I have supplied copies of the pre-publication edition of my book Bread to about 40 people by now, and some have come back with comments. At one point my book talks about ‘doing small things well’ even if ‘big things have collapsed all around you’ (p 39 of the draft).
Both my suppliers-of-comments applied that idea helpfully to aging and decline. I hadn’t thought of that. In my book I’d applied it to failure and shattered hopes. Perhaps I should start thinking about decline: certainly I notice that on walks that I have taken for thirty years, formerly with our dog, and now alone, lots of extra hills and slopes have apparently been fitted. I couldn’t probably manage a dog now though that is strictly speaking a health issue rather than age in my case.
The fun part about decline, my correspondents tell me, lies precisely in doing small things well even when big things have slipped out of one’s grasp. How wonderful, when declining, to aim to be the sort of person who lifts the spirits of everyone who they meet. How wonderful to be joyful, kind, giving, happy, even as the body seizes up.
And you meet people like that. For them the downward slope to physical dissolution is rather overtaken by the upward slope towards the glory of God.
A fine thing to aspire to, as the night falls.
You can still download a free pre-publication copy of Bread just here:
And a reminder: I do welcome comments, via the comment section here, and I especially welcome honest reviews. To do those, go to your favourite review site (Amazon, for example) and just share a few honeyed words about what you think. Readers are smart: be honest about the deficiencies; it won’t necessarily stop them buying the book. I think you may have to wait till after publication day on Feb 19 2022 to paste in your honeyed words.
Publishers call these things ARCs or Advanced Review Copies. I’d love you to have one and then if at all possible leave an honest review somewhere (like on the sites where it is offered for pre-publication). Reviews, as you know, are a currency of the Internet.
Even if you don’t feel up to reviewing it, please help yourself anyway. I’m very fond of this book and would love you to see more than the brief extracts I’ve already shared.
I will also very much welcome any comments and criticisms you may have. My wife was the first reader of the ARC and has already pointed out one or two risqué jokes that I will take out of the edition that finally appears on Feb 19, as well as other mistakes and inappropriateness. So if you want the version with risqué jokes and inappropriateness included, now’s your only chance.
Do share this with anyone you think would like it. I’ve set a download limit of 500 on the number of ARCs that can be issued and the offer all ends on Feb 18.
Look at this from Private Eye‘s wonderful ‘MD’ (aka Dr Phil Hammond) (15-28 October 2021 p 8)
The model of general practice – trying to manage multiple complex risks and needs in very brief encounters – has long been unsafe and unsustainable. You have 10 minutes to help an 80-year-old woman who is arthritic, breathless, recently bereaved and on 12 tablets. It takes three of those minutes to walk her from waiting room to consulting room.She wants to talk about her late husband; you want to ensure her breathlessness was not a red flag for a life-threatening condition or a side effect of the pills you have prescribed.
It takes another three minutes to undress her and get her up on the couch to be examined. And yet her main reason for coming was loneliness.
A study of Norwegian health records, published in the British Journal of General Practice, found that — compared with a one-year patient-GP relationship — those who had had the same doctor for between two and three years were about 13 percent less likely to need out-of-hours care, 12 percent less likely to be admitted to hospital, and 8 percent less likely to die that year. After 15 years, the figures were 30 percent, 28 percent and 25 percent.
Healthcare depends crucially on relationships, and staff knowing and understanding you.
Imagine a GP being resourced enough to combine a vocation as a doctor with the time and stability to develop relationships with patients. Vocation and relationships … just like in a book I recently wrote, which I may have occasionally mentioned in this blog. And which is still ‘forthcoming’…
If you’ve been with me over the summer, you’ll have seen that this book is about how adversity and suffering can change your life for the better. Better still, you can change your life for the better without the adversity and suffering (by reading the book). Suffering makes you realistic about you are — strips you down, perhaps. But two things can then build you up. Belonging — the art of belonging — is one (see last week). The second is vocation — doing something beautiful. Which is what this extract is all about.
My search for what really matters (8)
Don’t die with your music inside you
Vocation is about intentionally not dying with your music still inside you.
I was very ill when I first came across this thought and it was galvanizing. Since ‘galvanizing’ means ‘using electricity to coat something with zinc’, it wasn’t literally galvanizing, but it was a lifeline in the forever-January experience of convalescence. Then, and since, the idea of vocation has lit something in me that helped me fight to be well and stay well.
