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Posts Tagged ‘friendship’

Stepping away from the politics and polemic surrounding marriage for a moment, how do you actually form children and young people – in an age-appropriate way – to understand the true meaning of love, friendship, sexuality and relationships?

A scene from the Play 'Nine Months' by Ten Ten Theatre

A scene from the Play ‘Nine Months’ by Ten Ten Theatre

 

I happened to see this article by Martin O’Brien that appeared in the Universe this month.

First of all, he recognises the challenges:

Educating children and young people with a sound understanding of Church teaching on relationships, sexual morality, love, marriage and family life remains one of the most challenging issues for any Catholic school.  Problems arise:  How we do we speak to children in their own language and culture but avoid reinforcing it?  Beyond the rules and regulations, what exactly is the Church teaching?  How am I supposed to teach it if my own life and values don’t live up to the ideal?

It was within this environment six years ago that Ten Ten Theatre – an award-winning Catholic theatre company – began devising, writing and producing a programme of Catholic Sex and Relationship Education which has now been established in hundreds of primary schools, secondary schools and parishes throughout the UK.

We take our inspiration from Blessed John Paul II’s teaching known as The Theology of the Body.  It has been our task over the last few years to identify some of the core values of the teaching and write accessible, contemporary stories to explore these ideas.  Karol Wojtyla himself was a keen actor and dramatist who believed passionately in the power of story and character to examine the human person.  At Ten Ten we aim to do the same, encouraging our children and young people to reflect on their own lives and experiences in order to understand more deeply their Call to Love.

Then he gives some examples from their work with teenagers:

The play “Chased” for the 13-14 age group follows the story of Scott and Carly who are so confused by the world they inhabit – pressure from friends, influence of the media, physical development – that they almost lose sight of their core dignity.  And yet through the story they begin to understand the deepest longings of the heart: to be honourable, to be cherished, to be loved and to love as Christ loves.

By taking the characters on this journey, and following it up with discussion, sharing, reflection and prayer, the young people understand what it means to be “in” the world but not “of” the world.

This begs the question, which O’Brien asks: What about primary school children?  How can we promote these values without corrupting children with sexual imagery and inappropriate information?

tt2

One example is “The Gift”, a lovely play for 7-9 year-olds.  It tells the story of twins Harry and Kate who learn about the preciousness of gifts: Kate’s treasured musical box, given to her by her Auntie who passed away, is accidentally smashed to pieces by Harry.  Harry doesn’t understand why Kate is so upset. “After all,” he says, “you can get another one from the pound shop… for a pound!” Through the story, both Harry and Kate (and the children watching) learn about the true value of gifts, what it means to make a gift of yourself and the importance of forgiveness.

These are precisely the same values we promote through the play “Chased” but at an age-appropriate level.   In the follow-up workshop to “The Gift”, the actors ask the children to think more deeply about the best gift they have ever been given, who gave it to them and why is it so special.  Sometimes the responses are material: Playstations and puppies are always very popular.  Other responses tell of something deeper: my life or my baby brother.

However, a few weeks ago at a school in Merseyside, one particular response really touched us.“What’s the best gift you’ve ever received?” we asked.   “My mum,” said the boy.   “And why is she so special?”   “Because she adopted me and without her I wouldn’t have been brought up happy,” said the boy.   The boy’s mother, in fact, also taught at the school.  Later that day, when she was told what her adopted son had said, she crumbled into tears.

I can understand why.  This woman has likely given her entire life as a gift to the boy, making a decision to love him, protect him and care for him with all of her heart.  Surely this is one of the greatest gifts that a person could choose to give.  And yet it is a gift that people throughout the world make moment after moment, day after day.  Now, as a result of the visit of Ten Ten, this particular mother knew that her seven-year-old adopted son valued and appreciated the great sacrifice she has made.

You can follow the Ten Ten blog here. For more information see their main website here.

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Fascinating figures recently out from Ofcom. For the first time ever, despite the fact that mobile phone sales are still surging, the time we spend talking on the mobile has actually dropped. So this isn’t just the decline of the landline conversation, which has been happening for a long time. It’s the decline of conversation full-stop, even though it is cheaper and easier than ever before.

Tiffany Jenkins gives the facts:

Have you noticed how little we talk on the telephone, compared to how much we used to? That’s talk; not text. Speak; not message. I rarely pick up the land-line, or my mobile, to dial those with whom I work.

Admittedly, I occasionally call a select group of friends and family, but even these have been filtered down to leave only a few on the line.

More often than not we e-mail each other instead of speaking to one another, or we text and instant message, contacting people through social networking sites. The answerphone is redundant, quiet in the corner. The landline retained only for its internet connection.

These observations are not confined to personal experience. Figures released by Ofcom, earlier this year, showed that the volume of landline calls have gone down dramatically. Last year, they fell by 10 percent. Today, it is surprising when it rings, and when – if ever it does, you are more likely find a salesperson at the end of the line than someone you actually know.

Fixed-line voice calls have been in decline for some time, but what is significant is that there has also been a drop in mobile voice calls.

The figures published by Ofcom show they are on the wane – the overall time spent talking on mobile phones dropped by over 1 per cent in 2011, for the first time ever. My mobile constantly bleeps and buzzes at the sound of new activity, but I hear the ring tone less and less.

People are still communicating, they just don’t do it directly. Instead we are switching to texts, e-mails and online communication of various sorts.

The average UK consumer now sends 50 texts per week which has more than doubled in four years.

What does it all mean? Jenkins reflects:

Developments in technology allow us to get in touch whenever, quickly, cheaply, and apparently efficiently, but separated at a distance. It isn’t face to face, nor on an open line. Walking into a once noisy office recently, where I used to work, I found that everyone was silently typing away. They were interacting with each other – and others – but though the internet. Text based communications and the computer are acting as a chaperone [...].

This connection at a distance concerns me. Why does it feel too intimate to call someone without an arrangement? What is so scary about an open line? And why do we need to be constantly in touch, but with technology coming between us, putting us at arms – or rather text – length?

And she writes about Sherry Turkle, professor of social sciences at Massachusetes Institute of Technology, who makes some pertinent points in her book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (which I haven’t yet read).

Her central point is that we are turning to technology to fill an emotional void and desire for intimacy, but that it in fact creates a new solitude. “Connectivity offers the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship”, she says.

That we seek intimacy in technology, and not with each other, suggests that we are too fearful of real-life connections, relying on technology as a shield. We are turning away from one another, typing away in isolation, and developing virtual connections, because it feels safer than speaking in person. But we cannot make friends, or sustain relationships without commitment, without exposing our true selves.

Social media will not be truly “social” if it is a crutch that we use in place of communicating with each other in real-time. It strikes me that we should pick up the telephone and speak to one another. Go on, take a risk and give someone a call. It is good to talk.

