Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Learning From Monkeys: Lessons From History

Can we learn from history or are we doomed to keep on repeating the same mistakes?

Please watch the following clip.

I love the following story probably because it kind of teaches the opposite of the above clip.

“The Monkey’s and the caps” taken from “The shortest distance: 101 Stories from the World’s Spiritual Traditions” by Bill Darlison

Aurangzeb sold caps for a living. He would travel to a village, set up his stall in the market place and sell his caps to the locals. One day while travelling from one village to the next, he was very tired. The sun was shining, and he’d had a busy morning, so he put down his heavy sack of caps and sat down in the shade of a mango tree to snooze. After an hour or so he woke up refreshed, but when he picked up his sack he found that it was empty. “Where are my caps?” he thought. “I’m sure this sack was nearly full when I went to sleep.” Just then he looked up into the tree and saw a gang of monkeys each with a cap on his head. “Hey those are my caps!” shouted Aurangzeb. “Give them back to me!” But the monkeys just seemed to mock him, imitating his shout. So he pulled a funny face, and each of the monkeys pulled a funny face, too. But they wouldn’t give back his caps. He picked up a stone and threw it at the monkeys. They responded by throwing magoes at him. He was really angry now, and in his frustration, he took off his own cap and threw it to the ground. The monkeys took off their caps and threw them to the ground! They were imitating him! Without further ado, Aurangzeb picked up all the caps from the grass, put them in his sack, and went on his way, thinking how clever he had been to outsmart the monkeys.

Fifty years later, Habib, Aurangzeb’s grandson, was selling caps. He’d inherited the family business. He was travelling from one village to the next on a hot day, and he felt he needed a rest. He sought out the shade of a mango tree, put down his sack of caps, and sat down to snooze. He woke refreshed after an hour, but when he picked up his sack he found it was empty. “Where are my caps?” he asked himself. “I’m sure this sack was nearly full when I went to sleep.” Then he looked up into the trees and saw dozens of monkeys, each with a cap on his head. How could he possibly get them back? Then something stirred in his brain. He remembered a story his grandfather had told him many years ago, about how he had outwitted some monkeys by getting them to imitate him. So Habib stood up. He put up his right arm; the monkeys put up their right arm. He put up his left arm; the monkeys did the same. Habib scratched his nose; the monkey’s scratched their noses. He pulled a face, rocked from side to side, stood on one leg. Each time the monkeys copied him. Then...Habib took off his cap and threw it to the ground. The monkeys didn’t respond. So Habib tried again. He put up his right arm, his left arm, he scratched his nose, he pulled a face, rocked from side to side, stood on one leg. Each time the monkeys imitated his actions. Once again he put his hand to his head, took off his cap and threw it to the ground. No response from the monkeys.

Feeling miserable, Habib picked up his empty sack and began to walk home. He hadn’t gone far when he felt a tap on his shoulder. He looked round and saw a monkey with a big smile on its face. “Do you think you’re the only one with a grandfather? Asked the monkey.

Sometimes it is wise to listen to our grandparents, they have a lot to teach us.

George Santayana once said “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Is memory enough though? Is knowledge even enough? Can these stop us from repeating the same mistakes we have always made? Can we learn from our pasts? Or are we in fact slaves to it and condemned to carry on repeating it?

In the second story the monkeys learn from their ancestors and are therefore not suckered into throwing down their caps so that Habib cannot take them back from them. Where as in the story of the caged monkeys and the banana it is the monkeys that are already in the cage that hold the newcomers back “because that is the way that things have always been done around there.” The monkeys were frightened to climb up the ladder because of what the other monkeys already in the cage told them. History and old ways held them back.

Yes lessons can learnt from the past, but it can also hold us back. It is important to remember that the fruit of a tree are not found in its roots, although good solid foundations are vital to its sustained growth.

Learning about the history of my Unitarian tradition has been vital to understanding my ministry. We are not some new age flash in the pan. Our roots date back to the Hebrew prophets, people who led the way in religious exploration.

Frank Waller puts it almost perfectly. He said:

“Our tradition is not narrow; neither is it formless. It embraces the Hebrew prophets’ demand for justice. It includes Socrates with his radiant critical spirit, testing all things and holding fast to what is good. It is inspired by the loving generosity of Jesus that still awakens the humanitarian spirit in us. It is receptive to the discoveries of modern science.

Tradition is a life giving stream. Yet it can become icy, so we need to smash the frozen moulds to let the warm living current flow freely again. Tradition and innovation go together.”

Tradition and innovation go together. It is vital to learn the lessons from the past and be inspired by them, but it is just as important to never be held back or stifled by it either.

I recently enjoyed a talk given by the students of Manchester Metropolitan University on the life of William Gaskell. I recognise the work done in the past by Unitarian greats, such as William but I never want to make idols out of them and spend forever looking back at what they did. I’m sure they didn’t, they were people of their time and space.

History has so much to teach us, we need to pay attention to it. That said we should never be held back by it. We should listen to our ancestors so we can learn from our pasts, but we ought not to try and mimic them. We live in a different world today. It is not always the case that just because this is the way that things have always been done, that this the way that they should continue to be done.

Any change always begins with awareness, although I am fully aware that this in itself is not enough. Knowledge alone does not necessarily bring about the power required to change.

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