The Money Trap – Why politicians’ pay should not be attractive

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In the news this week there is much furore over the issue of MPs being awarded a potential £10,000 pay rise. This at a time of major cuts and austerity across public services in a drive to reduce the national debt.

As their current salary stands at £66,396, MPs already earn nearly £40,000 above the national average, and with a plethora of perks – such as travel expenses and an additional residence in London – it would seem that a career in politics is quite an attractive option.

Which is exactly what we don’t want.

We need the right calibre of people going in to politics, to lead the country well and to make the decisions which benefit us all. Those with noble intentions and worthy characteristics such as integrity, wisdom, diligence and a genuine concern for their constituents. Those who are more concerned with doing the right thing than obsessing over their public image or the desire to climb the political ladder. MPs who will follow their convictions rather than the party whip; who will speak their minds rather than contrived political sound bites.

Thankfully, we still have some such politicians, though I fear they are becoming a minority.

What kind of leaders will govern us from Parliament if an MP’s salary becomes around two and a half times that of a teacher? (Teacher earning approx 31k in inner London after a few years.) Unfortunately, corruption and cockiness spring to mind.

Perhaps MPs should consider drastically reducing their pay to match that of teachers and nurses – those who generally go into the profession for commendable motives, and who want to make a difference.

It seems that now would be a good time to start a major shake-up in British politics if the government is to revive any widespread trust and hope in their leadership.

Of course, MPs deserve a decent salary. But it shouldn’t draw in those merely looking to carve out a career and a name for themselves. We’re getting tired of spin and shame in politics – across all parties and persuasions. In order to restore faith in our political system, measures must be taken to ensure that the quality of candidates applying for the job matches our expectations for the role. Those seeking monetary gain or fame need not apply.

ETA: A few days on, and now we read of MPs and Cabinet ministers claiming additional expenses for their children (housing and travel).

Resisting pigeonholes in social media…

pigeonhole

You know when you’re a kid and you have very fixed ideas about what type of music you like, and it doesn’t include a broad range of styles? And then you grow up and realise there are myriad sounds and genres you appreciate, depending on your mood or the occasion. You’ve learned to expand your musical tastes, and in doing so have opened the door to relating to an eclectic mix of people whom you would previously have overlooked.

Well, online it often still feels as if you’re back in school again. Without saying it outright, you get the vibe on social media that people want you to declare your affiliations for things… From religion to politics, education, feminism, culture. There’s nothing inherently backward or sinister about this; we all like to find out what we have in common with those we meet online. We all feel emotionally bolstered when others agree with us.

Yet, one aspect I particularly enjoy about networks such as Twitter is engaging with those who don’t share my preferences and inclinations. It makes for interesting online engagement; I wouldn’t want to only follow writers and teachers. Neither do I revel in drawn out arguments or furiously trying to prove a point. (Certainly not in copious series of 140 character tweets, anyway.)

That’s not to say that I shy away from disagreements, rather that I like to keep it simple and civil. Proving a point or persuading a crowd is not the prime purpose of my online presence. In fact I can think of nothing worse than feeling compelled to constantly justify myself or contradict others on a daily basis.

And maybe that’s why I struggle to fit in at times. I see elements I like among both left & right wing supporters, among both feminists & complementarians. I warm to both working mothers and homeschooling families, and a plethora of other socio-economic groups in between. I was brought up to mingle with all types and classes of people – something for which I am forever grateful.

I find it tricky to commit wholeheartedly to anything other than my faith. That is the one non negotiable, yet even then there are disparate views among Christians. I obviously hold my own strong convictions in this regard. But just because I disagree with you doesn’t mean we can’t get along. Wouldn’t it be so boring if we only engaged with a bunch of people whose thought processes were identikit versions of ours?

Undoubtedly, I value elements or aspects of a variety of organisations and ideologies. I just don’t see why I should be pigeonholed, or squeezed into a certain mould. And, who knows, I might actually learn something, change my mind about something or see things in a different light.

I’m open to ideas and thoughts and solutions. I’m open minded – yes, and a Christian! The two are not mutually exclusive.

