Sunday, April 16, 2006

Road to Damascus or road to nowhere? 

I wanted to write this down and record what it contains before it was lost, washed away by the rising tide of daily routine. I want to be able to come back to this, a brief moment in time when I seemed to see something clearly, at times when I’ve lost that clarity. Whether this turns out to have been a Road to Damascus experience or just another road to nowhere remains to be seen. But at least I’ll have something against which to make that assessment.

I was sitting in church and, frankly, not paying a great deal of attention to what was going on. We musicians were tucked away to one side and being the first to go forward to receive Holy Communion also had longest to sit and, I suppose, meditate, as the rest of the congregation filed to the front. Being a little way removed physically, as well as out of sight of the minister, it’s all too easy to become mentally (and spiritually?) detached also.

So although I could have been said to be meditating, it wasn’t exactly on the theme of the day. Having no immediate focus, my mind began to wander, as minds will do, starting with whatever thought-pictures happen to drift into its field of view and following wherever their random connections lead. I think it was thoughts of a life of service, taking the most general interpretation of that word, that sparked it all off. Yesterday I discovered Roger’s blog There’s Always Something… and the essence of this phrase from his bio stuck in my mind: “I am a retired clergyman who loved his job and managed to do some good in some nice cities and among good people along the way.”

What would I say, in twenty years time? I am a retired engineer, who managed to pass through forty years of employment with as little impact on those around him as possible. To take the metaphor of a Biblical parable, which after all seem appropriate here, I took my one “talent” and buried it in the ground, where it survived largely intact albeit getting a little battered and tarnished over the years, as a result of being dug up every so often just to check it was still there.

When you feel caught in the iron grasp of a monster, too close even to make out its face properly, all you can do is struggle to be free, without knowing quite what is that you want to be free from, or what form freedom will take once you’re away from the clutch of that life-sapping embrace. Perhaps church buildings still carry a feeling of sanctuary associated with them; sufficiently removed, for the time being, from the clutches of that work-monster, I began to be able to step back and see the face of what it was that I’ve been fighting, in a detached, self-watching-self, kind of way.

To begin with, I thought it was just a question of finding a better balance – that’s what seemed to have been frustrating me for all this time. Too much work and not enough play; I bitterly resented the way in which I never seemed to have enough time or energy for reading, walking, writing, blogging, even just thinking. But that way of thinking has become an old and creaking treadmill; following force of habit, I step into its prison-like enclosure, wearying myself as I trudge on around the same thought patterns, always pushing against an implacable resistance, then step off, exhausted and disheartened, at precisely the place where I began.

Thoughts of service of some kind had been in my mind, but pursuing service alone I’d be no better off. That sense of balance would still elude me; I’d be serving for serving’s sake, because, not being able to conceive of anything else, it seemed at least one way of providing an answer to that dreadful deathbed question of “was it all worth it?”

I came back again to that idea of balance. An either/or kind of balance didn’t feel right – either/or derives from conflict and results in tension, and the balance becomes an uneasy truce between competing sides. But if it’s not a question of resolving conflict, be that conflict between life and work or between self and others, then what is it? Sitting off to one side in the church, tucked away behind the other musicians, it was easy to find pencil and paper and jot down what came to mind, as the rest of the congregation continued to file forward to receive communion.

The result took me by surprise. Three elements dropped straight out of the air onto the paper. And not one of them was directly about work, or nature, or any of those things which perpetually fight for supremacy of position in my mind.

Growth. Self expression. Service.

As I looked at those words, I realised that they contain everything I’m looking for, everything I need for fulfilment. And they’re hardly even three; they’re all intimately tied to each other, even though they are clearly identifiable on their own. And the value of each lies in how they support the other two.

