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Posts Tagged ‘being human’

Have you had one of those moments – at work, in relationships, in sport – when you are full of confidence, at the top of your game, and suddenly everything goes pear-shaped. You felt perfectly natural and at ease, and suddenly you are afflicted with a paralysing self-consciousness, an inability to do simple things well, an outer clumsiness combined with an inner terror at the prospect of failure. It’s England at the penalty shoot-out; it’s every second romantic comedy when the guy fumbles his words on the first date.

Ashley Cole agony after missing penalty for England

This is the psychological experience of ‘choking’, and it’s in the news a lot simply because we are all going sport crazy at the moment.

Simon Haterstone gives some examples:

Britain is no stranger to the choke. Reading the newspapers, or overhearing pub conversations, you might well imagine it’s a national pastime. The England football team? Ach, we’ll crack up when it comes to penalties. Murray at Wimbledon? Wait till it comes to the crunch. The Olympics? More tears from Paula Radcliffe. Of course, this is an unfair generalisation. All those cited have performed at the highest level, and Britain has produced any number of champions. Yet it’s undoubtedly true that in a summer in which so many will be playing for the highest stakes, many of the great sporting hopes, from whatever country, will buckle under the pressure.

Not surprisingly, sportspeople don’t like the word choking. Some prefer to say they lost their rhythm, others that they played too aggressively or were outplayed. And there may be some truth in their analysis. But certain catastrophic chokes are indisputable. There’s Jimmy White, who lost six snooker world championship finals and failed to pot a simple black to secure victory against Stephen Hendry in 1994; Jana Novotna, 4-1 up in the final set against Steffi Graf, double-faulting her way to defeat and weeping on the shoulder of the Duchess of Kent in 1993; French golfer Jean Van de Velde who could have made a double bogey in the British Open at the 18th in 1999 and still won – but failed. The picture of Van de Velde paddling knee-deep in Barry Burn, trying to hit his ball out of the water, is one of sport’s most comic and desperate images.

Matthew Syed reflects on his table tennis meltdown at the Sydney Olympics:

It’s like you’ve reverted to being a beginner again. You don’t think about how you’re moving your right knee and right elbow or wrist when you hit a forehand slice when you’re a professional table tennis player. And suddenly I’m thinking about it, and as you try harder and harder you get worse and worse. You can see it when someone is choking; they become very stilted, the integration of all the moving parts of the body becomes decoupled and it just looks pretty hideous. Before he knew it, he had been annihilated. It wasn’t a loss of form, it was major psychological meltdown.

And then he draws some wider conclusions:

Syed believes choking affects most of us at one time or another – whether it’s at a job interview, on a date, in an exam, or simply when we’re on public display. “When you walk normally, you never think about how you’re moving your body. But when you walk in front of lots of people, say to pick up your graduation certificate, you are paranoid about falling over and suddenly you’re thinking about how you move your feet and it feels incredibly awkward. You feel like a caricature of somebody walking. That’s kind of what happened to me at the Olympic Games.”

What is really happening? Steve Peters, sports psychologist, explains:

Peters says if we have to use the word choke, let’s at least accept that it’s an umbrella term for a number of things – athletes might go into freeze mode (runners sometimes stop at 250 metres in a 400m race because that’s when it gets painful); flight mode where they sabotage their chances (in 2006, O’Sullivan walked out of a match with Stephen Hendry when he was 4-1 down but there was plenty to play for); they might over-think or under-think; they might become self-conscious because they are playing badly or playing well, or because they suddenly become aware of the crowd or the significance of the moment. He mentions Novotna’s collapse at Wimbledon. “It was unbelievable. Unbelievable. You did really think this poor woman, she’s moved from aspects of the brain that automatically flow, to a part of the brain that is actively thinking and trying to work things out – how to put a good service in. Well, you’re back to somebody who almost doesn’t know how to serve.”

Peters is a high-level sportsman himself. He didn’t start sprinting seriously till he was 40, then won world titles at masters levels, and astonishingly was called into the Olympics training squad at 44 as an “up and coming” athlete, having finished the 200m in 21.9 seconds. His experience makes it easier for him to understand what goes on inside the heads of champion athletes and his job is to find the reason why they behave in the way they do, treating the cause, not only the symptom.

He has broken down the sporting brain into a simplistic model of “chimp” and “human”. When it is working well, it’s a computer. When problems start, either the chimp (emotion) or the human (reason) take over. “When I go to compete, my chimp starts kicking off. It’s all about me managing what my chimp throws at me, like, ‘I can’t lose this, I mustn’t look stupid, I’m not fit enough’, it’s the classic stuff I’ll get when I work with elite athletes. So I can relate to that and the intensity of the feelings. If the human wakes up you become too rational, analytical, lose spontaneity and you can choke.”

