Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘narrative’ Category

There was a craze hundreds of years ago for “chimera” – originally an idea from Greek mythology, medieval peoples took it a whole stage further and created all kinds of bizarre animals.

The chimera is an invented animal made up of the parts from other animals…so maybe a human head, a lion’s body, wings, a serpent tail etc. You can see lots of them carved onto the sides of old churches, and they illustrated old texts as well.

What do you think of them? Are they horrifying? (I think they were often intended to be so) or are they fun? Fascinating?

They just aren’t “natural” are they? You would never imagine that a creature like this existed anywhere. Maybe, once upon a time, some people did. Maybe they believed that they lived in unexplored regions…..remember the old maps with the unmapped areas labelled “Here Be Monsters”?

Probably the commonest reaction to them is a sort of disgust. We find them a bit repulsive….even the more beautiful ones!

I wonder if both chimera and genetically modified plants and animals touch that same core discomfort in us. There’s something a bit unsettling about cutting some DNA out of one creature and splicing it into another, don’t you think?

I think it’s no surprise that many people want GM foods labelled so they can choose not to buy them if they don’t want to. I think it’s not a surprise either that many people think there are complex ethical challenges to be addressed, and a need for intense oversight and control of the whole business of mixing DNA from creature into another……

Read Full Post »

I saw this a few years back in the town of Saintes, about a half hour drive from where I live. You have to agree this is a pretty impressive attempt to bar the door! There was nobody going to go through there easily!

The trouble is, as we can now see, that the rest of the building fell down. And there’s not much value in a locked door when the other three walls have disappeared! There’s definitely a story here, but I don’t know it. I mean, who went to such great lengths to bar this door? And why? And what happened to the whole building? Setting all that aside though, I think this image inspires a couple of streams of thought.

You know the phrase about barring the barn door after the horse has bolted? Well, that’s the first thing that came to mind when I looked at this photo today. Throughout this pandemic authorities have been playing catch up. Some countries have been slower than others, (and, goodness me, some countries still haven’t got a grip!), but everyone has been trying to learn as we all live this thing. Still, it’s often felt that lockdowns have come too late, or have been too sloppy, that there hasn’t been enough Personal Protective Equipment for those who need it, that testing and tracing have been slow to get off the ground, and so on, and so on.

What does that tell us?

Well, partly that our societies have been way more vulnerable than anyone has admitted, and partly, that this is life…..that life emerges, continuously evolving and developing into the unknown. We can’t live life backwards, and we are never going to be able to accurately predict the future, so maybe we need to learn how to make the present the best we can make it instead?

The other thought stream which this image set off for me, is that one about dealing with life, and, in particular, health, holistically. It’s just never going to be a successful long term strategy to focus on short term, narrow solutions. We don’t just need well defended front doors. We need strong walls, healthy buildings, safe, clean and secure places to live and work. We need them in the present…..not just once a crisis is upon us, and it’s too late!

Read Full Post »

This is a photo I took many years ago, just using my phone. It’s taken in Edinburgh at night. The purple light of the underside of the bridge caught my attention. It was only once I’d uploaded the shot to my computer that I noticed the person walking along the pavement. At that moment I realised the scene was greatly enhanced by the human presence. It became a much, much more interesting image.

I believe this is a fundamental principle and value which I have. I don’t share the views of some people who think the human species is bad. I believe that we humans are not separate from Nature, we are a part of Nature. We are, in fact, an inextricable part of Nature. I can’t understand a human being without knowing them within their webs of connections, without exploring the flows of materials, energy and information through those networks, without considering them within their contexts and multiple environments, physical, social and cultural.

Yes, we humans have done, are doing, and will do, a wide range of harms to each other, to other creatures, and the one, small, blue marble, planet which we share with all other forms of life, and we need to learn how to live in greater harmony with each other and within this Nature that we are part of. But in four decades of face to face, person by person, patient by individual patient, work as a doctor, I never met a single human being I didn’t value.

