Blink and you’ll miss it.

Life has a funny way of going on. Even when it seems impossible, when you’re juggling a dozen balls and you’re barely confident with two, it keeps on coming. Sometimes you drop a ball, sometimes you catch one. Whatever happens, you have to carry on.

The problem with that, though, is that sometimes things fall by the wayside. Equally, sometimes we place things there deliberately. Life is so rich and full and we’re spoilt for choice every single day. If we’re not careful it can become overwhelming and then we enjoy none of it. Life happens even when we’re not looking. For many things it’s a case of blink and you’ll miss it. In the space of a year, everything can change. Sometimes that means pausing those things we can control to keep up with those we can’t.

Everything has changed. Even after the most pregnant of pauses, though, it’s good to press play again.

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Toast and lemons, or why love is stronger than hell.

This morning I read this post on a blog by one of my university friends. She writes from a very different background to me but that doesn’t mean we don’t find common theological ground sometimes. This morning was not one of those times. I am not suggesting she is wrong to encourage Christianity centred around love – it is the idea that there is an alternative with which I take issue.

As I read the post, I was struck by what seemed to be a very particular understanding of hell. It’s not made explicit (and doubtless she’ll be quick to correct me if I’m mistaken!) but it seemed to be a very old-fashioned point of view, laced with fire and brimstone and, to quote her illustration choice, “tortured lost souls burning forever”. It also has a certain physicality to it – the preaching she is questioning wants lost souls to avoid being sent to hell, as though three-year-old me was correct to think heaven was a place just above the sky and hell was somewhere underground. This worldview caused brief consternation on a summer holiday to Wales in the same year, when somebody asked if the hole I was digging in the sand was to get to Australia. Wouldn’t you have to dig through hell to do that? That didn’t seem like a very good idea at all. You can imagine my relief when Mum told me you couldn’t really dig to Australia, though I’m not sure at what point I realised that hell being in the way was not the precluding factor.

Intercontinental travel is no longer my primary issue with this understanding of hell, though. My biggest concern is that it doesn’t make sense in the context of everything else I understand and believe, and that was glaringly apparent to me as I read the post this morning. My main (though related) point of contention, however, was in the conditional – if love and hell work in the sort of binary opposition that is suggested, it seems if nothing else to be logically inconsistent to treat one as an experience or way of being and one as a place or at least conditions to be under. More often, we see heaven and hell held in opposition and had that been the case here I might have agreed more with the argument (though, as should become clear if it isn’t already, I still don’t think of them as physical destinations when I leave this mortal coil). The problem I have is the suggestion that a focus upon love is an a better point of departure for Christianity than a focus upon hell. To me that is devastatingly understated – love is stronger than hell because it has to be the only point of departure.

Love

As far as I’m concerned, love is the most powerful force in existence. You don’t have to look at the world from a Christian point of view to see that – there are countless examples of the extremes individuals go to when motivated by love. Sometimes we call it different things – bravery, kindness, goodness, strength – but it all boils down to love in the end. Most of us are fortunate enough to know the searing intensity of love first hand, be it shown to us or by us, in our relationships with partners, family or friends. For Christians love is the foundation of the relationship with God too. From the outside looking in that can be very difficult to understand, but just because something is different does not mean it is complicated. The clearest explanation I can think of from is a short remark a friend once made when describing his own relationship with God:

I’m His boy.

Even though I am notoriously bigandmeanandtoughandstrong I found that short sentence incredibly emotive. It’s so simple and yet intimate, and I was struck by how straightforward he made it sound. He was completely right, though.

Sometimes when I’m on my political soapbox I like to talk about the “real human impact” of policies and how important it is to think about how the theory plays out in the real world. That doesn’t mean we let emotion or sentimentality preside over reason and sense, but that we remember that politics is not just theoretical. It’s the same with theology too. Academic theology is important to me as a Catholic because, as with everything else in my life, I can only sincerely believe in something if it satisfies my head and my heart. I find myself suspicious of theologies that encourage an overly emotive foundation over reason and intellectual consistency because I think it makes a mockery of what faith means. Faith demands that we acknowledge the limitations of our capacity to know and to understand, not that we altogether dispense with reason and rationality. Similarly, philosophical arguments matter most when they have a practical impact in the real world. The challenge of belief is holding all of these ideas in balance, without overcomplicating things to the point that it loses meaning. Love challenges us similarly.

