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Archive for December, 2009

Loneliness by Aditya Grandhi.

Richard Dowden writes about the loneliness that so many people experience in the West. The fact that more and more people live alone; the fact that even when we are in the same physical space together we often want to preserve a sense of privacy and isolation. He contrasts this with the ‘communalism’ he has found in Africa.

There, whenever I find myself alone, people join me, not necessarily to talk, or out of politeness to a stranger, but to have human company. What is awkward is to leave someone alone. To be alone is abnormal. When I have said I want to be alone people ask if I am ill.

It is hard to be alone in Africa. Everyone has family. A person without relations is nothing. And family in Africa extends far beyond the truncated nuclear family of the Western world. Cousins several times removed are called brother or sister; distant in-laws are aunt or uncle.

Dowden is honest about the negative effects of this communalism (and those who comment on the article are even more negative):

Distant family members can call on you for money. They will turn up unannounced and expect to receive hospitality. You cannot refuse. When rich men die, their fortune is pulled to pieces and squandered by the many people who can claim a gift from the departing relative. And in most families there is a delinquent who has broken the rules or is disliked. They — and their offspring — are excluded or tolerated, but exploited. These days, when labour is becoming more expensive, the traditional practice of taking the child of a poor relative into one’s family to help them has led to exploitation. Where the child is a girl it has even ended in a relationship of slavery and rape.

Communalism can also make societies deeply conservative. Where maintaining the community is the ultimate goal, important but divisive truths cannot be discussed for fear of creating a rift, so decisions are left untaken. And the African family ensures there is no such thing as a self-made man: the classic rootless entrepreneur of 19th-century Europe or America who tears up the rule book and builds a new world.

What interests me most are his more philosophical reflections on what it means to be human:

Descartes wrote: cogito ergo sum; I think, therefore I am. The African would say: cognatus sum ergo sum; I am related, therefore I am. There are two sayings from southern Africa that make the point: “A man is a man because of others” and “Life is when you are together, alone you are an animal”. John Mbiti, a Kenyan theologian, puts it like this: “I am because we are and, since we are, therefore I am.” These sayings are easily applicable to all Africa.

In southern Africa, the concept is called ubuntu: you are who you are through others. This does not just mean family or group. Ubuntu extends to all humanity, shared personhood and values. In the past, the worst punishment in many African societies was expulsion. To be excluded was worse than death.

I think the overarching question is this: Is it possible both to belong and to be free?

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Who are the people who have shaped the world over the last ten years? (I promise that this will be the last “…of the decade” list this decade.) A panel of editors and columnists from the Times nominates fifty personalities who have most influenced the world in this period. Here are the top ten:

  1. Barack Obama (US politics)
  2. Simon Cowell (TV)
  3. Tony Blair (British politics)
  4. Francis Collins and J. Craig Venter (Human genome)
  5. Richard Dawkins (Evolution and atheism)
  6. J. K. Rowling (Harry Potter)
  7. Osama bin Laden (Al-Qaeda)
  8. Larry Page and Sergey Brin (Google)
  9. Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook)
  10. David Beckham (Football)

I’m guessing they didn’t ‘weight’ the lists given by the contributors. So with Simon Cowell at no. 2, this didn’t mean that people thought him more significant than others, but simply that he turned up on more people’s lists.

Obama 2008 Presidential Campaign by Barack Obama.

It doesn’t feel quite right putting these people in a list together, as if they are contestants in a new series of Celebrity Big Brother, sitting together on garishly designed sofas, swapping stories about the cultural splash they managed to make. I’m uneasy at the idea that it’s possible to ‘compare’ David Beckham or Simon Cowell with Osama bin Laden – it seems to flatten and trivialise the mountainous differences that exist between them in terms of who they are and what their lives mean.