I’ve found that as I get older, and in particular, since I retired and moved to live in the French countryside, that I value the rest of Nature, more and more. As I opened the shutters the other morning I looked out and saw two birds…..a Hoopoe drilling down into the grass for some breakfast, and Little Owl, sitting up on the highest point of the wall, spinning his head around surveying his territory. And I thought, well, how amazing is this? I’m more aware of the phases of the moon now, and the rhythm of the seasons. I’m more aware of sprouting seeds, the rate of growth of pumpkins, the cycles of leaves, flowers and fruits. As I garden, I feel in touch with a bond of care, attention and nurture, in this phenomenon we call Nature. But I sure wouldn’t want a world without human beings in it.

There’s something else this image does for me. It sparks the creative, story-telling part of me. Here’s something else which is uniquely human. The ability to perceive, interpret and invent. The ability to make sense of, to apply values to, and to create narratives from, our daily experiences. We are a creative species. We have a driving need to make sense of our lives. I can’t help but wonder about this solitary person, making their way through the streets of Edinburgh at night.

Maybe we just need to learn to shift the balance of our actions and efforts, away from harm, consumption and destruction, towards more harmony, more humanity, and more life-enhancing care. Maybe this pandemic has given us an opportunity to hit the reset button, and do just that.

Read Full Post »

I’m fascinated by carved objects on buildings. Often they are above a door or a window. Other times they are under a roof overhang, or somewhere in a garden or building. Certain buildings, like churches, are often highly embellished with these works of art. This owl is on a church wall. I know most of the carvings on churches relate to saints and important people in the Christian faith, but many of them are really not so directly related (think of all the gargoyles!). Who chose them, and why?

When I’ve traveled around Japan I’ve seen lots and lots of statues and statuettes….particularly buddhas.

However, it’s not at all uncommon to find figures like this for sale in Garden Centres here in France and I’ve noticed them a lot in French people’s gardens and houses.

There’s also quite a controversy raging just now about statues, with calls for the removal of statues of famous people whose actions and values communities no longer wish to celebrate (although maybe they were never celebrated, despite standing there for decades).

All this got me thinking about the symbolic power of objects. I wonder if you have any in your house? Or your garden? I wonder which ones you notice in your Public spaces?

Maybe we should assume that they are intended to exert some influence over us. For example, I think many people with the buddha statues often see them as objects to help them to remain calm. One of the first phrases I encountered here, in the Charente, was “Soyons zen” – “Let’s be “zen” – or calm”.

I have quite a lot of owls in my house. I feel an affinity with them and I think they help me access reflection, contemplation and wisdom.

A common “device” over doorways is a heart.

I can certainly see the point of that! In fact, I think I’d quite like having a house where there was a heart over the doorway. Maybe it would help everyone who entered to remember the importance of “seeing with the heart”.

There’s a really interesting mythical one in this part of France (and I believe elsewhere in Europe too) – Melusine.

Half woman, half serpent (or dragon), with wings, there are a number of variations of the Melusine myth. Here’s a passage from wikipedia about her

One tale says Melusine herself was the daughter of the fairy Pressyne and king Elinas of Albany (now known as Scotland). Melusine’s mother leaves her husband, taking her daughters to the isle of Avalon after he breaks an oath never to look in at her and her daughter in their bath. The same pattern appears in stories where Melusine marries a nobleman only after he makes an oath to give her privacy in her bath; each time, she leaves the nobleman after he breaks that oath. Shapeshifting and flight on wings away from oath-breaking husbands also figure in stories about Melusine.

I wonder what influence her presence has on the people who live with her likeness on their walls?

One of the things which makes we human beings so unique is how we handle symbols and metaphors. We don’t just see objects as “things”. We attach value and meaning to them. They provoke emotions in us. They provoke our memories, stimulate our imaginations.

The objects to which we attach symbolic value, either individually, or as part of a culture, or society, have an influence on us. We often choose them exactly for that reason.

What symbolic objects are there around you in your daily life? And are you aware of the influence they have upon you?

Read Full Post »

The tendency to think that whatever we see is made up of small parts goes back a long, long way. You can trace it at least back to the Greek concept of the “atom” – that basic unit, or building block, from which everything else is made.

