Jim Taylor's Columns - 'Soft Edges' and 'Sharp Edges'

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Published on Friday, August 20, 2021

Make it personal!

Thursday August 19, 2021


Everything is personal. Everything. Even whatever happened 13.8 billion years ago -- if it weren’t personal you wouldn’t be here to read these words.

            Or, to put it another way, there is no such thing as impersonal information. Abstract terms describing theoretical concepts -- like civil rights, climate change, government corruption, and foreign aid -- take on meaning only in a personal context.

            Civil rights, for example, are not just about changing laws. It affects individuals. Look at photos of marchers, 50 years ago, getting mauled by police dogs. You don’t think that’s personal?

            Democracy is an utterly abstract concept. It barely existed until a few centuries ago. Few people today can define it. But that doesn’t make it impersonal. For sure Donald Trump took his defeat personally.

            Don’t misunderstand me – I’m not advocating personal attacks on someone’s appearance or morals. Rather, recognize that whatever you say, the person you’re speaking to will take it personally.

            If they don’t, they’re not listening.


Some examples

            Think about Covid-19 infection rates. They’re just figures. They don’t mean anything, until someone you know is affected. A parent. A friend. A child. Hospitalized. Perhaps locked down in some impersonal institution, unable to see you, let alone touch you, shrivelling away from utter loneliness.

            That’s personal.

            The publishing company I helped to found, Wood Lake Books, sometimes had problems meeting deadlines. The management plan laid out exactly when editorial had to receive the manuscript, when to pass it on to design, to production, to marketing, etc.

            From one abstract entity to another. Departments. Functions. 

            Deadlines kept getting broken.

            And then one day a novice production manager made the schedule personal: Marilyn needs the manuscript Jan. 5. She has to get it to Mike by Jan 19, so Julie can start production….”

            Douglas Adams, author of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, wrote, “I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.”

            It’s much harder to let deadlines go “whoosh” when that creates difficulties for someone you have coffee with.


Who? Me?

            Which leads to an inherent contradiction. Don’t take it personally when things go wrong. Revenue Canada is not auditing you because it hates your guts.

            But at the same time, treat everyone else personally. Even the Revenue Canada agent.  She too has hopes and fears, joys and sorrows.

            A century ago, German theologian Martin Buber urged us to think of the other not as “it” but as “you,” or “thou.” Not an object, whose sole function is to serve – or possibly impede – your needs. But a person, just like you.

            In communications theory, Buber’s thesis translates into what writers call human interest angles.

            Climate change as parts per billion of carbon-dioxide goes over people’s heads –literally and figuratively. Climate change becomes real when people identify with an emaciated polar bear, or when melting permafrost sends a family’s home sliding into the Arctic Ocean.

            My first full-time job was writing radio commercials. The first rule we learned was, “Who? Me?” Hearers needed to feel personally addressed before they’d listen to the pitch.

            The message must get through at a personal level, before it can get through at all..


Copyright © 2021 by Jim Taylor. Non-profit use in congregations and study groups, and links from other blogs, welcomed; all other rights reserved.

            To comment on this column, write jimt@quixotic.ca





In last week’s column, I wondered what old trees might say to us, if they could speak. 


Nancy Phipps lives in Kansas “where we don't have too many forests. But I wholeheartedly agree about the trees talking. 

            “I've known for years and years about what grows underneath the ground about the molds and fungi and other things most people have never thought about, but it is what holds it and many other things together. 

            “Many people don't understand when they see many beautiful ash trees growing (in Colorado) that it's not a bunch of single trees in a bunch, but one tree all interconnected.  All underground where we can't see the roots and the under-workings of the Creator. 

            “There is much we can learn from the study of trees all over the world and we really should do more to protect them all. Especially the old growth forests and the giants of trees that you saw and our giant redwood trees and others. I love to sit outside and listen to the wind blow through the leaves and listen to the trees talk and make music in the breeze.”


Mary Collins had similar thoughts: “When I walk in the city I choose the routes that give me the most trees, including, when possible, one particular tree, and as I pass under them I look up into their leaves and thank them and thank God. I know that the trees give me a blessing as I pass under.

            “I have never been able to see the Douglas Fir or other magnificent old-growth forest in BC.  But have seen some wonderful trees in Angola (what were left after over 30 years of civil war when the soldiers of both sides cut them down so the other side couldn't hide behind them, and desperate people cut them down for firewood). One favourite is the amazing baobab tree!”


