‘If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.’ Marcus Aurelius said that. He must have known a thing or two about fear. He was one of the last of the stoics and probably died in a pandemic. I guess, he fully accepted that the pandemic in his time wasn’t under his control at all but the way he behaved in response to it very much was.
I have carried this quote with me for a long time to suddenly hear a different ring to it. Like so many at the moment, I am exposed as well to this new threat we all face: Getting infected by a hideous and very infectious new disease which affects older people more than young, people with existing health conditions more than the healthy. On average anyway. Carl Brandauer’s doctor leaves him in no doubt here. ‘It’s unlikely you survive it’, the doctor said this week.
So, in Marcus Aurelius’s words, my estimate of the thing is pretty serious but in terms of revoking it all, I have means to deal with it so deal with it I do and I must, however hard I find it all.
I try not to sit and fret. Easier said than done. But I have a roof over my head and the room I live in is warm. I have food, a bed and a clear head. I am fortunate really. To remind myself daily first thing in the morning of a few blessings in my life is a practice I adopted a long time ago. It is currently a rather desperate exercise but it too helps.
Like everyone else’s, my life has its extra challenges right now. How to deal with younger adults coming home from wherever they have been, how to stay save, how to stay healthy, how to keep sane in involuntary isolation? These are formidable matters to deal with but I hold on to Aurelius’s words. I try to consider things. I try to keep things in perspective. It’s really not easy but I try.
This is not about fear of doing something one is fearful of. It’s not about being daring or not. It’s about being sensible, composed and trying to find the courage to move on, step by step and fighting the naggingly persistent question inside ‘what’s the point of it all, I might get it anyway’.
To live with that fear is very difficult and many conversations I had last week with colleagues, readers, friends and family inevitably turned to this subject. What I found so helpful was that everyone admitted their unease and the same deep fear and that made it a shared experience and gave relieve to both sides. We are in this together, for better or worse.
We have the power to revoke this, our estimate, of what causes us this pain, called fear. I am no master of it but thank you all for your kind words in recent days which helped me to get a little better at it.
And I wish you fortitude, courage and strength in keeping calm as well. I have discovered a few good books of late which I am currently reading. It’s my way of distracting myself and let my inner self deal with the fear. It is my sincere hope and wish you find yours.
I also find that remaining idle breeds doubt and fear within me whereas staying active, however difficult that is, gives me a little more confidence and builds courage to carry on. And that courage helps me to muster the power Aurelius speaks of, the power to revoke my estimate of the thing which causes me the pain of fear.
About a year ago I suffered a stroke. An almighty warning shot across the bow. A lot was in the works and in the making. Many plans had been made, a lot of joyful anticipation for the next adventure was in the air yet the eyes were opened wide. Everything came to a halt.
Its is said that people change in a health crisis. And Carl Brandauer? No, he didn’t really or did he? Certainly what did change was how I looked at things and what I thought I was but really wasn’t, that too vanished and went overboard. What was left was just myself as I really am I think and perhaps should have become a long time ago.
Benign arguments are now something I avoid instinctively and more than before.
Vanities and puffed up blustering, never my thing anyway, have too now lost their appeal altogether. I avoid exposure to such things.
And the desire to confront foolish statements and behaviour, especially from those who should know better, that has been eradicated completely.
It initially became a formidable challenge for me to now muster acceptance of and tolerance for ignorance, particularly from younger and more impatient or even immature colleagues yet it comes as a surprise how easy it turned out to become eventually.
In the same way the capacity for forgiveness and letting go of arguments and irritation has grown immensely. In this new world I am allowed to continue to live in, not every argument about matters seem to be mine anymore to mediate. Not every wrong statement is for me to attack, not every circumstance, however regrettable and wrong, for me to deal with and improve. Not every battle in this war is mine to fight.