Maybe we could simply agree to disagree sometimes? Oh, and I won’t unfollow you for being totally different to me. I love variety, and what better variety can one find than in the human species?

The Women of Woolwich – Let’s hear it for the women…

Ingrid Loyau-Kennett remonstrating with one of the killers

Upon reading the incredible stories of women who shielded the soldier’s body and who engaged with the barbaric individuals who enacted yesterday’s atrocity, I can’t help but draw parallels with the brave and valiant women who stayed to watch Jesus at the crucifixion, refusing to let him die without friends and family close by, and those who were also the first to rush to the burial scene on Easter morning.

What incredible displays of courage shown in both instances. Women, undeterred by bloody scenes of absolute horror. Women, refusing to walk away but standing their ground to show defiance against evil and solidarity with the subject of unfathomable violence.

The Cub Scout leader, who calmly remonstrated with the cold blooded murderer on the streets of Woolwich, unflinchingly drawing near to the crazed men brandishing bloodied weapons, is a wonderful reflection of utter selflessness and lack of fear. The woman, a 48 yr old mother from Cornwall, thought only of distracting the perpetrators from inflicting further atrocities and protecting others. She showed no concern for her own safety, thinking primarily of innocent bystanders and children who would be leaving school.

What an amazing, totally inspiring display of calm courage. What absolute evidence of humanity at its finest, unwilling to let evil triumph unquestioned. Without any formal training or suitable qualifications, this one woman succeeded in redeeming hope in a hopeless situation. She epitomises fearlessness and true strength, without having any chance of reaching for a weapon in self defence.

And what about the woman pictured seated in the road beside the fallen soldier, praying over him? She thought nothing of entering this horrific crime scene to honour the dead soldier and pray over his mutilated body. In place of murderous violations of a human being, she brought peace and showed the ultimate display of compassion and care. She could not revive the man; it was already too late. But she did that which she could: namely publically mourn over loss of life, showing her respect and thus mirroring the love of a mother – an unrelenting, exuberant, undeterred love. This one action reflected the unconditional love of our Father God.

In response to this abominable tragedy, let’s hear it for the women! The women such as these in Woolwich, who, while going about their daily lives, chose to defy evil and stand up for the helpless. Countless other women across the globe likewise refuse to stand back and be silent, or run off in dismay. Think of the teachers who comforted and shielded the defenceless, frightened children in their care at the Plaza Towers Elementary School in Moore, Oklahoma, as a raging tornado brought down the school around them. They too acted in loco parentis where parents could not be beside their children.

Such are the women who refuse to allow their culture, their community or their nation be destroyed by acts of terror or disaster. Such are the women who fight for change or stand up to bullies. Even sadistic bullies carrying multiple weapons, with hands dripping blood.

This is one instance where medals should surely be awarded, even though they are not sought. On that fateful street in Woolwich those women were not seeking acclaim or fame. They gave no ostentatious speeches and didn’t attempt to seek reward for their actions. No, rather they demonstrated pure, unadulterated courage. What an inspiration in such dire and highly dangerous circumstances.

Let’s hear it for the women: fearless, compassionate, pursuers of peace. Oh, how we should commend their incredible compassion and feats of bravery.

A Cluttered Mind…

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As I looked back on the day, I realised that I had barely had the chance to gather my thoughts and was shocked at how unproductive I had been. It wasn’t a question of time – I certainly had moments throughout the day where I could have focussed on writing. But that was the problem – I couldn’t focus. Demands, distractions and concerns consumed me, and I realised my mind was out of sorts – cluttered.  I wouldn’t be able to concentrate on anything else. It became obvious that:

A cluttered mind…

  • stifles creativity
  • confuses thought
  • thwarts plans
  • delays action
  • minimises success

A cluttered mind may also overwhelm or depress you.

How to de-clutter and refresh your mind?

  • unplug technology
  • walk among nature
  • listen carefully
  • breathe in beauty

Music may also provide a positive backdrop to encourage clarity.

Once in a while we could all benefit from calm and walking away from the chaos.

