Monday, 21 July 2014

Daleks never tried to replace their human heart

Do newspaper headlines sometimes get it wrong? Advertisers proclaim “Monster sales”, which mean they are big, cheerful and (hopefully) filled with bargains. Those in charge of the media and also the police, regularly describe violent criminals as “monsters”. So who is right and who is wrong? Can somebody or something be big, harmless and beneficial whilst the same word, applied to wrongdoing, implies that an individual and/or their deeds are intrinsically evil? How can a few bargains on a shop shelf equate with a mass murderer – and yet both are described as monsters?

Then again, how can a mass murderer, King Kong and colourful, misshapen cartoon characters all fit into the same category when one is human, one is described as a “colossal” gorilla and the rest are cute and cuddly? What happens if a mother describes her baby as “a little monster”? Does she really think her child resembles the massive two-ton crocodile caught and photographed in the Philippines or the 15metre-long giant squid found off the coast of New Zealand?

Is this just another example of a word’s meaning depending on its usage being changed so that people are meant to understand its meaning by its context?

One online dictionary definition describes a monster as “a large scary creature in fiction. They are usually found in legends or horror stories. They are often ugly and may make people scared.”

Do you remember the first monster that you ever saw? The earliest that I remember was a Dalek. There might have been earlier monsters, but there was something scary and exciting about the metallic creatures which rolled along the floor, waving something that vaguely resembled a gun barrel and declaring, “Exterminate! Exterminate!” The novelty of the Daleks captivated small children. Suddenly their play areas were dominated by little ones who extended a rigid arm at the level of their nose, clenched their fist and approached their friends with the words, “Exterminate! Exterminate!” As the juvenile would-be Daleks attacked, so their “victims” made weird gurgling noises, clutched their stomachs and, with great melodrama, rolled over and pretended to be dead.

Daleks kill. Daleks are monsters. Therefore monsters kill... Except that an interview with the late Terry Nation, who invented Daleks for the Doctor Who television series, revealed a different story. His creations needed to be of a shape which would allow someone to sit inside its iconic conical casing. Even a monster, it seems, may have a human heart. Even King Kong had moments of vulnerability: he was not totally evil.

We generally think of monsters as dangerous and evil – yet what about the many smiling, friendly cartoon characters which are also called monsters although they are harmless? Somehow, their long teeth, bright colours, multiple eyes and misshapen ears, antennae, hands or feet are not particularly upsetting. It would be hard to imagine them doing anything evil. They are more like children in fancy dress: look inside and there is a mischievous giggle waiting to burst out.

So what happens when there is a man, woman or child who is described as a monster? Do such people not also have their soft spots and moments of innocence? Gilbert and Sullivan once wrote:
“When a felon's not engaged in his employment
Or maturing his felonious little plans
His capacity for innocent enjoyment
Is just as great as any honest man's...”

Problems arise when the word ‘monster’ is applied to a human being. Suddenly that person becomes something other than human, with no redeeming qualities.

To call someone a monster implies that he or she is beyond rescue, can never reform and can never be readmitted to ‘normal’ society. Suddenly such a person is put on the same level as, for instance, the Kraken, a legendary sea monster reputed, since the fourteenth century, to dwell off the coasts of Norway and Greenland. The Kraken can never become a goldfish, peacefully swimming in an aquarium. By contrast, the mother who describes a naughty child as a “little monster” does not intend to say that her little one is beyond hope, personifies evil and can never change. Instead, she sincerely hopes that a nap will transform her fractious toddler into one who is full of smiles and fun.

Might it be more accurate if, instead of attaching a monster label to someone, we were to describe their behaviour as monstrous? There is a difference. Look up “monstrous” in a dictionary. There are at least forty-nine words which describe “monstrous” behaviour in a human being. They include such words as appalling, abhorrent, heinous, evil, wicked, abominable and vile. I suspect that none of us knows somebody to whom all of the forty-nine words apply, even in their worst moments. The dictionary definition of monstrous behaviour implies purpose and a choice which has been made but which could be un-made. There is always room for goodness to slip into someone’s heart: St Paul’s fanaticism made him a very nasty character before he met Jesus on the road to Damascus. By the end of his life, people wept when he said goodbye at the end of a visit!

We have recently seen in the media, the first reaction of a father to the discovery that his son had become a mass-killer. In California, in May of this year, 22 year-old Elliot Rodger murdered six people and then himself. Inevitably, the world’s media had a massive story and collected eyewitness reports, scene of crime photographs, aerial images and the reactions of neighbours, police, public officials and psychiatrists. Several hours of interviews debated the US gun laws and whether or not they should be repealed. It seemed that, once again, a killer and a monster were one and the same thing. Elliot’s film director father, Peter, gave a different picture. "When you go to sleep normally, you have a nightmare and you wake up and everything is ok," he said. "Now I go to sleep, I might have a nice dream and then I wake up and slowly the truth of what happened dawns on me and, you know, that is that my son was a mass murderer... There's no way I thought that this boy could hurt a flea... What I don't get is we didn't see this coming at all." Perhaps the reason is clear: the father saw his son. He did not see a monster. He is a father whose son’s actions broke his heart. Just as the victims’ family life will also never again be the same, so also with him, but his grief will be compounded by guilt and the unanswered, “Why?”

