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

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?

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”

A lesson about scarcity

I don’t know anyone who feels like they have enough: enough time, enough energy, enough money. Enough life.

It can feel like all of us live in a world of scarcity, despite knowing rationally that we have more than most humans have ever known.

We have so much, in fact, that we can too easily consume calories and exceed our body’s requirements. We have more spare time, more annual leave, and time to spend as we please thanks to time-saving gadgets like electric washing machines, tumble dryers, microwaves, and electric kettles. We even have more years of life than previous generations (from 71.13 in 1960 to 80.96 as of 2016).

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Perceived scarcity in a land of plenty

But as much as we can tell ourselves it matters how much we have, what really matters is how much we think we have. Continue reading “A lesson about scarcity”

To thine own self be true

There’s been a lot of change lately.

Adjusting to being a working parent again. Catching up on work after a year away. Half term holidays. The baby is learning to walk and fast becoming a toddler.

And if I’m really honest with myself, I think I’ve changed somewhat. I think it’s natural for parenthood to change some aspects of one’s self.

Interestingly, many of the parents I’ve spoken with as part of my research have found it easy to answer either the question of how they’ve changed, or how they haven’t changed; most seem to find one easier and more obvious than the other. Continue reading “To thine own self be true”