Tuesday, September 30, 2014

to treat all group members as individuals

I was walking at our wetlands, when I saw this magpie. He was digging around in the grass but I kept a wary eye on him because it's spring time and a few days earlier, I'd been savagely swooped by one of his kind. It had happened along another walking trail, beneath a line of gum trees which must have had nests in them. The magpie meant business. He zoomed straight for my head five or six times, and I felt the wind from his wings. Knowing that some of my friends had been pecked until they bled, I went running and waving my arms around my head, but could see him following from rooftop to rooftop with his beady eyes fixed on me, waiting for his next move. I reached my car safely, but around this time last year, my daughter and her best friend were so freaked out by another swooping magpie that they fell face down on the cement, afraid to move. Then, when they had dared to make a run for it, Emma lost her purse, which I'm glad somebody honest found.

Anyway, I walked past this fellow and said, 'Are you a bit of a stinker? I don't think I like your kind, especially this time of year.'  But he was cool with me being there.

It occurred to me that's exactly how any form of discrimination begins. I used to think it was crazy to base our expectations of a group of people on the behaviour of couple of individuals. I would have liked to think I was above doing that, but one innocent magpie showed me that I'm not.  

I read recently, in a passage by Thomas Merton, how absolutely convinced Adolf Hitler used to be that sin was unforgivable. You might say, 'I can't figure that one out. If that was his attitude, why did he commit so much evil?' The scary thing is, Hitler didn't think he was evil at all. He believed he was a zealous Christian who was eradicating the group of people he considered, 'Christ killers.' That is why sending thousands of Jews to concentration camps and gas chambers; mothers, fathers, children, professionals alike, didn't smite his conscience one bit. It's sickening to reflect upon.

Automatic discrimination even occurs in the Bible, from 'good guys.' I'm thinking of the time when Philip went off to tell Nathanael, 'We've found the very person Moses and the prophets wrote about... and he comes from Nazareth.'

Do you remember Nathanael's response? He said, 'Nazareth? Can anything good come from there?' It would seem Nathanael's knee-jerk reaction probably had something to do with prejudice he'd developed, having met some people from the backwater province of Nazareth in his past, who he didn't think highly of. But I find it encouraging that Jesus didn't rebuke Nathanael for the way his mind worked. Just before their first introduction, he even said, 'Here comes an honest man. A true son of Israel.' Jesus knew that Nathanael was sound at heart, but simply prone to that quirk of human nature in which we jump to conclusions, basing every member of a group on the behaviour of a couple.

I think the biggest challenge is not to wallow in guilt when our minds automatically do this, but to get into the habit of reminding ourselves that we need to step back and consider everybody as individuals. It also helps to pause sometimes, and think about the sort of impression we might be giving others about groups we identify with.

Just today, I was reading some Amazon reviews of a book I was considering buying, by a well known Christian author. Among them was a One Star review by somebody who had issues with the Christian content. They had written that it would have been nice to have been warned from the blurb, because if they'd known, they might have steered clear of it. At the bottom were several angry comments from Christians. Although these were worded differently, they basically said the same thing. 'Our hero is a Christian author, you idiot, so of course he's going to include Christian content! You know where you can take your one star!'

 I thought it a bit lame that the twentieth respondent would bother to add his vicious two cents worth, even though he could see that nineteen others had already soundly ticked off this reviewer. If they wanted him to remove his review, none of their reactive ranting worked anyway, as it was still up there, along with all their unfriendly feedback. Saddest of all is the reputation they may be giving all Christians, including those of us who wouldn't kick up such a fuss.  It makes me squirm to think that, based on something like this, somebody who is introduced to me may think, 'A Christian! Ha, I know what your type are like.'

I'm glad that simple little magpie reminded me to be careful before making judgments about other people, and also to think about the impression my behaviour might give others about many people apart from me. I even looked up the Australian magpie on wikipedia, and read that the male breeding magpies who become aggressive and attack those who approach their nests are actually a small minority. I've got to remember to warn my daughter, every time she shakes her fist at another magpie and says, 'I hate you.'


