Monday 27 March 2023

Icarus and Goldilocks: Pride, Getting the Balance Right

I will begin this "blogspot" with a little story.

Mulla Nasruddin took his followers to an exhibition. Many things were going on at the exhibition. At one place people were staking much money and trying to shoot arrows to reach a certain target.

Nasruddin gathered his followers and he said, "Come, I have something to show you." Watch and learn.

As he took up a bow and arrow a great crowd gathered, they were intrigued by what was going on. The crowd watched in silence,

Nasruddin took aim and shot an arrow, it fell well short of the target. At this the crowd started laughing.

Nasruddin spoke out, "Stop! Don't be foolish." He turned to his followers and said, "Look, this is what happens when you live with an inferiority complex, when you have no pride in yourself, when you do not believe in yourself. This is how such a person will act, they will never reach the target; they will always fall short of what they are capable of, for their whole heart will never be in it.

At this the crowd fell silent and muttered to themselves: "Yes, there is a lesson in this, there is wisdom here."

He then picked up another arrow and again he took aim. This arrow flew way ahead, far beyond the target. Again the crowd began to laugh.

Again Nasruddin spoke up, "Be silent! You don't understand these secrets." Again he turned to his followers and said, "Look, this is how a person who thinks themselves as being superior behaves, who suffers from Hubris. They will never reach the target. They run so fast that they will bypass the goal, and he will not stop at the goal. They are too confident and think themselves better than anyone else, superior in every sense, above everyone. They are also unbalanced."

Again the crowd fell silent: "Then began to mutter to themselves, yes, there is a lesson here."

Nasruddin took a third arrow and tried again... This time the arrow went directly into the bullseye, right in the middle of the target, he hit the mark. The crowd gasped in silence and waited for what Nasruddin was going to say. He went to the owner and demanded the money.

The owner said, "Why?"

He said, "This is me! The first was the arrow of a someone who suffers from an inferiority complex, who has no pride and thinks they are worthless; the second the arrow of someone who suffers from a superiority complex, who sufferes from Hubris and false pride -- and this is Mulla Nasruddin's arrow. Where is the money?"

We have just passed the spring Equinox, the day when light and dark are in balance. This happens twice a year both in Autumn and Spring. Equinox means “equal night”. The March Equinox is known as the Vernal Equinox, meaning new, as it marks the beginning of spring. In the northern hemisphere as we tilt towards the sun the days grow longer and sunnier. The September Equinox is called the Autumn Equinox, marking the beginning of this season. In the southern hemisphere these seasons are at opposites ends of the year.

This time of celestial and seasonal balance is a perfect one to check out the balance in our own lives. Where are the extremes in our own lives that need balancing out? How do we see ourselves and each other? Is this in balance? Do we have a balanced view of life? When looking at ourselves do we have a balanced and honest view? How are our “umeres”, as the ancient physicians use to call them, are all four of these fluids in balance? How is your health, your physical, your emotional, your mental and your spiritual health? These four could well be our present day “umeres”. Physicians no longer believe we have four fluids that need to in balance, that said our well being still needs stability and balance.

A balanced life is considered a good life. We are told that we need to balance the books, in the home and in the community. A balanced diet is vital to healthy living. Power needs to be balanced in the public sphere, too much power in any individual or even groups hand is dangerous. Balance is vital to performing physical activities. Most athletes are admired for their balance as much as for their strength and speed.

Balance is seen as vital by virtually all spiritual and philosophical traditions, extremes in any sense lead to danger and destruction. As Robert Fulghum advises “Be aware of wonder. Live a balanced life - learn some and think some and draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work every day some.” The philosopher John Locke wrote “An excellent man, like precious metal, is in every way invariable; A villain, like the beams of a balance, is always varying, upwards and downwards.”

Aristotle proposed that the key to authentic happiness and not mere momentary satisfaction or pleasure arose from living a life of “Virtue” and that this could be achieved by the “Doctrine of the Golden Mean”, by living a life centred on a sort of dampened equilibrium. That virtue lays in avoiding excess. He saw courage as lying somewhere between cowardice and recklessness.

