Sunday, 18 June 2017

Hubris & Feet of Clay: A Father's Day Reflection

A few months ago I visited my aunty Catherine for the day. I try to visit her regularly, but not as often as I would like. She and her son Edward are really the only surviving members of my dad’s side of the family, that part of my ancestry. We went for a walk around Morley near Leeds, where she lives, the town where I was born. They actually live in Bruntcliffe which is the hill between Batley where my mother was from and Morley where my dad’s butchers shop was. Towards the end of the walk we went to the cemetery to visit the family grave, where my granddad and grandma, her parents and my dad, her brother, are buried. I read the names and I observed the ages they were when they died. As I looked at my dad’s age something shocking dawned on me. My dad was only 47 years old when he died. I turned to my auntie Catherine in a state of shock and said to her “I can’t quite believe it, my dad was only two years older than am when he died, the same age that my brother is now. Her response was interesting she said something like “No way Danny, he seemed like an old man, not like you.” In many ways he was, he had lived his life and I suspect that he was tired, he had run out of life.

My father was a complex man, certainly not the most responsible. My relationship with him was not the best it could have been, although better than my siblings. He was a charismatic man and was certainly someone you would remember being in the company of, as was evidence by his funeral. That said he could be a selfish man and someone who I suspect never knew who he really was himself. He never found peace within himself and could be a completely different person with whoever he met. One thing I do know is that he loved me. That said one thing I have known in my life is that most people I have known have loved me, even those who have hurt me deeply. My step father, my mother’s second husband, was another complex man and an abusive one too, I lived in utter terror of him as I grew up. Even so despite all this he did love me and all his children in his own way. Again though he was and is a deeply selfish man. He has fathered many children and I will hold all of them in my heart today, as they think of their father. Father's day can be a difficult one for so many people, it will bring up a mixture of emotions and ones that at not always recognised. This needs to be acknowledged and not ignored.

I have known many other role models throughout my life. I think as a younger man I constantly sought them out. All of them have been flawed individuals and yet I have known a certain amount of care from them too. Of all of them, perhaps the one I have always felt a deep love and affection for and from was my granddad who died a couple of years ago. I had a deep love for my other granddad too, it’s just that I didn’t see him after the age of 11 except just before he died. I never saw the flaws in my mum’s dad though, although I know he had many. I don’t ever recall him showing anything but deep love towards me. I will never forget visiting him just a few days before he died, in the hospice, and my heart breaking as I saw him lying there. I also remember pulling myself together as he awoke as I didn’t want him to see me upset. Not because I thought this was a sign of weakness, but because I knew how much it would hurt him to see me hurting. The last thing in the world I ever want to do was hurt him and I believe he me.

Growing up I know I didn’t have the best paternal role models. I know this ever more clearly these days as I have spent time with other families in my role as a minister. I am at peace with this today. I blame no one for any troubles in my life and have truly reconciled myself with my past. I take full responsibility today. That said I recognise that many people struggle with their relationships with the paternal figures in their life.

The problem comes I believe from our expectations of people. We often seen our paternal figures as either God like or monsters, not human beings, as flawed as any of us. The truth is we all have “feet of clay” none of us is perfect. Last Sunday I was extolling the virtues of Gandhi. Gandhi was often considered “The Father of India” and yet much has been written about the flawed aspects of his make-up particularly as the father of his own children. Like every one of us, he had “feet of clay.”

The phrase “Feet of clay” comes from the second chapter of the “Book of Daniel” in the "Jewish Scriptures" the “Old Testament.” The book described the people of Israel being exiled to Babylon for worshipping false Gods. The king of Babylon is troubled by a recurrent dream that none of his wise men can interpret. Now just before the king executes the wise men for their failure, one of the exiles from Judah, Daniel, offers to interpret the king’s dream. He begins by describing the king's dream:

“31 ‘You were looking, O king, and lo! there was a great statue. This statue was huge, its brilliance extraordinary; it was standing before you, and its appearance was frightening. 32 The head of that statue was of fine gold, its chest and arms of silver, its middle and thighs of bronze, 33 its legs of iron, its feet partly of iron and partly of clay. 34 As you looked on, a stone was cut out, not by human hands, and it struck the statue on its feet of iron and clay and broke them in pieces. 35 Then the iron, the clay, the bronze, the silver, and the gold, were all broken in pieces and became like the chaff of the summer threshing-floors; and the wind carried them away, so that not a trace of them could be found. But the stone that struck the statue became a great mountain and filled the whole earth.”

Daniel then continues and interprets the dream. He explains that the rock that struck the statue represented the one true God and that although the king was represented by the gold head of the statue, if he didn’t base his life and his kingdom on the one true God, it would inevitably be shattered and swept away. It is here that the phrase “feet of clay” comes from.

Today we use the phrase in situations where someone or something appears be invincible but, in fact, is actually based on fragile feet of clay. Something that all who believe that they are powerful need to take note of. It is vital to remember that we are all finite, no one is perfect and we are all fallible. We all have “feet of clay.” It is a warning against “Hubris” that so many of the powerful can become consumed by.

