Sunday, 8 July 2018

A golden thread

On Wednesday I attended a wonderful service in Llandaff Cathedral marking 70 years since the founding of the NHS. We should definitely celebrate our NHS! The passion and dedication of doctors and healthcare workers helps give better outcomes for more people at a lowercost than in many similar countries. Along with medical advances, this has helped our average life expectancy go up by about 15 years since the NHS was founded.

But are these technological advances always positive? There is a moral dimension to healthcare, and choices that have to be made. Should we focus on treating those who are sick or injured? Should we spend more on prevention, or on therapies for long-term conditions? There are also ethical choices around end of life, and start of life.

I was with some friends one evening recently. For some reason we got onto talking about the new screening test that has been introduced to the NHS in Wales. It’s called NIPT - non-invasive pre-natal testing. It’s an early genetic screening for certain genetic differences including Down’s Syndrome, from a blood test, instead of the invasive amniocentesis which can increase the risk of miscarriage.

Wales is the first part of the UK where this test has been made available on the NHS, just a few weeks ago. It was introduced in Iceland in the early 2000s and is taken in 85% of the pregnancies where it is offered. The vast majority of those who receive a positive result choose to terminate, meaning that only one or two babies with Down’s Syndrome are born in Iceland each year. 

I know loads of wonderful children and young adults who have Down’s Syndrome, including several of Immy’s best friends at school. Although their families have lots of extra challenges to deal with, they are each valued and loved, and just as full of life, love and potential as any other child I know.

As I said, I was with some friends talking about this and I asked the question: ‘’if so many of us choose to terminate a pregnancy when we discover the embryo has a genetic abnormality, are we in fact saying we value people with disabilities less?” One person was honest and said, “yes, I suppose we do”. We subscribe in principle to the idea of equal rights for disabled people, but not if it’s going to cost us personally. We are horrified by the stories of shocking treatment of disabled adults hidden in our society today, but are we prepared to pool more of our resources to make sure people are safe? We are sickened by the eugenic purges of the fascists – the cruelty and human suffering are unbearable to think about.  But surely the end result to our society of selective terminations is similar. 

Time and again I hear stories of expectant parents and those whose child receives a diagnosis being confronted only with the potential problems they are likely to encounter. It’s odd really as we all meet problems in our lives, but nobody pointed this out when my son was born without any obvious difficulties. 

What goes through your head when you receive a diagnosis of a long-term condition? I can tell you some of what went through my head when I learned that Immy had cerebral palsy: How am I going to cope with no extended family around? Will my precious baby girl make friends and ever be independent? Will she be happy? What happens when I’m not around anymore? How will other people treat us? I’m certainly not going to judge someone for the choices they make, based on the information in front of them and the way it’s presented, as well as very legitimate worries about the future.

I was shocked but also grateful for the honesty of my friend. In fact I recognise powerful competing instincts inside myself. On the one hand I have a deep-rooted, instinctive fear of anyone who looks very different, and acts alarmingly or threateningly. At the less extreme end this instinct makes me want to hang out with people that are similar to me – I feel comfortable and at ease. But I also have instincts that make me want to put myself out and help those that are suffering. We shouldn’t be surprised by this – the same tensions are everywhere in the natural world around us.

That tension also runs through the diverse texts that make up our Bible - the Hebrew Scriptures and Greek New Testament. I’m not a biblical scholar but I have read the Bible many times, and I find two threads running through. The first is the narrative of the chosen people, those who are called into the special favour of God, and contrasted with the wickedness in the world around them, which has to be smashed and rooted out. 

I’m often puzzled about how as churches we split and fragment around doctrine and practice, in stark contrast to Jesus’s command to be One. I’m puzzled by how as Christians we can justify turning our noses up and our backs around on others in need and letting our personal interests take centre stage. Perhaps it’s because we focus too much on this narrative thread. 

But there’s another golden thread that runs right through the scriptures - that God judges his people on how they treat their most vulnerable.  We read it time and again through the stories of the Old Testament, and in the writings of the prophets. And nowhere is this more evident than in the teachings and practical actions of Jesus himself. 

The story of the banquet reminds us that God chooses those who are weak, those with disabilities, those cast aside by others, to join him in the best seats at the top of the table in his upside-down kingdom.  We read that it was by bringing himself low through suffering that Jesus was raised to the highest place.