The Guardian instead chooses ten icons of the decade: faces/images that capture something essential about these last ten years. It’s more about symbols and cultural resonances than explicit influence. It’s well worth clicking through the photographs, and seeing whether you agree with the reasons given in the captions for including them. If you don’t have the energy, here are the names:

  1. Osama bin Laden
  2. David Beckham
  3. Barack and Michelle Obama
  4. Carrie Bradshaw
  5. Jamie Oliver
  6. Tony Blair
  7. Madeleine McCann
  8. Britney Spears
  9. Harry Potter
  10. Google

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If Mary and Joseph were turned away this evening from the local bed and breakfast, where would they end up? Quite possibly in a bus stop. This is the suggestion made by ChurchAds.Net, which wants to re-tell the nativity story in a modern, secular context. The aim of the campaign is to reach out to the 88% of adults in Britain who hardly know the Christmas story, and to remind them that ‘Christmas starts with Christ’.

I only saw the poster for the first time yesterday evening, driving through West Hampstead. Here is it (the artist is Andrew Gadd):

I like the image. It’s unsettling and thought-provoking, but it doesn’t undermine the more traditional depictions of the nativity. The tenderness of the scene remains, but the vulnerability and precariousness of their existence comes to the fore. Some people are curious; some are more interested in looking out for the bus; one person kneels in worship. The plastic carrier bag is crucial – visually, and perhaps theologically.

This is what it means for God to come amongst us, for the Word to be made flesh. He takes on the ‘condition’ as well as the ‘nature’ of humanity. He doesn’t just live (in the abstract), he actually shares our life, however dark or dangerous that life may be.

Years ago I heard of a film about the birth of Jesus set in a housing estate in New York. The Angel Gabriel coming to this American teenager. The Saviour born into the rough-edged reality of twentieth-century urban life. I was never able to track the film down. Please leave a comment if you know what it was called.

I like the sentimentality of Christmas; the nostalgia and the traditions; even the contemporary bling. But it’s good to have a few images within our culture that help us to remember that it was real; and that it is still real.

[Olivia has since sent me a link to this wonderful article (with photos) about the history of crib-making, with some recent examples of cribs that have been set in the contemporary urban landscape.]

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Fire: Disaster in the city by millzero.There are lots of studies about how people react to unexpected danger, how they calculate risk, and how they make decisions in a crisis. I’ve been thinking about this with all the weather chaos stories of the last week. People trapped in the snow, wondering whether to abandon their cars or bed down for the night. Which option has the greater immediate risk? Which has the more burdensome medium-term consequences? People trapped in the Channel Tunnel, not sure whether to sit patiently and wait for instructions, or to get up and do something.

One of the best books I have read this year is Amanda Ripley’s The Unthinkable: who survives when disaster strikes — and why. She interviews survivors from various twentieth-century disasters — terrorist attacks, plane crashes, fires, kidnappings, etc. — and opens up not just the horror of the experiences but also the thought processes and calculations that took place within them. Then she talks to experts in psychology and sociology to examine more scientifically how the human person typically functions in a moment of crisis. She tries to pinpoint what is to our advantage, and what is not.

There are some compelling stories; it’s like reading ten thrillers back-to-back. And I learnt a lot. Most people, Ripley explains, go through the stages of denial and deliberation before coming to a decision about how to act. This is why passivity rather than panic is usually the initial response to disaster.

This is one of the few books that has caused me to change my behaviour. Now, I really do look around the aeroplane to see if the nearest exit is behind me — knowing that clambering in the wrong direction could cost me my life.

But don’t buy this book if you are of a nervous disposition…

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Orange marmelade by Simon Götz.

"Happiness is a fine marmalade but contentment is a citrus grove"

Which would you prefer: Intense but unreliable bursts of happiness, or a calm, underlying sense of contentment with life? I just came across a piece by Guy Browning about the quiet benefits of being content. It’s pithy and provocative, and short enough to quote in full:

Contentment is nature’s Prozac. It keeps you going through the bad times and the good without making too much fuss of either. Happiness is a fine marmalade but contentment is a citrus grove. Children are naturally content because they don’t know any different. It’s the knowledge of difference that breeds discontent and it’s when you finally realise that difference makes no difference that you can reclaim contentment.

