Try as I did to resist, this last week I found myself pulled into the vortex of joy that was the royal wedding. In the leadup I disdainfully dismissed it as the pompous ceremony (and yes I mean pompous ceremony not pomp and ceremony) of an elitist and sexist institution that regarded the church as chaplain to its power… except that what I found was a celebration of love and marriage that captured the hearts and attention of the world and a preacher determined to shape power rather than submit weakly to it.
The British monarchy has long ceased exercising real political power. On this occasion it seemed to do something far more important: it symbolised hope. Few Britons will ever meet Harry, but that does not stop them owning and loving him. They have shared his life, from the day he was born to the young boy who lost his mother in a tragic accident, whose grief was lived out publicly, to the brash adolescent whose misjudgements were reported internationally, into the decent and good man who has owned his calling to serve the community that he now appears to be. And this week they were with him again as he celebrated his marriage to the American actress Meghan Markle and appear ready to adopt her as their own.
The Royals play a role in society unlike any others. In a way no politician, celebrity or other institution can, they can represent the hopes of the people, embody and project back to them everything they want to be. It’s not just that the people love Harry. The British monarchy, when taken into the hearts of the people, becomes a sign that we can be good, noble, kind and generous; that there are traditions, like marriage, that are worth preserving and celebrating; and that there is a possibility for genuine nobility of being (even if not of birth).
Observing from a distance, it seemed that for a long time this was centred on the Queen Mother. Some of her grandchildren may have behaved like right royal shits but she enjoyed almost saint-like status. Since her death the Queen assumed the saint-like mantle (we Aussies may not like the idea of the monarchy but we all admire the Queen), which the British (and I dare say Australian) public have also conferred on William and Harry. Sure, it’s grounded in mythology that will never stand close scrutiny, and it’s ironic that the Royals represent what we can be when we can never be who they are, but isn’t that the nature of all symbols? For the crowds that lined the streets and the millions who watched on TV, the wedding brought them together to hope for the best, to celebrate the good, and to take joy in life. I’m still a passionate republican, but if events like the Royal wedding can help us hope for the best, believe the best, long for the best and strive for the best I will celebrate them too.
We are sitting side by side on a flight to Brisbane. Ours was the first flight out this morning, which meant we were up at 4am. Sandy dozes beside me and I once more find myself incredibly thankful that this woman has shared her life with me.
We’ve been married for 30+ years and yes, we each have annoying little quirks. When Sandy pulls out one of her many lists that demand certain chores be completed and completed now, I long ago learned the virtue of surrender. When I get started with some new idea that has excited me or have launched into one of my political rants Sandy too knows that I have become like the Borg and that resistance is futile.
These little annoyances are the very small price paid for a love and friendship that runs deep. Life has taken us into dark valleys, onto breathtaking mountaintops and all the mundane moments inbetween. We have deliberately cultivated our communication patterns, our emotional intelligence, and ways to resolve conflict fairly.
I can’t help feeling that the thing that really binds us together is, from my side, the fact that every night as I lay beside her I am filled with wonder that this incredible human being has chosen to share her life with me. It seems that with each new challenge life brings our way Sandy not only shows up but shows up with courage, love, tenderness and hope. Yes, some of these challenges have exacted a heavy toll, but a load we somehow manage to bear together.
There is no special occasion that has prompted this piece, just a need to put into words the admiration and gratitude I feel in my heart.
Populism is everywhere at the minute. It’s particularly pronounced in the rise of Trumpism and Hansonism, but is found on the left, the right and the centre whenever people seek to win over an audience with arguments that confirm the fears, biases and prejudices of that audience but fail to take account of the breadth and complexity of the issue being addressed. And although I try my hardest to avoid it, I dare say that in the 400 odd posts in this blog, I may well have had occasions where I too have been guilty of populism.
Populism is ugly because it posits simplistic solutions to genuine problems, and in the process people get hurt. Here are eight principles that may lead us to a better path.
1) Always read/dialogue with those who disagree with you with the intention of learning from them.
For many years of my life I read only those who saw the world through the same framework that I did, and surprise, surprise, the arguments of those I opposed seemed so fragile I almost felt pity for those who held them. When however I started to read the best representatives of the views in opposition to mine I discovered not only that they frequently possessed intellectual rigour but that they helped me see the issue more clearly.
2) Be critical of power, including your own.
