Wednesday, 28 July 2021

Connection, Creativity and Challenge: In Search of My First Best Destiny

This post was inspired by a TED Talk video I watched the other day, in which journalist and author Johann Hari discusses societal factors affecting our mental health. I recommend the talk in full, but for me the key message occurs seventeen minutes in. Johann is discussing a project by Professor Tim Kasser and Nathan Dungan involving a group of adults and teenagers.

Part of the point of the group was to get people to think about a moment in their life they have actually found meaning and purpose. For different people, it was different things. For some people it was music, writing, helping someone. I’m sure everyone here can think of something. And part of the point of the group was to get people to ask, “OK, how could you dedicate more of your life to pursuing these moments of meaning and purpose.”

Later that day, I dialled into the weekly coffee morning call at work. Hosted by Mental Health First Aiders, these calls offer an informal opportunity to chat about how we’re doing, share news, or anything that’s going on for us. Numbers vary, but on this occasion there were four of us on the call. Within minutes, the conversation turned to things we love doing. Travel has never been high on my agenda, but I listened as my colleagues shared places they’ve visited, trips they hope to make in the future, and even dreams of selling up and travelling around the world. I thought back to the TED Talk I’d watched. Travel doesn’t do it for me. So what does? What gives my life meaning and purpose?

For some reason, the phrase “first best destiny” sprang to mind. It comes from the movie Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), in which Spock rebukes Admiral Kirk for relinquishing command of a starship. “If I may be so bold,” he says. “It was a mistake for you to accept promotion. Commanding a starship is your first, best destiny. Anything else … is a waste of material.”

I’m about as likely to be promoted as I am to be offered command of a starship but the question remains. What is my first, best destiny? The question is of more than academic interest, because for some time I’ve struggled to connect with any sense of meaning or purpose. If you’re interested, I’ve shared some of this in recent articles, including THIS BOY GETS SAD TOO, Dear Marty: An Open Letter to Myself, and Belonging (Longing to Be).

Back in 2016, Fran and I signed up for Brené Brown’s online LIVING BRAVE semester. The first lesson invited us to identify and explore our values. As defined by Brown, “a value is a way of being or believing that you hold most important.” I drew up a list of twenty values, grouped as follows:

Connection / Friendship / Relationship
Challenge / Growth
Honesty / Trust / Openness / Respect / Understanding
Caring / Commitment / Compassion / Empathy
Personal fulfilment / Creativity / Self-expression / Independence
Positivity / Optimism

I chose CONNECTION and CHALLENGE as most relevant at the time. Reviewing the list now, I’ll add CREATIVITY which has always been important to me.

Connection

Anyone who knows me understands that connection with other people is incredibly important to me. My friend Robyn summed it up in a statement I’ve quoted elsewhere:

A lot of Marty’s sense of self and wellbeing relies on contact with others. This can be both a good and a bad thing depending on when and what and how balanced it is.

Robyn was wise to highlight the darker aspects. I wrote in my journal the other day, “I envy Fran the many local friends she gets to spend time with. For all its difficulties, she lives a rich life.” It’s a richness that is hard-won. In the ten years we’ve been friends, Fran has rarely felt as happy as she does right now. I’m proud of my friend and happy for her. But there is envy too, and I choose to acknowledge and work with it, rather than ignore, suppress, or wish it away. It shines a light on what’s most important for me.

I’d like to develop more local contacts, but more important than geography is the nature of the connection itself. Casual or occasional contact is fine, but if there’s nothing deeper I’m unlikely to find it rewarding. That’s not to say I don’t do light, fun, and silly. Some of the best moments I’ve enjoyed in recent years have been silly times in good company! But the connections I value most cover the whole gamut of shared experience: the silly and the serious, the delightful and the dark, the joys of life and the pain. This kind of connection isn’t for everyone but I’m grateful for the people in my life who get it, and me. As I wrote recently:

I’m blessed with friends who I love fiercely and who love me fiercely in return. Several know each other but these are individual one-to-one connections rather than a group of mutual friends. In their different ways, these people get me. The ones who really get me understand why a sense of commitment and belonging is so important to me. I love people who claim their place in my life and offer me a place in theirs.

I choose to believe that whatever else my first, best destiny involves, it will include connections as powerful and genuine as these.

Creativity

I’ve blogged many times about how important writing is to my self-expression and self-care. In Coffee and Scribbles I described some of the cafés and coffee shops that have hosted — and occasionally inspired — my writing. These days, I’m focused on my blogging, but in the past I’ve written poetry, short stories, articles, and the two books I’ve co-authored with Fran.

In the past couple of years I’ve connected with the online creative journaling community, which is a haven of calm and mutual respect. My friend Aimee and I met recently for a joint scrapbooking session which was a lot of fun! In general, though, my creative pursuits have always been conducted in private. I hadn’t given this much thought until a recent conversation with my friend Jen. She is a writer too but is also passionate about the performance arts. The closest I’ve come to performing are a few live book and poetry readings, podcasts, and radio interviews.

Working creatively on my own means I’m not limited by other people’s availability, resources, or input the way I would be if I acted on stage or screen, or played in a band. I’m free to express myself in a range of ways and media. At different times in my life I’ve painted; clay-modelled; and made cuddly toys, jewellery, wooden clocks, and an assortment of other things. I’ve designed and built websites and designed promotional leaflets and other print graphics. Photography remains important to me. Computer programming is creative too. I do far less coding in my current job than I used to, but I relish the opportunity when it arises.

I can’t imagine a time when I’m not expressing myself creatively in some way. I’m interested to discover where this takes me in the future.

