Saturday, 25 July 2020

Learning How To Listen

When I was training to be a Samaritans volunteer I remember we were taught the three golden rules:

1. Listen

2. Listen.

3. Really listen.

Really listening includes listening not only to what is being said, but also to what is not being said. Really listening means silencing your own thoughts so that you can concentrate totally on the person who is speaking – listening to that whole person, not just their words, because the words are just an outward expression of what lies within.

The same is true for music. According to my CD collection, music is a series of millions of samples of loudness and wavelength, and to my ear music is a pattern of compressions in the air, but that is not what we call music. Nor, I suggest, is music just a tune that you can hum or tap your foot to, or some sound that’s on in the background. I recently watched a YouTube video about really listening to music, listening to each instrument, each voice, how they were used and mixed. Only then can you begin to hear the music behind the music, the soul of the music, shouting or declaiming, loving or crying, making you feel.

If this is how to listen to music then how should we listen to the music of life? Just like music, life could be described as just a series of notes, a CV, a photograph album: this is me as a baby, this is me getting married, and this is me with my grandchildren. But is that all there is? Perhaps we should listen harder.

We could start by listening to all the different voices in our lives, the people who mattered – parents, teachers, our best friends – and hear the songs of life they taught us. We could listen to all our struggles and triumphs and what patterns we can detect, what music ran through them. We can listen to the music of love and beauty that warmed and inspired us, that music that still plays quietly in our hearts if we stop and listen hard enough. We can then listen to how our song has developed and changed through our lives, and how wonderful it has become. Finally we may get some idea of how our song has joined with the song of the whole earth and all that is.

“Thank you for the music, the songs I’m singing,
Thanks for all the joy they’re bringing.
Who could live without it? I ask in all honesty
What would we be? Without a song or a dance what are we?
So I say thank you for the music, for giving it to me.”


Friday, 29 November 2019

Keeping The Peace

Mohandas Gandhi said: “There is no way to peace; peace is the way”.

Picture Screenshot of movie Ghostbusters
 included under Fair Use provisions
I loved the first Ghostbusters movie. The evil god Gozer demands that the team choose a form for him to take. Ray thinks of the most harmless thing he can remember, so Gozer appears on the streets of New York as a giant Sta-Puft Marshmallow Man. Ray actually brought this monster into being just by thinking about it. But that couldn’t happen in reality could it?

When he was a small boy I gave my son a set of Lego bricks and showed him what to do by putting together the stupidest box with a window, pretending to be a house. I didn’t see much of him for a couple of days until he emerged from his room with the most amazing starship that it is possible to make with only Lego. My son is an artist. Same set of bricks for both of us, but he saw a starship while I saw a box with a window in it. We each live in a world of our own thoughts. Reality for us is not found in objects but in the significance we give to them.

Here’s another thing - you can’t have an argument on your own. Try it if you like – you won’t get far. For a good argument you need an opponent. Conversely, by taking sides, you perpetuate an argument. Walk away and it stops. You can go further and actually love your enemies, and who knows – they may become friends.

We are living in difficult times, when hopes of ending poverty, bringing peace and keeping the Earth green seem to be slipping away from us. All too easy for us to get drawn into the game of blame and counter-blame, anger and recrimination, and in so doing we become part of the problem. If we want to bring healing and peace to the world we need peace in our hearts, peace in every step of the way. Our thoughts can change the world.

"If in your heart you make a manger for his birth
Then God will once again become a child on earth."
- Angelus Silesius

Further reading:

Lego Spaceship
Another Lego starship. From

Tuesday, 1 October 2019

The Colour Of Love

 Some people are born colour-blind. They can't see the difference between red and green for example. Colours are muted and drab. The richness of vision that most people take for granted is unknown to them - the luscious green grass or the beautiful blue of a summer sky. Recently special lenses have been developed which cleverly demark the boundaries of colour frequencies so that some colour-blind people can see in full colour for the first time. If you haven't seen the YouTube clips of people putting these glasses on for the first time, you should watch. It is very moving. It is life-changing.

There is another sort of colour-blindness that is less well understood, because it's the colour of love that goes unseen. Once you know this colour you can see it everywhere - in the sun and the wind, in trees and flowers, in the faces of the people you meet. It is life-changing. Some of the things that used to seem so important no longer matter. Little things do matter: a kind word, a helping hand. Jesus described it as like finding treasure in a field. In the end it's the only thing that counts. In the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus says the Kingdom of God is spread out upon the Earth but people don't see it.

