I’m writing this listening to Tallis’s Spem In Alium while the growing spring light and warmth is bringing my garden to budding life.
Terry Pratchett intended to die listening to this - “That’s the one where every single part of it comes together at once, where God picks you up and drops you on your head,” - in his garden drinking an excellent brandy. Apparently he died in his own bed with his family and his cat with him, and I hope he was listening to this music.
Many of my friends and acquaintances are texting, emailing and talking on Facebook about the loss of this good man, all of us feeling a bit stupid about the terrible sadness we’re experiencing. But we’ve shared a world, landscapes, lineages, lives, adventures and histories with him and with each other, and that world has now come to an end. The characters we love can now only repeat their stories, they can’t develop or mature any more. Discworld has suddenly become preserved rather than living on in a kind of real time.
The most common element on Discworld was Narrativium, which caused people to act and events to play out as they are meant to in a story. Heroes were guaranteed to win if the chances were a million to one. If a little girl walked alone through the woods she had to meet a wolf, who was forced to try and eat her. But Pratchett’s most complex characters fought the pressures of storylines that cast them as the Evil Witch, the Killer Cop, a Farmers Wife or an Unwilling Reaper and in doing so became more fully themselves and infinitely more interesting people.
Mistress Weatherwax, Sam Vimes, Susan Sto Helit, Tiffany Aching and Death himself exerted self control, experienced pain and unhappiness in order to learn and grow and become who they were truly meant to be. None of them were interested in being nice or even particularly liked, and paradoxically became loved.
Please take the time to listen to Spem In Alium and raise a glass to Terry Pratchett who brought good philosophy to millions of children and adults, and whose legacy is fierce, funny and full of wisdom.
If you google 'Carnival' endless pictures of women catching a cold turn up. You won't see pictures like this one on the news, but for me this is one of the most fascinating parts of Carnival - Jouvert (a contraction of jour ouvert or 'daybreak') sees a small number of people walking Carnival route the wrong way round at dawn, throwing flour and paint at each other and along the route. I find this magical and inspiring, a real demonstration of the subversive and chaotic, a kind of secret ritual that allows and boundaries the following two days.
Carnival is The World Turned Upside down, a time when some people pretend to be what they're not, things that are illegal at other times are now permitted, and feasting and revelry are indulged. Carnival is not, despite what it may seem, an advert for Top Shop or an opportunity for a politician to make a terrible arse of himself, it's a reminder that racism still exists and that magic remains possible. In the UK it's a farewell to Summer and a blowout before Autumn. Go out and have a ball.
If you live in London the start of the working day can be absolutely dismal. There is another way! And as long as employers don't subvert this life-enhancing concept by making staff wrap their ties round their head and jump up and down, this kind of event could alter the way we approach work.
"The [wildly successful] nerds who run IT businesses are much less interested in the "suit and tie" approach to business and much more willing to experiment with any idea which they think will keep their staff enthusiastic and creative."
Watch the Channel 4 News report here. Watching this 3 minute video will set you up for the day!
Mindfulness works. Its venerable parent, meditation, works. Exercise works and most of us find dancing a damn site more enjoyable than running in the rain. Add human connection, no matter how fleeting, and you've got a recipe for joy.
Let me know if you go to one!
Happy St George's Day, a day to appreciate the many, many benefits we have as people living in a first-world economy.
The World Service broadcast a particularly interesting piece last night, on how France Must Change. High unemployment, a State-bound economy in the doldrums, strikes, laughable working hours, and now – get this! – legislation that prevents employees from responding to work emails after 6pm! What an outlandish and economically naive country.
Strange then, that France is ahead of our own Hard Working, endlessly striving, entrepreneurial economy, second only to Germany in Europe and fifth in the world. In a survey out today comes the news that “Britain has the lowest quality of life of 9 major European countries."
France has the highest quality of life.
The weather has something to do with it as does our naturally cynical nature – we expect to be treated badly and so it comes as no surprise when we’re treated badly – but here’s a chilling analysis:
“We may still be enjoying the fourth highest household income in Europe, but the high cost of living means we are living to work.”
Person Centred counselling has a useful principle called the Locus of Evaluation. It proposes that when we’re allowed to remain in touch with how we genuinely feel we can make good choices; good for ourselves and good for the people around us. This is called The Internal Locus of Evaluation. The External Locus of Evaluation develops when we’re told how we must feel and criticised for feeling differently from the people around us. We have to ignore our genuine feelings to continue to be valued. People who function from an External Locus of Evaluation continue to look to people in authority to decide how they must feel and often feel absolutely dreadful, even if they determinedly continue to believe they are content with the way things are. You can read up on the theory here.
