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Do you feel refreshed today after the weekend? If not, you share the experience with a reported 56% of the population who return to work on a Monday, unfulfilled and disappointed. Apparently, we tend to spend our leisure doing things that don’t sufficiently counteract the stress of our working lives.

Other research may partly explain the problem. We can spend up to four years of our lives thinking about work when we are supposed to be at leisure. 1 in 10 spend 8 hours a day thinking about the office while on the way home or in front of the TV. So, even when we’re not working, we’re not relaxing either.

Paradoxical though it may seem, a prime ingredient in the art of relaxing is self-discipline. We can usually identify those leisure pursuits that do nourish and refresh us. We know when we’re engaged in an activity that removes any likelihood of our thoughts drifting back to work. We need to be sure that these are the ways we spend our leisure, and that we don’t get drawn into unfulfilling pastimes.

Apparently 8 out of 10 of us find being by water one of the most relaxing activities, yet only 3 out of 10 had managed to spend time by water recently. Apart from wondering when the researchers get time to relax, our reaction to these statistics today could be to remind us what helps us really relax and to make sure we do it.


The judges’ adjudication on the recent Guardian/BBC Proms Young Composers Award included a comment on the limitations of composing for a computer. The music that computers can produce these days sounds orchestral but, if given to human musicians, is sometimes unplayable and bears no comparison to a live performance. “Write for the forces you have available” was the advice of the judges. “If your school just has two flutes and a ukelele, use them in your composing”. The result may not have classical beauty but often does have an interest and fascination which music using the standard combination of instruments can’t match.

It is good when our lives feel harmonious, when their different facets - work, leisure, relationships - all fuse into one satisfying whole. But more often than not, there are jarring notes, or possibly major players, whose contribution threatens the harmony of the piece. Classically beautiful compositions seem unlikely. But the creation of lives which have their own balance and melodiousness is perfectly possible, if only we can orchestrate the different elements so that each contributes as best it can to the harmony of the whole.

Let's take time to reflect today on the different aspects of our lives, and then to respond willingly and positively to the challenge of incorporating constructively anything which, at first sight, appears to be discordant. The result may well be harmonious only in parts, but at least it will be real and live.


Some years ago, Pat Grainger, an attractive 25 year old and something of an actress, was researching attitudes to older people and wanted to know what it would be like to be one. One day she went to a hardware store and took some time to decide upon exactly which item she wanted to purchase. The sales assistants of both sexes that she involved in the purchase treated her with unfailing courtesy. She went back the next day, dressed and behaving like someone in their eighties and went through the same performance with the same staff, though about a different appliance. They were rude, unhelpful and dismissive.

I described Pat’s piece of research to a friend who is in her seventies. She was interested in the assumptions that Pat was making in order to portray the behaviour of a “typical” elderly person. Did she pretend to be slow-witted, or fumbling, or forgetful? Perhaps, suggested my friend, the experiment would have revealed more about Pat and her assumptions about the elderly than about the attitude of the shop assistants.

It is not appropriate to generalise about anyone based on external appearance. Today, the United Nations Day for Older People, let’s make sure particularly that we don’t make assumptions about the elderly people we know. Each of them is unique and almost certainly still retains the capacity to surprise us.


Trapeze artists with the Moscow State Circus, at present touring Britain, have been told to start wearing hard hats to comply with new EU safety rules. Jugglers, tightrope walkers and other acrobats have also been instructed to don safety head wear if they are working at heights greater than the average stepladder. The performers decided last week that the show would go ahead without the benefits of "Bob the Builder" headgear. Hard hats and trapeze artists simply don’t mix. Risk is an essential element in their act.

So it is of being human. It is only when we move beyond what is utterly safe and familiar that we grow. It’s also an important element in being a Christian. Faith flourishes when we rely on God for courage to stand up for love or justice, especially when, without God, we would not take the risk.

Today, a situation may arise where we face a choice between safety and doing what is right. To take the risk will be to deepen our humanity.