So how do you get glasses that reveal the colour of love? It's not that easy, and there's a price to be paid. You could compare it to when Neo gets ejected from the Matrix. In every case I can think of, a person's life has had to be unplugged from the system in some way. Some may actually die for a few minutes before being revived; some may lose everything they had; some may renounce normal life for holy orders; some escape common reality using hallucinogenic drugs. Even then, you still have to really want it. Seek and you will find.

The choice is yours:the red pill or the blue one.

Monday, 20 May 2019

A Good Death

(attribution unknown; included under Fair Use provision)

Kathryn Mannix said: “There are only two days with fewer than twenty-four hours in each lifetime, sitting like bookmarks astride our lives; one is celebrated every year, yet it is the other that makes us see living as precious.”

In the film of the same name, Shirley Valentine stays on after her holiday in Greece, but as a waitress not a holidaymaker. A holiday needs an end or it is not a holiday, just another day. In the same way a life on Earth must have an end if it is to be worth living. Good people, like a good book, should have a happy ending. It is the job of hospices to ensure as far as possible that those with terminal illnesses have a good death.

What a wonderful thing the hospice movement is. Thanks to the skill and care of the doctors and nurses who work in palliative care, patients nearing the end of their lives can spend their days in comfort and pleasant surroundings, in a friendly environment. So they may arrive at the point where they have taken care of business, settled their outstanding grievances, said goodbye to family and friends, and are ready to make the transition to the next level of reality.

A hospice close to where I live has just launched a joint scheme with a nearby major hospital to provide volunteer visitors for those about to die, and whose family or friends cannot be with them all the time - or not at all; I am privileged to be one of those volunteers. The benefits of this scheme are three-fold: first, it frees up the nursing staff to attend to other patients without having to monitor the dying one; second, it allows family members to leave the bedside for meals or to rest, knowing that they will be called immediately if required; third, and most importantly, the patient feels that they haven’t been left alone to die.

One of the saddest calls I took when I was with with a well-known crisis helpline, was from a woman with no family, dying alone at home. She didn’t like to think of her body lying unattended for weeks before being discovered. I felt strongly that it was morally wrong, in any society at any time, that the old and sick should be allowed to end their days alone and uncared for. I still feel the same way. The Compassionate Companions scheme I have described here will help to address this issue.

Dorothy House Hospice

I started by praising the hospice movement. You may ask, why do we need hospices when we already have good hospitals? In a nutshell, hospices are there for the dying, hospitals are for the living. Hospitals are geared towards keeping people alive and making them better. They don’t always succeed but they will try their hardest. Dr. Christopher Kerr said: “If you have an aversion to dying, medical school is a pretty safe place to be. They never mention dying.”

Having said that, things are changing, in the UK at least. In the last twenty years, palliative care in our hospitals has taken a great leap forward. Specific pain relief and symptomatic treatment often means that a patient can remain conscious and relatively comfortable even as their health declines. I hope that will also help the rest of us who still have lives ahead of us - to know that death is nothing to be afraid of.

Saturday, 1 December 2018

Missing him

Today I was trying to think of a book I could read to a 14-year-old boy that I know, who is making a slow recovery in hospital. Then I remembered a book I had read at 14, a cracking yarn by ‘Charles’ (in reality Elfrida) Vipont called “The Heir of Craigs”.

I had always kept that book and despite the fact that I had not read it in fifty years, I could still see the cover clearly in my mind’s eye. When I went to get it however, there was no trace of it. Somehow, at some point, some house move maybe, I must have let it go. How could I do that? It was a part of my history, almost a part of me you could say. I felt a sense of loss – I no longer had this book that I hadn’t looked at in half a century.

There was no other way. Within half an hour I had found a second-hand copy in good condition with my favourite on-line bookseller, Abebooks, and soon it will be back with me once again, and I can breathe a sigh of relief.

If only you could do that with people.

In this last July I attended the funeral of my younger brother. It was a good funeral, the church was full and I delivered his eulogy without a hitch. A great gathering of friends and family was held at his favourite pub, and we all went home feeling we had given him the best send-off he could have hoped for. I carried on with my life and all was well. Actually he had lived 150 miles away and we only saw each other at very irregular intervals so his passing didn’t really change very much for me.

Last week, on a grey and blustery day, my older brother and sister, my deceased brother’s fiancĂ©e and his closest two friends gathered at the harbour a short drive from where he lived, and watched as his mortal remains rested briefly on the surface of the water before disappearing beneath the waves. It was an intimate moment, which brought us all together in a mutual bond of sorrow.

