Posts Tagged ‘Life’

We were recently enjoying reading a discussion of Koan on Huffington Post, those unique Zen buddhist stories that deliberately leave the mind searching for meaning and discernment. We were prompted to do so by the observation of a reviewer that Scorsese’s latest film – Silence – is not a parable, but a koan. Never having heard the word before, we beetled off in search of enlightenment.

Anyhow, a bunch of practitioners of Zen were asked their favourites, and this one stood out for us over here at the Wellthisiswhatithink temple.

Koshin Paley Ellison
Co-Founder of the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care

Once a monk made a request of Joshu.
“I have just entered the monastery,” he said. “Please give me instructions, Master.”
Joshu said, “Have you had your breakfast?”
“Yes, I have,” replied the monk.
“Then,” said Joshu, “wash your bowls.”
The monk had an insight.

That fascinating little snippet was attended by this work, entitled “Mumon’s Poem”:

Because it is so very clear,
It takes longer to come to the realisation.
If you know at once candlelight is fire,
The meal has long been cooked.

The Gateless Gate

Ellison’s discussion of the koan was instructive:

“I love this koan. I am the student in the midst of my life, waiting for life to happen. I am the teacher pointing to this latte on my desk. I am the bowl that needs washing and the breakfast already eaten.

How do we enter our life fully? It is right here. How do we want to live? Can we allow all the joys and sorrows to enliven us? Or do we just go along with all our patterns and habits?

People who are dying always remind me: ‘I can’t believe I wasn’t here for most of my life.’ That’s one of the most common things I hear, and the biggest regrets.

Many people have not inhabited their life because they’re just waiting for other moments. Are we waiting for life to happen in the midst of life? How can we give ourselves fully to our lives, moment to moment? Don’t wait. Life is always right here.”

empty-rice-bowl1

That is powerful ju-ju right there.

The comment ‘I can’t believe I wasn’t here for most of my life’ stuck us very forcefully. We can all find it easy to be distracted, both by the immediacy of what is going on around us, our “worries” and “cares”, and also by our hopes for the future. As John Lennon once put it, “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.”

We left the reading full of determination to live more in the now.

To value each moment – every single moment – as being full, valuable, with purpose.

Not purpose to do something, or even to prepare for something, just full, in and of itself.

As we write, a desk fan blows cooling air onto us on a hot day. Listening to the world around, we become aware of music we were not consciously listening to, and of birds singing outside. Calm descends. It was always there, this calm, but we were ignoring it, choosing a busy – and ineffectively busy – mind, instead.

Wash your bowls.

woman

 

For 200 years. No, 400. Make that a round 700.
She has walked this street.
The same small, bent woman.
Separated from herself only by the inconvenience of birth and death.
She wears black. Her husband died decades back.
Lost at sea. Killed by the Turks. Hanged for thieving.
Shot by the Nazis. A cigarette heart attack.
And still she walks. Up and down.
Back and forth on this one long endless street.
To the tomatoes.
To the salt cod.
To the rooms she cleans for pennies.
And then home.
Hello to a friend in her window.
To the quiet room, and quiet dignity.
At the end of her street, at last.
For another 200 years. No, 400.
Make that forever.

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Your indefatigable correspondent doing what he does best, Dear Reader

Your indefatigable correspondent doing what he does best.

You find us on our occasional travels this bright autumn day, Dear Reader, this time to Italy again, to see the immortal Southampton Football Club scale the tobacco-smoke-filled heights of Inter Milan at the San Siro Stadium. Which lofty ambition was thwarted by our customary inability to score from a hatful of golden chances, while Inter Milan scored from their only shot on goal of the game, much of which they spent with eleven men behind the ball and employing every niggly, nasty, time-wasting tactic imaginable, which makes their baby-snatching victory all the more galling, but heigh ho, that’s football. And anyway, what can you expect from a game administered by an obviously blind namby-pamby incompetent fool of a referee, played against a bunch of [insert nakedly inappropriate insults here], who have made a virtue of winning by playing so badly the other team subsides in a heap of confusion and frustration. Bah, humbug and curses to youse all.

We would not use our precious leave to re-visit a country we have explored before, in reality, were it not for the precious nexus of European football and a bunch of good mates traveling to see the game, but Italy is one of those wonderful, shambolic, loveable, infuriating experiences that makes a return trip enjoyable under any circumstances.

If one can ever get there, that is.

Having left home 36 hours before one finally schlepped up to our Milan hotel bedroom, one could be forgiven for thinking the Arab states have got it right and it is, per se, perfectly appropriate to cut the hands off whichever idiot air bridge operator crashed their charge into the side of our plane, thus occasioning all of us to get off again and spent an uncomfortable few hours inside Dubai terminal C waiting for a new one to complete the hop to Milano. Or whatever it is they do to ground crew who mistake their handling of what must be the slowest vehicular transport known to man for racing their new Mercedes and proceed to crash it into a $250 million Airbus, leaving an unsafe dent in the fuselage. “So sorry, Effendi, I just didn’t see it there.” Yes, medieval torture has its place in modern jurisprudence, especially when its 40+ degrees outside and your credit card isn’t working any more than the airport air-conditioning so you can’t even indulge in an iced Starbucks as you disappear into a puddle on the immaculately scrubbed floor. Even the mid-day call to prayer over the loudspeakers fails to lift our spirits. If Allah existed surely he wouldn’t let bad things happen to good people, right?

Milan is, of course, the jewel in the crown of northern Italy, home to fashion and fashonistas, and wandering its streets waiting for the game to start it is hard not to be struck by the fact that everyone is, well, not to put too fine a point on it, beautiful. The women are beautiful – effortlessly, so, with their immaculate coiffure and laughing eyes, high on life. The men are beautiful – boldly so, with their perfectly cut clothes in impossible, improbable colours. There is an air of stylish self-confidence evident everywhere. The short fat people are beautiful. The tall skinny ones are beautiful. Beauty is ageless – the retired indulge the autumn of their lives by dressing in designer fashions that actively defy death and wrinkles. Even the homeless guy pushing a trolley does it with a certain panache as he greets the street vendors who know him. The African migrants trying to sell useless tatt table-to-table in the piazza have adopted their hosts’ insouciant air of belonging, and the street-mime working the restaurants for tips is genuinely funny in a knowing, mocking manner. This is a city high on art culture, so that performance permeates its very fabric. Performance is the core standard. Everyone has an eye on everyone, and knows for sure that everyone’s eyes are on them. It is, frankly, as invigorating as it is scary. So one pulls in one’s belly fat and smiles at the impossibly gorgeous girl at the next table with what you hope is an appropriate devil-may-care atteggiamento. To your astonishment, she flashes you a warming smile back that would melt a Milanese gelato at a dozen paces. This stuff really works. It’s a psychological conspiracy, adhered to by all. We are all beautiful. Keep the faith. Pass it on.

churchSomewhere, a bell tower tolls the hour. Very loud. And very near. And all around, other bell towers take up the tune. The saints clustered around their tops stand impassively calm as the wild clarions ring out, as they have for centuries. They ignore the bells, as the walkers in the street ignore them, as we ignore them. Only the pigeons are startled, but not for long, and return to walking over our feet looking for crumbs.

Our hotel does not disappoint.

It is purple, for a start. Purple from top to bottom.

The grout in the bathrooms is purple.

The walls are purple.

The artworks are purple.

The helpful advice folder in the room is black type on purple paper, so that it can only be read when held under the bedside light at about two inches distance, at which point, like an ancient Illuminati text in the floor of a cathedral, it reluctantly gives up its arcane knowledge of the impossibly complex local train system.

table-and-chairsModern art furniture assails the eyes. Somewhere a table and chairs in the shape of a glass and two steins beckon the unwary. Stay .. drink … relaaaaaax. Tom Hanks rushes into the lobby, crying out to anyone who will listen that it’s not the Metro we allhotel need, but rather the slow suburban S2 line, except they’re on strike. He rushes out again, pursued by a bald monk with evil intent. Or it may have been a postman.

