The Way

You don’t choose a life, dad. You live one. – Daniel

A film about both loss and spiritual quest, ‘The Way‘ is one of the most moving films I’ve seen this year. It follows Martin Sheen taking a pilgrimage along the El camino de Santiago after the death of his son who was walking ‘the way’ himself.

He is joined along the way by a number of fellow travellers journeying at roughly the same pace, and the film touches on the reasons that all of them are making the pilgrimage. Each of them has their own story to tell, and their own issues that they are either running away from, or trying to examine along the way.

To put this in context, El camino de Santiago is approximately 500 miles in length, taking most pilgrims about 4 weeks to complete. Such a commitment takes significant time, planning and energy to undertake.

Pilgrimage fascinates me. I think this film captures the essence of a quest exceptionally well, and manages to give equal measure to both the challenge of walking the way itself, and the spiritual journey a pilgrim goes on with so much time to their thoughts and meditation.

Whenever I meet someone that has undertaken a journey of this type, I’m always keen to ask them a couple of questions – why they did it, and what they feel they gained by doing it. Everyone has their own story to tell, and everyone seems to gain something different.

The film also contains an absolute gem of a song, which if you’re anything like me you’d completely forgotten about over the last few years. ‘Thank U’ by Alanis Morissette is a beautiful track at a critical point in the unfolding story.

You can watch it on lovefilm.com, or if you prefer to get your hands on physical media, then you can purchase it at amazon.co.uk.

Image credit: Fresco tours.

The windows to your soul…

The treasure – of – an endless – ocean – of love – lies – in your – soul – behind – the windows – that are – your – eyes. – Steve Vai

Time is precious. We spend much of our time bustling from one task to the next, without much chance to stop and reflect on where we are, or what we are doing. Even when we find ourselves in company with time on our hands, we find ingenious ways to fill it, without actually interracting with people that are in our immediate environment. I used to spend a lot of time on trains, and often found myself embarrassed when I made eye contact with my fellow passengers – a brief moment of connection, insight or even friendship lost due to social norms – it’s almost as if the unwritten rule of the commuter is not to engage with those seated around you.

What a missed opportunity! What diverse life experiences we all have, and could gain so much from simple interraction. What could we have learned from each other? What could we have shared?

Do your interractions with the others you encounter today give an insight into who you are? Have you shared with others today something that is important to you? Do your eyes convey to others your beliefs or values in life?

Image Credit: frech.

If I’d had longer, it would have been shorter

I would not have made this so long except that I do not have the leisure to make it shorter. – Blaise Pascal

The ability to articulate a vision clearly and succinctly is something we easily take for granted. The truth is, simple is often very, very difficult and time consuming. Getting a message across can be an enormous challenge. Tragically, without a clearly stated vision, many people will misunderstand both what you say, and what you are trying to achieve. Think how damaging this could be if you are trying to lead a movement or a group of people!

Consider this – do people know what you are trying to achieve? Have those involved helped shape how it is articulated? Are others buying in to what you are trying to do?

If you want people to understand where you are going, or what you are trying to achieve, take time to make sure it’s clearly stated before getting sucked into detail that you might not actually need. Take time at the beginning of any venture to clearly state where you’re planning to go, and how you are going to get there.

Wherever possible: reduce.

Image credit: matthew poon.

For a’ that: Part 2

Today I continue my look at virtues that we consider desirable in a good character – if you haven’t seen my first post in this series, you can read it here.

Nothing is more noble, nothing more venerable than fidelity. Faithfulness and truth are the most sacred excellences and endowments of the human mind. – Marcus Tullius Cicero

Fidelity can of course be viewed in a number of ways – as a matter of spiritual devotion and adherence to a system of belief, monogamous love and commitment in a relationship, and unswerving loyalty to a leader or cause. Much has been written about all of these aspects of fidelity, but I’d like to draw out what I see to be the common strands from each.

Examine everything carefully. Hold fast to that which is good. – 1 Thessalonians 5:21

Knowing what is right or wrong is the constant challenge in our lives. We each have sources that we draw upon to help us answer this question in every circumstance that we find ourselves. We may rely on a mixture of religious codes, past experience, the experience of others, social norms and cultural standards to help us resolve dilemmas. Once we have decided our course of action, or our course of action is decided for us, there will be many influencing factors that try to sway us from following it. Fidelity is what keeps us on that course, despite how strongly other influencing factors may try to pull us off course. It says much about our strength of character if we can remain true to our cause or course of action in the face of adversity. 

