A Candle in the Window

24 August 2021            A Candle in the Window            Peter Millar

Words to encourage us in these times.            This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Huge green of oak, shining green of yew, tall deer, quiet does, trapped trout, sweet sloes and honey, black winged beetles, small bees, fine white gulls all sea-singing.      (A 6th century description of the Irish countryside.)

Night of Africa, mystical and bright:

“Tokowaly, uncle, do you remember the nights gone by? When my head weighed heavy on the back of your patience, or holding my hand, your hand led me by shadows and signs. The fields are flowers of glow-worms, stars hung on the bushes, on the trees and silence is everywhere. Only the scents of the jungle hum, swarms of reddish bees that overwhelm the cricket’s shrill sounds, and covered tom-tom, breathing in the distance of the night. You, Tokowaly, you listen to what cannot be heard, and you explain to me what the ancestors are saying in the liquid calm of the constellations. The bull, the scorpion, the leopard, the elephant, and the fish we know, and the white pomp of the spirits in the heavenly shell that has no end; but now comes the radiance of the goddess moon and the veils of the shadow fall. Night of Africa, my black night, mystical and bright, black and shining.     Leopold Senghor - Chants D’ombre – Paris, Editions du Seuil, 1945.

Black skins: White masks:  

The white man wants the world: he wants it for himself alone. He finds himself predestined master of the world. He enslaves it. An acquisitive relation is established between the world and him. But there exist other values that fit only my forms. Like a magician, I robbed the white man of a “certain world,” forever after lost to him and his. Somewhere beyond the objective world of farms, rubber trees and banana plantations, I had subtly brought the real world into being. Between the world and me a relationship of co-existence was established. I had discovered the primeval one. My “speaking hands” tore at the hysterical throat of the world. The white man had the anguished feeling that I was escaping from him and that I was taking something with me.  Frantz Fanon from his book, Black Skins: White Masks. Frantz Omar Fanon (1925-1962) was a French West India psychiatrist from Martinique, a former French colony in the eastern Caribbean. His works remain influential in the fields of post-colonial studies and critical theory. For me his most challenging book is – The Wretched of the Earth, which although now dated in some ways, is still a powerful understanding of the complexities of colonialism. In our times his work has taken on a new relevance as we witness new forms of human subjugation in many countries. The masks are still in place, but times are a changing, embedded in struggles which will last for the generations ahead.

Why are we all so distracted every day?    (The following words are from Oliver Burkeman’s newly published book: Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals. See details about the book on the web.)

*** One Friday in April 2016, as the polarising US presidential race intensified, and more than 30 armed conflicts raged around the globe, approximately 3 million people spent part of their day watching two reporters from BuzzFeed wrap rubber bands around a watermelon. Gradually over the course of 43 agonising minutes, the pressure ramped up – the psychological kind and the physical force on the melon- until the 686th rubber band was applied. What happened next won’t amaze you – the watermelon exploded, messily. The reporters high-fived, wiped the splatters from their reflective goggles, then ate some of the fruit. The broadcast ended. Earth continued its orbit around the sun.

There is nothing especially shameful about spending part of the day staring at a watermelon on the internet. But it is a vivid illustration of one central obstacle we encounter when it comes to our efforts to use time well: distraction. It is safe bet that none of those 3 million people woke up that day with the intention of watching a watermelon burst, nor when the moment arrive did they necessarily feel as if they were freely choosing to do so. The average human lifespan is short. If you live to be 80, you’ll have had about 4,000 weeks. When I first made that calculation I felt queasy. All of which helps clarify what’s so alarming about the online “attention economy”, we’ve heard so much about in recent years: it is essentially a giant machine for persuading you what to do with your attention, and therefore with your finite life, by getting you to care about things you didn’t want to care about.

This distraction goes deep and radically undermines our efforts to spend our finite time as we would like. The “attention economy” is designed to prioritise whatever is most compelling –instead of whatever’s most true or most useful – it distorts the picture of the world we carry in our heads. It influences our sense of what matters, what kinds of threats we face, how venal our political opponents are – and all these distorted judgements then influence how we allocate our offline time as well. If social media convinces you, for example, that violent crime is a far bigger problem in your area than it really is, you might find yourself walking the streets with unwarranted fear.

But the most effective way to sap distraction of its power is to stop expecting things to be otherwise – to accept that this unpleasantness is simply what it feels like to commit ourselves to the kinds of demanding and valuable tasks that force us to confront our limited control over how our lives unfold. And yet there is a sense in which accepting this lack of a solution is the solution. Suffering often subsides when we become in some ways resigned to the truth of a situation: when we may feel the agony more. The way to find peaceful absorption in a difficult project, isn’t to chase feelings of peace or absorption, but to acknowledge the inevitability of discomfort, and to turn more attention to the reality of your situation than to railing against it. There is a very down-to-earth kind of liberation in grasping that there are certain truths about being a human from which you will never be liberated. You don’t get to dictate the course of events. And the paradoxical reward for accepting reality’s constraints is that they no longer feel constraining.

And some words based on various words and hopes within the Psalms.

May my joy in You – the source of life - never be at the expense of others, and  may my neighbour’s well-being be to me as my own. May your presence in me be known not by violence and angry outbursts due to my own, often deep and unexamined insecurities. Give me that ability to be less critical - and much more forgiving. Let me take time to really hear what the other person is trying to say – even if it may be critical. May I even see a blessing in the criticism. 

Examine my heart, and remove the bits and pieces in it that prevent genuine encounters - such as inner fears and the silent determination to put myself first at any cost. Enlighten my understanding, and give me each day all that makes for calm discernment- such as even a little more patience and kindness. You know that I am often distracted by many things throughout the day, but help me also to rediscover within me these great gifts that are within every human being such as generosity  and the courage to face up to reality however hard. Help me to pause and may be -- even if it hurts! - turn away from a screen for a moment - and see all these things in my heart, such as affection and tears and tender speech as real blessings for myself and others. Let me try as often as possible not to live in a fake way, often masking my true self, and to be able to differentiate between what is good and true and that which is bland, untrue and which may lead me into pathways I have no real wish to go down.   pm

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