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I was thinking about myths this week, by which I mean stories, legends or fables (not the other meaning of a widely held, but false, belief or story).
Every culture has its myths, the stories that are handed down through the generations, in some cases for thousands of years. Many of those myths concern where we came from, why we are are, and lessons on how we should live our lives. Many of us will have grown up with the Norse myths of Odin, Loki and Thor, or with the Greek and Roman myths that live on and are retold or re-created in literature, film and television programmes today.
Human beings sometimes tell stories to explain something in a way that can be more easily understood. We tell our children stories to help them understand birth and death, happiness and sorrow, kindness and cruelty. We tell stories to help each other make good choices in life. Some of those stories are true, in the sense of based on something which actually happened. Others are entirely fictional in terms of the facts, but not necessarily in terms of the truths they can impart to us.
I finally watched the film Bridge of Spies recently. The bridge in question is the Glienicke Bridge between Berlin and Potsdam, where spies were exchanged during the Cold War. I missed the part at the beginning which indicated that it was based on a true story, and so was surprised at the end when we found out what happened to the real people who had been portrayed in the film. So it was based on a true story, but I’m fairly sure the dialogue was not what the “real” people had said, and they got some things wrong, like how elaborate the Berlin Wall was portrayed as having been in 1961 – they were out by quite a bit. But that portrayal of the Wall is how we have it in our minds now. The desolated death strip with mines, anti-tank structures, spotlights, high towers with guards and guns, dogs barking. Not in 1961 though. Does it matter? I don’t think so. The film was telling a story, and the story is about two men on opposite sides of the Cold War who got to know each other. They tried to understand each other, learned to see that they shared similar principles, even though those same principles were applied in the service of different causes. Stories are not about the bald facts. Sometimes the facts can even get in the way of what the point of a story is. So we embellish, edit and elaborate to tell the story that matters, the story beyond the facts.
I grew up surrounded by Bible stories. And Dick Turpin. And Jack London books. And a whole lot of other stories. I can’t think of a better way to grow up, a childhood of stories. I remember being cross when I was required to get out of bed on a Saturday morning when I had decided to read an entire Dick Turpin book before setting a foot on the floor. I might have forgiven my mum for that, but I haven’t forgotten. Maybe I didn’t learn the proper lesson there.
I don’t know that I distinguished in any great degree between the stories in the sense of which were true and which were made up. I don’t think it mattered to me. I liked the story of Noah and his ark – what child doesn’t? – but I didn’t stop to say ‘wait a minute, that can’t actually have happened,’ because it never occurred to me that it mattered if it was a factually correct story. Likewise an army marching around the walls of Jericho, which promptly fell down when trumpets were blown on the seventh time round. I didn’t stop to think ‘wait, these people were told to go in and kill everybody in the city, that’s terrible, who would tell them to do something like that.’ Because it was a story. And Daniel’s friends wandering into a furnace and him being literally thrown to the lions? – great stories. It doesn’t matter if it didn’t actually happened. I learned about standing up for something, that it’s OK to have a different point of view, that things don’t always go to plan.
From these myths have come a treasury of literature and thought. I personally have no need to believe that they are an account of factual events that happened thousands of years ago. If they are, it might be the first time a people have willingly written down accounts of the genocide they carried out.
Those are just a few of the stories I grew up with, and have undoubtedly influenced how I view the world today. As an adult, I am able to understand both that I would have different stories if I had grown up in a different culture and that these stories are not all exemplars of how I should behave today. Lessons, certainly, sometimes of what not to do. But taking it all literally – I don’t think so.
We haven’t stopped creating myths. They are different now, but they continue to be stories that seek to bring some truth to life through the medium of story. Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist is a modern day myth, and there is a reason this simple story has sold so well. It teaches us something about the human condition. Here’s a short story he also shared:
‘I was talking to a Catholic priest and a young Muslim man over lunch. When the waiter came by with a tray, we all helped ourselves, except the Muslim, who was keeping the annual fast prescribed by the Koran.
