Good servant, poor master

I first heard the phrase about something is a good servant but a poor master in relation to money. “Money is a good servant but a poor master.” And it struck me in its simple truth.

People with money will be the first to say how little it matters, but anyone who has worried about how they’d pay the bills, or realising they’ve overdrawn their account trying to pay for the most basic of groceries, or driven their car on empty praying to make it home until they could get paid tomorrow, knows it matters a lot when you don’t have it.

Money can’t buy happiness, but it can pay for a home you own instead of renting from a spendthrift landlord. It can pay for courses so you can retrain and leave the job you hate to do something you love. It can enable you to travel and see the world. It can buy paint and canvases or a computer on which to write your novel.

But the biggest thing money can buy is the ability not to think about it. Having enough money that you don’t have to worry about it but not so much that you think it means more than it does is the goldilocks zone.

This is the real meaning of good servant, poor master. When money serves your life and greater goals, it’s great; when your life revolves around getting more of it, it’s awful. Money, in and of itself, is quite neutral. It’s our relationship to it that makes it helpful or toxic.

And it struck me there are other things like this. What else makes for a good servant, but a poor master?

Technology

Mobile phones, social media, the world wide web of information all at our fingertips, what’s not to like?

A lot, obviously. Internet trolls come to mind. As do relentless notifications and a nagging sense of missing out on something whenever I step away from my phone.

On the one hand, it’s great, because social media sites have been built to give us a dopamine hit every like or retweet. Who doesn’t secretly enjoy when they get loads of likes to a comment or post, or whose post is shared and becomes viral? On a deeper level, as a US immigrant living in the UK, I know facebook has enabled me to keep in touch with people from old neighbourhoods, from across the Atlantic, from school, from old jobs, from phases long since gone from my life. It’s been nice reconnecting with old school friends or the person who was my best friend and idol for a few short years when we lived next door to each other.

But it also means getting caught up in an argument about Black Lives Matter with my (apparently, I’ve learnt) racist great Aunt. Or feeling bombarded by 57 messages from my son’s class parents Whatsapp group during a working day that was already overwhelming, wondering what bomb had befallen the school, only to find it was nothing remotely relevant to me.

So how to reap the rewards without the drawbacks?

It will vary for each of us, as each of us has a different relationship to our tech. For me, I’ve had to limit facebook and make sure I do more fulfilling and enriching things in those pockets of time throughout the day when I think, “I’ll just check facebook to kill time…”. Before I know it, twenty minutes will have passed and instead of feeling connected to old friends I feel aggravated by arguments about masks. So instead, I try to limit my facebook to certain times of the day, and never first thing upon waking or last thing before bed. I’ve also found I needed to switch off notifications on every. single. app. I. have. Warning: the apps do NOT like this, but once I find how to do this for each app (some more forthcoming than others), I’ve never once regretted it.

As soon as I realise I’m starting to get my news from facebook, or I’m scrolling further in the newsfeed *because* I’m bored, it’s time to switch it off. Since re-activating this rule (I fell off the wagon big time during lockdown), I’m reading and writing much more, and my life feels all the richer for it.

News

Speaking of news, another “good servant, poor master” area is the news. As Rutger Bregman writes in his most recent book, Humankind (which, along with Utopia for Realists, I highly recommend):

“Imagine for a moment that a new drug comes on the market. It’s super-addictive, and in no time everyone’s hooked. Scientists investigate and soon conclude that the new drug causes, I quote, ‘a misinterpretation of risk, anxiety, lower mood levels, learned helplessness, contempt and hostility towards others, [and] desensitisation.’

“Would we use this drug? Would our kids be allowed to try it? Would government legalise it? To all of the above: yes. Because what I’m talking about is already one of the ten biggest addictions of our times. A drug we use daily, that’s heavily subsidised and is distributed to our children on a massive scale.

“That drug is the news.”

Okay, so first off, I’m NOT talking about ‘mainstream media’ like it’s some great conspiracy. Nor am I suggesting it behoves any of us to stick our heads in the sand, especially with so much disruption to the norm at stake right now. We owe it to ourselves and our fellow citizens to pay attention to our governments, especially now as so many true colours are showing.

