Tuesday, 25 August 2015


OK, I thought there is a place to put my thoughts together on what this actually means. Some of these have been written elsewhere, but it is a personal perspective.

1. Don't ask "why are you depressed?" It is a meaningless question. Why do you have a cold? Why do you have poor taste in clothing? For me, there is probably a genetic disposition, and there have been events that have knocked my brain into a different state. None of which answers "why?" to me or to anyone else. I wish I knew, because I could then sort it out. But it is not a rational decision or choice. It is an illness, an aspect of my broken body.

2. "A depressive" vs "have depression". My son has diabetes, and I was once told off for saying that he was "a diabetic", because that shouldn't define him. Rather, I should say that he has diabetes. While it is true that his illness doesn't entirely define him, something that should involve testing and injecting 4-5 times a day, avoiding sugary food and drink, and meaning he cannot walk as well as he could does pretty well define his life and activity. It is an all-encompassing aspect of him, 24/7, and something he cannot get away from.

In the same way, for example, that I am a Christian. It is not something that just impacts me some of the time - it is not just about what I do on Sundays. My faith is an integral part of me every day, in all I do. I cannot escape it for a while, and I do not expect to ever grow out of it: even if I do, its reality over so much of my life is permanent. And the same is true of my depression, in a more negative way. It is permanent, it is always an aspect of my life, and I do not expect to leave it behind permanently. So I am a depressive. I am a Christian. I am a parent. None of these totally defines me, but they are quite fundamentally part of who I am. Rewording it does not help.

3. You cannot recognise a depressive. It is easy to assume that the grumpy, miserable person at work is most likely to be depressed. You may well be wrong - they might just be a grumpy, miserable person with poor social skills (in my business, that is quite likely). If you want to find the depressed person at work, look for the lively one, the chatty one, the one who is always joking. They are as likely to be suffering from depression at any particular time. Many people manage their illness well, and are not obviously "depressed", but that does not mean that they are not suffering. Very many depressives cannot talk about their feelings, their illness, how they are at any particular time. Just because someone appears fine, or says they are fine, doesn't mean diddly squat.

4. Sometimes, depression means that I feel miserable. Sometimes, it means that I have to struggle to get out of bed in the morning. Other times, it means that I am out of bed easily in the morning, because I haven't slept well, and am awake early. Always, it means that the basics of life are a struggle. Always, every day. Much of the time, I have coping mechanisms and the medication help to enable me to get through the day. But "getting through the day" does not mean that I am not struggling through it all. The fact that I am high functioning" means that I can achieve some things that others cannot - working and studying for a PhD at the same time. But that does not mean that getting up and going out for a walk is not a huge burden at times.

5. Suicidal thoughts and feelings are a constant companion. Now before you call the doctor, this does not mean that I am suicidal all of the time. It means that the nagging thoughts and ideas are always there. Sometimes, in all honesty, they are welcome thoughts, because life seems to be too much. But mostly, they are annoying distractions making me struggle even more with life. I live with thoughts in my mind that many others would find extremely upsetting. I am numb to them, but it doesn't mean they are not still distracting, tempting. It is just another thing that some of us have to deal with constantly.

6. Yes, it is a real illness. Just because you cannot see anything wrong, doesn't mean it is "all in my mind". Well it is, but not in the sense of being made up. I realise that there is nothing physical that you can see, but that does not mean that it is not real. It is real, and it is disabling, because it breaks my ability to think straight and clearly. This impacts my ability to do anything. People who assume it is not a "real" illness tend to be people who don't suffer from mental illness. Just because it is not visible, just because it is not clearly and fully understood does not mean it is not real.

7. I am sorry if you don't like this, but there is no cure for many mental illnesses. There are treatments, and these are effective and important. Treatments help us to cope with life with a mental illness, and sometimes they enable us to live and cope while the brain cures itself. There are forms of treatment like CBT can change our way of thinking, but these are also life-long treatments - the fact that they are not pills does not really make a difference.