Do you talk less than you used to? Here is a tip/experiment: Instead of checking your email or Facebook or internet news at the end of the day, try calling someone just for a ten minute catch-up. Try it for a week. See if it has made a difference…

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This is a couple of weeks old now, but it didn’t get as much traction in the news as I expected. Isn’t it an absolutely astonishing historical landmark, that over one billion people are now voluntarily connected on a social networking site?

Yes, there are more people in China, in India and in the Catholic Church; but these ‘groupings’ (I can’t find a good generic term that covers a nation-state and the Catholic Church) have taken a few years to get going, and a large number of their members were born into them.

Facebook doubled it’s size from a half billion users to one billion in just three years and two months!

See this report by Jemima Kiss.

And watch this very clever promotional video, entitled “The Things that Connect Us”, directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, whose film credits include Amores Perros and 21 Grams. Notice the beautiful bridge images, very close to my blogging heart.

And remember Susan Maushart’s warning in her book The Winter of Our Disconnect (p6):

So… how connected, I found myself wondering, is connected enough? Like many other parents, I’d noticed that the more we seemed to communicate as individuals, the less we seemed to cohere as a family… I started considering a scenario E. M. Forster never anticipated: the possibility that the more we connect, the further we may drift, the more fragmented we may become.

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I gave a talk about the saints a few days ago, together with Hannah Vaughan-Spruce. I did some ‘theory’ about what devotion to the saints really means, and how much it can help us in our life and faith; Hannah brought this alive by giving examples of some 20th century saints who really speak to us today. You can watch the talks here:

Or if you are having problems, see them on the Westminster site here.

Hannah is the catechetical coordinator in a big south London parish. She writes an excellent blog, Transformed in Christ, about catechesis.

These two talks are part of the Faith Matters series in central London, which continues on two more Tuesday evenings (15 and 22 Nov). Details here.

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Another article about the nature of friendship, this time by Zoe Williams. She looks at a study from twenty-five years ago by Time Sharing Experiments for the Social Sciences (TESS) that defined friends as close confidantes, people to whom you can tell anything. Back then, apparently, we had an average of three friends each.

"You have five friends, and the rest is landscape" - Portuguese saying

A few months ago I wrote about Robin Dunbar’s theory about the number and kinds of friends someone typically has: five intimate friends, 15 good friends (including the five intimate ones), 50 ‘ordinary’ friends and 150 acquaintances. Zoe Williams isn’t so keen on Dunbar:

I prefer the TESS definition, or better still, the Portuguese saying, “You have five friends, and the rest is landscape.” I was reading an interview with a young person recently (nope, name, occupation, purpose… all completely gone, the only bit I remember is this next bit) in which he said that he’d realised that a friend is someone who will drop what they’re doing and come and help you, if you need it.

I thought it was weird that a person whose formative years occurred post-internet needs to have that spelled out, but it also struck me that you can only perform that office for a handful of people, and you would ideally (unless you’re some kind of grifter) want a balance, between the people who you’ll drop everything for, and those who’ll drop everything for you.

So I have five friends. For my own amusement, I shuffle them up and down the top-five hierarchy, and sometimes kick one out for a new friend, only to have to put them back in when I remember that you can’t make old friends. A couple of couples I bust in on a technicality, by thinking of them as one person. But still, five friends. The rest is landscape.

You can see the brief interviews that follow the article, where a few ordinary people are brave enough to speak about how few close friends they really have.

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Sadly I couldn’t afford to fly out to the Web 2.0 Summit in San Francisco this week. One of the social networking themes discussed was the question of whether there are advantages to sharing less rather than more.

Facebook has pioneered the concept of ‘frictionless sharing’ (a term I just learnt): when your personal information, your consumer choices, your likes and dislikes, your moods, your geographical position, etc, are all shared automatically and seamlessly with your online friends. But this ignores the psychological and sociological evidence that a significant part of friendship and social bonding is choosing what not to share, what not to reveal.

There’s a nice quote from Vic Gundotra who is head of the Google+ project, which tries to be a classier and more selective Facebook:

There is a reason why every thought in your head does not come out of your mouth. The core attribute of the human is to curate how others perceive you and what you say. Even something as simple as music – I don’t want all my music shared with everybody. I’m embarrassed I like that one Britney Spears track. I want people to know I like U2. That’s cooler than saying I like Britney Spears. If that’s how I feel about music, how will I feel about things I read? [Quoted in an article by Murad Ahmed, The Times today, p26]

Less is more, not from a sort of reactionary puritanism, but because the way we create ourselves and communicate who we are is always, at some level, through making decisions about what to reveal and what to withhold. This is how we give shape to the person we are, and allow others to come to know us. I like especially that idea that we ‘curate’ ourselves.

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"A faithful friend is a sturdy shelter" (a nice photo - but I'm not sure how sturdy this shelter is...)

Two friends got married yesterday. For the first reading, they chose this passage about friendship from Ecclesiasticus (6:14-17):

Faithful friends are a sturdy shelter:
   whoever finds one has found a treasure.
Faithful friends are beyond price;
   no amount can balance their worth.
Faithful friends are life-saving medicine;
   and those who fear the Lord will find them.
Those who fear the Lord direct their friendship aright,
   for as they are, so are their neighbours also.

Here are a couple of thoughts – not the whole sermon, just the reflection on friendship:

It’s a lovely thing that they were friends for a good period before they started dating, because it helps them to see that friendship is the foundation even of the great romance that has brought them to marriage.

An enduring friendship, through all the inevitable ups and downs of life, is a key part of what sustains a marriage. It’s why the word ‘honour’ is so important in the marriage rite. You honour a person for who they are, for what their innate dignity deserves, and not just because you happen to love them.

The last verse of the reading is particularly thought-provoking: “Whoever fears the Lord directs his friendship aright, for as he is, so is his neighbour also”. As you are, so will your friend be, so will your spouse be.

A simple interpretation of this is to say that ‘like attracts like’, we are drawn to people who are similar to us – and there is some truth to that.

But a deeper meaning is this: that the person you choose to be at any moment will have a formative effect on your spouse. If you are loving, patient, cheerful, forgiving; this will have an effect, for the good, on your spouse. If you are ratty, resentful, complaining, mistrustful; the chances are, before too long, so will your spouse be too.

Everyone wishes that their husband or wife were more loving, more perfect. The secret is to be more loving yourself. The effects, as anyone knows, are not always immediate (if only they were!). But if you want your spouse to be good, and you want your friendship to last, there is no clearer path than trying to be a good person yourself; and persevering on that path.

And, since I’m cutting and pasting, a final section about the openness of a couple within marriage:

There is a special beauty about a marriage that is open to God and open to the gift of children. It’s hard to describe, but it’s true.

If you live your Catholic faith, and pray together, and make your home and family a place of faith and holiness – in one sense it makes you less intensely focussed on each other.