Challenge

In November 2019, I took the Living Leader training offered by my employer. The three-day course covered a wide range of topics, but what left the greatest impression was one short exercise at the end of the second day. In it, we were invited to write a vision statement: an aspirational what-if-anything-were-possible snapshot of our life at some point in the future. This is excerpted from what I wrote:

I am working in a role I love. I add value to the company and my colleagues in many ways. I am grateful for the opportunities to shape a cultural change which has enabled a role for me that builds on and develop my skills and abilities outside of the traditional role structure.

I contribute to the Wellbeing and Mental Health team I helped grow. I travel. I speak and present. I mentor. My role in the workplace integrates with the work I do outside, with speaking and advocacy engagements across the mental health community here in the north-east, nationally, and internationally. I enjoy traveling and no longer feel restricted in doing so.

I will never be wealthy but I have enough to realise my goals and vision. I feel empowered to live life fully genuinely with passion and integrity. I don’t know what my life will contain in six months’ time – or next week – but I am open to the opportunities and feel equal to the challenge.

Reading those words now, my vision feels remote and implausible. But beneath those feelings lies something even more uncomfortable: the fear these goals might actually be achievable if I dared to do the work. I’m reminded of the words of Marianne Williamson in her 1992 book A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of A Course in Miracles.

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be?

Fear is nothing to be afraid of, what matters is how we handle it and move forward. The course encouraged us to explore obstacles — real or imagined — that stood between us and our visions. For me these included the following limiting beliefs:

No such role exists.
I don’t have the skills needed.
I don’t deserve to fulfil my vision/dreams.
I have responsibilities that prevent me from pursuing my vision.
By following my vision I will hurt, alienate, or lose people and relationships.
I ought to just make do with what I have.
There is no path to “there” from “here.”

I wrote down a number of behaviours and actions to challenge these limiting beliefs and help me move forward. These included consulting and listening to mentors; relevant training; seeking and following up with relevant contacts; and reviewing my progress on a regular basis. I began the journey but looking back I can see that failed to follow through. I lost faith in the vision itself. Arguably, I lost faith in myself.

Any progress has been more by luck than design. How much more might I have achieved if I’d pursued my goals rather than sitting back and waiting for things to happen? This is not new behaviour; it’s how I’ve lived most of my life. I achieved a First Class Honours degree but I chose my degree subject — pharmacy — on a whim with little thought how or if I’d use it. I drifted into research, then business computing after a period of unemployment. I.T. has served me well but it does not fulfil me. (Published in 2008, my book of poetry carries the biographic note: “He now lives in Newcastle upon Tyne and works in the I.T. services industry, where he spends most days dreaming of more creative employment.”) I have exasperated my workplace mentor (sorry, Loveday!), various bosses (apologies especially to you, Judith!), and colleagues, but I still have no sense of direction. A recent change of employer may open new opportunities, but only if I can figure out what I want.

Beyond the workplace, my life bears no resemblance to my Living Leader vision. Covid would have postponed any plans I’d had in train, but I had none. In truth, I no longer look towards a life “with speaking and advocacy engagements across the mental health community here in the north-east, nationally, and internationally.” I’ve come to doubt my right to a place in that world.

As frustrating as it’s been for me and those close to me, this period of stasis and uncertainty was probably necessary. Perhaps the real challenge has been sticking it out until the time was right for things to unfold. I’m reminded of the Anaïs Nin quotation, “And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” Maybe that day has come.

Bringing it Together

My three values — connection, creativity, and challenge — are no less relevant today than when I first identified them.

On the connection front, I need to learn how to balance my needs with the expectations of others. My friend Veronica shared a quote on social media the other day that read, “I know I come on a little strong. It’s the quickest way to weed out the people I’d overwhelm if given enough time.” Only half in jest, I commented that I could relate. Veronica replied, “You are so kind with such a beautiful way about you that your fans and friends probably want for more.” I thanked her but admitted there’s a list of people who’ve found me too much in the past, “and a shorter list of people for whom I’ve proved to be too little, mostly when I’ve overcompensated for my tendency to overwhelm.” My friend said, “Maybe the ones that find you to be ‘too much’ have been in the dark so long that your light hurts their eyes at first.” I would never claim so much, but for all my faults, doubts, and hang-ups, I can believe I add value to the people in my life, and — through my blogging and other work — to a wider audience. The challenge is to find ways to do this with less collateral damage, confusion, and alarm.

Creatively, I feel I’m ready for a shift in direction. My days as a poet are behind me, but I might return to short story writing, or something more substantial. Any new project will need to work alongside my blogging, or draw on it in some way.

It’s perhaps time to revisit the Living Leader exercise and update my vision and address those limiting beliefs. It’s a year since I took any formal training or personal development. The last was Carolyn Spring’s excellent self-paced course Dealing with Distress: Working With Suicide and Self-Harm, which I never completed. I want to finish that, and look for some additional ways to expand my knowledge and skills. This won’t necessarily be in the mental health arena. There are many people working in that sphere with greater knowledge and experience than I can ever glean from courses or workshops.

Facing up to where and who I am and deciding where I want to go next is the greatest challenge of all, and maybe it’s okay that I don’t have everything worked out yet. As Jeffrey Ricker says in his essay What is your first best destiny?:

If we think of our best destiny as a destination, we can’t always take the direct route to it. We have to make compromises, defer things, choose a detour when there’s a roadblock in the way, like real life. [...] When we know what our best destiny is, though, we can’t ignore it. We can try, but that really doesn’t work for long. I think at heart we know that anything else is a waste of material.

 

Photo by Stefan Cosma on Unsplash

 

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