A dismal dawn

It was a miserable Monday morning. Frozen fog clung to every branch and blade of grass, the temperature was well below zero and I had to be out early with the car.

The garage is just two miles from my home in normal circumstances, but the construction work for the new high speed railway line has made it into a five mile hike. The garage will normally run me home when I drop the car in to them for its MOT, but they are short staffed. The one bus of  the morning had just gone by the time I have negotiated the road closures and diversions and, to make matters worse, I could not make myself understood over the phone to the taxi company.

Shouting might have enabled them to hear me… but the pitiful croak that was all my voice could muster was not going to be able to maintain that volume for more than a few words. And then they hung up anyway.

I was cold, damp and shivering… I needed to get home and into the warm. I called my son, well used to the vagaries of my squeaky voice, and asked him to order me a taxi. He called back a few minutes later to tell me the two mile trip would cost me fifteen pounds… oh, the joys of living in a village… it couldn’t get much worse…

“Can I give you a lift?” said a voice out of nowhere. A runner of a similar age to myself was breathing great clouds of steam into the air. “I couldn’t help overhearing. Where are you going?” I told her, and loved the order in which she had asked the questions. She nodded at the oxygen tank on my back. “Are you in treatment?” I told her it was lung cancer… the one reason I could not just walk home. “My car is at the other end of the village, “ she said, weighing up the hill I would have to climb to accompany her, “wait here and I’ll be right back.”

How kind, I thought as I waited, little realising that she was not just parked at the other end of the village, she had actually run to get her car out of the garage, especially to take me home.

As we drove, she quizzed me about the prognosis and treatment and told me all about her friend who had also been diagnosed with incurable cancer, but who, with treatment similar to mine, has been healthy for years. It did not matter that every case is different, that the treatment and our response to it varies, what mattered was her kindness as she spoke with a certain amount of knowledge, reassuring without promising, adding a little hope to an otherwise dismal day.

Although the sun has not pierced the fog today, although the chill has lingered and has refused to be chased away, a little touch of kindness brought light and warmth to the morning. It takes very little sometimes to turn the day around, no matter how dull or how dismally it begins.

The quiet ones…

The computer decided to play the fool, doing unmentionable things with no provocation. I’d only just sorted the email that had blocked me from answering anything, even though it let me see all the emails piling up. And, to make matters worse, I have one of these horrid winter bugs that turn your brain to mush. By the end of the day, I had tried everything I could think of… it was time to ask for help.

That can be a difficult thing to do sometimes… not for a technical problem like mine, when we are all too ready to scream for any help we can get, but for the real things that affect how we can live our lives. My son and I have been talking about this a lot since his return from India, where the kindness and compassion of the people he met there allowed him to experience many things he would otherwise not have been able to access, and indeed, had it not been for a complete stranger, a ‘knight in shining armour’, his trip could have been a disaster from the start.

What does a knight in shining armour look like? They are everywhere, hidden in plain sight, quietly ready to take up the quest and tilt at windmills on our behalf. People are often ready to go to extraordinary lengths to help each other, as long as we ourselves are able to admit a need and accept the help that is offered. Compassion may see the need before we are ready to admit that it is there. It never makes a noise about itself, but simply gets to work to do what it can.

How do you define compassion? We all understand the word, but how often do we think about what it really means… both in fact and on a personal level? Looking up the definition in a dictionary, especially glancing at the synonyms, is a bit of an eye-opener and produces everything from pity to empathy. The latter is probably the best definition, as the word itself comes from the ecclesiastical Latin compati… ‘feeling with’. And that, to me, defines what motivates any act of compassion. Pity is a cold and distant thing. Sympathy looks on kindly from a distance. Compassion takes things to heart and carries them very personally. Compassion understands, if not through personal experience of the cause, then empathy and an opening of the heart. Compassion is love in action.

