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Goldilocks

Like most people who live in old houses in this part of the world, shutters are part of daily life. My days start with me opening the wooden shutters on all the windows and doors of the house, and they end, after sunset, with me doing the round of closing them. Maybe that’s why I tend to notice shutters on other houses.

As you might expect there is huge diversity. Different sizes, colours and textures. The older the property, the more unique the shutters. They age in the sun. They weather. If they could talk they’d tell whole family stories.

What caught my eye about these particular shutters were the little round windows in them. Mostly, shutters are solid wood, but someone has created a small, glazed window in each of these. What are they for? Peeking out through? I don’t think so. They are too high. I can’t imagine some elderly resident standing on a stool or a stepladder to look out through one of these! No, I think they are for letting sunlight in.

In the heat of summer I partially close the shutters to stop the house getting too hot, and at other times I partially close them to control the amount of light in a particular room (for example if I’m writing at my computer and I can’t see the screen for the sun).

So I think these are Goldilocks shutters, where the amount of sunlight getting through the window is not too much, and, not too little.

How often do we find ourselves trying to achieve some sweet spot? Our bodies do it continuously throughout our life….we call that “homeostasis”. We’re often told “everything in moderation”, and it turns out, again and again, that in terms of diets, too much of anything is bad for our health, and too little isn’t a good idea either.

I don’t think trying to achieve a balance, a moderation or a sweet spot, is either bland or boring. It’s dynamic, never fixed, always responsive and adaptive.

At least that’s the message I take from the story of Goldilocks. She knew what she liked and needed, and kept going till she found what was “just right”!

I love the beauty of new beginnings. In this case, it’s a glorious display of a seeding tree. Every one of those tiny seeds could be blown near and far, and is bursting with potential. Any of them could become a wonderful tree.

Does that excite you? Does it thrill you? Does it delight you?

It does all that for me.

I’m the same with babies and little children. I always had a reputation for being good with kids but it’s just because they delight and amaze me so.

When I was a GP I loved doing both antenatal and child development clinics. Those days were filled with delight and anticipation.

But I also loved the times when a patient who had been suffering a long time started to improve and began to spread their wings, moving from the phase of surviving to one of thriving.

People amazed me all the time. They still do. Every human being I’ve met is packed with potential and seeing just a bit of that start to emerge is always a thrill.

This is new beginnings time for me. We’ve just got the keys of our new house (I say new, but it’s about 140 years old!) and although moving and setting up in a new house is demanding, hard work and pretty stressful I’m at the stage of delighting in its potential.

It’s interesting that this is happening towards the end of this year, because it won’t be long till we all turn our minds towards a new year and I’m sure reflecting on its potential will create excitement and thrills.

I know that’s not all a new beginning holds but I find that what I imagine, what I give attention to, and energy to, is what’s most likely to take root, grow and flourish.

Shared playlists

I wrote about music in my life a while back and mentioned the record club which my friends and I created at school. I grew up in Stirling, Scotland, under the presence of the magnificent castle you can see in this photo. In fact, I was born in Stirling, which my gran always told me made me “a son of the rock”. There were a couple of dozen of us all lived within the same area and we spent our teenage years together but once those years were over we all went our separate ways. Off to different cities, different countries even. But recently four of us reconnected over the internet and that got me thinking about our record club again.

Do you use a music streaming service? Spotify perhaps? Or Apple or Amazon music? Well it turned out we all use Spotify so I created a shared playlist for us and called it “The Stirling Record Club”. We’ve been using it to share tracks which we all remember from our original record club days but we’ve also been introducing each other to music we’ve each discovered and come to love over the last 40 years (we’re all in our 60s now).

Each time one of us adds a track we send a group email telling the others about it and why we love it. That usually sparks a conversation and inspires us to share other related pieces. I’m loving it. The mixture of good memories, new discoveries, fun conversation and reconnection to some shared part of life is wonderful.

Last December my daughter, Amy, and I created a shared playlist on Spotify as an Advent calendar experience. We each shared one track every morning so there was a little gift of music for each other every day for 25 days. That was delightful and again the sharing of the music deepened connection.

