Hall of Fame

I have a friend who works in Malawi with Doctors without Borders, providing them with lab support so they can save lives. She’s a hero. You won’t know her name.

I have a friend who, with his team, was instrumental in developing a new cancer treatment that has the potential to save countless lives. Even when the treatment becomes public, you won’t know his name. He also invests a lot of time and energy into educating people about science and climate change. He’s a hero, too.

I have a friend who works in biotechnology, creating new and sometimes radical sustainable solutions to old problems. That sounds heroic to me, but you’ve never heard of him.

I have another friend who is about to travel to Zambia to work on a project aimed at saving the lives of countless mothers who die of diseases that are laughably preventable in the west. She’s a hero. You don’t know her name.

I have a lot of friends who invest their hearts, souls, and every spare moment into the education and welfare of the young people they teach. They are heroes, but unless they’ve taught you, you’ll never know their names.

Yet you probably all know the names of dozens of people who are famous for pretending to be someone else, for making lots of money, for being able to kick and catch a ball, for looking good in a dress, or for simply being famous. You may even know the names of their children, who they’re dating, and the shoes they wore on this week’s random red carpet.

I suspect none of the people I listed above want to be famous. In fact most of them would be appalled at the thought. But a quick look at your average newspaper shows numerous profiles of people who are famous for their fame, and maybe one of someone who has done something to make the world a better place. On a good day. Many days there are none. And don’t get me started on magazines. Just don’t.

So what are we teaching our children? As they watch us, wide eyed, and take in everything we do as a model for their own behaviour. Learning what to care about, and what their priorities should be. While we gossip about who celebrities are sleeping with, and how dreadful they looked in that dress, we despair about our children growing up shallow, caring about appearance over substance, and not being interested in science.

How would a magazine sell if it profiled only people like those friends I mentioned above? People who make a difference to the world. People who invest themselves in changing the world. People who care about what they do, and do things that matter. Would it sell? Would anyone care?

At the Oscars, the #askhermore campaign encouraged journalists to care about more than what an actress was wearing. But what about caring about more than fame for its own sake? What about teaching our children that the pinnacle of human achievement is not being famous? That they can Be More? That’s what I want my children to learn. Go ahead. Show them they can #BeMore.

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Narrativium

Like many I was both glad to hear that Terry Pratchett had been spared the worst ravages of his rare and traumatic form of early onset Alzheimers when he died last week, and gutted to know that his magnificently satirical worldview had been ripped away from us. I have a close and deeply personal relationship with Terry’s books. They have given me comfort, perspective, and so much laughter ever since I met them. Each one of them is a living creature.

Terry managed to make Death a sympathetic, entertaining, and occasionally even pitiable character. Throughout the book Death became more human, more curious, and more empathic about his duty. He delivered a kind of justice, and eased the transition from life to after-life. When death impinges on my own existence, I often turn to the Discworld Death for comfort.

No topic was too controversial for Terry to prise open and place under the microscope of the Discworld. He took earthly problems like racism and tweaked them ever so slightly, so that in his fantastical cultural melting pot, Ankh-Morpork, the city became ever more cosmopolitan – welcoming, as it did, trolls, dwarves, and even the undead. But his vampires sign “The Pledge” and foreswear “ze B-vord”, becoming obsessed with other pursuits, such as photography or coffee in place of blood, and his werewolves, some of them vegetarians, suffer from dreadful PLT – Pre Lunar Tension.

In Ankh-Morpork speciesism was much more interesting than racism – in Terry’s words “Black and white lived together in perfect harmony and ganged up on green.” In each subsequent book, the Discworld became richer and more complex, and allowed us to dig into the roots of our society and our psychology. He made a fantasy world of dragons and magic, and used it to hold up a slightly twisted but inordinately clear mirror to life on Earth.

His Patrician of Ankh Morpork, Havelock Vetinari, must surely be the most intellectually gifted tyrant of all time. “A great many rulers, good and bad and quite often dead, know what happened; a rare few actually manage, by dint of much effort, to know what’s happening. Lord Vetinari considered both types to lack ambition.” Like the Discworld Death, Vetinari’s ruthless and tyrannical rule displays an unexpectedly compassionate and comforting nature. Under his rule Ankh-Morpork works.

Pratchett’s world has villains and heroes, and even leather clad barbarian heroines (who complain about the way the obligatory leather outfits chafe). In his earth-based series, “Truckers”, he tackles equal opportunity more directly, with his nome-ish society uncertain about the wisdom of letting girls learn to read:

“I told her we were going to get married, and all she could talk about was frogs,” said Masklin.

“That’s females for you,” said Gurder. “Didn’t I say that letting them learn to read was a bad idea? It overheats their brains.”

“She said the most important thing in the world was little frogs living in a flower,” Masklin went on, trying to listen to the voice of his own memory. He hadn’t been listening very hard at the time. He’d been too angry.

“Sounds like you could boil a kettle on her head,” said Angalo.

Whenever I’m sad, sick, or just bored, I re-read a Pratchett book. They give me hope, perspective, and laughter. They speak to something deep in my soul. To my fundamental optimism about human nature. To my love of justice. To my quirky sense of humour. To my need for hope.

In Pratchett’s worlds, stories have power. Narrativium is a fundamental element on the Discworld, and it is essential to stories the way Carbon is essential to Earthly life. If Narrativium existed here, the change.org petition demanding Death bring Terry back would work, if only because so many of us want it to. The good guys would win in the face of seemingly insuperable odds (“it’s a million to one chance, but it might just work”). And death would be a relief – almost a meeting with a compassionate friend – instead of the terrifying prospect most of us find it to be.

