Mouse Habits

‘When we click through the news on our screens we experience it in the immediacy of the present moment. We also experience it in our loneliness. The loneliness of such moments feeds the fear we carry around in ourselves, the fear that comes with a sense of our disconnectedness from some indefinable life-source.’ Excerpt from my latest book In Such Times: Reflections On Living With Fear

‘Mouse’ is not a bad name for the gizmo which connects us to our computer screens. It is a symbol of the hunted, but also of the one who hunts, or searches, indiscriminately picking up whatever life sustaining morsels lie to hand. As ‘hunters’ we are in control, believing that the world lies open to us, that there is an abundance of choice out there. As ‘hunted’ we are the victims of the fears and uncertainties which this spurious freedom appears to give us.

I think of my own screen habits which have deteriorated of late, both in the amount of time I spend ostensibly reading things, when I am in fact simply grazing. I remember, rather wistfully, my pre-social media days.

As one of many millions who spend a fair bit of time online, I’ve thought about screen habits quite a bit of late, first in regard to how, if at all, they affect the way I think about what is going on in the world, and what I choose to watch, and why I watch those things. Most of the time it’s the news. I feel helpless in the face of the destruction of the planet and the evasive tactics of the powerful who benefit from that destruction. I am horribly fascinated by the antics being played out in parliament, though I am growing bored with those of Donald Trump and with much of the competing rhetoric surrounding the Brexit issue. Recently, I’ve been drawn to things that somehow ring positive – stories of heroic beach rescues, or of the devotion of animals which defies understanding but brings hope.

As I live in the country, I’m fairly well acquainted with the hunting habits of mice. You can be pretty certain that for every one mouse you see scurrying across the kitchen floor – even a reasonably clean kitchen floor – there will be at least ten more lurking behind the pipes or nesting in the cavity insulation. They work in teams but seem to hunt alone, a little like the computer mouse. We hunt alone, but there are millions of us gravitating to the same things.

This being said, I don’t think the solitary hunter mouse experiences existential loneliness. The idea hasn’t even crossed her mind. The solitary rodent is not in denial about anything in particular. She has enough to do, just obeying her nest-making and other survival instincts.

This is where we, when we are in ‘hunter mouse’ mode, differ from those little grey rodents. Much of the time we spend on computers is spent in a form of denial. We hunt to get away from our loneliness. We are in denial about the isolationism which our freedom to access information as events unroll has brought us. We are also in denial of the loneliness we experience in it. Though anxious about the way the world is going, our anxiety seems to return us to ourselves most of the time.

What we are really looking for, then, is something that will lead us out of ourselves and into a place of commonality, a feeling and desire for the common good. Deep down, I think many of us are watching out for something resembling sacrificial love, especially in the sphere of politics and leadership.

Watching the news, or surfing it, gives you a sense of the kind of battle being waged between the forces of good which are to do with sacrificial love, and the arrogance and self interest which ultimately leads to loneliness and isolationism.

Watching the news becomes a matter of surfing for the opinion which best chimes with your own, even when your own is shaped from ‘gut’ feeling rather than a balanced seeking out of the truth (a now completely devalued word) and of what best serves a nation. When glimmers of love emerge in the political arena, as they do from time to time, defying the arrogance and contempt of some for those they are there to serve, we recognise them for what they are with a kind of deep sense of joy – but not the triumphalist joy that comes with ‘winning’ or having the last word.

If the whole Brexit debacle has served any purpose at all, it will at least have revealed that it is possible for politicians to act with integrity in the matter of sacrificial love. In other words, to put their consciences and the needs of the country ahead of their careers. The same holds true in all public spheres, including that of the Church, where integrity and sacrificial love is required from time to time from leaders. Much of the time, the personal sacrifices that they make go unnoticed, or unremembered.

But they are remembered at a different level. In the case of Brexit, their story will no doubt define history, so they will be remembered by future generations. But hope does not begin and end at its source, with the person or people who are courageous and competent enough to put sacrificial love at the service of the country. It gives hope to the millions of us ‘hunting’ desperately for politicians we can trust and for a future we can believe in.

