Vignette IV on Peace


VIGNETTE IV ON PEACE.

Wading birds on leg extensions delicately pick their way through the thrice-salty shallows of the Rottnest lake as if fearful that the hyper-salinity might bite or burn it. They dip their long beaks quickly to harvest a shrimp or tiny insect. Gently they cross the shallows. This is home and they are at home. This is the eternal present of their lives, the way it always is.

We rarely see the massed take-off when they leave for Siberia.

We never see them feeding, breeding on the snowy wastes of the far northern hemisphere – equally their home.

We see only one moment. We see what is.

Vignette I of Peace


VIGNETTE I OF PEACE
The sun warms the western end of the shearing shed, and my back, leaning on the iron corrugations, soaks up the warmth.
Inside, rouseabouts shout, “Ho! Ho! Move up there!” and the shed rumbles with the penned sheep shuffling each other.
The diesel engine throbs on and on, and I hear it whine as a shearer engages the hand-piece on a long blow across the sheep’s back. The shouts of shearers and wool-classers are indecipherable sharp noises above the never-ending rumble. The shearing shed shuffles about on its footings; a machine at work.
But the warm wall, a smoke and a strong cup of tea in my hands, keep it at a distance. Moisture rises from the lush marshmallow plants. Yellow dandelions and green clover carpet the paddock in front of me. A bee buzzes lazily somewhere nearby and I drift drowsily in the afternoon’s warmth.

 

Sheep and Eternal Life


Like King David in the Old Testament, I grew up among sheep. The biggest difference was that where David’s sheep numbered in the dozens, our flocks were in the thousands. One of my earliest lessons about sheep was not to be concerned about individuals.

Dad forbade us to keep sheep as pets, knowing the heart-ache that came when a pet was killed for meat. I noticed too the seeming indifference to a sick sheep. If a sheep was suffering, it may have been simply killed, but in general, sick sheep were left to get better on their own – or not. The only exception to this was revealing: if a ewe was having trouble lambing, Dad would sit beside it, all night if necessary, and be midwife in every possible way.

Dad wasn’t a callous man. He was gentle and generous in character. His was the most humane way of keeping the flock healthy. The sheep’s purpose was to feed people, not to be our friends. But Dad’s emphasis on the flock was instructive.

I looked to nature. I loved watching ants go about their busy lives. I noticed that ants had wonderful powers of restoring their apparently dead companions. They would push them gently with one of their six legs, and the motionless ant would pick up its load and continue walking. But they simply walked around ants that were dead or too sick to recover.

I confess as a boy I sometimes stirred up their nests. They would rise up in anger, climbing my legs and stinging all the way. Ants from other nests would come to join their attack on the intruder. They did not care how many I slapped to death on my legs: their task was to defend the queen and her nest, and even their neighbours’ nest.

My studies at school and since have confirmed that in nature survival of a species is paramount over that of individuals. The health, comfort and life of an individual simply do not stand up against the powerful drive for the species to survive.

Nature is species-centred. Most animals seem to accept this reality. It is only humans, fired on by two important events in our history, who think differently and therefore unnaturally.

The first event was when human beings became self-conscious. Because we know we are alive as individuals, we can choose to protect our own life at the expense of others. It is notable, however, that in dangerous situations, people don’t always choose their own life over that of others. We hear often of people who choose to sacrifice their own safety to protect others, particularly women and children, who are the future of the species. They act naturally.

The second event was the European Enlightenment which encouraged us to think very highly of individuals. The Enlightenment accorded to individuals human rights. The Enlightenment encouraged individuals to greater self-expression.

Could it not be that the Enlightenment project is against nature?

It is natural to think not of the individual but of the species. It is natural for people to be stirred up about the damaging effects of climate change: our species is at risk. The plight of low-lying island nations like Kirabiti and the Maldives stirs deep emotions. We don’t want human habitat to be wiped out.

To think that God’s imagination can provide nothing better than the survival of individuals after death is to think poorly of God. God’s mind is on the main game, which is played by species not their individual members.

This is why I find the usual ideas about life after death lame in comparison with the glorious visions of future humanity put forward by say, Teilhard de Chardin and Ilia Delio. As individuals we are secure in Christ. But as a species, how much more secure is our life.

Teilhard’s vision was that homo sapiens continues to evolve. We have come to self-consciousness and are moving towards a complete humanity in Christ. Jesus, the true human is coming to his Omega Point, where humanity converges with God. We will be raised up into the One who has made us.

Ilia’s focus, it seems to me, is on a slightly closer time. What is the next step of this evolutionary journey? How close will humanity come to its machines? Will brains be uploaded into computers? Will human beings extend their thinking power through new digital media? Is our destiny – short-term – to be cyborgs?

In the broader vision, I suspect the speculations of Ilia and others will be swept aside by an even grander picture of what homo sapiens will become, and will have more to do with what happens as the individual is transcended and we each become part of a greater whole. Again, the technological revolution gives us the clue, as the Web becomes more and more an extension of individual minds into the minds of others.

It is true that there are dangers. Monsters may be born. But the teaching of evolution is that that which is best suited to its environment will flourish, and homo sapiens will become more a creature of the cosmos rather than less.

