Monsters in Friars Street!

I am standing in Cluny Abbey in France, a monastery built in the 10th century; a place of prayer for over 1000 years, and you can feel it. The quality of the space is tangible; off in the distance I can hear Gregorian chant. There is no one else with me, I’m alone in this special, prayerful place. I walk over to the stone walls towering above my head. This was the largest church in Christendom for nearly 700 hundred years, up until St. Peter’s Basilica was built in Rome.

 Cluny Abbey, France

Cluny Abbey, France

I go to put my hand on the walls, and of course my hands go through them. Now that is a surreal experience. My eyes can see it happening: my hands move to where resistance should be felt, and then they just pass through the stone. I knew it would happen, I know the walls weren’t really there, but nevertheless my heart beat raises, the rational part of my brain is unable to override the sensory experience I am having. Then I hear a voice in the distance calling me. It is my friend Barney calling me for dinner. I take off the virtual reality headset and I’m back in his office in their terraced house in Woking.

Just before I went on holiday I tried Barney’s latest toy, his virtual reality headset called the Vive. And it is very impressive; to attempt to describe the experience to you is probably not unlike someone trying to explain their psychedelic drug experience to you. I was blind but now I can see.

I visited Cluny Abbey in France, a prison cell in Alcatraz, and went to the top of a mountain in Washington State. All these experiences felt tangible, the Abbey felt spirit filled, the cell felt claustrophobic, and the vista from the mountain felt liberating and awe inspiring. But of course I never left Barney’s office. When I eventually took the headset off and re-entered the “real world”, everything felt different. Reality seemed to show up differently.

Today’s service is about happiness, friendship, and perspective. Did you know there are monsters out there on Friars Street? They may even be in here; you could be sitting next to one. There are purple rats called Rattatas, there are pigeons called Pidgeys, and there are caterpillars called Caterpies. A different world accessed through the lenses of our smart phones. A different world opening before us.

Monsters in Friars Street!

As I said my address is about happiness, friendship, and perspective. I’ll begin with a quote, which is on the front of the order of service, by Khalil Gibran – ‘In the sweetness of friendship let there be laughter, and sharing of pleasures. For in the dew of little things the heart finds its morning and is refreshed.’ The bond of friendship we share with others is the most important thing in life. Full Stop. The most important days of our life are the shared experiences we have with our most significant others. Moments of shared pleasure. To understand an other, and be understood by them - what could be more important?

I am an introvert. Being an introvert is not about shyness, as you all probably know. It’s about how you energise yourself, and about how you process information. Being around others is enjoyable, but as all introverts know, it is also exhausting. Whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert is a very useful thing to know about yourself. I am sure there are loads of shy people who wrongly think they are introverts, and confident people who wrongly think they are extroverts. To know the difference, and what you are, helps us know ourselves better; but it’s also a useful thing to know about others - others we work with, our nearest and dearest, and our significant other.

To use my wife and I as an example, if we go to a party together, we both move in opposite directions. As time goes on she gets more energised and engaged, and I get more tired, and, I’ll admit it, irritable. In the early years of our marriage, this was a difference in each other we struggled to understand. When I was ready to go home, she was just getting started.

We naturally assume that others experience the world in roughly the same way we do, but of course this is entirely wrong. The world does not show up to Cat and I in the same way at all. We don’t even think or process information in the same way – I think best quietly sat at my computer, but Cat thinks best talking things over, weighing things in the course of conversation. Understanding this key difference in our personalities, the extrovert/introvert dynamic, was a very important step in our relationship.

An equally important step was to understand the family context we had both come from, as our family context, for good or ill, obviously does a great deal to shape who we are. It often shapes our expectations, particularly our expectations around marriage, and our families also shape the way we express love to one another. Early on in our marriage I came across a book, which I would not recommend to you, it has a very Stepford Wives feel about it, but none the less, the pop psychology behind it is fascinating. It’s called ‘The Five Love Languages’.

The idea is quite simple: we each grow up within our family contexts with love being expressed in particular ways: through words of affirmation, or quality time, or in the giving and receiving of gifts, or through acts of service, or through physical touch. One of these becomes our ‘Love Language’; expressions of love which are most significant to us take this form. Problems arise when our ‘Love Language’ is not our partner’s ‘Love language’ and so we fail to communicate adequately. Because (and again this comes down to our assumptions about how others experience the world) if one partner’s love language hinges upon words of affirmation, and the other’s hinges upon acts of service, for example, it doesn’t matter how many shelves you put up in the bathroom, that marriage is going to struggle.

To understand another, and be understood by them – what could be more important? Okay, now a short story. It’s November 1998, I’m ten years old, and my family is living in Houston, Texas. My dad is returning home from a business trip, and of course he is bearing gifts. I think you can guess the primary love language in my home growing up. In the customary fashion my brother and I would run to the front door shouting as we greeted dad home. And then we got our presents. We each got a Gameboy and a new game which had just come out, called Pokémon. Pokémon was very significant to me, it affected how I spent my time, what I thought about, and who my friends were. It was a big deal.