But…

The daily news cycle, just like social media, knows what keeps our attention and will use that, even when doing so doesn’t align with our intentions for following the news. We may want to be informed citizens, but often the news coverage creates an unrealistic perception of the world. As violent crimes or airplane accidents have fallen in recent years, news coverage has increased significantly.[1] [2]

The important thing then isn’t to swallow the news hook, line, and sinker, or to assume staying glued to the news will necessarily help you be a good citizen. What do you need to know more about in order to act – either to vote, or protest, or petition, or simply be aware of so when the time comes to act, you know where you stand? Focus on that, and let go of the rest.

Advice

Taking advice and listening to others is a real virtue. It’s one I’m not great at, myself, which puts me at risk of seeming like a real pain-in-the-ass know-it-all. I don’t think I am a know-it-all, but I have learned that I am reluctant to take advice and like to learn things for myself.

However, I remember a point in my life when I avidly sought out advice, and that was when my first son was born. I read the books that friends recommended. I devoured blog posts. I asked fellow new mums at coffee mornings and sing-along groups.

Then came the night my then-six-month-old couldn’t fall asleep and lay screaming in his cot, while my husband and I stood over him. I was in decision paralysis. Anything I did was going to damage him for life. Leave him to cry a few minutes? His cortisol levels will soar as he thinks he could be eaten by a tiger any minute. Pick him up and nurse him? He will never learn to self soothe. I turned to my husband, saying, “You’ll have to decide! I have read too much to know what to think anymore!”

So sometimes, advice can be useful. It broadens our horizons and helps us see other perspectives. It’s been so helpful to listen to others’ experiences during 2020 – to truly hear what my friends of colour have experienced, and what they would like their white friends to do to support BLM. To understand how my trans and non-binary friends feel about a Biden/Harris ticket. How my middle-aged cousins feel about rioting, the police, and the military. How my long-term Democrat friends feel about third-party voters when so much is at stake.

But when it tips beyond that, it can leave us either angry, disenfranchised, bullied, or paralysed. I know that no matter what I do, I will not please everyone. My vote in November will offend someone, who thinks I’ve either sold out or thrown it away. Speaking up about BLM may seem like whitesplaining, whereas being silent can easily be seen as complicity.

Ultimately, I can listen, hear, empathise, and understand. But my decisions will be my own. The advice is useful as it feeds that decision, but it cannot stifle the decision or take it away from me.

What to do when they start to become bad masters

We will all experience times when any of the above might start to overstep their usefulness and start to negatively impact our well-being and happiness. But what to do without throwing the baby out with the bathwater?

As with most things, there’s no one answer of the ‘right’ way to deal with any of these issues. Not just that two people will have different solutions based on their lives and dispositions, but even the same person may find different approaches most helpful at different points in their life.

So instead of solutions, here are some questions to get you thinking.

How does this serve me?

What am I looking for when I turn to money/the news/technology/advice?

How else can I meet that need?


[1] http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.929.624&rep=rep1&type=pdf

[2] https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/theplanetruth_chapter.pdf

Parenting in a pandemic and navigating a polarised society

If you, like me, have been struggling with some of the many decisions and opinions that coronavirus is throwing at us, then this post is for you.

As parents, we are having to make all sorts of decisions. And there are so many deeply polarised opinions, many of which can trigger quite strong reactions in all of us.

The school question in itself has created a lot of turmoil for me, not least because there are so many different viewpoints amongst my circles. And frankly, some of these viewpoints are expressed strongly and in absolutes. There is literally no opinion I can have, it seems, that won’t rub someone the wrong way.

This in itself is not new. As parents, we can easily feel judged about everything. It feels a long time ago when I learned I needed to just connect to my gut, listen to the evidence and ultimately decide for myself and my kid. It’s simple, but not always easy.

But the pandemic has forced us to appreciate how much our individual choice impacts the wider community. My choice to wear a mask (or not) impacts you, either directly (I could get you sick) or indirectly (the more people refusing to wear masks could increase the spread of the virus and prolong the situation).

This struggle between personal choice and collective responsibility is also happening amid a widening awareness about privilege.

My view on reopening schools or easing lockdown is of course influenced by my own privilege. That I have a job I can do from home makes me lean more towards slower easing of lockdowns. That I have found a way to work effectively whilst keeping my kids at home will allow me the privilege to feel differently about schools reopening than perhaps a parent who is finding that more difficult for any number of entirely valid reasons.

