When first we practise to deceive

Here we are again – in the run up to the General Election. Manifestos are out, politicians are quizzed: it’s a good opportunity to think about truth in the public forum. No doubt there are few direct lies, if only because a discovered lie carries a heavy price. But, short of that, it would seem that distortions of truth are the order of the day.

My theory is that politicians do genuinely fool themselves that getting themselves into a position of power, or continuing there, is always for the common good. And it is this which justifies their economy with the truth. I have just been reading Broken Vows, which is a biography of Tony Blair in power, written by Tom Bower. This presents me with a picture of a whole government, including the civil service, which is a stranger to the truth. Fighting for position, doing down your enemies, making sure that your views are accepted no matter what. It is a cauldron of deceit. You can only serve the people by dishonesty – from the subtle to the flagrant. And I write this on a day when I have just heard that epitome of virtue, Theresa May, claim that her ‘end of life’ social care plan remains the same notwithstanding the collapse of a major element. I am thankful that when many years ago I toyed with entering politics I decided that I was unlikely ever to be able in conscience to subscribe to a complete manifesto.

But, while politics by nature tend towards the distortion of truth in the thrust for power, it may be useful to consider the standards of honesty which we impose on ourselves. I am not thinking only about direct lies, I have in mind a variety of ways in which we might deceive others. Telling a truth which we know will be misunderstood is one example. Failing to say some thing which should be said is another. Presenting selective information to get our own way, is not confined to advertisements – it is to be found in family conversation. We might go deeper down and think about lies which we take to be good manners. Have you ever told a cook how much you have enjoyed a meal when it fact you disliked it? Kindness intended, no doubt, but a lie nevertheless. I recommend an exercise in which we take a single day and note how often we diverge from the complete truth, even if we distinguish between the important and the trivial.

The fundamental principle is that we have been created, as rational social animals, to communicate with each other. And ‘communicate’ means ‘to come together’. Divergence from the truth, or omission from a truth which is owed to another, is an offence against communication. It does not bring us together, it pushes us further apart. We might see ourselves as honest persons. But in fact honesty is not a stable characteristic, it is one we have to work at continuously as we step up the long ladder which leads to God.

Posted in Moral judgment, Quentin queries, Synod | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

The Third Age

Yesterday I had a telephone call from Rupert (not his name). I usually see him once a fortnight but recently he has been away suffering from bone marrow cancer. The news was good. Following courses of treatment he is now clear, although it is too early to confirm permanent recovery. Part of my pleasure is selfish. Rupert is a clinical psychologist and has a special interest in Eastern religions. He has been an invaluable contributor to the fortnightly philosophy group which I lead. And he offers his professional skills freely to members of the group.

The third age of life, following childhood and full employment, can be a long one. And, for some, it can be miserable. Lack of regular human contact and a range of interests can lead to loneliness, depression and increasing poor health. About half of this population live alone and some ten per cent report loneliness. This may come from illness or bereavement, and the loss of companionship in retirement from working life. The rate of depression is high and, without treatment, the effect on general health, not excluding suicide, is serious. Perhaps we do not value ordinary, everyday, relationships until we lose them.

The misery is not relieved by hearing that third-agers are a drain on society consuming an unfair share of public resources. They may not know that as a group they contribute a net £40 billion to the economy including taxation, social care and volunteering. Alison Pollock, Professor of Public Health at Queen Mary University, London, even suggests that they are used as a convenient excuse by government for starving the NHS.

Friendships tends to develop, and to be maintained, when circumstances provide opportunities to be in each other’s company — which in turn results in finding common interests and sympathies. So a solution might lie in a structure which is designed to further these aims. I would suggest one organisation which is having considerable success is the University of the Third Age. This originated in France, establishing extra-mural connections with formal universities. In the UK, it operates independently, and is broader in its approach. It has 400,000 members, with an ambition to double this by the end of the decade and, under the auspices of the Third Age Trust, recently celebrated the opening of its 1,000th centre.

I have no formal connection other than as a member and a leader of a group for many years but my experience, in a leafy suburb, will convey the atmosphere. Central to the organisation are the small groups which meet regularly. Typically, they work under a leader and meet in a private house or council premises. The coverage is extensive. I note 85 current groups in my local U3A. They cover many aspects of the arts, music science, current affairs, history, active pursuits and games. And, if anyone chooses to start a group related to their special interest they will get the help they need to promote it. In addition there are formal talks, study days, short courses, organised expeditions and summer schools.