The carpet in the lobby is purple. Your head spins, and not just because ten minutes before you’ve gone arse-over-tit on the laminate floor in your room and you’re no longer quite sure what day it is. Ah yes, it’s match day.

Two Limoncello, please, and two beers.

The ubiquitous lemon liqueur turns up in frozen glasses that are surprisingly beautiful. That’s the aching knee fixed. Onward. Forza!

The game happens.

Having paid a king’s ransom to sit in the posh seats, we exit the ground quickly and safely, with all the fearsome Inter fans (their collective reputation marginally worse than Attilla the Hun’s) shaking our hands with courtesy and smiles and something that looked like pity, as they are enduring a season of shocking failure and they seem to say, “we know what you’re going through, we love you, we share your pain”. Halfway down the stairs, young men and women share the single toilet to serve hundreds, as the male lavatory is inexplicably padlocked, and as they wait in comfortable unisex discomfort they smile, and chatter, and look nothing more nor less than a slightly disreputable renaissance painting come to life. Caravaggio, perhaps.

We are not in Verona, but we might be. There Romeo. There Juliet. There, Tybalt, drunk of course, intent on lechery and perhaps a brawl. All beautiful.

To prevent a brawl, our friends are locked into the stadium for 45 minutes after the game, and then eight thousand Southampton fans are grudgingly permitted to exit down a single narrow staircase. As we stand outside shivering in the suddenly bitter late-evening breeze, they are greeted by a hundred or so police in full riot gear, as clearly the fact that every single one of them is cheerful and good-natured and very obviously they wouldn’t riot if you stuffed a cracker up their collective arse means nothing to Il Commandante Whoever, and having pumped millions into the Milanese economy and behaved impeccably they are now treated like morally dissolute cattle, and dangerously so, too. One stumble, and hundreds could have perished. Criminal stupidity from the authorities, who are obviously only interested in lining the pockets of their carabiniere with unnecessary overtime, as groups of young men in ridiculous gold braid with sub machine guns strut first one way, then another, then back again, noses in the air, sniffing for trouble. They glower. Only word for it. And it isn’t beautiful. It isn’t beautiful one little bit.

But after that distasteful experience, essential Milan reasserts itself, and we walk, semi-frozen and tired to a nearby restaurant owned by a friend and head of the Italian Saints supporters group, and the restaurant is tiny and warm and welcoming, and as feeling returns to our fingers and toes we are treated to a sensational repast of local salami and proscuitto, followed by the most ineffably delicious and unlikely Osso Bucco-topped risotto with creamy rice so imbued with butter and white wine and saffron that the plate almost glows as it comes to the table, and the Osso Bucco topping is gelatinous and rich and the bone marrow in the veal is luscious and braised for hours so that it melts in your mouth. And at the next table are members of the local Parliament representing the curious Legia Nord, the byzantine regional and federalist party which is anti-EU and anti-Rome, fiercely proud of local traditions, socially-conservative, and essentially a party of the right (especially in its anti-immigration activism) yet containing many socialists, liberals and centrists too, who care more for their local area than they do about mere matters such as political philosophy. We remind the leader that we had met previously, at Wembley Stadium, no less, and exchanged happy banter, even though he is Legia Nord and we are socialists. “Of course I forget you if you are socialist!” he laughs amiably, and then says, perfectly seriously, “We need more socialists in Italy. All our socialists are not really socialists, they all agree with the right. This is not good for democracy. How do you like the risotto? It is a local speciality. Best risotto in Italy! More wine?”

panatonneAnd his colleague at the next table waves his serviette in the air as he makes an important debating point about bureaucrats in Brussels and sets it alight on the candle, which seems as good a reason as any for everyone to adjourn to the doorway for a cigarette. And the wind has dropped so the sky is clear and cold, and in the distance a police siren cuts through the still and smoky air and the patron announces “We have Panettone!” which is served with sweet mascarpone cream and it is explained that this doughy, fruit-filled dish is really only served on Christmas Day, but in honour of our visit they have made it specially tonight. And our hosts make it clear that they, not us, are paying for dinner, and we must come again soon. And they really mean it. And everywhere is smiles and gentility and the Gods of football work their magic.

And tomorrow, naturally, the trains are all on strike, so we will not be visiting the Cathedral to see the Last Supper, so we will have time to write this.

And it is beautiful. They are beautiful. Life is beautiful. Italy is beautiful.

And mad. But mainly beautiful.

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fear

 

One of the effects of events such as the hideous massacre of innocents in Orlando, Baghdad, Nice, and elsewhere, is the repeated assault on the mood and feelings of people who are only distantly connected to the actual event.

At times like this, it is all to easy for our imaginations, driven by empathy for those hurt, driven by our simple understanding of what they went through, driven by the awareness that that could have been us, to be completely overwhelmed by the horror.

The news is inescapable. Media coverage is wall-to-wall. It regularly beats in on all of us, even those who seek to shut it out by avoiding the endlessly repeated 24 hour newscasts. An intrusive internet headline here. A radio soundbite there. A comment from a co-worker. A cri de coeur from someone standing next to you in a queue for coffee.

The global psychic effect of the accumulated evil in the world makes us all more anxious. Makes us all more inclined to despair. Our feeling of helplessness grows unabated. Our inability to stop these events from happening induces real trauma. The world is suffering from a creeping case of mass PTSD.

In our desperation, we rail against those in power, unable to understand why the great and good cannot simply flick a switch and make it right. We call for strong leaders to make a difference. And those who would be those leaders shamelessly exploit the fear and distress to bolster their stocks.

And in bed late at night, when all around is quiet and we should be peaceful and calm, we lie awake, staring at the ceiling, the insistent thoughts pressing in on us, uninvited but impossible to ignore. What if it had been my daughter in that nightclub? What if my wife had turned that corner in Paris, or Istanbul? What if we had been in a bar in Bali? Or in a coffee shop in Sydney? Is anywhere safe? Are we ever safe? Please God, we just want to be safe.

This is very far from just a higher brain musing. Psychological studies show that a continual state of mild anxiety is extremely damaging for human beings. It affects our subconscious mind, and induces irrational decision-making. It can pre-dispose people to develop more serious mental disturbances. It may well give us cancer or heart disease. And it is, quite simply, just horrible to experience.

In response, most of us busy ourselves just getting on with life, bereft of any real alternatives to just forging on. Some – a vocal few – descend into activism against the perceived purveyors of the threat (in the world’s current state, Muslims) but most people recognise that the men of violence are a minority. A kind of ‘Dunkirk spirit’ takes hold. We “soldier on”, hoping against hope that we will one day see the end of such events, and fervently hoping we are never touched by one directly, as we weep for those who have been, and will be.

And yet despite our best efforts, there is that constant drumbeat of anxiety, whipped up by the ghastly marriage of the purveyors of terror and those who are duty bound to report it, not to mention the commentary of those politicians who seek to benefit from it. It is always there, just under the surface of our lives, threatening to bubble up and overwhelm our consciousness. Even the act of subordinating it makes us more tired and fearful.

There is only one answer. And it comes from everything we know about dealing effectively with clinical anxiety disorders.

It is to acknowledge, rationally, that we are all threatened, but in a minuscule manner. To cut the threat down to a realistic size in our minds. To deliberately and with determination confront the fears we inevitably feel, and assess them with calm and commonsense, and to assign them the relevance they truly have.

Despite the apparent ubiquity of terror in the world, the chances of being on a plane that is blown out of the sky are tens of thousands to one, no matter how the pictures of wreckage, flotsam and jetsam from those who have been attacked might impinge on our minds. It is perfectly, horrifyingly simple to imagine crashing to the ground, still awake, strapped to our chair, until colliding terminally with the dark black Ukrainian earth. Yet as we view these very mental pictures that distress us so much, we simply have to say to ourselves “but tens of thousands of planes take off and land safely every day, and airlines and governments employ highly sophisticated systems to keep us safer than ever”.

