Words of Wisdom

I had a telephone call this morning from my son. He wanted me to know that he had got back to the UK following his lecture tour in the Australian universities. He is one of our leading romano–british historians. It reminded me of a conversation we had when he was fourteen. He said that I was unlike other fathers. He claimed that most fathers answered their children’s questions whereas I simply asked him questions back. I like to think, though I cannot confirm, that this triggered him into investigating the truth rather than looking for someone else’s answer.

This wasn’t original to me. I was fortunate to have had a Jesuit education. There I learnt that I couldn’t make statements of significance unless I was prepared to support them with logic and evidence. Nor, as far as I was concerned, could my son.

I have little knowledge of the status of regular contributors to this blog. The odd hint gives me clues of course. But I have the impression that many are highly educated, sometimes clerical, and, most often, with views worth reading and thinking about.

So today I am asking whether any of you recall a remark, or an idea, from a parent, or a teacher, or a friend which you took on board and which has continued to influence you since then.

In my case, it was many years back. I was in a high- level business meeting where we were looking at how we could improve the business organisation. We went through a lengthy discussion reviewing all the different aspects, and potential improvements. When we finished, our chief actuary asked: “But, in the end, what are the things which really matter?” In five minutes, we knew the answer.

So, since then, whether it’s family, or business, or my health, or investments, or my plan for the day, I start with the question “What are the things which really matter?” It has been invaluable.

So I ask you to think through your own mind and memory and see if you can remember the principle, or principles you have picked up over the years and are still benefitting in your life.

About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
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23 Responses to Words of Wisdom

  1. galerimo says:

    Good to hear you son got home safe. The borders are shut now, as I think they are in other places, so his timing was fortunate, and a relief for you.

    Westminster Abbey Institute was also fortunate to lure Professor Jurgen Moltmann over to England to speak as part of its spring programme, before any travel restrictions took effect there.

    Two of his reflections, as recorded in the recent Tablet, are the most prominent in my mind when I do a quick scan of my learning experiences, in this case, from the recent past.

    I thought, in light of our current pandemic, his comment on hope was very instructive and one I am keen to adopt.

    Thinking of the earth, as a living organism and seeing the current crisis as a cleansing process whereby the earth seeks to rid itself of humanity, which is the greatest threat to its health and even survival, I, not Moltmann, reach an honest and very grim conclusion.

    Moltmann remarks, “If we know that we will not survive, we will do nothing. If we know we will, we won’t do anything either. Only if the future is open to both possibilities, we can do what is necessary.”

    I see this, axiom, as a real basis for hope. For humanity, it is business as usual, negotiating a possibility between doom and survival.

    Given that climate change has not gone away, nor any of the risks to our planet’s
    survival with rates of pollution, extinction, and environmental degradation at an all time high, I need a bit of hope. And this glimmer of possibility does just that.

    Also, by holding his menu up against his face, like someone with very poor sight, he sought to demonstrate how close God is to us, even closer than we are to ourselves.

    Such a gesture by Moltmann, no easy theologian to read, is a very simple and clever way of imaging an aspect of our relationship to God, as a blinding reality with many levels of meaning, and many possible applications to our faith.

    Yes, definitely, two principles, one to do with finding a glimmer of hope when there is none and the other about searching for God when there doesn’t seem to be one, that I learnt a few days ago.

    So far this 93 year old’s impact on me this week, has remained. And with my memory, that’s saying something.

  2. Iona says:

    I’m not sure if the following are quite the sorts of thing you had in mind, Quentin, but here they are anyway:
    When my eldest (now in his 40s) was a 5-year old in school, his teacher said of him: “He’s not interested in ‘right answers'”. What she meant was that he was not interested in giving an answer that would please the teacher and keep her happy; he actually wanted to know/understand things.
    The other was an example set by someone else. In the course of a meeting about a “problem child” in school and what should be done about him, the educational psychologist asked a question. It was met evasively. He asked it again. And again. And again. He showed no sign of impatience or annoyance, he just persisted; and eventually it was answered.

