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Archive for the ‘from the reading room’ Category

How to live. Well, there’s a question which always feels fresh. There are whole sections of book shops dedicated to this question and an enormous diversity of ways of addressing it. You’ll find some advice in the Popular Psychology section, some in the Philosophy section, some in the Mind, Body, Spirit section, the Religion section, and on and on.

What’s the secret?

Probably there is no secret, and anyone who claims to have everything all worked out….well, what do you think?

Still, it’s a question which won’t go away so when Sarah Bakewell published “How to Live. A Life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer” back in 2010, I couldn’t resist. I really enjoyed it back in 2013 and this week I’ve started to re-read it.

Montaigne lived from 1533 to 1592 in the area around Bordeaux in the South West of France. I won’t tell the whole story here, but he was part of a wealthy family, and retired from Public duties as Mayor of Bordeaux at 39 years old. As the inscription hanging on the wall of his study says, he decided that after years of duties and responsibilities he was going to dedicate the rest of his life to freedom, tranquillity and leisure.

 

Montaigne’s chateau.

What he did for the next twenty years was enjoy life, have conversations, read and study, travel, and write. He decided to write to explore what it was like to be Michel Montaigne. He described his writings as attempts – that’s why they are called “essays” (from the French, essais, meaning to try). With great honesty and humility he set about reflecting on his past and present experiences. Sarah Bakewell, who spent years studying his writings highlighted the fact that this exploration was about trying to discover how to live, and in her book comes up with twenty “answers” to explore aspects of his thought and his life.

He didn’t write a self-help book. He didn’t write a manifesto. He didn’t write “the key to the secret of Life”. But what he did write has turned out to have much more staying power than it might have done had he done so. Over the next almost 500 years, reader after reader comes across Montaigne’s essays and recognises themselves. We think, goodness, how did he know that’s what I feel? Or how I deal with that? Or what I think? Because in exploring himself and sharing that, he helps us to understand what it is to be human.

I can’t think of a better introduction to this amazing man and his writings than “How to Live” [ISBN 978-0099485155]. I’ll share a few of the attempted answers in future blog posts, but let me just quote you a nice little summary of some of Montaigne’s personal principles which I found in Antoine Compagnon’s “Un été Avec Montaigne” which I picked up in bookshop near Montaigne’s chateau one summer.

Prenons le temps de vivre; suivons la nature; jouissons du moment présent; ne nous précipitons pas pour rien

My rough translation of this is to take your time to live; follow nature; enjoy the present moment and don’t rush into anything. (If you are a fluent French speaker, feel free to improve my translation!)

In other words, he predated the current “Slow movement” by almost 500 years, encouraged us to live in the now (which Eckhart Tolle has popularised), to live mindfully (and isn’t mindfulness everywhere just how? 12,200,000 hits on google today!), and to learn from Nature so that we can live according to natural principles instead of trying to fight against them (a lesson we are a long way from learning with our contemporary technology, economics, health care and relationship to the global environment)

Let us permit nature to take her own way; she better understands her own affairs than we.

Montaigne was classically educated and drew on the teachings of scepticism, stoicism and epicureanism. In fact he was the kind of sceptic I thoroughly identify with (not the modern, arrogant, sure of themselves and their own opinions variety!). He felt that knowledge was never complete so we could always learn more, and that no one person could have access to all knowledge so everyone’s opinions, experiences and views were interesting to discover. This approach made him humble and this comes through everything he wrote and did.

He didn’t tell people how to live.

Instead he reflected on his own life and shared it.

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I read Barrie Condon’s, “Science for Heretics” a few years back and returned to it recently. The subtitle of the book is “Why so much of science is wrong” and his aim is to provoke the reader into questioning both the claims of science and its methods. He uses the device of three characters, The Believer, The Sceptic and The Heretic, throughout the book as he considers several fields of science including mathematics, physics, and medicine.

