Category: ideals

Part of the Problem?

It behoves us oldsters once in a while to put aside the comforting toys of our second childhood and consider the state of the world we leave our children. Against a background of rising inequality and failing ecology that surpasses the foggy 19th century, we witness religious upheaval that seems to emerge from murky mediaeval mists. Wasn’t the Enlightenment supposed to banish the Dark Ages for good? And who in the egalitarian and optimistic 1960s would have predicted such a lurch into irrationalism and tribal conflict?

E.P. Thompson in his brilliant book The Making of the English Working Class (1963) suggested that history showed a desperate oscillation between periods of political activism and religious fervour: whenever one was seen to fail, the other would be tried once more. And as in the macrocosm, so in the microcosm … if my own experience is anything to go by.

I was a churchgoer as a child and would sit in my pew searching for spiritual illumination through stained-glass windows with the best of them. Left to my own devices I would later climb tall trees to the sound of church bells, as if to gain a higher perspective. The voice that came to me in the wind through the leaves spoke a different truth than the preacher below. Two voices, then, and both of them in my head still …

 

“I am an actor mouthing another’s words, my days spent in drab rehearsal for the cavalcade that shimmers behind death’s parting curtain. I want to know nothing beyond scripture, for it is blasphemy to search out divine purposes. I seek only to assuage an angry deity, despising and even persecuting those who fail to observe the little rituals and shibboleths that may keep the wrath of heaven at bay. I think of Us and Them. I am generous to those whose ways I approve because I yearn for eternal reward. No matter what else I may say, my one concern is personal salvation.”

 

“I search for the voice that nature and experience will give me, each day until my last a new voyage of discovery. I want to know everything because I seek to become as whole as the world. My happiness and security are founded in the union of equals. I think only of Us. I study the ways of every creature and strive to be generous to all. I do not fear death because it brings value to life, which I hold sacrosanct.”

 

A third voice might point out that the other two are polar opposites, exaggerated and even caricatured. Most of us are strung out on a ragged continuum between those positions, with many believers more charitable and many non-believers more selfish. My only question in these turbulent times would be,  which perspective is most conducive to peace?

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Homage

My mum was an idealist. She hated cruelty, elitism, xenophobia, greed and selfishness. She would always argue from the heart, her moral values needing no appeal to evidence. She knew what was right and could never understand why others might not share her passionate beliefs in universal  liberty, equality and fraternity.

I recall many occasions when she was surrounded by others trying to make her see how impractical her ideas were – human nature being what it is, they would tell her, not everyone is as good-hearted as you. Wrong, she would reply, what about the man who walked up the steps of the newly-opened League of Nations building after the carnage of World War I – the war to end war, their watchword – what about him? The man who chained himself to the railings, unfurling a banner whose words went around the world: “I ——– (name), from ——– (country), hereby renounce my nationality and proclaim myself The First Citizen of the World” That man, she would say before leaving the room with all the dignity she could muster, is the person I admire.

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Bless you mum, long gone but never forgotten, I wish more people thought and felt as you did …