This little wobbly bridge is in the garden of the Bishop of Leeds. I like to think it is where he practices keeping a balance in particularly precarious situations. This idyllic garden made me think about how we see the world and where beauty is to be found – especially since I spend much of my time visiting highly deprived areas.
Even in the darkest of places there can be hope, I really believe that. It’s difficult to say that when there is so much brutality in the world. Life seems relentlessly unfair to many of the most vulnerable people, and over time individuals and whole communities can become collectively resentful of life, the universe and everything. Why me? Why us? What’s going on?
I find myself making crass suggestions like, “think positively and things might work out better”, or “count your blessings”. These kind of responses to awful situations can be highly patronising and show a lack of empathy with those who are genuinely suffering. So how can we see desperate situations in a more positive and constructive way?
The platitudes we come up with are not helpful because they mask reality and create an impression that things are not as bad as we might think. Likewise the kind of spin we see in politics heavily manipulates how we see the world and what we think is going on. What we think, feel and believe about the world is really very important because it is on this basis that we make decisions about how we live and work together – the Brexit decision may possibly illustrate this.
The first challenge is to be as honest as we possibly can be about what is actually happening; what is real. If the boat is about to sink then face up to it; If there is a troll under the bridge don’t just whistle and close your eyes; if we are about to perish then let’s do so with our eyes wide open. But conversely if there is genuine beauty to behold, then let’s behold it. If we close our eyes tightly in the darkness we might miss the light that is there to guide us to safety.
Now, more than ever, there is a role for the sense makers – the artists and poets, the media, the story tellers, musicians, preachers and theologians who can reveal truth and help us to find the light. We really need to train our eyes to see what might be the positive opportunities hidden in difficult situations and to recognise redeeming beauty. I would say seeing through the eyes of the imagination informed by truth.
So what am I concluding? Well, maybe it’s that when things are difficult it’s best not to retreat from reality – if we open our eyes wide enough we may also see a special kind of beauty which coexists with suffering. This is a particular challenge for some in the church who seek comfort and see the world as they would like it to be rather than as it is. The church can’t be a cosy refuge for like-minded people but better I think when it is an uncomfortable mix of unlike-mined people. Therein we will find hope and beauty.