“Bleeding for Jesus” by Andrew Graystone – a review and some comments

“Bleeding for Jesus” by Andrew Graystone – a review and some comments

I don’t often review books on my blog; I’ve tried to steer clear of being a book review blog. Others do it better than I could ever hope to; plus my reading is so eclectic that there would be no discernable pattern for readers. But this book needs to be mentioned here. I’ve talked a bit about spiritual abuse, here and in some of my novels (especially “Square Peg” which draws liberally on my own experiences), so it feels as if this is the best forum for my thoughts on this book. I have done a brief review on Amazon (which was not yet showing when I began writing this) and hope that may help anyone wavering over whether to buy it.

This is the blurb:

A Christian barrister and moral crusader who viciously caned young men in his garden shed. An exclusive network of powerful men seeking control in the Church of England. A shared secret of abuse that casts a dark shadow over a whole generation of Christian leaders. This is the extraordinary true story of John Smyth QC, a high-flying barrister who used his role in the church to abuse more than a hundred men and boys in three countries. It tells how he was spirited out of the UK, and how he played the role of moral crusader to evade justice over four decades. It reveals how scores of respected church leaders turned a blind eye to his history of abuse. Journalist and broadcaster Andrew Graystone has pursued the truth about Smyth and those who enabled him to escape justice. He has heard the excruciating testimony of many of Smyth’s victims, and has uncovered court and church documents, reports, letters and emails. He has investigated the network of exclusive ‘Bash camps’ through which Smyth groomed his victims. For the first time, he presents a comprehensive critique of the Iwerne project and the impact it has had on British society and the church. https://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/1913657124/

I read the book in a couple of sittings. It’s not terrifically long (less than 250 pages) and is well written in an engaging but not frivolous style. I know that the publishers rushed through the publication (for a variety of reasons) and there’s some small issues with editing; some repetition of material without clarifying why that has been mentioned again, and also a conflation of Plymouth with Portsmouth in reference to a bishop. These are small and relatively unimportant matters. The entire book is shocking. One reason that I had two disturbed and sleepless nights after reading it was the realisation of various gigantic missing pieces in my own experience of spiritual abuse (which I do not wish to detail here) and a greater understanding of how the evil that came through the Iwerne camps filtered out into the wider church community and damaged many lives beyond the immediate reach of the camps and the leaders there. Imagine the mycelium of a malign and toxic fungus reaching through most of the trees in a forest and you get why I felt so shaken and horrified. The abuse itself detailed in the book is shocking enough. The cover-up that has ensued is also deeply shocking.

As a young person I was unaware of the existence of the Iwerne project for a very good reason: I was a state school student. Iwerne dealt exclusively with the boys and young men who came out of what were considered the top 15 private schools in the UK. Their intent was to recruit those who would be leaders in society, whether as clergy, as lawyers, doctors and so on, at the highest levels. The idea was that if they had such men (for until later it was universally male and much of the leadership were misogynistic to a terrifying degree) as Christians, their effect on the country would be powerful.

Except to anyone who has understood the gospels and the person of Jesus, nothing of what these people did was in the slightest bit Christian. The very choice to only recruit from the ranks of the privileged is frankly unchristian; not one of Jesus’s disciples was rich, highly educated or from a higher level of society. He chose from among ordinary people doing ordinary jobs; his reaction to the Rich Young Man who came to him was not to immediately ask the guy to join him but rather ask him to let go of his wealth and privilege first. The beatings, given in the name of promoting holiness and with a gloss of various select New Testament texts, are little more than the surfacing of pernicious gnostic heresies that deemed the body evil and to be subdued and punished. The effects of physical pain inflicted in this way is well documented in studies of S&M: endorphins kick in and a kind of high ensues, there is a feeling of catharsis and bliss and release. This is not holiness. It’s the body’s mechanism for surviving catastrophic injury and illness. Yet it’s close enough to a numinous and mystical experience to baffle those already brainwashed and enthralled by a man whose personal charm and charisma were enormous, that they believed themselves to be singled out for an extraordinary life. Iwerne was, to put it bluntly, a cult, and the members behaviours is classic cult behaviour.