You can’t say to each other, like in the romantic novels, ‘You are everything to me’ or ‘You are my all’, because it’s simply not true. There’s God also, there’s life after death, there’s the family, there’s all the other stuff too. (Now I’m not a hardliner; and we’ll allow you a bit of romance and exaggerated lovers’ language.)

But in a strange way, the fact that two people are less focussed on each other (because of their faith) allows them to love each other more freely, with more passion and more purity. And you really see this.

It’s not a bargain, as if to say, ‘If you love God, he will bless your marriage’. It’s a spiritual truth, that your openness to God in faith, and your openness to the gift of children that he may send you, will have a direct effect on your openness to each other in love and friendship.

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What an amazing day. I was at St Mary’s University College yesterday for the Third International Symposium on Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body and I saw the fastest man in the world! The fastest man in the world ever! 100m in 9.58 seconds. (I didn’t see him do the 9.58 seconds.)

Let’s deal with Usain Bolt first. He was at St Mary’s for an afternoon of interviews and publicity. I heard this on the grapevine and snuck down to the gym where he was doing a photo-shoot. I don’t have tickets to the 100m final at the Olympics, so I presume this is as close as I will ever get to the legend. It was a sweet moment just to see him in the flesh, and to imagine watching the Olympics on the TV next summer.

Here is the world record run:

And the conference. It’s just getting started, but there were two interesting talks from Michael Waldstein and William Newton. Newton asked a fascinating question: Why does Pope John Paul talk about the spousal meaning of the body instead of the fraternal meaning of the body? There are many different ways of loving and relating and bonding, many different kinds of friendship, so why put the emphasis on the love shared by a husband and wife?

He gave what I thought was a good answer. He didn’t say that spousal love is the deepest kind of love, as if all other loves and relationships were a hidden longing for this – which wouldn’t make sense of the Christian understanding of heaven, and which would seem like a slight or an impossible burden to those of us (over 50% in the UK!) who are not married. Instead he said that spousal love provides an icon of the deepest meaning of all love; it shows with a particular clarity how every relationship – at its best – is about giving oneself in order to deepen the bonds of communion and friendship, a friendship that leads to new life for those in the relationship and for others.

In other words (I’m going a bit further than Newton did in his talk), all relationships, despite their radical differences – think of friends, siblings, parents and children, colleagues, fellow citizens, etc – have at heart an element of giving oneself, and receiving the gift of who the other person is, for the sake of communion and the giving of new life; they are unitive and procreative. It’s not that everyone has a vocation to be a husband or wife; it’s that everyone longs to give themselves to others in a way that has a particular iconic clarity in the love between husband and wife. This is why, according to Pope John Paul, the spousal meaning of the body has significance for all of us – married and unmarried.

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Just a follow-up from yesterday’s post about community: Robin Dunbar also writes about the kinds of friendships we form and the number of friends we typically have.

Don’t start over-analysing this and getting depressed about how many friends you don’t have – it’s not a competition or a test of psychological well-being!

On average, we have five intimate friends, 15 good friends (including the five intimate ones), 50 friends and 150 acquaintances. While it is not altogether clear why our relationships are constrained in this way, one possibility is time. A relationship’s quality seems to depend on how much time we devote to it, and since time is limited, we necessarily have to distribute what time we do have for social engagement unevenly. We focus most of it on our inner core of five intimates. Alternatively, it might just be a memory problem: we have a job keeping track of who’s doing what, and can only really keep serious tabs on the inner core of five.

The point about how difficult (and probably unwise) it is to have a large number of ‘intimate friends’ is not different from what Aristotle says about ‘perfect friendship’ in Book 8 of the Nicomachean Ethics.

But it is natural that such friendships should be infrequent; for such people are rare. Further, such friendship requires time and familiarity; as the proverb says, people cannot know each other till they have ‘eaten salt together'; nor can they admit each other to friendship or be friends till each has been found lovable and been trusted by each. Those who quickly show the marks of friendship to each other wish to be friends, but are not friends unless they both are lovable and know the fact; for a wish for friendship may arise quickly, but friendship does not.

Dunbar then connects the question of friendship with yesterday’s question about the ideal size for a community.

But there is one more serious problem lurking behind all this. In traditional small-scale societies, everyone shares the same 150 friends. This was true even in Europe until well into the 20th century, and probably still is true today of isolated rural communities. You might well fall out with them from time to time, but, like the Hutterites, you are bound together by mutual obligation and densely interwoven relationships. And of these, shared kinship was perhaps the most pervasive and important: offend Jim down the road, and you bring granny down on your back because Jim is her second-cousin-once-removed, and she’s got her own sister, Jim’s grandmother, on to her about it.

In the modern world of economic mobility, this simple balance has upset: we grow up here, go to university there, and move on to several elsewheres in a succession of job moves. The consequence is that our social networks become fragmented and distributed: we end up with small pockets of friends scattered around the country, most of whom don’t know each other and, perhaps more importantly, don’t know the family part of our networks. You can offend Jim, and almost no one will care. And if they do, you can afford to move on and leave that whole subset of friends behind. Networks are no longer self-policing.

Because modern geographical communities no longer have the social coherence they had up until the 1950s, it is perhaps inevitable that people become less willing to remonstrate with miscreants because others are unlikely to back them up. Bearing these factors in mind, is it any wonder that some inner-city communities fall victim to gang violence? Our real problem for the future is how to overcome this social fragmentation by recreating a sense of community in our increasingly urbanised and mobile world.

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I’m just back from a night in Chester – two hours from Euston on the train. In fact the hotel I stayed in was just over the Welsh border;so I wasn’t just out of London, I was out of England.

It’s good to be reminded that London is not ordinary life for everyone in Britain. I expected the “it’s too big, too busy, too brash” attitude. One man I met, brought up in Chester, reflected on a recent trip to London, and told me how he was amazed that you had to stand on the right-hand side of the escalators so that other people could rush past you on the other side. Why not just take your time and let the escalator do the work? Why not indeed.

I remembered that just this week I was standing on an escalator behind two people who were talking to each other – a very ordinary and beautiful thing to do – but they were on the same step, and so one of them was standing on the left-hand side! And I was thinking at the time ‘are you crazy, just standing there blocking the clear line of the fast lane?’ When someone came racing down and wanted to pass, he moved out of the way immediately, but then he went back to his position on the left!

You can tell how mad my stream-of-consciousness thinking has become in the apparent normality of this London madness. And how right the good people of Chester are to be bemused and a little concerned by all this.

But the other conversation I had about my home city surprised and heartened me a lot. When I was talking about the escalator conversation later in the evening, someone else said that they had visited London recently with friends, and they had all commented, reflecting on their different experiences, that London seemed a friendlier place than it had been a few years ago – for them as visitors. People were more helpful, more willing to talk, happier to engage.

