“I am only one, but still I am one.
I cannot do everything, but still I can do something.
And because I cannot do everything,
I will not refuse to do the something I can do.”

Edward Everett Hale

Thursday, 23 February 2012

Creatures of Habit

We are all creatures of habit. The other day, the presenter Mark Forrest was talking about this on his breakfast programme on Classic fm. He commented that for him, the first cup of coffee of the day has to be in a particular mug, and sitting in a particular chair, otherwise it doesn't feel "right". The location and receptacles of the rest of his drinks for the day don't matter to him, but this first drink is special.

And I am much the same - I don't mind about which mug I have for breakfast, but my morning routine is unvaried: rise, shower, dress, then breakfast, sitting at the kitchen table, the same meal every day - mug of coffee (two sweeteners), bowl of Fruit & Fibre (same bowl every day), glass of breakfast juice. It is my way of easing into the day, of bringing myself up to speed.

Having a daily routine is not a bad thing, so long as we drive it, rather than it driving us. Certain things need to be done daily, or weekly, or whatever, and having some sort of routine can help with this. But I think we also need to leave some space for the unexpected, the new, the unusual, and not be so bogged down in our everyday routine that we cannot respond easily and quickly, to whatever comes up. It's a fine balance.

Habits can be good for us, or bad for us. For example, good habits might include regular exercise, cleaning one's teeth twice a day, and so on. Whereas bad habits might include smoking, drinking alcohol to unwind in the evenings, whatever. And most of us will sit in an accustomed seat in any particular setting, and be unreasonably annoyed if someone else sits in "our" seat. It's not rational, it's a matter of habit, and we need to be on the watch for habits which cause us to behave less than our best.

It reminds me of the old Native American tale about feeding the wolf, which appears in Rev. Bill Darlison's story collection The Shortest Distance:

"'Why is is that sometimes I feel that I want to do helpful things, but at other times, I just want my own way?' a little Cherokee boy asked his grandfather one day.
'It's because there is a battle inside every human being,' replied his grandfather. 'The battle is between two wolves. One wolf is kind and gentle, full of peace, generosity, compassion, and trust. The other is wicked, full of anger, hatred, greed, selfishness, pride and arrogance.'
The young boy thought for a moment, and then he asked: 'Which one will win the battle inside me?'
'The one you feed,' replied his grandfather."

We are all human beings who have been given free will, and can choose to follow a variety of paths through our lives. The story of the two wolves helps me to remember that I do have this choice, and reminds me to try to follow the best I know, and not to feed the wolf of bad habits.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Love Makes The World Go Round

Love is an amazing thing. I very much like Raymond Feist's definition: "Love is a recognition, an opportunity to say 'There is something about you I cherish.' It doesn't entail marriage, or even physical love. There's love of parents, (to which I would add love of family), love of city or nation, love of life, and love of people. All different, all love."

And love is fundamental to human well-being. I am sure many of us can remember those sad, sad photos of those little children in Romanian orphanages in the 1980s, left in their cots 24/7, with no attention paid to them, who had withdrawn into themselves, totally unable to relate to anyone else, because they had been starved of love and attention. And it is well-known that in bringing up children, even "bad attention" is better than being ignored.

I would go so far as to say that we can only become fully rounded people if we love and are loved in return. Jesus recognised this when he described "Love your neighbour as yourself" as one of the two greatest commandments.

But it is not always that easy to do. We are so often concerned with the mundane busy-nesses of life; making money, acquiring the latest gadget, working, working, working, whether it is for an employer or at home, that we don't spend nearly enough time or attention on the truly important stuff - our relationships with our families, neighbours and friends. And we will regret it.

Luckily, it is something we can all get better at, if we try. Building loving relationships with all the people we come into contact with may sound like an unrealistic proposition, but stick with it; the rewards are beyond compare. Starting from where you are is the important thing, and building up slowly. Resolving to live your life in a spirit of love and compassion means recognising that there is "that of God in everyone", to use a Quakerly phrase.

In fact, the Quakers have a lot of extremely good advice about building loving relationships; let me share some of it with you:

"Do you respect that of God in everyone, though it may be expressed in unfamiliar ways or may be difficult to discern? Each of us has a particular experience of God and each must find the way to be true to it. When words are strange or disturbing to you, try to sense where they come from and what has nourished the lives of others. Listen patiently and seek the truth which other people's opinions may contain for you. Avoid hurtful criticism and provocative language."