The persistence of those still in power to keep the lid on this, not to address any of it, but sweep it under the carpet and hope it is swiftly forgotten, is impressive. My feeling is there is so much more to come out. Those who have been harmed will not forget. People have speculated why spiritual abuse is so damaging, asked why don’t those just walk away from the church, wash their hands of faith entirely, and forget they were ever involved. Graystone succinctly sums up why this is not possible:

The nature of abuse is to inflict trauma on the personhood of the victim. It is a conscious invasion intended to violently challenge and destabilise the physical, sexual, cultural and spiritual identity of the other – to fundamentally devalue them and forcefully mark them with the identity of the abuser. In other words, abuse, whether physical, sexual, spiritual or emotional, is always relational. Where the abuser is deeply identified with an organisation or culture, as John Smyth was with conservative Christianity, the identity that is marked includes that of the organisation.

So a victim abused by a Christian is indelibly marked as a victim of Christian abuse, and the relationship that is damaged is not only between the victim and the abuser, but also between the victim and God. When John Smyth beat his victims he was baptising them, not into the identity of Christ but into a false identity as a worthless object for his pleasure.” (p210)

From a personal perspective, this rings true. Much as I have wanted to stay away from the church since then, I have not been able to; what I experienced damaged my own relationship with the divine terribly badly. Any embryonic sense of vocation was aborted by what happened.

Touching on some of the wider ranging reach of the abuse, Graystone also says:

This is a book about men who abuse men. Men abuse women too, both in person and through the institutions they sustain. Perhaps the hidden victims of the Iwerne movement are the thousands of women who have been led to believe that they are in some way created to be subordinate. I know that some conservative evangelicals who will want to say that the Bible carves out an equal and complimentary role for women alongside men, but again, the deprivation of opportunity for women is a matter of culture as much as teaching. I’m well aware too that there are more women who suffer physical and sexual abuse in the church than there are men; that the church treats female victims even more badly that it treats male, and that the degree of blindness to this in myself and others is greater than it is towards men.” (p208)

At the time of the activities of Smyth in the UK, the ordination of women was something being campaigned for, fought about and by 1992 was finally allowed. Yet it was held back and suppressed and damaged by Iwerne alumni, and to this day the divisions are still brutal. They still have great reach.

It’s said that a participant in any battle sees very little of the battle at large, only being witness to what they could see and experience in their immediate environs. For me, this book has shown me what was going on elsewhere on the battlefield beyond the smoke and blood and fear of my own tiny part in that battle. None of this should ever have happened, to any of us. Please consider buying, reading, reviewing, discussing, buying copies for your church library/bookstall, because it might be the piece in a jigsaw you (or others) may need to make more sense of your own experiences. I’ve found this incredibly difficult to write about because of so many difficult emotions and memories, so I am going to leave it here and hope that it reaches those who need to read it.

Nine Perfect Strangers versus Six Imperfect Pilgrims

Nine Perfect Strangers versus Six Imperfect Pilgrims

I’ve been a subscriber to New Scientist magazine for many years; indeed, I’ve had a couple of letters published and I even won “The Last Word” once. We moved to digital only and I stopped reading it, largely because I don’t find reading on screen pleasant. The irony of writing that on a blog is not lost on me. A few months back, we started getting the paper magazine again; it means I can pass on copies when we have read them and I can stuff a couple into a bag if I am going somewhere where I am likely to be waiting around. Experience has shown me that sitting reading a copy of this magazine while waiting for a medical consultation improves my outcome of being listened to; following a botched (ish surgery) around 10 years ago, the same (admittedly exhausted) doctor responded very differently to me the morning after the surgery when he and the ward sister found me reading a copy (and a couple of novels in French laid on my side table too) from the night before when my belongings were still in my bag. We had an actual proper conversation; their opinion of me shifted in the light of my reading material. Sad but true.