If it’s true, isn’t that great? And if it’s true, I wonder why? Is it because London is more multicultural, so the natural English reserve has given way to the openness that perhaps comes more easily to people brought up in different cultures? Is it because customers have higher expectations about how they should be treated in shops and restaurants and entertainment venues, and businesses are better at training staff and responding to these expectations? Or is it because of some deeper shift in the zeitgeist? I’m not sure. But it warmed my heart to think that one or two random people from outside London had gone home with good impressions of the city and of those of us who live here, despite our obsession with standing on the right of the escalators.

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No-one doubts, after Egypt, that you can organise a revolution on Facebook. The question for those of us not presently caught up in this kind of political activism is: can you truly socialise there? 

Aaron Sorkin, creator of the West Wing and scriptwriter of The Social Network, was asked in a recent interview what he thought of the way Facebook is changing the nature of our relationships.

I’ve copied the full answer below, but let me highlight the thought-provoking analogy he makes, which is reason for a post in itself:

Socialising on the internet is to socialising what reality TV is to reality.

Here’s the context:

Q: How to you feel about the way Facebook is changing how people relate?

A: I have a 10-year-old daughter who has never really known a world without Facebook, but we’re going to have to wait a generation or two to find out the results of this experiment. I’m very pessimistic. There’s an insincerity to it. Socialising on the internet is to socialising what reality TV is to reality. We’re kind of acting for an audience: we’re creating a pretend version of ourselves. We’re counting the number of friends that we have instead of cultivating the depth of a relationship. I don’t find it appealing. [Playlist, 12-18 Feb, p12]

But aren’t we always acting for an audience? (If you want some thoughts on this go and read Tom Stoppard’s play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.) And what if the distinctions between reality TV and ‘non-reality’ TV (whatever that was/is) and non-TV reality were lost a long time ago?

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How do you represent evil in literature, art or film? Is it possible to get beyond the surface effects of evil to the malevolent heart, where choices are made and the fundamental moral drama is played out?

I’ve just finished reading Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock. (No, I haven’t seen the film yet – I was desperate to read the novel before seeing the film, so I’d come at it fresh and without knowing the ending.) It’s meant to be a study of evil, in the person of Pinkie, the teenage protagonist – but I’m not sure it works. [Minor plot spoilers follow]

Brighton Rock

He certainly does some terrible things, but he comes across to me more like a trapped animal than a moral agent. He’s heartless, he knows he’s doing wrong, but he doesn’t really know what the moral alternatives are as practical possibilities. He’s a bully, living off the strategies he learnt in the school playground. He’s constantly reacting, often with much cunning and forethought, but only once or twice does an almost metaphysical abyss open up before him, and the feint possibility of freedom become a reality.

This is from J.M. Coetzee’s introduction to the Vintage edition:

[In the person of Ida Arnold Greene creates] a stout ideological antagonist to the Catholic axis of Pinkie and Rose. Pinkie and Rose believe in Good and Evil; Ida believes in more down-to-earth Right and Wrong, in law and order, though with a bit of fun on the side. Pinkie and Rose believe in salvation and damnation, particularly the latter; in Ida the religious impulse is tamed, trivialised, and confined to the ouija board.

In the scenes in which Ida, full of motherly concern, tries to wean Rose away from her demonic lover, we see the rudiments of two world-views, the one eschatological, the other secular and materialist, uncomprehendingly confronting each other…

Rose’s faith in her lover never wavers. To the end she identifies Ida, not Pinkie, as the subtle seducer, the evil one. ‘She ought to be damned… She doesn’t know about love.’ If the worst comes to the worst, she would rather suffer in hell with Pinkie than be saved with Ida.

This last point is the most interesting aspect of the book: how love (however ambiguous) might bring you to want to be with someone in the depths of hell, rather than deny that love and lose them. But, in hell, wouldn’t you lose each other too? And are you really doing someone a favour by joining them on that road? Rose is worried that by choosing something ‘right’ (in Ida’s terms) it would be a betrayal of her relationship with Pinkie, of her faithfulness to him. It reminds me of Simone Weil, and her worry that to accept baptism would alienate her from all those who were not baptised.

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Cyber-scepticism: not that we are actually unplugging and switching off, but that more and more people are questioning whether our frantic social networking is really helping us to connect, to deepen our relationships, to share our lives.

MIT professor Sherry Turkle is one of many people wondering where we are really going in the information age. Her new book is appropriately titled Alone Together. Paul Harris reports:

Turkle’s book, published in the UK next month, has caused a sensation in America, which is usually more obsessed with the merits of social networking. She appeared last week on Stephen Colbert’s late-night comedy show, The Colbert Report. When Turkle said she had been at funerals where people checked their iPhones, Colbert quipped: “We all say goodbye in our own way.”

Turkle’s thesis is simple: technology is threatening to dominate our lives and make us less human. Under the illusion of allowing us to communicate better, it is actually isolating us from real human interactions in a cyber-reality that is a poor imitation of the real world.

But Turkle’s book is far from the only work of its kind. An intellectual backlash in America is calling for a rejection of some of the values and methods of modern communications. “It is a huge backlash. The different kinds of communication that people are using have become something that scares people,” said Professor William Kist, an education expert at Kent State University, Ohio.

The list of attacks on social media is a long one and comes from all corners of academia and popular culture. A recent bestseller in the US, The Shallows by Nicholas Carr, suggested that use of the internet was altering the way we think to make us less capable of digesting large and complex amounts of information, such as books and magazine articles. The book was based on an essay that Carr wrote in the Atlantic magazine. It was just as emphatic and was headlined: Is Google Making Us Stupid?

Another strand of thought in the field of cyber-scepticism is found in The Net Delusion, by Evgeny Morozov. He argues that social media has bred a generation of “slacktivists”. It has made people lazy and enshrined the illusion that clicking a mouse is a form of activism equal to real world donations of money and time.

Other books include The Dumbest Generation by Emory University professor Mark Bauerlein – in which he claims “the intellectual future of the US looks dim”– and We Have Met the Enemy by Daniel Akst, which describes the problems of self-control in the modern world, of which the proliferation of communication tools is a key component.

Turkle’s book, however, has sparked the most debate so far. It is a cri de coeur for putting down the BlackBerry, ignoring Facebook and shunning Twitter. “We have invented inspiring and enhancing technologies, yet we have allowed them to diminish us,” she writes.

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I’ve just seen the Facebook film, The Social Network. It works. It shouldn’t, because we all know the story: guy invents Facebook, transforms human self-understanding, and makes a few billion in the process. But it does. Partly because the lesser known sub-plot is turned into the main narrative arc: did he steal the idea and dump on his friends? And partly because the heart of the story, the genesis of Facebook, is such a significant moment for our culture (and perhaps for human history), that it would mesmerise a cinema audience no matter how badly filmed.

It’s Stanley Kubrick trying to film the emergence of human consciousness at the beginning of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

It’s more a screenplay than a film. I had to concentrate so hard on the dialogue and the ideas that I hardly took in the visuals. This is classic Aaron Sorkin, whose West Wing scripts have more words per minute and ideas per episode than anything else on TV in recent years.

