Slices of bread – 7 Belonging

Being a further exerpt from my forthcoming book ‘Bread’ about how to simplify and refocus our lives.

(Placeholder cover: the real thing is yet to be revealed, even to me.

The story so far. Trauma makes you re-evaluate. When I did this, two things stood out as a uniquely life-giving and worth investment: belonging and creating. This section is about belonging. The hospital stories belong back in 2013, not anything more recent.


Bread

My search for what really matters – belonging

Crowds vs. networks

‘Belonging’ is one way of saying ‘being part of a network’. A network, as I mean it here, is a group of people linked by relationships.

Not all collections of people are networks. Here’s what aren’t networks: queues, crowds, traffic jams, flocks of tourists. Here are some examples of what are, or can become networks: a sports team, a squad of soldiers, an orchestra, a village fete, a live event when performers and crowd are feeding off each other, a classroom, a family.  All these can become sustaining communities that people love and fight for.

What’s the difference between a crowd and a network? Human relationships. Crowds that aren’t networks are life-draining; networks of people, working together, are life-sustaining.  I have been in traffic jams so profound that they turn into networks because drivers leave their vehicles and start talking with each other. A sports team can be transformed once it stops being a crowd of stars—or a crowd of mediocrities—and works as a networked, relational whole.

Networks let us pool and share our talents. They provide resources, guidance and self-worth. They protect us from external foes and, by setting norms, they save us from ourselves. And they satisfy our deep needs to belong and contribute. [1]

Networks and life-support

As well as being our superpower, networks are our source of meaning and life.

I have two scrapbooks in my study from my coma-month in May 2013. One was created by my family, one by the Intensive Care staff. They document what was going on with me in ICU, and in the world outside. My family have stuck in some of the cards and emails they received while I was ill. They also pasted news reports I might have liked. And they added in the letters they wrote to me.  I cannot read these books (or, it turns out, write about them) without the tears flowing.

They are so extraordinarily moving, almost intolerable, these scrapbooks. While I lay on my back plugged into medical machinery, a middle-aged, red-faced white man, the sort that you wouldn’t look twice at, heart disease fodder, my loved ones laboured under a burden of care and fear and fought my death like tigers. They read my books to me, they talked to me, they read Terry Pratchett novels. A doctor saw my mum mopping my brow and asked her why she was doing that. ‘He’s burning up,’ she told him. The doctor turned, walked away, visited the other ICU ward, and came back with an ice-blanket, the only one in the hospital and got me wrapped in it.

Each day, the ICU staff tenderly washed and shaved me.

Normally we moderate our expressions of love. Normally our loving hearts beat for each other under a coating of banter, criticism and everyday chat. Sometimes the coating is so thick we wonder if a heart beats under there at all. Death or near-death or the threat of death strips the coating away and we briefly feel the raging incandescence of human love. I think it is the greatest thing in the world. My coma-books are like me enjoying my own funeral without having to die: everybody’s kind to me and they don’t mention my faults. Their love also repaints my insides with sunshine.

Normally we moderate our expressions of love. Normally our loving hearts beat for each other under a coating of banter, criticism and everyday chat. Sometimes the coating is so thick we wonder if a heart beats under there at all. Death or near-death or the threat of death strips the coating away and we briefly feel the raging incandescence of human love.

A couple of weeks after I left ICU, but before I was finally discharged from hospital, my wife wheeled me round to the unit again. She was hoping to fill in some of the gaps in my memory. I was surprised to find that the nurses seemed to know me; I didn’t know any of them. My wife pointed things out. That was the room where the doctor told her that I wasn’t expected to survive the night. That nurse was the one assigned to me when I was hallucinating that it was our daughter’s wedding day, and I was trying to get out of bed, and almost weeping with frustration that I couldn’t …

I told this nurse from my wheelchair how sorry I was for causing all that bother, and I thought later how she was one of those people in the hospital who transcends treating you as a nurse only and treats you as a fellow human sufferer too. She wasn’t paid to care as much as she actually did care, and what a thing it is to find (as I often did in hospital) medical staff journeying well beyond professional expertise into deep humanity, caring for me.

