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Archive for the ‘education’ Category

This pandemic has been going on for months now, and in many countries office workers have been working from home. I had to deal with a government agency recently and I could tell from the background sounds that the person I was speaking to wasn’t working in an office, so I asked him if he was at home. He replied that he was and he thought it was great. He no longer had to commute for about an hour and half in each direction between home and work every day, and when he wanted a coffee, he said, he could just reach behind him and switch on the coffee machine – no queue to join! He sounded relaxed and happy.

In surveys I’ve read it seems a lot of office workers are hoping they will never have to return to an actual office. Maybe this will be one of the big bonuses to come out of the pandemic……a shift away from commuting, from impersonal workspaces, and an increase in both quality of life, and time spent locally with friends, family and in local businesses and communities.

I took that photo above many years ago, one evening as I walked through Aix-en-Provence. I guess these two folk found a way to access free wifi! But that image comes back to me now as I think about how we are breaking out of the old ways and habits of office working.

On another evening in Aix I came across this man sitting high up in a tree, reading a book. I don’t know why he picked that particular spot but I remembered him just as I was writing about the unusual places a lot of us now work from, or study in.

I do think one of the main lessons we are going to get from this pandemic is to challenge our orthodoxies, and our habits. You can even make a case for saying that we got to where we are today by doing things the way we’ve been doing them, so if we want to get out of this and not fall back into it, perhaps we are going to have to get creative and come up with new ways of living, new ways of working, studying and sharing our time and space.

Maybe this isn’t the end of the office as we’ve come to know it, but it surely challenges the dominance of the current model. If that leads to more flexibility and more diversity then I think that can contribute to a better, healthier way of living.

Apply this same thinking to education and you can already see that the way we’ve been delivering education to children and young people is also going through a potential revolution. I’m a bit of an optimist at heart, and I can’t help thinking that, although these changes bring lots of challenges and difficulties, they can also bring us the opportunities to learn and to teach differently.

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How much do you think love motivates you to do what you do, to say what you say, to think what you think?

Are there serious arguments against making love our priority, our touchstone, our foundation, our core?

What couldn’t be improved by bringing a loving attitude to bear?

I think good health care requires love….love in the form of caring about, caring for, and wanting the best for, every patient. Love in the form of non-judgemental listening and attending. Love in the form of respect for the unique individual. Love which values personal relationships above techniques, tools and processes.

I think good education requires love…..love for children, love for knowledge, love for wisdom, love for growth, development and maturity. Actually, education isn’t something we should restrict to children, we could all do with learning all our lives. We could all benefit from life long education based on loving each person and wanting to try to help them realise their potentials.

I think good work requires love….love for craft, for skill, for quality, for service to our fellow workers, our families and our communities.

So how about a politics of love and an economics of love ….. love of Nature, of Planet Earth, of our fellow creatures, and of other people? What would that look like?

Maybe it’s time for us to be less shy about love. Maybe it’s time for us to speak up and say it’s important. More than important….essential.

Can we learn from this pandemic and move towards a society based more on creativity and care, than the present model which is based on consumption and competition? Can we move towards a society based more on qualities than on quantities, challenging the current dominance of figures, statistics and “data”, and insisting instead on loving, caring relationships, on experiences, on individual uniqueness, and on diversity?

I’d like to see that. How about you?

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One day in Paris I came across this electric scooter sitting just beside this rather imposing statue of Condorcet. I had the notion that the serious thinker was looking down rather disdainfully at the scooter.

Even as I framed the shot I thought this was an interesting juxtaposition. Condorcet was a leading thinker of the Enlightenment, a champion of rational thought. That’s one large, heavy tome he has in his hand there and he has the air of someone who goes through life, eyes downcast, as he thinks seriously about everything.

For the Enlightenment thinkers rational thought was the way to liberate mankind, to free them up from the chains of superstition and enslavement by autocratic powers.

The electric scooter, on the other hand, is our right up to the moment symbol of autonomous freedom. In a city like Paris you can pick one up wherever it’s been left, pay your hire price using your smartphone, step on, and away you go whizzing along streets and passageways faster than pedestrians, weaving between static traffic jams of cars, pretty much as free as you’d like to be.

