Thursday, September 11, 2008

You've Got Mail


It can't be argued that email has changed the way we share information.  It has changed the speed with which thoughts, ideas and messages can be transmitted, and it has also changed the way we communicate.  Instant of sending and instant reception of emails gives them an ephemeral quality, that contributes to their informality.  At the same time, their ephemeral nature is deceiving.  If you write a letter to someone it would take them some effort to pass on its contents, if they wished to do so.  At the very least they would have to take the time to show it to someone else; at its more complicated they would have to make copies of it and distribute them my mail.  Emails, on the other hand can be instantaneously forwarded to literally thousands of people with the press of a few keys!  It is for this reason that I am always surprised at how careless or sloppy people are with what they write in an email.  

A friend who works for a big city firm tells me that its general policy with emails is, don't send an email which you wouldn't want anyone and everyone to see. I think that as a rule of thumb it's a good one. The speed with which an email can be sent I find particularly frightening.  It can be written and sent in the heat of the moment. Never a good idea!  In my last job I made particular use of the draft folder.  More than once an email was sent to me that really p*ssed me off, and I found myself responding to it immediately.  I quickly learned that this is not the best of strategies.  Instead, I began writing the immediate response and setting it aside.  Just because we can instantly send emails doesn't mean we should.  Equally I've learned to take as much care in writing an email now as I do with writing a card or a letter.  Why not?  It still has my name at the bottom of it, and I wouldn't send even a quick written note with bad spelling and poor grammar.  Why should the speed of an email's execution and delivery mean that clarity and good form should be compromised?

There is no doubt that emails are an amazing piece of technology.  It has allowed for me to keep in touch with people I would not otherwise been able to do so; and to re-connect with others I had in fact lost touch with altogether. Applying for jobs and communicating with possible employers and search committees has been accomplished with a speed and simplicity impossible even 15 years ago.  I love using them, and find it odd when others do not or are unwilling to use them. (Someone actually told me that he was not 'on email' as a matter principle.  What the 'principle' was I wasn't really sure and didn't even bother to ask.  I just moved along).  But like all new technology, I think that we are still growing into it, and as we do the strategies of previous 'technologies' should not be altogether discarded.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Conscience and Chaos


We all knew that Rowan Williams was a liberal when appointed. The appointment was therefore the hope of us 'right thinkers' and the fear of the 'others'. His liberal position has been recently brought to the fore in the of form letters he wrote about eight years ago in which he stated, 'I concluded that an active sexual relationship between two people of the same sex might therefore reflect the love of God in a way compatible to marriage'; then went on to say that after 2o years of study and prayer this was his 'definitive conclusion' (see article). All of this seems now abandoned (or at least hidden) for the sake of 'unity'.

Reading and thinking through all this I was reminded of a passage from one of my favourite plays, Robert Bolt's A Man for All Seasons. In a nutshell, it's the story of Thomas More who put his conscience before the pleasure of the king and died for it. Early on in the play Cardinal Wolsey suggests placing financial and political pressure on the Church to obtain for Henry VIII an annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. He asks Thomas More how he as a Councillor of England 'can obstruct these measures for the sake of of your own private conscience'. More responds: 'Well...I believe, when statesmen forsake their own private conscience for the sake of their public duties...they lead their country by a short route to chaos.' What a powerful statement - beautifully written and insightfully observed. Had only the Archbishop paid heed to those words (he is undoubtedly familiar with the play) the situation might be different for him presently. Unfortunately, chaos has ensued in the Anglican Communion and we seem to be without anyone to whom we can actually look for guidance.

No doubt Rowan Williams is in an unenviable position, but certainly that position could be made somewhat better (at least personally) by the moral comfort of knowing he is standing up for his beliefs. By not doing so he is offers no real leadership while at the same simply hoping that the whole issue will resolve itself if he simply waits long enough. More and more voices are now rising for him to actually lead (see another article!) and there is little knowing what will happen.

While More may have suffered death as a consequence of the times in which he lived, no one would see him as a victim of circumstance. By adhering to his conviction he at least suffered for for what he really believed, and is now revered by inheritors of both 'sides' of his contemporary division. Will the sentiment for Rowan Williams 500 years from today be the same?

Thursday, July 17, 2008

The Seven-Year Itch


I arrived in Los Angeles yesterday on exactly the same date - and almost time - that I left it fifteen years ago.    The fact that I have come looking at the possibility of returning makes it all the more strange. It's often bandied about by ex-pats that the desire or opportunity to return 'home' comes in cycles of about seven years, so I am right on target I suppose.  As I sat through the flight, I wondered what living in the States again would mean practically. It's one thing to be nostalgic about 'home' when you are going for a visit, but quite another to be realistic about it when going with the possibility of actually returning.

