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I came across a discussion about identity recently, and as identity politics and populism seems to be to the fore in many countries these days, it got me thinking – who am I, really?

A few years ago I was in Marseille and these incredible sculptures were installed around the “Vieux Port”. They really grabbed my attention. Here’s just one of them (see the photo at the start of this post) showing what I immediately perceived as a person. He’s not all there, of course, but we fill in the gaps to make him whole, don’t we? Well, it struck me that that’s what we do all the time.

At least once a week in my consulting room a patient on their first visit, after telling me their story over the course of an hour, would say “I’ve never told anyone what I’ve just told you. Never.” And they’d often add “I feel you know me so well”. It was good feedback, and it reassured me I was on the right track and had established a good therapeutic relationship. But I often thought, “Actually, I only met you an hour ago, and I think it takes a lifetime to get to know someone. I think we can spend most of our lives with a partner but we never really completely know them. I’m still getting to know myself, for heaven’s sake, and I suspect I’ll be doing that for the rest of my life”. Sometimes, I’d say that out loud, but other times, I’d just think it. I think it still.

Here’s me at Primary school –

And here’s me about sixty years later –

Is this the same person?

From my perspective it certainly is! I have the experience of a continuity of Self. I know these are both photos of me, but, boy, have I changed!?

So, who am I, really?

Am I this body?

It’s pretty obvious, even from just those two photos, that this body has changed a lot over the decades. Our bodies are made up of over 30 trillion cells (a number too big for us to imagine, and that’s just an estimate because nobody has been able to count them). Almost all of these cells live much shorter lives than I have done. Some cells live only a few days, other weeks or months, and only a minority last a full lifetime. So, it’s pretty certain that only a minority of the cells in this body I have now are the same ones I had in that earlier photo.

Interesting choice of verb there…..”had” – do I have a body? If so, who is this “I” who has this body? I’m tempted to say, no, I don’t “have” this body, I “am” this body. But there’s the trap, huh? Because if the body is always changing, am “I” always changing too? Where does my sense of continuity of being come from? And I am more than my body aren’t I?

What more am I?

Scientists have discovered and put forward at least three other elements of identity by studying genetics, the “the human microbiome” and epigenetics.

For a while the “Selfish gene” idea gained a lot of traction. “The Human Genome Project” was completed in 2013 and there were great claims for it at the time – a bright new future of “personalised medicine” based on your gene sequences was heralded. Some claimed it would lead to the elimination of a host of diseases. Richard Dawkins, whose book entitled “The Selfish Gene”, popularised the idea that our essence, our core, the “real” “I” wasn’t the body, it wasn’t the mind, it was the double helix spirals of gene sequences….our DNA.

Things haven’t turned out the way the great gene believers imagined however. It seems we can’t be reduced to the level of chains of little molecules. We are more than that. What more?

Well, next up was an exploration of the cells which are part of us but aren’t us – all the bacteria, viruses and other micro-organisms which live on and in our bodies but don’t have the same DNA as we do. It turns out there are at least as many of them as there are “our own” cells. “The Human Microbiome Project” was launched four years after the end of “The Human Genome Project” and by 2016 a lot had been discovered, but it’s still not enough to pin down who we are.

Have these projects helped me to answer the question “Who am I, really?” Not really, but it does make me deeply aware of the fact that I’m not so much an object as some scientific models have suggested. I’m certainly not a fixed entity. Instead, it seems I’m a constant, lively, energetic flow of cells.

It makes me think I’m more like a river than a stone! I’m certainly not like a machine.

But wait, it gets more complicated yet – following on from the discovery of the “genetic codes” researchers discovered that not all the genes are active all the time. In fact they switch on or off all the time. They’re more like music than they are computer code. What presses the keys to play the tunes? What determines which genes are expressed, and when? It seems a whole host of “environmental factors” are involved. You aren’t determined by your genes. They only represent some kind of potential. Whether they become active or not depends on the life your live – the environment you live in and the events and experiences of your life.

We don’t know what all the factors are, or how they work….. “The Human Epigenetic Project” anyone? Well, what do you know? There IS “The Human Epigenome Project“! A consortium exploring at least one of the links between genes and the environment.

So, if my body isn’t all there is to me, if my genes aren’t all there is to me, if my microbiome isn’t all there is to me, then what else is there?

My thoughts? My feelings? My memories, dreams and imaginings? The stories of my life?

Tick “all of the above”. (There are volumes of books which have been, and are still to be, written on each of these)

But there’s a vivid red thread running through all these observations – connections.

Who I am, really, will never be answered by considering myself in isolation. It seems I am a flow. Constantly changing, constantly receiving materials, cells, energies and information from the world in which I exist, constantly sending out materials, cells, energies and information, and constantly changing myself and the world in the process.

My story is not just my story. It’s our story. You and me. Every relationship, every encounter, every exchange, shapes, changes and moulds me, and, you, and the planet we live on.

That excites me.

It’s a new story. It’s the story of evolution, of emergence, of connections, contexts and change.