Yet a scooter, for many of us, is a sort of toy, isn’t it? I had a scooter as a child, as did my sister. In fact, just the other day there she found an old black and white photo of us both on our scooters, and sent it to me. Scooters back in the 1960s of course weren’t electric, but, apart from that is the modern version really that different?

I have a notion that one of the appeals of the electric scooter is something to do with play. Think back to childhood, or observe a child in your own family. From the very earliest of years children learn and develop through play. They explore, they discover, the try things out, pressing, pushing, bending, tasting, touching, looking and listening. They are like little sponges aren’t they? Absorbing every possible experience they can have minute by minute through the entirety of their waking hours.

Curiosity, then, that fundamental building block of learning, is expressed, first of all, through play. But there are three other qualities to play which come to my mind as I write this.

Play develops the imagination. Children create whole worlds to inhabit. Worlds of creatures, monsters, fairies, heroes. They dress up and assume roles. We even retain the phrase “role play” as an adult activity, don’t we?

Play encourages creativity. Children express themselves through drawing, singing, and making. Play is the medium through which creativity is released and nurtured.

Finally, play is social. Although a lot of play can be solitary, children adore games – games played with others. They are always asking to play games. Come and play this with me! Let’s play…..! They learn to connect, to interact and form relationships through play.

So, yes, the Enlightenment thinkers promoted liberation through rational thought, but are we missing a trick by reducing play to something less important, something somewhat trivial, even “childish”, to be left behind as we grow and mature into rational, thinking human beings?

Hey, you know me, and my “and not or” mantra – don’t we need BOTH? Don’t we need to inhabit, live, develop and grow both our “play” skills and our “rational” ones?

“All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”

There’s such a push now, during this pandemic, for people to work from home, and already it’s easy to find a host of articles about the dangers this poses to work-life balance. Yet, “home-working” could be liberating. I had a telephone conversation with a government worker recently and I could tell from the background noise that he was at home, not in an office, so I asked him if that was the case. He replied yes and said how much he loved it. He no longer had to commute for 90 minutes to work and another 90 minutes back home every day – so he felt he had gained 3 hours. And, he said, when he wanted a coffee he didn’t have to stand in line and pay a hefty sum for a cup any more, he could just reach behind himself to where he’d placed his coffee machine.

I’m exploring a new way of organising my time, and I’ll share it with you once I’m happy with it, but today I realise I need to factor in something else, something a bit more liberated, something a bit more imaginative, something a bit more fun – play!

Why don’t you join me, and spend at least a little bit more of today in play?

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What protects us from infection?

The immune system.

What supports, encourages and maintains a healthy immune system?

The answer is lots of things, and no one thing by itself. There isn’t a magic pill or single technique which will keep your immune system healthy, but I thought it might be worthwhile just summarising some of the things which have a good chance of helping.

Nature

My first one is Nature. Japanese scientists have shown that “forest bathing” boosts immune activity. It seems that trees actually send out certain chemical which boost particular immune defence chemicals in the human body. But there’s probably a holistic, experiential element active as well. In other words, it’s probably not all down to particular molecules in the atmosphere. Because we also know that just spending time in natural environments boosts health….to the extent that Richard Louv describes Nature as “Vitamin N” and hypothesises that most of us are suffering from “NDD” – “Nature Deficit Disorder”. It seems that whether we are in a forest, in a garden, up in the hills, walking along the sea shore….all of these places are probably positive for our health and our natural defences.

Physical activity

There seems to be ample evidence that physical activity and many forms of exercise can both boost positive moods, and reduce unhealthy levels of inflammation which damage the immune defences. The bottom line is the more inactive your are, the worst it is for your whole system. Physical activity can include walking, jogging, gardening, sports, swimming, cycling – there’s a wide enough range there for pretty much everyone to find some kind of physical activity they can enjoy.

