“Language is the dress of thought.” ~ Samuel Johnson
I love language. I love the way anyone can employ almost infinite combinations of words and phrases to express themselves. There is a skill in the way words are arranged; their symmetry, their poetry, their layering, their meaning.
Language is sometimes woefully inadequate to express the human condition, (hence the saying, lost for words), but it’s the best, most accurate method we have to communicate with.
I’m not including music, which is in a realm of its own to stimulate imagination and emotions, a shared universal language that transcends language barriers. Music is more ephemeral, subjective and enjoyable, but it cannot give specific instructions, it can only elicit certain moods. It is a gateway to feelings, inspiration and words.
“Music is the one incorporeal entrance into the higher world of knowledge which comprehends mankind but which mankind cannot comprehend.” ~ Ludwig van Beethoven
Having said that, I’ve always been drawn to speeches; sometimes making them, but mostly listening to or reading them. I even included a speech (in dramatic context of course), in my novel.
As a formal way of putting across ideas either to small groups of people or to large numbers of the population, speeches can be used effectively by charismatic politicians (not necessarily of good character), in nuggets of beguiling rhetoric to garner votes.
At their most effective speeches record history, provide inspiration, communicate important ideas and concepts, and of course, tell stories that need to be told.
Emmeline Pankhurst delivering a speech
Delivering an impactful speech in the modern era is probably harder than in centuries before. People stream their entertainment and news from many different sources and have limited time and probably shorter attention spans. Most of us lead busy lives and have to filter a multitude of outlets vying for our attention.
The TED Talks are a wonderful way for thought leaders to reach people who are looking for ideas, knowledge and inspiration. Being in a position of power gives certain individuals a platform, but once it has been consistently abused those words will eventually fall on deaf or resentful ears.
In the recent chaos of house renovations, back to school and starting secondary school preparations, plus the upheaval of my 18 year old son’s move to Germany, I have been burning the candle at both ends.
One night I was feeling particularly exhausted and burnt out, and experiencing unexpected empty nest syndrome. My eldest son has already been in New Zealand for over a year, I thought I might handle it better. Despite being fortunate enough to have my two wonderful daughters at home, I still feel Will’s absence immensely.
On this night when I was at a low ebb, I started watching a 2018 episode of Intelligence Squared on YouTube, and soon became totally engrossed. The speeches, made at pivotal moments in history, still seem so relevant to what is happening around the world right now; as humanity faces a global pandemic, the insidious dismantling of democracy by right-wing populist governments and the environmental behemoth of climate change.
I think that’s enough to be getting on with!
“Speeches are great when they reflect great decisions.” ~ Ted Sorensen (speechwriter to JFK)
Words That Changed the World is expertly hosted by journalist and political broadcaster Emily Maitlis, who is flanked by two respected, experienced speechwriters, journalists and political advisers: Philip Collins and Cody Keenan – discussing the historical context and fascinating insight on their chosen speeches. This is not to be missed. The acting talent who give life to the oratory is equally brilliant.
The chosen speeches in the order they are presented and discussed:
The Gettysburg Address by Abraham Lincoln (1863)
50th Anniversary of Selma Speech by Barack Obama (2015)
Their Finest Hour – Winston Churchill (1940)
Elizabeth I – Tilbury speech addressing the troops (1588)
Emmeline Pankhurst – ‘The laws that men have made’ (1908)
William Shakespeare – From Henry V Saint Crispin’s Day speech (1599)
It felt good to remind myself of the strength of the human spirit listening to ‘words that changed the world’.
These speeches contain both substance and style – they resonate and connect with people on an emotional level – proof on me in the form of hair-raising goose bumps! That’s what we need now, leadership as a force for shared empowerment and good.
JFK’s full ‘why go to the moon?’ speech at Rice University on 12th September 1962 :
As Philip Collins so eloquently explains, rhetoric originates with the Greeks, and cites how Pericles in 431 BC gave his eulogy to the war dead before going on to praise democracy – a move mirrored by Abraham Lincoln in his immortal Gettysburg Address.
Cicero believed that rhetoric and democracy could not be separated. Collins highlights: “It’s only in a democracy that words really matter, because it’s only in a democracy where you’re trying to persuade. The act of persuasion is the act of politics…”.
An audience is always at risk of being hoodwinked by empty rhetoric. If only we could peer into the speaker’s heart and see their inner core, their truth. A truly great speech doesn’t pass from lip to ear – but from heart to heart.
Even one of our most revered statesmen, Winston Churchill, who wrote some of the most enduring, best loved speeches in our history didn’t always get it right. Collins shares that early in his career, Churchill had a tendency to lavish verbosity and grandeur where it simply wasn’t warranted. Churchill certainly embodied the phrase, cometh the hour, cometh the man.
Words that changed the world:
There is a danger that politicians will woo audiences with rhetoric that speaks to fear and prejudice, that appeals to our base motives, disguised as serving the national interest, but in reality does anything but.
The power of words, as is mentioned in this superb video, can work both ways. Freedom of speech is a razor sharp double edged sword.
“Speech is power: Speech is to persuade, to convert, to compel.” ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson
Sadly, the broad, sunlit uplands that Churchill espoused in Their Finest Hour speech are currently shrouded beneath bloated grey clouds. Shadows and harbingers of our own collective making. We need to shine a light, a ray of hope, before we are enveloped in total darkness.Our finest hour seems a long way in the past, as we hurtle full steam ahead into what looks like will be our most desperate post war hour, come Brexit.
Who in their right mind would vote for such a horror? Only if it is portrayed as a benefit and a blessing, as was emblazoned across a certain red bus. But there comes a time when people perceive seductive slogans and disingenuous rhetoric for what they are: harmful and dangerous. Perverted ideological fantasies are being increasingly laid bare; exposed in the light of truth and reality.
The power of hindsight enables us to see through tempting rhetoric to the destructive political attributes beneath the surface: criminal incompetence, bare-faced corruption, jingoism, greed, cronyism, nepotism, hubris, deceit, censorship and breath-taking hypocrisy.
There should be no doubt that Brexit will be a nightmare for our nation, for the majority of its citizens. Just as Hitler’s rise to power proved devastating for Europe and indeed the wider world. His passionate oratory belied his inner psychopath, but perhaps the signs were already there for those who looked closely.
I fear that we are headed towards tyranny – the worst kind of tyranny because it was freely selected by a majority under the influence of rhetoric, aided by media complicity. We all need to pay attention to what is happening in the halls of power. British sovereignty is not being reclaimed, it’s being overtly purloined by a group of elected gangsters! The ugly content of their characters is on show for all to see.
Cody Keenan rightly says that speeches hold up a mirror to society.
“All the most powerful speeches ever made point to a better future.” ~ Patrick Dixon
Decency and honesty is such an important part of public life, alongside vulnerability. Being a servant-leader is a fundamental quality and should be a prerequisite for politicians.
When you look back at the best loved, most iconic leaders such as Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, Winston Churchill, Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., Barack Obama, Emily Pankhurst and other luminaries who changed the world through their deeds and words; they had that skill to act selflessly and lift people up, not just to say,but to do the right thing.
Listening to these speeches gave me a glimmer of hope that sparkled like a luminous beacon in a deep, dark well of despair that has recently opened up within me. I don’t think I’m alone in feeling this dread and anger over the egregious actions of the current government…
Some short and shrewd Twitter speeches:
So many people have objected to this system – including parliamentary committees in both the Commons and the Lords. Yet HMG *still* insists on using EU citizens as its immigration guinea pigs? https://t.co/WQCobwIj0g
1) For Ireland (north and south) May's red lines / decision to leave Customs Union & Single Market transformed Brexit from "problem" into "crisis": customs & regulatory checks on goods have to take place somewhere; if across Ireland = serious economic, social & political impacts
3) Brexit Loons went bonkers: May's backstop would stop them pursuing long- & dear-held plans to deregulate UK social and welfare standards; & hinder their (laughable) fantasy that "Global Britain" would revolutionise the terms of world trade in its own favour
5) Johnson's new Protocol was clear & specific about fact that NI will be subject to entirely distinct rules from GB (including eg powers for various EU institutions to decide about NI issues); & that this= significant barriers for NI goods into GB but especially GB goods into NI
7) but all along, we warned of real risk that Johnson had only signed his “oven ready deal” to win general election. Having done so, real plan would be to tear up withdrawal treaty, including own NI border plan, ruin talks on future EU-UK relations & blame EU for resulting mess
9) Eg refusing permission for EU to even have an office in Belfast. But culminating in UK Internal Market Bill – which clearly, deliberately and consciously empowers Johnson directly and without any ambiguity to breach two key parts of his own legally binding Withdrawal Agreement
11) But this is still serious stuff: not only a clear breach of the legally binding withdrawal treaty; also raises questions about WTO compliance if UK is not treating all trading partners equally; & of course makes NI a smuggler and fraudster’s paradise for access into entire UK
13) To the Brexit Loons, Johnson’s behaviour might look like it delivers on all the things they ever really wanted: teach Ireland a lesson; scupper relations with EU for years to come; totally free to deregulate UK & realign with hard right allies like the vile Trump
15) And Johnson’s attempts to justify his plans are so grossly dishonest (indeed, offensive) that it confirms him & his regime as full-scale post-truth populists of the most degenerate variety. A risk to peace and stability in Ireland. And a growing threat to UK democracy.
History tells how the war against fascism was won ,but you have to look harder to find out how it came to power, most dont bother to look & by the time its surrounded you it's to late ,Orwell nailed it pic.twitter.com/GUEhNTLJHe
You could fill every plum job in the land with right-wing Establishment figures who helped deliver Brexit. It won’t change the nature or reality of Brexit one jot. We’re into what hopefully have to be the final stages of unicornism now. God knows what’s next…
I see Cambridge Analytica is trending so here’s your friendly reminder that you need to watch The Great Hack on Netflix to see how social media is being used to elect authoritarian leaders across the world (including Trump in 2016)
Brexit has made this country mad. It’s lost its bearings, its sense of priorities, its morality. We give airtime to liars and fraudsters. We’ve turned against each other. Our politicians are actively deceiving us for their own ends and so many just don’t care.
It occurs to me that the most memorable speeches in the world highlighted injustice, created harmony, hope and connection, whereas, in the long run at least, the ones that are forgotten or rarely shared conversely sowed hatred and division.
It would also be remiss of me not to include these fantastic snippets of Nelson Mandela:
I also felt it was worth sharing this deeply felt, perfectly executed and excoriating ‘misogyny’ speech by Julia Gillard, voted the most unforgettable Australian TV moment by Guardian readers:
The speeches in this post have reminded me that democracy and freedom should never be taken for granted. Through the ages they’ve been fought and sacrificed for. Let’s not let complacency, ignorance and indifference rob us now.
“There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.” ~ Elie Wiesel
“These pains you feel are messengers. Listen to them.” ~ Rumi
I had several subjects lined up for this blog post, but changed my mind at the last minute. I had an accident on Friday and have badly injured my tailbone. Ouch!
Having given birth to four children, I can honestly say the pain of that fall came close! I can’t sit for long periods of time at the moment and have spent the last few days mostly lying on my side feeling sorry for myself, interspersed with copious icing sessions with frozen peas and popping pain killers.
