Living, Post-Truth

pilate

 

I haven’t blogged much recently. Partly, that’s due to work and my now four and two year olds; much more, it’s due to expecting number three in a few short months.

I meant to post this piece back when I wrote it in February but, between morning sickness and the day job… well, you get the picture.

For context: I am on a circuit of writers who contribute to the Christian Comment section in our local newspaper. So, every couple of months, I get 300-350 words to give a short Christian comment on whatever I feel called to write. The piece that follows is what I wrote in February:

I have long wondered what epoch I live in; I’d read and learnt about the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, Modernism… what name would history give to our slice of time?

My curiosity has been sated: it seems I live in the Post-Truth society. Defined as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’ – ‘post-truth’ was the Oxford Dictionary’s word of the year in 2016.

Our struggle with the nature of objective truth is not one peculiar to our time, our advanced culture, and our frenetic media-saturated lives. ‘Post-truth’ is really just a reframing of Pilate’s equally infamous question: ‘What is truth?’ (John 18:38).

The question has refracted throughout the canons of literature, philosophy and film, appearing over and over again – but rarely is it preceded by the statement of Jesus that sparked it: ‘In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”

“In times of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act,” wrote George Orwell. No statement more so than Jesus’; in it, he proclaims that there is not only such a thing as objective truth, but that He is its voice. Or, as He puts it elsewhere: ‘[He is] the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through [Him]’ (John 14:6).

In the Western world today, there is a kind of comfy discomfort in the term post-truth; we have solidarity in decrying the faithlessness of politics, and then feel justified in our behaviour. There is philosophical high ground in scoffing alongside Pilate – and then washing our hands of it all.

Jesus calls us to a higher standard than this. The truth isn’t just radical – it is transforming, redemptive, and awe-inspiring. Jesus longs for us to discover that, and to discover Him. He calls us to delve into the words of His Father, learn the truth, and carry it as a beacon into our truth-starved world.

The Quest for Identity: Overthinking ‘Stick Man’


One of the joys of parenthood is coming back into contact with children’s books, and we are slowly building a collection of stories by Julia Donaldson. Having now devoured the Gruffalo (upon which I have already written a post, viewable here) umpteen times, we are just now in a ‘Stick Man’ phase. And it’s got me thinking about something which really does concern everyone: our pursuit of our own identity.

Of course, the quest for identity – and, often, for adulthood – is one of the chief concerns of children’s stories in every medium. But what is interesting about Stick Man is that it presents us with what is arguably the flip-side of this quest: the trouble to maintain that identity in the face of a world which looks at us through a million different lenses.

If you’re not familiar with the story, it is actually very simple: Stick Man lives with his wife and children in a tree. On going for a jog one day, he is separated from his family and drawn progressively further and further from home by a variety of obstacles, ranging from dogs to children, to swans, the ocean, and even a distressingly close encounter with a fireplace.

At the opening to the story, Stick Man is clearly established as settled and at one with himself and his family; the ‘family tree’ is a powerful emblem of his rootedness in himself, his family and, by inference, his history. He has safely made the rocky transition into adulthood and emerged with a clear sense of himself: ‘I’m Stick Man, I’m Stick Man, I’m Stick Man – that’s me!’. The last thing he is expecting on his morning jog is peril to his physical self and identity.

At each escalating encounter, Donaldson’s verse employs the refrain: ‘Stick Man, oh Stick Man, beware of the…!’. The repetition – strengthened by the tight verse of the poem – highlights something that adolescents and adults know only too well – the world attacks who we are, sometimes indiscriminately, and often from many different angles. Stick Man disentangles himself from each situation with the defiant proclamation ‘I’m Stick Man’. It is his self-assertion that allows him to remove himself from the obstacles that threaten him and continue on his quest for home – a space which is arguably the symbolic location of his identity.