The answer to “Who am I, really?” won’t be found by looking at smaller and smaller parts. It’ll be found in experiences, in performances, in events, in relationships and interactions. It’ll be found in the unique stories that only I, and only you, can tell. It’ll be found in what we share and how we relate.

Identity is fluid, relative and dynamic.

Maybe we should think of it more as what we share, than what divides us.

 

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One of the things I love about living here in Cognac is the availability of different, fresh, locally produced food. I popped into one of the market-style shops here this week and discovered it was “Fete du Pommes” week – a celebration of apples. Because, of course it’s autumn now here and apples are available in abundance. I know I can go into one of the big name supermarkets and select a plastic bag of shiny “perfect” same-size, same-shape apples of a big name variety (“Pink Lady” anyone?) which have been shipped here all the way from the Southern Hemisphere but look what I can get when I go local instead?

I selected four different varieties, none of which I’ve heard of before, and placed them in the cardboard box from the stack at the entrance. Even within each of the many varieties available I could choose big apples, small apples, round apples, wonky apples! What a delight!

Diversity is a core feature of Nature.

There are no two of us the same. The Universe celebrates diversity by bringing to life millions and millions of unique plants, creatures and forms.

Nature abhors mono-cultures. They die out, taking the richness of the soil with them.

I delight in the diversity of human beings. During my four decades of work as a clinical doctor I looked forward to the start of each week when the next patient in the door would tell me an utterly unique story, one I’d never heard in my life before.

I wonder if it’s possible to respect uniqueness and diversity if Clinical Practice is determined by guidelines and protocols for patients who are even more diverse than the locally grown apples in the market.

There’s a beauty in diversity, as you can see from my photo, but it’s a fundamental tenet of reality too….

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Here’s this year’s crop of pumpkins from the “potager” (veggie garden).

We don’t have a big plot and having lived in a top floor apartment for almost 20 years before emigrating from Scotland to France, we are pretty much beginner gardeners. I love it though.

Last year we planted seeds of several different pumpkin varieties and really come harvest time we had way too much! Still got some roasted pumpkin purée in the freezer for this coming winter’s soup. So, this year we decided to cut way back and planted just three. The butternut squash you can see on the left there, the pretty little orange ones, and that pale green one. (I’m afraid I’m still terrible with names. I could find out if you asked me, but I tend not to bother getting to know their names)

But wait, I hear you say, what about the big guy?! The one in the front with the nobbly bits on! Well, he grew all by himself.

I learned how to turn grass cuttings and garden waste into compost and have been spreading it on the veggie patch each year for about three years now. Last year we read about the “No dig” method of gardening, so took that advice and just spread the compost thickly over the surface of the plot last winter.

Well, clearly there was a pumpkin seed in there, cos this plant began to grow. And it grew, and it grew and it grew! Huge thick green prickly stems, miles of thin, tightly spiralled creepers which caught onto to anything they could reach, and it spread along one side of the patch, turned down a second side, then along a third side, before heading back to its origin. All the time winding itself into the tomato plants, the courgettes, and anything else that was growing there. But despite all this green growth, and believe me there was a LOT of it, it produced just one gourd.

But what a gourd! Look at it! It’s the biggest of the lot!

So, it seems, the garden is better at producing it’s own crops than I am at managing it! Who knew??

I think that’s one of the things I like best about the garden – the surprises, the number of times it makes me wonder, stirs up feelings of awe, and fills me with joy! Then fills me with the tastiest vegetables I’ve ever eaten. Seriously who knew tomatoes could be so varied and tasty? That cucumber was so refreshing and delicious, that radishes were so SPICY! I could go on…….but I won’t!

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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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“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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One of the signature plants here in the Charente is the Hollyhock (“rose trémière”). They are astonishing plants which surge upwards of two metres and they produce glorious brightly coloured flowers. It’s not just their rate of growth and their ultimate towering stature which impresses me though.

What really attracts me to them is how surprising they are. You never know, from year to year, just where one is going to grow, you never know which ones are going to grow to the greatest heights and you have no way of knowing just when they are going to produce these fabulous flowers, not only at the tops of their stems, but apparently randomly along the length of each plant.

In a sense, I see them as the local Charentaise version of the Japanese cherry blossoms. In Japan the appearance of the cherry blossom is much anticipated and celebrated. More than their beauty, the blossom is a symbol of transience which inspires people to “savour the day” – because, like the blossom, nothing in life will last. It’s the transience of the cherry blossom which makes it so meaningful.

Well, for me, I equally anticipate the appearance of the hollyhocks and their glorious, towering flowers. I think because each and every one of these amazing plants stands alone, they inspire me to think about transience in a similar way to cherry blossom, but they do something else too. They remind me, every time, of how the future path of any individual life is so unpredictable.

Why should that be something to relish?

The essence of my working life as a generalist medical doctor was to meet with patients one at a time. I’d look forward to every Monday morning because it would be the start of a working week filled with people who would come into my room, sit down, and tell me the most amazing, unique stories.

No two people told the same story.