Conversely, another white middle-class person’s insistence that schools reopen because they are struggling to work from home with their kids at home is speaking from the privilege of having healthcare and being lower risk, whereas someone from the Global Black Majority may feel differently after seeing the higher rates of mortality amongst her ethnic group.

Each of these people could very easily label the other as selfish. In a way, they’d be right. One person’s opinion to keep schools closed and lockdown measures in place could seriously harm a person unable to earn money if my views were enacted. Another person could harm someone at risk if their choice of reopening the local school led to illness or death.

How do we reconcile the challenges and different forms of privilege we’re seeing to the very real need to come together as a global community to get through this pandemic with as little heartache and harm as possible?

Step 1: Own our challenges honestly and without shame

Just like with parenting in normal time, people will have different specific challenges. It’s like when one of the mums in the mum-and-baby group had her baby sleeping through the night and another is running on caffeine and fumes after being up all night, every night, for months. But that exhausted mother has been able to breastfeed without issue whereas another mother battled tongue tie and poor latch until deciding to bottlefeed formula (which she still feels sensitive about).

And that’s okay. They are all okay. It doesn’t mean any of them are doing anything wrong because they’re struggling where another one wasn’t.

We will each have different struggles through this, and it helps to be able to understand our own challenges without feeling ashamed. If I don’t admit my struggles to myself, and can’t see them as valid struggles without internalising them as a personal failing, then I cannot see how they are shaping my world view.

Step 2: Own your own privilege

Just as we can own our challenges, we can reflect upon and name our privileges.

And as with our challenges, owning our privilege or helpful circumstances isn’t about shame or apologising. It’s just seeing it for what it is.

And just as our challenges can shape our worldview and political opinions, so can our privilege, especially when left unexamined. I could favour policy decisions that could really harm someone else in another situation, but not see it.

Step 3: Listen and appreciate others’ struggles

This is only possible when we can understand and own our own struggles and privileges without defensiveness.

As we understand the challenges that others are having, even if they do not resonate with our own lived experiences, we can start to understand why there are so many different views on contentious issues.

Step 4: Reflect, discern, decide, and act

Ultimately, we will not all agree on any course of action. Of course we won’t. This doesn’t mean we cannot and should not act on our convictions. But by going through steps 1-3 above, we do so without blindly being swayed by our own personal circumstances. We do so with eyes open to the challenges we are all facing.

This also means we can try to find holistic solutions. If there’s a negative externality to what I have decided is the best way forward on an issue, then we can start to talk about how to address that. Yes, it’s a bit like finding a medicine to treat the side effect of the cure, but we need to be able to talk about solutions without believing in a magic cure that has no downsides for anyone. But if we can honestly strive to understand the full lay of the land, we’re in a much better position to be able to problem solve creatively and innovatively.

Before I go…

I admit that the reason for writing this post is that I needed to read it. I have not always been doing the above. Far from it. We will still feel angry and triggered by people for refusing to wear a face mask in Costco or for someone saying your selfish or politicising an issue for having a different opinion to them.

But it’s also so freeing to be able to name and own our own challenges and privileges.

The other part of the above steps where I know I’ve personally not followed my own advice recently is the step of reflection and discernment. Partly it’s because there has been very little time and headspace.

A large part of this though has been that a lot of the conversations on this topic I’ve been having have been on social media, which is not built for discernment. I read a post or comment, I feel an emotional response (often anger or vindication), and I reply immediately before scrolling on. And repeat. Many times over.

So I personally will be going back to limiting my social media usage and making sure to have more time to reflect and discern, to read without replying. Only through following these steps do I feel I can act with conviction – whether that’s to campaign for schools to remain closed, or to decide whether it’s safe/responsible for me to take my family on a staycation, or to find my way forward to promote racial equity.

Journal prompts

Here are some prompts to journal or reflect upon that I’ve found helpful to explore my own challenges and privileges.

What has been hard for me lately includes…

I’ve surprised myself in finding ways to cope / finding some things easier, such as….

What circumstances in my life have helped me?

In what ways do I feel ‘lucky’?

In what ways do I feel ‘unlucky’?

