On regret and affirmation

26 05 2014

In common with most people who have what could be a characterised as a positive attitude, I am prone to asserting that I have no regrets. In looking at my c.v. as part of my goal of adding another post to my NED portfolio I’ve had cause to contemplate regret in the context of the crazy paving that makes up my career path.

Some of the choices I’ve made seem odd when abstracted onto paper and while some were made for sound professional reasons most were made to suit my personal circumstances. The move from executive to self-employment coincided with a relationship change and relocation to Scotland, for example. I wonder where I would have been had I stayed in the corporate world and continued an executive career in the biotechnology industry. This does not, I think, constitute regret but such contemplation does allow the possibility of regret and regret is a complex beast – inseparable from it’s opposite, affirmation.

People with a profound disability can insist that they wouldn’t have it any other way. They may embrace the disability as a way of affirming the life that they are living rather than regretting the loss of the life that they might have lived. Under these circumstances, new treatments to restore, for example sight or hearing, can be rejected. 

To illustrate by taking another example, someone disabled by injury may commit themselves to becoming a wheelchair athlete of international repute. They may go on to compete at an Olympic games and be so successful as to be victorious in their chosen sport. Possession of a gold medal, I think, would encourage a greater affirmation of the injury compared to someone with similar disability condemned to a life of poverty and dependence. The individual who has gained the gold medal is also less likely to regret the loss of mobility.

Affirmation of the life being lived leads some with congenital disabilities to oppose prenatal screening on the grounds, amongst others perhaps, that being able to choose to abort a foetus with the same condition they have implies that their own life is not worth living. Or is worth less.

On the other hand, I listened to an account only recently of a woman with brittle bone disease who had decided not to have children on the grounds that she did not wish her offspring to suffer in the same way she had suffered, with long stays in hospital and many, many operations. In this case, while the woman acknowledged that if she did give birth to a child disabled in this way she would come to love it and would not regret it’s birth, this would not be, for her, good enough reason to go through with a pregnancy.

Yet, taking this further, she did not wish that they had never been born. She could affirm her own life while denying the chance of the same life to the next generation.

No one else is harmed by choosing not to create another life but what if living the life you want comes at the expense of another?

A friend of mine separated from her husband of 25 years. He decided that he needed to go his own way in order to live the life he wanted for himself. He went back to the life had before marriage and kids; footloose and fancy free. He has no regrets. He may regret having not lived this kind of life throughout all of his life, but does not regret leaving the marriage in order to live this new life.  What of my friend? When questioned she will say very firmly that she wishes that she had never met or married him. When asked about her children she insists that she would have still had kids with someone else, would still have loved them; they’d just be different kids. The affirmation of her own life, even including feelings towards her own children, though her love of them is not in question, is diminished by the choices her husband made. So regret is also sited with others and I would argue that one cannot simply affirm our own life choices without acknowledging some regret for the consequences to others.

In the broader, everyday context none of our choices are without consequence for others. I may buy groceries from my local store or from a major retailer on an out of town shopping complex. If I choose the latter the local store might close, people could lose their jobs which might have catastrophic consequences for them as individuals. It is not possible to measure the impact of every decision we make on everyone else but an awareness is, I think, vital.

I’m guessing that we would all view my friends partner as selfish. He left behind wife and kids simply to shed responsibilities. But what if he had left in order to fulfill some massive creative potential? Maybe if leaving had allowed him time to create a work of staggering genius we would view his choice more sympathetically. The artist Paul Gauguin moved with his family to Copenhagen to work as a stockbroker. In order to paint full-time, he returned to Paris and later moved to the Polynesian Islands, leaving his wife and five children behind.  In all likelihood he would not have fulfilled his potential as an artist if he had remained in Denmark and followed a career in business. Our view of his decision is coloured by admiration of the art created. We are moved to affirm his choices, despite the fact that his family were impoverished to such an extent that Gauguin outlived two of his children.

In a similar vein, I have a friend who recently split from his latest partner and now regrets leaving his first. I suspect that had this latest relationship delivered all that he wanted there would be little regret for the earlier one. So regret is somehow tied up with outcomes and perception too.