And actually I think these two threads twist together in this way - Yes, I am chosen, precious and called - but I am called to be different, to be the stinging and healing salt in the wounds of the world, the bright light shining into the dark corners of hypocrisy, greed, fear and laziness. I am called to love, as I am loved. A unique feature of our Christian faith is the central principle that we do not earn God’s favour through our efforts. Instead we act in sacrificial love as a response to the favour shown to us.  This is grace - the free gift of God’s love. We don’t earn it, nor do we deserve a healthy, prosperous, easy life. For those of us to whom a lot has been given, a lot is expected. As humans we have a tendency to pull the ladder up behind us, forgetting how much sacrifice has gone into bringing us safely to this point. “Remember you were slaves and strangers in Egypt” God says repeatedly to the Israelites. “Freely you have received. Freely give” said Jesus. 

So I’m saddened that we can now easily identify people with genetic differences before they are born. Partly because it worries me where this might eventually lead and who else we might try to eliminate, but mainly because a world without people with genetic differences and disabilities is a colourless, competitive one in which we blunt our instincts to pool our resources and care. It’s a sad world for all of us. Instead I think we should be offering more reassurance and long-term support to ensure that all families are able to thrive.

I am called, not to walk by on the other side of the road when I see someone suffering because I can think of a hundred good reasons not to stop and help. I am called to put myself out in the service of others. I am called to consciously over-ride my instinct to distrust those that are different, and to strengthen - through exercise - my instinct to care. So help me God.

Monday, 10 April 2017

Reflection for Holy Week

I was really struck by something I caught in the middle of the Beyond Belief programme on Radio 4 a couple of weeks ago.  The discussion was about the pitfalls of moving beyond inter-faith dialogue, which most people think is a good thing, towards inter-faith worship, which can cause offence at the very least. One comment really grabbed my attention and I’ve been thinking about it since. Apparently Muslims and Jews can worship in both mosques and synagogues, but they struggle to worship in a church. This is because of the iconography - in particular the images of Christ on the cross – of God suffering. To Jews and Muslims this is offensive, even blasphemous.

And yet this is absolutely central to the Christian faith, and it is the focus of this week as we begin our journey with Christ towards Jerusalem and to His crucifixion.  The crosses we see around our churches focus our attention on the most mind-blowing doctrine of all - that the Almighty God, creator and sustainer of the universe, stepped into his creation and suffered alongside his creatures.

Immortal God – trapped in time inside the body of a defenceless and needy infant, growing and ageing with limited knowledge of past and future.
Immortal God – who understands my fears for the future, and my frustration with how slowly things change.

All-knowing God – restricted within the small brain of a newborn baby, learning to identify sounds, shapes and colours, to make sense of a mother’s face. Bound inside a human mind and the experience of human senses.
All-knowing God – who understands the limits of my understanding, and my daughter with her learning disabilities, and my friends with dementia.

Father God – whose birth includes questions about parentage, embroiled in a dispute between his brothers, worrying about his mother’s welfare as he reached his final days.
Father God - who understands the challenges as well as the joys of my family life.

All-powerful God – who rejected the temptation to demonstrate His power. Who chose to be a servant, to wash the smelly, dusty feet of his followers.
All-powerful God – who understands me when I feel powerless, when I am angry at the hypocrisy, the greed and self-interest that seems to motivate so many. Who teaches me to be a servant too.

Creator of the Universe – learning to be a carpenter, starting with the basics, in a humble family – patiently learning and growing.
Creator of the Universe – for whom no humble task that I do is meaningless.

God of Heaven – born into poverty around farm animals, to parents soon to flee as refugees. Choosing to live a wandering life with no home to go to.
God of Heaven – who knows what it is to be homeless and poor, and to rely on the generosity of others.

God of Glory – who opted to hang out with outcasts, with rejects, people with infections and mental illness. With people who knew they had messed up.
God of Glory – who reaches out to touch me when I feel side-lined and alone, who reaches for me in my mess and in my shame.