The Believer is one for whom science reveals the Truth and will one day enable us to understand everything in the universe. The Sceptic accepts the basic tenets of science but retains some doubts about whether of not we will ever be able to understand everything. The Heretic doesn’t buy the whole project. He thinks the universe is not completely knowable and that our scientific theories which shape our views of what we see are simply the projections of our human brains.

He particularly attacks the use of theory in science which tends to be translated into “laws”. He clarifies that no such “laws” exist and sets out the case for a return to observation and experimentation instead. I really enjoy his writing style and some passages particularly stood out for me.

For centuries we have been measuring all sorts of things but generally only recording the results we expected and ignoring the rest.

This captures two of my main objections to so much of medical practice – the reduction of human beings to measurements and the belief that the particular measurements which are made allow us to completely understand a patient and their illness. Although I have heard of a medical teacher say “Don’t listen to patients. They lie all the time. You can only trust the results.”, my own experience of doctoring couldn’t be more diametrically opposed from that view. ONLY the patient’s experience can be trusted. Measurements, sadly, frequently mislead, and ALWAYS need to be set in the context of this individual patient.

Life saving claims for medicines need careful examination. Drugs do certain things which are beneficial to the human body in disease, but they inevitably have other effects which can be deleterious or even fatal.

I wish more doctors made that more clear every time they write out a prescription.

He’s even better on physics and cosmology.

For me, the two most important things he has to say are, firstly –

Science gives us theories that purport to explain how the universe works. This breeds confidence in scientists who then go on to do things that carry certain risks. These risks are rationalised away on the basis of existing theory. Even if our Heretic is wrong in saying that all theory is actually erroneous, history shows us that most or perhaps all theories ultimately prove incorrect. Our perceptions and calculations of risk are therefore also likely to be erroneous. Science generally also assumes a high degree of control over experimental conditions and again this faith seems misplaced. While we may routinely underestimate risk, we also routinely overestimate our ability to control it.

This is SUCH an important point. He’s arguing for a greater use of the “precautionary principle”. Instead of assuming that everything we produce, all our chemicals, all our technologies are safe until proven otherwise, we should be more wary. What we need is a whole lot more humility and the ability to confess that we really don’t know very much at all. And we certainly way overestimate our ability to control things. It’s the arrogance of believers which frightens me most – people who are so sure that they, and only they are right – I’m on the side of the Heretics in Barrie’s terms. It’s likely that what we think we know at any point will be proven not to be quite right in a few years time (or, indeed, to be completely wrong).

The second important conclusion he reaches is that there are no fundamental laws of the universe…..apart from, maybe, two –

As well as a possible law for uniqueness, the Heretic is open to the possibility of a second law governing complexity, namely that it increases with time.

Well, there he puts his finger on what I’ve written about many times on this blog – that the most important characteristics of the universe are its tendency to create uniqueness and its trend of ever increasing complexity.

Take those two undeniable features on board and try and practice science or medicine by measuring, generalising and trying to control the future! Good luck with that.

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It strikes me that the practice of Medicine (I’m specifically referring to the world of Medicine for humans here), begins and ends with a relationship between human beings.

I’ll just focus on the doctor-patient relationship here, because that’s how I spent my working life. But I suspect that much of what is relevant to this relationship is also true for other health care workers, and perhaps even in other areas of human life.

When I say the practice of Medicine begins and ends with a relationship between human beings, I mean that the whole, unique person who is the patient has to be understood, cared about and attended to, by the whole unique person who is the doctor. Both individuals are important. I think this is partly why there are no doctors who are the best doctors for everyone, and I think it explains how in a group General Practice, each of the doctors in the partnership will have a specific loyal cohort of patients who always seek a consultation with that one particular doctor.

I also think this means that the whole person must always be considered. Anything less is reduced, and anything reduced is less than human.

In this context, I recently read “A General Theory of Love”, by Drs Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini and Richard Lannon. [ISBN 978-0-375-70922-7]. This book describes the model of the triune brain, which you might have come across elsewhere. (My introduction to that model was Dan Seigel, and later, Rick Hanson). It’s the observation that we have three brain regions – the brain stem, which is responsible for survival, and is found even in reptiles (henceforth to be known as the “reptilian brain”), the limbic system, which is responsible for memory processing and emotions (called the “mammalian brain”, because all mammals have this part), and the neocortex, which is massively developed in humans and seems to give us the capacities for abstract thought, conscious decision making and rational analysis.