I don’t like this language/labelling: as if we are more like computers when things are going well; as if we have to disconnect out humanity if we want to succeed at the highest level. But the idea of not being overcome by emotion or analysis seems valid. See how much you can apply to everyday struggles, even if you are not sprinting at the Olympics this summer.

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I’ve always liked Ron Mueck’s hyper-realist sculptures – his gigantic ‘Boy’ was the best thing in the whole Millennium Dome. His latest exhibition at Hauser & Wirth consists of just four pieces, but I spent a good hour entranced by just two of them, ‘Woman with Sticks’ and ‘Drift’, which form a kind of diptych. Taken together they offer a profound meditation on what it means to be human.

In the first, a naked middle-aged woman grapples with a bundle of sticks twice her size. She’s weary, but strong. Her body is marked with the scratches of the struggle. Her face glances to the side, betraying her exhaustion, but also a defiant joy, an impish delight at having achieved, finally, the unreasonable task set before her. The curve of her body, arching back against the weight of the load, meets the line of the branches, the woman almost merging with creation, and in geometric terms creating a glorious organic tangent – you know how much I like tangents!

What is this task? We don’t know. The exhibition notes talk about the woman tackling ‘the near impossible tasks set in fairytales and legends’. For me, she seems to represent the human person struggling with the self, with creation, with existence itself. Her back is bent almost to breaking point, but she is still standing – and that’s the defiant point. She is Atlas carrying the world. She’s the ordinary person, and the Olympic warrior. And if the sticks represent a more specific symbolic task, like in a fairytale, I was imagining her collecting them to provide thatch for her roof, or kindling for a mighty conflagration. In other words, she could have been building a home or lighting a beacon or setting the whole world aflame; she could have been embracing either life, or death. And going further, perhaps because this came up in our retreat last month, she was also Abraham and Isaac taking the wood up the mountain for the sacrifice, unsure about where they would discover the sacrificial offering.

The second piece, ‘Drift’, is described in the exhibition notes as “a small-scale sculpture of a lightly tanned man sporting tropical swim shorts and dark sunglasses, lying on a lilo with his arms outstretched. Instead of floating in a swimming pool, ‘Drift’ is installed high on the gallery wall, seeming to disappear off into the distance. Held up only by a puff of air and a sheet of plastic, the precariousness of ‘Drift’ provokes questions of the brevity of life.”

It’s a middle-aged Jack Nicholson, with the same Nicholson smugness and self-satisfaction. He is completely indifferent to the world, almost comatose with leisure. Or he is just a loving and hard-working man at the end of a busy year getting his well deserved rest, freed from the cares and responsibilities of the world. I’m not sure. There is an air of disengagement, even of anomie, reinforced by the title. And remember that this three-quarter size figure ‘lying’ on the lilo is placed vertically on a huge wall of turquoise. You confront this sculpture as a secular crucifix – he is there, high above you, in a cruciform figure. He is crucified by his own inertia and indifference, by the nothingness of his surroundings, by isolation and meaninglessness.

She is alive – gloriously alive – in her mythical battle to the edge of death. He is dead – existentially dead – in his holiday coma. She is taking her prey home in a clumsy march of triumph, staggering under the weight of her struggle. He is drifting up to the ceiling, into nowhere, weightless, without direction or purpose. What a beautiful meditation on what it is to be human, on the poles that we drift between over a lifetime, and sometimes within a single day. I could have stayed there for hours, and I am determined to go back before it closes. How heartbreaking that these pieces are for sale, and they may well end up in private hands, never to be seen again!

I don’t think Rachel Campbell-Johnston was fair in her Times review to say that Mueck’s sculptures, for all their phenomenal detail, have no soul, and that the spectator gets stuck on the surface. I can’t explain why, but my response to his work has always been very different – to ‘Boy’, to the wonderful National Gallery exhibition when he was artist in residence there, and to one or two other pieces I have seen over the years. I find myself drawn into the mystery of these oversized or undersized human beings. The detail doesn’t become a distraction for me, it’s more like a doorway. The figures are so lifelike that you almost feel you are in conversation with them. There is a presence about them, and an inner stillness, that is unlike any other representation in art that I can think of.