I’m also a fan of Ben Mezrich, who wrote the novel on which the screenplay is based. I read his Bringing Down the House a few years ago, a great holiday read about how a team of MIT geeks took their card-counting skills to Vegas and beat the casinos. And it’s true.

Anyway. Go and see the film. It’s a great story and a great cast, directed with unobtrusive style by David Fincher. And I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that it captures one of those rare historical moments, that we have actually lived through, when our understanding of what it is to be human shifts quite significantly.

It’s too easy to talk about geography (“First we lived on farms, then we lived in cities; now we live on the internet”). We could have ‘lived on the internet’, even with the interactivity of Web 2.0, without it changing our understanding of ourselves. The same people, but with more information and quicker methods of exchanging it. Facebook has turned us inside out. We used to learn and think and search in order to be more authentically or more happily ourselves. We learnt in order to live. Now we create semi-virtual selves which can exist in a semi-virtual world where others are learning and thinking and searching. We live in order to connect.

But even this doesn’t capture it properly, because people have been connecting for millennia, and at least since EM Forster’s Howards End. With Facebook we don’t just want to connect, we want to actually become that connectivity. We want to become the sum total of those friends, messages, events, applications, requests, reminders, notifications and feeds. Personhood has changed.

Two thousand years ago, through the incarnation, the Word became flesh. In our time, through the internet, the flesh became Facebook.

Time to switch off the computer.

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After spending the whole of yesterday at Westminster, seeing the Popemobile drive past the excited crowds, and later on managing to see him emerge from Westminster Abbey, it’s hard not to blog about the Papal Visit.

The speeches of the last two days have been really powerful. (You can read them all here.) All the headlines have been about how the Pope has been attacking the ‘aggressive secularism’ that is sweeping through Britain. But this misses the main point, which is how Pope Benedict’s first thought has been to praise British history and British values. It’s not flattery; it’s genuine, heartfelt appreciation – for the values and the people who (amongst many other great achievements) created modern democracy, ended the slave trade, and fought valiantly against the Nazis. Britain has emerged as:

a pluralist democracy which places great value on freedom of speech, freedom of political affiliation and respect for the rule of law, with a strong sense of the individual’s rights and duties, and of the equality of all citizens before the law.

Then come the questions: How are you going to hold onto these values? What has been their foundation in the past? What will serve to secure and sustain these noble values for the future? How will you do this without some sense of an objective moral order, a transcendent meaning, a loving creator, and an ultimate purpose? The hard questions that he does ask, the challenges to ‘aggressive secularism’, only arise because he actually cares for this British culture and worries that it is in danger of undoing itself.

Here are some of my favourite passages from today. The first, about sanctity and the search for happiness, from his address to children this morning at the ‘Big Assembly':

I hope that among those of you listening to me today there are some of the future saints of the twenty-first century. What God wants most of all for each one of you is that you should become holy. He loves you much more than you could ever begin to imagine, and he wants the very best for you. And by far the best thing for you is to grow in holiness.

Perhaps some of you have never thought about this before. Perhaps some of you think being a saint is not for you. Let me explain what I mean. When we are young, we can usually think of people that we look up to, people we admire, people we want to be like. It could be someone we meet in our daily lives that we hold in great esteem. Or it could be someone famous. We live in a celebrity culture, and young people are often encouraged to model themselves on figures from the world of sport or entertainment. My question for you is this: what are the qualities you see in others that you would most like to have yourselves? What kind of person would you really like to be?

When I invite you to become saints, I am asking you not to be content with second best. I am asking you not to pursue one limited goal and ignore all the others. Having money makes it possible to be generous and to do good in the world, but on its own, it is not enough to make us happy. Being highly skilled in some activity or profession is good, but it will not satisfy us unless we aim for something greater still. It might make us famous, but it will not make us happy. Happiness is something we all want, but one of the great tragedies in this world is that so many people never find it, because they look for it in the wrong places. The key to it is very simple – true happiness is to be found in God. We need to have the courage to place our deepest hopes in God alone, not in money, in a career, in worldly success, or in our relationships with others, but in God. Only he can satisfy the deepest needs of our hearts.

Not only does God love us with a depth and an intensity that we can scarcely begin to comprehend, but he invites us to respond to that love. You all know what it is like when you meet someone interesting and attractive, and you want to be that person’s friend. You always hope they will find you interesting and attractive, and want to be your friend. God wants your friendship. And once you enter into friendship with God, everything in your life begins to change. As you come to know him better, you find you want to reflect something of his infinite goodness in your own life. You are attracted to the practice of virtue. You begin to see greed and selfishness and all the other sins for what they really are, destructive and dangerous tendencies that cause deep suffering and do great damage, and you want to avoid falling into that trap yourselves. You begin to feel compassion for people in difficulties and you are eager to do something to help them. You want to come to the aid of the poor and the hungry, you want to comfort the sorrowful, you want to be kind and generous. And once these things begin to matter to you, you are well on the way to becoming saints.

The second passages are from his speech at Westminster Hall:

Allow me also to express my esteem for the Parliament which has existed on this site for centuries and which has had such a profound influence on the development of participative government among the nations, especially in the Commonwealth and the English-speaking world at large. Your common law tradition serves as the basis of legal systems in many parts of the world, and your particular vision of the respective rights and duties of the state and the individual, and of the separation of powers, remains an inspiration to many across the globe.

As I speak to you in this historic setting, I think of the countless men and women down the centuries who have played their part in the momentous events that have taken place within these walls and have shaped the lives of many generations of Britons, and others besides. In particular, I recall the figure of Saint Thomas More, the great English scholar and statesman, who is admired by believers and non-believers alike for the integrity with which he followed his conscience, even at the cost of displeasing the sovereign whose “good servant” he was, because he chose to serve God first. The dilemma which faced More in those difficult times, the perennial question of the relationship between what is owed to Caesar and what is owed to God, allows me the opportunity to reflect with you briefly on the proper place of religious belief within the political process.

This country’s Parliamentary tradition owes much to the national instinct for moderation, to the desire to achieve a genuine balance between the legitimate claims of government and the rights of those subject to it. While decisive steps have been taken at several points in your history to place limits on the exercise of power, the nation’s political institutions have been able to evolve with a remarkable degree of stability. In the process, Britain has emerged as a pluralist democracy which places great value on freedom of speech, freedom of political affiliation and respect for the rule of law, with a strong sense of the individual’s rights and duties, and of the equality of all citizens before the law. While couched in different language, Catholic social teaching has much in common with this approach, in its overriding concern to safeguard the unique dignity of every human person, created in the image and likeness of God, and in its emphasis on the duty of civil authority to foster the common good.