Anyway, a copy from a couple of weeks ago caught my eye today because my daughter had mentioned something key from it the day before. She’d been checking out a mini series on Amazon prime called “Nine Perfect Strangers”, because the premise of it seemed at first glance to bear some resemblance to my novel “Strangers and Pilgrims”. The concept of troubled, damaged people seeking healing by going on a retreat somewhere remote and beautiful but with some sort of mystery at the heart of it, is not (thankfully) trademarked, and on reading the review of the series that appeared in New Scientist, I relaxed. The nine perfect strangers of the mini series could not be more different in circumstances than the six imperfect pilgrims in my novel. The nine are damaged and hurt people for sure, but their lives are otherwise ones of privilege and plenty. The wellness retreat of the series is plush, expensive and extremely well-ordered; visitors give regular blood samples to ensure their tailor made smoothies are perfect for them. The cottage, known as the House of the Wellspring (in “Strangers and Pilgrims”) is a tiny place, comfortable but not luxurious, and the food is plentiful but the pilgrims must work together to prepare, serve and wash up after eating. They choose classic, timeless comfort foods, of stews and crumbles and cheesy bakes, and the making and the baking is a part of their healing process. To spend time with others, cooking, eating, clearing away, serving each other, is a very elemental part of being human; to be waited on by servants is part of a form of elitism that is pernicious when it becomes something we see as our right rather than as an occasional treat or holiday.

At the heart of the “Nine Perfect Strangers” retreat is a guru; a mysterious, ethereal figure played by Nicole Kidman. At the heart of “Strangers and Pilgrims” is a mystery, yes, for each retreat member has come because they reached out, in their lowest ebb, to a shadowy but compelling figure, the Warden of the Wellspring. This person, in a series of emails, has shown both love and understanding to those who contacted the House of the Wellspring, and has offered the chance to visit and to drink the healing waters, that will heal their unbearable hurts. Each yearns to meet this Warden, to pour out their sorrow and rest in the quiet of understanding and of unconditional love. And so, they make their way there, trusting and hoping for healing.

I don’t have any streaming services for TV, so I haven’t seen “Nine Perfect Strangers”. I’m always late to the party; I’ve probably not missed much by not having any streaming. We watch only a very small amount of TV and these days I quite enjoy binge-watching a series I missed years ago, now that the hype is forgotten and the painful pressure of FOMO is gone. When it does come on ordinary free-view TV, I may well watch because it may be good drama. You may already have seen it. As I say, I’m always late to these kind of things. “Strangers and Pilgrims” was first published over ten years ago now, and it’s garnered some wonderful reviews. It’s also got one or two excoriating ones, because you can’t please everybody. It’s in need of a new cover, because things have moved on (and yes, I hope to do this at some point but I have zero energy and mojo), but the core of the book is what it was ten years ago, and if you didn’t read it then, perhaps now is the time to give it a try. The evenings will be drawing in and it’s a perfect autumn or winter read, especially around the time of All Hallows, during which the main part of the story is set.

“My heart is broken and I am dying inside.”

Six unconnected strangers type these words into an internet search engine and start the journey of a lifetime. Directed to The House of the Wellspring website, each begins a conversation with the mysterious warden, to discover whether the waters of the Wellspring, a source of powerful healing, can heal their unbearable hurts.

A journey of self discovery and healing awaits them, but will the Warden grant them their wish? Invited to spend some days at the House of the Wellspring each of the strangers comes with the hope of coming away whole again.

But where is the Warden they all longed to meet and where is the Wellspring they all came to find?

Ice Cream For Breakfast

The last two years have been possibly the hardest consecutive years of my life. They’ve been packed with bereavement, sadness, illness (shingles twice, for heaven’s sake) worry, exhaustion, sleepless nights and endless pain. It’s coming up to the first anniversary of my mum’s passing, and today marks the first anniversary of the Covid 19 lockdown in the UK. The last year in particular has been something none of us alive today has ever experienced. The Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-1919 devastated the entire world in the wake of the first world war, and one of the things I’ve noticed is there’s very little reference to it in literature dating from the time. The war, yes. There’s a whole tranche of novels, poetry and so on, that deals with WW1 in great depth. But the Spanish flu? Not so much. If anyone has information on novels and poetry of that era that goes into any detail, do let me know as I am curious. But honestly, I’d probably avoid (like the plague?) novels that heavily feature our current pandemic. It’s just too close.