It is this awareness of the problems of others that allows us to place ourselves in their shoes, feeling their pain, sorrow or worry as if it were our own, just for a moment, and which allows us to act in some way that feels right. It may be something practical… a cup of coffee, sleeves rolled up to help, even good advice… or it may be something more ephemeral, like a hug or a smile or a simple word that acknowledges both presence and need.

There is a selective blindness sometimes to the hurt we can see lingering in another’s eyes. If we see, we have to acknowledge and then we feel… and must act. It is, perhaps, in self-defence that we have become able to insulate ourselves and we can be good at ignoring pain. So good, in fact, that we often cover our own and pretend it isn’t there. Part of that comes down to pride… few of us like to admit we cannot cope, regardless of the problem. Some of it has become ingrained… many children are taught not to whine. Boys are still taught not to cry… girls too, though it is still seen as more acceptable. Those who do speak and air their inner hurts often make us uncomfortable, whether we care to admit it or not and we may take refuge in some kind of moral superiority, feeling that we would not have said/written/shouted that… or else we try and ignore them; pretend we don’t see… like failing to meet the eyes of a tramp in the street.

While it is undoubtedly good to learn that tears should not be a first recourse when things go wrong, that there are things we can do, choices we can make, actions we can take, it is not, in my opinion, a good thing to teach our children to stifle their feelings. To learn a modicum of control, to learn not to be enslaved by reactive emotion is a different matter, but the ability to recognise, accept and express emotion lies at the heart of compassion. How can we ‘feel with’ if we do not first learn how to feel?

There is a huge difference between the tears shed in frustration or sentimentality and those that prick our eyelids when our hearts ache and bleed for the plight of another. When we can feel at least the shadow of their pain and heartache. It is these that can move mountains and change the world. And it starts with the small things.

What does a knight in shining armour look like? He looks like the man who opens a door for a young Mum struggling with a pushchair. He looks like the woman who smiles at the beggar in the street. He looks like the child who rescues an injured bird and brings it home. He looks like the granny who puts on the kettle or the friend who sits for hours on the phone. He looks like the guy who stands by you when you tilt at windmills. He looks like anyone who meets the eyes of another with an open heart in acknowledgement of a shared humanity.

He looks like you.

A Perfect Swarm



The Scream by Edvard Munch. File source


Is the human reflected in society? Do our civilisations echo how we are as individuals, with all our complex components, such as our physical health and our sense of self – our psychology?

It’s a complex question. My personal belief is that the answer is yes, and at times of great stress and transition for mankind, that reflection, that mirroring, is amplified – often in a very ugly way. Such times are very stressful, as they represent gateways of great danger for humanity. But it’s danger with a silver lining, in the sense that they provide an opportunity for an equally great ‘clearing out’ of how we live.

I sit here, typing, with our cat, Misti, on my knee. She likes it there. It’s cosy. She has just been fed, in a warm house, and most of her primal needs as an animal-organism have been met. She has intelligence – but it’s instinctive cleverness, based on selfishness. Her selfishness is no threat to the planet, and her eyes beam real love at me. We’re very fond of each other – but that’s not unusual, as any pet lover will attest. She’s a completely different life-form to the human, but we chose to care for her and provide for her hierarchy of needs, including love, to cap it all.


We are similarly cared for by our solar system. Spinning in space, ninety-three million miles from a solar super-entity that sacrifices a huge part of its life force every second is our common home, the Earth.

We did not create the Earth, though we have created many wonderful things upon it. The whole of organic life on Earth has developed in reaction to that Earth. Evolution, viewed as survival, is a mechanism that teaches that the microbes, plants and animals that thrive do so because they live long enough and strongly enough to reproduce. Mathematics takes care of the rest.

Until we hit a barrier to expansion…

Intelligence invites us to investigate the truth. Organic truth is what keeps us alive. There are other forms of truth and they are more complex. Living together in a ‘container’ like a nation implies that we are brought face to face with the complexity of sharing. At the start of civilisation, we don’t want to share, so we use our bigger and better club to kill or, at least, maim, those who want our stuff. Eventually – though there are lots of exceptions – we realise that by working together our combined intelligence allows us to break through one or more of the barriers to expansion that face our tribe/region/nation – such as protection from the weather, mass health or sanitation.