I have said it before, but God does not heal most mental illnesses most of the time. This is not to either deny that He might on occasions, but that the answers to mental illness are not to be prayed about and that is it. Prayer does help, mainly because events do cause problems, and prayer for help through these times helps and is important. I would LOVE God to cure me of my depression. However, I don't expect it, because it is far more complex, it is intimately engaged with who I am. God made me like this, and to take it away would change who I am - the good as well as the bad.

8. "You would feel better if you lost some weight". Or whatever. Yes, I know. Of course, the reason I have a weight problem is that I eat when I am depressed. So going on a diet might make me feel better in the longer term, but in the shorter term, I will struggle to cope. For others, it is the same story, but sometimes with other problems. We do have a tendency to do things that are not good for us, and we know about it. The think is, if I ate less, and my depression was better, I would be better.

9. I am not dangerous. Well, I could be if I hear too much rubbish about mental health problems and the people who suffer from them. There are some important statistics to understand: some one in three people suffer from mental health problems. This means that one could expect one in three people involved in violent crime would have mental health problems. In fact, there are all sorts of reasons why this figures is higher, but connection does not imply causality - or not necessarily in the direction indicated.

In truth, people with mental health problems are often involved in crimes and violent crimes especially, mainly because the support services for those with mental health issues often end up failing the suffering. But the idea that people with mental health problems are inherently dangerous is wrong. We are not, as a whole. Of course, there is a strong argument that some of the most psychotic, violent crimes are indications of mental health problems. But that is not an indication that people with mental health are inherently dangerous.

 So this is what I live with every day. This and more, and I fight through it, and live a reasonably normal life. So, of course, when I can do no more, I am just lazy, using my illness as an excuse. Sigh.

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Should I be a good writer, or a successfull writer?

When I look at those writers who have made a lot of money from their writing, I do tend to despair. The likes of Dan Brown are not good writers, but they write popularist books, they get some clever publicity, and they sell bucket-loads. The same applies to E L James, author of the Fifty Shades series. I will admit that I haven't read them, nor do I wish to, but I have it on good authority that they are not carefully crafted pieces of work.

This is just a rant about books I don't like. The Harry Potter books by J K Rowling I enjoyed immensely, but they were not all great writing. There are some very clever ideas in them, but there is also some less well crafted parts. But it doesn't really matter, because people bought them anyway.

I was reminded recently of Erich von Daniken, another author from many years ago, who made a lot of money with claims of proof that we had been visited by extra terrestrials, and that this explained a range of mysteries across the world. The fact that his ideas have all been shown to be false and misguided, not to mention that they don't prove what he claims anyway, has not stopped him from making a whole lot of money.

And then there are people like myself, working hard to craft my books and stories, struggling to produce well written, well thought out writing, and I can't get an agent. Of course, it is not just me who can't get an agent - it is the fact that good, high-quality writing seems not to be as appreciated as we would like to think it should be. It makes me wonder why I should try to write something good and high quality, when the stuff that sells is the opposite.

I am not an elitist who thinks that everyone should read quality literature, not just popularist stuff. I understand why people like to read the popular works (and I have also read some of them), but I do think there should be more opportunities for more serious writers. I struggle that I should have to choose between these - that writers cannot, as a whole, make a living by writing high-quality fiction.

So I have to ask myself the question, again and again, whether I should seek to write high quality, in depth, complex works, which explore the important existential questions, but will not get me published, or just write something shocking, cheap or easy to sell, with no meaning, depth or real challenge. But my real call is to people who read material, not to give up just because it is not an easy, quick read. Make the effort to read deeper works, more complicated material. Not because that will make me money, but because that will challenge you, make you think. Because, in the end, if people only read sensationalist writing, that is all that will be available, and we will be diminished as a species.

Saturday, 15 August 2015

Jeremiah 23

I read this passage recently - particularly verses 33-39 - and is struck me as a very odd passage. It is talking all about "The Oracle of the Lord" (in the version I was reading), and it reads very oddly.

The translation of the core word "Oracle" is massa, which can also translate as "Burden", which can help to understand the meaning - it is talking about not burdening people with messages supposedly from God. But it can be read quite differently.

One way of reading it would be to say "stop telling me that you have heard this word or message from God, because you are making it up". It is an interesting critique, I think, of some of the churches I have known that their use of something as being "from the Lord" puts it beyond reproach, and yet here is Jeremiah saying "I don't care if you credit it to God, shut up!"

