5 min read

Letter from Burnley: the shifting sands of the cost of living crisis

With a worsening crisis affecting his community, Alex Frost reflects on the growing struggle and the impact on its people.

Alex Frost is a vicar in Burnley, Lancashire, and an advocate for the local community.

Two older men lean agains the wall of a football club's entrance, next to thin open doorways.
Burnley football club turnstiles.

Have you ever watched one of those retrospective television programmes, that takes us back to the 1980's or 1990's? They usually include clips of Wham or Oasis or Yuppies with massive mobile phones. 

 I don't know about you but the label 'The cost-of-living' is one that I suspect might take its own place in one of those shows twenty or so years from now. And I do wonder if things will be better or worse than they are presently. 

You might that hope which ever political government of the day is in power in 2044, the cost of living crisis and poverty will have significantly shifted from where they presently are. 

In my own town, Burnley in Lancashire, the shifting sands of such matters are starkly evident, and things seem to be getting worse rather than better. The evidence of a cost of living crisis has shifted matters from financial insecurity to many other areas. For example, within the cost of living crisis sits another crisis that appears to be getting more concerning as the months go by and we drop into the harshest months of the year. 

He cites places of refuge as dangerous, violent, volatile places that are not in keeping with his desire to live a quiet and normal life that befits a gentleman in his late fifties.

That crisis is one of extremely worrying mental health issues with adults and some very young children in our community. On a personal level, there is nothing more painful than taking a funeral service for a young person who has taken their own life, which happened to me in recent months. Alongside such sadnesses, there are almost daily examples of individuals, many of whom are young mothers pouring their hearts out on social media with woes of poor mental health with seemingly nowhere to turn. In my own borough the mental support provision within the NHS is at breaking point with long delays for mental health counselling and support. Thank goodness then for the voluntary sector who help me to help others on a regular basis. After the pandemic of COVID in Burnley, where a recent Joseph Rowntree Foundation poverty report suggested 38 oer cent of children in Burnley live in poverty, we are in a battle to keep our most vulnerable people mentally well and with an optimistic outlook for a brighter future. 

And then there is the matter of homelessness. Who'd have thought we'd be living in a time when people are now being evicted from a tent? And what about those who lived outside for many years - what are we to do for them? There is a chap in Burnley, who by choice is living rough behind our corporation cemetery because the accommodation offered to him would place him in a hostel where addiction and violence is commonplace. The only blessing to be taken from it is that he has found a warm spot and he is relatively safe against the winter elements that are coming our way during the winter. But the saddest thing about this gentleman is that it is a preferable option to what is offered were he to use the provision available. He cites places of refuge as dangerous, violent, volatile places that are not in keeping with his desire to live a quiet and normal life that befits a gentleman in his late fifties. 

Watching young mums literally gathering up the crumbs from our food provisions at church is a chastening and humiliating experience for them and those who serve them. 

And as the sands shift, what about our young people? In the school where I am a governor, 58 per cent of our children are on free school meals, and many come from broken homes and difficult circumstances. What encouragement can we give them to ensure their young lives are ones of opportunity, fun and learning? What can we do to ensure the struggles of the children's parents don't bring their own development to an uncertain and worrying future? Some parents in the grip of a cost-of-living crisis lose their filter on vocabulary and so every worry, concern, disappointment and crisis is shared. Shared with little boys and girls who shouldn't be constantly subjected to a world that is always churning out negative scenarios on their innocent and immature minds.  

And what about the national celebration of a food bank and community kitchens and all they do for the poor people of our parishes? Three cheers for the voluntary sector who take the strain of a failing social security system that gives food with one hand but potentially snatches self-worth with the other. Watching young mums literally gathering up the crumbs from our food provisions at church is a chastening and humiliating experience for them and those who serve them. I hate foodbanks, not because of the good they clearly do, but, because they normalise and hold up a failing social security system in our country today. 

