Keeping things simple

My oldest friend Tracy is walking through Albania at the moment. She’s with a group and I’m not entirely sure where they’re headed or when they’ll get there, and I’m not even sure I could identify Albania on a map.

I’m following her on Instagram. She’s a good photographer, she posts frequently and it’s really fascinating to see what Albania looks like.

What strikes me in the photos is how beautiful the countryside is, and how old-world the life is. She has lots of photos of donkeys carting loads of hay, women and men looking like every peasant photo you’ve ever seen, horses and carts in the roads, and tiny stalls on the side of the road selling a handful of cucumbers, some grapes and a few tomatoes. It’s very picturesque, but it’s also real life for Albanian villagers.

I live about 10 minutes’ walk from the central city. I walked into town this morning to meet a friend for coffee, then decided to go shopping.

While walking home carrying my branded shopping bags, I got to thinking about the Albanians in Tracy’s photographs and about the purpose of life (as you do).

Something in those photos made me reflect on what life consists of, the myriad activities that constitute daily life for each of us. It’s not the economics of it that got me pondering (although I don’t know how you make enough to live on when your daily income derives from the sale of three cucumbers and a kilo of tomatoes, and your customers are whoever walks past your gate on a given day). It’s more to do with an engagement with the business of life.

What I saw when I looked at those photos was a life driven by ambitions different from mine. So much of my world is implicitly or explicitly about “getting ahead”, going up in the world, making it, keeping up with the Joneses and every other cliché you can think of. There’s not much room for simply enjoying life.

I’m not trying to romanticise the life of an Albanian peasant here. I’m pretty sure it’s hard work, uncertain and at times grim and depressing. Nor am I suggesting they enjoy their lives, struggling in the aftermath of communist rule. This is about me, not them.

But they are immersed in the activities of their daily life. I haven’t learnt how to be that immersed. I am always living in the future (or the past, when I get in those moods). It’s always about the next thing, what I need to do, to achieve, the goal to reach or the plan to make. I’ve read, and believed, too many productivity blogs and books.

I suspect this sense of frustration at feeling dissociated from one’s own life and therefore finding little joy in it is what drives people to embark on “Eat, Pray, Love” adventures. The Italians, the French, maybe the Albanians, all seem to know how to enjoy the day to day of life: meals, a glass of wine, dancing, talking, being with friends and family.

What if I’ve been doing it wrong all this time? I’ve got a house, my land, retirement savings, a good job, new shoes. What if all of that is beside the point?

Well, I’m quite sure it IS all beside the point. It’s nice, it’s comfortable, and it provides me the luxury of sitting round pondering the meaning of life. But it’s not the point of life. It’s a means to an end, and the point is surely happiness.

And the way to happiness? Not sure. But it’s not buying new shoes, nice though they are.


Silence and mindfulness

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

“My personal hobbies are reading, listening to music, and silence.” ― Edith Sitwell

I’m re-reading Sara Maitland’s A Book of Silence, a book I return to when my need for silence is weighing on me and for whatever reason I can’t get any.

What I like so much about this book is that Maitland treats silence as a positive. Her focus isn’t  on silence as the absence of sound or conversation so much as on silence as a quality to seek out and to cultivate.

Maitland describes herself as having had an “unusually noisy” childhood. Thus she establishes her credentials, proving she is talkative as the next person and can function perfectly well in the noisy social world, therefore her interest in silence is not pathological or a symptom of her failure to ‘fit’ into ‘normal’ society.

I have no such credentials. I grew up in a very quiet house. We were not a radio-listening, television-watching, music-playing household. My parents sometimes played records from a small collection of classical music, but evenings were often silent with only the sound of the clock ticking and pages being turned. We were a reading house, and reading is a solitary and silent activity.

Perhaps this is why silence doesn’t distress me. Silence represents engagement with an inner life, be it a book or one’s own imagination. My father drew and painted, my mother knitted, read and wrote, and these activities were carried out without conversation. Silence was productive. it was the sign of someone being fully absorbed in an activity of great personal value.

It wasn’t a lack of anything. It was, on the contrary, total presence. Mindfulness by another name.

I’ve been sick most of this past week. No doubt the recent emotional stresses have contributed: although mentally I have got much better at dealing with stress, my body has little resilience and it doesn’t take much to tip me over the limit. I’m a lightweight. 

Lying in bed gives you a lot of time to think. A curious realisation came to light on day 4: I was starting to feel “left behind” by work. Things move at a hectic pace normally, and it’s particularly busy at the moment.  I was fearing that I was becoming more irrelevant by the day. 

What surprised me about feeling this was that I thought I didn’t care about it so much any more. With my Grand Plan to build on my land and retire there, I thought work had taken a back seat. And yet that fear of being sidelined reared its head just when I most needed to rest and not stress about work. 