Perhaps the most evident example of the barrage of life against identity in this story is the couple of stanzas focused entirely on Stick Man’s negating of the labels that others have placed on him: ‘I’m not a bat, or a bow, or a boomerang… No, I’m Stick Man… And I long to get back to the family tree.’ In each case, others are attempting to force him into a role that, while he may externally look suited to it, it reduces him to the level of a tool or implement and does not respect his intrinsic self. He has to fight – and fight hard – to reject those labels, and to remind himself that he is right to do so. But, as the listing of roles in this section shows, the sheer number of attacks on identity can wear you down.

Stranded and lost in the snow, Donaldson’s paints a heartbreaking picture of near defeat partway through the poem, where we read: ‘Stick Man is lonely. Stick Man is lost… Stick Man is woozy. His eyes start to close…’. Note how the syllables here are short, and the sentences, too, to convey the withering of the hero’s resolve to preserve his true self against a world that has caged him in (a feeling built, again, by the closeness of those short sentences). It is a sense compounded by the gathering of open vowel sounds of ‘lonely’, ‘lost’ and ‘woozy’ which, in a verse-trick reminiscent of Milton’s Paradise Lost, conveys the yawning emptiness occassioned by loss of self. It is no accident that it is at this point that Stick Man falls unconscious and nearly becomes firewood. Surrender in this quest will result in the complete destruction of the self.

Look closely at what it is that saves him: the sound of Father Christmas, stuck in the chimney, which wakes him before he is reduced to kindling. Despite his own near-hopeless situation, Stick Man still has enough of himself left to show compassion to a ‘stuck man’, and it is this act of kindness which will ultimately reunite him with his family.

There is a subtle message, here; if we take Father Christmas as powerfully emblematic of our own childhood selves, then Donaldson seems to suggest that it is through compassion on that self that we are reconnected to the fullness of our our adult selves. In short, we have to re-embrace our inner child – with care and compassion – to find again the capacity to actualise our identity. It is only when he has done this by helping Father Christmas that Stick Man is once again able to joyfully proclaim: ‘I’m Stick Man – that’s me.’

The rewards of being at peace and joyfully proclamative of our identities are not merely selfish – being restored to himself also allows Stick Man to be restored to his proper place in his home and family. Donaldson shows us that knowing ourselves also allows us to know and be known in a fulfilling way by those around us.

Enjoyed this post? Check out ‘The Deep, Dark Wood: Overthinking ‘The Gruffalo‘.

Nerdinator: The Rise of the Geeks

bigbang

Another post inspired by a bit of catch-up viewing on Netflix. This time, it’s been the later series of ‘The Big Bang Theory’ – a show with just enough relationship entanglements to appeal to general sitcom enthusiasts, and spades of geekdom to draw in people like me. The popularity and appeal of the show has left me wondering: is it at the expense of the nerd and geek? Or did we suddenly become mainstream enough to be considered – dare I say it? – cool?

Perhaps you, like me, were in that special sidelined group at school – the group that enjoyed Star Wars or Star Trek, that liked to play role-playing games, that had little or no interest in make up or sport or whatever else the majority of kids were into. Or perhaps you were in the groups who played MMORPGs – maybe World of Warcraft or Minecraft, or myriad variants thereof. Shunned socially, sometimes viewed as odd, weird or outright repulsive, the nerds and geeks of schools up and down the country laboured under the label of ‘different’ and were maligned accordingly. I use the past tense because it seems to me that there is a much higher tolerance and admiration for these groups now than 20 years ago, and I suspect that it is this that makes shows like The Big Bang Theory possible to green light in the first place.

But why this sea change? Is it, as Bill Gates has been wont to observe, that we end up working for the nerds and geeks (thus his exhortation to be kind to them)? Is it that, as those school cliques grow into adulthood, we come to see each other beyond the raging hormones of adolescence and encompassing struggle for identity?

As the cool kids and the geeks and nerds become the responsible adults, maybe it is as simple as society coming to terms with us and understanding that we are not threatening; rather, we can make a really valuable and positive contribution to society. A little case in point; the chances are that you’re reading this post on a tablet device or smartphone of some kind (it’s certainly been written on one!) – technology made possible by the nerds and geeks who wanted to make the gadgets of Star Trek a reality. You make quotidian use of the Internet and, in what has to be delightful irony for that most socially unacceptable of groups, the social media that we use every day is the work of those selfsame geeks and nerds.