Well, maybe it took the 20th century splitting of the atom to discover that there are no basic units after all…..that when you look inside the “smallest” component part, there are even smaller ones inside, then when you look inside of those, there is……well, it all fades into invisibility somehow. Turns out there are no fixed, fundamental building blocks after all.

The Italian Physicist, Carlo Rovelli, who wrote “Seven Brief Lessons in Physics”, and “Reality is not what it Seems”, describes this well. Here are a few passages from him…..

The world of quantum mechanics is not a world of objects: it is a world of events.

The world is not a collection of things, it is a collection of events. The difference between things and events is that things persist in time, events have a limited duration. A stone is a prototypical “thing”: we can ask ourselves where it will be tomorrow. The world is made up of networks of kisses, not stones.

A handful of elementary particles, which vibrate and fluctuate constantly between existence and non-existence and swarm in space even when it seems that there is nothing there, combine together to infinity like the letters of a cosmic alphabet to tell the immense history of galaxies, of the innumerable stars, of sunlight, of mountains, woods and fields of grain, of the smiling faces of the young at parties, and of the night sky studded with stars.”

“Elementary particles which vibrate and fluctuate constantly between existence and non-existence” feels like a totally different universe from the one built from indivisible, fixed, discrete atoms.

The deluded idea that the universe is made of bits was compounded during the Industrial Revolution where the machine became the dominant model for interpreting the world. It still is.

Human beings are not like this.

But we still interpret experience using this lens of the machine. We want what was described by Arthur Frank as the “Restitution Model” in Medicine – just fix the broken bit and I’ll be on my way – Diagnosis is finding the wonky part and sorting it or removing it. A patient with multiple disorders is compartmentalised with each disease treated by a different team of specialists….some to deal with the heart, another one to deal with the stomach, yet another to deal with the bones and joints. We even turn symptoms into parts, treating “pain”, for example, with “pain specialists”, as if pain was an entity in its own right.

We take the same machine model and apply it to society as well, reducing human beings to mere cogs in the great machine.

The English philosopher, Mary Midgley, in her “Beast and Man”, said

I had better say once, that my project of taking animal comparisons seriously does not involve a slick mechanistic or deterministic view of freedom. Animals are not machines; one of my main concerns is to combat this notion. Actually only machines are machines.

Animals are not machines, human beings are not machines, and society is not a machine. Using machine models to understand and create institutions, policies, methods of health care, education…….I’d like to see all that disappear.

Life is not machine-like.

You think you can understand, and explain the existence of, a creature like this by seeing it as a machine?

Read Full Post »

What’s this young woman doing? She looks relaxed, leaning both her forearms on the low wall as she gazes, or looks, (there is a difference) towards….who knows what? You can’t help but turn your head to see if you can see what she is seeing.

Deleuze and Guattari, in “What is Philosophy?” talk about three ways of thinking – concepts, functions and affects+percepts. Philosophy, they say, is our way of thinking concepts. Science describes functions. Art deals with sensations, affects and percepts.

In the city of Angouleme, about an hour from where I live, there are many, many examples of wall art. Angouleme is a major, maybe THE major centre, for graphic arts in France. Several of them are absolutely stunning. Many of them make you stop and think.

If art is a “bloc of sensations, that is to say, a compound of affects and percepts”, then what does that really mean in everyday life? I’m no philosopher and I wouldn’t be surprised if I misunderstand philosophical writings, but I am a “wonderer”. So, the two photos I’m sharing with you today, in this post, are just two examples of murals I’ve come across in Angouleme…….two murals which really stimulate my powers of perception and evoke emotions. They both make me wonder.

In this first one, everything in blue is the painting, but it’s been so cleverly painted that, at least at first, you have the impression you are looking at a real woman, leaning on a real wall, in front of a real hotel. Well, actually, it is painted on the gable end of real hotel, and the painted wall is an extension of one you can actually lean on. Maybe this graphic woman is looking into the window on the left? If so, she’s looking into a real window, not an imaginary one. Here’s the full picture…..

I love how the painted image blends with the physical world around it. It transforms reality. As I gaze at this in wonder, I slow down, feel calm and contemplative, and take my time to explore the whole painting. Isn’t it amazing that the woman, who is the artist’s creation, somehow induces in me, the viewer, these feelings of slow, calm contemplation?