  3. David Smith says:

    I have no received words of wisdom worth mentioning. What words there were have been absorbed, integrated, and mostly forgotten. My understanding of the Jesuitical approach to reality is that it relies heavily on words and logic. That, I think, is easily overdone. Language seems to be necessary to human functioning, but humans do not – they cannot – live on words alone. Some try to, but in the end, all words are submerged in a much deeper ocean of meaning.

    • ignatius says:

      David, But do you not find that word at least offer up signs or labels which indicate at least the direction of travel those deeper tidal waters??

      • David Smith says:

        ignatius writes:

        // David, But do you not find that word at least offer up signs or labels which indicate at least the direction of travel those deeper tidal waters?? //

        Words are useful, maybe necessary tools for building chained thoughts, and we need to do that to survive, but chained thinking (If I keep my head under water for more than X seconds, I’ll drown.) is best when working with the measurable world, practical stuff. When it’s applied to non-measurable things (Is abortion immoral?) it’s likely to lead us where we want to go rather than where we ought to go. I grant you that since we have an innate talent for using logic it’s only natural that we’ll use it for trying to solve abstract puzzles, but I think it’s wise to be aware of and beware of its limitations.

        Theology and philosophy – of which I know nothing – probably rely a lot on logic. I wonder whether this isn’t often a lot like counting the capacity of a pin head for holding X number of angels.

        But I confess that one reason why I seem to hold loquacity and logic in rather low esteem is probably that I’m not very good at either of them :o)

  4. milliganp says:

    I had a rather cynical (in the sense of “distrustful of human sincerity”) Xavarian brother as head-teacher. I remember two of his phrases “Man creates God in his own image” and “the self-made man is very proud of his maker”, They help me to keep a check on myself lest I become either of those creatures.

  5. ignatius says:

    When I was training as an osteopath we had a dour old principal of the college-himself famous after a 60 year career. One day during one of his mind bogglingly difficult lectures the old man stopped his flow and then with a fierce glare declaimed in a loud voice:
    “You have to make it your own!!!”
    Thirty years on those words stay with me as I struggle still with the complexities of the human frame and person in order to help with the healing process.
    However the meaning of those words seems to amplify into spiritual guidance as I walk, as do we all, in the calling of our lives. I have to make my faith ‘my own’ through acceptance , trust, and courage. Those few words have become a motto for me as I have to make my best intentions my own, by dint sometimes of fierce struggle with negative habits and laziness, I have to make my understanding ‘my own’ by rejecting all my lazy thoughts and scrutinising my beliefs for their hidden prejudices.
    Trusting that God has indeed made His home in me and given me his word as a lamp to my feet, I must strive to make all things my “own” knowing that, in doing so, I walk a pleasing way.

  6. Geordie says:

    I can’t remember any particular words of wisdom, from my school days, that stand out. One or two come to mind when I am thinking in a certain direction but I have no permanent pearls to fall back on.
    The only piece of advice I can remember was from a lay teacher, who told us on the last day at an all boys grammar school. He said, “Remember! A man chases a woman until she catches him.” I don’t think he would get away with that nowadays.

  7. ignatius says:

    David Smith writes:
    “But I confess that one reason why I seem to hold loquacity and logic in rather low esteem is probably that I’m not very good at either of them :o)”

    Actually that was quite loquacious !!

    If I may pursue the subject a little with you on account of it being a fascinating one and close to my heart! For the past thirty years I have been asking people questions relate to their health and well being. I am an Osteopath, I am ordained, I preach and teach. In my capacity as a prison chaplain with inmates I spend hours teasing out complex issues of spirituality intertwined as it is with criminality. I spent several years working on the “Samaritans ” help line for those who deemed themselves suicidal. So I have what might be called ‘skin in the game’!
    I have come to the place where in most conversations I almost automatically try to sift words from their deeper meaning. I have come to the conclusion that, just as the paragraph (and not the word) is the smallest unit of meaning in almost any writing, so the smallest unit of meaning in any conversation comes out in context of a few minutes rather than second. The strange thing is that we manage to communicate AT ALL!! But somehow we do. Somehow we appear to have the capacity to seperate words from meaning and yet still intuit a ‘meaning’ which is basically more of an echo than anything else; the striking of a shared chord perhaps. My wife, and one or two others who know me well reckon I am a “high functioning something or another” by which they mean that I need plenty of context before I grasp the basics. I often wonder if they are correct.or is it just “them”!!

