Thought for the Day
Every week during school closure and lockdown, our very own Reverend Philip Jackson has shared with us a philosophical reflection to help our community pause and consider the wider perspective.
Thought 31- Sportsmanship
On Friday this week we have the first of our two Sports Days (weather permitting…!) These are such great opportunities to get out of the classroom after a busy exam week for many, and to focus on some physical activity and working hard to get points for your house! Of course, it is totally natural to enter into Sports Day looking for success and aiming to win. There is nothing wrong with having a competitive edge and striving to do your best. It can be a huge motivator to want to win and to use that incentive to keep going, even when you are exhausted! However, it is also really good to remember that winning is not the only mark of success, or even perhaps the most important one.
In the passion of the competition it can be really easy to get caught up in all that and to forget who we want to be as sportsmen and women. How do we want to compete? How do we want to treat our opponent? What might it mean to ‘play well’? I believe it is possible to be fiercely competitive, but still to hold on to the vital virtues of fair play and kindness.
You do not find many athletes more fiery or competitive than Andy Roddick, but during the 2005 Rome Masters he also showed remarkable sportsmanship and respect for his opponent and the game. In his third round match against Spaniard Fernando Verdasco, Roddick had match point with Verdasco on his second serve. The linesman called out which gave Roddick the victory, but Roddick pointed out the ball mark on the clay which proved that it was in and the call was changed. Verdasco went on to win the match and Roddick was eliminated from the competition. Verdasco later thanked Roddick and called him a great sportsman. This is certainly true, as many would simply take the victory and blame the umpire for making a mistake on the call. Not Roddick, however, who may have been knocked out despite his sportsmanlike behaviour, but he went on to have a remarkable career.
So, as you enjoy the competition and strive to win this summer, also remember that example of Roddick, and seek to play in such a way that you can be proud of who you are, even if you don’t win!
Thought 30- Friendship
Last year there was a news story about a man called Matthew. Although Matthew was born blind he did not shy away from challenges in life. Last year he decided to take up the sport of rock climbing, even though he couldn’t see the rock, the route or the rope. How on earth could he manage to do this? Well the short answer is friendship.
Fortunately Matthew had a friend called Max who decided he was going to help Matthew with his new hobby. He did this in two ways. The first way was he created a new way to hep Matthew understand the routes he was climbing by using Lego! He spaced the Lego bricks out in the same order of the holds on the route that Matthew was climbing so he could learn the route by touch before he was even on the climbing wall. The second way was that he was Matthew’s caller. That means that as Matthew climbs up the route, Max calls out where the holds are and helps Matthew to find his way up to the top of the wall, all the time keeping him safe on the rope. This is such a wonderful picture of friendship! Being inventive to help a friend overcome obstacles as well as helping someone find the right way. Matthew comments in the BBC news clip, ‘It feels great to be able to trust someone with your life. I trust Max with my life completely…’
True friendship is based on this kind of trust. It can often feel in life that we are stuck and we don’t know which way to go- we simply can’t see the right way ahead. This wonderful image of friendship is that a true friend is someone who calls out the route for us and helps us find the way when we are stuck ourselves, and we trust them to help us find the next hold in life.
I wonder this week if you can be this kind of friend to someone in your life.
Thought 29- Ending well
It’s been so lovely over this past week or so to see students bearing gifts all around the school to give to the teachers who have worked so hard to support them over these last few years. This time of year is always bitter sweet. As things come to an end for the exam classes, it is just wonderful to see how the students have grown in confidence and maturity over the years. However, there is of course also sadness as we have to say goodbye to many of them, and we will miss them! This is part of the reality of life- change and endings are part of what it means to be human. And that is right and healthy. However, it is also important that these endings are done well.
That is why it gives me great joy to see all these presents and cards around the school. As things end it is an opportunity to say thank you to one another. To thank teachers for their contribution and also for teachers to thank students too for their part in the school community and that journey of learning. As we thank one another we acknowledge that we have all left a mark and impression on one another. That we are each a small part of the story of our lives- that really is truly amazing! And we also have chance to say the things that need to be said.
It can often be the case that someone doesn’t really know how significant they have been for us through our school life. Endings give us the chance to let them know. Occasionally it can also be a good opportunity to say sorry too. We all make mistakes, and as we head into a new chapter, maybe it could be time to apologise for hurt that you may have been part of in the past. These things can sometimes be tricky to say in person, if that is the case then a simple card can be so powerful.
So, perhaps if you are facing an ending this week or soon, take some time to think how to end well.
Hope you all have a lovely half term if you are lucky enough to have the week off.
Thought 28- Good Disagreement
You haven’t got to look very far in the news in an average week to see a conflict or an issue that has been caused by groups who see the world in very different ways. Much of the world has looked on in horror as the hostilities in the Israel-Palestinian conflict have yet again been costing many lives on both sides of the conflict. It is heart breaking to see families torn apart by losing homes, livelihoods and loved ones. I don’t want to pretend that there are simple solutions in these incredibly complex conflicts, but I do think that many of the issues in the world, our communities and our families come down to us not being able to disagree well with one another.
The reality is that there are many different perspectives in life and many different ways of understanding the same set of problems and issues. When we meet someone who has radically different ideas to us, the temptation can be to dismiss their views immediately, or even tell them that they shouldn’t express those views. However, if we are truly open to learning and growing then we also need to be open to listening to all views; even those we think are wrong.
