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.

Sices of Bread – 3

Another pre-publication extract from my forthcoming book

(placeholder cover: my real cover is still being designed as I write this)

One of my lockdown projects was to compile a book about how difficulty and trauma can cause us to rethink our lives and, if we are fortunate, how we can then go on to live simpler, better and more meaningful days. Without having anything particularly to boast about, and also because of lots of other things have gone in the right direction for me, this is where I find seem to find myself (at the moment). So I wrote about this, and called the book ‘Bread‘. I’m serializing it here on my blog and here’s the 3rd slice.

The story so far: adversity can cause a rethink of our priorities. Now read on…

Bread

My search for what really matters

So: adversity or loss or infirmity or disappointment or something has brought us to crunching halt. We are looking out at a landscape with a sobriety and clarity that is aided by our low mood. We are beginning to realize that there is quite a lot that is more important behind the glitzy and temporary frontage to a life of success, wealth or popularity. These are helpful thoughts, sobering. What do we do now? What parts of our mental landscape do we stop visiting? What new paths do we tread down?

The place not to visit

I want to suggest that the main place not to visit is the broken dream. I’m not saying you should never go there. But you should go there to clear up, say your goodbyes, tie everything off. You have lost and it is good to mourn.  So visit the broken dream if you must, but visit it less and less, let it go back to nature. It’s always going to be part of you, but it is a better part of you when it shapes a new future, rather than when it is a decaying present you are trying to primp, or when you are using it to define who you are today. You need to define yourself by something other than your loss, your sorrow, your ill-health, your former hopes, or your former state.

Instead of mooching around your broken dream, enjoying the gothic scene of heartbreak, your loosened hair romantically draped over the headstone of your loss, you might want to ask a few questions now that the urgency of your loss has passed.  Don’t feel the need to answer these hurriedly. Mull them over. Work them into your life.

What have I not lost?

What do I love?

Whom do I love?

What do I value?

Point your feet where these answers direct you. Keep asking the questions, and keep walking in the answers. You won’t fix everything in an afternoon, or a year, or in the rest of your life, but you will be walking the right road and you will at times find yourself in the green pastures and quiet waters that you have always wanted.

Slices of ‘Bread’ – 2

Being the second extract from my book on how to simplify your life

A second pre-publication extract from my forthcoming book , ‘Bread’.

This passage is about how unexpected troubles can set us on the path to rethinking our lives.

Bread

My search for what really matters (second slice)

In any crisis your body gives you an emergency shot of the panic juices. A course of fight-or-flight hormones may take you through a crash, or a hospital treatment, or a birth, or a breakup, or the funeral arrangements or whatever other intense time you must rise to.

Two things will then happen. You will have a bit of a tumble emotionally as the hormones leak away and normal tiredness takes over. And, second, because the intensity of the storm has passed, you can inspect your new world.

This season can be a blessing because it can give you a clear sight of what to do. It’s like clearing up after a party. The mess! The stains in the carpet! What are you going to do? Time for the cleaning gloves

So. The house is quiet again, and there’s a new post-trauma world to explore. What to do? Some thoughts:

You were broken already. You might feel that now you are wounded and before you were whole. I’m sorry to report that this picture is wrong. You might feel like a broken egg now, but you were never the whole egg. You were already cracked, back in the shop. All that’s happened is that you’ve revised your mental model of yourself. You always were needy, but you used to cover it well.

yellow paintedsmiley face eggs
Photo by ROMAN ODINTSOV on Pexels.com

Decide it’s work time. You’ve already vaguely suspected there are things to sort out in your life, but the calamity brings them into the open. The singer Debbie Harry explained her drug-taking: ‘Drugs aren’t always about feeling good … Many times they are about feeling less.’[1] True, but avoiding the pain with pharmaceutical assistance keeps forever dropping you back at the start, each time with a little more clearing up to do. You are made of better stuff.

Take time. You’ve done rushing for a bit. You can take some breaths, re-evaluate, start small.

Feel the fire. This is the best bit. There’s a fire burning inside you. Still. This is so cliched a thought that it may call song lyrics to your mind. I will survive! There’s something inside so strong! It’s probably best for everyone if you don’t actually sing—you are not a rock star for a reason—but on the bright side you have discovered something about yourself. You will go on. You will push on. We humans didn’t take over the world because we’re a species of wimpy losers. So the party’s over and your home is wrecked? On we go. On we go. The cracks let the light in. The breaking is the start of the mending.

Where are we heading here?

Where are we heading? Towards a rethink. Convalescence after hospital nightmares gave me the moment, and the need, to shut down some old mental pathways and open some new ones.  I sadly cannot declare final victory in this fight, but I do think that much of the time I have persuaded my brain to walk down a more promising road.