    • David Smith says:

      Sounds a bit like me. I need to get an intuitive feeling about something I’m trying to learn before the learning experience becomes effective. That makes me a slower learner than, I think, most people in whatever group of learners I’m in are likely to be. When I’m trying to learn something alone, outside a formally set up group of learners, I fumble around, trying to acquire that intuitive feeling for the subject before I can settle down to the task. Often – too often – I never settle in, and I settle for partial learning. Impatience. ADHD, I suppose, or something related to it. It’s a cross :o)

      My wife and I started reading to each other yesterday. I chose “The Warden”, the first volume in Trollope’s Barsetshire novels. I ordered a paper copy, but as it hasn’t arrived yet, we started reading on our electronic devices, she on her iPhone and I on my iPad. As I read, I took time to highlight and annotate various elements in the text – unfamiliar words, locations, dates, names of characters and places, and so forth. To do this, I had to stop our reading from time to time. This drove my wife up a small wall. She’s a retired academic, someone I think of as a normal and normally efficient learner. What I need, she doesn’t. In that way, we’re a mixed marriage :o)

  8. milliganp says:

    The worst thing that ever happened to me at school (educationally – abuse is a different subject) was at age 10. I loved maths and had a brother a year older than me; reading his maths texts I came across that wonderful number pi. The head-teacher at the primary school used to take the top form for maths once a month and was doing circles and trying to measure the circumference. He said it was impossible; I stuck my hand up and mentioned pi – he denied it’s existence in front of the whole class. I went home and checked. Later in life I realise pi was a surd and that, strictly speaking, pi can never be represented as a number. However, the sad lesson I learned as a child was that adults lie and even head-teachers lie. Within a year I had also discovered that priests lie. I’m 68 and the scars have never fully healed (as a deacon, I discovered Bishop’s lie … this human fallenness can be terrifying).

    • David Smith says:

      milliganp writes:

      // However, the sad lesson I learned as a child was that adults lie and even head-teachers lie. Within a year I had also discovered that priests lie. I’m 68 and the scars have never fully healed (as a deacon, I discovered Bishop’s lie … this human fallenness can be terrifying). //

      People’s attitudes toward lying, deliberately misleading, and dissembling is a fascinating topic. I’m rather strongly averse to those things, but I suspect a great many people are not. I don’t find that frightening, but it does bother me, unsettle me, and it probably contributes significantly to what seems to be my innate cynicism.

      • ignatius says:

        Speaking about lies and truth is very interesting:

        “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?”
        jeremiah ch17 v 9
        “18For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. c For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. 19For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing” Roman ch 7 v18

        I rarely quote the bible publicly because there is always a contradictory verse to be found somewhere. But it does seem to me there is a stark and unpalatable truth on offer here. Fundamentally human beings do not speak ‘truth’. I am pretty certain that I myself am an amateur in the business of truth. I guess I would define myself as a reformed liar trying his best (sometimes) to be truthful. This might be because ‘truthfulness’ is itself difficult to define.Our consciences are quite capable of deceiving us and we are blind to the levels of our own self interest, very often believing that our own conviction about a matter is somehow ‘better’ than the other persons.

        It is, as David says a fascinating topic,particularly dissembling – which means ‘ to conceal or disguise ones true feelings or beliefs’ None of us are immune from dissembling, at least I have never met a person who seemed to me wholly transparent either to themselves or to others.
        Perhaps being in a prison environment is a more formative experience than one gives credit for but I find increasingly as the years pass I become more and more aware that human beings do in fact see as through a glass darkly on account of fallenness and that it is best to proceed from the assumption that this fallenness is normative. I find also when discussing things with parishioners (not in prison) that many seem strangely naive about the human condition and thus prone to frequent disappointment and disillusionment. On the other hand, if one has a ‘healthy’ awareness of sin in all its ubiquitousness then one becomes increasingly free to act with compassion and to grow in gratitude towards a God who is merciful and long suffering.
        Sorry by the way to hear MilliganP speaking,obliquely, of what sound like abusive encounters in the religious context. I can see how these must be devastating. In my prison we have rather large numbers of men who have used their status as priests, ministers, teachers, doctors etc for gratification of perverse and selfish purpose. The terrifying thing about these individuals is their manipulative plausibility; personality disorder, when closely encountered, is a terrible thing.
        To finish on an upbeat note though, it is 8pm and my wife and I stepped out of our house to applaud the Health workers…we started self consciously and embarrassed but then most of the street came out to which was greatly uplifting. That we human beings are deeply flawed need not be our defining characteristic because mostly, though truth is not much in us, we long more and more for it presence – which longing forms the best of us.

