Welcome to Life in 361˚. This blog is an 'open journal' - a space where I keep notes on bits & pieces I come across day-to-day - including books and articles I've read that I feel are worth sharing, interesting pictures and photos (I'm a visual learner, you see), random musings - and anything else that happens to catch my eye or ear. It also acts as a kind of 'open experiment' in terms of developing my views and writing skills - and networking with other people of a like-mind.

If you've stumbled upon here randomly, then I suggest you check out my biography and other pages.

Please Note: This site, and the social networking profile pages connected with it, reflect my personal interests & views which do not necessarily represent those of organisations I am affiliated / associated with.


Flipping The Script

Over the past week I attended an interview for a new post in my field of work. It is one I had thought long and hard about, in terms of the direction it offered. On the day itself, which I had put great time and effort into preparing for, it became starkly apparent that this was not the post for me – both through my own eyes and through the eyes of my potential employer. I did not get the post nor did I want it. A friend of mine put it more bluntly, "you've dodged a bullet their mate..." and with that, wholeheartedly congratulated me! 

But it left me rocked, challenging the perspective – or better put, the predicted narrative – I had built up over the past few months. This in turn has left me this weekend having moments of questioning, 

Where am I going? 
          How could I have got this attempted move so badly mistaken? 
                                              What is it I am really being called to do next in my life? 

In turn, I have found myself returning to a few cornered pages from Viktor Frankl’s seminal ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ which looks at The Holocaust from a psycho-spiritual perspective. Writing about his experiences in the concentration camps, and his observation of others, Viktor Frankl notes: 

“What was really needed was a fundamental change in our attitude toward life. We had to learn ourselves and, furthermore, we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life—daily and hourly.

Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfil the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.

These tasks, and therefore the meaning of life, differ from man to man, and from moment to moment. Thus it is impossible to define the meaning of life in a general way.” 

Later in the book, Viktor Frankl writes, in answer to the question of the meaning of life: 

"I doubt whether a doctor can answer this question in general terms. For the meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day and from hour to hour. What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person's life at a given moment. To put the question in general terms would be comparable to the question posed to a chess champion: "Tell me, Master, what is the best move in the world?" There simply is no such thing as the best or even a good move apart from a particular situation in a game and the particular personality of one's opponent. 

The same holds for human existence. One should not search for an abstract meaning of life. Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life to carry out a concrete assignment which demands fulfilment. Therein he cannot be replaced, nor can his life be repeated. Thus, everyone's task is as unique as is his specific opportunity to implement it.

As each situation in life represents a challenge to man and presents a problem for him to solve, the question of the meaning of life may actually be reversed. Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.

This emphasis on responsibleness is reflected in the categorical imperative of logotherapy, which is: "Live as if you were living already for the second time and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now!" It seems to me that there is nothing which would stimulate a man's sense of responsibleness more than this maxim, which invites him to imagine first that the present is past and, second, that the past may yet be changed and amended. Such a precept confronts him with life's finiteness as well as the finality of what he makes out of both his life and himself.

Logotherapy tries to make the patient fully aware of his own responsibleness; therefore, it must leave to him the option for what, to what, or to whom he understands himself to be responsible. 

 …It is, therefore, up to the patient to decide whether he should interpret his life task as being responsible to society or to his own conscience. There are people, however, who do not interpret their own lives merely in terms of a task assigned to them but also in terms of the taskmaster who has assigned it to them."

I think in this we see the continuous tensions of being someone of more liberal Christian faith; 

We have given up looking to priests and scholars for black and white, yes and no answers. We recognise through our capacity to reason and the still small voice of our conscience that we have been endowed with a power and responsibility to work at least some of it out for ourselves, and certainly from fellowships such as the Quakers, a responsibility to not just think and say but to act.

Yet we also have a immovable, residual sense of a greater scheme of things – what Frankl terms as ‘super meaning’ – with roots in the religion traditions through which we were raised and through traditions which we have actively come to embrace in adult life. 

