Sices of Bread – 3

Another pre-publication extract from my forthcoming book

(placeholder cover: my real cover is still being designed as I write this)

One of my lockdown projects was to compile a book about how difficulty and trauma can cause us to rethink our lives and, if we are fortunate, how we can then go on to live simpler, better and more meaningful days. Without having anything particularly to boast about, and also because of lots of other things have gone in the right direction for me, this is where I find seem to find myself (at the moment). So I wrote about this, and called the book ‘Bread‘. I’m serializing it here on my blog and here’s the 3rd slice.

The story so far: adversity can cause a rethink of our priorities. Now read on…

Bread

My search for what really matters

So: adversity or loss or infirmity or disappointment or something has brought us to crunching halt. We are looking out at a landscape with a sobriety and clarity that is aided by our low mood. We are beginning to realize that there is quite a lot that is more important behind the glitzy and temporary frontage to a life of success, wealth or popularity. These are helpful thoughts, sobering. What do we do now? What parts of our mental landscape do we stop visiting? What new paths do we tread down?

The place not to visit

I want to suggest that the main place not to visit is the broken dream. I’m not saying you should never go there. But you should go there to clear up, say your goodbyes, tie everything off. You have lost and it is good to mourn.  So visit the broken dream if you must, but visit it less and less, let it go back to nature. It’s always going to be part of you, but it is a better part of you when it shapes a new future, rather than when it is a decaying present you are trying to primp, or when you are using it to define who you are today. You need to define yourself by something other than your loss, your sorrow, your ill-health, your former hopes, or your former state.

Instead of mooching around your broken dream, enjoying the gothic scene of heartbreak, your loosened hair romantically draped over the headstone of your loss, you might want to ask a few questions now that the urgency of your loss has passed.  Don’t feel the need to answer these hurriedly. Mull them over. Work them into your life.

What have I not lost?

What do I love?

Whom do I love?

What do I value?

Point your feet where these answers direct you. Keep asking the questions, and keep walking in the answers. You won’t fix everything in an afternoon, or a year, or in the rest of your life, but you will be walking the right road and you will at times find yourself in the green pastures and quiet waters that you have always wanted.

Slices of ‘Bread’ – 2

Being the second extract from my book on how to simplify your life

A second pre-publication extract from my forthcoming book , ‘Bread’.

This passage is about how unexpected troubles can set us on the path to rethinking our lives.

Bread

My search for what really matters (second slice)

In any crisis your body gives you an emergency shot of the panic juices. A course of fight-or-flight hormones may take you through a crash, or a hospital treatment, or a birth, or a breakup, or the funeral arrangements or whatever other intense time you must rise to.

Two things will then happen. You will have a bit of a tumble emotionally as the hormones leak away and normal tiredness takes over. And, second, because the intensity of the storm has passed, you can inspect your new world.

This season can be a blessing because it can give you a clear sight of what to do. It’s like clearing up after a party. The mess! The stains in the carpet! What are you going to do? Time for the cleaning gloves

So. The house is quiet again, and there’s a new post-trauma world to explore. What to do? Some thoughts:

You were broken already. You might feel that now you are wounded and before you were whole. I’m sorry to report that this picture is wrong. You might feel like a broken egg now, but you were never the whole egg. You were already cracked, back in the shop. All that’s happened is that you’ve revised your mental model of yourself. You always were needy, but you used to cover it well.

yellow paintedsmiley face eggs
Photo by ROMAN ODINTSOV on Pexels.com

Decide it’s work time. You’ve already vaguely suspected there are things to sort out in your life, but the calamity brings them into the open. The singer Debbie Harry explained her drug-taking: ‘Drugs aren’t always about feeling good … Many times they are about feeling less.’[1] True, but avoiding the pain with pharmaceutical assistance keeps forever dropping you back at the start, each time with a little more clearing up to do. You are made of better stuff.

Take time. You’ve done rushing for a bit. You can take some breaths, re-evaluate, start small.

Feel the fire. This is the best bit. There’s a fire burning inside you. Still. This is so cliched a thought that it may call song lyrics to your mind. I will survive! There’s something inside so strong! It’s probably best for everyone if you don’t actually sing—you are not a rock star for a reason—but on the bright side you have discovered something about yourself. You will go on. You will push on. We humans didn’t take over the world because we’re a species of wimpy losers. So the party’s over and your home is wrecked? On we go. On we go. The cracks let the light in. The breaking is the start of the mending.

