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132. God and Camels

If you had a Christian education you may remember the bit in the bible when Jesus says, 'Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and unto God the things that are God's.' What he didn't clarify was where exactly that line should be drawn. In those days, when religion was a significant part of most people's lives, the line was probably drawn in a very different place compared to today, when technology and science have largely displaced religion. But in doing so it has maybe duped us into thinking we control rather more than we actually do. And that may not be in our best interests. At the end of a long day at market, a man was setting off for home. He'd had a good day. He had sold all his goods and he'd picked up a number of bargains too. He smiled, patted his camel and set off. On his way he passed a mosque and it occurred to him that he should thank God for his good fortunes. He stopped, dismounted, and went into the mosque. He rolled out his mat and sank onto his knees. 'Thank you, thank you, oh mighty one, you are the greatest and most glorious, thank you for all you have given me today.' To emphasise his gratitude, he repeated his praises many many times. If God didn't see his gratitude maybe he wouldn't be so generous next week. By the time he came out of the mosque it was dark and he was ready for home and bed. To his dismay, his camel had vanished! He looked, he called, he asked people if they had seen it, but it was nowhere to be found. He looked up at the sky and shook his fist. 'You lousy creep!' he shouted, 'I've been praying to you for hours and hours and how do you reward me? You take my camel!' A Sufi dervish was passing and when he heard the man he laughed. 'Ah,' he said, 'It's good to trust in God.... but you still need to tether your camel.' It could be said that our entire lives are spent grappling with this apparently simple piece of advice. How accurately we distinguish between what parts of our lives belong to God, nature, the universe, fate, or luck or whatever you want to call it, and what parts belong to us will do so much to determine the quality of our lives, whether we live fully, productively and peacefully, or whether we are constantly striving, struggling and resisting. But how do you make that distinction, how do you tell a camel that can be tethered from a puff of wind that can't? And perhaps more importantly, how do you trust God when, as it happens, you don't believe in him? I have excellent camel-tethering abilities. I gave up hope when very young that anyone up there was taking care of me and decided that I needed to take care of myself. I assumed that everyone else was in the same boat, but somewhat less capable, so I applied myself to tethering other people's camels too. My youth was packed with camel-tethering activities. I worked hard, passed exams, gathered friends, found myself a partner. I studied medicine, a profession of camel-tetherers, (when did you last hear your doctor say that they were going to entrust your ailment to the four winds?) I found a house, had children, took holidays, bought insurance. During all this time I was under the illusion that I was running things. It didn't occur to me that the universe, or as some would say luck, was with me on this journey, even though none of this could have otherwise happened. I might not have had the ability to get into medical school, met my partner, been able to have children, been healthy, been born into relative privilege in the first place. Camel-tethering is great in moderation, but it has two major drawbacks when taken to extreme. The first is that you can get very arrogant and uncaring. If you can cope, you reason, then anyone can. You see people with problems and you think, if they only did this and this and this, they would be fine. Why don't they? Everything looks so simple to a professional camel-tetherer. The second drawback is that it is very very tiring. Everything is a struggle, there is little flow in your life and things can become rather serious. But what is the alternative? To a life-long camel-tetherer, the thought of letting 'God' take the steering wheel is pretty scary, if not downright irresponsible. A curious thing. It seems that our relationship with God bears an uncanny resemblance to our relationship with our fathers. Our fathers are the first people in our lives to represent a god-like figure, someone who is strong and loving and will guide and take care of us. So once we have an idea of what our father is like, we assume, unconsciously, that that is what all fathers are like, including the one in heaven. I can hear dissent, but bear with me (as every call-centre employee seems to want us to do these days), these pieces that I write never require you to believe anything on trust, the only thing to trust is your experience. My father was physically around, but absent in every other way. Or so it felt to me. He, in his turn, had a father who was physically around, but absent in every other way, so how was he to know that the role of a father could be any different? My experience of God has always been the same - physically present, as a kind of empty ether, but otherwise absent. No love, no guidance, no attention. I dabbled with the church as a teenager, but once into adulthood I became an atheist. My friend, on the other hand, says that she has always felt that God was around, maybe not present all the time, but she knew he was there if she needed him. Her father was not physically around much during her childhood but she says, 'I always felt that he would be there for me if I needed him.' These might sound like coincidences but I've had this conversation with several people now and it really is extraordinary how, again and again, a person's sense of God (or any other higher presence or being) has borne a quite precise resemblance to their sense of their father in their lives. If their father was authoritative, then so is their God. If he was loving, so is their God. If he was neglectful, so is their God. If they didn't have a father, and no substitute either, they don't have a God. If they are angry with their fathers, they are angry with God (while not believing in him). We can't know for sure if there is a God, and we can't know for sure that there isn't, but one thing we do know, camel-tethering on its own is tiring and lonely. Little of what we have, and what we have achieved in life, is purely down to us. You may call it God, or you may call it chance - either way, acknowledging that there are some things that are out of our control can be surprisingly relaxing, and free up a lot of time for the real camels in our lives. Try this:

  1. Where on the trusting god - camel-tethering spectrum are you? Do you believe that someone or something is taking care of you right now? Or do you feel alone in trying to have a good life, that life is only ever good because you've worked hard at it and made it that way? Or are you somewhere in between?

  2. Thinking about your father, what was he like when you were a child, and how did you relate to each other? Was he there for you? What is your relationship with him like now, whether he is still with us or not?

  3. What is your relationship with a higher being? What feelings do you have about God or his equivalent, whether or not you believe?

  4. What kind of balance would you like to have between trusting and camel-tethering? If you would like to trust a little more, what would it feel like to move just a little way along the spectrum towards it? If you would like to do more camel-tethering, what would be your first camel?

Have a balanced week! With love Anita