God of life - weeping over the death of a friend. Willingly handing himself over to his betrayer and his accusers. Silently taking the thrashing, and the taunting, the intense pain, and finally suffering a slow agonising death.
God of life – who knows my loss, who knows my grief, who knows my pain and weakness, who knows my rejection. Who knows my death.

When I’m struggling with the latest challenge associated with bringing up a child with a disability I don’t always want to hear from the professional or the other parent who has all the answers.  I’m not especially energised by those who find everything easy – although I’m pleased that they do. What really helps me is when I know I’m not alone – when I go onto Facebook and share my problem and get responses saying “yes, we struggle with that too”. When I meet up for coffee with another parent in a similar position and we both know we don’t have to pretend. 

Healing is found just as much through shared experiences like these as through solving the problems.

“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses, but we have one who was tempted in every way that we are, yet was without sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.”

But God empathising with me isn’t the whole story. It’s not sufficient that God shares in my suffering. I also need to be redeemed – I don’t mean redeemed in its original context of slavery – someone has paid a cash price to buy my freedom - but in the sense of redeeming a situation. Bringing hope out of hopelessness, forgiveness for an unforgiveable action, peace to a troubled mind, and new life out of death.

“by his wounds we are healed”

“by his wounds we are healed”.

Monday, 3 April 2017


I found it very difficult to watch last Monday's special Question Time about Brexit. The programme was recorded in the West Midlands where historical tensions about race and immigration seem to be increasingly bubbling to the surface. The politicians and media figures on the panel claimed there was a general consensus that immigration is good, but uncontrolled immigration is bad; that immigration is good if it involves people who are skilled, will work hard and contribute and fill in gaps in our public services (never mind the impact this has on skills in their home countries) but it is bad if the immigrants need healthcare or support. Many people, but by no means all, think we should provide a safe haven for those fleeing danger and persecution. However, the burden of proof is expensive, and can be really traumatic for those who are often already deeply traumatised.

But what about unskilled economic migrants; those, often young people, who risk their lives in precarious journeys over land and sea for the promise of work and prosperity in the West? That's when the rhetoric changes and compassion disappears: "we're a small island and we're full", "we should look after our own first" and "our schools and hospitals can't cope". It's as if migrants are solely to blame for these pressures, and it has nothing to do with the Government's choices on tax and spending over the years since the economic crash.

Clearly we couldn't accommodate everyone who is living in poverty in the world. We can't even help a fraction of the refugees; there are now more than five million refugees from Syria alone in neighbouring countries. Five million! That's the population of Scotland! And we can't even get our act together to take a few hundred unaccompanied child refugees. Clearly we should be doing much, much more. The short and long term answer is obviously to work for peace and economic prosperity so that the majority of people can, and want to, remain in the lands where their families are rooted.

Over five days last week I took on a personal challenge, which I thought would be difficult. It was a lot harder than I had expected. It was called the Mean Bean Challenge, organised by the development charity Tear Fund. I had to consume only water, plain porridge for breakfast and then plain, unflavoured rice and plain beans for lunch and supper. My children also opted to do this for one day. I'm forever saying to them, "eat your supper and stop complaining! There are many children in the world who would love to eat that". And they look at me doubtfully, that is if they've registered my words as more than a background hum. To be fair, this might also be a lot to do with my cooking skills.

It's one thing knowing that so many people have so little to eat and that what they eat every day is insufficient, monotonous, and not nutritious. It was another thing altogether experiencing it myself. After a couple of  days I felt bloated and weak, I had a horrible taste in my mouth - by three days I was constantly thinking about food and on the final morning I woke up having just dreamt about delicious food being held out of reach. And when I broke my fast on Saturday morning everything tasted so vibrant, almost unbearably sweet. It is easier for me to understand now how hunger drives people to decide it is less risky to get on an over-crowded boat or stow away in a lorry for the promise of food security and a decent standard of living.

I went to South West Uganda twenty years ago to visit a friend who was spending her gap year there volunteering in a village school. Every day the children had the exact same meal of sorghum porridge and rehydrated beans. I tried this on just one day and it was a struggle to swallow. Recently some other friends returned from a visit to another part of Uganda and, again, there were photos of school cooks sifting beans to make the daily meal of maize porridge and beans for the children. Twenty years on, in one of the most fertile parts of our planet, and still the same grinding poverty! The money we all raised through our Mean Bean Challenge will fund resources and education to help many small communities to use more sustainable farming methods.

