Category Archives: Life & Philosophy

Safe for now

There were 6,188 deaths by suicide in the UK in 2017. Men are three times more likely to suicide than women; but suicide rates among women are at their highest rate for a decade. These are the facts of suicide. Each incidence of suicide represents a massive emotional upheaval : for the person who suicides; for the people who are left behind; for the emergency services and other support networks that are brought into play in the aftermath of a suicide. And yet most of us still find it incredibly difficult to talk about suicide; and the idea of raising the possibility that somebody is suicidal and may need our help, is a terrifying prospect.

ASIST – Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training – is a programme developed in Canada which is now being rolled out across England with support from the NHS and organisations including Samaritans and local authorities. I was lucky enough to complete the course on Thursday and Friday of this week, alongside colleagues from the residences pastoral care team at the University of Bristol. The programme starts by challenging individual assumptions and attitudes towards suicide, and reflecting on how those assumptions and attitudes may impact on our approach to somebody contemplating suicide.

The aim of the training is to equip people with a framework for providing ‘first aid’ to somebody contemplating suicide, with the overall aim of keeping that person safe for now. The emphasis is very much on building the confidence to identify and respond to the invitations to talk about suicide that people with suicidal thoughts will typically send out. These invitations may not be obvious – and may not even be deliberate. Changes in behaviour – becoming withdrawn and cutting themselves off from friends and family; behaving erratically; a sudden and unexplained fall of in academic or workplace performance – all can be signs that somebody is struggling to live. One of the key points of the training is the fact that asking somebody if they are feeling suicidal won’t put the idea into their head if they aren’t already contemplating it. And actually asking somebody if they are suicidal can be an enormous relief to somebody who may have been waiting for that one person to accept their invitations to talk about it.

The training is inevitably emotionally charged. An early session which invites participants to talk about their experiences of suicide revealed the extent of suicide and the impact that it has on family, friends and colleagues. In our group of 14 trainees, everyone had had some direct experience of somebody close to them who had suicided. In my own case, talking about those experiences exposed a part of me that had been suppressed for a long time, and the feelings were as raw as they had been at the time. That in itself is reason enough to increase awareness of suicide, and increasing the confidence and competence of all of us to speak openly with somebody who is struggling to live, and to support them to stay safe for now; and to put in place a plan to keep them safe in the longer term.

I hope that I will never have to use the skills that I’ve learned in the past two days. But I know that if I am in a position where somebody is struggling to live, I now have a framework to respond positively and in a supportive way to the invitations to talk about suicide; and hopefully to help somebody keep safe for now.

If you get the chance to attend an ASIST course, please consider it very carefully. I doubt that you’ll regret it.

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Passchendaele, Hedd Wyn, and enduring beauty

The centenary of the start of the battle at Passchendaele carries a particular poignancy in Wales. Amongst the first wave of casualties was Ellis Humphrey Evans, a farmer from Trawsfynydd in the foothills of Snowdonia, who wrote poetry as Hedd Wyn, and whose poem “Yr Arwr” – “The Hero”, would have seen him receive the Bardic Chair at the 1917 National Eisteddfod. Ironically Hedd Wyn translates as Blessed Peace, but it is clear that the reluctant soldier found little peace or blessing amidst the mud and squalor of First World War Belgium.

There is, however, an enduring and heart-rending beauty in the poetry that Evans left behind, and which is exemplified in his poem titled “War” (this translation by Louis Flint Ceci) :

Alas, this is an age so mean
That everyman is made a Lord,
For all authority’s absurd
When God himself fades from the scene.

As quick as God is shown the door
Out come the cannons and the sword:
Hate on hate on brother poured
And scored the deepest on the poor.

The harps that once could help our pain
Hang silent, to the willows pinned.
The cry of battle fills the wind
And blood of lads–it falls like rain.

In common with other First World War poets, Evans struggles to reconcile the peaceful orderliness of the world he has left behind, with the godless devastation of the battlefield. The observation that the suffering and pain of war falls disproportionately heavily on the poor and least powerful, is one that is repeated throughout the poetry of the time (and has been borne out in every conflict to the present day).

The senseless loss that is represented in Passchendaele is perhaps best described by Evans’ cousin, Gerald Williams, who still lives near the Gwynedd farmhouse that Evans’ was forced to leave on conscription : “All the cream of the young men had been killed – a whole generation wiped out – for what? I don’t know – it doesn’t make sense whatsoever. I don’t understand war at all.”

 

Box A, Box B or both boxes?

I’m up against it a bit time-wise today, but thankfully the Guardian has come to my rescue with a humdinger of a logic problem that has all sorts of philosophical implications.

The link to the problem is here.

I’d love to know what approach you’d take and why, so please don’t be shy – leave your comments below!

Better by design

There was a fascinating programme on BBC2 television last evening, reviewing the design innovations of Sir Kenneth Grange. Across an astonishingly diverse career, Grange has been responsible for the design of the Kenwood Chef, disposable razors, and the InterCity 125 locomotive. It was great TV and the sort of thing that the license-fee funded BBC can do, but which would probably be almost impossible to get commissioned on a commercial channel.

Prompted (I guess) by the programme, there was a feature on product design and marketing in today’s Guardian newspaper. Alongside a discussion of the Kenwood kitchen aid and an old style telephone handset, there are features on lip balm (some contain chemicals that actually make your lips dry so that you end up using more of the product!); and Heineken beer (with the smiley face ‘e’s that are deliberately designed to create a sense of happiness and fun in the branding.