One of the great Greek myths illustrates this perfectly. Icarus was advised by Daedalus to fly somewhere between the sun and the sea, but he flew too close to the sun. Centuries later didn’t Goldilocks rejected the porridge that was too hot and too cold for the one that was just right, she chose the middle way, thus following the virtuous life.

Now please don’t get me wrong I am not suggesting that we never rock the boat and must always live in the middle of everything. Balance is not a static thing. It is important to keep on stirring the porridge and to act out whatever our faith in life is. The key is to serve life and the harmony of all life. It is important is to live humbly and to avoid the dangers of hubris that caused Icarus to burn and fall. We are here to fly, of course we are, just not too close to the sun. We need to see ourselves and life itself as it actually is, to not think too less of ourselves, nor too high. It is the same with others. We should put no one on a pedestal, nor should we dismiss anyone. We all have something to contribute, to add to life. The key is to live humbly and honestly and give what we have, not only for ourselves, but for the good of all. It is vital to live with healthy pride and acknowledge our gifts, whilst also watching for the dangers of hubris.

I was out with Molly on Wednesday. I had just returned from Urmston having led “A Common Search for Meaning” group, exploring identity and belonging. I was feeling tired. This is not surprising as the day before I had conducted the funeral service of my cousin Charlton back home in Yorkshire. It was an emotional day and I was wondering if I could find the energy to put together this service. As hard as it was I believe I had done a good job in conducting the service and holding our Charlton’s loved ones through this heartbreaking rite. I had also led a good conversation at Urmston and despite my own grief had fulfilled all my recent commitments will care and attention. I felt I had done all that I was there to do. I was feeling very tired though. One thing I have learnt about myself is that when I am emotionally tired I have to watch my mood, for signs of depression. I was considering this as I took in the life of the town, as I let life wash over me.

As Molly and myself returned home, she found a huge tree branch that she decided she must bring home with her. She walked out of the town centre with her head held high and with a strut in her stride. You could see the pride she had in what she was doing and several people we passed commented on this. It made me smile. I thought to myself, that this is healthy pride.

I recall a while ago being involved in a conversation about pride. It is a word I don’t feel comfortable with. I get a sense of unease when I am asked if I take pride in my work. The psychologist Hannah who I saw for a few months last year, noticed this about me too. There is something in me that does not like to acknowledge a sense of pride.

The reasons for this is that I have seen the destructive nature of the negative aspects of pride. How it can stop people making the first move bringing healing. How it stops folk admitting where they are wrong and putting things right. Unhealthy pride and at its most dangerous Hubris can be deeply destructive.

Hubris is the Ancient Greek word for overstretching ourselves; it translates as arrogance or overwhelming pride. This is the archer who overshoots the mark in Nasruddhin’s story. 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 recent times a global pandemic.

Hubris is a dangerous and deadly thing, the ancient Greeks were correct to warn of its dangers, something that our leaders especially need to pay close attention to. That said there is an important place for healthy pride. Too many of us feel that we are not good enough, thus our arrows never reach the mark. Healthy pride is vital to building a sense that you are ok and acceptable as you are. Such things as Gay pride for example have played a vital part in helping people overcome any shame etc about their humanity. Too often in life folk have been rejected for their humanity, it still goes onto today. Sadly, there are still sections of society who some see as unacceptable, too many people victimized. Such peoples need to have their sense of pride lifted to a healthy level, something that all sections of society need to play a role in. There are too many people who are not even invited to take aim at the target, it is vitally important to recognise and accept this. There needs to be a healthy balance in pride.