On Sunday the Mail felt it would be profitable to send an undercover reporter to a food bank and, despite noting that the reporter was asked lots of questions about his circumstances, recount that he walked away with £40 worth of groceries, unquestioned. In the past that would simply have added to the sneering disgust of the nation but this time it resulted in £35,000 in donations to the Trussell Trust.
Times and nations are not going to change much. Against all the evidence, as a country we’re going to continue believing that the French are lazy and on the verge of economic collapse whilst we lead the world in toughness and fiscal wisdom. But, as the Daily Mail incident demonstrates, individuals are now more than ever capable of effecting change. I’d propose that the conditions that bring individuals to the point of collapse are those that we are experiencing now. We’re being told one thing – that food banks are stupidly supporting evil people to lie around laughing at the Hard Working Tax Payer – when we know something very different – that food banks are a symptom of an unequal society, that the more unequal the society the more miserable society becomes and that we have the lowest productivity in the whole of the G7. Social media is a tool that individuals use to subvert propaganda, but attending to the messages that we constantly berate ourselves with is another, more difficult matter.
It can be profoundly sad and even disturbing to understand that many of the beliefs we hold dear are nothing but empty words, to realise that the way we've lived to this point has been largely meaningless and for someone else's benefit. It takes time to understand how it happens at all, but if you find yourself wondering about this kind of thing then you're ready to explore it. There's a lot to cherish in the English (and British) way of being, we'd be foolish to reject all of it, and there's a lot that needs to be examined too.
*Written by Cecil Rhodes, who left England at the age of 9.
4 senior bankers have killed themselves in the last week.
As a Bloomberg article says,
Though the reasons are not clear in either case, the coincident deaths will feed the discussion of excessive stress levels in the financial industry, not just for the young interns working 100-hour weeks but also for accomplished executives. Stress-related resignations, heart attacks and suicides may be par for the course in a high-octane, risky businesses, but the public does not really want finance to be one of these: Its money is at stake.
That sounds callous but it’s what all employers, including yours, are ultimately concerned about. If you are self-employed then you are likely to be even less caring about your own wellbeing than the average money-focused, gimlet-eyed employer.
Enough now. These men were amongst the most high-status, intelligent and wealthy people in society and they killed themselves. If they can find themselves locked into a despairing panic state then any of us can.
I don’t think it’s possible to say these 6 things too often:
There are a great many techniques that will help you manage your time and your attitude towards work but working a consistent 50 hour week is just not sustainable. Don’t swallow the rhetoric about Hard Working Taxpayers. With unemployment down, why is productivity also down? Economists are baffled but for a small fee I'll tell them why this is: Everyone is outrageously hacked off, largely for excellent reasons. Don’t wait until you want to jump out of a window before you address it.
The majority of my clients come to me with very similar stories: “I have too much work, my boss is either very nice but doesn’t support me or is unpleasant and doesn’t support me. I’m working way over my contracted hours and achieving very little of actual value, but as long as all the boxes are ticked that’s all that matters. I like my work but the kind of stuff I’m expected to do now has really worn me down. I don’t see my family. Secretly, my children have become a burden, they get in the way of my work.”
In some cases coaching helps the client to break down what looks like an enormous pile of never ending demands into smaller, more manageable tasks and attention to relationships, and whilst this can be very valuable it is not the whole answer.
Whether we like it or not the UK is now in the grip of a fantasy approach to life where a lack of hard work is the only thing keeping you from success and the unemployed are all workshy scroungers. I read an article in Forbes yesterday that partly drove me to write this blog entry: “Mentally Strong People: The 13 Things They Avoid.” What really chilled me were the comments, 65 pages of “Thank you so much, this really made my day, this is so amazing and I can see where I need to do more work on myself.”
So many clients are being told that they have ‘the wrong attitude’. Almost always what this means is “You’re not doing what you’re told to do fast enough and you ask too many questions.”
Our concept of success makes us all feel like failures. It may be that a person has to be single-minded to increase their income but the actual facts show us, again and again, that being male, remaining in full time employment and the income of the family you're born into are better determinants of not living in poverty than either hard work or ‘attitude’.
While some of the points in the first article are valid and good advice, for a moment let's turn the rhetoric on its head. Emotionally Damaged People: 5 ways to understand them.
1. Emotionally Damaged People don’t seek insight. They have learned that their feelings – and the feelings of others – are unimportant and they're disinterested in concepts of fairness or integrity. They have been trained to ignore their feelings and to treat harsh life lessons as something to be grateful for, as a matter of personal survival in an incredibly brutal environment. When a situation turns out badly they cannot bear to examine why, or who may have been affected.