Despite the images that flood our television screens from Orlando, despite the 50 dead young people and the 50 others injured, despite the bloodied souls wandering crazed down the street looking for help, in the heart rending face of the victim’s relations and their incohate horror at their loss, the fact is that there are more than 300 million people in America, and the dead represent one hundred thousandth of the population. In a queue of the entire population, the chance of you being picked out by fate to be in that massacre was over 6 million to one.

The chances of being in that nightclub in Paris, or that restaurant, or on that island in Norway, was millions to one.

Are we completely safe? No, we are not. The dead and injured are real. But we have endured worse, time and again, and survived. My mother and father were of a generation that endured the Blitz, for example. Night after night, the Nazis raised hundred pound bombs onto defenceless civilian populations. Despite the horrific casualties, the majority of the population survived. They went about their business, day after day, determined not to be cowed. Death or injury was an ever-present possibility, but so was survival, laughter, family, friends, the daily round. Stoicism replaced expectation. This too shall pass.

We do not control our environment and no amount of wishing will ever make it so. A plane can land on your house. A tyre can blow out at the speed limit on the freeway. A drunken driver can plough into you as you wait for a bus. There will be storms, tempests, wars and rumours of wars. They are all simply part of life. Media vita in morte sumus.

Fear is a liarWe will all die, one day. In the meantime, the trick is to live our lives every day as unafraid as we possibly can. To seek joy in little things. A new flower. Birdsong. The smile of a friend. A joke shared. An unexpectedly delicious meal.

To see the best in those around us, and to be grateful for the support and love they give us so freely. We have to stare into the abyss of what could be, and then step away from the edge, content in the knowledge that it is far more likely that it won’t be. We will wake up tomorrow. The world will go on. And in the time that is granted to us, strive to be the best people we can be.

Yes, we must cry hot tears for those who were less lucky than ourselves. And we must work every day to remove the hate from our societies. Patiently, slowly, imaginatively, sincerely, day after wearysome day. There is no alternative. There is no magic cure. That is life.

But life is there to be lived, without constant fear. And the day that we allow the fear to overwhelm us, we hand victory to the murderers.

Tay Tay's girl gang at the MTV Awards in 2015

Tay Tay’s ‘girl gang’ at the MTV Awards in 2015

 

If you’ve got more than a handful of friends, it seems you may need to kick some to the kerb as science reckons our brains can’t handle more than five besties at a time.

A study by the MIT Technology Review looked at a theory by British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, who noticed that there was a direct correlation between people’s brains and how many friends they have – basically the bigger your brain the bigger your friendship group and the smaller your brain, the less friends you’re bound to have.

According to Dunbar, humans are only able to have FIVE best friends, with maybe another 10 close friends, 35 acquaintances, and 100 additional contacts, due to the size of our neocortex.

And if you were having doubts about his theory, Dunbar actually tested out it out recently by examining 6 billion phone calls made by 35 million people in an anonymous European country.

“The team assumes that the frequency of calls between two individuals is a measure of the strength of their relationship,” the MIT Technology Review states. The study found that Dunbar’s estimate wasn’t too far fletched: “The average cumulative layer turns out to hold 4.1, 11.0, 29.8, and 128.9 users,” researchers found — again, that’s besties, close friends, acquaintances and “contacts” respectively.

So maybe Katy Perry and Rihanna had the right idea when they chose a girl squad of two as opposed to Tay Tay’s massive army? And who are Taylor’s best besties from among the girl gang? We think the people should be told.
We reckon we’ve got at least six friends, Dear Reader. Coz we’re really, er, you know, brainy. You know who you are.

Spotted this on a friend’s Facebook page. I really admire someone – in this case Laura Buskes – who has the courage and public vulnerability to talk about important issues.

More and more I’m noticing how words like “tough” and “strong” are used as praise for people, and seen to be something to aspire to. I get it, it’s an evolutionary thing; survival of the fittest etc etc. Being strong and resilient is desired because it comes from an ability to outlive your attackers/predators/competitors.

The thing I don’t like is how we romanticise these traits over traits like vulnerability and seeking help. The amount of times I’ve seen memes that point out how “someone busier than you is at the gym right now”, or how much sleep a mother has lost but she still works, or how great it is that someone never complains about their difficult circumstances. It’s all synonymous with strength, and I get it. 

LauraOn the other hand, strength is a mask. It implies that someone is dealing with some kind of pain but they push through, alone and stoney faced. It reinforces an ideal that when things are hard we should shut up and get on with it.

We don’t cry, or seek help or give up, and those who speak up are “complainers” and they’re a nuisance.

Can you see what I’m getting at? This same ideal is extended to mental health, and sure it’s getting better, but we still carry this view that the ones who cry, who break down, who admit that life is too much are the ones who are weak. And weakness is oh so bad.

We want to do everything ourselves, we want ALL the praise and we want to prove that we are worthy of admiration, so we don’t ask for help.

I don’t want to say that strength is fake and bad, but I don’t want to look at it as the alpha quality of humans. We already know that issues of emotional suppression manifest themselves into mental illness and event violent behaviour, so why isn’t there a bigger movement to encourage vulnerability?

Talking about our problems is hard; we often can’t articulate whats wrong because we aren’t encouraged to vocalise and express our pain. We often don’t have the skills to pin point why we’re hurting because as children we were told to buck up.

We have the abilities to help each other, we have the ability to offer love and support to anyone suffering. But we shroud the issue of suffering in language that implies weakness rather than honesty and openness, so we shy away from it.

Vulnerability is not weak, it’s real and it’s what makes us human. You don’t have to be tough and cold in order to be socially respected, but you do have to create room in your heart for someone to help you mend it.

Amen.

The other great resource on this topic is the famous Ted Talk on vulnerability by Brené Brown. If you haven’t watched it, you really should. it’s one of the best Ted Talks ever. So here it is.

mum and caitlinSo after 25 wonderful years – better years than I ever thought possible, better years than I ever dreamed I would be blessed with – you’re leaving home.

Making the big jump. He’s tall and handsome (naturally) but he’s also funny, kind, intelligent and above all humane. So thank God you made a good choice. Can’t say I’m surprised. Smart kid. Always was. Bit dreamy now and then, but head firmly screwed on. Bit like your folks, really. Funny, that.

But I hate it. I hate that I won’t hear your little feet galumphing along the corridor in the mornings. Do you know you don’t look any different waking up today to the way you did when you were two? Eyes screwed up against the light. Hair mussed up. Thump, thump, thump. Yet your face invariably lights up with a welcoming grin when you spot me. You’ll never know how your fresh smile and cheerful “Morning, Dad!” has sent me off able to deal with the day a thousand times. Or more. Just like “Nite nite, God bless, I love you” has given me more gentle sleep than any amount of whisky or meditation tapes or breathing exercises.

I hate it that you won’t always be there to sing the theme songs to the TV shows any more. I can already feel that the start of Star Trek won’t ever be the same. I don’t know who to watch Game with Thrones with any more, cause Mum can’t keep it all straight in her head and she really doesn’t enjoy it, if we’re telling the truth. I hate that your room won’t be untidy any more. I hate that the laundry won’t be full of your crap. I hate that the yard isn’t going to be full of squealing girls high on life anymore.

I am thankful we had you at home as long as we did. But I am going to miss the spontaneous road trips (so often just an excuse to stop going stir crazy on a dull day) when you and Mum seemed to be able to talk non-stop hour after hour. I will miss you both dissolving into giggles. I know I’ve never been one for rabbiting on, and sometimes I’ve even found it a bit off-putting – I do a fine line in grumpy, let’s be frank – and I often missed the joke, but I will miss the togetherness. I really will. I’m sorry I wasn’t better at that bit. What can you do?