Where are we heading here?

Where are we heading? Towards a rethink. Convalescence after hospital nightmares gave me the moment, and the need, to shut down some old mental pathways and open some new ones.  I sadly cannot declare final victory in this fight, but I do think that much of the time I have persuaded my brain to walk down a more promising road.

The breaking is the start of the mending

Suffering is our friend here. How do you see the new mental pathway that needs to be cut? That’s the clarity of low mood. What powers the cutting of the path? The fire inside you and your determination to see a better day, or at least another day. How does the path become well-trodden and familiar? By you taking it, day after day after day.  Facing adversity well, every day, sometimes every hour, builds a resilient brain. In the end you’ll have carved a fresh path with many delights where you love to walk.

More next week…


[1] Debbie Harry in her memoir Face It.

Slices of bread – 1

Being an excerpt from my new book about how to simplify your life and find what really matters.

So my second lockdown project was to spawn a new book about how serious illness led me to slim down and perk up my life. Here’s my preliminary cover, while my graphic designer friend is beavering away on a proper one.

On the grounds that everyone is entitled to my opinion, I’m planning to serve up a few extracts over the summer weeks. Here’s the opening salvo.

Bread

My search for what really matters (part 1)

We should reckon on 30,000 days in our lifetimes – 82 years. After that (if even we get that far) we will find ourselves mostly filling our days fending off the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The Second Law of Thermodynamics roughly means everything breaks, nothing lasts, order breaks down, we’re all going to die. Nothing in the Universe pushes back for long against the Second Law.

Thirty thousand days puts a cap on how many of anything we will do: how many books or boxsets we can enjoy, or create, how many cities we can live in, how many hot dinners we’ll have. We’ve got one ration of weddings, birthdays, weekends away, meals out, drinks with friends, quiet nights in, or moments to tell someone we love them. We’ve got a few decades to serve in a career or two, and perhaps raise some children. It might feel it will go on forever. It won’t, and in a hundred years we will all be dust and so will those we love.

If you feel any of these:

  • Life is passing me by
  • I’m not doing what I want to do
  • I’m not happy
  • I’m wasting my days

This book is for you. I’ve kept it short, because, hey.

It’s a personal story of discovery. My background is some years of life-and-death medical adventures, including my death in 2011 (reversed by electric shocks to the heart) and a four-week coma in 2013. People who spend a long time in Intensive Care end up paralyzed, so during the year and a half after 2013 I had to learn again how to eat, swallow, walk and go to the toilet.  Eventually I put the wheelchair in the garage and resumed a life that feels, at the time of writing, restful, purposeful and happy. I still may have thousands of days unused if I’m, as my dad says, ‘spared.’

Life is the opposite of the countryside in that you see the widest views at the lowest points. I think most people learn things about themselves during adversity. I had time to ask questions like ‘What am I for?’ and ‘What am I hoping for?’ and ‘What I am spending my time on?’

I found answers that are good enough for me. I think they are the lessons everyone learns, but those of us who have been force fed these things through medical events, perhaps, are forced to face them quicker. I found them simple enough and roughly these:

  1. Suffering helps us focus on what really matters and can stop us heading down dead-end paths in the quest for fame, success or respect.
  2. Belonging is key to long-term thriving.
  3. So is purpose.

This book, them, is about how to simplify your life, and how to make you less restless, more content and more productive. I hope it helps. None of it is complicated. Some of it will happen to you anyway. Maybe this book will help you recognize and cooperate with the ripening and mellowing that is already underway in your life.

More next week, if you can bear the tension.

Quiet revolutionaries in the workplace

It could be us

Here’s some aspirational stuff on what the Christian faith can do for those of us who work with others. This is from Katherine Alsdorf who herself used to work with Tim Keller’s Redeemer Church in New York, and co-authored a book with him.

If we as the people of faith can work with purpose, partnering with God in his love and care for the world, if we can admit our mistakes more readily because we experience God’s grace, if we can love others and serve them because we’ve been loved and served, if we can find hope that helps us persevere because we believe in his kingdom that will end all brokenness and wipe away every tear, then, I think the faith and work movement will be the forefront of evangelism.

