The Power of Choice

It turns out doing a part time master’s degree alongside a challenging full time job is hard. Who knew? Not me, apparently. After scraping a pass in the first term of my first year I began term two last month with considerable trepidation, despite having adjusted (read: lowered) my expectations of what I could realistically achieve.

Don’t get me wrong, I am loving using my brain in an academic sense after a 15 year hiatus, and the content of my course – an MSc in Positive Psychology and Coaching Psychology – is really interesting. I’ve discovered a love of coaching that I hope to turn into a career one day, and the positive psychology interventions I’m learning about this term are already having a positive effect on me.

Take today, for example. This week I took two days off work to catch up on my coursework, and after putting in considerable time to get on top of my assignment I found out this afternoon I had been heading down the wrong path and needed to start over. My first reaction was to rage, against the system and against myself for missing the important detail that would have meant be taking the right path. But then I stopped, took a breath, and realised something.

When we are faced with moments of stress, anxiety and adversity, one thing it helps to remember is we have a CHOICE. Not, perhaps, in terms of the outcome of the situation, but in terms of how we react to it. As soon as you distance yourself enough to realise that, it’s amazing how quickly the initial spike of emotion subsides, and you are able to see the bigger picture, and rationalise the negativity away.

I’m not sure where this calm new me has come from, but I don’t doubt there’s a strong positive correlation with starting this course. And so, despite the many challenges and frustrations that it brings, I’m taking a mindful moment right now to use the positive psychology intervention of gratitude – for the course and for my freedom to choose how I react to situations. Because somewhere in that freedom lies the secret to a good and happy life.

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The Power of Nature

There is so much to be said for getting out of the city and into nature. After a busy few weeks with little time to ourselves, this morning we packed the mountain bikes into the car, selected a place close to Brussels where we hadn’t been before (Gaasbeek) and drove there. The weather was a bit on the glum side for mid-July, but nonetheless it was a joy to roam around the countryside for an hour and a half, cycling past fields of corn and poppies, overtaking people travelling by horse and cart, stopping to admire miniature ponies and baby donkeys, and exploring the impressive grounds of Gaasbeek Castle on foot before heading back to the car.

It’s terrifying to think how easy it would be to never step outside the confines of city life; to subsist on a schedule of work, sleep, the (very) occasional gym visit, drink with friends or snatched moment of downtime. If we never take time to break away, physically and mentally, from the routine, or unplug ourselves from our draining digital and work lives, we risk missing out on the best things life has to offer. Being in nature, even if it’s just the local park surrounded by trees, affords a type of freedom – mental and physical – that is hard to replicate by any other means. It gives us space to daydream, to switch off, to exist without the myriad pressures that weigh us down. It helps us to be the best version of ourselves, untainted by thoughts of what we ‘should’ or ‘must’ do, open to experiencing the moment we are in and being content with that and nothing more.

So here’s to Nature. May none of us become immune to her wonderful healing ways.

Food with Friends

On Thursday evening (aptly also Thanksgiving Day) I went down to the Gare du Nord with five more sleeping bags, five winter coats and three boxes of (homemade!!!) chocolate brownies for the community dinner. Funded by the International School of Brussels and fantastic new charity, Unless, it provided a proper sit-down dinner for around 150 people, who, for whatever reason, have found themselves in hard times without a roof over their heads. There was a delicious curry with rice and lentils, salads, fruit, cakes, brownies and tea. The students from the ISB helped the regular volunteers to serve food and spread cheer. Everyone ate together, talked together, laughed together. It was without doubt the most inspiring evenings I have ever had the privilege of being involved with.

I met some more lovely people, a new Eritrean friend called Taha with a cheeky smile, and another man from Afghanistan, who told me that he fled his home three years ago to escape the Taliban, after his brother was killed. He arrived in Brussels on Thursday after being made to leave Sweden, where he had settled, because he had originally been fingerprinted in Belgium (apparently once you’ve been fingerprinted somewhere that’s where you have to stay – can you imagine?). He showed me pictures of his friends in Sweden, told me that he had resigned himself to staying in Belgium now, even though he wanted to go back. He had tried to go to the office to sort his papers on arrival but they had told him to come back the next day. Who knows how long the process will take to be registered here, let alone to have somewhere to sleep that isn’t a park bench or a doorway?

It’s so hard to comprehend how so many people, purely by virtue of the place where they were born, end up in such difficult circumstances. But I am constantly inspired by the hopefulness and cheerfulness of the people I encounter in the face of such difficulties. It makes me realise that so many of my ‘Western’ problems are not really problems at all. I have the freedom to go where I want, when I want. I have a place to call home, documents to prove it, and a support network to help me when I struggle. And for all those things I am truly thankful.