What’s described as the UK’s biggest health and beauty event starts at London’s Olympia today. At the Vitality Show you can “be pampered in The Spa, pick up the latest tips in The Slimming Theatre, get active in the Fitness Zone or discover another of the hundreds of ways on display to feel fantastic”.

Vitality is something we all want. The word describes a feeling of energetic enthusiasm for life and a sense of physical and emotional well-being. Some of the publicity material features pictures of older people but the main image offered is of a joie de vivre mostly found in the comparatively young and healthy.

The contemporary emphasis on fitness is a wholesome development. Being physically healthy does enhance our zest for living. But it’s fortunate that vitality at its best comes from the inside out not the outside in. Keeping our bodies in trim can lift our spirits but the vitality that can come from hearts that are well-maintained knows no boundaries of health and age.

Jesus offered believers Life, life in all its richness*. It’s a life sustained by an awareness of being loved and nurtured by active loving of others. It’s a life focused around him and all he stands for. Whether our choice is to receive that offer, or whether our preference is to seek richness of life in other ways, let’s today be sure to nourish our hearts with regular visits to the Love Zone. Keeping our ability to love and be loved in trim will enhance our vitality whatever state our physical bodies are in.

*John 10:10


So Tony Blair is 50 today. Various public figures have suggested suitable birthday gifts – a hearing aid and a lie detector are among the less charitable suggestions. I am more interested in what present he would ask for. What does he think he needs most as he enters a new phase of his life? Some sleep, more time for the family, ability to resist power’s capacity to corrupt, greater control of his colleagues and his party?

I’m often stumped when I’m asked what I want for my birthday. Most of the things I want can’t be bought in shops. Some of these come to me after only a moment’s reflection; others, usually the more important ones, take longer to surface. Even if today’s not your birthday, it might still be worth asking yourself what you want deep down.

Tony Blair will be glad that most of the gifts being suggested won’t drop on his doorstep. And probably many of the things he would really like are beyond the power of anyone to give. But there may be changes he could make, gifts to himself, that could make his life more how he wants it. That’s true of us too. No need to wait for a birthday to give ourselves a present that could improve the quality of our lives.


Anysie Semana-Niyonshuti is half-Tutsi and half-Hutu and in the terrible conflicts in Rwanda, has been imprisoned and tortured by both sides. “A book taught me to carry on, no matter how terrible things are,” says Anysie, now 35 years old. The book, given to her when she was a young teenager, kept alive her determination to keep going.

Entitled Au Nom de Tous Les Miens (In the Name of All My People), it was an account by Holocaust survivor Martin Gray of the horrors his family endured at the hands of the Nazis, and his fierce will to live, which drove him to escape from Treblinka concentration camp, and fight in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.

So one victim of torture inspires another to keep up the struggle. Today, United Nations Day for the support of victims of torture, we recognise that many do not live to tell the tale. But the courage of those who do reminds us what the human spirit can endure and its ability to defeat forces of evil.

Some of us today may experience abuse or discrimination. Others may recognise moments when it is important to stand up for truth. Neither situation is likely to cause us suffering that compares with what Anysie and Martin experienced. But their example, and that of many others, can inspire us. It may be that no one else knows what we are going through, but if they do, our response can also contribute to the chain of inspiration that we hope will lead to a more humane and compassionate world.

Picture and information by permission of the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture.


In the World Memory Championships which took place over the weekend in Kuala Lumpur, contestants were required to memorise such things as sets of playing cards in the order they appear after shuffling (record: 23 packs) and a list of random words (record: 182 words).

Most of us don’t need to add extra items to what our memory carries. As it is, we’re often forgetting what we want to remember. Even more difficult, perhaps, is when we remember what we want to forget.

Some recent research has suggested that only when painful or harmful memories are actually in our consciousness can they be dealt with. Yet talking them through often fails to produce the hoped-for catharsis. In the end, whether we avoid, or actively pursue, situations which will “bring them back” is a matter of personal preference and of timing.