Therefore we have not reduced things so much to the mechanical, meat and bones view of life taken by Richard Dawkins or to the totally present-focused view of philosophical traditions such as Buddhism. And for this reason we continue to engage in prayer, reflection and worship alongside our fellow travellers, believing that we are opening up ourselves to guidance from a greater source that both permeates and transcends ourselves. 

It is a sometimes tiring tension but a creative tension also. I personally take great comfort and inspiration from the mantra; 

Life is not here to give you meaning, packaged and easy; ultimately you are to give life meaning, in all your messiness and struggle. 

Rather than you asking for life to give you, what is life asking of you to give it?

And in answering, seek to answer with works rather than words. 

And so back to the interview, that hugely deflating experience I now travel onwards from. I would not change the event, I am thankful for it has asked a vital question of me - it has the potential to inflate. And the answer, at least the first part, will come ultimately in discerning the steps I am now to take – and more so, in the taking of them.


A Few Thoughts on Thatcher

Laid up in bed with a throat and ear infection, I caught the breaking news yesterday of the passing of Margaret Thatcher. I caught it so early that I was admittedly tempted to tweet it before all the usual high-profile British political tweeters did - for some reason I didn't though.

Growing up in 1980s and early 1990s Sheffield, and still very much a patriot when it comes to my home city despite the time spent away, I cannot help but have mixed feelings about this political figure, her government, and the party from which she hailed from.

I respect her as a British citizen who rose up from relatively lower class roots and took the top job, and not just that, the fact she was a woman - who even now face many more barriers in reaching the highest echelons of society. I respect her story as someone who believes in meritocracy.

I respect her as a politician of brave ideas. Coming from dissenting Protestant roots, with a Methodist background, I have listened with interest and a degree of admiration to some of her interviews where she outlines her philosophy with a simplicity, conviction and forthrightness. Paddy Ashdown spoke on the radio yesterday that had the left-wing of British politics developed and demonstrated the same intellectual rigor, things may have been very different now. It seems in the current age we have lost the basic clash of ideas in politics, superseded by a more sophisticated, more vacuous clash of political machinery and marketing.

I also respect her simply as a human being. I read around the newspapers this morning, still being laid up in recovery mode, and read a typically sympathetic article from the Daily Mail about her long decline. For all the talk of her being the 'Iron Lady' world figure and the ideological daughter of Adam Smith, she was ultimately subject to the same everyday issues we all face should we be fortunate enough to live to a long age. In her final struggle with dementia, she reminds me of my recently passed Grandad Joe.

So in this sense I will not be dancing around city streets with champagne as some apparent advocates of left-wing, working class politics are doing. I do not regard her as a witch. Just as I do not regard the dancers as noble knights of the left.

Having said this, I do share similar sentiments expressed by David Blunkett MP and other Sheffielders in The Star, the city's local newspaper. 

My own early memories of Sheffield in the 1980s and early 1990s was of a greying, decaying city. It was a feeling, even as a very young child, of living somewhere that felt recklessly, and ruthlessly, abandoned by a government 'out there, somewhere far away'. It was also one of polarisation, a sense that some ordinary people had and others didn't - and that you should somehow feel guilty and ashamed for not having.

There are two distinct, defining memories I have that sum this up. 

The first is of travelling on one of the old red and cream SYT buses one day from the city centre with my mother. A fellow passenger, who I seem to remember wearing scruffy full denim and a moustache that was fashionable at the time, had turned around from his seat and was talking with my mother about his lack of work etc. He then got off at a stop which was around half way on the journey to ours, at the Kelvin Flats. He finished the conversation dejectedly with, "and now I've to go back home to here." My mother nodded sympathetically and even as a small child I also felt great sympathy for him because I knew 'The Kelvin' was a terrible place to live having heard  various horror stories of crime and suicide, much of which I have since found out had truth in them. The Kelvin Flats, just like the more famous Park Hill Flats which are now being regenerated as accommodation for young professionals, were a symbol of Sheffield's decline and were eventually demolished around 1992 - 1993. Built in the aftermath of World War Two, these were imagined to herald a brave new world of working-class living yet under Thatcher, her government and her party they became a symbol of Sheffield's decline as its industrial heart was destroyed with nothing brought in as a replacement.