Good design is critical to the success of products in a consumer-driven society; but it’s also important in terms of the quality of our lives on a day-to-day basis. Another story in the news today focuses on nature deficit disorder. This is the term being used to describe the impact of lives that are increasingly mediated through technology (television, computers, smartphones, tablets), and where many people spend virtually no time in the open air and green spaces, simply ‘being’ in nature. There is an emerging body of evidence that this is bad for us both psychologically and physiologically. Actually spending time in a green space looking at plants and trees, watching squirrels and birds, is good for our bodies and minds. And denying ourselves these simple pleasures can lead to physical and mental ill-health.

Mindfulness has gained something of a cure-all reputation in recent months, and there is (probably rightly) some cynicism about the extent to which it can really have all the positive effects that are claimed for it. Nevertheless, at the most fundamental level, creating space to simply be, focusing on the here and now in the physical world and concentrating on really experiencing the world around you as it is, seems to offer one route to addressing the damaging side-effects of an over-reliance on technology and indoor-living.

Perhaps we all need to think about designing in some time to appreciate the natural world around us as much as the wider, virtual world accessed through our screens. Have a good week everybody.

The positive impact of worrying

I used to have a poster on my bedroom wall which read : ” Don’t tell me that worrying doesn’t work, most of the things I worry about don’t happen!”

The reality of this has been brought home to me this week, when a number of potentially stressful situations – sources of severe worry at different times – have all been negotiated more or less successfully. Of course, the psychologists will point to the fact that a moderate amount of stress is a necessary precursor to successful completion of difficult tasks. We need to be ‘up for it’ and ‘on top of our game’ to be able to perform to our full potential. That has been true for me this week, but to be honest, it’s also quite wearing. There is a need to balance the stressful times with some rest and relaxation. Batteries need time to recharge. Stress enzyme levels need to be rebalanced. It’s not possible to keep operating at full speed all of the time.

So – sorry – no : there’s no chance of me making any progress on that list of jobs in the flat this weekend! 😉

Facebook wisdom : an unrepresentative sample!

For today’s post, I am drawing on some of the accumulated wisdom of Facebook that I’be collected over the past couple of years. These are the memes, cartoons and pictures that have either made me laugh, or touched a nerve, or otherwise given me pause for thought.

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This first cartoon fits firmly in the laugh out loud category. The look of trepidation on the sock facing the washing machine, and the reassuring appeal of his ‘partner’ to remember the buddy system is beautifully observed.

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This second one is both funny, but also touches on a more profound truth for anybody who is involved in education professionally, or who is simply a parent. Children and young people spend far more time being controlled, and exhorted to conform, than being encouraged to develop their creativity and flair. Another favourite meme features the slogan, “In a world of Kardashians, don’t be afraid to be a bit more Bonham Carter”, and appeals to the same principles as the dog cartoon.

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For reasons* that I can’t write about today, but that I will almost certainly return to when the time is right in the future, this final Peanuts cartoon carries a particular poignancy at the moment. It gently reminds us that however difficult things may get, life always deserves a chance to win through. That helps me to smile even at very sad times.

 

 

* In case anybody is concerned, this is about work rather than anything to do with family or my personal situation.

Truth stranger than fiction

I caught the end of a fascinating news report on BBC Breakfast this morning. Author Jeanette Winterson had visited a school in the Cotswolds to help the children there critically review the Cinderella fairy-tale, and then re-imagine it for the 21st Century. You can see the report and watch the video here. In part, the purpose of the visit was to explore the inherently sexist nature of the traditional narrative, and the version created by the children brilliantly re-writes the story’s ending to create a vision of an empowered and independent Cindy becoming co-founder of a successful business in partnership with the prince. The sassiness of shortening the name to Cindy, and the ambition shown for her by these primary school children is charming and inspiring in equal measure. The opprobrium of many of the viewers who contacted the BBC following the story, declaiming the ‘ruining’ of traditional stories, was as depressing as it was predictable.

Juxtaposing this story with the “you couldn’t make it up”, real-life story of Donald Trump promoting his public-school educated, merchant banker buddy Nigel Farage, as a potential UK Ambassador to the US,simply proves the old adage that truth is often so much stranger than fiction. But the sexist, racist, elitist messages that both Trump and Farage openly endorse, make the work of Winterson and a whole host of other, less prominent, people who are continuing to promote ideals of equality, fairness and justice, even more vitally important.

It is Edmund Burke, 18th Century parliamentarian and philosopher, to whom is attributed the saying that “for evil to triumph it is only necessary that good men do nothing”. Of course, taking our lead from Winterson, we need to change the “men” in the quote to “people”; but now more than ever, Burke’s sentiment must be a clarion call to everybody who opposes the narrow-minded, myopic, xenophobic, homophobic, mysogynist narrative of Trump, Farage and the motley crew of ultra-right wing ideologues that cling on to their coat-tails.

Fairy tales are quaint and can be indulged more liberally when the prevailing wisdom in society sees them as artefacts of a by-gone era when we were less enlightened. When the core messages of a ‘woman’s place in the home’, economic dependence on men, and a good marriage as the principal means of future security, are now part of mainstream political discourse, then its time for all of us to re-write the fairy tales.