Faith – the casuality of excessive independance

17 January 2010

Cleethorpes Chronicle  article – 14th January 2010

The last couple of weeks have been quite a struggle as we have learned to live with the snow, ice and cold. It has been a particularly challenging time for the sick, the elderly and the housebound, as well as for those who have to travel in the course of their work.  Mercifully, however, the electricity supply hasn’t been too affected and supplies of oil and gas have been sustained.

As ever, when the normality of life is interrupted, there have been many stories of neighbourliness, care and support within communities, with much to celebrate about the way in which we can and do care for each other when the ‘chips are down’.  I have cause to be grateful to two strangers who came to my rescue when my car became stuck on ice trying to get up a slight incline. I had been getting nowhere for about 15 minutes when my helpers came and pushed me onto firmer ground – I really did wish them many blessings for their kindness.

Awareness of those who live around us increases at times such as we have experienced recently. The sad thing is that such awareness of each other seems to run against the way in which our society is going. Independence is seen to be a virtue and much of life is directed towards enabling us to be ‘entire unto ourselves’. Yet such independence is a very modern feature to life and runs contrary to human history where we have worked together in communities. There is actually very little evidence that independence makes us happier – in fact it seems to feed a ‘therapy culture’.

Independent living sounds attractive and is a good slogan until the snow comes, or the normality of life is interrupted for whatever reason – then family, friends and neighbours become essential features to our survival. What price independence in the face of an earthquake such has been experienced in Haiti?

Of course true community is really built upon ‘faith’ – believing in and trusting in others.  One of the great challenges of our age is to recover that sense of faith within our communities, so that we can work together not just in the exceptional times of need, but in the normality of the everyday.  Faith is a casualty of excessive independence, for faith is rooted in the humility of accepting that we cannot make it through life on our own.  Without faith in others, how will we cope when the cold realities of life break through the illusion that we can ever be independent?

Fear of strangers

25 June 2008

Wednesday’s offering for ‘Over-to-you’ on BBC Radio Humberside.

Yesterday I was working down in London and although I was born and brought up in the capital, I found that a day travelling on the underground and negotiating the crowds was quite enough for me.  I always find it a strange sensation to be on the underground, sharing a confined space with loads of people and yet feeling totally isolated.

There are a number of unwritten rules about surviving on the underground – don’t look at anybody; don’t smile; don’t engage; wear headphones; have your iPod at a volume which ensures that you can’t hear those around you; if you don’t want to have your head immersed in one of the free newspapers then read the advertisements or study the underground map, but above all – don’t engage.  By following these rules you can negotiate your way through the millions of people who commute into London each day.

At this time of year the commuters are joined by hosts of tourists who appear blissfully ignorant of these unwritten rules — they look at fellow passengers, they smile, they ask questions, they engage, they acknowledge that they are sharing space with fellow human beings and in the main they are ignored.

Cities are hostile and impersonal places.  There is an underlying fear of the stranger and to survive in them you have to turn off that fundamental human attribute of relating to others in your community.  Although I was brought up never to talk to strangers, over the years I have found that whenever you actually do talk to a stranger you are invariably rewarded by the encounter.  I have met some fascinating people with stories to tell, experiences to share and ideas to explore.

Fear of strangers is of course one of our survival mechanisms and it is rooted in insecurity. Fear of the stranger constantly battles against other human instincts which drive us to live in relationship with those around us, an instinct which is there because we are actually safer when working together. When we allow our fear of the strangers to dominate then we become very dehumanised and it is when we are dehumanised that we are at our most dangerous.  Racism and ethnic cleansing are not new phenomenon, but occur when we allow our fears and insecurity to control our understanding of others.

Making community, engaging with those who live around us, understanding the diversity and difference which is part and parcel of the human race are activities which enrich our experience of being alive.  When disasters happen, such as last year’s floods in our region, we need the support of those who live around us, we need to relate, we need to engage, we need to belong.  In an increasingly global village our concept of community has to extend for we need to work together at the problems facing our planet and we will never overcome our fears of the stranger unless we engage with them, risking our conversation, looking into their eyes, letting them see our smile, communicating that we are people of peace.

We get a distorted view of the stranger through the press and the media as they only report the exceptions to human behaviour not the normal and the government has now made an industry out of making us afraid of the stranger – so whilst there are some very dangerous and difficult people in the world, the vast, vast, vast majority of strangers are just like you and me – they want to find a space to live their lives in peace, to bring up their children, to enjoy the gift of life and to belong.  In the Bible one of the most repeated phrases is “don’t be afraid”, for when we are afraid then we are at our worst — and I’ve glimpsed what world looks like when we are afraid of each other – it is called the London Underground.