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Sacred Reflection: What does it mean to be human?

Sacred Reflection: What does it mean to be human?

Elizabeth Oldfield reflects on Series 6 of The Sacred. 15/03/2023


Hello Sacred listeners, and we have come to the end of another series. It’s probably the most emotional series I can remember us doing. It has been quite a rollercoaster, I’ve been listening back to the eight episodes that we’ve done, and what I really noticed is how bookended this series has been by these really profound conversations with people who are no stranger to the intensity that life can throw at you, through grief, through illness, through a wrestle with what a meaningful life might look like when things go wrong, when your life doesn’t turn out how you expected it to. And it just really kind of highlighted for me how much wisdom and clarity we can find when our lives are interrupted, when they are not just kind of rolling along in our normal, distracted, slightly harassed mode. When we’ve lost someone that we love, like Nick had, like Sean also spoke about, like Clover had. When we have this hideous diagnosis, and suddenly everything about our life is called into question. And I think beyond those two specifics, when we become a parent, or we try and become a parent, and it’s hard, or we long for love, and it’s not happening, a marriage breaks down, you know, we lose a job that we loved… The interrupted moments of life, we very often don’t choose them, and many of them, we’d rather not happen to us, frankly. But they can be these places to reflect on what we want our lives to be about and what our values are, what’s ‘sacred to us’ in my language, and those who can speak about those times and reflect and communicate with the kind of generosity and clarity that Kate, and Clover, and Nick and Seán do are gift to the rest of us. But yeah, heavy, emotionally serious, those episodes on the end. 

In the middle, I was listening to this kind of smorgasbord of voices. There were so many different themes and professions: and education, and American politics, and Marvel movies, and rom coms, and disability. All just in there. And these kind of characters coming through, these beautiful humans, actually. But the thread that kind of came to me is something about: what do we think a human being is? What’s our conception? What’s our anthropology? What’s our kind of theological anthropology, in my language? Do we think humans are people who are kind of neutral/messed up and need forming towards the good? Do we have a kind of more ‘Rousseau vision’ that we are inherently good, but we are vulnerable to the manipulation of narratives or tyrants or stories, kind of powerful actors that we need to resist? And that’s kind of a Katharine Birbalsingh and then a Jared reference. Or like Yoram, do we think that we are kind of not capable, really, of a revolution that brings about a just society, so we just need to work out what is the least worst option for what we have? That of incremental change is all that human beings are capable of? 

You know, do we have a default about what human beings like around race, around background, or around ability? When we say the word ‘human’, what is it that pops into our mind? You know, what are we? What are we carrying around with us? Because that affects our politics, affects our ethics, it affects our community, it affects the kind of people we’re prepared to be seen with or not be seen with. And so, entirely accidentally, this series served a meal of kind of moral profundity and mortality as the bread, and a kind of human anthropology – “What is a person after all?” – as a sandwich filling, and I find it very nourishing. I hope you did to! It wasn’t a snack, I’ll give you that. It wasn’t bubble gum, this series. Although moments of lightness and quite a lot of humour as well. 

