Unlike writing, presenting a book show on community radio means occasionally leaving the house. Learning the ropes means meeting people I don’t know, and inevitably, they ask what I do. The only time I was ever able to answer this question without reservation was when I was teaching; the answer was inevitably, ‘Oh, you’re brave.’ There was nothing brave about it. (OK, maybe there was something a bit brave about breaking up a fight between two teenage boys, one of whom was beating the other with a bit of wood he’d just ripped from an interior window frame. But still.) I started teaching because I wanted to write but needed to eat; I kept teaching because I fell in love with it. Sometimes I’d say, ‘Well, plan A is to become a published writer, but plan B is a good one.’ And plan A finally came good, and then the floor fell in. I don’t know how to answer the question now. ‘What do you do?’ ClearupwashclothesironplanmealsshopforgetbirthdaysmanagethediaryringtheheatingengineerfetchtheprescriptionsreadtheschoolemailswrestleatmylaptophideunderthekitchentableandcrycollectthechildrenfeedthechildrengetthemtotheiractivitiesdohomeworkandmusicpracticeemergencywashtheforgottenPEkitdespairathestateoftheworldmakedinnermakeintelligentconversationcompletelyfailtosleep just about covers it, but life is short, and they’re only being polite. Hence the bright, ‘Fine, thank you,’ which is the only possible answer to ‘How are you?’ The abyss is there, and sometimes it’s oh so close, and sometimes you feel yourself slipping into it, and sometimes there are nightmare hands reaching from it to drag you down. Sometimes those hands are your own, because you learned long ago to be in two places at once, and you are responsible for yourself. The last thing you want is to take anyone down with you, and the last thing anyone else wants is to fall. So you’re fine, thank you. You have to be, because anything else is too terrible to contemplate, and quite possibly infectious.
And yet, if we want to be truly fine, thank you, and for other people to be truly fine, thank you, too, we are each other’s only hope. And this is why people who monopolise the idea of God to keep other people in submission are operating in diametric opposition to my understanding of God, and to my idea of faith. When I say I believe in God, I mean that I believe that humanity comes from, and will return to, a creative place of kindness, acceptance and tolerance. So often, faith is confused with arrogance. When Tony Blair said he had faith that invading Iraq was the right thing to do, he was showing the most spectacular contempt for the very laws and processes that his position required him to uphold. Jacob Rees Mogg trumpets his faith as the reason he believes that women should have no bodily autonomy. Donald Trump pronounces himself a man of God whilst sequestering children and writing numbers on their parents’ wrists. They’re all spouting bollocks. Faith is the beginning of the discussion, not the end. To have faith is to question, to interrogate, to examine. To respect. To listen. To open up, not to shut down.
To search for God in a question is to search for the kindness. To search for the humanity. To search for the neighbour in that which seems other. To ask, ‘How are you?’ not only of others, but of ourselves, and to listen closely for the answer.