During the last two years, my creativity has taken a massive nose dive. I’ve often felt that creativity is the cream of life, the rich stuff floating up out of an excess of plenty. It’s not something that can be sustained when trauma and illness are ripping through your life. Creativity, for me at least, is about having spare capacity to take the elements around me and weave them into something new. With the last two years, there have been days where just getting through and still be upright at the end of the day was more than I expected when I got out of bed that morning. I’ve been channelling the occasional burst of creative juices into a work-in-progress called “On Hob Hill” which I hope to complete this year. It’s also gone into occasional poetry.

I stopped sharing my poetry on this blog for a number of reasons. One of those is theft. From time to time I notice search terms that suggest a school or college somewhere have asked their students to produce poetry. I’m not happy with plagiarism (who is?) and it worries me that so many seem to be unconcerned about passing the work of another off as their own. It’s rife, apparently. The other reason is that it’s satisfying to my inner needs to collect together every few years my poetry into a collection. There’s three published already, all with slightly different themes. The work of the last six months has been to gather together a new collection and publish it.

This is my longest collection to date. The title poem, “Ice Cream For Breakfast” was written the morning after my father died. The blurb for the new collection is as follows: “So much of life is about contrasts and polarities; a kernel of joy within sorrow, and a hint of sadness within happiness. It’s about finding a tiny taste of sweetness amidst the bitterness of bereavement. These are poems for the liminal times of grieving and trying to make sense of difficult experiences. These are poems about the wonders of nature, of the pleasures of living and of the absurdities and humour inherent in life.”

The amazing art of the cover is by Bethan Christopher, whose book “Grow Your Own Gorgeousness” I reviewed some years ago. She has a new book due out very soon, Rebel Beauty for Teens. https://www.amazon.co.uk/Rebel-Beauty-Teens-Unleash-Gorgeousness/dp/1789562252/ and it looks amazing.

The new collection can be found here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/B08YQR65KM/ and if you are buying from other Amazon stores, please replace in the URL whichever store (dot com, dot de and so on). It’s only going to be in paperback. This helps reduce the chance of piracy, and other things like content ripping. I have a small number of stock copies, so I can supply signed editions in the UK only, if should this appeal.

I’m very proud of this collection, coming as it has in the wake of such a difficult couple of years. It’s taken a ridiculous amount of energy to get it thus far. One of the things I’ve had to overcome is a form of pernicious inertia: the whole, who cares, what’s the point, sort of inertia. I believe that poetry matters, that is says things nothing else can in ways that can reach directly into the soul and touch it deeply.

One more thing. If you are kind enough to buy a copy, please please PLEASE leave a review. It’s not about massaging my ego (nice though that may be) but rather the fact that the number of reviews, and the continuing additions of reviews on older books too for that matter, affect the algorithms and how a book is then added to things like “suggested books like this one” and so on. Thank you so much.

Dame Julian and self-isolation – some lessons from the 14th century

Dame Julian and self-isolation – some lessons from the 14th century

Despite having her writings, we actually know surprisingly little about Dame Julian,https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Julian_of_Norwich the anchorite whose hermitage in Norwich remains a site for pilgrims to this day. We don’t even know her original name; she took the name of the saint whose church she became anchorite of. The church and the cell were bombed during the war but later rebuilt, stone by stone, and the place retains an atmosphere of calm and contemplation; the visitor centre next to it offers refreshments, access to their library and a lovely little gift selection. If you go, they also allow you to park next to the church if you ask for one of their parking permits that will ward off the eagle-eyed traffic wardens.

The 14th century was an especially turbulent one, taking in the Black Death (which reached Britain in 1348, ripping through populations weakened by 2 generations of malnutrition), wars, pogroms, The Peasants’ Revolt, social upheavals and religious movements galore. Dame Julian(born around 1342) saw the effects of the plague first hand, both the initial wave and the later wave that had a reduced effect. When she was around 30, during an illness that was almost fatal, she had a series of visions that are the basis for her writings, and which led to her becoming an anchorite after her recovery. While we know nothing for certain about her origins, education or life before the visions, given that she was 30 at the time, many have speculated that the likelihood was that she was or had been married, and may have had children. The surmise also goes that the illness she survived may have wiped out husband and children. Whatever the truth of this, the life she led after this cataclysmic illness and the visions was entirely different from what she must have led before it.