One constructive thing we can do when unwanted memories do come to mind is to try and draw from them positive learning or inspiration for action. This sometimes requires heroic effort and the surmounting of considerable pain. The true “World Memory Champions” are those who are able to do this effectively and use their past to create a better future.


In South Korea, mastery of the English language is so highly prized that ambitious parents are forcing their children to have painful tongue surgery in order to give them perfect pronunciation. The operation, performed after a local anaesthetic, involves snipping the thin tissue under the tongue to make it longer and supposedly more capable of pronouncing the difficult English “l” and “r” sounds. The government is now funding an advertising campaign to discourage the practice.

South Koreans are not the only ones to give themselves pain in order to achieve perfection. Initially as a response to parental expectation or because of a hardly conscious belief that only being perfect justifies their existence, many people feel they should be faultless. The cost can be considerable in the extra stress, disappointment and frustration this causes. Anyone who expects to be perfect, lives a life of constant failure.

Doctors in Korea, as well as educationalists, are clear that listening to well-spoken English, and plenty of practice in trying to copy that way of speaking, is the answer, not an operation. In life too, there are benefits from choosing people whose lifestyle and behaviour we admire, absorbing their influence and trying to copy appropriate aspects of it in our own lives.

If today we catch ourselves being self-critical about our behaviour or achievements, it would be worth checking whether this is a symptom of a deeply ingrained need not to fail or a more creative recognition that there are ways in which, with unflustered practice, we could improve. The latter enables us to be gentle with ourselves; but the former can be as painful as the operation on the tongue and equally ineffective.


The authorities in Turkey have refused a request to attend today’s funeral from the gunman whose assassination attempt seriously wounded the Pope in 1981. The Pope forgave Mehmet Ali Agca for shooting him in St. Peter's Square and met him in his Italian prison cell in 1983. Pope John Paul received relatives of the gunman several times over the years, meeting Agca's mother, Muzeyyen, in 1987 and Adnan Agca in 1997. "They had declared brotherhood when the Pope visited him in prison," said a member of the Agca family. "He was Agca's brother. Would not you be sad if you had lost your brother?"

It’s better to die having dealt with feelings of anger, bitterness or animosity than to carry them to the grave. Jesus wanted to offer forgiveness to his assassins before he died (Luke 23.34). It takes a particular kind of person to turn an enemy into a brother but the ability to feel and offer forgiveness, though often achieved only after a struggle, is in every human being.

Pope John Paul did not wait till his deathbed to forgive Mehmet Ali Agca. It’s not sufficient for us to wait for ours. There may be people today from whom we are estranged but with whom there is the possibility of reconciliation. Death is sweeter if we can approach it without rancour; life even more so.


So David Blaine, on his fourteenth day suspended in a glass box high above the Thames, won’t be eating anything until he renews his contact with the rest of the human race about a month from now. Some considerable time before then, according to nutrition experts, he will have passed out for lack of salt. But he is by profession an illusionist so we assume he has up his sleeve some way of ensuring his own safety and health.

Just up the road, outside the UN offices in Millbank tower, a group of people are drawing attention to the worsening human rights situation in the Sudan with a three-day hunger strike. Negotiations, partly brokered by the UN, between the government and the Liberation Armies are hopefully nearing a positive conclusion, but the protesters will not be eating because they fear a peace agreement would not bring an end to oppression. Though their attempt to get publicity is being held not far away from David Blaine’s, there is a world of difference between them. There is no magic wand to ensure a satisfactory ending to the suffering of the Sudanese people.

31,000 people responded when a newspaper offered to relay text messages to Mr Blaine via a large screen and anyone who wishes can watch what he is doing on Sky TV any time of day or night. We assume such interest is an encouragement to him. Perhaps today our attention in spare moments might be focussed on thinking about the struggle of the Sudanese and many other African peoples for peace, health and food. Such thoughts, such time spent willing good to those in need, is not a magic wand but the idea that it makes a difference is no illusion.