From €8.99

I went for a buffet lunch last week. The sign on the window read, “From €8.99”.

My reaction, 1: “That’s the lowest price, printed in large font as a marketing hook.”

My reaction, 2: “Okay, so what’s the price for me?”

The €8.99 was for under-16s and over-65s. A €9.99 price was for students and unemployed. Everyone else, €10.99.

My reaction, 3: “Typical. I pay the most.”

Something somewhere in my brain piped up at that instant.

It told me, “You’re thinking about this all wrong.”

So I tried to think about this differently.

I am not under-16, so by that criteria I am a mature adult.

I am not over-65, so by that criteria I am in the prime years of my life.

I am neither a student nor unemployed, so by that criteria I am educated and working.

And I realised I could be grateful for all these things.

That I am a mature adult, educated and working, in the prime years of my life.

And not just that, but I could be grateful too that there is good food available.

Grateful that there are good people willing to cook it for me.

Grateful that I had enough money in my pocket to pay for it.

And grateful that there was peace in the streets for me to walk there and back.

Gratitude is a gift that comes from within.

Your beautiful, magical, miraculous uniqueness

No matter who you are, no matter where you’re from, no matter where you’ve been and no matter what you’re going through right now, there is nobody in this world who is just like you.

You have a unique set of skills and education and personality traits and life experiences.

If you’re 20 years old, you’ve lived approximately 7,300 days, and on every single one of those days you learned new things.

If you’re 40 years old, you’ve lived approximately 14,600 days, and on every single one of those days you learned things.

You have experienced countless situations. You have learned certain ways of thinking and being and acting.

Your uniqueness is beautiful and magical and miraculous.

Don’t try to be anyone else. Don’t try to live up to norms that other people have dictated.

Jeetender Sehdev, author of The Kim Kardashian Principle, says:

Find what’s unique about you and amp it up.

Your uniqueness is miraculous. Embrace all of it, warts and all, with self-compassion and love.

Not black or white, but grey

I’ve been working hard to be okay with everything I don’t understand. It seems that every time I think that I have something understood, that some previously unconsidered variable presents itself that blurs the boundaries of the black and white and turns everything grey.

A line from Erwin Goodenough, a historian of religion who taught at Yale University for four decades until his retirement in 1962, and died just three years later, on why complexity is central to everything important in the world:

A book on love, loyalty or justice would gain little but pedantry by starting out with a concise definition of the term. Only as we describe the various conflicting elements associated with such words can we finally arrive at a meaning that includes these complexities; for important matters we understand, not as we simplify, but as we tolerate the paradoxical. 

And another from Richard Ford, from his great novel Canada, a passage about chess as a preparation for life:

My mother encouraged my playing. She told me her father used to play in a park in Tacoma against other immigrants, sometimes competing in several games at once. She thought chess would sharpen my wits and make me more at ease with how complex the world was, and make confusion not a thing to fear – since it was everywhere.

Things are not black and white. Things are never black and white.

The more something is presented as black and white—or any of its polarising variations: us and them, this or that, north and south—the more unreal it becomes.

The world is a patchwork quilt of greys.

I will try harder to embrace that inexplicable complexity, to face the world and its randomness head-on, and to look at confusion as not a thing to fear, since it is everywhere.

And while doing those things, I will also try harder to breathe, and be present, and be grateful for everything I hold dear, including you, reader, you who are reading these words, wherever in the world you are. Thank you.

What I learned about life from Dennis Lehane and a long day’s walking in West Cork

Everyone’s got their thing.

You do, and I do.

Your thing will be different to mine, and both will be completely different to someone else’s.

So many of us don’t know what our thing is. We conform to group identity because we need community and because there’s safety in numbers.

But the big downside of group identity is that it makes it a little harder for us to express our individuality, because to express our individuality risks announcing our separateness, and to be separate is the be apart from the group.

And to be apart from the group is a risky thing. We know this without consciously knowing it. We know it deep within the cells of our million-year-old brains, which has evolved to need some tribal safety.

We are also unique individuals and to experience joy, we need to express that individuality. We need to live in a way in which our thoughts, our words and our actions are in alignment.

And we need to be doing our thing. Whatever that is.

There’s a line in Dennis Lehane’s historical crime novel A Given Day:

Craftsmanship is just a fancy word for what happens when labour meets love.

