Posted in coronavirus, Fragments

Fragments on Fragments 32

For an introduction to this series, look here

Always having what we want may not be the best good fortune. Health seems sweetest after sickness, food in hunger, rest when we’re weary

Heraclitus was probably writing this in opposition to the ideology of his time; it’s equally uncomfortable in ours. I doubt if Heraclitus was expecting his readers to go out and try to get ill, any more than I would advise anyone to ignore the rules on avoiding coronavirus.

This saying isn’t advice, but a reflection on the reality of our human condition. Anything we have all the time, we begin to take for granted. When something new and good comes into our lives, it’s difficult – no, impossible – to keep on celebrating it in the way we did at the beginning. It’s a law that applies to anything, to our material circumstances, to our relationships, to our health and wellbeing: we get so used to things being as they are that it’s only their absence which makes us realise what we’ve lost.

Losses over the last few months have been of different kinds, but few of us have escaped without any sense of losing something. Living with loss is one of the hardest pieces of work for the human psyche. The loss of bereavement is the greatest, but at every level work needs to be done, not to ‘get over’ our loss, but to find out how we can continue to live with it and through it. Let us not underestimate how much there is to do, for ourselves and for our communities.

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

Fragments on Fragments 30

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People differ most from those to whom they are closest

It’s been tough for a lot of people, having to stay at home, when home isn’t a safe or happy place. Domestic violence has been inescapable; victims of abuse have had far fewer places to hide. Those are issues of justice at any time, and it is horrible to think of the added suffering that some have undergone while the rest of us were ‘just’ dealing with the pandemic itself.

I’d like to focus mostly though on those of us who aren’t in such horrendous situations, but have also found ourselves spending more time with those with whom we are in the same household – for most of us, our nearest and dearest. For many, everything’s been just fine, but for some, relationships have come under real strain, even to breaking point.

I am one of the lucky ones, but that doesn’t give me a right to criticise those for whom things have been tough. On the contrary, it places an obligation on me to offer what help I can to those who have found their relationships under an unexpected strain. Those who have found themselves cast adrift from the relationships which were up to then their main support, need the rest of us all the more.

It’s hard work, reaching out when you feel as if you’re working as hard as you can just to keep yourself together. But if we are to rebuild community where it has been damaged that’s exactly what we need to do, as much as we can.

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

Fragments on Fragments 29

For an introduction to this series, look here

Rest comes through change

It’s all about rhythm.

When I get a chance to go away on retreat, I go to stay with a community who live to the rule of St Benedict. Monks and nuns have a reputation for being a self-punishing bunch, but that’s certainly not what I perceive from the community I stay with. Of course they live simply, but they also seem to me to live a life which is very well balanced. The day has its times of prayer of course, and also times for recreation together, for solitude, for work. The rhythm of the day sits within the greater cycle of the year, as the church’s calendar marks it out, with its seasons of both abstinence and of celebration.

That is the sort of change which I at least find restful. Chaotic change is not! Change over which you have no control, or which you can’t at least predict, is exhausting – and it’s that sort of change we’re all living through at the moment. As the levels of virus rise and fall in different places, the rules of life change quickly. Keeping up with what’s allowed and what isn’t is hard work in itself.

Trying at least to keep to my own personal rhythm is one way in which deal with this. As much as I can, I make sure my life includes some things which are constant and regular, that I’m not spending the whole day at one sort of activity, that I’m aware of my own energy levels and take a break when I need one. But it’s not easy. If you’re not finding it easy either, join the club.

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

Fragments on Fragments 28

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It is weary to toil at the same tasks and be always beginning

Even those who do not habitually read the Bible may remember at this point the very similar verses from Ecclesiastes,

Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher,

   vanity of vanities! All is vanity.

What do people gain from all the toil

   at which they toil under the sun?

Life is hard work, and harder than ever over the last few months. I have recently managed to have some holiday, and I don’t think I’ve ever needed it more. I feel deeply for those whose lives have not allowed them to have a break.

We all need rest. Not just now, but in the rhythm of our lives. The pandemic seems to have only accentuated the division in our society, between those who are over-busy, in even more demand than ever, and those who suddenly find that they’re not needed, that they’re surplus to requirements. That was always a great evil, and if it gets worse, it may end up creating a dangerous chasm through the middle of our communities to the extent that we are no longer aware of our unity.

