A poetry reading to end the year

John O’Donohue has become our official 2020 poet – he has so much to say about life, faith, doubt and had more than his fair share of wisdom. He has been my guide for this year of years. This is a reading of ‘At the End of the Year’ from To Bless the Space Between Us (2008).

Wishing you and yours a blessed New Year filled, most of all, with hope. 2021 – we’re counting on you!

Hope Against Hope

Like Jay Gatsby, we humans have an extraordinary gift for hope. Despite dark days we have this incredible ability to seek solutions to problems, all the while believing that the light will come to shine once more.

It’s not always easy, and there are some who can access this precious gift more readily than others, but it is always available if we remind ourselves to seek it out. This involves a journey of discovery, of course, as we stumble along life’s often difficult roads, but it shines up ahead if we lift our eyes to find it.

Hope isn’t quite the same thing as optimism – rather than blindly assuming that all will be well, it offers us agency and sees a future that we can play our part in shaping. Clinging to hope during adversity is often the only option open to us.

Mady Gerrard was 14 when she was taken from her home in Hungary to Auschwitz concentration camp. Despite the horrors she witnessed there she was somehow able to hold onto hope. She made knitting needles from twigs, made necklaces from scraps of metal and today, having recently celebrated her 90th birthday, Mady continues to shine with that hope that pulled her through the darkest of times. “Don’t give up hope,” she says, while knitting mask protectors for NHS staff, cross that she can’t hug loved ones but hopeful for a brighter tomorrow.

As others have said in similar circumstances, hope is the last thing to die. Life is tough, scary, uncertain. It is often a challenge to navigate and to find our place. But when we hold out for hope we find better physical and mental health, and we find ourselves able to reach out to others too. Mady made necklaces in the dark. We can do the same in the knowledge that brighter days are surely ahead.

“Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul – and sings the tunes without the words – and never stops at all.”

Emily Dickinson

Christmas is almost upon us, a time of immeasurable hope. And at the end of the darkest of years for so many, with yet more restrictions in place and more uncertainty ahead, I plan to picture this feathery bird coming to rest on my shoulders and singing no matter what.

Hope is about the future. It is wide open and full of endless possibilities. Listen for its song, feel its wings. Hold onto it and soon it will fly free once again.

An audio version of the post

Only the Lonely

We all need to feel that we matter and belong. Connection is everything.  Humans rely on it for happiness, wellbeing and even survival.

To feel isolated and alone is devastating. Loneliness is on the increase and we need to talk about it. It’s all around but tends to be invisible, hidden behind walls of care homes or city apartments or student rooms. It’s hidden, too, behind shame and denial as we struggle to say the words: “sometimes I feel lonely”.

Adolescents and elderly people are most at risk: technological advances, a global pandemic and societal changes all add up to a dangerous moment in our human story.

People who are lonely are at higher risk of depression, heart disease, Type 2 diabetes. Add to that an increase in the production of stress hormones, lack of sleep, weakened immune systems and it is no exaggeration to say that loneliness is a matter of life and death. We are social creatures and we suffer when isolated from others.

In 1958 an American psychologist, Harry Harlow, carried out an experiment with infant rhesus monkeys to look at the effects of isolation. He set up two maternal shapes made from wire – one that held food and one that was covered in soft material – and then released the youngsters. Amazingly they all chose to run towards a soft figure for comfort rather than a wire figure that offered food.

We need each other. In a modern world that involves contactless shopping, private housing where neighbours don’t speak, interactions behind screens that avoid eye contact and tone of voice, we are more and more isolated. And for now we can no longer hug loved ones, visit one another, be part of a big crowd. Masks hide our faces, work is precarious or carried out from a distance, and fear is all around.

But all is not lost. Little steps are surely possible, for our own health as well as that of our family, friends and neighbours. Check in on each other. Reach out more. Phone calls, messages, even visits to doorways or waving through windows can all brighten someone’s day.

And as we connect we will find that we’re not alone after all.