That place where labour meets love. That place where craftsmanship happens. That’s your thing. (Note that “labour” is not just the work you get paid for. It’s everything you get up and do.)

So, how might we get to our thing?

We get there, I think, through curiosity for something new, through trying that thing that we’re curious about, and seeing if it’s something we might like.

And when we find that we like something, we’re more likely over time to find ourselves developing some skills in it, and when we develop some skills at something, we like it more and develop even more skills in what might become an infinite virtuous circle.

After that, it’s about acceptance.

Accepting fully our own individual gifts, and accepting fully the individual gifts of others.

A final word on “doing your thing” from the beautiful Toni McDermott from County Cork. (I’ve lost myself, repeatedly, in the beauty and energy and light of those eyes…)

A few summers ago on a summer trip to County Cork in Ireland’s south-west, I went for a long walk that took me from Skibbereen to Union Hall and across the Poulgorm Bridge past Glandore, and through the little village of Leap (pronounced “Lep”).

In Leap there is, or was, a series of portrait pictures of local personalities from Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way, a tourist trail of boundless beauty that runs from Cork in the south to the tip of Donegal in the north.

One of those portraits is of Toni McDermott. On the day I walked past, something in Toni’s face told me to stop, and listen to the silence.

Toni’s photo was adorned with a small black ribbon and a note to say she had passed away three weeks previously.

Her favourite quote, in tiny lettering? Get up and do your thing.

Things break down

There’s a line in the Irish writer Donal Ryan’s novel The Thing About December.

Interfered with or left alone, everything eventually turns rotten and dies.

It’s a miserable thought. It’s also profoundly true.

This post is about running.

My relentless self-experimentation since early 2017 has brought me to a stage where not only do I know that running is good for me, I have the numbers to show it. I averaged around 90 kilometres of running a month for about six months last year. My levels of energy and productivity and wellbeing were all high too.

Then winter came, and the wet and the wind and the pervasive dark, and the running stats slipped. Not slipped, but nosedived. I went from 90km per month to around 20.

It’s probably too simplistic to say that this alone caused my mood to darken — I could probably come up with a dozen other variables — but the low run numbers coincided squarely with an extended depressive episode which blighted my mood almost every day from December until March.

With run targets on the horizon and the mornings brighter and the evenings lengthening, I came back to running, passing 90km in March and breaking the 100km barrier in April.

I had started the year with a 24-minute parkrun personal best, and the rhythm of getting out on the road several times a week had taken it under 22 minutes I was on a roll.

But things break down. Interfered with or left alone, everything eventually turns rotten and dies.

First to go were the runners. They had served me well over the past year, but my big toes had been peeping through for a week or two and suddenly a gaping hole appeared. For the bin.

Next were my headphones. Taking breaks from technology are essential for me, but I have come to love the company of my headset, listening to podcasts or music interspersed with voiced updates from my running app every kilometre or two. But the on-off button stopped working one day last week, and that was that.

Then, the hamstring. It came, most frustratingly, not from running but from a tennis social night, stretching to reach a shot I would have been better off letting go.

In the space of a week, my essential equipment, my nice-to-have tech and, worst of all, my body had all broken down.

Listening to personal development teachers, a common recurring epithet has been mentions of Jack Canfield’s equation, E + R = O.

Event + Response = Outcome

I’ve had three negative Events in the space of 10 days or so. My Response so far has been to wait it out. To save for the unbudgeted expense of new shoes, to replace the headset, and to allow the hamstring to heal.

Waiting might be the right response, but it might not. There are other responses available to me, which will replace the body movement of running with the body movement of something else, and might shorten the recovery time. These other responses might not be straightforward. They will require some thought and planning. And they will likely be outside the comfort zone that I — unconsciously but so carefully — construct for myself in every new venture.

Because I know this for sure. Another couple of weeks without body movement and the Outcome, for my mental and physical health, is unlikely to be good.

Here goes.

——

P.S. Speaking of Responses, and thinking of a maxim that goes “The opposite of a profound truth is also a profound truth“, a good response to the everything turns rotten and dies profound truth is offered by wise old Snoopy.

Liverpool and the art and energy of never giving up

Last night, I watched Liverpool.

I could say that I watched Liverpool vs Barcelona in the Champions League semi-final, because that’s what I did, but mostly, I was watching Liverpool.

Let me try to explain why.

