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Statistics of happiness

Posted on 30 November 2010, 22:11

Who would have thought the Office for National Statistics would one day be guardian of our souls? Or that our future might lie in silence?

Traditionally, the government’s responsibilities are three-fold: national security, law and order and economic stability. But is ‘Everyone’s happiness’ now to be added to the list? The millionaire David Cameron claims there’s more to life than money and has asked the ONS to devise questions that establish the nation’s GWB – general well being. And already I can hear bleak echoes of summer camps past: ‘Is everybody happy?’ ‘You bet your life we are!’

This news story broke as I returned from leading a week-long retreat, where happiness is on everyone’s agenda. The path to that place is not without its struggles, however. As one retreat-maker said in her farewell card: ‘Thanks, Simon – it was hell but enjoyable too.’ She then added, ‘In the course of the week I cried, laughed raucously, experienced deep peace and a moment of true bliss. The silence was undoubtedly the high point.’ I can confirm that she sobbed in desperation; yet somehow came up smiling, which makes me think that hell and happiness might be closer than we think. And that silence is the bridge.

It was Allan K. Chalmers who gave us one popular definition of happiness: ‘The grand essentials of human happiness are something to do, something to love and something to hope for.’ Attractive words, but sadly Adolf Hitler had something to do, love and hope for, yet failed to model any sort of happiness. It seems there’s something more and that we may be missing it. The actress Helen Mirren recently called Britain an ‘angry’ and ‘cruel’ nation, and while every generalisation is stupid, every generalisation is also true.

The purpose of retreat is to restore us to our substantial selves, from where we might find God. The means of such restoration is silence - holding and kind but also revealing. This is why people cry or get angry on retreat. They see things they didn’t see before and strong emotions arise within. Is it any surprise therefore that so many actively avoid such silence? They construct a level of noise in their lives - whether though mental or emotional activity, drugs or technology - that dulls unwanted feelings. So when initially exposed to silence, the reaction is almost always restlessness, and behind this feeling, fear. We’ve kept things under control all this time, but suspect the truth mirror of silence won’t play that game. 

But as brave stillness settles, we allow all things to be truth-bringers, however embarrassing. Having made much of lateness at the start of the retreat, I was then myself half an hour late for one session, after I misread the time. They do say that if you pray for humility you’ll be given a humiliating experience. And that statistically speaking, the heart of happiness is the silent remaking of our hells. 

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Transformation in Piccadilly, London

Posted on 26 November 2010, 22:21

I was preaching in St James, Piccadilly, London the other week, about transforamtion, so you may want to stop reading now. But if you have energy to read on, the gospel reading was the story of Jesus turning dirty water into fine wine at a wedding celebration. And this is what I said, approximately:

A nice story about water into wine; and one that invites us to reflect on transformation. And human transformation is a popular idea. We call it self-development these days; and self-development is a very big industry - though we’re not always very discerning about which self we’re developing. This is why some of the most dysfunctional people on earth have the largest collection of self-help books; they can be a wonderful distraction for our sick selves.

But transformation or self-development is a popular idea; even if it doesn’t often work. There are publishing houses built on it; and miles of shop shelving given over to it. Everyone wants transformation! And where ever you look, there is a ‘tranny’ merchant on hand. A stunning new book/a life-changing retreat/prestigious power point presentation/day conference in a hotel costing £70 not including lunch - they’re all offering transformation.

So everyone wants transformation! But - and it is a big but - no one wants to be transformed. And this can be a problem.
‘Transformation – I want it!’
‘So you want to be transformed?’
‘No, no, no - I didn’t say that! I said I wanted transformation. You know, general transformation. Not too specific.’
When it comes to transformation, we are like Darren Brown or Paul Daniels, we perform our own magic. Watch! Watch while we both run towards it, and yet at the very same time, we run from it. How do we do that? It’s amazing! We want transformation; but we don’t want to be transformed. We want to be new wine; but keep the dirty water! Can that be arranged?

We’re reflecting on water into wine; and on transformation. And it is appealing. It starts as an idea in the head, of course; intriguing and exciting. ‘That’s a great idea!’  And then, if allowed, it moves a little, and becomes a sense or a feeling; we hear faint echoes of freedom and joy across the cluttered valleys of our inscape. It’s more than idea now; it’s something fleetingly sensed or felt; though if change is to become real, transformation must then move again and become a matter of the will. From head, to sense to will. Not just an intoxicating idea or a clever quote; not just a brief sense or feeling; but a steady determination; a path persistently pursued.

And what an adventure inner transformation then becomes. A daily adventure, an hourly adventure; and in a way, the only adventure. But before we get too excited, there’s a problem. I’ve mentioned this already, we’ve hit it again, and it’s this: we want transformation, but we don’t want to be transformed. Transformation doesn’t threaten anything: it’s wonderfully impersonal, general; not too specific. But being transformed is different - being transformed is decidedly personal, and an exercise in which we lose a great deal. 