I had a boss for several years who was very driven. He had a clear idea of where he wanted to get to, and drove all of us hard in that direction. He valued those who could get him to where he wanted to go, and being a people pleaser, I made myself into a Very Useful Person. 

Naturally I burned out. He moved on to others. He’s not cruel, or a bully, he just believes reaching the goal is the most important thing. Another approach would be to believe people’s job satisfaction is the most important thing and reaching the goal is secondary to that. I’m a better fit for the latter type of manager, although I did learn a lot from him and a lot about myself from the whole experience.

The trap that I fell into was understanding my worth in his terms. I was only worthy if I was able to deliver what he wanted. Once I was no longer able, I wasn’t as useful. I wasn’t as valued. 

I was primed for this of course. We relive our childhood relationships over and over. My mother had a very utilitarian view of her children: be useful or you are useless to her. 

As this fear of uselessness reemerges, it’s helpful to reflect on where it’s come from and remind myself what it’s really about. And not about. I’m not useless. I know that. I’m not going to be fired because I’m home sick for a few days. Sure it might inconvenience some people, but that’s life.

At times like this it’s good to remind myself  that a utilitarian view of people is not the only way to view people or to be viewed. And that it’s not the way I want to view or be viewed. 

When all you’re doing is waiting

My aunt died on Wednesday. Death is a mystifying thing, to move so quickly and irrevocably from being to not being. I spoke to her on the phone last weekend and she sounded bright although tired. It unravelled very quickly.

The chaos that surrounded her last weeks was nothing unusual – she thrived on drama and created it if none existed. She’d grown up in a very unhappy home with an alcoholic father and a violent mother, and escaped as soon as she was able. I expect that the instability and chaos of her young life was a state that she recreated as an adult in order to feel comfortable, in the way we do with things from our childhood. Even when the familiar is completely dysfunctional. My cousins are now left to sort through the wreckage and resolve things as best they can. It seems a heavy burden to lay on loved ones.

It’s been a pretty exhausting few weeks for them, and while nowhere near as close to it as them it’s taken its toll on me too. I’ve also been dealing with some health issues my father has been facing, and wondering where all that is headed while I ferry him to the doctor and the hospital for tests. The results are no different from what was expected, so there is relief in that – at least it’s no worse. It’s just the almost unavoidable consequence of getting older. But there is a lot that goes along with that.

Looking back on it, these past few weeks have been about waiting. Waiting to see when my aunt would die, what my father’s results would show, and what might or might not come next.

Waiting is a terrible way to spend a life. It’s possible to completely avoid living if we dedicate ourselves to waiting instead. We wait until we’re done with school, with university, until we get our first job, until we get a promotion, for our annual holiday, for the weekend, for a Sunday morning lie-in, for that text, that call. There is no limit to what we can wait for, and seemingly nothing is too trivial to hold the promise of ‘better’ once the waiting is over. I’ll be happy when… I’ll take up running when… I’ll eat better when…

The other week, I wrote about not optimising waiting time. I said then that attempting to ‘productivise’ (ergh) every waking moment was a terrible idea and we should spend our waiting time day dreaming. I still think daydreaming is a far better way to spend time standing in line than checking email is, but it’s not a good way to spend a life. If our entire life consists of waiting, we probably need to get on and do something.

And there you have my philosophy: when waiting, wait. When you’ve done too much waiting, do. Got that?!

Long life and happiness isn’t just for extroverts

Robert Waldinger, director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development (possibly the most comprehensive longitudinal study of its kind) gave a TED talk on what leads to happiness and good health in life. Probably no one would be surprised to hear that the answer is not “money and loads of stuff” but good relationships. 

I generally armour up psychologically when I hear this because it’s yet another opportunity for the more gregarious and extroverted to lambast the introverted and solitude-seeking amongst us to “get out more”. 

But I noticed one important phrase that I am quite sure will get overlooked in the general reporting of such research, and it is key. Here’s the paragraph:

And the experience of loneliness turns out to be toxic. People who are more isolated than they want to be from others find that they are less happy, their health declines earlier in midlife, their brain functioning declines sooner and they live shorter lives than people who are not lonely.

(The emphasis is mine.)

The element of choice in being alone is crucial. If someone wants to be alone, they are not lonely, they are choosing to spend time in a way they enjoy. They should therefore not be told to spend their time in a different way just because their socially-oriented friends find it uncomfortable or are offended by their desire to be on their own rather than with others. 

Many people regard being alone as a fate that, if not worse than death, entirely too closely approaches it. I have always, even as a young child, failed to understand this although at least now I understand there are differences in people’s desire for solitude and that I err strongly in favour of it. 

I used to be puzzled by the use of solitary confinement in prisons as a punishment. I thought that if ever I ended up in prison I’d request to be sent to solitary as it would be vastly preferable, in my mind, to being locked up with hundreds of others. 

