Sparks of light…

Bonfire night. In Britain, it is celebrated on November 5th every year to commemorate the death of Guy Fawkes. He was the conspirator charged with lighting the fuse on the thirty-six barrels of gunpowder secreted in a cellar beneath the Houses of Parliament in 1605.

It was a time of religious intolerance, when politics, power and religion were intimately linked. King Henry VIII had broken with Rome  with the Act of Supremacy in 1534 and for seventy years and through the reigns of the last Tudor monarchs, the pendulum had swung between religious factions. When James VI of Scotland, son of the beheaded Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots, came to the English throne after the death of Elizabeth, the Catholic community hoped for a return of their faith and position. King James made it clear that this would not be the case and a plot was devised to assassinate the king by blowing up the Houses of Parliament during the State Opening when the monarch would be present.

The plot was unmasked and Guy Fawkes found, arrested and tortured. He was not the ringleader…just the man handling the explosives, but he was sentenced to death for treason. To escape being hung, drawn and quartered, he leapt to his death from the scaffold and broke his neck.

And we celebrate this. Until 1959 it was required by law that we celebrate, though the decree was for attendance at church and a giving of thanks.  Today we seldom look beyond the effigy of the ‘guy’ that is burned on bonfires, or the fireworks that are set off to mimic the unexploded barrels.

During my childhood, bonfires were communal affairs. Families or neighbours would come together around a small bonfire, sharing the fireworks and the food prepared by each household. For weeks beforehand the children would have been ‘chumping’… finding wood for the fires… and making the ‘guy’. The effigy would be paraded or taken house to house and pennies would be given that went towards the cost of fireworks. When you think about it, the whole thing is rather gruesome, but the history and its implications were but vaguely known, and deemed of little importance. To us, as children, it was just fun.

Bonfires go back a lot further than Guy Fawkes, though. As far back as the reach of history there have been fires… bonefires, banefires… fires of prophecy, blessing, purification and celebration. Fires to ward off the darkness or welcome the light. Fires that marked the turning of the seasons and the sun-tides. How far back such traditions may go, we do not know, but we do know that fire was used in many of the oldest stone circles as part of whatever ceremonies were performed there.

Those sacred flames brought communities together to bless the cattle, see out the old year and rekindle the new, to celebrate the arrival of spring at Beltane and the promise of its first stirrings in the dark womb of winter. But even within living memory, we have used such fires too as the gathering point for anger, hatred and intolerance. They have been used for the burning of books banned by tyranny and to symbolise the destruction of our human kinship.

I prefer the old ways, when fire brought us together rather than symbolising death, division and destruction.  For day to day needs, we each have a flame, a place of warmth and light, at the centre of our own lives. When we bring those flames together in celebration of something shared by all… like the seasons of the sun… we are building something wider than our own lives, reestablishing community and, in sharing time and laughter with our neighbours, erasing the fear and ignorance that causes intolerance. It doesn’t have to be a bonfire…the heart and the hearth share more than just the letters of their names.

 

Making assumptions

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It wasn’t much, in the greater scheme of things, but I was unaccountably angry. Not much I could do on the far end of a phone, but even so… the incident had hit a tender spot. It wasn’t even my story this time, but, like most people, I have been on the receiving end of it often enough and it never fails to ‘get my goat’. Even worse, I have been as guilty of it as anyone. It is a very difficult flaw to avoid, based, as it is, in some of our oldest instincts for survival.

“You should not judge a book by its cover”… or so the saying goes. In the world, of books, however, we all know that the cover is the first thing you see and the first thing likely to make you pick up a completely unknown tome. Scroll through an online bookstore and you will find yourself dismissing what may be excellent works, simply because the cover does not catch your eye or appeal. If we stop to think about it, we know exactly what we are doing… but we still do it, unconsciously passing judgement based solely on appearances.

Initially I imagine that the snap judgements we make, based largely on visual signals, was a safety mechanism. After all, who wants to get up close and personal with, say, a sabre-toothed tiger, before deciding it might not be very safe after all. You would want a bit of a head start before running, and the sooner you can judge a potential threat, the sooner you can run. We still use the same mechanism for safety today, judging the speed of cars before crossing a road, for example. The physical signals that keep us safe must be acted upon instantly, leaving little or no room for thought.

The mechanism has been extended to people too. There are other signals, some invisible like the sensitivity to olfactory messages so faint as to be undetectable and some are intangible and unquantifiable, like gut reaction and empathy. You usually know when you meet someone who will have an impact on your life, whether they ‘give you the creeps’ or you instantly warm to them. Eventually, your emotions become engaged at some level or another, beginning with reactive emotion, but open to the possibility of higher emotions, just as  unconscious reactions  can be informed by the conscious mind.

Those first, instantaneous judgements are almost involuntary reactions to stimuli perceived. They are made before we have time to bring knowledge, logic or experience to bear on the moment. We are not consciously responsible for the flags that are raised at such times. Where we do have a responsibility is when we then fail to step back and take a look at what we do next.

We are also responsible for those judgements made through prejudice. Often the prejudice itself goes unrecognised, disguised as something it is not, or is hidden beneath ‘good intentions’. It may have its roots in culture, era or personal background…and sometimes it stems from that overweening arrogance that simply feels itself superior to others. Most of the time, we don’t even realise we are doing it, but every time we do, it leads to dismissiveness, distrust or condescension at best.

At worst, it is an expression of racisim, sexism, ageism, classism, intellectual snobbery, disability discrimination… there is an endless list of ‘isms’ and terms for our negative judgements, and the sweeping, inclusive judgements that are allowed to blanket a whole section of the community in our eyes are the worst and most dangerous.

We never meet a community. We meet a person. Even if we are introduced to a whole assembly, we still meet each one as individuals. There is an instant where there is nothing else but that first contact between two people who know nothing at all of each other except what their senses can tell them. We will almost inevitably begin to categorise unconsciously and make certain broad assumptions about each other, based on our knowledge and experience of life, yet those assumptions are very often wide of the mark.

It is just as likely to be the ‘yob’ in scruffy denim and leather that helps a young mum with a pushchair onto a bus, rather than the guy in the business suit. The Rastafarian plumber who shows up to fix a leak is as likely to teach you the true beauty of the human soul as the preacher in his pulpit. It may well be the tramp to whom you give the price of breakfast who gives you the greater gift. And yes, those were lessons learned through experience and each has their own story.

I was angry when I took that phone call because of the assumptions that had been made based on how a person is automatically labelled in the mind of another. The assumptions had doubtless been made with the best of intentions too, but they were wrong, applicable only to the averages within a generic label, not to the individual concerned; a situation easily avoided by the simple expedient of getting to know the individual person beneath the all-encompassing label. Discrimination should be brought to judgement. It isn’t all that difficult to take a moment to look into someone’s eyes, maybe share a smile, and let them open the box of surprises that is another human soul.