Some people have a rather benign view of power, assuming that people and institutions always act with purity of heart and mind. Others have a cynical view of power, assuming that those with power always use it in their own interests. The first approach yields uncritical trust in power that treats its favoured leaders as though they were Jesus himself, while the second yields a biting cynicism that can see nothing but the devil. Yet the world I live in is one in which people which human beings are neither all good or all bad. As Aleksander Solzenhytsen put it:
“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being” The Gulag Archipelago
I expect those with power and the institutions the stand behind them to be capable of both misplaced self-interest and enlightened other-interest and to be capable of both at the same time. This demands that I be critical, recognising and exposing naked self-interest and praising genuinely good other-interest. It demands I do the same for myself, learning to practise the discipline of self-critique.
3) Listen to the affected
The most powerful moments of change and repentance in my life have come from listening to the stories of those who were most impacted by particular policies or practices. My views on refugees, indigenous well-being, poverty, sexuality and so much more have all changed as I’ve listened to the stories of those who are marginalised, trodden down, and exploited. They taught me to see the impacts of policies and practices on real human beings and impart a wisdom that only those on the underside of an issue possess.
4) Remember that our most valuable institutions were hard won but easily lost
Some of our social institutions serve to do little more than entrench the power and the interests of the elites, but the central institutions of liberal democracy that provide the foundation for the ways we live took centuries to develop. Yet they can be quickly lost to populism. Freedom of speech, conscience and religion; respect for the inherent worth and dignity of every human being; the rule of law; freedom of the press; prohibitions on discrimination against people on the basis of their religion, sexuality or gender; and the like should be protected with tenacity. This is why I was alarmed by the recent outbursts of President Trump declaring the press to be “the enemy of the people” and declaring that the judges who struck down his immigration laws were “bad judges”. By all means let us disagree with what the press says and launch legal challenges to the judgements of courts, but when we start defaming the institutions themselves, we begin wandering down a very dangerous path
5) See the yearning that lies behind the rhetoric
It has been my experience that behind deeply objectionable and offensive ideas/behaviours frequently lie yearnings that are good. For example, many of those clamouring for harsh treatment of refugees are driven by a yearning to live in a community that is safe and that feels like home. These are good yearnings and by identifying them and honouring them it is often possible to find a shared space that allows us to identify better ways to satisfy those yearnings.
6) It matters what you value and dream about
When we are faced with difficult choices, and particularly the choice between easy self-interest and the more difficult pathways of love, generosity and grace, it is our values and the kind of world we dream of belonging to that provide us with the fortitude to either take the more difficult pathway or surrender to self-interest.
7) The right to have an opinion doesn’t make it a good opinion
Everybody has the right to their own opinions, beliefs and values, but this does not mean all opinions are equally truthful. People should always be treated with respect, but ideas and argument should always be open to critique, evidence and debate and we should not be afraid of saying that some arguments are simply weaker than others.
8) We need respectful but robust debate
On any given issue we need to treat each other with respect, kindness and generosity, but at the same time we need to be able to disagree, to push each other on the merit of our arguments and their consequences intended and unintended. It is debate like this that exposes the weaknesses and fragility is of our arguments and enables us to collectively embrace that which is strong.
These principles are of course easy to lay out, but more difficult to follow. Yet in this age of populist rage I think we need to work harder than ever to live them out.
I read a delightfully heartwarming story this week. In September 1989 Dr George Lombardi received a phone call. On the other end of the line was a woman wanting to know whether he was the Dr Lombardi who was an infectious disease specialist. She introduced herself as the representative of a world figure and Nobel Laureate who was suspected of having a viral haemorrhagic fever and wanted to know if he would consult on the case.
The Nobel laureate was Mother Teresa and 10 minutes later Dr Lombardi was on the phone with her doctors in India. An hour later the woman he had first spoken to rang back to ask if he would be available to go to Calcutta the next day. George Lombardi explained his passport had expired three months earlier, but he was assured that would be no problem.
The next day he was picked up at 7 AM in a woodpanelled station wagon and driven to the State Department. It was a Sunday morning, but an official came in, took his picture and in 15 minutes handed him a brand-new passport. The next stop was the Indian consulate where the entire staff came in full dress uniform, he was ushered into the consul general and provided with a Visa.
The woman dropped him home, promising to return at 11 AM, which she did with five nuns from the Sisters of Charity packed into the back seat. When they arrived at JFK airport Dr Lombardi enquired why the nuns were accompanying them. He was informed that they had not been able to secure a confirmed seat on the Concorde. All they had was a standby ticket. The Sisters of Charity were there to change that. They proceeded to go up and down the line of passengers until they convinced one of them, a businessman, to give up his seat for Dr Lombardi.