What would this building look like unpainted? I’m not sure I’d even have noticed it. I certainly wouldn’t have stopped to gaze at it. And, here’s the other thing….I might not have followed the gaze of the woman beyond this low wall out over the valley below, towards the winding river, the boats, the houses and buildings at the edge of the city, and the farms and forests further out. I haven’t the slightest doubt that this work of art transformed my experience of Angouleme.

But, then, so did this one….

This is one of the most imaginative, evocative, narrative murals I’ve ever seen. It also stops you in your tracks. You can’t help but get drawn in, first to the woman and the man, who are kind of embracing, but there’s a mystery in this embrace. It doesn’t look entirely comfortable. What’s going on with these two? Then, above them, the glass in the window is broken. How did that happen? And above that, this enormous moon, which doesn’t really look like our Moon, but maybe some other planet? It always makes me think of the movie, “Another Earth“….But look at the biplane flying over the face of that planet? What era is this? Which makes us look at the couple again, and wonder what era they lived in as well…..they sure aren’t dressed the way we’d expect to see someone dressed in this day and age.

Then as I look again at this photo, I see the pink bike, parked against the railing, and I can’t help but think it’s her bike! So reality and fantasy blend and blur and lose their hard edges (do reality and fantasy really ever have hard edges?)

Finally, I look up and see what looks like the shadow of an angel with a trailing umbilical cord…..at least, that’s what it looks like to me, and I can’t help but turn around to see if I can see the actual angel behind me.

Oh, there’s the angel, over there, on the building opposite….

Isn’t that quite something? A drawing of a shadow which makes you turn around to see what’s casting the shadow? What a wonderful blending of perception and imagination!

Somewhere in the depths of my memory I seem to have a story of an ancient debate about whether or angels would have tummy buttons – because angels, allegedly, aren’t born, so don’t have umbilical cords. I remember thinking what an odd thing to have a debate about! But as I stand looking at this drawing, that old story comes rushing back to me, and in so doing, makes the artwork all the more interesting and engaging.

With both of these murals my experience of the day was transformed. They both challenged my perception of reality. They both stirred my feelings, stimulated my imagination and provoked memories. They both made me wonder.

As far as I know only human beings make art.

What kind of humanity would we be without it?

Read Full Post »

This is one of my all time favourite photos. I took it while having breakfast at a little cabin at the top of the hill on the edge of Biarritz. I realise that the concrete fence is not bonny! But that doesn’t take anything away from the picture for me. The rich, deep hues of blue in the sea, sky and even distant mountain are just gorgeous and I like the fluffy summer style of clouds floating by.

Hey, you might be saying, you’re going on about the fence, the sea, the sky, the mountain, even the clouds, but isn’t this a photo of a coffee cup?

Well, yes. You could say that. But, then you know my tendency to explore the contexts, the connections and the environment….how I am drawn to the “whole”. But, yes, it is a photo of an expresso, and that’s what I want to talk about today.

Even though these short coffees in Europe are called “expressos” they don’t necessarily imply a brief, speedy period of time. I noticed that when I first stopped for a coffee in Italy that the cafe had tall tables and no chairs. That was a surprise. Maybe that’s when I thought that an “expresso” wasn’t just fast to make, it was fast to drink. But that was a misunderstanding. When I went for breakfast with a group of Italian friends, they stood around the tables chatting, drinking their coffees, eating pastries or biscuits, and there was absolutely no sense of urgency or hurry.

Coffee time is a pause.

It’s often an in-between time….between waking up and engaging with the tasks of the day, for example. When I worked in Glasgow, I lived in Stirling, and traveled in the train for about an hour each way each day. I’d stop and enjoy a coffee once I arrived in Glasgow and before I caught my second train to the hospital, and, often, I’d stop and enjoy another one on the return journey. Those were times of pausing. Of stepping off the busy flow and slowing down to reflect, to read, to ponder. Coffee times were also times of sharing, of enjoying the company and chat. Not all coffee times are social times, but many of them are, and that’s important.