The breaking is the start of the mending

Suffering is our friend here. How do you see the new mental pathway that needs to be cut? That’s the clarity of low mood. What powers the cutting of the path? The fire inside you and your determination to see a better day, or at least another day. How does the path become well-trodden and familiar? By you taking it, day after day after day.  Facing adversity well, every day, sometimes every hour, builds a resilient brain. In the end you’ll have carved a fresh path with many delights where you love to walk.

More next week…


[1] Debbie Harry in her memoir Face It.

Slices of bread – 1

Being an excerpt from my new book about how to simplify your life and find what really matters.

So my second lockdown project was to spawn a new book about how serious illness led me to slim down and perk up my life. Here’s my preliminary cover, while my graphic designer friend is beavering away on a proper one.

On the grounds that everyone is entitled to my opinion, I’m planning to serve up a few extracts over the summer weeks. Here’s the opening salvo.

Bread

My search for what really matters (part 1)

We should reckon on 30,000 days in our lifetimes – 82 years. After that (if even we get that far) we will find ourselves mostly filling our days fending off the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The Second Law of Thermodynamics roughly means everything breaks, nothing lasts, order breaks down, we’re all going to die. Nothing in the Universe pushes back for long against the Second Law.

Thirty thousand days puts a cap on how many of anything we will do: how many books or boxsets we can enjoy, or create, how many cities we can live in, how many hot dinners we’ll have. We’ve got one ration of weddings, birthdays, weekends away, meals out, drinks with friends, quiet nights in, or moments to tell someone we love them. We’ve got a few decades to serve in a career or two, and perhaps raise some children. It might feel it will go on forever. It won’t, and in a hundred years we will all be dust and so will those we love.

If you feel any of these:

  • Life is passing me by
  • I’m not doing what I want to do
  • I’m not happy
  • I’m wasting my days

This book is for you. I’ve kept it short, because, hey.

It’s a personal story of discovery. My background is some years of life-and-death medical adventures, including my death in 2011 (reversed by electric shocks to the heart) and a four-week coma in 2013. People who spend a long time in Intensive Care end up paralyzed, so during the year and a half after 2013 I had to learn again how to eat, swallow, walk and go to the toilet.  Eventually I put the wheelchair in the garage and resumed a life that feels, at the time of writing, restful, purposeful and happy. I still may have thousands of days unused if I’m, as my dad says, ‘spared.’

Life is the opposite of the countryside in that you see the widest views at the lowest points. I think most people learn things about themselves during adversity. I had time to ask questions like ‘What am I for?’ and ‘What am I hoping for?’ and ‘What I am spending my time on?’

I found answers that are good enough for me. I think they are the lessons everyone learns, but those of us who have been force fed these things through medical events, perhaps, are forced to face them quicker. I found them simple enough and roughly these:

  1. Suffering helps us focus on what really matters and can stop us heading down dead-end paths in the quest for fame, success or respect.
  2. Belonging is key to long-term thriving.
  3. So is purpose.

This book, them, is about how to simplify your life, and how to make you less restless, more content and more productive. I hope it helps. None of it is complicated. Some of it will happen to you anyway. Maybe this book will help you recognize and cooperate with the ripening and mellowing that is already underway in your life.

More next week, if you can bear the tension.

Why good people do bad things sometimes

We’re sneaky, clever, and at war with ourselves

I recently finished my friend Andrew Chamberlain’s novel Urban Angel, which is a gritty story of people trying to do good things despite themselves, despite their circumstances, and despite supernatural interference.

The part of the book that really got me thinking and that I really enjoyed was his unvarnished exploration of how and why people who are signed up to serve God do bad things. His fictional treatment was I think better than most non-fictional treatises (such as this post, for example), and an intriguing, rare, read.

What it isn’t, I have come to think, is simple ‘hypocrisy’, as in, knowing the right thing to do and deliberately doing another thing and hiding it. I think it’s a lot more subtle. We Christians are more like the British Labour Party, creaking under the strain of internal warfare as different parts of us seek to take over the whole. Here are some of the participants in the war:

  1. An honest desire to serve the God who has loved us and given himself for us.
  2. A sudden, unexpected, animal attraction.
  3. An indulging of said animal attraction, at least so far as letting it make its case to the rest of our human person. Maybe more than once, and with variations.
  4. A blanking out from the mind of the inevitable consequences.
  5. An exercise of crazed theological reasoning to give ourselves a free pass toward indulging said attraction.

After that, anything can happen. Throw in, as Andy Chamberlain doesn’t, but as much recent actual history does, a power imbalance, say between a powerful man and a rather vulnerable victim, add some privacy, and boom, chaos, hurt and destruction.

