Monthly Archives: September 2011

Why do we need heroes?

It occurred to me recently that the concept of the hero is one of the most powerful storylines present in any film or television show. Those who have the courage, confidence and strength to make the brave choices, to take the difficult path in order to protect the rest of us who are weak and vulnerable – these characters are prevalent in so many stories. Even films in which the hero theme isn’t obvious still use the idea of characters who drawn on courage and internal strength in order to achieve something for themselves or for others, and this seems to hook us into the story. Be it justice, freedom, personal growth or anything else, a struggle is involved. It may be less evident in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind than it is in the Dark Knight, but nevertheless the exertion of courage is present in both. So, I ask myself, why on earth is that? Is it because we’re drawn to those who bear the heavy burdens and make decisions for us, or is it because we see in those heroes a reflection of what we know is inside ourselves?

I think that what makes me a bit cross is that so often the implication is that there is only one hero, and the vast numbers of people they fight to protect are passive and incapable. It feels to me like a misrepresentation of humanity to say that one person fights the incoming aliens while the rest of us run fleeing and screaming off the screen and into obscurity. I know that stories wouldn’t be believable if they didn’t reflect the reality of human experience, and it is true that we struggle to overcome fear in dangerous situations, but I do think that the ‘one one behalf of millions’ representation is a bit of an overexaggeration. Do we love the hero more, the more people they have to protect? I suppose that’s possible, and that’s why we devour the films with the obvious hero theme. The cynic (or perhaps realist) in me says that it is a distortion of reality used by producers to make lots of money at the box office. But then perhaps there is some value in the hero story as it opens up the question to us, if we’re willing to engage with it, of how we might respond when a hero is needed.

Perhaps the draw to a hero story is both about the desire for protection and the need for our own courage to be revealed. Perhaps it needs to be both. There are times in which we need to be comforted, protected, defended; times when our need is greater than our ability to be strong. There are also times when we are called on to be brave for others, to protect them in turn as they go through their difficult times. To deny that humanity reflects the entire breadth of the spectrum of giving and receiving courage, would be to deny the fulness of our nature. And perhaps, after all, the best kind of hero is the one who enables us to both understand our own limits and unlock the potential within each of us to find the courage that life sometimes requires.

Bargain Hunting

The phrase ‘Sale Now On’ is more often present in shop windows than it is absent these days. Apparently, we don’t buy anything unless we’re convinced we’re going to get a bargain – at least, that’s what the advertisers seem to assume. My confession is that these days I live in bafflement at the time, care and attention that some spend on the pursuit of ‘getting a good deal’. Perhaps it’s simply a consequence of having small children, that I’ve got enough to do without trawling round five shops to find the cheapest kettle, or even spending an hour on the internet in the same pursuit, but secretly I think it’s just because I don’t enjoy the process of shopping.  But why would that be? And am I the only one with this dark secret, or are there others hiding in far flung corners of the country? And what is it about the hunt for a good bargain that does interest some people so much?

I think my major difficulty with searching for the best deal is knowing that no matter what I’m trying to buy, I’m being lied to. Oh, probably not overtly (at least most of the time), but in the subtlety of not including quite all of the information about the product, or of emphasising certain qualities relating to it whilst hiding the unfavourable ones. It’s tiring, trying to work through the fog of lies and get to the actual truth about the thing; and it’s insulting to my intelligence to assume I’ll fall for the idea that there is such a thing as the perfect product. Then there are the constant lies about making savings; buy two get one free! Well actually, I only needed one, but now I’m going to pay double the amount of money because it sounds like good value even though I don’t need the extra two.

Last and worst are the lies that are far more personal and deeply influential, because they weave stories about me and the kind of person I am without the product, and what I can become because of buying it. They are powerful and invasive, and can have long-lasting and damaging effects. Can I really only be beautiful if I spend a fortune on a beauty regime? Am I really only a good housewife if my house is as clean and tidy as that one on the television? Is it unattractive to have grey hair? (Of course not!!). Will my family be happier if I take them on that particular holiday? We are subtly led to believe that products are capable of achieving what, in truth, only internal maturity and wisdom can achieve; a healthy, content life and the strength to cope with what storms are thrown at us along the way.

