Sunday, 30 July 2017

No one steps in the same river twice

No one ever steps in the same river twice. This is because the river is not the same, but then neither is the person. This little aphorism from Heraclitus has been drifting in and out of my consciousness as I have been travelling around these last two weeks. I’ve been all over England and North Wales staring out to sea on several occasions as I have enjoyed two weeks leave. One thing I’ve noticed is that even when on leave my homiletic consciousness is still awake. Every interaction I engage in still taps into it. I have noticed once again that my life, that all life, is constantly in flux, is forever changing, that nothing ever stays the same. That life truly is like a river, it is forever flowing.

A couple of Sunday’s back I as invited to the semi-final and final of “Slimming World Man of the Year 2017”. It was a wonderful day meeting the 38 finalist, listening to their stories and awaiting this year’s winner. I was moved deeply by so much of the day as I listened to stories of hope and transformation. I also relived my own experiences of the year before. How different it was standing in this very same river of the event and how much I as a person had also changed. I got to give a speech too, and to hand out the awards. So much has changed this last 12 months, since I was named "Slimming World Man of the Year 2016". I am not the same man I was 12 months ago. I see life and my purpose, my meaning, in new and wonderful ways and yet on the surface things seem mostly to be the same.

I had similar experiences last weekend too as I drove down to Bridport in Dorset to attend the wedding of John Harley and Lizzie Hornby. It was a lovely weekend in a beautiful part of England. As I drove I remembered stepping into this river almost exactly two years ago. I am certainly not the same man I was then, so much has changed. The journey was a long one, the traffic was appalling, as it had been two years before. I travelled then to my nephews wedding in nearby Devon. That weekend was beautiful, but it was also one of suffering and proved to be a breaking point in my life. It was a physical breaking point in the sense that my car broke down. That said it was also a mental, emotional and spiritual breaking point, as from that moment of my car breaking down in the middle of the night, in the middle of nowhere in dark nameless country lane in Devon, something new began to emerge in me. It was a moment of re-birth, as during the week that followed a new version of myself began to be born. Yes as I drove down and got stuck in traffic on the M5 around Bristol I realised the truth that I was not the same man stepping into the same river. It was a wonderful experience in a beautiful part of the country.

Oh by the way I cannot go anywhere, twice that weekend strangers came up to me and said “You are that slimmer of the year bloke aren’t you.” Funny I know, I didn’t correct them.

Yes no one steps in the same river twice. This is because the river is not the same but then neither is the person. Life is constantly in flux, is forever changing, ever flowing on.

Flux is a central theme of the philosophy of Heraclitus. Heraclitus of Ephesus was a Greek philosopher around the 5th century BC. He was known as the “Weeping Philosopher” and “The Obscure”. He believed that the nature of life is subject to constant change and that it operates within “a unity of opposites”, also stating “the path up and down are one in the same.”

Other aphorism of Heraclitus were on the “Logos”. He stated “The idea that all things come to pass in accordance with this Logos” and “The Logos is common” The Logos was understood to mean the reason, the word, the meaning of everything. For Heraclitus the Logos is eternal and the source of everything, the problem is though that we humans fail to fully understand the Logos because we do not fully engage with it, although he believed that we human beings are capable of doing so because we have an element of the Logos within us. The reason we do not is that we rarely fully examine our true nature.

It is also claimed that he said something like “Eternity is a child playing, playing checkers; the kingdom belongs to a child.” He spoke in riddles, in paradox, but then isn’t this the nature of life? I have certainly found it to be so. That which destroys, is what ultimately creates. In losing ourselves we are found. To know the deepest truths, to the know the kingdom now, is to become almost like a child playing, didn’t Jesus say this in the passage relating to discipleship from Mark’s Gospel? Maybe this is how the meaning (The Logo’s) comes alive in human form in our very human lives.