In his poem, Sentenced to Life, Clive James talks of  regret, of being “A sad man, sorrier than he can say.” Considering his life achievements we are tempted to take the Gauguin view, that the full achievement of creative potential is beyond regret, but read the poem and you can see that, as he approaches death, it is not how he himself sees it.

It is encouraged in the Buddhist tradition to contemplate death and impermanence as it is only by recognising how short life is that we are most likely to make it meaningful and to live it fully. At it’s most simplistic the sequences of events that make up a life can be affirmed unconditionally compared to not having lived at all. But regret is complex and conditional. Is it possible, therefore, to contemplate the life lived and to look back over that life without regret for things done and left undone? Is there always conflict between valuing the life lived
and regretting what might have been?

So we come full circle.

Had I remained in corporate world I would, in all probability, have built a career in the biomedical industry. I would now be viewing that life from a different perspective. I would find value in the life I had led. Looking now at what might have been I do not regret the choice to strike out in a more entrepreneurial direction but I have to acknowledge that my judgment now is coloured by my experiences as a consequence of that decision and affirmation of the life I have actually led. I may have been successful in that different corporate life but may have harboured the regret that I hadn’t ever started my own business. My affirmation of the life I have lived does not preclude the hint of regret that I would almost certainly have been a better artist had I taken my place at art school rather than studied Zoology.

We need to be able to look back on our lives, not without regret, but with a balance between affirming the life that we have lived and an understanding, and acceptance, of the life we may have led had we made different choices.

One reassuring thing is that, in a universe of multiple dimensions, there is a version of me living their life as a successful artist and where Liverpool just won the premiership.

Not the wrong way but not the best way

20 05 2014

I have recently take possession of an allotment, well half an allotment to be precise.

It is a truly fantastic thing, the opportunity to be out in the countryside, to be close to the earth and to have the chance to grow your own food. I’ve already planned what I’ll do with the courgettes and beetroot and the other vegetables I hope to grow. These are early, exciting days but while I am really enjoying having my allotment,  I’m already persuaded that this is the wrong way to go about things. Maybe not the wrong way but certainly not the best way.

I’m not sure how big the piece of land is that houses the allotments, or how many allotments there are, but my guess is between 25 and 30. Whatever the exact size, I am sure that it is in excess of the ¼ acre at Garden Cottage.

I mention this apparently random fact as I studied for my permaculture design certificate with Graham Bell at his home, Garden Cottage, and in the forest garden he and his family have created there. Within a forest garden every piece of land is productive and this small piece of land yielded over a tonne of edible crop last year, plus wood fuel for fire and oven.

Contrast this with the allotments.

IMG_0017For a start, a massive area is taken up by sheds. There is a shed on virtually every plot, despite there being a very large communal shed in the centre of the allotments.

Then there are the paths. Since everyone needs access to their plot the land is a network of grass paths, which we take turns to mow to prevent the grass getting too tall and out of control. And, of course, there are fences. Pretty nearly everyone has marked the perimeter of their plot with a fence.

A massive amount of growing space has been lost to this need to stake out a territory.

And when everyone grows food on their plot in splendid isolation there is glut or famine. Take for example soft fruit. IMG_0019

When everyone has a few plants on the plot they have to be netted against the birds. Consequently,despite being sited next to a small woodland, there are no birds on the allotment. I haven’t had a single robin hopping around my spade as I’ve turned the turf. In the forest garden there are no nets and many birds of many species. When this last years soft fruit crop ripened there was still boxes of fruit in the chest freezer harvested the year before such is the abundance created. Abundance is created by allowing the whole ecosystem to flourish. For the land to be at it’s most productive, and at the same time sustainable, we too should act as a community to create a broader ecosystem and not just be a collection of individuals. But while everyone has their own shed, wheelbarrow and fenced off plot, this will never happen.

Clearly everyone who takes the time and pays the annual fee has an interest in growing food. There is common interest. We all make an undertaking not to use pesticides and to keep the allotment space organic. By desire, but also as a requirement of the Climate Change Fund that helped raise the money to get the land, we are required to share surplus and expertise. So we share values in this respect.

So what stops people with common purpose from coming together to create a community rather than working small pieces of land as like-minded individuals?

