Maybe You Are Asking The Wrong Questions?

“Monsters exist, but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are the common men, the functionaries ready to believe and to act without asking questions.”
– Primo Levi (Holocaust Survivor) –

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Primo Levi did not consider himself a hero for surviving Auschwitz. Like other survivors, he had seen and experienced too much. He was one of only 700 survivors of more than 7,000 Italian Jews who had been deported to concentration camps during the Nazi regime. Upon his release in 1945, he began writing about his experiences. In a heartbreaking interview he reflects on the cost of not asking questions and of doing as you are told without really understanding. In Nazi Germany, the cost was millions of lives. Shutting his mouth, his eyes, and his ears, the typical German citizen built for himself the illusion of not knowing, hence of not being an accomplice to the things taking place in front of his very door.”

Questions are dangerous things. To question means that we are prepared to engage in the risky task of letting go of what we thought we knew and to admit not knowing. Perhaps that’s why ego is one of the great barriers to questions. In a society that often prides itself in the pretense of knowledge, questioning has fallen out of favour. We no longer see the value of questions or we have been told to avoid them (such as in some cult or extremist religions). Yet questions are the key to innovation and growth. Questions can change our world. Never stop asking questions.

Not only do we need to learn to question again, we also need to consider changing our questions. If our life decisions and choices are consistently detrimental to our well-being, then perhaps the problem is the lack of questions prior to making these decisions? Or maybe we are asking the wrong questions? This was the advice from one of my favourite high school teachers. He seldom provided answers when I was stuck in the complexity of learning. Rather, he would challenge me to ask different questions. Most of the time it was the uncomfortable process of stepping out of a pre-set paradigm in order to ask those questions that then provided brilliant answers. Claude Levi-Strauss says, “The scientist is not a person who gives the right answers, he is the one who asks the right questions.

Social change, transformation, innovation and the growth of companies and industry has often been the result of a single question. For example, “Why can’t I have the photo immediately,” was the question of a 3-year-old to her father, Edwin Land. The result of that question was the invention of the polaroid camera. “A beautiful question is an ambitious yet actionable question that can begin to shift the way we perceive or think about something – and that might serve as a catalyst to bring about change,” writes Warren Berger in his excellent book, “A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas.” But like Primo Levi points out, often we are conditioned not to question – and that has to do with power.

Berger writes, “To encourage or even allow questions is to cede power.” If you take a look around you at social, religious or political settings that are dying and filled with fear you will find a common denominator – they have shut down questions a long time ago! If you are employed in a workspace or living in some form of community that treats questions with fear and paranoia, you will be unable to live authentically and you will stop growing. Questions are the fertiliser for the seeds that lie dormant in your heart.

So, friend, what are you facing right now that needs a new set of questions? What are you afraid of right now that needs you to let go of the safe harbour of certainty so you can go into the uncharted waters of questions? Where are you gagged right now from asking questions? Why are you allowing that setting to silence you? Not to question preserves the status quo. It is time for beautiful questions and to allow your inquiry to unsettle assumptions, a sense of ‘stuckness’, and of fear … it is time to grow! Ask!

“Are we too enthralled with answers? Are we afraid of questions, especially those that linger too long?”
– Stuart Firestein –

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Acid Rain? Clean Up Your Life

“Whether we and our politicians know it or not, Nature is party to all our deals and decisions, and she has more votes, a longer memory, and a sterner sense of justice than we do.”
– Wendell Berry –

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Just a few weeks ago my partner and I paused on our hike and admired the beautiful Black Forest near Triberg in Germany. We had reached a high point in the trek and could see the dark, majestic trees covering miles of rolling hills. With a clear blue sky above and the warmth of a late summer, it was as mystical and magical as all the story books lead us to believe. However, this was not always the case. All of Germany’s forests, especially the Black Forest, were in serious decline in the 1980’s … and they are not out of the woods yet (never miss an opportunity for a well-placed pun!) … the reason? Acid Rain.

Acid rain is the wet and dry deposits that come from the atmosphere and contain more than the normal amount of nitric and sulphuric acids. They cause the rain to become acidic in nature, mainly because of environmental pollutants from cars and industrial processes. Decaying vegetation, wildfires and biological processes also generate acid rain forming gases, but human activity leading to chemical gas emissions such as sulphur and nitrogen, are the primary contributors.

