May 2018

How to cope with constancy and intensity of bad news?

Sr Patty Fawkner SGS

For Sister Patty Fawkner, two strategies or ways of thinking may help: to accept life’s “givens”; and to “celebrate what’s right with the world”.

BY Patty Fawkner SGS

War in Syria; another gun massacre; domestic violence rates soar; epidemic of pornography; extinction of another species; catastrophic coral bleaching. Daily we are confronted by our inhumanity and reminded of how much damage and destruction we can wreck on each other and on our fragile blue planet.

How do we cope with the constancy and intensity of the bad news which streams and screams across headlines and social media? It occurs to me that two strategies or ways of thinking may help: to accept life’s “givens”; and to “celebrate what’s right with the world”.

Back in 2012, David Richo wrote a book called The Five Things We Cannot Change… and the Happiness We Find by Embracing Them. Richo’s five unavoidable “things” that are part and parcel of human existence are that: everything changes and ends; things don’t always go according to plan; life is not always fair; pain is part of life; and people are not loving and loyal all the time.

Taking each aspect one by one, no doubt each of us can identify plentiful examples from our own lives, and readily concur with Richo that the five things he identifies are intrinsic to human reality.

But embracing them? Now there’s the rub.

While it is easy to dismiss Richo’s work as yet another pop psychology self-help book, I believe his simple thesis of working with, rather than expending energy simply railing against the reality of life, is true to the Gospel and the Benedictine tradition.

The Christian tradition doesn’t tell us to stoically accept the givens of life, nor does it tell us to find a scapegoat when things go wrong. It calls us to hope in God and hope in the goodness of life despite every skerrick of evidence to the contrary.

“Place your hope in God alone,” says St Benedict. Wise words, but as long as we realise the kind of hope that Benedict talks about. It’s not hoping that God will intervene in life to minimise or change the givens of human existence. A counterfeit hope in a counterfeit God – hoping that God will act like some magical puppeteer to stop disease and turn back a tsunami. Benedict asks us not to hope in miracles, but to hope in God’s mercy and love.

Think of the example of Jesus in relation to each of the givens of his life. He doesn’t abandon the fickle crowds when he himself is abandoned. He doesn’t shrink from corrupt officials, betrayal, torture and murder. He accepts and embraces the hand that is dealt him – neither passively nor compliantly – because of his relationship with his Abba, the God whom he loves and trusts.

Accepting the givens of life doesn’t mean endorsement. Injustice should not reign, disease should be fought and poverty should be eradicated. Jesus accepts the reality while pouring out his life in healing, whole-making, forgiveness and liberation. This is God’s dream for God’s people. This is the Reign of God.

A second means of living life healthily in the face of the daily tragedies which confront us and of living with what’s wrong with the world is to “celebrate what’s right with the world”. This is the name of an award-winning DVD and TEDx Talk by Dewitt Jones.

Jones has forged a stellar career as a photographer for National Geographic, determined to capture through the lens of his camera what’s good, true and beautiful about our world.

The phrase, “celebrate what’s right with the world”, causes me pause. Six simple words challenge me to get down from my moral high horse where I comfortably pontificate about all that’s wrong with the world and all that needs fixing. We recognise that critique and complaint are tools of the trade of celebrity shock-jocks, and they can also become the default setting of each of us.

There is so much that is right with the world. It’s the core of our Christian faith. Once again, Jesus is our guide and exemplar. The Reign of God is here now, he says. It’s not a distant heavenly dream – but a reality now. This is indeed Good News. God’s reign has come near. It is within and among you.

Jesus shares his experience of God, a God who doesn’t want to establish a new religion, but a God who wants a happier life, a fuller, more fulfilling life for all. No one is excluded. No one. God makes the sun rise on the good and bad, the worthy and the unworthy alike (cf Matthew 5:45).

Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and outpouring of the Spirit tells us that every genuine human act is a graced encounter with God. We need eyes and a heart to see the grace, the beauty and goodness around us in the normal human “stuff” of daily life – a crisp morning, a warm handshake, a belly laugh shared with a friend, a genuine “thank you”, the way your dog wags his tail in greeting, a tear of shared grief, that first delicious morning cup of coffee…

We see it in the homeless person selling her copy of The Big Issue, the letter to the editor that advocates for a more humane asylum seeker policy, and in a new arts centre run by and for Indigenous artists.

The mystics and poets see with Jesus’ eyes and love the world with Jesus’ heart. Look at this world as you would a lover, they say. See the goodness, the graces and the blessings that abound. Some people call this a “contemplative gaze”.

The world is indeed “charged with the grandeur of God”, and “Christ plays in ten thousand places”, says Gerard Manley Hopkins. Embrace life and this world as “a bride married to amazement”, says Mary Oliver. “Even after all this time the sun never says to the earth, ‘You owe me’. Look what happens with a love like that, it lights the whole sky”, says the Sufi poet, Hafiz.

It is an act of hope to embrace the givens of life and to celebrate what’s right with the world. I need such hope. Our world needs such hope.

Patty Fawkner

Sister Patty Fawkner is a former Congregational Leader of the Sisters of the Good Samaritan. She is an adult educator, writer and facilitator with formal tertiary qualifications in arts, education, theology and spirituality. Patty is interested in exploring what wisdom the Christian tradition has for contemporary issues. She has an abiding interest in questions of justice and spirituality.

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