I suspect that a greater understanding of conditions like Asperger’s and autism also plays a part, as less extreme cases (rather like Sheldon’s in ‘The Big Bang Theory’) often demonstrate dedicated interest in something that others might find unusual and real difficulty with social interactions. As this is studied – both medically and through the social lens of characters like Sheldon, or arguably some aspects of recent incarnations of Dr Who or current reimaginings of Sherlock – it makes it ‘okay’ to deal empathetically with people like this in our day to day lives.

Geeks have moved from being portrayed as the odd outcasts to being sympathetic and interesting, and having a vital role in culture and society. Geek chic and geek style glasses are a real deal, gracing media everywhere. We know what Comicon is, and we might well ‘get it’ even if we’d never go ourselves. As we appreciate their likenesses to ourselves, we seem to have developed a genuine fondness for the geek subculture.

This is epitomised, to my mind, in a comment made by Leonard in season 7 of ‘The Big Bang Theory’. Asked why he is friends with Sheldon, he explains that the loveable anti-hero is loyal, trustworthy and a good friend. It’s almost a Shylockian ‘Hath not a Jew eyes?’ style statement, underlining the humanity of geeks and nerds. We may be different, but we are still human – and moved by the same passions and seasons as mainstream society.

This post also features on my official site, www.annathayer.wordpress.com .

Parent and Child Space…

Dear owners of vehicles who park in parent and child spaces when they do not have children: please reconsider.

It takes you a matter of moments to put on shoes and coat, pick up your keys, and leave home. On a good day, it takes me twenty.

You can visit the supermarket relatively flexibly. I must plan my visit with the cunning of a military strike, poised precariously between meals, nappies, naps, and general willingness to cooperate.

You can slide out of the gap between your vehicle and that parked next to you like a ninja. Even when I have a wide berth, getting myself and my offspring in and out of the car is like maneuvering a severely pregnant heifer – even when I’m not pregnant.

You lock the car behind you with the slickness of John Travolta’s sexiest dance move. I am lucky if my Michelin-man hands – which clutch between their fingers the contents of Mary Poppins’ entire bag – can find the car keys before my toddler bolts.

You can stroll across the car park at your leisure, come rain or shine, and have a hand free for an umbrella. I cannot haul my toddler, infant, changing bag and shopping bags from one end of a busy car park to the other, dodging traffic.

You can choose a trolley from any trolley station. You can even choose the skinny-latte of carts, the slim one that has a turning radius. My choice is limited to the bloated metal beasts that you can’t see around, let alone steer – especially when there are two screaming children inside. These exquisite models are only available at the parent and child bays – where you have parked.

It might seem like a decision of no importance when you pull into those bays, knowing you have no children and seeing that there is a frazzled mother behind you in need of parking. But when you take those spaces – especially at this time of year – know that a mother like me then has no choice but to go home without shopping. When you take those spaces when you do not need them you epitomise a conceitedness and individualism that is damaging to society.

When you take a parent and child bay, the person who then spends the journey home enraged beyond reason, and quite possibly in hormone-induced tears, is not my tiny passengers – it is me.

Like my writing? Check out my sister site www.annathayer.wordpress.com to learn about my award-winning fantasy trilogy, ‘The Knight of Eldaran‘, and my work on Tolkien and Lewis. Yes, you got me: I’m a geek.

The Most Wonder-full Time of the Year

This week, in preparation for that Cambrian Explosion of the toy box that is Christmas, I did a bunch of wrapping, and I shared a really special time with my family decorating our tree. I feel smugly prepared, but something gnaws at me:

Everywhere I go, images of Santa abound, and he’s to be visited/assisted/rescued in every festive episode of every children’s programme that my son grazes at.