Living on pause

Some advice from Bertrand Russell about overcoming the fear of death, that I struck me in the existential dilemma of facing a global pandemic:

“The best way to overcome [the fear of death] – so at least it seems to me – is to make your interests gradually wider and more impersonal, until bit by bit the walls of the ego recede, and your life becomes increasingly merged in the universal life. An individual human existence should be like a river—small at first, narrowly contained within its banks, and rushing passionately past boulders and over waterfalls. Gradually the river grows wider, the banks recede, the waters flow more quietly, and in the end, without any visible break, they become merged in the sea, and painlessly lose their individual being.”

Using Russell’s river analogy, many of us are in the rushing past boulders phase of life. And suddenly, our waters are still. Even momentarily, even if only for a few weeks or months, the rhythm of our lives has abruptly changed and we’ve had no real say in the matter.

Russell’s advice about how to grow old feels relevant because we are all facing our own mortality right now. We are facing our impotence to change the situation. And we are seeing the pace of our individual lives changed to something unrecognisable to that which we had chosen for ourselves. We are, in many ways, facing an accelerated glimpse into our own ageing and death. We are living out an existential experiment of sorts.

Wider interests that help the walls of the ego recede also help the physical walls we find enclosing us recede. I have found this in recent experiences of contemplation, reading poetry, and learning to play the guitar. The more time I spend beyond myself, the more time I enjoy free from the knowledge that I am not in control of what happens to me or anyone else.

This is easier said than done. I know I’ve experienced this isolation differently from one hour to the next, in a long string of countless hours.

Sometimes I am grounded in the practical requirements of work – send this email, work on this project, do this load of laundry…

Other times I am unable to focus on much more than listening to the birds singing and feeling sun on my face as I sit in the garden…

Still others I want nothing more than to scroll aimlessly through my phone, glimpsing through self-curated posts how other people are experiencing this… 

Sometimes I feel exceptionally connected to my family as we play a board game together, and other times I feel something akin to rage coursing through me as I try to get just five minutes to myself without someone asking something of me.

So I talk about this advice from Bertrand Russell with a massive caveat, which is there are times when we lack the bandwidth to take on anything beyond our immediate. But when we can, there is an easing of tensions. To be free from my own ego, and to connect to something larger than myself, I can glimpse the painless merging with the sea that awaits all of us some indeterminate time into the future.

What interests could help you escape the walls of your ego, and the four walls of your home right now?

Resignation

As I face another day juggling working from home with childcare, without a clear end line in sight, I am reflecting on how time itself behaves differently in times of crisis and upheaval.

In some ways, time has slowed down. Days stretch ahead of me without the familiar forced transition points of childcare drop-offs, commutes and plans outside the home. I’ve been working from home three weeks but it feels like three months.

And in other ways time continues to race past me. The days blur into one another. Trying to get things done at work seems to be taking longer. I keep thinking I’m nearly there with something, only to have it drag out into another day, and another.

Part of me responded to the crisis by being productive – maybe too productive. Churning out ideas for disaster-mitigation at work, cooking, cleaning, limited large grocery shopping trips, exercise at home, schoolwork, volunteering, checking in on neighbours. It all crashed yesterday.

I hit a big snag on something at work. A rather big setback. And I’m still not able to resolve it. This would be frustrating under normal circumstances, but it is yet another situation outside of my control – a microcosm of the global situation as we lose control to a virus.

What can we do when something is beyond our control?

Resign ourselves to it.

This does not mean giving up entirely, or letting the powerlessness overwhelm us. But fighting only works for so long. Fighting against something outside of my control will take its toll. I realise that if I look the demon in the face and resign myself to it, I can let go of a lot of the tension between myself and my reality.

Once we have resigned ourselves to the uncontrollable, we can move forward to the next step.

Identify the need / problem.

My need in my work situation is to find income. The uncontrollable factor was some misquoted figures that led me to make certain decisions and recommendations that now seem mistaken, as apparently the figures were inflated.

I have been going down a rabbit hole of trying to right the wrongs that have happened, which inevitably leads to blaming/shifting blame, dread, or circular conversations with myself where I try to logic a way out of the problem that started in the past – obviously far beyond my control in this moment.