There’s a term in buddhism – “bardo” – it means a space. For example, there is a bardo between each in breath and each out breath, and another between each out breath and each in breath. There is even a bardo between each thought, but good luck catching any of those! I think a pause is a kind of bardo. A life bardo, breaking up a busy day, and helping us to re-centre, to re-focus, to re-connect and to re-store.

I was reading in an article in “Philosophie” magazine this morning. It was about rituals and one philosopher described his coffee ritual. He said he wakes up, drags his heavy feet and thick head through to the kitchen, pops a “dosette” into the coffee machine, presses the on button, and listens to the familiar sounds of the machine. That first coffee begins to re-connect his disconnected brain cells, but it also makes him cough. He has a second coffee, which settles his cough, then, the third coffee, he says, is “for pleasure”. Then he is ready to get on with the rest of the day. Wow! I think if I started every day with THREE expressos I’d FLY through the day!!

We all have our own rituals, our own habits, our own routines. This little coffee cup resting on the fence reminds me of that. It’s good to pause now and again, and in that bardo to take stock, to reflect, and to become aware of rituals, habits and routines. What are they, and what part do they play in my life?

How about you?

What comes to mind when you think of a pause, a bardo or a ritual?

Read Full Post »

One of the cognac distilleries in the town of Cognac is in the old chateau. When you take a tour of the place you walk into this incredible room. What do you think this room would be used for?

Bet you didn’t say “for keeping prisoners in”. But that’s exactly what it was used for. Centuries ago it was very common practice to capture opposing army soldiers….especially knights, princes or kings….and hold them while you negotiated a ransom.

I’ve just finished reading a history of the “Black Prince”, Edward, who fought many campaigns for the English in Aquitaine, which in those days was controlled by England, not France. In many of the stories you read about knights or princes getting captured and the ransom money being used to fund more battles.

The proof that this grand room was used to hold some such prisoners is on the walls.

They are covered with carvings and scratchings such as these. And, yes, as you’d expect some are simple rows of lines, where someone has been marking off the days.

But look at this one….this is my favourite

This one has always got me wondering, what would I scratch on the wall of a prison like this, while I was awaiting my freedom?

So, how about you? What do you think you’d scratch onto the wall for people to see three hundred years later?

Read Full Post »

Lighthouses are fascinating aren’t they? It really felt as if we had lost something when they all went automatic and the lighthouse keepers disappeared. Well, maybe there are still lighthouse keepers who look after the lighthouses but they don’t live in them any more. Putting aside the questions about what kind of life that was lighthouses make me think about the significance of light.

I mean, lighthouses were never intended to be giant torches lighting up the night sea so a sailor could see where he was going! They are warnings. They say “Beware! There are dangerous waters around here!” They also acted as navigation points. My maternal grandfather was born on the island of South Ronaldsay, in a little croft. From his house he could see nine lighthouses at night. I remember trying to count them when I visited there as a young boy.

In a very real sense the purpose of the light from the lighthouse was to convey information. This is something very human. I think of us as vibrant, living creatures embedded in constant flows of materials, energy and information. The materials bit is perhaps the most obvious. We ingest and inspire molecules from the environment, process them inside our bodies then expel them back into the environment. What we can’t see are the energy flows, but we are aware of some of them because we have sensory cells to pick them up. We see light, we hear sound, we feel heat and cold…and so on.

Information is something of yet a third quality. It wouldn’t exist without our bodies and brains to process the other two flows. So when we see the light of the lighthouse we don’t just see light, we interpret it. It tells us something.

In the case of the light from the lighthouse this is still quite a utilitarian phenomenon. We USE the it to guide us, or to orientate ourselves. But we interpret everything, and we surely don’t reduce all information to the level of utility.

This is moonlight on water.

On this particular night (a 14th of July) there was a full moon so the intensity of the light was great. You could actually see objects illuminated by it. But that wasn’t its attraction.

Moonlight on water is beautiful to us. It’s romantic, perhaps. It’s inspiring, even. Maybe it makes us think of Venus, the Goddess of love and beauty. Maybe it stirs our memories and our imagination to inspire certain emotions. Looking at the moonlight can induce feeling.

