Posted in coronavirus, Fragments

Fragments on Fragments 6

For an introduction to this series, look here

Nature loves to hide (or, Things keep their secrets)

Is this an invitation, a challenge or a threat? Unlike Heraclitus, we live in a time in which much of nature has been defined, controlled, dissected. Increasingly we feel that it must be someone’s fault when a force of nature has its way. We human beings are supposed to have such power that only incompetence or malice can have let the disaster happen.

That partly explains the conspiracy theories around the origin of the coronavirus which causes COVID-19. Surely it can’t just have happened, without some human action or inaction? But it did, and this very hidden piece of nature, this virus so small you need an electron microscope to see it, is present and powerful. It has come out of hiding while remaining invisible, the most frightening of enemies, the one you can’t see.

One of the deepest rooted human fears, even more so than the fear of illness, is the fear of the stranger. We are all hard-wired to trust most those whom we know best, sometimes despite the evidence. The pandemic has fed on those fears. Although there is no more reason to suppose that a stranger is carrying the virus than your family and friends, we are all inclined to believe that those we know well are safe to be with, and those we don’t, not so much.

Scientists and doctors are unravelling the secrets of the coronavirus. The more difficult task is for us all to be aware of our own hidden nature. If we allow the pandemic to increase our suspicion of others, to push us into permanent fear of the other, the damage may be as great as that caused by the disease.

Detail from Heirloom, part of the Broken Beauty residency in Southwark cathedral, 2018. Photo credit: Alison Clark
Posted in coronavirus, Fragments

Fragments on Fragments 5

For an introduction to this series, look here

I went in search of myself

The really strange thing about this saying is that it was written two and a half thousand years ago. What would it mean to go in search of yourself, before anyone had thought of counselling and psychotherapy, before ‘the unconscious’ was a thing? What might this self be, which he had gone in search of?

One possible answer is contained in another fragment, ‘All people ought to know themselves and to think well’. The search for yourself then is not about digging up the hidden parts of you, the forgotten fears and traumatic experiences, but about managing your thinking, acting and judging. The word I’ve translated as ‘to think well’ is ‘sophronein’ (Greek: σωφρονειν); it was an ancient Greek buzzword for what it meant to be a well-balanced and complete person. It implies discretion, moderation, self-control.

Heraclitus’ version of searching for the self needs to live alongside what we now know about the unconscious and all its works, but I think it still has something to offer us. It’s an invitation to find that place in ourselves which is less buffeted by the waves of our feelings, which can stand firm in a storm. That may be quite a search in itself, especially when events in and outside us seem overwhelming. Some of us may not be able to find it any more without a guide, a counsellor or soul friend who can help us on our journey. The important thing is the destination: there is no extra virtue attached to going it alone.

What is important, what we all need is to know that there is that place of balance in ourselves to which we can return. It is the place we go when we say ‘this is the sort of person I am: this is what I stand for, this is how I believe I should think and act’. If you’ve never thought before about spelling out those values that you hold, all the more reason to go in search of them.

Detail from Heirloom, part of the Broken Beauty residency in Southwark cathedral, 2018. Photo credit: Alison Clark
Posted in coronavirus, Fragments

Fragments on Fragments 4

For an introduction to this series, look here

Time is a child at play, moving pieces in a game. The child rules

Adults, who have forgotten what it was like to be a child, tend to think of children’s games as chaotic, random activity. Depending on the frame through which we think of children’s play, Heraclitus’ saying has very different meanings. Heraclitus was committed to observing the reality in front of him, so let us assume that he was not talking about randomness or chaos. If he was directing our attention towards children as they really are, this saying is much more interesting, and possibly encouraging.

Anyone who can remember, or who pays attention to children, will realise that arguing over the rules is an essential part of children’s play. ‘That’s not fair’ is a cry from the heart: working out what’s ‘fair’ (and the sad fact that fairness doesn’t always prevail) is an essential part of what’s going on in children’s play. During the period of lockdown, for many of us time dragged, slowly (while for others it zoomed – pun intended). Those who were already experiencing poverty and insecurity have mostly suffered more. Some with good incomes have found themselves saving large amounts as socialising is curtailed. It’s not fair.