The learning methods tend to be informal. While much will depend on the leader, the main source of knowledge will be in the membership of the group. Discussion and participation are the key. The knowledge will often lie in the experience of the membership. When my wife started a current affairs group, several years ago, she found herself surrounded by retired international experts. Her expertise lay in knowing how to use them.

My own philosophy group discusses respectfully religious and secular views. The favourite topic is moral philosophy. Needless to say, this is more about defining the questions than arriving at answers. That is the nature of philosophy. Some of the issues end up in this column, and vice versa. Over the years the group has of course had turnover. This is not because they choose to leave but because old people, rather inconveniently, die. In my imagination I see already a group of ex-members up in Heaven – and still discussing. I wonder if they have the answers now. It must, for instance, be easier to conclude a discussion about what Socrates really meant, if you can ask him directly. Though, knowing Socrates, you are more likely to get another question than an answer.

The University of the Third Age has no political agenda. Apart from the wide variety of views, its strength does not lie in such power but in knowledge and truth – achieved through formal and informal debate. I have no doubt that the members are better prepared to contribute to society through formed opinions and constructive voting choices – skills particularly needed at the present time. And they are likely to have more friends, and to live longer and more happily too.

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Where do we stand?

Homosexuality is a tricky subject to tackle. It is so sensitive that people of all orientations can be offended, even when no offence is intended. But I take my chance because it is important to develop our understanding, through discussion.

The Catholic Catechism, while insisting that we should be courteous and respectful in all situations, condemns homosexual acts as inherently evil. They are, in short, a violence against God’s creation of human nature in terms of gender. And this application of natural law is fortified by strong references in Scripture. Perhaps a more clement account would speak in terms of a mismatch (rather than a disorder) between sexual orientation and gender – in this instance easily inferred from the structures of sexual biology.

The cause of this mismatch is hard to pin down in any particular case. It may result from genes, or from irregular hormones in pregnancy, or in upbringing. Or, perhaps a combination of such causes. And, notwithstanding the verdict drawn from biological structures, the homosexual may claim that it is natural to him or her.

However we should expect that a mismatch, innocent or otherwise, would provide difficulties. For instance we know that homosexuals have a higher rate of promiscuity, which is accompanied by a higher level of infection. We might also want to argue that a homosexual couple lack the complementarity of the two genders, and are therefore prone to being unsatisfactory parents. Similarly, homosexual couples would find it difficult to maintain stable, long term, relationships. But it is hard to know whether promiscuity is inherent, or comes about because of the disapproval of society. We simply don’t know whether the children of homosexuals are in fact disadvantaged, nor how stable formally married homosexual partners may turn out to be. We will have better statistics in a decade of two; but such early indications as I have seen do not support these criticisms.

Scripture is certainly clear about the condemnation of homosexuality (visit http://www.biblestudytools.com/topical-verses/bible-verses-about-homosexuality/ for a quick overview. But then we remember that Scripture must be taken in the context of the time. It was assumed that homosexual activity was an expression of rampant carnal lust. Does that really include that same-sex couple, around the corner. who have lived together in a loving, and sexual, relationship for twenty years? Don’t walk too close to their house, you may get hit by the brimstone of God’s fury.

The older I get the more I think we have got morality wrong. We start off by making laws: this is wrong, this is right, this is mortal, this is venial. But surely we should start with love – and then try to identify the how we promote and how we damage love. Of course we will formulate some principles to which we must attend, but these are the servants of love not the masters. Our question must be: is this the loving thing to do? I think we might get some different answers.

Posted in Church and Society, Moral judgment, Quentin queries | 11 Comments

Managing people and problems

Clergy, accountants, teachers, business managers, social workers, parents – that’s just the beginning of a long list of vocations whose job involves solving problems face to face. You would think that much of their training would be focussed on how to do this best. But various studies have suggested that this is often not the case. Their intellectual training has prepared them with all the professional knowledge they require but has rarely taught them the skills for actually helping their clients.