I guess part of it is that I just hate the passing of the years. I hate that it means that I have less time left than I have already had. I hate watching your graduation knowing that it’s very likely I will never see your kids graduate. I hate that you can stay out best part of all night carousing – I’ve always been a bit of a carouser on the QT, as you know – but now about ten o’clock my eyes start closing and I can’t face the next day without hitting the sheets real soon, and I don’t want to cramp your style by suggesting we head home. I’m moving into a world of sensible middle class late-middle-aged behavior, full of people who also want to go to bed at ten o’clock, and I hate it.

So last night, I tried the stuff the shrink told me years ago, about how the inner child feels hurt and lost and frightened when change occurs, and the adult tries to either placate it or tell it off, but what’s really needed is the rational advisor quietly trying to put things in perspective. And you know what? It helped. It’s not like you’re moving to the Moon, after all. And I’m sure we can still squeeze in a plan to watch GOT together and even occasionally a Star Trek. And now we have to work at it, instead of just stumbling over one another by default, we’ll probably have better quality time, and probably, in reality, as much time as we’ve had in recent years, anyway. We’ve always been a good team. You’ve always been a colleague and friend as well as our child. We’ll work it out. My trusted advisor assures me we will.

And I am not so old that I can’t remember how exciting it is to make your own way in the world. How the challenge thrills you down to the very heart of your soul, and how you can’t wait to make your own place with the guy you love: your own bits and pieces, artworks, chairs. Building a life together – unique, just for you, never before seen by the world. I want that for you, with all my heart. Be happy: you deserve it more than most people I know.

And yes, I know that sometime you’ll probably have a kid of your own, or maybe more, and then we’ll get wheeled in to babysit and help you grow him/her/them into another amazing generation, and you’ll always want our advice and help, and there are hundreds and thousands of happy moments to come. So what’s happening isn’t an ending, it’s a new beginning, and I get that. I really do.

Yolly and CaitlinYolly and CaitlinBut it’ll never be the same. And bringing you up was simply the goodest of good things I ever did with my life, and I really never knew it would be and then it happened and then it’s over almost as soon as it begins, and I hate that it’s ending. You don’t need us exactly like you did before. The world turns. Life goes on. And I’ll probably hate that it’s ended even while I love the new stuff, so you may as well get used to that, because you know I am nothing if not complicated, and this, I honestly think, is about the best I can do.

I never liked change at the best of times, and now the changes are so utter, so endless, so fundamental, so … final … that in unguarded moments I find myself shrinking inside. So just know, please, I am trying my best.

“Best kid.” Did I ever tell you that you amaze me?

Go on. You get out on that great big stage and knock ’em dead in the two and ninepennies.

We love you.

  

In today’s world, everyone makes much more of Christmas than Easter. It’s become a quasi-secular festival, full of joy and fun, especially for kids, and has strong echoes of earlier pagan festivals marking the middle of winter for northern hemisphere types and the summer solstice for us lot down south. But for all that, the Christmas story still resonates for many who do not consider themselves especially “religious”, with its gentle story of new life and new hope, even if many of the traditional elements of the story are actually not strictly Biblical.

But for those who truly explore the Christian story, Easter is by far the more significant celebration. In the open tomb we see the actual point of the Christ story, which is that death is a mere interruption of an eternal life, no more to be feared than any other event. This is why Christians cry out “He is Risen!” with such excitement. In Christ’s victory over death there is a triumphant answer to the most frightening and indisputible fact of all – we will all die. Every single one of us.

But if death is a mere transition to a new form of life, then one can live without that fear, even if we mourn the passing of those who have been dear to us.

We don’t die when we die. It’s a stupendous, incredible thought. It seems impossible, of course, which is why Jesus went to such lengths to impress upon those he met outside the tomb that he was a real person … a real body, not just some spectral form or spirit.

He got up and walked out of the tomb, requiring the stone to be rolled away so he could get out, in a new body, miraculously transformed from the beaten and broken one deposited in the tomb on Good Friday.

For every individual, a choice must be made as to whether the story is true, and it is a huge leap of faith, to be sure. What a staggering suggestion it is. We don’t die when we die. We live on, transfigured, healed, and contented. Quite whether this occurs at the moment of death or at some “end time” is the matter of theological debate but the essential point is the actual survival of the individual. With their own memories and experiences. It alters our whole view of the Universe. Of reality itself.

Some will say, of course, that the end of the Christ story is simply made up, a fiction to put a good gloss on the end of a social movement that was in danger of collapsing in ignominy. But without the literal truth of the story, the rest of the Christian tradition becomes meaningless. Read from beginning to end, the whole Christ story inexorably leads up to his death and rebirth. He kept it from his closest supporters – it was the most dramatic and unexpected coup de theatre. Along the way he warned them that they didn’t really understand what was going on, but also told them not to worry, because they would, one day.

And that is the ultimate message of Easter. That one day, we will all actually know what is going on. In our own death, we will be awakened to the actual truth of what the Universe is all about. No matter how stressful, how frightening, or how terrible the world may be, something better awaits us all.

As they hung on the cross, in unimaginable agony, Christ’s instinct was still to tell the world not to be scared. “Fear not,” he says to the dying thief hanging next to him, “tonight you will be with me in Paradise.” In extremis, he is still trying to reassure us of the miracle that we cannot yet see.

In two millenia of Christian theological debate, it seems that humankind can manage to argue endlessly about anything. The sterile and ultimately pointless debates about whether the bread and wine actually turn into the body and blood of Christ cost many a principled man and woman their head. Today’s endless musing over Creationism is another mindless distraction, as is our obsession with sexual niceties.

At Easter, we are given the opportunity to stop and refocus on what truly matters. Imagine if every Christian in the world turned to every other non-Christian tomorrow and said “By the way, do you know that you don’t die when you die?”

Now THAT would be Good News.

red carpetYesterday, in the context of populist politics, we railed against the warped value systems and mindless celebrity that are skewing everything from how we feel about ourselves on a day-to-day basis to the result of the next American Presidential election.

Today, we’ve just watched one of the best things we’ve ever seen. Certainly the best thing in a long time. Also great to see one of my heroes, Josh Radnor, opening the video.

This is celebrities thoughtfully, honestly talking about the value of being a celebrity. Their real lived experience of celebrity.

 

Watch it. Most of all, share this blog post with your kids. Because if we are ever to stop the runaway train that our society has become, it will start with young people rejecting what we in the West have done to our values system.

Let’s get back to what’s important. Because fame (certainly for its own sake) isn’t. Celebrity isn’t. A recent survey in America asked teenage school-kids what they wanted to be when they grew up. The biggest single answer given was “famous”.

Famous? Really? Famous people are unable to do what they want without continual scrutiny. It can be life destroying. They are held up to impossible standards of behaviour, far more rigorous than the rest of us. Merely because they are well-known. They can’t drop into their local pub or restaurant for a meal without being hassled by fans. They’re not even safe: they’re far more likely to attract the attention of stalkers or crazies. Remember Sharon Tate? John Lennon? Jill Dando? Gianni Versace? Tupac Shakur?

Fame? Be careful what you wish for.

And ever-increasing wealth simply does not bring happiness. Ask just about any genuinely wealthy person. They’ll tell you one of the biggest stressors in their life is now losing the money they have accumulated.

Remember, the Bible never said “money is the root of all evil”. It said “the love of money is the root of all evil.

Think about that.

Enjoy.

death bed

Our days are filled with a constant stream of decisions. Most are mundane, but some are so important that they can haunt you for the rest of your life.

A recent study from Columbia University found that we’re bogged down by more than 70 decisions a day. The sheer number of decisions we have to make each day leads to a phenomenon called decision fatigue, whereby your brain actually tires like a muscle.

A new study from the University of Texas shows that even when our brains aren’t tired, they can make it very difficult for us to make good decisions. When making a decision, instead of referencing the knowledge we’ve accumulated, our brains focus on specific, detailed memories.