2. Emotionally Damaged People don’t care about people who are less powerful than them. They couldn’t care less about criticism or advice from people they perceive to be beneath them. If the criticism comes from people they believe to be more important than them they are trained to be grateful, even if that criticism is persecutory. They can only function in a hierarchy. And they strive to be as high up as possible in that hierarchy, whatever the cost to their family or to themselves.
3. Emotionally Damaged People ignore the costs that instability have on them and on others. Emotionally Damaged people are not interested in how bereavement, low pay, illness, children, elderly parents or anything else affects anyone. They perceive themselves and especially other people as things.
4. Emotionally Damaged People are not interested in the causes of problems or how to alter anything for the better, other than the manner in which their betters perceive them.
5. Emotionally Damaged people are desperately lonely. They've been told from childhood that they are entirely alone in the world. They know that they will not be supported by anyone and they’re not interested in supporting anyone else. If their culture includes being seen to be supporting others via charity or mentoring they will become involved in these activities in order to be seen to be compliant. They have learned that human nature punishes failure and non-compliance, even if that’s the failure to be born in a prosperous family, and the emotionally damaged person is resigned to this situation. They have learned that it is better to stand on other people than to be trodden on.
Genuinely successful people know that relationships are what matter, not status or income. Having enough money to remain healthy, pay the bills, eat and sleep well, spend time outdoors for pleasure and relaxation and with people who contribute positively to their wellbeing is important – having more is nice but not necessary.
Here’s another piece of research: 1 in 5 British workers have taken time off due to stress.
“According to the study difficult deadlines, management pressure and a lack of support are the main reasons for workplace stress and 6% and 3% of stressed workers resort to unhealthy practices to cope, smoking and drinking alcohol respectively.”
Look at your attitude. See who you're trying to please, and why, and what you genuinely want from life.
Back in the early 90’s I ran an organisation that advised on everything to do with death and dying, including sitting vigil with the dying, so I’m relaxed around the subject. In general though, people feel that death is something that they can’t speak about, perhaps because it will bring death to them or make people think they’re weird, so I was slightly anxious about how many people would turn up to the first Portobello Death Café, especially since it was being recorded by Radio 4.
I need not have worried. In all, there were about 20 of us, about half of whom looked under 25, and the conversation flowed beautifully. Not surprisingly, older people had developed their philosophy around death, it seemed to hold no fear for them, and they were keen to stress how important it was to live as full a life as possible. Younger people seemed more focused on the deaths they had experienced and how the process of dying, death and bereavement seemed too haphazard, that there were no rituals to guide them or anyone else through something that didn’t just happen for one day but resonated throughout their lives.
(A few days later Selfies At Funerals appeared on tumblr, which confirmed those experiences. I don’t think it’s the end of civilisation but a demonstration that many young people are now totally unprepared to deal with death and are attempting to find their own way based on how they handle other events. They now know that death is not like other events.)
Right at the beginning of the evening we wrote about what death meant for us on Post It notes and stuck them on the wall. Throughout the evening the notes fell off like autumn leaves. No one missed the symbolism. The reporter put his recording equipment away and joined us as an equal, we all listened to each other carefully and respectfully. The age differences in this group were striking and whilst no overt teaching happened it was noticeable and somewhat moving that younger people listened carefully to what older people had to say and vice versa.
Then we fell upon the exquisite Red Velvet cake that Hummingbird Bakery had so kindly donated and I had to remind people to go home so that the venue could close on time. The only thing I wasn’t happy with was the part of the Radio 4 report in which I say “Portobello Death Café” as if I’ve gone mad. I was reading the cake and was fairly overwhelmed by Hummingbirds generosity and the sheer prettiness of the cake. You can hear my shame as well as the wise and useful things that people said at the café here at around 25mins in.
I’m hopeful that tonight’s Death Café will be as successful and that the one on the 13th November that will be filmed by Yahoo will come across well. People do want to talk about death, to explore their fears and philosophy and develop their knowledge by listening to other people’s experience. If you’re around Portobello, join us.
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I went to lunch with a friend this afternoon and talked about how much more sane she felt having left her work. Marian used to work for a large organisation moving terribly important bits of paper around, something that added very little to the sum of joy or convenience to the world. When she joined the organisation she had to opt out of the Working Time Directive which would limit her working week to an average of 48 hours. Predictably, she began experiencing racing thoughts, became anxious, started having panic attacks, felt paranoid (although her employers really were out to get her.) got insomnia, began drinking too much alcohol in order to regulate her mood and sleep, lost friends, got exhausted and crashed. Her ex-employer provides a GP something Marian believed to be altruistic until she realised that this GP was contracted to let HR know about staff ailments. And so Marian was unable to see an actual GP rather than a sinister informant for some weeks, and then, not surprisingly, was signed off work for 3 weeks.
