Archive for the ‘Time’ Category

Bereavement is life’s second certainty. Death is the first, and it is only dying that will stop you becoming bereaved.  In this blog I reflect a little on the lived experience of bereavement.

I was bereaved in December when my mother died. It was hardly unexpected as by then she had advanced Alzheimer’s and in recent months had been subject to infections that were close to life-threatening.  And so in many ways her death was but the last step of loss in a path that began as the disease had first started to bite. It then took an especially doleful turn when she had to leave the house that had been built as the family home in 1964, and then took another one when, last summer, she had to leave the town where she had lived since 1957.

But the loss of death is undiminished by the parallel sense of relief that an inevitable and painful process has at last reached its conclusion. When death arrives it is as if all the earlier losses are renewed and compounded. All the amorphous sadnesses of the past are rolled into one, and, as they say, it hits you.

Yet this particular bereavement was for me not an isolated or isolating experience.  A close colleague had died three weeks before and this winter I have been close to several other recently bereaved people. Nothing connects these losses other than coincidences of timing and networks of relationships of which the various deceased could not have been aware, and this has caused me to reflect on the social and personal meaning of bereavement.  I can’t say that these reflections have yet matured into anything conclusive, but here are a few thoughts.

I have come to think of bereavement as a season rather than as a state.  It’s a time, a period, not some kind of status. I do not feel that I have changed into a ‘bereaved person’ but I know that I am passing through a time, a season, of bereavement.  I have never been impressed by objective theories of grief or the suggestion that there is process going from denial to acceptance via sadness and anger or whatever, and from within the bereavement season they seem to me to be especially unhelpful.

One reason for this is that it I feel that bereavement is as much about the person who has died and your relationship with them as it is about any process that you ‘the bereaved’ might be going through. It was my mother who died and this bereavement is, it seems to me, shaped by her life, my relationship with her and the community of people who share this bereavement with me – the other members of her and my family but others too, in fact all those who loved her in life. And this mother-bereavement is different to the father-bereavement that I recall from over a decade ago.  I am sure spouse-bereavement, sibling-bereavement, friend-bereavement and, should it ever tragically happen, child-bereavement all have their own particular aspects and emphases. And these too are different according to the details of the particular personalities and relationships.

While unenthusiastic for process theories of bereavement, I have come to realise that I am warmly positive about the idea that the recently bereaved have a great deal to offer each other. This is especially true for those who are grieving the same person, but also true for those who happen to find themselves in the season of bereavement at the same time. So there are commonalities, but I would see them as subtle commonalities of self-awareness regarding personal vulnerability, not those of inner psychology.

The bereaved, those passing through the valley of the shadow of death, do not help each other by being each other’s counsellors or guides, but by being good companions. The solidarity of the recently bereaved is not a talking-shop but a being-together-in-vulnerability-shop. That’s why those who officiate at funerals, often outsiders to this vulnerability, need to remember that precisely what you say matters less than how you say it and what is on your mind and heart as you share time with the bereaved and take care of a ritual for them. As ever, it is a sense of loneliness and isolation which is to be feared, not the objective reality of what has happened.

The recently bereaved know that their emotions are busy and somewhat out of control. I have learnt again the truth that try as we might to exercise self-control our emotions do not tell us in advance what they are going to do next. An unexpected reminder of the deceased may bring delight, warmth and joy or a surge of acute sadness.  The recently bereaved know this of each other and respect what is going on not because it is a aberration of mental health but as an awkward but strangely fitting testimony to lost love and ruptured relationship. It’s not normal to be this vulnerable; but under the circumstances it would be wrong not to be.

One puzzle that I have identified in this season of bereavement is that it is the saddest parts of someone’s life that, on reflection, cause the greatest sadness in bereavement. Put like that it sounds obvious, but it isn’t really because it is the actual loss that we assume to be the source of greatest sadness. However, when we are recently bereaved, part of what we grieve is that someone else’s life was not always as happy as it might have been. In the period after someone’s death we have an especially acute empathy for what we know of their suffering in life.  We wish that they could’ve had a better past, that they could’ve enjoyed an easier, less troubled life …

… and yet the person they became, the person as whom they died, was not the sum product of the good days and the happy blessings, but the sum of all that happened and all that was drawn from the depths of their character by misfortune and worse. And it is for that person, whose journey we shared, and whom we ultimately admired not for their good fortune but for their triumph over adversity, that we give thanks in death as we should have done more regularly in life.