In “A General Theory of Love”, Thomas Lewis and his colleagues focus on the limbic system – they describe in detail how this part of the brain helps us to “feel” other people’s feelings. It’s the kind of phenomenon that others call “heart feelings”. Without this part we’d have the reptilian survival strategies or the cold, analytic distancing of the neocortex. Let me be really clear here – this is a simplification and human beings are a lot more complicated than that. But this is a useful simplification which clarifies certain truths about what it is to be a human being.

In this post, I want to just bring to your attention some of the points the authors make when taking this perspective on the practice of Medicine, because I think health care is in a dire and degenerating situation in the world.

The last century saw a two-part transformation in the practice of medicine. First, an illness beset the relationship between doctor and patient, then radical restructuring attached the residual integrity of that attenuated tie.

I think the illness and the radical restructuring they refer to developed from a general reductive de-humanising of health care. Iain McGilchrist has shown how a “left hemisphere approach” has come to dominate society and I find that explanation helpful. Lewis says

American medicine has come to rely on intellect as the agency of cure. The neocortical brain has enjoyed a meteoric ascendancy within medicine even as the limbic star has fallen into disfavour.

Whilst this focus is a little different, the basic point is actually the same. By coming to rely on data, figures, statistics and techniques, we have reduced the human-ness of medicine. We’ve increasingly denigrated the patient’s narrative, the individual’s subjective experience, and the place of heart felt caring.

The limbic brain has a crucial role to play in attachment, and Lewis describes attachment theory along with the physical and social consequences of disordered attachment incredibly clearly. And here’s one of the most important points in this book – the physical reality and hence importance of relationships, emotions and attachment –

Medicine has lost sight of this truth: attachment is physiology

The radical restructuring they refer to is seen throughout Western Medicine – its the rise of bureaucracy. We see it in the proliferation of protocols and guidelines, of the prioritisation of measurement – what others have referred to as “Taylorism 2.0” (the modern equivalent of Taylor’s “scientific management”) – at the expense of what cannot be measured – the lived experiences of the patients and the health care workers.

Good physicians have always known that the relationship heals. Indeed good doctors existed before any modern therapeutic instruments did…

For many years, the medical community hasn’t believed that anything substantive travels between doctor and patient unless it goes down a tube or through a syringe.

They neatly sum up their thesis with

medicine was once mammalian and is now reptilian

Corporations and organisations have taken the high ground imposing their limits, their rules and regulations on those who try to care.

A corporation has customers, not patients; it has fiscal relationships not limbic ones.

The use of terms “customers”, “clients” and “consumers” in the area of health care has always disturbed me. Now I think I understand more clearly why!

I concur with this conclusion –

Before it is safe to go back to the doctor, a mammal will have to be in charge. And before that can happen, our physicians will have to recapture their belief in the substantive nature of emotional life and the determination to fight for it.

I’m not sure I’ve heard any politician, manager or profession leader say this so clearly – the problems facing health care are not ones of efficiency, targets and “better” guidelines. The problem is we need to make health care more human.

We need Medicine based on love, care and attention….where the heart is the keystone.

 

 

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I have a life long love affair with books. My grandpa used to read to me when I was young, working his way through books like “Tales of a Grandfather” by Walter Scott, and collections of myths and fairy tales. I’ve always been intensely curious and had a fascination for both the local “reference library” and for story books from the “lending library”. Goodness knows how many books I’ve bought in my life, and I really don’t know how many I still have. I do know that most people who have come to my house seem surprised by just how many books there are, so I guess I have more than most people do.

