Monday, 26 January 2009


You hit fifty one day and it makes you think. It changes your point of view. You start to look back at where you came from. You are not so concerned about where you are heading, because you realise that although you might be on a long road, most of it is in the rear view mirror.

It is said that we don't see things as they are, we see things as we are. And at what might be optimistically called middle age (optimistic, since hardly anyone reaches 100, least of all men), figuring out who we are, and how the hell we got there, is perhaps the key to seeing things as they really are. And although the eyes are starting to fail, ever so slightly, the ability to see is improved. There is a clarity where before there was a fog. There are patterns where before there was confusion. There is, for want of a better word, perspective.

The other day I was thinking about life, as one is wont to do. More about my son's life really, as he has set sail and has been buffeted by unforeseen winds. And what I decided was that the long process of life can be divided into five stages. These stages are unavoidable. They should be embraced, appreciated, and accepted, and one ignores or circumvents or tries to curtail them at their peril. In any case, whatever one tries, it does not matter. Because these stages just are.

And what are they?



This is not a term paper or an exam. There are no correct answers, but since I made these up I will tell you what I think.



Life is indeed a voyage. But what kind of voyage? It has a beginning and an end. But
remember the First Rule of Biddle which is: Twixt beginning and end there is always a middle. (Who is Biddle ? An imaginary captain I made up once who had six rules about life. But more about that later).

We push off in the voyage of life and spend the first few years being guided down the path, or at least that is the plan. Our parents, our teachers, our friends, society....all have been set up to transport most people down a certain road, to travel but at someone else's behest. But people are not alike. No one is. People are not sheeple who when given the choice, always trod down the same well worn path with their head down. At the very least, people have the potential not to be sheeple. Not all succeed in plowing their own furrow, however, and those who don't are the least fulfilled, or perhaps even the least happy.

Another route (or root, depending on what you mean) of most people's unhappiness is when they either do not allow themselves to travel, or when travelling, do not make the most of the experience. Why bother going to another country if you have no intention of eating how the people of that country eat, or hearing what they hear-making a stab at their language, or behaving as they behave ?

You don't have to go somewhere else to travel. Travelling is a mental state, and all you need is an open mind. Never accept things at face value. Be curious. Check things out. Empathize. Learn from others.

The travelling phase begins in earnest when you leave home, when your hands suddenly find themselves on the tiller of your own boat. It is only then that you begin to discover yourself, and in discovering yourself, start to understand the world. The travelling phase of your life does not have a clearly defined length, nor is is sequential. It just is. My great aunt got married for the first time when she was 84. She got a divorce at 96, and then died. She was a compulsive traveller of the soul, and it didn't always end up right.

But she would be the first to tell you that the next port of call is always the most interesting.

Travelling is not about being a dilettante, however. It should not be aimless, but neither should it have a predetermined destination. Another one of life's little known disappointments is to arrive at where you wanted to go. Then what?

Take the word voyage. Its root is actually french, but since I making things up, imagine that it is a Hispanglish amalgam of voy or I go and age or get old, and you have a pretty good description of what I mean by travelling. Travelling is living. As Maude said in Harold and Maude, a tribute to sailing your own course:

" L... I... V... E... Live!, or you won't have nothing to talk about in the locker room. "



Notwithstanding what I have just said, life is not some big lark, galavanting around having experiences as you try to beat the reaper. At some point, depending on your circumstances, you have to put away childish things, and get out to earn your daily crust. The next big stage of your life (and one which unfortunately lasts a long time and will last even longer thanks to the credit crunch) is what I call travailing. Again, a french root. Travail, or work, but also the english sense of the word travail, which means a burden, or suffering caused by hardship.

Pain is the art entering the apprentice. Another french saying. To arrive at a level of basic competence, or indeed become proficient, or go further and become an expert at whatever it is you decide to do, requires an inordinate amount of work. According to Malcolm Gladwell in his perceptive book Outliers, 10,000 hours of practice is required to master anything. He has a great quote in that book about practice. Practice is not something you do once you become good; it is what makes you good.