But why are these problems so intractable? Why, when there are multiple crops of delicious fruit and vegetables growing in the fields, are people only eating maize and beans every day even when the rains come? Why, when overall these African countries become more prosperous, does prosperity concentrate in the cities and with those who are already much more wealthy? Corruption has always been part of the answer, but it's not the whole story.

Our Government hands over millions each year in aid and many of us give to development charities. But we also expect to walk into the vegetable aisle and buy all possible varieties of fruit and vegetables out of season. We compare prices and quality between different shops and opt for the cheapest. Supermarkets generally compete on quality and price, but have always paid less attention to the way workers are treated in the supply chains. We throw so much food away as a society, and our homes are full of things we don't need.

There is only so much we can do as individual consumers, and it's easy to hide behind a feeling that it's all inevitable. I'm just as likely as anyone to think "what difference will me buying this one cheap item of clothing make? It's a crazy bargain after all". But of course, while each of us is telling ourselves this, the exploitation continues.

These are some of the things I can do: I can choose Fair Trade; I can check out the ethical credentials of my favourite clothes shops and send emails asking to see their policies; I can use one of the ethical shopping websites -  googling "ethical shopping UK" brings up loads of links.

As we start the process of leaving the EU and the exciting new world of separate trade deals with the rest of the world perhaps I should get in touch with the politicians that represent me and remind them that we want fair trade not just the most lucrative "best" deals for UK. Our Prime Minister was responsible for passing of the Modern Slavery Act in 2015 and often talks about the scourge of slavery in the world. This, and our shared responsibility to reduce poverty and global inequality, needs to be ringing loud and clear in all of our country's trade negotiations.

And after my bean challenge I will find it easier to remember that crossing the world in search of plentiful food and security is a perfectly rational and admirable human response to global inequality, not a crime.

Friday, 27 January 2017

I choose.... not to judge

I was sickened by photos of President Trump signing orders to ban money going to international groups that fund, or offer advice on, abortions. I was sickened because this is a man who thinks it is OK to brag about sexual assault, surrounded by privileged men, signing an order about things that happen to women in far away lands where people are poor - so many orders of magnitude poorer than himself - and invisible to him. In far away lands where young women are routinely raped by soldiers, where the stigma of unwanted pregnancy lies heavily on a whole family and can be a death sentence for the mother. Where disability is unsupported. Where even today childbirth itself is terrifying and can kill, especially very young women.

But I'm also sickened by risk-free foetal testing methods developed now which allow parents to decide to abort a child with Downs' Syndrome.. and what next? Low IQ? I am appalled by the double standards that allow professionals to sign up to statements of equality, including for those with disability, yet for some reason this disability equality does not extend to a foetus. Why is it OK to dispose of an unborn baby with a different number of chromosomes to me - who could live life to the full and bring joy to those around? I am also aware of how hard work it can be bringing up a child who has Down's Syndrome (or any other disability) with insufficient support.

I am also quite sickened by pictures of women with placards claiming that abortion is just about their bodies and their rights.

The big problem behind this whole debate is not so much about a woman's right to choose what happens to her body. Usually pregnancy and childbirth, whilst having an enormous effect on a body in the short term, have relatively little long-term impact. It's rarely the woman's body that is the issue, it is far more usually the impact of a new baby on the woman's life, finances, independence, prospects and acceptance in society.

If we lived in a society where all pregnancy was celebrated as the potential for a new person with equal value irrespective of the age, marital or financial status of the mother - or the physical or mental capacity of the new person... If we lived in a society where whole communities, extended families and neighbours came together to help teenage mums instead of judging...  If we lived in a society where equal responsibility for pregnancy was applied to both parents.... If we lived in a society where disabled children were truly valued as equal members of society and provided with the practical and moral support and funding needed for them and their parents to thrive...  If we lived in a society where it's the norm for wider family members to take on the care of children if parents are unable to fulfil this role (and I know many wonderful families that do just that)... If we lived in a society where having a baby before 30 did not mean saying goodbye to career prospects or being able to save for some security for the future.... If more of us were prepared to adopt a child that cannot be cared for by her or his parents...

... then maybe there'd be fewer abortions and more life.

