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Archive for July, 2011

The Tree of Life

Some films are too beautiful and too powerful to be written about, at least not until a few weeks have passed, when you are writing about a memory and not an unmediated experience. Thank goodness I managed to avoid not only the reviews, but also any stray plot summaries that were floating around the blogs and papers, so that every twist and turn and even each new scene felt like an unfolding revelation. And once I had seen that the main poster in the UK was full of stills from the picture, with ‘too much information’, I averted my eyes from that as well. I know, there is some sort of obsessive-compulsive disorder here that I need to speak to my therapist about.

Anyway – I won’t say anything (and I won’t even link to the trailer) other than: Go to see this film. Don’t wait for the DVD, don’t download it illegally; just see it on the big screen, before it disappears into art-house obscurity. And if it has already landed there, then travel to the Glasgow Picture House or the Cambridge Movie Palace or wherever it is showing. It really is breathtaking. It really does turn your mind upside down and your heart inside out. It’s pure cinema. I’d better stop, before I start writing about the film.

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I’ve read a few books about Mother Teresa, but I’d still say that Malcolm Muggeridge’s Something Beautiful for God is perhaps the best. I picked it up again last week, twenty-five years after I first read it as a teenager. I’d forgotten what an impact it made on me, and how much her spirituality and faith have shaped my own, almost without me realising it.

There was a very practical effect too. I had a free summer at the end of my first year at university and somehow I got the idea of helping the Missionaries of Charity in London. In the end I spent a month living in their hostel for men in Kilburn (it’s since moved): getting to know the men and the sisters; making soup; driving the van, etc. It was a very blessed time for me. The main UK house of the sisters is still in north London, and it’s lovely to see them if I am celebrating Mass in the local parish church at Kensal New Town.

Back to the book: It’s not really a biography, and even if it were it would be way out of date – the copy I have was published in 1971. It’s a couple of extended essays by Malcolm Muggeridge; a selection of quotations from Mother Teresa; an interview; and some wonderful photos of her and the sisters and the people they care for. But somehow it captures the simplicity of her spirit and of her vision much better than larger books.

Muggeridge, when he writes this, is not yet a believer; so as a reader you share in his own fascination with this woman who speaks of a reality he can’t quite grasp. He’s writing about a truth he sees but can’t yet give his heart to; and this tension and slight distance give a certain clarity to the image.

Here is one of the quotations from the book that struck me all those years ago, and which I can still recite from heart:

Make sure that you let God’s grace work in your souls by accepting whatever he gives you, and giving him whatever he takes from you. True holiness consists in doing God’s will with a smile.

It’s easy to quote…

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Look through any current affairs section in your local bookshop and you’ll find a pile of books that should really be classified under ‘future affairs’, dabbling in the science/art of futurology, and claiming to predict what the world will be like in ten, twenty or a hundred years’ time.

George Friedman’s The Next 100 Years is one such book that I’ve just finished reading. I don’t know anything about him, or STRATFOR, the ‘preeminent private intelligence and forecasting firm’ that he founded. But it’s a provocative read, partly because so many of his predictions go against the prevailing wisdom you find in the media. This is because, he claims, the underlying issues are always geopolitical, which ends up meaning geographic and demographic; and there is a sort of destiny to the way nations will relate that arises from their geographical strengths and vulnerabilities, and from their demographic profiles.

China, for example, is not going to be a major player in the twenty-first century, despite the present economic boom there. That’s because most of the country is inaccessible to the outside world; only the Eastern seaboard cities will be able to flourish – and they won’t want to be shackled by the centre forever; and the one child policy has created an aging population that won’t have enough younger people to sustain it.

The United States, instead, which everyone thinks is in decline, is actually only at the beginning of its world dominance – according to Friedman. That’s because, to vastly oversimplify,  it’s the one country that can continue to dominate (economically and militarily) both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. And dominating the world’s oceans matters more than any other single political or technological asset.

The US-Jihadist ‘war’ is just a small distraction that won’t figure very heavily in the history books; there will be a new cold with Russia, as it reasserts its Eurasian dominance; and the real geopolitical conflict towards the end of the century will be between the States and a resurgent Mexico.

And while everyone else is worrying about the population explosion of the coming decades, Friendman believes that the most significant geopolitical fact of the next hundred years will be a global population implosion, together with the resulting scramble to attract the ever-decreasing numbers of available migrant workers, and the development of new technologies to cope with the declining availability of labour.