The beginning of John’s Gospel speaks of this, of the Logos coming into being and dwelling among us and bringing light into the darkness of our lives. How many times have new truths, new meanings, new light come into being in our lives? Everything changes, everything is flux. Perhaps when we are humble enough to be as little children, to have the beginners mind that the Buddhist speak of, we enable new truths, a new word, a new meaning to emerge and in so doing the Logos once more becomes flesh in and amongst us. For this to happen though the old self has to end, to be destroyed, and this often involves suffering, although not despair as it becomes a suffering from which meaning can emerge and come into being.

It’s interesting how this homilectic consciousness comes alive, but while I was driving around thinking of change and meaning the work of Viktor Frankl came into my mind.

In “Man’s Search For Meaning” Frankl gives an account of his struggle to find meaning when held as a prisoner in the Nazi death camps of the second world war. He lost most of his family and friends in the camps and yet he never lost hope in humanity.

Frankl was the founder of what has often been referred to as the “Third Viennese School of Psychotherapy” Freud founded the first which was based on the central role of the libido or pleasure principle in human psychology. Alfred Adler founded the second which emphasised the importance of the will to power and the significance of the superiority/inferiority complex in human behaviour, based on ideas formulated by Nietzsche. In contrast to these two schools Frankl’s psychology is based on the will to meaning which he saw as the primary motivating force in human life. He named it “Logotherapy” taken from the Greek term logos, which as stated above means “word”, “reason”, or “meaning”. For Frankl meaning had a transcendent origin.

Frankl saw a spiritual dimension beyond the biological and psychological. He saw the suppression of this spiritual dimension as the root cause of our human malady. Therefore the task of “Logotherapy” was “to remind patients of their unconscious religiousness”; to uncover the spiritual dimensions of their lives; enable them to recover the capacity to choose those values which give our lives worth and meaning.

Now this meaning is of course is different for everyone. As Frankl said himself:

“For the meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day and from hour to hour. What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment.” He did not suggest that there wasn’t a universal meaning, he was not a true existentialist in this sense. What he suggested was that we ourselves seemed unable to uncover it as individuals, here I believe echoing thoughts of Heraclitus.

Frankl claimed that meaning is discovered through creative and worthwhile activites, by creating something beautiful or doing good – I believe that one of the greatest sadness’s of our age is the fact that the phrase “do-gooder” has become a term of mockery, that it is somehow seen as wrong and suspicious to do good - Meaning can be found through experiencing and sharing in the beauty of art or nature or through loving or ethical encounters with others.

Even in the most horrific and terrifyingly hopeless situations we still have the capacity to choose our attitude towards whatever circumstances we are faced with. It is our response to life’s events that shapes our souls. Remember Frankl developed his theory during the utter despair and horror of the Nazi death camps.

As Frankl himself said “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.”

My life seems to echo these ideas constantly, new meaning has often emerged through the transformative nature of walking faithfully through suffering and the belief that something beautiful and meaningful can emerge once again from the ashes of life.

Two Sunday’s ago just before the Slimming World Man of Year 2017 semi-final and final began I was asked to speak to the thirty eight men present about my experiences. I was honoured to do so, although I did not perhaps give what the Slimming World folk were expecting. Instead I returned to Heraclitus' aphorism “That no one steps in the same river twice” and the idea that everything is constantly in flux and this is where the meaning emerges from, even when brought into being by the fire of suffering. I spoke about how I had changed in the last 12 months, how my understanding of my humanity and life had changed and that I that a new meaning and mission had grown in me. That I and hoped that they would reach other men and other people and help us face up to whatever in life is holding us back, stopping us living the lives that we can live, for ourselves and the greater good of humanity itself. This was my words becoming flesh and my lived life becoming meaningful in new and wonderful ways.

This is the mission for all people I believe. This is how we build the “Kin-dom of Love” right here right now. This is how we transcend whatever suffering we experience in life and not sink into despair. The meaning emerges by giving from our own lives for the good of all. We are all part of the ever changing river of life we each of us have an aspect of eternal love within us.

So let’s keep on stepping into the eternal river of all life.

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