Just like Nasruddin’s archery tale, the stories of both Goldilocks and Icarus can be seen as allegories for getting the balance right; they seem like allegories about pride. Whilst Icarus burnt because he flew too close to the sun, he would also have drowned if he had not flown at all. There is a healthy balance to pride and it is vital to human flourishing. It is the same as the Goldilocks and the three bears story. One bowl was too cold and another too hot, whilst another was just right, isn’t this just another way of saying you need to fly above the sea, but not too close to the sun; or like Nasruddin warning of the dangers of aiming too high or too low. There is a vital need to find healthy balance in life. This is very much the case with pride. Something I myself am still learning to fully accept. I still find it very uncomfortable to feel proud about my work, even when I know I have done a good job. Of course I don’t do a perfect job, no one can. That said too often I can be overly aware of my shortcomings, this can be crippling.We are all work in progress. We all must find ways to get the balance right. This is not a static thing, it is forever moving. I see clearly that some of my contemporary “Umeres” are somewhat out of balance. I can see that whilst my relationships with life out there is in healthy balance, in some ways my relationship with myself is still somewhat out of kilter.

It is vital to find a healthy balance in our pride in order to find harmony in our relationships with life, with each other, with ourselves and with God. These could also be seen as four other modern day “Umeres”. If we get these in balance, we can contribute fully to life, we can live to our potential and truly know the joy of living.

Isn’t this what life is built upon, our relationships. I suspect above everything that this is the key. To ensure that our lives are in balance in these four aspects of our lives. That our relationship “Umeres” are in balance.

How are your relationship “Umeres”? Are they unbalanced? How is your relationship with life, with others, with yourself and your God? These need to be in balance in order to experience healthy pride and to live fully alive.

Perhaps that is something to check, in this season of balance. How are you in relations to your inner self, the people you share your life with, life itself and your God, however you understand God?

Maybe that is something you could reflect on in the coming weeks.

How are your arrows, are they close to the mark? Is your porridge edible? Are you drowning or flying too close to the sun? We can all fly free.

Below is a video devotion based on the material in this "blogspot"

Monday 13 March 2023

Spring: Is it here? Belum: Not quite yet?

“In the springtime of our year, silver buds of hope appear.”

I was struggling to get going on Monday. There had been a lot going on over the last few days and there was much heavy with me this week. There was grief in the air and in my heart. It was a grey grim day too. The weather forecast for the few days ahead was not good. February had fooled me. I had been seduced by the belief that Spring was here, or nearly here, but the weather this week has had other ideas. Spring will come, but not in my time.

Despite how I was feeling on Monday morning, I got on with my day, I managed to get quite a lot of work done in the morning. Then after taking Molly for a long walk I headed to the gym, wondering what we might explore in worship this week. I started on the cross trainer, facing out of the window, looking at the bus station across the road, watching the world pass by. I saw several folk I knew, including from the congregation. I saw Helen and David Copley and then Barbara Thackery, how it lifted my spirits. I had a seen a video of Barbara in the Altrincham Matters Facebook group. It had been of her happy smiling face running the Trafford 10k on what was her 85 birthday, raising money for St Anne’s Hospice . Barbara has become a bit of a local inspiration, a celebrity dare I say. Seeing her pass by certainly lifted my spirits and I found myself singing the lyrics “In the spring time of our year, silver buds of hope appear.” Such inspiration and hope can come in so many forms. As I continued on I thought to myself, ok it still feels quite wintery, but spring and new life and new hope will soon be here. We are heading in the right direction.

It is now March and we have stepped into the season of Lent, but we are still experiencing wintery weather. It even snowed this week. There have been some signs of spring these last few weeks but it is not quite here yet. I know most of us want winter over and the new life of spring. We want Easter and the re-birth of spring to come oh so soon, but first we have to travel through the barren wilderness of March and Lent. Yes, new life will soon be here and we will get to enjoy the full blooming promise of warmer time, including that gorgeous pink snow that comes with the cherry blossom. The new life will soon be with us.

We are now well into the 40 days of Lent; Lent a time of reflection; a time of temptation; a time to observe and find answers; Lent a time of preparation. These forty days or so are meant to be a barren time, where we strip ourselves down of luxuries and distractions to give birth to new treasures that can be symbolically born again at Easter time. Not an easy time and a time to experience a sense of loneliness as we enter our inner wilderness. We may feel a little lost at times, but do not fear we are headed in the right direction.