Monday, September 22, 2014

we are living in a labyrinth

My son, Blake, and I recently found a lovely surprise while we were out having a walk at the wetlands near our house. Somebody had celebrated the beginning of spring by creating this labyrinth out of sticks, twigs, rose petals and sprigs of lavender.

I know labyrinths have ancient origins, which piqued my curiosity. Some people say they have deep spiritual meaning, while others simply see a twisting path which ends in the middle. Looked at like that, it may be hard to see their significance. I remember being let loose in hedge mazes on holidays, but labyrinths don't even have dead ends to get lost in. I can imagine kids saying, 'What's the fun of them, then?' That's why I decided to look them up on Google.

I already knew that some Christians get a bit edgy about them because they are found in other spiritual traditions. It didn't take long to discover this is true. Some labyrinths are said to have been used as traps, with fierce, mythical creatures in the centre, a bit like an elaborate cage. Yet they've also been used as part of worship in the Christian tradition. They started appearing on church and cathedral walls and floors around 1000 AD. The Chartres Cathedral labyrinth in France is said to have the most famous design in labyrinth history. It would seem that devout pilgrims such as those Geoffrey Chaucer wrote about in Canterbury Tales might have used them as substitutes for actually visiting the Holy Lands. I can imagine these people crawling through the labyrinths on their hands and knees, wearing out the edges of their cowls as they scraped along the ground, and having their time of intense prayer in the centre, which represents the heart of God.

Some people regard the journey through a labyrinth as a three-staged trip. First comes the journey inward. Second, you get to spend time in the centre, regarding it as a nesting place where you're held in God's safe and loving embrace. Finally, there's the trip back out, to join the world again.

With all this in mind, I've returned to our wetlands labyrinth, sometimes with the kids and sometimes alone. We've fixed it up from time to time, when twigs have blown away in the wind. I've walked through, and although I haven't felt quite the same awe as the ancient pilgrims, I can see how people may say there are life analogies.

1) With all the twists and turns, it may look as if you've simply walked in circles, and returned back where you started from, but appearances may be deceptive. Although you're standing by the start, it will take only one more curve and you'll have arrived at the centre. In the same way, we've probably all had a whine, saying, 'After all my hard work, I'm right back to where I started,' without realising that we have actually have come a long way along the labyrinth that is our life.

2) Similarly, you may think you see the end in sight, because you're standing right beside the centre, and then another sudden sweep will take you right back to the outer limits of the labyrinth again. It's not going to be as quick and easy as you've hoped. We may think we've exhausted our knowledge about a particular topic, and then a curve in our path will reveal that we probably know only a fraction of all there is to know. We've been fooled by the labyrinth twists. It turns out we may be self-proclaimed 'experts' who are really further away from our destinations than we thought.

3) We may appear to be walking alongside other people, so close that we can reach out a hand to touch each other and speak. But we're actually at different stages in the labyrinth. Suddenly, one of us will be veering out to one of the outer paths again while the other is on his way around the last little curve to the centre. And the one who looks as if he's closest to the middle may, in reality, be further away. That's why we shouldn't judge each other for the way we react to the peripheral subjects of life. We're simply on different stages of the labyrinth.

4) When you're on the ground actually walking it, every step of the path may look pretty much the same as the rest, with the centre coming suddenly. It takes more of a birds-eye view to see the beautiful pattern we've been walking. The bigger the labyrinth, the more true this may be, and I can't think of a bigger one than life itself. Unlike a maze, there are no actual dead-ends for us to get lost in and have to turn back. There may seem to be dead-ends in life, but looking at them from a higher perspective, they turn out to be part of the labyrinth after all. We learn our lessons from the apparent false detours and kept moving toward the centre.

The famous labyrinth of Chartres Cathedral, France, which has been duplicated for other places.

5) We get an enforced chance to deliberately slow down to the speed at which life is meant to be lived. In these fast-paced 21st century times, we're encouraged to choose our goals and zoom after them, like an arrow whizzing straight to the target. Life is really designed more like a labyrinth, with twisting paths we all have to follow, and the walk is as important as the destination. My older son and daughter seem to be on a stage of life's labyrinth where they don't get this. If we ask them to come for an afternoon walk with us, they say, 'No, because you don't walk with a particular destination in mind. You just ramble around for the sake of it, and that's boring.' Our younger son still seems to understand the point of doing things which seem to have no point, but I think he's showing signs of catching up to the part of the path which they're on.