When we were children, we may have watched Robin Hood, William Tell and various Cowboys and Indian films. It is essential to the plot of such entertainment that there is a clearly identified bad guy. Killing them solves the problem to our expansion. Some kids – bullies – try it out in the playground and it works. Later on, sadly, one or two of them bring real guns back into school and kill real people. Good education later teaches us that life is not so simple and invites us to join the world of adults, emotionally as well as intellectually. Some people don’t make the transition, but it may not stop them being powerful.

Maturing is the process of coming to terms with how things really are. That’s intelligence: adaptation of behaviour in the light of truth. We learn, we experiment to test our learning, we refine. Always, we have in mind that there is such a thing as truth. We teach the notion of truth as being vital to our perceived civilisation. Philosophers and psychologists teach it as being essential to our way of life, too, since it anchors us as close to the objective world as we can be. By ‘objective’ here I mean what ‘is’ as opposed to what we subjectively experience. Sometimes objective truth is unobtainable – it’s just too complex to arrive at, but we should always try.

We are told that the world is now relatively crowded, though a flight in a plane or the view from space suggests otherwise. The club-wielders are now those who carry guns, fly drones and have star wars satellites. Some of them are good guys…

To be able to impose your will on a crowded world is power. Power belongs, in diminishing proportions to: the rich; to the military or established dictators; what’s left of a post-World War II consensus who formed themselves into governments to make things better for their children and everyone else’s children; the media; and the occasional artist or writer who breaks through the bubble of mass sleep and wakes people up to the truth.

The power proportion held by the rich, many of whom are now super-rich, is increasing and large portions of the so-called ‘middle classes’ are disappearing. Political power belongs to the wealthy, who, as Chomsky so ably described, can ‘manufacture consent’ via media and political lobbying – bending the truth to create easily-digested messages, such as restoring sovereignty and making our countries great, again.

The loss of hope felt by the masses in the face of such opinion-manufacturing leads to despair and, eventually, if truth is not represented by strong political forces, chaos. My opinion is that we are now at the gates of such chaos, world-wide, and that the truth is more important than ever.

The deadly danger is that those with power revert to fundamentalism. There are many forms of fundamentalism. It is a state of mind of being closed to the evolving truth of our existence, a falling back on dogma – political or religious – rather than a recognition that that reality is complex and hard to manage, and there are few wholly good guys or bad guys. One of the key hallmarks of fundamentalism is that, for the fundamentalist, there are always bad guys… and they’re easy to spot, usually because their colour or their dress is different.

The truth is precious. The rise of ‘fake news’ is one symptom of chaos. The loss of outrage at mass killings, systematic torture by tyrants and the death of thousands of refugees on the high seas is another, particularly when the devastation and butchery from which they are fleeing has been caused, however inadvertently, by the good guys.

It may just be that this is a window for humanity to evolve to the ‘next level’. It may be that we can go no further as we are; that intelligence, kindness, and ignorance are at a three-way crossroads. If this is the case, then people of kindness and compassion need to find a new way to express their perspective of what’s happening to our world.

Good people are never powerless, but the powerful want to make them feel that they are. The power of opposition politics is at an all-time low. The enormous outrage felt by ordinary people is not represented in politics. People are hungry for the truth to be valued, again and are in a state of disbelief that it has been so effectively hijacked. Perhaps we need to be hungry, again, for the truth.

One way forward is for us, visibly, to share that hunger, in all its forms, across the planet. It has always been said by philosophers that suffering witnessed openly and acknowledged honestly carries a power of its own in our group consciousness – a power with untapped potential to create change.

(c) Copyright Stephen Tanham 2017.