An anchorite was a hermit who pledged to stay in a single location, often walled in and supplied with the essentials of life via a small window. When a person became an anchorite, the service for the dead was performed, and they were then sealed in. However, they usually led productive lives, often making clothes for the poor and acting (via the window) as a counsellor to troubled souls. One of Julian’s visitors was the mystic Margery Kempe https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Margery_Kempe who wrote of her visit to dame Julian. http://juliancentre.org/news/margery-kempe-who-met-julian-is-remembered-in-the-anglican-church-on-9th-november.html

One of the most famous of Julian’s sayings was “All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.” Sometimes people use this as a means of shutting up others who are worrying about what’s going on around them. Right now, there’s a lot of reasons to worry. Covid-19 is not the Black Death, but it’s a frighteningly infectious and potentially lethal virus, and there’s a lot of misinformation about it. Julian would have witnessed not just the Black Death but many other epidemics or pandemics that roared through the populace; mechanisms by which any disease spread were little understood then and it’s hard to imagine the terrible fear most people would have experienced. For many it may have felt like a judgement from an angry god. Even today, there are so-called Christians who are preaching that this pandemic is God’s judgement on a sinful human race; some who see this as stage in the end of the world prophecies that are supposedly laid out in the Book of Revelation. To that I say: utter tosh.

When the door closed behind Julian and she was sealed inside her cell, I wonder what she would have felt. Her faith, both in a good, kind, loving God rather than the hideous vengeful god usually depicted by the medieval church, would have kept her at peace, and her faith in the benefactors and supporters who ensured that she would be kept supplied with the necessaries of life meant that the usual worries and cares would be gone. She could focus on what she was there for: to pray, to work, to support others from her window, and also to write about her visions.

In my previous post I wrote about how pressured many of us feel by having so many reminders of what others (like Shakespeare) have accomplished in their time in quarantine. There’s a massive collective angst and anxiety that fills the air and reaches all of us who are sensitive to it, and many who otherwise would not be. It’s extremely hard to be creative when the world around us is filled with such turmoil and uncertainty and fear. It’s even harder when well-meaning people exhort us not to waste such an opportunity for extra time we didn’t know we had.

As well as the collective grief and fear and worry, there’s personal concerns that almost everyone is affected by; worries about money, jobs, family, the future. After losing my father six months ago, I had had a sense of relief that at least I didn’t have to worry about him getting the virus. The worry for my mother was short-lived, and replaced instead with immense shock and sadness when she passed away suddenly a few days ago.

I wonder how much of the collective grief that Dame Julian bore and prayed with in that little cell in Norwich, how many folks she comforted with her words of a loving God who cared for his children as a mother might. I would love to sit an hour in her cell now, and pour out my soul there, but I cannot. It may be many months before I can go anywhere that is deemed non-essential. But I can sit quietly in my home, and hold like hazel nuts the cares and sorrows of others, just as she did.

“We left the camp singing” – the interrupted life of Etty Hillesum

We left the camp singing” – the interrupted life of Etty Hillesum

These words, written on a postcard thrown from a cattle transport on its way out of Holland to Poland and its ultimate destination, Auschwitz, were some of the very last words written by Dr Etty (Esther) Hillesum. The postcard had been found on the 7th of September 1943 and posted by the farmers who found it a few days later. Dr Hillesum died on the 30th of November 1943. She was 29 years of age. Between 1941 and 1943, she kept a diary of her life in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam, detailing the privations, the fears, the joys, the hopes and her extraordinary inner life.