In fact the memory they bring back is of the Tilda Swinton exhibition in Rome in the late 1990s, when I was at seminary there. I missed the original sleeping beauty performance in the Serpentine in London, but in Rome she lay asleep in a glass exhibition case for a few mornings. Yes, it was voyeuristic – by definition. But it brought the same sense of presence to another person, in their sleep and hiddenness, that Mueck’s sculptures bring. The size helps as well. I prefer the three-quarter size figures, because there is a distancing – as if you are looking at yourself from the corner of the room – without any significant diminishment.

You can see that I am a fan. I wish there were more of Mueck’s work to see publically. I wish these two sculptures could be bought for a British gallery somehow, and put on permanent display. I’d love to buy them for a church, or maybe a church foyer; but I’m not in a church at the moment, and I don’t have the money! The exhibition is on only until 26 May. Details here. It’s easy to get to, at 23 Savile Row, London W1S 2ET, not far from Oxford Circus or Piccadilly tube stations.

There are two other sculptures. ‘Youth’ is magnificent, but I’d need another visit to give it time, and another post to write about it. ‘Still Life’ (a giant dead chicken) I don’t much care for – it loses the human, obviously! Despite all the metaphors and meanings, it doesn’t draw me into the soul of the person as the others do. Three out of four isn’t bad.

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I reviewed Marilynne Robinson’s latest book in the Tablet recently. My very first post, nearly three years ago, referred to a passage about wonder in her extraordinary novel Gilead.

When I Was A Child I Read Books is a collection of essays about subjects as diverse as Calvinist theology, evolutionary psychology, American hymnody, Japanese economics, growing up in small-town Idaho, and the decline of democracy. You may not have a passionate interest in all or any of these topics, but the book is still well worth reading, because her deepest concern is always to understand what it means to be human, what it means to confront the reality around us, and what lies just beyond the boundaries, in ‘the vast terrain of what cannot be said’.

I won’t copy the whole review here, but here is a passage about Robinson’s distinctive interest in religion:

I doubt that there are many self-professed ‘unreconstructed liberals’ who wear their Calvinism on their sleeve. Robinson is never preachy, but it’s clear how her Christian faith informs her view of things. Religion, for her, is not a cosy enclave, but a disruptive force, which expands and shatters the narrow definitions we would otherwise have of ourselves and our world.

The story of God’s extravagant, wondrous love casts a ‘saturating light’ over the whole of human history. Even original sin, which seems such a pessimistic idea, points to ‘the literally cosmic significance of humankind as a central actor in creation who is, in some important sense, free to depart from, even to defy, the will of God’.

Theology, in other words, leads us back to anthropology – to our understanding of the human person. Robinson laments the loss of the word ‘soul’ in contemporary discourse, and has a clear-sighted view of how human dignity needs some external theistic foundation if it is to be defended. Why? Because any notion of human ‘exceptionalism’ needs to anchor our nature, our dignity, ‘in a reality outside the world of circumstance’.

When the Declaration of Independence states ‘that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights’, it makes the human person sacred, once by creation and again by endowment, ‘and thereby sets individual rights outside the reach of rationalization’. Religion, in this context, stops our thinking from becoming too narrow or domineering.

Robinson is a debunker of lazy ideologies. She is incensed by the reductionist assumptions implicit in so much contemporary thought. Evolutionary psychology, for example, focusses its attention on the adaptations it claims allowed human beings to survive on the primordial savannah – but marginalises everything else about us. For Robinson, our humanity consists in the fact that we do more than survive. ‘This kind of thinking places everything remarkable about us in the category “accidental”.’

So yes, I’m recommending it. But even more so, I’d recommend Gilead.

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What if there were another you? I don’t mean just an identical twin or a clone with the exact same genes. I mean someone who was like you in every way, the same body and mind and heart, the same past and experiences and memories, the same thoughts and feelings, the same decisions taken and the same mistakes made, standing in front of you now – but not you.

This is the idea at the heart of the film Another Earth, which jumps straight into my Top Ten films of the year. [Major plot spoilers follow – sorry!]

Another planet appears – just a dot in the night sky. As it comes closer it becomes apparent that this planet is the same size as ours, that it even has the same structure of continents and oceans as ours. Then, in a magical sci-fi moment, as the woman responsible for ‘first contact’ with the new planet speaks on a microphone, she realises that the woman talking to her on the other end is herself. [It’s on the trailer here – I’ve ruined it for you!]

So the synchronicity between the two planets and between each corresponding person is absolute, apart from the fact that it inevitably gets broken by the appearance of the other planet – so the woman is not hearing the same words ‘she’ is speaking on the other planet, but actually having a non-symmetrical conversation with her other-self.