I spent most of April recovering from Covid-19, and the next two months dealing with an inner ear infection and vertigo. It certainly gives you some strange and disconcerting sensations. Various renovations to the house and garden are ongoing, and before I knew it I was pushing myself to the limit again. I should have listened to my body…
There’s nothing like physical pain to facilitate the transition from a human doing to a human being.
The really intense pain is less pervasive now, but I will be on a go slow for weeks. I can only write for short bursts using a special cushion to help alleviate the coccydynia. When we don’t heed messages from the universe they become more and more obvious until they can no longer be ignored! Now I have been forced to scale back and rest more.
The kids were moping as it looks like a four hour drive to Cornwall for our holiday might not be the best idea next weekend. I may have to grin and bear it, as it will be my last family holiday with my younger son for a while; he is planning to live and work in Berlin for a year, commencing mid August. In fact, I think he timed his departure with A-Level results day!
I was at a low ebb when I read this Persian parable. With many ongoing challenges in 2020, on a personal level as well as nationally and globally, it feels like a timely message to share.
The Persian Parable
Once upon a time there was a king who told the wise men of the court: “I’m making a beautiful ring. I have acquired one of the best possible diamonds. I want to keep hidden inside the ring some message that can help me in moments of total despair, and help my heirs, and the heirs of my heirs, forever. It has to be a small message, so that it can fit under the diamond on the ring.”
All who listened were wise, great scholars; they could have written great treaties, but providing the king with a message of no more than two or three words that could help him in moments of total despair…
They thought, searched through their books, but couldn’t find anything.
The king had an elderly servant who had also been a servant of his father. The king’s mother died young and this servant took care of him, so he treated him as if he belonged to the family.
Learned Advice by Ludwig Deutsch
The king felt an immense respect for the old man, so he also consulted him. And the servant said: “I am not a wise man, nor a scholar, nor an academic, but I know the message. During my long life in the palace, I met all kinds of people, and once I met a mystic. He was your father’s guest and I was at his service.
“When he left, as a gesture of gratitude, he gave me this message.” The old man wrote it on a tiny piece of paper, folded it and gave it to the king. “But do not read it,” he said. “Keep it hidden in the ring. Open it only when everything else has failed, when you can’t find a way out of a situation.”
That moment didn’t take long to arrive. The country was invaded and the king lost the kingdom. He was fleeing on his horse to save his life and his enemies were chasing him. He was alone and his pursuers were numerous. He arrived at a place where the road ended where there was no exit: in front there was a precipice and a deep valley; to fall would be the end for him. And he couldn’t go back because the enemy was blocking his way. He could hear the horses approaching. He couldn’t move forwards and there was no other way out…
Suddenly, he remembered the ring. He opened it, took out the paper and there he found a tremendously valuable little message. It simply said: “This too shall pass”.
As he read “This too shall pass”, he felt a great silence descend. The enemies that were pursuing him must have got lost in the forest, or they must have gone the wrong way. All the king knew was that little by little he stopped hearing the sound of the horses’ hooves.
The king felt profoundly grateful to the servant and the unknown mystic. Those words had proved miraculous. He folded the paper, put it back in the ring, gathered his armies and reconquered the kingdom.
And the day he entered the capital again, in victory, there was a great celebration with music and dancing… and he was very proud of himself.
A Procession by Ludwig Deutsch
The old man was by his side in the coach, and he said: “This moment is also appropriate: look at the message again.”
“What do you mean?” the king asked. “Now I’m victorious, the people celebrate my return. I’m not desperate, I’m not in a no-way-out situation.”
“Listen,” said the old man, “this message isn’t only for desperate situations; it’s also for pleasant situations. It’s not only for when you are defeated; it’s also for when you feel victorious. It’s not only for when you are the last; it’s also for when you are the first.”
The king opened the ring and read the message: “This too shall pass”.
And again, he felt the same peace, the same silence, in the midst of the crowd that celebrated and danced. However, the pride, the ego, had disappeared. The king could finally understand the full meaning of the message. He had become enlightened.
Then the old man said to him: “Remember that everything passes. No thing or emotion is permanent. Like day and night, there are moments of joy and moments of sadness. Accept them as part of the duality of nature, because they are the very nature of things.”
This ancient parable, thought to originate with the Sufi poets, is probably the most important fable one could ever read and employ in life. Somehow it helps to dissolve worries and woes, and keeps you grounded; offering the succour of equanimity and acceptance in all situations.
When I look back on my life so far, and how awful some segments of it were, I remember feeling that those tough periods would never end when I was in them, but now, with hindsight I realise I grew stronger as a result of the struggle and pain, and they didn’t last forever.
This too shall passreminds us of the ephemeral quality of emotions and the human condition, the transient nature of life.
The parable brought to mind the vibrant and totally captivating paintings of the Orientalist artists for me.
The Najd Collection would have been a wonderful exhibition to see:
I can’t help thinking there is so much in the world that needs to pass already, but events unfold at their own pace and this erudite parable confers wisdom and peace for all who are in the thick of it.
If we can make the most of each moment, whatever that brings, we may find we can take stock one day and fully appreciate a life well lived, shaped by profound experiences.
“Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.” ~ Rumi
“Someone needs to buy a radio station, then play nothing but audio books, with a different genre of book played at set times. That way we can always have something new to read, no matter where we are.” ~ Shana Chartier
I’ve been wanting to produce an audiobook version of The Virtuoso for about 18 months. Looking at the next step for my debut novel it seemed logical; audiobooks are a fast growing market in publishing (both in the UK and USA), a new way of reaching readers (or should I say listeners), that an author may not have access to via traditional print or ebook.
Image by Siddharth Bhogra on Unsplash
I diligently researched narrators on ACX, a time consuming process which quickly became overwhelming. The choice was phenomenal and my shortlist had a hundred names on it. I was determined to find a narrator, but I didn’t have a clue how to choose with such a dazzling array of talent on offer. I began to feel slightly dispirited.
Then, out of the blue, at a local networking event I met Cheryl Tissot, and whilst she wasn’t in a position to narrate my fiction novel she introduced me to a colleague of hers, talented voice artist Rachael Beresford.
I’m so glad I went to that meeting…
Long story short, Rachael was happy to narrate my book, which was a big relief. The moment I heard her voice I knew she would be perfect for The Virtuoso.
A few months passed before I was ready to proceed, and Rachael began working with the leading independent audiobook producer in the UK, White House Sound. My production date was booked in and I saved assiduously to pay for a professional production.
Image by Findaway Voices on unsplash
Chris Perks managed my project; he was patient with my inexperience and explained everything clearly – a total delight to work with.
The sound files came through during lockdown, lifting my spirits no end. After the uploading process I waited for approval from ACX, and last week my title went live.
“Even a happy life cannot be without a measure of darkness, and the word happy would lose its meaning if it were not balanced by sadness. It is far better to take things as they come along with patience and equanimity.” ~ Carl Jung
It’s amazing to think that we all walk around with a brain, the control centre of our body; a soft, grey squidgy piece of matter protected by the cranial cavity inside our skull, possibly the most complex organism in the universe.
Cranium – Image by Gordon Johnson via Pixaby
The human brain contains one hundred billion neurons (nerve cells). Each neuron makes links with ten thousand other neurons to form an incredible three dimensional grid containing a thousand trillion connections – that’s 1,000,000,000,000,000 (a quadrillion).
If you struggle to get your head round that number try visualising each connection in this grid as a disc that’s one millimetre thick. According to molecular biologist Nessa Carey, if you were to stack up the quadrillion discs on top of each other they would reach the sun (which is ninety-three million miles from the earth) and back, three times over!
Those incredible, powerful connections are all happening inside our heads…
My last post about brain power focused on neuroplasticity, as neuro science is a subject that fascinates me, and lately I’ve been reading Neurowisdom: The New Brain Science of Money, Happiness and Success by Mark Robert Waldman and Chris Manning, PhD.
I’ve learnt some fascinating facts already, but it’s putting those findings and aha moments into practice that counts.
That is a consistent lifelong activity!
“Happiness is not something that happens. It is not the result of good fortune or random chance. It is not something that money can buy or power command. It does not depend on outside events, but rather, on how we interpret them. Happiness, in fact, is a condition that must be prepared for, cultivated and defended privately by each person.”
~ Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
The authors wanted to define that ineffable quality that we all aspire to feel every day – happiness.
According to data published by the National Opinion Research Center at Chicago University over nearly forty years (1972 – 2010) consisting of accumulated worldwide statistics – money predicts happiness.
Further research undertaken in 2012 by the Wharton School of Business took their findings even further, having found no evidence of a saturation point. In other words, the more income we make, the more happiness we will experience. But just as income appears to be the primary indicator of happiness, there are other important factors in the measurement of happiness.
But we have probably all read about miserable millionaires with dysfunctional lives in news stories and conversely know happy every day people who are content with their lot.
In 2015 the United Nations published the World Happiness Report, containing the six most powerful indicators for happiness, in descending order of importance. Interestingly, the report also found that those who make more money are happier, and those who are happier tend to live longer.
The World Happiness Report identified another major aspect of happiness: wellbeing. Wellbeing is defined as a life that is filled with enjoyment and feelings of safety, alongside the absence of anger, worry, sadness, depression, stress and pain.
In a 2015 issue of the Lancet it was reported that an ongoing sense of wellbeing lowers your risk of physical and emotional disease, tripling your survival rate and extending your life.
The Six Qualities of Happiness
Spending Power (economic capital)
Friends, family and community support (social capital)
Healthy life expectancy
Freedom to make decisions
Financial generosity to others
Absence of corruption in business and government (don’t get me started on this last one!!)
Whilst we still have significant challenges in Western societies (including a shared global pandemic at the moment), they pale in comparison to those caught up in cruel dictatorships and war ravaged regions, with limited opportunities of improving these six fundamental factors for happiness. The severe lack of these factors in certain parts of the world is driving mass migration.
Then there are the profound impacts that climate change could have for our species in all those areas.
It comes as no surprise that money is in the number one spot.
“Money is the most universal and most efficient system of mutual trust ever devised.”
~ Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind
The dark side of money
Money is neutral until it is used by a person. People used to bandy about the saying “money won’t make you happy” or as the bible warns: “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.” Money can be used for good, and just like another neutral object, a knife, it can be used to butter your toast or to harm another person.
Being obsessed with money is shown to increase greed, narcissism, feelings of entitlement, selfishness, risky behaviour and insensitivity towards others.
Research has shown that making money increases happiness, but using money wisely predicts long-term satisfaction.
Spending one’s hard-earned dosh on experiential purchases, such as holidays, cultural events, courses and lessons, hobbies and helping others, will make you happier than spending it purely on material objects. That’s not to say those purchases won’t make you happy, but shared experiences with and for others can be more fulfilling.
“A wise man should have money in his head, but not in his heart.”
~ Jonathan Swift
Researchers reviewed 259 studies comparing money and happiness, and a clear pattern was revealed: the more people focused purely on materialistic wealth, the more dissatisfied they felt with their lives.
It was even noted that if others perceive you as being overtly selfish and greedy they will want you to fail, and may even go so far as to try and sabotage your success.
When people feel they have been unfairly treated, especially where money is concerned, they may take steps to punish the greedy individual, even if it means there is a personal cost in doing so. This reaction is known as Altruistic Punishment.