Listen to audio version here

On Regret

Edith Piaf might have been wrong. I’m not sure it’s possible to live a life without regret but in many ways it might just turn out be a useful emotion in the end.

This one bites. Regret is a slow-burn of paths not taken and wrong choices made. We all regret things we’ve done but the majority of us tend to most regret actions not taken – those things we didn’t do when we had the chance.

It seems that time is in charge here as we try to use hindsight to fix mistakes, looking ever backwards, while the clock ticks on the time we have left. If something is fixable we can find a lesson to learn and maybe even a silver lining. We can say ‘at least I tried’ if we take the wrong job. And during a global pandemic I’m sure I’m not alone in wishing I had hugged people more, or appreciated the little things like busy coffee shops or packed concert halls. I aim to be better at this in the future. But there are things that time won’t allow to be changed; such as choosing whether or not to have children, or training to become a sports star. And it is then that regret becomes toxic, because it’s too late.

We all tend to focus on the path not taken – the one strewn with flowers and sunshine and happiness – and then we become trapped and unable to move forward with hope. We see that path in those shining colours even though it is impossible to tell. There are no second chances, this is our one and only life.

A moving book called ‘The Top 5 Regrets of the Dying’ was written by Bronnie Ware, an Australian palliative care nurse, who talked to her patients as they came to the end of their lives and found that regret came up again and again. For men it was working too hard. For most it was not finding the courage to stay true to themselves. One patient simply says “I wish I had allowed myself to be happy.”

Incredible to think that we might look back on life and wonder why we didn’t see happiness as a choice. Sitting in our mistakes and regrets can teach us lessons and bring opportunities to do better next time, that’s true, but we need to stand up at some point and face the sun again. Roads not taken, paths that light the way, love that awaits around the corner.

Because time rolls ever on as days become days become days. Life is full and confusing and surprising. It is life in all its fulness. Let’s live it.

Click here for audio version!

When Rejection Arrives

There’s no denying it: rejection hurts. It happens regularly in life and each time it takes us by surprise. But we’re not alone and there are things we can do to help soothe our battered self-worth and breaking hearts. It can be a big life event such as divorce or redundancy, or small daily niggles such as social media silence or not enough ‘likes’, but it all feels painful.

There’s a lot going on in the brain when we experience rejection. In fact when we talk about the ‘sting’ of it, we’re not far wrong. Studies have shown that the same areas of the brain are activated during physical pain that light up in times of rejection. As always our brains are trying to tell us something. This probably stems from our evolutionary past when ostracism from the tribe could actually prove fatal. We have developed a requirement to belong in order to survive, so if we are not welcome in a social setting our ancient neural pathways light up in alarm. This brings pain, confusion and that familiar enemy – self-doubt.

When we are rejected we too often turn it inwards and blame ourselves. Suddenly we’re not good enough, attractive enough, funny enough, successful enough to be accepted. This attack on our self-esteem deepens the pain of rejection and delays emotional recovery. And perhaps unsurprisingly rejection does not respond to reason. We remain hurt, angry and wallowing in self-blame.

Creatives certainly hear the word ‘no’ a lot. Putting your work out there for approval is vulnerability in action – much like putting your heart on the line in relationships. Being vulnerable is leaving yourself open to rejection. It’s difficult. But so much is lost if we hide and try to avoid it.

Think of a world without Harry Potter, Apple devices, or Disney movies. JK Rowling famously received dozens of rejections for her boy wizard. Steve Jobs was fired before returning twelve years later to transform the company. Walt Disney was let go from a local paper when the editor noted that he “lacked imagination and had no good ideas.”

So here’s the lesson: accept vulnerability and know that rejection may follow. And when it does, remember that it is subjective. Soothe your emotional pain and stabilise your need to belong by surrounding yourself with supportive people who love and accept you.

“Vulnerability is not weakness, and that myth is profoundly dangerous; vulnerability is our greatest measure of courage.” Brené Brown