How Do You Want Your Story to Go ?

The Jewish psychiatrist and Auschwitz survivor Viktor Frankl famously wrote in his book about the psychology of everyday life within a concentration camp, Man’s Search for Meaning:

“There is a gap between stimulus and response, and in this gap lies all our freedom”

Put another way – we cannot always control what happens to us, but we can strive to control how we respond.

Frankl wrote that those who couldn’t find anything positive in their circumstances, quickly lost hope and gave in – which always proved fatal for those in the camps. Those who could cling to something positive, no matter how small – even just a slight improvement in the weather, avoiding injury during the day’s work, or a tiny morsel of food, stood more chance of making it through another day.

When facing challenges – from the trivial to the profound, we fundamentally have two choices available to us:

- We can respond negatively – feeling sorry for ourselves, letting the world ‘grind us down’, adding to our sense of anger, resentment, regret, disapointment and ultimately unhappiness.

- Or we can respond positively – accepting things as they are but not letting them overpower us, ‘rising to the challenge’, picking ourselves up and ‘making the most of it’.

Which we tend to choose is influenced of course by our personality and experience, which collectively tend to give us all our individual ’default settings’. Our emotional ‘default setting’ might make us more inclined to tend towards anger, distrust or resentment, or alternatively, we might be one of those lucky individuals who tend towards  gratitude, enthusiasm and joy.

In many situations we might all find ourselves confronting another emotional ‘default setting’: FEAR.

I don’t want to knock fear too much – it’s what stops us running through fast moving traffic and trying to pet rabid dogs, but as with many of our emotions, in our modern complex lives, it can all too often work against us – forming a barrier which prevents us from doing what we want, standing up for what we believe, or simply pushing our comfort zones from time to time.

It’s a topic full of cliches, but there’s no getting away from it – if we want to have richer, fuller, more meaningful and enjoyable lives, we will first have to summon-up the courage. Our fears can be tremendously limiting – stopping and trapping us; not just fear of physical harm or pain, but fear of rejection, fear of ridicule, fear of disappointment and fear of failure.

We all feel fear, but we need to learn to control it, and where necessary ignore it and just ‘do it anyway‘.

If this all sounds like tremendously annoying ‘be all you can be‘, ‘how to achieve anything you want‘ self-help mumbo jumbo, it might be you’ve missed the point . . . It’s not just about how we strive for the pinnicles of life, it’s also about how we lift ourselves out of the gutter !

Managing to see obstacles as challenges to be overcome, rather than insurmountable dead-ends, is how we rouse ourselves out of depression, how we gradually come to terms with tragedy, grief and loss, how we continue to live life every day despite illness, injury, or infirmity, and how we manage to keep smiling and encouraging others, even when we’ve not got much left in ‘the tank’ ourselves.

Tess Marshall, blogger on Bold Life, writes that ‘the difference between someone who fails and someone who succeeds is the courage to act, repeatedly’. She’s not talking about scaling Everest or managing hostile business takeovers, but as a young mother of four under four year olds, battling on against exhaustion and depression, taking it just one day at a time.

There is a lot we can do to help ourselves get control of our fears and negative emotions – focusing more on the present moment rather than the future and past, trying to reframe possible failure or rejection in a more positive way, analyze our fears – many are at least partly irrational, and not least by taking things in small steps.

Another option is to try and ‘catch some courage’ of someone else. Bravery, like laughter, is contagious. Most scary things seem less scary faced together with others, or at least with the support of a friend.

Failing that there are endless examples and stories of inspiring individuals amazingly overcoming difficulties and tragedy.

The two examples below are two of the most inspiring I’ve seen on the internet – if you’re having a rough time at the moment, perhaps a bit scared of the future, or struggling with a particular difficult decision, perhaps they may inspire you !

“Sometimes courage is simply saying ‘I will try again tomorrow’ “

 Mary Anne Radmacher-Hershey


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Photo by Natalie Lucier, via Flickr

31 Reasons to be Cheerful

Sometimes the scale of the problems and injustice in the world can blind us to the fact that not only are many wonderful and amazing things taking place, but also that many things across the world have improved considerably over recent decades. From time to time we should pat ourselves on the back as a species and take encouragement from some of our successes.

1  The percentage of the world’s population living on less than $1.25 a day is falling

2   Energy efficient LED light bulbs are getting cheaper

3  More and more companies are embracing corporate social responsibility, like M&S’s Plan A

4  Global life expectancy has increased from 53 to 69 years since 1960

5  The volume of Fairtrade sales continues to increase despite the downturn

6  The world is producing more food every year

7  More women are involved in running the world

8  25,000 items are swapped daily on Freecycle - keeping 500 tons a day out of landfills

9  The UK opened the world’s biggest offshore wind farm in 2012, and plans to build more

10  The American Bison has been restored to a population of over 350,00 from only a few thousand

11  79% of people in the developing world now have access to a mobile phone, vital for communication in the absence of landlines

12  Though it might seem hard to believe, the long term trend is of fewer people dying in armed conflict year on year

13  2.2 billion people are now connected to the internet, with relatively free access to news, information and education

