I left my day job last week. It was no small thing to do, but it still feels like the right decision. I spent the last two years working as a Service Manager for an integrated community mental health service. It was a privilege to be able to lead such a great bunch of people, and to work together on things that really matter. So why the change?
Firstly, these kinds of jobs are exhausting. Managing complex services, huge budgets and high risk, high stakes situations demands so much that at the end of the working day there is very little left. I also know myself well enough to understand my own strengths and weaknesses, and to know that the developments I hope we set in motion now would benefit from someone else to come in and complete. Partly this is because I tend to be more focused on ‘big picture’ thinking but find the messy complexities of implementing change at micro level much more challenging. I also possibly lack the toughness to manage well the political infighting and sometimes downright poor behaviour of people who really should know better. Change always turbocharges these kinds of interactions. I am not sure it always brings out the best in me either.
I also decided to step away for other reasons. I was determined to ensure that work did not become a deepening rut that became harder and harder to step out from. It is so easy to get used to the routine and the salary, such that fear prevents any kind of alternative possibility, even when at times we have lost all passion for our task. I have other things I want to do, and these were not possible in the exhausted margins of high level management work.
What next then?
I feel great excitement in that I have been gifted with the opportunity to spend some time doing some creative things;
My own writing. I am determined to finish a novel, which has been nagging at me for a few years now
Some interactive collaborations with other artists/musicians
Consideration and development of a poetry network around social justice themes
Working with Michaela to further develop Seatree as an income stream
Change has to also embrace uncertainty. This is not always comfortable but for now at least it feels good, exciting, hopeful.
I have also decided to continue to use this blog as a semi-transparent journal of some of my journey. This was not a straightforward decision; my writing has in recent times get me into trouble. Also blogging is in many ways rather an out dated concept. However, I reminded myself again of the reasons why I started this rather self obsessed narcissistic activity by looking back at this post.
We each have two parents, four grandparents, 8 great parents, 16 great great grand parents and so on… so it is that the genetic ties that bind us backwards towards our ancestors reach outwards into ever greater numbers.
At a certain point however, the mighty family tree that roots us all collapses in on itself. It can not stretch into ever greater diversity because the numbers of humans are finite- the more so as we go back into history. Mathematics dictates that at some level, all of our family trees must entangle.
The startling point made by Adam Rutherford was that this shared family connection is not a feature of some distant pre-history, when we all shared a cave, or were cast out from a garden. The tangling actually takes place around 600 years ago.
At that point, if you draw a line through all European family trees they will intersect. It is not that we do not all carry slightly different strands of genomes from all over the place, just that the individual mixture is far less significant than the shared whole.
Quite literally, we are all part of one family.
What is it that forces us towards exclusivity? Perhaps this is mathematics also- that we simply can not hold in our minds the countless twists and turns in our inherited DNA.
It is like trying to count the grains of sand on a beach
Or giving name to each and every one of the migrants who mass at our borders.
Who wash up on Mediterranean shores.
Whose hope filled hovels we clear in the name of sanitisation and order.
The distant relatives are coming to visit. How inconvenient. But no matter how much we pretend them to be something ‘other’, it remains a fact encoded into our very DNA that they are not.
I am not a natural socialite. Close friends will scoff at the very idea. It is not that I do not love people, their stories and their humanity, it is just that as I get older I appreciate more and more my own interior space, made safe by the love of my family.
This is at odds however with a deeper more universal truth about who we are as humans; we are above all things a social animal, made to live together, not apart. Accepting that we are all variations on a bell curve, it is a matter of common observation that our society is increasingly individualistic and isolating. We interact via screens, and our interaction is filtered, constructed, lacking flesh and authenticity.
Does this matter? I have written before about the relationship between loneliness and all sorts of health outcomes;
Measurable genetic and immunological benefits to good social contact
Biological changes as a result of physical contact- hugs for example.
Increased incidence of cardiovascular problems in people with lower amounts of social connections.
Lower general morbidity associated with higher amounts of social contact.
A study finding lower incidences of strokes on women
Lower blood pressure in men, and a faster return to normal blood pressure after stress.
Measured differences in the narrowing of arteries.
The unexpected fact that if you have contact with more people, you are LESS likely to have colds.
Memory loss in old age declines at twice the rate in those poorly integrated.
General links between enhanced cognitive performance and social interaction.
A reduction in mortality for those who attend regular religious services! (But not just to ‘warm the pew’.)
There is also a rather important connection between loneliness and materialism/capitalism which I talk about more in this post. The accumulation of stuff, and the exultation of buying power over just about all else is a recipe for unhappiness and disconnection.
I received a CD in the post today- I think this is perhaps the first time I have ever ‘pre-ordered’ an album but the combination of talent and timeliness was too much to ignore. The album is a collaboration between George Monbiot and Ewan McLennan, and here is the blurb from George;
It is our natural destiny to be apart, to fear and fight each other: this is a claim that has gathered momentum ever since Thomas Hobbes published Leviathan. It is a claim with no foundation. We evolved in a state of mutual reliance. Defenceless alone, we survived only through cooperation.
But the mythic destiny appears, in the 21st Century, to be approaching fulfilment. Our time is distinguished from all other eras by its degree of atomisation: the rupturing of social bonds, the collapse of shared ambitions and civic life.
An epidemic of loneliness is sweeping the world. The results are devastating: depression, paranoia, anxiety, dementia, alcoholism, accidents and suicide all appear to become more prevalent when connections are cut. To stand back from the state into which we have fallen is to marvel at this misery. It is to witness seven billion people walking past each other.
A new ideology of detachment celebrates social collapse with a romantic lexicon of lone rangers, sole traders, self-made men and women. Corporate lobby groups and thinktanks argue that the defining characteristic of human relationships is competition. They insist that our primary aim is to maximise our wealth and power at the expense of others, to engage in a Hobbesian fight of all against all.
But the levels of altruism and empathy human beings display are unique among animals. While other species might go to great lengths to help close relatives, humans assist people with whom they have no familial connection, sometimes at great cost or risk to themselves: I think, for example, of the Jewish boy my Dutch mother-in-law’s family hid in their attic during the German occupation.
The claim that we are inherently selfish suits those who wish to hold us apart, the better to control and dominate. It persuades them that their ruthlessness and greed are merely a fulfilment of their biological destiny.
So how do we respond to this trend towards social breakdown? An article I wrote about it for the Guardian went viral, and several publishers asked me to write books on the topic. I could think of nothing more depressing than sitting in my room for three years, studying loneliness.
I wanted instead to do something engaging, that might not only document the problem, but help to address it. And what has more potential to unite and delight than music? So I went to a musician whose work I greatly admire, and proposed a collaboration. We would write a concept album, a mixture of ballads and anthems, some sad, some stirring, whose aim was to try to break the spell which appears to have been cast upon us; the spell of separation.
I suggested that I would sketch out the stories and a first draft of the lyrics, and Ewan would turn them into music. It has worked out better than I could have imagined: I hope you will agree that something quite special has emerged from this collaboration.
Our aim is that it should not stop here, that we should use our performances to help bring people together, to overcome our stifling collective shyness and make friends among the strangers in our midst. “Only connect”: a century on, E.M. Forster’s maxim remains the key to happiness.
On first listen, this is music with something important to say. It is also beautiful. Buy it.
Or don’t bother- phone a friend and suggest a trip to share a beer.
Go for a long walk through the woods and speak of unimportant things.
Laugh a lot.
Fart and express faux-disgust.
Let the space between you shrink a little.
So that when you part, you do so with soul enlarged
(Should that friend be me, I am busy blogging/pontificating about loneliness I am afraid.