This is not the end of winter, but maybe it’s the beginning of the end or at least the end of the beginning. There are seeds of hope being planted and there are new shoots all around us. Hope springs eternal and we do not seem too far from spring. The seeds are there planted beneath the earth, waiting to give birth.

Maybe there are lessons that we can learn from the patience of seeds as we wait for the spring of re-birth. They lay there buried, surrendered to the process that is yet to come, when they will flower and flourish for all to share. Like those seeds there is so much buried within us waiting to be born, ok not today, but it is coming soon. There are signs of hope though, may we nurture them.

Spring begins tentatively, but it advances with tenacity. All the new life touches me deeply. No matter how small and delicate the roots are they insist on coming to life; they insist on their way as they press up through ground that looked, only a few weeks earlier, as if it would never grow anything again. The crocuses and snowdrops don’t bloom for long. But their mere appearance, however brief, is always a harbinger of hope — and from those small beginnings, hope grows at a geometric rate. The days get longer, the winds get warmer, and the world grows green again.

This brings to my heart the wonderful poem “Metamorphosis” by May Sarton; a poem about transformation during springtime.

“Metamorphosis” by May Sarton

Always it happens when we are not there —
The tree leaps up alive in the air,
Small open parasols of Chinese green
Wave on each twig. But who has ever seen
The latch sprung, the bud as it burst?
Spring always manages to get there first.

Lovers of wind, who will have been aware
Of a faint stirring in the empty air,
Look up one day through a dissolving screen
To find no star, but this multiplied green,
Shadow on shadow, singing sweet and clear.
Listen, lovers of wind, the leaves are here!

Spring is coming. No it is not here yet, but it is coming. We just need be patient and keep on moving in the right direction. People though are not patient, we want what we want and we want it now. We don’t like uncertainty either. Life though rarely offers such things, especially not with regard to weather in March, certainly not here in the North West of England. The only thing certain about late winter and early spring is how uncertain the weather will be. Tuesday was as blue and beautiful a day as we could wish for and yet by Wednesday it was snowing.

Is spring here? Well it seems not quite yet.

This brings to mind a wonderful bit of wisdom from the American author and Unitarian Universalist minister Robert Fulgham, it is simply titled “Belum”

“Belum” by Robert Fulghum

"Americans, it is observed, prefer definite answers. Let your yea be yea and your nay be nay. Yes or no. No grays, please.

In Indonesia, there is a word in common use that nicely wires around the need for black and white. Belum is the word and it means ‘not quite yet.’ A lovely word implying continuing possibility. “Do you speak English?”

“Belum.” Not quite yet. “Do you have any children?” “Belum.” Do you know the meaning of life?” “Belum.”

It is considered both impolite and cynical to say, “No!” outright. This leads to some funny moments. “Is the house on fire?” “Belum.” Not quite yet.

It’s an attitude kin to that old vaudeville joke: “Do you play the violin?” “I don’t know, I never tried.”

Perhaps. Maybe. Possibly. Not yes or no, but squarely within the realm of what might be. Soft edges are welcome in this great bus ride of human adventure.

Is this the best of all possible worlds? Belum.

Is the world coming to an end? Belum.

Will we live happily ever after? Belum.

Have we learned to live without weapons of mass destruction? Belum.

In some ways, we don’t know. We’ve never tried. Is it hopeless to think that we might someday try? Belum. Not quite yet."

I love this piece of wisdom from Robert Fulghum on Belum, this concept of uncertainty, but a faithful uncertainty, that nothing is ever fully sealed, not yet at least. However hopeless things may feel at the present moment it does not mean that all is despair. Look around you, look into your own heart. There is love and goodness present both within you and in life. There are those around you that can bring inspiration to your being, who have the courage to say yes to life, that have hope lightening and inspiring their hearts. I witnessed this so many times these last few days. Is it spring? Belum, not quite yet. That said if we keep on heading in the right direction, it will soon be here, just not quite yet.

