When my wife Charlotte died suddenly and unexpectedly at Easter my auto reflex kicked in. My busyness gene went into overdrive, and I turned into even more of a whirling dervish than usual. Some might say that over the next six months my list of achievements was impressive:
- Organised the funeral and all the admin which piles up when someone dies
- Set up a Just Giving site in Charlotte’s memory and raised £17,000 so far
- Edited and launched my business book “My Job Isn’t Working!”
- Finished our barn restoration project
- Had friends and family from all over to stay, or went and visited them
- Organised the biggest party our household has ever seen (it was my 60th three days before she passed)
Along with learning how to cook, garden, clean……
I knew all along that all I was doing was buying time whilst I got over the shock of it, and that at some point I would have to face the music.
So a few weeks ago I took up a very kind offer from within the family to stay in their holiday home in the Scottish Highlands. My trusty cocker spaniel Ross and I headed North for two days and found ourselves in a scene of astonishing beauty: the sea literally feet away, with views across the Sound of Sleat to Skye and its mountains. It’s a land of sea eagles and otters, surrounded by majestic and immortal mountains. There we spent a week together, just the two of us. I hardly spoke to any other humans. The TV remained off, and I went offline and read, wrote, listened to classical music. Above all, FINALLY, with no to-do list, deadlines or distractions, I did some deep thinking.
It was an exquisite mix of pain and joy, because two days after arriving I found Charlotte again, waiting for me quietly with her gentle smile. We had at last reconnected, and instead of keeping her at arm’s length because of the pain, I found I was able to commune with her again. Ross and I spent hours on beautiful long walks, during which I talked with her openly and freely once more. Now that we have reconnected there has been no going back, and all I ever find is a smiling loving face and the support and encouragement I so badly need. At last I can visualise her for more than three seconds without pushing her away. I think (I don’t like to sound too confident, and I know these things can come and go) I have come to terms with “IT”, as we call her death.
This has to be the most personal Blog I have ever written, or am indeed ever likely to write. I’m doing it because I want to share what I have learnt and I know that most of us suffer from the same addiction to busyness that I used to. Maybe I can help you reflect on this and find your own way to slow down, or even stop, so that you too can connect with what’s important. It’s taken me 60 years and the equivalent of a smack in the face with a baseball bat to come to my senses: maybe you can do it sooner, without the bloody nose.
One book that hit me harder than any other was When Things Fall Apart, by Pema Chodron. Drawn from traditional Buddhist wisdom, it helped me to find some personal insights which I realise have until now eluded me.
Pema caught my attention with this type of wisdom:
“We think that by protecting ourselves from suffering we are being kind to ourselves. The truth is we only become more fearful, more hardened and more alienated.” This resonated fully and painfully with me. She got me in one.
I now recognise that from an early age, like most of us, I have been striving to achieve, almost at the expense of everything else. In my early days this was to please my parents primarily, and to show them a good return on investment in my education. Since then my life has been a relentless pursuit of achievement in my career and in my personal life. Ultimately it has been about ego, status and being competitive with both myself and others. I’m not proud of it.
The breakthrough thought is that living life like that means you end up living in the future, constantly working towards goals or objectives, and in my case this has resulted in not living enough in the present. I have concluded that I don’t need to achieve any more: what I have built so far will more than suffice.
Far more important is to learn to LIVE, and to grow myself by being more present. In that way I will find more peace, and continue to be able to connect not only with Charlotte but with other important people in my life. The black hole inside me will never go away and will always be bottomless and painful. But I can grow myself and encircle it so it becomes less significant. That will require letting go of my ego, and achieving what Pema calls “egolessness”. I love that word: if only a few more of us had it.
The other profound insight Pema has given me is to recognise that life is inherently fragile. It is built on sand, and yet we spend our whole lives trying to nail everything down: to derisk it somehow, by giving it what we think is structure and predictability. This is never going to succeed. You cannot have love without grief, or pride without a fall. Everything we value has a natural opposite, and the sooner we accept that the sooner we can release ourselves. The sooner we do that the sooner we can find peace.
I can’t recommend the book highly enough. It was the catalyst for me: a powerful but warm and loving slap in the face, leading me to some life changing conclusions. These mean reading more literature and fewer business books. Spending more time outside, exploring the beauty of where I live more fully. Less time chasing new business and more time with friends and family. Less time on the laptop and more time meditating, reading and playing the piano. Saying no more confidently when I spot a time stealer, and holding firmer to what I find meaningful. Staring out of the window and allowing myself to be idle rather than checking my social media likes. The list of objectives for the year has been thrown away. I will be no less active, but it will be activity which has more meaning.
If you can relate to this and find yourself living life in the future, let me urge you to reflect on that. How much of what you already have are you letting slip through your fingers through too much focus on the future? When are you going to allow yourself to stop?
You don’t need to have a wake up call like mine to make this change. It’s a choice, and it’s sitting there waiting for you.
Please share this article if you know someone who might find it helpful.
If you would like to know more about what led to Charlotte’s death and the research work into thrombosis which we are supporting by raising £50,000 (yes, I think an objective is relevant in this instance), here’s the link to her Just Giving page.