‘In whose shade they will never sit’

Photo: My own

A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they will never sit.

Loved this when I read it this in a book called ‘Ten Survival Skills for a World in Flux‘ by Tom Fletcher.

(As to its source, these two references hunt around a bit. )

It doesn’t need commentary.

How to use a bookshop

It’s easy once you know how

PrettySleepy/Pixabay

For my birthday, my gifted wife suggested I visited a bookshop every month and bought a book.

Here’s some advice from celebrated economist John Maynard Keynes on how to use a bookshop:

A bookshop is not like a railway booking office which one approaches knowing what one wants. One should enter it vaguely, almost in a dream, and allow what is there freely to attract and influence the eye. To walk the rounds of the bookshops, dipping in as curiosity dictates, should be an afternoon’s entertainment.

John Maynard Keynes quoted here in Tom Fletcher ‘Ten survival skills for a world in flux’ (2022), p 66.

I don’t have a problem entering vaguely, almost in a dream (I apply the same technique to Indian buffets; practice makes perfect) but I failed in my March Waterstones assignment, in that I went to the bookshop but couldn’t decide which book to choose. Today was better. I came back with this:

Can’t wait.

Relevance in an age of transience

Any excuse for a pic of Ely Cathdral. This was a day or two before the first lockdown when it shut its doors for the first time in approximately forever.

What do you when when you were the young whippersnapper but are being replaced by still younger whippersnappers? I found this brilliant piece from Wired magazine by Megan O’Gyblin (March 2021) in my notebook. It made me want to read a lot more of her stuff. She was answering the question from a 30-year-old that began, ‘I’m only 30 but already I feel myself disengaging from youth trends.’ (This is an excerpt.)

The sense that our lives are part of an ongoing narrative that began before we were born and will continue after we die.’ I have barely dipped my toes in this, even after the all decades my heart has been beating.

I don’t mean to depress you, only to slightly reframe the question. If perpetual relevance is a chimeric virtue, as futile as the quest for eternal life, the question then becomes: What will make your life more enriching and meaningful? On one hand, it might seem that acquiring more knowledge—staying up to date on music, slang, whatever—will lead to more meaning, at least in its most literal sense. To grow old, after all, is to watch the world become ever more crowded with empty signifiers. It is to become like one of those natural language processing models that understands syntax but not semantics, that can use words convincingly in a sentence while remaining ignorant of the real-world concepts they represent. It feels, in other words, as though you’re becoming less human.

But knowledge is not the only source of meaning. In fact, at a moment when information is ubiquitous, cheap, and appended with expiration dates, what most of us long for, whether we realize it or not, is continuity—the sense that our lives are part of an ongoing narrative that began before we were born and will continue after we die. For centuries, the fear of growing old was assuaged by the knowledge that the wisdom, skills, and experience one acquired would be passed down, a phenomenon the historian Christopher Lasch called “a vicarious immortality in posterity.” When major technological innovations arrived every few hundred years rather than every decade it was reasonable to assume your children and grandchildren would live a life much like your own. This sense of permanence made it possible to construct medieval cathedrals over the course of several centuries, with artisanal techniques bequeathed like family heirlooms.

This relationship to the future has become all but impossible in our accelerated digital age. What of our lives today will remain in 10 years, or 20, or into the next century? When the only guarantee is that the future will be radically unlike the past, it’s difficult to believe that the generations have anything to offer one another. How do you prepare someone for a future whose only certainty is that it will be unprecedented? What can you hope to learn from someone whose experience is already obsolete? To grow old in the 21st century is to become superfluous, which might explain why the notion of aging gracefully has become an alien concept. (As one Gen Z-er complained of millennials in Vice: “It all feels like they’re trying to prolong their youth.”) Meanwhile, the young become, for the old, not beneficiaries of wisdom and knowledge but aides in navigating the bewildering world of perpetual disruption—in other words, tech support.

Someone of your age, of course, has a foot in both worlds: still young enough to count yourself as part of the rising culture, yet mature enough to perceive that you are not exempt from the pull of gradual irrelevance. One difficulty of this phase of life is feeling like you don’t have a clear role; another is the constant anxiety over when you will finally tip into fustiness yourself. But to take a brighter outlook, you also inhabit a unique vantage with a clear-eyed view of both the past and the future, and if there’s one thing we could all benefit from right now, it’s a sense of perspective. Rather than merely serving as IT for your older friends and relatives, you might ask them about their lives, if only to remind them—and yourself—that there remain aspects of human nature that are not subject to the tireless engine of planned obsolescence.

As for those younger than you, I suspect your life would seem more meaningful if you focused less on keeping up with transient fads and considered instead whether you have acquired any lasting knowledge that might be useful to the next generation

Ukraine, Russia and Orthodox Christianity

I enjoyed this fascinating article that is doing the rounds where I work, and thought it was worth sharing. It’s a criticism of Russian Orthodoxy’s support for Russia’s actions in Ukraine, signed by representatives of other Orthodox groups.

It’s also a critique of Christian religious nationalism in general. Worth brewing a coffee and reading.

If nothing else, after you’ve read it, you might have a new phrase to accuse people of, ‘ethno-phyletism’. It might also send you scurrying, as it did me, to look up the Epistle to Diognetus.

A declaration on the “Russian World” teaching.