Moonlight, it seems to me, isn’t primarily a practical light. It’s purpose, if I could call it that, is more to inspire reflection. And that’s especially interesting, isn’t it? Because moonlight IS reflected light.

Do you see what happened here? I started with a light which I claimed was primarily practical, then went on to consider a light which was primarily inspirational. But if you go back and read the beginning of this piece again, you’ll see that much of what I wrote about the lighthouses came from my memory and my imagination. It inspired wonder. It generated feelings.

Nothing is really so binary in real life, is it?

Read Full Post »

Life is tangled.

Every one of us is a multitude. Check out Bob Dylan’s new release “I contain multitudes” for a very recent expression of this idea. In fact, as he sings it, maybe we are multitudes, plural.

The Scottish psychologist, Miller Mair, coined the term “community of selves” back in the 1970s. It remains a powerful metaphor for the complexity of an individual personality. That idea made a lot of sense to me, and helped me to understand not only my patients but also myself. We all have that experience of at very least tapping into different strands of our lives when we act within our different roles – parent, child, friend, neighbour, employee, professional, artist, consumer etc etc. We know all those roles are just a part of who we are but it can be very hard to untangle them, to see how they inter-connect.

The French philosopher, Deleuze, wrote about “multiplicities” as a way of understanding the complex universe, and described any particular instance as a “singularity of multiplicities”. I liked that idea the moment I read it. I happened upon his writings at the same time that I was exploring the new “complexity science”, and in particular the concept of the “complex adaptive system“, which fundamentally changed how I saw our lives and our world.

I once spoke to a “Chef de Service” at a Parisian Homeopathic Hospital and he described to me that he saw each patient as like a diamond, with multiple facets shining, each one different, but together all part of the same individual. He saw his therapeutic strategy as being based on addressing several of the most prominent of a patient’s “facets”. A rather poetic way to think of the same underlying issue.

What is the underlying issue?

Life is messy.

On the “inside” and the “outside”. I put those words in quote marks because I’m pretty sure that frequently there is no clear boundary between the two. I think wherever we look we can find multiple threads to follow. We can identify particular paths, storylines, themes, chains of cause and effect, which run through a lifetime.

And, here’s the important point, brought back to the front of my mind by this photo today, all those paths, storylines, threads or whatever, are entangled. They are connected. They are inextricably interconnected, astonishingly woven together to create a unique, beautiful tapestry of a single life.

I’m not a fan of labelling a patient with several different concurrent diagnoses then sending them off to separate specialists to have each disease treated as if it exists in isolation. In Medicine this is referred to as “silo-ing“, a strange word which means separating out someone’s problems into separate baskets, boxes, or “silos”, then treating each one separately. Most of the evidence used in “Evidence Based Medicine” comes from trials where patients have been selected on the basis that they have only the single disease which is under study, and that they are receiving only the single drug which is being trialled. But the real world isn’t much like that. Much more common is the finding that an individual patient will have several different diagnoses active at the same time and that they will already be on a cocktail of drugs. Medicine is more messy than some people would have you believe.

So what? Is this a counsel of despair? Am I saying life is too complex and entangled to make any sense of it? No. Absolutely not.

What I find is that this complex entangled life is beautiful. That it manifests in the most unique, most varied, most astonishing individual narratives you could imagine.

What I find is that when you look for the connections between the parts, you get insights and understanding which you’d miss if you kept your attention only on single parts.

What I find is that it’s best to use your whole brain, not just half of it, as Iain McGilchrist, author of “The Master and His Emissary“, would say. It’s not enough to separate out the threads and elements and study them. You have to weave them back together to see the contexts, the contingencies and the connections. In other words, you need both your left hemisphere ability to see the threads, and your right hemisphere ability to weave them together into a whole.

What I find is that when you look at life this way, then you encounter the “émerveillement du quotidien” – that you find yourself wondering and marvelling every single day. You find diversity and uniqueness. You find infinite trails of connections. You find that curiosity is constantly stimulated and never ends. You find that you are humbled by how little you actually know. You find that you doubt predictions and develop a distaste for judging people.

You find that Life is astonishingly, endlessly, fascinating.

What a delight!

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »