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Archive for August, 2019

Here’s a small basket of the tomatoes we picked from our garden this morning.

What strikes you about these tomatoes?

Well, what strikes me is their diversity.

They are a huge range of sizes, colours and shapes, partly because they come from different plants chosen because they are different varieties.

I SO prefer this to a packet of same-size, same-colour, same-variety tomatoes we can buy in one of the local supermarkets. Even just to look at….but also to taste! Here’s a simple plate from yesterday.

Only tomatoes, a drizzle of olive oil, a touch of salt and pepper. That’s it! Mmmmm….

I could leave this post right here. It’s enough, isn’t it, to celebrate colour, taste, freshness, locally sourced food, and the simple pleasures which make a day delightful.

But I’m not going to.

Because what strikes me about both of these images is the issue of diversity. We live in mass society – mass production, mass consumption, mass conformity. This last element is necessary to ensure the efficient workings of the first two. Without mass conformity, mass production and mass consumption go belly up. (yes, I choose my words carefully – he! he!)

There are enormous pressures to consume in this society, and equally enormous ones to produce. A lot of value is attached to both. Did you ever come across an old black and white comedy, “The Man in the White Suit”, about an inventor who creates a totally indestructible fabric? The lead character is a scientist whose discovery industry immediately tries to suppress, because it would mean people could have clothes which would last a lifetime…..and sales of clothes would plummet!

I remembered this old film the other day when I took my car to the garage to have worn-out shock absorbers replaced (ouch!). The mechanic told me that shock absorbers used to last 100,000 km but now they last only about 80,000 km. Guess that’s progress!

Jacques Ellul, who lived, researched, taught and wrote in Bordeaux, produced an astonishing analysis of mass society in his lifetime. I’ve just finished reading two of his main works (in English) – “The Technological Society” and “Propaganda“. Although both were published in the 1960s, they are extremely pertinent in 2019. He shows how a focus on “technique” – by which he means setting goals, then creating measurable processes to achieve them – brings a whole host of improvements and progress to human life, but, inevitably, is accompanied by widespread and deep de-humanisation. Plans, judgements, decisions, resources, all become grist to the mill of mass production and mass consumption. Mass society needs conformity, controls, rules, regulations, norms and standards. There is no room for “variance”, “diversity” or “uniqueness”.

He also showed how mass conformity is produced through targeted propaganda, focused on the “individual”. Now, doesn’t that seem a paradox? Don’t we tend to think of “mass” at one end of a spectrum and “the individual” at the other? Well, it turns out that apparent paradox is the key to mass control.

Long after Ellul published these works, the world saw the birth of a new politics, represented clearly by Ronald Reagan in the US and Margaret Thatcher in the UK. It was Thatcher who famously said “there is no such thing as society”. The new politics became known as “neoliberalism”. With the spread of neoliberalism society became increasingly atomised. The idea was that everyone was on their own and in competition with everyone else, and through “the market”, and a form of “social Darwinism”, the weak, the inefficient, the failures, would die off, and the strongest, “best”, people and methods would win the day.

It’s a toxic mix. Mass plus individualism.

But, hey, I hear you say, I AM an individual! I am NOT the same as everyone else! I’m not just a robot, a machine, a cog in a greater machine!

I hear you.

But here’s my take on that – individualism divides us. It sets us against each other and ignores what we share and what we have in common. It feeds the divisions, prejudices, hatred and fear of “the other” which have become all too common. But I don’t want to be just a data point in Cambridge Analytica’s memory banks. I don’t want to be a mere pawn of Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, Instagram….my details harvested to target me with highly crafted propaganda to make me conform, or to support a small group who have, and want to hold onto, riches and power.

How do I resolve that paradox? I sure don’t have it all figured out but I have some thoughts…..

I don’t think we need to subscribe to either of these extremes – a data point in the mass, or an individual ego, disconnected from the rest of the planet. I think there is a third option.

Uniqueness.

Isn’t that the same thing as individuality? No, I don’t think so. For a whole host of reasons, but, for starters, because “individualism” prioritises separateness and difference. It’s a form of what the English philosopher, Mary Midgely called “social atomism” – see her “The Solitary Self” and “Science and Poetry” for her analysis of this problem. Uniqueness, on the other hand, demands an examination of contexts, of circumstances, connections and environments.