Another way of interpreting the passage is to take the phrase as referring to burdens purely. It can be read as saying "stop burdening other people with the burdens you have taken on. Deal with them yourself, whether they are from God or not". How often have we heard that someone has a "burden from the Lord" for this or that, and so we should all feel similarly burdened and support. But this passage is saying "stop calling it a burden from the Lord - it is all yours. Deal with it, and shut up." I think that has something vital to say to us all, that those things that we have a heart for, that we feel are important to pray for or do for, are ours. They are not things that we should encourage others to be similarly burdened. Just because you feel that God had given you something to do - a burden in the positive sense - doesn't give you the right to burden - in the negative sense - others with it.

However, I do think there is something of both in the passage. The Old Testament (and occasionally New Testament) writers are never shy of puns or double meanings in their writings. I suspect Jeremiah meant both of the above interpretations, as well as the one that I suspect he intended most especially - the message that you should not burden other people with messages that you claim are from God. Which is rather a peculiar word from a prophet (especially one like Jeremiah, who most definitely did burden others with words he claimed were from God).

Of course, we do not know the precise situation and events that prompted this particular passage. It might have been that, as throughout Jeremiahs time, people were using what they claimed to be "Oracles from God" to pressure people into their own point of view - something we still see today. It might have been that people were taking the phrase "An Oracle from God" lightly, mocking his own messages by using it to justify anything they wanted. Whatever, there is a warning here, that attributing something to God does not give us free reign to impose on other people.

We should all remember that.

Monday, 3 August 2015

Norwich and Norfolk

This year, we holidayed in North Norfolk. The rather sad reason was that we wanted somewhere near home for Tess, our dog, who was getting old, and also somewhere without lots of big hills for her an our eldest son, who has foot problems. The sadness was that Tess died before the holiday, but we still went, and we had a wonderful time.

To those who think that Norfolk is flat, I can assure you that it isn't really. It undulates gently, but there are some more hilly parts. It is nothing like as flat as Cambridgeshire or as oppressively flat as I found Holland to be. At the same time, the lack of mountains or large geographical features means that you can, at times, see a long way in all directions. By the sea, in the evening, there is a most wonderful light because it is being reflected from various sides.

Now there are those that I have spoken to in Norfolk and Norwich who are desperate to get out. The usual reason is that it is stuck behind the times, the pace of life is snail like, and they don't want to marry their cousin. In truth, you cannot be made to marry anyone, but Matilda is a very nice young lady, and it is legal nowadays...

In truth, it is rather cut off from the rest of the country. That is, to me, a lot of its delight. As we drove around, many of the smaller roads had wildflower verges (something that is becoming less common in so many places), seemingly untouched by any need to widen the road or trim the sides overly. Norwich itself has beautiful old trees lining the ring road, which is quite wide enough, so they don't need to remove them to provide a bigger route. In contrast to so many places, especially around the South East, traffic getting places quicker did not seem to be the driving force behind changes.

Having said that, there have been improvements. I should point out that I studied in Norwich, so I do remember it from some 30 years ago (of which more later). There is a new southern bypass since then, and to the North of the city, there has been a lot of redevelopment. It has not entirely stood still. But there is still a character to the city that I find in few other places. It is an elegant, beautiful city - quite an achievement, given that most cities are ugly sprawling monstrosities. Because it lags behind the times, it doesn't jump on every new idea, and so retains its character. Just because everywhere else is redeveloping like mad, Norwich doesn't feel a need to follow. Of course, being the back of beyond, nobody really want to move there, so they are under less housing pressure.

So yes, I did study there for 3 years, and I fell in love with the place. I am not sure how much of this I realised until I had moved away, but I still feel it today. The fact that I was there as a student means I am not just praising a place I have spent a week around during a summer holiday (although, I realise, being a student is rather like a 3-year long holiday). I know what it is like in the depths of winter - bitterly cold. And this was not just a nostalgia trip, seeing the place through rose-tinted glasses (OK, I probably do, as much as anywhere) - we didn't really visit my student haunts. This is at least as much a reflection of Norwich today.