Work for many is seen as a burden, a way of passing time or paying the bills, or indeed of surviving. So many people are ill suited to the jobs that they do; they are underutilised, underappreciated, underpaid, and underachieving. For a lucky few, work is not only an outlet for their energy and effort, but a source of energy that fires them on. And it matters not in which arena they operate, or indeed the level of their ability.

Work and success are seen by most to be entwined. People measure success by what work someone has done, and whether or not what someone has done works. The most obvious measure of this success is money, status, power, or fame, though modern life has perverted this list to money, celebrity, power, and notoriety. (An aside on celebrities. The difference between a celebrity and a normal person is that a normal person can only annoy people they know or they come into contact with, whereas celebrities have an almost unlimited power to annoy anybody: friend, acquaintance, or total stranger.)

Anyway, back to travailing. Success is not about money, status, power or fame, but more a question of attitude.

Consider what Beverly Sills, the opera star said:

To like what you do and know that it matters; what could be better than that?

And in order to pass through the stage I call travailing, what could be better than that?



At a certain point, practice pays off. It is like learning a language when you live in a foreign land. You start with basics, and progress at an incredibly slow pace as daily you learn word by word how to exist. After about six months, if you have immersed yourself totally, suddenly you realise one day that you understand, not just the gist, but perhaps some of the subtleties of what is going on about you. And from that moment on, you begin to revel in this new found knowledge.

Revelling is a series of short stages in life, brief shining moments of accomplishment. They might be something as simple as cooking a new recipe, or winning an award, or mastering some skill that had eluded you previously, or overcoming some fear. Revelling has only a little to do with public accolades or acclaim, and much more to do with self-satisfaction. It is the confidence that can only come with the knowledge that only moments before there has been self doubt, even terror, but something...hard work, preparation, pulled you through, and that you have performed to the best of your ability.

To be able to surprise others, you must first be able to surprise yourself, and there is nothing greater than the satisfaction that comes from within.

Revelling is a holy creation of the moment, but the memory can last and carry you through with the warm feeling of success. No hay atajo sin trabajo, goes the Spanish saying. There is no shortcut without work. But the warm flush of victory can make all that hard work feel like a shortcut, and once done for the first time, is a spark to light the fires of your endeavours until the embers finally die out.

Work hard at whatever you do. Aim for perfect and you'll get good. Aim for good, and you'll get mediocre. And if success comes, in whatever guise, small or large, then enjoy the moment.

Cap'n Biddle's second rule is: Enjoy each day to the full and then some, but know yesterday came and tomorrow will come.

Revelling doesn't only have to be about accomplishment or the self. Revelling is about enjoying and appreciating other people. Revelling is about love.

You must learn to love. It is not something which comes easily or happens quickly. Love is the sum total of countless moments, little pieces of a mosaic which can only be viewed from the distance of time, if you are lucky, or from loss, if you are not.

True love is that which can survive great disappointments, and can laugh or cry evenly at the accidents of chance.

You can only be whole if you can love and are loved back. It is a seeming contradiction that in order to receive love you must give it, unreservedly, selflessly, and without question, but it is true. Revel in it.

The ability to bask in the afterglow of your own effort and hard work and to share or contribute to the well being of others (love) is what revelling is all about. The first is about the celebration of self, and is a private affair. The second is about your fellow human beings. Both only happen with the passage of time, and both are really forms of love.



Life is not all about success though. The greatest lessons in life come not when you achieve what you want, but when you fail. You never appreciate life until you lose someone you love, or have something you have given your life to fail. The pain of loss is indelible. It is what make us human.

At this age, when the phone rings, there is an increasing chance that it might be bad news.

People die. Get sick. Get fired. Get divorced. Go bankrupt. Get depressed. Drift away.

Your body begans to decay. Ache. Gain new parts. Performance decreases. Memory dissipates.

Paradoxically, all these things, which might otherwise debilitate you, have the opposite effect of revealing the truth to you., and more to the point, they begin to make you more curious and more perceptive. Failure and loss give you a yardstick by which to measure life and people.

Churchill said: Success is not final; failure is not fatal. It is the ability to continue which counts.

Endurance is what matters in the end. As the great explorer Shackleton said to his mate in the wilds of the Antarctic: The old dog for the hard road.