The American attorney, politician and actor in the 1920’s Dudley Field Malone once said, “I have never in my life learned anything from any man who agreed with me.” Whilst it can be very hard to truly listen to those whose views we find challenging, it can also be true that just sometimes we can learn a great deal from those differences. And even when we can’t learn from them, the act of respectful listening and good disagreement can help to avoid conflicts that are repeated time and again the world over. So, perhaps this week when you are about to get into an argument with someone you disagree with, just take some time to stop, listen and see if there things you can learn. And even if there aren’t, that doesn’t stop us from disagreeing well with one another!
Thought 27- Eid Mubarak!
As many of you will know, our Muslim friends and neighbours have been observing a month of fasting over Ramadan, which ends tomorrow with the celebration of Eid-Al-Fitr. Over the month of fasting many Muslims will have had nothing to eat or drink during the hours of daylight, and the breaking of the fast is a wonderful opportunity to come together with family and friends to thank Allah for his faithfulness through the fast and to celebrate together. The traditional greeting during Eid is’ ‘Eid Mubarak’, which simply means, ‘blessed or happy Eid.’ Many Muslim families will be meeting one another and sharing special food and perhaps exchanging gifts too.
Celebrating with each other is such an important way of building friendships and community, as well as marking special occasions. We are often quite good at celebrating birthdays or festivals, but perhaps we should look for other opportunities to celebrate as well. There have been precious few opportunities for celebration over this last year and now with the recent announcements from the government it seems that more of our restrictions may be lifting. It seems to me that there are plenty of reasons as to why we might find some excuses for a summer of celebration! An opportunity to share joy with one another and to meet up again with family and friends that we have been separated from for so long.
So as you wish your Muslim friends Eid Mubarak, why not join in with sharing their celebrations and joy. And not only that, why not plan your own summer celebration and share some joy with others.
(Note- The T & P department is hosting an Eid party for all year groups at different times during Thursday lunchtime in the small garden by the swimming pool next to D1. Students ask your tutor for more information, but everyone is welcome. Eid Mubarak!’
Thought 26- An ordinary day…
It’s a dirty word isn’t it? Ordinary. So often we are striving for the extraordinary. Whether that is in the skills and talents that we are growing into. Or perhaps in the experiences of life that we are aiming to enjoy (and upload!). We can sometimes despise the everyday, the normal, the unremarkable. It can feel like it has limited value and limited potential. And yet, the reality is that the ordinary is where we spend most of our lives and our time. It is the very definition of the word- ‘not unusual or different in any way’. Things would cease to be extraordinary if they happened all the time! So, it is important then that we acknowledge the reality of living in the ordinary. That we don’t despise it or devalue it, but rather we are able to embrace it and find joy, meaning and purpose in it.
In one of my favourite books, The Hobbit, Gandalf is being asked to explain the apparently strange choice of Bilbo Baggins to join the adventure and he says this:
“Some believe it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but that is not what I have found. It is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay. Small acts of kindness and love. Why Bilbo Baggins? Perhaps because I am afraid, and he gives me courage.”
It was a very ordinary and insignificant Hobbit who was the hero of that story. Yes, he did do some remarkable things, but the majority of his life he lived as an ordinary Hobbit in the Shire. That was what Gandalf found inspiring. We may well be called at some stage of our life to remarkable and significant adventures (probably less dragons than Bilbo though…) but most of our lives will likely be lived in an ordinary way. We need to remember that even if that is true, it is in the ordinary acts of love and kindness in everyday life that can keep the darkness at bay. So, perhaps today we can embrace the ordinary!
Thought 25: Vulnerability
I wonder if you are a fan of those great epic medieval battles. You know the ones with the courageous knights on horseback, spur in hand galloping towards each other! The iconic image is of course of these knights in their suits of shining armour; the sunlight glinting off them, visors down and ready to face anything. If you have been to a historic castle or somewhere that you can see or even try on suits of armour, you will know that whilst they were incredibly effective at protecting the knight from various sharp weapons, they did also make it a bit tricky to move very easily!
I sometimes feel that we can be a bit like those knights within our relationships. We can be so worried about being hurt by others that we try and protect ourselves by putting metaphorical armour on. This might be putting on a ‘brave face’ or pretending to be people we are not to please those around us. Sometimes we might feel we need this protection and that is natural at times, but the problem is that it can stop us from really truly knowing one another and connecting with one another. Have you ever tried to give a hug to someone in a suit of armour? It is impossible!! The very thing that aims to protect us also stops us from growing in our relationships.
It is so important that we have people that we can be vulnerable with. Friends and family who we can be real with about our struggles and who we really are. Often the only way we can grow in our relationships with others is by taking off our metaphorical armour and having that honest conversation. So, perhaps a challenge for us this week is to choose a friend or family member that we trust and share something with them that we usually keep hidden under our armour. In allowing ourselves to be vulnerable we can also give permission for others to do the same, and that can be a huge gift. The author Brené Brown puts it like this, ‘We cultivate love when we allow our most vulnerable and powerful selves to be deeply seen and known…’ Sometimes it requires even more courage to take off the armour than to put it on- let’s take a risk this week and let ourselves be known.
Thought 24: Self Discipline
Ramadan started earlier on this month when a number of our Muslim neighbours and friends are fasting from sunrise to sunset. I am always so impressed with the self-discipline and commitment that Muslim pupils show over this month- especially when they are so surrounded by the sights and smells of food on a daily basis in school. It is hard for many of us to understand this kind of discipline, as in today’s world we generally don’t like saying no to something that we want. We somehow can feel that holding ourselves back from something that we want or desire goes against our human rights- that we should always give ourselves exactly what we want!
