I intend for a moment to return to the analogy of “the untidy room”, to which there is a self-evident need to restore at least a semblance of order out of chaos and upon which I opted to focus in an earlier blog. Come to think of it, some, if not many people turn to this-or-that complementary coping strategy – formal and/or otherwise – simply because, for whatever reason, they perceive their lives to be in some sense of disorder and even, at times, disarray. Nor is there anything fundamentally wrong with such an approach. Indeed, most of us have been there at some point in our lives. What matters is that we recognise the discrepancy that exists between on the one hand, the magnitude and intensity of our problem(s) and on the other, our, at times, woefully inadequate ability to coping with such need. However, before we introduce new items of whatever form into any ‘room’, it is surely important not only to return things to their proper place, but also to make optimal use of whatever items and space we already possess.
The whole point and purpose of these blogs is to encourage and motivate you to make a start, or to continue with (as the case may be) that very process. Not infrequently, genuine progress demands just such removal of clutter and redefining in the mind’s eye of both needs and likely helping strategies. Some of these will be basic, such as the need for regular and good quality night sleep. Others will appeal more on the basis of personal preference, given the nature of whatever needs are ‘calling’ for recognition and attention. Truth to tell, there is an essential “backcloth” to every individual life which in reality is jointly made up of the mundane and the spectacular, the commonplace and the unique, the reassuring and the challenging, the comforting and the threatening. And do also remember that whatever we now seek to introduce that is new and to-date untried, it too will necessarily be set against that same backcloth. I refer of course, to those unique ‘tapestries’ – some relatively simple, others complex, elaborate even – which represents the sum and substance of our lives to date.
Whatever happens next (even just reading this volume) will begin both to contribute to and draw upon it; and in that way, gradually at first but then more and more, become associated with and integral to it. Think of it as a backcloth on a theatre stage that both sets the scene and delivers meaning to whatever drama is being acted out on the stage itself at any given time. This is a somewhat difficult point to make in simple written form, but nevertheless one, which in my judgement is of great importance, so I shall pursue it. And I make no apology for returning to and once again drawing upon my experience gained during those undergraduate days of illness referred to in my last letter. Looking back as one now does over so many years now passed and gone, it is so temptingly easy to believe that somehow, in the event, everything just happened to fall into place and come out right in the end. The truth is of course, that it didn’t and it doesn’t – at least not in that simplistic way – whatever the coping strategy attempted or being applied. Key (and at times, seemingly chaotic) elements of threat and feelings of failure or frustration cannot and will not be simply negated away by the application of whatever coping strategy. So let me share with you what crucially and genuinely did (and does) help, but especially so during that initial period of perceived threat and danger.
One morning (fairly early on in my illness and the morning after receiving decidedly unwelcome illness-related news) I drove my old car up to a range of hills known as The Braids, at the north-eastern end of the Pentland Hills overlooking Edinburgh and almost the entire Firth of Forth. It was a glorious spring day (although only ‘on the outside’, if you know what I mean). I sat there parked for a while in a kind of “lay-by”, gazing out over “Auld Reekie” (Edinburgh) in all its magnificence and splendour: a strangely well-ordered (as it seemed at that moment) conglomeration of buildings and steeples, historic sites and landmarks. The story, in the form of known and recorded history of that ancient township is fascinating enough, with unlikely but true enough tales abounding about life in the “old city”, its historic and venerated University, of its great loch which is now Princes Street Gardens; of the Edinburgh “Folly”; of “Greyfriars Bobby” and so very much more beside; all heart-throbbing and fascinating stuff. How much more eloquently might the old mews with their cobbles really have “cried out”, in a kind of conjoint testimony to aspects and facets of all human life hitherto unrecorded? Keeping sentinel, as it seemed to me that bright sunny morning, was the great castle itself, perched high on its ‘dais’ of solid rock and at its side and rightly sharing equal status, “Arthur’s Seat”. Had I binoculars to hand, I could so easily have brought both of those ancient landmarks into sharp relief, to the point where one could surely have held detail in view, ordinarily apparent only in “close-up”, e.g. individuals, alone or in groups, moving about the Castle grounds or somewhere near the peak of the long since extinct volcano. (As it happened, I had the previous year with student friends – and in different times (and mood) journeyed through the darkness of the city’s streets, out and up to the first light of dawn on Arthur’s Seat, there to wash our faces in the dew one 1st of May). Truth was however that such a binocular, i.e. ‘close up’ and detailed view would have been entirely incongruous to the panoramic landscape of city and sea now stretched before me.
