Unveiling the Patient Revolution: 25 Years of Global Transformation

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Looking at the news, you have to close your eyes and ears a bit at the moment. But there’s a longer view. As I write it is almost a quarter of a century since 1990. Here’s some of what I came across this week. In that quarter-century:

  • Measured poverty in the two largest countries in the world has declined from 60% of the population in India and 50% of the population in China to 2% in India and O.something % in China 1
  • Solar, wind and other forms of renewable energy have (from almost nothing) joined with hydro (which is much older) to make a third of the world’s electricity generation and a seventh of the world’s total energy use. 2
  • The UK economy has grown by 80% and its carbon dioxide output has halved.3
  • This year (2024) of elections has seen setbacks for those with autocratic instincts in India and Poland, for example, and the ANC in South Africa has been given a good shake and told to swap its self-enrichment and go back to the national enrichment project in the days of Mandela — democracy working.
  • A local charity, the Romsey Mill here in Cambridge, has altered the lives of single mums, autistic teenagers, pre-schoolers, and teens, giving them self-confidence and better life choices and incidentally saving the government a fortune.

It isn’t hard to imagine in the next 25 years, in the UK for example, the mixture of rooftop solar, batteries and electric cars spreading through the nation like double glazing did in the last generation. And just as our forebears build reservoirs in the 1930s that still supply our water today, so we’ll have energy and transport powered by the sun that generations ahead of us, as far down the future as we can see, will no longer have to worry about.

These streams of patient revolution are streams in an ocean full of all kinds of currents. But imagine a Romsey Mill in every town! Imagine the Mill as just one of a swarm, or a hive, of Christian-inspired social transformation initiatives, buzzing through the whole country! Imagine having to go to nowhere and to no-one for the energy to power our lives! Imagine poverty driven back in every place! Imagine reversing the growth of CO2! Patient revolution!

The mistaken things we are taught

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This is a post is about ‘Christian problems’ so it may not be relevant to you, but it is relevant to the theme of ‘slow mission’ or ‘patient revolution’, because the Christian faith is the very essence of a slow-burning, profound revolution in thought and life. (Even allowing for Christianity’s zany twists and turns throught its long history.)

I can’t count how many times I have been encouraged from talks in churches to do the following:

  1. Pray more
  2. Read my Bible more
  3. Introduce others to Jesus and church.

Occasionally there’s a radical addition like

4. Volunteer for things in church

While this is at one level right, at another level it is completely wrong. The really big deal about the Christian faith is the transformed relationships. That is what the letters in the New Testament are mostly concerned with. That’s what the Beatitudes are about, and when Jesus is asked to summarize the law and the prophets, he comes up with love the Lord your God with everything you have and love your neighbour with the same vehemence that you defend, justify and serve yourself.

In other words, if you had a highlights reel of the New Testament, it’s about transforming our relationships.

  • Marriage ceases to be a power struggle (well, ideally) and become, s a place where each partner denies their natural power-seeking instincts in order to lovingly to make the other partner thrive.
  • Child rearing becomes a matter of unconditional love rather than performance-related benefits
  • Employees’ work becomes devotion to Jesus.
  • Employers have to recognize we’re all the same before God and treat their employees as fellow humans rather than machinery.
  • This sense of love and equality then spreads out to the poor and sick

In the story of how the Church has got on with this task over the 50 generations since the apostles, you have to edit out quite a lot of stuff, but (I argue) you are still left with a basic framework which is that this happened. The parts of the world tainted by the Christian faith are seriously different from the (diminishing) parts that aren’t. Even a nation like India (less than 5% Christian officially) has been seriously changed by an encounter with Christian thinking. Despite thousands of years of history and an evanescence of philosophical systems, it was only after a brush with Christianity that Dalits were treated as human beings rather than animals, I believe, for example.

And we wouldn’t have modern-sounding and secular-sounding things like human rights without the virus of Christianity having becoming endemic among us. (That is still why some nations see ‘human rights’ as just another way the West is trying to get one over them; they recognize how alien it is.)

(In this understanding, I like many others, have been influenced by historian Tom Holland’s book Dominion: the Making of the Western Mind)

So all the more impoverishing, if that’s a word, when Christian devotion is reduced to a few performance-management variables like how much Bible you read each day. I suppose it’s true that Bible reading gets you exposed to the important stuff, but we mustn’t miss the inportant stuff itself. In a world of spin and hype, and a coming world perhaps of AI-fakery, transformed relationships sound through the Universe like a great bell.