And yet the fundamental questions at stake in Thomas More’s trial continue to present themselves in ever-changing terms as new social conditions emerge. Each generation, as it seeks to advance the common good, must ask anew: what are the requirements that governments may reasonably impose upon citizens, and how far do they extend? By appeal to what authority can moral dilemmas be resolved? These questions take us directly to the ethical foundations of civil discourse. If the moral principles underpinning the democratic process are themselves determined by nothing more solid than social consensus, then the fragility of the process becomes all too evident – herein lies the real challenge for democracy.

The inadequacy of pragmatic, short-term solutions to complex social and ethical problems has been illustrated all too clearly by the recent global financial crisis. There is widespread agreement that the lack of a solid ethical foundation for economic activity has contributed to the grave difficulties now being experienced by millions of people throughout the world. Just as “every economic decision has a moral consequence” (Caritas in Veritate, 37), so too in the political field, the ethical dimension of policy has far-reaching consequences that no government can afford to ignore. A positive illustration of this is found in one of the British Parliament’s particularly notable achievements – the abolition of the slave trade. The campaign that led to this landmark legislation was built upon firm ethical principles, rooted in the natural law, and it has made a contribution to civilization of which this nation may be justly proud.

The central question at issue, then, is this: where is the ethical foundation for political choices to be found? The Catholic tradition maintains that the objective norms governing right action are accessible to reason, prescinding from the content of revelation. According to this understanding, the role of religion in political debate is not so much to supply these norms, as if they could not be known by non-believers – still less to propose concrete political solutions, which would lie altogether outside the competence of religion – but rather to help purify and shed light upon the application of reason to the discovery of objective moral principles. This “corrective” role of religion vis-à-vis reason is not always welcomed, though, partly because distorted forms of religion, such as sectarianism and fundamentalism, can be seen to create serious social problems themselves. And in their turn, these distortions of religion arise when insufficient attention is given to the purifying and structuring role of reason within religion. It is a two-way process. Without the corrective supplied by religion, though, reason too can fall prey to distortions, as when it is manipulated by ideology, or applied in a partial way that fails to take full account of the dignity of the human person. Such misuse of reason, after all, was what gave rise to the slave trade in the first place and to many other social evils, not least the totalitarian ideologies of the twentieth century. This is why I would suggest that the world of reason and the world of faith – the world of secular rationality and the world of religious belief – need one another and should not be afraid to enter into a profound and ongoing dialogue, for the good of our civilization.

Religion, in other words, is not a problem for legislators to solve, but a vital contributor to the national conversation. In this light, I cannot but voice my concern at the increasing marginalization of religion, particularly of Christianity, that is taking place in some quarters, even in nations which place a great emphasis on tolerance. There are those who would advocate that the voice of religion be silenced, or at least relegated to the purely private sphere. There are those who argue that the public celebration of festivals such as Christmas should be discouraged, in the questionable belief that it might somehow offend those of other religions or none. And there are those who argue – paradoxically with the intention of eliminating discrimination – that Christians in public roles should be required at times to act against their conscience. These are worrying signs of a failure to appreciate not only the rights of believers to freedom of conscience and freedom of religion, but also the legitimate role of religion in the public square. I would invite all of you, therefore, within your respective spheres of influence, to seek ways of promoting and encouraging dialogue between faith and reason at every level of national life.

And finally, for a bit of fun, for those of you have made it to the bottom of the post, here is me inspecting the Popemobile for CNN.

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Rent a Friend has just launched in the UK. You pay someone to keep you company, or to join you in some activity. It’s not a dating site; nor is it a front for an escort agency. There is a strict ‘no sex’ policy.

Haroon Siddique explains some more:

“You can rent a local friend to hang out with, go to a movie or restaurant with, someone to go with you to a party or event, someone to teach you a new skill or hobby, or someone to show you around an unfamiliar town,” explains the US website. It also suggests using its services for a friend “to help motivate and spot you during your workout”. Popular activities people are renting friends for, according to the website, include teaching manners, prom dates and “wingman/wingwoman”.

Subscribers pay up to $25 a month for access to a database of more than 200,000 “friends” who have profiles and photographs to enable browsers to make an informed choice. Once they have chosen a friend, they can negotiate an hourly fee with prices starting from $10 an hour. Rent a Friend founder Scott Rosenbaum, who lives in New Jersey, said he was moved to start his business because, amid all the websites offering every imaginable dating experience, there was a gap in the market.

“I wanted to go a step back,” he told the Times. “No one was offering friendship.”

There are two reactions to this. One is to take the high ground and dismiss it as a complete distortion of the meaning of friendship. Another is to shrug the shoulders and accept that all friendship is at root motivated by self-interest. Helen Rumbelow in the Times takes this latter route:

Show me a friendship of any duration and I will show you a balance sheet of who did what for who: the dance floors tackled, the shoulders cried on, the hair held back over the toilet, the boxes moved, the dark nights endured and the champagne breakfasts that followed.

Ruthless accounting is involved, and if one party goes even a little into the red – a certain someone who stayed just a little too long in someone else’s spare room, for example – then the emotional auditors may be called in. Bankruptcy can follow. Friendship is a gift, but it’s part of a gift economy. [July 19, p11]

Aristotle still gives the simplest and truest account of friendship in Book 8 of his Nicomachean Ethics. He recognises that not all friendships will be perfectly pure and altruistic, and that many will be based on the need to find support, help, companionship, pleasure, fun etc. But this doesn’t make him cynical. It’s part of human life, to be brought together with others for all sorts of mutual interests.

That’s the key to friendship, however – it has to be mutual. And that’s what’s missing from Rent a Friend, the mutuality. That’s why I feel, however worthwhile it may be, it’s not friendship. If people didn’t pay, and just met through a website because they wanted to meet others, that would be a different matter.

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The title says it all: social network giant Facebook has just registered its 500 millionth member.

You can see some graphs here about the relative growth and decline of various social networking sites. (Facebook, Twitter, Orkut and Linkedin are growing; MySpace, Flickr, Bebo and Friends Reunited are in decline.)

Matt Warman gives this report:

Yesterday Facebook announced that it now has half a billion users worldwide – if it were a country, it would have the third largest population in the world. One in 14 people around the globe is on the site. It’s as big as the US and Brazil combined, and only India and China – two markets the web has yet to reach en masse – are larger.

Jeff Mann, a vice-president at analysts Gartner, points out that there are “a small number of people who get really angry about the privacy issues – but they’re off. They’ve left. The vast majority continues to stick with it and to find it very useful.”

All of this is a long way from Mark Zuckerberg’s Harvard dorm room, where Facebook began. And the strapline for the forthcoming movie about Facebook, called The Social Network, is telling: “You don’t get to 500 million friends without making a few enemies”. In the six years since Facebook has been active, there have been numerous lawsuits, concerns about its use to paedophiles, arguments about its potential to compromise its users’ privacy and – perhaps most crucially – doubts about its value, financial and practical.