Diet

There are gazillions of articles about so-called healthy diets, or “anti-inflammatory” diets, or whatever. It’s mind-bogglingly confusing! But I think there are certain well established themes which run through every single “healthy diet”. It starts with eating mainly plants. Diets high in fruit and veg turn up again and again in research which identifies what seems to help to reduce chronic diseases, boost immune defences, and even encourage longevity. The second part is minimising what damages us – and that comes down to refined sugars and artificial chemicals more than anything else. How do you do that? Well, most simply by eating what is prepared by hand at home. The more processed, the more industrialised the “food” we eat, the more we are exposed to the harms. Ideally the more you can eat locally produced, seasonal foods, the better. And the more you can eat food from farms which don’t use artificial chemicals or industrialised techniques, the better. But the bottom line is “the less processed the better”. The third part is not eating too much – of anything! Whether you do that through an “intermittent fasting” diet, or simply by stopping snacking between meals, limiting consumption to what we need is good for us.

Supplements

I’m not a fan of supplements. Probably because I’m one of those weird people who finds it nearly impossible to swallow capsules and most pills! I also think we evolved to get what we need from Nature. However, again and again we are finding that Vitamin D deficiency makes us vulnerable. I’ve read a number of studies showing that vitamin D deficiency is most prevalent in patients who get the most severe forms of COVID. But vitamin D deficiency has been implicated in a host of chronic illnesses. So I do recommend it.

Other supplements? I’m pretty convinced about the value of two others when it comes to viral immune defence – Vitamin C and Zinc.

So, that’s what I take, and that’s what I’ve recommended my whole family takes. Vitamin D (4000 iu), Vitamin C (1G) and Zinc (15mg) every day just now. But you should find out for yourself, because we are all different sizes and ages and the amounts to take vary. So, be clear, I’m not prescribing these supplements for you….do your own research and ask health care professionals who trust, and, especially, ask your doctor if you are already taking medication. Immune defence is certainly not all down to supplements but they are worth some consideration.

Stress

There are undoubted, unavoidable links between the immune system, the nervous system and the endocrine system. Stress and emotional distress undermine the body’s defences. How you manage stress, and what practices work best for you, will differ from person to person, but it’s likely to involve some form of mental practice such as Meditation, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, Heartmath, Visualisation, keeping a Gratitude Diary, or something like that. That’s in addition to spending time in Nature and taking exercise, both of which also reduce stress.

Maybe you already know what you can do to reduce stress, it’s just you find it hard to set aside the time to do it. Well, now is the time! Start today!

Emotional intelligence – there’s a link between stress and emotional intelligence – by that, I mean that learning to handle our emotions lowers stress, and that stress makes emotional turmoil worse. This is way too big a subject to tackle in a single blog post but I thoroughly recommend learning about your emotions, and how to handle them.

Love

I’ve left this one to last because I guess it’s the least “scientific” factor, but whether it’s longevity studies or studies of well-being, again and again human relationships are shown to be important. We need to be engaged, we need to love and to feel loved. We need that in relation to other people, to other creatures, to Nature, to Life. And that’s pretty tough in times when were are forced into social distancing, or even worse, social isolation. That’s why it’s so important for societies to make sure that whilst physical distancing might reduce the chances of spreading the virus, people are not isolated. We need contact, communication, simple checking in to see if we are ok, or if we need any particular help. We need to know that we are valuable, appreciated, even loved. Without that we are likely to suffer from more stress and less effective defences.

I am sure there’s a lot more you could add to this subject, but my bottom line is that I think we don’t pay enough attention to consciously, actively improving our well-being and our immune defences. If there was ever a time to do that, it must be now.

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I saw this framed poster a couple of years ago in a shop in Copenhagen. I kinda wish I’d bought it! It’s a simple but elegant representation of something which has become my core model when I consider reality – networks.

When people say everything is connected to everything else they are right and the easiest way to both visualise and explore that is the network.

A picture of a network is simply some nodes connected by lines. The nodes might be people in your life, including you, with each line representing relationships. The nodes might be cells in your body, some more directly interconnected than others but all living in each other’s influences. The nodes might be neurones in your brain, each of which is connected to up to 50,000 other neurones! Can you imagine that? It’s literally mind boggling.

Networks can map thoughts, feelings and actions. They can help us trace the influences on any single moment cast by the past and the future if each node is an experience, real or imagined.

We have two halves to our cerebral cortex and it seems the left half is particularly good at noticing and exploring the nodes – the parts, the elements, the items, components or data. The right half, on the other hand, is particularly good at noticing the links, the bonds, connections and relationships.