I love bookshops, old and new, and I adore browsing around the booksellers at fairs and markets. It was a market like the one in this photo which caught my imagination whilst on holiday in France many years ago, and probably seeded my idea to retire when I did, and come to live in France. I had decided I wanted to live part of my life not just in another physical part of the world with a different geography, climate and history, but I wanted to live in a different culture. In particular I wanted to immerse myself in the language and literature of France…..it seemed to offer both different ways of seeing and understanding the world, and to open up whole areas of thought and observation which was unknown to me.

But I didn’t switch away from English to French. I still read a lot more English than I do French. I’ve been here just over six years now and it’s fulfilling all I’d hoped for. Of course, with the pandemic even bookshops were closed, and certainly markets and fairs were cancelled, but that hasn’t slowed down my reading.

There are a couple of very famous French books I’d recommend to anyone – they are so famous that they’ve been translated into many languages so chances are you won’t need to learn French to be able to read them. They are “The Little Prince” by Saint Exupery. It’s a brilliant, thought provoking story, beautifully illustrated. Many, many years ago I found a book in a bookshop in Aix en Provence. It’s called “Donner un sens à l’existence” by Jean-Philippe Ravoux. He’s a professor of philosophy in Aix, and the subtitle is “ou pourquoi Le Petit Prince est le plus grand traité de métaphysique du XXe siècle” – so, it’s, roughly, “Making sense of existence” – “or why The Little Prince is the greatest work of metaphysics in the 20th century”. It’s a brilliant little book, which draws on Saint Exupery’s story to enable the reader to explore a philosophy of life. I love it. Sadly, I don’t think it’s ever been translated into any other languages. However, don’t despair, just read The Little Prince. I really, really recommend it.

The second very famous French book which I recommend is Montaigne’s Essays. OK, the full collection is HUGE, and the original in Old French, beyond me. But I have copies in both French and English. However, what I’d recommend to absolutely anyone is Sarah Bakewell’s “How to Live. A Life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer”. It’s brilliant. It’s really an easy read and I think it makes an utterly fabulous introduction to the life and work of Montaigne. The man was a genius and his essays have been translated into many languages and still stand the test of time.

If I really get into recommending books I’ll never stop! But I thought I’d just share these two works with you today – because they continue to be my favourites, I have never stopped re-reading them, and you are likely to be able to find translations into your own language.

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I think I first became aware of research suggesting that even a view of natural surroundings could be good for us in the paper about recovery times after surgery. The findings showed that post-op patients required less painkillers, had less post-op complications and required shorter stays in hospital if their bed had a view outside to a natural environment (as opposed to no view, or a view of a wall).

Then I came across the Japanese concept of “forest bathing” and work from a university in Tokyo which showed that spending a few minutes in a forest could increase the levels of helpful immune chemicals in the blood.

Today I read a paper about “Attention Restoration Theory” suggesting that spending time in nature improves the concentration levels of children with ADHD. This “ART” concept describes two kinds of attention – an easy, effortless, “bottom up” (neurologically speaking) attention to the environment, and an effortful, focused “top down” attention which we use when deliberately concentrating on something. We use the former when gazing out of a window to the natural environment, and the latter when trying to do a difficult mental task. The research study I read split children into three groups, putting one group in a classroom with no windows, one in a classroom with windows looking out onto a bare, built environment, and a third group in a classroom with windows looking out onto nature. They gave them all the same difficult lesson, took a five minute break where they stayed in their classroom, then tested their concentration after the break. Only the third group, the one in the classroom with a natural view, improved their concentration.

One of the things I like about this paper is that it showed two things – that turning our awareness towards the natural world is good for us, and, that the way to improve concentration wasn’t to “concentrate harder” but to build in a break where the mind could drift into a more natural state of open awareness.

Well, you know, I don’t really need any scientific research or “evidence” to convince me I like to have a view of nature from my window, or that I enjoy walking in forests, parks or along beaches, but, hey, it’s still good to learn about some of the measurable effects of open awareness and engagement with natural environments.

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The phrase “The Floating World” is a beautiful one. I thought it was quite magical the very first time I came across it. I think where I first read it was in Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel, “An Artist of the Floating World”, a book which I still think has the ability to put me into an entirely different state of mind.