Now that the brother I rarely saw is gone, I miss him, and there is no replacement. He was the only one. His presence on the planet had been sufficient, just knowing he was there, and now he isn’t. I suppose if there’s one comforting thought that comes from all this, it’s that, hard as it may be to imagine this, other people probably think the same about me as I do for my brother. I hope my presence is on the whole a good one.

Sunday, 26 August 2018


"Respect" by Aretha Franklin, who died ten days ago.

You may have heard it said when you were a child: "Respect your elders". Later in your life you might have heard people say "Respect has to be earned". So, who's right? And wouldn't you like to be shown a little respect from time to time? Respect seems to be in short supply these days.

Respect comes in different colours. You can respect someone for what they've done; for example you might respect a person for saving a life, even if you know nothing else about them. You can respect someone for who they are, whether that's Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama, or Kofi Annan. You may show respect for the law: policemen, judges and so on. Perhaps you respect your parents, or perhaps not. But surely respect should be mutual. Policemen should also respect you; a father should respect his children. A teacher should respect the pupils - even the 5 year-olds - especially the 5 year-olds. Have you ever seen a parent cursing and swearing at their young child in a shop? Isn't that one of the saddest, most shameful and cowardly abuses that a grown man or woman can inflict on a young life?

Respect can be won; respect can also be lost. That feeling, when someone you looked up to, someone you aspired to be like, your own personal hero, lets you down, it's as if the ground you stood on crumbles beneath you, your hope is shattered and you start to question whether there is any good thing left in the world to believe in.

There is only one thing worse than losing respect for someone who meant something special to you, and that is losing respect for yourself. If you can't respect yourself, no-one else is going to. The Staples Singers had it right: "If you don't respect yourself / Ain't no-one gonna give a good cahoot". Losing your self-respect is like removing the foundations from a building; it's only a matter of time before the whole edifice comes crashing to the ground. It's no wonder that these two great songs "Respect" and "Respect Yourself" were both sung by gospel singers (Aretha Franklin and Mavis Staples). They both knew how, growing up in poor black neighbourhoods, their self respect was about the only thing that couldn't be taken away from them.

"A little respect (just a little bit)" - can go a long way towards making life better for all of us.

"Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us."
Marianne Williamson

"Respect Yourself" by The Staples Singers

Thursday, 12 April 2018

A Change Is Gonna Come

It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centres of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.
Robert F Kennedy

Image:Robert F. Kennedy appearing before Platform Committee, August 19, 1964.jpg, Public Domain,

This is my third attempt. It’s so important I can’t mince words. A big change will come and it will be good but it is so big that no-one can fully imagine it.

For too long we have shambled along, muddling by. Our great stores of wisdom, the great religions, have forgotten their meaning and just repeat the same old patterns without knowing why. They have been used as tribal totems, banners to fight under, when they were made for peace. But still they gave a voice to men and women of goodwill and if their ways were mildly eccentric it didn’t really matter.

That’s all changed.

We are so arrogant, we think we’re so clever, as we preside over poisoned seas, polluted air, extinction of species, destruction of the rainforest, floating continents of plastic waste, global warming, poverty, war, mass migration and more. Faced with such monumental challenges we indulge in our own personal grievances and petty squabbles while nothing gets done. Time is not on our side.

We simply do not have the luxury of shillyshallying any longer. We will have to unite. The basic principle of the major religions is this: that if we truly care for each other without preference or prejudice, and if we truly care for the earth and all its plants and animals, we can have happy, fulfilling lives and there will be peace and plenty for all. That’s it. All the rest is embroidery. If we can all come together under these principles and set aside our minor differences, then we can start rebuilding our broken world.

All the old arguments about whether God exists now become obsolete. The question never made sense anyway. True belief cannot be contained in words; it has to be expressed in the way we live our lives. This belief-in-action is something everyone can share in. It’s simply a question of working together for the common good.

Everyone has a part to play in making our new world. We are all here for a reason. Some may be called to become martyrs for the cause, there will be activists, but there will also be a need for artists, poets, flower arrangers and people who sweep the floor. The one thing they will all have is a belief in a better world, and a burning desire to make it happen. They will be guided by a love of this beautiful world with its lands and seas, its plants and animals, and all of its diverse and beautiful people.

As Robert Kennedy said: “There are those that look at things the way they are, and ask why? I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?”

It can be done, whether in our lifetime or our children’s or great-grandchildren’s, it can be done. The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Take that step.

Take that first step - ask yourself: What is the unique gift that I can offer to the world? Then see what happens next.