Money can’t buy happiness, but neither can poverty. This rather catchy phrase by a German-born teacher and academic, Leo Rosten, has a ring of truth about it. But it also goes against today’s gospel, where Jesus gives a jaw-dropping piece of advice to a wealthy man: ‘Go and sell everything you own and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in Heaven; then come, follow me.’ The man is gobsmacked by Jesus’ proposal and departs, prompting Jesus to comment publicly: ‘It’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.’ So, essentially, it seems that we are all doomed, damned and condemned unless each one of us makes ourselves as poor as a church mouse. No, I’m not going to tell you that giving all your money to me is the perfect solution to finding happiness!
Differences between men and women have always been fertile ground for jokes! Some of them good, others less so. Some jokes considered good and funny in the past can be perceived nowadays as embarrassing at best, or insulting or sexist at worst. There also exists a much darker side regarding differences between men and women. In many cultures over the millennia, women have often been treated unequally, unfairly or harshly. Sometimes women have been effectively reduced to chattels, expendable possessions, inferior even to property or domesticated animals. In 2018, one hundred years after some women in the United Kingdom were allowed the Vote, one of the topical subjects in the public sphere is ‘pay inequality’ or ‘the gender gap’ where men are earning more than women for doing the same job. In Saudi Arabia, women are practically imprisoned in their houses unless an adult male member of the family chaperones them outside. Until only recently, women in Saudi Arabia weren’t even allowed to drive their own cars. Arranged marriages, where girls on reaching a certain age are forced to marry much older men, are still common in many parts of the world. What saddens me is that religious tradition is commonly employed to justify such degrading treatment of, and attitudes towards, women.
The word ‘radical’ seems to be amongst the most popular adjectives in use nowadays. It’s used to describe a whole raft of social aspects. The ‘radical’ cuts of public spending and the ‘radical’ reform of the benefit system, for example; we’ve all heard about those and many have experienced the pinching results. In many established democracies across the globe, ‘radical’ politicians of various political colours seem to make gains or even come to power. The latest most extreme example is the President of the Philippines boasting openly about his unlawful killing of drug dealers. Somehow his action puts him on a par with ‘radical’ Islamists, who try to impose their morality and beliefs upon others by force. Many more examples of ‘radical’ attitudes and approaches could be given, but such a list would be virtually infinite and deeply dispiriting. Most radical forms of expression feature two intertwined properties: most of the time their proponents’ intentions are well-meant – and most of the time they generate a lot of suffering.
One inescapable feature of my visits to my mum in Poland is my involuntary exposure to adverts. Every single radio station and TV channel broadcasts them. Some adverts are clever, funny and creative; most of them, however, are dull or silly. What all of them have in common, though, is the vision of easy solutions and a trouble-free life. For that reason, I call them ‘postcards from dreamland.’ Have you noticed that adverts almost never mention any downsides or side-effects of the deal? We’d all like to think that we are immune to the power of adverts. But there’s no shortage of those who fall for these ‘half-truths’, only discovering the existence of the unpleasant ‘half-truth’ after having concluded the deal. Victims of the likes of Wonga are among of the most extreme examples of those falling into the attractive but deadly trap of sleek adverts. Many more are quietly bearing the consequences of their bad deals. Part of the problem for us is lack of knowledge, mercilessly exploited by companies selling us their services and products.
In the last decade or so, whenever an atrocity has been committed, the first assumption is that must have been a terrorist attack perpetrated in the name of Islam. Such a suspicion is based on the common perception that most infamous atrocities since 9/11 have been committed by Islamist terrorists. Paradoxically, among the victims of such acts of violence are ordinary Muslims, for whose rights those terrorists claim to fight. Adopting Islam as an ideological justification for violence is really nothing new. It’s merely the most recent representation of courses of action that have been taken down the ages. We have been tribal ever since time immemorial and fighting for the survival of the tribe is hard-wired into our brains. Such tribalism needs an ideological glue of some kind; indeed, it takes the form of anything from identifying with a particular football club through political ideology to religion. This last is reflected indirectly in today’s gospel.
Desperate times call for desperate measures. Sometimes desperate times can bring out hidden talents, or lead to ingenious inventions or call for unconventional approaches. The rescue operation in the cave in Thailand a couple of months ago is a perfect example of all of those. But sometimes desperate measures deployed to solve a problem, rather than making it better, make it worse and even more desperate. Sometimes desperate times are too overwhelming, and obstacles insurmountable; the only solution then seems to be quiet and hopeless resignation. Desperate times can be of various magnitudes; from global – like climate change – down to very personal or individual situations. Usually we ourselves are much more concerned with the latter, for obvious reasons. I think that becomes particularly evident with health issues. We are exceptionally lucky with healthcare in Scotland, one of the very few countries in the world to offer such a wide scope of medical services for free at the point of access. There are many places in the world where even the most basic medical care is either not easily available or prohibitively expensive. So much so, that the only alternative option people have is so-called ‘alternative medicine’.
We are special and pretty much unique in Europe. Unlike anywhere else in Continental Europe, we drive on the left-hand side of the road. Similarly, we have different power sockets. Many still prefer to use Imperial units rather than metric ones to measure things. We are so used to the British way of life that we realise those and many other differences only when we go abroad or when we come across foreigners in our midst. Usually most of us can cope quite well when confronted with cultural differences, either by adapting to them or by yielding to them, or by quiet persistence. Yet sometimes the challenge is too much even for a hardy British soul. I read recently about a British woman who complained to the tour operator about a Spanish resort she’d gone to on her holidays. She moaned that the people there spoke Spanish, that the food served there was Spanish and that it was very hot all the time. Totally unexpected and surprising when you go to Spain in the summer, of course…