A parrot belonging to Aimee Morgana and living in New York has a vocabulary of 972 words – the same as an average three year-old child. The latest word to be learnt is yoghurt. Ms Morgana has recorded the 4 ½ year old African grey using 10,000 different sentences up to 15 words long. Seeing another parrot hanging upside down, for example, N’kisi is said to have called out: ‘You got to put this bird on the camera’.
The key to the parrot’s success is that the usual method of training by a system of rewards has been ignored in favour of a policy of talking to the parrot as if it were a human child. Treating the bird as if it were highly intelligent and with more respect than it really deserved has apparently helped develop its linguistic skill and confidence.
Human beings too thrive when they are taken seriously. We give of our best when we feel trusted and appreciated. Christians believe that God trusts in us and treats us with respect even when we least deserve it. God’s confidence in us releases more of our potential than any system of reward and punishment could achieve. In our everyday relationships too, we can encourage others by having faith in them and hope that others will do the same of us.
Many human beings have an inclination to put themselves down and to undermine the effect of God’s and others’ trust in them. N’kisi has had the wisdom to take on board his owner’s trust in him. We too may well exceed expectation if we emulate the wisdom of this particular, remarkable parrot.
Each year in November the Bridge Inn in Santon Bridge, Cumbria, holds the Biggest Liar in the World Competition. There is a small prize and a coveted title for the lie that most impresses the panel of judges. It all goes back to the 19th century when the publican Will Ritson used to delight locals with his talent for bending the truth.
There are times when it is appropriate to bend the truth. Being entirely honest is not always the most loving thing to do. Telling people things it won’t benefit them to know but which may cause them pain is usually unnecessary. Sometimes it is best to wait for the right moment before passing on information.
All that, however, is very different from deliberate lying. ‘Bearing false witness against a neighbour’, the kind of lying which deliberately hurts other people or their reputations, is one of the things forbidden in the Ten Commandments. Then there's the kind of lie which we use simply to get ourselves out of a fix or because it makes life easier for us than speaking the truth.
As today we have to make decisions about whether to tell the truth, to bend it or to lie, let’s make sure that in any situation where we feel it’s right to be less than truthful, it is because it is more loving to do so.
Mexico’s future doctors can now practice on robotic patients. Last week, the world's largest "robotic hospital" was opened in Mexico City where medical students practice everything from delivering a baby from a robotic dummy to injecting the arm of a plastic toddler.
The robots are complete with mechanical organs, synthetic blood and mechanical breathing systems. Their computer program enables them to simulate illnesses ranging from diabetes to a heart attack.
"I would feel nervous if this was (a) real patient," said Paola Mendoza Cortez, a first-year medical student. "With this (dummy patient) I can practice many times."
Those of us who are on the receiving end of medical care would probably be relieved to know we’re not being practiced on. But we may also feel that a doctor who only knew about the mechanics of our bodies might not be our first choice. No doubt Mexico’s medics also receive some training in “bedside manners”; for most patients, a sensitive, informative, respectful attitude in their doctor adds significantly to their well-being.
The impression given in the accounts of Jesus’ healings is often that the person needing help appears almost from nowhere and disappears almost as quickly when the healing is done. Yet in these apparently brief encounters, a strong impression is given that Jesus still managed to develop with those who came to him a depth of relationship which contributed to their cure.
There may be many among the people we meet today who we shall be tempted to deal with in a purely mechanical manner. But our relationship with them need not be purely functional. Even in the briefest of encounters, it is possible to engage with the other person in a away which clearly recognises their unique humanity – they are none of them robots. If we’re able to do this, we shall be contributing to their sense of well-being – and also to our own.
Jessie Lee was dumbfounded when three-and-a-half years after they were stolen, her two plywood-and-wool ornamental sheep were returned to her cottage in Holt, Norfolk. With them was an envelope marked Larry & Sean's Holiday Photos. The 16 pictures showed the intrepid sheep travelling all over India, visiting sights such as the Taj Mahal and baahsking in the evening sun on a beach in Goa. The only clue as to the identity of the sheepnappers was a picture of Larry and Sean attached to the backpacks of a couple of young travellers.
'They are slightly worn and torn after their trip but I am delighted they are back,' said Mrs Lee. 'I’d love to meet the mystery backpackers so I can hear about their adventures’. Sadly there’s no other way she’ll discover what they got up to; the sheep themselves are tight-lipped about it.
Many of the people we know will also have experiences they don’t talk about. Some of them will be painful, others fascinating, many life-changing. Sometimes people we think we know well could tell stories that would surprise us. Often knowing something of people’s hidden past would explain aspects of their behaviour and personality.
Jesus once met a woman at a well (John 4.16-23) whose painful marital history he knew without being told. It enabled him to treat her with a more loving understanding. Most of us don’t have those intuitive powers. We perhaps need, especially with people who may seem, on the surface, lacking in interest or strange in their behaviour, to recognise that we don’t know all there is to know about them. Let’s today treat everybody with a respect that comes from assuming that there is more in their history than meets the eye.
Which Wind in the Willows character feels most like you? Lovable, flamboyant Toad, driving around in fast cars? Fidgety and concerned Mole? Good-hearted and hospitable Ratty? More than one third of Britons chose Ratty in the survey commissioned by the River and Rowing Museum in Henley-on-Thames to launch their new museum devoted to the book.