First of all, you are simply in sci-fi territory. I love these films. And in fact this film is really a re-make of another film from the ’70s (I can’t remember its name – brownie points for anyone who can help) where the US sent a spaceship to another planet on the other side of the sun, only to discover that the planet was the same as the earth – apart from everything being a mirror image of this earth. So our astronaut lands on the other planet, and another astronaut from that planet lands on our earth, with everyone thinking that our astronaut has come back early – until he sees that all the writing here is in reverse. Anyway – this is classic sci-fi.

But very quickly it becomes philosophical. Looking at this other earth in the sky above, marvelling that we can behold such a world, you realise that this is exactly what we do whenever we reflect on our experience, or use our imaginations, or question what is going on in our own minds. The remarkable thing about human beings is that we can ‘step back’ from our own experience (inner and outer) and view it; that we can ‘see ourselves’. The strangeness of the film brings to light the strangeness of ordinary human life.

We take this ability to reflect for granted, but it really is the key factor that seems to distinguish us from other animals. No-one today would deny that animals can be incredibly sophisticated and intelligent; and on many measures of intelligence they would beat us. But this power of self-reflection seems to be one of our defining characteristics; and it surely connects, in ways that aren’t always clear, with human freedom – the freedom we have to think and imagine and act in ways that go far beyond the instinctual programming we receive as bodily creatures.

So the wonder that Rhoda Williams feels staring up at this other planet is no more than the wonder we should feel whenever we step back and reflect on ourselves.

Then there is a theological angle too. To cut a long story short: Rhoda unintentionally kills the family of musical conductor John Burroughs in a driving accident, soon after the planet is discovered. He is haunted by the loss of his family, and then receives a ticket to travel to the other planet – a ticket that Rhoda has for herself, but she decides to give it to him. Why would he go? Because if the synchronicity between the two worlds was broken when they started to impact on each other, then perhaps the accident did not happen on the other planet, and ‘his’ family is still alive up there.

I call this a theological idea, because it’s about the possibility of redemption, of putting right something that has gone irredeemably wrong in the past. That in some sense this action might not have happened, or it might be possible to go back and undo the harm that has been done. This is crazy of course – in normal thinking. But if it’s crazy, why do we spend so much time imagining/hoping that somehow we could put right what has gone wrong? I don’t think our almost compulsive inability to stop regretting the mistakes we have made is simply a dysfunctional habit that we can’t let go of; it’s a yearning for forgiveness and redemption, for someone to go back in time and allow us to change things, an echo of a possibility of renewal that we can’t justify at a rational or philosophical level – because the past is completely out of reach. It’s about hope.

Or the film is about conscience – the possibility of imagining an action now, as if it were happening, and asking if we really want this parallel imaginative world to unfold into reality, or if we would regret it. So the work of conscience, and of all conscious deliberation, brings us up against another parallel world that is exactly the same as ours – only we have the power to decide whether it shall come into existence or not.

At the very end of the film, in her backyard, Rhoda meets ‘herself’ – we presume she has come from the other planet, with her own ticket, which she didn’t need to give away, because the accident there didn’t happen. All we see is her catching the gaze of the other woman before her, and recognising her to be herself – but not. Then the film ends immediately. It’s incredibly moving. As if a lifelong search, unacknowledged, is finally over; as if, miraculously, I step away and see myself for who I am, and see myself seeing myself. And that, miraculously, is in fact what happens every time we know ourselves through self-reflection, through self-consciousness. Human beings are not just conscious. We are self-conscious. That’s the idea that the film opens up so well.

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For anyone interested in questions about marriage and the family, Maryvale Institute in Birmingham is taking new students for the MA course which beings again this January. [This is last year’s poster.]

To save time I’m just copying this helpful summary from the Witness to Love website from earlier this year:

A new course has just begun at the Maryvale Institute in Birmingham, an international Catholic distance-learning College. It is an MA programme in Marriage and Family based on the teaching and vision of John Paul II (especially his Theology of the Body) drawn up in close collaboration with the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family in Rome. The new MA programme runs via distance learning on somewhat similar lines to Open University courses and promises to be a really exciting and innovative way to bring the wisdom and beauty of John Paul II’s teaching to others.

The Maryvale Institute was also the home of Blessed John Newman in 1846 after his conversion when he lived there with a small community. Maryvale is also a former seminary (1794-1838) and orphanage (1851-1980) run by the Sisters of Mercy. It houses the historic and beautiful Chapel of the Sacred Heart from its seminary period and has also today houses a convent for Bridgettine sisters since 1999.
The new MA pathway “seeks to develop an ‘adequate anthropology’ through the study of God’s plan for marriage and family” (see pathway No. 6 here). It is therefore interdisciplinary and could be of interest to students from a wide variety of backgrounds such as teachers, priests, youth workers, those involved in marriage care, medicine or family law.