Are you jealous of your coworker? The gospel can change that. Do you fear that you’ll fail at what you’re doing? How does the gospel calm your fear? Are you having trouble getting up in the morning to face work? Or trouble stopping work in order to rest. As a matter of fact, work is a bit of an idol factory. It leads us to overvalue success or money or security or recognition or comfort. And the gospel helps us to root out those idols and turn to Jesus for our salvation. And when we do that, we change. Our hearts change. I love it. I love it when it happens to me and when I see it in others. I see people change from hating to loving their colleagues, from fearing failure to stepping out in faith. This gives a good start in applying the gospel to work and our work lives.

The big silence, or the long eternity

Each has its appeal

Am still enjoying astrophysicist Katie Mack’s book ‘The end of everything.’ She’s a funny and smart guide through the physics of either end of the Universe. Having sketched out various ways of everything ending, her epilogue makes some space for thinking about what it all means. Some of this is delicious to think about.

Whatever legacy-based rationalization we use to make peace with our own personal deaths (perhaps we leave behind children, or great works, or somehow make the world a better place), none of that can survive the ultimate destruction of all things. At some point, in a cosmic sense, it will not have mattered that we ever lived. The universe will … fade into a cold, dark, empty cosmos, and all we’ve done will be utterly forgotten.

Katie Mack, The End of Everything p 206.

She asks fellow astrophysicists what they think about this. ‘Sad’ says UCL cosmologist Hiranay Peiris. ‘I suppose it makes me start thinking about the problems we face as a civilization on a much shorter timescales. If I’m going to worry about anything, it’s gonna be those, not the Heat Death [of the universe]’ says another cosmologist, and former comic, Andrew Pontzen.

Others warm to the idea. ‘I just like the serenity of it’ says Pedro Ferreira. ‘So simple and clean.’ Renēe Hloẑek calls it ‘cold and beautiful’ the way the ‘universe just sorts itself out.’

I found myself sneakily liking these thoughts, despite spending a lot of time being a Christian and believing in eternity. In a universe that just shuts down and switches off, some thorny problems go down with it, not least eternal suffering, which might cheer up Fydor Dostoyevsky or James Joyce a bit. (Or my querulous demon Stub in my Jamie’s Myth trilogy.)

On the other hand, Katie Mack also quotes Iranian-born physicist Nima Arkani-Hamed: ‘I don’t know how [to find a purpose to life] that doesn’t transcend our little mortality … I think a lot of people at some level …. will do science or art or something because of the sense that you do get to transcend something. You touch something eternal. That word, eternal: very important. It’s very, very, very important.

We only know of one place in the universe where parts of the universe worry about this stuff at all: us, and here. And among us, among the many reachings-out to eternity that happen, we also have the story or rogue data point of the resurrection of Christ. Which could be a breaking in of the eternity that Nima Arkani-Hamed says is so important, and could be something whose consequences overtake cosmology itself. Interesting.

Me and Katie Mack and the end of everything

With a side order of the meaning of existence

Am very much enjoying ‘The End of Everything’ by astrophysicist Katie Mack, which is, so far, a really fun and informed romp through apocalypsical possibilities. Well done to my enlightened kids for buying me this for my birthday (by strange coincidence, it also was on my Amazon wishlist).

I’m writing this in hospital (in March 2021) having just had one of my six-monthly assessments for the heart transplant list, and I took Katie Mack to cheer me up, and she has. (I passed the assessment, officially sick enough to need a transplant and well enough to tolerate one.)

I wasn’t entirely convinced, however, if I may say so, by what seemed to me a wobbly attempt to put a foot in two boats that seem to be far apart and drifting further.

Acknowledging an ultimate end gives us context, meaning, even hope, and allows us, paradoxically, to step back from our petty day to day concerns and simultaneously live more fully in the moment. Maybe this can be the meaning we seek.

Katie Mack, The End of Everything 2020, p 7.

The two boats are meaning and science. She’s already dismissed finding meaning outside of science:

  1. She’s read widely but no-one agrees with each other so there is no human consensus of opinion.
  2. She’s not sure she would believe anything anyway about the meaning of life if it was ‘written down for me once and for all in a book’ (p4) and couldn’t be derived mathematically or worked out through scientific scrutiny. Obviously, that statement doesn’t include stuff she herself writes, like that statement, even though that statement can’t be derived mathematically or worked out through scientific scrutiny.
  3. Nor does that statement allow any possibly of the transcendent. Er … if you only allow yourself to look at the material world, you’ll only ever see the material world. Odd to pre-filter reality like that.
  4. Plus, if you have to reach for cliches like ‘petty day to day concerns’ and ‘living more fully in the moment’, I am on the verge of concluding that you haven’t found meaning at all but are cramming the hole with words that are commonly available and quite funky but sadly a bit empty.

