The small private acts of life

I mentioned Mobi Ho’s introduction to his translation of Thich Nhat Hanh’s The Miracle of Mindfulness in my last blog.

Thich Nhat Han suggested to Mobi that he do the translation slowly and steadily, in order to maintain mindfulness. And he translated just two pages a day. Translating a text such as this is of course rather different from typical daily life. But it is a reminder to give our full focus, our full mind, to each task, however trivial.

It would be good advice for writing a blog.

But what of life on a public – on a world – stage, the other side of life? There could hardly be a greater contrast than that between the conflict in Syria and the focused and private attention given to a translation – or any private activity.

I’m reminded again of that building in Syria used down the centuries as both a church and a mosque.

What we’ve lost in Syria is a way of life which held Christian and Muslim together. It may be a decade, or decades, before we can bring them together again, in a way where they can share again the small (and all-important) private acts of life.

We must hope it will not be forever. History tells us it so easily could be.

Compassion and conflict

This is a longer blog than I would wish. But the subject doesn’t allow of anything else.

I’ve been reading the early pages of Richard Flanagan’s novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, about the brutal skirmishes between British and Vichy France troops in 1941, with Palmyra and Tripoli both figuring in the conflict. It brings home again how key down the centuries Syria has been, as a pivotal territory in the battles between countries and empires. And how, until recently, Aleppo and Palmyra had survived.

The Australian troops who came out of Syria alive then found themselves Japanese POWs after the fall of Singapore, suffering a different and sadistic brutality – the main theme of course of the novel.

On another tack …back in the 1960s Thich Nhat Hanh founded the School of Youth for Social Service in South Vietnam. It ‘drew young people deeply committed to acting in a spirit of compassion’.  They refused to support either side in the Vietnamese conflict and ‘believed that… the true enemies were not people but ideology, hatred and ignorance’. Several were kidnapped and murdered. (Quotes from Mobi Ho’s introduction to Thich Nhat Hanh’s The Miracle of Mindfulness.)

The juxtaposition of these two conflicts in not intended to draw out any comparisons. In Vietnam the School was at least able to function, at a sometimes terrible cost. Syria in 1941 and today is a different and terrible kind of all-out conflict.

But compassion – is there any room for compassion in conflict? The battle in Syria is a battle for a way of life, against a perverted ideology. The practice of compassion is such circumstances is a mighty challenge. But compassion, and specifically the saving of life, must come before any desire or insistence on retribution or punishment. If in this case there is scope for working with the Assad regime – not an easy case to argue – and by extension with Iran, and also with Russia, then we should do so.

The PM in the House of Commons today spoke of Assad ‘butchering his own people’. Even so, treating with the Assad regime, and bringing to an end one conflict, may be the only way in which we can focus on IS and Al-Qaeda, with whom we can never treat. I’m sure this is already being discussed behind the scenes: it will take extraordinary diplomacy to achieve.

We should not delay. I read today that an Al-Qaeda-related group has seized a strategic airfield in Syria near Idlib. The momentum is still moving in the wrong direction.

Jeremy Corbin – the future?

Enough now to say that I supported Michael Foot 35 years ago, and realised my mistake.

I love the idea of Jeremy Corbin. The socialist, the rebel, supporter of the disadvantaged and the outsider, a rallying-point for opponents of austerity. But his solutions of another time, not least nationalisation, soft on Europe, careless in his national (certain trade union leaders) and international friends (for example, Hugo Chavez) – to be of the left is a sufficient credential. He’s rowing back toward the centre now that the leadership is within his grasp. How he copes if elected, how much he accommodates, how, come the Labour Party conference, he copes as the new leader – that will all be telling.

Debate, passion, moral purpose – they are all there in the Labour leadership debate. And a remarkable level of sanity and even camaraderie in the face of big differences of point of view.

What there will need to be if Corbin is leader is a hard realism as well as the passion. History is littered with unintended consequences. Without that hard realism Labour will fragment and we will be left without an effective opposition. No longer do we have the LibDems holding the Tories in check. Labour could easily – I fear probably will – score a spectacular own goal.

By the rivers of Babylon

The second day of September, the rain has relented, it’s 7am and the sun is shining, and down by the Thames the Canada geese have gathered, and I have as usual to navigate my way around both them and their droppings. The perils of running.

All so peaceful, though I can hear a gentle sloshing from the river if I stop beneath the big sycamore, and listen.

I run back into traffic, and a little bit of civilisation, although schools are still not back, and the roads still have a hangover August holiday calm.

I think of Sangatte, and the migrant crisis further afield in Europe as I head back home. Good fortune hardly describes my situation. We rejoiced so much in the Arab Spring, and it’s turned out to be the last and terrible throw of the neo-con mentality, where we assume that our western democratic ways are somehow inevitable, that history is pre-determined. I trust we will never think or feel or argue that way again.  It may be the highest aspiration of mankind, but the wholly unnecessary and unpredicted fate of Syria, visited on Aleppo, on Homs, on Palmyra, and the open channels for migrants through Libya, remind us that we meddle at our peril. We may affect to dislike the el-Sisi regime in Egypt, but we know it will serve a purpose in the end. Syria was on a slow irregular and tortured path before 2011, but it was stable, and the old country survived alongside the new middle classes in the cities.

I will read again William Dalrymple’s description of traveling through Syria in From My Holy Mountain. The image of a building shared as a place of worship by Christian and Muslim communities stays in my mind. And there was Palmyra to visit, a place of wonder.

Sometimes I run quietly and enjoy the silence and, God willing, the sunshine. On other days the thoughts come flooding in.