Think of the constellations in the night sky, each twinkling star a node. When I look out now I see Orion has reappeared and makes his way each night across the winter sky from east to west. He’s been gone all summer and now he’s back I know winter is coming. But how do I see Orion? By tracing the invisible lines which connect the individual dots (stars).

When I first read about complexity science it was this model of networks which made it all clear to me, and, in particular, learning about the non-linear nature of the relationships between the nodes in living creatures helped me grasp the concept of the “complex adaptive system”…..which shone a bright light of understanding on everything from self-healing, to uniqueness.

If you’d like to explore this subject a bit more, here are some of the best books I’ve read about this concept of networks, connections and links.

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When I was at university in Edinburgh, for some of the time I lived in the Halls of Residence (something which has come back to mind in the light of the stories of students in Scotland being confined to their Halls during this phase of the pandemic). My room looked out over a grassy mound in front of the back wall of the site, and above that up to Arthur’s Seat – a pretty spectacular view to have! One day, while studying at my desk I noticed a student pacing up and down at the base of the grassy mound. He had an open notebook in his hands and he read the text out loud as he took about thirty paces, then turned around and took thirty paces back the way he came. Time and time again he turned at the end of his thirty or so paces and headed back along his invisible path. I thought it was an unusual way to study! However, by the end of a couple of weeks of this happening every day instead of just green grass there was a well worn muddy path which he, alone, had created.

I’ve thought about that path many times. When I learned, years later, about how our brains physically change shape with repeated thoughts or habits – “what fires together, wires together” is the saying – then I thought of that student wiring the information into his brain, and treading it into the grass while he was at it!

The thing is, when we hit repeat, we increase the chances of the repeat kicking in more easily. That’s what happens with habits. The more you carry out a particular exercise or action, the more your brain makes it easier to establish your habit. That’s partly why people recommend sticking with a new habit for at least 30 days. Because after 30 days the path has already formed, the neurones have already established their particular pattern of connection, the brain has already thickened along that network.

When I started this blog and called it “heroes not zombies” I was keen to inspire and provoke people to step out of autopilot and act more consciously. That’s the idea behind the title. There’s something about habits which entrap us. We can get stuck….literally in ruts….whether in the grass or in our brains! Waking up, becoming aware, and making different, conscious choices is a way of expanding our lives and our experiences.

But it’s also helpful to create good habits. We can use the exact same mechanisms which have us going over and over the same old stuff in our minds, or following the same old behaviours, and, instead, create the thought patterns and behaviours we’d rather have.

I often used an old image from my photo library to illustrate how to change our experience – the photo of the wounded rock….you can read that story here.

The thing is, it can be really hard to break free of negative thought patterns, painful memories, triggered fears and so on. Focusing on them to try and address them directly can be counter-productive, returning us again and again to focus on what we are trying to escape from. The alternative, I find, is to “make better dents” (see the piece on the wounded rock), to create new patterns, new habits, to fire up new connections and get our brains into better shape. Literally.

So, when I looked at this photo of the shadows in the cloister today, a photo which I find both beautiful and calming, I thought about this ability to create a better experience by hitting repeat…..in a good way. In other words, to take the same actions, or have the same thoughts, repeatedly, but choosing those actions and thoughts. Choosing them because we want them in our lives.

Exactly which actions and thoughts you’d choose will be up to you. They might be about taking a daily walk. They might be about doing “Morning Pages“. They might be about meditation. I don’t know. You choose. Just choose the ones you want to have in your life, and keep hitting repeat…..at least for 30 days!

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What is this?

Seriously, I have no idea! I took this photo just over two years ago but I don’t remember it! I’m not sure if this is a rock, a tree, a fossilised tree, a fallen Roman column…….there are elements which make me think of all of those.

But you know what? That makes this more of a mystery! And I love that! Well, actually, even if I knew what it was, there would still be plenty of mystery. More than what is it, how did it come to be this shape, and how did it come to be lying there? And here’s another one….is that a cave entrance under there? It looks like one.

We humans have a bit of a penchant for mystery, don’t we? Put the word “mystery” in the title of a book, a movie, or an article, and people will be enticed to check it out.