As a population we can punish unethical, polluting, greedy and poisoning corporations by not buying their products, lobbying for changes in the law, in the same way we can avoid voting for dishonest, unintegrous politicians (unless sucked in by their shallow charisma and empty promises).
The crucible of a happy, healthy, successful life therefore is mastering the balance between inner and outer wealth, as well as integrating material, social and personal desires.
I hear you – this is easier said than done!
Our brains are programmed to seek outer wealth, including any object or activity we perceive to be valuable. Inner wealth is rooted in the brain’s desire to experience pleasure, whether through social interaction or the involvement in any experience that provides greater meaning, purpose, satisfaction and a lasting sense of wellbeing.
The philosophers of ancient Greece discovered that there are two types of happiness: Hedonic and Eudaimonic. Both are necessary to wellbeing, but the latter is more conducive to long-term sustainable happiness.
Triumph of Bacchus by Michaelina wautier c. 1650
Hedonism is the pursuit of pleasure for its own sake, an immediate fulfillment of a particular desire.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a distinguished professor of psychology had an erudite take on this form of happiness:
“Pleasure is an important component of the quality of life, but by itself it does not bring happiness. Sleep, rest, food and sex provide restorative homeostatic experiences that return consciousness to order after the needs of the body intrude and cause psychic entropy to occur. But they do not produce psychological growth. They do not add complexity to the self. Pleasure helps to maintain order, but by itself cannot create new order in consciousness.”
On the other hand, the eudaimonic path cultivates enjoyment from daily activities:
“Without enjoyment, life can be endured, and it can even be pleasant. But it can be so only precariously, depending on luck and the cooperation of the external environment. To gain personal control over the quality of experience, however, one needs to learn how to build enjoyment into what happens day in, day out.”
I feel the Baroque and contemporary paintings are brilliantly executed art depictions of Greek Mythology in relation to the subject matter. The link under Apollo and Dionysus highlights the artist’s concept.
To better achieve these markers of happiness in our lives we need to master four neurological processes the authors cite as being the foundational pillars of inner and outer wealth – defined as the combination of money, happiness, success, and personal contentment.
The four pillars of wealth:
Desire – Curiosity – Pleasure
Motivation is the motive for action. A download of dopamine gives us the essential desire to seek out new goals and go about our business. Instinct and curiosity are the key elements of motivation.
Dopamine is a powerful neurochemical that stimulates pleasure and desire and is essential to mental health, the immune system and overall wellbeing. If the brain does not secrete enough dopamine the brain can become lethargic, and we can slip into depression, losing the drive to work towards meaningful rewards. This is a good reason to engage in new and interesting activities throughout your life.
There are around 100 million neurons lining the gut, it has been termed the second brain. Various drug factories (aka trillions of bacteria) in your gut produce all kinds of neurotransmitters, including dopamine, noradrenaline, serotonin, GABA and oxytocin to name a few. Communication between the gut brain (Enteric Nervous System) and the head brain (Central Nervous System) happens instantaneously via the Vagus Nerve.
It is a two way street, but majority of messages travel from the gut to the brain. This is the source of food cravings – pathogenic bacteria yelling at the brain that they need more sugar!
If your gut is out of balance it’s likely your hormones could be too, and this will hamper these neurological processes.
The motivation-reward circuit is located in the Nucleus Accumbens, in part of the most ancient area of the brain, the Limbic system, responsible for sensory and emotional processing and midbrain activity. The authors refer to this circuit as the M-Drive.
When something emotionally excites you or captures your imagination, your brain is deciding whether to move towards the object of desire or away from any perceived threats. This motivational drive is fundamental to the survival of humans and every organism.
As I explain when I do my music education talks, learning an instrument and listening to music stimulates dopamine release. It’s a random fact I know, but so does yawning!
“I can give you high blood pressure just on the phone by criticizing you. On the other hand, I can send a tweet to somebody in China and give them a dopamine hit.”
~ Deepak Chopra
There is a flip side though; your brain can release too much dopamine when it perceives a highly rewarding activity or object, which can cause potentially destructive addictions.
Too much pleasure may override the brain’s ability to make sensible and wise decisions, encouraging risky behaviour. Roll call adrenaline junkies. Everyone is different, and we each become aware through our thoughts and behaviour of what floats our boat in terms of activating our motivation-reward circuits.
What causes a conflagration of desire and pleasure that becomes overwhelming?
Infatuation and obsession are two powerful states that spring to mind. But there are many others. The list of human foibles is rather a long one.
Image by Chris Liverani on Unsplash
We can get stuck in the dopamine loop before we even realise what has happened. I have experienced this on occasions, and eventually, through great effort, I’ve been able to shift myself away from a destructive cycle.
But it’s not easy, you have to have the will to do it once you become aware of what is happening in the M-Drive!
“Science has learned recently that contempt and indignation are addictive mental states. I mean physically and chemically addictive. Literally! People who are self-righteous a lot are apparently doping themselves rhythmically with auto-secreted surges of dopamine, endorphins and enkephalins. Didn’t you ever ask yourself why indignation feels so good?”
~ David Brin
Another perspective on the same subject from an advanced spiritual teacher:
“Everyone gets a secret pleasure from resentments, from being the martyr or the victim, and from feeling misunderstood, unappreciated, etc.[…]To undo the ego, one must be willing to abandon this payoff game, with its grandstanding of emotions and repetitive rehashing of data and stories to justify its positions.[…] When the ‘inner juice’ is abandoned, it is replaced by inner peace.”
~ Dr. David Hawkins, I: Reality and Subjectivity
This was also ancient knowledge:
“Undisturbed calmness of mind is attained by cultivating friendliness toward the happy, compassion for the unhappy, delight in the virtuous, and indifference toward the wicked.”
~ Patanjali (The Yoga Sutras)
Dopamine is potent, our job is to direct it into healthy pursuits – in other words being of service. Deeply held altruistic values and beliefs will stimulate more balanced desires.
According to Waldman and Manning whatever obstacles a person may be facing, the more optimistic they feel, the more motivated they will become. Apparently it is possible to sublimate our more pessimistic tendencies of cognitive awareness and literally build stronger neural circuits of optimism. Over 100 published studies exist showing that optimism is essential for physical and emotional health.
Even the anticipation of future rewards can stimulate dopamine, improve mood, motivation and decision-making. This is why pleasure/dream boards can keep our motivation going, which is the precursor for the next neurological process of decision-making.
Goals – Consciousness – Language
After being released from the Nucleus Accumbens dopamine travels to a newer part of the brain, the frontal lobe, giving us the ability to plan out strategies and activities to help us reach our goals. Here the brain helps us turn desire into action. This process may involve learning new skills, developing new habits, developing greater emotional intelligence, control and self-esteem.
Maybe this is why I find I’m more creative and productive immediately after a violin practise…
The frontal lobe helps us to consciously find ways to satiate the yearning and ambition ignited by desire. We begin to have ideas to solve problems or acquire something, and this helps us to make the decisions we need to act and work towards achieving our dreams.
This process involves habitual behaviour, the regulation of moods, and helps keep you focused on your desired outcome.
However, decision-making can be disrupted by stress, worry and doubt, so positive affirmations can help train our brain to stay focused, confident and optimistic, even when we experience setbacks.
The only time I delay making important decisions is when I’m upset, because I know that my executive function will be temporarily impaired by an emotional episode. But in the longer term, not making a decision is a decision.
Imagination – Intuition – Daydreaming
I wrote a post a while back specifically about mind-wandering, a part of this crucial process on our journey to greater fulfilment. This unique state of consciousness, when the brain is in the default mode network helps to prevent mental exhaustion, by use of small scheduled time pockets to actively engage in daydreaming and the use of intuitive imagination to solve problems.
Imagination is so fundamental it led Einstein to declare that it was more important than intelligence!
“Do not let the memories of your past limit the potential of your future. There are no limits to what you can achieve on your journey through life, except in your mind.”
~ Roy T. Bennett, The Light in the Heart
Day dreaming has traditionally been frowned upon, and teachers may berate young students for zoning out when they should be focused. But this is a natural process and a helpful one in the right amounts, one that is essential for learning new information and revitalising the brain.
Deliberate mind-wandering is recommended to alleviate stress or if struggling with a difficult problem or emotional issue.
When we imagine a scenario, putting ourselves into another time, place or situation, we can use the subtle senses as part of this envisioning process. Unlike the physical senses, when the subtle senses are engaged in multi-directional thinking there are no limits. We can recall the sound of someone’s voice, the smell of roses, the taste of strawberries, the sound of the sea rolling rhythmically onto the beach, rain falling gently onto the window pane, a certain physical sensation; we can create an entire experience that hasn’t happened yet in intricate detail in our mind’s eye.
Creativity is the journey from the formless to phenomena to form.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, one of the world’s foremost researchers on creativity and optimal performance, found that creative people tend not to lose their sense of awe and wonder in the world, and are less likely to be trapped by repetitive daily routines. They maintain a childlike curiosity about everything, exploring various different avenues of interest not necessarily related to their core work.
His research suggests looking for things that are unusual or different, or seeing familiar things with a fresh perspective – in other words aim to be unquenchably curious and surprise yourself and others every day.
Divergent and convergent thinking
Csikszentmihalyi also recommends practising both divergent and convergent thinking. You may recognise divergent thinking from the term ‘thinking outside the box’. This kind of thinking is considered open-ended, non-linear and irrational when seeking solutions to problems.
I imagine some people thought Wilbur and Orville Wright were off their trolleys in attempting to fly in a powered machine at the start of the 20th century, but now, a mere 117 years later we can fly around the world, exceed the speed of sound and travel into space!
We also need to become adept in convergent thinking, dealing with the minutiae of daily details and decisions, selecting one of just a few options or ideas.
I also explored the source of creativity in a previous post.
Fairness – Empathy – Self-knowledge
The newest part of the brain, evolutionary speaking, is where awareness occurs. When we participate in self-reflection it stimulates circuits of empathy, compassion and self-love. This process helps us to develop more self-awareness, become more socially aware and more spiritually aware of our values, better equipping us to meet the needs of others as well as our own.
Image by Levi XU on Unsplash
In this way mutual trust and cooperation expand, work becomes more meaningful, purposeful and satisfying.
Awareness grows as we age, for the neural circuits involved in self and social awareness (the insula and anterior cingulate), don’t become fully functional until a person is well into their thirties.
This is why I try to have patience with my children, because they have less understanding of how their actions affect and influence others. Selfishness is the default position of a young person’s brain.
From childhood into early adulthood an individual has not yet developed the neurological capacity for empathy and moral reasoning, and are prone to taking greater risks and making mistakes. We all make mistakes, but with age and wisdom they will likely decrease. Mistakes are an essential feedback tool and not proof of failure.
One of the best ways I have found to enhance the conscious knowledge of my character, personality and everything else about me, as well as how my actions might influence others, is through meditation and honesty.
When we fully own the good, the bad and the ugly, nothing holds any power over us. We already know the worst, experiencing both the shadow and the light.
I have learnt to accept myself, flaws and all, with compassion. Patience isn’t a natural strength of mine, so I need to focus on practising it daily, with myself and my family!
Meditation, mindfulness and relaxation strengthens the areas of the brain concerned with confidence, optimism, emotional regulation, happiness, self-love and compassion for others.