Consider this in your actions – how faithful to your cause or course of action are you?  If you find yourself abandoning your cause or course of action due to other influencing factors, ask yourself if they are worth the sacrifice of such an important virtue. Do others perceive you as being faithful to a cause or course of action?

Here I stand. I can do no other. – Martin Luther

Being faithful to a cause or course of action can be admirable, but it could also be risable. Whilst Luther stood resolute in his accoutability for his actions at the Diet of Worms, none would argue that the stance of King Canute was as worthy. Determining what we should be faithful to is perhaps the subject of another post!

Image credit: fazen.

The Winter of our Disconnect

The information paradox- that the more data we have, the stupider we become- has a social corollary, too: that the more frantically we connect, one to another, the more disconnected our relationships become. – Susan Maushart

I mentioned this book last week, so it seemed only right to say a bit more about it this week. ‘The Winter of our Disconnect’ by Susan Maushart plots the experiences of one Australian family during a winter giving up technology, the affect that it had on them both as individuals and as a family, and what the experience ultimately taught them.

The parallels with Thoreau’s ‘Walden’ are considerable, but it would be fair to say that Thoreau’s sacrifice was perhaps greater!

I first heard about Susan Maushart’s book on Women’s Hour on Radio 4 (don’t ask – it’s not like I seek out such programmes – the radio in the bedroom was still on when I went back in at one point – honest…), and I loved the concept. As someone who uses a great amount of technology in life, I immediately posed myself the same question – could I give up technology? What would I gain? What would I lose? How would I feel about it? At the time, my job greatly involved technology, so I’m afraid I almost gave up the notion at that precise moment. How could I? Ridiculous.

The concept hung with me though, and I quickly bought the book. I was desperate to hear how it affected both her and her children, and what it did to their understanding of both time and relationships. I’d heartily recommend it. She has an easy flowing style, which transverses narrative, scientific reportage and journal, making for a compelling enjoyable read. Here are a few of my favourite quotes:

Giving up one activity does not guarantee you will take up a more worthy substitute.

I love this – asking anyone to stop one activity doesn’t mean that they’ll suddenly write sonnets or paint masterpieces! Perhaps one of the hardest challenges we face is actually knowing how to occupy our time well.

She spends a fair amount of time considering the neuroscience behind our technological activity:

No one’s brain is different enough to make constant interruptions, distractions, and task-switching an optimal environment in which to function.

This is a pet interest of mine, and I’m sure I’ll return to it in another post, as I think I’ve read more than my fair share about it. Whether we like it or not, neuroscience would show that we are becoming different creatures as a result of our interaction with technology.

She also considers another pet interest of mine – what we’ve done to the term ‘friend’:

‘Friend’ requires an adjective these days, since it otherwise feels empty.

As anyone who has witnessed me claw a table in disgust at the utterance of the phrase ‘critical friend’ (that hurt even to type!), I despair about what we’ve done in the last 15 years to the word ‘friend’. People often look at me blankly over this, as they don’t seem to understand that we’ve lost something of untold value. As human beings, we don’t have 1,000 of friends – we have 1,000 of acquaintances. We may have dozens of friends, and a handful of true companions – that’s how we differentiate. More on this to follow, certainly!

One last quote from the book:

SMS made everything negotiable: hour by hour, minute by minute. There was no such thing as a firm plan or a final schedule.

One snowy winters day at the beginning of the 1990’s I once waited for a friend to show up who turned out to be over an hour late. We didn’t have mobile phones, and I knew his sense of timing was woeful, so I hung around until he showed up. We’d made an arrangement after all – a certain place, at a certain time. Now we don’t do that, and we are definitely the poorer for it. Time is precious – we’re at the verge of losing this the same way we’ve lost the meaning of friendship.

If you haven’t read it, then get hold of a copy. You won’t be disappointed. You can get it here on amazon.co.uk. If you know someone who is addicted to technology, this is the ideal antidote in the form of a great Christmas present! Who knows, they may even put down their smartphone long enough to read it?

 

Footnote: When I write these ‘Thursday’ posts about my favourite reads, I’m either armed with my paper copy of the book itself, and my neatly folded corners telling me where there were good sections or quotes (sometimes I have a note file in my phone simply with page numbers of quotes to return to), or better still – the digital copy of the book that I’ve read, with the joyous convenience of a device that tracks sections of the book that you highlight and puts them all together in one gloriously simple list (btw, the jury came back in on the paper/digital divide a while ago). This time, I had neither to draw upon! I gave my copy to a colleague a long time ago in a fit of enthusiasm (as happens all too often with my favourite books!), and never got it back. So, nameless book thief – If you’re reading this musing (and you know who you are!), I’m not looking for the book back. Please just make sure that once you’re read it, you pass it on (hmmm… can’t do that with a digital copy, though eh? Maybe the jury is still out after all!) 😉

Image credit: govan riverside.