I think curiosity might be my strongest characteristic. I am unceasingly curious. As a child I remember getting two different “part works”….magazines which came out once every couple of weeks, and which you collected together into special binders. One was called “Knowledge” and the other was “Look and Learn”. I loved them both. When I graduated from university with my medical degree, with my first month’s salary as a Junior Doctor, I bought a complete set of “Encyclopaedia Britannica” (It’s in the attic! Can’t bring myself to get rid of it even though I use Wikipedia and all the other internet sources to go exploring these days).

I think this same characteristic contributed a lot to the kind of Medicine I practiced, to the way I worked as a doctor. I always looked forward to meeting the next patient, to hearing their story, to unravelling the mysteries of their illnesses. I loved making diagnoses, and I still believe that skill is THE key skill of a doctor. Without a good diagnosis, you’re stuffed! You can only find the treatment which will work best for you patient if you make a good diagnosis.

AND it doesn’t stop there….because how each, individual patient will respond to this particular treatment is a mystery. We don’t know. Nobody can accurately predict it. Will this person get the benefits that “most” people get? Will this be the person to suffer a serious side effect? Will this person find that this treatment actually does nothing for them at all? The only way to know is to stay curious, to follow up, and to listen carefully to what experience the patient has had since this treatment was started.

You’d be amazed how often that is neglected. A distorted use of “Evidence Based Medicine” claims absolute truths where the doctor thinks they know better than the patient what benefit the patient will experience. There are no absolute truths. Evidence changes all the time….informed by more experiences, more experiments and more studies. Treatments are always context-dependent. Two patients receiving the same treatment may well have two diametrically opposed outcomes.

We have to stay curious.

We have to retain our delight in mystery. And, here’s the paradox, we have to keep trying to discover, to learn and make the best decisions we can in every present moment.

There’s a humility which comes with curiosity and mystery. A humility which is the result of realising that there is always more to know.

So, now, bring all that to this pandemic. How many times have you heard the word “unprecedented” in relation to this disease? Over the course of this year we’ve developed our knowledge and understanding of this virus. Learning how it behaves, how different people respond to it, how we can influence the spread and the patients’ responses. And we are far from done yet.

All that can feel a bit more like frustration and uncertainty rather than mystery and curiosity can’t it? I think that’s true. I’ve experienced, and continue to experience, a lot of both frustration and uncertainty these last few months. But hey, you know my “and not nor” theme, don’t you? I think BOTH of these themes exist – mystery and uncertainty, curiosity and frustration. Becoming aware of them is the first step. Learning how to respond to, and adapt to, them, is the next.

So, I’m reflecting on this today and maybe you might too……how am I responding to the uncertainties, and how might I adapt better to them? How am I responding to the mysteries, and how might I make the most of them?

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One day I looked out over the vineyards and I saw this cloud formation. It looked like a tornado, but it wasn’t.

Now that I see it again, as a photo, I realise that this particular view, due to the phenomenon of perspective, makes this band of cloud look cone shaped.

But it wasn’t cone shaped. It was a band of dark cloud, like a wide path, moving across the sky.

That got me thinking about the whole phenomenon of how things appear to us….how everything has a distinct shape, or form, or looks patterned in a particular way….but that is always informed, or even, determined, by where we are standing….we the observers.

I think we tend to forget about that. Especially with social media where echo chambers are created as the algorithms push similar viewpoints and opinions towards us.

The truth is that we humans see reality most clearly when we share perspectives and communicate them without judging them.

We would all benefit from more diversity in science, in education, in health care, in government. Multidisciplinary and rich, inclusive teams, groups and communities offer us the chance to see the world as it really is….not just the way we are used to seeing it from only our own viewpoints.

After all, there’s a huge difference between a band of cloud, and a tornado!

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“Words were originally magic”

Have you ever read that sentence before? It was coined by Freud in 1915, and used by Steve de Shazer as the title of his book about his “solution focussed approach” to brief psychotherapy.

Do you think writing “freedom” repeatedly over the front of this office block works some magic? Who decided to write this in this particular place? Were they being ironic? Pointing to the fact that offices are actually soul-less, regimented places of control….the antithesis of freedom? Or were they trying to cast a spell….to make people feel more free by presenting the word to them?