I spent a year working in and with dissimilar groups but who shared the common aspiration of creating an intentional community on a piece of land from which they would grow much of their own food. In every case, despite being supported by volunteers with the time, energy and the expertise required to start and grow such a community, none of them did. In each case the communities floundered as individuals were unable to cede land, control or both in order to achieve a shared vision. The sum should have been greater than the sum of it’s parts never was.

The same is true of the allotments. Rather than creating a cohesive community who could come together and decide what to grow and how to grow it in order to maximise output and minimise input, the land is simply partitioned into plots of equal size and everyone gets on and does their own thing.


Likewise  in the wider space. I don’t have a garden with my apartment, which is currently up for sale. I do have a magnificent view over the Strathearn Valley and look over the beautiful and well-maintained garden which is owned by my neighbours. For me, being able to enjoy the view without the burden of ownership is a massive positive. If I want to sit outside I do so in community spaces, the golf course, the local hillsides, the town park, the beer garden of the hotel next door. In doing so I am not fenced in to my own garden but have the opportunity to meet new and interesting people. Not so most house buyers it would seem.

Yet when I walk along the street I see so many neglected gardens. Not neglected in the sense of being filled with rusting shopping trolleys and abandoned kids toys, but neglected as in unused, or at best woefully underused, hosting a barbeque once or twice a year on well mowed patches of grass.

So we are back to the ownership issue; needing to have a garden for the sake of having a garden. We fence ourselves off in our towns and villages. It is that same need to own the land that ensures that all new houses are built with tiny, tiny green patches and prevents the allotment from being used to create real abundance.

As kids we hardly ever played in our garden. We were at in the park, out on our bikes, playing on the tiny triangle of land which was really just a big grassy intersection between three roads but which we called The Green. There were trampolines in the park, but now each garden seems to have it’s own. We walked to school and home again, or caught the bus, but now if my local school is a reflection of wider society, children are individually chauffeured in their parents 4×4. The streets were full of footballs in winter and ramshackle cricket stumps in summer but now when I pass through places such as the East End of Glasgow, former nursery of generations of Scottish football stars there are only Ball Games Prohibited signs. And when you do see kids on bikes they are forming careful crocodiles with adults to front and rear.

So yes, there is waste of growing space in the allotments but even more importantly, a big opportunity to create community is being missed

Where does community start and finish

5 05 2014

I have always been a pacifist, so long as I am allowed to ignore the childhood fights with my brothers, and I remember quite clearly being challenged about this by the delightful Reverend Keating who took my 6th form class for what would now be called “citizenship studies” but was then called R.E., religious education.

His argument was that we would all fight, it was just a matter of when. his reasoning went something like this; if this country was involved in a war overseas would you go and fight? If soldiers from that conflict invaded Britain would you fight then? When they marched into your town? Up your street? Down your garden path and into your home? What if someone came to take away a loved one?

The memory of this adolescent debate came into my mind when considering community, specifically where does it start and where does it end?

Family can, for many of us at least, be considered as our most obvious community unit. We have shared history as well as shared genes. In my family a love of Liverpool Football Club binds us together, apart from the Evertonians. And even those misguided individuals are bound with other, powerful connections. On a good day we are all “in the pink”, a phrase first coined by my grandfather.

And beyond family we have our local community. The physical place where we live, our neighbours, local amenities and public spaces. How much we feel connected to that community is a very personal thing. My grandfather lived for 97 years within a 10 mile radius of where he was born and I suspect his feeling of belonging to a place was far stronger than it is for me, having lived and worked in several different places over the years. Writing in his blog on systems thinking my friend Jamie Hamilton asserts the community principle as, “…… a web of social interdependence (a “super-organism”) which enables a more stable, predictable, productive and specialised relationship with the immediate environment, and a more effective response to threat, than would be possible for individuals alone. Without a web-of-interdependence there is no ongoing concrete experience of shared purpose, identity, culture or action, or of negotiating and expressing Agency in pursuit of the commonwealth”.

He goes on to argue that, particularly with the growth of technology, this web of interdependence is being broken and, looking at some of the social issues that fill our TV screens it is difficult to argue that the type of community experienced by my grandfather’s generation no longer exists. A lot of political time and column inches, therefore, are being spent on the promotion of sustainable communities, despite there being no agreed definition on what sustainability actually is. A comprehensive definition must surely consider economic, environmental and social factors, but a true understanding remains elusive. The Bristol Accord addresses concerns across Europe about the breakdown of community and sets out EU guidelines for better environment, stronger democracy and more effective local leadership.