Like belief, love is at once incredibly complicated and incredibly simple. We know what love means, but how do we balance the sort of abstract love with the tangible love we might experience at any given moment? Ask me if I love my family and I’ll immediately tell you I do; ask me why and I might struggle to articulate it because here and now on a train it’s an intellectualised sort of love that governs my relationship with them. At the same time, though, there are moments when that bond feels more immediately real – that overwhelming feeling of being sad and far away from home, or those moments where pride burns in your heart, the waves of relief when somebody returns to you safely. It doesn’t mean I only love my family at those moments of intensity though – both types of love are real and both matter. I once argued fiercely with a tutor who refused to believe anybody could sincerely love a stranger because he did not think an abstract love of humanity was equally true on a specific level. I told him he was wrong and confusing possibility with difficulty and he told me I was being unrealistic. I told him that abstracts were as ‘real’ as you were prepared to make them them, and I stand by that.

When we talk about love in a Christian sense it’s exactly the same. Love is something that we feel in our everyday life and its also a conceptual belief that governs that everyday life. Experience alone should tell us all that you don’t have to be a Christian to love or be loved, you just have to be. However, how can I say that love is fundamental to Christianity and yet say that Christianity is not fundamental to love? Easily, fortunately, and helpfully without being a massive heretic too:

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Christianity teaches that God is love, which is difficult to understand in any meaningful way as long as we’re thinking of God as a bloke in the sky, or even as something somewhere. As with heaven and hell, thinking spatially makes the questioning easier but the answering harder. “God is love” just means that when we talk about God we’re talking about the truest form of love – if all of the things that we think of when we think about love are lemon-flavoured, God is a really lemony lemon. If God (in completeness) is greater than anything we can ever imagine and if God is love, then that means that love is necessarily ‘bigger’ than Christianity and also that love has to be Christianity’s point of departure. Just bog-standard, run of the mill love. The fact that love happens to tend to be extraordinary and life-changing is just incidental.

Hell

Now that we’re clear on what I mean by love, hell is a lot easier to explain. Love can operate in one direction but in a relationship it is reciprocated. If you love somebody but the feeling is unrequited it doesn’t mean that you don’t love them enough. Equally, their decision to reject you does not undermine the integrity of your love. By the same reasoning, if a person chooses not to love God that does not mean that God does not love them or tell us anything about the strength or integrity of God’s love. Just as your friend might tell you that the object of your affection is missing out by not wanting to be in a loving relationship with you, I believe that I would be missing out if I didn’t choose to be in a relationship with God. Whilst it would not change what I am or where I am, it would make my life very different. That state of being is what hell means – it is not where you are, but how you are.

Given my background, you might be surprised by that idea. However, though Catholicism has a reputation for promulgating a particularly fierce doctrine of hell, that does not mean that hell is to be understood literally. The Church also teaches that hell is to be understood as a state of being. The Catechism states:

We cannot be united with God unless we freely choose to love him. But we cannot love God if we sin gravely against him, against our neighbor or against ourselves [...] To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God’s merciful love means remaining separated from him for ever by our own free choice. This state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called “hell”.

There are those who will have recoiled as soon as I even came close to suggesting the word ‘metaphor’ but it does not meanthat hell should be taken any less seriously. If someone tells you they are “in a dark place” you do not worry about them less if they are not shut in a wardrobe. Not believing in a literal place with literal fire does not make hell a less fearsome prospect. The only respite we have in life is the knowledge that everything is temporary. The choices we make, be it whether or not to have a slice of toast or whether or not to have a relationship with God, are not forever. We make the choice and we live by it, and if that means I’m hungry by 11am, I just have to face the consequences and remember to have a piece tomorrow. Life is temporary too, though, and if I get hit by a bus and killed on my way home, suddenly I can never have a piece of toast again. Admittedly that would be the least of my worries (I can’t actually eat bread anyway so it’s a weak analogy) but you see my point – we never know when a choice will become irreversible. The way in which I understand God and love means that my life would be worse without them. Even though sometimes other options seem more appealing, I know it’s not what I want in the long term. To be without them for eternity would be a hell that is worse than I can imagine, colloquially and literally.

Love vs Hell

All of this is why I disagree with the original post. It’s not the sentiment I disagree with – as I’ve said, I think if anything it understates how central love is to Christianity. The problem I have is with ideas of hell (and indeed sin and judgement) that are formed independently from the understanding of love, because, all else aside, I don’t see that they can ever make sense. Certain branches of Christianity spend a lot of time and spill a lot of ink worrying about how to convince people that the “Good News” is really good, and not enough time worrying about the consistency of their theology. If you put any proposition to me and ask me to believe it, I’m going to be less concerned with how nice it sounds and more worried about whether or not it makes sense. As a Christian, you presumably believe the news is good, so I struggle to understand why it needs to be dressed up to make it appeal to others. Real conviction and real relationships aren’t based on rose-tinted glasses and that’s as important to remember wherever you stand in terms of Christianity.