The word I have translated as ‘time’ in this fragment can signify anything from ‘the human lifespan’ to ‘eternity’. The experience of time in each case has been uncomfortable for lots of us, and it may have felt to us as it did to Hamlet after seeing his father’s ghost, that ‘the time is out of joint’ – time itself is as contorted and painful as a dislocated shoulder. Time itself has felt unfair, playing its game for the rich against the poor.

But let’s think again about that word, ‘time’. It’s not just the present moment. This time we’re living through exists in the context of cosmic time, the unfolding of the hidden future into the present moment, which then is immediately incorporated into the past. Yes, there is disorder, the times do come out of joint and the game is not always fair. Individual tragedies cannot be reversed; those whose lifespan has ended prematurely and tragically will not return to us. But there is also, at a cosmic level, an instinct, a desire, a movement which challenges chaos and re-builds order.

Detail from Heirloom, part of the Broken Beauty residency in Southwark cathedral, 2018. Photo credit: Alison Clark
Posted in coronavirus, Fragments

Fragments on Fragments 3

For an introduction to this series, look here

If you do not hope, you will not find that which is not hoped for, since it is unattainable and inaccessible

How can you hope for what’s not hoped for? Heraclitus frequently justifies his ancient nickname ‘the Obscure’. But it’s worth living with this fragment for a little while, not because it will suddenly ‘make sense’, but in order to let it shake us up a little. That’s what paradoxes like this are for, to push us off the tramlines of our normal thoughts, to make us try a new direction.

It’s not at all obvious what a way out would look like from a pandemic. This coronavirus has proved very efficient at spreading itself, and very difficult to dislodge from society. The more we meet each other, the more opportunities for it to spread. And there aren’t many of us who would look forward to a lifetime of spatially distanced conversations with our friends and families. A way of living which allows us to meet each other without restriction or anxiety does indeed seem unattainable and inaccessible.

When I have the time and headspace, I love to lose myself in a jigsaw puzzle, preferably 1000 pieces. Most of the time it’s hugely frustrating, playing with shapes and colours in your head, and sometimes only keeping on going because you have faith that the puzzle maker won’t have left out a piece deliberately. It is that worrying at the problem like a dog with a bone which makes the moment of connection all the more satisfying. The solution suddenly (or not so suddenly) appears, where there appeared to be chaos.

It’s a trivial example, but I do think it illustrates what hope means at the moment. It’s not a sunny optimism that everything’s OK. Hope now is realistic about the broken pieces in ourselves and in our society: but keeps on looking for the ways in which we can put back together small areas of harmony. We build the future we cannot yet imagine, putting it together piece by piece.

Detail from Heirloom, part of the Broken Beauty residency in Southwark cathedral, 2018. Photo credit: Alison Clark
Posted in coronavirus, Fragments

Fragments on Fragments 2

For an introduction to this series, look here

Most people do not understand what they have seen, nor do they learn from what they have experienced, but believe their own opinions

Heraclitus would not have been surprised by the epidemic of rumour and conspiracy theories, which has only spread faster during the pandemic. He had quite a low opinion of human beings’ ability really to learn from what was in front of their faces, compared to what intuitively seems right, which is often very different.

The facts are complicated, boring and difficult to disentangle. Stories are compelling, engaging and easy to believe. Taking a less judgemental line than Heraclitus, I think we should forgive ourselves and others for our desire to believe a good story which re-establishes us in our world. Knowing the story, knowing what’s really going on, even when it’s a story of conspiracy and of evil, is better than uncertainty.

The American journalist H L Mencken had it right: “Explanations exist; they have existed for all time; there is always a well-known solution to every human problem — neat, plausible, and wrong.” The only way in which I would differ is that there is not just one solution to our confusion and distress. A whole supermarket of theories is available, tailored to our existing fears and expectations. Professional quality videos on Facebook or Youtube, Twitter memes, Whatsapp ‘inside information’, or whatever other means we use to know ‘what’s really going on’: it’s there for us.