As a mother to young children, I am in the thick of what I’m dubbing my ‘Santa Quandry’: Santa isn’t real. And, at age three, what mummy and daddy tell toddler about the origins of his presents this year will stick. Do I really want to tell him that they came from a fat man who would find himself blocked at the bottom of our fireplace by a large, draft-excluding piece of cardboard?

Let’s examine this Quandry. Of course, there’s real wonder and excitement at Christmas time, especially if there is something a little bit mysterious about the gifts. The mystery opens the door to traditions that can be tenderly kept down the generations. One that captures all the magic and wonder for me is listening outside the living room door for the sound of the angel chimes that would signify that Father Christmas had been. I now have my own chimes, and want them to be part of the fabric of Christmas with my children. But, to put it bluntly, I don’t want to lie to them. Does that kill the magic? Worse, does it put my children in a position where they kill the magic for someone else’s children?

It seems to me that by being honest with my children from the outset, I can shield them from that awful mark of passage – discovering that Santa isn’t real, perhaps at the hands of peers who will not be kind or generous about it. Will that rob them of the season’s wonder?

No, because the real wonder of the season is the nativity story that we remember. Baby Jesus is all to easily relegated to some quiet suburb of the heart, crowded out by the lights and gifts, the overpowering ‘Santa’, the pressures of wanting family and friends to really feel how much you love them, the crush of preparing the perfect festive treat, the bite to the wallet as the day approaches.

Silently, so silently, the wondrous gift is taken – even in Christian homes, like mine. How often do I really stop to think about what we are celebrating?

I am, of course, au fait with Saturnalia and all its winter festival associates, and that arguing for a return to ‘the real meaning of Christmas’ is repeatedly attacked by those who -quite correctly – say that other feasts came first. That’s not the point. If Christmas is, for me, the time to think on the infant  who was given to us as the most costly gift of all, then isn’t that the story that should take centre stage with my children? It’s much more serious than “Where did my presents come from?”; it’s “Why do we give presents?” In fact, it’s much more important than the presents I’ve bought and wrapped, the tree I’ve decorated, the social calendar I’ve filled or the meal I’ve planned.

Perhaps, then, the answer to the Santa Quandry is simple: don’t lie. The gifts under the tree are from family and friends. Giving them – as you discover as parents – is a blessing, a token of love in a world so desperate for it. That is, in itself, wonder-full, and needs no further wrapping to make it so. But it is also in receiving gifts and returning to the hearts of our families at Christmas time that we remember the unspeakable vulnerability, tenderness, and grace of a God who lay, that first Christmas, in his mother’s arms as warm and as close as my 7-month old daughter does to me now. That is the true wonder – and it is a story worth telling.

Like my writing? Check out my sister site www.annathayer.wordpress.com to learn about my award-winning fantasy trilogy, ‘The Knight of Eldaran‘, and my work on Tolkien and Lewis. Yes, you got me: I’m a geek.

Black Friday: A Black Mark?

When I did my regular food shop this week, I was stunned by a sign outside the supermarket which advised me to ‘set my alarm early’ (5am the time suggested by the digits of a practically neon clock pictured on the ad) and to ‘dress up warm’ in case I had to queue for entry.

I was taken aback, and then remembered footage from last year’s Black Friday – the crush of consumers forcing their way through barely ajar automatic doors, scores of the tech-savvy (and not so savvy) desperate to grab screens bigger than their wallls could support, or tablets that outperformed last week’s model in a not entirely deducible manner.

Is it just me who, witnessing such scenes, feels a barb of shame for Western culture?

My brother in law – a Californian – told me last year that it didn’t even make sense for the UK to ‘do’ Black Friday,  as it traditionally comes the day after Thanksgiving (which we don’t really do, unless you count Harvest Festival). It’s a day that Americans and their families gather and thank God for His blessings, on them and their land.

We have a tendency in the West to spend, spend, spend, and I found myself wondering today whether, like Christmas and Easter – and many other occasions of non secular origin – Thanksgiving is another casualty of our money driven culture. It seems to have been gently – lovingly, almost – laid on our consumerist altar. If so, then Black Friday appears as its headstone.