In life, it’s okay to fear hell, be that toastlessness or Godlessness. In fact it’s pretty sensible, far more so than avoiding thinking about it or talking about it because it doesn’t sound appealing. Equally though, there are far more powerful and constructive influences than scaremongering. If you ever need a starting point for anything, love is stronger than hell.

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Thank you, NHS.

Today, the National Health Service in Britain celebrates its 65th anniversary. Like millions of others I owe my life to the NHS, metaphorically and literally. In no particular order, here are 20 things that I want to thank the NHS for:

  1. For meaning I can afford the 22 tablets I take each day to make my slightly broken body work a little more like it should, and the physiotherapy that keeps me moving.
  2. For fighting for me, even though my immune system often doesn’t want to.
  3. For the vaccinations that we take for granted even though millions around the world do not have the same privilege.
  4. For not giving up on me even though you can’t cure me.
  5. For patching me up when I break myself because I am a clumsy fool.
  6. For chopping out bits that are misbehaving and fixing my insides.
  7. For not letting me die when I turned out to be a bit rubbish at the being born thing.
  8. For looking after people I love and helping them to become well again, and making them comfortable even when you couldn’t make them better.
  9. For the doctors who let me stay with my nan for every chest drain and blood test so she didn’t have to feel afraid.
  10. For every paramedic who has ever come to the rescue.
  11. For the radiographer who told me that the smashed up bits of ankle floating in my foot looked like a cool far away galaxy, even if it wasn’t the ideal place or number of parts for my ankle bone to be in.
  12. For the nurse who let me try to chop his arm off with the saw when I had my first cast cut off so I wasn’t scared.
  13. For the dentist who has known me longer than anyone but my immediate family.
  14. For the physiotherapist who cried laughing at me when she was teaching me how to walk again, helping me to be able to laugh about it too.
  15. For everyone who has bravely tried to pronounce my name with confidence to a crowded waiting room.
  16. For the doctor on the night shift who offered me half of his chips after seven hours in A&E.
  17. For every phlebotomist who has battled to pry blood out of my stingy veins (and the junior doctor who cried because it took her seven attempts).
  18. For the nurse who gave me off-cuts from the plaster room so I could make a Greek pot for my classics project when I was stuck at home.
  19. For every person who has asked “Are you okay?” and meant it.
  20. For countless cups of tea and sympathy and about a kilometre of tubigrip.

I could go on writing this list for days, I have so much to be thankful for. Doubtless the system has its problems – my nan died of lung cancer six weeks after a nurse told her she had a chest infection when the doctor was too busy to see her, and I’ve probably spent actual weeks of my life in waiting rooms – but the good that the NHS does far outweighs the bad. We are quick to complain and take it for granted, but I’d wager that every person in this country could write a list of things they owe it for. Try it –  you’ll be surprised and incredibly grateful.

Thank you, NHS.

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Letters I Will Never Send – 2.

I’m sorry it has taken me so long to be able to write this. I sat down a few times in that first week but I just couldn’t find the words. There’s a horrible irony that there was only ever one person I could really rely on to help me find the right way to say the things I wanted to, but you can’t help me with this one.

My earliest memories of you are as my teacher, but my best memories are as a friend. In some ways your approach to both was the same, and I think that’s what made you such an excellent teacher – all passion and enthusiasm and brilliant humour. I still remember our first AS lesson when you decided our class was too inhibited because we refused to join you in adopting a southern states drawl as we began reading through Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. I remember even more the lessons that followed, when our self-conscious mumbling was gradually eroded by laughter as you forced us to read it in a variety of (with hindsight, probably borderline racist) accents – the more we hesitated the more ridiculous the accent you gave us next time. You taught us not to take ourselves so seriously (the curse of awkward teenagers everywhere) and also that Tennessee Williams is still surprisingly great when Brick is from Mumbai and Maggie is from Glasgow. You inspired a real love of literature but also a real love of you – much to the detriment of those who tried to teach us after you left, all of whom were treated with disproportionate suspicion and were probably exhausted from hearing the objection “Well, with Miss before…”