You can buy the book and disagree with him to your heart’s content! But it’s interesting to note, in the news just over the last few days, reports of a possible economic bust in China, and of a reverse trend in Mexican immigration into the United States, as people move back home to benefit from the vibrant Mexican economy…

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I gave a talk at the weekend about providence. Is it true that God has a plan for us? Is it true that he guides all that happens within creation, and all that happens within our own individual lives? I wasn’t so much looking at the theology or philosophy of how God ‘acts’ in the world, but rather at the instinctive ways we tend to view things when we are struggling to make sense of events.

I think there are three ‘default’ positions about providence, all incorrect; and we usually fall into one of them even without realising it.

First, there is the idea that God is simply not involved in the ordinary events of life. Everything is random. There is consequently no meaning or purpose in anything that happens. There is no plan. This is an atheist, materialist position; but it’s subconsciously held by many Christians – at least at the level of their psychological reactions to things. It’s pretty bleak.

Second, there is the implicit assumption that as a rule things are random and meaningless and out of God’s control, even though he’s there, in the background. He leaves things to unfold in their own way; and every now and then he steps in to ‘intervene’. I don’t mean through miracles (although they could fit in here); I mean the idea that God only acts on special occasions, when he takes a special interest in something; and that he is fairly detached and indifferent the rest of the time.

I think this view is quite common in the Christian life. We battle on with life as if we are in a Godless world – the structure of our life is to all extents pagan. Every now and then we pray for something specific; every now and then we have an ‘experience’ of God helping us, or doing something particularly important or unexpected, and we are grateful for that and our ‘faith’ is deepened. But in a strange way this gratitude reinforces the hidden assumption that God is actually not present and not actively concerned for us all the rest of the time.

The third faulty view of providence goes to the other extreme. In this case we believe that God is indeed in control of all history and all events. We believe that everything has huge meaning, that everything reflects God’s loving and providential purposes – which it does. But for this reason we want to over-interpret the significance of every single event. Why is the train three minutes late? Why is the car in front of me green and not blue? What’s the significance of me spilling my coffee or waking before my alarm goes off or bumping into you in the street yesterday? This kind of reflection can become a form of superstition; a kind of obsessive-compulsive disorder.

It’s true that all these small events are part of God’s providential purposes; and it’s also true that sometimes these small events can have a huge significance for someone. Small and apparently ‘chance’ events lead someone to meet their husband or wife for the first time, or to discover their vocation, or to take a different direction in life.

But here is the theological/spiritual point: not all events are of equal significance; and we won’t necessarily know which event has a particular significancefor us at any moment, or what it’s significance is.

So this is the fourth way, and I think the correct one, of interpreting providence: Everything is in God’s loving hands. He is over all and in all and present to all. Everything does have a meaning, a place in his plan. But we can leave God to do the interpreting and understanding. We won’t always understand, but it makes a huge difference knowing that he understands, that he knows what he is doing. Our response is to trust and to hope; and actively to entrust all that we do and all that we experience to him.

Sometimes, for his reasons, we get a glimpse of why something matters and what it means in the broader picture; and this is very consoling. Sometimes, especially in moments of decision or crisis, we need to come to some clarity about whether something is important for us personally, or for the Church, or for society – and this is why discernment is so important in the Christian life. So trusting in providence does not mean becoming passive or indifferent or fatalistic, or ignoring the call to take responsibility or to work for radical change. It doesn’t mean God takes away our freedom. But our fundamental knowledge that God knows what he is doing and is doing everything for our good takes away the existential anxiety that afflicts the pagan heart, and the obsessive curiosity that afflicts the superstitious mind.

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Is boarding school bad for you? Stefanie Marsh, in a trenchant and fairly one-sided article, looks at the work of psychotherapist Joy Schaverien. In her paper ‘Boarding School: The Trauma of the Privileged Child’, Schaverien claims to identify something called Boarding School Syndrome, an emotional dysfunction stemming primarily from the trauma of early separation from one’s parents, that manifests itself in intimacy problems in later life.

Eton College

In Schaverien’s words:

Parents bankrupt themselves to send their children to school when they are just babies really. This is a terrible burden for the child. But it is like sending a child into care. Nowadays there are duvets on the beds and they are allowed teddy bears but it doesn’t make up for the fact that children leave their mothers, their primary attachment figures, when they are essentially still babies.

Stefanie Marsh fills in some of the psychological details:

‘Attachment theory’, a core tenet of contemporary psychology, was formulated by the psychiatrist and psychoanalyst John Bowlby, who, in the Second World War, observed the effects on children who had lost parents or been evacuated. During the 1980s, his theories were extrapolated and applied to adults – separation anxiety and grief in childhood, it is now commonly held, can create different ‘attachment styles’ in adult romantic relationship: secure-avoidant, anxious-preoccupied, dismissive-avoidant and fearful-avoidant.