But actually, it’s far easier once I’ve resigned myself to the uncontrollable (the initial figures appear to be wrong and inflated) to identify the problem or need (I need to find other ways to reach the target I’ve set).

Now that I’ve left the uncontrollable behind and refocused on the problem before me, I can move forward to step three.

Create a new plan that is in my control.

Now I’m clear on the problem, I can be creative again in finding ways to solve it. Instead of rehashing past data and past decisions, most of which I cannot not change, I am back in control and able to think laterally.

Resigning to isolation

I write this blog because I need to read this blog. I hit a real low yesterday, and whilst it was triggered by mundane work stuff, I genuinely believe it was the culmination of, well, everything that is beyond my control right now.

When will we be able to end this isolation? Will anyone I know and love get this thing and not survive it? Will my husband and I have jobs on the other side of this?

It’s easy to spiral. But all those questions are largely beyond my control. So instead, I’m learning to resign myself to this new reality. I thought I had done so weeks ago, but I’ve realised I have still been holding on tight to a false sense of control.

And I can now refocus – what is the need? Marshall Rosenberg, a leader of Non-Violent Communication, has said that needs are never in conflict. Strategies to meet those needs might be, but the needs themselves do not create or necessitate conflict.

I have been in conflict with reality. So now, I’m trying to re-centre on what my needs are, so I can think of coronavirus-compatible ways to meet those needs.

Journal prompts

I can’t do __________ because of __________.

If _____________ was not fixed, then I could try or learn _______.

I need ________.

Some strategies that might help meet this need are _______.

Fullness, not busyness

Recently, I’ve been reflecting a lot on how I can do more: I want to help others and the planet. I want to be present for my kids. I want to work at and enjoy my marriage. I want to invest and find comfort in my friendships. I want my work to be meaningful and impactful. But how to do it all?

Some people choose a word or a motto as their theme for the year, a sound bite rallying cry instead of self-punishing resolution. Early in January, as I ran laps around my local park listening to a podcast on the subject, I tapped into this desire to do and live more, but found it tricky to find the right work to encapsulate it. “More” was a contender, except that it implied too much plate-spinning, cramming my days with even more. I also considered “nourishing,” but it suggested holing up in a spa, not getting out there and doing more.

I settled on the word “fuller” as a mantra. I wanted to live a fuller life. Fuller doesn’t necessarily mean more. Eating a healthy, appropriately sized meal can be more fulfilling than consuming a load of empty calories. “Fuller” brings with it the challenge of considering something before declining, pushing myself out of my comfort zone and being willing to dream bigger.

In practice, it has spurred me to sign up for a half marathon for the charity Terrence Higgins Trust, nearly eight years and two kids since I ran my first and only half marathon to date. It has led me to reading different books than I usually read, making more efforts to see my friends, and taking chances at work, throwing myself into the charity I work for with less caution around preserving work-life balance and more permission (from myself, to myself) to feel ambitious and passionate.

Which leads me to last week, sitting in silence at my local Quaker meeting as the question of how I can do more good in this world sat before me. And the phrase from Advices & Queries that came up again and again for me was, “Attend to what love requires of you – which may not be great busyness.”

I’ve loved this line since I first came across it. As a mother of young kids, I appreciated that it seemed to take into account the limited bandwidth at this season in my life, often interpreting that what love required of me was very often that I focus first on my kids’ needs and wants.

But more recently, as I reflected on it, I’ve thought again about the distinction between “busyness” and “fullness”. Busyness might be the empty calories of pointless meetings, scrolling through social media, and getting sucked into the tribalism and pageantry of politics. Fullness is making an impact at work, for the cause and those around me, whilst connecting with friends and family outside of work and getting involved in grassroots political actions and informing myself for upcoming vote.

In short, busyness is draining; fullness is empowering.

What would fullness look like for you?

How is fullness for you different from busyness?

On Purpose

Today I want us to talk about purpose.

Why purpose

There may not be a unified meaning of life, but I don’t think we can think about happiness without thinking about purpose.

As psychologist and author Paul Donan writes in Happiness by Design, happiness is experiences of pleasure and purpose over time. Everyone needs both pleasure and purpose, though the particular calibration of the two can vary person to person and over time. I’m naturally inclined to need a hefty dose of purpose, which is why I carve out “spare” time and use it to coach, or write, or volunteer. My husband, on the other hand, probably needs a bit more pleasure in the mix. But we both need both to be truly happy.

