A Most Welcome Visit

UnknownYou came to visit me last night as you sometimes do – though not as often as I’d like. Your hair was as dark and you were as handsome as ever. Time has been much kinder to you than the rest of us but, alas, you’ve been in the warm all this time.

You asked if I would sit with you for a while and reminisce about “the good old days” when we were much younger and without a care in the world. You weren’t as cheerful as you normally are but, I suppose, neither was I. I comforted you as best I could – I even offered to rub your head.

I told you of the things I could remember from, what seemed like, an age ago now. The out of tune piano at the back of the house; the room that was always filled with sandwiches; the coloured pasta which I never see anymore; the tree house were your brother and I spent so much time.

It was you, wasn’t it? Yes, I’m sure it was. Perhaps you’ve missed me just as much as I’ve missed you, though I suspect you’ve been keeping an eye on me without my knowing so. That would be like you – mischievous in your own special way.

When you left you unknowingly took, what was, a huge part of me with you. The promise that time heals all wounds has been true to its word but I would be lying if I said there wasn’t still a void. A hole of sorts amongst the rest of me which is fortunately filled with the assurance that your are in an eternal state of happiness and peace. I doubt this vacancy will ever be filled until we are reunited – for longer than a dream.

I expect you’re busy, visiting us all in the night, and I understand that you can’t join me more but, on the off chance that you ever think I might be too occupied with thoughts of today or worries of tomorrow, know that there is an open-ended invitation for you and you alone.

Some may say “It was just a dream” but we know better. Little do they know, we’ve been meeting in secret for some years now in this quiet place.  Our encounters are brief and we can never seem to make plans but isn’t that the beauty of our impromptu meetings?

I am happy to say that I am at peace and while tears will inevitably be shed throughout the years – at birthdays, anniversaries and those other unpredictable moments when memories catch us off guard – I live in the certainty that you are there and you are taken care of, just as you should be.

So, my dear friend; I patiently await our next encounter in my restful and hazy slumber.  Who knows where we’ll be, what we’ll do, or who will join us.  In the mean time, don’t forget to visit the rest of them. They miss you an awful lot, you know.

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Bless Me, Father, For I Have Sinned

BLESS ME

It has been one month since my last blog post and these are my sins…

If you’re Catholic, you should be fairly familiar with this paraphrase.  When I realised just how long it had been since I had written something, this religious statement – for reasons completely unknown – randomly popped into my head.  Perhaps I equate my neglect of writing as a sin; perhaps my subconscious is telling me that I’ve been particularly “bad” this month and ought to repent; or perhaps it was just a momentarily blip, attributable to nothing more than the random inner workings of my mind. Who knows?  Nonetheless, it popped.  It got me thinking about the entire confessional process.  While I’ve grown up with the practice and been a regular participant, in terms of its history and influences, I know little of it.  Even outside its religious connotations, I wonder about the paradigm itself – the idea of admitting to one’s wrong doings and repenting.

As a child, our sins are easily defined.  For instance, I remember the most popularly cited misdemeanors of my youth – fighting with my brothers and sisters, being disobedient to my parents, cursing, telling lies, not doing my homework etc.   As (bad) practice had it, you would regurgitate a handful of these “sins”, making sure to suitably vary these on each occasion (as though the Priest made a formal catalogue on every appearance), and using the most apologetic tone of voice you could muster up as a child, bare whatever soul it was you had to bare at this early stage of life.

Now, as I’ve matured (I use this term loosely), the boundary between wrong and right seems less certain.  While we can accept certain unanimous truths – that hurting others etc is wrong – the realities of right and wrong begin to haze as we face countless situations throughout our lives rife with ambiguity and complexity.  That line that was once so penetrating as a child begins to dissolve.  As we begin to assume our own mindsets and question the words of our elders and superiors, we learn to form our own opinions of what is wrong and vice versa, leaving the practice of Confession vulnerable.  It all becomes a lot more complicated than “not doing my homework”.  The more avid religious followers among us would probably argue that there’s nothing complicated about it. 

I myself have not formally confessed, so to speak, in years.  It’s remarkable when I consider my frequent attendance as a youth: when I was then so innocent to the ways of the world and generally unaware of the implications of “sin”.  To sin has been defined as “to miss the mark” and believe me, I miss the mark more now than I ever did.  Surely I should be a highly skilled confessor by now.  But if truth be told, the idea frightens me.  This led, not only, to the question of why I now refrain, but why we practice it in the first place.

Understandably, after all this time there is a level of reluctance on my part.   Like anything in life, once out of practice, we become vulnerable and uncomfortable, but perhaps especially in this instance.  During this process, we are completely exposed.  We are centre stage in, what is essentially, a role play with God.  We’re immediately transposed into a situation which is designed to bring out the worst in us: an admission of past grievances which we barely want to admit to ourselves, let alone a Priest… let alone God.