Of course the media will use banner headlines to maximum effect in order to boost sales. The problem is that there will then be a search for an even more dramatic term as an earlier one loses its impact on the general public. Categorising someone as a “monster” declares them as beyond even God’s influence. Once the word becomes banal, what lies beyond it? If “monster” is applied to a fizzy drink, what happens with the latest atrocity perpetrated against innocent people? To be human means engaging in mindfulness, not in mindlessness. We are not pre-programmed robots. 

Even Daleks never tried to replace their human heart beating inside them.

The results of hard work can be spectacular

“I can honestly say that I have never worked a day in my life.” The elderly horticulturalist, standing surrounded by the multicoloured flowers of his garden, gestured towards their loveliness. “How can I say that looking after these flowers is work? It is sheer pleasure. It is for these that I wake up in the morning, hurry to get dressed and have my breakfast so than I can be in the garden as early as possible and for as long as possible. Ever since I was a child I have loved plants and so, as an adult, I do the same sort of things that I did many years ago: I play in the garden. That is why I say that I have never worked a day in my entire life. Planting seeds and watching them grow is not work. Clearing a patch of soil so that it produces flowers is not work. Digging the soil, even when it is hard, is something I did from my earliest years. I do not work: I play - and I play from morning till night.”

Sadly, not everybody finds such joy in their work. For many people across the world, work is drudgery and far below their potential. A lack of education, skills and opportunities limit countless numbers of individuals from finding a worthwhile occupation that will give them peace, happiness and an income adequate to support themselves and their families. In developing countries where subsistence farming alone provides the next meal, people often have time for leisure, but only after backbreaking work with rudimentary tools. A mission doctor working in a remote area of Zambia, for instance, found as a result of her studies that for many of the families for whom she cared, the possession of a bicycle made the difference between subsistence and enough. “Having a bike”, she commented, “means that a member of the household has transport to buy and carry seeds and fertiliser more efficiently than when the only means of leaving the village is on foot. Frequently, the bike is also used, especially during the dry season, to carry water to the field and also to the house. At harvest time, crops can be taken to more distant markets than when they have to be carried in small bundles on the heads and backs of family members. This means that a family can grow some crops for their own use and some as a means of income.”

In countries such as India, where the caste system is often the overriding factor, many occupations are limited by social status. It is extremely difficult, for instance, for an adivasi (a member of an indigenous ethnic group) or a dalit (lowest caste or ‘untouchable’) to progress beyond the most menial occupations.

Yet it is not long ago that, in this country, people from the lower reaches of society were described as “not knowing their station” if they tried to find a better way of life. Even education was limited, so that they would “know their place”. Their “betters” worried lest literacy give them “ideas”. Those who followed the progress of the characters of Downton Abbey will recall the horror of some members of “the family” when a maid wanted to find work as a secretary rather than to continue looking after the people “upstairs”.

Work is a real value of our society. It confers dignity, self-respect, status, interest and provides an income. We expect people to work and earn their living. Even St Paul wrote, “If they will not work, let them not eat”. In times past, much was made of the “deserving and undeserving poor”. Poverty was often seen as culpable. If someone was hard-up, it was their own fault. This attitude led to the establishment of the workhouses where many thousands of impoverished families were consigned when they had no other resources to keep them together. The hard work to which even small children were subjected was slavery. It was no different to the plight of those people who were forcibly transported from their own homes, often to other countries, to work for others for little or no pay. Slavery continues today: witness the current efforts to address issues of human trafficking.

Our society regards employment as of such high value that to be unemployed can be excruciatingly difficult. Of course there are families where laziness and benefits are transmitted from generation to generation, but they are in the minority. To be unable to find work can be totally demoralising for the individual and for the family. That is why we have recently heard that first-year university students begin searching for a job rather than waiting until their final year. Many graduates, even a couple of years after leaving university, have still not found an opening in their chosen field.

Many of us also know the sickening feeling which accompanies the discovery that a job has been terminated, perhaps by redundancy or illness or some other cause. The future becomes a complete unknown and a nightmare as seemingly secure ground slips away. Uncertainty about the future accompanies every waking moment and disturbs every hope of a good night’s sleep.

For some migrants, the laws of their new countries limit their possibilities of making a new life. I well remember a situation in Melbourne many years ago, when a Vietnamese doctor and a psychiatrist could only get jobs as a bus conductor and driver. Having risked their lives as boat people to travel to Australia, the chances of eventually practising their professions depended on their willingness to take up work far below their capabilities for a government-specified period.

The poet and philosopher Kahlil Gibran wrote that, “all work is empty save when there is love”. True, but what about the times when it is only love that enables someone to continue working, day after day, when what they are doing is mindlessly boring and perhaps a cause of great suffering? Is that work “empty” or martyrdom? What happens when those for whom the hours of “hard labour” are spent  do not appreciate such self-sacrifice, determination and perseverance?

Gibran also said that, “When you work with love, you bind yourself to yourself, and to one another, and to God." One’s occupation can be a wonderful way of self-discovery. It can also be an amazing opportunity to find meaning in life through a developing relationship with workmates and with God. It is not surprising that the Psalmist once prayed, “Give success to the work of our hands”.

When Gibran reflected that, “Work is love made visible”, he was speaking of the ideal. Not all of us are as fortunate as the horticulturalist who so loved his occupation that it was like playing. To a certain extent, he was being facetious: he knew full well that to bring his garden to its perfection had required considerable hard work. There were probably days when he would also have preferred to turn over in bed and sleep for another hour. There must have been times when the last things he wanted to see were his gardening tools. Yet his success lay in the fact that he tried, tried and tried again - just like the rest of us - and the results were spectacular.