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’?

My week as a solo parent

recently spent my first week without my husband to co-parent our two boys with me. While  he was visiting some of his family in the US and having a short holiday for a week, I’ve been home, taking care of the boys, keeping house, and working my job.

I’ve always wondered how I’d fare, as I’ve been fortunate enough that neither my husband nor I ever travel overnight for work, so we’ve always been in it together.

One thing that surprised me was that it was easier than I had imagined it would be.

Of course, it’s a bit like the woman in the Pulp song Common People: I’m fully aware that spending a discreet time period as if I were a solo parent is not the same as being on your own with no end in sight. I still doff my cap very much to all the solo parents out there.

But being a solo parent, even for a finite time, meant that I had to be on it, every evening. There would be no one to tap in to help with bedtime or doing the dishes. My evening routine changed and had some surprising benefits.

And yet…in some ways, I found the experience enriching and has given me so much that I want to incorporate in my normal, happily married, co-parenting life.

Continue reading “My week as a solo parent”

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”

Enough is enough (in a good way)

I was listening to the Happier podcast episode 187 where co-host Elizabeth Craft was talking about going away for the weekend with her family. As a TV writer, she’s super busy with her new show that’s just been picked up, so she was struggling to get away early on Friday to go camping with her husband and son. Instead, they went without her to the campsite on Friday night so she could work late, and she joined them the next day and they all came back together on Sunday. She was remarking how great it was, and by the time she got there it was like she’d been with them the whole weekend. And her son Jack got to ride on the train and get some quality time with his Dad.

I’ve frequently been caught off guard by something that seemed lame or not quite good enough that ended up being perfect for my son.

Sometimes, enough is…well, enough. Continue reading “Enough is enough (in a good way)”

Parenting together and playing to our strengths

Have you ever been given the idea that you and the other parent of your children need to be consistent with one another as much as possible?

It can feel like becoming a two headed entity, and can often lead to friction when you don’t always agree on how to handle something that comes up in the quagmire that is parenting, like how to handle a behavioural issue or a challenging stage of your child’s development.

Well, I had an eye-opening interview with a parent as part of my research to better understand parents and the highs and lows they face. She said she advises new parents that they don’t have to do everything identically. In their child’s eyes, they are two separate people. The kid can understand that Mum does things one way and Dad does them another way.

She gave the example of a friend who got really upset because her partner had dressed the baby differently to how she does. They apparently had a big fight about it. But when asked why it mattered, the mother paused in her tracks. Did it matter if her husband dressed the baby differently?

Huh. Continue reading “Parenting together and playing to our strengths”

Embracing the seasons

We’ve had to turn on the heat in the early mornings, which are staying darker, longer. Leaves of orange and brown rustle under the empty swings at the park, and when the wind blows through the trees they rustle as only dry leaves about to drop can. It’s official: autumn is here.

There’s something to be said for embracing the season for what it is, not trying to make it what it isn’t.  Continue reading “Embracing the seasons”

Understanding Parents

I’ve recently embarked upon a small research project to help me understand parents better.

I want to understand what challenges parents face, what needs they might have.

Why am I doing this, when I’m already pressed for time (like all working parents)? Why add to my already overfull plate of kids, work, volunteering, maintaining the household, writing this blog, and coaching on the side?

Well, there are a few reasons. Continue reading “Understanding Parents”