In the context of being Irish and watching the English Premier League from across the sea, almost everyone here, at least almost everyone who’s male and has any interest in sport, follows or supports a certain team.

You can sometimes guess from their age the team they follow.

Leeds United have not been a force for 20 years or so, and it’s more than 40 years since their heyday of the 1970s. So there are a disproportionate number of Irish men in their 50s and 60s who still follow Leeds.

Nottingham Forest too. They’ve been out of the top division since 1999 and it was 20 years before that when they were winning European Cups with Brian Clough at the helm. There are many Irish men in their 40s and 50s, stirred by being boys when Forest won back to back European titles in ’79 and ’80.

For my part, I was always a bit confused. The first goal I remember seeing, when I was five or six, was by Everton, who were a big deal back in the mid-80s, and so I followed them for a while.

Manchester United and a perfect soup of circumstance

When I was a teenager we moved home and settled in next door to a family of ferociously ardent Manchester United supporters. This was an era when United presented the beauty of Kanchelskis and Giggs and the brawn of Schmeichel and Bruce, and when Eric Cantona combined brawn and beauty in one crazy package, and when our fellow Irishman Roy Keane wore the captain’s armband.

In that perfect soup of circumstance I was won over entirely by United for a while.

But when it comes to sports teams I’m fickle. It’s not part of my identity, so I usually drift away before I’m entranced by something or someone else.

The Arsenal of Arsene Wenger did that a little. There were six months or so in the late ’90s when I was enchanted by the wonder of Derby County, who had assembled a cosmopolitan team of Eranio, Baiano and Wanchope and played some of the most sumptuous football I’d ever seen.

I was watching football all the time back then. These were the years of the late teens and early 20s when for a few short years life opens up and we can make choices without the weight of responsibility. Football was one choice I made. But not football for tribalism and confrontation. Not football for winning. Winning didn’t matter, not really. This was football for art. Football for beauty.

The poet John Keats wrote that “beauty is truth, and truth beauty”, and that feels right. Certainly, nothing can be beautiful, no matter how perfect it looks, if it doesn’t hold the ring of truth. I’m beholden to this genuine, honest beauty in every facet of life.

Over the last two years, Liverpool have done this for me. They have offered beauty and truth in many different ways, and they did it again on Tuesday night.

So I didn’t tune in to watch a Liverpool-Barcelona Champions League semi-final. I tuned in to watch Liverpool.

I tuned in to see how they might respond to the predicament in which they found themselves. 3-0 down from the first leg in Spain, without two of their best players, against a Barcelona team which included Leo Messi, maybe the greatest footballer in the history of the game.

It was an almost impossible task for Liverpool. Due to the vagaries of the rules, if Barcelona scored just once, Liverpool needed to score five (a 4-4 aggregate draw sending Barca through on the “away goals rule”).

And yet, as the old Adidas ad used to say, impossible is nothing. Nelson Mandela is supposed to have said “everything is impossible until it is done.”

The atmosphere on the field visibly changed and shifted as more than 50,000 people at Anfield transferred their bottomless collective energy to the home team. Liverpool players became bigger, stronger, faster, more powerful and Barcelona, legends or not, wilted and collapsed beneath the white heat of the red army they were faced with.

I’ve said and written more than a few times, here and elsewhere, an affirmation that I’ve been playing with.

It goes like this.

Energy is the currency of the world.

At Anfield on Tuesday night, Liverpool and their fervent supporters had that energy. From the first moment the players feasted on the belief of the fans, and vice-versa, in an endless virtuous circle that turned the night into a catastrophe for the ages for the visiting superstars.

Never giving up, in the face of all rational evidence that tells you that you should, is an art.

It’s an art in that there doesn’t appear to be any real science to it. Never giving up is emotion and belief and faith and lots of other intangible things that add up to something miraculous. (Julian Edelman, the New England Patriots wide receiver, was caught on mic when his team were 28-3 down in the Super Bowl. “It’s gonna be one hell of a story.” The Patriots never gave up, and it was one hell of a story.)

But it’s possible that the foundation of all art is energy. And energy has occupied the minds of the greatest scientists. I’ve never been great for physics and Einstein and all that jazz, and I’d need a crash-course to get my head around E=mc².

On Tuesday night, energy created a perfect canvas for the thousands inside Anfield, and the tens of millions of entranced viewers around the world.