The original Japanese term for “The Floating World” is Ukiyo.

Ukiyo means “floating/fleeting/transient world”.

In the past it referred to a “pleasure seeking” urban culture but in modern usage

“the term ukiyo is used to refer to a state of mind emphasising living in the moment, detached from the difficulties of life.”

I really like the phrase and, in particular, I like the modern usage of the term. Living in the moment, detached from the difficulties of life, sounds pretty appealing to me. But there’s a strange paradox there, isn’t there? From one perspective I think the advice to be present, to be really aware of the time, place and circumstances which we call “here and now” is the only way to really engage with reality. After all, if our minds are busy wandering off down memory lane, or busy creating fantasies and fears about the future, then life, itself, is passing us by.

But on the other hand, what’s this “detached from the difficulties of life”? Is that a good piece of advice? Is that not escapism? Well, I suppose it could be escapism. T S Eliot said humans beings couldn’t bear too much reality after all. The entertainment industry and the psychoactive drug industry are both heavily focused on detaching people “from the difficulties of life”. Didn’t the Romans say the way to rule a people was through “bread and circuses”? In other words, make sure they aren’t hungry and keep them distracted with entertainment. Well, seems to me that’s still the most used strategy by those who wish to wield power over others in this world – whether they be politicians, businessmen or members of the 0.01%.

But isn’t there also a long, well established teaching about the power of non-attachment to reduce suffering in the world? Actually, I don’t think “non-attachment” and being “detached” are the same thing, but I won’t go into that in any more detail here.

My dilemma is how to be fully present, fully engaged with my life, moment by moment, yet not drown under the weight of difficulties, my own, those of others, or those of society.

Well, here’s where the floating world idea comes back strong. Look again at the ways of translating “ukiyo” – floating, fleeting, transient. Let me pick up that last word first. I have no doubt at all that an awareness of transience heightens my senses of delight and wonder. I relish the seasons of the new fruits and vegetables. I’m glad that those seasons don’t last all year round. I love to see the migrating birds arrive in my garden, and knowing that they will only be here for a few weeks before the fly south again, somehow, intensifies my delight in seeing them. I’m already looking forward to the hummingbird moths and the different coloured butterflies which will be attracted to the buddleia bushes in the garden once they flower. Knowing that we don’t live forever makes it all the more important to engage with life every single day…….not to run away from it, or pretend it doesn’t exist, but to fully engage with it.

Ultimately, this idea of a floating world is a counsel to “flow” through life, and that, I would say, is one of my highest aspirations. I want to experience the flow of Life through the cells and fibres of my being. I want to experience the flow of Nature, of existence, of the Universe, through the creation of every single unique moment and experience of my life.

I like it. This notion of a “floating world”.

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This is another of my most favourite photos. I took it one day from where I was living back then, just outside of Stirling, in Central Scotland. The largest mountain here, whose peak is hidden behind the dense, black cloud, is Ben Ledi. I’ve taken many, many photos of Ben Ledi because when I lived there and looked out towards it every morning I realised it didn’t look the same two days in a row, and that surprised me. I suppose I thought of mountains as unchanging, or, at best, as changing very, very slowly over millennia (although maybe they formed over extremely short periods of time as the Earth’s crust heaved and shook, and deep layers of ice flowed down from the North Pole).

When I was struck by just how different Ben Ledi appeared to me every single day, I realised that “the mountain” wasn’t just a piece of rock sticking up above the rest of the land. I realised that my experience of looking at the mountain was formed by all the elements…..the rocks, the plant life, the sunlight, the rain, the wind and the clouds. That realisation brought about a new understanding for me about the embedded nature of everything that exists. We don’t see “any thing” in isolation. We see whatever we are looking at in its dynamic, complex web of interactions and relationships with the rest of the world in which it exists. And we see whatever we are looking at within a relationship too – the relationship between me and the mountain – and that as I changed each day, so did my perception of the mountain.