However, much as self-discipline gets a bad press these days it is I believe an essential virtue that we need to develop to live a healthy and fruitful life. Discipline means sometimes saying no, so that we can embrace a bigger yes. Athletes know all about this. I am sure there are many times when the desire to skip training is a huge wish for many athletes. The possibility of switching the alarm clock off, turning over and having another 30 minutes in bed rather than going for that run is probably a very attractive one for many athletes at times. And yet, to be successful in the way that they want to, they have to keep a very strong sense of self discipline, so that they can improve and succeed. The American football coach and ex-player, Jeff Fisher puts it like this. ‘Discipline is doing what you really don’t want to do, so that you can do what you really want to do.’
I wonder what things you need to embrace or put aside, so that you can do what you really want to do. As we reflect on our Muslim friends and colleagues and their self-discipline over this Ramadan, it is a good opportunity to ask ourselves whether there are areas of our life that we need to become more disciplined in, so we can grow into the people we want to become.
Thought 23: Keep Shining
In a previous job I used to work in a residential centre in the Highlands of Scotland. One of the activities we used to do with the young people was to take them out to a nearby forest at night time. Once we had arrived we would take them off the path, all turn off our torches and (without light pollution) the darkness would completely envelope us. It was fun, but also a little scary as total darkness can be. There was no chance at all of moving around as within seconds you would trip over a tree or get lost! It was only when a single candle was lit that the darkness was chased away enough for the young people to be able to find their way together back on to the path.
This week marked the one year anniversary since lockdown began. It is hard to comprehend just how much our lives have changed over this year and how challenging it has been for so many individuals and families. For many of us it has been a year of real and deep darkness that has felt almost impossible to find our way out of at times. However, it is also true that within that darkness there have also been flickers, glimmers and even beacons of light shining, driving away the darkness and helping us to find the way. In our act of reflection on Tuesday, as a school we gave thanks for all those people who have selflessly served us in the NHS and as key workers over this year. In seeking to keep us safe and to keep the country running they have been beacons of light and hope for each one of us and we are so grateful.
On Tuesday the whole school community also had the opportunity to lay down a tea light in the Old Library. This simple act of reflection is a powerful sign and symbol that even in the darkness of this pandemic we can all take the choice to shine as lights through that darkness. We may feel more like a flickering flame than a blazing beam, but regardless of the strength of our light, it still drives away the darkness! It only takes one candle….
Each one of us can choose to be those lights to those around us in our families, classrooms and workplaces. Maybe a good question for all of us to ask as we head into the Easter holidays is how can I drive away the darkness and make someone’s world just a little lighter?
Thought 22: Sarah Everard
The events of the last few weeks with the disappearance and murder of Sarah Everard have shocked and saddened the whole nation. As many have rightly pointed out, it is not that women are at more of a risk now than they were before her murder, but rather that this has shone a light on how many women feel vulnerable on a daily basis in their everyday lives. It seems to me that as a community we need to understand this and take seriously the need to act. It is always easy to say that others need to do something- leaders and politicians, but the truth is that action needs to start with each one of us in this community.
Of course I am not suggesting that our community is a place where women and girls feel at risk, but I do still think that how we behave and speak can have a huge impact on this community and well beyond it. Whether it is on social media or in face to face conversations with friends, it is really important to ask ourselves the question as to whether we are behaving and speaking with respect to everyone- that even extends to people who we may not know personally.
I think we can remind ourselves of two important things when we are speaking about others in our groups. Firstly, would we be saying the things we are saying about someone if they were there and could hear us? Words spoken carelessly can be so damaging, and that damage can be very hard to repair- we need to think carefully before we speak. Secondly, remember when you are speaking about someone, that even if you don’t know them, they are someone’s daughter or sister, or someone’s brother or son. How would you feel if someone was talking about a member of your family in the way that you are speaking?
Finally, we also need to be courageous enough to challenge those around us who are showing a lack of respect. This is the most difficult thing of all for many of us, and yet it is also one of the clear ways that we can bring long term change to a culture. If you can tell that a conversation with your friends is heading in a direction that does not show respect to someone, then speak up.
It isn’t easy, but change starts with each one of us having the courage to act.
Thought 21: I’m out of control…!
Have you ever had that experience of running down a hill at speed and your legs barely keeping up with your body?! It is a feeling of being out of control where you know that at any minute you could take a tumble and there is no way you can stop the force of gravity getting you to the bottom of that hill! Whilst there might be times like this that we feel excited about being out of control, for many of us the lack of control we can sometimes feel in our lives is something that many of us struggle with.
The events of the last year have shown perhaps more clearly than ever that as human beings there is a limit as to what we control. Even with the all the governments of world working on a solution to this pandemic we have not been able to control things as we would have wished. This is also the case in other parts of our lives too. Whilst there are many things that we can prepare for and plan for, there are some events that are simply outside our control and no amount of action on our part will change that. The events of tomorrow are unknown to us, and no amount of worrying about those things outside our control will make any difference to the outcome.
Jesus spoke about this powerfully in his famous Sermon on the Mount when he said, ‘Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.’ (Matthew 6:34) It is perhaps another way of saying don’t worry about what you can’t control, focus on living in the present. Of course there are things that we can plan for and work for that will make a difference to tomorrow, and part of responsible living is to work hard for our future. However, there is still much that we cannot control and we need to come to a place of peace that there will always be an element of the unknown about tomorrow, always part of the future that is hidden from us. Of course part of this is scary, but I do also believe that is partly what keeps life interesting and exciting for us as humans. If everything was fully known and predictable, then life might not be quite so interesting. The challenge for all of us is explained well in the famous ‘Serenity Prayer’.