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There have been various reports recently about a new test for Down’s syndrome that could be offered to pregnant women by the NHS within a few months. Unlike the tests used at present (amniocentesis and chorionic villus sampling), the new techniques are non-invasive and low risk; they work by analysing DNA from the foetus in the mother’s blood. The company Sequenom has already introduced such tests in the United States. [See, for example, Mark Henderson’s report in The Times, 29 Oct 2011, p3]

In itself, there is nothing morally wrong with pre-natal diagnostic testing, and it can bring a number of benefits. It can help parents to come to terms with a child’s disabilities early on; to prepare (psychologically and practically) for the birth of their child; and in some cases it can alert parents and doctors to the medical support and intervention that might be needed after the birth, and even before it. So there can be good reasons for parents to choose to have different kinds of pre-natal tests.

But the reality is that in most cases (about 90%), a diagnosis of Down’s syndrome in pregnancy becomes not a means to support the unborn child but a reason to abort it. So anyone with a concern for the unborn child, and anyone aware of the various psychological and social pressures on parents to choose to abort their Down’s syndrome child, might feel justifiable unease and even alarm at the advent of this new test. It’s not to be anti-science or anti-progress; it’s to recognise that some scientific advances can bring more harm than good when they are used without moral discrimination.

The reality is that eugenic screening and termination has become an accepted and largely unquestioned part of the British moral landscape, ever since disability became one of the grounds for abortion. It’s one example of how a change in law doesn’t just reflect the mores of a culture, but it actually helps to reshape them. It is now socially acceptable in Britain to think and say that people with Down’s syndrome have no right to be born, and consequently no right to live, simply on the grounds of their disability. (Eugenics: ‘the science of improving a population by controlled breeding to increase the occurrence of desirable heritable characteristics’; Oxford Dictionaries.) The intention of the parents or of the medical establishment may not be strictly eugenic (there are many complicated reasons why parents make these choices); but the background assumptions of a culture which is at ease with selective abortion on the grounds of disability are surely eugenic, in that such a culture has already decided that a certain category of human beings does not have the same dignity or rights as others, and that their exclusion will not harm the common good.

Isn’t it strange that this unacknowledged acceptance of eugenics sits side by side with an increasing social abhorrence of any form of prejudice against disabled people. In the same month that this test was publicised in the British media, which will allow more efficient screening for Down’s syndrome and probably lead to further abortions, Ricky Gervais is vilified for using the word ‘mong’ as a term of abuse, because of its associations (via ‘mongoloid’) with people with Down’s syndrome. (See Joe Public’s Guardian blog here.)

In 2001 the Disability Rights Commission was brave enough to put into words the very obvious link between the disability clauses of the 1967 Abortion Act and public prejudice against disabled people (much to the annoyance of Polly Toynbee):

The Section [1(1)d] is offensive to many people; it reinforces negative stereotypes of disability and there is substantial support for the view that to permit terminations at any point during a pregnancy on the ground of risk of disability, while time limits apply to other grounds set out in the Abortion Act, is incompatible with valuing disability and non-disability equally.

In common with a wide range of disability and other organisations, the DRC believes the context in which parents choose whether to have a child should be one in which disability and non-disability are valued equally.

Here are Betsy Hart’s thoughtful comments on the testing issue [people in the US prefer ‘Down syndrome’ to ‘Down’s syndrome’; see the explanation here]:

The vast majority of instances of Down syndrome occur in babies carried by women 35 and younger, but that age group has historically been less likely to get tested. Now a simple and accurate blood test for this condition can be safely and routinely administered to virtually anyone who wants it as long as a doctor authorizes it.

So for the math: If more than 90 percent of women who find out they are pregnant with a baby with Down syndrome abort, does this mean we might eventually have almost no babies born with Down syndrome? Will we have gotten rid of a supposedly “undesired” human condition by getting rid of the people themselves who carry it?

And what does that do to the rest of us? I am the first to admit that I’m not signed up on any “adopt a baby with Down syndrome” list. I also didn’t sign up on the “raising four children on my own” list. We never know what challenges life is going to present. Accordingly, what a false sense of security a “no Down syndrome” test result can give parents.

Sure, the new test is just a tool, after all. If used to prepare expectant parents for a baby with Down syndrome so they can learn about the condition before their little one enters the world, great. Maybe they can be assured that life expectancies and outcomes for children with Down syndrome are so much better now.

Early intervention for cognitive development and surgical and other treatments for physical impairments have fundamentally and positively changed the playing field for babies born with Down syndrome today.