 Screenshot from Pokemon Red

Screenshot from Pokemon Red

I am, and have always been, a computer game player. Once a gamer, always a gamer. I started playing games on our Apple Macintosh computer when I was very young, probably four or five. Up until the age of ten however, gaming was always a solitary experience, just me and the computer. But Pokémon changed that. As an aside – it is an interesting thought experiment to do to ask yourself what you did for fun when you were 10 years old. Because in all likelihood you would still find it fun now. I was playing Pokémon.

So what is Pokémon? Pokémon are creatures, some very small, and some very large. Some closely resemble animals in the real world, and some are entirely made up. In the game you capture Pokémon, train them up, and battle them against others, thus advancing from stage to stage. As your Pokémon get more powerful they evolve, getting bigger, with more abilities, and therefore capable of more. What sets the game apart was the interaction between players: though you played the game on your Gameboy, it was possible to connect one Gameboy to another with a wire, and by doing so, battle each other, or more importantly trade Pokémon with one another. To catch the 151 Pokémon that existed at the time, you had to trade. All the Pokémon were not available in any one person’s game.

As Gibran said, ‘In the sweetness of friendship let there be laughter, and sharing of pleasures.’ For my friends and I Pokémon was our shared pleasure. Playground conversation was dominated by Pokémon. Soon after the game was released, an equally successful television program came out, and then an equally successful card trading game too. On a daily basis we would share tips on how to capture particularly illusive Pokémon, paw over our Pokémon cards, and of course dream that it was all real, screw up our eyes at night and wish we could awaken to the world of Pokémon.

 The Pokemon - Rattata

The Pokemon - Rattata

Pokémon put a lot of emphasis on friendship. The television show was about a ten year old boy, called Ash, who with the help of his friends Misty, Brock, and of course Pikachu, overcame various obstacles through teamwork and acts of kindness. And so the television show modelled many good practices of friendship, honesty, recognising differences in others, being ready to apologise and forgive, and so on. And that brings us to Pokémon Go. Last week Pokémon Go was released in the UK, and the week before that in America, and it is now being played by millions. In the first week of release it became the most popular mobile game in US history. And a lot of that success has to do with nostalgia. It has successfully tapped into that fantasy of my generation, if only Pokémon were real...

Now, Pokémon are not trapped in a Gameboy - they are in the world. In the real world. By using your phone’s built in camera and its GPS tracking, a virtual reality of little monsters is transposed upon ours. Hold your phone up, and you see the park bench before you, and upon the park bench is a Pokémon, just waiting to be caught. Throughout this world, key monuments and buildings have been designated Pokestops, places you can get supplies for your adventure, and arenas, places where you do battle with your Pokémon. Although Pokémon can be found anywhere as you wander around, they are more likely to appear near Pokestops, and more likely still if you find a sweet spot where two Pokestops are close to each other. There are two very popular sweet spots in Ipswich. One is in Christchurch Park, on a strip of grass between the Round pond and the Visitor Centre, where all week there have been groups of friends huddled together. And the second is just over there – between our sign on Friars Street, and the Millennium needle between us and the Willis building. If you see people standing there on their phones, as hundreds have done this week, they are playing Pokémon Go. And each time they get supplies for their journey, they are seeing these words, ‘Unitarian Meeting House – built 1699, important dissenting meeting house’. If people didn’t know where the Meeting House was already, they do now.

I am strongly of the opinion that Pokémon is a force for good, that enriches friendships, brings people together, encourages collaboration, and gets people out of their houses and walking through the park. But, of course, the media will try its hardest to poo-poo the new-fangled. What’s almost more interesting than the game itself however is the world of tomorrow the game is pointing us towards. As I said, we make the mistake of assuming we all experience the world in roughly the same way. But we do need to make some assumptions; we must assume that we see and hear essentially the same thing for example. But what if we didn’t?

 Brock, Ash, and Misty. 

Brock, Ash, and Misty. 

What if I saw monsters on Friars Street? It’s a small leap and jump between where we stand and that. The obvious and natural progression for Pokémon Go is for it to move from being a world seen through the window of our phones, to it being a window built straight into our glasses. And once you make that step, the possibilities become almost endless... Are you going for a walk with your friends, or are you travelling with your friends to destroy the ring of doom? Are you having a quiet night in, or are you sitting with your mate in a cantina on Tatooine? Are you watching a documentary about the moon landing, or are you standing with your wife right there as Neil Armstrong climbs down the ladder? Friendships require shared experiences, shared experiences cement friendships. Friendships really are the bottom line. And that is why I am so optimistic about what is coming. We’ve had the printing press revolution, then we had the internet revolution, and now we are on the verge of the virtual revolution. How long, I wonder, until a member of our community, a friend within our community, sits amongst us, shares the journey of life with us, but our hands go right through them.

Amen.