Thursday 26 November 2020

Hubris and its Antidote: Five Smooth Stones

I recently enjoyed a rather excellent television series titled “Goliath”. It stars Billy Bob Thornton as this once great lawyer who has pretty much lost everything. He is persuaded to fight a case against a gigantic corporation, that produces weapons of war and that is represented by the top law firm that he started along with his partner. It is a wonderful series and as you have probably guessed in the end the little man prevailed, not without casualties and deep suffering, but in the end they won out. The mighty did indeed fall. Goliath actually runs for three series and the lawyer cobbles together a raggle taggle bunch who keep on fighting the good fight, all people with struggles and complex relationships, all broken by life in some way and through the three series they eventually bring down the Goliaths, that they are up against, whether they be political or business exploiting the people around them. They overcame, against the odds, some day. They do so at a cost to them often personally, but somehow in the end justice prevails.

We shall overcome,
we shall overcome,
we shall overcome someday;
Oh, deep in my heart I do believe,
we shall overcome someday.

I also recent watched another film, a true story this time called “Dark Waters” this tells the story of another lawyer who takes on the might of Dupont who through the production of Teflon had been poisoning the locals who worked for them and who lived in the locality, over many decades. It’s a fight that still goes on. Again, through this man’s hard work, this little David managed to win a multitude of lawsuits for the people who have been horribly affected by this mighty Goliath. All kinds of cancers and infant deformities were caused by a chemical element that was used in the production of Teflon. Again, it is not without personal cost. There is a lesson here me about sticking at things if they are just, but accepting that whatever we do in life, if we sacrifice something for a greater good, that there will be a personal cost. Sometimes the results don’t come when we want them, but in the end hope does prevail. There is always though a price to pay. Are we willing to pay the price?

It lifts my heart to see the little person prevailing against the mighty, that this is not some ancient myth, that decency does still prevail. I also like the fact that to be the hero you do not have to be pure, you do not have to be perfect, in fact in some ways being imperfect can often help. We are all far more human than otherwise and the acceptance of our own imperfection ought to keep us humble.

I am sure that most folks know the story of David and Goliath found in 1 Samuel Chapter 17 of the Jewish scripture what Christians have called “The Old Testament” of the Bible.

David and Goliath tells the story of those old enemies the Israelites and the Philistines being at war once again Their armies were faced one another A giant of a man, walked out from the ranks of the Philistine army and challenged Saul and his army to send out their best champion so that they might engage in a two-man winner take all contest.

This champion named Goliath was nearly ten feet tall. His armour and weaponry were of equal gigantic measure, a terrifying sight. He issued his challenge. “I will fight your best soldier.”

Saul and the whole of Israel tremble in fear, for they did not have a champion willing to face Goliath that day. Goliath repeated his challenge every day for forty days and still Israel had no champion. Young David was sent by his father to bring food to his three older brothers who were soldiers in Saul’s army. When David arrived, he saw Goliath come forward and heard him issue his challenge. When David saw the Israelite soldiers flee from Goliath in fear, he volunteered to fight Goliath. He proclaimed that “he would not be alone but would have the Lord God of Hosts on his side.” David was propelled forward by his faith, not his wisdom, strength or experience as a soldier, but his humble faith.

David was a boy not a man, he was small and had no experience as a soldier. In the end though King Saul agreed to send David as his Champion. He offered David the use of his own fine armour and sword. But David declined, saying that he was not used to wearing armour and using a sword. He preferred the simple tools and methods that were familiar to him, he would prevail over Goliath in the same way that a shepherd prevails over threats from bears and wolves who seek to kill sheep. David walked out to meet Goliath with his shepherd’s staff, his slingshot and five smooth stones he had carefully selected from the riverbed.

You can imagine Goliath laughing and taunting David, but David had faith in those five smooth stones and, his simple methods and his God. Goliath rushed forward with a battle cry waving his sword, David let fly the first stone from his sling. His aim and his launch were sure and true. The stone hit Goliath in the centre of his forehead and he fell to the ground. David and defeated Goliath.

Sometimes even the most powerful and most confident can be defeated with integrity and faith and justice, humility and of course hope. Maybe these are those five smooth stones that David carefully selected. Integrity, justice, faith, humility and hope. The mighty and most powerful do sometimes fall. Hubris is a very dangerous thing and can bring even the mightiest down, when they least expect it. You see even the mightiest have a weak spot and sometimes it is their Hubris, their utter self belief, that is their weakest of weak spots. I am reminded here of the Death Star in the Star Wars movie. Isn’t Luke Skywalker just David in another setting? I am sure that the great mythologist, Joseph Campbell, delighted in this when he consulted on the film.