"How can we make ... a community in which each person is accepted and nurtured, and strangers are welcome? Seek to know one another in the things which are eternal, bear the burden of each other's failings and pray for one another. As we enter with tender sympathy into the joys and sorrows of each other's lives, ready to give help and to receive it, our meeting can be a channel for God's love and forgiveness."

"Do you cherish your friendships, so that they grow in depth and understanding and mutual respect? In close relationships, we may risk pain as well as finding joy."

"Respect the wide diversity among us in our lives and relationships. Refrain from making prejudiced judgements about the life journeys of others. ... Remember that each one of us is unique, precious, a child of God."

"Do you recognise the needs and gifts of each member of your own family and household, not forgetting your own? Try to make your home a place of loving friendship and enjoyment, where all who live or visit may find the peace and refreshment of God's presence."

The teachings of Jesus sum up what we should do: "Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. ... Do to others as you would have them do to you. ... Love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return ... Be merciful just as your Father is merciful."

There are people whose lives have been shining examples of putting this Golden rule, which is shared by all the major religions, into practice. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr was one; Nelson Mandela is another; so is the Dalai Lama. What all these people have in common is that whatever life threw at them, they somehow managed to rise above the natural human instincts for revenge and hate, and continued to live their lives in a spirit of love and compassion.

It's a big wide world, and we are only little people. But each of us can resolve to make our little corners of the world more loving places.

 "There is something about you I cherish."

Friday, 10 February 2012

Becoming Ourselves

My Facebook friend Hay Quaker posted a lovely quotation from Harold Babcock today, which really spoke to my condition:

"The fact is that for most of us, it is hard work to become ourselves: those true selves we not only long to be, but actually are. It is in truth a religious endeavor, this becoming what we are meant to be. It is our life's sacred work, really, because it usually takes a lifetime full of fits and starts, of beginnings and endings, of successes and failures and wrong turns, to get anywhere close to where we want and need to be."

It reminded me straight away of another quotation, by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, about God's calling for everyone, which was given to me when I started my ministry training:

"You must give up everything in order to gain everything. What must you give up? All that is not truly you; all that you have chosen without choosing and value without evaluating, accepting because of someone else's extrinsic judgement, rather than your own; all your self-doubt, that keeps you from trusting and loving yourself or other human beings. What will you gain? Only your own, true self; a self who is at peace, who is able to truly love and be loved, and who understands who and what [s]he is meant for. But you can be yourself only if you are no one else. You must give up 'their' approval, whoever 'they' are, and look to yourself for evaluation of success and failure, in terms of your own level of aspiration that is consistent with your values. Nothing is simpler and nothing is more difficult."

It's about having integrity, which I have written about before on this blog. Acting with integrity, being true to yourself, involves thinking for yourself. I love the Abraham Lincoln quotation: "I am not bound to win, but I am bound to be true. I am not bound to succeed, but I am bound to live up to the light that I have." This implies making a judgement about what you believe to be right and true, and then sticking to it, no matter what anyone else thinks. Take Jane Eyre as an example. When she discovers that her master, Mr. Rochester, has a wife still living, she has a hard choice to make. She was desperately in love with him, and wanted nothing more than to live with him and be his love, but she knew that this would be morally wrong; as she says "Laws and principles are not for times when there is no temptation; they are for such moments as these, when body and sould rise in mutiny against their rigour; stringent are they; inviolate they shall be." I admire her so much for this - she could so easily have followed her heart and stayed with her master. But she knew that is was the wrong thing to do "And there I plant my foot." To Jane, integrity meant self-respect, and following the dictates of her conscience in defiance of her wishes and desires.

Well that was in 1847. What about today? How can anyone behave with integrity, become their own true selves, in our complex modern society. To my mind, the answer is clear - the attempt must be made. Two politicians have died in recent years, Mo Mowlam and Robin Cook. Both were spoken of as having personal integrity. What does this mean in the wider context of our society? I believe that it means exactly what it always has - acting in accordance with your beliefs in what is right and proper, not matter what the personal cost. In Robin Cook's case, this meant resigning from his post of Foreign Secretary because he believed that the war against Iraq was an unjust one. In Mo Mowlam's case, it meant speaking out against the government when she believed it was doing the wrong thing. Personal integrity is not cheap - it means refusing to compromise when you are told to do something that you believe in your heart is wrong. It means following your principles, at whatever personal cost. It means putting what you know to be right about what you would like to happen, and above the approval of 'them'.

It is the surest way to become your true self that I know.