In a world where Narrativium held sway, I would be able to walk right in to the office of the Patrician (perhaps bearing a jammy devil to bribe the guards), and put the wrongs of the world right. Magic would be real, but it would be hard work and always exact its price. Rules would be important, and carefully broken. “Look, that’s why there’s rules, understand? So that you think before you break ’em.”  The end of the world would be little more than a temporary inconvenience. “Some humans would do anything to see if it was possible to do it. If you put a large switch in some cave somewhere, with a sign on it saying ‘End-of-the-World Switch. PLEASE DO NOT TOUCH’, the paint wouldn’t even have time to dry.” 

And Terry Pratchett would be immortal.

In fact, if you take his worldview to heart, perhaps he is.

“In the Ramtops village where they dance the real Morris dance, for example, they believe that no-one is finally dead until the ripples they cause in the world die away – until the clock he wound up winds down, until the wine she made has finished its ferment, until the crop they planted is harvested.  The span of someone’s life, they say, is only the core of their actual existence. “

“Have you got any last words?”

“Yes! I don’t want to go!”

“Well, succinct, anyway.”

Lifters, Leaners, and Leaning in vs Leaning on

There is a lot of talk these days about lifters and leaners, with leaners used as pejorative term. If you lean, you’re a dead weight. A passenger. Someone else‘s responsibility. Not doing that most crucial of all tasks, Pulling your own weight. Yet this shows a fundamental disconnect between the way the conservative side of politics seems to think we should be – aggressively, uncompromisingly independent, standing rigidly alone – and the way social animals like people really behave.

The very nature of social animals is that they lean. I could use the old analogy of a circle of people each sitting in the lap of the person behind them, but that implies a kind of linearity that doesn’t apply at all. It’s more like a giant game of kerplunk – a messy, interwoven structure of sticks, where every stick leans on every other stick. You can take individual sticks out (if you’re super careful) without completely destroying the whole, but no stick can stay up on its own, and each time you remove one the structure changes. Remove too many and it becomes fatally weak.

We are programmed to lean. Without leaning, we’d all go kerplunk. I don’t know about you, but I’ve had plenty of kerplunk moments, and they are neither graceful, nor proudly independent. They are without doubt the lowest moments of my life. But leaning isn’t simply a case of asking for, or even accepting help when you need it. Leaning means allowing yourself to be vulnerable, and vulnerability is fundamental to connecting with others.

If we can’t be open with others, we can’t truly connect with them. Brené Brown sums it up most eloquently: “Vulnerability is not weakness. I define vulnerability as emotional risk, exposure, uncertainty… I have come to the belief that vulnerability is our most accurate measurement of courage.”

So it’s only through being vulnerable, through leaning, that we can be brave, and that we can fully connect with others. It’s only through allowing ourselves to weep, to cry out, and to need, that we also allow ourselves to experience love and joy.

I remember when we bought our house. A little while later we were away for the weekend and there was a wild storm where we lived. For the first time it hit me, like a physical shock – if something happened to the house it was our problem. There was no landlord to fix it.

Suddenly we were responsible for this hugely expensive thing, and it was scary. But then we had kids, and the fear of being responsible for a mere house felt like the fear of a teeny tiny red spider mite the first time you come face to face with an Aussie huntsman. Not in the same ballpark, not even in the same galaxy as this new, heart stopping, mind scrambling terror. This immense, breathtaking awareness of incredible vulnerability. This huge opening that allows people to go straight to your heart and set off incendiary devices inside its very walls, every time someone or something hurts or threatens your child.

It’s this very vulnerability that allows us to experience such an intense and passionate love.

Yesterday I wound up in the Emergency Room of the local hospital with a left arm that had inexplicably stopped working. They kept me in overnight, and I felt incredibly lonely, scared, and disconnected. They put me into one of those extraordinarily soul-destroying hospital gowns with the immodesty panel flapping wide at the back. I am convinced those things are designed to maximize vulnerability and trauma – because being in hospital isn’t traumatic enough in itself. So there I was, huddled on the bed, with the ER throbbing and teeming all around me. A chaotic vortex of alarms, bright lights, and wailing children.

My own family had headed off home to bed, and all I had was my computer, and a fortuitous wifi connection. I hesitated over Facebook, wondering whether to post something about where I was. I didn’t want to look like I was trawling for attention or sympathy. But actually, I really did want to trawl for a little of both. I wanted to be seen where I was, and to have what I was going through recognized. I wanted to reach out and say “hey, this is a bit scary” and have my friends understand.

So I compromised and posted a snarky comment about hospitals being unable to provide gluten free food in the ER (my goodness, that’s a post in its own right – of all the places that struggle to cater to a medical dietary requirement!)… and what followed was beautiful. I spent the rest of the (wakeful) night fielding offers of help, expressions of concern, and funny anecdotes designed to cheer me up. I felt connected. I felt grounded. I felt supported. And I felt loved. Because I had let myself be openly vulnerable.

Now a whole lot more people know what’s going on with my health at the moment. A whole lot more people are supporting me, cheering me on, and cooking me yummy lunches. Tonight I’m back home with a long line of tests and appointments in front of me, but I’m not afraid to tell people what’s going on, because I know that trying to hide these things makes them lonely, dark times to struggle through. Allowing myself to be a leaner, on the other hand, makes it into a festival of love and laughter, punctuated by blood tests and MRIs. I know which version I prefer.

Right now, leaning is what I need to do. Tomorrow, someone I’m leaning on might be leaning on me. And we’ll both be better for it.