Some of the thoughts that ran through my mind on the eleven hour plane ride seemed petty, and yet incredibly basic at that same time.  Perhaps surprisingly (or not so surprisingly), language figures large in my fears as I contemplate a move. For example (the glottal stop, notwithstanding), I have liked pronouncing my T's; so will I simply sink back to saying 'waded' for 'waited', and 'seeded' for 'seated'. Other pronunciations begged similar questions:  will 'I-say-ah' once again replace 'Isaiah' and 'shone' replace 'shawn'?  Still other questions loomed more profound.  In England there has always lingered for me the sense of being a stranger in a strange in a strange land.  Will that same feeling now continue (albeit in a different context) as I come back to the place where I was raised, but do not now fully understand.  For all my moaning about Britain (my friends there can witness to it), I recognise the extent to which Britain has shaped my present mind-set and world-view.  I recognise the extent to which I have become British.  In fact, my moaning itself is a sign of that (we Brits know it's one of our national pastimes).

The ex-pat 'seven year itch' is ultimately about nostalgia and about the fantasy that you can 'go back home'.  The truth is that going 'back home' is a physical and temporal impossibility.  Both you and home have changed, and 'going back home' in the way we usually think about it would not merely require air travel but time travel.  There is no going back home.  I am not the person I was fifteen years ago, and the US is not the country it was fifteen years - both for good and bad.  If I moved to the US now I would have to accept that it would not be substantially different than when I first moved to the UK.  It would simply begin the next chapter of my life, and I would have to begin that chapter from where I am right now: this odd conglomeration of cultures and pronunciations.  I would not be going back, I would be going on; and that is all that any of us can ever do.  Indeed, all we do is go on as life challenges and offers, and as we make our responses. Sometimes going on entails making responses with more dramatic repercussions; but whether dramatic or not, none of us can ever really stand still.  I find that an odd and exciting sort of comfort. 

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

'That Than Which Nothing Greater Can Be Conceived'


The biggest problem I have with evangelical fundamentalism is that the image of God it presents and preaches is - quite simply - not a god worthy of human worship.  In fact, I can think of many, many very fallible and broken people who would demonstrate more kindness, more inclusivity and more compassion than a god who demands human sacrifice so that 'his' anger can be appeased, or who would send people to eternal punishment because they could not bring themselves to believe in 'him'.  A god who in Jesus teaches that I should forgive freely, but then demands that I jump through hoops so 'he' can bring 'himself' to forgive me is not only inconsistent, but hypocritical and  cruel. 

But then, evangelical fundamentalism rarely has the insight of the ages. Were its adherents more familiar with Christianity's great tradition they might have come across St Anselm (1039-1109) and his definition of God: 'That than which nothing greater can be conceived.'  In my narrow-minded limitedness I can conceive of a god more loving and more accepting - in effect greater - than that of evangelical fundamentalism, and so by definition their 'god' cannot be GOD; and I don't think that we should be afraid to say it.  If God needs defending it is from concepts and definitions unworthy of him/her.  Over 600 years after Anselm, Francis Bacon (1561-1626) wrote:  'It is better to have no opinion of God at all than such an one that is unworthy of him [sic]: for the one is unbelief, the other is contumely'* How often do we make statements of God which are actually unworthy of God?  How often to we dare to speak in God's name when what is really called for is silence, reflection and awe?

There is a spiritual arrogance in believing that we can possess - or worse still that we do possess - the whole truth of God; but arrogance is not the worst of it, rather the violence we can wreak on each other when we believe ourselves certain of the divine 'will'.  Our approach to God, I think, has always to be one of humility; one of 'faith seeking understanding' (to quote Anslem again).  I wonder how long it will take until we can stand before God in complete humility, and before the world in complete compassion? 

*I have to admit that I had to look up this word - contumely - and it means 'insolent or insulting language or treatment'; pretty powerful stuff.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Thinking Outside the Gauge

Gas/petrol prices are sky-rocketing.  Here in Britain they can be be as high as £1.20 per litre (that's almost $10.00 a gallon).  In the States it is considerably cheaper, but still outrageously beyond what people have been used to, with some areas paying up $4.50 per gallon.  I was speaking to a friend in the States and she told me reports were around that the oil companies were making record profits.  It was her opinion that the government should rein them in by forcing them to lower their prices.  I must admit that I had to disagree.  It isn't because I believe the government hasn't the right to regulate prices (actually, for me the jury is still out on that one), but because I would hope for a response that gets us out of playing the oil companies' game altogether.