I can't help hoping our local labyrinth will last for a long time. No people or animals have walked past and messed it up yet, after several weeks, which I think is a nice surprise on its own. When I go to walk in the wetlands, I can often tell with a glance that it's still there, when I occasionally see people walking in weird circle shapes on the ground. I wonder if that's how we all look to the angels above.  

Monday, September 8, 2014

that we may be waiting for the wrong type of fame

I think it's easy to get the idea that fame and fortune is the ultimate measure of success. I've been writing novels for years, and the idea pops up all the time. If you're not getting accolades, and if your target audience don't recognise your name, some people suggest you're not doing the 'platform' thing properly.  The juicy carrot is always dangling a few inches beyond your reach. Yet you assume the goal of fame must be achievable, because you see others in your same field taking great, crunchy bites of their own magnificent carrots. Sometimes that encourages you to never give up, and other times, if you're honest, it makes you envious because their offerings seem to be no better (or maybe even worse) than yours.

Author Julia Cameron suggests that it feels a bit like waiting for rain in a drought. 'We keep squinting toward the horizon, jealous of our luckier neighbours and dissatisfied with our own condition,' she says. Her words gave me funny images of Elijah asking his servant, 'Can you see anything yet?'

After several fruitless looks, the young man replies, 'Yes, there are a couple of new reviews on Goodreads and a slight increase in your Amazon sales ranking.'

We know what happened in the Bible. Elijah and his servant rushed out in order to beat the soaking deluge they'd already predicted to King Ahab. In our analogy, we grasp these measly signs and push on, trying to prepare ourselves for the downpour of sales, ads, praise and money we hope will follow. But in our case, the small cloud just wafts away. 'Hey,' we complain. 'That's not what happened with Elijah!'

Julia Cameron goes on to muse that our culture has taught us to think of fame as a necessary by-product, but she suggests that it's full of empty calories with no nutritional value. We are taught by the media to keep seeking the amazing breakthrough, after which our lives will be abundantly blessed, but we only need to look at the sad revelations, not to mention several premature deaths, of many celebrities who seemed to have had it all to see that fame is not all it's cracked up to be.

'Not all artists will lead public lives,' she goes on to say. 'Many of us as talented as those who fame strikes may toil out our own days in relative anonymity.' And that's okay, because it may not even be healthy for us. I'm reminded of an article written by Ann Voskamp recently, in which she argued convincingly that the human soul isn't really even built for fame. I couldn't help but be convicted by her pointed question about which platform I'm trying to scramble up on anyway. The article is here.

A couple of days ago, I came across a touching article by Ann Swindell. I love how she found perspective about all this bothersome business from 'The Great Divorce' by C.S. Lewis. Basically, we may be surprised to find that while our desire to be recognised as offering some meaningful input is natural, fame in heaven is very different from fame on earth.  You can read it here.

And then this morning, as I was scrolling through my news feed on Face Book, I chanced upon a great article by Lisa Mikitarian, which gave me another clue that we may stress far, far, far too much over something which God doesn't necessarily think is that big a priority. Read it here.

If you haven't had enough yet, here's one more link to follow, by Yours Truly on this very blog. Even though I wrote it a few years ago, somehow, the worries about this stuff started creeping up on me again, as they tend to do if we don't keep our focus. It's here.

So with all this, I'm encouraged to make sure we're listening to our Creator and not our culture. I think, keeping in mind how easy it is to get the two mixed up at all times may be a key to help. I appreciate anything that may clear my mind in this confusing world where we're brought up not to be attention seekers as children, and then later, chastised for not seeking attention in the adult world of self-promotion.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

That things are rarely as we expect

I recently read a memoir by Rebecca Mead, a lady who is just a little older than I am. She studied English at University in the mid 80s because she loved books, but quickly found that being a book lover didn't really have much to do with it, because the course was nothing like she expected.

'The mid eighties was the era of critical thinking,' she wrote. 'Scholars were encouraged to apply tools of psychoanalysis or feminism to reveal ways the author was blind to his or her own desire or prejudice. Books weren't supposed to be merely read, but interrogated as if they had committed some malfeasance.'

