Category Archives: Transformation

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.

The Twitter Debate

In the wake of the riots in England I’ve heard many opinions on the credibility of Twitter and other social networking sites. Social networking played a significant role both in fanning the flames of the riots, and also in the clear-up afterwards as well as support for some of those whose livelihoods had been destroyed. It seems that whether you applaud Twitter for its usefulness or deplore it for how unhelpful it’s been, it’s simplest just to disregard how Twitter performed on the other side of the argument.

But what if we tried to take both perspectives into account at the same time? How can we hold together those two views in some sort of creative tension? Or is it really worth the effort?

My own view is that looking at the role of social networking is not just interesting and helpful, but critical to understanding Western culture and the context in which we live today. It has become a massive phenomenon, and has been responsible for information being disseminated without the media companies ‘interpreting’ in their own style, for assisting incitement to violent behaviour, for enabling local people to offer support in the wake of the storm at the Pukkelpop festival this week, and even for publishing sheer banality on a very wide scale.

I think it might be important in this debate to consider the idea that objects, in and of themselves, have no intrinsic moral or ethical value, but rather it is the inclinations of the people using those objects that is the root of the issue. For example, you can use a frying pan to cook a meal or to knock someone unconscious, but it’s the person who holds it in their hands who determines its use. Perhaps there are some items that become so locked into a cycle of unhealthy usage that in human minds they become irredeemable, but I do wonder if that depends on the capacity of the human mind to be transformed, and how much acknowledgement we give to that potential.

If this is true then all that Twitter has done is to highlight the wide variety of responses that human beings naturally make when things go wrong. It suggests that the great breadth of human experience and development expresses itself in different ways, through whichever means of communication are available. True enough, it’s highly unlikely that Twitter will ever be transformed into something that is exclusively used for helpful and creative purposes. But I can’t help believing, somehow, that for all those who now fear Twitter for the part it played in the riots, it is possible to redeem the object of their fear by using it for better purposes, and by encouraging others to do the same. After all, the social networking phenomenon is becoming very well established, so it looks like we need to get used to it!

What’s in store for England?

Economic decline and rioting on the city streets of England are filling our newspapers at the moment, but very little attention is being paid to what things are going to be like when all the furore has died down and we have to rebuild what has been damaged and lost.

It feels as though we’re on a precipice, on the verge of ecomonic disaster and momentous social change. And not just us, I hasten to add – the USA, Spain, France, even China to some extent – one by one the economic powers are falling, and I haven’t heard anyone even allude to what the world is going to look like when the last power bloc falls.

England stands firmly within an international community, a complexity of economically interdependent relationships whose strength ultimately relies on the strength of the American economy. The plunge into ridiculous levels of debt since Bush’s decision to deregulate the financial industry has undermined those relationships, and those who have taken the dream of capitalism between the bit and galloped off in pursuit of perfect freedom are now miring themselves and others in the bog of being unable to extricate entire countries from this now unsupportable debt.

And so the worsening economic climate has been a major contribution to social disaffection. The police shooting of Mark Duggan was catalyst rather than cause of the ensuing violence, as discontent has been rumbling and building under the surface of our society for quite some time now, perhaps even generations. Unsurprisingly some of the major media-fed characteristics of our society – such as the drive to possess, and the centring of ones own world around oneself – have driven the wedge between the wealthy and the impoverished in England deeper and deeper every year. As a nation we are all, including myself, responsible for having created the mess we are in, being almost completely unable to see the value in caring for the wider society we ought to be a part of.

For some individuals, the immediate aftermath of the riots is clear. My heart goes out to those whose livelihoods have been destroyed, to those who have suffered injury or bereavement. They are ever-present in my prayers as they face the coming weeks and months and possibly years of coping with the fall-out of the awful events of this week. As a nation, staggering through a social crisis that no-one seems to have foreseen, and simultaneously suffering from the blows of international economic decline, it feels as though we have a long way to go before we reach any kind of stability. I wonder why it has to take a crisis this deep-running to bring people together; still, it is hopeful that we are now beginning to show, as a nation, our potential to see beyond our own individual needs. Witnessing the hordes of people cleaning up the damaged streets, and reading of the generosity of those helping affected people, is a tonic amidst so much suffering. If, as we rebuild businesses, homes and lives, we can build such expressions of generosity and good will into the fabric of our society, then whatever the future brings for England, we will be better resourced to deal with it.