So that’s that really; things come to a clunking halt. We can still enjoy charming water into wine story; it’s a great strap line and good for the kids. But as for ourselves, well, we’re a bit older and wiser now. Sure, we still want to change the world; we’re still up for that; still got all those slogans up our sleeve. But changing ourselves? That’ll be the ‘lip service only’ department, madam.

But before we take down the sails of hope, and give up on the adventure, a thought. The opposite of adventure is not staying at home. The opposite of adventure is self-justification. This is the problem; this is the ugly slab of concrete on the road, barring further progress. The self-justification that imagines a particular image of myself - who I am, what I stand for, my skewed perceptions - and says, ‘That’s who I am!’ I’ll be self-deprecating in public, of course: ‘Oh, what am I like?!’ But that’s only for public consumption; while my imagined self carries quietly on stubbornly ploughing the same old furrow. Here is self-justification that builds a fort with high walls and says ‘Where I am, I will stay.’

Will I turn water into wine this morning? It’s unlikely. Never say never, but my track record is not good, otherwise I’d get more invitations to parties than I do. But if I could turn your insistent self-justification into openness, trust and fluidity, then that would be a greater miracle by far. If you were to become openness and trust, you’d be quite unrecognisable inside, because your negative states would blister, peel and crumble, like old paint on a sea-facing wall. I’m talking here about the unsatisfactoriness of life; how it keeps on being unsatisfactory; not what we hope for; keeps on becoming negative states like misery, sadness, depression, self-absorption, hostility, indolence, greed, fear, clinging, envy, anxiety, rage. Yet these negative states would fade like the morning mist, if I left the confines of self-justification; and came home to a wall-less openness and an unknowing trust. 

But of course I don’t want that - because if my negative states went, I’d cease to exist surely! Simon’s disappeared! Whisper it quietly in the aisles, but take away my hostility, sadness, depression, fear, anxiety and rage; take away my goodies and baddies, demons and heroes, and what’s left? What’s left of me?? Well, I’ll tell you what’s left – happiness. That’s what’s left. But we don’t want it; or not enough. No, we like our old patterns of emotional response. They’ve been with us for years. We’re like that! It’s a marriage – two become one! Rather lovely really - me and my negative states. I don’t know where they end and I begin! Marvellous.

Portsmouth harbour at night. There’s a burning boat on the mud beach. I was there; but in a negative place. I looked at the boat and thought: ‘That’s me – everything is being destroyed.’ The burning boat merely reaffirmed me in my feelings of despair. And that’s what it was, and that’s how it stayed until a few years later, someone questioned my interpretation. ‘Such glory in the dying,’ they said. I reflected on it - yes, that’s true, I thought – there’d been so much glory there. Sure things were dying, but so much glory in the dying! The wonderful flame in the dark night sky! Why hadn’t I seen that? Why? Because I had a self-justifying image of myself, I was a depressed person, a victim; and everything had to bow to that; everything interpreted through that. Burning boat? Well, that’s got to be negative – cue more despair. Open? Trusting? Fluid? You’re having a laugh. Left in that state, I would have justified myself to hell, which is where a lot of us are for much of the time. We’re such defensive people; defending our soiled perceptions. I sometimes ask people: ‘What is it you’re defending here?’ because more often than not, they’re defending nothing more noble than their right to unhappiness.

The opposite of adventure is not staying at home; the opposite of adventure is self-justification; the self-justification that defends who I am; that says me and my random perceptions are a self worth defending.

Back with our story, Jesus has had a conversation with his mother: ‘Do whatever he tells you,’ says Mary in an act of surrender to her irritating son. And maybe surrender is our theme too in the end. We walk along the high walls of our self-justifying selves – and with some relief, we wave a white flag. Yes, a white flag! It’s over. These walls may have been our home, but do you know what? We’ve just noticed something – we’ve just noticed they don’t exist; and even as you listen now to your breath, where your imagined home was, is now free space. As you listen now to your breath, you’re suddenly in a wall-less space; a little vulnerable perhaps, but extraordinarily happy.

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The truth of Downton Abbey

Posted on 15 November 2010, 22:25

There’s trouble at Downton Abbey, and it’s got nothing to do with the fact that her Ladyship wins the ‘Best Bloom’ prize in the village every year. Some think there’s a thief about; a liar even.

Downton Abbey, the Sunday evening period drama on ITV, has proved a great commercial success. Set in 1912, it follows the lives of the aristocratic Crawley family and their remarkable number of servants. A heady combination of Lords, kitchen maids and large fire places, it’s a cross between ‘Upstairs, Downstairs’ and ‘Brideshead Revisted’  and with overall viewing figures of 11 million a week, ITV have already commissioned a second series.