Humph.

The silence where God is

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The team I am part of took time out this week to talk about rest, stopping, putting work aside–and silence.

One of the things to come out of this for me was that there is a silence where God isn’t–like you are battering on the door but as (C S Lewis wrote in A Grief Observed) all you hear is the further sound of doors beyond being shut and locked. (If you even hear that.)

But there’s also a silence where God is. You might be wanting him to speak. You may have lots of questions. And there’s silence. But it’s a silence where God is, just is, just is here with you. Here with you.

You can jump off from this into further thoughts, all helpful for the patient revolutionary. Perhaps the main one is this: the world doesn’t stop when I stop. Even, my world doesn’t stop when I stop. I can go do something else, or I can do nothing, or whatever I want. I can take delight in things. I can spend time in companiable silence.

For those of us with a Christian bent, this is an expression of faith. The voices that call us to activity, to taking responsibility, are so strident. It’s a statement of faith to say to them, bad luck, I’m not responsible for the Universe, it’s in good hands. I’m checking out, I’m delighting in what I already have. And if just now that’s companiable silence, good.

We were guided in our thinking by the helpful book Emotionally Healthy Spirituality by Peter Scazzero.

Mental health and slow healing

Am enjoying a book called Dopamine Nation by Dr Anna Lembke. I also happened to come across a newspaper piece by author Rose Cartwright about mental health having predominantly environmental, rather than chemical causes. It’s fascinating. Since I suffer incurably from the journalists’ affliction of blogging about anything I’ve just discovered, without passing through the efforts required for actual expertise, here are a few things I’m learning:

  1. You can get excused from quite a lot of things these days by saying ‘it’s not good for my mental health’ (this is my wife’s insight). This is an upgrade on the excuse of Bartleby the scrivener, invented by Herman Melville, who avoided unpleasant tasks at work simply by saying ‘I’d rather not’. (I use Bartleby’s excuse a lot at church.)
  2. Sadly, perhaps the best way to raise the alarm about your difficulties in life is to use the language of mental health. If you do, at least someone will eventually come along to help.
  3. Mental ill-health itself, like white light passed through a prism, has a colourful spectrum of differing causes and cures. We need to think prismatically (as Rose Cartwright points out) rather than simplistically.
  4. The common practice of ascribing mental ill-health to a chemical imbalance in the brain, and then prescribing a drug to fix it, is rather less-well attested in the scientific literature (I think) whereas other causes, like poverty, trauma and deprivation have a rather stronger correlation. Rose Cartwright again: Evidence that exposure to environmental stress is the leading determinant of common mental health problems like anxiety, depression and OCD, seemed to be overwhelming, whereas evidence that organic brain dysfunction or genetics are the leading causes of such conditions seemed to be comparatively scant.
  5. Addressing one colour in the spectrum (the drug route) is arguably not going to entirely fix things in most cases.
  6. Academics generally know this. But academics don’t have ten-minute appointments with patients for which they are equipped only with a desperately scant toolbox.
  7. So doctors are left managing the problem and the result is a feedback loop involving doctors, drug companies, and mildly-sedated patients, few of whom are going anywhere except round and round again.
  8. I am reminded of a blog I wrote about the magazine Private Eye’s tame(ish) medic, Dr Phil Hammond. He wrote: Friendship and a feeling of belonging; an ability and curiosity to learn and adapt; purposeful physical and mental activity; observation and appreciation of the environment; compassion for others; food that is both delicious and nutritious; an ability to switch off and relax and regular, restorative sleep— collectively these daily joys of health are more powerful than any drug.
  9. Here’s a dream. Imagine a government that set up a proper study about the causes and cures of mental illness. Imagine it learnt that the issues to tackle are poverty, inequality, childhood trauma, struggling parents, discrimination, bad living conditions, food that isn’t food, the closing of recreational spaces and youth clubs, and (perhaps) the unlicencedness of smartphones, which (perhaps perhaps) are as dangerous and unregulated as cars in the 1920s. Imagine this enlightened government realized that investment and attention in those areas would reverse the tidal rise of ‘mental health problems’.
  10. Then imagine if they didn’t. Then further imagine what we non-career-politicians could do instead to make our corner of the world more congenial to the wellbeing of many: slow mission; patient revolution. No need to wait for politicians or blame them. Imagine.