‘When lunch was over, and people were leaving, one of the other guests couldn’t resist saying: “You see how fanatical these Muslims are! I’m glad to see you Catholics aren’t like them.”
‘“But we are,” said the priest. “He is trying to serve God just as I am. We merely follow different laws.” And he concluded: “It’s a shame that people see only the differences that separate them. If you were to look with more love, you would mainly see what we have in common, then half the world’s problems would be solved.”’
Stories should bring us together, show us how much we are alike, and how our differences can create diversity rather than division.
Some days, I think the world’s problems started when we decided that the stories we grew up hearing were true. And that the different stories other people grew up hearing must be false. As for me, I don’t think woman was created from a man’s rib any more than I think lakes and rivers were formed when a Rainbow Serpent tickled the bellies of frogs which were heavy with water, making them laugh and the water gush out. But I love the stories. All of them. And they are all true in their own way.
I think Solomon had it right. According to the story, when God asked him what he most desired, instead of asking for power or possessions, he asked for wisdom. There is evidence all around that it is entirely possible to accumulate a great deal of power and possessions without necessarily basing this on a commensurate amount of wisdom. In Solomon’s case, as well as returning a baby to its rightful mother, he also managed to do quite well for himself materially.
There is no shortage of places we can look to gain wisdom. Humans have been wrestling for a long time with questions of how to make good decisions in a consistent way, consistent both with other individual decisions, and with something overarching that gives a framework, a set of values or principles that we can use to guide our lives.
I gravitated towards Stephen Covey’s approach for a number of reasons. I happened to hear a talk he gave when I was a student and hadn’t ever heard of the man. It was free, someone said I should go, and someone else drove me there. Life as a student can be as simple as that. I can’t remember anything of note that he said that night. But when I came across him later, I remembered the name, and it turned out he had written the best-selling Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. And when I started reading that, I was sold. I liked that he recognised the difference between substance and style and that, in the long run, that difference matters. And I appreciated the honesty of what he offered – not quick fixes, not techniques, but challenges to how we act and treat ourselves and each other.
A few years ago I came across the phrase “to have or to be.” It struck a chord in me. And I think that fact in itself says something. It’s that moment when we hear an echo of something we already knew but couldn’t bring out into the open, or find words to express. It turns out that this phrase (and I have no idea if the person it came from was even aware of this) is the title of a book by Erich Fromm. Bearing in mind that this was written in 1976, just listen to the opening sentence and then some extracts from the next page:
The Great Promise of Unlimited Progress – the promise of domination of nature, of material abundance, of the greatest happiness for the greatest number and of unimpeded personal freedom – has sustained the hopes and faith of the generations since the beginning of the industrial age. […]
The grandeur of the Great Promise, the marvellous material and intellectual achievements of the industrial age, must be visualised in order to understand the trauma that realisation of its failure is producing:
Unrestricted satisfaction of all desires is not conducive to well-being.
The dream of being independent masters of our lives ended when we began awakening to the fact that we have all become cogs in the bureaucratic machine, with our thoughts, feelings and tastes manipulated by government and industry and the mass communications that they control.
The gap between rich and poor nations has ever widened.
Technical progress itself has created ecological dangers which may put an end to all civilisation and possibly to all life.
And that’s just from the first couple of pages. He doesn’t mess around. The back cover gives a good summary of the book – “two modes of existence struggle for the spirit of humankind: the having mode, which concentrates on material possessions, power, and aggression, and is the basis of the universal evils of greed, envy, and violence; and the being mode, which is based on love, the pleasure of sharing, and in productive activity.”
He raises questions that I find worthwhile engaging with, wrestling with, comparing with alternative perspectives, and ultimately asking “what does this mean for me?”