How’s it going to end?

We’ve become bored with watching actors give us phony emotions. We are tired of pyrotechnics and special effects. While the world he inhabits is, in some respects, counterfeit, there’s nothing fake about Truman himself. No scripts, no cue cards. It isn’t always Shakespeare, but it’s genuine. It’s a life. – Christof

A modern classic, The Truman Show is a must see (if you haven’t already). If you have seen it, isn’t it about time you watched it again?

At the time of it’s release, I think reality shows were at their zenith. A beautifully sculpted and scripted film from Peter Weir sees Jim Carrey at his very best, acting out a serious role that has some comic moments. Personally, I’m a much bigger fan of Carrey in the likes of this role, as I find his zanier roles much harder to watch.

I used to show a section of this film to my secondary school pupils, leaving them to discuss and ponder the ramifications of Truman’s philosophical discovery. All his life he is living in a finite location, being observed. In many ways, the decisions he made were being made for him. What if, when he takes his steps to his new found freedom, it is merely into a larger confined location? Indeed, are we as free in the decisions we make as we think? How do we know we aren’t merely unwitting actors in an incredibly large play?

(Incidentally, I apologise now to many a teenager who never got over this conundrum – sorry. If it helps, you can either logically deduce by probability that we aren’t in an incredibly large play, or merely live with the fact that we are!)

Why mention this now? The character Lauren / Sylvia wears a badge on her lapel asking a simple question ‘How’s it going to end?’ The other day I quoted Thoreau saying ‘Our life is frittered away by detail’. I think we need to spend much more time asking the big questions, and being able to articulate our vision, before we get sucked into what may be quite pointless actions. Comically, Truman can teach us a lot about life.

You can watch it on lovefilm.com, or if you prefer to get your hands on physical media, then you can purchase it at amazon.co.uk.

 

Don’t be a ferryman…

Part of my route to work goes along the cycle path next to the Forth and Clyde canal between Bowling and Dalmuir. Along the way I pass some beautifully sculpted wrought iron barriers commemorating the age of the Erskine Ferry – 1868 – 1971. Not far away from them lie the locked gates to a slipway that no longer serves it’s original purpose.

How sad it makes me feel! To think that a once proud occupation is succeeded by a change in technology. When the bridge came along, I suspect the ferry very quickly went out of business, as the bridge could operate in virtually all weathers, and was a much quicker way across the Clyde. Every time I drive over the Erskine bridge now, I think about the people that used to operate the toll booths, as a change in charging policy saw them out of work too, just like the ferrymen before them.

How do we cope with technological change? When we see it coming, are we quick enough to adjust and get the best out of the new situation? Often, it’s very hard to step back from our every day lives to imagine how the new technology will affect what we do.

In 2004 I was privileged to me present when Alan November spoke to the collected group of Head Teachers of Argyll and Bute council. He posed a simple timeless question – “What are we doing today that will outlast the change in pace of technology?”  With the rise of web based technologies and portable connected devices, you probably now have the sum of human knowledge in your hand, pocket or bag. Does this change what you do? How do you use this in your everyday lives? How do you encourage or help others make use if it?

Don’t be a ferryman.

Image credit: gumdropgas.

High aspirations

We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too. – John F. Kennedy

Rice University, September 12th 1962 provided the platform for President Kennedy to utter one of the highest aspirations ever voiced by a leader in a position of great power. His competition to achieve this aspiration was fierce, and a great deal hung on the articulation of such a dynamic ethic of hard work, as the price of failure would be high.
I wonder what the discussion about this speech was like prior to it being delivered? How strong was the opposition to the voicing of such a high aspiration, knowing how possible or even likely failure was?

The thing I love about this quote is the bold statement of intention, but also the rationale immediately following it – “We choose… not because they are easy, but because they are hard”.

In our daily lives, how do we approach the difficult? Do we settle for ‘good enough’ as our aim? To truly transcend that which others have or can achieve requires dedication, hard work and confidence, but it also required the nerve to step out on a limb. What’s the worst thing that could happen – we fail? Look at what we would achieve in the process.

Image Credit: Bruce McKay Yellow Snow Photography.

For a’ that: Part 1

The honest man, tho’ e’er sae poor,
Is king o’ men for a’ that.

It would be fair to say that this year, I’ve had more time on my hands than usual to consider many things. One question that I have returned to often is what makes a man? So today I start a series of posts concerning the the fundamental attributes of humanity that we value, and I suppose either try to embody, or respect others for displaying.