As we approach Christmas and a new year, I wonder how the shifting sand of the cost-of-living crisis might influence, our cultural horizon? Is it idealistic, romantic or downright stupid to think we might change the great and mighty to think differently in their approach to poverty? I am keen football fan, and you might be familiar with the term 'He/She talks a good game' and after many years following Burnley Football Club I have witnessed on many occasions when Managers have talked a good game but sadly failed to deliver on the field of play. And I think that is true of the majority of our politicians of all parties. They can talk a good game but often fail to impress us because the substance doesn't match the sentences. 

I am convinced through many years of dealing with abject poverty, that people in difficulty respond better to compassion over criticism, understanding over instruction, reality over rhetoric. So many people in my context don't want to be in poverty. They would prefer not to struggle, and they would recognise they need help. The shifting sands of surviving should encourage society to prioritise people before pedestrianisations of town centres, and hope over HS2 railway lines. As the sands of our landscape continue to shift, it surely must be the priority of the church, the government, and for people to stop people from sinking in a swell of poverty and hardship. When it does that, perhaps the church can demonstrate to the society, its role and its mission still has much to offer in 2024 and beyond.  

1 min read

How to be (un)successful

Could busyness really be the counterfeit of significance?
A man sits cross legged in a park with a laptop on the grass in front of him. He looks to one side.
Malte Helmhold on Unsplash.

You probably want to be a success. 

That’s OK – it’s a very reasonable thing to desire.  

The questions ‘Am I successful?’ or ‘What is success?’ are deeply significant and to ask such questions is a normal part of the human experience. The yearning for a life of purpose, as elusive as it can seem, is felt acutely by the majority of those who have ever lived – certainly by more than might admit it. (Those feelings of inadequacy you experience may be more common than you think.) And now more than ever it is understandable that you may feel you are not particularly successful, or not successful enough. We are assaulted by a combination of capitalism and consumerism, social media and cancel culture, polarised ideologies and virtue signalling, topped off by the wounds of our parents passed down – all of which can amalgamate into producing some pretty angsty, pressure-driven people. 

It’s not just you; I’m pretty sure we all have a bit of a problem with success (the word itself is so subjective), and our idea of it can often be fuelled by wounds rather than vision, romanticised projections rather than reality. Because we are all somewhat flawed, any worldly contribution we try to make can get precariously entangled with a me-fixated narcissism on a fairly regular basis.  

Most of us know that being successful is not simply about money, looks, large numbers or power. That’s just a caricature to which very few reasonable people actually subscribe, right?  

Well, sure – at least on the surface. 

My social-media feeds are rammed full of early-to-mid-thirties enjoying a kind of spandex-clad transcendence. 

The thing is, despite seeing through it and being repelled by it in others (we see it’s all vanity, inch-deep), something in us longs for success on these terms. But much more interesting than skimming along the surface of ‘success’ is excavating deeper into some of the core motivating beliefs we humans have about ourselves, such as mistaken pride in thinking we each control our destiny, or paranoia that tells us there’s an inherent scarcity of everything in the world. These are the swell that carry along the undercurrent of comparison – where we see the lives of others and long for a different reality for ourselves. And comparison – so often eliciting either pride or despondency – rarely ends well.  

A cursory glance through the wisdom of online articles on the matter tells us millennials typically understand that material wealth isn’t the marker of success – there are enough old, sad, rich people to show that. Instead, success has now become synonymous with living a life that others want. Chase an experience. Go adventure. Wanderlust. #yolo. To succeed in life is to publicly consume as many unique experiences as you can during your short time on earth.  

I don’t know about you, but my social-media feeds are rammed full of early-to-mid-thirties enjoying a kind of spandex-clad transcendence. Success for today’s generation would seem to look a lot less like the overweight suit-clad city trader selling their soul to the system, making shedloads of cash to buy a slice of suburban real estate with a Porsche in the drive, and more like the lithe and mindful global citizen doing ‘life on my terms’. Think coastal living, yoga on a stand-up paddleboard in the morning, slaying the emails in your industrial co-working space, eating a superfood lunch, nailing a couple of zoom calls early evening before smashing some gua bao and margaritas with ‘your peeps’ at the latest pop-up restaurant before taking an Uber home. #squadgoals  

There’s no escaping the fact that technology has shrunk the world and as James Mumford notes, ‘global capitalism has brought so many different ways of life closer to us than ever before. We can see vividly a greater number of people who we want to be.’ This can bring up hidden feelings we thought we’d buried long ago.  