I was like looking back and thinking about what people said is sacred to them. And as regular listeners will know, it’s not that I think this is a kind of a rigorous academic exercise. I don’t think most people know what is sacred to them. It’s really just a way of getting us to depth fast, a way of saying, “Well, how do we want to live?” because we don’t get enough time or space to think about that. But they’re still interesting clues and they’re like a little collection, and I’m a collector of people’s sacred values. So Nick said, nature, music and marriage. And music was obviously not, you know, very expected, and nature is one that’s come up before. But marriage, I thought, was really interesting and very beautiful, how he put that. And Seán said community, and echoed what a lot of guests have said about this sense that we’re really losing the ability to be together. Our common life is fracturing and what does it mean to sort of fight for community, to fight for our ability to see each other as fully human. And Clover said this beautiful thing: bravery and honesty, embodied for her in these two kinds of shorthand of poetry and horses. And one of my favourite moments in this series was this tweet that you may have seen by a listener – if it’s you, like, well done! Good self–awareness! Also very funny – who said, “I really didn’t wanna listen to this episode. She’s called Clover. She’s talking about ponies.” As if these were the most off–putting concepts in the world, which pleases me because it just shows the diversity of people who listen. But that that listener did listen, and found something really profound and nourishing in that, which makes my heart happy. And both those first opening up those actually had these real threads of faith and kind of longing for faith and wanting to believe in God. Believing, not believing. Practising, not practising. That liminal space, the shame actually, that we often heap on ourselves, the untangling of cultural stories that needs to happen, as we grow spiritually, as we work out what’s sacred to us, as we work out what we think about God and life and love. And it just made me think how different that experience will be for you depending on what tribe you’re from, and what stories you inherited. And for people like Nick, or maybe people like Clover, shrugging off the shame of wanting a relationship with God and letting yourself want that is part of what growth looks like. And for other people, questioning beliefs they might have inherited and seeing if they are true for them in their life, if they are part of their lived experiences, is part of that. That it does take courage and honesty to sift and to get quiet enough and to ask the questions of the world, and God or the universe, or own hearts, that are relevant to you, in quietness. 

Jared said this lovely thing, which really helped me connect with him: “self recognising self”, which obviously references for me, Martin Buber’s I–Thou, and it was totally a bit of a shift, obviously, from these first two that we’d had. But Jared struck me as someone who is really on that kind of ‘second–half–of–life–shift’ towards a more reflective mode, a more empathetic mode. And I was really left with is a sense that, you know, we didn’t go big on it in the interview, because it’s not easy to listen to, but he is extremely pessimistic about the future. Very, very worried about the rise of fascism and civilizational collapse. And it just made me think. I think we’re all worried about the future in some ways, and very different reasons. So it might be for you that you think a kind of liberal agenda is really undermining the fabric of society and are fearful of it. It might be that you think a conservative agenda is imposing a particular vision of the world, and you’re fearful of that. It might be about serious climate change challenges. It might be about the rise of fascism. It might be all these stories that we tell, and they might be different stories depending on our tribes, but people are fearful about the future for different reasons. What I’m interested in is the people I think like Jared, actually, and like Rupert Reed, or others who I spoke to who have gone: “Right, many feelings arise in me when I think about the future not feeling safe, and feeling scary and feeling like the world might be going in a trajectory that I would not choose.” But the people who can feel the feelings and process them healthily, and then go, “Okay, what can I do? What kind of people are needed? How do I love my neighbour now?” You know, “Where am I useful? How do I stay present? How do I love the people around me?” They’re the people that I’m interested in, and it was just beginning to hear little bits of that in what Jared was saying. 

Tanni – what an amazing woman. Such a breath of fresh air. So lovely, so funny. And her sacred value was the same as Lizzie’s, and it’s the same that Prue Leith said, actually – and every time someone says it, I have to make myself remember that it is radically more profound than it sounds – which is, “treat people like you want to be treated”. Be polite to people. Be kind. Because… it’s not novel, it’s not sexy. It’s not edgy, it’s not got good branding. It fades into the background. We let ourselves believe it’s not important, but that’s a lie. And I think one of my spiritual practices is trying to focus on the things that look like they aren’t interesting until I remember that they’re the most interesting. Because the legacy that you leave on the world if you’re someone who in every interpersonal encounter looks people in the eye, treats them with dignity and warmth, treats them with curiosity, treats them like a whole human being, or a person made an image of God in my language, cumulatively leaves an enormous kind of resonance, and legacy on the world. And you really saw that actually with Tanni. I think Tanni’s doing that all the time. 