There are varying levels of awareness: encompassing bodily sensations, positive and negative thoughts and feelings, awareness of old and new habits and behaviours, self-image and self-esteem, belief systems, purpose and values, awareness of other people’s thoughts and feelings, the social consequences of actions and awareness of awareness itself.
Heightened states of awareness facilitate ‘aha moments’, those sudden insights and ideas that can be applied into different aspects of your life.
The four pillars are interconnected, as when mindfulness/meditation increases awareness, so does motivation, hence you will make better decisions and your creativity will be unleashed. As the connectivity between the four pillars is strengthened a person will begin to take a greater interest in the welfare of others.
In NeuroWisdom they list the 23 traits of moral character (something we should look more closely for in politicians, business leaders, and across the social stratum).
Contemporary research in Positive Psychology identifies the following character traits as associated with happiness, wellbeing and success: compassion, kindness, fairness, open-mindedness, forgiveness, appreciation, gratitude, leadership, social sensitivity, social responsibility, bravery, persistence, integrity, vitality, creativity, curiosity, love of learning, wisdom, hope humour, humility, prudence and spirituality.
Not a bad list to aspire to…
“When you are inspired by some great purpose, some extraordinary project, all your thoughts break their bonds; your mind transcends limitations; your conscious expands in every direction; and you find yourself in a great, new and wonderful world. Dormant forces, faculties and talents become alive, and you discover yourself to be a greater person by far than you ever dreamed yourself to be.”
“‘There are some Buddhist philosophers (a branch referred to as Zen) who say that sometimes a bad thing happens to prevent a worse thing happening,’ Dr Kellet said. ‘But, of course, there are some situations where it’s impossible to imagine anything worse.’” ~ Kate Atkinson, Life After Life
Life After Life by Kate Atkinson is one of those books that will make you question the nature of reality. It is certainly thought provoking and provides some historical learning, it will also make you laugh and cry, as well as entertain you. In short it is a literary masterpiece!
Do you believe in reincarnation?
I am coming round to the idea more and more these days. One life just isn’t long enough to experience and learn everything an immortal soul would strive to achieve.
I’ve often pondered about when people die young, the tragedy of a life cut short: the pain of their loss on loved ones, missing their presence and wondering what they might have done had they survived. So much unfinished business. And then there is how their death impacts other lives to the extent of what they do going forward.
A few days before my 20th birthday, unexpectedly my first love perished in a motorcycle accident. He was 22 years old. I had been on the back of his motorcycle many times before, (I still am something of a speed freak), but I never got on a motorbike again after his untimely and tragic death.
I couldn’t accept that he had just disappeared; here one minute, gone the next. I was in a dreadful state and moped around the house for many weeks. I couldn’t stop myself thinking about having seen him lying at the undertakers. It was the first and only time I have seen a dead body. It didn’t look like him. His life force was not animating his body. I began think about where his spirit or soul energy had gone.
Did it exist outside of time and space?
I had the sensation that his spirit was near and around me in those early days, a feeling that’s hard to describe.
It was at that time I started to believe in the divine nature of the soul. It comforted me to think of him as an immortal soul occupying a temporary body, having a human experience; as opposed to a mere body that originates in oblivion and returns there.
When we do have spiritual experiences it is like returning to our natural state. What Deepak Chopra terms as ‘lightness of being’. He asserts that we are light beings in essence.
I feel like I am the watcher, the sentient being, the spark of consciousness that pervades the universe, just as every human is; aware of being alive, able to use sensory outlets and emotions to heighten experiences. According to Chopra we are the infinite creators, conscious agents in the matrix of the microbiome of life!
It’s an intriguing idea that every sentient being is an aspect of infinite consciousness experiencing the finite, entangled into a genetic uniform and personality.
How can we explain why we are drawn to certain people, places or careers, why we enjoy certain activities or the talents we have, why we make the choices we do?
Perhaps our choices reflect our level of consciousness or soul wisdom in any given moment…
“Most people muddled through events and only in retrospect realised their significance.” ~ Kate Atkinson, Life After Life
There are particular phenomena I’ve gone through, such as having an out of body experience and various moments of déjà vu, the feeling of having lived in a particular place, (such as Paris), meeting some individuals you feel like you’ve known your whole life after only a few minutes.
Then there are some people you just resonate with.
I suppose that’s why this book’s premise drew me in; I needed a profound read as I set aside moments to rest over the last few weeks. I’ve experienced a litany of unpleasant after effects recovering from the coronavirus, and I knew that reading a good book would hook me, forcing me to spend some quiet time.
Life After Life did not disappoint…
“What if you had the chance to live your life again and again, until you finally got it right?
During a snowstorm in England in 1910, a baby is born and dies before she take her first breath.
During a snowstorm in England in 1910, the same baby is born and lives to tell the tale.
What if there were second chances? And third chances? In fact, an infinite number of chances to live your life? Would you eventually be able to save the world from its own inevitable destiny? And would you even want to?
The baby in question is Ursula Todd, and her stories also revolve around her family: mother Sylvie, father Hugh, siblings Maurice, Pamela, Teddy and Jimmy and her wayward aunty Izzie. Not forgetting the acerbic cook, Mrs Glover, and the scullery maid, Bridget who live at the idyllic ‘Fox Corner’ in rural Beaconsfield (not far from me).
The novel’s time span runs from 1910 to just after the Second World War. There are plenty of opportunities to die between two world wars…
“At times life seems to be a cruel game. The only justification for it is that in reality it is only a dream. That is why there are so many differences in the world. Some people are poor, some are rich, some healthy, some sick, and so on. You have had many experiences through many incarnations and you will have others in future incarnations, but they should not frighten you. You must play all parts in the motion picture of life, inwardly saying: ‘I am Spirit.’ This is the great consolation that wisdom gives us.”
~ Paramahansa Yogananda
If I could get to the crux of the genius of this book, it is how the author creates such lifelike, vivid characters, building on and altering their circumstances during each of Ursula’s lives in a way that is not repetitive or dull.
Their characters don’t change through each incarnation, but their life paths are modified depending on the choices that Ursula makes.
There are quite a few childhood deaths, handled with sensitivity by the author, but nonetheless still sad. Then there are the incarnations that Ursula has where she has made it to and sometimes through World War 2, and the amazing descriptions of her lives in London during the horror of the blitz.
“We cannot turn away,” Miss Woolf told her, “we must get on with our job and we must bear witness.” What did that mean, Ursula wondered. “It means,” Miss Woolf said, “that we must remember these people when we are safely in the future.”
“And if we are killed?”
“Then others must remember us.”
Even the people she meets in that phase of her blitz lives are memorable, like Mrs Appleyard and her infant Emil, the Nesbit sisters, her senior warden at the ARP, Miss Woolf, Mr Durkin, the violinist Mr Zimmerman and Mr Bullock.
September 1940 is revisited a couple of times in Life After Life:
The multiple deaths that occur around Armistice due to the Spanish Flu are poignant, especially given our current Covid-19 situation, and how Atkinson weaves slightly different scenarios each time, all leading to the same inevitable fate – except one.
Two of the saddest lives Ursula has are when she is raped by a friend of her older brother on her sixteenth birthday and becomes pregnant and that lifetime ultimately ends in tragedy. In another life she meets him again on the same birthday, but handles the situation differently and so does not end up being violated.
11 November 1918
“Everything familiar somehow. It’s called déjà vu, Sylvie said. “It’s a trick of the mind. The mind is a fathomless mystery. ‘ Ursula was sure she could recall lying in the baby carriage beneath the tree. ‘No,’ Sylvie said, ‘no one can remember being so small,’ yet Ursula remembered the leaves, like great green hands, waving in the breeze and the silver hare that hung from the carriage hood, turning and twisting in front of her face. Sylvie sighed. ‘You do have a very vivid imagination, Ursula.’ Ursula didn’t know whether this was a compliment or not but it was certainly true that she often felt confused between what was real and what was not. And the terrible fear – fearful terror – that she carried around inside her. The dark landscape within. ‘Don’t dwell on such things,’ Sylvie said sharply when Ursula tried to explain. ‘Think sunny thoughts.’”
The other life is when she first has an ominous encounter with her future husband, Derek Oliphant while studying at secretarial school. I wept through that chapter (Like a Fox in a Hole), as anyone likely would who has been in an abusive relationship. It touched a raw nerve that I didn’t even realise was exposed.
Then there are the lives where she spends her mature years in Germany, where she becomes friends with Eva Braun…
Life After Life is not just clever but totally absorbing. After a certain amount of lives Ursula’s feelings of déjà vu begin to surface during her childhood and into adulthood, as her various realities are lived out, with her subtly making different choices that impact her outcomes and those of her friends and family.
She develops a kind of inexplicable intuition, an instinctual, emotional palimpsest of past realities that influence her thoughts and feelings.
Whilst I don’t personally believe in reincarnation into the same body and life, (I lean towards the school of thought that we take different forms with each go around the mortal block over aeons of time), it did not stop me from immensely enjoying Life After Life. It is utterly brilliant.
Reading Life After Life also made me feel that as difficult as things are at the moment for all of us, it does not compare to the hardships earlier generations went through for many years during these conflicts.
I think I need to leave some time for this book to fully settle in my psyche before I read her highly acclaimed follow-on novel, A God in Ruins (focusing on Ursula’s younger brother Teddy’s time in the RAF).
“Become such as you are, having learned what that is.” ~ Kate Atkinson, Life After Life
Where there is no vision, the people perish. ~ Proverbs 29:18
I sincerely hope you are safe, healthy and mentally strong during this strange and unprecedented time.
After lockdown I was so caught up in getting stuff done I was overdoing it. I didn’t pay attention to the mild cold I couldn’t seem to shift as home quarantine came into effect, and boy did I regret that. I have come out the other side of a rough exchange with Covid-19 and I’m grateful to be here writing!
After three weeks of convalescence (2 of which were complete rest) I am almost back to normal. Whatever normal is. Some of my friends have also been laid up for weeks and have experienced similarly scary symptoms.
I have resolved to make less excuses to myself for all that I haven’t yet done and at the same time be proud of all that I have achieved in half a century. I am reminded that life is a journey, not a destination, and part of the joy is in travelling…
The Coronavirus has profound implications for each of us, for humanity collectively and for our planet. At worst it is utterly devastating – thousands of families have lost loved ones, jobs are on hold, households are coping with reduced income, and many are frightened and anxious about the future.
Mankind is being tested on every front. The situation humanity now faces is nothing less than the management of evolutionary change in order to survive long-term.
Across the world difficult decisions about when and how to come out of lockdown must be taken.
If you live in the UK, where our incompetent and culpable government was slow to react with testing, contact tracing, providing PPE, (even for just our frontline medical staff), initiating nationwide lockdown, closing borders and introducing quarantine measures for new arrivals etc. then it will be all the harder.
I am hopeful that having been treated so well at St. Thomas’s Hospital that Mr Johnson will have a new found respect for our NHS and pull out all the stops to do whatever they can to get on top of the situation, even though the Corona-horse has already bolted.
I was also lost for words that a president could advocate injecting bleach! It’s easy to feel disheartened with such numpties in charge; so it’s all the more important for each of us to handle our particular circumstances as best we can.
I am reminded of the famous JFK quote: Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.