I often feel unfulfilled. Sometimes completely lost. For years I haven’t been able to admit that. Until fairly recently I would find myself looking at others and thinking: ‘Don’t they ever struggle with life’s big questions? Don’t they ever want to give up? Surely, I can’t be the only one sinking under the weight of comparison?’ Far from freeing me from my broken sense of self, the version of faith I was trying to live by was exacerbating the core wound I recognised in myself. That wound was a sense of feeling a failure, unsuccessful. And like an unwelcome parasite, it fed on comparison to others.  

Read any random couple of articles on ‘successful’ people talking about how ‘successful’ they are, and a lot of what’s conveyed is a profoundly angsty relationship with time: ‘You only have one shot at life’; ‘I don’t want to waste my time on earth’; ‘You can never get it back.’  

It’s as though we have an inherent recognition – and for some, dread – of the physical limits placed on us by virtue of being mortal and human. But what if unencumbered productivity, unceasing activity and unrelenting progress – however that is defined – are signs less of success than of self-centred insecurity? Could busyness really be the counterfeit of significance?  

It’s as if we have, left unchecked, an insatiable appetite for accomplishment. It’s not hard to see where this comes from. Paul Kingsnorth comments that: “Modern economies thrive by encouraging ever-increasing consumption of harmful junk, and our hyper-liberal culture encourages us to satiate any and all of our appetites in our pursuit of happiness. If that pursuit turns out to make us unhappy instead – well, that’s probably just because some limits remain un-busted.” He goes on to suggest that this is a fundamentally spiritual problem, because ‘a crisis of limits is a crisis of culture, and a crisis of culture is a crisis of spirit.’ 

So far so depressing? 

It needn’t be. 

Fullness of life – true success, if you like - is found in living to serve others above ourselves. 

Despite my continued struggle with all of the above, (neatly summarised by the inner critic’s voice asking me ‘what have you got to show for your life?’), I am beginning to learn that ‘life in its fullness’ (as Jesus once described what he came to offer) is found elsewhere. So, what does this look like and how do we successfully access this fullness of life? This quote can come across – and I’ve heard it used as such – like a marketing slogan, dangling a golden carrot in front of sad or vulnerable people to recruit them into church. Presumably that wasn’t what Jesus had in mind.  

Now there’s no denying the fact that Jesus was one of the most influential people who ever lived. Arguably THE most influential. Generally, even those who don’t follow him recognize that what he taught was pretty timeless. (Also evidenced by the 2.6 billion people today who are happy to be called Christian.) All of this suggests he had some fairly wise takes on how to live life well, and that his perspectives have stood the test of time. So, when he is recorded as teaching about how to discover what he described as ‘life in its fullness’, the chances are there is something valuable and insightful for those of us searching for success.  

The thing is, in this particular speech, Jesus conceptualized ‘life in its fullness’ as a shepherd who ‘lays down his life for the sheep’. Sure, he was talking about himself, but he was also talking more broadly about the human experience. Jesus’ point is that fullness of life – true success, if you like - is found in living to serve others above ourselves. This flies in the face of much conventional ‘self-help’ wisdom, but it would seem you cannot find true abundance any other way.  

We might well think: ‘Well hang on a minute, Jesus claimed to die for the sins of humanity – we can’t all do that!’ Absolutely right, and please don’t try. But in dying and raising to life again, Jesus foreshadowed the journey of surrender and rebirth that each person who chooses true success must go through. As C. S. Lewis said: ‘Nothing that you have not given away will be really yours. Nothing in you that has not died will ever be raised from the dead.’ This new life of serving others above ourselves – where we seek to align our desires, loves and motivations, our use of time and energy, words and actions with those of Jesus – comes to resemble the promise of life in its fullness. Discovering that would seem fairly successful wouldn’t it? 


How to be (UnSuccessful) is published by SPCK.