It’s not just a question of having a break. We need to have a deeper sense of what it means to live a balanced life. I’d like us to be able to move beyond the idea of a ‘work-life balance’ – because it’s a false comparison, but one we’re often forced into when our paid work bears so little relationship to our own vocation and calling. I believe each of us has work to do which is both a unique contribution to society, and fulfilling for ourselves.  Work should not be the opposite of life! What we need is a vision of life which includes both work and rest, for all of us. And the work we need is that which feels like life: work which connects with our own skills and abilities and not just endless and repetitive toil.

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

Fragments on Fragments 27

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Kindling a light in the night; death and life touch each other

This is my take on one of the most difficult of Heraclitus’ sayings. One word stood out for me: the word which I have rendered in English as both ‘kindling’ and ‘touch’.

The absence of touch has only occasionally been spoken of, but I am sure that it has been one of the most painful and demoralising aspects of the pandemic for very many. Touch is intimate and powerful, which is why inappropriate forms of touch can be so damaging. But equally, touch which affirms and expresses love is an extraordinarily important way of maintaining our health, psychologically, physically and spiritually.

Too many people live without touch already; it has been the experience of far more of us over the last few months. We manage, but our sense of our selves is under gradual, almost imperceptible, but continual attack. Reaching out in the night to make a light in the darkness feels to me a bit like reaching out to touch or be touched: it’s about feeling less alone, making a connection which reduces our isolation.

Recognising the depth of need is an important first step, because in Western culture at least touch is regarded with great caution, or even fear: the phrase ‘close but not touching’ is interestingly common. To know what it is that one is missing – and to know that it’s a genuine loss, not something in one’s own head – can be one small step towards living with the loss. But only one small step: for many of us, reaching out to touch will have to continue to be virtual, and this is one area in which digital connection is a very poor substitute. We are grieving for touch.

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

Fragments on Fragments 26

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You won’t find the boundaries of the soul, however many ways you travel – its depth is beyond discovery

Heraclitus may well have been the first person to use the word ‘soul’ (psyche) as a way of describing the centre of human personality – the first person who could think of ‘psychology’ (literally, the science of the soul). It’s much less certain what he meant by it, and that hasn’t changed much over the last two and a half thousand years. The word ‘soul’ is used all the time, in many different ways: the Oxford English Dictionary has 26 categories of meaning for the word, many with sub-sections.

I hope Heraclitus would be pleased. The Greek word he used has in its English counterpart exactly the point he was making. When we start to explore the concept of ‘soul’, even at a literal dictionary level, it’s impossible to hold all the definitions in your head at once. Still more is it impossible to grasp the wholeness of a human being in their manifold complexity. Yes, we can understand some parts pretty well, and Western science has come an extraordinarily long way in understanding how bodies work, but each individual’s uniqueness means that even where we know the most, there is a vast amount more to discover. Faiths and philosophies around the world have explored the deep spiritual waters of the human soul, without any signs as yet of plumbing the depths. And to understand the whole self – in all its manifold dimensions at the same time – that is a task beyond us, whether in regard to ourselves or anyone else.

‘Soul’ is a word which points at a mystery, the mystery of our humanity, as self-conscious animals who can wonder about our own existence.

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

Fragments on Fragments 25

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The sea is both pure and polluted: a happy home for fish, for us undrinkable and deadly

Or as the old English proverb goes (with its traditional gendered language), ‘One man’s meat is another man’s poison’.

As I’m writing, in several European countries cases of coronavirus are rising again, apparently led by a sharp increase among young people. The suspicion going around is that many young people have firstly, got completely fed up with having their social life curtailed and secondly, realised that the risks to people of their age group from COVID-19 are pretty low – and so they are taking less and less care about the precautions against spreading the virus.

Whatever may be really happening, it’s become clear that COVID-19 is far more dangerous for those who are in any case more vulnerable, through age or illness – even more so than one might have expected. So there is a question about how those who are least likely to be affected, and those most at risk, live together in one society.

It’s not possible for society to remain in lockdown indefinitely, either economically or psychologically, even if that might be the perfect solution for protecting the most vulnerable. But neither is it in the least OK to write off those who will be most at risk for the benefit of the economy and those who want to get back to normal and take the risk. It’s an unenviable task for governments and those who have to take the decisions, because there’s not a solution which will work for everyone. But I’m thinking more about how we as individuals shape our behaviour and our thinking around a wider perspective than our own interests. Maintaining social coherence and mutuality in a pandemic has to involve sacrifice for everyone, if it is to be perceived as fair by everyone (or at least by most). For ourselves as individuals, that involves living with the question, ‘What am I prepared to sacrifice?’ alongside the other question, ‘What do I need?