To fully experience and understand the uniqueness of this moment, it helps to see it as a dynamic, changing-before-your-eyes, event. I am unique because of the myriad of connections and flows which make me who I am. I have emerged from a particular family with it’s family tree, in a specific place, at a specific time, and continue to grow and develop through a unique and personal chain of experiences which I weave into a story I call “being me” (or better “becoming me”!)

Every single day at work as a doctor I’d meet patients who came to tell me their own, unique, and personal, story. It’s how I got to understand them. It’s how I made diagnoses, offered treatments, therapies and practices to help them re-experience health again. No two patients ever told me the same story. Not in a lifetime of practice.

And here’s the key – the way I revealed their uniqueness (to myself, and often, to themselves too), was by uncovering the connections, the flows, the contexts, environments and events of their lives.

I never wanted them all to be the same. I never wanted them all to become the same. In health, as well as in sickness, every person turns out to be unique.

OK, this is a personal bee in my bonnet, but I have a hunch that if we tipped the scales a bit, away from a focus on the mass, away from a focus on the individual, and towards uniqueness, that we might begin to create a better world. Maybe it would draw us away from competition and division towards cooperation and connection.

Does this make sense to you?

I mean, it’s a bit of a leap from a basketful of tomatoes!

But before I go, here’s one of my favourite Mary Oliver poems, The Summer Day, which doesn’t use the word “uniqueness” but it seems to me to be all about it…

The Summer Day

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

—Mary Oliver

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In a recent article about advances in microscopy, a truly incredible innovation, the ability to look inside living cells will give us (according to the journalist who wrote the article)

Seeing the shape and structure of biological molecules is important because they are the cogs and wheels that make living things work. They work inside and between cells, which are the building blocks of human life.

“cogs and wheels”, huh?

See that photo at the start of this post? That’s a photo of cogs and wheels. You don’t see these inside cells. Living creatures are not “built” from “building blocks” – walls and machines are.

Here’s a machine.

Would you ever be fooled into thinking this was a living creature?

I don’t think so.

In fact, in the footage from this imaging technology that I’ve seen so far, the most amazing and striking thing is that everything you see is on the move. The inside of a cell is full of bustling activity and movement. Not cogs. Not wheels. More like even smaller creatures inside the living creature we call the cell. They seem more like what we see outside of the cell – in whole organisms, like in our own bodies – teeming communities of tiny creatures which we call cells, co-operating and collaborating to function as a whole.

The biologist, Lynn Margulis, developed the theory of endosymbiosis, which described how bacterial sized organisms may have evolved together to become the highly specialised structures inside each, and every, living cell.

In 1966, as a young faculty member at Boston University, Margulis wrote a theoretical paper titled “On the Origin of Mitosing Cells”. The paper, however, was “rejected by about fifteen scientific journals,” she recalled. It was finally accepted by Journal of Theoretical Biology and is considered today a landmark in modern endosymbiotic theory. Weathering constant criticism of her ideas for decades, Margulis was famous for her tenacity in pushing her theory forward, despite the opposition she faced at the time. The descent of mitochondria from bacteria and of chloroplasts from cyanobacteria was experimentally demonstrated in 1978 by Robert Schwartz and Margaret Dayhoff. This formed the first experimental evidence for her theory. The endosymbiosis theory of organogenesis became widely accepted in the early 1980s, after the genetic material of mitochondria and chloroplasts had been found to be significantly different from that of the symbiont’s nuclear DNA.  [wikipedia]

We are not machines. Machines are not alive, and they don’t evolve. Crucially, machines don’t show “emergent properties“. They are predictable because they are not alive, and they don’t develop new, impossible to predict, behaviours and characteristics.

I think we do Life a huge disservice when we think of creatures as machines.

We are actually infinitely more complex, more amazing, more puzzling, more wonderful than anything that tired old metaphor can come up with.

So, can we move on please? And talk about Life without reducing it to something inferior – a machine.

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“one swallow doesn’t make a summer”

Yeah, I know, but, first of all I was trying to get a photo of about a dozen hyper swallows zipping and zooming this way and that above my head, but, hey, I only got one! And only just!

The fact I only got one (in the middle of a summer’s day, by the way) reminded me of that old adage about how spotting one swallow doesn’t mean that summer has arrived. Which brings me to the subject of anecdotes….