I thought long and hard about a title for such a series of posts, but I felt that Burns summed it up best in 1795 with his song ‘For a’ that’. In it, he examines what virtues transcend both status and wealth.

My thoughts will not be so grand, but I wanted to note down what I felt to be virtues that we should embody. The first I want to look at is honesty.

Honesty is the best policy – when there is money in it. – Mark Twain

Few people would draw up a list of virtues without the inclusion of honesty – Franklin’s comment about ‘honesty is the best policy’ is suitably twisted by Twain above, as honesty is rarely free from the pressure of other influencing factors. How we balance those factors is the challenge to the integrity of our being.

What therefore prevents us from being honest? Our environment? How others react? Contractual obligations? Our own internal conflict of interests due to our other values?

Interesting to think that if we asked people to rank their virtues, they would probably place honesty at the top of the list. If that is the case, then why do we let other factors get in the way of being honest all the time? Is it a true measure of a man how he can transcend other influencing factors, and hold to the ideal of honesty?

Consider that in your actions. If at any point you choose a path other than honesty, is the influencing factor worth the sacrifice of your highest virtue?

Image credit: Paul Robertson.

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately…

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life – Henry David Thoreau

What if we could strip away distractions in life, and consider only that which is necessary to live? To undertake such a task in the middle of the 19th century would be incredibly challenging, but it was to this very task that Henry David Thoreau dedicated himself between 1845 and 1854. ‘Walden’ , or ‘A life in the woods’ is a beautifully written book set around a remarkably simple premise, and full of fascinating insights into life itself; asking us to consider what it is that we value.

If you’ve seen the film ‘Dead Poet’s Society’, you’lll be familiar with arguably the most famous line from the book, but to only know about ‘sucking out all the marrow of life’ and not the rest of the book makes us poorer. Indeed, the very paragraph before in the book states this:

We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us in our soundest sleep.

As someone who spends a significant amount of time using technology, I love this statement. He exhorts us to concentrate on nature and how it’s rhythm helps us keep order. We’re very quick to look for something else to help us with such tasks!

Thoreau encourages us to keep our affairs small in number – again, a great challenge for us today with our technological distractions:

 Our life is frittered away by detail. An honest man has hardly need to count more than his ten fingers, or in extreme cases he may add his ten toes, and lump the rest. Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand.

Outside of those in religious orders, I don’t think I know anyone that does this. We seem to live such complex lives, but his challenge to us is to pare back and consider what it is that we seem concerned about that is important. His reason as to why we do not do this is striking:

I perceive that we inhabitants of New England live this mean life that we do because our vision does not penetrate the surface to things.

Brutal. Yet alarmingly true. All too often we don’t consider the depth of a subject, and go along with something because it’s easier to do so, or perhaps expected that we do.

Much of the book is rightly concerned with answering the question of being solitary, and whether we require society. Concerning property and posessions:

I am convinced, that if all men were to live as simply as I then did, thieving and robbery would be unknown. These take place only in communities where some have more than is sufficient while others have not enough.

Cultivate poverty like a garden herb, like sage. Do not trouble yourself much to get new things, whether clothes of friends. Turn the old; return to them. Things do not change; we change.

On morality:

Our whole life is startlingly moral. There is never an instant’s truce between virtue and vice. Goodness is the only investment that never fails.

On self discovery:

…be a Columbus to whole new continents and worlds within you, opening new channels, not of trade, but of thought.

Why did I read Walden? I read Susan Maushart’s ‘The Winter of our disconnect’, where she and her children undertook a similar exercise with technology. Throughout the book, she referred to Walden, and I felt there was a great gap in my reading, or indeed my understanding of how we approach material possessions or artifacts in life. Whilst the focus of the book centres around his experience in the woods and what it taught him about value and social interraction, the book was really written as a political treatise. Indeed, the final section of the book ‘On the duty of civil disobedience’ is a bold questioning of government. I have no real interest in this section of the book, as my interest was piqued by how we approach our attachment to materialism.

Would I recommend it? Yes, I would. Whilst some sections make for difficult reading, his turn of phrase at times is beautiful. To spend time considering such a fundamental question of what do we need in order to live a fulfilled life, we could do a lot worse than spending some time reading Thoreau – even if we too arrive at his conclusion:

I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one.

The joy of a book this old is that you can find it for free to download in Project Gutenberg.org, or if you prefer a physical copy, then get it here at amazon.co.uk. Enjoy!

Image Credit: StarrGazr.

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