These are extraordinary and beautiful visions of our future life. Bring it on!

Suffering unto death?


The comment was only half in jest, and it caught me by surprise. “You sound disappointed that you weren’t diagnosed with bone cancer or blood cancer.” My answer was the sanctioned one: “I am disappointed that they haven’t found something that they can treat. I don’t really care what its name is.”

The truth is, there is a little part of me that felt disappointed when the scans and blood tests returned negative. Of course, that’s partly explained not as a death wish, but as frustration with my symptoms, which have been powerful enough on some days for me to think that death would be easier to bear than the pain.

But my friend made me wonder. During those days of waiting for results I did rehearse my reactions to the possible diagnosis of a fatal illness. The prospect that I would not have more years with Rae filled me with pain. The thought that, though I might live to see Clare’s wedding, I might not see the children she will have with James and watch them as babies, toddlers, children, adolescents and growing to adulthood, seared my heart. The idea that I would not be around long enough to see Brendan settled and happy troubled me deeply.

No, I am not disappointed. I want the chance of more life. But I hope I am also strong enough to face my mortality, and to wonder what that now means to me as a Christian. These last weeks have reaffirmed for me the stark fact that I will die, if not soon, then in the coming decade or two. And whatever I believe, I cannot escape the reality of nature: death is the end. We live, we die. Anything that might be beyond our life span would be a sheer miraculous gift of the Most High. Resurrection is by definition surprise.

It is many years since I believed (if ever I really did) in my continuing existence after death as an individual. I hope I have not given false comfort to people over the years that they will somehow be reunited beyond the ashes or the grave with their loved ones in some happy valley. This false but widespread belief is both arrogant and petty: Arrogant to believe that human beings are so important in the scheme of the Cosmos, and petty to think so poorly of God’s imagination.

By definition, “eternal” cannot be after anything. The word itself tells us that the grace of God operates not after our death, but beyond our life – out of time. As far as we can know now, eternal life is about the intensity with which we live in this too short space between birth and death. Eternal life is about our gratitude now. Eternal life is about intentionally taking time to be simply in the Presence of all that is.

Looking forward to some second-rate paradise after death will in fact take away from the joy and brilliance of living in the now.

Instead, we should be journeying within to discover the broad and marvel-filled country of our souls. Instead of yearning for a union with those whom we love in the past, we could be yearning for a greater quality of loving those we are given to love now.

I am not afraid of the darkness to come. The problem is that sometimes I am afraid of the brightness of the light here and now.

Planetary nebula NGC 2818

Use your brain


Pain clinics usually have psychologists. That’s not because chronic pain is a mental illness, but because the mind has resources that can help us change the way we look at our pain. Pain psychologists are more like sports psychologists than ordinary psychologists. They are basically interested in getting us to perform better.

There are parallels between elite athletes and people with chronic pain. The most obvious is the necessity for exercise. To manage chronic pain we must be in training always. The type of exercise may vary depending on your level of disability, but I must have significant exercise every day to give the cardio-vascular system a work out.

At the moment, that means I start my walk with the ritual of calling the dog, getting her to sit and attaching her lead. Then we walk for 10-15 minutes. My next goal is to take a slightly different route that will add 5 minutes to my walk and conclude with a significant climb.

Deep water-running
Deep water-running

When summer comes, I take to the swimming pool and do ‘water-running’ and gradually build up my times and my effort. I’m currently on 4 x 50 metre laps, at just over 4 minutes a lap. My pulse and breathing rates get to near my safe limit, so I will continue doing 4 laps until my vital rates are lower. Then I will add a half-lap, and then another.

To do this properly requires a bit of obsession. I have to be disciplined like an athlete preparing for a big meet. To keep on track, I have to use my brain, and not only for exercise. Like an athlete, I use my brain to reframe and refine my attitudes. For example, the attitude that the world owes me is not a helpful attitude for an athlete or a person with long-term pain. My attitude needs to be not that I am owed anything, but that I have something to give, and I have the capacity to achieve.

Along the Bibbulman Track
Along the Bibbulman Track

Near the town where I live is a walking trail called The Bibbulmun Track. Named after the local aboriginal clan, the trail winds its way through most of the traditional Bibbulman lands. Walkers take up to 6 weeks to trek the length of the trail through jarrah and karri forests and coastland heath. From September to November, the wildflowers fill the bush with colour. The cool mornings of winter bring a crisp mist to the karri forests. I think it is the most beautiful country on earth.

For some time, I have not been able to walk on the Bibbulman track. It’s not that I want to walk from one end to the other. I would just like to be able to drive to a place where the trail intersects the highway and walk for three hours or so.

I am not physically able to manage that walk at present, but I use my brain to motivate my body to heal. I hold it up to myself as a goal. I set myself this goal as a participant in the Pain Understanding and Management Program at our local hospital. Now many months later, I am not much closer to my goal. But having the goal has kept me walking every day. Having the goal has increased my appreciation of our own native garden.

Our front garden
Our front garden

My brain can heal my body, and I like getting the most out of it.