Life in all its fullness

This is one of those silly, wonderful photos you have from your youth; like those ‘photo booth’ photos you take posing with your friends or when you’re all dressed up in some ridiculous fancy dress costume. This is a picture, probably dating back nearly 30 years or so, of my good friend, Moose (aka Dave Trelawny-Ross). I have known Moose for 28 years.  And for 15 of those 28 years he’s been ill. He was the friend I would drink good red wine with (those big, heavy reds that leave viscous wine tears around the bowl of the glass) and talk, somewhat precociously, about the novels we’d read.  I remember visiting him ‘up North’ with my first daughter when she was six months old and he organised a baby sitter and we went out, drank wine, and he played jazz piano at a local bar. And then he went quiet. And, slowly, I learnt that he was poorly. 

A lot of my blog posts in recent months have talked about how we can drive change in the world; change for good. And how we can respond to the disruptive change that is happening all around us. But how do we respond when change happens to our very physical being? When, things we took for granted break down and we have to adapt and adjust our lives in quite fundamental ways? So I asked my lovely friend, with whom I still, very, very occasionally drink red wine, and with whom I still discuss books (via email) to speak to his experience of change.

In my youth, during those long late night conversations about life and the meaning and purpose of life, I would offer one of my favourite lines from the New Testament, ‘I have come that you may have life, life in all its fullness’ (John 10:10). This seemed to offer as good a contender as any in the search for purpose and fulfilment; to live life to the full. Somehow then, in the mid-eighties, that seemed a fresh or radical thing to suggest. After all, many of my contemporaries were off to jobs in the City, in a quest for wealth, status and power.

Aspiring to live life to the full seemed a good thing. I wanted to seize each day. I wanted to grab as many rich and amazing experiences as I could. I wanted to make every hour count, to squeeze as much life as I could out of each moment. It was a good way to create a life that felt meaningful, and to feel that my life had significance and weight.

For many years I think I did quite a good job of putting this article of faith into practice. I ran the English department in a ‘challenging’ inner city comprehensive school, I took students on creative writing trips, I wrote books, I climbed mountains on every possible free weekend, I played jazz regularly with a quartet in local clubs and bars, I enjoyed cooking for friends and even reading the occasional book. I wasn’t very good at saying no to things or ‘doing nothing’.

And then I got ill. And for the last fifteen years I have been trying to make sense of what it might mean to live life to the full when my body stubbornly refuses to let me do all those things that had previously constituted fullness. For long periods of time, climbing the stairs has been more strenuous than any mountain I climbed. On my worst days, simply getting to the window of my bedroom, to lean out and feel the sun on my face would be a hard won achievement. A ten minute conversation can still exhaust me.

I used to quantify fullness of life by the arithmetic of rich life experiences; travelling to an exotic country, playing a good performance at a gig, completing a climb from the top of my tick list, having a deep conversation with mates over a bottle of red wine. Add up enough of these and I have a full life well lived.

Now I need a different metric. Instead of filling up my life with momentous significant experiences, I want to live fully in each moment, however insignificant or commonplace. Right now, Charlie the cat is nestled against my leg as I type, snoring gently. Earlier, I listened to two magpies, a pigeon and a blackbird all sitting on TV aerials above my street, competing in an avian X factor. I have exchanged texts with friends variously at a wedding, stuck in an airport, sitting at work. With a tiny piano keyboard on my lap, I have worked on some music, surprising myself with a new groove to an old tune. None of these are big significant life shaping moments. And taken together they add up to maybe an hour of my attention out of the whole day. But it is these things that make up ‘the million petalled flower of being here’, (Phillip Larkin, The Old fools). Cumulatively, they weave a fabric with colour and pattern and texture, a fully woven fabric.

If living life to the full means seeking out and cramming in as many amazing experiences as possible, I am not sure how healthy that is. I think part of the motivation for me for living like this was to make me feel good about myself. It gave me a sense of achievement. When I couldn’t live like that, because of illness, there was a corresponding sense of failure, that I was not living a good enough life.

Living a full life by living fully in each moment is less self-focused, it is less self-indulgent. This kind of living is about paying attention to what is happening outside of myself as perceived by my senses. It is the act of noticing each detail so that something small becomes intricate, multi-faceted. Our craving for those rich experiences from the ‘100 things to do before you die’ lists is a craving for intensity of sensual experience; the different, the extreme, the exotic, make a deeper impression on our minds and memories because they are different and unusual and rare. If I can find that exotic rarity in the everyday that surrounds me, maybe I can experience that same thrill of vitality. If I can pay full attention with all my senses to the ordinary and the mundane, maybe I can feel that same intensity of being and experiencing.

I still long to climb mountains and play music with other people. Noticing a beautiful rose or the smell of fresh baked bread does not quite compensate for those things. But I am determined to find fullness and vitality and authenticity in the every day and to know that this is to live a life that is fully and uniquely human.