Since the rise of “Evidence Based Medicine” I’ve heard it said many times that anecdotes are not evidence, and that a whole bunch of anecdotes isn’t evidence either. Only rigorous, controlled trials, statistically analysed provide evidence. But my problem is that I spent my working life meeting, listening to, conversing with, and treating, one patient at a time. Each patient came and told me a unique story. Not a single patient told me an identical story to one I’d heard before. I tailored my treatments for each patient according to their unique story and the way things progressed from there was unique, and also unknowable.

I had no way of knowing whether or not an “evidence based” treatment would deliver the promised results in this particular patient. On the grounds of probabilities and experience, of course, I could go forward in good faith and with some confidence, but I learned that I always had to be prepared to be surprised when the patient returned. It seemed that no two patients experienced exactly identical effects of the same treatments. Didn’t matter whether I’d prescribed painkillers, antidepressants, anti-inflammatories, antibiotics (seeing a pattern here?) or whatever, the future course of an individual life was, and always will be, unique.

Unique and emergent.

Emergent – that means the future unfolds as it happens in ways which could not be wholly predicted from the knowledge of the past and the present. All living organisms display emergent properties. It’s a characteristic of all “complex adaptive systems”. 

So, whilst I could never generalise from an individual “anecdotal” experience to apply it to every other patient, the truth is, generalisations can’t be applied to every single patient either.

The tendency to dismiss individual stories as irrelevant to medical practice has always struck me as illogical. Irrational even. It might make sense in a research environment, but the individual story remains crucially important in the clinical one.

In deciding on a particular course of treatment with a patient I’d want to take into consideration what I’d learned was good practice, and what the research evidence had shown about the various different options, but, on the day, in the room, with this unique individual sitting with me, and, maybe even more importantly, when they’d return to report what had happened, THE most important thing was them – their story, their experience, their life.

I didn’t know any other way to practice – it was one patient at a time. Ultimately, the patient was always more important than any data – despite the fact a junior doctor told me, not that many years ago, that she’d been taught “Never listen to patients. They lie all the time. The only thing you can believe is the data”

Nope. That’s no way to practice Medicine!

Oh, before I finish, thinking of “one swallow at a time” reminds me of one of my most favourite books about creative writing – Anne Lamott’s “Bird by Bird”. Recommended.

 

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The Ile d’Oleron is a small island not far from where I live. I visited it a number of times. There’s a pretty village called Chateau d’Oleron with brightly coloured old fishermen’s and oyster farmers huts which are now mostly artists workshops and stores. On my most recent visit I came across this bridge with dozens of oyster shells hung on it, each one inscribed with a wish. The first thing I thought of was the padlocks fastened to the Pont Neuf in Paris which I saw many years ago.

When I looked closer to see what people were wishing for I realised that these oyster wishes were indeed very like the padlocks.

I remember seeing love wishes in Kyoto too –

In fact, most of the wishes I read were for love or happiness, and many of them weren’t really wishes at all, but, more like the padlocks, simply a public declaration of love….two names and a heart, or a date.

Not all the wishes were for love or happiness though. Some were much more specific –

“One house here”!

Which got me wondering about this whole wishing thing.

What’s it about?

Mostly, these are not requests, in the way that a prayer might be. Although some certainly are. I saw a wish for marriage “soon”, no names, just a wish to be married. I saw a wish that a particular child would remain happy forever. Or two names a a hope that their love would endure. But not all were like that.

Most were statements of love or happiness. Declarations of love or happiness. Maybe in some way these were “performative” wishes. By simply, and clearly, stating something, you bring it into being. A sort of focusing. Making love, or happiness, or wellbeing more than just a wish, but a reality, a totem of some kind.

One was even more expressive by making a drawing the centre point, instead of words.

This one says “The song of love”.

I spent quite a while browsing these shells and what, at first, seemed a bit strange, became all the more charming.

After all, don’t they say “The world’s your oyster”?

So, what would you wish for? What would you declare on a padlock, an oyster, a star, or a tree?

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It’s fascinating and inspiring to watch a bud mature into a flower.

It’s a process of unfolding and unfurling. The tightly packed young petals expanding and unwinding as they grow opening up to reveal the flower in all its glory.

From a certain perspective the flower is there already in the small green bud, it’s future path laid out before it. It’s fate, it’s destiny, to become a very particular type of flower, even if it’s individual uniqueness will be determined by an innumerable complex of factors…time, place, climate, weather events, insects and chemicals, natural and manmade in the environment, human hands…..