For me community cannot be imposed by government directive and guidelines. It is an active condition reinforced by active membership with people choosing to identify with and support community values and purpose. To this end I spent a year working with communities across Scotland. The idea of an intentional community, one where everyone within the community has a shared purpose, is an attractive one at a philosophical level. In practice, unless the intention was to spend as much time as possible hanging about with the occasional trip to the post office to cash your giro, the majority of the ones I’ve seen are dysfunctional. I think part of the problem is that they are established in really beautiful places. People who have reason to feel alienated from established societies and communities gravitate to them as a tent in the country is better than a bedsit in Easterhouse. And there it ends. There is little commitment to share purpose. The motivation is one of not being somewhere/someone rather than being an active decision to be part of something. This is a very different experience for religious intentional communities, I think. While there may be an element of running away to a convent it takes a positive espousal of shared values to then stay on to become a nun. Monastic orders have survived across millennia. I suspect that most communities that have been created post the occupy movement, wont.

While technology may be to blame, at least in part, for the breakdown of local community it is directly responsible for the birth of a very new type of community, the one we build on-line. As a middle-aged woman I acknowledge that my use, and comfort with, online communities will be very different from the generation behind me; the generation which grew up with this technology. They have friends all over the world, thanks to facebook, whereas I had a single pen-pal in Australia. There are some things that worry me though. Social and anthropological studies have consistently shown that a network of between 50-150 is optimum for maintaining effective social relationships. I have over 500 connections on LinkedIn. It is impossible to maintain a personal social network of that magnitude. I appreciate that my use of LinkedIn is as a business tool rather than creating a personal, social network but the point is, surely, transferable and that having over 150 facebook friends is not the same as having 150+ sustainable personal relationships; what we used to call friendships.

Even when there is little involvement with your local community and minimal interest in social media there is still community. Almost every activity which involves people coming together for common purpose has the potential to create a community. Golf clubs, bridge clubs, bingo halls, allotment societies are all communities of interest. This magazine is one, with women and men from across the UK coming together to create an on-line magazine. We do not serve a local community but rather serve a community with a shared interest in ethical business practices and in furthering equality and diversity in the workplace. An on-line intentional community if you will.

And finally, what about country and state as a wider community. In this year of the referendum on Scotland becoming independent from our English neighbours, community in this broader context is at the forefront of political thinking. Putting my cards on the table, I firmly believe that decisions should be taken as near to the communities affected by those decisions as possible. In the UK we have a system of governance that places too much power in the hands of a few people and takes control away from the people affected by the policies that centralised government enact. Philosophically, therefore, I tend towards the view that independence would be a good thing as it would bring even more decisions under the control of Holyrood and out of hands of politicians who have little knowledge or concern for lives lived outside of the city-state of London. In my opinion, the only persuasive argument put forward by those campaigning to preserve the union is that Scots should not leave the disadvantaged areas of the UK behind to face their fate alone. That voting ‘yes’ would be turning our backs on those communities who are suffering similar privations at the hands of this coalition government.

I was brought up at a time when, under Derek Hatton’s leadership, Liverpool city council was regularly at odds with the Tory government of Margaret Thatcher. My parents live just outside, and my father worked for nearly 30 years, in the Potteries and I know just how hard that part of England is being hit by the current austerity measures. Unfortunately, at this moment in time, progressive forces in Liverpool, and the other great northern cities, don’t seem to be as interested in challenging the distribution of power and wealth in British society as is the case in Scotland. These cities are not yet demanding more local control, are not demanding their own regional assemblies. Scotland appears to be unique in wanting to create a society where social justice is top of the agenda. The fact that other areas of the UK are not shouting for more control is puzzling to me but is not an argument for Scots to do nothing. Rather by creating more local control and accountability should act as a catalyst to other regions to show what can be done.

It is my belief that attending to matters close to home, within the communities closest physically and closest to heart, stronger communities can be created on the large scale. The community philosophy equivalent to “look after the pennies and the pounds will look after themselves”.