14  The world’s illiteracy rate halved between 1970 and 2005

15  Though the world’s population is still increasing, the rate of growth has been falling for 40 years

16  Thousands of efficient and less polluting cooking stoves are being provided across the developing world

17  The percentage of world population with access to clean water and sanitation increases every year

18  More and more people in the UK are growing some of their own food in their gardens or on allotments

19  1.8 million laptops have been provided to school children in the developing world

20  While still tragic, the percentage of children suffering from malnutrition in the world is falling

21  Despite set-backs, a record area of land was cleared of landmines in 2011

22  Despite the Feed-in-Tariff debacle, the UK Government still has ambitious plans for solar power - 22GW by 2020

23  The Southern White Rhino has been rescued from the edge of extinction to over 15,000 animals in the wild

24  Malaria eradication seems increasingly possible within a few decades

25  Rising numbers of people taking part in sharing and collaborative consumption groups like Getaround

26  The number of new HIV infections and deaths from AIDS has peaked and are now falling

27  Global GDP per capita is still increasing, despite the economic downturn

28  Europe’s fishermen no longer throw 80% of their catch back into the sea, dead

29  Solar panels are getting cheaper every year

30  Less children across the world are dying before their 5th birthday

31  The number of countries with endemic polio has reduced from 125 to 4 since 1988 – Something else Ian would be happy about . . .


Photo by Cheerful Givers, via Flickr

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Remember the Future ?

Written in response to a comment on a previous post.

As a kid in the 70′s and 80′s I was a huge science fiction fan – I still am.

If you’d asked me aged 10 what I wanted to do when I grew-up, I’d have said “go into space as an astronaut” !

Do you remember what the future was supposed to look like from the 1970′s ?

Tomorrow’s World and Star Trek promised us a utopian world filled with domestic robots doing our mundane chores, transport by jet-pack and hover car and perhaps the chance to explore the universe in sleek futuristic spacecraft.

But sometime during the 80′s the future began to look different – from Soylent GreenBlade Runner, and Robocop,  to the more recent Children of MenHalf-Life and The Road, popular visions of the future became far darker. Not that dystopias are anything new of course, but these pessimistic visions, loaded with societal breakdown and environmental degradation have now largely replaced any images of optimistic utopias in our popular cultural landscape.

Obviously much of this is just because imagined dystopian futures make for more exciting fiction, but I wonder to what extent it does reflect our deeper fears and anxieties about our future, facing possible economic collapse, social breakdown, pollution, peak oil-water-food, overpopulation and climate change ?

We seem to have no shortage of dire warnings and predictions of doom from many of the world’s scientists and commentators.

James Lovelock writes in his recent book The Revenge of Gaia, that the world’s climate tipping point may already have been reached, and he paints a possible apocalyptic future for coming generations.

Jared Diamond, in his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, compares the current degradation of our civilization’s supporting ecologies with those of previous civilizations before their collapse.

Slavoj Zizek, one of the world’s most influential living philosophers, believes the film Children of Men contains many signals and portents for our future.

Michael Ruppert’s film Collapse predicts the impending collapse of post-oil, consumption-based global economics, with his Collapse Network website helpfully offering a chilling collapse preparation checklist !

What are we to make of these predictions of catastrophe and urgent warnings ?

How should we respond ?

Just like every other problem we face in life we have a choice: run and hide, surrender or fight.

Running away and hiding from problems rarely works, and certainly denying the reality of the current global threats won’t! The more serious the situation, the more important it is to quickly face-up to it, accept it and understand it correctly, in order to be able to apply the right remedy.

It’s undeniable the world does face a number of significant challenges, and simply burying our head in the sand will inevitably lead to disaster. Psychiatrists sometimes use the term ‘panglossian’ (from the character Dr Pangloss in Voltaire’s Candide) to describe those who unreasonably and naively believe all is well in their life and the world, a form of extreme, almost pathological, optimism.

Similarly, giving-in and surrendering by asserting the hopelessness of the situation, and the pointlessness of even trying to remedy it, is just as ineffectual as denial. Defeatist ‘doomer’ pessimists don’t even get to enjoy the blissful ignorance of those in denial !

The result of groundless optimism or hopeless surrender is inevitably inaction, with the result that we continue on our present course, to its inexorable conclusion.

I believe that the only positive response is to choose to fight.

Fight in the sense of facing-up to the reality of the situation, and then doing everything we can to positively change our future, collectively and individually, and doing so with a sense of both urgency and hopeful optimism.

I think making changes in our lives to live more sustainably, be more compassionate and generous to others and, where possible, encourage others to do likewise, not only represents the greatest possibility of overcoming the various challenges the world faces, but is also likely to make our lives happier and more fulfilled, both as individuals and as communities.

I am generally a glass-half-full type of person, and am genuinely optimistic about the future. There are significant and urgent challenges ahead, but I’m confident we will, over time, succeed in building a better future for everyone on the planet. Of course there will be setbacks, perhaps some very significant ones, and things will never be perfect, but I like to think of myself as trying to be ‘part of the solution’, rather than the alternative . . .

I didn’t manage to become an astronaut, but I suppose I did get to travel through space . . . in the same sense that everyone living on the planet has :)   and in the words of Marshall McLuhan:

“There are no passengers on spaceship Earth, only crew”

Photo by NASA

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