When I was first trained as a marriage counsellor the emphasis was on a psychoanalytic approach, but I was fortunate in encountering Gerry Egan’s Skilled Helper which enabled me, I believe, to become much more effective. I found that his methodology was universal, and I was able to incorporate it into my managerial work. Later, I was able to write my own book which focussed on it as a managerial skill.

The essence of the approach was that helper and client worked as a team, and, in doing so, they followed some simple stages necessary to achieve the desired result. I devised the mnemonic: LEGUP. This stood for listening, exploring, goal-setting, underpinning and pursuit. Your first reaction may be that this is naïve. How can the same stages suit a penitent with a moral problem in the confessional and your 10 year old son who won’t do his homework? Let’s see.

Listening means that the helper should hear the client – both the facts and the feelings. These must be reflected so that the client knows he or she has been understood. This is a difficult skill for those whose habitual reaction is to comment on what is being said. Instead, the helper’s brain should be whirring away taking in the full picture from the client’s viewpoint. Throughout the whole process listening must continue.

Exploration is a dialogue in which the helper draws attention to aspects of what has been said. For example there may appear to be patterns of behaviour which need to be explored. The helper, tentatively of course, will identify these and suggest their possible relevance. But if they are significant it is the client who must recognise this if anything is to change. There may well be contradictions or inconsistencies which the client must think through, and perhaps extend their understanding of the situation. There may be aspects of the account which have a stronger emotional effect than others. Again, these must be illuminated so that their contribution can be gauged.

There is no ideal timescale for these two stages. They may take five minutes or be spread out over five days. The objective is that by the end both helper and client have discovered what has been going on and what has to be changed to achieve improvement. So the third stage is Goal-setting. There is no place for vague objectives such as “I’ll try to do better at this or that.” They must be concrete, realistic, observable and worthwhile. I feel another mnemonic coming on: CROW. If there are several objectives it usually helps to start with easy ones to give confidence.

Support refers to any action needed to make the objectives possible. For instance the client may need training, or new information, and administrative changes may be required. But we know how good intentions fail, so this is where Pursuit comes in. Helper and client should arrange further occasions where the client will report on the success of objectives. Scheduling such reports is strongly motivating, but it also provides opportunities to modify objectives. Difficulties experienced can be ironed out, and new insights derived from new experiences can be considered.

You will have noticed from my account that I emphasise the importance of the client recognising what has to change and approving the objectives which will achieve success. The helper is primarily acting as coach, using the skills of problem solving to help the client to find the best way to succeed. Instructions are few: gentle questions which help clients to reach the undertakings and the decisions for themselves are many. This will still apply even when the dialogue is disciplinary. Imposed instructions are less effective than voluntary acceptance.

You may think that the five elements I have described are over the top in many minor cases – which might be dealt with in five minutes. You may test this by considering how likely it is that change will happen when the client does not feel understood, or has not thought about the causes of the problem, or has nothing more than hopeful resolutions, or is without the facilities to put the change into action, or is without an opportunity to report back for approval and further help. Even in the simplest problems — when some stages of LEGUP take only seconds – the same process applies. Once that is second nature a helper will wonder how success could have been achieved without it.

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Who wants to get married?

Times are changing. I have just done some family calculations. I have fourteen grandchildren of whom twelve are in their twenties. Of those twelve, three are married (two have children and the third is expecting). The unmarried nine, boys and girls, are all in stable relationships. None of them are engaged, none of them speak specifically of marriage in the offing. I do not of course ask awkward questions about how they conduct their relationships, although this is obvious for those who are living together. I need hardly say that all of them have, so far, chosen excellent partners by my judgment, and they are all close to me. In a week I get more hugs from beautiful young women than most do in a month of Sundays. I am a happy man. But a concerned one.

The situation is novel to me. I got engaged quite early on in my first serious relationship and, although National Service was a delay, we got married as soon as possible afterwards. It was, for the record, the day that Nasser took over the Suez Canal, so the Sunday Express next morning had Nasser at the top and my wife at the bottom. She was the better looking.

Being a grandfather, and so without direct responsibilities, we are free to talk easily about serious questions, and so our conversations do turn to marriage – at least at a theoretical level. I try to get across the fundamental difference between a sworn, committed relationship and one which is held together by just the feeling of love, and perhaps an ambition for the future – which may not be identical in both cases. There seems to be no point at which each partner has to decide whether the relationship is for keeps. The message which comes across to me is: why commit when you don’t need to? There’s time enough to wait until you start a family for that. But I have a sense of people sliding, incident by incident, into marriage – without stopping to think. The statistics which show that this is a dangerous course do not apply to them. Their situation is always different.