I don’t know. I don’t know the history of this office block in Malmo.

We are told we now live in a world of “post truth” where words are used to confuse, misdirect, obscure, lie and evade…..where words are used to persuade and manipulate……where words are propaganda….ways to influence and control whole populations one three word slogan at a time. “Take back control”, “Get Brexit done”, “Build, build, build”………

Well it seems that words are losing their magical power when they are used so cynically and when they aren’t backed up with actions. But still, they work a magic over millions of people who voluntarily give up their freedoms and quality of life for the sake of a privileged few (just as Montaigne’s friend, Étienne de La Boétie, described in “Discourse on Voluntary Servitude” back in 1577)….inequalities are increasing massively, wealth and power is becoming ever more concentrated while “strong men” narcissists bewitch large numbers of people into supporting them.

Ok, political rant over! Back to health care….my specialist subject! As a doctor you have to be really careful about the words you use. Telling someone they have X months to live can become a self-fulfilling spell. People give up, or gain hope, depending on the words the doctor uses….and how they use them (by which I mean the contexts in which they use them, and whether or not they are used within already established relationships of trust). In a good consultation the doctor is on the alert for specific words which the patients might use, words which might hold the key to both diagnosis and prognosis. Which words does the doctor pick up on, and ask you to say more about?

We have to be especially careful of using words as labels…..such labels can put people into boxes. It’s a danger in health care, but also in wider society….the fast track path to prejudice and injustice.

Words are still magic. They still have enormous power. It’s worthwhile staying aware of that……

Be a hero, not a zombie!

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Sheer beauty.

What is it that I love so much about this world?

The wonders of the everyday. Or “L’émerveillement du quotidien”. It’s normal for me to find myself wondering about something I’ve just seen or heard.

I suppose for most of my working life my days were filled with patients. I never tired of that. I never got bored of that. Every day each patient would present to me a unique a story, a new, and singular problem, puzzle or conundrum to unravel. Each patient would be asking me to help them make sense of what they were experiencing and to support their abilities to heal, to cope, to adapt. Maybe they didn’t quite use that language but that’s always what I heard.

Before I became a doctor, way before, right back as early as I can remember I was driven by curiosity. I wanted to learn, discover and explore. It strikes me now that it isn’t a long way from curiosity to wonder.

People have always amazed me. They still do. Life has always amazed me. This Earth, this planet, the solar system, this universe which we all live in have always amazed me, filling me with an infinite supply of curiosity.

But there’s something else.

Beauty.

Look at this photo of a glorious, immersive sunset, where every single element of the sky and the Earth changes colour. Look at the palette! It is just breathtakingly gorgeous.

I see beauty everywhere. Which isn’t to say I find everything I see beautiful, I don’t. But there is “so much beauty in this world” (do you know what movie that comes from? Here’s the answer).

I am a very visual person. I think visually. I sketch and diagram as I think. I love photography and I think I “have an eye for it”. I see what I find amazing, curious or beautiful and I try to take a photo or two. Then I return to those images again and again, year after year, and I find that, like with this one, the delight, the pleasure, the amazement in beauty like this never fades.

Of course there are other senses and I don’t just experience beauty visually. I love music. I collected “records” long before people starting calling them “vinyl”. I still have them. I still play them. I spent hours and hours ripping CDs onto iTunes and I don’t even know where those libraries are any more! But I stream music now. Every day. Several times a day. I used to discover new music on the radio. I took the back off an old radio when I was a teenager, attached two wires to the speaker using clips, and fed the audio directly into a cassette recorder. I still have some of those recordings…..studio sessions on John Peel’s programme on Radio 1.

I’ve long had a love for movies. I love them for their stories and for their beauty, oh, and I often love them for their music. I compiled short clips of about a hundred movies to teach doctors and other health care workers about our unique human strategies for coping and adapting. I could have taught those strategies without movies but the beauty, wonder and emotional engagement which came with the movies made them much easier to learn and to remember. I probably have a whole vocabulary of coping and adapting based on movie characters, scenes and plots.

There is beauty all around us. I delight in images. I delight in music. I delight in movies.

Where do you find beauty? Where did you find beauty today?

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