Of course we expect the nation’s safety to be prioritised, and I for one hope there will be full enquiry into the government’s mishandling of the crisis. But also we have the ability as individuals to act, to help ourselves, our families and our community. I have seen so many heart-warming stories among the corona carnage and tragic stories.
For every example of ‘covidiots’ ignoring social distancing advice and leaders exacerbating already difficult situations, there have been instances of mass collaboration on a global as well as local scale. Billions of us are in self-quarantine to protect the more vulnerable in society and help prevent the overwhelm and collapse of health systems.
It’s amazing what we can collectively do when we agree on a beneficial shared outcome, despite different backgrounds, cultures and beliefs. If we can do it for our health, then surely we can also do it for the planet?
A heartwarming video of animals encroaching on human territory for once!
In the UK Captain Tom Moore has been one of these selfless and courageous individuals. So far he has raised over 32 million pounds for the NHS, as of today, his 100th birthday! And just as importantly, he has raised the nation’s morale.
Now that life has slowed down for many who have either been furloughed or made redundant, people are communicating more and re-establishing lapsed connections.
Musicians have been live streaming from their homes and making vital contributions to our cultural and creative life in lieu of being able to attend concerts and theatres. I had the pleasure of meeting the virtuoso violinist Maxim Vengerov a few years ago in Oxford:
Some of us are working harder than ever – namely our frontline healthcare professionals, medical support staff, grocery workers and supply chains. The NHS staff are risking their lives every day to treat the constant influx of Covid-19 patients. When I was briefly in Stoke Mandeville Hospital they were amazing. But they did not have face visors and scrubs.
It’s right that we support and applaud nurses and doctors, they are real life heroes. I’m sure this proposed payment from the government will be helpful to bereaved NHS families, but surely they would rather have their loved ones alive and well, kitted out with the correct protective gear!
Parents are now teachers, and as much as I love my kids it has added considerable stress and work to my already overloaded life. I’ve since learnt to let go of the worry and embrace the chaos.
Need I say more…
Before I got sick I wrote about focusing on what we have control over. It’s the best way to alleviate anxiety about the uncertainty. We are living in uncharted territory right now, but through all the disruption, chaos and fear there is hope for a brighter future if we have vision.
If there’s one thing we are being made to do it is to adapt. Accepting and adapting to the way things are will help us through this challenging time in the best way possible. Leadership isn’t just something we expect of elected politicians, we can develop leadership qualities to serve each other and our communities.
Imagination and Innovation during historical epidemics
The Decameron (or Human Comedy) was written by Giovanni Boccaccio in Florence following the 1348 plague, and was completed by 1353. The collection of one hundred short tales is told by a group of 7 women and 3 men as they hunker down in a Tuscan villa to avoid plague ridden Florence. Stories within a story.
A Tale from The Decameron – John William Waterhouse c.1916
Being the 14th Century there is no social media or television, and without distractions they each set to storytelling for ten days. They tell tales of love, life, fortune and power, much as we might do right now if we were suddenly deprived of the internet! The work provides a snapshot into life at that time and influenced Chaucer in his Canterbury Tales.
A fascinating book talk on The Decameron by Marilyn Migiel:
The famous diarist, Samuel Pepys wrote about his melancholy experience of living in London during the Great Plague of 1665. Some of his entries in Lapham’s Quarterly make sobering reading.
Albert Camus’s 1947 novel, The Plague is having something of a renaissance at the moment. A substantial body of literary works over the ages serve as an escape from reality (well, almost), but perhaps not this one!
It was commonly believed that Sir Isaac Newton found inspiration at Trinity College Cambridge during the plague, although this interesting article in The New Yorker points out he was well on his way with his learning and research both before and after the plague.
Whatever you are doing in lockdown, I hope it is nourishing your soul in some way.
There was a particular quote by Napoleon Hill that kept flitting in and out of my mind over the last few weeks as I was feeling sorry for myself and struggling to regain my energy, joie de vivre and motivation.
“Every adversity, every failure, every heartache carries with it the seed of an equal or greater benefit.”
Covid-19 has wrought adversity, failure and heartache on the world like nothing in living memory. Aside from our personal and collective suffering over the pandemic, the Coronavirus has also shown us the dysfunction we have created in the world, effectively holding up a mirror…
Humanity is at a cross roads. What can we learn from this pandemic?
From a health perspective an urgent priority is finding a vaccine and an accurate antibody test, and people are rightly focusing on their health and what they can do to improve it, (also a passion of mine), but it would be prudent to assess the fundamental issues of how we operate in the world.
Maybe the next great clean energy project will come out of this…
For the time being we are breathing cleaner air around the world:
Blessing in disguise? Half of the world population is under some form of lockdown due to #COVID19. Environmental pollution is reduced up to 30%.Mobility is reduced up to 90%. Look at the atmosphere, look at the sky! Colombo #SriLanka 🇱🇰❤️ pic.twitter.com/FeScphGJwB
A preliminary study showed that an increase in long-term exposure to fine particulate matter (PM2.5) is associated with a 15% increase in mortality from #COVID19. One week later, the EPA announced that it would NOT strengthen air pollution standards. https://t.co/zE58jpgovM
Out of our darkest periods in history there always springs new hope and fresh ideas.
Spring is in full swing in the Northern Hemisphere, unfurling her burgeoning, colourful buds. Perhaps you have been able to enjoy the solace nature has provided during lockdown. I’m now getting back to doing my regular walk in the woods.
Just as nature signals rebirth, regeneration and renewal, so it can be internally.
Detail of the procession and musicians in Spring by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema c. 1894
Will we choose to do things differently? Work together to make a better, safer, more sustainable, inclusive world?
During my bed rest I asked myself what the Coronavirus had meant for me and my family. What did I need to face? I had some uncomfortable but necessary revelations.
It was a forced time of reflection that has brought about renewed clarity and purpose. It felt good to live more simply and to spend time with my family rather than working myself to the bone to cross off a list of never-ending chores.
Everyday minutiae become immaterial in those moments you fear might be your last. You remember what is truly important in life. I have renewed my daily gratitude practise. I am thankful that I managed to get my health into a strong position and was able to weather my personal Covid-19 storm.
I have vowed to be kinder to myself and those around me and work towards my inner vision with joy in my heart despite the circumstances. I take each day as it comes, while simultaneously holding a vision for where I want my life to be.
As much as this time is placing restrictions on us it is also a moment of opportunity. It’s our job to sow the seeds of hope, to be diligent farmers of our own lives in order to reap a more abundant future harvest.
Lockdown doesn’t have to be stagnation, we can innovate, imagine and plan for the future with forward motion.
“Commitment and creativity cannot be captured and handcuffed. Inspiration cannot be jailed. The heart cannot be contained.” ~ Gary Zukav
There is no doubt that our species has achieved some truly amazing feats.
But we have made many mistakes too, some with serious ramifications. Man’s innate curiosity led him to explore his surroundings and then spread further afield until he covered the planet in his search for a better life for his ‘tribe’.
But the current hegemony of Homo sapiens will be short lived, in evolutionary terms, if we don’t have the humility and hindsight to take responsibility for how we got here.
“It is worse, much worse, than you think. The slowness of climate change is a fairy tale, perhaps as pernicious as the one that says it isn’t happening at all, and comes to us bundled with several others in an anthology of comforting delusions: that global warming is an Arctic saga, unfolding remotely; that it is strictly a matter of sea level and coastlines, not an enveloping crisis sparing no place and leaving no life undeformed; that it is a crisis of the “natural” world, not the human one; that those two are distinct, and that we live today somehow outside or beyond or at the very least defended against nature, not inescapably within and literally overwhelmed by it; that wealth can be a shield against the ravages of warming; that the burning of fossil fuels is the price of continued economic growth; that growth, and the technology it produces, will allow us to engineer our way out of environmental disaster; that there is any analogue to the scale or scope of this threat, in the long span of human history, that might give us confidence in staring it down. None of this is true. But let’s begin with the speed of change. The earth has experienced five mass extinctions before the one we are living through now, each so complete a wiping of the fossil record that it functioned as an evolutionary reset, the planet’s phylogenetic tree first expanding, then collapsing, at intervals, like a lung: 86 percent of all species dead, 450 million years ago; 70 million years later, 75 percent; 125 million years later, 96 percent; 50 million years later, 80 percent; 135 million years after that, 75 percent again. Unless you are a teenager, you probably read in your high school textbooks that these extinctions were the result of asteroids. In fact, all but the one that killed the dinosaurs involved climate change produced by greenhouse gas. The most notorious was 250 million years ago; it began when carbon dioxide warmed the planet by five degrees Celsius, accelerated when that warming triggered the release of methane, another greenhouse gas, and ended with all but a sliver of life on Earth dead. We are currently adding carbon to the atmosphere at a considerably faster rate; by most estimates, at least ten times faster. The rate is one hundred times faster than at any point in human history before the beginning of industrialization. And there is already, right now, fully a third more carbon in the atmosphere than at any point in the last 800,000 years—perhaps in as long as 15 million years. There were no humans then.”
We must now harness the creative and critical thinking edge that the Cognitive Revolution birthed, and that catapulted us into the Anthropocene, to figure out how we can repair much of the destruction left in our wake; now that we have woken up to the fact that it threatens our survival.
One could argue that our rise to the Age of Humans is ‘progress’, a necessary evolution, but such progress comes with responsibilities. We cannot accept a continuing attitude that the end justifies the means. Unless we curb and alter our progress it will prove to be the road to perdition for Homo sapiens.
Homo sapiens means ‘wise man’, but for a species credited with such erudition we have certainly demonstrated ignorance in equal measure…
O, it is excellent
To have a giant’s strength, but it is tyrannous
To use it like a giant.
Isabella (Act 2, Scene 2)
~ William Shakespeare, Measure for Measure
The four horsemen of the apocalypse could prove to be greed, arrogance, apathy and indifference.
As well as conveying the beauty, awe and wonder of Earth in his latest programme, Seven Worlds, One Planet, Sir David Attenborough repeated the ongoing message of habitat destruction and climate change.
Despite the Coronavirus, the fact remains that climate change is the single biggest threat to all life on Earth in the Age of Humans.
Biodiversity and sustainability
At the launch of the spectacular Netflix nature programme Our Planet, Sir David Attenborough gave a clear message: we must find a way to survive that does not entail decimating the natural world, because biodiversity equals stability.
SUSTAINABILITY should be our new watch word, a global standard that helps to protect biodiversity in the interest future generations.
If we managed two mass extinctions as hunter-gatherers, (the decimation of two continent’s mega-fauna with just hand tools), imagine what damage we can inflict now, thousands of years later, with efficient machines in this industrial and technological age?
Rapid, wholesale destruction of rainforests by agribusiness for short term profit over long term ecological stability is crazy, and should not be allowed to continue unabated.
We cannot continue to bludgeon our way through our planet’s natural resources with no regard for the consequences.
Over the last year I have phased out processed food from our diet (apart from the odd treat), and I look carefully at the ingredients and buy brands like Nairn’s that only use sustainable palm oil.