Public figures whether celebrities or politicians should take heed of this. Something we have seen continually, including the last couple of weeks. People who live with integrity, faith, humility, justice and hope do have the capacity to eventually defeat even the mightiest of Goliaths. These five smooth stones have the capacity to defeat Hubris however it may manifest itself.

Hubris is the Ancient Greek word for overstretching 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, the media moguls 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 like the walls of Jericho or burn like Rome. Or they are brought to a standstill by nature or in our case this horrific pandemic.

Hubris of course manifests itself in many forms. The one place it appears where you’d think it ought not to is in religion. Yet it is probably more obvious there than in any other area of life. Those who believe they have a direct link to God and know not only what God’s will for themselves is, but what it is for everyone else do appear to be suffering from the worst form of hubris.

My response to such thinking is usually “Come off it who do you think you are?” By trying to convert a person to your way of believing seems like the worst kind of Hubris to me.

Although of course if I am honest I’ve suffered from it myself from time to time.

I could be accused of it now.

Sceptics are no different. To belittle someone’s genuine faith by calling it a superstition or merely a crutch is deeply disrespectful. It certainly does not honour or respect their humanity. No one can ever truly know what is to have walked in another’s shoes and to have lived their lives.

To be smug about one’s personal so-called rationalism seems like the worst kind of arrogance to me. The question I would like to ask is why we need to spend our time proving what someone else genuinely believes as wrong or false or immature, wherever we find ourselves on the faith spectrum?

That said, once again, I have to hold up my hand and admit that it’s not something I’m immune from.

As I heard someone say many years ago “To be right you don’t have to make anybody else wrong”

I need to remember that one more often.

“To be right you don’t have to make anybody else wrong.”

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! I suspect this was the stone that David defeated Goliath with, although it is the one he lost sight of at times in his own life, particularly when he became the all powerful king. David was as human as anyone and power can corrupt anyone. Why? You may well ask, because power can lead to a person thinking that they are some kind of God.

Humility may well be humanities greatest virtue. It is essentially about accepting our human limitations. 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 potentially 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 “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.

Life has taught me many things. Perhaps one of the greatest lessons is that people who laud their power over others, those who act in supremacist ways, are not as strong as they wish to appear. It is generally the weak who desperately hunger for power in order to compensate for their feelings of vulnerability and fragility. It is one way in which they can delude themselves into believing that they can somehow hold back the tide. It can be so terribly destructive. So often of course we surrender ourselves and our own power to such figures. Some bully their way there and others do it through manipulation.

The solution, I have come to believe, is to find ways to access the power we all have within us, to become our own authority and to play our role fully in the sea of life; the key I have come to believe is to become the drop in the ocean, to fully contribute to the sea of life; the key is to stop seeking power from without by attempting to control others and see that there is a power and responsibility within each and everyone of us. You see when we wake up to the power we already have within us, that same power that is at the core of all life, a loving power, a connecting power that does not seek supremacy, when we awaken to this power we become our own authority. In so doing we do not need to seek power over others, nor surrender to those who we perceive to be more powerful than we are. In so doing we become authors of our own ideas and actions and we participate fully in the ocean of life. This is essentially true leadership, because by doing so we inspire others to do the same. To inspire is to awaken the spirit within another, to that source of power within us all. This is true leadership, this is what the great spiritual teachers throughout human history did. This is our task as people who congregate in a free spiritual community.

We simply need to live by those five smooth stones of Integrity, justice, faith, humility and hope and to live with responsibility for ourselves and this world that we share with others and it begins with humility, by accepting that we are not God, but human, beautifully finite humans and go swim in the ocean of life.

I am going to end this morning with a poem by Mark Nepo “Look Around”

“Look Around” by Mark Nepo

If you try to comprehend air
before breathing it,
you will die.

If you try to understand love
before being held,
you will never feel compassion.

If you insist on bringing God to others
before opening your very small window of life,
you will never have honest friends.

If you try to teach before you learn
or leave before you stay,
you will lose your ability to try.

No matter what anyone promises—
to never feel compassion,
to never have honest friends,
to lose your ability to try—
these are desperate ways to die.

A dog loves the world through its nose.
A fish through its gills.
A bat through its deep sense of blindness.
An eagle through its glide.

And a human life
through its spirit.

Monday 2 November 2020

“Life is a Circle: Despair May Last for a Night, but Joy Comes in the Morning.”

“Two Frogs” by Christopher Buice

Once, two frogs were hopping through the forest when they accidently hopped into a big churn of cream. The sides of the churn were so slick and slippery that there was no place to hold on to, so the frogs had to swim in circles to stay afloat.

After a long time one frog said, “There is no hope. We’re doomed to drown in this churn.”

The older frog said, “Don’t lose hope. Life is a circle. There are bad times and there are good times. One must endure the winter to see the spring.”

The young frog was not so sure and he said, “You’re wrong. We’re going to die, I tell you!”

