Flying blind: trying to follow advice

Giving advice is one of the ways in which we feel we are being most helpful, when listening to someone’s problems. It feels like a concrete offering, a real thing we are giving, and when we can’t think of a great idea, we think we have failed our friend, and apologise. And yet who takes up unsolicited advice? There’s a great story (which I can’t verify at the moment) of the C19th author Wilkie Collins, stuck for a name for his new novel, complaining about it to his friend Charles Dickens who promptly came up with a list of twenty or so. Collins didn’t take up any of his friend’s suggestions, and eventually came up with his own.

How much worse it can be if you never get a chance to think through things yourself. Imagine a person learning to pilot a plane, their own little individual aircraft of life. They’re sitting at the controls, the engine is running, they’re nervous, looking at the instruments and assimilating lots of information. The trainer comes in behind them and starts to insist: ‘you want to get airborne quickly? I can tell you exactly what you need to do, just follow my instructions’. The tentative pilot panics, thinking ‘I’m not doing well enough, learning fast enough, they must think I’m not going to choose well, I might crash!’ If they follow the instructions it might be in blind fear that they must do something, but like flying the plane with a blindfold on. They will never learn to read the instruments for themselves, know how to get airborne, respond subtly to the weather and conditions. If they do get airborne they won’t know how they did it.

And they may not know where to go from there. The other alternative is to abandon the attempt to take off, paralysed by fear or indecision. This is what can happen if other people try to do your thinking for you, often from the best of intentions and care. What matters is that you get there yourself, learning to read your own instruments of intuition, experience, character and temperament, trusting your own judgement.

Three years ago I stumbled across the Thinking Environment, developed by Nancy Kline and described by her quite simply as a method designed to help people think for themselves. At its core is the positive philosphical choice that humans are intelligent, creative, care for others and can solve most of their problems themselves. You get the chance to think, aloud, to someone who is only listening to ignite your thoughts, not just to reply, and trusts that you will find your way. It was incredibly heartening to me, and has helped me to build my own trust in myself. Without that, I feel like I’m flying blind.

How Many Makes a Viable Community?

THis is a big subject, and I’m realising the foolishness of trying to write a blog post about it, but here’s my initial thoughts anyway.
I and my partner have just returned from a stay at Monkton Wyld in Dorset, a sustainable community. I was really interested in the discussions about community we had while we were staying there, and it gave us much food for thought during the journey home. I particularly wondered what happens to people when they’re ill, or whether people with long term conditions such as ME (chronic fatigue – a few of my friends are afflicted by it) could ever have a place in such a community. At Monkton Wyld there are currently only about 12 resident members, plus short-term volunteers. It would have to be much bigger to accommodate the weak or less physically able, and also to provide outlets for the more specialised forms of human activity, like some skilled crafts such as musical instrument making for instance.
There was an interesting series of programmes on R4 about the history of friendships; apparently the maximum number of meaningful connections a person can have on average is about 100 (it might have been 150, can’t quite remember). Apparently until the industrial revolution that was the average size of the English village. Within a community of this size, certain occupations would be widely called for, others less so. One would need lots of people involved in food production, fewer involved in more skilled tasks (perhaps fruit tree training, or certain sorts of plant propagation) and very few – the musical instrument makers, scientists, thinkers etc. In fact, thinking historically, there have always been some rarefied or highly specialised areas of human activity which have needed a larger population base to make them viable. Musical instrument makers have always been based in larger communities, for example, or been itinerant, perhaps, if their trade allowed – the same principle applies. In modern communities, we need scientists and thinkers, and surely one of the benefits of a larger community is that some people can be freed up to do these less every day tasks, but ones which are have long term benefit.
An impromptu musical evening was initiated by one of the volunteers at Monkton Wyld; she had a considerable talent on the the piano and I contributed a song, teaching the chorus to the others. We had a motley collection of instruments and created an enjoyable evening, but I was left wondering where someone like myself would fit in to a community of that sort. I can garden and could probably learn to cook, but I’m not up to lots of heavy work and my particular skills lie outside the every day and the practical. I felt though that the forming of social ties was greatly enhanced by the evening, and that perhaps this is the true significance of music.