This passage from Sapiens illustrates how Homo sapiens have evolved too quickly, thus creating massive environmental problems for ourselves and the planet:
Genus Homo’s position in the food chain was, until quite recently, solidly in the middle. For millions of years, humans hunted smaller creatures and gathered what they could, all the while being hunted by larger predators. It was only 400,000 years ago that several species of man began to hunt large game on a regular basis, and only in the last 100,000 years – with the rise of Homo Sapiens – that man jumped to the top of the food chain.
That spectacular leap from the middle to the top had enormous consequences. Other animals at the top of the pyramid, such as lions and sharks, evolved into that position very gradually, over millions of years. This enabled the ecosystem to develop checks and balances that prevent lions and sharks from wreaking too much havoc. As lions became deadlier, so gazelles evolved to run faster, hyenas to co-operate better, and rhinoceroses to be more bad-tempered.
In contrast, humankind ascended to the top so quickly that the ecosystem was not given time to adjust. Moreover, humans themselves failed to adjust. Most top predators of the planet are majestic creatures. Millions of years of dominion have filled them with self-confidence. Sapiens by contrast is more like a banana-republic dictator. Having so recently been one of the underdogs of the savannah, we are full of fears and anxieties over our position, which makes us doubly cruel and dangerous. Many historical calamities, from deadly wars to ecological catastrophes, have resulted from this over-hasty jump.
~ Yuval Noah Harari (Sapiens)
On our way to the top of the food chain humans domesticated fire, gaining control of a powerful, obedient and potentially limitless force. Unlike other animals, humans could decide when and where to ignite a flame and use it for numerous tasks. Our use of fire was not limited by our physical form, structure or strength. A child with a fire stick could burn down an entire forest.
Metaphorically, this seems like exactly what our still relatively ‘young’ species has done to the planet!
The Cognitive Revolution
The Cognitive Revolution was probably the defining moment in humanity’s evolution thus far – the ability of our species to communicate, to gossip, to develop ever larger social structures, to organise ourselves, collaborate and plan and imagine outcomes. It was the beginning of creativity and storytelling.
No other creature on Earth has developed this mental capacity.
Creation of Man by Michelangelo
We lived for millennia in a similar fashion to our closest genetic cousins, chimpanzees; who survive still in small hierarchical communities lead by an alpha male, having to intervene in squabbles when necessary, and deal with challenges to his authority from younger males who would usurp him, along with his right to sire many of the infants in his group and continue his blood line.
The atmosphere can be aggressive at times, but it is permeated with playfulness, loving mothers, friendships and sub groups that garner support by giving and receiving favours such as picking out fleas and grooming.
You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours… It’s a well known fact in psychology that people respond in kind.
What is the American president but the alpha male of the United States, if not the world? Or for that matter, the Pope is the alpha male of the Catholic Church.
Current political favours and manoeuvrings aren’t so far removed from our ancestral chimp roots, just more sophisticated.
Image by Johannes Plenio on Unsplash
Brutality is cloaked by bullies in suits: corruption, corporate malfeasance and brainwashing in the media and all the machinations of imperfect democracies.
What is democracy but millions of people choosing to believe in certain imagined realities?
Female chimpanzees are not able to look at and study the example of the more balanced and loved-up societies of Bonobos, which are run by their more emancipated female relatives, and translate that learning into more freedom and peace for themselves in their own environments.
But the rise of feminism in human society arose from women’s collective desire for a fairer, more meaningful and egalitarian life. It is, of course, an ongoing challenge in a patriarchal society.
Such dramatic changes in behaviour do not occur in the animal kingdom unless environmental pressures or mutations in DNA initiate them.
But since the Cognitive Revolution humans have been able to change their thoughts and pass on new ideas and behaviours to future generations without any need of genetic or environmental change.
This ability to transform our social structures, the nature of interpersonal relations and our economic activities is a beacon of hope that we can collectively adapt our social behaviours in relation to conservation, waste management, consumption, future innovation and living more cleanly in respect to climate change.
Environmental pressure is certainly driving our continued evolution!
Our species’ nascent curiosity all those thousands of years ago made us think and ask: what would it be like to sail to another land?
The diverse cultures that we are part of and can experience through travelling could not have grown without a curiosity about the world and our place in it.
The temples and pyramids we have built, the gods we have worshipped, the land we have tilled and shaped, the art and music we have expressed (even from the days of cave men) has all been possible because of the Cognitive Revolution.
The freedom to think and act gave us power, and we’re still learning how to wield it.
Sophisticated language and the ability to create ‘imagined realities’ meant that humans could go from living in small groups to creating cities and empires, religions and ideologies, law and order. We could co-operate on hitherto unknown scales.
Money was, and is, the most universally successful creation that mankind invented. Even two people who are born in different geographical locations, and diametrically opposed in their beliefs, their lifestyles and outlooks will both use money in their everyday lives. It is humanity’s common denominator – as is nature and our home planet, Earth.
How do you get millions of people to act in a certain way? It comes down to common goals and shared beliefs. We are individuals, but still able to work together for perceived mutual benefit.
We may be able to disagree on one or two issues, but have many other overriding positive connections that outweigh any disagreements. That is the beauty of freedom of speech and social interaction. The challenges occur when we can’t overcome our differences or agree on a particular imagined reality.
Brexit springs to mind!
Once Homo sapiens started telling stories we never stopped. We evolved our capacity to craft and learn from stories. Myths and stories are the glue of our social connections.
Our physical evolution may have continued at the normal glacial pace, but our imagination raced ahead, enabling us to build networks of mass co-operation.
Social media amplifies this ability to a truly staggering global level.
All the leaders in history have used stories to their advantage, and the best ones used them for the good of humanity. We still tell and read stories that were written years, decades and centuries ago, because we continue to find value and entertainment in them.
Now it is time to tell the most important story in modern history, the one that’s uncomfortable and sometimes frightening to hear, about how we are destroying our planet.
“We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” ~ Albert Einstein
Dystopian climate disaster movies that have been portrayed on the silver screen are now becoming an all too frequent reality in different areas of the planet.
“Fully half of British emissions, it was recently calculated, come from inefficiencies in construction, discarded and unused food, electronics, and clothing; two-thirds of American energy is wasted; globally, according to one paper, we are subsidizing the fossil fuel business to the tune of $5 trillion each year. None of that has to continue.”
~ David Wallace-Wells, The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming
It’s one thing to hear that elephants, tigers, lions, bees, dolphins and whales are going extinct, and that the earth is becoming uninhabitable, and quite another to experience an unthinkable reality that moves us emotionally into action.
Whether driven by love or fear, we need lots of new stories about climate change, biodiversity, mass extinctions, pollution and human disease to be told in different ways to different audiences.
It’s our only chance of making such rapid changes to create a paradigm shift on how we have contributed to the problems facing humanity and how we can solve them. It no longer serves us to be insatiable consumers of natural resources, our fictional realities now need to focus on being the protectors, custodians and lovers of our dwindling abundance.
International co-operation is key. Leaders of nations need to come together and set aside large areas of land and sea as protected from human activity, purely for conservation. Nature has shown she can recover if we give her a helping hand.
Sir David Attenborough used the example of a group of islands in south east Asia as an example. Massive over fishing depleted the waters and the coral reefs significantly declined.
The screen filled with eerie images of thousands of giant jellyfish undulating below the surface – the consequence of there being no fish. This is what awaits us beneath the ocean if we continue in that vein. However, this group of islands was declared a national marine park, and within a decade it had recovered most of its biodiversity.
Sir David stated that a third of coastal seas on our planet should be protected as marine parks in this way, so that they can recover from over fishing.
The wasteland of Chernobyl is another example of nature recovering free from human interference:
Sir David Attenborough with some solutions:
The giant Australian marsupial Diprotodon became extinct because it couldn’t adjust in time to develop a fear of humans, who duly massacred them all.
The irony is, nature is now forcing us to adapt to ourselves…
There is no one single historical antecedent to the Anthropocene.
What we call ‘history’ is us recording and looking back at our fictions and imaginations and the outcomes our actions shaped. This elusive, mysterious quality of mind was the driving force behind our evolution.
To me, the logical next step in our evolution is that of the spirit – the unseen.
Moving from being a person that purely experiences the world through just their five senses, to being multi-sensory beings; developing awareness of our inner motivations, emotions and behaviour, being comfortable with stillness, the oneness of all that is, developing empathy, gratitude, a loving nature and a love for nature, becoming highly intuitive and learning to transcend our evolutionary animal inheritance from our chimpanzee days – the ego.
I feel strongly that healing the planet will be achieved with more insight and awareness, and more rapidly, if we can first take responsibility for ourselves and care for each other.
World domination never succeeded (at least for very long), on an individual level, national or empirical level. Just look at Hitler, Stalin and countless other despots, egomaniacs and repressive regimes.
Collectively we influence each other and the planet, to the extent that the consequences of our actions are magnified and compounded in the Age of Humans.
If we all adopted the attitude of asking what serves all of life, rather than what just serves humanity, or purely what serves me, where could we be?
In today’s world, amid efforts to combat a myriad of crises of climate, politics, medicine, and socioeconomics, we are in a constant state of emergency…
Which leads to forced adaptation rather than evolution.
But in order to evolve to our highest potential, individually and as a species, we must access and cultivate the innate and largely unexplored capabilities already within us.
~ Steve Farrell, Worldwide Executive Director – Humanity’s Team
We don’t have to become monks, saints, or even permanently altruistic beings, we can still follow our dreams and aspirations, enjoy our lives; but with an increased awareness of the impact of our actions.
We each have more power than we think.
A profound solution – Consciousness creates reality:
I heard a beautiful explanation of intuition by Gary Zukav, he said that it is the voice of the non-physical world. Cognition could be exponentially more powerful when we are aligned with a higher purpose and the non physical part of ourselves – the soul.
To give future souls a chance at evolving we must preserve the physical stage upon which they can do so – planet Earth.
All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages.
~ William Shakespeare (from All the World’s a Stage speech) As You Like It
“If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.” ~ Albert Einstein
What with all the global turbulence of late I got to thinking: What is our evolutionary destiny as a species?
It’s a difficult and provocative question to ask, let alone to answer!
But we must ask it, if we are to understand where we are now and where we are heading. If we don’t, how can we create a happier, more bountiful and sustainable existence not just for ourselves, but for all creation, than we have thus far?
In my small slithers of time I have been reading Yuval Noah Harari’s brilliant book, Sapiens. I’m only half way through, but am finding it compelling and sobering reading.
I’m expanding on my interest in Anthropology as part of my research for my next novel, (a corporate conspiracy thriller), but it’s also insightful for a blog post or two!
The challenges of the Anthropocene
Scientists have named the new epoch of our planet the Anthropocene – the age of humans.
Human activity has impacted the face of the planet and its animal inhabitants to such a degree that we now largely hold the fate of the entire planet’s biodiversity in our hands. A scary fact, considering our past record!
There is little that we have failed to plunder or indirectly affect and use for our advantage over aeons of our species’ existence. We should heed Einstein’s advice and ruminate extensively on the challenges and opportunities of this new human epoch.
According to Sir David Attenborough we are now experiencing the 6th wave of mass extinction on our planet, and (I’m sorry to go all ‘doomsday’), unless we radically alter our trajectory it could be the precursor to the extinction of Homo sapiens. We are the masters of our fate, one way or another.