Freedom’s laughter

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Just went to a fascinating seminar with my wife on ‘teacher retention and recruitment’, part of this year’s Cambridge Festival.

No, fascinating it really was. There were perhaps a number of messages but one struck home. Those with long memories have seen every trend in education come, go, and come again.

We are apparently–hopefully– at ‘peak prescription’. That is, teachers are being told (prescribed) how to teach. Teachers who mentor early career teachers are (it is feared) being told how to mentor them, the right framework, the right steps.

Never mind that children are complex, teachers are complex, solutions are complex and based on a teacher’s own style and personality. The teaching force is being trained like an army, and delivering a lesson is taught like cleaning and assembling a rifle, this way, or the wrong way.

The panel of speakers were lamenting that joy and laughter was disappearing – the joy and laughter that had kept some of them in the classroom for 30 years. It’s a bad sign when the laughter dies away.

Next to me, I could sense my normally-calm wife stirring in agreement. (As P G Wodehouse might have said of Jeeves, the eyebrow was raised a full quarter-inch).

There were other complaints. Pay has diverged from graduate equivalents in the past handful of years – – ten years ago, that wasn’t a problem. Workload has eased but still teachers aren’t given the opportunity to learn, grow, take on board the current research, deepen their practice. Management needs improvement. An HR department might help.

But how many times do we have to go round this? Central control looks like a short-cut to widespread efficiency, but it stifles the creativity that makes teachers excel. Education is not the same as training. The very thing you want to unleash (flourishing in staff and students) is flattened and numbed by standardization and mechanization. The shortcut, the quick way, runs into the sand.

Then look at other pieces of our austerity-savaged public services. Junior doctors? Defence lawyers? Pay, conditions, space, respect. Saving money has cost us so much.

person wearing blue and black blazer holding bag
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The slow-step of freedom

If you like to control things, you do not do well with freedom. You don’t have to look far to see this. You may see it in your workplace or even your home. We certainly see it in nations.

In some countries (Egypt, Pakistan, Eritrea, North Korea for example but even in these days, the New York City subway apparently), people call in the army to do non-military stuff. The army is efficient, or cheap, or a machine capable of being ordered around, people believe. And they like it for that reason.

In Egypt and Pakistan, generals, proper generals who have been exposed to army for a lifetime, and should know better, believe the army is efficient, so they give it jobs like building airports or retailing soap-powder. It is perhaps no surprise that these same generals also have the IMF Bailout Department on speed-dial.

I am a fan of freedom, but I am also my culture’s child. I like living in a country where you can say most things without a van turning up at your doorstep filled with people who mean you harm. I like the way people can start businesses without having to look over their shoulders in case the state (or the Party) seeks control or the army has already cornered that part of the market.

But is there an argument for freedom as a good thing in itself, a way to make a society prosper, despite freedom’s raucous and rowdy ways, so disturbing to the serenity of the autocrat’s pillow?

Michael Polanyi (1891-1976), whom I heard about because of Lesslie Newbigin, was a Hungarian polymath. After earning cojones as a scientist (two of his students and one of his sons won Nobel Prizes), he changed roles at the University of Manchester from Professor of Physical Chemistry to Professor of Social Studies. He was a Catholic Christian. And he started writing about freedom and knowledge.

One of the ways to get wonderful things to emerge, he wrote, though I paraphrase, is to:

  1. set some boundary conditions
  2. let free agents do their stuff, freely, within the boundaries set.

It is (I think) classic liberal economics. It is also (as Polanyi taught), the driver of great science:

S]cientists, freely making their own choice of problems and pursuing them in the light of their own personal judgment, are in fact co-operating as members of a closely knit organization.

Such self-co-ordination of independent initiatives leads to a joint result which is unpremeditated by any of those who bring it about.

Any attempt to organize the group … under a single authority would eliminate their independent initiatives, and thus reduce their joint effectiveness to that of the single person directing them from the centre. It would, in effect, paralyse their co-operation

Michael Polanyi quoted, yes, in Wikipedia, which sort of proves the point.

I like this, a lot, because it is a rationale for freedom, not just in economics or science, and a rationale that goes beyond the idea that freedom is generally a nice thing to have. It is, given good guardrails, the way to get human societies to thrive and flourish further and wider than any single individual is capable of imagining or delivering. Being a herd, rather than being led by a demogogue, is our superpower.