When trying to write this, I wanted to find a phrase that summed up my feelings about the city. I came up with an odd one - it was a place I felt safe. I say odd, because it is the only place I have been propositioned, and it was a place that I went through some of my most anguished and agonising times. And yet I felt safe. This is not just physical safety - it is "spiritual" safety, because it is a place that I learned to think about my faith, I learnt that it is safe to do that.

So yes, Norfolk is, to an extent, stuck in the past. As I get older, I realise that this can be a positive. In the villages we visited, I noticed the lack of chain stores, meaning the prevalence of local shops. Not entirely - in Wroxham, half the town is owned by Roys, who seem to be running some sort of monopolistic campaign. Maybe "stuck" in the past is the wrong phrase - not succumbing as much to the MacDonaldisation of the town centres (although I was living there when MacDonalds arrived). Living in the past, in the sense of revelling, enjoying, delighting in the past.

Would I move back? In a flash.

Saturday, 1 August 2015

The changing role of the clergy

I was talking to a friend from twitter the other day, in the spacious garden of her large, 4 bedroom vicarage. In all honesty, for the area, the house is a moderate size place. Among other things, we discussed the possibilities that are being considered of demolishing that building and building 4 properties in its place, including a new vicarage and curates house, all of which would still be reasonably large sized properties.

There was a precedent for this, because the current vicarage sits in a part of the garden from the old vicarage.

It set me thinking about the changing role of clergy, which is, to an extent, shown in their houses - and what this means for the future role and place.

In times past, say 150 years ago, the vicar was often the appointment of the landed gentry, who needed someone to cater for the spiritual needs of their tenants, as he would look after the practical needs. That was the idea. They would often be people of semi-independent means, whose position in society was important. He would often not be married, and so need a houseful of people to look after him - even if he was married, his wife would have her own responsibilities.

It is worth considering, of course, that at a time when a normal-sized household would require the wife to be working full-time on cooking, cleaning and washing, having staff to assist with these was a necessity for larger houses, and places (like the vicarage) where people may be coming to stay. The vicarage would also be used as the office, so a vicar may have a personal assistant. One of the perks of all these roles was often a place to live, a room in the house. So the vicarage needed to be large, to serve it's function, and allow the vicar to server his function.

Of course, a large property needed a large garden, and it would often be used for entertainment purposes. There was a justification - in the context of the time - for large vicarages. They were places that were central parts of the community, and served the entire community. But times changed, and the need for large houses became less - the developments in home technology meant that the size of the household staff needed was reduced. This meant that the houses became unwieldy as a home for one person or family (still, often, a single man). There were changes in the role, and changes in the housing needed. Many of the houses were sold or demolished, and newer, smaller houses built.

This served for a little while, but soon the requirements changed again: the need twenty years ago was that clergy houses needed to fit in with the local area. I have known a number that were large, out of proportion to the area, and stood out. For so many, the size of property reflects the importance of the owners, so a slightly larger than average property made the clergy stand out as trying to be slightly better than those around them. It is unfortunate, with hindsight, that some clergy houses were built or rebuilt to reflect an outdated idea of the role of the clergy.

But what of the future? I think the model of tied clergy housing is outdated, because it no longer represents the way that most people live. At a time when many people lived in tied housing, having clergy in tied housing made sense. Today, when most people have to earn the money to buy their house, maybe this is the model that we should adopt for clergy: earning money for some of their week in the area, and using this to pay for their local accommodation. Clergy should live in the society, and be a part of this.

So yes, I am proposing part-time clergy. But I am suggesting this not because of cost-saving (in truth, it might cost more, if the church has to help pay for accommodation at real prices), but because this would bring the clergy more in touch with their congregation. Because work is such an important part of life for most people, to have the clergy also engaged in this, in a way and style that fit with their fellow worshippers.

And this would involve some significant changes to the way that church operates. But the church has become so dependent on the full-time clergy, youth workers, administrators etc., maybe it is time that we all re-engaged with making church the gathering of the people, not a place run by the "professionals", and supported by our money.

But maybe the church is far too settled in the receiving mode to change. Maybe the church is far too stuck in what once was to be different.