‘God, grant me the serenity (calm or composure) to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.’
Whether you use this as a prayer or simply as a meditation, I commend it to you as a way of accepting that there are times when we are simply not in control- and that is just part of being human.
Thought 20: Changing Seasons
I love this time of year as we say goodbye to the long dark nights and the freezing air and welcome in spring. It is such a time of hope as the first buds and blossoms appear on the trees and the snowdrops and daffodils break through the earth. We even sometimes see the sun making more of an appearance! No matter how hard and cold winter is, we can always guarantee that spring will come- even if it can feel like a long wait at times!
The different seasons can be a helpful way to think about our own lives sometimes. There are times when it can feel like our life is in deepest point of winter and we are really struggling, and then other times when we feel like summer has come and we feel amazing. This is all part of the experience of being human. We might not like being in a winter period of our life, but it does mean that when spring comes we can really appreciate it and enjoy it. What I think is interesting is that nature does transitions between seasons really well. We don’t jump from winter to summer in one leap, but we have the gradual change between seasons as the world unfurls itself again.
For many of us this winter has been a time of real struggle- we may feel that it has been a winter in our own lives as well as outside our windows. It can certainly be argued that as a nation and world we have been facing a winter in every sense. It has, at times for some of us, felt like a metaphorical winter that will never end. So, it is even more wonderful that as we look forward to returning to school next week, there are real signs of winter lifting and spring coming, in every sense. The falling numbers of infections along with the successful vaccination programme should give us huge encouragement that the seasons are changing!
However, that doesn’t mean that there won’t still be challenges ahead. Sometimes we can get a really cold snap, and even snow, once spring has begun. As we re-enter school and the wider world there will be so much to be excited about and to look forward to, but there might be a few cold snaps too! As we re-establish our relationships with friends, teachers and colleagues, and get used to being back in the classroom, it is really important that we are gentle with ourselves and one another.
Just as nature takes time to transition between seasons, so we too need to take our time in embracing all the opportunities that the coming weeks hold. Don’t put yourself under pressure to move straight to summer mode with filling every moment of every day. Of course enjoy all the possibilities and the activity, but also take your time to enjoy this transition. It’s been a long hard winter, but have hope- spring is here!
Thought 19: CAN YOU UNDERSTAND ME?!
One of the most excruciating things that I have experienced is being overseas and seeing a Brit abroad trying to communicate with a local. Without a word of the local dialect, the voice is raised and slowed as if that alone will communicate effectively. It is so embarrassing, and even more so when I am that Brit abroad! (Sorry MFL dept!)
Good communication is at the very heart of building healthy relationships. Right now it is perhaps even more important than ever to communicate well with our loved ones, our family and friends. Whilst of course most of us have the same spoken language as our loved ones, this is only one way of communicating. The American author, Gary Chapman, believes that there are five ‘love languages’. Five primary ways that we communicate our love to those around us. The problem is that if we speak one type of love language and the person we are talking to doesn’t, then it can be like we are a Brit abroad! We can think we are communicating love, but they aren’t receiving that communication. They are simply hearing noise.
Gary Chapman believes that the five primary love languages are; 1. Words of Affirmation – saying supportive things to your loved one. 2. Acts of Service – doing helpful things for your loved one. 3. Receiving Gifts – giving your loved one gifts that tell them you were thinking about them. 4. Quality Time – spending meaningful time with your loved one. 5. Physical Touch -being close to and enjoying hugs with your loved one.
Of course all the love languages are valid and valuable, but Chapman says that we all have two primary love languages that we ‘speak’. The problem comes when I speak a different language to you but I don’t realise that. So, I could be sending you all the presents possible, thinking I am communicating love to you, but if your love language is quality time, then those presents won’t make you feel loved and our relationship might suffer.
So perhaps our challenge this week could be to work out which two love languages we ‘speak’ ourselves. Once we have worked that out then think about your family and friends and try and work out what language they ‘speak’. If you are not sure, why not ask them?! Once we know the language they speak then we need to stop shouting like a Brit abroad, and instead learn their language, so we can clearly show them how much we love them.
Thought 18- Muddy Running
One of the things I have been doing to try and stay sane and healthy over lockdown is cross country running. We are so lucky to have some beautiful countryside in this part of the world, and getting out for a run really helps to clear my head and gives me some space. However, recently it’s been a struggle! The tracks around Reigate Hill where I tend to run have been more like rivers and lakes. I have often come back home after a run coated in mud and soaking wet. I don’t mind that too much, but what is more of a challenge is running over and through the mud itself. Everything takes so much longer when you are slipping and sliding around. Not only does it take longer than usual, but it requires so much more effort too! My strava stats are taking a beating…
Perhaps running through the mud is not a bad analogy for how some of us are feeling in this latest lockdown. If you are feeling like everything is taking longer to do and you are even more tired than usual to do it, then I don’t think you are alone. It can really feel like we are wading through mud right now just to do the simplest of tasks.
One of the things that is so important when I have been out for a long mud run is to rest my muscles afterwards and give some time for them to be revitalised. In this lock down race we are running it is no less important to take the need for rest seriously. It has been a really challenging half term for many of us and it seems really important for all of us to have some time to rest our mental muscles over this half term break. We can find it hard to take real rest and to stop working, and yet, right from the earliest of times human beings have had the cycle of work and rest modelled to them. In the Christian and Jewish traditions, part of the creation story is that God worked for six days and rested on the seventh. It seems to me that this takes seriously our need to rest and suggests that it is an essential part of our humanity. We are, after all, human beings, not human doings!