The whole process of Confession is inherently tied up in the concept of forgiveness.  Without the latter, the former would become redundant.  Pain without relief.  Even when you take religion out of the equation, the hope of forgiveness remains.  We all strive for forgiveness.  While I should probably quote the Bible at this stage, I feel compelled to quote Giles from Buffy The Vampire Slayer:

“To forgive is an act of compassion… It’s not done because people deserve it.  It’s done because they need it.”

This concept transcends religion of any kind.  Those without faith might argue that we use Confession selfishly – as a Get Out of Jail Free card – a way of “keeping in with” the big guy, but isn’t the entire process of forgiveness selfish?  We use it as a means to make ourselves feel better, to confirm that we’re “not that bad” and that “there’s hope for us yet”.  Perhaps Confession serves to heighten this process.  It gives us a sense of satisfaction that our repentance has been formally acknowledged and that we can now “go in peace”, free from the shackles of guilt and shame.  While religion looks to a higher power to exonerate us from our sins, forgiveness on earth asks those around us to grant us this privilege. Either we way, we want absolution.

We can, at any time, I believe make amends without the use of box.  If we are prepared to recognise and admit our wrongs, we’ve taken the most difficult step.  Whether it’s to a particular deity, a religious representative or a wronged party, confession is a fundamental part of our lives.  Without it there is no means of forgiveness, no cause for hope, no opportunity to move on.  Without it our guilt would only chew us up, leaving nothing but sinful scraps.

Alas, I digress. My sins are…

The Imagination Question

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In dedication to Joseph Brolly.

My nephew’s imagination astounds me. I’ve seen him turn cushions into cows, the shower into a barn and his baby brother into a bag of turf (it’s pretty obvious what this kid wants to be when he grows up). We play regularly but I have recently found myself stumped, almost embarrassed, by his level of creativity as a three year old.  Every game we play or scenario we fabricate is all down to my nephew and his imagination.  He sometimes asks, “Becky what can we play?” and to this question, I rarely have an original answer. If it’s not a preconceived game – jigsaws, tig, hide and seek – i’ve got nothing.  It seems his aspirations are already greater than mine.  He sees every day tools as tools to play out his imagination.  What we might use as a hairbrush or a spoon, he can conjure up something much more magical.  He sees the extraordinary in the ordinary.

This got me thinking: where did my imagination go? Surely, I had one once.  I can recall as a youngster running a chip shop with only lego and newspaper and saying Mass using my granny’s tea set and smarties.  It seems we are all born with the ability to be imaginative but at some point this capacity begins to slip away from us.  Do imaginations come with expiration dates; are they meant to last a certain amount of time and then fade away into obscurity as we grow older? Or is it a case of “use it or lose it”? 

“Every child is born blessed with a vivid imagination.  But just as a muscle grows flabby with disuse, so the bright imagination of a child pales in later years if he ceases to exercise it.” – Walt Disney

It would appear that, just like any other skill, we must learn to foster our imaginations.  They can not be tossed to one side, unused, and picked up at a later date.  The problem with this is that it becomes the social norm to remove ourselves from our more imaginative tendencies as we begin to mature.  Obviously, there comes a point when building forts and befriending imaginary people aren’t conducive to real life.  At some stage, we all have to grow up. We are encouraged to keep our head out of the clouds and our feet on the ground, and rightly so, or who knows where we’d end up.  But does something special get lost in this process?

I recently read a piece from a fellow blogger on the perils of the imagination, taking the view that some of us are either blighted to have one or blessed to be without.  Those “unlucky” enough to have been cursed with one, spend most their lives in pursuit of perfection, desiring the unattainable.  They are doomed to a life of falseness and disappointment.  Perhaps, it’s a classic case of “the grass is always greener on the other side.”  What you have, you don’t want and vice versa. Interestingly though, many in the comment section of her blog stated that they daren’t trade in their imaginations for the world. 

Admittedly, the improper use of our imaginations can, on occasion, serve to undermine us. Consider the proverbial daydreamer.  They spend more time dreaming than doing and in the end can never fulfill their wildest imaginings as they are too busy well, imagining.  Similarly, if our imagination can lead us to places centred on notions of progression and goodness, it also has the potential to lead us down darker paths.  Ultimately, though I believe the world would be much worse off in its absence than in its abundance. 

