Gavin Francis’ book Recovery — GP’s take on the neglected art of convalescence –:
has a brilliant example of what good, or harm, our minds can do as part of our well-being; worth quoting. Francis talks about two middle-aged men who ‘a few weeks apart both suffered a cardiac arrest and collapsed, ostensibly dead, but who were successfully resuscitated with electric shocks. Both were then fitted with portable electronic defibrillators …[that were] about the shape and size of a matchbox’. If either man collapsed again, ‘the portable defibrillator would sense the change and shock the heart back into a healthy rhythm.’
‘For one of the men, the intimate experience of the proximity of death, the fragility of life and his new reliance on the implanted defibrillator was utterly traumatic. He began to suffer panic attacks and fiddled ceaselessly with the swelling beneath his collarbone. He couldn’t find a way to stop fretting that it might fail. At the time of his cardiac arrest he had been working as an administrator but he found himself unable to go on working. He was afraid to be alone, and his nights became a torment of insomnia.
‘For the other man, the almost identical experience of collapse and then resurrection became an epiphany of gratitude. His new life was a gift, he said, for by rights he should now be dead, and all the tedious, niggling irritations that once troubled him seemed to dissolve. It was enough to be able to breathe this air, walk on this earth, see his grandchildren. He had always lived modestly, but now began to emjoy sumptuous meals, fine wine, and booked holidays to places he would never before have considered visiting.
‘He had died, but then he lived again, and that new life into which he was born seemed one of richness, tenderness and gratitude.’
Again I’m writing about healing, partly because I’m living it, partly because what I picked up from many years as a Christian now seems so wrong and there is so much rethinking to do.
I’m still rethinking, and I’m still breathing, both of which I feel are important.
The last few weeks: we bought a disabled buggy, a wonderful little thing, and took it on holiday. (It folds into the car.) We were with our daughter and son-in-law and grandchildren and there was much walking on the prom and the cliff-tops, all of it now painless and easy. Nor was anyone needed to push me around in a wheelchair. And I could give the kids rides. So now in God’s riches I have an electric bike for longer journeys around Cambridge and an electric buggy for when I am with others.
Then yesterday I took the train down to my specialist heart centre in London where they retuned the pacemaker in my chest. A week or so before that, after phone calls from me, I had downloaded the pacemaker data and sent it to the hospital via a piece of kit that lives under our bed. The hospital looked at it and called me in and did the necessary reprogramming. Amazing. It is early days for this treatment but I feel less breathless and my wife tells me I am no longer blue to look at. Those guys at the hospital (both female guys as it happened) don’t just measure your ECG; they modify it and tweak it. They don’t take an ECG lying down. They press buttons and see what happens. Such fun!
This techno-assistance, though, seems a far cry from the New Testament where the Lord Jesus or the apostles did their stuff and immediate physical transformation appears to have happened. My electric buggy and the retuning of the extraordinary electronics that supply my heartbeat seem a different order of a thing to that. Why can’t (as Naaman asked) a prophet just wave his hands over me and make me well? Does this techno-medical intervention really count as ‘healing’ at all? Or is it a second-best solution for those whose lives are so cold and lacking in faith and zeal that the real healing stuff never happens to them? What is healing after all?
The New Testament contains hints that what I have heard doctors call the ‘psycho-social’ parts of healing are important, just as are the physical deliverance parts. Ten lepers were cleansed: only one came back to say thank you. Was there a lingering psycho-social unhealing among the healed lepers? Body fine, head in wrong place. Demons are driven out of the Gaderene demoniac. He is seen sitting clothed and in his right mind. But Jesus tells him to go home to his family, rather than joining the band of disciples. Is that to complete his healing? To address the pyscho-social roots of what got him in such a state in the first place? As it is, Mark records that the former demoniac takes up a speaking ministry in the Ten Towns, and Mark is silent over whether or not that was what Jesus really intended for the man. Interesting.
Then I watch friends, with a cancer diagnosis say, put their lives on hold until the treatment is completed. I observe, I think, I might be wrong (I hope I am), that they are putting all their eggs in the physical healing basket. Zap the cancer, go back to the life we had before. Nothing else matters.
I am so not so sure that this is right. (Of course I have to allow for the fact that I am sitting in my garden, at my ease, contented, writing this, not suffering some medical emergency or hospitalization which would indeed require a lot of effort and focus.)
But still. I am coming to believe more and more that healing is life today, bread today, thriving today and that it is entirely God’s business how he delivers that. All good gifts come down from the Father of lights who does not change as the shifting shadows: buggies, pacemakers, holidays, instant miraculous physical transformations, play, vocation, nice food, people you love and good relationships with God and others.
I am coming to believe more and more that healing is life today, bread today, thriving today and that it is entirely God’s business how he delivers that.