But how many minds will change when they have this information? We live in a supposedly humane and tolerant age. I question that. Not when we apparently still have so little tolerance for humanity that might be a little different.

I don’t doubt (and I know from the experience of parents themselves) what a huge shock and a huge challenge it can be when parents discover that their unborn child might have a disability. That’s one reason why it’s so heartening to read various personal stories that have come into the media in the light of the publicity about these new tests; above all from parents who might not have been particularly pro-life, but have had a kind of conversion through learning to love and value their disabled children in ways they never imagined would have been possible at first. Bonnie Rochman reports:

For Amy Julia Becker, who has written a book about life with her daughter, Penny, who has Down syndrome, coming to terms with her daughter’s intellectual limitations has taken time. “I went to Princeton, I graduated Phi Beta Kappa, I have always been smart,” she says. “I didn’t realize how much I assumed I’d have a daughter just like me. Having Penny really challenged me to rethink what it means to be a whole and full human being.”

In her book, A Good and Perfect Gift, Becker transcribes a journal entry written soon after Penny was born: “Can she live a full life without without ever solving a quadratic equation? Without reading Dostoyevsky? I’m pretty sure she can. Can I live a full life without learning to cherish and welcome those in this world who are different from me? I’m pretty sure I can’t.”

But many expectant parents don’t feel that way. Up to 90% of women who know in advance of a Down syndrome diagnosis choose to end the pregnancy, according to the few studies that have tracked this. The new test is not being marketed only to women who would end a Down syndrome pregnancy, say advocates of testing. Mothers who plan to have the baby may also want to know ahead of time in order to prepare emotionally and medically; half of infants with Down syndrome, for example, are born with heart defects. “I don’t think it’s all search-and-destroy,” says Canick. “That is an awful way of looking at this.”

But parents of children with Down syndrome are skeptical of the intent of early screening. “There is a real disconnect between hospitals, administrators and OB/GYN doctors’ understanding of what has changed for children with Down syndrome over the years,” says Howard, whose daughter, Lydia, starts conversations with strangers and cracks jokes in her inclusive preschool. “There was encouragement to get screened with the understanding that I would terminate because that’s what most people do.”

It’s true that mothers who learn soon after delivery that their babies have Down syndrome describe being overwhelmed with sorrow and disbelief on what they’d presumed would a joyous day. Howard cried every day for nine months after Lydia was born. Perkins McLaughlin says it took her eight hours after her C-section to muster the nerve to go visit her daughter, Gracie, in the neonatal intensive care unit. “There are people out there who feel the test is great,” says Perkins McLaughlin. “In some ways, it is great. But it is scary too. Will more people terminate because it’s earlier in the pregnancy and why not just try again? I don’t know what I would have done if I had found out at 10 weeks.”

Gracie is now 3 1/2. In the two years since Perkins McLaughin, now 44, has served as a parent mentor for the Massachusetts Down Syndrome Congress, she’s told the dozen or so conflicted pregnant women who have contacted her that Gracie is bright: she started signing at six months and had accumulated 100 signs by age 2, prompting her grandmother to ask, Are you sure she has Down syndrome? She loves music, dancing and her older brother and sister. Perkins McLaughin tells them how Gracie has added perspective to her life, softening her Type-A edges. “She’s not going to do quantum physics, but I don’t do quantum physics,” says Perkins McLaughin. “Gracie has showed me in a profound way that I am not in control of everything. I have a bumper sticker that says, Grace Happens.”

I wonder if serious reflection on ‘disablist’ prejudices and disability rights in this country will eventually lead us to reconsider the inherently eugenic abortion laws we have at present.

For more information about Down’s syndrome, see the Down’s Syndrome Association website here.

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I’m dying to see James Marsh’s new film Project Nim, not only because he directed one of my favourite documentaries of recent years (Man on Wire), but because it’s about the question of whether or not human beings have a unique ability to communicate with language.

Marsh documents the attempt by Herb Terrance, a psychology professor at Columbia University in New York, to discover whether chimpanzees can learn a human language.

Mick Brown explains:

Terrace’s idea was to give rise to one of the most idiosyncratic scientific experiments of the era, to take a newborn chimpanzee and raise it as if it were a human being, while teaching it to communicate using American Sign Language (ASL). For a period in the 1970s Terrace’s chimpanzee, named Nim, became a celebrity, featuring in newspapers and magazines and appearing on television chat shows – the tribune, as a New York magazine cover story had it, of a ‘scientific revolution with religious consequences that occurs once every few hundred years’.