24 hours later Dr Lombardi was in a room treating Mother Teresa. Very weak, she called him over and instructed him that whatever he did he was not to leave her Indian doctors embarrassed or with loss of face, for they were the ones who ran clinics.
Over the coming days Dr Lombardi identified the source of the problem. An infection from a pacemaker that was put in some months earlier. When he removed it the thin wire connecting the pacemaker box to her right ventricle would not budge. There was a danger that removal might tear a hole and Mother Teresa could die in a matter of minutes. Dr Lombardi found himself saying a prayer to Mother Teresa for Mother Teresa and as he did the catheter came loose. Mother Teresa lived for another eight years.
Aint it grand when things happen the way they should.
(Dr Lombardi tells his story in The Moth, Serpents Tail books, 2015)
I have been fortunate to go through most of my life without the need to do much forgiving. Yes there have been exchanges of angry words and disappointments at how I have been treated, but with a few exceptions, nothing that has inflicted deep wounds.
nonetheless from those painful episodes where I have needed to forgive this is what I have discovered about forgiveness.
1. Forgiveness is a gift I choose to offer
Forgiveness is not something I barter. You give me your repentance and I’ll trade you my forgiveness. It is something that I offer to the other as an act of grace and generosity.
2. Forgiveness is my choosing to seek the good of the person who wounded me.
The popular saying has it that “to forgive is to forget”. Taken literally that’s rubbish. When something deeply significant has happened to you, you can’t forget it. It resides in your memory, just waiting to be recalled. I sometimes find myself replaying the scenarios from the past in my mind, fantasising about what I would do differently, the delicious ways I would become the wounder rather than the wounded. They are just fantasies of an idle mind. The real work of forgiveness is the decision that I will act with love toward the one who wounded me. If wrongdoing creates a sense of moral debt, forgiveness is my decision that I will release the other from that debt and love them, do what I can to secure their well-being.
3. Forgiveness requires empathy
When I am wounded it is easy to slip into thinking of the wounder as a one-dimensional figure, a nasty figure absent of redeeming features like Iago in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, a horrible person with horrible motivations who does horrible things. That makes them “other”, which enables me to dehumanise them, justify my anger and my revenge (even if revenge only be a fantasy). Yet the reality is no-one is one dimension, no-one is without redeeming features. Forgiveness has taught me to see the whole person, to try to understand his/her behaviour (there is always a reason people do what they do), and to recognise his/her strengths.
For me, forgiveness is sometimes instant, but more often than not something that takes time and discipline.
The Space Between Hope and Disappointment. Or Why Following Jesus Is Gloriously Frustrating
I live in the space between hope and disappointment.
I am a hoper. A few weeks back I stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, at the very spot Martin Luther King delivered his “I have a dream” speech, and it was profoundly moving. It was a place of hope, a shrine to the possibility that humankind can be amazing.
This same hope explains why I am a sucker for TV shows like Undercover Boss. I love the idea that a CEO can work alongside her employees, see the world through their eyes, and then respond with acts of generosity that leave the employees feeling valued. I am a sucker for good news stories like these, for however artificial some of the construct may be (the producers always manage to put the CEO alongside people with hard luck stories), it remains true that there is a genuine moment of connection and realised humanity. And I want as much of that as I can get. My spirit soars and my heart melts whenever I witness human beings showing compassion, kindness, love, grace, justice.
But when you’re a hoper you also get disappointed. When moments are filled with possibility for good and people choose against it, it cuts like a knife. I was filled with hope when Malcolm Turnbull became PM. He inspired me with talk of this time as one of possibilities, but then he failed to rise to the standard of his rhetoric. He could have changed the story on refugees, climate change, marriage equality, homelessness, and more, but he has simply surrendered to conservatives in his party. Hope collided with ambition and hope lost.
I see something similar in myself. Too often I have the intention of doing good only to choose the easier path.
I blame Jesus. I am prisoner to his breathtaking vision for our world; I am in inspired by his courage, generosity, grace and love; I am held breathless by the possibilities of resurrection.
But then I remember that his dearest friends abandoned him, his countrymen mocked him and in an act of cold and cynical ruthlessness Pontius pilate had him executed.
I guess this is the way of things. We can soar to dizzying heights of courage and love and plunge to shameful depths of selfish expediency.
But here is my hope. Jesus is risen. All the disappointments of history will one day surrender to hope.