I’ve been reading it in chunks, often during those frequent occasions when insomnia and pain and worry have driven me from my bed to read downstairs on the sofa. It’s been a true companion to me. Her voice, silenced for many, many years, rings out, true and clear and full of life. Her love of life, her resilience have been an inspiration and not a reproach to me in my own troubles (and believe me, virtually every self-help book I have come across, every nugget of a meme from some guru or other, has left me with nothing but guilt and self-reproach for my own lack of strength and guts) and I finally read the last section of the book today. It’s a collection of the letters she wrote from Westerbork, the camp Dutch Jews were held at before being loaded onto cattle trucks and sent off to Auschwitz. The voice in these letters differs only very little from that of the diaries; her integrity and pure honesty shine out, unmistakably amid the events of those terrible days. Humour, love, gentleness and a lack of bitterness that is almost shocking.

I’d put off reading this book, because the core of the book is something I cannot look at square in the face without feeling the abyss opening. Yet the abyss IS indeed opening. Concentration camps exist again in the so-called civilised world, and the fact that many dispute the use of the word is proof that they have become inured to the concept. But the book brought me some comfort that a voice of sense, reason, justice and love can still ring out across the years since its owner died. It reminded me that we have lessons from the past that can and should be learned from.

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Interrupted-Life-Diaries-Letters-Hillesum/dp/095347805X/

Small things to reduce plastic use and other green tips

Small things to reduce plastic use and other green tips

Small things to reduce plastic use and other green tips

With the New Year came a plethora of articles and television programmes, basically with a new year-new you theme. The tidy fairy aka Marie Kondo has taught people to fold t shirts and declutter their homes. I’m not a fan of the whole decluttering lark, because it tends to actually create anxiety in many, because we are social animals and can feel pressure to conform and seek approval from our peers by following the trend even when we don’t really want or need to. And much of it is aimed at people who are financially secure enough so that getting rid of an item that still has use in it isn’t a problem if they suddenly discover they do need it six months down the line. They can just buy a new one. Nor am I am a fan of the idea that everything you own must spark joy. I’m more a fan of the William Morris adage: “Have nothing in your home you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.”

Continue reading

Tales of the Well-Spring 6 – returning to Source

Tales of the Well-Spring 6 – returning to Source

Tales of the Well-Spring 6 – returning to Source

Time like an ever-rolling stream bears all its sons away” says the old hymn.

And its daughters too, though we still seem to be seldom mentioned, despite being, on average, a good fifty per cent of the world’s human population.

Whatever your gender, time is an inescapable force, and no matter how you resist, it passes, slipping through your fingers like water, and you find yourself saying things like, “I can’t believe it’s so many years since…”

More than a quarter of a century had passed since I went to Taizé

A lifetime ago, really, yet the memories were unfading, holding my heart in ways that you’d not imagine a single week could. I found the photos shortly before we set off; was I ever that young, really? I’d gone in a highly stressful time in my life; we were about to set off for a new life (I’d have called it an adventure back then but the reality proved to be quite crippling for me, in so many ways) and we’d left keys to our house with the estate agents, hoping they’d sell it before we got back. I’ve written about that visit here. If you’ve read that post, then you’ll know what stayed with me most was the chapel of the well-spring: a little wooden structure built over an actual spring that was directed into a shallow stone trough. You could feel something even before you saw the water or stepped beneath the shingled roof of the shrine; a presence, a sense of the numinous, something otherworldly and deep. Continue reading

Be More Snail – snail medicine for self-preservation

Be More Snail – snail medicine for self-preservation

No, you will be relieved to know I am not touting the skin cream that uses snail slime as its main ingredient. Continue reading

The reality of a loss of faith

The reality of a loss of faith

There has much been written over the millennia on a phenomena known as loss of faith and I’m going to add to those many millions of words with a few of my own; those readers who are atheists might well be rubbing their hands with anticipation of a new recruit, but I think they may be disappointed in what I write now.

