Friday, 16 September 2016

Love is not an apple pie

When I was a boy I used to worry that there wasn't enough love to go round.  I thought love was like an apple pie – good stuff, but there was only so much of it and then it was gone.

When I was born I sort of assumed (as much as babies can assume things) that I had all my parents’ love. Then my younger brother was born and I had to share their love with him. Only half a pie now.  And worse was to come. The next year another brother was born and my share of the pie went down to a third. Oh dear, what a disaster…..  

No wonder we used to fight so much. The arguments we had on Sundays over who had the most fizzy drink with our roast dinner were nobody’s business!

Luckily for me, I thought, no more brothers or sisters arrived to take even more pie away from me. A third of a pie was better than nothing.

But of course, I realise now that this is all nonsense. 

Love isn’t like that at all.  It’s not finite, it’s infinite. In fact, weirdly, the more love you have the more there is around to share.   

Another way of putting this – for those who like maths or game theory - is that love is not a zero sum.  My gain is not your loss.  My gain is also your gain.   Or, if you like chemistry, we can state that love (like gas) expands to fill the space available.

And we can build up our capacity for love through meditation, and practicing random acts of kindness.

Why am I thinking about this now? 

Well, it’s because I’ve just had a delightful cuddle this morning with Heath, my newest grandchild.

And a couple of weeks ago I was sitting in a (fortunately large) tent in the Peak District in the pouring rain with thirteen family members of various ages.  It was busy, noisy, chaotic, exhausting - and yet totally wonderful to be part of all those loving interconnections.

I’ve got so many grandchildren now it’s easy to lose count, but the brilliant thing for me is that it simple doesn’t matter. They are all equally loveable, and there is no sense at all in my old worry that I somehow have to cut that love into bits and share it around. 

Unlike the apple pie, there is plenty of love and always more to go round!

Sunday, 14 August 2016

Caring for ourselves

In the last four posts I’ve been thinking about suffering and hope –  ways to listen better to the suffering of others, how sharing brings the beginning of hope, the need to be thoughtfully positive, and how to offering practical hopefulness.  

It does work.

Darren’s been coming to see me for a while now.  He is still alive. He still mostly rants, and I still mostly listen, but there’s less booze and fewer fights in his life. He’s got a girlfriend and a dog, and his drumming skills have found outlet in two local bands – one with a possible recording contract. We’re both beginning to feel more hopeful.   

To be able to offer hope to people in distress, we need to take good care of ourselves.
With the frequent pressures we find in our own lives, whether its hassles within our families or problems in work – or an awareness of our own frailty and mortality in the face of traumatic accident or life-threatening disease – when we find ourselves trudging through treacle, we do well to recognize our own suffering and give ourselves the freedom to hope.  
I’ve written before about how helpful it can be  to create a well-being recipe, where you write down a list of all the ingredients of life that help you flourish, and then use them to build up something positive when you’re feeling down or harassed.
It’s good to refresh the ingredients from time to time.  Ironing shirts is still on my list, but I’ve added in mindfulness meditation, and parkruns are now part of my own well-being recipe.
And it is great to have fresh starts, to try out new experiences we’ve never had before. And what could be fresher than meeting my brand new grandson Heath, born just a few days ago – welcome into the world! 
For Heath, and for everyone: in those times when life gets tough and you’re suffering, I can’t offer you better words of hope than these, from Irish poet John O’Donoghue:  

"On the day when the weight deadens on your shoulders and you stumble, may the clay dance to balance you.

And when your eyes freeze behind the grey window and the ghost of loss gets in to you, may a flock of colours, indigo, red, green, and azure blue come to awaken in you a meadow of delight.

And so may a slow wind work these words of love around you, an invisible cloak to mind your life."

Saturday, 6 August 2016

Practical hopefulness

So far I have been writing about the importance of compassion, and about the best ways of being positive.  Now it’s time to think about what practical steps we can take to help a person in distress become more hopeful about their life. 

Of course, a lot depends on how much knowledge and skill we possess. Doctors, psychologists and mental health nurses, for example, have access to drugs or therapeutic techniques, which aren’t available for others.  Faith leaders and counsellors have status and training that can often be of particular benefit.

But we can all offer important, practical help. 

Two well-tested things that anybody can offer are Mental Health First Aid, and Psychological First Aid.  And then, with a little training, there’s Problem Management Plus.

Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) is helpful for anybody who is suffering from mental or emotional distress.  This graphic shows you the five main ingredients:

So, for Darren, I’m there to assist with his crises, like when he gets his sickness benefit turned down. I’m always willing to listen to his concerns and his worries. I give him information about courses and things he could do to improve his drumming skills. I offer him the choice of seeing the mental health team, and I encourage him to keep in touch with his friends even after they’ve had arguments.

If you want to find out more about MHFA, you can download a free app by clicking on this link. It takes your through the five steps and gives you lots of helpful suggestions.

Psychological First Aid  (PFA) is designed to help with communal suffering caused by disaster situations, such as the Ebola crisis in West Africa, or asylum seekers and refugees fleeing turmoil in Syria and Libya.  