Herb Terrace was not the first person to hit on the idea of communicating with an ape through sign language. In 1661 Samuel Pepys described in his diaries encountering ‘a great baboon’ brought from ‘Guiny’ that was ‘so much like a man in most things… I do believe that it already understands much English, and I am of the mind it might be taught to speak or make signs.’ In the 1960s a husband and wife team, Allen and Beatrix Gardner, had raised a chimp named Washoe, claiming to have taught it more than 300 signs.

Terrace’s own experiment was forged in a spirit of heated debate about language and behaviour that was raging through academia in the 1960s and 70s. A disciple of the behaviourist BF Skinner, Terrace wanted to disprove the theory of Skinner’s great rival, the linguist Noam Chomsky, that humans are uniquely ‘hard-wired’ to develop language. Even the choice of his chimp’s name, Nim Chimpsky, was designed to cock a snook at Chomsky.

In search of a surrogate mother for his chimp, Terrace turned to one of his former graduate psychology students – and a former lover – Stephanie LaFarge. ‘Herb wanted to do something equivalent to Galileo and Freud in creating a paradigm shift for human beings,’ LaFarge says. ‘That’s who he is: very arrogant and very ambitious.’

Things didn’t work out as planned – you can read the article or see the film to find out why. But here are the conclusions that Terrace came to about the possibility of chimpanzee-human language:

Terrace remains unrepentant about the experiment and its findings. He is presently working on a new book, with the provisional title of Why a Chimp Can’t Learn Language. Chimps, he believes, as Nim demonstrated, are highly intelligent but they do not have what is called ‘a theory of mind’.

‘No chimpanzee – no animal – has ever engaged in conversation. It’s always been “gimme, gimme, gimme”. They’re very astute readers of body language, as Nim showed. But a chimp does not have any reason to think of its own mind, or that somebody else has a mind.’

Not only would a chimpanzee not be able to construct a meaningful sentence of ‘man bites dog’, Terrace says, but ‘he would have no interest in communicating that. A chimp is never going to say, “This is a beautiful sunset”, or “That’s a lovely suit you’re wearing.”’ In short, they will forever remain a closed book.

Terrace ends up agreeing with Chomsky and concludes that there is something unique about the mental and linguistic abilities of human beings.

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One of the many topics explored at the Theology of the Body conference over the weekend was shame. Not the moral shame we feel when we’ve done something wrong and wish we could undo or hide it; but another kind of ‘anthropological’ shame we feel as an instinctive response to those who treat us as if we were just objects.

Christ raising Adam and Eve

John Crosby explained how in Pope John Paul’s anthropology, we long to be recognised as persons, with an innate dignity and an inner life of our own. This is one part of his ‘personalilst’ philosophy. If someone simply looks at us (we might say stares at us), they don’t get beyond the surface sheen of our body – so we become objectified or ‘instrumentalised’ (as the jargon goes), turned into ‘instruments’ for the use of another – even if they mean no harm – and denied our own personhood and subjectivity.

This happens all the time, and usually it doesn’t matter too much. It does no harm that we are only able to glance at the hundreds of people in the high street, and that we can’t engage with them enough to appreciate their inner beauty. But if someone quite consciously stares at another, looks at them without seeing them as a person, it becomes an intrusion; and this is even more the case if they are being turned through this look into a purely sexual object.

Shame is our natural defence against this intrusion. This is quite distinct from the shame that comes if we are guilty of doing something wrong and desperate to hide our wrongdoing. The ‘good shame’ takes place almost at an existential level, rather than a moral one. It involves an inner withdrawal. To stop myself being turned into an object, I hide myself – physically, emotionally, psychologically and even spiritually. I don’t want to allow the ‘shameless’ look of the other to trap me and reduce me to the sheer materiality of my bodily existence. The shame I experience is much more than a feeling – it is a strategic response, a form of legitimate self-protection.

The goal, ultimately, is to recover that original innocence of the Garden of Eden, where Adam and Eve could stand without shame before each other in their nakedness – truly ‘seeing’ each other in all their personal depths, delighting in their humanity. I don’t mean this literally – there are other important reasons why we are not naturists. But the idea of standing before each other without shame, and of allowing others to come before us without the need to feel this anthropological shame, is part of our redemption and a return to innocence.

There are simpler words to express all this: the need for respect, acceptance, reverence, humility, gentleness, openness, sincerity, etc. Pope John Paul just wants to get behind the language to see why it really matters at the level of his personalist philosophy.