The first issue is about what one has faith IN. A Christian might say they have faith IN Jesus, for example; take Jesus out of that equation and what might you have left? Probably quite a lot: a divine architect, perhaps, and maybe also a general feeling of faith in the overall goodness of humanity and of creation, and a sense of one’s own rightful place it in. I have heard on many occasions people who are self-proclaimed atheists speaking of a belief in the Universe, that it has some sort of plan for that person right down to finding parking spaces at critical moments. There is essentially a great deal of unspoken baggage that goes with a faith of any kind, whether it is one of the three Abrahamic religions, or a faith that is born of reading books like The Secret that gives rise to a system of so-called laws. The baggage infiltrates every aspect of a person’s life, influences all their choices and decisions, and activities. For example, a belief that each person has a destiny in life will influence (often unconsciously) everything from profession to life partner to hobbies and ethics.

If the central core of faith disappears, everything else is suddenly on shaky ground. It’s like the whole framework of life has woodworm and is liable to collapse. It’s like you have pulled a loose thread in a tapestry and discovered too late that it was the warp and ran through the entire piece https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Warp_and_weft .

I have always believed that faith is a gift, not something obtained by effort or determination. You cannot get faith by trying. I have had friends who wanted more than anything to have a faith, seeing the comfort that it gave to their partner or parent. They were good people who lived the tenets of faith that underpin many of our cultures, while being unable (but not unwilling) to grasp that elusive will o’ the wisp that is faith.

I have never believed that those who have faith have less intelligence than those who do not, as many metrics attempt to prove. However, certain faith groups often consist of people who have had less education and perhaps have little critical ability and inclination to discern subtleties because of that and this is often what shows. Atheists are not inherently morally or ethically superior because they choose to lead decent lives without a fear of punishment from a god if they don’t.

But if you lose your faith, what then? For me, it has created a cascade of events. It’s meant a loss of faith in myself, in my own right to exist, in the belief that I have gifts and abilities that were meant to be used for something special, whether right now or later in my life. I’m not sure I am even expressing this devastating series of unravelings well enough for someone else to understand what it feels like. The closest is best expressed by a story from when we were at college (he was learning to be a vicar). A friend with children the same age as my daughter was going through some very difficult stuff because she’d discovered in her late thirties that she was adopted; every single thing she believed about herself had become undone. She said to me, “It’s like waking up and finding that both your arms had been ripped off years ago and you never realised until that moment. Everything is destroyed and I don’t know that I have the strength to rebuild.”

Almost everything I own has a deeper meaning attached to it, whether it is a statue of Our Lady, a crystal point, a plaque of the Green Man, or even my choice of duvet cover (it’s got beautiful flowers on it, with their Latin names on). Every book I cherish points to the numinous and the divine. Every piece of jewellery contains some symbolism. I am told my home has an atmosphere of sanctuary and of peace. I garden for wild-life, because I have always believed that each and every plant, animal and rock has a right to live peacefully and that human beings have wrecked the earth and mined it for their own greed, and that if a tiny patch of earth can be kept safe for the non-human denizens, then I can do that much at least. But even there, I feel the futility of it, for I have no sense of better times to come, or that I am somehow maintaining a small ark for those better times. Even the mundane aspects of living a decent life feel futile: what has been the point of all my efforts to reduce, reuse and recycle when the oceans are choked by plastic debris?

Faith in the end is more than a belief in a deity or deities, so much more that I cannot begin to express. The world has become a much darker place in recent years; the hope that the darkness will lift has gone from me, though I cannot stop doing what I have always done to hold back the outer darkness. Yet the inner darkness is engulfing me; I feel like one of those poor seabirds in an oil spill, and while the oil coating my feathers might be washed off, in trying to clean my own feathers I have ingested so much of the poison I am dying from the inside out.

“The Idiot Brain” and me ~ a review and some thoughts

The Idiot Brain” and me ~ a review and some thoughts

Everyone likes a bargain, don’t they? When I was browsing the reviews of another book on the brain, a negative review of that book suggested that readers would find more of real use in Dean Burnett’s “The Idiot Brain”. Since the kindle version was on offer at that point (I recall it was 99p but I could be wrong), I snapped it up. You can read my Amazon review here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Idiot-Brain-Neuroscientist-Explains-Really/product-reviews/1783350822/ref=cm_cr_dp_d_ttl?ie=UTF8&reviewerType=all_reviews&sortBy=recent#R2IXXQ0TD557Y0

I found it a light-hearted, easy read that was heavy on the humour (to the extent I guffawed out loud despite being in the process of slogging away on treadmill or static cycle) and relatively light on complex technical matters. There are enough of those to give the book credibility but not so many that you get bogged down trying to remember terms. For a broad overview of the complexities of the human brain this was a book that intrigued but did not frustrate; however, as with many such things, the areas that caught my especial interest were dealt with in too few words. Not the fault of the book, but rather the fault of the reader here, I suspect.