Including at least one fairly fickle football follower in rural Ireland, won over by beauty and truth and energy and art wherever he finds it.

Reverse dominoes

In their iconic personal development book The One Thing, Gary Keller and Jay Papasan write about the domino effect.

It’s a beautiful framework for achieving bigger and better results. From the website:

On its own, a domino isn’t much. It’s about two inches tall and weighs about as much as a small box of matches. But with the domino comes a force. In fact, one domino has the capability of knocking down another one that is 1.5x its size. This seemingly infinitesimal ability compounds to produce incredible outcomes.

When it comes to problem-solving, it can work in reverse.

Playing reverse dominoes with problems helps identify the root cause by allowing us to pick out one domino at a time, figuring out what caused it to fall, and then repeating the process with care and thought.

When we know the root cause, we can make more informed choices to solve the problem.

Reverse dominoes are not without some pain and struggle and emotional labour, in two ways: both in determining the root cause, and in deciding what to do about it.

Is the root cause a problem that can be solved?

Only you can decide that, but knowing what it is helps.

Sticking plasters only go so far.

Episode 15: Health and wellness therapist Sarah Breslin on quitting the rat race, mainstream vs alternative medicine, and the far-reaching benefits of a colon cleanse

 

The magic paradox

When it comes to happiness and fulfilment, there’s a clear tension at play.

The tension between the happiness of the moment, and the happiness of the future. The tension between the fulfilment of doing your best right now, and working towards the fulfilment that comes after lots of time and lots of toil.

It is common, much more likely than not, that one will erase the other.

That choosing the pleasurable thing now makes life difficult further down the line.

Or that working relentlessly to improve that life of further down the line makes the present difficult or even unbearable, for you or for those closest to you.

There is a balance to be found.

I’ve started calling it the magic paradox.

The magic paradox of absolute self-acceptance and committed self-development.

Working hard to accept ourselves fully today, and working hard to make ourselves better for tomorrow and beyond.

It’s a paradox because accepting ourselves fully is, at one level, saying we don’t need to be better. That we are whole and full and enough, absolutely enough, right now. And that absolute self-acceptance is essential.

And it’s a paradox because committing to developing ourselves, to improving ourselves, to changing the things that we can change and that need to be changed, is essential too.

 

 

Election posters, freedom of choice and personal development

The local and European elections take place later in May and the campaign hustings and hustlings are in full swing.

It got me thinking about the people peering out from the election posters.

There’s a campaign of a different type under way around Ireland to get candidates and constituencies to sign up to become poster-free zones, as part of an environmentally aware movement aiming to crack down on single use plastics.

Without posters candidates may well double or treble the number of leaflet drops as they try to get their name and face into the collective consciousness.

This political PR drive appears to be an ever-present attribute of living in a free democracy.

To misquote someone much wiser than me, democracy might be terrible but it’s the best we’ve got.

The people seeking election are a mix always of the great and the grotesque. People so selfless that they give everything of themselves for the betterment of their society, and people so selfish that running for office is the obvious manifestation of their power-hungriness and self-aggrandisement.

It can be hard to know the difference from a poster smile. A doorstep conversation is informative; the opinion of someone you respect even more so.

Public office may be the best we’ve got when it comes to democracy, and democracy might have lots of imperfections but it has lots of incredible upsides too.

Those of us fortunate to live in free and democratic societies — and this advice is squarely for myself first and foremost — would do well to thank our lucky stars to have arrived at this point in history after all the decades and centuries of dominion and oppression. Things are not perfect. Far from it. But things will never be perfect, and constant cycle of improvement continues to gather pace.

But as people we’re bigger than just democracy too. Democracy happens around us and for us, but for the most part most of us don’t pay it much attention.

Democracy is about the collective, but as individuals, we have so much power too.

We can make things better — for ourselves first, for those around us next, for society and the world last — every waking hour of every day. A small gesture, a decision to do things just slightly differently, a commitment to that decision.

If personal development, the very concept of you as an individual striving to make yourself and your situation and the environment around you better, is new to you, it’s okay to start selfishly.

It’s not just okay, but necessary, to start with yourself.

Running for public office is one way to make things better.

But it’s not the only way. It might not even be the best way.

The mix of the selfless, tireless community workers and the power-hungry local Napoleons might smile down from election posters, but you’ve got the real power of individual choice about what to do, think and say.

At election time and everywhere else too.