Thursday, 30 September 2010

Human Flourishing

View from the Vicarage

Back in the early days of word processing, I remember a primitive grammar checker suggesting that the word ‘diarrhoea’ – a notoriously hard word to spell – was incorrect and should be replace with ‘dire rear.’ Well, I could understand that even if it was funny, but things have come a long way since then. One is multitasking – no longer the preserve of women who can do ironing and watch TV at the same time, whilst I have to turn off the TV before I start. Multitasking is what every young person does all the time. They send IMs, check Facebook, answer texts and chat to their friends, all at the same time.

I am not a particular fan of Drew Barrimore, but an interview on Radio 4 with her about her latest film caught my ear. Much of the film was unscripted. What happened between the leading characters was filmed as they made it up. According to the interview, there seemed to be two themes: communication and happiness. The lead characters spent ages communicating with each other by various means as each travelled the world. But despite the many ways they seemed to be talking to each other, the communication wasn’t working. It didn’t promote happiness. And what is ‘happiness’ anyway? How does if differ from ‘contentment?’

I think I have hit a rather big nail on the head here. If young people spend ages communicating in the way they do, yet it doesn’t work, does this explain their lack of contentment? Contentment I think is long lasting. Happiness is just of the moment. Remember how often emails have upset you in the past? You can’t see the sender’s face. You can’t hear their tone of voice. You can’t work out the body language. And how much real information can you convey in 140 words?

The truth is that doing many things at the same time is to do most of them badly. I have a friend who immediately picks up the phone as soon as I send him an email. He prefers two-way communication, you see, and email is one-way and prone to misunderstandings. I see his point. Usually I don’t bother to send him messages any more. I just pick up the phone.

Don’t get me wrong – technology has its place. You can search a book for a lost quotation in an instant. You can do things quicker and more easily. You can communicate in an instant. But – and it’s a big one – all this comes at a price. The Cloud helps me write this and access it from any computer anywhere, but I prefer a visit and a shared cup of coffee in the garden to anything I get down a wire. Chats are more reliable and more fun. They get more done. They are – more human.

The Christian faith – OK don’t stop reading just because I mention religion – is all about a good and loving Creator, but it is as much about ‘human flourishing.’ The woman who lights a light and searches for the one coin she had lost, then rejoices when she finds it. The lamp shining from a window. The voice of a bride and bridegroom. The sound of music, and workers at their trade. All these examples of human flourishing come from the New Testament – and in Revelation 18, when taken away, they are replaced by ‘the magic spell through which all nations were led astray.’ Sounds familiar?

Scary stuff – it means we have to give more attention to our humanity than we do inventing new gadgets, finding a use for them, and then wondering why our children seem better at mastering computer games than they are at talking to each other face to face – and listening.

There’s a virtual church on the internet, where you can attend public worship and even take communion – although you have to provide the elements yourself. This has a place if people are elderly or disabled, but shouldn’t the church be visiting them? Where is the human flourishing in that? Being a vicar is delightfully old-fashioned work. Sitting chatting over a cup of coffee. Singing with toddlers. Being alongside people in moments of contentment and tragedy. Doing all those old-fashioned things. Loving those hard to love. Putting self last. Going the extra mile. The Christian faith is like that – counter-cultural, upside down, shocking. But just like the Cloud versus face-to-face encounter, is it not even more vital to all our futures that we are not diverted by the impermanent and unreal?

Robert Wright
01296 661358 (fixed – not mobile…)

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