For example, if you’re buying a new car and trying to decide if you should go for the leather seats, even though you know you can’t afford it, your brain might focus on memories of the wonderful smell and feel of the leather seats in your brother’s sports car, when it should be focused on the misery you’re going to experience when making your monthly car payments. Since you don’t have memories of this yet, it’s a hard thing for your brain to contemplate.

Some decisions appear to be minor, such as what to eat, which route to drive to work, or in what order to tackle tasks. Nevertheless, they can be very significant in the overall span of our life.  Others are more obviously difficult and significant, such as choosing between two job offers, whether to move to a new city for someone you love, or whether to cut a toxic person out of your life. Regardless of the magnitude of the decision, our brains make it hard for us to keep the perspective we need to make good choices. And my word, how important those decisions can be.

“I am not a product of my circumstances. I am a product of my decisions.” – Stephen Covey

Bronnie Ware spent her career as a palliative care nurse, working exclusively with people who were 3 to 12 months from death. She made a habit of asking them about their greatest regrets, and she heard the same five regrets time and time again. By studying these regrets, you can make certain that you make good choices and don’t fall victim to them yourself.

#1 – They wish they hadn’t made decisions based on what other people think.

When you make your decisions based on other people’s opinions, two things tend to happen:

  1. You make a poor career choice: There are too many people out there who studied for a degree they regret or even spent their lives pursuing a career they regret. Whether you’re seeking parental approval or pursuing pay and prestige over passion, making a poor career choice is a decision that will live with you forever. So choose carefully – and if you choose wrong, change.
  2. You fail to uphold your morals: When you get too caught up in what your boss thinks of you, how much money you think your spouse needs to be happy, or how bad you will look if you fail, you are at high risk of acting while violating your own morals. Your intense desire to make yourself look good compromises your ability to stay true to yourself and, ultimately, to feel good.

The best way to avoid falling prey to the opinions of others is to realise that other people’s opinions are just that – opinions. Regardless of how great or terrible they think you are, that’s only their opinion. Your true self-worth comes from inside you.

#2 – They wish they hadn’t worked so hard.

Working hard is a great way to impact the world, to learn, to grow, to feel accomplished, and sometimes even to find happiness, but it becomes a problem when you do so at the expense of the people closest to you.

Ironically, we often work hard to make money for the people we care about without realising that they actually value our company more than money. The key is to find a balance between doing what you love and being with the people you love. Otherwise you’ll look back one day and wish you’d focused more on the latter. As the famous old saying has it, no one on their death bed ever said “I really wish I’d spent more time with the company accountant.”

#3 – They wish they had expressed their feelings.

Regrets-2-300x199We’re often taught as children that emotions are dangerous and that they must be bottled up and controlled.

This usually works to keep the world controlled at first, but boxing up your feelings simply causes them to grow until they erupt. The best thing you can do is to put your feelings directly on the table. Though it’s painful to initiate, it forces you to be honest and transparent.

For example, if you feel as though you don’t make enough money at work, schedule a meeting with your boss and propose why you think you’re worth more. As a result, she will either agree with you and give you a raise or disagree and tell you what you do need to do to become more valuable. On the other hand, if you do nothing and let your feelings fester, this will hinder your performance and prevent you from reaching your goal.

Learn how to express emotional matters un-emotionally. It will stand you in great stead.

#4 – They wish they had stayed in touch with their friends.

When you get caught up in your weekly routine, it’s easy to lose sight of how important people are to you, especially those you have to make time for.

Relationships with old friends are among the first things to fall off the table when we’re busy. This is unfortunate because spending quality time with friends is a major stress buster. Close friends bring you energy, fresh perspectives, and a sense of belonging, in a way that no one else can.

And remember, they may need your company, too.

#5 – They wish they had let themselves be happy.

When your life is about to end, all the difficulties you’ve faced suddenly become trivial compared to the good times. This is because you realise that, more often than not, suffering is a choice. Unfortunately, most people realise this far too late. Although we all inevitably experience pain, how we react to our pain is completely under our control, as is our ability to experience joy.

Learning to laugh, smile, and be happy (especially when stressed) is a challenge at times, but it’s one thing we can do in our lives that’s worth every ounce of effort.

In the Wellthisiswhatithink family this is known as “Play the Glad Game.” Or to put it another way, “Count your blessings”. Be grateful for the little things that surround us – not living in a war zone, for example, having enough to eat, the joy of having company – is excellent advice. There always are blessings to count, we just often fail to recognise them.

Don’t wait for life to be perfect, enjoy the way it is, right now.

Bringing It All Together

Some decisions have repercussions that can last a lifetime. Some of these decisions are made daily – how we conduct ourselves, our own health, our behaviour to others – and they require focus and perspective to keep them from haunting you, sooner or later.

Take time out to make important decisions, don’t make them on the run. And take time out to work on yourself. It is rarely wasted.

(Forbes magazine, with additions by us.)

A Determination.

 

image_living-life-with-purpose

 

I have taken a decision.

 

I am going to live until I die.

 

The alternative

is far too horrible to contemplate.

all is well

This is how I want it to be when I go. Beautiful, and apposite.

I posted it on Facebook this morning, and later on got a message from one of my oldest friends saying he was about to fly home to his mother’s funeral. His distress was somewhat alleviated; he now felt all is well.

God moves in a mysterious way, his wonders to perform.

I was so taken with the words that undertook to find out who wrote them. The writings are actually a poem written by Victorian churchman and academic Henry Scott Holland.

Holland (27 January 1847 – 17 March 1918) was Regius Professor of Divinity at the University of Oxford. He was also a canon of Christ Church, Oxford. The Scott Holland Memorial Lectures are held in his memory.

He was born at Ledbury, Herefordshire, the son of George Henry Holland (1818–1891) of Dumbleton Hall, Evesham, and of the Hon. Charlotte Dorothy Gifford, the daughter of Lord Gifford, and educated at Eton where he was a pupil of the influential Master William Johnson Cory, and at the Balliol College where he took a first class degree in Greats. During his Oxford time he was greatly influenced by the philosopher and political radical T.H. Green.

In 1884, he left Oxford for St Paul’s Cathedral where he was appointed canon.

He was keenly interested in social justice and formed PESEK (Politics, Economics, Socialism, Ethics and Christianity) which blamed capitalist exploitation for contemporary urban poverty. In 1889, he formed the Christian Social Union.

In 1910, he was appointed Regius Professor of Divinity, a post he held until his death in 1918. He is buried in the churchyard of All Saints church, Cuddesdon near Oxford. Because of his surname, the writer, secretary and political activist Mary Gladstone (daughter of Prime Minister Gladstone) referred to him affectionately as “Flying Dutchman” and “Fliegende Hollander”.

While at St Paul’s Cathedral Holland delivered a sermon in May 1910 following the death of King Edward VII, titled Death the King of Terrors, in which he explores the natural but seemingly contradictory responses to death: the fear of the unexplained and the belief in continuity. It is from his discussion of the latter that perhaps his best-known writing, Death is nothing at all, is drawn: the frequent use of this passage has provoked some criticism that it fails to accurately reflect either Holland’s theology as a whole, or the focus of the sermon in particular. What has not provoked as much criticism is the affinity of Holland’s passage to St. Augustine’s thoughts in his 4th Century letter 263 to Sapida, in which he writes that Sapida’s brother and their love, although he has died, still are there, like gold that still is yours even if you save it in some locker.

Which is another sweet thought to end on.

  

When we were in our youth, deep in the last millenium, it was the greatest thrill to walk across the road from our student digs and indulge in a proper cooked meal at the Avenue Hotel – usually the occasional Sunday lunch. When it was “on”, roast beef and Yorkshire Pud, chased down by a couple of pints of bitter. This luxurious repast was only afforded by living the rest of the week on burnt toast smeared with cheap margarine and black tea. Quite what this style of living did to the body’s systems wasn’t going to become clear till some decades later.