Our expectations of others can be too high at times. By the way I’m not just speaking of our father’s or mother’s we can have it of siblings and other family members, of friends and lovers. We can also have the same expectation of public figures, especially the leaders and politicians of the world. The truth is they most certainly have feet of clay and we should never put them on pedestals. This by the way is not excusing anything, we should most certainly hold them accountable. We should treat them as we would anybody else.

Ever since a week last Thursday’s surprise General Election result I have heard my favourite word used repeatedly. The word is “Hubris”. Our Prime Minister Teresa May has been accused of it in calling an early election in the expectation of a result that would strengthen her position. This backfired badly and has left her with less power. It truly is an example of “Hubris”.

The criticism has continued since, following Mrs May's response to the loss of several dozen lives in the horrific fire at Grenfell Tower. One of several horrific events that have happened in recent weeks in Britain, that has the whole nation in a state of numbing shock and despair and looking for leadership that is lacking from our Prime Minister.

Hubris is the Ancient Greek word for over stretching ourselves; it translates as arrogance or overwhelming pride. The ancient Greeks saw Hubris as the very root of tragedy. Their tragic dramas, played out at their religious festivals centred on human beings, often rulers who forgot their human limitations. In these tragedies the audiences were reminded of the dangers of acting like immortals or Gods. They taught the value of knowing themselves, who they really are and to know what it is to be truly human.

Perhaps those that rule our world, our leaders, the financiers and even the celebrities who many of us lookup to in awe in the same way that the ancient Greeks looked at their God’s should take heed of these stories. The Empires do eventually fall, no matter how powerful they believe they are.

Hubris is an insidious beast. We often fail to see it in ourselves. Because Hubris is so well hidden in ourselves it can have a nasty habit of sneaking up on us. Why you may well ask? Well because it is neatly packaged as the virtue of truthfulness and righteousness.

Fortunately there exists a healthy antidote to hubris, humility!

Humility may well be humanities greatest virtue. It is essentially about accepting our human limitations and of course the limitations of others. By doing so we become teachable, we learn from others, which leads not only to us improving our own lives but the world that we inhabit but do not own; which in turn leads us to nurture and develop healthy relationships with other people. By recognising that we are not, nor do we speak for God we will open ourselves up to voice of transcendence as it speaks to us in life. In doing so we will be honouring life itself as sacred, which will hopefully lead to us taking care of what is our responsibility; our own lives mind, body and soul, our families, our homes, our friendships, our communities, our planet.

Hubris can be the most inhibiting and potential dangerous delusion a human being can suffer from. In the end it actually stops us living the best life we can. Humility on the other end helps us to see the truth about ourselves and others “Warts and all and beauty spots too”. From here we can honestly improve our own lives and those who we share this spinning planet with. It achieves more than that though. It draws us closer together not only to one another but to this amazing universe that we play a small but vital role in. The dangers stem from losing sight of this and believing that this universe and rest of humanity revolves around us and is there to do our bidding.

We all have “feet of clay”, even those we exalt and look up to; the ones we put on pedestals, including our parents, especially our fathers. We all have our flaws, we all walk the line between creation and destruction in our daily living. We all have cracks in us, to quote Leonard Cohen, “that’s how the light gets in.” Gandhi who I spoke of last week, considered “The Father of India” had a difficult relationship with his own children. It’s the same with every figure that we hold up as examples to us. They all have and had “feet of clay”.

The heroes of mythology were not perfect. The ancient Greek heroes all had flaws, even their Gods. It’s the same with the characters found in the Old Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures. Yet these very same figures are held up to us as models of faithfulness and bravery. The truth is that perfection has nothing to do with greatness, we are all more human than otherwise, we all have “feet of clay.”

These days I tend to take a more realistic view of both myself and the others in my life. This does not mean I have lost any of my idealism as I know that we can all do better. As I wrote in last weeks "blogspot" we can all aim higher than we ever imagined, in the assurance we will always fall short of the mark. For this reason we must aim higher than our imaginations can even begin to envision. In so doing we will become the best version of ourselves.

We must be careful of the dangers of hubris though, we need to always have our feet on the ground, our “feet of clay”. While always remembering that we all have “feet of clay”, particularly those we exalt, and those we hold up.

As I look back at the father figures in my life, even those I feel let down by I do so with loving and accepting eyes. I see clearly that they had “feet of clay”; I see clearly that they were as human as I am and I can certainly see the love that they had within them. A love that they had for me and others in their own cracked and broken ways. I also see clearly my own “feet of clay” and I intend to keep aiming high while also being wary of falling for the dangers of Hubris.

On this day that honours fathers let us do so honestly and compassionately. Let’s remember that we are all far more human than otherwise, that we all have “feet of clay”. Let us also remember the imperfect love that we have all experienced from the father figures in our lives and the imperfect love we have shown to those who have looked to us and who we have at times let down. Let us also aim higher, in the expectation that we will always fall short of the mark.

Let’s remember that we all have “feet of clay” and whatever love we give and receive will never be perfect but if we aim high and give as much as we possibly can it may well be more than we could ever imagine as possible.