Understanding a patient’s story is a way of helping them to make sense of what’s happening in their life. It’s also part of what doctors call making a diagnosis. I always saw diagnosis as a level of understanding, not a conclusion, not a label, not a category to place a patient into, not a starting point in a protocol, but the beginning of an understanding.

With that initial understanding would come some sense of the past. In other words it could be the start of making sense of how the present illness had come about, what events and circumstances had contributed to it. But what also came was an opening up of a set of possible/potential futures. Doctors call such an analysis a prognosis. I’d look ahead, taking what knowledge and experience I had of people, of disease, of the typical life history of certain illnesses, and see this unique, particular patient in that context.

Doctors have to be careful when making a prognosis. It’s always only an estimate, an informed expectation. But at the level of the particular, the unique, the individual patient, the path ahead would only be revealed over time.

Remembering that kept reminding me to be humble.

Remembering that kept reminding me that in Life, we never have ALL the information. We always make our understandings and our predictions on the basis of partial, and limited information. There will ALWAYS be more to discover, more to learn, more to learn about everyone.

There’s a fairly new term in biology and philosophy to describe how the future unfolds this way. It’s called “emergence”. Emergence is the development of new patterns, new behaviours, new structures, which could not have been predicted in detail from the prior knowledge. It’s typical of all living organisms.

The individual hollyhock plants remind me of that. They demonstrate this “emergence” beautifully.

Their daily growth astonishes me. Their ultimate size astounds me. Their particular flowers amaze me. I know each seed holds this kind of potential, but I have no way of knowing which particular seed will grow a plant of this actual size, in this particular place in the garden, the driveway, the street, or the roadside.

See, for me, not knowing what lies ahead isn’t primarily a frightening thing. Sure, it’s possible to begin to imagine all the things which can go wrong, to press the fear and panic buttons, but that’s rarely very helpful. Instead, I found, and I still find, I look forward primarily with hope and a positive expectation, and if things don’t turn out that way, I reassess, take stock and consider a different future. It’s a process, not an algorithm leading to an end point. It’s a way of living, deepening and broadening knowledge and understanding at the level of the individual whilst looking forward, with realistic hope, as we interact with, and adapt to, the present.

It’s great to be astonished every day.

I love to be amazed and delighted at the unfolding present. I find it thrilling to witness the future making itself known through this phenomenon of emergence.

Hollyhocks do all that for me. Are there particular plants which are special for you? And why?

 

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Just over a month ago we had a brief but intense storm which did a bit of damage, including snapping the stem of this tomato plant. Most of the plant was at right angles to its base, but there was a thin sliver of stem still connected. So I got out a rather unorthodox gardening tool – gaffer tape – and taped it up around the break. (Reminded me of putting plasters on broken arms and legs!) And look at it now!

We had the first of the ripe tomatoes the other day and they were delicious.

Now part of me is just amazed at the resilience of plants, but mostly it makes me think about a fundamental characteristic of all living creatures, including human beings.

A new concept in science, and biology, started circulating a couple of decades ago. It goes by the name of “complex adaptive systems“. Basically, this applies to all forms of life because they all have vast interconnected networks of cells and molecules. When you get these vast networks certain characteristics appear, and, in the case of living organisms that includes “self-making capacity”, termed “autopoiesis” by Maturna and Varela. That means the ability to make itself, which encompasses growth, repair and reproduction. I find it a more useful term than the old “homeostasis” used in biology and Medicine, which suggested the maintenance of a stable, internal environment, but didn’t capture the key features of repair, growth and reproduction.

There’s an older term, not used very much in Medicine (I don’t know why), which is the ability to “self-heal”. I think self-healing is just an aspect of autopoiesis.

This is exactly what the story of this tomato plant demonstrates. The capacity of a living organism to heal, to repair, and to grow again – given the right support. And here’s the nub of what I want to say – that’s what we doctors actually do – we support self-healing. At least, that’s what we do when we don’t cause harm!

Yet it’s common to think that doctors can heal, that they can cure diseases. And it’s common for people to believe that drugs do that. They heal. They cure. Except they don’t.

Neither doctors nor drugs heal or cure.

What they do (optimally) is support self-healing. It is ALWAYS the organism which heals itself. There is no healing, no cure, without autopoiesis doing what it does. Which isn’t to say it can always do that all by itself. Nope, it might need help. That help, however, is not a substitute for self-repair and self-healing.

Good treatments can do one of two things – they can nurture the conditions for self-healing, or, they can directly stimulate some aspect of it.

Maybe it would be good to remind ourselves of that. The power of healing lies in the natural functions of the complex adaptive system. I think it’s worthwhile considering that when undertaking any form of treatment. Is this treatment going to nurture the conditions for my self-healing, or harm them? Is it going to directly stimulate some aspect of my self-healing, and, if not, then what is it doing?

Of course, there’s also a lot more to think about than just treatments. What nurtures the conditions for autopoiesis in my life? And what impairs it? That takes us into a whole related area of the environment, of food, movement, relationships, adequate housing and finance……what comes up for you when you start to consider that?

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