Those who find themselves in the season of bereavement are, perhaps, those who look at life most realistically. They feel vulnerable and they see fragility.  They look with kinder and more loving eyes on others and appreciate small kindnesses greatly. On the other hand they know that their own tolerance for trivialities and pettiness is at an all-time low. Patience comes and goes. Sadness comes and goes. Sleep comes and goes.  And yet just as the depressed are sometimes the most realistic about life, it is those who are recently bereaved who appreciate most acutely the truth that we are probably far closer than we think either to our own death or to that of a loved one.

If the season of bereavement is indeed a season it is, perhaps, autumn.  The days are chilly, the nights are drawing in, the winds are unpredictable and winter is coming, but the leaves on the trees have never been more beautiful in the dying light of the late afternoon.





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Here are six ideas for Lent for anyone who feels too busy, or rushed, or hassled or stressed out by the pressure of things to do.

Don’t think ‘rush’, think ‘slow’.

Chill, take your time. Things have a habit of working themselves out unless your are in the middle of a full-blown crisis. If you are then you had better do what it takes to get the crisis sorted out and your life calmed down.  Life is not a crisis, it’s an opportunity.

Don’t think ‘busy’, think ‘involved’.

‘Busy’ is one of the more pernicious four-letter words in our vocabulary. Often, it’s a boast disguised as a complaint.  There are plenty of people who would love to have more to do, to feel more valued, and to be more fully involved. If you are too busy it may mean that you haven’t bothered to involve others.

Don’t think ‘me time’, think ‘soul time’.

It’s easy to persuade people to try to have more ‘me-anything’ these days. However, the point about Lent is not to think about your ego-needs but to make time for your soul-needs. Soul time can take many forms – but it’s never ‘all about me’.

Don’t think ‘give up’, think ‘appreciate’.

If we take time to savour and enjoy those petty vices that so often occupy our consciences and dominate our spirituality their power over us may begin to wane a bit and we might turn our attention to higher things. If you love chocolate don’t give it up this year but become a discerning and appreciative chocolate connoisseur – and see what comes of that.

Don’t think ‘work-life balance’, think ‘wholesome living’.

Of course your life can start to go wrong if your work is too important to you, or too all-consuming, or if it’s relentlessly stressful.  But this can be true of any activity – not just work. Life isn’t something that starts when work stops.

Don’t think ‘Lent is long’, think ‘Lent is short’.

Because it is. Just as life is short. Just as every day is short. Don’t miss out on life or Lent by rushing around as a lonely busybody, feeling guilty about petty things and starving your soul of the time it needs to breath.

Have a time wise Lent.

For more ideas about how to give up busyness check out this website Give up busyness for Lent

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This was a week of three thirds.  The first third was back in Durham and was a couple of days of more or less normal work. Right now that means winding things up, handing things over – generally preparing to leave. The second third was in Cambridge – a matter of generally preparing to arrive. And that meant a string of briefings with people who, just a month ago, had been interviewing me for my new job.  Now it was my turn to find our a bit more about what the issues are.  And then the third third – in Wiltshire meeting first with Philip Welsh, the ‘Fire Poet’, who is making a long barefoot pilgrimage to draw attention the billion children who live in shoeless poverty around the world today, and then a day helping a hundred and some clergy and lay ministers grow in Time Wisdom.

As this is a sabbatical diary I won’t say any more about the preparing to leave and the preparing to arrive work. But I thought I’d mention a talk I gave last Monday evening in Newcastle at ‘Cafe Philosophique’.  It was a very pleasant occasion and as my talk is now a podcast  you can listen to it if you like.  It is ‘Episode 29’ below.


