Lessons from Life 9: It’s worth the risk

Take some chances.

Life can be spent cautiously and carefully, avoiding all possible risk. To an extent we’ve all had to live this way for the past year. While this has, arguably, kept us safe, it hasn’t felt very much like living life, not in any really fulfilling way.

I’ve lived most of my life this way; risk averse, conforming to expectation and cautious to a stultifying degree. It hasn’t been until later in life, that I’ve started taking more chances, and have realised all that my ordinary little life can be.

I’m not advocating being rash, or doing things that are justifiably illegal or that would harm yourself or others (I could never smoke for this reason.) I am talking about not living life according the maybes, what ifs and possibles that are currently dictating our lives. ‘Maybe there will be a resurgence of Covid-19, possibly there will be vaccine-resistant strains, perhaps health systems will be overrun, what if I catch a virus – any virus – and be incapacitated or die.’ And maybe not.

We cannot live on the basis of such vagaries. We don’t in any other context: we don’t avoid driving because maybe this time will be the time we are involved in fatal crash; we don’t confine ourselves to our homes because the ultra-violent light outside might trigger cancer; we don’t, as Billy Joel so eloquently put it, stay far away from the door if there’s a chance of it opening up. (His ‘An Innocent Man’ is a brilliant song about daring to live.)

Every day under normal circumstances, we take calculated risks, having put in place any necessary precautions – seat belts, careful driving, sun cream or whatever – and we go out there and do things. This is how it should be.

Don’t doubt it; something will get you in the end. As Mark Twain famously put it, there are only two certainties in life: death and taxes. Only one of these is fatal (though the other runs a close second). Whatever we do, death cannot be avoided forever. Yet we behave as if it can. Take some chances; this is the only opportunity you’ll get to do so. Once you’re gone you can’t. I’ve not regretted a single risk I’ve taken.

They’ve made me alive.

Love & Time

I step up on to the bus for a journey I’ve taken so many times before. Usually it takes about twenty minutes to get into town, but I know that today it’ll take much longer. I’m going to see my father.

The birthday card came out of the blue. It arrived on my birthday, of course, so it wasn’t out of the blue in that sense, but it was the first I’d ever had off my dad. It was the first he’d ever sent. In it he’d written, ‘if you’d like to meet, please call me,’ with his number.

She must have the card by now. I timed it to arrive for her birthday and even if it didn’t get delivered on time it must be there now. I know I hardly deserve a response. but I’d so much like one. Need one. Even if it’s to tell me to get lost. I’d understand it if that’s how she felt.

I didn’t reply. Not at first anyway. Then I texted him and told him I would meet him. He texted back almost straight away with a picture of himself. I wouldn’t have recognised him. He left my mum and me just after I was born.

I didn’t send him a picture of me.

No photo, but at least she’s prepared to meet me. More than I hoped for really. Thank God for the Internet. I’d never have found her otherwise.

I sit on one of the seats facing into the bus. I don’t want to look out of the window. I read his instructions again: ‘meet @ the café in market square @ 12. please wait for me. I’ve a long way to drive. looking forward to seeing you after all this time, dad x x’

I haven’t told mum I’m meeting him.

Hold-ups on the A66. I left enough time and now I’m going to be late. She might not wait. Wouldn’t blame her. I’m hardly the most reliable person in her life. Pray to God she will. Text her to ask her to.

After an eternity, the bus lurches to a halt. I put up my brolly and walk through the rain to the café. I buy a decaffeinated coffee and sit at a table in the corner. I’m early but it isn’t long before he’s late. Another text: ‘held up in traffic please wait.’

Finally. I made it. Parking took ages too. I pull my coat round me and run to the cafe, nearly an hour late. Good job there, Tom, that’s the way to treat her. The place is half empty. I scan the faces, looking for someone who looks like me, or Katherine, but no-one holds my gaze. Which of them is she?

I know it’s him as soon as he walks into the café. He looks much older than I thought he would. He glances round, surveying faces, but has no way of recognising me. He sits down at the table in the window and looks out. I look away, just in case. I step back and watch him from across the street, secure in the shadows. I feel sorry for him.