As you get older, the process of revealing begins, for want of a better word, to reveal itself. You begin to wonder about the spiritual side of life. This may be manifested in religion, in poetry, in art. Basically it is (or should be anyway) about thinking, and about applying that thought to your experiences to make sense of it all.

My father told me: Er-bear, you must have a philosophy of life. Philosophy is a word which means love of wisdom. Wisdom is gained by experience. Somebody once said that at twenty you don't care what the world thinks of you; at thirty you care a lot about what the world thinks of you; and at forty, you discover the world wasn't thinking of you at all.

To which I can add, at fifty, you begin to think a lot about the world.

Philosophy also has another meaning, as in when you are philosophical about something. Calmness of temper and judgement. Equanamity. Fortitude. The ability to endure. Acceptance of things as they are.

My father also gave me his favourite poem: Invictus, by William Ernst Henley:


Out of the night which covers me
Black as the pit from pole to pole
I thank whatever gods may be
For mine unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance

I have not winced, nor cried aloud
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed

Beyond this vale of wrath and tears
Looms but the horror of the shade
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid

It matters not how straight the gate
How charged with punishments the scroll
I am the Master of my fate
I am the captain of my soul.

When I left home...really left home...and I found myself in a foreign country not speaking the language and really alone, I thought I could take comfort in this chest beating anthem. But I soon realised this was not my anthem. This was not my poem. I got a book by Lao Tse, the Tao Te Ching, and I wrote one of the poems down on a page opposite Invictus. Between the two pages I wrote WHICH?

This is the poem from Lao Tse.

Do you think you can change the universe and improve upon it?
I do not think it can be done.
The universe is sacred.
You cannot improve upon it.
If you try to change it, you will ruin it.
If you try to hold it, you will lose it.

So sometimes one is ahead and sometimes behind.
Sometimes one is weak and sometimes strong.
Sometimes breathing comes easily, and sometimes it is difficult.
Therefore the sage avoids extremes, excesses, and complacency.

I had made my choice. These are not my words, but they are my philosophy.

The is nothing new under the sun. As Dag Hammerskold said: We are not permitted to choose the frame of our own destiny. But what we put into it is ours.

We write our own story, but the words we use aren't ours. They are the words of all our ancestors. We only put them into a different order.

Lao Tse also said:

Knowing others is wisdom;
Knowing the self is enlightenment.
Mastering others requires force;
Mastering the self needs strength.

He who knows he has enough is rich.
Perseverance is a sign of willpower.
He who stays where he is endures.
To die but not to perish is to be eternally present.

In life we are not the Masters of our Fate or the Captains of our souls. We are only guardians of the story we write and we have no control over the ending, only something to say about the middle. If we endure, we become wise. Nonetheless we all perish, and the only thing that will outlast us are the words, the thoughts, and the love we leave behind.



We are all part of life's great tapestry.

Richard Feynman, the brilliant scientist, said: Nature uses only the longest threads to weave her patterns, so each small piece of her fabric reveals the organisation of the entire tapestry.

But like any tapestry, we wear out. We begin to unravel. This is another unavoidable fact. It is also another unavoidable phase of life.

I haven't started to unravel in a major way, but the process is already well underway.

As such, I can't opine on what it is really like, though I have seen both my father and my grandparents and my great aunt in the process of unravelling.

It is not pretty. On the good side, it is the only stage in life where we get to use all the skills and wisdom we have accumulated, all the lessons we have learned from our time in life. This is the time we should be continuing to weave our tapestry using all the materials at our disposal. We should be able to avoid the mistakes of the past. We have absolutely no idea what the future holds, but perhaps we can approach it with equanimity.

The only regrets that you should have at this stage is that you have not passed on any knowledge, any of your story. When my Dad died, I wrote the following:

I am the son of my father and the father of my son.
In this way life goes on.
I know now there is a meaning.
I know now there is a purpose.
The world is flesh and idea.
The flesh withers, but the idea lives on, and the fuel which keeps the fires of idea burning is love.
It is a simple thought, but simple things last.
This is the meaning of life.
This is God's message for our world.

Thus the idea behind this blog. My words. My story. My love.

Copyright Words and images by D Eric Pettigrew