Saturday, May 29, 2010

Have a little faith

I often wake to the radio and a cup of tea. This morning, to the background of the song 'Have a Little Faith', author Mitch Albom told a story. It was the story of how he had come to speak at the funeral of a rabbi.

Albert Lewis had been the rabbi at his local synagogue when he was a child, but Mitch wasn't particularly religious any more. But he was honoured when the rabbi, at 82 years old, asked him to write a eulogy for his funeral. In the coming years, he often spent time with the rabbi, in order to have the right things to say when the time came.

When the rabbi finally died - later than expected at around 90 years old - Mitch had to rush to the funeral to get there on time. He could not collect all the prepared notes he had made. But he found, strangely enough, that, by heart, he was able to give the speech that the rabbi would have wanted.

Perhaps the rabbi knew, in some way, that asking Mitch to write the eulogy would have that effect - to instil into Mitch's heart something of faith, through listening, through observing. Whatever the case, I'd say it was a 'wise event', and so beautiful.

Friday, May 28, 2010


On Radio 4 this morning, they were discussing 'free time stress'. Apparently there is a new German term, 'Freizeitstresse', to describe the generally-felt inability to switch off; and around 75% of the German population have difficulty enjoying free time in a stress-free way.

How do we get rid of that awful feeling that we 'should' be 'doing' something? Why do we often feel as though we have to report back our lives to other people? And why is it so hard to shut out the demands of the world?

I think there are three things going on here:

Firstly, we are dependent on feedback from others for our sense of identity. A workaholic gains constant reinforcement of their identity by always working; when they stop, they get scared, because there is no reinforcement, so they don't know who they are. Whatever we do most of the time, there is our identity. When we stop, we can find it painful, because there is no context telling us who we are. In that sense, we actually find demands quite comforting, because they give us an identity as 'the person fulfilling the demands'. And in that sense, not having demands can lead to a temporary loss of identity. Many people feel happy again when they 'get back into the swing of things', i.e. their usual routine, because it gives them a place in the world.

Secondly, many of us live in an environment where anyone can contact us at any time - we are 'hyper-connected'. We are not sitting in villages waiting for the next letter to be brought over the hill by horses. We have instant messaging. The faster we can communicate, the more we do so. Therefore, even though we may take 'time out', our context follows us into our personal space, and haunts us there.

Thirdly, we have a natural preference to 'answer the external' and 'ignore the internal'. The 'external' is all the urgent requests we receive for action, all our obligations to others, perceived or real. Because they feel more real, we give them more status than our obligations to ourselves (i.e. to rest sometimes, to do nothing sometimes). And if we are always answering messages, always making things right for others, we will never have time for our own priorities.

So maybe there are three things we can do:

1. Be comfortable with doing nothing useful. When we are dead, our bodies will be doing nothing for ever. So a bit of practice seems reasonable. And back in the womb, our job was to do nothing and grow. So a bit of nostalgia sounds reasonable. (That's why some of us love baths, maybe!) It is actually part of our justifiable identity to mess about sometimes, without trying to achieve anything in particular. Just to play. We need it.

2. Turn the world off sometimes. If your mobile was a person, they would be very rude to interrupt you with such noises all the time. Keep your need for contact to a manageable minimum, and go for a walk, or a swim, or a sunbathe, or to the sea... just disappear!

3. Treat your 'appointments with yourself' as equal in importance to your 'appointments with the world'. When we have meetings, why do they have to be with other people? If it's important to get time for you, you can book it in the diary and say 'I have a meeting'. You mean that you have a meeting with yourself.

In summary, we need to create a relaxed identity, turn the world off sometimes, and value ourselves. Then maybe free time can be more of a pleasure.

And if none of that works, we can turn to friends. Because that's what friends are for - to relax with, to distract us, and to give us a value independent of the busy, demanding world we live in.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

What's a monster?

Yesterday's Daily Mail (the fountain of al knowledge, obviously) had a headline 'Artificial Life Created In Lab'. The story is that a team led by billionaire Craig Venter has created a synthetic cell 'from scratch' (well, he copied the DNA from a bug). The commentary on page 4 was entitled 'Has he created a monster?'

What does 'monster' mean? It's often used nowadays, especially in the press, to indicate one or more of the following:

1. I don't understand it
2. It's nothing to do with me
3. It's out of my control
4. It threatens me

When the press describe a person as a monster, they are suggesting that they are not quite human, not as we know it. The result, if we call a person a monster, is:

1. We don't have to understand the person fully
2. We don't have to take responsibility for the person or their condition
3. We don't have to try to influence the person's actions for the better
4. We have the right to hurt or diminish this person to defend ourselves

Those last four points describe the attitude of Daily Mail journalism quite well, don't you think?