it up. Being seduced into focusing on side-effects is a certain mood plunger. We work hard and may up on any given morning to find no mail in our in-boxes and no comments on our blogs. Then we get sad, but we shouldn't, because when we really think about it, that's not really the point of the writing we've done.

I thought of the way I set my washing machine. Sometimes I'm a bit heavy-handed with the detergent, and as each load drains, all this pretty, glistening, sausage-shaped froth soars up from the drain hole in the floor. When my three kids were little, they used to love seeing this. When they heard the water beginning to drain in the laundry, they would come running to watch the froth-show. But as often as not, I would have been more economical with the balance of detergent. Then, the kids would wait with anticipation, and get disappointed to see no froth appear.

I'd try to cheer them up, saying, "Don't worry, maybe there'll be more suds next time." Although they were sad, I'd go out to hang up the washing quite happy, because I knew that the clothes were clean and ready to flap in the wind. That, after all, is the main purpose of a wash, not the suds spectacle.

I think a very similar principle takes place whenever we're working on writing or anything else. Working on the story or the blog reflection is, after all, the main thing, that which brings us most joy and sense of accomplishment. The praise or feedback we get is like the soap suds; pretty to look at but not the main point of the exercise.

Let's be careful to keep our focus on what is the main thing and just get on with what needs to be done.

Friday, April 4, 2014

We might have the waving cat syndrome

Have you seen those colourful ceramic cats which sit at the door or near the entrance of some Asian food outlets? I guess they're pretty hard to miss. Sometimes they sit on the counter, just where you order or pay, and they seem to wave their paws back and forth at you. The first time I saw one, I thought it was a quirky little statue for that particular restaurant. Then they started popping up more often.

Not long ago, I was sitting at a food court down in the city with my husband, and saw one at a noodle bar. 'Hey, let's look up those waving cats. They are so common these days, there must be some significance to them.' So Andrew found a long article about them. They are known as 'lucky cats' and one thing I remember learning is that they are actually meant to be beckoning. The movement of the paw is supposed to be tempting us to come inside and taste their cuisine. The article said something like, "Although this is immediately evident to people of Asian descent, westerners often get the picture entirely wrong and think they are waving." Well, needless to say, I was one of those clueless westerners.

It's a pretty crucial mistake, when you think about it. Those cats are inviting me to come in and enjoy some hospitality, yet I breeze past, thinking they are giving me a friendly wave goodbye. What if the food vendors are crestfallen, wondering why so many of us heartlessly walk past, unaware that we simply haven't twigged what the cats are all about. I'm sure we've all heard stories of somebody from one culture bitterly offending somebody from another, with no idea they've done so. It probably happens more often than we think. I'm sure this must stem from what I now think of as the waving cat syndrome. We don't set out to deliberately upset anybody or miss the point, yet we can't help it that we are totally oblivious.

When I read reviews of my novels written by people from America or other international countries, I often come across something like, "It was great fun trying to figure out Australian slang terms which went way over my head." I get amazed because I have no idea that I've included anything like that. Occasionally, I'm told by an editor that words which seem innocent to me may horrify some international readers, because they mean something completely different over there.

The more I think about it, I'm sure this waving cat syndrome spreads even further than cultural differences. It applies to brain or gender differences too. My husband sometimes says things or behaves a  certain way which is not intended to be belligerent, yet I've assumed that he's having a go at me, or vice versa.

But the waving cat syndrome could really become a stumbling block when it comes to our personal study of great texts such as the Bible. My son, Blake, and I have been learning about the Reformation period, when the world was virtually turned upside down. Because of the invention of printing presses, and the evolution of new ideas such as those put forward by Martin Luther, people were given Bibles of their own and permitted to study them instead of turning to their priests. This was absolutely unprecedented. I found a quote by William Tyndale in another book. Getting excited about his vision of producing Bibles, he said, "Soon, the ordinary ploughboy will be able to read the scriptures for himself." It sounds awesome on the surface, but sometimes, having access to the great texts (which I've tried to fathom since I was really small) has frustrated me because there are parts I just don't get. Being able to read the Bible for ourselves instead of relying on others to interpret it for us is fantastic, but we shouldn't forget we can fall prone to waving cat syndrome.

For example, there's that anecdote in Genesis about what happened when Noah got drunk. This is how it appears when we read it. He was lying there stark naked, and instead of covering him up, his son, Ham, went and told his brothers. Shem and Japheth did the decent thing and put a blanket over their father. When Noah woke up, he went berserk and cursed Ham's family line, through Ham's son, Canaan. That always seemed mental and mean to me. What a massive over-reaction to a little lapse of judgment. Why would Noah want to curse an entire line of his family tree just because his son saw him naked?  Yet recently, I read a theologian's theory that the term 'saw his father naked' was, in fact, an ancient Hebrew euphemism for incest between a son and his mother. Well, if that's true, it would make more sense of the story for sure. If the interpretation is accurate, I assume ancient folk at the time of writing would have instantly twigged, while we clueless modern people with waving cat syndrome, may scratch our heads, saying, "What a fuss about nothing? What a nasty old coot."

 I can think of many other examples of waving cat syndrome when it comes to interpreting the Bible. When I was a kid, I never knew why Abraham had his servant place his hand under his thigh, before he sent him off to find a wife for his son. Nor did I understand why God made Abraham tear a couple of animals and birds in half and make some sort of weird symmetrical pattern on the ground. It all seemed random, and often tasteless, to me, before I learned about covenants. And now, I wonder about the rich symbolism which probably still goes over my head, and those of many others too. I won't even begin to get into such books as Ezekiel, Daniel and Revelation.

So what can we do about waving cat syndrome? Well, probably not a lot about individual cases, since we don't realise when we're ignorant. Maybe if we soften our general attitudes toward others, we can help to absorb the impact when it has the potential to get nasty. Instead of getting hurt feelings or indignant, we could cut others some slack. We could choose not to assume that apparent slights are intended to be personal. When it comes to personal study, we could refuse to call things stupid and slam the books shut. We could make enquiries, look for other books which may make it clearer, and search the web instead, trying to look for answers.

And maybe when I see those cats in the future, I may well take up their invitation and pop in for something to eat.
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