As this week we have to judge a school’s public speaking competition in the evenings, a stretch of four nights eating dinner alone in restaurants stretches ahead. But it no longer holds any thrill. At 18 the whole exercise seemed impossibly grown up, and having the venerable Charlie weaving his way towards us between the tables bearing a plate of real food was genuinely exciting. Now it’s just a chore.

No one to pore over the drinks menu with. No one to swap war stories from the day. And as a middle aged man eating alone, it is telepathically obvious what the other diners think. 

That young brash gay couple over there consider in passing whether I’m a tired old queen they should befriend but decide against it. 

The family group with the noisy kids just think I look lonely and smile indulgently. 

And the courting couple – her with the cutest pony tail, him with a very cool leather jacket – glance at me and dismiss me utterly, before sharing a giggle over a Facebook post. 

The waitress is already looking impatient at how long is being spent tapping these few thoughts out on the iPhone, even though the restaurant is far from full and they hardly need the table back.

There is no cure for it, this eating alone syndrome. Especially if one has forgotten that day’s newspaper to hide behind. Buried in that, one can at least ignore the pity.

Heigh-Ho. Drive through MacDonalds and the radio tomorrow, perhaps. Or eat lunch at my desk instead. At least no one can see you through the plate glass windows there. Alone and pathetic.

Neddy No Friends and his Taiwanese fried chicken bento box. No one even to question “Since when did the Taiwanese have bento boxes?”

Except you, of course, Dear Reader. So, thank you. Another lemon tea?

  

Wandering Facebook today brought us across this lovely snippet from our friend and reader Mimi in California.

“Today’s irony, brought to you by Hailey’s school:

“Let’s have a moment of silence for the deaf” at the end of the afternoon prayer.”

How thoughtful of them. Next week, poking our eyes out for the blind, no doubt.

marceauxAnyhow, it did remind us of the only joke we have ever consciously written. It ran thusly:

“So when Marcel Marceau died, did they hold a minute’s noise?”

Hardly enough to establish us as one of the world’s great humourists, but we are proud of it. Years later – and we never published the joke apart from gleefully sharing it with friends and acquaintances in the pub and over dinner – it was fed back to us from a comic in the UK. Amazing how the world works.

Marceau was a French actor and mime most famous for his stage persona as “Bip the Clown.” He referred to mime as the “art of silence,” and he performed professionally worldwide for over 60 years. As a youth, he lived in hiding and worked with the French Resistance during most of World War II, giving his first major performance to 3000 troops after the liberation of Paris in August 1944. Following the war, he studied dramatic art and mime in Paris.

In 1959 he established his own pantomime school in Paris, and subsequently set up the Marceau Foundation to promote the art in the U.S. Among his various awards and honours, he was made “Grand Officier de la Légion d’Honneur” (1998) and was awarded the National Order of Merit (1998) in France. He won the Emmy Award for his work on television, was elected member of the Academy of Fine Arts in Berlin, and was declared a “National Treasure” in Japan. He was friends with pop artist Michael Jackson for nearly 20 years, and Jackson said he would use some of Marceau’s techniques in his own dance steps.

Marceau’s work was frequently whimsical and humorous, but also often exquisitely beautiful and sad. Given that existentialism is basically a French invention, it is hardly surprising that he addressed it in his work.

His famous performance of “A Life” in three minutes was happily captured on film and is on YouTube with a number of his other history-making performances, and although the quality is very poor – it almost obscures the fact that he starts and ends in a foetal position – it is well worth viewing. What is fascinating is how he can create tension through repetition, can create suspense through inaction, and can provide shock through the tiniest changes in facial expression or bodily position. In a word: exquisite.

We all

I cannot strongly enough recommend that you watch this two and a half minute video. If you do nothing else this year to improve yourself as a person, do this. You will change your life, and make a hugely positive to the lives of those around you. Personally, we are going to watch it again and again.

In this beautifully animated RSA Short, Dr Brené Brown reminds us that we can only create a genuine empathic connection if we are brave enough to really get in touch with our own fragilities. It has reached nearly three million views on YouTube. I frankly wish it could be seen by everyone on the planet. What a change it would make in our societies. Perhaps you could share this blogpost, on your Facebook page, your own blog, or wherever, and help that happen?

Brené Brown, Ph.D., LMSW is a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work. She has spent the past decade studying vulnerability, courage, worthiness, and shame.

Her 2010 TEDx Houston talk on the power of vulnerability is one of the most watched talks on TED.com, with over 15 million views. She gave the closing talk, Listening to Shame,  at the 2012 TED Conference in Long Beach.

Brené is the 2012 author of the #1 New York Times Bestseller Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. She is also the author of the #1 New York Times Bestseller The Gifts of Imperfection (2010), and I Thought It Was Just Me (2007).

Brené is also the founder and CEO of The Daring Way – a teaching and certification program for helping professionals who want to facilitate her work on vulnerability, courage, shame, and worthiness.

Brené lives in Houston, Texas with her husband, Steve, and their two children. You can find out more about her at http://brenebrown.com/

Change is the only constant - Heraclitus.

Change is the only constant – Heraclitus.
Photo: Lincoln Harrison photographs star trails taken over 15 hours in Bendigo, Australia at scenic Lake Eppalock.

 

As we age, the brain plays curious tricks on us. Time, for one thing, seems to speed up, although it does not, of course. It is merely that our own understanding of the mutability of life becomes more acute. Our awareness of change, and the relentless pace of change, intensifies as we age.

When we are young, we have a seemingly endless amount of time stretching ahead of us. But as we enter middle age, and then old age, it is clear that our time is inevitably limited. And apart from the ever more rapid recurrence of landmark annual events (Wimbledon, a particular horse race, Proms concerts, 4th of July: we always know it is early May by the arrival of the FA Cup Final, for example) what seems to mark the clicking of the shears most often and most obviously is the endless round of the seasons, rolling on regardless of what we seek to make of our small and insignificant lives, and amply demonstrated in the world around us.

Our gardens. The landscape. Change is constant. Inevitable, inexorable.

Last night, we had a fierce wind squall. Just one. It lasted no more than a minute, and was, in its way, rather alarming. The suddenness, the roaring noise, the feeling of an invisible and irresistible force battering at the plate glass doors which bowed and complained.

What was most dramatic, though, was the effect of the wind on the magnificent ornamental cherry tree just outside our front door. For a few weeks now it has been literally groaning with the most exquisite light pink and white blossom, as it does every year, lending us joy and a sense of wonder every time we walk by it or look out.

In the last few days, a few of those blossoms have been fluttering to the ground, their work done. The tree has been a mine for our local bees, who have been harvesting it for all they’re worth before disappearing back to wherever their hive is, but they have been fewer in recent days, and now the slightest gust of wind brings petals down on our heads. It is a little like a shower made of flowers.

Suddenly, the leaves  break through.

Suddenly, the leaves break through.

When the squall hit in all its demanding force, the tree bent almost double, so we feared it might break. And in what seemed an instant, it released a waterfall of colour to the ground. After the wind Gods had passed on, it seemed suddenly somewhat denuded. Uncloaked. And in that instant, it seemed that soft and gentle Spring had come, and gone, and all that was left now was the aching, baking heat of summer. The ground looked like a hailstorm had passed, but the hail was flowers. It seemed terribly sad, and permanent, and like something was lost.

Goodbye until next year

Goodbye until next year

But that is only one way to view the event. Another way, entirely, is to celebrate the new look of the tree. Now one can perceive that it is newly dressed in bright green leaves that shimmer and shine in the morning sun, with their own pleasing beauty. Some blossoms still adhere to the tree, but now they drop pretty much constantly, eddying in the breezes.

But where each delicate flower falls now lives the possibility of a cherry, red and pretty and hopeful, like a young girl’s first experiment with lipstick.

