Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Learning from geese: There's always something new to fall in love with

When flying in V formation each goose creates uplift for the birds flying behind it, by flapping its wings. The whole flock together creates 71 % greater range than if each bird flew alone.

People who share a common sense of direction and community can get where they are going quicker and easier because they are travelling    on the thrust of one another.

When the lead goose tires, it rotates back into the formation and another goose flies to lead position.

It pays to take turns doing the hard work and sharing leadership, as with geese, people are interdependent on each others skills, talents, understanding and capabilities.

The geese flying in formation honk to encourage those at the front to keep going.

We need to make sure our honking is encouraging. Groups where the honking is encouraging work much better. The power of 'encouragement (to stand by one's core values and beliefs and encourage the core values and beliefs of others in the group) is the quality of honking we seek.

When a goose gets sick, wounded or shot down, two geese drop out of formation and follow it down to help and protect it. They stay until it dies or can fly again. Then they launch out with another formation or catch up with the flock. .

If we have as much sense as geese, we will stand by each other in difficult times as well as when we are strong.

May we have at least as much sense as geese.

from a speech given by Angeles Arrien,
 based on the work of Milton Olson

One of my favourite songs is “Bluebeat” by New Model Army. There is a line it that goes “There’s always something new to fall in love”. I find this to be a consistent truth of my life.

Last year I fell in love with Geese. It all really began as an antidote to anxiety.

Prayer is really important to my life, it gives me the strength and direction I need to live as openly and honestly as I possibly can and therefore fully experience all that is before me. That said I have discovered, in recent times, its limits; for whatever reason prayer did not take away that anxiety that would come a calling, every Thursday morning, just over a year ago. I can see now that it was the very stillness and solitude of prayer that may well have caused its limitations. When I was in prayer I was still alone. Solitary spiritual practise was not enough it seems, well not at that moment in my life.

So what was the cause of this over powering anxiety, what created this ghost of fear, to come knocking at my door once again?

Well it was learning to drive, something that did not come naturally to me. I let the struggles I had with it get to me at times and I have to say I never thought I would be able to learn. That said I stuck with it and eventually passed.
You may well ask, how did I overcome that anxiety that would almost overwhelm every Thursday morning?

One Thursday morning I rose from solitary prayer and stepped into the cold of winter, crossed the road and walked around Platt Fields Park. I was studying for the ministry at the time at Luther King House, which is where the Unitarian college is, just across the road from Platt Fields Park between Fallowfield and Rusholme in Manchester. I walked and walked and connected to the simple beauty of nature, the people and the animals. Over the next few weeks and months I would continue this walk, often several times a day. I got use to the similar sights. The group of middle aged men, with their cans of beer and their dogs; the students and Asian women jogging; the BMX boys; the mothers with prams; the men fishing and on Sundays the old guys with their model sail boats. I also took friends there and we would walk and talk together. It became more than a weekly ritual; it became a daily one or even sometimes a several times a day one.
Of all the different things I encountered on these walks, it was the geese who had the greatest impact.

You see I’ve fallen in love with the geese.

I’ve fallen in love with the geese.  Just as Milton Olson did in seeing them as an inspiration for how our human societies can function successfully. He observed how every individual gains in power by simply working together for a common purpose, each taking it in turns to lead.

Just by simple watching these geese in a park in central Manchester I was able to connect to the humble reality of my own existence. As I passed them and watched them as they took off and landed as they cried out and honked to one another. I would often chuckle to myself as they waddled about and I observed their funny feet. This love deepened during the spring and summer as they gave birth to their own chicks, which followed them around the lake. 

Just gorgeous, yes I’ve fallen in love with the geese, not the swans, or ducks or other birds. The geese, I’ve fallen in love with the geese.

I fell in love with these simple creatures. They took me out of myself and enabled me to connect to that greater reality that for some reason prayer was failing to do at this juncture of my life. Actually that may not be quite true because it was of course in this quiet time of prayer that the voice in my gut told me get up and walk outside into that cold winter morning.

So what has this experience taught me? Well it taught me once again that I cannot exist as a solitary individual. I need to connect I need to relate. To me this is the essence of spirituality. Spirituality is about relationships and about developing a simple and loving connection to the greater reality. As I understand it spirituality is really all about developing relationships at every level.

Whatever I do in life and wherever I go if I forget this I’m in trouble.  Spirituality is about relationship. Nothing in life exists alone, without something to relate and connect to life will lose its meaning. No man is an island.

I think this is why I despair at so much of what is described as “New Age” spirituality. It is also why I believe my own Unitarian tradition is open at times to appropriate criticism. It can be too individualistic. Rightly no one has authority over another’s right to a private faith, doubt, belief and disbelief. That said we can’t just believe what we want, what we feel like on a whim from one week to next. Our faith offers freedom to search and seek and to ask the difficult questions. This I believe leads to a vibrant faith without certainty. That said Unitarians do not just simply believe whatever they want, at least not in my experience.

A few years ago my brother took a holiday, with his wife, to America. One day they were being shown around Dallas by a taxi driver. At one point they passed a church and the driver exclaimed in a mixture of bewilderment and humour “That over there is a Unitarian Universalist church and those folks can believe whatever they like”

Now when he initially related this story it irritated me. Why people may well ask? Well it’s this caricature that is so often painted about the Unitarian faith that we can believe whatever we like”, that gets to me. As I have heard others state "It’s not so much about believing whatever I like, but about believing what I must." What life in all its mystery and wonder compels me to believe. For me this is a painful and difficult task at times. There are no easy answers.

Also if spirituality becomes a purely private affair, who’s sole aim is to relieve an individual of the pain and discomfort that life can bring, it becomes narcissistic.
Narcissism leads only to more pain and suffering and in the end merely enhances the isolation. Narcissism is the antithesis of spirituality. It is the total annihilation of our humanity. A narcissist is a person utterly absorbed and preoccupied with themselves and their own pain to the total exclusion of others. It was Sigmund Freud who actually coined the term.  He was influenced by Frederic Nietzsche, who was fascinated with the Greek Myths, and how these myths told the stories of our everyday lives.  Freud saw in the myth of Narcissus this common state of preoccupation with our own pain.

Narcissus was a handsome Greek youth who rejected the desperate advances of the nymph Echo. As punishment, he was doomed to fall in love with his own reflection in a pool of water. Unable to consummate his own love, Narcissus wasted away over time and changed into the flower that bears his name. He lost his humanity.

A free religious faith cannot be narcissistic and I do not believe that Unitarianism is and I do not for one minute believe it encourages such instincts. Yes we are individuals, who often believe and disbelieve differently from one another, but we are also much more than that we are a community with a common purpose, we do have shared values. By coming together in community we strengthen one another far more than we could do by sitting alone in solitary isolation, trying to make sense of life. We learn from one another but we do more than that we open one another up to many of life's great mysteries.We share each others joys and pains. We cry together, we laugh together and we celebrate together.

Yes I’ve fallen in love with geese, why you may well ask?

Well, because they have taught me what it is to be truly human and how to live in community with other folk.


1 comment:

  1. Here's an added extra

    "Wild Geese" by Mary Oliver

    You do not have to be good.
    You do not have to walk on your knees
    For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
    You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.

    Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
    Meanwhile the world goes on.
    Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain are moving across the landscapes,
    over the prairies and the deep trees,
    the mountains and the rivers.

    Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air, are heading home again.

    Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
    the world offers itself to your imagination,
    calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting -- over and over announcing your place
    in the family of things.