Don’t die with your music still inside you. Ask yourself. Other things being equal, feet still roughly on the floor, need for realism acknowledged, what would you love to do? I love asking this question of people. What gives you energy? What is fulfilling? What do you love? What would frustrate you if it were never let out? A famous theologian described vocation as the meeting point between ‘your deep gladness’ and ‘the world’s deep need’. Where does that sit for you?
I hesitate to give it an upmarket name like ‘vocation’ because for some people it means cheerfully and faithfully doing ordinary things. For others, though, it might seem a long way from what they are now and you would never guess it. A person with a career in software wants to turn wood. A researcher would like to be a receptionist in a hospice. Others have found a love of counselling. I know a couple of people who find sanity and happiness through making time to paint. I know that in horrible places of infirmity I have been buoyed by the thought of writing something original, creative and quirky. This is vocation knocking: the chance to take something that belongs to you, and to give it out. Breathe deeply of it, and you oxygenate your soul.
Vocation has designed cathedrals that will last a thousand years and spun melodies that the world will sing forever. It has squeezed goodness and grace out of places where only the banal should exist. Vocation is God’s fingertips brushing the earth through the actions of people. And when we live out our vocation we furnish our lives with satisfaction and happiness. Vocation is bread for the hungry soul, a satisfying meal.
I love watching people in their vocation. Someone came to our home to do some carpentry. His first love was restoring antique furniture. His eyes lit on our dining chairs, things that had tumbled to us down through our family as heirlooms. He knew which 19th century decade they were built in and named the style. He told us what he could do to them if he had them in his workshop for few days.
My son and I both have physics degrees. My physics degree helped me to ascend a few small hills and look across at mountain peaks of human thought. My son, though, climbs these peaks for fun. He knows how partial differential equations work, for example. He understands Maxwell’s equations, beautiful things that describe all of classical electromagnetism. I see him in a team experimenting on lone atomic particles that are in near-perfect vacuum and nearly at absolute zero. Even as a child he loved maths problems.
You stumble into vocation all the time. You wander into an office and find people who have time for you and all the resources you need. Someone bakes you a wonderful cake. You see a mum organizing her children or a teacher with her class interested and working hard and happy or arguing furiously with each other about finer points of maths.
Fine, you may say, but a vocation is a bit of a luxury if you’re a single parent just holding everything together or someone already buckling under the strain of just earning enough, or you are battling pain and depression, or you are in a toxic workplace, or you are retired. I am not so sure that you are right. For these reasons:
Thinking about vocation at least enables you to set a direction for where you’d like to go and what you’d like to be.
It probably also points to something you’re quite good at.
It points you to a higher ambition for your work than just as a vehicle to being solvent or (worse) rich, respected or lauded. These false gods shrivel your soul. Vocation nourishes it.
Even if you don’t change career, thinking about the work you love may change how you spend some of the odd scraps of time you already have. If you can’t be a professional musician or artist or footballer, be an amateur one. It still will feed your soul. Who knows where these small beginnings will lead? Take a step.
Change to your current circumstances might not be as impossible as you think. If, God forbid, you got a serious illness, or a divorce, you would change things around fast enough. Emails and schedules that tower above you now wouldn’t look that way then. They don’t matter so much really. The world won’t stop even if you stop. If you died tomorrow, someone would fix all the emails or finish the jobs. But that thing which is you, that thing you can give to the world, no-one else can do that like you do it.
Negotiate a compromise between vocation and career. This is why artists become graphic designers or would-be session musicians become tutors, or novelists get paid as journalists. Wiggle a little.
Remember life has seasons. The pages turn. Kids grow up. Debts get paid down. The rush to complete qualifications passes. Workplaces change. If your life is a busy river, abuzz with boats and criss-crossed with bridges, so hooting with shipping that you can’t take it all in, it may not stay that way. This river will probably evolve into something fat and lazy as it nears the sea, weaving slowly through the bulrushes like a jazz solo. Maybe your vocation awaits a new season. But start it now.
Your vocation is your chance to be big, beautiful you. Do you really want to miss this? So take some steps. Do something. Do something. Don’t die without giving us a song.
Being a further exerpt from my forthcoming book ‘Bread’ about how to simplify and refocus our lives.
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.
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.  …
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.
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.
 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.
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.
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.
This next extract from my forthcoming book is about doing little good things even when big things have collapsed around us.
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?
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.
My search for what really matters – fourth slice
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.
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. 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’.
Another pre-publication extract from my forthcoming book
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.’ 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.
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.