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

Fragments on Fragments 24

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Let’s not agree too easily about things that really matter

Those are the conversations I find most frustrating – when the person who’s talking to you is just looking for backup. You’re not there to contribute, and certainly not to suggest an alternative way of looking at things. Just nod, or express suitable words of agreement, commiseration, celebration, or whatever it is the other person’s looking for. And if you break the contract and actually express an opinion, you’re really in trouble.

I’ve never been any good in those sort of encounters. I just can’t resist saying something which doesn’t quite fit with what’s expected. Sometimes I really should keep my mouth shut – but not always. There are times when the contract needs breaking, because what’s being said is not something you can just let pass.

That’s been especially important, and especially difficult, these last few months. In uncertain times, emotions have run high, and people have tried to make sense of what’s happening in and around them, sometimes by listening to conspiracy theories, or by blaming the victims.

It’s a tricky balancing act: offering the emotional support that others need, without colluding with opinions which are untrue or unkind. I wouldn’t claim to have got it right. But Heraclitus encourages me that the effort is worth making. Searching for truth will always involve disagreement, and especially in turbulent times. And with so much falsehood around, it’s all the more important.

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

Fragments on Fragments 23

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Opposites join, from dissonance comes harmony, united through conflict

Another key theme for Heraclitus is that both positive and negative are needed in order to complete the whole. It is in the tension of apparent opposites – and he is happy to use images of violence and war to express it – that the cosmic balance is achieved.

We have wondered already about whether such harmony exists. Presuming it does, does conflict have to be the basis for it? In Heraclitus’ view it was essential: another fragment criticises the poet Homer for even wishing for the end of strife, for there would be no harmony without high and low, nor any living beings without male and female. Biologists and musicians both may want to take issue, but at least his position is clear: opposites in tension, even in conflict, are the way the world works.

There’s nothing in the fragments that suggests that Heraclitus was looking for a synthesis of opposites. They remain separate, and opposed. Yet another fragment describes war as ‘father of all’, who dictates that some are gods, some are free, some are slaves. It may create cosmic harmony, but it’s a harsh world for individuals.

One thing at least we should get from Heraclitus, which is backed up by human experience: peace is hard work. It’s not what naturally happens when we just stop being nasty to each other. If there is an alternative to a world built on a balance of competing opposites, it is one built on patient peace-making. I hope for a harmony which comes from people realising that their different needs are not dissonances but resonances. What I mean is that as we really listen and learn, we discover that the deepest needs of others spring from the same roots as our own: the need to be loved, valued, recognised, the need for relationships and security, the need for fulfilment and development. Those are far more important than the things for which people compete, even to the point of violence.

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

Fragments on Fragments 22

For an introduction to this series, look here

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard         

  Are sweeter

That’s Keats of course, appropriately from the Ode on a Grecian Urn, but it expresses nearly perfectly a fragment from Heraclitus. His idea is that there is a deep structure, a profound harmony to all things, which we may not be able to perceive but which holds the whole cosmos together.

The problem is that all too often the evidence doesn’t seem to support the theory. Keats was not writing to back up Heraclitus, but expressing the Romantic longing for the sublime, the experience beyond the normal range in which the normal limitations of human life feel as if they have been transcended. But one might criticise Heraclitus by saying that he has no more objective evidence than Keats: maybe this idea of cosmic harmony is just something from his own subjective experience, with no purchase on external reality.

There is no lack of people, now and throughout history, who have argued the case each way with equal conviction. In the end, I suspect that alongside listening to the evidence, each one of us will be swayed in adopting the position we take by less tangible factors. Personal experience, the views we hear around us, recent events – all of those and others have a huge effect on how we feel about the world in which we live.

It may be worth taking a moment to reflect on how your worldview has changed during 2020. I doubt if many people have decided on the basis of this year that the world is more ordered and harmonious than they had thought. Many will probably have moved in the opposite direction. If your view has changed, and you think rightly, it’s probably worth recognising explicitly that it has, and what has caused it. Or if you feel you have been pushed away from what you truly believe by the pandemic and its effects, it’s all the more important to rediscover what you truly believe.

Evidence is important, experience likewise, but there is also an element of will, and of faith, in each of us which helps determine how we see the world. If we criticise Heraclitus for following his own instincts rather than sticking strictly to the evidence, we need to recognise that every human being, including ourselves, does the same.

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