So, this half term, take a break from wading through the mud, and have a rest!
Thought 17- Living in the Present
I don’t know how often you have those experiences in life where you are so absorbed in what you are doing that your focus is completely and fully in that present moment. For some of us that might be when we are involved in a creative task such as painting, colouring or cooking. For others of us it might be when we are focussed on a sport or activity. We don’t even have to be engaged in something we like doing to have this experience. The last time I tried to build some Ikea furniture I was so absorbed in trying to work out which way up the diagrams went that all other thoughts of past or future disappeared from my mind. I was painfully in the present moment!
In fact, whether it is doing something we love, or something we loathe, being in the present moment in this way is something that is really helpful to cultivate in our lives. We can help to develop this outlook by simply paying more attention to what we are doing in each moment of our lives, rather than rushing through everything. So often in our lives we are so desperate to get to the next thing that we can miss the gift of the present moment that is right before us.
Right now we are all looking ahead to the time when we can get back to school, get back to seeing family and friends and something more like normal life. This is completely natural, but the risk is that we can be so desperate to get to that time that we miss the gift of the present. Even with all the challenges we have right now, I believe it is still possible to see each day as a gift- a precious moment that we will never have again.
There is a great philosopher who says it far better than I can, and I will let him have the final word this week…
“What day is it?” asked Pooh.
“It’s today,” squeaked Piglet.
“My favourite day,” said Pooh.”
(A.A. Milne, Winnie the Pooh)
Thought 16- Rediscovering Wonder
Pulling back the curtains on Sunday morning, the most wonderful snowscape greeted me! Seeing the ground freshly coated in this beautiful pure white snow brought a bit of wonder and magic to many of our weekends. The opportunity to get out in that snow for some was perhaps even better! Whether it was snowmen building, sledging or mass snowball fights it was certainly a welcome relief from what can sometimes feel like a pretty monotonous lockdown existence of each day being the same. However, for me it was simply watching the snow fall and the transforming of the landscape that led to me feeling refreshed and revived, as well as remembering again the importance of seeing wonder in the world around us.
In fact many psychologists believe that finding a sense of wonder and awe in our lives is a really important way of protecting our mental health and happiness. However, this is not a new idea! The Roman philosopher and Emperor Marcus Aurelius said this in his Meditations. “Dwell on the beauty of life. Watch the stars, and see yourself running with them.”
During this period it can be all too easy to close our eyes to the wonders around us. And yet, the world is full of possibilities to reignite our sense of awe. We can get outside on a clear night and join Marcus Aurelius in watching the stars and allowing our mind to be blown at just how many there are. We can watch out for the remarkable murmurations of starlings that happen at this time of year and that make the sky look alive. We can see the incredible formation of ice crystals on the plants and trees, or watch a beautiful sunrise or sunset with all the vivid colours of reds and oranges. There are so many different ways that we can rediscover our sense of wonder and awe, we simply need to stop and open our eyes.
PS- Another clip for you again this week! If you want to have your wonder re-ignited, have a look at this clip from National Geographic of some starling murmurations. And then try to find some in your own sky!
Thought 15- Better Together
I wonder whether you have been tuning into the latest offering from the amazing David Attenborough on TV? ‘A Perfect Planet’ looks at the remarkable ways that our natural world functions in harmony and how everything on our planet is so balanced and connected. In this week’s programme about weather, there was an amazing sequence that has really stayed with me.
David Attenborough described how the fire ants in Peru cope with the annual floods. These tiny insects have a remarkable capacity to survive the rising waters each year, but the only way they can do that is by literally sticking together. When the waters come and their underground home become submerged the ants group together and make a raft out of all their bodies. They lock legs together with their neighbours creating this living raft which can not only float on the water but can also travel to a new dry home so they are safe until the water recede again.
In his commentary Attenborough says, “This is the power of the colony. By working together they become unsinkable. And no one gets left behind…”
It seems to me that we have much to learn from these tiny ants. It perhaps feels like the metaphorical flood waters are rising for us and we can feel that we might become overwhelmed by everything that is happening in the world and perhaps in our lives. At least part of the answer is that we need to be in our colony. We need to lock together with those around us so we can navigate these waters. And we too need to be determined that not one of us will be left behind. If we have this view then, perhaps like the ants, we too can be unsinkable whatever we face. So my challenge to us all this week? Harness your inner fire ant!
PS- If you want to watch a clip of the fire ants go to this web site.
Thought 14- Keeping Hope Alive
As we are back in full lock down once again, I thought I would resume my weekly ‘Thoughts’ to try and give us all a little encouragement to keep going in what can feel like a really tough time for all of us. I think one of the ways that we can be encouraged and inspired in times like this is to look at those who have lived through challenging times before, and to learn from their experiences. One such person I think we can learn from is Nelson Mandela.
We all know that Mandela had a set of hugely challenging circumstances that most of can’t ever imagine coping with. He was held in awful conditions in his 27 years in Robben Island Prison. Dank concrete cells which were overcrowded and dirty. The prisoners were expected to work every day in the lime quarry under the baking South African sun. There was no rest or relief from this life and Mandela was not even allowed out of prison for his Mother’s or his Son’s funeral. How do you keep hope alive in those kind of circumstances, year after year?