Here’s the thing. We get meaning from love. And actually, if you wanted consensus about that, ask anybody. Meaning and love are the two foci of the ellipse within which we live our lives. Science can describe, beautifully, the journey I am about to go on if I am ever let out of this hospital – first to my parents, 2 hours and 11 minutes from here, and then to my wife, daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren, wierdly, 2 hours and 11 minutes from my parents’ home. Science can describe everything about the journey except what it means to me and perhaps to them. Love says what it means. And in one sense, love says everything.

Eight hard truths about the contemporary church

The current book that I am reading, scrambling to understand, trying to assimilate, and also trying to argue with is this:

It is excellent (so far). I hope I am giving tasters rather than spoilers if I quote what comes at the end of his first chapter. The italicised bits are my commentary

Eight hard truths about the contemporary church

1. A great deal of Protestant Christian culture and practice is still perpetuating a sacred- secular dualism. Among the symptoms of this I notice can be a sense that ordinary work’s real value is generating resources to use on Christian stuff, paying the bills, and offering opportunities to share the gospel with workmates. Work done well, for its own sake, taking part in the re-creation of the world, perhaps, is underplayed as a Christian imperative.

2. Faithful biblical and relational whole life discipleship is a rare experience, but a strong desire, for most young people.

3. The ministry and mission of the whole people of God continue to be marginalized by many church leaders and by theological training programs. The church is still mostly training clergy.

4. With few exceptions, the church has lost a clear, gracious, and intelligent public voice and tends to sound either shrill or unsure of itself.

5. Much of the energy of Christian public engagement is focused on changing or preventing changes to legislation that would affect Christians. It is a lobbying exercise, not a missional exercise.

6. Church leaders spend most of their time on matters of internal organization and practise rather than on the church’s communal public works and witness.

7. Despite the lesson of World War II, much of the church is still vulnerable to ideological capture by the major narratives of western culture. Middle class values must be maintained at all costs.

8. Investment to ensure Bible confidence among Christians and church leaders is low.

Ordinary is back

I’m writing this in the second week in March, just after the schools in the UK have returned. And so my wife has returned to school, for the first time this term, so a 6:15 wakeup, an early start on the newly rebuilt A14, a covid test, then an actual lesson with actual children. Ordinary is back.

The book ‘Bread’ that I am working on talks about the rediscovery of ordinary as a great gift. It is in the context of losing it through illness and then regaining it. But as our lockdown rachets down, we hope, everyone I speak to is looking forward to the return of the ordinary. Here’s a passage from Bread that might even make it into the final version:

When I was a student, my friends and I pushed against the ordinariness from which we had come. We wanted to make a splash. We wanted to live radical lives and change the world. ‘We want to run a totally open home’ one said, everyone welcome, everyone fed, anyone can stay the night. I remember one of my friends saying she didn’t want ever to have a mortgage. She wanted to rent all her life so that she was flexible and free, not tied down and conventional.

My friends are living striking and distinctive lives, but I have observed that they, like me, also came to embrace the ordinary. When it is focused on spending time with people you love, work you love, locations you love, day after day, ordinary life can be very good. It is wealth. It is treasure.  When you are denied it, you learn the deep loss from not having it. Both the working for and the attaining of the ordinary brings meaning and contentment into our lives.

Wealth and success can rob you of ordinariness, which is quite a surprise, since wealth and success are supposed to bring happiness.  But just as there are burglars who are greatly relieved to be caught, so there are successful people who are greatly relieved to pass out of the limelight. In both cases, a weight is lifted.

Those who lose the ordinary see its value and the wise ones among them devote themselves to making ordinary life again. Those of us who have attained or discovered ordinary life can treasure it, by savouring it for the gift and blessing it is.

Toxic populism

and its cure

Toxic populism has muscled in on the news since 2016, filling our headlines in the way that radical Islam did for a few years before it. The roll-call of men (mostly men) who feel the need to take control, maintain order, and get on with repressing, is familiar across too many countries– just read the news.