So here’s my tip for you today. Create a shared music playlist with someone, or with several friends, and start to enrich and deepen your connections. What a bonus – the music is great too!

Love and kindness

These little leaves remind me of a chain of hearts which gets me thinking about how whatever we do spreads.

When I act today out of love I’m kind and I think the more my thoughts, feelings and actions are loving and kind ones, the more love and kindness there will be in the world.

Smiling, paying attention, respecting others and caring for them are all ways of spreading love and kindness.

When I see these heart shaped leaves I also think about seeing with the heart. As Saint Exupery wrote in The Little Prince, “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly.”

So not only does it feel good to create more love and kindness in the world but we only see reality from that perspective. Fear and hatred distort our view and make it harder to know and understand what’s real and what matters.

So here’s my gift to you today. Carry this image of heart shaped leaves with you today and use it as a catalyst to create a more loving and kind world.

Nature finds a way

I don’t know why people still talk about “dominating”, “controlling” or “beating” Nature.

Nature always finds a way. Nature always adapts and thrives.

In the longer term whole cities have disappeared back into deserts or jungles. Roman roads vanish under fields.

However, since the Industrial Revolution we humans have been making it a lot harder for Nature. We are responsible for massive losses in diversity and unsustainable climate change.

It’s time, well, long beyond time, for us to learn from Nature and to adapt, to change our ways and learn to live as part of Nature, not apart from Nature.

Otherwise, it’ll be our species which fails. Not Nature.

Prediction

When did science become about measurement, prediction and control?

The scientific method seems to have transformed from the pursuit of understanding through awareness and observation to a system which is predominantly about prediction and control.

My ideal scientist is someone who knows their knowledge is limited, not someone who claims they are certain that what the know is “the answer”.

Measurements are part of science but they aren’t everything. We can’t measure the whole of reality. When measurements, or quantitate approaches, are elevated above observation and qualitative methods, then we end up where we are – with a hierarchy which privileges materialism and objects over the experiential and the subject.

That always bothered me in medical practice because human beings can’t be reduced to a data set without dehumanising people. In my experience no two humans were identical, people constantly surprised and amazed me and it was only ever possible to control the experience of illness over the short term.

I’ve been driven by curiosity and wonder since childhood. There’s something deeply satisfying about learning and understanding.

It might be a truism but I too find that the more I know, the more I know I don’t know. The universe is a place of endless wonder and mystery to me. And I love that.

It bothers me that science has veered off into prediction and control. Because both prediction and control only deliver over the short term.

Think of the weather report. The further out the prediction the less accurate it is. That’s true of pretty much everything in Nature and Life. Because we’ve come to understand that reality is complex and massively interconnected we’ve discovered that prediction is not possible in detail. That should keep us humble.

I like the notion that a doctor’s job is to understand. And understanding is driven by caring. I want to understand this patient today because I care about them. It’s not a doctor’s job to control people.

But of course in Medicine there is more than diagnosis. There’s also prognosis – and that brings me to prediction again. Because prognosis involves understanding where we might be heading. It involves recognising patterns and learning from experience so we don’t stumble through life blindly.

I guess I return to “and not or”. We need both. We need measurements and predictions as well as experience and understanding. So in fact I’m not “against” measurement and prediction. It just disturbs me when we use them to bolster a false sense of certainty and control.

Why is this bothering me just now? Probably because it seems that autocracy is increasing around the world and that the experience this pandemic is being used to further attempts by those with power to decrease freedom and replace it with control.

Life is messy, individuals are unique and embracing that knowledge can be liberating.

I suppose I’m arguing for a change of emphasis. I’d like to see a shift towards caring and tolerance because I value uniqueness and diversity. And so I’d like to see less emphasis on prediction and control.

This is one of my most favourite photos. I think it captures the dynamic of Nature’s seasons in a still photo.

This little leaf is frosted on the left half and still brown on the right. It’s as if we can see the moment when autumn turns into winter.

It surprises me that the temperature difference caused by the sun’s rays falling just slightly more on one half of the leaf than the other can make such a significant difference.

That reminds me that small differences can produce strikingly different outcomes – something we see in the “butterfly effect”. This partly explains why no two patients experience identical outcomes with the same intervention or treatment.