It’s a beautiful phenomenon. This interplay of the past, the present and the future, bringing into reality a specific creation, a unique single “actual” from the “multiplicity of singularities” of possibilities.

It’s just as beautiful in human beings. Watching the newborn child unfold his or her character, unfurl his or her body, as they grow, develop, mature into the fully expressed uniqueness they are in the universe….it’s awe inspiring.

It inspires me to open, to spread my wings, to choose growth and development, to express the uniqueness that is me.

I hope it does exactly the same for you.

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I took this photo a long time ago up at the Bracklinn Falls in Scotland. As you walk through the woods from the car park, you hear the roar of the water long before you can see it. Once you reach its banks, or stand on the bridge, the “new” bridge from 2010, the “old” one having been washed away by the power of the water in a storm some years before, you can hardly hear each other speak for the noise.

There’s a hint about the power of water in the volume of the noise. There’s another hint when you learn the history of the bridge, see the height of it, and wonder about the day the stream turned into a torrent and destroyed the old one. I’m old enough to remember standing on the old, iron, one. I never imagined it could be washed away. The new bridge, is, I think, even more beautiful than the old one.

What caught my eye in that first scene, was the shape of the rock.

It looks like there is a giant mouth opening up to swallow the water.

In fact, many of the rocks here smoothly sculpted by the power of the water. They are beautiful. The water itself does not run smoothly over this section of its path. It is never still, never quiet, and constantly breaks into foam and bubbles. It’s sort of counter-intuitive to think that water can shape rock, yet it’s obvious too because we see that all around us, whether we are looking at cliffs along a coast line, the rocks along the banks of a river, or even stones which lie at our feet.

One of the things which so delights me about these scenes is realising how the rock has become the shape I’m looking at only by interacting with the water.

It hasn’t grown to that shape all by itself.

Because it reminds me that nothing is the way it is all by itself. Everything we see, everything we are, emerges from an infinity of experiences to become the way it is today.

When I look at these beautifully fashioned rocks I see a relationship. I see a history of water and rock. I see continuous motion.

Which isn’t what you’d expect to see when you look at a rock!

Wow! We live on such a creative planet don’t we?

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What do you see when you look up at a sky like this?

The first things to catch my eye are the patterns in the clouds. I just love seeing these ripples, waves and swirls. I can delight in densities and the transparencies. I love how the blue beyond shows through and appears as lakes, streams and rivers in the white land of the cloud.

Then the next thing that happens for me is noticing that some of these patterns here look familiar. They remind me of something else, in the same way that sketches and doodles do, in the same way that paintings and photographs do. My eyes are drawn to the blue zone in the cloud which I can easily see as a pair of lungs – well, I’m sure that’s at least in part due to my working as a doctor all my life – but the idea of a pair of lungs breathing this cloud into existence delights me! Bear with me for a moment longer, because, and this comes and goes for me, I can then see what looks like a head above “the lungs” with a face looking out towards the right hand side of the image. Sometimes that looks SO clear to me that it almost spooks me out! And then I look again and I just can’t see it.

If you’ve been reading the posts on this blog for a bit, you’ll know what’s coming next……the image sets of a train of thought for me.

This time what I start to think about is creation.

I love to see clouds emerge, change, and disappear before my very eyes. So often they look like a work of art, like a piece of performance art. I see it happen and it amazes and delights me.

This, I think, is the essence of the Universe – creation.

The Universe has been creating since its beginning. As best we know, first elements, like hydrogen and helium, then clouds and densities which form into stars, those sources of all the elements we know….and so on, with the rest of the Universe Story…..right up to the creation of the Earth – as far was we know, the only planet like this in the entirety of existence – yeah, I know, people tell you that there are chances there are other Earth-like planets out there somewhere, but we haven’t found any yet.

And on this Earth, creation continues, with the elements forming into molecules, molecules combining and synthesising to create cells, and so to living organisms, no two organisms living identical lives……to the most complex of living organisms in the universe (as best we know)….human beings, no two of whom have ever been, or ever will be, identical.

And so to this day, this day which has never existed before, and will never exist again, where every event, every experience, every body, is new today.

Creation. It’s the essence of the Universe. It’s the essence of Life. The constant, never-ending, creation of novelty, of emergence, of uniqueness.

Yep, all that from a cloud…..how’s that for a creative thought?

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