We face untold misery unless we rapidly develop a global awareness of what’s happening and how we can adjust our behaviour to avoid cataclysm. Otherwise, as scientists continue to tell us, we will reap a bitter and devastating harvest…
’Species have likely already gone extinct in Australia's catastrophic bushfires and experts warn it may take a decade to find out which ones due to lack of staff and expertise.’#AustralianBushfireshttps://t.co/tOPZWfUnLb
An ancient grove of pine trees whose ancestors are thought to have stood tall among dinosaurs some 200 million years ago has been saved from Australian bushfires in a covert firefighting mission. https://t.co/R990gQCiN3
This article highlights visually the conditions that have exacerbated the fires in Australia.
It is thought close to a BILLION animals have perished in the bushfires: koalas, kangaroos, flying foxes and other precious wildlife. If like me, you feel devastated by this and wish to do something to help in addition to prayer, you can donate to Australia’s Wildlife Emergency fund on the WIRES website.
It has been heartbreaking to see the level of suffering. And yet, Australia’s impotent PM, Scott Morrison, is an outright climate change denierand has demonstrated a dire lack of leadership to his nation. More also needs to be done to heed the advice of the indigenous aboriginal population.
My grandfather grew up in a mining town just beyond the Blue Mountains of New South Wales. I have happy memories of the time I was there. I just want to sit and weep when I read of the impact of these fires.
Morrison is not the only leader to have failed miserably in his responsibility – Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro should be put on trial for his role in the Amazon’s destruction – and by default the global impact it is having.
“If you had to invent a threat grand enough, and global enough, to plausibly conjure into being a system of true international cooperation, climate change would be it—the threat everywhere, and overwhelming, and total. And yet now, just as the need for that kind of cooperation is paramount, indeed necessary for anything like the world we know to survive, we are only unbuilding those alliances—recoiling into nationalistic corners and retreating from collective responsibility and from each other. That collapse of trust is a cascade, too.”
To better understand the immense challenges and opportunities of the Anthropocene we should take a peek into the distant past – through millennia, into the history of Homo sapiens.
The red hand print in the cave at Chauvet-Pont d’Arc, imprinted c. 30,000 years ago.
The history of Homo sapiens
It’s an incredible history, peppered with highs and lows, successes and failures, but mainly it highlights the ingenuity, imagination and endless march of Homo sapiens to become the dominant species on planet Earth.
For better or worse, we have arrived at the Anthropocene – a precarious point in our evolution.
This timeline (plus a few of my own additions), is laid out in Sapiens.
Timeline in years before the present:
4.5 billion – Formation of planet Earth.
3.8 billion – Emergence of organisms, the beginning of biology.
66 million – Extinction of the dinosaurs.
6 million – The last common grandmother of humans and chimpanzees.
2.5 million – Evolution of the genus Homo in Africa. First stone tools.
2 million – Humans spread from Africa to Eurasia. Evolution of different human species.
500,000 – Neanderthals evolve in Europe and the Middle East.
300,000 – Daily use of fire by Homo erectus, Neandertals and the forefathers of Homo sapiens. Some scholars advocate the link between cooking food and the shortening of the human intestinal tract and the growth of the brain.
200,000 – Homo sapiens evolves in East Africa.
70,000 – The Cognitive Revolution. Emergence of fictive language and imagination. Sapiens spread out of Africa.
45,000 – Sapiens settle Australia. Extinction of Australian mega-fauna. Extinction of Homo denisova. Up to 6% of the DNA of Melaniesians and Aboriginal Australians is Denisovan DNA.
30,000 – Extinction of Neandertals. In 2010 the Neandertal genome was mapped, and scientists discovered that 4% of the DNA of modern populations of Homo sapiens in the Middle East and Europe is Neandertal DNA.
16,000 – Sapiens settle America. Extinction of American mega-fauna.
13,000 – Extinction of Homo floresiensis.
12,000 –The Agricultural Revolution. Domestication of plants and animals. Permanent settlements. Sapiens now the only surviving human species in the genus Homo.
11,500 – Göbekli Tepe built by hunter-gatherer communities in Turkey.
5,000 – First kingdoms, script and money. Polytheistic religions.
4,500 – Stonehenge is built in southern England.
4,250 – First Empire – the Akkadian Empire of Sargon.
4,000 – The beginning of Hinduism in India.
2,500 – Invention of coinage – a universal money. The Persian Empire – a universal political order ‘for the benefit of all humans’. Buddhism in India – a universal truth ‘to liberate all beings from suffering’.
2,300 – The ancient library is built in Alexandria.
2,000 – Han Empire in China. Roman Empire in the Mediterranean. Christianity.
1,400 – Islam
500 –The Scientific Revolution.Humankind acknowledges its ignorance and begins to acquire unprecedented power.Europeans begin to conquer America and the oceans. The entire planet becomes a single historical arena. The rise of capitalism.
200 –The Industrial Revolution.Family and community are replaced by state and market. Massive extinction of plants and animals.
133 – The American legal system grants companies status as ‘legal entities’ or ‘corporate personhood’ as if they were flesh blood beings. Companies are the main players in the economic arena. Yet they only exist as ‘imagined realities’.
The Present – The Age of Humans (The Anthropocene). Humans transcend the boundaries of planet Earth. Nuclear weapons threaten the survival of humankind. Organisms are increasingly shaped by intelligent design rather than natural selection.
The future – Intelligent design becomes the basic principle of life? The development of Artificial Intelligence? Homo sapiens either extinct or replaced by superhumans?
The paradox of evolutionary success
Based on the latest scientific warnings and reports, it seems we are faced with a stark choice: adapt or die.
According to Charles Darwin the premise underlying all evolution is how a species adapts genetically and behaviourally to its environment over vast expanses of time to ensure its continued existence. Herbert Spencer summarised this theory as ‘survival of the fittest’.
But the situation humanity currently faces couldn’t be more critical. According to scientists we don’t have millennia, we have just decades to solve a crisis of our own making; arising it seems, from the activities of our evolutionary success…
Image by Rob Curran on Unsplash
Our current limited measure of evolutionary success is the number of DNA copies of a species. And being as humans (Homo sapiens) account for 96% of the mass of mammals living on the planet, I’d say, based solely on that criteria, we made it big.
We took our domesticated plants and animals with us too. Behind Homo sapiens, cattle, pigs and sheep are the second, third and fourth most widespread large mammals. 70% of the birds alive today are domesticated poultry.
It’s estimated there are some 25 billion chickens around the globe!
As far as plant life goes, wheat crops represent the largest landmass, covering over 220 million hectares. Our dependence on wheat, a cereal food containing gluten and lectins, two substances that are natural destroyers of gut health, and by default overall health, has been compounding for 7,000 years, when humans began farming in the Levant (Middle East).
The Agricultural Revolution
Gradually our diets switched from diverse forager staples like nuts, seeds, fruits, and vegetables such as mushrooms and meats like rabbit, deer and mammoth (who disappeared around the same time as Neanderthals), to a reliance on a narrower range of less nutritious crops such as wheat, rice and potatoes.
Image by Evi Radauscher on Unsplash
As our progression from foragers to farmers occurred over several thousand years, so our populations expanded in line with an increased intake of calories. It wasn’t a utopia though; we had to maintain and protect crops through climate cycles and raids from other tribes. We became vulnerable. We had all our eggs in one basket.
By the time humans had achieved significant population growth through complex agricultural societies, it was too late to go back to our hunter-gatherer way of life – it simply could not sustain the new structure of radically bigger communities.
What started out as a way of filling our stomachs more efficiently thousands of years ago somehow morphed into a beast that now controls us.
Agricultural Revolution: the ability to keep more people alive under worse conditions.”
~ Yuval Noah Harari (Sapiens)
Our species’ evolutionary success has come at a high price, with mass extinctions in marine, plant and animal life.
Homo sapiens have destroyed much of their natural capital: 50% of the world’s rainforest and coral reefs are gone, over fishing has depleted our oceans and hundreds of tons of plastic waste is killing marine life and polluting our oceans.
Polar bear and plastic cone – image by Andrea Bohl on Pixaby
Many fish are going into the human food chain full of harmful toxins such as PCBs, mercury and other heavy metals. Our water supplies are saturated with chlorine and fluoride and our air quality is full of persistent organic pollutants (POPs).
Some time ago I read a recent news story about a new world record for the time and depth of a submersible at the bottom of the Mariana Trench (the deepest place on Earth). Among some wonderful new discoveries of deep sea species there was a more depressing sighting of a plastic bag on the sea bed – seven miles down!
Given the mess we’re collectively in, is it not timely to measure and define evolutionary success outside of the narrow criteria of survival and reproduction?
We have not considered quality of life and diversity on our climb to world domination. Especially not for plant life, the animal kingdom or our domesticated livestock, and not in many cases, for large human populations around the world.
The profits and growth obtained from earth’s natural resources are finite. We cannot eat, drink or breathe money.
“Even though we now have a decent picture of the planet’s climatological past, never in the earth’s entire recorded history has there been warming at anything like this speed- by one estimate, around ten times faster than at any point in the last 66 million years. Every year, the average American emits enough carbon to melt 10,000 tons of ice in the Antarctic ice sheets- enough to add 10,000 cubic meters of water to the ocean. Every minute, each of us adds five gallons.”
It was the longest night of the year, when the strangest thing happened…
I hope you’ve had a wonderful Christmas and Happy New Year to you!
I tend to lose track of time between Christmas and New Year, and this year was no different. I found myself in a kind of soporific stupor; my limbs were leaden after weeks of shopping, lifting, housework, wrapping, preparing and cooking. My mind seemed suitably blank – it needed to empty its contents after the craziness of the preceding weeks, aided by a stomach laden with comfort food: sweet and juicy clementines, chocolates, soups, mince-pies, cheese and biscuits and cold turkey.
I can relate to Michael Macintyre on this!
I wandered aimlessly around the house in my PJs lamenting at the mess left behind from the festive celebrations of a large family. I decided to indulge in a novel I had purchased before Christmas alongside other gifts, just the excuse I needed to rest-up after a crazy few weeks and recharge my batteries.
Once Upon a River was the perfect antidote to my post-Christmas malaise. Setterfield’s amazing tale transported me to a different time and place – albeit only just up the Thames in the neighbouring county – but one I knew little of until now.
“As is well known, when the moon hours lengthen, human beings come adrift from the regularity of their mechanical clocks. They nod at noon, dream in waking hours, open their eyes wide to the pitch-black night. It is a time of magic. And as the borders between night and day stretch to their thinnest, so too do the borders between worlds. Dreams and stories merge with lived experience, the dead and the living brush against each other in their comings and goings, the past and the present touch and overlap. Unexpected things can happen.”
~ Diane Setterfield, Once Upon a River
I am new to the author – Once Upon a River is actually Setterfield’s third novel, and I can honestly say it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read! I can’t heap enough praise on it. Once Upon a River is more a work of art than a mere book. I shall definitely read her other two books: The Thirteenth Tale and Bellman and Black.
The writing itself is what impressed me most. It is a pleasure to read for the fine prose as much as for the story, which is beguiling, absorbing and dark. The characterisations are off the chart brilliant!
The people who populate Once Upon a River are totally vivid and life-like.