All too often it is others, mostly work colleagues driven by questionable ambitions or motives, who make life more difficult than it needs to be and should be. All of this has less meaning for me now, bothers me less, if at all. He who has been floored this way and, as a result, has been so very close to the window towards the beyond, has little or no time anymore for such things. It’s just how it is. If anything, such worldly and human made matters are cause for a little irritation at times and huge deep regret at others. Something has been understood which results in a change of conduct and approach in the time that’s left. Part of that are is the appreciation of limits or boundaries experienced. One adjusts to them more, appreciates them differently, recognises them better and easier, for recognising them one must.
Many Scharlatans encourage us to break boundaries, that they are merely in our mind, woven from our own weakness, that our possibilities know no bounds or that we set them all ourselves. ‘Everything goes’ they tell us and that we are our own worst enemy in not attempting more. I listened intensely to those voices myself once. Today I consider them as dangerous nonsense.
What a lot better it would be if we tried instead to better our understanding of who we really are in every aspect. The better knowing of one’s real inner boundaries would follow and above all, the insight into the difference between what are our own real boundaries within which we are free to move and live, for which and what we were made, and those boundaries which we are offered falsely by the said Scharlatans in commerce and politics which try to tell us for their own benefit only, what is good for us. I am not talking about the latter.
The former are the ones I am thinking of here, however, those boundaries with which we were endowed, which are ours alone as individuals to explore and know at every stage in life, which cost nothing to explore other than personal effort, reason and humility. To get to know them is very difficult at times but without it it is like searching for meaning in a dark forest. To not try to learn about them is a sign of ignorance and will lead for sure to enduring mistakes, suffering and disappointment. I leant about it all the hard way. I nearly didn’t make the cut.
In my youth I felt an urgent need to explore and experience my boundaries, even breaking them where possible, but this has changed into an insight that it’s more important to be reminded of them, anticipate them better rather than reach and feel them, the real ones I mean, not the ones we need to continue to try and break down. Where once a drive for reaching those real boundaries was predominant, it is today more care to not to reach them at all which informs my actions.
It is not surprising that many things and actions are not as easy to deal with as they once were yet very much to my surprise, and often unexpectedly so, some things have become an awful lot easier. Strange this, but sheer force seems unnecessary now yet care and consideration have come to the fore. Where once there was this desire to break head first straight through the middle, everything now goes through the head first instead.
Yet I still can get it wrong at times when it comes to reading the signs of emerging exhaustion or recognising boundaries approaching when I walk through life. Perhaps it’s that bridge too far on a physically demanding mountain hike or the mental stamina required to sit through long business meetings which can often last till late at night. The right judgement of one’s physical and mental state is not always an easy task and things like physical strength and ability to concentrate are not always the same. Every day is different and even seasons and the weather can have a critical impact as does the quality of sleep the night before. The punishment for getting it wrong are longer periods of rest required and general lack of well being. But in time, I hope. I will learn even better to read the warning signs and to appreciate the symptoms of fatigue.
I have stopped lighting the candle on both ends. I burn slower, less bright but more gentle and calmer. I don’t give up easily anymore and I recognise more patience in all things.
Youth isn’t strong on patience. It mustn’t be or it wouldn’t be youth. To hold issues unresolved in one’s mind, the ability to wait patiently, these are not youth’s forte. Why should it be? It’s not been taught in our culture of instant gratification anyway. We are encouraged to want it, to want it all, to want it all now, to want it all now and our way.
Carl Brandauer returned sooner to work after his stroke than he perhaps should have but as someone he could and perhaps should have been earlier. Perhaps the same but with less baggage, ambition and better judgment. Alas, everyone travels on their own Odyssey to overcome obstacles on their way to their true selves. Why that has to be so remains a mystery to me despite every effort to understand it. Yet to learn and feel one’s boundaries sooner rather than later seems to me such a key to a better, simpler and more agreeably journey to the final destination whatever that may be.
‘He is not a fool, who gives away what he cannot keep, to gain what he cannot loose,’ it was Sandy Millar, rector of Holy Trinity Brompton, London, who spoke those words many years ago one Sunday morning. I was young back then, and proud, a small child on each side, holding on to my trousers and a baby on my arm. Those were days where seeds were sown and words spoken which only now I begin to appreciate, for using the word ‘understand’ would mean that I have learnt nothing since.