A quote from the Bible: “But you should keep a clear mind in every situation.” (2 Timothy 4:5, New Living Translation)

The Huhne Effect: What parents can learn from one man’s fall from grace

My older sons have yet to enter the world of serious texters, those who fire off dozens of messages, questions or inane thoughts every day. Despite owning mobile phones for quite some time now, the allure of being in constant contact with anyone, not least me, hasn’t quite taken off. This may be in part due to the fact that the phones generally get left at home and partly because they’ve yet to be enamoured by girls seeking their attention. Playing games on their iPod Touches still seems to be the preferred digital activity. So, for the time being anyway, our conversations or disagreements take place largely in person. (And I dread the thought of every exchange between me and an irate son being forever put to print.)

One thing’s for sure. Most parents in Britain will have learned a thing or two from the disclosure of texts between disgraced politician Chris Huhne and his teenage son, Peter. Most will have reeled in shock at the blatant hatred and profanity contained within Peter’s messages or cringed at the sheer extent of insults contained within his words. Teenagers aren’t known for thinking before expressing their opinion; texts are no different in this respect.

The personal exchanges between a bitter son and his errant father are poignant, for they reveal the extent to which a child can feel deeply hurt and let down by their parent’s actions. The words chosen by Peter reflect a sense of utter betrayal, while the pleas of desperation for his father to come clean show how much children can possess a strong sense of justice concerning wrongdoing (if they have been brought up within any strong moral framework). To witness a parent stoop so low morally has long-lasting, devastating effects on a child and we gain painful insight into the massive effort that will be needed to restore some semblance of a relationship once such damage has been inflicted.

Despite Huhne’s catalogue of indiscretions, most parents will feel a tinge of compassion for the man considering the dire circumstances in which he now finds himself. For we, too, are fallible. Hopefully not wilfully deceitful and law-breaking as in Huhne’s case; but we know we fail at parenting sometimes, too, and that our children can be easily disappointed by our inability to live up to their expectations of what constitutes a perfect parent.

In Huhne’s favour lies the obvious expression of patience and love for his son, speaking kindly even in the face of such vitriolic outbursts from his own flesh and blood.  And so a parent should rightly respond; we are the grownups, the ones supposedly capable of rational, measured responses. We also see the bigger picture – a future in which the ties between us and our child remain, no matter what may have come between them. Nothing is worth severing that bond – and perhaps we should all consider the consequences of our actions beforehand instead of trying to repair damage afterwards.

In putting forth his point of view calmly and not ceasing to write genuine messages of care, Huhne may well have demonstrated his one major saving grace in this debacle in the public eye: that of an unrelenting, loving parent. In doing so, he has also unwittingly reflected the father heart of God, who never ceases to love his children, despite their flaws and angry rants. Unlike Huhne, though, God is a faithful, perfect father who never lies to his children. God remains committed to us, even when we’re verging on losing faith or feel wounded by what’s been allowed to occur in our lives. He never stops loving us, but continues to extend his compassion and grace. How comforting to know that God’s words to us can always be trusted, since he is wholly infallible and good.

For all the furore surrounding this very public family breakdown, I would hope that all parents glean something positive from this story, including the value of both personal and professional integrity.

The Perils of Procrastination

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Image: Vilseskogen, Creative Commons

I’m sitting here writing because the mood has struck yet I’m painfully aware that I have a couple of deadlines to meet – namely long schools presentations that I must have nailed to near perfection for rehearsals next week. For the last few weeks, they’ve been on my radar, the paperwork imploring me to get to it and learn it. I’ve done all sorts of other preparation – highlighting, creating prompt cards, recording the presentations on my phone – but the main thrust of the task exists in staring at those cards and reciting them ad nauseam until the words flow effortlessly from my tongue.

But I keep procrastinating, finding other activities and jobs to do – whether folding laundry (which for a family of five is an almost never-ending task), planning future events, writing or lurking on Twitter. Incoming phone calls have been allowed to linger for longer than usual and distractions from the children have been strangely welcomed – anything to avoid getting down to learning those texts.