After all, to those not on Facebook, it’s hard to see the value. The site invites users to create profiles, write regular updates about what they’re doing and then connect their profiles to those of their friends. But our friends are the people we all know already – where’s the utility in discovering what they had for breakfast?

The answer, in the words of the company’s head of European Policy, Richard Allan, is that Facebook has enabled a whole “new depth” to how we connect with people. It encourages all of us to show people photographs of our weekends, to see who likes what. So when a meeting in real life takes place, it’s arguably Facebook that means 500 million people don’t have to bother with silly small talk.

“In real life,” says Allan, “you have enough time to maintain regularly going out with 20 to 30 people. Facebook typically extends your social circle by another 100 people. So you feel connected, in real time, to that wedding of a family member you haven’t seen for a while. But it typically remains an online way of sharing information about real events.”

There’s a darker side to the social network, however: the recent controversy about a number of tribute pages to murderer Raoul Moat; an only recently concluded debacle about how young people using the site should be protected from adults who might seek to groom them; and a series of self-inflicted crises brought about by Facebook’s repeated decisions to tinker with privacy settings which left some people feeling uncomfortably exposed.

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There’s a beautiful meditation about time, busyness and the difficulty of living in the present moment at The Invisible Province.

Time by Robbert van der Steeg.

The piece is partly a review of Eva Hoffman’s book Time. But Fr Martin Boland frames this with his own reflections:

We can become so focussed on busyness and speed that we begin to lose a proper sense of ourselves. Individuals can feel that their lives are “spinning out of control” or worse, are about to “break down”. The common response to the question, “How are you?”, has become “I’m busy.” We define ourselves in terms of frenetic activity. At the same time, other aspects and dimensions of our life (family, friendship, the social and the spiritual) are eroded by the constant pressures on our time. “We are money rich, but time poor,” as someone put it to me the other day.

He quotes Hoffman on what we feel about the pressures of time here in Britain:

On more familiar ground, Leon Kreitzman in The 24 Hour Society, a study of time patterns in Britain published in 1999, finds that “A large proportion of the British population believe that they are overworked, and that life is out of control.” Few, however, choose to, or can afford to, work less. Rather, as Peter Cochrane, then head of research as British Telecom pithily notes, the contemporary work conditions have created a new class divide within society: between “those who spend a lot of time trying to save money”, and “those who spend a lot of money trying to save time.”

Busy Subterranean Passage - せわしない地下道 by W2 a-w-f-i-l.

And the post finishes with this reflection about the present moment and the importance of waiting:

One of the dangers of living under the unforgiving eye of the clock is that we risk losing the faculty of concentrated contemplation. In our haste, reality becomes a blur and we stop seeing the interior mystery of the present moment. Activism prevents the sublime contours of people and things being slowly revealed to us in their own time and at their own rhythm. Living at high-speed, make acts of reverence almost impossible, partly because, in a secular age, there are few things that can command such contemplation and respect. The prospect of waiting for the auspicious moment and living with the tension of incompleteness has become anathema to many people. Instead, we bypass natural gestation periods, and force things (work, relationships, ideas, “spirituality”) into a premature birth and then wonder why they don’t answer our true longings. We substitute the twitter soundbite for deep thinking; the ticked box for an action done with care and attention; the slick meditation centre for the wisdom of a fourth century monk living in the Egyptian desert:

Unless there is a still centre in the middle of the storm
Unless a person in the midst of all their activities
preserves a secret room in their heart where they stand alone before God
Unless we do all this we will lose all sense of spiritual direction
and be torn to pieces.

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The Benediction of Saint Patrick by starbeard.Sunday was the feast of All Saints. I gave a talk about the meaning of devotion to the saints at Farm Street, the Jesuit church in central London. You can listen to it [click OPEN] or download it [click SAVE] from here; and read the handout here.

I spoke about the obvious things: how we learn from their example; how we enjoy their friendship; how we are helped by their prayers. But I added another point: that our dependence on the prayers of the saints teaches us a deeper truth about our identity as human beings [Go to 45:23 in the download].

In the story of the Garden of Eden, there are two tragedies that unfold. One is the Fall, the Original Sin when Eve and then Adam took the forbidden fruit and ate from it. But this depends on the tragedy that comes before: that when Eve is tempted, when she is faced with this moment of monumental crisis, she faces it alone, she doesn’t ask for help or advice or support from God or from her husband. And I don’t mean this in a sexist way as if to say that the woman should have sought help from the man; I mean it in a way that would apply to Adam as much as to Eve. Neither of them was meant to face the serpent alone; and how different it could have been if they had turned to each other and to God. When she looked at the fruit, with the serpent whispering in her ear, and took that decision on her own, it was – perhaps – already too late.

The same is true with Cain and Abel. It’s a difficult passage to interpret, but it reflects the scene between Adam and Eve. Cain is tempted, and struggles with the Lord. But instead of seeking God’s help, or seeking the help of his brother Abel – he kills him. When the Lord asks him “Where is your brother Abel?” and Cain replies “Am I my brother’s keeper?!” – the answer is, “Yes, you should have been”. But even more importantly, he should have allowed Abel to be his keeper when he was facing his own demons; Cain should have turned to his brother, leant on him, and shared his concerns with him.

So part of our salvation, part of our healing, is the restoration of human relationships. The Fall involved a pride, a false notion of independence, a distorted idea of autonomy, of self-reliance. And in the healing process that Christ brings we learn – in certain respects – to become more dependent on others; we learn that we are not alone; we learn that we are not meant to cope on our own. It’s OK to need others, it’s OK to ask for their help.

This is one reason why devotion to the saints is so important. In praying for others, and in asking others to pray for us, we learn to depend on their help – and our proper identity as children of God and as brothers and sisters is restored.

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New Security Measures by andreaweckerle.Every week or two in London you come across a band of bright young things in matching T-shirts, usually clustered round a van or a portable kiosk, giving out freebies. I tend to arc around them full of suspicion, wondering what the catch is. Do I have to sign something? Or take part in a poll? It’s usually a health bar or an energy drink. My most recent catch (I think it was at Victoria Station) was a mini-deodorant. This was one of the few times I’ve hovered around innocently in order to get a second gift – I was so delighted to get my hands on a spray-can small enough to take through airport security in the hand-luggage.

Free gifts. With no strings attached.

I went to a talk about the sacraments yesterday by Dr Clare Watkins, and halfway through she spent five minutes going through a Latin dictionary. Pretty boring, you might think. The reason, however, was to show that in Latin there is a single word, munus, that can mean both “gift/present” and “responsibility/duty”. One word; both meanings. She went on to explain that every gift we receive brings with it a call to responsibility. She said we should reflect more on the gifts that God has given us, and the gifts that others share with us, and see whether we are aware of the huge responsibilities that go with them.