The highlight of the week was the three and a half hours I spent on Friday in a pub in Avebury talking with Philip Wells.  Philip is not quite half way through his 1,000 mile walk. I had expected to share part of his walk with him, but this was a rest day, and he was manifestly in need of a rest.

So we talked and talked. We talked about the physical challenge of it all, which is as much to do with how the muscles, tendons and ligaments adapt as to how bare soles cope with their exposure to tarmac, grit, rocks, gravel, grass, thistles and goodness knows what else. I was particularly intrigued to learn that on one occasion he scrambled up a sheer cliff to find a route forward – finding that his bare feet gave him a good and secure grip on the perilous ascent.

Philip talked a lot about St Francis – about whom he has written a play, ‘Francesco’, and in particular the question of Francis’ solidity, toughness, and connectedness, but also the stigmata and his dependence on the spirituality of Clare.

He also spoke about the way in which children and schools are responding to his walk. Many children instantly and  naturally take their shoes and socks off in his barefoot company and feel an easy and direct solidarity with their barefoot siblings around the world.  500 schools from 65 countries have become involved in the ‘Barefoot Billion’ through the ‘children’s walk’.   There is much more about this all here:

We spoke too about writing and poetry and prayer. I only know Philip because he phoned me up having read my two books ‘Barefoot Disciple’ and ‘Barefoot Prayers’ and on that basis asked me to meet him on the way.  I am so glad he did. It was an inspiring and humbling pleasure. This was the first time we ever met, and he has already earnt a place in the acknowledgements for my next book.

After a while, our conversation turned to time. His experience on the walk was that the future seemed to slip away as a source of worry and concern. The fulness of the moment was abundant and rich – while yet simple and basic.  His is a long walk but also a slow one. He is averaging about 1 mph.

And that perhaps is a radical aspect of his challenge – to slow down to something like 1 mph. Certainly a great thought for a sabbatical, but I also shared it with the clergy and lay ministers I was with yesterday.

It was great to be with them and I am becoming more and more conviced that reflecting on time – especially the wierd psychology of time – can lead us into deep spiritual waters and refresh our aproach to the more important things of life – ultimately the things that are worth doing in and of themselves.  And these are the things, the activities, the events for which we were made, and about which the sabbath, and its cousin the sabbatical, are intended to remind us.

Tomorrow I head off to Hong Kong – knowing that no one knows what secrets that venture will reveal. But suspecting that it will reveal them slowly.

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#Busyness Research

I could hardly believe my twitter feed. Someone had hashtagged ‘busyness’ and it wasn’t me. There it was: #busyness.

So I followed the link and this is what I learnt.

The first residents of The Hub at Wellcome Collection, a flagship new space for interdisciplinary projects around health and wellbeing, will investigate the busyness of modern life. Bringing together a rich network of scientists, artists, humanists, clinicians, public health experts, broadcasters and public engagement professionals, the group will explore states of rest and noise, tumult and stillness, and the health implications for lives increasingly lived in a hubbub of activity.

The project will run for a couple of years from October and will be fuelled by a £1 million Wellcome Trust grant. There is a hugely impressive and diverse team led by Dr Felicity Callard of Durham University (who must work just around the corner from where I am writing this).  The press release goes on to explain that:

The urge to be busy defines modern life. Rest can seem hard to find, whether in relation to an exhausted body, a racing mind or a hectic city. Should we slow down, or should we embrace intense activity? What effects do each of these states have on the health of our bodies and minds? Such questions frequently find their way into media reports and everyday conversations, but there has never been any sustained interdisciplinary attempt to answer them. The Hub will gather international experts investigating hubbub and rest at different scales, to breathe new life into the questions we ask about rest and busyness.

Yes, let’s improve the quality of questions we ask about rest and busyness! The subject is urgent but we are by and large too tired and stressed to give it worthy attention.  It will be fascinating to see what emerges.

I have two other thoughts. First,I hope the team don’t find themselves working too hard on the project. Short-term grant-dependent work can be a relentless driver.