And the older frog said, “We must keep hope alive! For if hope dies, we, too, will die. But if we keep hope alive, we will live to see another sunrise.”

But the younger frog was already starting to lose hope and he began to sink down into the creamy liquid.

“Keep hope alive! Keep hope alive!” cried the older one.

Then the younger one started repeating, slowly at first, “Keep hope alive. Keep hope alive.”

The more they repeated the words, the stronger they felt. And the more strength they had, the better they could swim in circles.

As they swam and swam, around and around in circles, an amazing thing happened. They realized they weren’t sinking any more. The cream had turned to butter!

The two frogs were able to hop off the butter and out of the churn. They landed on the ground just in time to see a beautiful sunrise. The older frog said to the younger one, “Remember my son, life is a circle. Despair may last for a night, but joy comes in the morning.” And the two frogs hopped away into the woods.

I love this story a friend sent to me a while back, particularly this line that comes at the end.  “Remember my son, life is a circle. Despair may last for a night, but joy comes in the morning.”

Such beautiful wisdom. There is indeed much suffering and potentially despair in life, but joy can still come in the morning. That said it won’t just come because night follows day, it will come if we work with faith and hope, if we keep on “churning” on and on for joy. It won’t just be given to us, unbidden, as some unearned Grace, or at least this is what life has taught me. Now of course some times the only work we have to do is pay attention to everything going on around us. Sometimes the work is not to churn madly, like those two frogs, but to focus on everything, that is going on around us and of course within us. Sometimes all we focus on are the things that are wrong, the things that we have lost or are under threat of losing, this causes suffering and potentially despair. We need to see the bigger picture, the gifts all around us, which are of course a free gift. Yes I do contradict myself at times.

There is no doubt that this is going to be a long and difficult winter. We are in the midst of autumn. The clocks fell back last weekend. The day light hours are getting shorter. We are living under stricter restrictions due to the pandemic. We are going into four weeks of "Lockdown" again from Thursday. We are no doubt experiencing so many emotions, a mixture of fear and frustration due to this. Our lives may feel reduced as we face a long winter. The restrictions are unlikely to be lifted I suspect until the spring. That is not me being pessimistic, more realistic. Therefore we need to take care, pay attention, find ways to help one another, support each other and find ways to discover joy, perhaps new ways, to find meaning to help us when life seems too much and thus not be overcome by despair. We will do this, but it will take combined effort, like those churning frogs.

We must learn to surrender to things that are out of our control, to accept the reality and once having done so we can then find the courage and strength to do what we can, for ourselves and one another. We will of course need wisdom to know what these are. We need to remember the good old “Serenity Prayer” “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can and wisdom to know the difference.” A beautiful moving and universal prayer that is known the world over and has brought comfort to many in difficult times. It is not a passive prayer as good prayer should never be. Prayer is about finding the strength and direction to do and act in the ways that you must do.

I have shared with many people about the power of “The Serenity Prayer” in so many situations and settings. I recalled one the other day during a trip to Transylvania over eight years ago. One day I found myself speaking with folk in a little place called Ikland, a village that did not have running water and virtually no electricity, there wells in every garden. After I spoke a women in attendance shared about “The Serenity Prayer” and how it helped in dark times, especially when caught up in worry about her children and grandchildren; she constantly worried about what the future might hold. I will never forget the look on this woman’s face. Her name was Elizabeth and I can picture her right now as I remember that beautiful and touching moment. I could see the struggle in the those lines on her face, but I could also hear the faith in her voice and the joy in her eyes as she spoke of her children and grandchildren. It was truly beautiful to witness such deep soulful emotion, she touched a place deep in my heart. The people of Transylvania have struggled and suffered for generations and yet there remains in them a beautiful soulfulness; they know the suffering of life, but also the joy of living, in all its mystery. You should hear them sing. It is a thing of soulful beauty.  

We are living through difficult times, but there is joy to be found, to be uncovered, in our lives. It requires us to pay attention though and to work at times. We need strength and courage to do so. We have to keep on churning and encouraging each other to do so when we feel dispirited.

Sometimes paying attention to the season can help. There is a beauty and a joy even in the falling and dying season that is autumn; a falling and dying that is required for the year to move through its circle that is the re-birth of spring. We do not have to wait for Spring though, or the end of the pandemic, to know and experience the joy present in our very lives. There is a joy in natural beauty of autumn as well as in encouraging one another, despite our sorrow. This brings to mind the rather beautiful poem “Reduced to Joy” by Mark Nepo

“Reduced to Joy” by Mark Nepo


I was sipping coffee on the way to work,
the back road under a canopy of maples
turning orange. In the dip of woods, a small
doe gently leaping. I pulled over, for there
was no where else to go. She paused as if
she knew I was watching. A few orange
leaves fell around her like blessings no
one can seem to find. I sipped some
coffee, completely at peace, knowing
it wouldn’t last. But that’s alright.