I was glad to keep in touch with you after you left and feel so lucky that I was able to come to call you my friend. I think you probably taught me more about life as my friend than you ever did about literature in the classroom, and that’s saying something. You always had far more confidence in me than I do in myself and that was a constant source of encouragement. I could use a bit of that right now. Do you remember when you visited me in Oxford and we went for a walk around college? I was overtired, overworked and underwhelmed by the drivel I was producing academically. I didn’t say any of this to you but as we walked you gave me one of your classic pep-talks anyway, complete with passages of Shakespeare and probably other allusions that I missed, and I felt a thousand times better. You were always great at sensing when there was something wrong and always seemed to find the right words; you were even better at knowing when to make me talk about it and when to just be there. I’ll miss that enormously. I miss it already.

You taught me a lot about being sick too and the sort of attitude I have to it is no doubt at least in part down to you.  I don’t know that I will ever meet somebody so incredibly brave and dignified in the face of such a horrible ordeal. Most of all, you never let it define you or dampen your exuberance for life, and you kept that wicked sense of humour. My favourite story to tell about you is the one about that evening when we were driving back from a play talking about your illness. Perhaps egged on by an evening of theatricality or perhaps just being yourself, you tore off your wig with a dramatic flourish but lost your grip at just the wrong moment; we only narrowly avoided it flying out of the open window at 40mph and to this day I don’t know how you grabbed it in time and how we didn’t crash as the pair of us wept laughing. The only time I remember you being cross with me was when I had just changed my medication and ordered a soft drink at the bar. You balled me out there and then, as always incredibly articulately, and told me that life wasn’t going to hang around waiting for me to get better. I carry that with me to this day.

We talked about all manner of things, but most of all you loved to talk about your family. Many an afternoon I’ve settled down in your kitchen or living room and been regaled with stories of what “himself” had been up to, and I don’t think I could count the number of times I’ve heard the words “Oh, you’ll never guess what D said the other day! He’s terrible you know…” and then waited until you had composed yourself from laughing enough to tell me the tale. A lot was said the other week of what a glamorous and beautiful woman you were (maybe even enough to make you bashful?!), and I nearly laughed aloud in church as I remembered you telling me the story of A drawing somebody else’s mother in primary school because she thought she was more stylish! You told stories better than anybody else I know and, no matter what you were telling me, you lit up with love and pride as you talked about your family. I always thought that one day we’d meet for coffee in my kitchen instead, and I could tell you how my husband and kids were doing. It feels strange to know that will never happen.

I could go on and on reminding you of these stories and  telling you how wonderful I think you are, but, modesty aside, I hope you knew that already. There were so many people at church the other week, no doubt with hundreds more tales of your brilliance. The service was beautiful too – I think it was exactly how you would have wanted it and I know how proud you would have been of himself and the kids. I’d get around to the point of my letter now, if I knew what it was. I miss you so much already, but I don’t really know what to do with that. I think mostly I just want to talk to you; it doesn’t really matter what about. I’m trying to focus on the positives, like you’d tell me to – I’m heartbroken that you’re gone, but I’m so glad that I knew you at all.

I love you, D. I’ve never wanted to be able to send a letter more.

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My friend.

My friend died, and I have never felt more alone in this enormous city.

I’m not very good at feelings. I try my best to pretend I have none and people tease me for my inability to cry, but one phone-call just shocked the tears straight out of me. I arrived back in London an hour ago and as soon as I plugged my phone in it began to ring. My heart sank immediately; my aunt in America is really ill and nobody answered when we called yesterday, so I braced myself and picked up.

“I have some bad news…”

[More bracing.]

As it turns out, bracing yourself for bad news doesn’t work if it’s not the bad news you were expecting. It doesn’t feel real, and I’m vaguely aware that this is shock not grief. That makes me feel better about the crying thing. I only spoke to her on Thursday. She’s been ill for a long time but she said she was feeling better than she had for months. I didn’t see her when I was at home for the weekend because she was on holiday. I won’t see her next time I go home because her husband came back from that holiday alone this morning. It doesn’t feel real.

I’m not sure what to do next. There’s only one person in the whole of London who I can really talk to, but to do that I have to tell him, and he loved her too. He’s in work. I’m sat in my little yellow box wishing that this wasn’t real. It is real. She died.

I want to tell you how wonderful she was, my brave, clever, funny friend, but I don’t know how to. She would know. Maybe another day I’ll sit down at my desk again and write something that does justice to her brilliance. If I manage that, it will only be because once upon a time she taught me how to.