Second, I didn’t spot a reference to spirituality or theology in the interdisciplinary team.  Maybe there’ll be time to incorporate that as the project develops.

These are details:  many congratulations to the team – I wish you all the best with this exciting venture.

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The arrival of ‘Cam’ always causes me a frisson of excitement. It’s certainly the best alumni magazine to come through our letter box, and rarely disappoints for either human interest or a bit of an intellectual stretch.

The latest number arrived today and I was immediately captivated by an article about ‘play’. ‘Excellence often requires many of the qualities of play’ I read.  ‘This’ I thought, ‘is my kind of article’.

Based on a new book by Patrick Bateson and Paul Martin (Play, Playfulness, Creativity and Innovation CUP) I interpret the piece as a research-based argument that I should play more.  After all, without his playfulness Flemming may never have discovered penicillin. And if they did not play with sticks when young, chimps wouldn’t be nearly as good at the tasks which playful scientists set them.

It made me wonder which aspects of my childhood larking about have equipped me for life today.  I used to like lighting fires – and am still pretty good at it when faced with the challenge in a holiday cottage or after a big clear-up in the garden.  Fire lighting for me was part of Scouting which was, I suppose, an organised form of play. I now see the rudimentary weekend camps as a school of leadership. That sounds impossibly pompous, so I should explain that I mean that it was an arena for making mistakes which would teach you not ‘how to be a leader’, still less ‘what to do if you are a leader’, but that ‘the big life lesson that it is okay to make mistakes.’

Reflecting on the article I recognise that it’s not so much play as playfulness that matters.  The word ‘play’ is used for all sorts of activities which, while not intrinsically meaningful, are super-serious.  This is ‘play’ with the fun taken out – which is a one word oxymoron (if you can have such a thing).  It seems that it is play in the proper, relaxed, and purposeless sense which allows for later purposefulness.

That’s the paradox of play.

It’s not that you can write a Shakespearian sonnet by letting a million monkeys play with typewriters.  It’s that the next time you read something really interesting, moving, poetic or original the chances are that it will be written by someone who has had a good dose of play in their younger life and who still retains that quality of playfulness.

Bateson writes that people can be helped to become more creative. How?  ‘by freeing up time from the pursuit of predictable goals, and by avoiding time-wasting distractions …’ But he goes on, (and this is the bit I especially like)  ‘Daydreaming, far from being a wasteful activity, can lead to links being made between disparate bodies of thought.’

That sounds a bit prosaic – but the reality could be amazing. The point is that no one knows what will happen if you allow yourself to be playful and creative. That’s the fun of it. And the wonder. And the paradox.

Let us play.

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The good people at Sacristy Press have published my ebook Beyond Busyness: Time Wisdom in an Hour as a paperback.

They have done a nice job and, while I like the portability of the eBook, I also like having a real book in my hand: turning the pages, making a margin note with a pencil and so on. And what’s more, with a paperback you can lend a copy to your friend – or leave it in a public place for a random stranger to pick up. I saw someone do this with a thriller recently. It seems such a fun idea.  But to do it with a little book about time wisdom is a potentially transformative act of charity.

I have emphasized the need for clergy to get wise about time. But the reality is that there is need for very many people in all walks of life and at different stages in life’s journey to wise up about time too. Recent editions of the Wall Street Journal and New York Times carried articles explaining the ills of busyness, and in April 2010 the Harvard Business Review warned of the dangers of what authors Heike Bruch and Jochen I. Menges, called ‘The Acceleration Trap’, whereby companies and corporations both demand more and more in terms of productivity and simply keep changing things.

This is why Time wisdom matters so much!