As you can see from the next graphic, PFA has three key elements: Look, Listen and Link

It’s all about providing practical care and support and protecting people from further harm. It’s particularly useful for vulnerable groups, such as

·        Children and adolescents, especially those separated from their caregivers.

·        People with health conditions or physical and mental disabilities.

·         People at risk of discrimination or violence, such as women or people of certain ethnic groups.

PFA promotes people’s long-term recovery because it helps them to feel safe, connected to others, calm and hopeful. It offers social, physical and emotional support, so people are better able to help themselves, as individuals and communities.

 You can read more about PFA here, and watch a brief video about it here.


If you would like to be more actively involved, I suggest you learn about Problem Management Plus (PM+).  

PM+ has been developed by the World Health Organisation to help adults facing adversity.  It involves five weekly sessions and covering four main topics:

·        managing problems

·        managing stress

·        getting going and keeping doing

·        strengthening social support

It’s been shown to be effective in high, middle and low income countries. It’s similar to the Positive Thoughts Courses that Sue runs regularly.

And very importantly, it can be delivered by people with no mental health expertise, after a brief training.

If you want to find out more about PM+, click on this link. 
Next time: taking care of ourselves.

Sunday, 31 July 2016

Being positive

For most people, sharing their suffering is just the first step on the way out of the dark woods in which they find themselves.  Let’s now consider the relevance of being positive.

Expressing hope and optimism, and taking a positive approach to a problem, are usually more helpful than expressing doubt and uncertainty.

But we need to be a bit careful how we do this.  

If we are too cheerful too soon, before the other person has had time to tell their story, they may think we just don’t care or understand.  Here’s how Sinéad O’Connor puts it:

I went to the doctor and guess what he told me He said, "Girl, you better try to have fun no matter what you do.  But he's a fool.

 So, don’t rush in too quickly with your hopeful words.

Then we need to think what sort of positive approach is best to take.

I can think of at least four different ways. I may tell Sinéad that I’m an expert and can solve the problem for them; or that we can work on the problem together; or that she has the resources to manage it herself; or that her problem will get easier on its own, given time.  

These approaches all convey hope and optimism, but they are all very different.  We need to tailor them to the understanding of the person we are hoping to help.
For example, an expert approach might be more helpful if Sinéad believed she was suffering from a disease or an illness; but as she sees herself having problems with her relationships, a shared or time-focused approach is more likely to be helpful for her.

So it’s worth finding out how the person we’re hoping to help see things.

In any event, shaping the patient’s story in a more hopeful direction is likely to be valuable.

Talking with Darren, I aim to build on his strengths: his obvious intelligence and his drumming skills. 

And we can see hopeful shaping in this consultation between a doctor and a patient with muscular dystrophy:
P:    It's just quite painful and tiring and depressing.
D:   Yes, yes.
P:    and I've been really cold since I came back, just can't seem   to get warm so it's just very diff-, very depressing. Sorry.
D:   It's not easy to put up with, this, is it? You're obviously somebody, you like to keep very active and getting around the place and doing what you want to do.
P:    I just don't want it to be on top of me, and it feels like it's on top of me.
D: We've got to reverse that, haven't we? We can't get rid of the dystrophy, but you can be on top of it rather than the other way, rather than the other way round somehow.

This is a beautiful example of sensitive, person-centred optimism, which we can all learn from.

Next time – some practical steps to encourage hopefulness.

Sunday, 24 July 2016

Tears at the heart of things

Last week I wrote about how difficult it can be to listen to the suffering of other people. I also suggested some ways we can become better at that.  
Here's why this matters: bearing witness to suffering, giving a sense of being understood and accepted, is the first - essential – step towards finding hope.
I’d like to go back a couple of thousand years here, to get some help from the Roman poet Virgil, and his epic poem the Aeneid which describes the travels of Aeneas after the Trojan War.  
Stay with me, this will make sense in a minute!
In the first book of the Aeneid, we find Aeneas as a refugee, driven far from his home by the vicious ravages of the Trojan war. He is in Carthage, gazing at a mural in a temple, which depicts battles of the Trojan War and the deaths of many of his friends and countrymen. He is moved to tears, and offers a rousing tribute to his fallen comrades.
In the middle of this, he says: ‘sunt lacrimae rerum’.  
Yes I know, your Latin is probably a bit rusty, but don’t worry……
These three words - sunt lacrimae rerum - have been translated as either ‘there are tears for things’, or else ‘there are tears of things’.  The first version – tears for things - indicates the burdens we have to bear, the frailty of human existence, the ‘shit life syndrome’ people like Darren (who you met last week) experience. The second version – tears of things- indicates that things feel sorrow for our suffering - that in some sense the universe feels our pain.
But of course it isn’t one or the other. It’s both. Virgil is fully aware of the ambiguity and wishes to us to understand both meanings at the same time. 
So does the Irish poet and scholar Seamus Heaney, who translates the phrase as ‘There are tears at the heart of things.
And this is its richness and power. At that moment when I experience and express compassion for the suffering of the person in the room with me, both senses of sunt lacrimae rerum are simultaneously in play.  They can express pain, distress and suffering, knowing that – from me - they find understanding, compassion and safety. Our meeting place has become, momentarily, a sanctuary.  
Sometimes bearing witness to a person’s suffering in the face of overwhelming life experiences and difficulties, may be all that is possible, or necessary 

Listening to Darren, behind his angry ranting I hear a lost, lonely, frightened little boy. I want to give him a huge hug and bring him home with me, but I content myself with a friendly smile, a warm handshake, and an agreement to meet again soon.  
What’s your experience of bearing witness to suffering? 

