Car owners in Sullivan, New York, are covering their mirrors in an attempt to outsmart an aggressive woodpecker that’s been smashing mirrors. Anne Miller has had two mirrors on her Pontiac Grand Prix smashed and watched the bird attack her neighbor's Malibu. "I told him to shoo. He did. Then he came right back and finished the job," she said. "Instead of flying off, he walked across the windshield and did the passenger mirror. I was flabbergasted." It seems the reason for this aggression against mirrors is that the woodpecker thinks his reflection is an enemy.
People also sometimes see themselves as ‘the enemy. “I’m my own worst enemy” is not just a colloquial saying – it also expresses how some people really feel about themselves. Sometimes this can lead to behaviour not unlike the woodpecker’s. Without realising it, we do things which undermine our happiness, sabotage our hopes or even cause us physical harm. But even for those whose feelings about themselves are not as destructive as that, there can be difficulty believing in ourselves when our experience is that we often let ourselves down.
Jesus met a “madman” who was intent on harming himself. He drew the “unclean spirits” out of the man and sent them into pigs who hurtled to their death over a cliff. In the strange (to us) thinking of the time, Jesus had found a way to convince the man that he didn’t necessarily have to live with this self-destructive personality but could be at peace.
Perhaps we too want that kind of peace. Parts of ourselves which we don’t trust, or ways in which we often fail to achieve what we hoped to, are not our enemy, to be dealt with with antagonism. They are the result of who we have become but they do not need to be part of who we are becoming. A combination of trust in our better selves, and a certainty that God wants to help us be released from what holds us back, will help us move forward. Let’s hope we don’t need anything quite so dramatic as the death of a herd of pigs to convince us to let go of the past and stop punishing ourselves.
Carol Aston keeps a coffin in her spare room and every so often will add something to the already intricate design that adorns it. Although only 50, she’s already thinking about her wish for her casket to say something, as it disappears behind the curtains or into the ground, about the kind of person she has been. Not so idiosyncratic as it sounds – she makes a living out of doing the same for other people, each one painted-to-order.
Does she stand any chance of getting a commission from you? Do you fancy making a ‘statement’ to those attending your funeral? Would it be a confident assertion of your personality and characteristics? Some of us will feel comfortable with this idea because in life too, we have been extroverts, happy to share what’s inside us and to express freely the richness of our personalities.
Or does the very idea make you cringe with embarrassment? Are you much more private, preferring not to have the limelight even at your funeral if you could help it, and keeping yourself to yourself. Perhaps you would prefer the epitaph found on an anonymous grave in Vermont:
I was somebody. Who, is no business of yours.
Whichever kind of person we are, what is important is that we are proud of that. We each express ourselves differently and give delight to those close to us in a unique way. We are all ‘somebody’. We don’t need to wait for our funerals - we could valuably take time today to celebrate who we are, with others if that's our way, or perhaps just quietly on our own.
Sportswear which registers performance, and indicates how to improve it, may one day be on the market. Sensors in the garments will measure the athletes’ movements and vibrating pads will prompt ways of making them more efficient. The scientists at the Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research have, for example, developed a vest for speed skaters with the vibrating pads on the hip and shoulder to prompt better use of specific muscle groups. Rowers’ pads will be on their ankles and waists and will indicate when there’s a need for change in their rhythm or stroke.
Useful in athletics, certainly. But, in life, many of us already have too many such inner promptings. We don’t need sensors to know that we are not achieving as we ought; we already have too many censorious voices inside us competing to tell us just that. They are voices which come, not so much from our conscience, as from our past. They echo people involved in our upbringing who, with the best of intentions, nevertheless left us feeling that nothing we did was ever good enough.
Perhaps the vibrations we need, if our lives match that description, are ones which prompt us into a fairly dramatic change of tack. The apostle Paul found attempting to achieve an acceptable level of obedience to the Law left him frustrated. He urged instead the development of a relationship with Jesus in which human beings are treasured for who they are, not what they can do.
Let’s today allow ourselves to prompted by those voices within us which tell us we’re loved just as we are. They may not surface very easily but the truth they speak is more likely to change our performance than any number of censors.
The new Tan-Timer Bikini goes on sale this week. Fifty nine percent of Britons say they nod off in the sun, so an electronic device attached to the new swimsuit bleeps every 15 minutes to remind the wearer to wake up and seek shade, or roll over to toast the other side. “Burnt or peeling skin is not a good look for the image-conscious, and there are important health implications of over-exposing your skin to the sun," said New Look's marketing director Hash Ladha. A male version is also in the pipeline.