Freedom looks inefficient, and slow, and awkward, and a roundabout way of getting things done– particularly if you like the idea of being in control. But it is not nearly so inefficient as the army.

Craftsmanship

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Those of us who read the Bible in a year are probably deep into the Pentateuch by now, or just emerging from it. I’m not currently on a Bible-in-a-year scheme but I do now and again listen to our the audio one-year Bible that we downloaded from Audible, one of the better bargains on the site.

The passage I listened to recently was about the Israelites constructing the tabernacle in the desert. What struck me was the project scope and the ambition:

  1. The cost, all that gold, acacia wood and other precious metals and materials.
  2. The artistry, those carved cherubim above the Ark
  3. The craftsmanship: tongs, shovels, forks, basins, altars, tent-poles, curtains.

It was a national investment, costly in materials and time, built beautiful, and built to last. And it was the best they were capable of.

Every profession and trade that I can think of can be subject to loving, careful craftsmanship. Every profession and trade contains people whom other people in the same trade respect as excellent at their job.

This excellence is an option for all of us, I think. Even constrained by budgets and deadlines we can lavish craftsmanship into whatever it is we do. Even the traditional cry of newspaper journalism– I don’t want it good, I want it by 4:30— didn’t prevent journos from journalistic excellence.

Some things do get in the way of craftsmanship: bad management, for instance; repeated changes in project scope; a certain disrespect for the final customer; perhaps relentless cost-cutting; perhaps the sheer impossibility of doing a job to be proud of within the time and costs available; perhaps the pointlessness of the thing attempted. All of these things make for a mush of shoddy, of half-baked, of poorly constructed and badly finished products that we find ourselves swimming through every day.

Then we come across things that sit comfortably in the hand, that do their job perfectly, that take our breath away with their elegance, things done with great skill, and we think… beautiful.

And he carried me away in the Spirit to a mountain great and high, and showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God … The glory and honour of the nations will be brought into it (Revelation 21:10, 26 NIVUK).

Alexei Navalny’s slow work

I was so shocked and saddened to hear of the death of Alexei Navalny. I thought, Mandela-like, he was going to survive prison and see the regime he opposed collapse around him. Not to be. But how brave, how slow, how peace-loving it was to return to Russia when he didn’t need to, and take his stand with determination and wit, retaining a sense of fun even if all around him was grim. This is the powerless frightening the life out of the powerful; President Putin could not evidently bring himself to utter his name.

It was quite something to discover that this Russia hero had a Christian faith. I’m grateful to blogger Diane Butler-Bass for this slightly redacted version of his testimony. (You can find more of her here, and I enjoy her weekly writing)

In prison, apparently, he used to pretend he was on a spaceflight–hence the discomfort–towards a new Russia, one that was Europe-like in its democracy and rule of law, but Russia-like in its history and greatness. He didn’t see it yet. Instead the call from his Lord was: ‘This day you will be with me in paradise’.

The fact is that I am a believer, which, in general, rather serves as an example of constant ridicule in the Anti-Corruption Foundation, because mostly people are atheists, I myself was quite militant.

But now I am a believer, and this helps me a lot in my work, because everything becomes much, much simpler. I think less, there are fewer dilemmas in my life — because there is a book (editorial note: the Bible) in which, in general, it is more or less clearly written what needs to be done in each situation. It’s not always easy, of course, to follow this book, but in general I try.

And therefore, as I already said, it is easier for me, probably than many others, to get involved in politics.

A person recently wrote to me: “Navalny, what is everyone writing to you: ‘Hold on, don’t give up, be patient, grit your teeth? Why do you have to endure it?’ I think you said in an interview that you believe in God. And it is said: ‘Blessed are those who thirst and hunger for righteousness, for they will be satisfied.’ Well, that’s great for you, then!”

And I thought — wow, this person understands me so well!

It’s not that I’m great, but I’ve always perceived this specific commandment as more or less an instruction for action. And so, of course, not really enjoying the place where I am, nevertheless, I do not have any regrets about coming back, about what I do. Because I did everything right. On the contrary, I feel such satisfaction or something. Because at some difficult moment I did as expected according to the instructions, and did not betray the commandment…

For a modern person this whole commandment — “blessed, thirsty, hungering for righteousness, for they will be satisfied” — sounds very pompous. People who say things like that are supposed to be, quite frankly, crazy. Crazy strange people are sitting there with disheveled hair in their cell and, therefore, trying to cheer themselves up with something. Although, of course, they are lonely, they are loners, no one needs them. And this is the most important thing. Our power, the system is trying to tell such people: “You are lonely, you are a loner.”