As – all in perspective – it lay so settled and so magnificently before me, somehow a thought also began, slowly at first, to dawn in my brain: as with the view, so perhaps in life. Any attempt to perceive and review one’s life as one does (and as is from time to time needful) i.e. in that “panoramic mode”, was constantly, as it seemed to me being distorted, fragmented and – yes – even displaced almost entirely by the intrusion of an “out of perspective” and thus dominating and controlling power that I was beginning to allow illness to assume. Moreover, it was distorting and even threatening to destroy so much of tried and trusted worth and value that still, in reality, not only had a vital role to play and place to fill, but which represented the only “in perspective” bona fide ‘picture’ of that essential “backcloth”. If only I could perceive my life events – past and present – as now I beheld Edinburgh; not in binocular, i.e. close-up mode, but with due reference to and within the context of everything that had been and was part of the twenty odd years of my life up to that point in time and – just maybe – what was to follow. Somehow, it helped and comforted me enormously to view a scene, which most decidedly did contain and embrace other (some of them not unremarkable) features and landmarks. What about my belief, ‘stuttering’ forward as indeed it did (and still does) into faith in and commitment to a Providence, a power and a purpose, which from childhood on I had – however falteringly – somehow simply and increasingly trusted? By courtesy of that faith – faulty, flawed and unfinished though I well knew (and know it) to be – I had come to experience so much that belonged to my peace, such as it was (and is).
Then there was my burgeoning awareness of vital on-board resources, which, one way or another, I was coming increasingly to believe, held the key to unlock and release an intended purpose and power. This in turn was facilitating the increasing sense of an inherent strength and resource, to daily ‘weave’ current circumstances and events into the overall pattern and density of life’s tapestry, affording – so I began to hypothesize – ever greater authority, relevance and meaning. There were also my cherished, courageous and devoted parents and family members, every one of them – whether now deceased or happily still very much alive – with whom, I had shared and from whom I had learned so much (whether from this or the other side of “the divide”). There was also so many kind and caring friends who, sometimes it seemed, had often just popped up out of nowhere at moments of need. Perhaps above all, there was the invaluable and unique contribution as I – albeit dimly – began to perceive that I could only myself make, so that even the most horrendous of experiences could theoretically at first, then step by step in real life, only ultimately further fulfil and enrich.
Now – and well over fifty years on, * – I look out of my study window at this moment of writing and perceive a mighty oak tree, which is home to many small creatures which I both value and share this life. There it stands, simply yet imperiously, just at the bottom of our garden. It too is part of a familiar present landscape to us; i.e. of the River Clyde ‘snaking’ along the valley ‘floor’; of fields and farms and pine forests and – in the far distance on this lovely clear and bright day – the Campsie Fells of Renfrewshire and the Kilsyth Hills beyond. On my desk just to hand, are a few coins, one of which is the smallest of all our legal tender, namely the five-penny piece. If I hold this tiny coin, at arm’s length (of which it would take millions to entirely cover just that part of the oak tree in my view) I can see both coin and mighty oak beyond. However, if I draw the coin nearer – and nearer still – eventually, the coin can actually block from my vision entirely, even such a mighty oak and much more beside.
Please believe me, your daily approach to and manner in which you regard your life (and of which relaxation training or whatever is but a key) is not only important; it is crucial. Surely no one would try to pretend or seek to in any way suggest that a potentially life threatening illness can somehow be sidestepped or negated. Indeed it cannot. Nevertheless, it most assuredly can be – and has to be – controlled and even accommodated, if peace of mind is to come, both for its own sake and in order that we might be put to profitable healing account now and in days to come. However – and although I have reached the end of this blog – we are by no means done with matters of preparation, as hopefully, what is to follow in my next blog will further reveal. (C) SB.
* I First wrote these notes over a further decade ago, for a very different reason and presentation to the one occupying my thoughts and intention at this moment in time. Since then much has changed in my life: my darling wife has passed from this life (almost ten years ago now); I am well retired and moved from our then home in the beautiful Clyde Valley, Scotland, to the scenes of my youth in the South Midlands. However they seem to me to be so relevant and pertinent that I have included them here.