But we don't live in that society. And in poorer parts of the world the stigma of unmarried motherhood (not so much fatherhood) is more severe, financial support for parenthood is non-existent, and disability is a poverty life-sentence for child and parents. Who am I to judge?

As I go through life increasingly conscious of my privilege, and painfully aware of my own failings, I feel less and less inclined to pass judgement on other people. A decision to abort is rarely taken lightly, and can be profoundly difficult and leave long-term emotional scars. Caring for a child without the necessary support can be extremely challenging. Watching a severely disabled baby struggle to survive through numerous painful surgeries and interventions is horrendous. Who am I to judge?

I am pro life

I am pro equality - the equal value of every human

I am pro caring for people who are struggling

I am not anti abortion in all circumstances

I am anti judging

Saturday, 24 September 2016

Down with Mr Fox!!

Last weekend I became an angry farmer chasing a fox, as part of Cardiff's Roald Dahl centenary celebrations. With my children and a group of 20 or so fellow random volunteers from South Wales we charged about in tweeds and flat caps through large crowds brandishing spades and bellowing in pursuit of an acrobat dressed as Fantastic Mr Fox. I was never one for drama at school and haven't done much role-play. It was all a bit chaotic and ridiculous, but what surprised me most was how being part of a group, surging forward and shouting aggressively, made me feel. Even in this crazy and fictitious role, the adrenalin rush was like a powerful din, drowning out the placards and pleas of the "Save our Fox!" fan club we bumped into.

During the Olympics and Paralympics I was reflecting on how easy it was to ignore the super-human efforts of so many incredible athletes in the process of desperately willing a British competitor to beat them. It was amazing how exhausting it was just sitting about about on the sofa and pointlessly raising my voice and heart-rate in support of an athlete thousands of miles away! I don't think of myself as particularly patriotic - I'd describe myself as British, European, English probably in that order, but these nuances disappear completely when I'm watching a race. I'm not Welsh but when I'm watching Six Nations matches I suddenly feel very Welsh and annoyed with the English team when they score.

Our human group instincts are very powerful - instincts to form groups, to support ourselves within our group, to defend our group and attack enemy groups. While most of us would probably believe, in theory at least, that all humans are born equal and are equally valuable, there are powerful forces within us that can work against that. This is especially so when our interests are threatened, and more so again when we feel we are in danger. I can see how easy it must be for threatened and angry groups to dehumanise other people and quickly become violent.

I'm reading a book by Jonathan Sacks at the moment called "Not in God's Name" - examining the history of religious violence. I've not finished it yet, but it is a very interesting read for anyone struggling to understand the mindset behind people who join ISIS, become suicide bombers, massacre innocents - committing what he calls "altruistic evil" or evil deeds in the name of some higher power or ideal.

When there's a huge queue in the hospital waiting room and everyone's been sitting about for hours I'm looking for people to blame - the rude receptionist, the hospital bureaucrats, or the ridiculously wealthy people living in our land who think that paying tax for public services is for the little people.That's the narrative I subscribe to. I don't feel annoyed with the person with darker skin and a foreign accent ahead of me in the queue and think I should have a greater entitlement. But I can see why people would, when that's the narrative they subscribe to. I'm just as likely as the next person to find someone to blame - although this tends to be the powerful rather than the powerless in my case.

There's a lot being said online these days about the paradox that we are living in a world where we can all have a platform if we have a mobile phone and are literate - all possible angles on every topic are recorded each second on the Internet - and yet we are increasingly only hearing what we want to hear. In a huge cacophony of clamouring voices the technology we use, without us really noticing it, is segmenting us more and more narrowly. 

But when we stop listening to people we disagree with, and speaking up when we should, we marginalise ourselves and end up bleating pointlessly within our own group. It doesn't help that public servants are often prevented from presenting counter-views and the evidence before our eyes in order to remain impartial - but the most worrying thing for me personally is how disengaged from it all I am feeling at the moment. When I stop listening to other views, and when I stop standing up against prejudice, when I retreat into my group and pull down the shutters, that's when "worrying" turns into "dangerous". When millions of Americans want to vote for a man whose views I think are repugnant it's no good just popping them all into the "enemy" group in my head. As fruitless as it may seem, the only way forward is to try to find points of agreement, to understand the reasons why people think the way they do, and to try to make connections.