It is overwhelming how important networks are to us. I don’t know how often you ask questions like, what have I achieved? What was the point? What am I proud of? Or even Why do I bother continuing to live? For me, the answer to all of that is being part of a network of people who apparently love me as much as I love them. Nothing else compares.  I’ve been a writer all my life but in all the millions of words I’ve sprayed about the place, happy though that has been, that career has not offered the quality of meaning or healing or worth that can compare with the simple discovery of being loved by my loved ones. The loving network trumps everything. 


[1] I’m indebted to Nicholas A Christakis and James H Fowler’s Connected (New York: Little, Brown 2009) for their insights. Theirs is the best book on networking that I’ve ever seen.

Slices of bread – 6

Being another extract from my new book

Draft cover. At the time of writing I’m still awaiting the proper one.

This slice of ‘Bread’ sums up what lessons I think adversity or suffering can teach. Smarty-pants readers, like you, will recognize where we have eventually landed after a long journey … the Beatitudes.


Bread

My search for what really matters – slice the 6th

Let’s collect up and summarize the lessons of adversity:

  • We are ordinary.
  • We are poor.
  • We are broken.
  • There will be losses.
  • Time compounds things, so it’s a good idea to live with integrity in both the large and the small. Integrity will still be holding your hand when charisma, success, pride, and boasting, and your good looks, even yours, have fallen away.
  • Approaching problems and joys a day at time, or a moment at a time, means you tackle them a scale you were built for and can manage.
  • Our life in the midst of others—belonging to others, making peace with others, exposing our lusts and terrors, our darknesses, to the kind light of others—is key to walking the long distance of life well. Suffering shared can lead to deep connection which is life.
  • Hoping and resolving to do something right and good, or to live towards the doing of something good, is a mighty weapon in the fight to reclaim your mind from itself.  Even if it’s slow. Even if feels like small steps forward after a catastrophic fall. Why? You find you are working with the grain of the Universe. The Danish philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard wrote a book with the title Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing. What a magnificent insight. (Perhaps I should read the book.) There is a course of life for us that is fruitful, being what we are, doing what we do, some good thing. It might be quite ordinary. Progress may be slow. Seasons may change while we await its fulness. But it is the path of life.

Slices of ‘bread’ – 5 – doing small things well

Being a further extract from my new book

This next extract from my forthcoming book is about doing little good things even when big things have collapsed around us.


Bread

My search for what really matters – part 5

All is not lost when all is lost

Here’s another path to tread in your head: do small things well even if big things have collapsed around you. Your great loss may not be as total as it seems; and your small acts of goodness add up.  Roiled around by the mighty tides of time, the little good things can overwhelm the big bad thing.

We can demonstrate this at both smaller and larger scales. Imagine you made a mistake at work. Imagine the mistake was not just human error but due to carelessness, ill-temper or even malice. Then imagine two separate responses:

  • Cover up, minimize, self-justify
  • Apologize, admit your fault, ask forgiveness.

Which is the better ‘strategy’? Much more important, which has integrity? Which behaviour will, in the end, do you the most good? Which path leads to the least complicated life? And which path, over time, will get you the respect you seek, and we all need?

Think of defeat and victory on a larger scale. Think of Nelson Mandela. He was troublesome and didn’t renounce violence. The South African state locked him up for life, with hard labour, a victory for them and a setback for him. He was off the streets and mostly out of the newspapers.

Mandela spent his 50th birthday in jail. Then his 60th.  And then his 70th. But it turns out that maintaining injustice in a society is like trying to hold a beach ball under water. While Mandela passed milestone birthdays, the South African state was exhausting itself. Internally, it was fighting to maintain injustice, against protests of every kind. Externally, it was facing a crisis of belonging: its membership of the club of civilised countries was being stressed by the general issue of national racism and the specific dunked beachball called Mandela. The real, jailed Mandela, working the limestone quarry on Robben Island, took every rare opportunity to study and lobby and organize.