Noticing who we identify with in novels and in life can be illuminating for us. Sometimes we choose those we’d like to be like. Ratty perhaps, or Toad? It might today be worth considering who it is among the people we meet, read about, have as our friends, that we feel most drawn to and why we identify particularly with them. That may be a way of discovering more clearly the kind of person we want to be.
Such a discovery can lead to a resigned acceptance that we won’t in fact ever be like that. Mole was characteristically cautious about venturing into anything unknown but one delight of the book is seeing how he is tempted by his new friends into trying out new experiences – some end disastrously but others open his eyes to a new world. The courage to risk being someone different, especially if we’re with trusted friends, can enable significant growth in our lives.
The people around us can be a mirror of ourselves as we’d like to be. Perhaps today, we could also see in them what we might become and let that encourage us to turn those aspirations into reality.
As the spring cleaning season begins, Henjai Kagoshi from Osaka has had an idea. He’s invented a special set of duster slippers for cats. The miniature shoes with dusters on the end are strapped to cat’s paws, after which the cat is left to roam the house, inadvertently dusting as it goes. “For a more thorough dust I prod my cat with rolled up newspaper. That makes it go faster and get into all the corners. When it comes to a full-scale clean-up, however, I release a few mice. The cat goes berserk and the place is soon shining like new”.
It seems, however, that many of us don’t want a spring clean of our homes or work place. Forty percent in a survey this week said their messy desk drove them mad but they couldn’t be bothered to do anything about it. It’s perhaps more likely that it’s other people’s space, or even other people’s lives, that we’d like to get our tidying hands on. The disarray of their environment or the chaotic state of their relationships or their diary upsets us. We allow it to irritate us so much that we’d love to be a cat with dusters zooming through their life sorting them out.
One of the hardest types of loving is to let people be themselves. They may ask for our view of how their lives could be improved or our opinion on their situation. Sometimes it may be right to offer unsolicited advice to a friend, especially if their behaviour is giving others problems. In the end, though, people are responsible for themselves. Jesus, who could give sight back to blind people, once asked a blind man “What do you want me to do for you?”*.
Perhaps today we should keep our dusters to ourselves. Not everyone wants their lives or their environment spring cleaned by others.
You can call people almost anything you like in Italy and get away with it. The laws of slander allow for the odd "robust reaction which should be understood in a figurative way." So there was some surprise recently when a driver who told a parking attendant "You are nobody!" was fined £200 plus costs. The court ruled the phrase 'you are nobody' "means precisely 'you are a nonentity' and to state that a person is a nonentity is certainly offensive because it is damaging to the dignity of a person."
At least the parking attendant was shouted at – to be called a nobody is better than being treated as one. Real ‘damage to the dignity of a person’ is suffered by those who become part of the furniture, who’re spoken about as if they’re not there, who are regarded as not worth even speaking to or who are dismissed as nonentities.
Everybody is somebody. Jesus commented
that every hair of everyone’s head is numbered and that God treasures even sparrows which are sold for five a penny. Perhaps today we might make extra sure we acknowledge the presence of those who easily disappear into the background and treasure the contribution of those whose value is often ignored.
An academic paper has been accepted for presentation at a conference organised by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Called "Rooter: A Methodology for the Typical Unification of Access Points and Redundancy", it was, unbeknown to the organisers, written by a computer and consists of meaningless mumbo-jumbo complete with nonsensical charts and diagrams. It was submitted by three MIT graduate students tired of reading in learned papers sentences such as: “We implemented our scatter/gather I/O server in Simula-67, augmented with opportunistically pipelined extensions."
Words can often sound impressive but mean nothing. So can actions. Jesus said that we should judge people by their fruits. We will want what we say and do to be more than superficial pretence and come from deeper within us.
Most of us can also spot what’s said or done by others simply for show. We’re not as easily fooled as the organisers of the MIT conference. But our response to people who have a desperate need to impress need not be simply to reject them as frauds. Their need to behave in that way may be the result of a lack of self-confidence, of not having been loved enough. We can perhaps, in the way we treat them and value what is real and worthwhile in them, begin to help them discover they do have a deeper value and don’t need to show off.
The Memoir Club is based in County Durham. If you seem a likely candidate, they may contact you, asking if you would like to write your autobiography. In exchange for £9,000, they’ll then publish it. For the price, you get other services too, of which the most popular is the help of a ghost-writer who will spice up your life to make it more interesting reading.
Their clients must want, as I would imagine to a lesser extent do most of us, to sense that their lives have some importance beyond just the living of them. They feel that a record of what they have done will add to their significance, or at least encourage others to recognise it. There is a lack of belief that what they have done, and how they have lived, stands on its own as worthy of respect and celebration.
Jesus once referred (Luke 14.7-11) to a wedding reception where some of the guests had, uninvited, taken the most important seats. The host asked them to give way to those who had initially chosen the least important places at the table.
Most of us want recognition and respect from our families, colleagues and friends. But the way to achieve it is not to go looking. It is to live in the best way we can and trust that who we are and what we do is the best testimony to our worth.