This particular day we had pretty dramatic weather. You can tell from the colour and density of that cloud which fills the top half of the image that it was a day of rain and storms. The cloud base, as you can see, was low. It completely obscured the top of the mountain. But then suddenly the Sun broke through and sent these searchlight beams of intense, vivid light, below the cloud, and yes, even below the mountain……It looked as if the ground itself had caught fire!

How unusual – to see the sunlight BELOW the mountain! To see the sunlight BELOW the heavy black clouds!

That inversion of the normal reminds me of the famous image printed on the classic tarot cards – the image of the “Hanged Man”. I’ve read that some think that image relates to the Norse myth of Odin hanging upside down. Here’s a passage I remember about that myth (from Rachel Pollack’s commentary on Haindl’s paintings)

As an older and wiser version of the God Odin, the Hanged Man sacrifices the Emperor’s desire to dominate the world around him. He reverses his previous beliefs, and so gives up what other people find important: success, power, pride, the ego’s sense of being unique and special and separate from the rest of the universe. He gains understanding, peace, union with the Earth, the joy of life.

It also reminds me of the Leonard Cohen line – “there’s a crack, a crack, in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”

Finally, as I thought of a title for this post, I came up with “The Sun under the Mountain”, which immediately sounded like a hexagram from the I Ching. I looked it up – “Ken” is the trigram for the mountain, and “Li” is the one for the sun or fire. Ken over Li gives the hexagram number 22 – which goes by the name – “Grace”.

Isn’t that fabulous?

Maybe this image brings up other stories, lines from poems or songs for you. Maybe it evokes other memories or sensations. Does it?

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There’s a bird reserve near Nimes, in the South of France, where you can see flamingos. I’ve visited it several times, and each time I take a host of photos. They are SUCH beautiful creatures!

I’m reading Gary Lachman’s “Lost Knowledge of the Imagination” just now, and this morning read these lines about beauty –

We perceive beauty, the Neo-Platonic philosopher Plotinus said, when we perceive something that is in accord with our soul.

Knowledge of beauty is knowledge of soul. It is self-knowledge, and when we discover beauty we are discovering part of ourselves.

The knowledge we receive in this way is not of fact but of quality, of value and meaning.

We perceive beauty, are open to its presence, through a change in the quality of our consciousness. Only like can know like. We must have beauty within ourselves to see it in the world.

I hadn’t thought of beauty this way before. When I read it I thought about the old adage of “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” which always seemed to me to be a statement that beauty was in fact a matter of taste. But this perspective from Gary Lachman describes that sort of third way interpretation which I like so much. It’s not that beauty is “outside” us, as some kind of measurable object. I think we all know that. Beauty can’t be reduced to data, can’t be captured by mere facts. But neither is it just a matter of taste, as if it is entirely an experience of the individual rendering the rest of the real world unimportant.

The third way is that beauty is a resonance. It’s a harmony. And therefore it emerges in the lived quality of an experience, of an engagement, of a relationship. We need both parts of the relationship to be present…..something “within” us, let’s call that “the soul”, and something “outwith” us, let’s call that “the other”.

We know instantly when we find something, or someone beautiful. We don’t need to way it up, analyse the inputs, stimuli and signals. We just know. We know because our inner being resonates with whatever it is we are looking at….or it doesn’t. When it does, we have the sensation of joy, delight, and gratitude which accompanies all engagements with beauty.

Beauty, I reckon, is good for us. It’s good for our souls. It’s good for our consciousness. It’s good for our health.

So, here you are, a few photos in this post, all taken during one visit to the flamingos. I find them beautiful. I hope you do too. And I hope that appreciation of their beauty nourishes your soul, warms your heart, adds some positive quality to this present moment.

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“Special” – there’s a difficult word – when someone claims they are special they might be claiming that they are the exception which should be respected – that they don’t need to follow the same rules as the rest of the community. This “exceptionalism” is the root of a lot of trouble in the world. The danger with “special” is that others are seen as “not special”.