It is autumn. My acer is turning a beautiful red again. The last stage of this years growth is the most beautiful and the next storm will blow the leaves away. Every single one of them. And then the beauty is gone, until the next season. I watch it every year. We all do in the Brandauer family. It’s especially symbolic to me this year that the end can be so special and spectacular even if it lasts only a short time. The memory of it stays long after the leaves are gone.
I notice how with every year watching this spectacle my appreciation for material ‘things’ has declined, that owning has become less important but witnessing more meaningful. The pursuit of the acquisition of wealth for the sake of it, let’s call it by its ugly name ‘greed’, has all but died down at the same rate. Our last shirt won’t have any pockets, we can’t take anything with us.
The children have began to go their way. Good! I won’t be a parent who plagues them with expectations I could not fulfil myself. I wish them well. All five of them. I have done what I could. I fought the good fight even though I lost many battles along the way through my own failings. Yet they made me what and who I am today. There’s an important difference between giving up and letting go. That insight was part of it all too. And it requires courage to let go as it usually involves letting go of something familiar. But life goes on and as the familiar no longer works as it once did, so we must move on as well.
So what next? It’s no good trying to cling to the past. We cannot have a better one by wishing for it anyway. And it requires effort to holding on to it, effort that may well be better spent by investing it in a brighter future. Letting go of who and what I am, to become what I might be, sounds promising and whilst the raging bitter waters keep flowing, a bridge can be built across it to a better then, another side we haven’t been to yet. It’s our choice when we start building and letting go. Since sooner or later we will have to let go anyway. To do so sooner rather than later, when it has become inevitable, requires too this above mentioned courage but the reward is on offer right now. What is there to loose by letting go? Nothing. But everything to gain.
The Carthusian monks have a saying: ”Solitude is merciless, you can’t escape from it!”
The Carthusians should know, spending most of their time in solitude indeed.
But what about us normal mortals? Especially now, in times of pandemic isolation, locked away in fear of getting sick. I have no time for the conspiracy theorists, even though I pity them. For the normal ticking mind we have to acknowledge that we have a problem at our hands. A viciously infectious virus that kills at random, particularly the frail with health problems.
I can’t say the isolation was a hardship for me. True enough, I couldn’t travel for nine months now and travel is a necessary ingredient to keep my job down but since everyone in my line of work sits pretty much in the same boat, wether they work in Adelaide, Washington DC, Vaduz, Moscow or Amsterdam. We all have to make do with Videoconferencing. There are those who hit the bottle before they even appear on camera. You can’t smell it but it is at times all too obvious that the other side is inebriated, is talking louder than they do when you meet them, and haven’t bothered dealing with that telling stubble, wearing T-Shirts instead of a crisp shirt which such calls really demand. We have a lot to learn yet about etiquette in Videoconferencing.
And then when we put the phone down we are alone again. Another sip on the bottle perhaps to beat the pain of loneliness, cabin fever, or as my colleague in Amsterdam admitted, another joint before the next call. I don’t do that. I want to have a clear head. These days anyway. In the few moments between calls and domestic demands, I walk the dog or contemplate over a flower in my garden.
Being alone successfully requires hard work. Being alone with oneself brings one face to face with one’s reality. For most, used to distract themselves with whatever is available, solitude seems unbearable. You need to like yourself to be able to tolerate your own company. Who does? But if oneself is the only company available and for prolonged periods of time too, the friendship has to be established with oneself, one’s dark side included, called by the experts in such matters ‘our shadow’.
As I never tire to say, tolerating one’s own company and accept oneself as one is, requires long hard work and eating a lot of humble pie. But it is not just worth it, it is unavoidable, especially in these days of pandemic restrictions. For alone with ourselves we will be more often for a little bit longer.
What helps here is to occupy one’s mind with beautiful things, avoid reading the news too much, if at all, and contemplate over what is around us as and where we are. There’s beauty all around us and it helps with self reflection and the inner peace making process.
Learning to be content in the presence of one’s own company requires kindness, patience and forgiveness. We all have a lot to forgive us for. We all need to be patient with ourselves and be kind in the face of our repeated mistakes. We are not perfect and that is how it should be. What’s there left to learn if we were perfect.