But I have every reason to hope that all these existing relationships will end in happy marriages, lots of great grandchildren – and a future as blessed as mine has been in the past. And so, I pray.

Posted in Bio-ethics, Moral judgment, Quentin queries | 26 Comments

The chill of dusk

Last Sunday evening my daughter gave an outdoor party for her family. It was a rewarding occasion. Her three children were there, with their boyfriends and girlfriends. All highly educated, all in good jobs – and an atmosphere of shared love, which allowed for argument, humour and teasing. It was a boon for an old man who likes to think that the meaning of his life is best expressed in the quality of his descendants.

The weather was perfect, but the evening wore on and the chill of dusk gradually replaced the sun. And then, because I let my mind wander, I remembered the scenes from photographs or reconstructions of, say, 1912. Then, it would seem, the sun always shone, the women were always beautiful – and the great British Empire gave us riches and absolute security. But they did not watch the sun; they were not ready for the darkness.

The first World War seems to have started by a series of chances triggered by an assassination in a far off country. Over a brief period old jealousies, old enmities and old fears led to increasing confrontations which led step by step to the utter darkness of 28th of July 1914. And in the cocoon of that war lay the egg of a second war a generation or so ahead. And, after this war, armaments were developed which could destroy whole countries in just a few hours. We chose the temporary safety of bluff at the risk of almost inconceivable calamity. Perhaps we didn’t choose, it happened because we did not know how to stop it happening.

We all read the news. We see an insoluble Middle East, largely born from our greedy mistakes, we see great nations – who, working together, could repair the world – uneasy, suspicious and raising the stakes. We see a minor Far Eastern nation threatening us with the weapons we invented. We see globalisation turning into dog in the manger. The tensions between the bourgeoisie and the hard left show that we have not yet learned the painful lesson of Marxism or the injustices which made it possible..

“The past is another country, they do things differently there.” No they don’t. They do exactly the same, while thinking that the outcome will be different. You will not be surprised that as the sun went down over that gay party of young people, I was frightened of the night to come.

Mary, Mother of God, pray for us.

Posted in Quentin queries | 7 Comments

Summertime and the living’s not easy

A week or two back the clocks went forward with the approach of Summer. I regard the loss of an hour as the price we pay for warmer weather. But this time I entirely forgot. As a result I missed my favoured 8:15 Mass. This is a quiet affair with a mature congregation, and where by constant habit we have our accepted seats. Even the homily is usually comprehensible, although not inevitably inspirational. I had to choose another Mass and I picked the 5 pm which was likely to be reasonably brief.

But I was wrong. It turned out to be very full, and with a large proportion of young people – even if some of these were cavalier about time-keeping – continuous shuffling for latecomers was required. But my spirits were already dampened by spotting a little musical band and an adolescent choir in front of a board displaying several hymn numbers. I have no objection to singing in church; I do so quietly because, strangely to me, I am told that I cannot sing in tune.

It took something over half an hour to get as far as the Offertory. Even then many numbers, relating to the two large hymn books which had been provided, were still to come. I read them because the choir were not trained in the art of comprehensible singing. That was something of a shock. I had no idea how appallingly pedestrian Catholic hymns can be. Yes, I have written a little poetry, perhaps without much merit, but I would have been ashamed to have produced anything quite so puerile.

But I was glad to see the Offertory arrive, even though the words were stifled by more singing. But I had been fearful that the essential elements of the Mass would be omitted altogether. It was a relief to hear from the bell that they had not omitted the Consecration to fit in yet another hymn. I have to admit to getting out of the church as quickly as was consistent with my Sunday obligation. I needed to – in order to escape an occasion of sin..

An occasion of sin? Yes, I knew these were good people. I am sure they are sincere. More importantly perhaps, one of the largest churches in the London suburbs was filled to the gunwales with young people with and without their parents. And this is in a parish where there are eight Sunday Masses from which to choose. My bad temper was inexcusable. Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.

Posted in Quentin queries | Tagged | 14 Comments