Not that I am personally planning on calling it quits any time soon, but I was wondering recently what ‘healing’ looks like in the context of the end of our lives.
We don’t know if this will be relevant for us, of course. Some friends of mine have been snuffed out without much time to do anything about it. Some apparently didn’t know it was going to happen. But most of my late friends and family had plenty of warning.
One part of healing near the end of life is, of course, that your life doesn’t end, you recover, and go on to see many good days.
But it occurred to me recently there is such thing as a ‘time to die’. However good or bad or complete has been our life, whether its conclusion will be bitterly painful or a blessed relief, our impact on the world is over, our days are winding down, this is it.
I wonder if ‘healing’ in this context isn’t about making peace with that fact; and going on to make peace with as much in your life as you can, and especially with God.
What’s fun about this idea is that it gives you back some agency. You’re in charge again. You have accepted the big fact (you’re mortal) and now you’re free again, to love and conclude things as you see fit, and as best you can.
This is the best time of year to experience ‘Peak Bookshop’. All the titles for Christmas shopping will be in. (Or should be.)
Sort your way past the:
Celebrity puff pieces
Old horses being flogged (regular bestsellers hatching another well-timed Christmas hardback)
… and find the stuff that makes bookshops great. That makes bookshops still great despite being gutted and filleted by Amazon: a curated collection of original, brilliant, beyond-our-experience insight. Storytelling round a global campfire. Human minds on sale, packaged for easy consumption. The best thinking, expressed in the best ways, all ready for us to engage with, dream with, laugh with, lose ourselves in, ponder, be shaped by.
(This is a repeat of a blog I first wrote in November 2016, happily still true).
Yesterday in our church our preacher tried to explain the word ‘providence’, an old-fashioned word that, like the groat or the florin, has or had considerable value, but has passed out of common currency.
And it still has value, perhaps especially when we look at the yoke that Christ has laid upon our lives and ask, is this yoke, as promised by Jesus, truly light, truly easy? (See Matthew 11:30.)
She—our preacher—explained that ‘providence’ referred first to God sustaining the Universe, upholding its natural laws; and then secondly, to God arranging things in life so that they turned out well and for our good. Exactly how the second meaning of providence squares with the first is a paradox, I think, but just because I can’t understand it, doesn’t mean it isn’t true.
Just suppose providence is a thing. It leads to several thoughts.
I’ve seen blogs recently about people writing letters to their ten-year-old selves. Mine would be very simple: life so far has turned out better than ten-year-old me was capable of imagining. Half-formed ten-year-old dreams and desires turned into milestones upon which I can look now back on, half a century later. There was pain along the way, but it was not to be compared with the flowering or fruiting of those desires that accompanied them. Either I got lucky, or there was the hand of providence somewhere.
That which starts by tasting bitter often ends up being sweet. It’s possible that an eye for providence may help us with that thought.
We keep walking into drippings of God-soakedness, like colliding with spiders’ webs, which in the season I’m writing this, early autumn, are everywhere. I know that coincidences are mathematically inevitable, but that does not stop them also being the hand of providence. Several years ago I quoted the theologian Frederich Buechner, and it’s worth unearthing again:
“I think of a person I haven’t seen or thought of for years, and ten minutes later I see her crossing the street. I turn on the radio to hear a voice reading the biblical story of Jael, which is the story that I have spent the morning writing about. A car passes me on the road, and its license plate consists of my wife’s and my initials side by side. When you tell people stories like that, their usual reaction is to laugh. One wonders why.
I believe that people laugh at coincidence as a way of relegating it to the realm of the absurd and of therefore not having to take seriously the possibility that there is a lot more going on in our lives than we either know or care to know. Who can say what it is that’s going on? But I suspect that part of it, anyway, is that every once and so often we hear a whisper from the wings that goes something like this: “You’ve turned up in the right place at the right time. You’re doing fine. Don’t ever think that you’ve been forgotten.” ― Frederick Buechner
Beware middle age. You become aware the world has changed around you, you are no longer at the cultural centre of things, and you attach moral weight to the change. You haven’t just grown old–blithely ploughing your land into a deep rut while the world stayed fertile and flexible–you think it’s got worse. The country is going to the dogs.