The future is not predictable in detail.

But I also see this half frosted leaf symbolically. It reminds me of the yin yang symbol which conveys the idea that opposites are inextricably entangled and work together to produce constant movement and change.

It even inspires me to reflect on the nature of the human brain with its left and right hemispheres.

Amazing where one little leaf can lead you…

Émerveillement

If you put the French word I’ve used as the title of this post into the search box at the top of my blog, you’ll find quite a few posts where I’ve written about this.

Émerveillement has become one of my most favourite words. There isn’t a direct translation into English but it includes concepts such as wonder, amazement, awe and delight.

I feel all that when I come across something as beautiful and astonishing as the dragonfly in this photo. What an amazing creature! I look at a dragonfly and think I don’t know how anyone to imagine such beauty and structure. They way it flies and hovers boggles my mind. It can zip away in apparently any direction it wishes in an instant.

Compared to the admittedly superb technologies that we humans have invented Nature leaves us standing. And that humbles me. The powers of adaptation and growth which we see in all living beings far surpasses what we humans can create. Complex adaptive systems are at a different level entirely from complicated machines.

I believe that we have a LOT to learn from Nature and the better we understand plants, insects, animals and ecosystems, the better we will get at living healthy, sustainable, thriving lives.

Persistence

When I came across this flat stone the first thing I noticed was the pretty large hole in the middle of it. The hole doesn’t actually go all the way through. It’s a wide and deep indentation.

How do you think that came about? My theory is that it was created by a constant drip, or steady flow, of water. Either from where it lay before it was placed here, or by water falling onto it on the path. I suspect the former because surely it must have taken many, many years to create an indentation this size.

You might argue it’s been chiselled out but I’m not convinced about that. It looks natural to me. However, even it’s been created by human hand, it’s going to have required a steady and lengthy effort.

Whatever the process involved in the creation of this indentation, the one thing I think about every time I look at it is the value of persistence.

There’s a lot to be said for persistence and it’s a quality which I think I have in abundance. Stuff happens. Storms blow in and pass by. Crises appear, then they disappear. But when you keep on a steady path you can see your way through all of those challenges.

Persistence is a particular kind of strength. It’s not violent and not even particularly strong or powerful over a short period. It’s a gentle power. A steady strength.

Imagine how long it’s taken for soft flowing water, or little drips, to carve out this space in the stone.

I worked, one to one, with patients for about forty years. In both the GP and hospital clinics where I worked we prioritised continuity of care. We developed long term relationships with each patient. Doing that required persistence. It required the ability to stand with and be steady with someone through their crises.

Of course patient care requires flexibility too. You have to be able to change treatments if they aren’t helping, but in order to do that you need that continuity of care and that persistence to stick with them through any necessary changes.

So I just want to celebrate that quality today. Persistence.

Metamorphosis

If you didn’t already know, then how could you imagine that a tadpole could turn into a frog?

If you didn’t already know, how could you imagine a butterfly would’ve spent part of its life as a caterpillar?

Some of the most memorable lectures at university were the ones on embryology. We had an amazing anatomy lecturer, Professor Romanes. The lectures were in one of the classical old lecture theatres in the Medical School, a horseshoe shape of steeply rising benches and desks curved around an immense rolling blackboard. Over the course of a 50 minute lecture Professor Romanes would create the most astonishing works of art on these boards using a set of coloured chalks. Mesmerising. He added to the magic of foetal development which, to be frank, still astonishes me. The metamorphoses over the first few days and weeks in the womb are utterly incredible. At the earliest stages it’s impossible to envisage how those few cells will turn into a human body.

At a completely different level I’m sure we all have that experience of looking at old photos and thinking “That was me?! I looked like that?!” Yes, we know who it is, and we might even remember the event, but the changes in appearance, and of course in personality, behaviour, knowledge and beliefs is a metamorphosis in its own right.

Development and growth are truly amazing phenomena in Nature. The future is indeed impossible to predict in detail. We can’t be certain about it.

But we can be sure that the best, the healthiest metamorphoses will come about when we pay attention to nurture and nourishment.

We know we can encourage growth, development and change towards a thriving existence through care, love and attention.