She’s gone. Who can blame her. I blew it. Again.

The return bus comes into view and I step up to the bus stop. This was a big mistake and I want to be at home, with mum. Thirty-two years is a long time not to know someone. Not to know your own dad. The bus stops and when everyone is on board, pulls away again.

As the clock strikes, I cross the road and push open the door to the café.


Lessons From Life 8: Love and Time

The children, summer 1987

I always felt inadequate when raising my children. It was difficult to know what was the right thing to do in any given circumstance. Hard to know whether I was giving them the attention they deserved, showing enough interest in what they were doing, being fair in my discipline, patient enough, providing them what they needed (and often buying what other parents were buying their kids). All of that. There was no manual to refer to, no Google, back in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, to search for advice. I felt as though I were making it all up as I went along and didn’t have much at all to offer them. This was compounded and confounded by my Christian faith at the time; I was not bringing them up in the way of the Lord. They resisted any attempts to get them to go to church, making Sunday mornings traumatic for everyone – the kids, my wife and me in a state that was as far removed from serenity and readiness to worship as it was possible to be by the time we arrived at church.

The occasional child expert who turned up TV or in a magazine, paid to give their unfounded opinions on child-rearing, would invariably say it was important for parents to spend Quality Time with their children. Another standard to fail to meet! Quality time. What was that? The experts were usually pretty vague about what it entailed. You just had to know what was quality and what was not and it seemed every other parent knew this this intuitively. I didn’t. Was it reading the bed time story without nodding off yourself? Enlisting the offspring in every activity group going? (How was this spending quality time with them yourself?) Playing with Sylvanian families with my adult mind switched off? Equipping them for life by passing on my limited skills? I never did discover the answer to these questions, though I did feel guilty, and a failure, when I couldn’t fully engage with the things that interested my kids.

Later, however I came to see that all of this talk of ‘quality time’ and bringing children up in the way of the Lord, together with the notion that there was a right way to bring up children that everyone else knew about, was, to put it mildly, a fiction. I recognised that all I had to give them was love and time. This didn’t seem like very much but in fact these were the very best things I could give my children. Not ‘quality’ time either, just ordinary time spent with them, without worrying about where this time might come on somebody else’s scale of worthiness. Just being with them, talking to them, encouraging them, enjoying the banality of any activity, because that is part of what love is: putting yourself out for others. It is also showing affection, being pleased to be with your children, telling them what they mean to you, building them up.

My kids are grown up now and tell me they had happy childhoods. They’re good people, with children of their own whom I’m privileged to love and spend time with.

Story for Lesson 7: The Vision

He stepped out of the light, as if made of light himself. Light giving form to light, a being of pure light. His garments shone, blazing brilliance. His countenance radiated light and he spoke not as with words from any mouth but as of precious stones – rubies and emeralds – for he had no mouth that I could see. As his radiance shone forth, his words entered the mind of any who would listen. I listened, transfixed by such a vision of loveliness and power, blinded by his iridescence. He raised his hands as he spoke, if hands they were; more discs of light, brighter than the sun.

‘I am your Lord,’ he said, his voice a mellifluent confluence of joy and authority. ‘I appear here before you to set you apart, to reveal to you my message for the world.’

‘Oh, Lord’, I said, lost in the beauty of his radiance. ‘Pray reveal what this message is. Tell me and I will forever do your will.’

‘Let me see,’ he said as he pulled a golden scroll from the folds of his shining raiment and began to read: ‘Preach salvation to all nations in my name.’

‘That’s it?’ I said, confused. ‘Hasn’t that been done before?’

‘It has?’ he asked, sounding confused himself.

‘Yes, you know, Saint Paul and all that.’

‘Oh, yes. Paul,’ he mumbled. ‘Okay. So how about you take dictation of the Holy Words of the One True God to warn people of the judgement to come?’

‘Hasn’t that been done too?’

‘Has it? Well, what if I throw in some imaginary golden tablets and a couple of magic stones with fancy names? That work for you?’

‘Not really. Haven’t you got any original ideas?