Boarding school ‘survivors’, as they have been collectively termed by the psychotherapist Nick Duffell, are said to most frequently exhibit avoidant styles, viewing themselves as self-sufficient, invulnerable to attachment feelings and not needing close relationships. Often they suppress their feelings, cope with rejection by distancing themselves from partners or feel uncomfortable with emotional or physical closeness.

So this isn’t about identifying particular problems that can develop in the culture of a boarding school, it’s about the very fact of being separated from one’s parents at an ‘early’ age. I think the focus is more on those who board at ‘prep’ school, i.e. those who leave home not at 13, but sometime between the ages of 7 and 13. (David Cameron went to board at prep school at age 7; Stephen Fry at 7; Boris Johnson at 9; Price William at 8; Sienna Miller at 8…)

What do you think? What’s your own experience? Is there another side to this story?

[Times, Modern section, 23 June, pp. 4-5; subscription only]

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Quite by chance I got chatting to someone who works in a business that deals with stem cells. As soon as he said this I got nervous, thinking the conversation was going to go in an ethically difficult direction. But it turns out that his line is umbilical cords and not embryos.

 

It was a fascinating conversation. The idea is very simple. The stem cells from the umbilical cord have the potential to be used in all sorts of therapies, and they match the child and not the mother. His company collects the cord at birth and stores it, for a fee – so that it can be used to harvest stem cells if they are needed for the child at any time in the future.

What is so interesting, medically and philosophically, is that even though some therapies are already developed, the primary purpose of keeping these stem cells is for them to be used in therapies that are as yet undiscovered. So five, ten, fifteen years in the future the child may need them for a therapy that doesn’t yet exist.

Please don’t think I am promoting this company – this is a blog about ideas, and I have no idea what this or any other stem cell company is actually like. But if you are interested in seeing how one such company promotes itself, and how an ethical scientific idea can be translated into a practical proposition for parents, then take a look here at the Smart Cells website. This is their sales pitch:

Why store your child’s stem cells? The umbilical cord and umbilical cord blood are discarded as medical waste after the hospital draws samples for their testing…unless the mother chooses to bank the cord blood. In 1988 a stem cell transplant took place that received little attention, yet heralded the start of an exciting new era in medicine.

The transplant used stem cells found in the umbilical cord blood remaining in the placenta and umbilical cord after the birth of a baby. The patient was a little boy suffering from a serious blood disorder called Fanconi’s Anaemia, and the stem cells were taken from the cord blood of his new-born sister.

Your child’s stem cells have a one in four chance of matching a sibling. Using genetically related stem cells which are free from the disease being treated, often results in successful transplants with fewer complications.

The thought of your baby or any other member of your family becoming seriously ill is probably the last thing on your mind during your pregnancy. By storing your new-born baby’s umbilical cord stem cells, you can give your family a gift that can last a lifetime.

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With this name to the blog, I can’t not post about the world’s longest sea bridge which (as the Daily Mail puts it so helpfully for us British/French readers) ‘is five miles LONGER than the Dover-Calais crossing’.

The previous record-holder, the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway in Louisiana. See it in the distance.

As ever, the Mail has the best pictures, on it’s staggeringly successful website. This is from Oliver Pickup’s article.

China has unveiled the world’s longest sea bridge, which stretches a massive 26.4 miles – five miles further than the distance between Dover and Calais and longer than a marathon.

The Qingdao Haiwan Bridge, completed earlier this week, links the main urban area of Qingdao city, East China’s Shandong province, with Huangdao district, straddling the Jiaozhou Bay sea areas.

The road bridge, which took four years and cost a cool £5.5billion to build, will be open for use in the New Year and is almost three miles longer than the previous record-holder, the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway in Louisiana.

That structure features two bridges running side by side and is 23.87 miles (38.42km) long.

The three-way Qingdao Haiwan Bridge is a staggering 174 times longer than London’s Tower Bridge, over the Thames River – and shaves 19 miles off the drive from Qingdao to Huangdao.

Two separate groups of workers have been building the different ends of the structure since 2006.

And they were relieved when all the bridges connected properly, which they managed to do on December 22.

One engineer commented: ‘The computer models and calculations are all very well but you can’t really relax until the two sides are bolted together.

‘Even a few centimetres out would have been a disaster.’

WORLD’S LONGEST

- Danyang–Kunshan Grand Bridge (rail) – China  – 102 miles
– Tianjin Grand Bridge (rail) – China – 71 miles
– Weinan Weihe Grand Bridge (rail) – China  – 50 miles
– Bang Na Expressway (road) – Thailand – 34 miles

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