Technically there’s no difference between solitary confinement and solitude (assuming physical conditions are comparable). The difference in the experience arises principally from whether it is chosen or imposed. The experiences of prisoners who suffer mental distress and hallucinations are not dissimilar to the mystic experiences and visions of solitaries who enter into solitude in pursuit of religious insight. This is not to say the experiences are therefore one and the same and if prisoners just changed their minds they’d be fine. It is to underscore how essential choice is in shaping our experiences. If we want solitude, it is a positive and enriching experience. If we don’t, it is isolating and damaging. 

The same can probably be said of social interaction. It’s interesting that no one has studied this (to my knowledge, which isn’t that of an expert). I’d love to read studies on the damaging effect of too much exposure to social interaction on introverted people. 

You don’t have to be passionate

For years, I have been angsting over ‘finding my passion’ with the intention of following it, once found, into career success. At some point I started to believe that it had run away after years of neglect, and I was doomed to live a passionless life in my current rut, working doing things I didn’t believe were my passion because I didn’t know what my passion was.

I think I have finally come to realise, intellectually if not yet emotionally, that ‘finding your passion’ is a bit like looking for happiness. The harder you look, the more remote it gets. It seems instead to be something that grabs you when you’re busy doing other things (much like life happens while you’re busy making other plans).

I’ve tried to figure out my passion by sitting down with a bunch of self help books, making lists of my strengths and weaknesses, skills and talents, and what I enjoyed doing when I was 10. This got me nowhere other than to realise that my current career choice is well matched to my strengths and skills. Which left me thinking that I must be passionless, because, while I enjoy my work, I wouldn’t describe myself as passionate about it.

My father used to encourage us to do something for which we had ‘a fire in your belly’. He was an architect, reluctant to retire, and still interested and up to date with the world of architecture both locally and abroad. He still has his passion for it. I have never felt this about anything work related. I’ve enjoyed pretty much every job I’ve had but I’ve never had that deep drive in my belly to do this one thing.

I recently read Elizabeth Gilbert’s book Big Magic. It’s a marvellous book about living a creative life. Her approach is so obvious somehow: just be curious. Be alert to that little prompt that says ‘huh, that’s interesting’ when you are in the middle of doing whatever, and follow that prompt to see where it leads. I love the story she tells about a 90 year old women who, ten years earlier, had got curious about Mesopotamian history and, having spent 10 years following her curiosity about it, was now considered an expert.

I have come to the conclusion that the current emphasis on following your passion is mistaken in two ways: first, that you know in your heart of hearts what your passion is, you just have to listen to that internal voice; and second, once you find it you should monetize it.

You might not know what your passion is until you discover it, which means you need to expose yourself to all sorts of things in the course of a lifetime and yes, by all means listen for that little voice but be aware that it might just be saying ‘huh, that’s interesting’ rather than announcing with exploding fireworks that ‘this is IT’.

Second, you don’t have to monetize it. How many times have I read about Einstein working in the patent office by day and doing ground-breaking physics over his evening cocoa? And still the message didn’t get through to me that you don’t, and quite possibly shouldn’t, quit your day job to follow your passion. As Gilbert says, don’t put that kind of pressure on it. Just enjoy it. Don’t even worry about being good at it, just enjoy it.

That’s all. Do stuff, be curious, and enjoy it. I could do worse than live by those words.




If I’m alone, can I have a tribe?

Tribes seem to be the thing these days. Much has been written on how to identify, join or cultivate your tribe.

This poses something of a conundrum for the aloners amongst us. Is it possible to belong to a group of people who want to be alone? Isn’t that an oxymoron? Could such a group exist?

It could, although it’s unlikely to use Meetup to organise a weekly get together, or hold an annual conference in Vegas. (I may be proved wrong on all points).

It’s more likely to be virtual rather than physical, but tribes seem to be more about ideas and ideals in common than spatial proximity.

Books and blogs on living alone by choice, and doing it well – living a full life, however you define that – are a way to bond with like-minded spirits, without needing to actually get together.

It still surprises me that there is a market for so many books on living alone. No doubt some of the readership is vicariously experiencing something they have no intention of trying first hand, but equally there are enough people writing of their experience to suggest a critical mass of people who DO live alone and find satisfaction in it.

For aloners, this is about as much togetherness as needed. Knowing there are others out there who live alone and who find ways to live rich and satisfying lives, or for whom it answers a deep need in their soul, is all I need to know. Knowing that I’m not alone in wanting to be alone is reassuring.

I may never meet these fellow aloners, or talk to them or know their real names, but they are nonetheless my tribe. They are the people who through their words let me know that I do belong, even if it’s only to a group that doesn’t really exist. We’re all alone, and there’s solidarity in that.