The Leaders We Deserve

 

‘Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown’ (Henry IV part 2), or at least it should. Aspiring leaders of political parties, and of government itself, lack the unease that would give them the kind of authority which comes with what I would describe as a kind of noble humility. The UK’s broken politics, partly the result of an electoral system which is no longer fit for purpose, is in some measure to blame for this sense of lack, when it comes to genuine authority in political leaders. You vote for a party, but you have very little choice when it comes to who will be the best leader of the nation even if you belong to the party you voted for (the same is true in the US, albeit for different reasons) especially in a time of crisis, such as we are facing at the moment. But the leadership and authority vacuum we are experiencing is also one of our own making. We get the politicians we deserve – ‘full of passionate intensity, or ‘lacking in all conviction’. (W.B. Yeats ‘The Second Coming’)

Something comparable is going on at the beginning of the book of Isaiah. Things are ‘falling apart’ for lack of visionary leadership, because people have either abrogated their political responsibilities (they no longer either think or care about what will become of their future) or they are happy to go along with the charismatic personality of the moment, trusting that all must work out well in the end somehow or other. Then, as now, there was a need for someone of vision and authority who would deliver the nation from the consequences of its infatuation with charismatic leaders and who would speak the language of hope.

But the prophet who volunteers for this job feels far from qualified to do it. It would seem that he has been compromised in either his personal or his public life in the past. He is, by his own admission, a man of ‘unclean lips’ (Is. 6:4). All the same, he is told that he will be speaking to a people who have inured themselves to obvious good sense and that they are beyond the point of recall, beyond hope. God, it seems, is partly responsible for this. He allows the situation to be as it is and in doing so obliges the people to come to terms with the fact that it is they who must change, or they will get the leaders they deserve. Being dulled to the things which make for life; life in community, life in relationships, life in God, they are set to be dominated by individuals whose primary agenda is self-gratification, specifically the gratification afforded by power.

Those who only want power generally have little of substance to offer the people over whom they will exercise it. They will fudge or avoid interviews, or simply manipulate the conversation in order to avoid issues that are life determining for the nation, because they do not know what to say or do and because they believe (often rightly) that their own luminous personality will persuade everyone that problems are easily solvable, or do not exist at all.

I also sense in Isaiah a deliberate omission. There is not much talk of visionary leadership in the immediate future, although it will come in the fullness of time. Perhaps the writer of the book wants the people to begin to wonder if they are missing something, and, if so, to ask themselves what they could do to take control of their politics in a way which demands hope, rather than vague optimism from their leaders.

They may even identify an individual who shows great promise but who is not of the political party of their preference. They feel guilty and uncomfortable about supporting such a person, so they need others to whom they have delegated power, and with it responsibility, to take the first step and do what is necessary, even if it means betraying party loyalties. The person in question may need to do the same. They will also need to do a bit of self-examination with a view to being willing to take responsibility for their own past political decision making, not all of which they may be proud of today. They may want to change their mind about policies they have supported, knowing that they must do this publicly, or they will not win the people’s respect or inspire hope for the future. Changing one’s mind about actions taken in the past is really a change of heart, or what people of faith would call repentance.

When we repent of our actions, or of those words or actions which have betrayed our responsibility for those who have mandated us with power, we are bound to come in for criticism and even for abuse. This is where we start to see the difference between power and authority when it comes to leadership. The supreme example of this kind of self-abnegating leadership is set by Jesus who allows himself to be treated as one in need of repentance, so that those who are called to lead with authority in secular politics need not be ashamed to do this themselves. A person who only wants power will seldom repent.

A person of authority will be continually vigilant about how their words and actions will directly impact on the lives of those they are mandated to serve, service being the last and perhaps most important mark of true leadership. A leader who serves takes the trouble to listen and to be at one with his or her people. We get these servant leaders emerging from time to time in all sorts of contexts. Sadly, we have just lost one in Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arche Communities. It is urgent that we find another in the forum of UK politics. I believe that if we take our political responsibilities seriously, even to the point of breaking down the barriers of party and personal interest, we will see one emerging in Rory Stewart.