We never know when we will blossom
into what we’re supposed to be. It might
be early. It might be late. It might be after
thirty years of failing at a misguided wayM.
Or the very first time we dare to shed
our mental skin and touch the world.

They say, if real enough, some see God
at the moment of their death. But isn’t
every fall and letting go a death? Isn’t God
waiting right now in the chill between the
small doe’s hoof and those fallen leaves?


We do not need to be reduced despair, despite the very real troubles we all face, we can be reduced to joy. We just need to the courage to pay attention. Sue recently sent me "Brain Pickings" fourteenth anniversary email by Maria Popova. Popova suggests that despite our real suffering, we can choose joy. She is someone who has found herself suffering deeply at times during the pandemic and in this piece she suggests an antidote to despair, something she can do, as like most of us she can offer little by way of vaccine to the virus. She suggests that we can choose joy. “Choose it at first consciously, effortfully, pressing against the weight of a world heavy with reasons for sorrow, restless with need for action. Feel the sorrow, take the action, but keep pressing the weight of joy against it all, until it becomes mindless, automated, like gravity pulling the stream down its course; until it becomes an inner law of nature. If Viktor Frankl can exclaim "yes to life, in spite of everything." — and what an everything he lived through — then so can any one of us amid the rubble of our plans, so trifling by comparison. Joy is not a function of a life free of friction and frustration, but a function of focus — an inner elevation by the fulcrum of choice. So often, it is a matter of attending to what Hermann Hesse called, as the world was about to come unworlded by its first global war, "the little joys"; so often, those are the slender threads of which we weave the lifeline that saves us.”


The key it seems is in focusing our attention on the little things and the moments that are around us, things we may not always notice. Now these things may be different for each of us. Although one key that is open to us all is the focus and the discipline of paying attention to what is natural and beautiful. Whether that be the falling leaves, that will return with new life in the coming spring, something we can witness from our windows, or in the voice of the people in our lives. In the dogs that are everywhere at the moment. I love to watch our little Charlie as she frolics with other dogs in the park. I also appreciate the conversations I am engaging in in so many settings. Even deeply difficult ones at times. An example would be last Monday’s “Colours of Grief” on Zoom. It was deeply moving and painful at times and yet its depth turned to joy as we shared our pain and struggle together. There was such a feeling of joy in our shared suffering. A joy not caused by the suffering of course, but in the fact that we were able to share it  with others. We opened our hearts to one another, we shared, we encouraged, we kept on churning and churning, like a zoom room full of those frogs.

We can't control life. We cannot wish life’s troubles away. That said there are things that we can do. It is important how we respond to our personal and shared suffering. Think of the wisdom of “The Serenity Prayer”. We can choose our response as Frankl discovered; it is the final freedom. We can respond with respect, compassion, and kindness. We can honour our sadness and that of others. Instead of resisting the sadness and suffering we can accept them as the natural and necessary griefs of a life lived in and by love. In so doing we connect to the core of our being and in so doing we can be lead to joy as we open ourselves to life and the joy of living that is all around us.

We can find joy even in the hardest stuff, as Frankl did in Auschwitz. If you only find joy in the things we really love then we will become joyless if these things are restricted or removed from our lives. You see there is a joy in the core of us, as there is a joy in the core of life and no one and no thing can take this from us. Our task is to bring this joy to life through our fragile human being and share it with others.

This though is not always easy. We will have to practice, we will have to work for it and we will have to find ways to encourage one another when we feel dispirited and want to give up, just like the frogs in the churner. We are always frogs in the churner. Let us always remember that.

As the older frog explained: “Remember my son, life is a circle. Despair may last for a night, but joy comes in the morning.”

So lets keep on churning on and on and on.

I’m going to end this morning with this beautiful poem “Welcome morning” by Anne Sexton

“Welcome Morning” by Anne Sexton

"There is joy
in all:
in the hair I brush each morning,
in the Cannon towel, newly washed,
that I rub my body with each morning,
in the chapel of eggs I cook
each morning,
in the outcry from the kettle
that heats my coffee
each morning,
in the spoon and the chair
that cry 'hello there, Anne'
each morning,
in the godhead of the table
that I set my silver, plate, cup upon
each morning.

All this is God,
right here in my pea-green house
each morning
and I mean,
though often forget,
to give thanks
to faint down by the kitchen table
in a prayer of rejoicing
as the holy birds at the kitchen window
peck into their marriage of seeds.

So while I think of it,
let me paint a thank-you on my palm
for this God, this laughter of the morning,
let it go unspoken.

The Joy that isn't shared, I've heard,
dies young.”