So where does the urge to engage in bargain hunting come from? This question draws me back to the process of bargaining (or haggling, if you will) that used to be the standard form of transaction in the exchange of goods. This changed to a great extent at some point, probably within the last half-century, when fixed prices for stock were introduced (at least in larger retail outlets and chains). Perhaps it had something to do with the introduction of computers to the retail industry – I suspect so, at any rate. But it sometimes almost feels as though the constant sales to which we are enticed are the new form of haggling: we’re starting with this price, but only for fourteen days and then it’ll be selling at a much more reasonable rate because we know so few of you will like that price. In the process of hunting for bargains, therefore, we engage in haggling by choosing whether to purchase the item now or to wait until its price is lowered. Shrewd shoppers will have a good idea of whether or not to buy: I’m afraid I’m not one of them!

Perhaps the inclination to bargain is so deeply rooted in our psyches because it is simply a continuation of something that we have done since before recorded history. Computers have been unable to rid us of our most basic instincts. Of course we look for value in the things that we buy; of course we want to get the best deal for our money; we do it because we want to look after ourselves and also those for whom we are responsible and who we care about. We prefer not to be lied to because it makes the whole thing so much more difficult, but we have to accept that whether simple or complex, whether only about the product or attacking our very sense of identity, the lies will always be present. Learning to discern them and reject the effects they have on us, now that’s the work of a lifetime.

Greenbelt questions

Another August Bank Holiday weekend at Greenbelt Festival has come and gone, and as usual has thrown up a whole host of questions, such as; why do we take three young children camping for six nights with limited washing facilities? Will it ever take less than four hours to get us all up, dressed, breakfasted and ready for the festival day? Will there ever be a year that I don’t cry when I see the breathtaking number and spectrum of people present at the Sunday morning communion service? What on earth are people doing wandering around dressed as sofas? Where did the giant policemen come from? And so on.

From all the things that got thrown up at Greenbelt, there was one question that I thought important enough to write down in order to come back to. I can’t even remember where it came from, but it’s essentially about becoming a member of a church: what is the best path to becoming fully integrated into a church community, i.e. to feel comfortable with both giving and receiving one’s time, energy, compassion and commitment?

On the one hand, there are those in public ministry in a church such as the incumbent, the curate or the youth worker. Beginning work in a parish in such a role results in what could almost be described as ‘forced entry’ into the church community. From the very outset you’re in a fairly central position within the life of the church, you quickly get to know those with influence and involvement, and having a specific role to play you begin immediately to implement that role, in the ways that best seem fit to you and others in authority.

On the other hand there are those who begin coming to church for various reasons – they have a friend who goes, they’re curious, they feel drawn, they’ve had contact through a wedding, baptism or funeral – who probably begin by knowing one or two people at the most. If they don’t feel socially confident, or remain unsure of the church’s particular idiosyncrasies (e.g. its language or worship style) they may remain known to only a few people and never feel they have the opportunity or even the ability to participate.

Of course those are two extreme examples of the process of integration, but even for those somewhere in the middle, how many who do play a role in the church community are actually doing what they are built to do? How comfortable are they in the work they are doing? It does sometimes have to be the case that people take the jobs that need doing because there really is no-one else to do them, but I think it’s very unfortunate if people aren’t able to engage with the kind of work that really inspires and fulfils them. And I think it’s possible for a church to have a vision where everyone has the opportunity, should they want it, to explore their gifts and abilities safely as they get to know the congregation, the rhythm of church life and themselves.

What the implications of this question are for church leaders is also part of the question, though we can hope that they have had some measure of preparation for the way in which they integrate into church life, having already had opportunities to explore their strengths and weaknesses, their gifts and abilities. The better they have been prepared, the more equipped they will hopefully be to enable church members, new and old, to explore and develop their involvement in the living, breathing entity that is the Body of Christ.