And there comes a time, I promise, where solitude grows rare fruits. Insights never to be had if we would not be forced to look inside. Peace of mind over the coming to terms with past mistakes. Moments of joy when the realisation kicks in that certain old habits have well and truly had their day and one actually has moved on.
Don’t fret solitude, embrace it. Look in the mirror and wear your best shirt for the day to celebrate a day out with yourself. Make it special. Make it count. Stay sober and of a clear head. The return may surprise you and may also send you to sleep eventually when you have told yourself everything you wanted to say and have listened to the voices deep inside telling you their side of the story.
You will be a better friend to your acquaintances later on when all these pandemic restrictions are over eventually as you will have found peace of mind. Through imposed actions brought about by solitude and dealt with in a healthy manner.
We have to be where we are. There really is no point in wishing for a different, better past. Living in the present moment is a challenge at the best of times and a Pandemic on top makes it seem like mission impossible. But embark on it, embark on trying at least, we must. What are the alternatives? Those who can’t manage, or won’t even try, are the ones who see the likes of Donald Trump as their saviour, projecting their unfulfilled desires onto a man who, let’s face it, despises them, calling them losers if they get in his way, yet promises them what they want to hear. And they believe him and, as one follower put it, would crawl through broken glass for him. What has happened here? How did it come to this?
Those who are old enough to remember will recall the mantra with which we were bombarded at school. Beware the beginnings, it read. Beware the beginnings of any radicalism but whilst in those days debates were had a plenty, held at high intellectual level, no one foresaw that the age of information technology and social networking would not improve informed dialogue and debate but undermine it to a level that a lie cleverly concealed in a catchy sound bite would win every time. There seems no one left to call the bluff. There seems no one left to even want the bluff be called. The curse of populism has us in its firm grip and we are governed by liars advised by unelected and sinister figures lurking in the shadows, modern Rasputins whose agenda is to destroy and rule. And the mob cheers to it all as they project the hope for bread and games on those who promise them without a clue how to do it, and without intention to do it either. We can no longer think for ourselves and are lead like lemmings. What hope can then be had that disenfranchised and dumbed down minds can muster the wit, energy and ability to suffer and learn how to be responsible for themselves when it comes to focus on their situation in life, concentrate on personal growth, to be able to be alone with themselves without distraction from drugs, alcohol, partying and going to Ibiza once a year. No, to live in the present moment requires humility – short in supply these days – ability to endure inner pain necessary for personal growth and the ability to make do with what we have. Yet without this conscious and difficult step towards maturity, for that is what is required, liars like Trump and Johnson will be admired and idolised, for the alternative, taking responsibility, is simply too unbearable.
This is a bitter pill to swallow but no excuse for an individual willing to grow to not choose the path less travelled regardless. It is not even that every bit counts in the same way. What counts is oneself. Keep your side of the street clean. That’s all one can do. Literally. It’s all one has to do if living in the here and now has any meaning. For we have to be where we are so we might as well stare it in the face, standing straight, bear the pain involved and grow up in the process. For that’s what we are meant to do. Grow up. We need to and our children need us to grow up to if we want to counter the trend whereas people follow others rather than their own good moral compass.
In the beginning there was the growing realisation that things were not well. The world is changing, has changed and at times it felt a new and strange place, different from the one I grew up in. It took time to think things through and to figure out what I could do to help myself and where it was not for me to get uptight.
I then realised I was not alone in all this and I decided to share my thoughts. May they bring clarity and a bit of fun perhaps into this seemingly crazy world where crooks and gangsters rule countries nowadays and the finer art of thinking has been pushed in the background. I am convinced now that good sense will prevail even though it will come at a price. I for once believe we can make a difference as to how we feel and help those around us to live better lives too. It requires introspection and courage. It requires letting go of some of our little comforts too. But it is worth all the effort. Contentment and, dare I say the word, happiness and peace of mind are there for the taking. It’s all there. We just need to pick up the pieces and rebuild the puzzle. We can get our life back. I have.