Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Do people really change?

I’d never been interested in religion. I always saw the church as the bag lady of spirituality, wheeling around a load of old tat for no obvious reason. I preferred a large joint, an available woman or the rush of a career that aimed for the top.
I began in broadcasting, working alongside the young Turks of the 70s such as Kate Adie and Jennie Murray at the BBC in Bristol. But when I found myself lacking in the necessary talent to really make it big, I switched my attention to the dark arts of advertising (more smoke and mirrors to hide behind than in broadcasting), and ended up at Saatchi and Saatchi in the late 1970s.
My long term goals included a Bentley Continental, a large property in the sun, and enough money to use whenever I couldn’t get no satisfaction.
So it is with some surprise that I find myself 30 years later living in a small vicarage in Norfolk working as a vicar with a wife and two young children. I have less money now that at any time in my life, and yet I have never felt richer.
Do people really change? It is a question that still needs a clear answer. But in my case I can see a definite before and after. Before in my flat in Notting Hill Gate, at the Carnival with a party on the balcony overlooking the police barracks in the school below; joints all over the place, the stereo blaring out ‘Let it be’ in the vain hope that we could lessen any potential for violence.
Today making marmalade, while the children plant sunflowers in the garden, ready to show at the Harvest Festival Service.
Where did it all go right?
Well, of course, I had a conversion. First the obligatory trip to the Himalayas, then the Damascus road and ‘seeing the light’ (you really do see light actually!), and finally the dreadful realisation that I was becoming a Christian (a crushing blow to my self image and having the same effect as the bubonic plague on my friends).
Goodbye advertising (in spite of Tim Bell’s attempts to appeal to my sanity), hello Jesus.
Do I regret it? Not a moment of it. Someone the other day accused me of being content. And I had to own up to it. Gone was the ravenous black hole of need that consumed anything in its wake: drugs, drink, women, cars, music, shopping, holidays, and acclaim. Anything that promised to satisfy, but never did. And in the place of ‘getting what you want’, was ‘wanting what you get’.
Albert Einstein was once asked “What is the most important question you can ask of life?” and he answered ,“The most important question you could ask would be “Is the universe a friendly place or not?” Being able to answer ‘yes’ to that question changes everything. You are no longer fighting life, you are working with it. You may have various problems and issues, but if the universe is a friendly place and you cooperate with it, then what was previously dysfunctional becomes ordered.
A Buddhist friend once told me that the purpose of practicing Buddhism was to live life more skilfully. Somehow I had stumbled upon a way of doing that – God knows how.
When you accept that the circumstances of your life are in some way the means you have for transforming yourself, rather than something you have to fight against, everything becomes a lot easier.
It didn’t all happen at once, but gradually I noticed how I was less driven, and appreciated what came my way more. True, I lost most of my old friends and ran out of money, but I gradually began to recover my love of life. I was happier with less.
Accepted as a priest in the Church of England I went to train at Durham University. Finding myself slightly pissed at a Fresher’s fair at the age of 40 was very liberating. I joined ‘dramsoc’, acted in Romeo and Juliet, began reading the Guardian in Cafés and was elected President of the college. It was as if I was starting adult life over again and I was being given a second shot at it.
I met my wife in my first parish and married after 46 years of being single (Kingsley Amis once said the male libido was like being chained to a lunatic for 50 years). I have never been happier.
I do experience being a changed person. Deep down I am of course the same, but it is the way I have learnt to negotiate my way through life that has changed.
Someone once said that after 30 a man has nothing to learn from success, but everything to learn from failure. I think I know what they mean now.

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