We need to forgive ourselves the desire to believe a good story; but that doesn’t mean we should give in to it. Switching off from the complexity will do us no good in the long run. For those who choose not to believe that COVID-19 really exists, it may well have fatal consequences in the short run, too. Reality is always messy, and especially so now. Living well in the midst of this time is about finding stories to tell that can give us strength to live as well as we can now, in the situation we’re really in.

Detail from Heirloom, part of the Broken Beauty residency in Southwark cathedral, 2018. Photo credit: Alison Clark
Posted in coronavirus, Fragments

Fragments on Fragments 1

For an introduction to this series, look here

 

You cannot step twice into the same river, nor can one grasp any mortal substance in a stable condition, but it scatters and again gathers; it forms and dissolves, and approaches and departs

 

It is only human to look for stability and certainty. How much we need will differ depending on our personality, experience and stage of life, but what Heraclitus seems to suggest here is the stuff of nightmares. In our dreams, especially those which are most terrifying, shapes shift: what in waking life seems most reliable and unchanging can transform into mortal danger. None of us can live with that degree of flux.

For some, the pandemic has been a waking nightmare. I’m thinking here not only of those who have suffered the disease itself, but also the many more who have had their sense of personal stability decentred. The threat of the illness itself has been compounded by the radical, constant and sometimes contradictory changes and messages about our daily lives. Governments and others in authority have been just as much in the dark as anyone else, and they haven’t been able to hide it. Policies change daily. It would be kind, but untrue to say that they have evolved, as that would give the impression of a continual, purposeful development. Instead there have been backtracks, diversions, roadblocks. I am reminded of driving through woods in a storm, watching for trees that might be about to fall, ready to stop and reverse when the way is blocked, turning off the main road onto narrow and unsignposted lanes.

It’s hard work, driving in those conditions, especially compared to the relaxed way we can normally take the main road, knowing all will be clear ahead. It’s hard work psychologically, living in a world in which the boundaries and frameworks of our lives are always changing. If there is any comfort to be had, it is that the stress many of us feel is not because of a fault or weakness in ourselves. The situation itself is stress-inducing, so feeling stressed is perfectly normal. The question is how we support one another and look after ourselves, within and through this time.

Detail from Heirloom, part of the Broken Beauty residency in Southwark cathedral, 2018. Photo credit: Alison Clark

Posted in coronavirus, Fragments

Fragments on Fragments: introduction

Heraclitus was one of the very first philosophers, active around 500BC. What survives of his writings are quotations and comments in other authors, hence the title ‘Fragments’ given to them when they were collected together. Reading them this summer, I found that the Fragments provided a starting point for me to express my own fragmentary thoughts and reflections on the coronavirus pandemic through which we have all been living.

These ‘Fragments on Fragments’ are offered as little morsels for reflection; I hope you will find them useful at least as jumping off points, as I found Heraclitus, for you to make of them something for yourself. You may well go in other directions from mine, and that’s just fine. My own versions of Heraclitus’ sayings are sometimes more paraphrase than translation, unashamedly pointing in the direction I wanted to go. So please feel free to pick up the baton and run the race. There are forty reflections, and two will be published each week, both here and at Episcopal Cafe, with whom I’m very glad to be sharing this series.

Alongside the words I am including an image which reflects on the themes for this series

More about Alison

Alison Clark is a British artist whose work includes drawing, painting, printmaking and
installation. Her work often explores a sense of place, whether documenting a shoreline or printmaking from the interior of a church building. Alison was Artist in Residence in
Southwark Cathedral, London in 2018 to mark the first anniversary of the London Bridge
attack. The residency, ‘Broken Beauty’ included ‘sand dollars’ gilded in gold, inspired by the Japanese ceramic technique kintsugi where broken objects are mended with gold to begin again.

www.alisonclark.co.uk/gallery#/heirloom