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”

This, too: or taking the good with the bad

I recently checked out from the library Rich Hanson’s book Hardwiring Happiness, which is all about experiencing positive experiences in a way that impacts neural activity longer term. This helps us overcome our in-built negativity bias which, while helpful at tunes in our brain’s evolution, can be less helpful in the modern world.

One idea that is so simple, yet so transformative, is the fact that just as some good fact doesn’t cancel out the bad things in your life, the bad stuff doesn’t cancel out the good.

And taking in the good adds up. Continue reading “This, too: or taking the good with the bad”

The pitfalls of the all-or-nothing mindset

I recently had one of the most relaxing, rejuvenating, fulfilling and productive weekends in a while.

What made the difference?

I challenged my all-or-nothing thinking and made do with what time I had.

Because lately I’ve noticed myself slipping into, “If I can’t do this right then I’ll wait and do it when I have enough time to do it right.”

You can probably see where that plan was doomed to fail. There never is enough time. Continue reading “The pitfalls of the all-or-nothing mindset”