“The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination.” – Albert Einstein

Some of life’s greatest achievers – Einstein, Disney, Picasso, Wilde, Newton – were all advocates of the imagination. While knowledge teaches us ‘what is’, the imagination reveals to us ‘what might be’.  Relying on our own knowledge can, therefore, only take us so far; we must allude to something greater in order to create greatness.  Take even just a peak back at history: any discovery, invention, or work of art were all borne of someone’s imagination.

The problem with so many of us is that we lack imagination.  I include myself in this.  We find ourselves bored and yet have more to occupy us than ever before. We have no idea what do with our lives because we find it difficult to conceive ideas beyond the “normal” or “practical”. We’re taught to make decisions rationally, to measure the pros and cons.  And while i’m not advocating abandoning reason, there is little encouragement to consider the more daring, adventurous routes in life – the routes that actually mean something to us.

If we don’t imagine or dare to dream, then what does our future hold?  Complacency? Stagnancy? Boredom?  The question is then, can we reacquaint ourselves with our once so active imaginations? While children have a lot to learn from their elders, it seems to me, we have a lot to learn from them.

Optimistic about Optimism

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By nature, I have always been a pessimist.  “I can’t do it”, “it’s my fault”, “what if…?” are commonplace in my vocabulary.  The mentality behind this disposition always appeared grounded in logic. If one can preempt disappointment, then perhaps one can also cushion the accompanying blow.

“That of course is the advantage of being a pessimist; a pessimist gets nothing but pleasant surprises, an optimist nothing but unpleasant.”  Nero Wolfe in Fer-de-Lance (1934) by Rex Stout

Recently, I have began to reevaluate this position.  If I consider my adopted approach and its rate of success, it becomes apparent that life’s greatest disappointments have in no way been softened by this negative perspective.  Those moments of true disappointment – whether anticipated or not – can never be fully realised until experienced.  The blow is inevitable and the fact that you have imagined its occurrence in no way counters the accompanying feelings of displeasure.  In similar fashion, by adopting an overall negative stance in life, the “pleasant surprises” that Stout refers to are often overshadowed by alternative worries and potential threats. Pessimism becomes a permanent state of being as opposed to a temporary reaction.

In-keeping with Buddhist tradition, by maintaining this distorted view of life we shoot ourselves with two arrows.  The worry and doubts might be seen as providing the initial blow, while the ensuing reality, whatever this may be, acts as a second arrow. If we eradicate the negativity that surrounds our thinking, we might be able to avoid at least one wound.  Furthermore, we might find that we can cope more effectively with life’s disappointments with thoughts of hope and optimism, rather than being blinded by doubt.

Proponents of pessimism would argue that their beliefs are grounded in reality: that pessimism reflects likely outcomes while optimism focuses on far fetched, idealistic results.  In some cases, this may be so.  However, these negative thoughts have the propensity to be much more damaging than their counterparts. Where pessimists feel they are one step ahead, avoiding problems, they may in fact be creating them. The concept of the self-fulfilling prophecy has been well established since ancient Greece. It rests on the principle that belief in your own prophecy may sufficiently influence your actions in order to bring that prophecy to fruition.  Take the rather arbitrary example of believing you’ll get fired versus believing you’ll get a promotion. Which is more harmful? Which is likely to effect your actions in negative way?

Whilst being able to put this position forward, it should be understood that pessimism is generally not a transient state of mind. It can be a temporary glitch in some individuals’ lives caused by a spell of negative experiences but on the whole it appears to be a way of life. Being able to spell out the benefits of a more optimistic approach is not going to, all of a sudden, revive those of us who have dwelled in pessimism for the majority of their lives.  Those who take this view, after all, do so for a reason:

  1. It is a choice or a philosophy for some people – a school of thought based on sound arguments and beliefs. Their glass is half empty and they have no interest in topping up.
  2. It is a product of one’s environment, perhaps learned through relationships with peers or previous experiences.  They are most likely unaware of their outlook.
  3. It is a genetic disposition believed to be “unfixable”.

This last instance is the most problematic. Research has indicated that some of us may in fact be “born with a frown” (Richie Holterman).  For an unfortunate number of us, this negative line of thinking is hardwired and it will take a lot more than a pat on the back and a message of “Cheer up” to bring about any significant change.  Fortunately though, there has been concurrent research to suggest that our brains are much more malleable than we previously thought. Just as we exercise the muscles of our body, we too can exercise the muscles of our mind. It turns out you can teach an old dog new tricks. With the aid of alternative techniques and practices, we can learn to reframe our thoughts and adopt much more positive ways of thinking. We can take some comfort in the fact that we are not destined to “be” a certain way but have the ability to choose our own course.  

In the end, the contents of the two glasses are the same and which glass we drink from is according to our own tastes.  As for me, I think I’ll take the glass that’s half-full; it seems to taste sweeter.