The second memory is living in a generally working-class suburb on the edge of the city next door to a businessman and passionate Tory who we nicknamed 'Flash Gordon'. My father at the time was unemployed and we lived under their constant scorn. Interestingly enough, on reflection, ours was a happy household at that time - despite the hard times we were experiencing - whereas Flash Gordon's household was one of constant shouting and screaming. But our neighbour wasn't the only example, the so-called 'aspirational working class' who apparently benefited under Thatcher were dotted around the area and tended to lord it over the rest of us who in Norman Tebbit's slightly misquoted words, needed to 'get on our bikes and look for work'.

My father may now deny this but I do remember him referring to Margaret Thatcher as 'The Bitch'  whereas interestingly my maternal grandfather, Grandad Roy, was said to have voted for her. I suppose this is the great paradox of Margaret Thatcher. She was a provincial, working-class, state educated (albeit via a grammar school) woman who smashed through the ceilings above her and passionately believed in helping other people of similar background do the same - she spoke eloquently of individuals having the freedom, and the responsibility, to shape their own lives. There is much appeal in this and I can see why many working-class people voted for her, particularly those who had found the industrial action and subsequent socio-economic turbulence of the seventies to be debilitating rather than liberating.

Yet many of her policies - particularly in northern England, Scotland and Wales - clearly did the opposite because ultimately it was the industry and public services, which she systematically decimated, that empowered these communities in the first place - that provided the individuals within them with the material means and security to have a greater measure of freedom and responsibility over their futures.

And the heirs to her legacy today, both the Conservative Party and sadly the Labour Party, are generally a set of London-based, upper and middle class, privately educated men who espouse the same views but from a very different place. The class structure of British society may well have become more diverse and fluid, as recent research seems to show, but the ceiling preventing ordinary people taking power has seemingly been repaired and strengthened. There remains in place a 'domination system', as Progressive Christian theologian Marcus Borg would say.

We certainly don't need a reincarnation of Margaret Thatcher, as some commentators in our largely right-wing press are suggesting, but we do need a new generation of politicians with similar stories and similar characteristics.


Truth is No Words

There is a now fairly old British Indie track called 'The Truth Is No Words' by a band called The Music. I don't remember much of the song but the title has often occurred to me, as I ponder the meaning of things.

This previous Sunday, a Friend handed me a copy of The Friend (the best weekly publication I have come across for liberal faith and philosophy) - which given it was Easter Sunday, had the apt front page header 'A mystery'.

Inside it, a Friend movingly writes:

"At the very lowest, darkest moment of my life, as I sat by the broken body of my mother, who was dying after a car accident, when I cried out from the depths of my anguish and helplessness, I had the deepest, most profound experience of my life. It was of both of us being held in a love beyond measure; of a peace 'beyond all understanding'; of a sense of joy and a certainty that 'all is well'.

If you have never had such experiences, we may struggle to discover any common ground. But if you have, it doesn't seem a good use of our time to argue about where they come from. I cannot, and don't need to be able to, explain my experience. Words are totally inadequate to account for it."

I think this ultimately is why we 'religious liberals' remain 'religious'. We cannot really find the words anymore to accurately describe such things, we still try but they always remain inaccurate - and we can sometimes get snagged and lost in the trying, but we have experienced 'a greater something' that keeps pulling us back despite the inadequacy of words.

This brings me to a comment I read posted on a Unitarian blog a few weeks ago - and which has stayed with me since first reading. The comment (which I have edited down slightly to make less personal) is forthright to say the least, and I am not in a place to comment whether it was fair in terms of who it was originally being directed towards. However, in many ways, as I read it I felt it was speaking to me and how I have tended to approach religion at times.