Many of us need reminding to look after ourselves. Sometimes it’s because we’ve convinced ourselves we’re not as important as other people or that we’re not worth taking care of. Sometimes, it’s simply that, like the sunbather, we go into a daze of forgetfulness where external demands or preoccupation with other concerns takes our attention away from caring for our own needs. Jesus perhaps recognised this danger when he urged his followers to love themselves as well as their neighbours.
It’s best if we remember to do this without having to be reminded. But often we don’t. In such a situation, it’s very supportive when a friend points out to us the need to attend to ourselves as well as others. Perhaps today there’s someone for whom we should be the bleep, though reminding them every 15 minutes might mean it’s us who ends up with a scorching.
I hope anyone who owns a cat heard the health warning issued at the weekend. Apparently the leaves and pollen from certain kinds of lily are extremely poisonous for cats. The poor animal needs only to brush past the flower and then lick the pollen from its fur and it can die in only a few hours. The RSPCA is mounting a campaign to persuade florists to use warning labels from now on.
It’s a reminder of how fragile health is – not only cats’ but ours too. If we’re feeling fit and well, we tend to take it for granted but it only takes a bad cold or minor injury to remind us how important our health is. Of course, there is some ill health that can be prevented, especially the kind where our physical well-being is affected by our emotional state. Jesus was once
asked to heal a man who couldn’t walk but instead of doing what he was asked, he told the man he was forgiven. The suggestion wasn’t well-received but Jesus must have seen that at least part of the man’s problem was that he felt guilty.
Jesus’s offer of forgiveness to that man is echoed moment by moment in the same offer to each one of us. The problem is that even if we believe God forgives us, we’re not so willing to forgive ourselves. We can be very self critical sometimes, beating ourselves round the head for some mistake or failing, when we’d be much better forgiving ourselves and putting whatever it was behind us. Being released from the unnecessary burden of guilt would do our health a great deal of good. That’s certainly what God wants for us. Perhaps we need to hang a warning label on anything that haunts us from our past, a label which says: “Not forgiving yourself can seriously damage your health”.
Today would have been Cary Grant’s birthday. He was, as one fan put it, one of the few film stars one can picture aged 102 without disappointment! He was the epitome of romantic elegance, the star other stars fell silent for. ‘Even I want to be Cary Grant’ he once said.
Behind the screen persona, however, he was cruel to his wives, sarcastic, cold and finally, a recluse. He used to visit local libraries, scour newspaper indexes and when he found references to his real name, Archie Leach, he would cut them out with a razor. He never learnt to deal with the effects of a deeply unhappy childhood during which his mother lost her first child, became unbalanced and vindictive and eventually had to be institutionalised. His father resorted to booze and women and died when he was young.
We each deal with our unhappiness differently. Very often it has its roots in our early experience of life. Most of us have an external persona which conceals the way the things which trouble us affect our behaviour and feelings. Sometimes we hide them so well, that others would never believe we would wish to be anything other than who we are.
It would have been a more remarkable feat even than his many great films if he had been able to say ‘Even I want to be Archie Leach’. It’s an achievement for us if, having worked through our unhappiness and come to terms with the pain of the past, we can say of ourselves that we are happy to be who we are. The ability to accept ourselves in spite of everything is a goal worth aiming for.
This weekend sees the finals of this season’s county cricket 20-overs-a-side matches. The format has proved very popular and the counties go all out to capitalise on its success. Warwickshire offered a speed-dating scheme in which men and women have until a wicket falls to chat each other up. Worcestershire constructed a Jacuzzi by the boundary and Hampshire, inspired by their resident Australian spinner, Shane Warne, built a Bondi beach replica from which the matches could be viewed.
It’s as though the cricket itself isn’t enough to inspire interest. More peripheral activities are needed to get the crowds to come. People too sometimes lack confidence in themselves – they use, for example, their sense of humour, constant helpfulness, or organising energy to provide an attractive outward veneer because they feel that who they really are isn’t in itself sufficiently attractive.
Jesus once pointed out that if you light a lamp, there’s no point in hiding it under a bowl (Matthew 5.15). You put it on a stand so that its light shines as widely as possible. Maybe we could be more confident in ourselves and our own inherent attractiveness. The kind of light used in Jesus’ time would go out if deprived of oxygen under a bowl but thrive when out in the open. Let’s check that we’re not smothering our true attractiveness by feeling the need to produce something more immediately popular. Perhaps we need a stronger belief that our innate qualities are enough for people to like us.