To see a World in a Grain of Sand 

And a Heaven in a Wild Flower 

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand 

And Eternity in an hour

(William Blake, Auguries of Innocence)

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David Trelawny-Ross was Head of English at a Sheffield comprehensive school until his life was detoured by illness fifteen years ago. He has been a sometime writer, jazz pianist and rock climber. Currently, he is committed to enjoying the small things. He enjoys sharing his house with interesting foreign students and his cat, Charlie. You can hear his most recent music by searching for “david trelawny ross” on Bandcamp or Soundcloud, and you can find his book ‘A dream of white horses’ on lulu.com.

A strategist, consultant and mother to two daughters, Sam Whittaker is a lover of stories with a passion for connecting people with ideas. Sam also cares deeply about driving progressive change in the world, however, seemingly ‘small’. She (& others) blog at the-change.blog. You can follow her on twitter @itsSamActually.

Once upon a time…

Death is probably the thing we fear the most: for ourselves, for our loved ones. When ‘nothingness’ becomes permanent; the ultimate, irreversible change. It’s a terrifying thought. So, of course, we don’t talk about it. But perhaps we should.

I was struck by an article I recently read by the journalist Owen Jones, which talked about the death of his father to cancer four months earlier. As he says, “Our culture doesn’t give us the vocabulary to talk to the grieving”; and it’s true. How often in these circumstances do we hear ourselves confess to not knowing what to say? Words fail us. I usually seek out a poem. For me, a poem is the most perfect form of words selected to express the inexpressible.

The truth is that there is no dodging the pain of the death of a loved one. Sometimes it will be a dull, dull ache and other times it will come at you hard and fast and sharp. But, as noted by Jones in that same article, recalling the memories, telling the stories of those we loved, captures the very powerful, very unique ‘something’ of those people. Their ‘being in the world’ is remembered and re-told and, in turn, these stories give us the meaning of those people’s lives. Take this very powerful example of the Guardian newspaper’s front page on 14th May this year.

Humans have a necessary desire to make meaning. As humans, our brains are hardwired to want to answer unknown questions. Our brains don’t like being in ‘unknowing’. This is what drives us forward to keep learning and keep discovering. But, of course, there are some things we can’t know. So how do we deal with this ‘unknowing’? Well, of course, we create stories. For some, when it comes to death, this can take the form of an all-knowing, omnipotent God. For others, it’s the reality of science (although that always answers the ‘how’ and not the ‘why’ for me). But, in reality, we tell stories about our lives all the time with us as the central protagonist. As noted by the psychologist, Jonathan Haidt, our brains are naturally story processors, not logical processors; stories allow us to understand the world and create meaning for ourselves and for others.

So, who would have thought that stories were such powerful things; they are not facts or data or ‘truths’. They are the subjective telling of things. Yet, as advances in neuroscience and psychology is revealing, there is so much more to stories. Think about how, the world over, we read bedtime stories to our children. Child psychologists show how story making and story-hearing develops naturally in young children. Academic and author, Jonathan Gottschall argues that storytelling has evolved to ensure our survival; nature has shaped us to be ultra-social, and hence to be sharply attentive to character and plot.

Stories are also powerful in helping us place ourselves in somebody else’s shoes. As a white, middle-class woman living in the West, how can I possibly imagine what it is like to be a refugee? How can I possibly imagine what it is like to feel like I am trapped in the ‘wrong’ body? How can I possibly imagine what it is like to have witnessed my community decimated by years of under-investment and neglect? By reading and listening, by opening myself up to the experiences of others and hearing their story, their voice.

Yes, we can use stories to put up walls and create hatred towards ‘others’ (that Brexit poster anyone?!). Or we can allow people to tell us their story, not one spun by people in power for their own ends.

Whilst they may not always finish with a ‘happy ever after’, stories can fulfil many different needs and help us navigate and make sense of the world; in that sense they are deeply human.

This photograph is a picture of my dad, William Bowker Whittaker, taken at one of his summer jobs during his student years. Here he’s working as a barman at a hotel in Newquay. According to mum he chose summer jobs in nice places. One year he was a bus conductor on the Isle of Wight, another he sold ice creams at Old Trafford cricket ground. He looks happy. Friends, when they see this photo, say that I look like him, although my brother is the spitting image. He died when I was very young and so I didn’t really get to know him. Stories from my mum, of their courting days, sound fun and romantic. (They met when they both worked at Dunlops in London, where he would find any excuse to visit mum at her desk.) He wrote her poems – there’s one called The Elephant  & Castle Blues! She still has an Oliver theatre programme with dad’s romantic notes scribbled in the margin, which she keeps alongside his love letters. My dad died when he was very young and these stories, and many others, in addition to piecing together more about his childhood (he was fostered and then adopted) have become an important way for me to connect with him.

A strategist, consultant and mother to two daughters, Sam Whittaker is a lover of stories with a passion for connecting people with ideas. Sam also cares deeply about driving progressive change in the world, however, seemingly ‘small’. She (& others) blog at the-change.blog. You can follow her on twitter @itsSamActually.