What is it like on the borderlands?

I’ve just come back from holiday. We took the boat to Northern Ireland and spent a week visiting relatives, then drove north across the border to Donegal. As we drove across I suddenly had a very clear memory of myself as a teenager, being driven across one of the European country borders by my mum to some holiday destination. I vividly remember thinking how much I would dislike having to live on or near to a border between countries. Not being particularly discerning at the time I don’t think I managed to work out why that was; now I suspect it was to do with the fact that issues of geographical identity were particularly important to me, especially because I had no sense of belonging to a particular physical place.

The startling contrast was that driving over the border from Northern to Southern Ireland, I found myself revelling in being in a place between places, where somehow the physical identities of each country merged seamlessly together; one flowed into the other, rather than experiencing an abrupt change. I enjoyed the sense of being in a place where you could live on one side of the border but perhaps identify more with those across the ‘invisible line’ than with those fifty miles away in your own country. It felt good to be in a place that seemed to point more towards the commonalities between people – whichever social group they belong to – than their differences.

The question I asked myself in response to this inner revelation was about how people feel who do live on or near a border.  I suppose I was thinking particularly about the European borders of my own experience, where there are no severe political tensions or open warfare; simply people living side by side who are born into different cultural traditions. Is living in such a space more likely to produce someone who is happier to dwell on the borders in other respects, not always feeling as though they need the safety of black and white answers to the difficult questions? Allowing people to be first of all people, so that other things which define them don’t draw unnecessary limits around who they are or what they have the potential to be?

I have no idea whether there is any connection between living on physical borders and being enabled to live in the borderlands of human experience, but to me they certainly have in common a sense of risk and excitement, as well as the potential to open us up to the possibility of our own transformation into a better version of ourselves. To learn to be comfortable with ourselves in a state of change, and withhold judgement on others; perhaps those are achievements worthy of a lifetime of living in the borderlands.

Endings and Beginnings

Why do good things have to end?

This week marked the end of a course I have been attending entitled ‘spiritual direction: an approach to faith accompaniment’. It lasted for about six months, and was one of the most transformative periods of my life. It essentially taught me to listen well to others and enable them in turn to listen to themselves and to God, but through participating I have gained certainty about my sense of vocation, I have developed the confidence to exercise and nurture the innate ability I have to listen to others, I have been given the tools and understanding to deal with pain from my own past in a way that will bring further healing and wholeness, and most of all I have been part of a wonderful community of people involved in the course who have been supporting one another through this experience.

So why on earth does  such a positive and nurturing experience have to end, when it has enabled a process of transformation in me that can only in turn be of help and support to others?

If the premise of this blog is anything to go on, there may not be an answer to this question at all. I mean yes, I can see the good in no longer having concerns about the practical issues that surrounded me being away for a twelve-hour day once a fortnight. The costs, the obligation to others for looking after the children, they’re all gone. But I feel inadequate to express the value of the deep friendships built up within the group of course attendees, and even the larger group relationship that has now been broken. It feels such a great loss.

On the last day of the course, we were given a quote by T S Eliot that I had to read a few times before I could make any sense of it; ‘ We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.’ I liked it in the end, because it suggested that what we perceive as endings, as finality, can instead be viewed as beginnings. Moments of pregnant expectation that there is now space for new and even better things to happen. And the result of each ending is that we are able to have a deeper experience of the situation we found ourselves in before. In the context of this course (a time of intense exploration) the ‘place’ was me; by the end of it I knew myself much better, in the context of my faith and my family and my work. This knowing is now another beginning in the process of becoming more comfortable in my own skin, a process that is of inestimable value.

Have I answered the question? I don’t think so particularly, as I’m sure had the course continued I would have continued to grow and learn through it. But I find comfort in that although we have to grieve for the good things that end, there is always the promise that if we continue to explore, there will always be more to learn and more to become.