And of course there are many other writers and thinkers, different slants on the same questions and challenges, going back centuries. Marcus Aurelius doesn’t become any less relevant over time. And I’m currently listening to some letters Seneca wrote centuries ago that are as useful a challenge today as they were when he wrote them:
There are more things likely to frighten us than there are to crush us; we suffer more often in imagination than in reality.
AC Grayling tried to compile some of these traditions of wisdom literature in The Good Book. I find it hard to engage with that particular book, but I admired the attempt (not to mention the amount of work involved!). And there are some great parables and proverbs in there that you can dip in and out of – a quick source of something to reflect on for a while. My favourite memory of his book was when he was at the Edinburgh Book Festival several years ago at an event chaired by Richard Holloway, who marched in holding the book out in front of him in the way he (apparently) used to when an Episcopalian minister.
It’s not just in overtly “wisdom literature” that we can find inspiration. Fiction can in some cases be just as effective. And some writers have done very well from writing fiction which is based around a message or a perspective the writer wants us to engage with.
Just to start with, there’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull, The Little Prince, pretty much anything by Paulo Coelho. They seem to have the ability to help us to stop for long enough to think and reflect. Sometimes we might even take action as a result. But there are countless other works of fiction that can teach us something, allow us to experience something through the perspective of a fictional character that we will never experience in real life. Just because they don’t set out to teach us something doesn’t mean they do not do so.
One thing all these books have in common is the ability to surprise me each time I read them, or just dip back into them. It’s the “that wasn’t there the last time I read it” feeling that comes from seeing something for the first time that is particularly relevant to a question I’m thinking about or a problem I’m struggling with. Often I find I did know the answer all along, it was just something I couldn’t quite get a proper hold of, or something I was trying to avoid accepting. Wisdom is valuable, but it is not as often easy or convenient, particularly when it requires me to do something I would rather not. I suspect Solomon felt a bit nervous when his solution to identifying the baby’s mother was to suggest cutting the baby in half, with the real mother the only one of the two not to find this a pragmatic solution. But we all benefit from the thoughts, experiences and challenges of others that help to form a body of wisdom that is handed down over generations. Maybe we will even contribute to that in some little way in how we treat other people with our words and actions.
Today is the first Monday in… well, a lot of years, that I’m not being paid anything. Most of those Mondays I’ve been at work, and of course there’s something nice about being on holiday and being paid for doing whatever we find ourselves doing. I do, of course, know that in so many ways that experience of close to two decades is unusual. I’ve never had to deal with being involuntarily out of work and have been blessed with good employers.
Today is different, however, because I’ve chosen to work (paid) one day a week less from now, solely to carve out some dedicated writing time. There are other benefits, of course, such as being able to take the girls to their dancing lessons after school, and being able to cook dinner for everyone. And today – wouldn’t you know it, it’s a school holiday – I get to play badminton outside at lunchtime with LoLo.
Now, of course, I have come face to face with the usual other issues. Distractions, phone calls (really?… these people call during the day?), need to get a drink… and another… hmm, feeling a bit peckish now… and so on.
I’ve known for a while now that I wouldn’t be happy if I wasn’t spending more time writing. And a few months later, here I am, sitting at a rickety old desk (it sways a lot from side to side, I’m not sure it’s meant to do that), on a French stool my sister brought back with her from France many years ago when she was living there. I’m still not sure how she got it back, it’s not exactly hand luggage sized. And this is my new home:
I’ve been writing this novel on and off (mostly off) for a few years. I have a few scenes, a few paragraphs, sometimes just a few sentences. Last week I was writing a section about one of the characters who came back to Germany after living in exile in the Soviet Union during the Nazi period. I was making it all up (that’s one of the fun parts) and realised that I probably should find out more about what that experience had actually been like. Questions like where the Germans lived, went to school, were they segregated, how were they organised. But I got no further than think I should look into that.