Saturday, 16 July 2016

Suffering and hope

When we’re caring for someone going through difficult experiences in their life, there are two main things we need to do: acknowledge suffering and offer hope. 

I’m going to explore these two themes in a series of posts over the next few weeks.  
Let's start with acknowledging suffering.
Suffering may be expressed in the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins: No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief/More pangs will, schooled at forepangs, wilder ring […..] O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall/ Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. 
Or in the paintings of Francis Bacon – currently on exhibition in Tate Liverpool - portraying his subjects ‘enclosed in the wretched glass capsule of the human individual’.
Or in the expression of collective suffering when (as WB Yeats puts it) ‘Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world’:  be it the continuing effects of the Iraq war or the migration forced by political turmoil in Syria and Libya.
Or in the bristling, frustrated anguish of 19 year old Darren, piercings through lip, nose and eyebrows, scarring up both arms, who tells me about parental separation, fostering and sexual abuse, bullying in school; and how booze keeps him from feeling too much but leads to fights with friends, nightclub doorman and police. His only comfort is beating the hell out of his drum kit in the middle of the night.  He doesn’t think he’ll live much longer, and I fear he may be right. 

The first thing we need to do is to listen. In the words of the British psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion, we should be listening ‘without memory or desire’: when we listen with memory, we are intent on making the speaker part of an old agenda; when we listen with desire we are intent on making them part of a new one.
To listen purely, to just listen, is the most valuable thing. But it is also the most difficult thing. I don’t know about you, but I often find it exhausting, debilitating, to give my full attention to the suffering of others.
We often find ways to protect ourselves – to distance ourselves - from the full emotional impact of what our patients are trying to tell us. A bit of me doesn’t want to hear what Darren is telling me – it’s too raw, too real, too painful.   
But we can do better.
Ronald Epstein recommends that we turn toward suffering: actively seek to recognise it, become curious about the person’s experience, and intentionally become more present and engaged. 
What help me to turn toward suffering are daily mindfulness meditation, my weekly 5k parkruns, and being able to discuss knotty problems with my wise wife Sue.
What helps you turn toward suffering?   
Next time - the first steps in offering hope.

Wednesday, 6 July 2016

Yes country and western music does hold the meaning of life

After a long pause, a message from Sue:
I’m listening to Vince Gill- look at us. Also I was checking on the blog and realised there had been a bit of a hiatus in chapters  And realised how the  two probably mirrored life since Chris’ accident 2years ago.
But to get back to Vince. To make it easier I’ve cleverly added the words to the blog, well arranged for them to be added.  On the surface it’s a lovely tale of happy ever after. 

Look at us after all these years together
Look at us after all that we've been through
Look at us still leaning on each other
If you wanna see how true love should be then just look at us.

Look at you still pretty as a picture
Look at me still crazy over you
Look at us still believing in forever
If you wanna see how true love should be then just look at us.

In a hundred years from now
I know without a doubt
They'll all look back and wonder
How we made it all work out.

Chances are we'll go down in history
When they wanna see
How true love should be
They'll just look at us.

Chances are we'll go down in history
When they wanna see
How true love should be
They'll just look at us.

When they wanna see
How true love should be
They'll just look at us...

But it says more than that.  “After all  that we’ve been through”  No ones’ life is without its ups and downs.  Some much more down than up.  I was on holiday in Crete recently.  Looking at the beautiful Aegean Sea I couldn’t help but think of the refugees who experience it in such a different way. 

Still leaning on each other – that’s what it’s all about. Sometimes one leaning more than the other, and the leant-on wondering if they’ll need a prop to help them not fall over! 

 And it’s important that we do recognise when extra props are essential.  Different for everyone.  Maybe friends, medical help, prayer, meditation.  There’s always something however leant on or nearly down we feel. Useful to keep a list of them in your head when time are good so not so much effort to recall when times aren’t so good.  “Here’s one I prepared earlier” we can think to ourselves' ringing a friend to ask for help

  How we made it all work out.  Not just by taking advice from country and western songs although I probably can offer a song for every one of life eventualities.  By working at it.  Doing what’s needed at the time.  Not dismissing the little changes we can make. Since back from my holiday I’ve got involved in MerseyAid, mainly sorting donated clothes for refugees.  And getting Chris not to work too hard is still a work in progress!

So that’s life care of the country scene!

PS  The Dance by Garth Brooks.  Tells us we have to take a chance on life.  Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.  But you’ll never know till you try.

And now I'm glad I didn't know
The way it all would end the way it all would go
Our lives are better left to chance I could have missed the pain
But I'd have had to miss the dance