“In the spring time of the year, silver buds of hope appear.” They are appearing all around us. I was talking with Nick and Aled the other day as they were working away in the gardens of the chapel, as the flowers and buds were appearing. Aled said I think that the snow might hold off until tomorrow. We said, it’s in the south and might not reach here. Is it snowing? Belum, not quite yet. For within two hours it was snowing.

Is it spring yet? Belum, not quite yet.

It is coming, we are headed in the right direction. Our task, to keep on planting our own seeds, so that in the spring time of all our years, those silver buds of hope keep on appearing. This is our task, to plant the seeds of hope, and someday they will bear fruit. They may not come to fruit in our time, “belum, not quite yet.”

It is up to us. What are we going to do? Are we going to keep on planting the seeds in our hearts and souls right here right now in this near spring. You never know who you might be inspiring one cold Monday morning when they are struggling to get going.

t’s up to us right here right now. Hope is not something we passively dream of in the future, something beyond this life. It has to be born here right now, in our heart and souls or not at all.

I wish for you the courage to allow the seeds of Hope to form in your hearts and souls. Let’s not give up on our belief in love and life, well at least not quite yet, Belum.

Please find below  video devotion based on the material in this "blogspot"


Monday 6 March 2023

Stoicism and the Serenity Prayer: What is in Our Power and What is Not

Over the last few months I have got friendly with a family who live on Sylvan Grove. The vehicle for this has of course been Molly. They have their own Molly, a lovely spaniel, a mix of Cavalier and Cocker. They go each morning to cafĂ© Nero and it is here where we talk for a little while, before I take Molly to the park. I bumped into the David the father of the family the other day as he was hobbling back home. He walks with a stick and was just coming back from the gym. He is on a weight loss program, so we were talking about that. His method is very different to the one I followed as he is on an intermittent fasting regime. He eats for just a very small window of time, early each evening. We talked for some time and the conversation progressed into other aspects of life. As always the troubles we all face as people and the world in general. He told me he had been exploring the ancient Stoics of late. He studied philosophy as a young man, but not in the way he does now. We also talked of prayer, particularly that universal prayer, that seems to epitomise “Stoicism”, at least in its original form, “The Serenity Prayer”

The conversation got me thinking, especially as I watched the news and the troubles close at hand and overseas, how we cope with suffering. I had also had several conversations on Sunday and Monday with friends, family and loved ones, news of death illness and real suffering. It sat heavily in my heart. It all felt somewhat overwhelming on Monday, I have to say.

It is easy to say that we are powerless, but is that entirely true? While we as individuals are not masters of the universe, we are not the Prime Mover, what we do or do not do matters. We each and every one of us leaves an impact of some sort on this world of ours. It matters what we feel, think, say and do or for that matter do not do. It really does matter what we do and what we do not do. No, we are not the ocean, but we are a part of what makes up the seas.

Yes of course we have to accept reality as it is, but that is not the whole answer. It is just an element in the whole process. It really depends what we do from there.

This to me is the essence of “The Serenity Prayer” of which there are many versions. The following short one is probably the best know “God grant we the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can and wisdom to know the difference”

The “Serenity Prayer” is one of the great prayers, simple, practical and beautifully universal. It speaks powerfully to the heart and soul of so many people and has been doing so ever since it was first written by Reinhold Niebhur in the 1930’s. I even got into a conversation about it in a remote village in Transylvania when I went on a trip there a few years, an experience that is etched on my heart and soul and will be forever.

As “The Serenity Prayer” teaches, the key to life is always finding the wisdom to know the difference; the key is discernment. We need to be able to discern, to sift out, what needs to be let go of what needs to be accepted and what needs to change either internally or externally for this to happen.

I love the serenity prayer for many reasons, but primarily because it is humble, honest and open. It is not a petition demanding that the universe conform to our will, instead it is asking for guidance and strength to do our part and to see what our part is, while also accepting the realities of the world in which we live. Finally, it also points to the fact that we need to discover the wisdom to know what our stuff is, what our stuff is not and what is in our power to change.

It is not a passive prayer about simply accepting the status quo, quite the opposite. I see a lot of faith and works in these words. It is a prayer about seeking out what we can do and doing it. It sounds like classic Stoicism to me.