You’d think I would have learnt by now that it’s good to complete tasks way before deadlines. I’ve experienced the dread of getting a 10,000 word final year dissertation complete (in German, even more terrifying) – and realising the foolishness of not pacing myself.  I’ve panicked after staying up to ungodly hours to get lesson plans done for an observation or inspection, all the while chiding myself for not getting them sorted at least a week before. I’ve cringed with embarrassment at the naff Valentines card I bought my husband one year, when we were living in New York City and I put off looking for one until late afternoon on the 13th. There are no major supermarkets stuffed full of Hallmark in central Manhattan; the shelves of all the bookstores and local shops were alarmingly bereft of suitable cards by 4.30pm. Why did I even leave it so late? (Admittedly there are a million and one distractions in NYC, and we hadn’t been there long so I was still finding my way around, searching for apartments and sorting out admin for the start of our expat life. Making a card was not an option, as we were staying in a hotel.)

Anyway, you get the idea. I’ve definitely been a pro at procrastinating. I started to change tack in the last few years when I realised how much stress could be avoided by getting things done way in advance of deadlines. Having children with unpredictable crises now and again (such as throwing up all night) taught me that I cannot rely on living my life last minute. I think much of this has to do with how one was brought up – and, yes, my parents were equally haphazard with timing, often rushing everywhere and leaving things ‘til the last minute.

Procrastination causes unnecessary stress. Which in turn makes you grumpy to those around who have to endure your panicked tirades about what you desperately must get done before it’s too late. It also turns every event – even joyful ones such as a family get-together – into far from joyful occasions. Instead of being free to enjoy such a date, you’re hurried and in a flap over all the things you need to organise because they’ve been put off until they absolutely had to be done. If you’re a procrastinator, you’re constantly running two steps behind, never really at ease with being in the moment. You can’t relax. And here’s the irony – all the time you spend putting things off, your thoughts are still constantly invaded by the task. You end up spending far more mind and soul energy on the task than you would have done if you just got to it earlier. I decided that the habit had to be broken.

How? Simply by being ruthless. Almost imagining that a deadline is in fact several days or weeks earlier and putting it at the top of a list of priorities, rather than letting it be pushed aside in favour of other events and distractions. For less major occasions and dates, this still involves making sure that everything is ready so that you can leave the house in good time. (I’m still learning this one. At the weekend, I felt quite smug about turning up on time at a restaurant to meet friends, only to soon discover that I was at the wrong restaurant! Thankfully, I was still within the time frame, as I had left in good time and could get to the correct one before they had seated). ‘Be prepared’ is a worthy motto, not just for Scouts, I’ve learned.

The result? Life is more peaceful, and you feel ready for the task at hand. Instead of constantly thinking: ‘I could have done that so much better if I’d just had a little more time’, you feel content that you have given something your best shot and secure in the knowledge that you are not letting others down. So to any other procrastinators out there, all I can say is – stop labelling yourself and decide to turn away from this frightful habit. And when procrastination tries to wrangle its way back into your daily pattern, use every ounce of strength to show it the door. The stress relief will be oh so worth it.

And with that thought, I’m off to learn those scripts…

Why we’re not meant to be happy…

Photo credit: Jeephead, Creative Commons

Photo credit: Jeephead, Creative Commons

Our culture is obsessed with the attainment of happiness. There are books, articles and movies which focus on how to find it, while the word is forever inscribed in the American constitution as one of its core features. Yes, the pursuit of happiness has surely been a hot topic since generations past.

Parents are often quoted as saying that the one thing they want for their children above all others, is happiness. It seems a reasonable thing to which one should aspire. Surely everyone has a right to find happiness in life?

So why then have I become convinced that we’ve been sorely misguided and that, in actual fact, we’re not meant to be happy?

Before you shout at the screen and determine that I’ve temporarily lost a few marbles, hear me out for just a couple of minutes.

Maybe I should begin by clarifying what I am not saying…
I’m not saying we shouldn’t engage in activities or pursue relationships that we love or enjoy, or make us feel happy.

I’m not saying we should be miserable in life and complain all the time.

I’m not saying we should sacrifice any and everything to only serve others and make them happy.