Happiness writer Gretchen Rubin had a similar observation in her book The Happiness Project, in which she said to be happier, you have to think about feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right, in an atmosphere of growth.

I think the emptiness of pleasure without purpose is depicted well in the movie Seeking a Friend for the End of the Worldin which a comet is coming to destroy Earth and nothing we can do can stop it. Faced with impending doom, a lot of people go into full-on party mode with orgies and drugs. A scene in which a massive party is happening and someone offers heroin to kids (because why not?) is particularly illustrative to me that pleasure for its own sake seems awfully unsatisfying and depressing.

A study showed that students literally walking up a fairly steep hill estimated the hill’s steepness and difficulty more accurately when they reflected on their purpose,  whereas those who didn’t tended to overestimate the challenge. The challenge was still there for both, and all participants acknowledged it, but having a purpose made it more bearable.

So we need to feel good / experience pleasure. We want to avoid feeling bad / experiencing pain. And we need to feel purpose / growth and avoid pointlessness and stagnation. And doing so makes the necessary challenges of life feel truer to size and worth overcoming.

An example of defining a purpose

But what do we mean by purpose? And how to we go about finding in a modern life?

Purpose needn’t be an all-consuming calling. It can be the work we do, which also brings us an income, or it can be raising our kids, or writing a book.

During a recent bout of illness, I binge-watched Call the Midwife and reflected a lot on what my calling is (spoiler: it’s not to be a midwife). I realised I craved the sense of community the characters shared as they fought against injustice and needless suffering, and I wanted to help people, but beyond that, I struggled to feel like I had much of a clear-cut purpose.

When I returned to my daily life, I saw many opportunities to nurture this vague concept of a calling – caring for my kids, listening to their smallest cares (as the things that seem small to me now are actually quite big in their worlds).

Even at work, I felt purposeful when I was doing work that was helping make a colleague’s life easier or helping a supporter.

I even noticed a feeling of purpose whenever I connected with a wider community, in small ways such as a brief conversation with someone on the train, or making eye contact and really listening to a colleague at work talk about something bothering them.

I also felt when the opposite was true – meetings at work that meant nothing and led to no change or decision… the hubbub on the class parents’ WhatsApp group… the time wasted on work that never would see the light of day.

How, not what

My purpose, I realised, would never be an all-consuming singular passion. The closest thing I’ve ever had to a calling is the deep-seated desire to be a mother, which I don’t take for granted having known the possibility of it never happening. Yet even as powerful as that calling has been, it has never been so all-consuming that I saw it as my only calling.

Sometimes, purpose can be as much the how we live as the what we do. My purpose is to help people, to bring more compassion and kindness and love into the world. And I am happiest when I can do this, even in small ways, every single day. I don’t feel a prescriptive need to help people by doing a specific job or being just one thing, but wherever life takes me, I know I must infuse my life with love, compassion, and helping others.

Questions to reflect on

What is your purpose? Is it a ‘what you do’ kind of purpose or more of a ‘how you live’ kind of purpose?

How can you build more of this into your life?

More than dust

The testimony of outward simplicity began as a protest against the extravagance and snobbery which marked English society in the 1600s. In whatever forms this protest is maintained today, it must still be seen as a testimony against involvement with things which tend to dilute our energies and scatter our thoughts, reducing us to lives of triviality and mediocrity.

Excerpt from Faith and Practice, North Carolina Yearly Meeting, 1983

…When I have something very difficult to face that I know I can’t cope with, then I turn desperately to the source [the Light, the seed, God, the holy spirit…]. One of the things I find most infuriating about myself is that I often let the contact go when the emergency is over and flounder along without it for months on end when my everyday existence could be transformed by it. It is as if I opened the blinds in my house for only an occasional hour when – for example – I had an important visitor, or a cable arrived, or I had to sweep up some broken glass; and afterwards allowed the blinds to fall closed again. So that for ninety-per-cent of the time I bumble around, do my housework in semi-darkness, strain my eyes trying to read and can scarcely discern the feathers of those to whom I talk. More than anything I want to learn to live in the Light. So I think, anyway, but in fact I perhaps don’t altogether want to take the demands involved, don’t want to see all the dust in my life.