This morning I read this article from the Irish Times about homelessness, and it brought home to me more than ever the importance of helping others wherever we can. You never know how much it means to someone if you just take the time to have a conversation, or to buy them a coffee. Though a small gesture to you, it might just be enough to help them get through the day without turning to drink, drugs, or worse. And as Christmas approaches – surely the hardest time of year for those who have fallen on hard times – it’s more important than ever not to look the other way. Because, to me, the true spirit of Thanksgiving is not just being thankful for what we have, but, in turn, offering whatever help we can to those who aren’t so fortunate.

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A snap from Thursday’s Community Dinner – volunteers and friends alike. Such a great night!

 

New Endings

Today I am tired: dog-tired. Lately I’ve been burning the candle at both ends and the outcome is not pretty – bad skin, concentration span of a gnat (not intimately knowing their cognitive capabilities, I acknowledge this may be unfair to gnats) and the general feeling that I am clinging to my raft on the fast-flowing river of life by the tips of my fingers, with only moments to spare before I fall off and am pulled beneath the murky depths (that last bit was the hungover melodrama speaking, best to ignore it).

But today four things happened that snapped me out of the downward-spiralling torrrent of my own selfish emotions:

  1. I read the news from Calais, where fire is ravaging through the Jungle camp as I type this, and, at the very same time, unaccompanied minors are being sent back there to wait until they can be processed.
  2. I heard a piece of  news from England, which nearly made my heart burst with happiness and joy.
  3. I received my fourth book through the Facebook book exchange I signed up to a couple of weeks ago, which has gone some way towards restoring my faith in humanity.
  4. I watched this video by Prince Ea, which made me realise that those of us who are lucky enough to live in relative freedom are the masters of our own destiny. We can make as many excuses as we like for why we don’t put ourselves out there, but in the end all that will come of our procrastination is regret.

Too often we let our minds wander, thinking of all the paths we could go down but failing to take even the first step along one of them. Fear is a paralysing force, and a toxic one. So many of us stay in the trap our fearful minds have set for us, instead of facing our fear head on and saying, you know what? I’m not falling for this. Not again.

Collectively, as Sapiens (I urge you to read that, by the way, it will change your perspective on everything), we’re not doing that great a job of things: segregating ourselves by our countries of origin and religious beliefs, killing our planet, killing one another. But individually we can still make a difference. For all our faults, we humans have such capacity for kindness, for love, for hope. Even in the Jungle, where those awful fires are burning and people’s future is so uncertain, people are dancing. I’m sure those very people could teach the rest of us a lot about what it means to be happy, and how little we really need to find happiness, and peace in our hearts.

As Prince Ea says in his video, you cannot go back and make a new beginning. But you can start now, and make a brand new ending. It’s not too late to change ourselves, or to change the world. All it takes is courage: to feel our fear and do it anyway. I don’t know about you, but I plan to do exactly that.

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Tat’s Life

I’ve been fascinated by tattoos for as long as I can remember; intrigued by the stories they tell, by their boldness and their permanency. I had my first one done around the age of nineteen, and whilst I can’t say it was the most profound of experiences (if I recall correctly I’d imbibed at least two pints of cider after a university lecture and had dragged my reluctant friend to the tattoo parlour with me intent on getting a dragon on my hip, but when we got there and they didn’t have any dragons in the book I opted for a four leaf clover instead – lucky I’ve never regretted it. But then, how can you regret luck?), it set me on a path of discovery that I’m very much still following today.

Each tattoo since that first one has held more emotional significance. The second, a literal translation of ‘inner strength’ into Cambodian script on my lower back, was done after a long term relationship ended badly in 2007, and I wanted to mark the start of my recovery by remembering the happy time I had spent alone in Cambodia before news of my ex’s infidelity broke. The next one came along after a stint of travelling in 2011. Written in English on my foot, it is the last line of a Buddhist prayer (‘May all beings be free), the full version of which my parents kindly gave me as a talisman on a necklace before I commenced my travels. On that trip I had a magical experience with a green turtle whilst diving in the Perhentian Islands off the coast of Malaysia, which I felt was relevant to the last words of the prayer (and hence also to the meaning of the tattoo). I also happened to meet the person I sincerely hope to spend the rest of my life with, who makes me feel more free to be myself than anyone I’ve ever known.

And then there’s the newest addition to the tattoo clan. I’ve been toying with this one for a while, and it’s been particularly difficult because it is related to the thing I’ve struggled most with for the majority of my adult life: Writing. Some of you may know I went part time a year ago to focus more on my writing, but due to a severe lack of discipline on my part, ‘success’ (whatever that means) hasn’t materialised in quite the way I’d hoped it might. So I’ve recently decided to take off some of the pressure, to try and write ‘for love’ instead of fame and fortune. And to help me both with my writing and with the new transition I’m about to make to life as an expat in Brussels with my partner, I decided one more tattoo was appropriate – this time the unambiguous word ‘Believe,’ written as if by a feather quill, which is also included in the design, and which stretches over onto the top of my arm.