Of course, you have to qualify that idea. There are seasons of emergency actions, long wintry paths of mourning, times of brute endurance of the deeply unpleasant. It’s hard to speak of ‘thriving today’ in the face of those. But still. Healing is thriving. Healing is enjoying our lives, nourished by God’s daily bread, despite everything, in these ramshackle tents of ours, before they are replaced for good with the eternal mansions of glory.
‘Keep busy and see friends, even over a drink or two’
Fascinating Economist article about Japanese efforts not just to live long but to live well, long.
(As a subtext the Economist in recent months has come to see Japan as a harbinger of all our futures and rather than being an economy to fix, they are an economy to watch as they tackle problems that many developed nations will face in coming days.)
They mention some novel ideas: a step counter on your phone that gives you discounts in shops related to how many steps you do. But then they focus on a district called Yamanashi, ‘a bucolic prefecture at the foot of Mt Fuji’ that is one of the top two prefectures for healthy life expectancy. They say this about it:
Helping people stay healthy, rather than simply alive, involves looking at broader social and environmental considerations. Jobs are essential. Working longer keeps people physically and mentally active, but also keeps them connected to others. Yamanashi has the second-highest elderly-employment rate in the country.
Social networks—the real-world kind—play a big role, too. Strong ties with friends, family and neighbours make for better mental health, more active lifestyles and better support. Investments such as upgrading cultural facilities or creating mobile libraries to serve remote communities may not appear to be health-related, but can benefit public health, says Kondo Naoki of the University of Tokyo.
In Yamanashi, many public-health specialists point to mujin, traditional local microcredit associations which have evolved into something more like social clubs. Members chip in funds for regular gatherings, often over noodles and sake (some prefer tea or mah-jong). Mr Kondo’s longterm studies have found that those who participate actively in mujin stay healthier for longer, even when controlling for wealth and other variables. The group activity offers a sense of purpose, and also acts as an informal safety mechanism, with other members noticing when someone is absent or looking worse than the previous month. “Being lonely is most detrimental to health,” says Nagasaki Kotaro, Yamanashi’s governor, who recently started offering subsidies for mujin. The secret to a healthy life, then, is similar to a happy one: keeping busy and regularly seeing friends, even over a drink or two
Economist, February 4 2022
It’s lovely they get to the same conclusions as I did in Bread: networking and vocation being the very stuff of life. Makes me think there might be something in them.
OK, I get that it may not excite you all that much but it’s just lovely for me. I do appreciate Netgalley, putting early editions of books in the hands of reviewers who don’t know or owe the authors of the book. More than all the gatekeepers in the world – agents, publishers, booksellers — actual readers are the people you want to hear from:
I raad this book as a Christian, and someone who has had to come to terms with chronic illness changing their ability to be “successful” and “productive” in the traditional sense. Initially, it wasn’t the book I expected. I didn’t realise that it is the second in a series and I was expecting to read more about the author’s personal experience and faith during his recovery after his coma. Whilst it does mention this, the book focuses in a more objective way on key elements that we lose or rediscover in a different form when we experience a life change. I have to admit to wondering for a while where this book was taking me. I am immensely glad I kept going, because from the fourth chapter, Making, this book really sings for me. It opens up the scope of the term “vocation” in a way that is both exciting and affirming, and exhorts us not to “die with your music inside you.” I highlighted almost that entire chapter! Although many years a Christian, I came found new and thought-provoking ideas in the following chapter, Believing (don’t panic, no heresy!). This is where the author really brings all the previous chapters together. The loose link to the experiences of convalescence and dealing with a significant change in life becomes much more concrete. I’m excited to read more of Glenn Myer’s books and have already bought one. Although it took me a while to get into this book, I feel he has wise and important things to say on life in general and the combination of life, faith and vocation in particular.
Sorry if you are a regular reader and already Breaded out. My book (to be published Feb 19 2022) is on Netgalley, which is a site where reviewers and early editions of books meet, and I’ve seen a couple of reviews. It does something nice inside me when if I see people are finding the book helpful.
Here’s one of them:
I just finished the book Bread by Glenn Meyers in one day. Like everyone else in the human race, I am in the midst of an existential awakening. Through the fears, doubts, pain, and damaging health implications of these times, I find the author’s experiences and ultimate wisdom helpful. What I liked most is his ability to face his circumstances without fear but with reality that leads to humility, wisdom, and strength. I especially liked the questions he includes to evaluate one’s life. The answers help put everything in proper perspective. One day at a time, one step at a time, even through pain, we move to who and what we were always meant to be.
Another Advanced Review Copy reader (a friend this time) wrote to say that his wife and he
have both read your book and talked about it more than we have talked about any other except perhaps the Bible … I have never read such an authentic account … think it should be required reading for anyone trying for a caring profession.
So this is great.
You can still — for a few more days — download the free Advanced Review Copy here. Thanks to those of you who already have.
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.