Twentieth century French philosopher, Simone Weil, was insightful in her reflections on what it means to pay attention, to look closely, to notice…and how to allow such attending to shift us to new perspectives and states of mind or emotion.
How we pay attention, and what we notice, influences how we can be in a day, how we are in our lives. It shapes the meaning we make of our experiences and how we respond to the life we are in. Weil said, “Goodness nourishes the soul.”
Our afternoon focused on Daily Goodness, inviting participants to consider their lives from the perspective of goodness. Where in our lives are the small experiences of seemingly ordinary goodness? How do these help us recognise the presence of God in the world? How do we offer and receive daily goodness? How does this help us shape our lives well and nourish our soul?
We explored the idea of Daily Goodness from two angles – the goodness of symbols and the goodness of everyday moments.
Symbols and Things
St Augustine had a theory that everything was either a sign or a thing, and that seeing the symbolism of some things could be a resource for us in making meaning and staying connected to deeper realities. He said:
“Everything is either a sign (symbol) or a thing. A sign is something that is itself sensed and which also points to or indicates something beyond itself. A thing is only a thing. A symbol (sign) is an impression upon the senses – something felt or seen or experienced – which causes something else to come into our thinking.”
We had some conversation about whether objects were ever just ‘things’ or whether everything is at least potentially a ‘symbol’ as well as a ‘thing.’ The main point, however, is to start to recognise the symbolic dimension of aspects of our lives and the resource that can become for us. It is not about dividing everything in our world into symbols or things. Rather, there is an invitation to look for the symbolism we encounter in ordinary things or experiences and the potential meaning this can offer us. It is about recognising that when something is symbolic then it can offer us something richer than when something is simply a thing. When something is symbolic it can hold goodness for us, goodness that can nourish our souls and perhaps be a source of comfort, hope or inspiration.
In the heart-warming story ‘Wilfred Gordon McDonald Partridge’ (by Mem Fox & Julie Vivas) a young boy collects some everyday objects to share with his elderly friend. These objects become symbolic for Miss Nancy, sending her on a trip through her memories to happy or poignant moments. These everyday objects – an egg, a puppet, a shell, a medal and a football – became symbols, because of their capacity to make an impression upon Miss Nancy and allow something meaningful to come into her thinking.
We wondered together about our own experiences of the ordinary becoming symbolic. As well as objects, we considered this idea in terms of our everyday experiences.
When we are able to recognise experiences, moments in time, that have something special about them, something symbolic, it can really lift us, encourage us, offer us a life-giving insight…
When we see the presence of goodness in our daily lives, God is made more real. And suddenly, if we start looking, seeing, in this open way, we can discover that a lot of ordinary things can have goodness to them. Instead of saying ‘Where is God?’ we can say ‘Where isn’t God?’ The challenge is to stay awake to this. We get bogged down, or tired, or stressed and we forget to notice – as soon as we wake up and notice, the goodness is abundant once more.
Another aspect of these stories of Daily Goodness is how they can invite us to think about how we ‘are’ in the places we inhabit – they can shift what we see we have to offer others. We recognise our power to make, or break, someone’s day, by our actions or words. This is not about trying ‘hard’ to be perfectly good, but about noticing how we ‘are’ in the spaces we inhabit and acknowledging that how we are always has an impact on others.
Though the connection may not be immediately apparent, our art responses reflected particular stories or situations that meant something to participants. The art response were themselves symbols of something meaningful or poignant or thought provoking. Perhaps they represented a moment of daily goodness we had experienced or a reminder to pay attention in particular ways.
Renowned poet Michael Leunig has written many poetic prayers in which he suggests we give thanks for the most ordinary of objects – the handle, the tomato, our hair! We read some of these together to conclude our afternoon together.
(from Michael Leunig’s ‘A Common Prayer’ and ‘The Prayer Tree’)