To cut a depressingly common story short, her life was made hell and so she left.
There's something punitive and smug about employers who, in the 21st century, believe their staff should work more than 48 hours a week. Is their company so disfunctional, so incompetent, that people have to work this many hours? And yet an increasing number of people are buying into this nonsense. There's been a very sharp increase in the numbers of people I'm seeing who are suffering not so much workplace stress as workplace abuse, being asked to sign away their lives and privacy to organisations that bleat loudly about how awful The State is and then behave like a Statist dictatorship.
The rhetoric around Hard Working Tax Payers has become pathetic. If hard work is the route to success then the recent immigrant with three low status jobs or the pensioner who can't afford to give up work should be living the high life. The LSE agrees.
I'm seeing people on the verge of serious mental illness because their employer treats them like a disposable machine part. This has a lot to do with status - somehow it's become high status to work like a donkey as long as money is thrown at you. Let me say this clearly: having lots of money doesn't make you better than anyone else. Time and again, it's been proven to make people behave very badly.
I tried to find an image to illustrate this blog and searched images for "Hard Working Tax Payer." Endless snarky pictures about how the poor are milking tax payers came up. There are a growing number of people who are very content to punch down, to hate and fear people who are vulnerable, and they're useful to people and organisations who like to keep employees hard at work. But it's poison to the soul.
If you want to be happy then behave like a human being. Spend time with your friends and family. Get some sunlight in the fresh air - if you can't spend an hour a day outdoors then your life is way out of balance. When you leave work, leave work. Get some exercise, not a three minute blast in the gym but a pleasant run or walk. Do something that you enjoy and give yourself enough time to enjoy it. And for goodness sake, do something meaningfully useful for someone who can't pay you.
It may be that you lose status if you stop commuting (in conditions that are illegal to transport cattle) to your ace job and take up something less exciting closer to home. You may have to move house if you take a lower-stress job but that's much better than making an emergency sale when you're thrown away because you can't handle the pressure. Yes, you won't be working in the same glossy environment, but you will be able to take a leisurely lunch with a friend, soak up a bit of autumn sunlight and think about how much more human you've become.
Please listen to this interview about post natal depression in response to the terrible case of a woman who killed her children and is now in a psychiatric hospital under indefinite care.
“An awful lot of women get fobbed off, patted on the head, ‘It’s just the baby blues, Mummy.’ ”
In many ways therapy exists because day to day interaction permits very limited conversations. Upbeat enthusiasm is rewarded and anything else very quickly becomes annoying, the supremely normal complexity of individual life takes too much time and thought to engage with until all we’re capable of is soundbites. Mothers experience this very directly being expected to enjoy our children totally and unconditionally – we’re permitted some mild opinions about being tired but chocolate and wine have become the remedy for all tired women.
Part of my day today will be spent checking the handouts and Powerpoint for a presentation on stress that I’ll be giving on Friday at the Guildhall Business Library. I offer mentoring there too where people can explore their experience of stress in a very straightforward, businesslike manner, and the promotional material includes the word ‘Stress.’ Yet the majority of people who come to discuss their stress find it strikingly difficult to say why they’ve visited.
We’ve become so profoundly conditioned to describe everything challenging as an ‘opportunity’ or ‘exciting’ that many of us literally can’t find the words to describe genuine feelings unless it’s in response to something everyone recognizes as difficult, like a death or divorce. The trouble is, when those feelings remain unaddressed they will demand attention by making us ill.
Stress has become such an issue in the UK that legislation has been created to deal with it and it costs £26 BILLION in absence, presenteeism and staff turnover every year.
In purely economic terms we are in dire need of finding the right words to discuss our experiences.
Take a look at this interesting post about the lunacy and unreality of endless busy-ness
It's focused on the attitudes and behaviours of people who have enough money for leisure but feel somehow obliged not to have any. I see any number of people in this situation, exhausted, anxious, more or less neurotic - in ordinary language running around not achieving very much. Why? Is it something to do with the endless rhetoric on the basic moral goodness of Hard Work? Is it that women are working harder and not insisting on or letting men do housework and childcare? Do we feel shame at not being seen to be endlessly engaged, endlessly achieving?
"Thinking about things" has a long and respectable history. Spending time thinking, on our own and with other people, helps us improve life and bring it some meaning. A great many of us have lost the ability to, as Pascal said, sit still in a room. We really do need to relearn that thinking is absolutely the opposite a waste of time.
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