  9. David Smith says:

    Quentin writes:

    // So I ask you to think through your own mind and memory and see if you can remember the principle, or principles you have picked up over the years and are still benefitting in your life. //

    How about this: “Forty million Frenchmen can’t be wrong.” Of course, that’s a tongue-in-cheek apothegm, the implication being that the hive mind is most certainly likely to be wrong, and that one will always do well to think for oneself.

    That applies at this moment, I think. We’re being told by the politicians and their echo chamber the mass media that because there’s a new viral epidemic abroad in the land, the world is coming to an end. Nope, I disagree. Human beings have been wandering the earth in one form or another for something like a million years. Viruses and viral epidemics have been our constant companions. There is nothing new under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 1:9 New International Version (NIV), “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”) One of the things that have happened with depressing frequency under past suns is mass hysteria. Behold, here it is again.

    • David Smith says:

      Following up a bit on the preceding post, here is a quote from David Livingstone Smith, “Why We Lie, the Evolutionary Roots of Deception and the Unconscious Mind”:

      // When we think of lying, we typically think of explicit verbal falsehoods. The philosopher Sissela Bok, who is a spokesperson for this view, defines a lie as any intentionally deceptive statement. Is this all there is to lying? Mark Twain didn’t think so, and reckoned that “by examination and mathematical computation I find that the proportion of the spoken lie to the other varieties is 1 to 22,894. Therefore the spoken lie is of no consequence, and it is not worthwhile to go around fussing about it and trying to make believe that it is an important matter.” My own sympathies lie with Twain rather than with Bok, because Twain’s perspective is both inclusive and biologically realistic. … deception is not the exclusive province of our species. Many other organisms make liberal use of deception to get their way. I therefore define lying as any form of behavior the function of which is to provide others with false information or to deprive them of true information. //

      That’s an arbitrary distinction, of course, but it’s useful in the context of what’s happening now inside our little slice of human history. I’m not reading much of the copious material that the media are pouring out on “the coronavirus”, as they’re calling it, but what I have read inclines me to believe that what they’re mostly doing in the way of being deceptive falls into the category of depriving others of true information. They seem to be providing only information that will buttress their case for draconian social clamping down and refusing to provide information that would provide ammunition for arguing against it. Smith, I suppose, would suggest that for the most part the people responsible for this deception have first deceived themselves, in order that they may more effectively try to deceive the rest of us.

    • milliganp says:

      I don’t think anyone is telling us that the world is coming to an end. We are being told that if we do nothing some 250,000-500,000 people will die, most of them in extreme discomfort for the want of adequate medical facilities. The actions being taken are to slow down the spread so that the health service is not overwhelmed (at which point all the things that cam be fatal without medical intervention also add to the tally). It is also to save the lives of some of the doctors and nurses who will become infected in treating the rest of the population.

  10. ignatius says:

    ” One of the things that have happened with depressing frequency under past suns is mass hysteria. Behold, here it is again”
    The strange thing about the current panic is that most people I meet see fairly clearly that this situation will pass and the end of the world has not come. Most also see the irrationality of their behaviour. Most however also have a few extra loo rolls in the cupboard just in case and a couple of extra loaves of bread in the freezer- I include myself among their number by the way.

    It seems to me that, in England at least, our strange behaviour reflects our national character, almost as if fear itself mutates and takes specific forms in specific cultures,which of course it must.
    When we look at the action of our current Government we can see an element of panic in the
    decision making process but that panic is quite reasonable and natural given the circumstances.