‘Original ideas. Let me think… what about a new cult? What if I said my name was John Frum, or the late Prince Philip even; you could start a brand new cult named after me. It’s worked before.’

I sighed. ‘But that’s I’m trying to tell you. They’ve all been done before. I mean, what is the point of a vision if it’s got nothing new to offer?’

‘Fair enough,’ he said disconsolately. ‘But really, you know, it’s not my fault.’

‘How so?’ I asked, not liking the turn the conversation was taking.

‘Well,’ he said, ‘it was you who conjured me up in the first place. Just like Paul and Muhammad, Joseph Smith, the John Frum crowd and any number of others. You and I both know I don’t actually exist. That I’m… well, I’m a malfunction of your brain creating images and voices from the cultural influences around you.’

And I had to concede: he was right.

Lessons from Life 7: Don’t Squander Your Life On Religion

Like a dog returning to its vomit (2 Peter 2.22) I return to religion. I wasted so much of my life being duped by Christianity. As regular readers know, I allowed it to prevent me from living as myself and wasted time and money on it, while switching off my critical faculties to immerse myself in its murky depths.

I know better now. Christianity is built on the visions, dreams and fantasies of first-century zealots who couldn’t distinguish between their hallucinations and reality. They knew nothing about evidence and laboured under the misapprehension that what went on their own heads was as real as what happened outside them. You think I’m overstating the case? Then you don’t know your bible. It proclaims boldly and proudly that this is what faith in the celestial being, known as ‘Saviour’ (the literal meaning of Jesus) is built on:

First, Paul’s psychoses: 

…fourteen years ago (I) was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know – God knows – … (I) was caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to tell. (2 Corinthians 12.2-4. Paul admits he’s prone to hallucinations.)

But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being. (Galatians 1.15-16. Paul talks about how Christ was revealed to him in his head.)

With that in mind, how about this collection of sightings that Paul says were of the same nature as his own:

(The risen Christ) appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time…Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. (1 Corinthians 15:3-8)

Then this claim from decades after the cult got underway, from people who believed themselves to be living in the last days:

In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream. (Acts 2.17)

And there are all those stories of people wo had to convince themselves that what they saw was really the risen Christ:

After his suffering, (Jesus) presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. (Acts 1.3. Convincing proofs? Didn’t they know it was him?)

Acts has even more these sightings (all of them fictional). They show us nonetheless how the earliest believers thought they experienced the ‘risen Lord’: Stephen ‘sees’ him in glory (Acts 7.55-56), while Paul witnesses a bright light and hears Jesus’s voice in the three contradictory versions of his conversion (Acts 9. 13-19; Acts 22. 6-11; Acts 26.12-18). There’s also the aptly named Revelation, in which Jesus appears only as a wacky apparition.

So, all of Jesus’ appearances in the earliest books of the New Testament are visions within people’s heads. Despite this, we’re expected to believe that his resurrection appearances in the gospels, written decades after Paul’s visions, took place in reality. There really was a man, we’re told, who returned physically from the dead; he materialised inside a locked room (John 20.19), appeared in a variety of unrecognisable forms (Luke 24.15-16, John 20.14-18) vanished at will (Luke 24.51) and soared off into the clouds (Acts 24.50-53). These manifestations of the risen Jesus have all the hallmarks of visions, dreams or hallucinations, just like all those other ‘revelations’ that are clearly described as such. It’s preposterous to promote or believe in the gospel’s resurrection appearances as anything other than imaginative accounts of inner visions.

I don’t know about you, but I’m not prepared to base my life on the hallucinations and dreams, real or otherwise, of a few superstitious zealots, nor on later unreliable stories about them; that way Mormonism lies. I know that dreams and fantasies are not real, my own included.

Does this leave me – and you – without hope, purpose or morals? Christians say so, but they’re wrong. It leaves us with a finite life to live to the best of our abilities. It leaves us without an impossible standard to live up to that, God knows, Christians themselves fail miserably to achieve. It frees us from an illusory post-mortem judgement that we’re supposed to live in fear of and instead allows us to be responsible for our own behaviour. It allows us to be happy and free.