Time wisdom is ‘time management plus’. Time management tends to treat time as if it were a limited resource which can be used more or less efficiently.  As I put it in the micro-paperback: Beyond Busyness: Time Wisdom in an Hour

Time wisdom says that what matters about time is not only physics but biology, psychology and spirituality. People have complex needs, curious cycles and, thankfully, individual and not always predictable thoughts and feelings. … Time is also the opportunity, the wonder and mystery of the present moment. Time is a new turn of the kaleidoscope of possibilities which requires of us not efficient reaction, but creative response based on a careful reading of the ever changing patterns. This is part of the joy of life …

Regular readers of this blog will know that I recently challenged people to give up busyness for Lent. Some of those who took it on said it was the toughest Lenten challenge they have ever encountered – the busy habit was so ingrained, the demon busyness so powerful. It was not that there was more and more work to do necessarily, but that the need to be busy had inched its way into the soul – squeezing out the contemplative space and creating a frenzy of on-going and draining activity.

Those who tried it reported that some of the tips I suggested, like never letting people get away with calling you ’busy’, not using the word as a self-description, and finding some regular time each day to do absolutely nothing had a big impact on them and helped them ease themselves out of a dangerous rut.

As for myself – I tried it too and also found it a real test. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised that having gone so public in this area I would be challenged – and I was almost flooded out with new work, unexpected opportunities and even a family bereavement. Through it all I remained resolute that come what may I would not let the demon busyness get into my soul. I think I just about keep it at bay – but it is a constant struggle. I shall be taking an hour to reread my own little book every now and again: just to help keep the upper  hand with regard to busyness.

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Just when I was thinking that I had said all I could about the demon busyness, and that everyone was bored stiff with me going on and on about it, I meet someone for whom the whole ‘Beyond Busyness’  thing is a revelation. And more than that, a liberation.

It happened this morning as I was talking to someone with a similar job to mine – but who is on sabbatical from the far side of the world.

‘That’s right’ she said. ‘People use “I am busy” as an excuse all the time. And the clergy are the worst…’

‘And it undermines their ministry’ I added.

‘Absolutely’ she replied.

And so it went on. I gave her a book and two ‘I’M NOT BUSY’ wristbands when she left.

It sees like the demon busyness is alive and well down-under.

And that makes me wonder whether this is a global problem or whether some places are worse than others.  I’d be interested to know what you think. .

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It’s all over the papers!

Well, that’s an exaggeration, but two articles in one week for NOTBUSY is not too bad.  And for all I know there may have been more.

On Monday, the Guardian ran a piece entitled, Could beditation be the answer to exam nerves? Oenone Crossley-Holland, a teacher in South Hampstead described the way in wich school children ar being taught mindfulness to help them cope with exam nerves.

Happily her enthusiasm for mindfulness seems to be supported by both her headteacher and pupils.  And so she writes

My headteacher [said] “Young people live in a fast-paced and confusing world. The expectations that parents and society place on students are so high. To be able to step back and appreciate yourself for who you are, and be able to stop the plates spinning is a gift. Mental wellbeing is at the route of being able to achieve anything.”

Ally, a student at my school, explains why she attends mindfulness club at lunchtime. “It’s just 15 minutes of quiet under a table,” she says. “I don’t necessarily find solutions to problems or anything, but I do come to terms with what’s happening around me.”

You can read the whole article here:

And then today, the Daily Mail ran an article precisely about the joy of refusing not to be busy.  The author, Candida Crewe, does not reference the I’M NOT BUSY’ campaign or the website and has probably never heard of it. Nonetheless she speaks the same language when she writes,

I never rush my children hither and thither, and they rarely see me busy – though admitting that makes me feel as vulnerable as telling someone how much I weigh.

Not being busy is a contemporary taboo, but one which I am happy to shatter.

She clearly understand the interpersonal power politics too, writing,

There is an increasing divide between the busy and the non-busy, just as there is between fat and thin, rich and poor, and it makes those of us who are not busy feel inferior.

And this is a great NOTBUSY story:

One day, a customer at the bookshop asked me if I planned to work in a shop for the rest of my life. I said I was enjoying it, but writing a book in my spare time. ‘I wish I had time to put my feet up and write a novel!’ he replied.

I realised, then, that it is in people’s self-important interest to make out that their time is more precious than mine.

Now, when people tell me how busy they are, I tell them how busy I am not.

Spot on. Three cheers for Candida Crewe! A wristband is yours whenever you wish to claim it.

You can read the whole article here

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