Back in 2018 the letters that Nelson Mandela wrote from his time in prison were released. In them we see a man who refused to allow his circumstances to control and govern his feelings. Despite everything Mandela immersed himself in hope. In one of those letters he wrote this to his wife, ‘it is not so much the disability one suffers from that matters but one’s attitude to it. The man who says: I will conquer this illness and live a happy life is already halfway through to victory. Remember that hope is a powerful weapon even when all else is lost.’
I know that many of us feel like this pandemic has gone on far too long already and we are becoming more and more frustrated with what feels like a never ending enforced lockdown. We miss so much about our normal lives and it can be really easy to lose hope and to feel like this will never end. We need to keep hope alive as Mandela did. Yes, times are tough right now, but we do have the hope of a future and we need to keep our eyes focused and fixed on that hope. Even in the bleakest of times we can be inspired by people like Mandela, and we too can still choose hope.
Thought 13: Why?
It is one of the questions that human beings have been asking for millennia when challenging circumstances come along and upend our plans and ideas- why?! I am sure that there are many of us who have been asking that question over the last few months. ‘Why did this virus have to hit now when… I have just launched a new business…just planned the dream holiday…was just about to go to University…’ There are many good reasons for asking that question right now with many people grieving for lost hopes, dreams and loved ones. On one level there is something really healthy about allowing ourselves to be honest and angry. Allowing ourselves to ask that question- we do need to grieve.
However, we also need to have the strength, in time, to turn away from that pain and frustration to ask ourselves what we are going to do. I mentioned a few weeks ago that the ‘Lord of the Rings’ was one of my favourite books. Another fabulous quote from that book comes as Gandalf explains to Frodo the history of the one ring and how Frodo has a role to play in the story. Behind Frodo’s response to Gandalf is that eternal question of, ‘why now…why me…?’
“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo. “So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
I am so proud of RGS and how all of you as an extended school community have responded to exceptional circumstances over these last few months. Despite many of you feeling like Frodo and finding yourself in conditions that you could never have imagined at the start of 2020, so many of you have acted in the way that Gandalf describes above. That despite everything, you have chosen to use this time in the best way you can. As you enjoy (I hope!) a well-earned break over this summer holidays, I hope you know that you have risen to the challenge of this moment. I hope as well, that you are able to get some rest so that you can return to school in September ready to keep deciding ‘what to do with the time that is given us.’
Thought 12: Cracked Pots
Not many of us enjoy our failures, weaknesses and mistakes. And yet, these are an inevitable part of life- things to help us grow and learn, rather than to be feared and avoided at all costs. It is also the case that whilst we may not be able to see it at the time, our weaknesses and mistakes can sometimes have positive outcomes…
‘A water-bearer in India had two large pots, both hung on the ends of a pole, which he carried across his neck. One of the pots had a crack in it while the other pot was perfect and always delivered a full portion of water. At the end of the long walk from the stream to the house, the cracked pot always arrived half full.
The poor cracked pot was ashamed of its own imperfection, and miserable that it was able to accomplish only half of what it had been made to do. After two years of what it perceived to be a bitter failure, it spoke to the water-bearer one day by the stream:
‘I am ashamed of myself, and I want to apologise to you. I have been able to deliver only half my load because this crack in my side causes water to leak out all the way back to your house. Because of my flaws, you have to do all of this work, and you don’t get full value from your efforts.’
The bearer said to the pot, ‘Did you notice that there were flowers only on your side of the path, but not on the other pot’s side? That’s because I have always known about your flaw, and I planted flower seeds on your side of the path, and every day while we walk back, you’ve watered them. For two years I have been able to pick these beautiful flowers to decorate the table. Without you being just the way you are, there would not be this beauty to grace the house.’
If you feel like a cracked pot or a failure today, take hope. You can still make a difference- sometimes in ways you could never even imagine.
(Story taken from The Bible in One Year and sent in by an RGS parent)
Thought 11: The Power of Words
I wrote last week about the power of listening and how that can be the greatest gift we can give one another. However, even though I think we are called to listen twice as much as we speak, we are still called to speak! Those words that we choose to speak have immense power- often far more than we think. They have the power to build up or the power to destroy. The words we speak to those around us can be words of love, challenge and encouragement. Words that aim to bring life and hope. Or they can be words that are negative, always seeking to criticise and find fault or gossip about others. It is so easy to be careless with our words and to speak them before we really have thought about the potential damage they can do. The author Jodi PIcoult puts it like this, ‘“Words are like eggs dropped from great heights; you can no more call them back than ignore the mess they leave when they fall.”
The amazing thing is that we each have the potential to use this power for the good of others, rather than leaving lots of mess in our wake. I wonder if you can remember the last time someone said something to you that was encouraging, expressed kindness or was complimentary in some way. Now think how that made you feel. It may be that you felt a little embarrassed- we are not always good at accepting compliments! However, I am sure it left you with a bit of a glow inside, a bounce in your step! Each one of us has the power to give someone else that feeling this week…
Of course, there is also another side to the power of words too. The challenge of the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement has reminded us all of the responsibility we have to speak out against all forms of injustice. To challenge inequality and to use our words (and actions) to build a fairer society. This is not always easy and can be costly. Words of challenge are not cheap, but they can bring change. So, this week, remember that your words have power! The only thing you need to decide is how you are going to use that power…
Thought 10: The Power of Listening
I have no doubt that one of greatest gifts that we can give one another in these strange days is that of truly listening to each other. It is often said that we have two ears and one mouth, because we should listen twice as much as we talk. I think this is true, but too often even if we aren’t talking, we aren’t really listening either! The American essayist and philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson, makes this point when he says, ‘There is a difference between truly listening and waiting for your turn to talk.’