    We all happily concur, though terms of the dismal logic of economics it probably would make more sense just to lock up the vulnerable and keep the economy going, yet that would be an almost inhuman decision to take-allowing the dead to heap up while we all conduct business as usual simply isn’t an option takeable for us. So the country gets a kind of lockdown which is ‘the best of a bad job’ but the only course that can be taken given the tightrope that is strung between cold logic and visceral panic. In all of this we must not lose sight our own frailty seeing that frailty, as much as is possible, through the eyes of him upon the cross.

  11. David Smith says:

    ignatius writes:

    // When we look at the action of our current Government we can see an element of panic in the
    decision making process but that panic is quite reasonable and natural given the circumstances. //

    We disagree. Vide supra :o)

  12. ignatius says:

    David Smith
    Yes, I disagree too..I was dissembling 🙂 The remorseless process afoot does have a somewhat sinister logic to it. But the case for keeping thing open was put then overturned by ‘science’ threatening up to 500,000 deaths if the hammer was not brought down:
    View at Medium.com

    (you may have to cut and paste this) or go to facebook.


    My own sympathies lie with Twain rather than with Bok, because Twain’s perspective is both inclusive and biologically realistic. … deception is not the exclusive province of our species. Many other organisms make liberal use of deception to get their way.”

    I like this sentence of yours (vide supra! )
    It does seem to me that the tendency to deception is hard wired ( the fall again-of all creation that is) I guess deception is part of our nature it needs frequent muzzling in us all.

  13. John Nolan says:

    My old history master at school (JCT Golding, elder brother of the novelist William Golding) maintained that there was no such thing as altruism. He cited two men with the same surname – Titus Oates of ‘popish plot’ fame who acted solely out of self-interest, and Captain LEG Oates who sacrificed himself to save his comrades on Scott’s ill-fated expedition in 1912. The latter, he maintained, also acted out of self-interest since he could not have lived with himself had he done otherwise.

    • Martha says:

      John, I think we all act out of self interest in one way or another, only some ways are better than others.
      If the motive for the action of L. E. G. Oates was as you say, that reason is better one in my opinion. God told us to love our neighbour as ourselves. We must love ourselves too.

    • David Smith says:

      Deception – of which lying straight out is just one manifestation – is a necessary component of all life. Realizing that is realizing that we’re all sinners, that we’re all descendants of Adam and Eve. As such, we’re programmed to be unable to stay out of sin. That’s both a puzzling thought and a humbling one, and it’s a reminder that when we pray for Mary to pray for us sinners, we’re not just saying we’ve done egregiously bad things like lie, steal, and kill but simply that we are human, fallen, in desperate need of divine mercy. That realization is, I think, a necessary part of maturity. The best we can do – and perhaps we should always try for that – is to be aware of how we’re deceiving and to try to reject the temptation to deceive when it’s likely to harm others.

      If we’re a used car salesman, say, it’s probably reasonable and, on balance, responsible for us to point out the best points of the car we’re trying to sell and skip over the flaws, so long as they don’t include things like bad brakes. But what about the small tear in the upholstery? It’s obvious, if you look at it, but it’s small, and easily overlooked. Like this salesman’s dilemma, many if not all decisions are likely to entail some element of deception. How we deal with that is a measure of our self-awareness and our ability and willingness to conform to the model in our mind of the person we want to and, hopefully, ought to be.

      Hmm. Preachy.

  14. ignatius says:

    Well done, John and Martha,for moving the topic on a bit!!

    I guess there are a couple of ways of looking at this.If we take a secular viewpoint then we have to consider human beings as self oriented. This means that we do whatever we do to please ourselves but this ‘self pleasing’ may be altruistic in nature and may indeed be kind, sacrificial even. To be self focussed does not mean to be a misanthrope and the desire to protect others is a strong one.
    If we come from a truly religious standpoint then things are different. By this I mean that human beings are created in the image of God and as such display something of the mysterious nature of God, part of which mystery is to reach out into the void of sinful nature in order to ‘bring it back’.So there is within each of us something of the divine, which is not self centred because it is Trinitarian in form; in other words God is ‘other centred’ and so that possibility exists in humanity to some degree.Which means,finally, that to move in love towards others is genuine even though it may seem self centred to others and even to the operant self…

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