Bob Rollwagen: “We have many indigenous tribes. They appear to have lived in harmony with nature for thousands of years. Was there any conflict over territory, or were they like current tribal groups jockeying for power and the wealth of domination?”

            In terms of the long life of trees, Bob wrote, “Empires have come and gone while the human condition evolves. One question stands out: Have we really learned anything about survival?”


Steve Roney thought my metaphor was distorted: “Does the interconnected forest offer us a moral model for society? No. The group is intrinsically more likely to be selfish, not less, than the individual. In your interconnected forest, the high conifers kill all undergrowth with their acidic needles. Their high canopy denies the light that might be necessary for competing species to emerge; they kill off competitors. They, like most groups, cooperate in their own self-interest against outsiders or those judged ‘different’.”

            Steve also argued, “The ‘cult of individualism’ which you refer to as permeating Western thought is, in fact, Christianity. The Catholic Church teaches as one foundation of its social gospel the principle of ‘subsidiarity’: that is, that decisions should always be made at the individual level, or as close to that level as possible. For it is the individual who is the moral agent. The individual is created by God, and is sacred. Social systems are created by humans.”




Psalm paraphrase


We rarely think of the psalms as love poems--but how else can you describe the feelings in Psalm 84?


1          I love you, God. 

2          My heart races when feel your presence;
my blood pulses with joy when I think of you. 


3          Nothing is ever turned away from you. 
You encourage finches to nest under your eaves 
and worms to tunnel in your earth.

4          Each creature has its part to play in your universal symphony. 

5          Whatever strength we have, we get from you.
Refreshed and renewed, we rise to face each new day, 
and find that every road leads back to you. 

6          In apartment blocks and office towers that rise 
like filing cabinets filled with despair, 
you comfort us; 
When narrow minds turn into cold shoulders, 
you nurture us. 

7          When we cannot cope, you carry us. 

9          You see us, you know us, you look into our eyes. 
You lift us up when our bones melt with weariness; 

8          You hear our prayers. 

You stand beside us, even when we cannot recognize you. 
So we call on you, O God of Gods. 
Creator of the universe, hear the plea of your creation. 


10        Let me stay with you. 
I would rather be dirt swept before your broom 
than a polished brass plaque in someone else's boardroom. 
An hour in your company is more stimulating than a day at Disneyland. 

11        You are like the sun that burns away the morning fog; 
You are as clear and clean as the air after a spring shower; 
Deceit and deception have no part in your personality. 

12        You are the kind of God I want to be with.


You can find paraphrases of most of the psalms in the Revised Common Lectionary in my book Everyday Psalmsavailable from Wood Lake Publishing, info@woodlake.com.






If you want to comment on something, send a message directly to me, jimt@quixotic.ca.

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            I write a second column each Sunday called Sharp Edges, which tends to be somewhat more cutting about social and justice issues. To sign up for Sharp Edges, write to me directly, jimt@quixotic.ca, or send a note to sharpedges-subscribe@lists.quixotic.ca

            And for those of you who like poetry, please check my webpage .https://quixotic.ca/My-Poetry I posted several new poetic works there a few weeks ago. If you’d like to receive notifications about new poems, write me at jimt@quixotic.ca, or subscribe yourself to the list by sending a blank email (no message) to poetry-subscribe@lists.quixotic.ca (If it doesn’t work, please let me know.)






To use the links in this section, you’ll have to insert the necessary symbols. Some spam filters have blocked my posts because they’re suspicious of the web links.

            Wayne Irwin's “Churchweb Canada,” an inexpensive service for any congregation wanting to develop a web presence, with free consultation. http://wwwDOTchurchwebcanadaDOTca He’s also relatively inexpensive!

            I recommend Isabel Gibson’s thoughtful and well-written blog, wwwDOTtraditionaliconoclastDOTcom. She also has lots of beautiful photos. Especially of birds.

            Tom Watson writes a weekly blog called “The View from Grandpa Tom’s Balcony” -- ruminations on various subjects, and feedback from Tom’s readers. Write him at tomwatsoATgmailDOTcom (NB that’s “watso” not “watson”)



            I have acquired (don’t ask how) the complete archive of the late Alva Wood’s collection of satiric and sometimes wildly funny columns about a mythical village’s misadventures. I’ve put them on my website: http://quixotic.ca/Alva-Wood-Archive. You’re welcome to browse. No charge. (Although maybe if I charged a fee, more people would find the archive worth visiting.)



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Author: Jim Taylor

Categories: Soft Edges

Tags: communication, Language, personal



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