It is so easy to enter into our conversations with the sole aim of getting across our point of view and any listening we do can really just be in the form of waiting to get our point across. The true gift of listening is quite different to this…
Real listening happens when we come with no agenda other than wanting to know someone deeper and understand them more. We put down our phones, and other distractions, and we simply give someone the gift of being truly heard. This kind of listening means that in that moment all of our attention is on that one person. It doesn’t sound like much, but I believe it can be a gift like no other- to be truly heard.
This is true at all times, but I think in this unusual time, when we are perhaps a little more anxious than usual, the gift of listening is especially powerful. It can bring peace and healing, as well as transforming our relationships. Let’s be a community that harnesses this amazing power of listening with our friends, family and colleagues. Let’s listen well.
Thought 9: Self Discipline
There are many messages in our society and culture today that suggest that self-discipline is waste of time. We are so often told to always follow our feelings and to do what makes us feel good. Of course it is important to know what makes us happy and to pay attention to that, but that is only part of the story!
Our culture also values success and in particular those who achieve in their chosen specialism, whether that is sport, music or anything else. That sort of success doesn’t come without self-discipline! The Olympic athlete doesn’t get gold by always following her feelings or doing what makes her feel good in every moment. I am sure there are many times when she doesn’t feel like getting out of bed early to train. Many times when she feels like she can’t keep going, and yet her self-discipline pushes her on further. It is because she has her eyes on a greater goal and prize than her immediate desire and comfort that she is able to put those instant desires to one side, and focus on the long term target- getting that gold medal! As the wrestler and actor Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnsons says, ‘We do today what they won’t, so tomorrow we can accomplish what they can’t.’
As we enter a new stage in our lockdown journey and the country begins to tentatively unlock, it strikes me that we all need a big dose of self-discipline. It is the most natural thing in the world right now to want everything to go back to normal. For many of us, our desires and hopes are for everything to go straight back to how it was in life before lockdown. It would be very easy for us to lose our self-discipline that we have worked so hard at over these last few months. Instead, we need to keep our eyes fixed on that greater goal of protecting the vulnerable in our society and ensuring that this virus is defeated. That sometimes will mean that we have to choose to put aside our own wants and what makes us feel good for now, for the benefit of society as a whole. We need to choose self-discipline over desire and keep paying attention to all the social distancing measures that are in place still.
If each of us manages to do that, then the prize we can look forward to is so much better than a gold medal- so let’s keep going!
Thought 8: Courage
One of my favourite books is Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. The story and the characters are so gripping and the sense of the triumph of good over evil is incredible. It is also great lock down reading running to over a 1000 pages!
Many of you will know that Tolkien wrote the Lord of the Rings based in part, on his experiences in World War I. As a young man of 24, Tolkien was sent to the Western Front in the summer of 1916 and experienced first-hand the horrors of the Battle of the Somme. Some of his early thoughts about his mythology were written by candlelight in bell tents and some even in the trenches. It is therefore unsurprising that his characters have so much insight into courage. It is hard for us to imagine what those young men went through and how they managed to continue to face each day in those horrors, knowing it could be their last.
This pandemic has sometimes been compared to a war. I understand the sentiment, but I think there are significant differences for most of us to the courage demanded of that generation on the Western Front. That is not to say that what we are facing is insignificant- far from it. We still need the courage to face every day with fresh determination. The courage to face restrictions on our freedoms with grace and patience. The courage to keep working hard at adjusting to a very different world. The courage to not give up.
I think those characters in Lord of the Rings have much they can teach us about the courage we need to keep finding. I will let one them, Aragorn (OK my favourite…) have the final word to inspire us to keep finding the courage we need and not to give up.
“A day may come when the courage of men fails, when we forsake our friends and break all bonds of fellowship, but it is not this day.”
Thought 7: Thankfulness
It is very easy for us to focus on the negative things in our lives. Right now of course there is much that we could be negative about. We can easily fixate on the news and on all the awful things happening and the growing numbers of people who are ill and dying. We can focus on the restrictions of our freedoms and the how everyday life has changed beyond all recognition. Whilst all this and more is of course true, there is still more to life than just these truths. There is still much we can be thankful for, even in the current climate.
The French novelist Alphonse Karr says this, “We can complain because rose bushes have thorns, or rejoice because thorns have roses.” We may have to look a bit harder right now to see the roses, but they are there! It is an excellent discipline, (and one which psychologists tell us is good for our wellbeing) to deliberately remember the things that we are thankful for.
It might even be something that you want to talk about as a family and come up with things every day that you are thankful for. They don’t have to be big things- it may be as simple as being thankful for the food on our plates or that the sun is shining. Whatever it is we are thankful for helps us to see that there is more than the challenges our world is facing right now. There are still roses among the thorns.
Thought 6: Kindness
It is sometimes said that kindness as a currency is in short supply these days. I don’t know whether that is usually true or not, but I do know that for myself it is very easy to be so busy and wrapped up in our own world and to do list that it’s easy to miss the opportunities for kindness that are around us every day. I think this period in our countries history gives us special opportunities to demonstrate kindness to those around us, and I think fundamentally as humans beings we have this desire to help others; this desire to be kind.
Partly that is because as humans we are capable of great acts of altruism. I think crises like this one can bring people together and bring the best out of them. It was so encouraging to see the response to the Governments appeal for an army of 250,000 volunteers to help the NHS right now. Less than 24 hours later over twice that number had signed up! I don’t think that kindness is dead!