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It’s the second year that the Wintershall team has staged the Passion of Jesus in Trafalgar Square on Good Friday. Last year I posted about how powerful it was to see this religious drama unfolding in the secular spaces of central London – the pigeons, the buses, Nelson’s Column towering above, Big Ben in the distance, and the narrative punctuated by the scream of police sirens every few minutes. This is exactly what Jerusalem must have been like in the madness of Holy Week two thousand years ago. Well, take out Nelson and the buses and Big Ben and the sirens…

The play was even better than last year. It wasn’t just the glorious weather – although that certainly helped; or the screen – which made a huge difference. It felt tighter, more focussed. I don’t know if the script had been changed, or if it was just because the staging area seemed more restricted, or because it was the second year.

One or two moments stood out for me. First, when Simon of Cyrene was pulled out of the crowd by the soldiers to carry Jesus’s cross (just like last year) his wife raced after him – I presume it was his wife, sitting beside him in the audience. Or maybe I just missed this last year.

She was terrified that her husband was being dragged into the violence and mayhem of the Jerusalem/London streets – which he was. She circled round the edge of the crowd, desperate to help her husband and spare him this ordeal, not knowing where it would end, terrified that he might be crucified himself if he arrived at the place of execution with the cross on his shoulders. It was a lovely touch.

It reminded me that Simon of Cyrene – and all the others involved – are not just ‘characters’ who exist in some kind of suspended biblical animation, they are people with relatives and friends and colleagues and neighbours. It made me think of the relatives of all those who have even been kidnapped, tortured, murdered and forgotten – those who perhaps live with the agony far longer than those who perpetuate the crime and even those who suffer it. The Gospel narrative is so much more than the people who are actually mentioned by name.

The second moment was unintentional. When Jesus first appeared after his resurrection, and spoke to Mary Magdalene, the audience started clapping! It was so not appropriate – it completely broke the dramatic spell – but at another level it was so beautiful, and so British! Jesus appears; the Son of God comes among us in all his glory; the Risen Saviour is in our midst. We’ve got to do something! We’d like to scream or weep or fall flat on our faces in worship and adoration. But we’re British, and we don’t do these things in public, and the only visible display of approval or mild emotion we are able to make around strangers is to clap, politely, as if we are applauding a boundary at Lord’s or a dull after-dinner speech. It was marvellous. Jesus Christ is risen from the dead – and we clapped!

Last year I wrote about Jesus’s exit at the end of the play:

And right at the end, after the Resurrection, Jesus stepped through the crowd in his white garments as the audience was applauding. He didn’t take a bow. He walked up towards the National Gallery, across the top of Leicester Square, and into the streets beyond. I followed him, while the post-production congratulations were taking place in the square behind us.

That image of Jesus turning the corner into Charing Cross Road is what made the whole play for me: the figure of Christ, walking into the madness of London; without the protection of a director, a cast, a script, an appreciative audience; fading into the blur of billboards and buses and taxis; an unknown man walking into the crowd…

This year, a similar thing happened, but because of the weather the crowd was thicker and in no mood to let Jesus go. When he got to the top of the steps in front of the National Gallery, as Archbishop Vincent was saying thank you to the organisers, dozens of people crowded round him – just happy to see him close up.

And what did they want? Photos! So there was Jesus, smiling for the cameras – holding a child who had been lifted up for him; then with his arms around some friends as they peered into the lens; then standing in the middle of a large group for the camera. He was happy and obliging; in no rush; with a huge grin on his face. Obviously enjoying the people, and enjoying their joy in meeting him.

At first I thought: the play is over, the spell is broken, and the actor is quite rightly taking his bow. But then I thought: No, this is still very real. If Jesus were walking through Trafalgar Square today, would we be taking photos? Of course we would! Or put it the other way round, if people had had cameras back then, ordinary people who loved him and were delighted to catch a glimpse of him, would Jesus have marched away with a frown on his face, telling them to take life more seriously and to let go of these worldly gadgets? I don’t think so. He was, above all, kind. He met people where they were. He loved the ordinary and sometimes stupid things that they loved – as long as they were without sin. He would have stopped for photos.

Seeing this actor smile for the cameras – a warm, genuine, affectionate smile – didn’t create any disjunction in my mind with the Jesus he had just been playing. Quite the opposite – it helped me realise something about the kindness and humanity of this Jesus, and made me wonder even more about what it would be like if he were to walk the streets today.

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Very rarely does an advert on a billboard make me stop and think. This one did.

In case you can’t see the image well, the poster reads:

You are not stuck in traffic.

You are traffic.

Well, I was driving along the A41 at 50 mph, so I didn’t stop. But the mental processes were interrupted for a moment, and I found myself thinking about all the times that I distance myself from the people or events around me, treating them as ‘other’, when they are really me, and I am them.

Traffic jam in Bangkok

 

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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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