Yes! That brought back clear memories of my late teens. How I used to hate that! Mead might have been describing my experience in the late 1980s. There were no tertiary creative writing courses back then, so I chose English as my major, expecting to get guidance and valuable tips on how to write the novels I intended to write. Instead, it was just as Mead described. I often used to complain, 'Hey, I didn't sign up for this so that I can criticise Charles Dickens and the Brontes, and highlight their perceived failings and limitations. I like Dickens and the Brontes. They're better authors than I am. If I'd known it was going to be like this, I might have chosen something different.' But as it was, I went in like a lamb to the slaughter.

That became my standard complaint all through Uni. Straight out of High School, I'd chosen a list of subjects I thought would suit me to the ground. English, Pyschology, Anthropology and Philosophy. But instead of just looking at people's motivations and attitudes, Psychology was full of more Maths, Chemistry and detailed brain structure illustrations than I cared to dive into.  And rather than just studying different cultures, Anthropology delved into symbolism and all sorts of deep linguistic studies I hadn't expected. As for Philosophy, I thought it was off this planet! What I remember most is that all of the male staff seemed to wear long, bushy beards as apparent status symbols, and the female members had long, long hair to compensate.

My best memories of those Uni years was sitting in the basement of the Barr Smith library, tracking down and devouring ancient, out-of-print novels. They were totally unrelated to the course material I was studying, and I used to put off what I was really supposed to be doing for as long as possible.

I don't think this discovery that things are not what we expect was limited to the late 80s. This year, my older son started his degree at Adelaide Uni, (which makes me feel very proud but quite old.) I'm finding out that the place has changed a lot in several ways since I was there, but in other ways, it's much the same. Some courses still turn out to be nothing like what they sound like.

This semester, Logan has had to tackle a compulsory subject called, 'The Enquiring Mind.' On the surface, the name sounds quite alluring and intriguing, but some of his friends who had tackled it in first semester warned him that it was full of 'arty farty stuff' as they call it. Even the lecturers must have known that word of its true nature had spread. When Logan showed up in the crammed theatre, with students spilling out into the aisles, the lecturer introduced the topic by saying, 'I know many of you are here under sufferance, but I hope you'll overcome any prejudice you may have at the start and get something out of this course anyway.'

And has he? Well, after a couple of weeks I asked, 'What's it all about?'

'I still can't figure it out,' he said. 'Nobody can.'

I read the first few paragraphs of his introductory handout and knew what he meant. It seems to be one of the subjects which are designed just to be a pain in every way. For example, when Logan went to purchase the text book from the faculty office, he was told, 'No, we can't take your money. You have to buy it online and bring the receipt in to show us before we give you one.' And the shelves behind them were piled high with this text book which nobody really wants.

But when you think about it, this quality of not entirely living up to rosy expectations isn't limited to tertiary institutions alone. In fact, maybe it's a feature of life in general. When we decide to get married, we have wonderful images of a 'happily ever after' scenario without the 'barefoot and pregnant at the sink washing dishes' one which is almost as well known a catch-cry. When we decide to have babies, we daydream about their cute, sleeping faces without dwelling on the screaming, colicky fits and stinky nappies which are also part of the story. Maybe the study experiences which don't quite live up to expectations are just like almost everything else. When we dwell on the flip side, we realise there have been quite a lot of good aspects too. In fact, sometimes expectations are turned on their heads the other way, and we are pleasantly surprised by good things we hadn't expected.

This happened to me years ago when I was doing Year 12. I was told that my timetable was too heavy with humanities subjects and I had to drop one to replace with a Science subject. That made me grumble, but I picked Biology, and it turned out to be one of the most enjoyable, easy to pass subjects that year. More so than Drama, which I'd expected to be my favourite subject but turned out to be a terrible drag. If asked, I could rattle off the titles of many novels I've started reading with low expectations and discovered they were brilliant. As for Logan's experience this year, he admitted that although 'The Enquiring Mind' is full of arty nonsense, it does have it's lighter moments, which turn out to be the fun his discussion table have with their jokes at the tutor's expense, while he thinks they're really getting right into it.

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