The other reason that we can have this desire to be kind is that when we show acts of kindness to others it actually makes us feel happy. In the film 1959 Sleeping Beauty animation, one of the characters comments on this. “Maleficent doesn’t know anything about love or kindness or the joy of helping others. You know, sometimes I think she isn’t very happy.”
Each of us has lots of opportunities to be kind right now. Kindness at home with our families and keeping in touch with extended families and friends, as well as kindness to our neighbours. Let’s keep making sure that the currency of kindness is in good supply in our homes and communities.
Thought 5: Hope
One of my favourite films is the Shawshank Redemption (15 cert). For those who don’t know, it is about a character called Andy who is locked up for a crime that he didn’t commit. No spoilers, but the film tells the story of Andy’s life in prison over many years and how he holds on to hope in the bleakest of circumstances. One of the great lines in the film is when Andy says this, ‘Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.’
It is so important in this time that we hold on to hope. We need to encourage one another that life will not be like this forever. Yes, the effects of this pandemic will have a huge impact on our world for many years to come, but we can still have hope. Hope that it won’t always be like this. Hope that we can and will support one another through this time and then build life again.
The novelist Aaron Laritsen speaks about hope and comfort in his book ‘The Great American Road trip’. He says, “There is strange comfort in knowing that no matter what happens today, the Sun will rise again tomorrow.”
Let’s hold on to hope.
Thought 4: The simple pleasures
One of the opportunities we have in the coming days and weeks is to remember the simple pleasures of life. We are not able to go on exotic holidays, or even ordinary holidays. We can’t go out to restaurants or to the theatre or cinema. We can’t even visit friends! So what is left in life…?!
There are still so many things that can bring us joy. Spending time in our garden (if we are lucky enough to have one) and watching the birds. Going for that one walk every day, and enjoying the nature all around us. The joy of picking up a good book or switching on a good box set. Spending proper quality time with family and sharing our hopes and dreams together.
The poet Avijeet Das says this, “Looking at morning dew serenading on the petals of flowers is an ecstatic moment! This makes us realise that it is the simple pleasures of life that give us the most happiness!”
Let’s make space to re-discover those simple pleasures of life, and to appreciate that even in this current time there is much that can bring us joy.
Thought 3: Re-gaining Perspective
I don’t know if you have ever had that experience of looking at a photo and seeing that something or someone is just way bigger or smaller than they should be- it’s confusing for our brains and our perspective gets all mixed up. I think life can have that effect on us. We get sucked into conversations, decisions and what feel like incredibly important choices, and we can lose all perspective. We end up getting stressed, angry or upset about things that in the grand scheme of life are just not that important.
There are many awful things about the current situation, but one of the more positive aspects of what we are facing is that when something this huge happens, we get a chance to regain our perspective. We see people losing jobs and lives and we recognise that the small things we have obsessed over are not as important as they seemed before. Perhaps we remember the really important things in life are not based around possession and achievements, but rather character and kindness.
The challenge then for us once we leave lockdown, is to hold on to this perspective rather than slip into our old habits!
Thought 2: Sacrifice
The idea of sacrifice is one that does not get much air time these days. Generally speaking our society doesn’t like the thought of putting others before ourselves when it costs us something. And yet, in this extraordinary time there are many who are making sacrifices for fellow human beings, even strangers.
Perhaps the most obvious examples of sacrifice that we can see around us today are the scores of doctors, nurses and other NHS workers who are putting themselves at risk on a daily basis to care for the sick. Some of those doctors and nurses have even paid the ultimate price and lost their lives. They are a remarkable group of people who are working incredibly long hours under huge pressure, with little thoughts for their own comfort and care. This is sacrifice.
Of course they are not alone in making sacrifices. There are many other key workers who are having to make daily sacrifices to keep society running in the best way possible. I think we should be encouraged and challenged by their example to us, as well as being grateful of course. Perhaps it should challenge us to consider what sacrifices we might be willing to make. That could be something as simple as picking up some shopping for neighbour, or making a phone call to someone on their own in isolation. This week millions of Christians around the world remember the sacrifice that Jesus made on Good Friday. Whether or not we have faith, let’s use this week to consider the many sacrifices being made for us right now and also to remember that our sacrifices, even if small, can make a big difference.
Thought 1: Hitting pause
The events of the last few weeks, and particularly these last few days have been shocking for us all. The life that we had all been expecting in the lead up to these Easter holidays is very different to what we are all experiencing in lock down. How do we even begin to make sense of what we are experiencing as individuals, community and indeed as a nation? The issues we are facing are clearly ones that will take years to process and to deal with, rather than days or weeks. However, I think there are ways that we can approach this lock down now that can help us to use the time in the most positive way possible.
I think that for some of us this would be an excellent opportunity to hit pause in our lives. We so rarely have time to really consider the important things in life. We rush from one thing to another and then back again! When do we have extended time to consider who we want to become in life? What do we want to be known for and remembered for? What kind of friend do we want to be? What kind of contribution do we want to make to the world around us?
It is that great Philosopher, Albus Dumbledore who said, “It is our choices that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”
Is now a good time to consider the future choices that we have been thinking through and to think about what difference those choices will make and what they will help us become.
It might even be that in all this enforced family time, we might want to have these kinds of conversations. If we manage to think these questions through, and perhaps even talk them through, it is possible that for some of us this enforced pause could be a really significant and life shaping time.