And without the coming heat of summer, driving in on us now as it is with blind and careless certainty, no fruit would duly ripen on the tree. The gorgeous bird life that we are blessed with in all seasons would have nothing to squabble about as they flit from branch to branch just a yard or two from where we sip our cooling drinks, just as without the blossoms the bees would have nothing to do.

As far as nature is concerned, we are mere bystanders. Nature understands the cycle of change, the endless mutability, the replacing of one joy with another. And that’s the thing about change. Change is a way of remembering what was there before change occurred by sharpening our awareness of our life, making us more thoughtful, more “mindful”, in modern jargon. Change brings things into stark focus, as only loss can. But loss can be a beginning, not just an end.

Change is what we make it. We can either be confronted by it, or embrace it as unknowable, unavoidable, and inevitable. Seeking what comes after with the same enthusiasm with which we celebrated what went before. More than 2000 years ago, Socrates said “The secret of change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new.”

My mother, who was much taken with what she called her “little sayings”, often remarked, when change happened, that “It’s an ill-wind that blows no-one any good.”

The green leaves and the tiny cherries agree. Everything to its time, and then round we go again.

If stories like this don't explain to the knuckle-heads why gay marriage is right, then nothing will. Gay people don't want to be "partnered", they want the right to be married.

If stories like this don’t explain to the knuckle-heads why gay marriage – we prefer the term “marriage equality” – is right, then nothing will. Gay people don’t want to be “partnered”, they want the right to be married, like everyone else.

 

What a beautiful story. Life affirming. Heart warming. Gentle.

More than seven decades after beginning their relationship, Vivian Boyack and Alice “Nonie” Dubes have been married. Boyack, 91, and Dubes, 90, sat next to each other during Saturday’s ceremony.

old hands“This is a celebration of something that should have happened a very long time ago,” the Rev. Linda Hunsaker told the small group of close friends and family who attended.

The women met in their hometown of Yale, Iowa, while growing up. Then they moved to Davenport in 1947 where Boyack was a teacher and Dubes a book-keeper.

Dubes said the two have enjoyed their life together and over the years they have traveled to all 50 states, all the provinces of Canada, and to England twice. “We’ve had a good time,” she said. Boyack said it takes a lot of love and work to keep a relationship going for 72 years.

Longtime friend Jerry Yeast, 73, said he got to know the couple when he worked in their yard as a teenager.

“I’ve known these two women all my life, and I can tell you, they are special,” Yeast said.

Iowa began allowing gay marriage in 2009. The two women say it is never too late for a new chapter in life.

Amen.

Spoons

Stephen Yolland is a Melbourne poet and author/editor of Wellthisiswhatithink. You can find his book of poetry here. The book is also available as a download from lulu.com.

fear-of-death

We have come to the realisation, Dear Reader, that fear is a bloody miserable thing, and that we suffer from it.

When the treadmill of life slows down long enough for us to actually stop and think – read: reflect, brood, ponder, worry – it is easy for fear to creep in, especially if one is on one’s own, or the blood sugar is a tad low, or it’s just been a shitty day.

In the case of your indefatigable correspondent, the fears are often about the process of growing older, and death. And then, nigh-on simultaneously, the death of loved ones. And then the disastrous state of the world, and how it’s all going to pot.

But it is the first one that can utterly paralyse us. After all: death is the one unavoidable conclusion of all lives. It’s going to happen. And with it, bang goes the achievements, the fun, the striving, the connection with everyone, the adored family. Doesn’t it? Life. What was that all about, huh? Why bother, just to die and leave it all behind?

As we get older, our faculties also decline. This isn’t a pretend fear, it’s a real fear. No amount of positive thinking or even age-appropriate exercise will totally prevent it.

Joints get less flexible. (Puhlease don’t tell us about 80 year old gymnasts on YouTube – most of us don’t keep fit enough in the early years to make that happen – I am being realistic here – and by the time we realise the body is beginning to creak it’s too late to stop all the creaking. Some ageing can be overcome, but not all. Just tell my left shoulder that you’re thinking positively about it and listen to the laughter.)

The brain unquestionably slows, too. Which is a real bugger, if one has used one’s brain to make a living since, like, forever.  And it’s very noticeable. Undeniable. It becomes harder to bring words to mind instantly. Sentence construction is more laborious, too. And when one rushes in panic to the experts worrying about early-onset Alzheimers, they reassure you with the most annoying advice imaginable: “Don’t worry, you’re just getting older, it happens to everyone.”

Well, poo to that. And this isn’t even to touch on the myriad anxieties that afflict people about their social interactions, phobias, and 1001 other things.

There is even a specific phobia for those who fear death, called thanataphobia. We don’t think we would quite describe ourselves as phobic on the issue, merely mildly obsessed. OK, make that “aware” and “thoughtful”.

So what to do about fear, and specifically fear of death?

We are sure religious faith helps with the whole death thing, at least to a degree. We remember hearing someone say once, “We are mortal beings living immortal lives” and being charmed by its simplicity. Nice thought. If it’s true. Life becomes much more bearable – death becomes much more bearable – if it is just a prelude to a sort of eternal holiday-camp shared with those we love, or perhaps a chance to come back and do better next time. But doubt is at the core of all faith – that’s why they call it faith – and on days that the awareness of death and loss bears down on us, it often seems that the nagging demon of doubt does, too.

Cancer support groups often talk about working towards a “good death”, rather than hoping against hope (and logic) to try and endlessly prolong life. A good death is one where one is resigned to the inevitability of our dying, where we have made our peace with those around us and been able to spend quality time with them, and where our affairs are as much in order as possible. Where death does not dull our mind with terror, and we can maintain dignity, calm, and acceptance of our fate.

We are reminded of a dear friend, Senator Sid Spindler, taken from us a couple of years ago with liver cancer, who was discussing an article in the local paper with his wife when quite clearly only a few days from death. An indefatigable campaigner, he murmured “Perhaps I should write a letter?” Those around him rolled their eyes in disbelief and amused admiration. But was he postponing the inevitable – clinging to one last vestige of relevance – or merely accepting his imminent death but refusing to be cowed by it? Or a bit of both? Only Sid could tell us, and he isn’t here any more.

In olden times, someone would have cheerily, at this point, said something like “Make the most out of every day!” as a response to the fact that one day the days will simply run out. Indeed, there are web pages dedicated to telling you exactly how many productive hours one has left in one’s life when one has removed sleep, showering, going to the loo, travelling, etc., to encourage everybody to “make the most” of life. Fair enough. Personally, we have stopped looking at them. It looks like we’ve got enough time left to make one more decent pot of bolognese sauce before we cark it.

We also ponder the fact that until relatively recently in human existence, within the last poofteenth of human time in reality, we would almost certainly already have been dead, and many people in today’s world still have a life expectancy below the amount we have already lived. And in the moments when we remind ourselves of this, we manage to be grateful and worried simultaneously.

Worried WoodyNot for nothing is our favourite celebrity quotation from Woody Allen, a man so obsessed with these matters that he wrote two theatre plays, one called God and the other Death. The quote runs thusly: “I don’t want to become immortal through my work. I want to become immortal through not dying.” Hear hear.

The Wellthisiswhatithink collective is by no means alone in this angst-ridden introspection, of course.

Existential death anxiety is the basic knowledge and awareness that natural life must end and it has fascinated writers and philosophers since humankind climbed down from the trees.

It is said that existential death anxiety directly correlates to language; that is, “language has created the basis for this type of death anxiety through communicative and behavioural changes.” Or in other words, over millenia we notice that we die, learn how to describe it, and then talk about it.

There is also “an awareness of the distinction between self and others, a full sense of personal identity, and the ability to anticipate the future, which includes the certainty of death. Humans defend against this type of death anxiety through denial, which is effected through a wide range of mental mechanisms and physical actions many of which also go unrecognised. While limited use of denial tends to be adaptive, its use is usually excessive and proves to be costly emotionally.”