Sunday, 24 July 2016

The other side of the boat

The end of spring, and start of summer always makes me feel slightly unsettled. I have hard-wired memories of anxiety over exams, and their results, which pop up every year with the warm weather. Or perhaps memories of moving from a familiar teacher and class, and a predictable weekly schedule, into the unstructured summer holidays and whatever the new academic year will bring. My studying days ended half a lifetime ago, but I still occasionally get those same sensations in the pit of my stomach on a sunny morning.

And now that’s partly because I’m starting to relive it all again through my children. This week Immy left her primary school, where she has been, with the same 1-1 helper by her side, since she was 3 years old. She literally can’t remember a time before she started there. From September everything will be unfamiliar. So far she’s coping with the change with her usual optimism and good humour but there have been some wobbles.

I doubt any of us has avoided feeling a bit unsettled by the pace of political change over the past few weeks. Since May we’ve had a new Government in Wales. Then Brexit, which I think most of us were completely unprepared for. In my place of work almost everything we have been working on for years is affected by our EU membership and is up in the air now with uncertainty about the underpinning of laws and funding. Questions left hanging … shoulders shrugged …

And then the dramatic daily changes in Westminster politics. I get a newspaper delivered and I’ve been amazed by how out of date each day’s edition has been when it drops through the door - with the whirlwind of people coming forward, and then stepping down, as leadership candidates and stabbing each other in the back. Add to that the increasing frequency of terrorist attacks. And the racist and anti-foreigner rhetoric making its way into mainstream discourse here and in the US, political instability in countries not very far away and war and mass migration continuing. I’m sure many people, like me, are feeling unsettled by it all. This blog is about equality, and I can’t shake off the feeling that we are moving rapidly further away from that dream…

I was invited to give a short reflection at our church this evening and as a result I have been pondering, for the past few days, on how Jesus’ followers might have felt after he died. The exact ordering and pace of events leading up to his execution isn’t completely clear from the different gospel records, but it clearly was a dramatic, fast-moving, unexpected and frightening time. Many of Jesus’ followers would have been expecting him to lead them to an uprising against the oppression of the Roman occupation. They would have been terrified by how quickly events changed from his triumphant ride into Jerusalem to the shouts of “crucify him”. They were perhaps feeling horribly guilty about abandoning him at his time of need, whilst also feeling disappointed and let down by him. They would have been left with profound uncertainty about what to do next, in fear for their own lives as a result of being his associates, and in deep shock and mourning too - for the leader they had loved, and served, and followed. Nothing would ever be the same again and they didn't know the end of the story at that point. Everything they had believed and expected for the past few years had come crashing down. 

What they did was to quietly return to their earlier lives, probably feeling exhausted and empty - meeting together in secret, setting out on journeys, trying to get on with their day-to-day activities, heading back to their old professions to make ends meet, and trying to pick up the pieces.

What did they need at that point? Some very dramatic display of resurrection power? Flashing lights, earthquakes and voices from heaven?

What follows is nothing like that. We have a series of simple stories in each of the gospel records describing the disciples in their daily lives encountering Jesus but not recognising him. 

One story is about some of the disciples out on the lake trying to catch fish, unsuccessfully, all night, and in the morning seeing someone walking on the shore, who suggested that they should throw their nets to the other side of the boat. At that point the nets suddenly filled with fish and they recognised the speaker to be Jesus. They met him on the shore - he had already made a fire - and ate a simple breakfast of bread and fish with him.

After the fast-paced passion narratives, we have quiet stories like this breakfast on the lakeside, an encounter on a walk to a nearby town, Mary’s early morning visit to the garden. They evoke an atmosphere of calm and stillness. They take place in the peace of early morning and evening.

Afterwards we have the coming of the Holy Spirit with fire at Pentecost, the dramatic conversion of the apostle Paul on the Damascus Road, the persecution of the Christians and the early days of the Church - again fast-paced, exciting, and full of energy. But the disciples needed this interlude, and Jesus recognised this in the way he approached them.They needed to regain their strength.