I felt like a surreptitious local drinking at The Swan at Radcot, among the gravel-diggers, bargemen, cressmen and farmers during the winter solstice, eavesdropping on their stories and watching the dramatic opening event unfold, open mouthed at the heroics of the inn keepers Margot, Joe, their many daughters (the little Margots), young Jonathon and the competent, no-nonsense nurse Rita Sunday.
I fell in love with these characters. I wept with them, understood their bafflement, felt their hardships and injustices, their grief and joy, their hopes and dreams – all these human emotions thrown into sharp relief through the lens of the often cruel and brutal Victorian era.
Their authentic dialogue made me feel like I was part of their conversations. They were completely real to me. They don’t just come to life on the page, they leap off it!
What literary sorcery could manifest them so magically in ink? I had no answer. I could only marvel at Setterfield’s supernatural skill. A modern day Dickens removed from London to rural Oxfordshire!
Picturesque Bampton Village – also a filming location in Downton Abbey
In addition to the Swan’s inhabitants the main characters are made up of two families: the Vaughans and the Armstrongs (farmer Robert Armstrong was my favourite), long suffering Lily White, the vile and beyond redemption Victor Nash, the patient and kind Parson and Henry Daunt (based on real-life Thames photographer, Henry Taunt).
Then there are the three wee lasses around which the mystery of Once Upon a River is expertly crafted: Amelia, Alice and Ann – all thought and hoped to be the enigmatic and fair haired four year old girl saved from drowning by a badly injured Henry Daunt. The story pivots around the rescued girl’s identity, as she is beloved by everyone who comes into contact with her.
But all is not as it seems.
The minor characters were no less colourful: Ben, (the butcher’s son at Bampton) was completely endearing, the knowing and helpful Mrs Constantine, poor naïve and maligned nursemaid, Ruby and the wicked Mrs Eavis.
The river Thames is another important element, as the lives of the characters revolve around its watery banks. In fact the landscape could be considered the main character. It lies at the heart of the story. Who knew there were so many wonderful ways to describe water?
The River Thames at Kelmscott
“For one thing, the river that flows ever onwards is also seeping sideways, irrigating the fields and land to one side and the other. It finds its way into wells and is drawn up to launder petticoats and be boiled for tea. It is sucked into root membranes, travels up cell by cell to the surface, is held in the leaves of watercress”
~ Diane Setterfield, Once Upon a River
After the initial flurry of the rescue of the dead girl and her miraculous return to life on the winter solstice, Setterfield slowly but surely weaves the tributaries of the river’s tale together.
And like a small, unanchored wooden vessel I was carried along the insistent current, twisting this way and that, caught in the ebb and flow of their lives, as powerless as if I was physically caught up in the relentless motion of the river Thames.
Radcot Bridge – the site of The Battle of Radcot Bridge on 19th December 1387
Once Upon a River is both poignant and riveting, heart breaking and heart-warming.
Human nature in all its eternal complexity is laid bare on every page, with the river Thames and Oxfordshire landscape burned indelibly on my mind.
I now also have a better understanding of pigs!
“Pigs were funny creatures. You could almost think they were human the way they looked at you sometimes. Or was the pig remembering something? Yes, she realized, that was it. The pig looked exactly as if she were recollecting some happiness now lost, so that joy remembered was overlaid with present sorrow.”
~ Diane Setterfield, Once Upon a River
The scenes where flooding is described echoed exactly what I had seen prior to Christmas, en-route to my mum’s place in Charlton-on-Otmoor. Whole fields lining the M40 motorway glinted like giant mirrors – miles and miles of serene, shallow lakes. In some places the water had crept up to the fringes of civilisation – villages were almost submerged.
“Standing at the helm as Collodion powered along, Daunt had to acknowledge that the river was too vast a thing to be contained in any book. Majestic, powerful, unknowable, it lends itself tolerantly to the doings of men until it doesn’t, and then anything can happen. One day the river helpfully turns a wheel to grind your barley, the next it drowns your crop. He watched the water slide tantalisingly past the boat, seeming in its flashes of reflected light to contain fragments of the past and of the future.”
~ Diane Setterfield (Once Upon a River)
When I finished Once Upon a River the hairs on my arms and legs stood spontaneously on end. It literally gave me the shivers!
This novel is masterful in every respect. Especially the rich and evocative characters and descriptions, the complex plot, zigzagging like the river it centres upon; you get to one bend and can only see so far along the bank until it turns from sight. Her employment of foreshadowing was impeccable.
Once Upon a River surprised me – this rarely happens when I read fiction. I can usually see where things are headed. I could see to a certain extent with this book, but not entirely, I was both satisfied and curious, immersed and blissfully on the edge of my seat.
As book lovers will attest to, you get sucked into a reader’s ecosystem – a kind of fictive fug where bodily functions are temporarily suspended as eyes devour word after word, hungry for more, breathing-in the same air for hours on end…
I also gained an appreciation of the sense of community that existed in rural villages a century ago – and most likely still does today. It reminded me of what it means to be part of a close knit community – a rarity in modern urban towns and cities.
Aerial view of Kelmscott Manor
The other surprising and crucial element of this novel’s superlative recipe is how it is steeped in folklore and superstition, highlighting the role of stories in an age before mass entertainment. Stories sustained these communities, as moral guidance, news, time passing and as a creative outlet.
If you found yourself in the water, the Ferryman, Mr Quietly, was either to be welcomed or feared, depending on whether your time was up or not. It had shades of Greek mythology running through it – only the transport between the worlds of the living and the dead was not the Styx but the Thames.
Alongside the myth was the burgeoning presence of the Darwinian era of science and reason – the age of discovery, and Setterfield blends facts and folklore in delightful ways.
Buscot Park – which I think may have been the inspiration for Buscot Lodge, the home of Helena and Anthony Vaughan.
Once Upon a River will stay with me for a long time. It will be reread some-time in the future, out of sheer admiration, as well as for study and pleasure. It is a work of gravitas, beauty, tragedy and love. Its gothic charm, prose and story was reminiscent of The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry, which I greatly enjoyed, but not as much as this.
While I’m at it, I should mention The Second Sleep by Robert Harris – another great read. It has a thought provoking premise and is a superbly written novel.
I finished reading Once Upon a River late on New Year’s eve – perhaps a timely metaphor for completing an eventful and amazing year with a nugget of closure, a happy ending.
I hope 2020 meets your heart’s desires and that the coming decade is full of joy, adventure, health and abundance. There are bound to be challenges and disappointments, every year has them, but they can be overcome with love and persistence.
My Latin motto for 2020 is “Aut viam inveniam aut faciam”, which translates to: “I shall either find a way or make one.”
#FindaWay will be at the forefront of my thoughts when I am vulnerable to accept excuses from myself in the coming months.
Thank you for reading whatever you have read on rhap.so.dy in words in 2019, I aim to bring you interesting, inspiring and fun content in 2020 and beyond!
“Well, then,” the cressman concluded sagely, “just ’cause a thing’s impossible don’t mean it can’t happen.”
“We shape our buildings: Thereafter, they shape us.”
~ Winston Churchill
The rise of the She Shed…
The rise of the #SheShed is no surprise to me! Mothers who have typically sacrificed either their time, money, career, space, privacy, sanity – or even all of these, are now claiming back some much needed space for their own projects.
Like other women, I have reached a point in my life where I feel justified in being a little bit selfish. It’s hard to feel good about being selfish, because I’m used to putting my children’s needs first. I love them unconditionally, but selfishness is a necessity that enables me to continue giving most of my energy, (and pretty much everything I have) to my family.
In my case, selfishness comes in the form of a dedicated garden office to write, study and hold meetings in.
Except, oh, wait a minute – my son beat me to it!!!
My perfect offspring, who walks around with a bright halo gleaming above his head most of the time, suddenly threw me the biggest curve-ball of his life two weeks ago.
I had not long sorted out an ongoing situation and emergency for my eldest son in New Zealand, and then the builders had a quiet week, so our bathroom and water damaged ceiling were ripped out and our home resembled a building site.
I had been busy organising new furniture and moving my files, books and stationary across to the garden, looking forward to the peace and tranquillity it would afford; when he chose his moment to strike.
It is just as well the cabin was built, or I would be even more stressed than I am right now. For reasons which I won’t go into, I will have to wait until the summer to move in full-time.
On the plus side it also means my daughter has her birthday/early Christmas present – a new piano to practice on when she comes home from school. She is preparing for her ABRSM Grade 1 exam.
Project She Shed began in the summer, with clearing the overgrown area at the bottom of our garden. I am grateful that we do have a relatively long, flat garden in the first place, otherwise a She Shed wouldn’t have been an option.
Once the land was cleared by my step father and step brother the builders created a base and built the structure (which was delivered mostly in planks of varying sizes and thicknesses, except for the windows and roof panels), like giant Ikea furniture.
I opted for extra insulation knowing that I’m prone to feeling the cold, and I’m glad I did now. My next novel definitely won’t get written with icicles hanging off my nose and my teeth chattering. My dad supplied two heaters which will keep out the chill this winter.
I spent many hours in the late summer and early autumn coating the cabin with protective undercoat and paint.
A local electrician updated the main electrics board of our 1930 built house and wired a Cat5 cable down the garden – then I had power and broadband. He even fixed motion sensor lights outside should inspiration strike in the middle of the night. But, I fully admit that’s unlikely to occur in the middle of winter!
The oak wood floor was laid and my anticipation grew…
I had visions of meditating, journaling, planning, reading, writing and placing mind-maps around the walls, spreading out scene cards and getting stuck into my next novel.
“You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.”
~ Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing
Even the cats were keen to join me and test out my plush new seating arrangements with their muddy paws.
Sammy boldly ventures into the unpacking labyrinth…
Waiting to be admitted
Simba gives the sofa his seal of approval
However, in the tradition of being stoical, I have deferred to my family once again. I just hope there are no more curve-balls waiting to knock me sideways before Christmas.
The festive season gets pretty crazy chez Burges.
I don’t mean to come across as whingeing when there are so many people suffering in the world. I am learning to embrace challenges and be thankful for my many blessings. My mother admonishes me whenever she senses a whiff of a moan, pointing out that there are plenty of people worse off.
And she is right.
A close relative is battling an extremely aggressive form of cancer and we thought we might lose her a few months ago.
Thanks to a stent she has been able to go home – hospital was not helping her – the machine she was hooked up to bleeped incessantly and so she rarely slept. To our horror she appeared to be wasting away over the weeks she was confined to a hospital bed.
But with the help of her iron will, nutritionally therapeutic supplements, a loving, supportive family and ongoing care, she is getting stronger and showing us all what grace under pressure looks like.
We are grateful and overjoyed to have her with us still, and hopefully for Christmas.
Despite life’s challenges, if we have our health, that, in my opinion, will always be the greatest wealth.
I love and appreciate my family for everything they have done to make this project happen. I feel what’s needed at this point is a hefty dose of patience rather than increased productivity.
I visited Dylan Thomas’s writing shed a couple of years ago whilst on a trip to Laugharne with my family, and it has the most stunning view out over the estuary. I think I would just sit and stare out the window all day…
I am fortunate to have my new She Shed sanctuary, (the place where my creativity will be unleashed and future novels will be written) waiting for me, one day…
“Don’t bend; don’t water it down; don’t try to make it logical; don’t edit your own soul according to the fashion. Rather, follow your most intense obsessions mercilessly.” ~ Franz Kafka