Yoram learning from his father and receiving his Jewish heritage. And this struck me as a theme that came out in Yoram and in Katharine: what are we receiving from our ancestors? My friends on the Left and the friends on the Right are talking about their ancestors, and they’re not talking to each other. But, you know, if the future looks scary, what do we have in our hands? What has been passed down? What do we need to recapture? What do we need to receive of our inheritance? And it just really stayed with me. And also Yoram was one of the most lovely people I’ve ever spoken to. He was so polite, and generous and kind and humble, and totally busted my entirely prejudiced associations of Conservative American political commentators as bombastic and kind of ‘hairspray and fake tan’. He was a real delight to engage with. 

Katharine – truth and children, is what she said. This theme was so clear to her: both “what do we pass down”, and also, how do we live intentional lives of meaning? How does she teach her children? How do we all not just be blown about by the wind, but work out what our values are, and then try and live them? Work out what our gifts are, and try and use them in the world. And I really admired that in her, that sort of passion to go: “Don’t get distracted”. You know, “be intentional”, “use what you have”, “engage”. “Engage with your life” was this real strong thing that came through from her. 

And Lizzie – what a sweetheart. What a, just like, gentle, thoughtful woman, telling stories that so many people are hungry to be told. And she is I think the person from this series who has had a public voice or platform for the least amount of time. She’s kind of new to this role, to having an influence in our common life, to be able to shape our common life through the stories that she’s told. So, it was really nice to actually just talk to someone at that stage, as she doesn’t have kind of polished sound bites, she doesn’t have really developed theories or opinions on things. But believe me, she will. She’s going to keep telling stories. She’s going to keep connecting with very large numbers of people, because that’s what rom–coms and commercial fiction do. And I feel really peaceful and positive about that because of the integrity that just shone through from her. 

And then Kate Bowler – and I need to not going on about Kate because I will gush. I have an enormous girl crush on Kate. She is so funny – and her sacred values of tragicomedy and friendship, the kind of bittersweetness of life. And what I was left with, was this impression of someone who has incredibly strong spiritual core strength to balance in the tensions of life. And Kate thought she was going to die when she had a two year old. Not that that makes it worse. And now she’s not immediately going to die, but she’s not cured. And she’s talked about it in other settings as being on the edge of a cliff and then being able to come back like three metres from the cliff edge, but having to pitch a tent there and learn to live three metres from the cliff edge. Oh my goodness, that sounds exhausting, but also the wisdom and the clarity and the courage that she has. Maybe she was always like this, but she has grown through that experience and felt profoundly important to be able to balance in the creative tension of life. You know, it being beautiful and hard. Human beings being capable of intense goodness and excruciating horror. The future being potentially wonderful and potentially terrible and probably both, you know. These binaries that our brain is always looking to be like, “What’s the right answer? What’s the right answer? Yes or no? Black or white?” It feels to me like love says, life says, God says in my language, like,  “Stay on the narrow way.” “Stay in the tension, in the creative tension, and learn to balance there.” And Kate’s really doing that. I really want the spiritual core strength to do that. 

So many people from this series, I feel I’ve learned a huge amount from, and I’m so grateful for them. It’s not nothing to come and talk to some – often – a stranger about your deepest values and be vulnerable. So I’m very grateful for everyone who came on. So grateful for you who have been listening and being part of our community. And I hope to see some of you in April, Wednesday 19th of April, with Oliver Burkeman, at our first Sacred Live in ages in Westminster. If you’re able to come, I so look forward to looking you in the eye and holding, shaking, your hand or whatever you’re comfortable with. But that’s all from this series, and we will be back in the late spring/early summer with our next one. Meanwhile, thank you for listening to The Sacred series reflection. I’m Elizabeth Oldfield, and I’ll speak to you soon. 


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Elizabeth Oldfield

Elizabeth Oldfield

Elizabeth is host of The Sacred podcast. She was Theos’ Director from August 2011 – July 2021. She appears regularly in the media, including BBC One, Sky News, and the World Service, and writing in The Financial Times.

Watch, listen to or read more from Elizabeth Oldfield

Posted 15 March 2023

Faith, Grief, Humanity, Podcast, Politics, The Sacred


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