It was created and written by Julian Fellowes, the man behind the much-lauded film Gosford Park, another tale of life in a stately home. But instead of feeling present delight, he is, in his own words, ‘weary and depressed’. Why? Because Fellowes stands accused of stealing plot lines from other stories and not being historically accurate. Christina Davies, writing to ‘The Daily Telegraph’, said she was ‘slack-jawed’ whilst watching events unfold in the Flower Show scene. ‘Precisely the same thing happened in the film Mrs Miniver, which I had seen the week before!’ Apart from borrowing scenes from other shows, some also believe that the picture presented of Edwardian England is a little too cosy. ‘There just wasn’t that degree of contact between the upper classes and the lower classes. Things were much more separate.’

Fellowes doesn’t refute the allegations directly, but does tell us how he feels about them. ‘All we get is permanent negative nit-picking from the left. You just want to say relax! There are plenty of shows I don’t like on television but I don’t go on about them.’

Fellowes is the victim of unhelpful categorisation. We talk as if there’s a difference between fiction, history and news, when no such distinction exists. We talk as if one is somehow purer than the other but none are pure in themselves. All fiction is borrowed, all history interpreted and all news edited. This is why, as Proverbs says, the last speaker always seems most convincing: we haven’t yet spotted what they’re choosing not to tell us. If we find truth anywhere, it’s because something is discovered within ourselves by something outside ourselves. It’s called revelation. But as Jesus knew, such enlightenment is as likely to arise from made-up stories as from anything else.   

In the end, it’s all just story telling; and once we put down our compulsive categorising, we become much more present to the truth of the moment. Shakespeare stole the story of Macbeth – what we’d now called plagiarising – but if that is our only concern as we watch, we are to be pitied.
My particular moment of enlightenment last week came from Downton Abbey’s troubled cook. ‘Don’t put sugar on the strawberries too soon,’ she said, as they were sent upstairs. ‘It ruins the effect.’

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Wishing on the Nile

Posted on 01 November 2010, 20:56

I am two thousand feet up in the air. On one side, the Nile, and on the other, the Valley of the Kings and the white sands that mark the beginnings of the vast Western Desert. And suddenly I am conscious of a rather disturbing wish.

We had slept in Luxor on the banks of the Nile, and had risen at 4.00am to be ready for our sunrise trip in a hot air balloon. The river is dirty with oil and waste, but busy with boats and calls to prayer. On the hotel dressing table was a sticker with an arrow pointing East, with the words: ‘Pray in this direction.’ We crossed the Nile in a small boat, where we met our balloon pilot, who instructed us about the do’s and don’ts of travel by balloon. They were mostly ‘Don’ts’, but he didn’t touch on my particular temptation.

We are almost ready to go. The roaring flame machine blows life into our flaccid balloon, which like a giant waking, swells in colourful glory before lifting us fast and straight into the air. There are 18 of us in a surprisingly low-ledged basket, as the ground pulls away savagely beneath our airborne feet. The views are immediately stunning. The snaking Nile; the remarkable band of green which clusters round it; the Valley of the Kings where Pharaohs made their bid for eternity, and overlooking the valley, the house of Howard Carter, who couldn’t let them and their treasures rest. And as soon as the green stops, the desert starts; with no gentle hand over, you step in an instant from the blooming to the barren; from crowded city to the virtually uninhabitable.

All this I see beneath me, as fellow travellers lean over the edge in the endless taking of excited photos. ‘Oh, just look at that over there!’ they say. But I am terrified. I have always had a fear of heights, but this now takes a new twist. I am gripping the sides of the basket, taking deep calming breaths because I fear I might jump over the side. It seems it has taken a balloon ride in Egypt to reveal a dormant death wish within.

And maybe Egypt has a death wish as well, as my tour guide Mohammed revealed. ‘Things will be very different in ten years time,’ he said. ‘This government is interested only in money. They do not care about the environment.’ He is referring to the massive tourist developments currently taking place on the Red Sea coast. Famous for its beautiful coral, it is becoming one big building site for a hundred new hotels. ‘There will be no coral in ten years time,’ says Mohammed, a proud Egyptian. ‘Just hotels. This is not good.’ 

Meanwhile, our balloon loses height, preparing to land. A small boy waves up to us, and we wave back fondly. He then touches his pocket to indicate money and with another gesture, bids us throw it down. He’s learning from the government.

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Ukraine War: A Story of Survival, Sacrifice, and Service – If charitable service to those in need is the ultimate in spirituality here in the physical life, this book most certainly deals with spiritual matters. The author, Amber Poole, an American woman and her husband, Paul, from Scotland but with Polish roots, operated an educational center in Poland when the Russians attacked Ukraine in 2022. As many Ukrainians fled to Poland, they turned their center into a home for as many as 40 refugees. The author kept a very interesting “war diary” over the first 18 months of the war, discussing everything from the cultural adjustments required by both the Polish and the Ukrainians to her own reactions and adjustments, as well as philosophical concerns and conflicts that often surfaced. In spite of the adversity and distress, she embraced the adversity. Read here
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