It may sound dull, but being content is a profoundly radical position. It means you have no outstanding needs that other people, events or corporations can satisfy. You can’t be manipulated, corrupted, conned, heartbroken or sold unnecessary insurance policies. Contentment is the real peace of mind insurance policies claim to sell. Its definition varies between people but generally includes someone to love, somewhere to live and something to eat. And, almost always, one item of sentimental value.

The path to contentment is well signposted but generally points in the opposite direction to where we want to travel. Instead we rush off getting everything we want and then realise we don’t need any of it. A quicker way to contentment is to realise you don’t need any of the things you think you want before spending 40 years trying to acquire them.

Being happy with your lot seems to be the essence of contentment. If you are one of life’s good-looking millionaires, you just have to accept your fate and not continually struggle against it. Being unhappy with your lot is perfectly understandable when the one you’ve been given is absolute rubbish. Sadly there is no cosmic car boot sale where you can get rid of the lot you’re not happy with. All you can do is look at other people’s car boots and be happy with the junk you’ve got in your own.

Restless discontent is often held up as the great wellspring of personal and artistic progress. This is the ants-in-the-pants theory of progress and works well if you think progress consists of substituting one state of unhappiness with another. That said, contentment can be dangerously close to the squishy sofas of smugness and complacency. It’s worth remembering your lot can quite easily be an epic struggle against overwhelming odds but, even if it is, you can still be content with it.

I like the core idea: That we can waste our whole life trying to get what we don’t yet have, when in fact there is a peace to be found in accepting one’s situation, and making the most of it. But I’m worried about the edges of the argument, for two opposite reasons (both of which, to be fair, are half-addressed in the article).

First, it’s good that we are sometimes frustrated and exasperated and striving for more. This motivates us. It makes us seek answers, or fight for justice, or simply tighten things up a bit.

Second, I think there is a kind of contentment that can be found even if the ordinary elements of a ‘content life’ seem to be missing. It’s easy to say this when I have food in my belly; and perhaps I can only do so in the light of my Christian faith. Here, Christ himself, and all the saints, show us an inner peace and joy that can be found in God even when the ordinary expectations of life seem to be frustrated. This doesn’t mean that Christianity is a religion of passivity or despair. It simply means that the peace of God is a gift more powerful than any worldly setback, and a necessary foundation for any slight progress or major revolution that might eventually take place.

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With my love for circles, tangents, prehistoric art, and monumental gestures, I can’t resist linking to these images of Jim Denevan’s enormous desert art project – which also happens to be the largest artwork ever made, dwarfing Christo’s wrapped buildings and even the greatest of the anonymous crop circles (if they are human art rather than a form of alien communication…)

All the images I can find are in copyright, so I can’t paste them here; but please take the time to click on the link above and look. Here are some other sand images by Denevan – but they are nothing to compare with this latest project:

Spiral I by ChibiJosh.

Sand image by Jim Denevan on Ocean Beach in San Francisco

Spiral III by ChibiJosh.

doing the denevan V by dotpolka.

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I mentioned a few weeks ago that a series of talks about ‘the Fundamentals of Faith’ was coming up. These have now happened, and thanks to the technology team at the Diocese of Westminster you can watch or read them all online. The main link is here.

Just to remind you of the topics: There are talks on Authority and Conscience; Prayer; the Bible; Finding True Happiness; God, Creation and Ecology; and Catholic Social Teaching.

The link to my own talk about ‘Happiness and the moral life’ is below. [That's Fr Dominic Robinson at the beginning; I start the talk at 2:40].

Faith Matters, Lecture 4 Autumn 2009 from Catholic Westminster.

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