I don’t entirely believe this. I rather prefer Dickens’ formula, that the good old days, like now, were the best of times … the worst of times.
But surely some things get worse, even as other things get better, as the erratic lighthouse-beam of the world’s attention lights stuff up?
One of the things that may have got worse is the fraying of the social fabric. Commentator and cultural critic (or, OK, journalist on a deadline) David Brooks wrote a fascinating article for The Atlantic1 in which he tried to answer a couple of questions:
Why have Americans become so sad? – he points out a few statistics, rising rates of depression and loneliness, increasing lack of friends, and ‘persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness.’
Why have Americans become so mean? He cites restauranteurs and medical staff, for example, facing never-before-seen levels of rudeness, cruelty, and abuse from the general public. Himself a recent, adult convert to Christ, he says, ‘we’re enmeshed in some sort of emotional, relational and spiritual crisis.’
Many reasons have been offered (as he points out): the rise of social media; the decline of community organizations; the toppling of the pyramid that had male, white, hetrosexuals at the apex; and the high levels of poverty and insecurity after we baby boomers bought all the houses, snaffled all the good pensions and left the national finances neck-deep in the red.
Brooks doesn’t dispute any of these, but he points to a deeper cause. ‘We inhabit a society in which people are no longer trained in how to treat others with kindness and consideration … We live in a society that’s terrible at moral formation.’ His solution, if I’m reading him right, is education.
He may be right. But (even accepting his diagnosis) I’m not so sure. My problem is that I’m not sure that ‘moral education’ actually works. I rather think (and maybe I have the apostle Paul on my side here) that any amount of moral instruction only makes us more creatively sneaky at finding outlets for our evil hearts. Paul himself knew all kinds of law, he had moral instruction from his nose to his toes, but his true nature still leaked out as pride, hypocrisy, cold-heartedness, snobbishness and self-righteousness. My reading of the gospels is that Jesus found the Pharisees, moral crusaders whether you asked them or not, much harder to bear with than the ordinary sinners who drank too much or slept around. The Pharisees’ collective A+ in moral education played to their low cunning and monstrous smugness.
But if it’s not education, what? I think the answer is love. I would argue that loving behaviour, like many other things, travels down human networks. The kind or courteous person in the workplace changes the workplace. The generous act spawns further generous acts. Human goodness spreads. It’s not so much ‘education’ as lived-out loving decency that exerts a soft pressure on those who receive it.
I have heard that one of William Wilberforce’s aims in life was ‘to make goodness fashionable’, and I think it is true the one person’s behaviour can eventually, via a long and winding road, change the culture. There are many examples of this. For example, I have worked with legal professionals and judges for more than 20 years. I have never seen even the faintest suggestion of a bribe. I remember the horror at my son’s school when word got out that a parent (not from a British culture) had offered a teacher money to smooth the path for a child. It was a scandal roughly on a scale of someone exposing themselves in the playground. That is not to claim my own culture is especially good, just that in the matter of bribery in those two instances, it was unthinkable and inconsciable. That’s culture. Integrity (in this narrow area in these isolated cultural examples) has become fashionable.
Or take sport. In Rugby Union, the only person who can question a referee’s decision is the team captain, and they can only make a polite enquiry. In soccer, players surround the referee and harangue them. There are two different cultures. Maybe one day soccer players will be as polite to match officials as rugby players are today; or maybe one day rugby players will be as rude as soccer players are today. I suspect whichever way any of this changes, it will be because some influential people did it first and in some mysterious way their behaviour became fashionable and normalized within the culture.
The Christian church changed the brutal Roman culture; it became unappealing to watch people being eaten by lions. The @metoo movement addressed and changed the laddish culture of the ‘noughties. What was done then is no longer accepted now. I don’t think it was education that did this; somehow it was social pressure tied up with love.
Interesting. Reminds me of Paul’s description of the Philippians, whom he instructed to ‘become blameless and pure, “children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.”[c] Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky.’ (Philippians 2:15)