But I am a great fan of this word, and I think we fail to grasp it enough. This Robin is special to me. He lives in “my garden”. I see him almost every day. We know that Robins are territorial birds and I don’t ever, ever see a flock of Robins in my garden. I can’t be sure that the Robin I see today is the exact same Robin that I saw yesterday, but I assume he is. There are other birds like this near me. There’s a “Little Owl” who lives under the roof of my neighbour’s barn. He often sits on the roof at dusk and watches me as I close the wooden shutters over the windows of the house. He doesn’t fly away when he sees me. I’ve become familiar to him. You could say that we have become special to each other. There’s also a Redstart which returns to this garden every Spring and flies away for the Winter. We have had several back and forth whistling conversations together, the Redstart and I, and when I hear his call again in the Spring I know that Winter is over. When my grand-daughter hears him she says “There’s your friend, grandpa”.

In “The Little Prince”, the boy claims that his rose is “special”, that she is different from all the other roses. He cares for her more than he does for all the other roses. And there’s the key – what makes that one rose special is the attention and time he has invested in her, watering her, protecting her from the grazing sheep, and so on. It’s the time, attention, and emotional investment which makes this rose genuinely “special” for him.

I think everyone is “special”, and contrary to what I wrote above about exceptionalism, in my experience, in the consulting room, one to one, with patient after patient, I found that it was way, way too common for people to fail to realise just how special they are. In fact, they might have been bombarded with messages which have said the exact opposite for years – “you are nothing”, “you are worthless”, “you don’t matter”.

Those messages are cruel and they are wrong.

Every single human being is special, in the sense that they are unique. There are no two of us with identical bodies and minds, no two of us born in identical places, at identical times, to identical families. There are no two of us with identical life stories. In all my four decades of work as a doctor I never heard the same life story twice.

“Special” works when we embrace the paradox of “special” with humility. But there’s something else, and it comes back to what makes us unique – what makes us unique is our connections. Not our differences. I am not special because I am different from everyone else. I am special because of the particular, vast, complex web of connections and relationships that I have, that I’ve had, and that I will have.

One more thing to add here – love.

It’s not just our relationships which make both you and I special. It’s the relationships which we invest with love and care which make both you and I special.

Have you ever noticed that? Just like The Little Prince, the more we care, the more we love, the more compassion we have, the more special others become.

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This pandemic is giving us a really clear experience of living within limits. We experience that as a series of constraints. It’s frustrating and uncomfortable. We want to be free, don’t we? Free to do whatever we want, whenever we want, without a care in the world.

Wouldn’t that be bliss?

But, wait, isn’t that kind of naive? Because there is no such thing as living without limits. We are never free to do absolutely anything we could imagine or desire. That’s a fantasy. Or even a delusion.

I found myself thinking that as I looked at this old photo of a thin layer of cloud hugging the contours of Ben Ledi.

I have just read “Ou suis-je?” by Bruno Latour where he describes some of the limits we live. One of those is what scientists call “the critical zone” – which is the space in which Life can exist. It’s an astonishingly narrow space. You can probe down into the Earth about ten kilometres and you’re down to rock where nothing lived, and you can soar up into Space about ten kilometres and beyond that the atmosphere becomes so thin nothing can live there.

The actual numbers aren’t that important. What is amazing is that all of Life exists within a very, very narrow zone. I don’t know if you’ve seen a photo of the Earth from Space which captures the thinness of the atmosphere. Let me find it for you.

There you are.

Well that’s the image which came to my mind as I looked at my photo of Ben Ledi.

We all live within these very narrow limits. We share, with every other living organism, this astonishingly thin “critical zone”.

The fact that living with limitations has become such an intense experience for so many during the pandemic has woken us up. We live in One interconnected world, a world of precious and limited resources. Now we have to learn to change the way we live – to change away from consumption and destruction to sustainability and creativity.

The pandemic has also shone a strong light on inequality showing us, perhaps more clearly than ever, that too many people are struggling to live with financial and social limitations which make them most vulnerable to serious illness and death.

So maybe now is a good time to think about the reality of living with limits and start to make the changes which increase the chances of better lives for more of us, rather than keeping our eyes closed and hoping for the impossible.

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