I am sure we all of us despair at the world at times. Whether that is looking at the news and horrors of our inhumanity, there is so much suffering in the world. Despair can be deeply seductive at times, but it does not help anyone, least of all ourselves. Sunday and Monday were days of bad news for me. Hearing of the suffering of those close to me. The death of two family members, to dear ones from my broken and complicated family. Suffering within the congregations and even bumping into people in the street who are struggling with family issues and deep grief. I know it is not in my power to relieve anyone of this pain and suffering. It is in my power though to bear witness, to be with them and also to share my suffering and to allow others to be there for me. It is also important to allow myself and encourage others to experience the beauty and joy in life and not feel guilty for it. It is in our power to do this also. Life is mainly beauty and love you know, the problem is that this voice doesn’t shout as loudly as destruction and suffering. I was sharing after meditation with friends on Tuesday morning and I heard cries of pain, but also joy and laughter. Which ones do we respond to, both perhaps. It is in our power to choose it seems.

This brings to mind some wonderful wisdom by E.B White (Author of "Charlotte's Web" and Stuart Little" and much more"

“It’s hard to know when to respond to the seductiveness of the world and when to respond to its challenge. If the world were merely seductive, that would be easy. If it were merely challenging, that would be no problem. But I arise in the morning torn between the desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.”

I spend most of my life these days responding to both the worlds seductiveness and its challenge. Yes, I make plans for my day, but accept that no day will work out as I expect it to. Each is a “Tale of the Unexpected”. Therefore, in truth what I actually do is prepare myself for the day and practice living by the simple principles of “The Serenity Prayer”, it is my moral compass.

I am not a stoic, although I can endure much and I find aspects of classic Stoicism helpful. I am certainly not a Stoic in the modern understanding. To be stoic today is defined as “Someone who does not complain or show their emotions”.I cannot make that claim. Ok I discern where I show my emotions, but usually it is plain how I am feeling, for it is written all over my face. That said there are lessons from the ancient school of “Stoicism”, that I find helpful and guiding, it seems I am not alone in this.

The Stoicism that guides me is that which inspired “The Serenity Prayer”. It can be found in the very first sentence of the famous Enchiridion or Stoic “handbook” of Epictetus: “Some things are up to us and others are not.” A maxim explored throughout stoic literature that followed this principle. This handbook to Stoic life is based upon the “Discourses” which begins with a chapter dedicated to the theme: “On what is in our power, and what is not.” Epictetus begins by explaining the Stoic view that our judgements and opinions are pre-eminently within our power to control, whereas external events, especially sources of wealth and reputation, are ultimately in the hands of Fortune. Hence, the Stoic should always strive to cope with adversity by having ready “at hand” precepts that remind him “what is mine, and what is not mine, what is within my power, and what is not” Epictetus defined Stoicism as the study of this distinction, to learn what things are our own, and what are not. The purpose of Stoicism is to cultivate continual self-awareness, as our thoughts and judgements are within our control, whilst learning to accept the things that are out of our control.

Or to repeat the “Serenity Prayer”

“God grant we the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can and wisdom to know the difference”

Now all this reflecting on the Stoicis, the “Serenity Prayer”, on what is in our power and what is not, in this our beautiful and also painful world, brought me back to an old favourite Viktor Frankl and that classic quote:

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms - to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way.”

This all sounds classic Stoicism to me, or at least the Stoicism that has informed “The Serenity Prayer”

“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.”

The key of course is finding the wisdom to know what is in our power and what is not.

No one can take away the suffering that is a part of life, but we do not have to fall into utter despair. Some things are beyond our power. That said there is much that is not. We cannot do everything, but we can do something, it is our task, our duty, our purpose, our meaning, to do so.

The key is to find what is in our power and what is not. To do what we can for the good of others and ourselves, for the good of all.

So, let’s take good care of each other and ourselves in whatever ways, big or small that we can. I love you all.

Please find a video devotion based on the material in this "blogspot"