Or to put it more simply, it’s better to face up to it.

As Wikipedia would have it, “Awareness of human mortality arose through some 150,000 years ago. In that extremely short span of evolutionary time, humans have fashioned but a single basic mechanism with which they deal with the existential death anxieties this awareness has evoked—denial in its many forms.

Fear of - and discussion of - dying goes back to Neanderthal times. Not that it gets any easier.

Fear of – and discussion of – dying goes back to Neanderthal times. Not that it gets any easier.

Thus denial is basic to such diverse actions as breaking rules and violating frames and boundaries, manic celebrations, violence directed against others, attempts to gain extraordinary wealth and/or power — and more. These pursuits often are activated by a death-related trauma and while they may lead to constructive actions, more often than not, they lead to actions that are, in the short and long run, damaging to self and others.”

Or as we call them in Wales, “wakes”.

This is before we even tackle the concept of Existentialism proper, (as opposed to Existential anxiety), and it’s various concerns that life is inherently meaningless anyway, not to mention Absurd. That’s a topic for another day. Or days. Or lifetimes.

Anyway, this latest in a series of ramblings on this topic is coming to no great or profound conclusion, Dear Reader. We merely report that at this point in time we have decided to focus on a couple of related issues.

Firstly, we have decided to stop worrying about the fact that one cannot control death, because in reality one can only control a few outcomes in one’s life, and death surely isn’t one of them. Believing we are in charge of everything is a uniquely human conceit, and it is clearly not true.

In the Wellthisiswhatithink household we call this the “A Plane Fell On My House” syndrome, recognising that random acts can and do disrupt our neatly ordered existence.

Accepting this as a fact is a vital step towards dealing with events that catch us unawares.

kindnessSecondly, we are trying to make more of an impact on our world by being more concerned about other people than ourselves, by being kinder, by being slower to anger or frustration, by trying to see things from the other person’s perspective, by celebrating the good we see around us and building up those responsible for it.

It was Aesop (he of Fables fame) who once said “No act of kindness, however small, is ever wasted”. There’s a big mouthful, right there. And yet more proof, if proof were needed, that things don’t change much as the centuries roll by.

Deep in the last Millenium we saw “making an impact on the world” as ending up as Prime Minister of somewhere (or at least a senior panjandrum of some description), becoming the world’s greatest writer of film scripts, the most creative businessman in town, the “next big thing” in poetry, and a bunch of other grandiloquent outcomes. It would be fair to say we have now changed our focus, and in doing so, we have become more content, and by many measurements, more successful.

We may yet do something “famous”. Or we may not.

We’re taking it all a day at a time. And that helps, too.

Tara MohrMeanwhile, Tara Sophia Mohr is a San Francisco-based women’s leadership personality. We found these comments on her website, and thank her for her thinking. There is some big “applied commonsense” here.

1. Create a character.

Create a character that symbolises the voice of fear within you. Maybe she’s a frail recluse or an eight-year-old bully or a fire-breathing dragon. Maybe it’s the lion from “The Wizard of Oz” or the Wicked Witch or the Wizard himself. Pick a character that illustrates how the voice of fear feels in you, and name your character. When you hear the voice of fear, greet it: “Oh,Cruella, I see you’ve come to visit. Hello.”

Why does this work? Creating a character helps you separate the real you from the part of you that’s afraid. Your fears come from that instinctual part of the brain that seeks to avoid risk at any cost–not from your core self, your inner wisdom, or your dreams. Naming the voice of fear, visualising it as a character and observing it helps you get back in charge.

2. Follow the fear through to the end game.

Fear holds us hostage, making threats that if you do X, a disastrous outcome will occur.

The remedy is to imagine how you’d handle that outcome, and evaluate just how bad it would really be.

This involves asking “so what?” again and again. If, for example, you’re afraid that your request for a raise will be turned down, ask yourself, “So if I was turned down, so what? Then what?”

You’ll probably hear yourself thinking something like, “Well, I’d be disappointed, and I’d think about whether that means I need to change jobs. I guess it wouldn’t be the end of the world.” You’ve just taken a great deal of power away from your fear.

Or, you might find this outcome still feels super scary, and your answer to the question is “I’d feel horribly embarrassed around my boss every time I saw her!” Then ask the question again: “So I’d feel embarrassed and awkward, then what?” Keep following the fear through to the endgame. You’ll find your resiliency and sense of perspective as you keep asking, “So what?”

(We heartily concur with this advice in a whole host of areas of business and life generally. “So what?” is an incredible powerful tool.)

3. Ask, “Is it true?”

Whatever the little voice of fear is saying, it’s probably not true.

The fearful part of us is irrational and over-protective.

It might be saying you areTrue or false likely to fall flat on your face if you take a risk, or that no one will like your ideas. It might be saying that moving to a new city could ruin your children, or choosing the wrong job could wreck havoc on your life.

When you hear fear-based thoughts, ask yourself, “Is what this voice is saying true?” or, in Byron Katie’s approach, “Can I be absolutely sure that this thought is true?”

The answer to these questions — especially the latter one — is most often “no.”

4. Connect to love.

Here’s the very cool thing about our human consciousness.

We can’t be in a state of fear and one of love at the same time. They can’t co-exist. Each one blots out the other. When we are really connected to that mysterious energy that is love, we connect to a softness, a safety, a comfort, a healing. Fear vanishes.

So when you are stuck in fear, re-connect to love. Listening to a favourite song, doing something you love, focusing on a picture of a loved one, or connecting with nature are all good ways to do this.

Many people find that a short meditation on their own breathing or reaching out to a higher power in prayer reconnects them to love. Giving — time, money, a gift or a heartfelt compliment — to another person also connects us to love.

Use whatever process works for you. You’ll know you’ve re-connected to love when you feel that sense of harmony and comfort and softness returning.

If you aren’t sure what helps you easily and swiftly reconnect to love, start experimenting. All of us need a set of strategies for connecting to love when we get fearful, anxious, resentful or off-balance.

5. Let fear be your travelling companion.

Much of the time we can soften or even entirely lift our fears using the tools above, but sometimes, fear persists.

Then it’s time for this tool: let fear be your travelling companion. Let it be there, but not in control. Let it be there, but don’t take direction from it or stop moving forward because of it.

This is a skill. It’s a skill to learn to act in the face of fear, to allow it to be present but not to interfere.

You know when you are driving on the highway, and right next to you, one lane over, there’s some guy hanging out the window, keeping pace along side of you? He’s not in your way but he’s in your field of vision?

Think of fear that way: as the guy in the lane next to you. You are in the driver’s seat, in your own lane, moving forward. He’s next to you, not blocking you but just there, somewhat irritating, palpably present. The ride would feel more enjoyable and free if he wasn’t there, but you are getting to your destination just fine anyway.

Learn to walk with fear this way — as if it’s your uninvited traveling companion — intrusive, but not in the way.

(This last one is one we are personally working on. It is impossible to banish all fear. And we shouldn’t want to, anyway. After all, fear serves a purpose, too. It stops us wandering blithely into the middle of a pride of lions while we’re picking daisies. The trick is not to let fear – or, indeed, any thought – dominate one’s life to the exclusion of others.

And sometimes, to accept that we actually can’t control or change everything. Much of the “self help” advice coming out of the USA (in particular) likes to pretend that we can do anything, be anything, achieve anything, overcome anything, just with an act of will. That is simply nonsensical, and dangerous, because not being able to overcome something that is insurmountable is a sure way to become depressed.

If someone dies, for example, no amount of willing them back will change the fact of their death. How we DEAL with our distress and fear about the future will determine how successful our life is thereafter. That’s why “Feel the fear and do it anyway” is sometimes – sometimes – very good advice.

After all, what’s the worst that could happen? So what?)

It has been a bad week for losses.

This is for you, Simon. A unique Aussie anthem, for a unique guy.


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