There’s a cyclic relationship in the way that growth first drives self-expression; then the self that seeks expression is one which has a need to serve; and the challenges of service in turn bring about growth. Then, within that outer cycle are inner cycles. Self-expression brings self-discovery which leads to growth; growth gives back to self-expression an enhanced confidence, assurance and an expansiveness of spirit. These cycles are like breathing, one half of the relationship taking in, the other giving out; yin and yang. Service stretches and challenges and brings with it further self-discovery and self-awareness, which in turn feeds back to its source by way perhaps of a form of counselling of those served, helping and encouraging them to find and follow their own versions of this growth cycle.

It’s easy to see now how all of those things which matter most to me fit into this picture. Reconnecting with nature is part of renewal and growth; writing is self-expression, and I still have a dream that my writing may in some way be of some help to others; photography is a means of expressing my own appreciation for the beauty and wonder of the natural world, and if I can communicate that to others then that, too, is a form of service. Music too is clearly another form of self expression, and I’ve long recognised how playing bass suits my personality perfectly – properly played, the bass stays almost hidden in the background for most of the time, yet it’s there to support the other players - and musical theatre, with which I’ve largely by chance become involved, when its best has the power to cause people to reflect on what they see of themselves in the characters on the stage.

Having followed this train of thought through, I’m amazed at how these three elements really do seem to contain everything. Every single thing I seek locks neatly into place, forming a coherent and consistent whole. I’d been looking the parts in isolation before, and feeling the discomfort of realising that each, on its own, would never be enough. Like the desire to get out there among the hills; on its own it appears as a selfish activity, carried out purely for my own pleasure. And if that’s how I approach it, then that is what it becomes. But approached in a conscious and deliberate spirit of personal development, renewal and growth, there is no cause to consider it to be selfish pleasure.

I could use this model as a kind of litmus test – does what I plan to do take me deeper into the territory of one or more of these areas, and does it do so in a way that supports the others?

With all this in mind, it’s easy to see where that recent “Is this all there is?” post came from. As I live at present, growth, self-expression and service are all insignificant perturbations that happen at the periphery of life. Yet they should be at the core, the very centre, the heart from which all else finds its inspiration. At the moment though, they have been marginalised and the centre has been taken over by my work, which I’ve rather unjustly demonised – not because of what it is, but because of what it is not.

I’m employed for what I know, not for who I am. A brain on legs; heart and soul are unnecessary. Growth, in the eyes of my employer, would be represented by greater knowledge; technical knowledge, of the industry and of technologies. But that’s not the kind of growth I’m thinking of. Growth and self-expression are two sides of the same coin, and the self I feel a desire to express is, for the most part, not a techno-wizard self. On their own, such things leave me cold. The growth I seek is to find ways of developing, expressing, sharing and encouraging the kind of expansive, generative approach to issues that Michael and Chris
will be exploring here.

I suppose it was over the matter of self-expression that my conflict with work first became apparent – a classic case of square peg/round hole syndrome.

The service idea is more complex. True, the organisation for which I work is a public service organisation, yet it serves the public en masse; interaction with its “customer” at a personal level is almost non-existent. It’s true, we’re trying to get away from that ivory tower image, but we have a long way to go and by its very nature, the “service” (broadcasting) will always remain essentially impersonal. And since my part in that is about as far removed from anything approaching a direct public service as it’s possible to get; in practical terms of what I do day to day and the people with and for whom I do it, my work is essentially indistinguishable from that of a counterpart in a profit-driven organisation.

When I was having counselling, there was one question I could never answer: “Andy, what do you really want?” Maybe next time someone asks that, I’ll be able to tell them: I want to grow; I want to express myself; and I want to serve humanity, both individually and collectively. I’m comfortable with that framework; it feels right, and it feels complete. Nothing omitted and nothing superfluous; nothing that’s arbitrary example as opposed to deep principle.

John opened his sermon this morning by asking why we were here, and going on to ask if anyone came to be surprised. I didn’t see any especial significance in that question at the time, but now, six hours later: Yes John, I’m surprised – amazed – at what’s fallen out of a few moments inattention at an Easter morning church service.

Back to current posts