So, at times of deep uncertainty or loss, perhaps we are most likely to encounter Jesus in the everyday events of our lives, in the people we meet - the gardener, the fellow traveller, the fisherman by a lake. We can ask God to open our eyes, as the disciples’ eyes were opened, to recognise Jesus and to receive blessing from him. To wait and be renewed before it is time, again, to go out and make a difference.

Perhaps we just need to stop struggling with our nets on one side of the boat, fighting to make sense of things and worrying about how we can sort everything out. Instead we can lift our eyes, turn around, follow our master’s words, and find the abundance of life and blessing on the other side of the boat.  

Monday, 21 March 2016

Comparison is the thief of joy

I remember meeting up with some university friends not long after Immy was diagnosed with cerebral palsy. We were walking outdoors in the sunshine pushing our babies, with some of the older children toddling alongside, all chatting cheerfully. I wasn't feeling particularly despondent, and I wasn't jealous of their less-complex experiences of parenthood. I remember saying that I honestly thought it would have been better if Immy had not been born, and being met with a dismissive laugh from one of them, a doctor as it happens, who suggested that perhaps I was depressed and things would seem better in time. She may have been right in her first observation and she was right in the latter.

Over the years since, several mums of newly-diagnosed children have used those same words in conversation with me. "I wish my child had never been born" probably seem like shocking and terrible words. But these mothers are not (and I was not) saying they do not want to care for, or do not deeply value, their child. It's not necessarily a cry for help, or a sign of depression. It's an assessment made, at that point in time, of the balance of expected joys and sorrows ahead. I never react with a laugh or a dismissive comment.

I'd never stopped to think about the extent to which I had valued myself in relation to other people. Competition isn't a bad thing, it drives us to learn, make progress and excel. It leads to amazing sporting and creative achievements that can enrich all of our lives. It can drive innovations that can be a huge benefit to society, it can improve efficiency and service in a business context. I have been competing with, and comparing myself to, other people my whole life - through school, musical contests and sports, to university and then into work. I was reasonably good at it, and quite happy in that context. I'm now watching, with mixed feelings, as my son starts out on that same track in his school where so much of what the children do is treated as a competition.

And if I'm not competing with other people I'm usually to be found competing with myself - I don't need to join a gym class to set myself a workout that leaves me wobbly-kneed and struggling to breathe. Early parenthood can be a competitive experience too, from the ease with which you conceive, or the natural type of birth you "achieve", or the ease with which you can breastfeed. And then follows the all-important milestones that someone else's baby might be reaching before your own, and so it continues.

So for me, when I started out with a newly-diagnosed beautiful daughter whom I loved so much it physically hurt, this competitive environment was pretty much all I knew. I knew right then that she would never win the competitions, and probably this meant that I would stop winning too. This was scary as I really didn't know any other sort of world. I didn't see how either of us could possibly be happy.

It was only over time that I realised there is another world out there with different types of people in it, who are motivated by caring and nurturing, who are not solely interested in having bigger and better possessions and positions than others. Not everyone is obsessed with paying less tax, amassing more wealth or being promoted. There are loads of people who derive huge pleasure from helping others to achieve, and are happy to stand back and let them take the credit. There are many people that simply want to make beautiful things or play beautiful music for people to enjoy, or who want to spend their lives exploring the world or getting out into nature.

And there are armies of "special needs parents" not at the school gate probably, but who you meet and talk to online and at special groups. We are usually trying to offer each other support and a "shoulders down" place to relax and be brutally honest. We listen and share problems, ideas and solutions, and motivate each other to fight the daily battles for the things our children need. We think of the other children almost as our very own, and cry tears of joy when someone else's child makes a breakthrough or gets through a surgery and comes out safely or stronger.

I have, in my hall by the door, a framed copy of some beautiful calligraphy by a friend of mine whose daughter also has cerebral palsy. It is a quotation attributed to Theodore Roosevelt: "Comparison is the thief of joy". It is in the hallway as a check for me. The problem with competition is that any joy in success is short-lived, as the next contest is not far behind - will I be able to maintain my lead?

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It would no longer enter my head to wish my daughter did not exist. I see every single day the joy she brings to people around her. She may not win competitions but she wins hearts. She is happy now, most of the time, and I see no reason why that should ever change, as long as her health and funds allow her to get out and about and be her loving and caring self.