And then on Thursday, I stopped off at Waitrose on the way home from work to grab a few things we needed. I never do this. Never. And because I had a Waitrose card in my wallet (never before used) I picked up a newspaper as it was free. In reality I got it for Camille, who promptly started reading it. And then she showed me the obituary – a full half page. It was the pictures that got my attention immediately. Nikita Khrushchev and Walter Ulbricht, with another picture of the Berlin Reichstag immediately after the War. Suddenly I was in my world. But I had never heard of Wolfgang Leonhard, whose obituary this was. It turns out he was the youngest of the small group sent back to Germany to build the first socialist republic there. He had experienced Stalinism first hand, including the purges which had caught his mother. And he had grown up and gone to school in the Soviet Union in the period I was writing about. Leonhard soon recognised that the state being proposed in the East of Germany was not a Marxist-Leninist state at all, but a Stalinist one. He had experienced some of what that would mean and escaped to the West. He wrote an autobiography in 1955 which, fortunately, has now been re-published a few years ago. It arrives tomorrow.
You can perhaps see why I have trouble believing in coincidences sometimes. And I am reminded of something Paulo Coelho wrote: “When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.”
Thanks, universe, for that chain of events.
So, back to the novel now. Although I am getting a bit hungry, and it must be time for badminton soon, isn’t it?
I divide Paulo Coelho’s (yes, him again) books into two categories. The weird ones and the not weird ones. The weird ones might possibly be autobiographical but then again maybe they aren’t but it’s not clear and I don’t know if it matters and sometimes I try to figure it out and sometimes I just read the book and don’t worry about. I’m in two minds as to which category The Witch of Portobello should come into but on balance would put it in the not-weird pile. I should also say that I read them all, it’s just that I spend some of them trying to work out how much, if any, of the story is what happened to him and how much is pure fiction. It probably doesn’t matter.
We had a lovely experience recently in Portobello. Once a year, the promenade by the beach (which, for me, is mainly important as being part of the Edinburgh marathon route) is given over to buskers and street performers. They include young children singing, bands, bagpipes (which drown out pretty much everything within a few hundred metres) and jugglers (one of whom was juggling with a sword slid down his throat!). It’s a wonderful idea and lovely to see a community and its guests enjoying the different talents of so many people while raising money (in many cases for charity, but also for sweets in some cases) at the same time. I particularly liked one band who were clearly having a lot of fun playing together, notwithstanding the piper upwind from them.
And then this weekend it was back to the beach – or beside the beach – for the first Scottish Half Marathon. Basically you get to choose between running a half marathon near Edinburgh on the Saturday with somewhere around 3,000 others, or on the Sunday in Newcastle with 50,000 – and Mo Farrah. I went for the smaller event. This was my first half marathon race (“race” is of course a loose term in that I was not in this to win it) and, despite in my heart of hearts knowing that I hadn’t quite trained enough – well, it was the summer holidays and it was too hot in Berlin to run more than once and by that time it was also getting dark which wasn’t such a great idea with hindsight – I thought I would go for it anyway and see if I could crack 1:30 (that’s one hour thirty by the way, not one minute thirty). I drank copious amounts of water and beetroot juice the days before and relied on the speed workouts I had done over the last couple of months, as well as the fact that on the day you can run faster for longer than you can in training. And then there was the issue with the turn. Honestly, I don’t get what happened or what didn’t happen but at the mile 7 marker my watch said we had done near enough 7 miles. At the mile 8 marker, my watch said we had done 8 1/4 miles, and then showed that consistent 1/4 mile difference right to the end. That’s pretty much two minutes difference in real money. I’ve asked the organisers the question. But you know what, maybe they did get something wrong, maybe they didn’t. It was a lovely day, a nice course, the spectators were encouraging and there was enough water along the course. What more do you want? Well, a t-shirt of course. It turns out I race to get t-shirts:
Everyone’s a winner. And despite the possible issue with the distance, I made it in under 1:30 – ten seconds under counts, OK?! And I ran in my favourite sandals (I always run in them, it’s way more fun).