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The result of acid rain? Acid rain accumulates in water and changes the pH level that certain plants and fish need to survive and breed. A reduction in biodiversity is one of the many effects. It destroys forests as they become vulnerable to disease, extreme weather, and insects. Soil composition is altered and destroyed, sensitive micro-organisms are killed. This has a direct impact on other vegetation which becomes stunted and dies. Also, architecture, especially buildings made of limestone, corrode and are destroyed. In short: Acid Rain is a disaster. You can read more about this environmental disaster on the Conserve Energy Future web site.

Recovery has been slow. Government solutions have been varied and there is a focus on seeking alternative energy sources. Eco-systems are slowly being restored. The severity of this disaster still eludes so many – especially if we do not recognise that Mother Nature, although patient, kind and long-suffering, is definitely not indestructible. Everyone has to play a part. Acid rain ultimately affects all of us.

So we carry an environmental responsibility in our wider world, but what about our personal lives? Noticed any effects of acid rain lately? Deposits of toxic pollutants that are killing you? Perhaps it is a relationship that has become dysfunctional, but you have put up with it for so long you no longer notice how it has stripped your soul? Maybe it is a barrage of poisonous words that have been levelled at you with sniper precision when you were least expecting or prepared? Or maybe it is the refusal to look at your own shadow, acknowledging the pain or wound that is hurting not just you, but the environment you exist in? Perhaps it is your relentless schedule, your inability to say “No”, or your addiction to pleasing others? Maybe it’s time to seek an alternative way of life?

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Friends, the sad phenomenon of acid rain is a reality that, whether we know it or not, like it or not, affects our world. We are all consumers. We are all responsible to live in a way that leaves no heavy footprints. In an “I-Need-This-Stuff” world this is no small feat. We are also responsible for the energy we use in our own lives and relationships. This becomes very confronting when there is toxicity in our close relationships. Acknowledgement is the first step. A healthier space is not created overnight because often it has to do with an embedded way of relating or thinking. It takes courage, recognition and a refusal to be resigned to an environment that is killing us.

Acid Rain in your life? Time for action. Take the first step. Be Brave!

“Toxic relationships are dangerous to your health; they will literally kill you. Stress shortens your lifespan. Even a broken heart can kill you. There is an undeniable mind-body connection … Don’t carve a roadmap of pain into the sweet wrinkles on your face. Don’t lay in the quiet with your heart pounding like a trapped, frightened creature. For your own precious and beautiful life, and for those around you — seek help or get out before it is too late. This is your wake-up call!”
– Bryan McGill –

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What The Sea Teaches Us

“Listening through the heart is not something you must learn to do. It is something you need only reclaim and remember.”
– Stephanie Dowrick –

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I loved going to the sea ever since I can remember. In Germany it was the chilly harbours along the North Sea. The fishermen would sit there like a line of dominoes on the freezing cement curbs, their buckets filled with a variety of sole, mackerel, cod or whiting, while their cigarettes created a hazy cloud above their heads.

When we moved to South Africa we would use our weekends to visit Durban’s magnificent Indian Ocean. I have a distinct memory of my father and I enjoying the huge waves before being told off by the lifeguard. As newly arrived immigrants we did not understand a word that this bad-tempered, red-faced man was saying to us until he pointed to the rather obvious warning sign displaying a giant shark. Apparently, we were swimming in unprotected water and had thereby become tantalising human bait.

Since moving to Australia over three decades ago, I have never failed to appreciate the beautiful beaches of this fair isle. I have spent many hours walking the Mornington and Bellarine Peninsulas in Melbourne. The Sunshine Coast here in Queensland, however, has to take the prize for some of the most breathtaking beaches I have ever seen. And there is something so therapeutic about walking on their shores.

The sea teaches us many things. One of them is that there is a rhythm to life that we can miss amongst our often artificial, neon lights of suburbia. Nothing can stop the sun from rising or setting and no barrier can stop the tide from rolling in. Observing and connecting with this rhythmic part of nature stirs something deep inside of us … whispers of hope and providence.

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Swimming in the deep blue sea has always thrilled and scared me. It reminds me of life. The deep is not safe, yet sitting on the shores is not an option. On the shores I will never experience the healing, stinging salt water that washes over me, like my tears and my prayers. You never learn to swim in the shallows. There is something about launching out into the deep. Many years ago Jesus told a disheartened fisherman to launch into the deep. The rest, as they say, is history.

I look at my feet as I squelch the sand between my toes. The many broken shells remind me that they too, once held life, and that life passes quickly. “Travel lightly,” they whisper to me. Life is short and these feet are made for walking, not for being tied to the many cumbersome burdens that modernity claims we need. Accompanied by the unruly frivolity that overtakes my hair at the beach, it adds the classic reminder: “Beach Hair Don’t Care.” The sea and its shores reminds us of the splendid and simple joys of life.

Most of all, the sea reminds me that to wait is holy. The sea cannot be rushed or ruled. We can only wait … and in that sacrament of waiting we find untold treasures. Isn’t it about time you took a walk on the beach, dear friend?

“The beach is not a place to work; to read, write or to think … The sea does not reward those who are too anxious, too greedy, or too impatient. To dig for treasures shows not only impatience and greed, but lack of faith. Patience, patience, patience, is what the sea teaches. Patience and faith. One should lie empty, open, choiceless as a beach—waiting for a gift from the sea.”
– Anne Morrow Lindbergh (Gift from the Sea) –

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“Youer Than You” – Saying No To Comparison

“Today you are You, that is truer than true. There is no one alive that is Youer than You.”
– Dr Seuss –

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You may be someone who looks back fondly on your school years: friendships, laughter and camaraderie. My school years were complicated. We moved around continents and countries and I changed schools regularly. It felt like the moment I began to settle and form new friendships there would be another house move and the inevitable change of schools. A new environment meant a whole new silent learning about the social order of the classroom and the playground. When I compared myself to the other kids in my new environment it didn’t take long to realise that I was the one on the outer. A skinny, dorky, spectacled German child, who did not really care for cheerleading or sports (unless it was watching heavyweight boxing matches or German soccer games with my dad), did not bode well when trying to fit into the country of “braaivleis, rugby, sunny skies and Chevrolet” (South Africa).

Comparison seems to be the social motivation upon which most schools are built upon. We learn the technique of comparison far more quickly and intrinsically than we do English or Maths. From a young age, we are taught to recognise those who are different to us and with it comes the cruel social obligation to make sure this person, or these people, know that they are different. This creates a herd angst to ensure that we all fit in. Comparison has made idiots out of all of us. Through the power of social media, we have now enabled a younger generation to analyse themselves 24/7, unable to escape that sense of incompetence and self-loathing that comparison brings.

Centuries before psychologists raised the alarm about this detrimental human behaviour of comparison, there was a man who touched on it in his writings. Saint Paul wrote numerous letters, or epistles, to various congregations in the first century, which can be read in the New Testament. Amongst his many words of wisdom was the idea that when we are children we think and behave like children but when we grow up we need to put childish thought and behaviour patterns behind us (1 Corinthians 13:11). Writing to the same Corinthian congregation in another letter he says that those who compare themselves with each other are serious idiots (my translation – 2 Corinthians 10:12). It seems that part of Paul’s plea to Corinth was to stop the childishness of allowing egos to run unbridled, to grow up and learn that love is the greatest of all. We should heed his words. There is nothing loving about comparison and there comes a time when we need to silence it’s very loud, mouthy and judgemental voice in our heads.

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Mark Twain once said that “comparison is the death of joy”. Research backs his statement showing how when we compare ourselves with others we become increasingly envious, depressed, distrusting and lacking in self-confidence. Engaging in paralysing comparison creates self-loathing. Remember, that in most instances, especially when it comes to social media, you are comparing yourself to someone’s highlight snapshot: a tiny fragment of their life, nearly always positive, adventuresome and happy. This is NOT their whole life – it’s a tiny SNAPSHOT and sometimes it is totally incongruent with what is actually going on in their life! When you compare yourself to someone’s SNAPSHOT you will think that you are missing out on life … but, darling friend, their life has just as many issues, mundanity, hardship, tears and suffering as yours … it’s just not on Snapchat, Facebook or Instagram!

When we compare we will always lose. Always! Why? Because we are not meant to live someone else’s life, dream someone else’s dream or envy someone else’s journey. Our social compass and sense of ‘self’ became scrambled when comparison entered the mix! Violence, greed and murder … list all the evil of humanity … many of these things started when we stopped being satisfied and content with the path we were given and wanted another life. In contrast, joy comes creeping back when we start to retrain our brain to stop comparing our life to another. When we recognise that our life, with all its ups and downs, is a gift, and only we can live it!

“There is no one alive that is Youer than You” is the prophetic statement of Dr Seuss into each one of our lives. Maybe it is time to lay aside the glamorous, photo-shopped magazines that crowd our shelves and pick up our own dusty, neglected personal epic? Maybe it’s time to delete some personas off social media or go on a tech blackout? Maybe it’s time to make friends again with the person staring back at you in the mirror? Marcus Aurelius once mused about how much time we gain when we stop worrying about what others are doing, thinking or saying, but rather focus on living our lives. So stand up tall, get back on your track and live your magnificent life.

“Owning our story and loving ourselves through that process is the bravest thing we will ever do.”
– Brene Brown –

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Hildegard of Bingen and her Love Affair with Fennel

“Even eaten raw fennel does not harm the body in any way. In whatever form one eats fennel, it makes us happy, gives us a good skin colour and body odour and promotes good digestion.”
– Hildegard – 

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Fennel was a regular star in the meals consumed in my childhood. To this day I can identify it blindfolded, simply by its unique, slightly sweet taste. It is also somewhat of a divisive culinary accompaniment, a bit like coriander. People such as my parents and grandparents were devoted to this humble vegetable, while others refuse to allow it anywhere near their kitchen. But there was one historical figure who swore by fennel – and her love affair was recorded in the annals of history.

In the fertile, temperate Rhine valley, near the River Main, a convent of Benedictine nuns became the focal point of many religious devotees in the Twelfth Century. Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) remains somewhat of an historical phenomenon to this day. Her many visions and knowledge about the meaning of Scripture drew the attention of people such as St. Bernard of Clairvaux and the Pope himself, Eugenius (1145-1153), who read her writings to a synod held in the German city of Trier. It did not take long for the news to circulate that a prophetess was living in Disibodenberg. You can read more about her remarkable life here.

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Hildegard may well have been Germany’s first nutritionist and produced writings on medicine, science and the healing power of nature. She saw fennel as one of the most important plants for achieving physical wellbeing. It is excellent, she wrote, for the eyes, brain, hearing and heart. Eating fennel makes one happy. Her applications for fennel were numerous:

– For puffy eyes, place 2 tsp of roasted fennel seeds or ground fennel seeds in hot water, let steep for 5 minutes or more. Once cool enough to touch, dip the corner of a folded paper towel in the solution and apply to the under eye region.

– For weight loss, steep 1/2 tsp roasted fennel seeds in warm water and drink twice a day.

– For a cold, drink warm fennel tea 2-3 times a day.

– For heartburn, bloating and gas, eat a pinch of roasted fennel seeds immediately following a meal.

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Fennel belongs to the Umbellifereae family, second cousin to parsley, carrots, dill and coriander. It contains a unique combination of phyto-nutrients that allow for strong antioxidant activity. Research has found that one of it’s most interesting phyto-nutrient compounds is anethole. Anethole has reduced inflammation and prevented the occurrence of cancer. It has shown to be able to protect the liver from toxic chemical injury. The high Vitamin C content in the fennel bulb is anti-microbial and needed for the proper function of the immune system. It is also a great source of fiber, folate and potassium.

Fennel has also been called the pearl of aphrodisiacs. A recent concoction of fennel seeds, liquorice root and water was named the ‘tonic for happy lovers’ (yes, I know, you will all rush to brew this now!!). It holds benefits for lungs, liver, pancreas, spleen, kidneys and to help dissolve kidney stones. One of its main historic uses was to cure issues surrounding indigestion. In short – fennel is fantastic! Why aren’t we all in love fennel?!

I find it surprising how many people shake their heads at things they have never tried. Over the years we have had countless people around our dinner table. Herbs and vegetables have been the ones regarded with the greatest suspicion by many. Of course, I understand that once tasted some may decline delicious vegetables or salads because of poorly-evolved, artificially-sabotaged taste buds, but at least give it a go. Shock horror – it may even improve your health!

You may never develop a love affair with fennel like Hildegard did. However, you could discover in fennel a friend that has been sent to make you feel happy! Here is to health, and cheers to a beautiful earth that graciously shares with us her fennel friend.

“There’s fennel for you, and columbines; there’s rue for you; and here’s some for me; we may call it herb of grace o’Sundays.”
– William Shakespeare (Hamlet) –

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The Scarcity of Wonder in our Black-and-White, Know-it-All World

“If I had influence with the good angel who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children, I should ask that her gift to each child in the world would be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life as an unfailing antidote against boredom and disenchantments of later years, the sterile preoccupation with things that are artificial, the alienation from the sources of our strength.”

– Rachel Carson (The Sense of Wonder) –

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I spent my early years in a small village in northern Germany. A village surrounded by endless pine forests that my parents and I would regularly walk through. To me, it was an enchanted forest. From the large ant-hills with their complex and intricate architecture on which my Oma would lay her handkerchief on the way into the forest only to retrieve it afterwards smelling sour (meant to be good for the sinuses?!) to the many creatures that called that forest home, it filled me with a sense of wonder.

Adam Smith, the 18th-century Scottish moral philosopher, defines wonder as something that arises within our emotions when “something quite new and singular is presented … and memory cannot, from all its stores, cast up any image that nearly resembles this strange appearance.” It is a feeling of surprise and admiration when we experience something beautiful, unexpected, unfamiliar, or inexplicable. Wonder is intrinsic to human nature, engaging our curiosity and nurturing our creativity. Descartes called wonder our most fundamental emotion.

Wonder unites science, religion and art. It draws on us emotionally, creatively and instils reverence. Robert Fuller, professor of religious studies at Bradley University in Illinois, says that wonder is “one of the principal human experiences that lead to belief in an unseen order.” Environmentalist Rachel Carson argues that we have an inborn sense of wonder, manifested and prevalent in children. She writes, “If a child is to keep alive their inborn sense of wonder, they need the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with them the joy, excitement, and mystery of the world we live in …” In a world that is becoming increasingly dogmatic, operating from a stagnant black and white perspective, I lament that we are experiencing a scarcity of wonder in our speed-driven, technology-addicted, and artificially-stimulated world!

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Our developed world suffers from excess-syndrome. We have the level and benefits of health and wealth that our ancestors could not even imagine. Today’s ill health is often caused by excess itself as we gorge ourselves on the bounty that capitalism has provided on the backs of our poorer global neighbours. Yet with all the excess we have not only become increasingly dissatisfied, but fearful, cynical, anxious, paranoid and selfish. The wonder that a walk in a forest may bring, has now become a distant memory. At times it is felt through a sense of nostalgia evoked by the rare poem we read when time permits.

The religious sphere in many parts of the world has been hijacked by a blistering, blustering and self-righteous form of fundamentalism that prides itself on being ‘right’. This form of imagined and desired moral absolutism has reduced the mystery of God to a spreadsheet of culturally preferred yes-and-no answers that have created a tribal shame culture where wonder has been ridiculed and alienated. Sadly, it is this religious space that is shaping so much of the next generation’s worldview, impacting on their perspective and wonder.

C.K. Chesterton said that we are perishing from lack of wonder, not for the lack of wonders. Mike Yaconelli wrote, “Children live in a world of dreams and imagination, a world of aliveness … There is a voice of wonder and amazement inside of all of us, but we grow to realise we can no longer hear it …” It is time to have a wonder renaissance!

Maybe it is time you reclaim your human birthright of wonder? Maybe you lost it because your sense of wonder was ridiculed? Or analysed? Or prohibited? When was the last time you stared into the fathomless night sky and wondered? When did you last listen to a piece of music that moved you to tears and made you wonder about what it really means to be fully human? In these uncertain times where so many of the messages we receive on a daily basis are filled with gloom and dread, may you again find the courage to wonder. May this wonder bring you joy.

The root of the word “educate” meant “to care” – a caring that flows naturally from a deep feeling for the world. This kind of care seems to embody a type of wisdom that has nothing to do with information or knowledge in its restricted sense. Our connection to the world is not through information about it, but through a sense of wonder. How long since the cry of insects and the sight of the setting sun brought us deeply into ourselves?
– John Wilson (Reflections on Everyday Life)

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Want to Learn about Community? … Listen to the Trees!

“Trees also understand that slowness is the key to a good life. For humans, at the moment, it feels like life is going faster and faster. This way of living uses up so much energy that the quality of our lives doesn’t get better. We should slow down.” 
– Peter Wohlleben – 
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My father has always maintained that Mother Nature is the best teacher. He laments our modern day disconnect from the wild and the sense of ‘lostness’ that so many feel amidst our techno-driven, hyper-real existence. So it was with interest that I read the interview with Peter Wohlleben in the recent Slow Magazine and his study on The Hidden Life of Trees.

Peter’s premise is that trees, like us, experience pain, and form social and family bonds. His years of research have him conclude that different trees have different personalities. Some act as parents and good neighbours, while others are brutal bullies. Trees are anthropomorphic. It is almost as if they have feelings and character. They communicate via a ‘woodwide web’ of chemical and electrical signals. Their young ones takes risks and then learn life lessons from their mistakes. It is like trees form villages, recognising their friends from strangers.

As I fell down the rabbit hole of reading article after article about Wohlleben’s study of the ancient beech forest he manages in the Eifel mountains of Western Germany, I was reminded of my father’s sentiment – Mother Nature is a much better teacher than humans. While we wax lyrical about community and philosophise about life, trees just simply live their ‘philosophy’. No wonder one of the wisest men in ancient text studied the cedars of Lebanon and nature (1 Kings 4:33). Jesus himself suggested that we look at nature to obtain wisdom and meaning (Matthew 6:26).

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Wohlleben points out the communal nature of trees. In a tree community, every member is important, including the ‘weak’ ones:

Their well-being depends on their community, and when the supposedly feeble trees disappear, the others lose as well. When that happens, the forest is no longer a single closed unit. Hot sun and swirling winds can now penetrate to the forest floor and disrupt the moist, cool climate. Even strong trees get sick a lot over the course of their lives. When this happens, they depend on their weaker neighbors for support. If they are no longer there, then all it takes is what would once have been a harmless insect attack to seal the fate even of giants.”

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“Every tree, therefore, is valuable to the community and worth keeping around for as long as possible. And that is why even sick individuals are supported and nourished until they recover. Next time, perhaps it will be the other way round, and the supporting tree might be the one in need of assistance.”

Wohlleben has observed the friendships between trees, some deeper than others. They grow but don’t compete with each other and “if you fell one of those two trees, the other will die too, like an old couple.”

Trees teach us about life and community. In our very important, crazy-busy lives, we seldom notice their quiet and majestic presence. Unlike trees, our ‘developed’ world tends to shove our frail and ‘weaker’ members into places where they are not seen, somewhere on the margins where their presence does not taint our perfect image or require our time and understanding. We build on ideas about community that are quickly dismantled in times of crisis. We betray each other by the disregard we display to these very ideals. The ancient forests teach us that every tree plays a role. Even the oldest, frailest stump is cared for and significant. 

In this Year of Discernment, I have found the learnings about trees astounding and healing. I no longer stare past them as I look out my window. I notice these giant teachers of life. I find hope in their presence. Perhaps one day us humans can become as kind and learn to love our neighbour as these ancient Douglas firs and beeches? 

“A community that is growing rich and seeks only to defend its goods and its reputation is dying. It has ceased to grow in love. A community is alive when it is poor and its members feel they have to work together and remain united, if only to ensure that they can all eat tomorrow!”
– Jean Vanier, Community and Growth – 
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