I don’t think this means, in a cynical way, that every gift is really a bribe in disguise. Not at all. And in fact the duty to respond in some way, to appreciate and honour the gift in some way, is not about paying something back to the one who gave it. When a gift is freely given, out of a pure love and an unfeigned generosity – it’s exactly then that we realise how unworthy we are to receive anything at all, and how privileged we are to be able to put that gift at the service of others.

Free Hugs by an untrained eye.

This is even more true when the gift is the gift of oneself – when I give myself to another in friendship or love, in marriage or family life. Then, if the gift is freely given (“without reservation” as the marriage vows go), the sense of responsibility is of another order. It’s not about obligation or paying back a debt; it’s the sheer wonder of standing before another human being, unguarded, knowing that they have given their own heart, and the desire to care for them as much as one cares for oneself.

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A new generation of lie detectors is being developed (see Prospect, Oct 09, Lie Detection by Ian Leslie, p66). Remember the scene in Meet the Parents when Robert De Niro wires up his future son-in-law in the basement and interrogates him. This was the old-fashioned polygraph, which works by monitoring stress levels – blood pressure, heart-rate, etc.

wewilltestyourlies by sugarfreak.

The new models work by scanning the brain. When we tell a lie, even if we keep the stress levels down, an extra burst of mental energy is required. This energy is released in the areas of the brain responsible for reasoning and self-control. So if the scanner suddenly spots us thinking hard and carefully as we answer a progression of simple yes or no questions, then we are probably lying.

It could be bunkum. Many neuroscientists question its effectiveness. And a woman in India who was convicted of murder on the basis of evidence from such a lie detection test had her case overturned because there was no material evidence connecting her to the crime.

Supreme Two by YaniG.Why is the thought of an infallible lie detector so unsettling? It’s not because we are all inveterate liars terrified of being exposed. It’s because it makes us appreciate that the truth of another person is not just something that can be ripped out of them and put on display for all to see. Knowledge, when it has to do with another human being, can’t be separated from a relationship.

In ordinary friendships, it is the journey of coming to know someone that is more important than the actual knowledge we come to possess. As I heard in a recent film, the words ‘I’ve never told anyone that before’ are even more important than what was actually told. 

We let someone in gradually. We choose how much to share, and when to share it; and this depends on how much we trust someone, and how much they trust us, and how far along the road we have come together. It’s not that anyone has a right to lie. But we do all have a right to disclose ourselves gradually, on our own terms. Discretion and reticence are the background virtues that allow intimacy and friendship to have any meaning.

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A simple story quoted in a book I’m reading: Fr Victor Galeone was working as a priest in Baltimore, and this is how he described one pastoral encounter in his journal:

Yesterday, after an emergency call at the nursing home, I was about to exit when I noticed a man in the hallway. He was sitting next to a woman in a wheelchair, tenderly holding her hands. Not a word was spoken. He just sat there, looking intently into her eyes. I walked over and engaged him in conversation:

“Your wife, I take it?”

“That’s right, of forty-seven years.”

“Do you visit her often?”

“Every single day. Haven’t missed a day in four years, except for that blizzard last year.”

“She’s not saying anything.”

“That’s right. Hasn’t been able to for the last eighteen months – ever since her stroke. She has Alzheimer’s too.”

“Alzheimer’s! Does she know who you are?”

“Not really. But that doesn’t matter. I now who she is.”

[From Stephen Rossetti's Born of the Eucharist: A Spirituality for Priests pp. 101-102]

It made me think about all the different relationships we have where the knowledge is not always equal – and how that doesn’t always matter. Sometimes we know someone better than they know us; sometimes someone knows us better than we know them; sometimes someone knows us better than we know ourselves.

Husbands and wives talk about how there are hidden depths (or shallows!) to their spouse that they realise will always remain a mystery. Parents know things about their children that the children won’t discover for years. A child, even a baby at the breast, knows something about his or her parents – as parents – that no-one else will ever know. In friendship, the relationship often shuffles along, a moment of discovery on one side, and then on the other, building into something that is definitely mutual, but not necessarily equal or stabilised.

2008-06-07 Bus 50 (Open-Top Bus, Swanage to Bournemouth) 09 Swanage, Elderly Couple on Hill Overlooking the Beach by that_james.

And in this beautiful example of an elderly couple, one lost in dementia, the “being-known” becomes more than the knowing itself; the lost memory of once-having-loved is absorbed into an ever present reality of being-loved. This can be true of those at the end of life, of the unborn, of the estranged, and of all those who cannot or will not let the love they receive from others grow into a personal response.

Love – and indeed being human, being a person – is not just about your capacity to love or think or act, it is also about the fact that you are loved, by someone, somewhere. And even where that someone seems almost completely absent, it is the fact that you could be loved – that you are loveable. Our dignity is not conferred by others; but we need others to make explicit what is too often hidden and unacknowledged.

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I gave a talk about friendship recently to a group of young adults in London. At the beginning I forced them to sit in silence for five minutes and think about their closest friends: how they met, why they stayed in touch, what they like about each other, why the friendship works, what they receive from the friendship, etc. It’s good to reflect like this now and then, it makes you more appreciative and grateful – but don’t do it too often! Even if you are really together in yourself and secure in your relationships, you will start to get paranoid, obsessing about whether you have any true friends, and why the person sitting next to you has twice as many as you do.

Aristotle is still the best place to start. If you have a few minutes, read through the wonderful Book Eight of the Nicomachean Ethics. [The translation by W.D. Ross is here; scroll to page 127.] And here is his Facebook page, just to prove that he could walk the walk as well as talk the talk:

Would you poke Aristotle? by Arbitrary.Marks.

Aristotle says that we have some friends because they are ‘useful’, and others because they are ‘pleasant’. This sounds a bit cold and calculating. But there is a simple truth here, behind the slightly stark language, which I think we all take for granted: That we enter into a friendship because we hope to receive something from it; we want to be with our friends for a reason; namely that there is some mutual benefit (we are ‘useful’ to each other’), or just the sheer joy of being with the other person (we ‘please’ each other). And in fact it would be a bit strange if I told you that I wasn’t better off for seeing you or had no desire to be with you.

‘Perfect friendship’, however, is between good people who seek what is truly good for each other. Yes, there will be much mutual gain, and much joy; but there is this extra element of selflessness, humility, and generosity – wanting what will truly help the other person to be who they are meant to be.

Aristotle draws the logical conclusions from this: It’s hard to be a good friend if you are not a good person yourself. To care for another person, to seek what is best for them, you have to have the inner resources to go beyond your own needs and desires and fears; you have to put them at the centre; you have to see them as someone worthy of love and kindness and not just as someone defined by what they bring to you. You have to see them, in other words, as a person in their own right and not just as a partner in a relationship. This isn’t possible if you are trapped in your own own selfishness. Or to put it more constructively, if you want to have good friends, and to be a good friend to others, then you should try to grow in goodness yourself. I’m not saying I am there yet; but I think Aristotle has the right idea.

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