Sleeping with a mosquito

Image by Alvesgaspar
Image by Alvesgaspar

I have never made a secret of the fact I have an intense dislike for mosquitoes. Mainly, I have to admit, because they seem to like me. I react badly to having uninvited guests for dinner when I am the only thing on the menu. My ears may have lost the capacity to hear bats in the darkness, but even with them stuffed full of duvet I can still hear the incessant whine of a mosquito on the hunt for supper. There is an absolute and focussed awareness about these moments it is impossible to sleep through.

Of course, I have asked myself none too politely, what purpose the little buggers can possibly serve, feeling (usually as I itch and swell) that they must have been placed on this world for the sole purpose of being annoying. Yet I know they are more than that. They are themselves a huge food resource for other species, pollinators of countless plants and hold the balance of power in many ecosystems. For our own species, as well as others, they are a vector for disease and parasites and thus an effective means of population control. Not a particularly pleasant curriculum vitae, but an impressive one. They are such tiny creatures, so fragile and ephemeral, yet their cumulative effect on the world is incalculable.

“If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito ”~ the Dalai Lama.

You can see the potential in this subject already, can’t you? From the ecological point of view of energy conservation, recycling etc. Or the socio-political implications… But I’ll leave that for others better qualified. We all know what we ought to be doing and there is enough information out there without me adding my mite.

Though that word brings to mind another story about how much small things count. The parable of the widow’s mite tells of a woman who gave two small copper coins while others gave vast sums. The small coins represented all she had, giving her gift more value than the larger gifts of others who offered just a tiny percentage of what they owned. You can’t really tell the value of what is given freely without knowing the story behind it.

Little things matter. Being hobbit sized, no doubt my sons would argue that is a predictable statement coming from me.

But seriously, just think about it for a moment. What makes your day? Most of the time it is little things. We don’t win the lottery, get a wonderful new job or the car of our dreams every day. But there is the potential for a seemingly mundane morning to bring almost unreasonable amounts of joy. It might be opening your eyes to a lover’s touch, a dog waiting motionless except for the end of a furiously wagging tail, a smile, a shaft of sunlight, a word or the first flower of spring…. We find happiness waiting in the smallest of things if we are open to it. Every moment may bring such a gift of joy.

I don’t think it is ever possible to ‘make’ someone happy. Happiness is a state of being we find within; our own response to life. What we can do, though, is create conditions in which others may find their own moment of joy. And usually, these are made up of the small things. The little acts of kindness, of fun and shared laughter or the small gesture that shows you have actually thought, have been aware enough to notice and care. Oddly, the more you give in this way, it seems, the greater your own access to happiness becomes. It can be as simple as a smile to a stranger in the street. Yes, in these disconnected days you may get looked at as if you are strange yourself, but does that matter? You are the one who is smiling already. And there is comfort in that.

Then again, sometimes comfort is what we chiefly need and here too it can be the smallest things that make all the difference. Just a word or a hug. Sometimes even a thought.

When there are areas of our lives that really hurt we can feel isolated. Perhaps we feel we cannot share or burden others with our words or worries. Or we’ll share the surface story, hiding the deeper and true cause of the pain. Help can be a difficult thing to ask for, and it is sometimes just as difficult to accept when it is offered. But a small gesture that shows you are aware, that you care enough to see beyond the smile to the person and the pain it may hide, that can make all the difference.

We are constantly surrounded by people, emotions, noise and images. Between bustling streets and a multimedia assault of information it is no surprise that we retreat into our own little worlds in a kind of self-defence. It takes the unusual to attract our attention and switch on our awareness. Like the buzzing of a mosquito in a silent room, we suddenly focus and are awake on every level. The quiet gift of your attention may be all it takes to make a difference to that heightened awareness in someone who is hurting, just as an unexpected smile can start a day with joy. Like the widow’s mite, we cannot know how much these things mean both to the giver and the gifted. But I think there is a magic in that awareness that blesses both and is its own gift.

Originally published 2013