One of the benefits of having a bit of a break is that when the tiredness wears off, you get the space to reflect on the past and think things through more clearly than is possible in the cauldron of immediate demand.

But, this also has a worrying, if not slightly depressing, element. I keep remembering things I have done and (more embarrasingly) said that I wish I hadn’t. I wonder how many people I have needlessly offended during my half-century of life. I wonder how often I have been misunderstood because of what I have said or done. And I cringe at things that probably now stick to any memory of me held by people who were on the wrong end of my opinions, judgements or statements. Like the shark in Jaws emerging when you least expect it to (ignore the give-away drumbeat), these memories pop up above the surface and cause me to wince.

However, this only demonstrates that growing up can’t be done without the growing up. The mistakes are what we learn from – and we also gradually learn that we can’t fix everything we have ever got wrong. Yet, recognising the failures at least maintains a degree of humility. Being human means an awful lot of looking back and wincing.

It is this ‘being human’ stuff that’s bothering me during my ‘reflective’ time. Take a couple of examples:

  • Obama makes his first State of the Union address amid the opprobrium of those who know they could do his job better. Critics – some of whom have done nothing for the ‘common good’ other than take other people apart – scream how disappointed they are in him, how all the hopes of a year ago have been dashed.

One year. In the context of eternity that is not… er … a long time. People make unrealistic demands of leaders, then pull them down when they fail in one or two areas. Some of the hopes put into Obama were stupidly unrealistic and he was bound to disappoint before he even started.

  • Inequality between the richest and poorest has grown in the UK in the last forty years. The Tories scorn Labour’s record of the last 13 years, ignoring that the ratio went from 3-4 under Thatcher and the Tories. Harriet Harman went on BBC Radio 4 and made a statement of the blindingly obvious, but ignored by politicians and media: it takes generations to change cultures and behaviours, not a year or two within an electoral cycle that demands short-term gains for political advantage.

Harman is right. Such initiatives as Sure Start have made a massive difference to many children and families, but the benefits will not be seen until the behavioural expectations have run through a generation or two. The problem of getting a young man into meaningful employment when he is the third or fourth generation of unemployed men in his family circle is not one that is merely practical: it means changing a mindset of both community and individual over a long period of time.

This is not a party-political point; rather, it is an expression of frustration that our politics don’t encourage generational policy-making or long-term thinking because the electorate will want instant results and the popular media will encourage them to expect them. And then we are surprised or offended when we find our political leaders apparently making decisions for reasons of political expediency rather than the effective achievement of long-term goals (that might take three, four or even five electoral terms to even begin to work through). Instead, we rubbish those we don’t like, set ourselves up as the competent alternative, then prepare our excuses in advance when the ‘real world’  hits us.

Which is probably why so many people are sceptical of the competence or integrity of all politicians. The so-called ‘democratic deficit’ is more complex than we sometimes like to admit.

What is really scary, however, is the dehumanising of the people involved in politics and public life. Which, perhaps surprisingly, brings us to Brangelina.

I don’t know Brad Pitt and I don’t fancy Angelina Jolie. But I do know that they are married and have six children in their care. Yet international sport dictates that every detail of their private life and marital strife is available for public consumption and entertainment. And all this probably puts more pressure on the marriage.

It appears that we will only be satisfied when the marriage breaks up, Brad goes back to Jen (!), the kids grow up needing psychotherapy (but at least will be able to make a career from telling their story to the world) and we can all pass judgement on the people involved. Then we can move on to the next celebrity disaster and exploit our self-righteous voyeurism again – a sort of anaesthetic against dealing with our own human weaknesses, perhaps?

Call me naive, but I wonder about the human beings caught up in all this. I wonder about the dehumanising abuse we heap on those we can blame for whatever it is we don’t like about our lives or the world we live in. We can project our nastiness onto those we know cannot hit back.

I look back with horror on the cringy things I have said and done throughout my life. And that is only the things I do remember – there is probably much I have forgotten. But I thank God for those who let me make mistakes and forgave me, knowing that you have to take a long-term view and allow people the freedom – the space – to grow up and change and re-shape… and not be nailed to a reputation that belongs to the past.

I think it was Jesus who said that we can only expect forgiveness if we first forgive. And I guess we can only expect kindness and generosity if first we practise the discipline of being kind, generous and spacious to those we know to be failing. If we want a humane society, shouldn’t we first be prepared to live humanely?

Another year, another decade. The sky is blue, the sun is shining, it’s freezing cold and it might just be the beginning of Liverpool’s long post-Christmas unbeaten run to fourth place in the Premier League. (Well, I can dream…)

I was thinking yesterday about the past and the year to come and my mind turned to Dostoyevsky. This doesn’t happen often. I once told the Archbishop of Canterbury that I found Dostoyevsky boring and long-winded, only for Rowan to tell me that he was about to write a  book about the great writer. I decided that I should be a bit more intelligent next time we spoke about Russian literature and began to read all Dostoyevsky’s books. I am now on the The Brothers Karamazov – then I will read Rowan’s book on Dostoyevsky…

Near the beginning of The Brothers Karamazov there is an encounter in a monastery between the Elder (Starets) and a woman. The woman bewails her lack of faith and, in response, the Elder tells her of an intelligent and elderly man who once said the following to him:

I love mankind, … but I marvel at myself: the more I love mankind in general, the less I love human beings in particular, separately, that is, as individual persons. In my dreams I would often arrive at fervent plans of devotion to mankind and might very possibly have gone to the Cross for human beings, had that been suddenly required of me, and yet I am unable to spend two days in the same room with someone else, and this I know from experience. No sooner is that someone else close to me than his personality crushes my self-esteem and hampers my freedom. In the space of a day and a night I am capable of coming to hate even the best of human beings… To compensate for this, however, it has always happened that the more I have hated human beings in particular, the more ardent has become my love for mankind in general.

Human history tells us that the old man was not alone. It is always easier to love in general and to hate in categories than to work these out with individuals. Read the Gospels, however, and Jesus seems to bring these together: loving humanity in general whilst making that love real for individuals. (That love also brought hard challenge for the haters and he paid the price for exercising a strong love.)

As I look to the year ahead – with all its uncertainties and unknowns, its threats and its promises – I think I want to work at bringing the general and the particular closer together: both personally and in the life of the Church. I am conscious of a million failures (often evident in this rather fallible blog), but the challenge is there for me and the Church.

Perhaps in the Church we can stop speaking of people in categories (‘gays’ are the obvious example) and have our easy generalities subjected to the sometimes embarrassing particularities that challenge our prejudices and self-defences.

A happy new year for me will be one in which I make some progress along the general-particular spectrum – one in which other people come to be judged less by my own imbalances and more by grace.

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