Eventually time’s pressure on the state grew too much and the state folded. In his seventies, Mandela walked out of prison and into the presidency. The little good things he’d spent twenty years doing overwhelmed the big bad thing done to him. As president, he worked to reconcile the nation and he left when his time was up rather than clinging to office. In the contest, Mandela v South Africa, who won and who lost? How did the winner win and how did the loser lose? What part did time play? How did repeated small acts of integrity fare against large doses of injustice?

Slices of bread – 4 – discovering goodness

Being a further extract from my new book

This isn’t the final cover of the book, but it will do until the proper one comes along.

You may know by now that this book is a lockdown project, when I wanted to put down in order some of the things bouncing around my head and around this blog, about how a storm (in my case a medical storm) can usher in a time of healing and restoration and renewed focus. This happens to be my experience, at least from where I sit at the moment.

This extract looks at how adversity or suffering can lead us to a rediscovery of goodness. It’s a fairly long read, but I hope it may fit your weekend somewhere.

Bread

My search for what really matters – fourth slice


Goodness

Suffering can also bring out the goodness in the depths, in the same way that a storm can refresh an ocean.

Goodness is an unusual experience for those of us not used to it, but we can acquire a taste. Suffering offers the moment to step out.

Think of relational goodness. We are wrapped in a web of relationships. Sometimes our relational threads stretch to surprising people. The love embedded here is not always expressed, but adversity brings it to the surface. Their love for you is suddenly exposed in cards, notes, visits, gifts, calls, prayers. And you respond. Adversity gets you and them to say things that you’ve always meant to say. Saying them is a great gift and blessing. Letting love and pride flow back and forth down these threads of love, sprinkling them with tears probably, is not just a help to healing and thriving. It is itself the primary act of healing and thriving. Further repairs to your body or circumstances that may or may not follow are secondary. If you are lucky enough to be surrounded by a web of love, and most of us are, adversity is the time to know this and invest in it.  

Letting love and pride flow …is not just a help to healing and thriving. It is itself the primary act of healing and thriving.

What a treasure this is. In May 2011, in Palo Alto, California, a girl was sitting at the kitchen table doing her homework when there was a knock on the kitchen door. She went to open it and found Bill Gates standing outside. Upstairs the girl’s father, Steve Jobs, was ill with the cancer that would end his life. The girl let Gates in, and Gates and Jobs, the two rival tech titans, engineer and zen-gineer, spent time together. They talked, it is reported, about families and children and marrying well, and about Jobs’ plans for his yacht.[1] Gates’ visit, it seems, was to maintain, perhaps to fix, but in any case to re-emphasize, a relational thread between the founder of Microsoft and the founder of Apple.

A friend of mine who was dying of cancer pointed out that one of the good things about her cancer was that she got time to say goodbye.  Among other things, my friend arranged a party for all the women she trained with decades before. I observed her cancer was not a stressy round of treatments, anger, bitterness and disappointment but a kind of packing and farewelling for the next journey.

I agree that some adversity is better than other sorts for spurring relational goodness. In some adversity (illness, say), people send love and cards and you will feel their support; in other forms (a bad marriage, or bad breath, say), even your closest friends will fear to intrude and the shops tend not to stock cards.

But whether or not your adversity is the sort of adversity for which people send cards (Congratulations on 25 years of Irritable Bowels!), I still think any adversity can be manhandled into making you unearth good in yourself and those around you. So your anxiety or your IBS goes on and on? So does your resolve.

Set things right. Heal the relationships. Fix these things that you can fix and your whole world will be brighter. Setting things right means:

  • Saying the unsaid
  • Mending the broken
  • Straightening the bent
  • Tying up the loose ends

Here are some suggestions for adversity-propelled tentative steps towards goodness – both relational and personal:

  • Say everything good that needs saying to your loved ones. Don’t wait to regret not saying these things when you die.
  • Make peace with your enemies.
  • Get your affairs in order.
  • Work on your eulogy virtues, the things they will say at your funeral, like that you were kind, rather than your resume (CV) virtues such as your salesperson-of-the-year-runner’s-up award.
  • Sort out the God-and-eternity business in your soul.
  • Gratefully relish each ‘bright blessed day’, and ‘dark sacred night’.

More next week….


[1] The meeting is reported in Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs and it was previewed by Forbes magazine.