Scary. Scarier than the demons who also make their way into Andy’s book, but are conveniently dispatched. Andy’s to be congratulated for laying it out so bare.

Quiet revolutionaries in the workplace

It could be us

Here’s some aspirational stuff on what the Christian faith can do for those of us who work with others. This is from Katherine Alsdorf who herself used to work with Tim Keller’s Redeemer Church in New York, and co-authored a book with him.

If we as the people of faith can work with purpose, partnering with God in his love and care for the world, if we can admit our mistakes more readily because we experience God’s grace, if we can love others and serve them because we’ve been loved and served, if we can find hope that helps us persevere because we believe in his kingdom that will end all brokenness and wipe away every tear, then, I think the faith and work movement will be the forefront of evangelism.

Are you jealous of your coworker? The gospel can change that. Do you fear that you’ll fail at what you’re doing? How does the gospel calm your fear? Are you having trouble getting up in the morning to face work? Or trouble stopping work in order to rest. As a matter of fact, work is a bit of an idol factory. It leads us to overvalue success or money or security or recognition or comfort. And the gospel helps us to root out those idols and turn to Jesus for our salvation. And when we do that, we change. Our hearts change. I love it. I love it when it happens to me and when I see it in others. I see people change from hating to loving their colleagues, from fearing failure to stepping out in faith. This gives a good start in applying the gospel to work and our work lives.

The big silence, or the long eternity

Each has its appeal

Am still enjoying astrophysicist Katie Mack’s book ‘The end of everything.’ She’s a funny and smart guide through the physics of either end of the Universe. Having sketched out various ways of everything ending, her epilogue makes some space for thinking about what it all means. Some of this is delicious to think about.

Whatever legacy-based rationalization we use to make peace with our own personal deaths (perhaps we leave behind children, or great works, or somehow make the world a better place), none of that can survive the ultimate destruction of all things. At some point, in a cosmic sense, it will not have mattered that we ever lived. The universe will … fade into a cold, dark, empty cosmos, and all we’ve done will be utterly forgotten.

Katie Mack, The End of Everything p 206.

She asks fellow astrophysicists what they think about this. ‘Sad’ says UCL cosmologist Hiranay Peiris. ‘I suppose it makes me start thinking about the problems we face as a civilization on a much shorter timescales. If I’m going to worry about anything, it’s gonna be those, not the Heat Death [of the universe]’ says another cosmologist, and former comic, Andrew Pontzen.

Others warm to the idea. ‘I just like the serenity of it’ says Pedro Ferreira. ‘So simple and clean.’ Renēe Hloẑek calls it ‘cold and beautiful’ the way the ‘universe just sorts itself out.’

I found myself sneakily liking these thoughts, despite spending a lot of time being a Christian and believing in eternity. In a universe that just shuts down and switches off, some thorny problems go down with it, not least eternal suffering, which might cheer up Fydor Dostoyevsky or James Joyce a bit. (Or my querulous demon Stub in my Jamie’s Myth trilogy.)

On the other hand, Katie Mack also quotes Iranian-born physicist Nima Arkani-Hamed: ‘I don’t know how [to find a purpose to life] that doesn’t transcend our little mortality … I think a lot of people at some level …. will do science or art or something because of the sense that you do get to transcend something. You touch something eternal. That word, eternal: very important. It’s very, very, very important.

We only know of one place in the universe where parts of the universe worry about this stuff at all: us, and here. And among us, among the many reachings-out to eternity that happen, we also have the story or rogue data point of the resurrection of Christ. Which could be a breaking in of the eternity that Nima Arkani-Hamed says is so important, and could be something whose consequences overtake cosmology itself. Interesting.

How my wife and I view my office differently

Once my son left for post-graduate studies in the USA, at, as I like to mention, an old New England school called Harvard1, we decided to turn his bedroom into an office.

Given the scale of clean-up required, we were pleased to get it done inside six months. Ever since it has been a congenial homeworking space for me from which torrents of gleaming prose pour out to my dozens of readers.

She and I look at the space differently. I see a happy place, where dust-motes whirl in the sunshine, where I am surrounded by tech, and where I have all I need for life and godliness, namely, silence, solitude, interesting books, a congenial view and the Internet.

My wife, looking at the same space, sees a different country. I mean look at the dust, the tea-stains. And it stinks in here. Moths are building dynasties in the corner. The carpet is littered with pills which grandchildren will come and eat and then die horrible deaths. Your desk, if you can call that pile a desk, is a monument to a deranged mind.

My wife has superb taste: she married me. It just shows how even the good can be off sometimes.