It is important to intimidate first, and then show that you are alone. Well, because what normal, adequate people adhere to some kind of commandment. The thing about loneliness is very important. It is very important as a goal of power. Excellent, by the way, one of the wonderful philosophers named Luna Lovegood said about this. Remember this was in Harry Potter? And talking to Harry Potter during some difficult times, she told him: “It’s important not to feel lonely, because, of course, if I were Voldemort, I would really like you to feel lonely.” Of course, of course, our Voldemort in the palace wants this too….

I don’t feel alone at all. And I’ll explain why. Because this construction — “blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” — it seems somehow exotic, strange, but in fact this is the main political idea that now exists in Russia…

This is very important, despite the fact that our country now, of course, is built on injustice, and we are constantly faced with injustice. We see the worst kind of injustice — armed injustice. Nevertheless, we see that at the same time millions of people, tens of millions of people, want the truth. They want to achieve the truth, and sooner or later they will achieve it. They will be satisfied.

This is the truth, and you can’t argue against it. And sooner or later these people who want the truth will achieve their goal, they will be satisfied.

And the important thing that I want to tell you, and in your person, you, the prosecutor, in general, all the authorities and all the people, is that it is important not to be afraid of these people. And do not be afraid of those who seek the truth.

Alexei Navalny

Compounding

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My grandad was disabled because, as an 18-year-old, a month or two before the Armistice in the first war, he was gassed. He ended up losing a lung. All his life he had a mighty cough, and he never slept lying down. I knew him and look like him and apparently act like him.

Possibly he would have praised the power of compounding that meant his life was easier than his father’s. My great-grandad was bedridden with gangrene, cared for by his wife, in a small house with few luxuries beyond a piano. (There were not enough chairs, for example, so my grandad ate his meals standing up as a child.)

The compounding wealth and compounding technology had meant my grandad had a job and a comfortable home, all supplied by the council, and electricity and water and TV and a pension and holidays. The boy who’d run down the street when someone said, ‘Look, a car!’, grew to be the old man who watched Neil Armstrong step on the moon, and he was amazed and grateful for it all.

My memory of him is seated in his chair, by the coal fire, books by his feet, reading, reading (though not when we grandchildren were around when his sense of fun gave full rein). He was a keen socialist, and a Methodist preacher, and he belonged to that era when town councils and public funds supplied things for the common good–like libraries and education–and socialism and the welfare state sort-of worked.

Two generations on and what has compounding achieving? Economic compounding means welfare benefits are more generous and people’s means are on average greater. Technological compounding means I have computers and the internet, an electric bike and electric buggy, a pacemaker in my chest that supplies the heartbeats I need. Today we test drove a new car and I’ve recently joined a gym, whose machines adjust themselves to me, work out a fitness scheme, and lead me into it. None of this is merited. I have just floated on the rising tide of compounding: other people making little steps to make things good or better, to do things well, repeated and repeated and repeated.

Surely this points to the power of quiet revolution, of patient progress, of slow purposefulness. This tide is rising all over the world, subverted constantly by evil, but rising, rising.

The lube

Without it, the world grinds and splinters and crunches.

Photo by jonathan ocampo on Unsplash

Here’s a thing. I was reading one feminist criticising another and she accused her of being ‘joyless.’

It is a missing piece.

You can be campaigning for social justice, but if you’re joyless you’re a bit brutal.

You can be a brave single mum, but if you’re joyless, you’re just tired and hard.

You can be someone carrying heavy responsibilities and onerous duties but if you have not joy you’re just stressy and self-pitying.

You can be working hard for very needy people, but joyless, you’re not too attractive a person to be with.

Joy lightens loads and eases tensions. It makes smooth work of heavy work. Joy respects the opponent. Joy understands we’re all broken, all needy, all in pieces, only anything at all because we’ve been scooped up and smiled on and loved. Joy looks into the grimmness but isn’t itself begrimed. Joy peers into the depths of darkness but finds a spark.

Joy is the lube.