For argument's sake, let us say that the government does begin to consider a programme of reining in the oil companies and their exorbitant profits. Surely, in order to avoid regulation, the oil executives will voluntarily lower prices.  However, we are still playing their game.  We are still thinking 'inside the gauge'.  Without a doubt prices would eventually rise again and the entire issue would again come up.  Much more helpful would be for the government to stop listening to the oil companies altogether and be incredibly serious about developing ways in which our need for them would be obsolete.  It would mean the government and people of countries doing something really courageous. It would probably mean they'd have to stop paying any attention to the oil lobbies and the well-being of oil companies. It would be a risk, but it would send a clear signal saying 'We are not playing by your rules anymore.  We are going to really do things differently. We are going to think and act "outside the gauge"'. With the their backs to the oil companies, governments could spend real time, money and effort in finding new and creative ways of making all our 21st century gizmos go; at the same time encouraging with genuine incentives those who develop new ways forward and those who step out of their comfort zones and make use of them. Don't deal with oil companies at all, simply leave with no customers.  Oil prices would come down pretty quickly, but then we just wouldn't care

Now, I will be the first to admit that I am not an economist and what I am proposing here would be laughed out of an serious business person's office.  On the other hand,  spirituality I know, and I think spirituality does come into play here.  It is the spirituality of looking at events and situations with truly new eyes, instead of continuing to run faster and faster on the same treadmill thinking it will take us somewhere different.  I also know that the really great advances in history were as a result of people not simply doing things differently but thinking things differently.  It means thinking new rules and new ways.  I believe that as nations and as a species we will be facing many new challenges and issues in the coming years and old ways of doing things will simply not do. Thinking outside the box (or the gauge) will be will be make the difference between survival and extinction. 

Monday, April 28, 2008

You're Fired!

After a lot of cajoling, I finally watched (as much as I could stomach) of The Apprentice. I say 'as much as I could stomach' because I actually found my reaction to be visceral. The experience of watching it was for me so distasteful that it hit me at a gut level, and in groping for words to name my feelings, the only ones that I could come to were 'soul-wounding'. It simply cannot be good for the soul to watch people go at each other in such an in-human way, and in-human is the only way to describe it. We say no less about ancient gladiatorial games. The only difference seems to be suits rather than arms, but both are savage.  Why do we consider this entertainment?

This is more than simple competition.  It is a mixture of competitiveness and greed combined with an obsessional desire for celebrity status, and as such represents a new development in television programming. The Apprentice is only one example on television. There is Big Brother (and all its little off-shoots), as well as various singing/acting/dancing/cooking programmes which pit people against each other with some promise of wealth (if they 'win'), but no less the possibility of eventual celebrity-ism even if they 'lose'. These latter may not be as nasty or bitchy as The Apprentice or Big Brother but they do amount to the same.

The entire genre encourages an ugly form of individualism, while at the same time giving lip service to the benefits of 'teamwork'.  'Teamwork' is beneficial only in so far as an individual can use the efforts of the team to bolster her or his own position or highlight their own achievements.  There is nothing collaborative here, it is in fact a prostitution of 'teamwork', where working together is merely a means to a very personal and individual end.  When push comes to shove each person will do exactly that.

Perhaps it's me. I am not really competitive by nature and I remember that as a child I enjoyed playing games much more than winning them.  I just didn't care that much.  But, am I the only person that finds this all so inhumanely distasteful?



Sunday, April 6, 2008

The Innocence of Youth?


Augustine, the 4th century bishop of Hippo in North Africa, wrote that 'the innocence of children is in the helplessness of their bodies, rather than any quality of soul.' Basically, he gives the lie to what we normally call the 'innocence' of children; that is, the idea that children are born pure and that it is only interaction with us corrupted, 'sinful' grown-ups which pollutes their innocence. What a load of rubbish!  The barest cursory incursion into a school playground - even among the youngest of children - will evidence their misguided idea that they are the centre of the universe. Please understand, I am not saying that this makes children evil or corrupt.  It is simply the way we are made, we are geared to self-preservation, usually manifested in selfishness. Socialisation, far from being a kind of destruction of some innate moral innocence, is rather the very means through which we encourage in children those aspects of the human person and human interaction which we most value and most appropriately call 'human'.  If we are fortunate this transition is undergone without too much pain and frustration, but it is unrealistic to think that the frustration which it necessarily entails can be avoided altogether.

The very human contest between self-centredness and growth into empathetic awareness of others and their needs, is today best exemplified in the debate over rights and responsibilities. Socially, we have created and encouraged an entire generation (or two) of people nit-pickingly aware of their rights (me, me, me), but with almost no sense of their responsibilities (others' needs or rights).  In schools, the demand that young people take real responsibility for their lives and actions is lost in the in the double-speak of modern education: 'behavioural targets', 'time-outs', 'learning contract'.  The entire process seems geared to protecting students from the real consequences of their myopic self-centredness, their inordinate obsession with their 'rights', in attempts to 'honour their innocence as children'.  This is only exacerbated by the fact that their parents have grown up under the same system, both educationally and socially, and developed an equally distorted sense of their 'rights', but with little sense of responsibility to others or the wider society, with little awareness of the rights of others.

All of this begs some questions.  How do we socialise children (and now many adults) into the awareness of a life and a world beyond their short-sighted perspective?  How do we best encourage people into a genuine and realistic balanced view of rights and responsibilities; into a healthy complement of self-centredness and other-centredness.  I am not completely sure, but I cannot imagine that either promoting romantic ideas of innocence or continually rescuing people from the consequences of their inordinate self-absorption will do it.