Quaker Faith and Practice, Fourth edition, (20.05), Jo Vellacott, 1982

Working for and with people with cancer, I have regular reminders of what matters. When the diagnosis comes and the worst is true – you have cancer; it has spread; there’s nothing more we can do – it can be the first day of the rest of your life. An awakening. A rebirth. A chance to live before it’s too late, to move beyond existing as you did before. I’ve seen bankers transform into marathon runners and poets, living their last years more fully than perhaps all the years before.

And it feels shameful to squander my health, my relative youth, my children’s early years, on distractions which ‘dilute our energies and scatter our thoughts, reducing us to lives of triviality and mediocrity.’

Yet I do just that.

Dentist appointments. Updating wills. Renewing passports. Boiler maintenance. Paying off my credit card. Vacuuming. Complaining to the bank. Delayed trains.

We are a “quintessence of dust” indeed, to quote Hamlet, when we live our lives this way.

That’s not to say that life is only meaningful when we don’t have to deal with these things. Of course, I have to make dental appointments, update my will, pay off my credit card. I have to work a day job that pays the bills, and it’s hardly my choice whether the trains run on time.

Perhaps this is why the quotes at the beginning of this article struck such a chord with me. Pulling back the curtains and letting the light in allows us to see the room for what it is, dust and all, so we can choose what we do with it. And hopefully see what is the furniture in the room – the stuff that matters hidden amidst the dust.

Not that this is easy. A simple life may be demanding. Freed from the distractions, what is left? Love. Truth. Justice. Self awareness. Compassion.

These are demanding. They are hard work. But they are the opposite of the trivial and mediocre life.

Journal prompts:

When I pull back the curtain and let in the light, the dust I see is…

Without this dust to dilute my energy and scatter my thoughts, what’s left is…

My simplicity is a protest against…

My simplicity allows more _______ in my life, which this week will look like ________.

You can fill these in as many times as feels right.

Example:

My simplicity allows more kindness in my life, which this week will look like prioritising the projects at work that will help people the most.

My simplicity allows more love in my life, which this week will look like being really present with my children.

 

Lessons from trees

Wangari Maathai was working on women’s empowerment and preparing for a UN conference about women and the issues they faced globally at the time. Listening to rural women talk about the problems they wanted to solve, she heard them talk about water, food, energy, and a means to earning an income themselves.

As a child, Maathai remembered her mother teaching her not to chop down the fig trees, as these were sacred in their traditional worldview – something that imperialism and missionary work hadn’t quite fully unrooted (yet).

Fastforward several decades, and Maathai was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for her work founding the Greenbelt Movement responsible for planting millions of trees across Africa and beyond. She realised that trees could solve the root issue (no pun intended) behind many of the problems women expressed around livelihoods and quality of life, as well as helping ensure security and reduce likelihoods of human conflict over limited resources, by increasing those resources.

She also learned that those sacred fig trees that were ripped from the ground after living there for hundreds of years had actually been holding the ground together with their deep and widespread root systems. She deduced that if ripping them from the ground led to increases in landslides and flooding, planting them back and protecting them might reverse the trend. And she was right. There was wisdom in the traditional beliefs, regardless of whether we explain this as god or ecology.

So why do I share this? Aside from inspiring us all to plant and protect trees as quickly as we might try to save a more apparently sentient being, this story holds a key lesson: an elegant root solution can be more powerful and practical than numerous patches. Continue reading “Lessons from trees”

The cult of convenience

I’m going to say something here that is not popular and may be controversial: convenience has no inherent virtue.

The value of convenience is the time/effort/attention it saves us that we can devote to something else more meaningful.

Yet sometimes it seems we’ve fetishised convenience so that it has become an unquestionable end in its own right.

There are three main problems with this that impact on happiness. Continue reading “The cult of convenience”

Holding onto your self in the sea of life

I recently met up with a friend who is going through a divorce. When I saw her, the first thing I noticed was how amazing she looked.

As we sat down with our drinks and I started to take in the details – hair recently dyed to cover stray grays, eyebrows thick and neatly waxed, a cool outfit – she said, “That’s something that’s changed now he’s left – I will not sacrifice my self-care.”

Continue reading “Holding onto your self in the sea of life”