It’s a (by now) familiar playbook

  1. Give out jobs on loyalty, not merit
  2. Erode all the things that stand in the way of an almighty state: laws, judges, newspapers, NGOs,anywhere where independent thought and criticism can thrive.

It isn’t, as we are seeing by now, a recipe for success. Cronies aren’t as good at running things as people who get jobs via merit and they pilfer the national good rather than fostering it. Some things, think Covid-19, can’t be insulted away or imprisoned. The flawed mental model of the autocrat cannot bear much reality, nor, for that matter, much wit.

How do you make societies resilient against this kind of thing? I struggle so much with this but I love the 37th Psalm, an extended meditation on the slow, resilient way:

Do not fret because of those who are evil
    or be envious of those who do wrong;
for like the grass they will soon wither,
    like green plants they will soon die away.

Trust in the Lord and do good;
    dwell in the land and enjoy safe pasture.
Take delight in the Lord,
    and he will give you the desires of your heart.

Be still before the Lord
    and wait patiently for him;
do not fret when people succeed in their ways,
    when they carry out their wicked schemes.

10 A little while, and the wicked will be no more;
    though you look for them, they will not be found.
11 But the meek will inherit the land
    and enjoy peace and prosperity.

35 I have seen a wicked and ruthless man
    flourishing like a luxuriant native tree,
36 but he soon passed away and was no more;
    though I looked for him, he could not be found.

Peace lily Image by Adriano Gadini from Pixabay

37 Consider the blameless, observe the upright;
    a future awaits those who seek peace.
[d]

The war between science and faith is exaggerated

Tell ’em it ain’t so.

Fascinating, longish quote. Perhaps this article will help lift a finger or two off the weighing scale and bring things back to balance.

Image by Peggy und Marco Lachmann-Anke from Pixabay

Most historians of science [do not] support the idea of an enduring conflict between science and religion. Renowned collisions, such as the Galileo affair, turned on politics and personalities, not just science and religion. Darwin had significant religious supporters and scientific detractors, as well as vice versa. Many other alleged instances of science-religion conflict have now been exposed as pure inventions. In fact, contrary to conflict, the historical norm has more often been one of mutual support between science and religion. In its formative years in the 17th century, modern science relied on religious legitimation. During the 18th and 19th centuries, natural theology helped to popularise science.

The conflict model of science and religion offered a mistaken view of the past and, when combined with expectations of secularisation, led to a flawed vision of the future. Secularisation theory failed at both description and prediction. The real question is why we continue to encounter proponents of science-religion conflict. Many are prominent scientists. It would be superfluous to rehearse Richard Dawkins’s musings on this topic, but he is by no means a solitary voice. Stephen Hawking thinks that ‘science will win because it works’; Sam Harris has declared that ‘science must destroy religion’; Stephen Weinberg thinks that science has weakened religious certitude; Colin Blakemore predicts that science will eventually make religion unnecessary. Historical evidence simply does not support such contentions. Indeed, it suggests that they are misguided.

So why do they persist? The answers are political. Leaving aside any lingering fondness for quaint 19th-century understandings of history, we must look to the fear of Islamic fundamentalism, exasperation with creationism, an aversion to alliances between the religious Right and climate-change denial, and worries about the erosion of scientific authority. While we might be sympathetic to these concerns, there is no disguising the fact that they arise out of an unhelpful intrusion of normative commitments into the discussion. Wishful thinking – hoping that science will vanquish religion – is no substitute for a sober assessment of present realities. Continuing with this advocacy is likely to have an effect opposite to that intended.

Religion is not going away any time soon, and science will not destroy it. If anything, it is science that is subject to increasing threats to its authority and social legitimacy. Given this, science needs all the friends it can get. Its advocates would be well advised to stop fabricating an enemy out of religion, or insisting that the only path to a secure future lies in a marriage of science and secularism.

Peter Harrison is an Australian Laureate Fellow and director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Queensland. He is the author of The Territories of Science and Religion (2015), and the editor of Narratives of Secularization (2017). His latest book is Science without God: Rethinking the History of Scientific Naturalism (2019), co-edited with Jon Roberts. This article first appeared in aeon the free online magazine of ideas, and was published September 7,2017