Around three quarters through the book, I found something that had me tripping over my own feet with the realisation that it described something I see on an almost daily basis. Having explained that the brain has an inherently egocentric bias, Burnett goes on to explain that part of the brain is dedicated to correcting this bias (largely an area called the right supramarginal gyrus) towards one of empathy. This area can be disrupted, and can be confused if a person has insufficient time to think about the issue. Data from various experiments show some of the limits of this correction mechanism and how it can happen. Using the method of exposing pairs of people to tactile surfaces that vary (they had to touch something nice or something gross), the experimenters showed that two people experiencing something nasty will be very good at empathising correctly, recognising the intensity of feeling and the emotions of the other person. But, if one is experiencing pleasant things while the other is experiencing the opposite, the person experiencing pleasure will vastly underestimate the suffering of the other person. Burnett concludes that, “So the more privileged and comfortable someone’s life is, the harder it is for them to appreciate the needs and issues of those worse off. But as long as we don’t do something stupid like putting the most pampered people in charge of running countries, we should be OK.” Did I mention that Burnett is also a stand-up comedian?

I am sure you have witnessed this sort of blindness, especially if you are affected by one of the many conditions/illnesses which have no obvious visual marker, the so-called invisible illnesses. On a personal level, it’s bad enough, but on a national and international level it’s catastrophic. Witness in the UK the number of seriously ill and suffering people that the DWP have decided are fit for work. Burnett has just explained, though, how this level of atrocity can take place, especially in people who would ordinarily consider themselves decent, compassionate people.

Related and equally insightful is Burnett’s exploration of the brain’s other cognitive bias, called the “just world” hypothesis. It argues that the brain assumes that the world is fair, that good behaviour is rewarded and bad is punished. There are social reasons why this idea has evolved; it aids in the smooth running of communities. Indeed, various apes and monkeys have been shown to adhere to this hypothesis (though Burnett does not mention this). It’s seen to be a motivating factor, for if you believe that existence is random and all our actions are meaningless, it’s going to make it hard for you to function at times.

Of course, the world isn’t fair or just. Bad things happen to good people, as we’ve all observed, and bad people get away with bad things. This sets up a dissonance in our brains, because the fair world hypothesis is deeply ingrained, and after some to-ing and fro-ing, our brains come up with one of two things: first is the idea that the victim of something nasty must somehow have done something to deserve it. The second is that the world is cruel and random after all (something I am tending very much towards.)

Burnett also goes on to explain that people are more inclined to blame a victim if the victim is someone they can potentially identify with strongly. There’s complex reasons for this but in essence it boils down to fear. A fear that if someone who is essentially the same sort of person as you can have something that horrible happen to them it must be their fault in some way, because if it could happen to them (ie, random chance) then it could just as easily be YOU.

In my experience, this has been something that faith groups are very, very prone to; the idea of secret sin, of someone actually deserving to be punished by horrible things occurring to them, is one of the most damaging and hideous things. The tendency to blame the victim is so common among various wings of the Christian church, I suspect it’s one of the reasons many walk away. At university, a close friend’s mum was dying of cancer; the family church accused the family of some undisclosed sin they needed to repent of, and when she died, they told the two sons that they had not prayed hard enough for her to be healed.

At the end of this chapter, Burnett concludes with this rather scalding paragraph: “It seems that, despite all the inclinations towards being sociable and friendly, our brain is so concerned with preserving a sense of identity and peace of mind that it makes us willing to screw over anyone and anything that could endanger this. Charming.” It may seem unduly pessimistic but I can only agree with him that the human brain is flawed. It’s the spirit and soul that must mitigate against these flaws.