"Overall, you appear to take a largely intellectual and verbal approach to religion, treating it as an object for analysis. Yes, texts and movements can be analysed and such analysis is useful as an end in itself.

However, here is the essential disconnect: this type of analysis is not doing religion. 

The problem is this type of analysis is all about the left-hemisphere of the brain and religion in its best forms is about developing what is beyond the binary, “monkey” mind.

You are more likely to analyse a congregant’s experience from an intellectual perspective – what was right and wrong about it and where it fitted – yes, my dear, that sounds as though it was post-liberal, Radical Orthodox, puritan, independent Anglo-Catholic - rather than from one of what it actually meant to the individual concerned. 

Which all rather begs the question: Do you have any experience of actually doing religion? It’s as though you push away any real engagement with religious practice by this constant analysis.  

Did you ever actually stop and listen to the service as a whole? Take in the atmosphere of the Church? 

Do you actually get anything out of the prayers, meditation, music, silence i.e. those parts designed to get people out of the binary mind i.e. the more religious bits? 

However, sadly, you would not be unique, because this is one of the biggest issues, in fact, faults within Unitarianism. In many places it has degenerated to just words. In some places, services have become an opportunity for someone to draw on the energy from a congregation to fuel them while they deliver their party piece, sorry, sermon, which is received in turn by the audience as an opportunity for right/wrong binary thinking. Why, they might be debated immediately afterwards, not even waiting for the coffee. 

And everyone wonders why it has all degenerated the way it has. 

Hey ho. There are some promising hints that there might be a shift towards a more “religious” approach, but I don’t hold out too much hope."

I would say that this is the key difference I have found between groups such as the Unitarians, and to an extent the Progressive Christians, when compared to the Baptist church I attended for a while and the Quaker meeting I now attend. The former seem to be more 'head-driven' whereas the latter are more 'gut-driven', or put better, 'heart-driven'.

By my nature, and by my education, I am analytical in the way I automatically approach things. In that sense I can see why Unitarianism (particularly so a more classical, American-rooted variety) has always appealed to me - and still has appeal. However, I now see that it eventually became a blocker - dare I say it, a 'false prophet' - to faithful living as it tended to push me towards processing religion rather than experiencing religion. And even now I sometimes fall back into the habit and need to keep it in check.

Which leads me back to a quote I read recently by Chuang Tzu:

The purpose of a fish trap 
Is to catch fish, 
And when the fish are caught 
The trap is forgotten.

The purpose of words is to convey ideas.
When the ideas are grasped
The words are forgotten.

Where can I find a man
Who has forgotten words? 
He is the one I would like to talk to.

If I don't post again for a while on religious matters, it may well be because I am following this!


Universal and Particular

I have found another interesting reflection on Easter, again one I have to admit to finding interesting in its affirmation of my own perspective rather than challenging of it. This one is from Ant Howe's Unitarian blog.

If I lived near to the churches he ministers at in Warwickshire, or to the church Andrew Brown ministers at in Cambridge, I would probably still be a Unitarian - although probably still also primarily self-identifying as a 'Free Christian'.

I have also recently been observing with interest a debate, 'Buddhist and Quaker', on the QuakerQuaker website.

And at the side of my bed currently I have 'The Tao of Nature' by Chuang Tzu which I have been dipping in and out of, amongst other Taoist writings, in recent weeks.

The reason I mention these things is to simply reiterate a position I have had for a long time - you can be universalist-minded, in the sense you recognize there are undercurrents of Spirit and Truth amongst the vast array of theologies, philosophies and sciences of the world, without giving up the  particular tradition that speaks most deeply to your own heart.

And you can be critically-minded towards the tradition that speaks most deeply to your own heart, you can dissent from aspects - even those other regard as vital, without rejecting it or becoming hostile towards it. 

It is a position I have lived for over a decade now. Some may call it lily-liveredness but I call it maturity (but then again I would, wouldn't I?).