The Protestant Work Ethic…sigh.

I have to write about this as it has resurfaced in my mind as something to worry about. Am I lazy, or spending my energy in the right places? Am I at the top of the stress funnel, where as one feels increasingly pressurized, the temptation is to give up those things which seem less important but are actually those activities which are most nourishing?

It seems that the Protestant work ethic may be a descendant of the Calvinist idea of double predestination (source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Protestant_work_ethic):

‘..only those who were predestined (cf. the Calvinist concept of double predestination) to be saved would be saved.

Since it was impossible to know who was predestined, the notion developed that it might be possible to discern that a person was elect (predestined) by observing their way of life. Hard work and frugality, as well as social success and wealth, were thought to be two important consequences of being one of the elect.’

I don’t earn much, and never have. I’m an artist and a musician, which both involve a lot of play and what looks like daydreaming. Are these signs I am somehow not worthy and am already destined for the hot place when I die? As a person recovering from depression, I already have the ability to drive myself very hard, that being one of the characteristics of the condition: putting in tons of effort in the wrong way, with very little to show for it as a result. What actually resulted was a sometimes distressingly over-active brain, and a feeling that however hard I try it will never be enough. It stifled my creativity, squashed my joy, strangled my instruments. I have only recovered the ability to feel joy in a process of letting go of an idea about flogging myself being next to godliness (should that have a capital G?). My violin has begun to sing again, and I am slowly finding my voice (with a little help from some friends: https://youkesnall.wordpress.com/ http://www.godalmingsessions.org.uk/ – and there are others, you know who you are). It’s been strange to discover that as I try less, I am unfolding and expanding, and discovering that I can be so much more than I was when I tried so hard.

The incidence of depression is on the rise in our society. Feelings of failure are a large part of that. Show me a depressed person and I’ll show you someone who thinks they’ve failed to reach their potential, let everyone down, but could be more if only they tried a bit harder. Then something broke. How can we root out that idea that you are only worth while if you work hard and earn lots? David Cameron could change his words for a start. I’m absolutely sick of hearing him go on about rewarding hard working families. Can’t we create a society where people could earn the means to live comfortably and still actually have some time to cultivate friendships, music, and space for reflection? Or is the goal to have everyone beavering away in offices all the hours God sends, for not quite enough to cover the rising costs of rent/mortgage, bills, food, childcare…

Harbingers of joy…. or dilapidated musical instruments

A weekend in Oxford: Blake at the Ashmolean, a sampling of the culinary delights of the covered market and then the architectural heights of Oxford’s colleges, followed by a trip to see the infamous shrunken heads at the Pitt Rivers Museum. https://www.flickr.com/photos/brett-tully/3824170054/

This last is the polar opposite of the first, which features carefully-grouped objects and award-winning interpretations. The Pitt Rivers is ordered chaos, closely-packed cases crammed with objects grouped by theme. This results in surprising juxtapositions, quite apart from some of the themes themselves being unexpected. ‘Treatment of Dead Enemies’ features not only the infamous shrunken heads, which are about the size of a golf ball, but also skulls caged in woven wicker and carefully removed and tanned skins re-stretched over bone. Compare and contrast with ‘Treatment of Relatives’ nearby. in ‘Stringed instruments’, an Hawaiian ukulele can be found back to back with a fantastically creative Burmese interpretation of the European violin, presumably copied from a sailor’s fiddle. It looks (roughly) the right shape, with four corners instead of two, topped by fantastically ornate Burmese ‘scroll’. But possibly heavy and unresponsive…

‘To know what is enough one must know more than enough’. William Blake, works on display in the Ashmolean. His vision was so personal I wondered if one can understand it without having had one’s own mystical experiences. Certainly, the inadequacy of reason as a tool in understanding his work seems to have unsettled many. I experienced moments of direct response, and found joy in a small relief etching from ‘Europe: A Prophecy’ of two dynamc human figures, male and female, buoyed up on flowing lines, blowing fantastical trumpets.