Right now, though, she isn’t here. It doesn’t really feel like I am either.

Forty thousand years of 2am.

It’s 2am and I can’t sleep because my brain is full of questions that I can’t answer. It’s overwhelming, as 2am tends to be when it’s just you and your thoughts. Tonight is different though, because tonight I’m trying to bend my mind around the idea that people have been lying awake at 2am worrying about their world for forty thousand years. It’s a strange thought, comforting and terrifying in equal measure, and it’s entirely the fault of a tiny little carved woman.

Female figure sculpted from steatite. Found at Grimaldi, Italy, thought to be about 20,000 years old.

Musée d’archéologie nationale
© Photo RMN/Jean-Gilles Berizzi

I have a theory about humanity. When we’re confronted with something beyond our comprehension we react to it in one of two ways – either we shy away from it and reject it, or we allow ourselves to be consumed by an infinite fascination. When it comes to our existence, though, only the latter is an option. This is why people like me lie awake at 2am, why philosophers philosophise, and why millions of teenagers are wracked by the sort of existential angst that Sartre would be proud of. Why am I here, now, and how am I myself? In the absence of a definitive answer, it seems only logical to lay out the pieces of puzzle that we have to play with. Enter art, and with it thousands of years of puzzle pieces – tiny fragments of expressions of existence.

Today, my whole scale changed. When I think about art, I rarely stray beyond two thousand years ago. Quite often I don’t even venture that far – my current paper has had me resident in 15th Century Florence for quite a while now and my brain and I have been having a lovely time there. Six hundred years adrift from my existence is pushing the boundaries of my capacity to relate, but every now and then I’m struck by something so human that that relation is obvious. When I walked into an exhibition of Ice Age art today, my head literally ached as I attempted to imagine humanity forty thousand years ago. Some days I struggle with basic counting so 40,000 is difficult enough as a number, let alone as a measure of enduring reality. My brain was trapped in a mini ice age of its own, frozen.

As it turned out, all that it took to thaw the great freeze was one tiny, carved figure. It was no taller than an inch and (then present company excepted) it was the oldest thing I have ever seen. I recognised the figure from the exhibition advertising but was not prepared for the scale of it in reality – the marketing team had, very literally, blown it out of all proportion. As I stood before it in the British Museum, I was overwhelmed. As the curator’s label informed me, it was not a literal depiction of a woman but it was most definitely a carved human figure; it was instantly identifiable but almost wholly abstract by modern standards. Then came the realisation – I was not looking at some primitive attempt at a portrait, I was looking at an expression of human existence. More than that, it was an expression that tapped into something so essential that twenty thousand years apart from the artist, I could identify with it. It was so simple and yet more complex than anything I can convey, and it was the key to unlocking my understanding of the whole collection of art on display. At first I thought this epiphany was an existential puzzle piece slotting into place, but it soon dawned on me that it was just the realisation that the puzzle is forty thousand times bigger than I’d ever imagined. That tiny little woman is the product of humanity under conditions that are more alien to us than I can really imagine, and yet it speaks to the exact existence I know today.

I find a funny reassurance in the commonality of it all – the idea that people have always tried to express the puzzle of what it is to simply be. Yet, as I lie here, I also can’t shake the enormous sense of disquiet at the thought that a billion lifetimes have passed since that little woman was fashioned and I am no less bewildered at 2am.

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Letters I Will Never Send – 1.

Today you asked me why we’re friends. You were joking of course but it got me thinking. I don’t know if you know that you’re one of my best friends; I hope you do. I’m not really sure when it happened that I became so very glad of you but I truly am. I’m going to try to show that more.

Sometimes when we’re chatting I laugh about how we seem to have nothing in common but yet we get on so well. Secretly, I always hope you’ll correct me and think of something because I don’t like much about myself and I wish one of us could spot something of you in me. You’re tenacious and driven (you’ve got gumption as we’d say if this was 1940s America) but you’ve got a bigger heart than you’d care to admit too. You’re brave and you’re fierce and you’re gentle inside. If I had to pick one word to describe you it would be “honest”, and I value your brilliant honesty every day. You’re far too cool to be my friend but you tolerate my weirdness and treat me like your equal and I appreciate that every day too.

Most of all, I want you to know that I admire you. Admiration is a funny thing, and it almost feels silly to say it, but I’m not sure what other way to express it. I look up to you and I am so proud to call you my friend. I hope one day I’m more like you.

Thank you.

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