How the Japanese live long and prosper

‘Keep busy and see friends, even over a drink or two’

The view from Yamanashi is pretty good too (credit: Pixabay)

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.

Another review

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.

Lisa C., Netgalley

A little bit more Bread

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.

Or you can join Netgalley and read it here:

Or even you can open your creaking wallet and pre-order here:

Not quite so good for the autocrats

In the latest annual report from the charity Human Rights Watch, director Kenneth Roth, in his usual thoughtful mood, sounds a nuanced note of hope for the world:

The conventional wisdom these days is that autocracy is ascendent, democracy on the decline. That view gains currency from the intensifying crackdown on opposition voices in China, Russia, Belarus, Myanmar, Turkey, Thailand, Egypt, Uganda, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Venezuela, and Nicaragua. It finds support in military takeovers in Myanmar, Sudan, Mali, and Guinea, and undemocratic transfers of power in Tunisia and Chad. And it gains sustenance from the emergence of leaders with autocratic tendencies in once- or still-established democracies such as Hungary, Poland, Brazil, El Salvador, India, the Philippines, and, until a year ago, the United States.

But the superficial appeal of the rise-of-autocracy thesis belies a more complex reality—and a bleaker future for autocrats. As people see that unaccountable rulers inevitably prioritize their own interests over the public’s, the popular demand for rights-respecting democracy often remains strong. In country after country, large numbers of people have recently taken to the streets, even at the risk of being arrested or shot.

So, many an autocracy may be more fragile than it appears. And autocrats, he implies, have a shrinking menu of options to choose from in the face of public discontent. You can shut down media sites, jail opposition leaders, neuter the courts but if that fails, you have to start shooting people. Or run away.

What can democracies learn from this? Do better, says Roth. Thought-provoking stuff, and well worth reading the whole thing.

Knowing your doctor well keeps you well as well

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’…

Slices of bread – 9 – The missing something

Can you smell bread being baked somewhere? Go find the loaf.

You deserve some sort of medal for sticking with these extracts over the past few weeks.Thank you. Suffering refocuses us (I have argued); ‘belonging’ and ‘making something beautiful’ show where we should refocus. The final part of the book tries to fit these ideas into a wider, and Christian, framework.

Bread

My search for what really matters – 9

The missing something

A lot of us know we are missing something. Are you missing something? Even in all the good things about you that your loved ones will mention at your funeral, are you missing something?

My testimony is that there are loose threads in our lives that if we trace them to their source, lead to God. This is unsurprising to the Christian, since we are inheritors of a shared story that humanity’s biggest problem is a ruptured relationship with our Creator. No wonder, then, there are loose threads; no wonder there are missing somethings.

I have met people who find one end of a thread of transcendence in their lives but haven’t found the other end. They seek it in music or in nature, for example. Some just get misty-eyed and sentimental. The writer Terry Pratchett had a transcendent encounter with an orang utan once[1]—I am not joking, they stood, unblinking looking at each other—and when dying of Alzheimer’s, he went all the way back to East Asia in a doomed attempt to find the orang again. Terry Pratchett is a hero of mine, a writer’s writer. But you can do better than locking eyes with an orang utan across a crowded jungle. I hope he did.

Others tug at loose threads in their lives by seeking harmony, or peace, or mathematical elegance, or love. Science, I have often thought, is driven by a love of beauty as much as by curiosity or by a desire to serve the common good. The Cavendish Laboratory in my hometown of Cambridge, whose toiling inmates have earned thirty Nobel Prizes as of 2019, has a text written on the old front door, put there by James Clerk Maxwell: ‘The works of the Lord are great, sought out of all of them that have pleasure therein.’ Open the doors to the Cavendish, he was saying, and through physics, seek pleasure, and seek God.

In the previous century, the philosopher Bertrand Russell was a famous atheist, even writing a book entitled Why I am not a Christian. But there are other sides to his story. Russell’s daughter, Katherine Tait, said of him: ‘Somewhere at the back of my father’s mind, at the bottom of his heart, in the depths of his soul, there was an empty space that had once been filled by God, and he never found anything else to put in it.’ Russell was now haunted by a ‘ghost-like feeling of not belonging in this world.’

Russell himself wrote in a private letter, ‘The centre of me is always and eternally a terrible pain . . . a searching for something beyond what the world contains, something transfigured and infinite – the beatific vision, God – I do not find it, I do not think it is to be found – but the love of it is my life . . . it is the actual spring of life within me.’[2] Look again at the main theme of the book, how suffering turns to rubble much of what we thought was good and reveals the main themes of life as networking and vocation, belonging and making. I have come to believe that these can only be fully worked out in relationship with God and his purposes. Their appearance in our lives without God is more like us hearing a melody on the wind, rather than getting the full symphony. They are the smell of baking bread, and they should put us on the hunt for the full loaf.


[1] The orang’s name was Kusasi, and diligent searching on the Internet might reveal more of this story. Pratchett’s Discworld character of the Unseen University’s Librarian is the greatest orang utan in fiction (in my opinion, but it’s a thin field).

[2] Both these Russell quotes were dug out by Prof. Alister McGrath and referenced in his Gresham College lecture Why God Won’t Go Away. Gresham College lectures can be accessed from their website. ‘Three brains’ McGrath has doctorates in biophysics, divinity, and intellectual history.

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