What I do believe is that there are seasons in life, times that fluctuate from great excitement to times of sadness or disappointment. To experience a range of human emotion is to be accepted as part of life and is built into our psyche; it’s good for us. Both the highs and lows of our lives bind us together with those with whom we share our souls. The highs would not be so precious if we had not also succumbed to the raging hardships of lows. How else could we possibly understand what others are going through if we only ever experienced elation?

To imagine that we should possibly feel happy all the time is verging on ludicrous. Even if all our desires and wishes were to come true, sooner or later we would experience loss – whether from death, or from separation (a friend or loved one moving on to pursue their happiness).

Research has shown that many grand lottery winners are not happier several years later. They have accrued everything they could ever want, been overwhelmed by luxury, and still they are unhappy about certain turn of events – such as loss of community or their former job. Many of them hanker after their old, simple life. It was less complicated then.*

As many have said before, I also would agree that joy and contentment are different entities. Despite a torrent of misfortune and negative life occurrences it is possible to choose to focus on a few good things and remain joyful or content with one’s lot. There’s always something to be thankful for.

The reason I’m convinced we are not meant to be in a perpetual state of happiness is this: We would cease aspiring to anything and we would achieve nothing of lasting legacy.

Imagine if William Wilberforce had been happy with the political status and standing in the community he had attained. Imagine if Michael Angelo had been happy to paint just one corner of the Sistine Chapel ceiling. It’s precisely our unhappiness, our dissatisfaction with the way things are, that compels us into action and to pursue change in the situations around us. It’s in our time of discontent that we can be stirred to make a difference. It’s those who cannot sit back and revel in their wealth who go on to fight poverty, it’s those who see injustice and cannot rest oblivious in that knowledge who go on to help rescue those in dire need.

Even in our personal lives, unhappiness serves a purpose. When we are aware that our relationships are lacking or that our time is being frittered away on minor matters, we can heed that inner voice, that inner dissatisfaction and cause it to kick start change and remedy those areas which need attention. It’s unhappiness that also drives ambition, which has caused many a tea lady or busboy to reject their default station in life and work their way up the ranks of a company. It’s the years of being hard up that often motivate a young person to work hard and achieve more.

Unhappiness – or perhaps ‘restlessness’ might be a better word –  is good for us, as long as it drives us to take action and make stepping stones of change. Only if we wallow in unhappiness will we regress and find ourselves pulled down into a pit of despair, causing us to go round in circles of mediocrity or spin in whirlwinds of negativity. There’s always something of value to aspire to, always a way we can turn a negative state into something positive. Often, all it takes is an acknowledgement that we can be part of a greater solution, that we then begin to focus on the bigger picture and are able to envision our future role in the world around us.

I’m reading a great book by Nick Vujicic at the moment, the motivational speaker who has no arms or legs. In Unstoppable he quotes Frederick Douglas, the American slave turned social activist, who said, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.” It struck me how we all make progress as a result of overcoming difficulty – difficulty, which at the time made us feel pretty unhappy.

Next time you feel unhappy, ask yourself what you could be a part of to effect major change. There are situations you’ve endured that have led you precisely to this point. Your experience might prove invaluable to a life changing movement or could propel you into a key role. If nothing else, your character has been shaped and developed as a result of the tough times. Character doesn’t tend to be developed during seasons of happiness.

If Jesus had been happy sitting around having tea at Mary and Martha’s or helping his friends reel in big catches of fish all day, he would not have got riled up about the Pharisees’ hypocrisy or driven out the money changers in the temple. He could have relaxed on the sea of Galilee  telling stories for the rest of his life. Instead, Jesus didn’t settle in one place; he was led to different towns where he could affect and influence different crowds. He didn’t shy away from challenging people or situations.

Maybe we are supposed to get upset or deeply uncomfortable about some things affecting our world. Perhaps we should consciously stir our unhappiness towards something productive or worth changing. In that way we can actually be the conduit of good news to others, making a positive difference in the lives and circumstances around us. I, for one, want to be an active participant in making my life count for something. And if that means that I’m frequently in a state of restlessness, so be it.

*See this article about unhappy lottery winners.