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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.
Just last week, I was thinking that it had been over two years since my last running-related injury, and that I was seeing the benefits of having been able to run continuously throughout that period, if not with the same intensity all the time. And then I was trotting along on my weekend long run, reminding myself as I battled against yet another strong headwind that pace is not what matters on those runs, when I had a sharp pain above my right ankle. I stopped, had a play around with my ankle, could feel where the pain was coming from, and decided it was too soon to give up. I’ve had pains come and go before and my made-up rule is to run for another two minutes and just pay attention. Am I moving some part of my body differently? Is there some imbalance I haven’t noticed? And what is the pain doing? In this case, it was coming and going. But after one minute, the coming was winning and the going was…well, going. At this point, I was glad that I had done a mini-loop at the beginning of the run to turn a 12 mile route into a 14 mile one. That meant I was still only a mile and a half from home. And I was walking back.
I’m pretty sure it’s a muscle rather than my Achille’s tendon. But I suspect I’m going to be out of action for a while now. This is not great. By the time I got home (it takes a lot longer to walk than run) I had calmed down from my initial emotional reaction. I was sure I hadn’t done anything I shouldn’t have, like up my mileage or intensity by too much too quickly, and that this was just one of those things that can happen. The only question was what I would do about it now.
I’m a big fan of Stephen Covey’s work. He’s probably best known for his 7 Habits of Highly Effective People which remains a constant source of positive challenge to me when I try to be honest with myself about my own behaviours. The concept he taught which I think I have found most useful and most applicable to life is his circle of influence and circle of concern, and it was to this teaching that I returned on my walk back home today when I had to decide what I was going to do about this sudden change.
The two circles look like this:
Our circle of concern is all the things that concern us (the clue’s in the title). It’s very wide, we accumulate a lot of things that are of interest or concern. At its extreme, it might include world peace and alleviating poverty. The smaller circle in the middle is our circle of influence. It’s what we can do something about. Let me illustrate using my brand new injury.
It is most definitely in my circle of concern. It bothers me, it limits what I can do for a period of time, and it’s annoying.
So what is in my circle of influence? The obvious starting point is whether I let my body heal. If I do, it will get better, if I don’t, it will get worse. I could have carried on and run a few more miles when I first felt the pain, but then I would probably have needed carrying for a few months. I could have stayed firmly in my circle of concern and blamed myself for what had happened, blamed someone else (what, take personal responsibility?), sulked about it for days… the list goes on. Instead, I recognised that something had happened that I could no longer do anything about. The only question was, what now? Because that is my circle of influence.
By the time I got home, I had thought of some of the things I would be able to do if I were out of running-action for a while. Like reading more, going for walks, writing at lunchtime instead of running, going on photography walks… and I found it became a long list, more than I could possibly fit into the extra time I would have at my disposal. And that is the beauty of Covey’s concept of the circle of influence. If you spend you energy on your circle of concern, it just wears you down because you can’t do anything about it. But if you focus on what you can do something about – your circle of influence – it gets bigger. The only way to make any impact on your circle of concern is to focus on your circle of influence, which then gets a bit bigger:
So at the moment, I don’t know if I will be out of action for a week, a month or a year, but I do know that if I concentrate on what I can do rather than what I can’t do, it can end up being a positive experience. Just different from what I had originally planned. But then life is like that, isn’t it? We can’t control what happens to us, but we can control how we react.
I spent the rest of the day reading, writing and pulled out the Leica ready to take with me when I next see daylight. It turned into a great day. I’m going to make the most of whatever running-free time I have to take for the next while!
This week, I’m going to do how poor customer service leads to two book reviews, a new family tradition and how baking bread is good for the soul. It’s all connected.
For many months, we’ve been getting our bread from a local farm we’ve been going to for years. The bakery that supplied them was also local and we loved their bread. Last week, we heard the first rumblings of the bakery maybe no longer existing or supplying them or some other reason for our order not being there. But nobody was quite sure. They would let us know… Yesterday, also no bread, but this time, the bakery had definitely moved and there would be no more bread. ‘Maybe we should have let you know.’ Maybe indeed. So we had no bread.
Intermission for first book review. There is one book I recommend more than any other one to people I work with who are interested in their self-development. Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is the book I return to most often for some often harsh reminders of the things I could choose to do better on. And that element of choice is the basis of the first of his ‘Habits’, our ability to choose our response. What I really appreciate about Covey’s book is that he is very clear throughout that he is not trying to give us a series of ‘if you do these things, great things will happen’ tips or techniques. What I think he’s doing instead is trying to help us to be the kind of person we want to be, or could be. Which is never easy.
So back to the bread. Choice: get annoyed. Or do something about it. By which I don’t mean complain. It was one of those things and nobody could do anything about the bakery moving, and I’m sure the bakery had good reasons for relocating. But even if they didn’t, there was nothing I could do about it. So, while we were in town, we bought some flour, some fresh yeast, and started a new family tradition. Bake bread on Sunday afternoons. There is a recipe I grew up with which makes perfect bread, and involves a magic spell half way through. The magic spell was always very important when we were growing up, and I’m pleased to say that it has been passed on to the next generation successfully.
We ended up making about 60 rolls, with a significant proportion disappearing within the first hour of them coming out the oven. There’s nothing like fresh bread. And it’s fun to bake (confession – it helps if you have a Kenwood to do the kneading for you.)
I had forgotten that it doesn’t actually take long to bake bread, the vast majority of the time is just waiting while it rises. And that’s an hour to go and write. Everyone’s a winner in this new tradition.
Second intermission, second book. I was reminded of a character in another book which is in my top [insert random number] books. Jodi Picoult is a writer I have loved since before she became really really famous. Many years ago, before most of her books were available in the UK, we were on a family trip to Boston. I checked with the hotel in advance if we could have packages sent to us there, and had every one of Jodi’s books sent to me. It does mean that they look odd on my bookshelf because the US ones are a different size from the UK ones, not to mention the hardbacks.
But after a good few more books by her, my interest started to wane. Each book was beautifully written, everything was right. But they started to become too similar in style for me. I even stopped reading one halfway through and haven’t returned to it. But then came The Storyteller, which retains all the amazing things she can do with her characters and plots, but is somehow written differently. And it’s all the better for it. It’s the story of a woman who bakes bread – hence the association. And it’s the story of her grandmother, who was a Jew in Europe in the Nazi period. The characters are what makes the story. Their doubts, their loves, their fears, and their experiences and what they make of them. Each of them has to make choices and live with the consequences. It’s what we tell our children, isn’t it? You can choose what you do, but you can’t always choose the consequences.
Most of us are unlikely to have to face the kinds of choices people in wartime had to or have to today, but for our own development and for those around us, the choices we make can be just as important. And we do always have the ability to choose how we act. I hope that we’ve turned a relocated bakery and somebody forgetting to tell us into a new family tradition which is also the continuation of the tradition my mum started with us a long long time ago. So long ago that the recipe is in pounds and ounces. The poor man in the supermarket had to ask a colleague when I asked for two ounces of yeast and came back very apologetically to tell me they only sold it in grams. I had to laugh. The youth of today…