Monday, 14 January 2013

"The bullfrog's friends" - a new wisdom story

Another new wisdom story - I'm on a roll! As always, feel free to use these stories as you see fit, although attribution would be nice...

Once upon a time, in a sluggish warm pond, there lived a bullfrog. He spent his days swimming through the water, eating whatever bugs he could catch, sunning himself when the weather was nice, and just generally lazing about. 

Occasionally, he would notice some of the other animals passing by his pond or swimming in its waters in pairs or groups. He noticed that these animals seemed a bit more contented than the animals that were strictly solitary. He saw that they were happier too - they laughed more readily, played more energetically, and - when things were difficult - they got through it more readily.

The bullfrog decided to find out what was going on. He hopped over to a duck and a goose who were paddling about on the pond and asked for some advice.

"Oh, you silly frog", said the goose. "We're friends! Haven't you ever heard of friendship? Surely you must have some friends?"

The bullfrog hurriedly assured the duck and goose that he knew all about friendship and that - oh indeed yes! - he had lots of friends.

But, of course, this wasn't true, and the bullfrog hopped away as quickly as he could. He realised then that that he was missing something that seemed rather important - friendship. So, he thought "I have to get some other animals to be my friends. Hmmm... How do to that though?"

He thought and he thought, until he finally decided he decided he had it figured out. When he wanted dinner, he would simply stay very still and then grabbed an unsuspecting insect with his sticky tongue. This friends thing must be similar!

So the bullfrog stayed very still. He waited and waited. Finally, a happy looking wren landed right near him. Thwpt! Out went the bullfrog tongue and it landed right on the bird's head. "Ewwww!" said the wren. "What do you think you're doing?" The bullfrog was trying to get his tongue back into his large mouth as he said in a garbled voice "I just want to have a friend..." The wren chided him, just before flying off, "well, you sure have a funny way of doing it!"

Alone again in the pond, the bullfrog felt dejected. "I don't think I'll ever have a friend at this rate" he thought. He realised that he actually knew nothing at all about how to get a friend or about how to be one.

In desperation, he decided he would try something different. Instead of trying to get a friend, he'd just listen to everyone he could to learn about them and try to see what they wanted. Once he had done that, he figured, he would know enough to get some friends.

His experiment started the next day. When he awoke, still drowsy, he saw a colourful fish swimming by. "Good morning fish" he offered. "How are you this morning?" The fish began to tell him about how his left fin was aching him but then he stopped himself "Oh" he said, "I suppose you don't really want to know. Just a greeting, right? I'm fine."

The bullfrog was about to dismiss the fish's complaints and move on, but he remembered about his plan to listen. "No, please tell me more." He said. "I'm sorry to hear about your fin. What's that like for you?"

The fish was taken aback, and he began to talk. He told the bullfrog about the sore fin. He told him about his many children. He told him what life was like deep down under the water. Thirty minutes had passed when the fish realised he needed to go. "Thanks for listening" he said. "Can we talk again?"

The bullfrog thought this was a great opportunity to learn how to get friends, so he quickly agreed.

Later that day, something similar happened with a passing duck. It was amazing how many stories emerged when animals were given a chance to share them. It just kept happening! A squirrel, a frog, a robin, a turtle... they all told their stories to the listening bullfrog.

The bullfrog just listened. He didn't feel inclined to talk about himself - and he never repeated what he had heard to anyone else.

As darkness came, the bullfrog reflected on what an amazing day it had been. He had learned so much more than he ever expected. Life was much more complicated and rich than he could have imagined. With all the many stories he had heard that day swirling through his head, the bullfrog finally fell off to sleep.

The very next day, the bullfrog was again looking around for someone to talk to. Preoccupied, he didn't notice that a hungry fox was sneaking up behind him. The fox snapped his jaws sure of a tasty frog breakfast, but the bullfrog had finally noticed the danger and leapt just in the nick of time. The fox's jaws grazed him though, and - thrown off course - he landed hard and head first on a stone - out of danger - but completely unconscious.

The bullfrog never knew how long he might have been out, but as he came-to he gradually became aware that surrounding him were dozens of animals - all of them eager to see him. All of them with a concerned look in their eyes.

"What's going on?" he croaked? "What are you all doing here?"

The animals looked around confused. The colourful fish with the sore fin spoke first. "Well, of course we're here. We're your friends!"

Monday, 7 January 2013

The twelfth gosling

A wisdom story...

It was springtime and a young mother goose had just laid a clutch of twelve very handsome eggs. She and the father goose looked at their eggs admiringly - wondering what future their little goslings would have. They imagined teaching them to fly, helping them to find food, and - when the cold weather came - leading them in the migration to warmer climes.

The goose parents took turns sitting on the eggs to keep them warm. As they waited, they thought about the future of their goslings - wondering how many would be female and how many male - thinking of the day that they would themselves learn to fly and maybe even have goslings of their own.

Day in and day out they carefully tended the eggs. A week passed, and then another, and another. And then one day, after nearly five long weeks, as the father sat on the eggs he heard a faint pecking sound. And then another from another egg. As he moved to look, he saw tiny beaks appearing from two of the eggs.

The process of hatching was not easy. It was arduous work for the babies and they needed to rest often between bouts of pecking. After three days, though, eleven of the goslings were finally out of their shells.

But the twelfth egg was a bit odd. The gosling in that egg had pecked a hole large enough to get out of, stuck his head out, and then return to the shell! The goslings were all peeping in hunger, so father goose went to get food. When he returned, he and mother fed their little goslings - eleven of them standing on their feet and the twelfth still in his shell.

The goose parents began to be a bit concerned about number 12. They pecked the shell a bit. They tried to lure him out with food. But number 12 was set on staying put.

Weeks passed and the goslings all began to grow rapidly. Number 12 finally got so large that his shell could hold him no longer - as it burst, he joined his brothers and sisters walking around in the nest. And it was good timing too, because flying lessons were just beginning!

Mother and father goose showed their goslings how to flap their little wings and they took to it eagerly - practicing their flapping for minutes at a time, resting, and then flapping some more.

All except number 12, that is. Number 12 showed no interest in flapping or in flying.

At last, eleven goslings were ready and they took flight. It was an exhilarating experience for all of them and they returned excited and happy. Number 12 seemed unmoved. He instead took a walk to find some tasty grubs to eat and he thought to himself "that flying looks way too dangerous." I'm just fine staying here on the ground where it's safe.

As time passed, eleven goslings flew more and more and were eventually ready to leave the nest. Number 12 remained with his mother and father. They were happy to have him, but they worried about his future and what might become of him - a goose who would not fly.

And then, the days began to become shorter and colder. Mother and father goose prepared themselves for the long flight south. What would happen with number 12?

Mother and father took off and waved their wings good-by to number 12. Moments later, they heard an anguished squawking from the vicinity of the nest!

They turned back to see a hungry looking fox just inches away from number 12. They swooped down just in time, and as mother goose distracted the fox, father goose lifted number 12 into the air and carried him off. As soon as 12 was safe, mother flew to join father and 12.

What to do now? 12 was simply too heavy to carry all the way on the migration journey, but if his parents left him behind, he would surely perish.

They took turns carrying him - using all of their strength. But it was no use. Exhausted, father goose finally lost his grip and number 12 tumbled from the sky.

The parents were distraught. They had lost their dear gosling. They began to weep and other geese in the flock came to comfort them.

And then suddenly, there was a surprising sound. Honk, honk! - they heard behind them. And there they saw number 12 flying along happily to catch up with them. He seemed perfectly joyful. The parents were shocked but delighted

And as number 12 flew along he thought to himself "I nearly lost my life by trying to be too safe - I will never make that mistake again!"

Number 12 went on to have a happy and adventurous life and became a father many times over before he passed away, content, at a ripe old age.

Thursday, 3 January 2013

A church thriving through the ‘tension between certainty and ambiguity’

This article was written by journalist student Zay Arguelles. I thank her for taking such care in getting it right and for letting me share her writing.

The banner in front of the Unity Church in Upper Street is sure to catch every passer-by’s attention. “Heathens and heretics welcome!”, it says in big bold letters. This phrase is not something normally associated with a church, if at all. But then, churches don’t normally have an atheist minister.

Rev. Andrew Pakula is from America and he came here six years ago to head the Unitarian churches in Upper Street and Newington Green. He earned a PhD in Biology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and joined the biotechnology industry. Eventually, he left his career as a scientist to pursue a ministerial vocation. Nonetheless, he remained an atheist and even anti-religious in some ways.

A common way of dividing the world is into the religious and the atheist. Here arises the conflict between Rev. Andy’s stance about faith and religion and his job. It is intriguing or rather confusing because of the whole baggage of stereotypes associated with religion. On the contrary, he said that the word religion can mean a bunch of different things and “Depending on how you use that and what you consider to be a religion, it can be quite different.”

When you look at the fundamental core of Unitarianism the fog of confusion starts to evaporate. Rev. Andy said, “I call it a ‘way’. Let’s call it a way. It’s not ‘We are all going to believe the same thing’. It’s about moving together, growing together, working together and making ourselves grow and the world more whole”. It’s clear that the emphasis of Unitarianism lies on being a better person, being in a community and making a better world without the dogma.

As it seems, Unitarians are encouraged to ‘believe what they want to believe’ but Rev. Andy differs. He argued that this is very different from ‘believing what your search or journey leads you to believe’, which is what they do. He explained further by saying “Personally, I want to believe in all-powerful supernatural being that will take care of all of us. I really do! I would love to believe that. That is what I want to believe but it is NOT what I can believe. What my search has lead me to believe is that everyone is sacred, that we are all connected and that we’re here to make each other more whole and happier. That’s were a search has led me to and it might change.”

Just like any other institutions, Unitarianism doesn’t go without criticisms. Many people say that this kind of open-minded religion is not sufficient for people who are really suffering. In response, Rev. Andy said he doesn’t mind other beliefs. “Even if I don’t think it’s true, I think any belief is fine as long as it encourages you to be kind, loving and compassionate.” Certainly, it has also been criticised for being too open - “Whenever you are not a doctrinaire... If there is any flexibility, they will say ‘Well, that’s too flexible’. ” This isn’t a problem for them though, as they identify Unitarianism to be in the grey area in the first place.

With this kind of openness, a lot of barriers and differences can exist. The minister admitted that when he does a service he always tries to use languages which are inclusive to all sorts of beliefs. He said there’s a range of people within the congregation but since they’re all rather open-minded it’s really hard for them to have conflicts.

As he tries to explain how the congregation works for very different people, he grabbed a box of power cord beside him and said “There are people who receive a package and the first thing they do is read the instruction from the first letter to the last letter and maybe read it twice. And other people just plug it in.” He then continued about how they created “a thing with very open sort of steps” – “Decide for yourself how you’re going to be a compassionate consumer, write it down, and commit to it.”

Although very different from the traditional types of religion, Unitarianism remains attached to a certain label or ‘ism’ and that comes as a challenge. Rev. Andy recognises that it is very hard to be associated with the stereotypes, especially in this country “where a lot of people want nothing to do with anything that looks, smells, or tastes like religion.” On the other hand, people need categories to think about things and Unitarianism is commonly dropped on the religious category because what else would you call it or how else would you present it? It cannot be avoided but he also doesn’t mind. In the end, he doesn’t care whether they are called a religion or not – “If people don’t want to call it religion because, by their definition, religion has to have central beliefs, then fine... It’s not a religion. I don’t care. It’s a way of being.”

With the Unitarians’ position between the religious and secular sphere, he said that “It’s very comfortable for me to remember that things are changing and we’re always midstream, somewhere. We are in the process of changing from one thing to another and we don’t know what that other thing is yet or how the world is going to change around us. What we do is stay with it, ride with it, recognise the ambiguity and keep going.”

We live in a society where everything is polarized and it is easier to identify things as black or white. But in reality, the world we live in is very much within the grey scale. There is no one truth and certainly nobody holds a monopoly on what it is. Unitarianism reflects that fact and allows individuals to live in harmonious disagreement within a community with a system that supports them into becoming the best person they can be. In the advent of increasing religious scepticism and secularism, it is indispensable that such institutions exist. Whether it comes in the form of Unitarianism or not, it’s good to know that it is there for those who need it.