I’m sure none of my tattoos will be to everyone’s taste, but all that matters to me is that they are to mine. Not only that, each one (with the exception of the clover, but I love it nonetheless) marks important stages in my life – beginnings, endings, declarations of hope. Each to their own, I say. Maybe I will be embarrassed by them one day, when I’m old and wrinkly and they no longer look as good as they once did. But, like my wrinkles, my tattoos will go to the grave with me, and they will tell the story of adventures, of love, of aspiration: They will tell the story of a life well lived.

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Banishing Self-Indulgence

Earlier today I wrote one of those typical woe is me blog posts, alluding to how hard everything felt, how lacking I was in inspiration etc. But before I posted it I stopped, my finger hovering over the mouse key, and asked myself: What good will it do to share this with the world? It may well be cathartic to get things off your chest, but haven’t you done that just by writing it? Don’t you feel a little lighter as it is? And you know what? I did feel lighter just for having written it. Much like a letter to an ex that never actually gets sent, I had expunged the negative emotions without the need to inflict them upon the world. So that was one thing that happened today.

Another thing that happened was my reading of this article, which can, I believe, be best surmised by the following excerpt:

“The 8-hour workday is too profitable for big business, not because of the amount of work people get done in eight hours (the average office worker gets less than three hours of actual work done in 8 hours) but because it makes for such a purchase-happy public. Keeping free time scarce means people pay a lot more for convenience, gratification, and any other relief they can buy. It keeps them watching television, and its commercials. It keeps them unambitious outside of work.

“We’ve been led into a culture that has been engineered to leave us tired, hungry for indulgence, willing to pay a lot for convenience and entertainment, and most importantly, vaguely dissatisfied with our lives so that we continue wanting things we don’t have. We buy so much because it always seems like something is still missing.”

I don’t know about you, but reading those two paragraphs struck a chord so deep within me that the hairs on my arms stood up of their own volition. Why? Because that person with no time to be ambitious outside work, who feels constantly dissatisfied in a way they struggle to articulate and who spends money they don’t have on ways to make themselves feel better: That person is me. And most likely also many of you. Of course (trust fund children aside) we have to work for a living (and in this respect with a four day week I can complain less than many about my lot), but it’s so true that outside work it takes (what often feels like) a superhuman effort to cultivate the kind of extracurricular activities that leave you feeling wholly satisfied and fulfilled.

But, that aside, the fact is that those with true talent and passion DO manage to make the most of the time they have, no matter how little it is. They don’t sit around complaining about being oppressed and enslaved by the organisations they work for, but rather work out ways to escape their clutches and create opportunities for work – and living – on their terms. Whether incarcerated by consumerism or not, we all have choices. And our choices are the difference between a life of success and a life of failure. Which is a pretty sobering thought.

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There’s more to life than work

As I write this I am standing on the tube with two full Tesco bags literally dripping with sweat after sprinting from the office to the tube station because I’m rushing home to make dinner for a friend.

The stress of this situation’s got me thinking: Why is it only on the days you really have to leave the office on time that a million and one things crop up at 5.01pm that require your immediate attention? Is it some kind of divine test? If yes then I’m afraid I’ve failed, because not only have I not managed to deal with the million and one things that cropped up (I maybe managed four), I have also fully lost my composure (hence the sweaty mess that virtually stands before you-though it must be said that this ridiculously hot day has also played a significant part in that).

I suppose I should be grateful that these days I have a job where I’m usually able to leave soon after 5pm. Back in the dark days when I worked in leaflet distribution (I’m shuddering as I type those words) I regularly stayed in the office until 10pm, which is ironic given how unimportant that job was compared to the one I have now (I’m not sure my ex-boss would agree with that, or my ex-client come to that, but it’s true).

Even in my last job working for another charity I rarely got out of the office before 7pm. Working late is a culture, I know, especially in central London, but it’s one I’m no longer prepared to adhere to at the expense of my sanity and mental well being, especially now I’m in my thirties (sob).

In the vast majority of cases I doubt people’s productivity at the end of a ten or more hour stint in front of the computer is even worth their being there, but often they feel duty bound to stay because others are, or because they fear their slave driver boss will haul them over the coals if they leave (which, if my previous experience is anything to go by, they most likely will).

Well, count me out thanks very much. After ten years of imbalance I’m taking it back and making time for ME. I do my job and do it well, but at the end of the day I want to have an evening, whether it be to enjoy with my friends, exercise or do my writing. Without that I feel trapped, and whilst I’d rather not be sweating into my shopping bags right now because I’m so desperate to enjoy my evening, when I’m drinking an ice cold glass of Pinot Grigio by 6.30pm it will all have been worth it. Cheers.