Preached Feb 2013 at the Octagon Chapel, Norwich
'Maybe we’re not satisfied at all
It seems our share is always much too small
So how is life in smurfing land -
is a smurf much wiser than a man?'
Why, 1979 by Kartner, Linley and Helna
Can these innocuous if not frivolous little kids’ toys have anything to say to us? Is that as far as we can take these little Belgian exports?
Jesus recommends we be as little children – questioning with a sense of wonder.
Smurfs are not so much childlike as wise yet simple; Smurfs themselves are very mature in both ways. [Smurfs live to be over 100].
There is a movement back to simplicity. Quakers – who I see as Unitarians' near cousins – advocate it as one of their essential qualities, called testimonies. Simplicity attracts other political and spiritual advocates. Perhaps the Smurfs’ ideals and Quakers’ might be closer than our Friends might care to realise.
Quakers see our private and spiritual lives as entwined, and it is this approach I take with you today.
There is much wrong with our world and our country, although ours may be without the fear and suffering of others. Inequality and unfairness need not be spelt out, as much at home as abroad. There is a growing new consciousness to stop allowing and accepting this.
I believe this is a time for change - for ‘doing different’ (University of East Anglia’s motto) - and wonder what the Smurf way of life might offer us.
Are the Smurfs an idyllic community? Could we live in a world like the Smurfs?
Frank Walker spoke to us about the Sannyasi way where some holy people leave the world. One of our readings today was about the Amazonian Shaman in Isabel Losada’s The Battersea Park Road To Paradise. Isabel was a struggling actress who began a new writing career, charting her various self help mind, body and spirit adventures. This one took her to an Amazonian community. Isabel was clearly struck by the contentedness of the self governing jungle village and its contrast to her London media life, but I wasn’t impressed, as I’ll explain later.
Ascetics old and new in various religions have broken with society to live alone or in inward looking circles, perhaps dispensing their wisdom. One can see how the trend might re-emerge and seem attractive and suitable antidote to our muddled world. The Good Life was a 1970s sitcom about a contemporary Surrey couple who did just that, in an era where people were questioning society and some looked to communes as an alternative way of living. Could one be smurf like and continue in the modern world? And what of us who chose to stay outside of Smurfing Land?
Would it be fair to say that something only works if it can serve for everyone?
- in other words, must it be a universal maxim?
Would society collapse if we took to the woods and lived off the land?
It seems that the nomadic seekers rely on others who are in the system. The Sannyasi needs bread from others. What happens when you need the emergency services? How do you get the internet or a telephone line - or a letter delivered? How can they opt out? But we in the rest of society don’t opt in.
Some in monastic communities rely on the gifts of others who work. Could there be an analogy with living on welfare? As someone who’s been on both sides of the benefits desk, I think I can say that for the majority, those on welfare are not so through choice (despite politicians and media pressure to the contrary). And for many, welfare is not permanent - it is while they seek self sufficient income or recover from an illness. Would smurfs have a welfare system? I see a having one as a mark of a caring society; that many people need it shows that something is not working – and that is not a charge of idleness to claimants.
We are being pushed towards a workfare not welfare state, encouraging blame not compassion for those who cannot fully support themselves in the quite narrow ways defined by society. I would like to encourage the reverse, and remind that one’s usefulness is not measured by how much taxable income we generate.
Work is narrowly defined by those who are in work they like or by those who sadly accept that work and pleasure and satisfaction do not go together. They put their own disappointments and sacrifices on to others. Much of society does not accept different ways to find fulfilment and give service.
I was sad when a friend said that accepting you cannot have the life you want is part of growing up. Any proponent of the spiritual self help I read would say quite the reverse. Mike Yaconelli calls that “dream stealing.”
A local business advisor said when asked about doing the work you love:
“There is no other kind.”
As Simone Weil said Gravity and Grace (one of the readings):
"Workers need poetry more than bread..."
I would also remind you of our Neale Donald Walsch reading, from Conversations With God. God teases Neale about his belief that to enjoy work is a self indulgent pipedream – and also that such a notion is divinely supported. God here says just the reverse.
The people who make a living doing what they love are those who insist on doing in, they defy the world to let them do anything else. They don’t give in or up.
I believe that if we earned from doing what we love rather than the growing reliance on voluntary work, and having to find addition acceptable paid “real” work on top, that much of our unemployment problems would be solved. Many are not getting recognition for what they do and their is struggle to find “work” of the traditional kind for everyone.
To live in a self sufficient mini camp changes the kind of work satisfaction and interests we can pursue. Anyone with a technologically related job or interest would feel lacking in a jungle existence. Coming from a farming family, I know how time consuming looking after animals and harvesting are. They rule your life and there’s little else in your day but toiling for your sustenance. Isobel Losada was impressed and tempted by the Amazonian life, but as an actress and television presenter and writer living in a large city, I wonder how quickly she would tire in a media-less society. What of those whose fulfilment involves computing, or more complex musical instruments than can be fashioned from wood? Or architects wanting to build something bigger and more complex than mushroom bedsits? What of places of worship, of people who love to drive or design vehicles?
Smurf communities are small – their village numbers about 100. How would one relate to other such mini societies – is that where we need a Big Society? Is that where local, regional and national government come in? Can the Smurf model function on a national and global scale? Rural Smurfhood also works really only in a warm climate, which many countries do not have.
What is good and possible to emulate about Smurfland?
What of their self acceptance, a people who are gladly small – an attribute we do not cherish. I do not mean a person’s height, but size is generally thought to mean that diminutive is lesser. But wishing they were different is not a dissatisfaction or insecurity that troubles the Smurf.
They lead simple, loving co-operative (in both sense) lives, where people barter instead of have money and everyone contributes to society by doing something they love. They are against war. They have no punitive system or police, no collections department, and are free from the fear of debt. There’s no great gap between rich and poor. Consequently, they are happy and live long lives. (cf Neale Donald Walsch was told our bodies were designed to last much longer than they do, and with the early Bible/Jewish stories).
Perhaps it’s not simplicity and lack of technology, but that Smurfs’ values, their cooperative organisation and that they give to society what they love and are good at. And most of all, that they are not governed by fear or the lazy belief that an imperfect system is not possible to change or the best that there is.
I make no apology for idealism, because acceptance of crushing mediocrity and systems of injustice are simply wrong and I think not what groups like Unitarians are about; we dare to challenge and create a better world. Instead, I think we should all make our goal striving for all we can be, collectively and individually.
One last thought - I am not aware of Smurfs making reference to a higher being, or engaging in any act of worship. What would a smurf church be like? Is this a smurf church? While some might argue that a lack of religion is exactly why smurfs are successful, for me, Smurfs are missing out there as much as they are on the pleasures of restaurants and cinema. I will leave you to your own cogitations.
I think there’s something in Smurfhood – these little creatures who point out our folly as so many forms of story do – from fables to sci fi – and suggest a better way.