Wednesday 29 November 2023

One Must Imagine Sisyphus Happy: Encounters With the Absurd Man

The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.
— Albert Camus

TW: Mention of suicide

A few weeks ago I completed thirty years’ continuous service at work. As l described at the time, “[t]he experience left me feeling demotivated. Demoralised. More than anything else, I felt sad. Thirty years working for essentially the same employer — and in essentially the same role — doesn’t feel much of an achievement to me. It feels like what happens when you never pushed yourself to find something better.” I used the word “pushed” in that final sentence without giving it much thought. It’s acquired greater significance in the period since, as I’ve pondered some of the questions my three decades of service brought up. Questions like what is my purpose? What am I supposed to be doing with my life? Is this all there is?

As age-old and ultimately unanswerable they may be, these are questions worthy of investigation. Last year I came across a series of video lectures by philosophy professor Jeffrey Kaplan. I was especially interested in those dealing with logical paradoxes, and matters of ethics. (I highly recommend Kaplan’s lecture on Peter Singer, Ordinary People Are Evil.) I began reading — or rather, listening and watching — more widely. Nihilism intrigued me, but felt too austere. Somewhere in my philosophical travels I came across Albert Camus and Absurdism. I moved on without fully engaging with either the man or his ideas, but the seed had been sown. I chanced on him again a few weeks ago, and something clicked into place. I’ve been exploring his writing and work in some detail since then.

I can’t give more than a superficial account of Camus and his ideas, but I’ll do my best to describe what I’ve learned and why I find his thinking so engaging. I’ve included links at the end of this piece for anyone who wants to find out more.

The Nature of the Absurd

We have an innate need to find meaning and value in our lives, but according to Camus, the search is futile because the universe itself is purposeless, meaningless, irrational, and utterly indifferent to our existence. Camus describes this as the paradox of the Absurd. I found a modern expression of this idea in a quotation by Richard Dawkins, from his book River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life.

In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.

This resonates. The idea of a non-human meaning or purpose to the universe has never made sense to me. It simple is and it’s for us to ascribe a meaning to it if we wish. That doesn’t mean I always find it easy. I’ve never been suicidal, but I often feel unfulfilled and adrift. The following is drawn more or less at random from my personal journal.

Feeling flat. Not wanting to do anything special or different. What’s the point, really? What difference does it make what I do today?

I’m hardly unique in this. I talk regularly with people who share thoughts and feelings like these. Some border on hopelessness, despair, and suicidality. Some are the product of, or exacerbated by, anxiety, depression, trauma, or other conditions and life events. Camus’ assertion that there’s no ultimate meaning might appear unhelpful or even dangerous. To me, though, the logic of Absurdism is reassuring, even comforting. It assures me that these thoughts and feelings are neither wrong nor pathological. They’re the natural consequence of the situation in which we find ourselves. Camus describes three ways of responding to this existential challenge: philosophical suicide (faith or belief), physical suicide, and acceptance.


Not everyone agrees that the universe is chaotic and devoid of meaning, of course. I have friends who would count themselves as religious, spiritual, or both, and draw strength and purpose from their faith. I respect this as I respect them, but I’ve never felt my needs would be satisfied by adherence to any doctrinal system. I went to church in my teens, but since leaving home at eighteen I’ve only attended for weddings and funerals. The last occasion was my mother’s funeral in 2018. My father, at least occasionally, yearned to share my mother’s Christian faith, but it wasn’t in him and I respect him for that. The following is from an open letter I wrote to my father, many years after he died.

I know you didn’t share Mum’s religiosity. Her churchgoing. Her faith. I recall one conversation between you. You telling her you wished you could believe. It’s the one time you let the mask slip. The one time I remember seeing you cry.

In the end, my mother’s faith turned against her, twisted by doubt and mental illness into crippling guilt and despair from which she never recovered. For Camus, faith amounted to philosophical suicide. He saw it as an attempt to escape the dilemma by devoting oneself to a religion, cause, or movement that claims to provide the structure and meaning we seek. This seemed to him intellectually dishonest. I wish I had half the courage, wit, and erudition of such modern atheists as the late Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Stephen Fry, but I can use the voice and platform I have, and share what the Absurd means to me. In doing so, I’m discovering more about myself, my life, and my purpose. That feels important.

It’s worth saying that not all existentialists considered religion an invalid response to the crisis of meaninglessness. That includes Danish theologian and philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, generally considered the first existentialist philosopher. Camus repudiated the label of existentialist, but is generally counted amongst their number.


The question of suicide is foundational for Camus. In the opening chapter of his book The Myth of Sisyphus, he declares “[t]here is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.” I find something brutally refreshing in this. I’ve had many conversations with Fran and other friends about suicide and suicidal thinking. I’ve taken suicide awareness and prevention courses. Fran and I have a chapter on suicidality in our book. But I’ve never looked at suicide from a philosophical perspective before .

There was a time when I could discern a certain romantic tragedy in suicide born of extreme suffering. I remember being moved reading of the death by suicide of the English painter Dora Carrington in 1932 following the loss of her beloved friend Lytton Strachey. The final entry in her journal included the following couplet from Henry Wotton’s poem “Upon the Death of Sir Albert Morton’s Wife.”

He first deceased; she for a little tried | To live without him, liked it not, and died.

With hindsight and greater understanding, I focus much more on the loss her death represented for the people who loved her, yet were unable to help her survive the despair in which she found herself.

To be clear, Camus explicitly rejects the idea of taking one’s life as a legitimate response to the crisis of meaninglessness. He sees it as avoiding the paradox by taking oneself out of life altogether, rather than finding a solution to it. This counters any romanticisation of suicide, but there remains a danger in taking Camus’ views at face value. It would be easy to conclude that suicide is in some way cowardly or selfish; an easy way out for those unable or unwilling to challenge the Absurd in other ways. I don’t see it that way at all. I’ve read that for those bereaved by suicide no response or feelings are invalid, but I can’t agree with those who judge the actions of those they’ve lost as weak or selfish. I once told Fran that if she ever chose to leave, I would not hate her for it. That hasn’t changed.

Camus speaks about a certain kind of suicidality, but suicidal thinking, and suicide itself, are too deep, desperate, and messy to be fully explained or countered by any single philosophical theory. That said, I believe a wider awareness and understanding of philosophy would help address the loneliness and alienation many of us feel, especially when we’re unable or unwilling to subscribe to consensus views and attitudes. The breadth and variety of philosophical thought teaches us — teaches me — that there’s no one route to truth, and no single way of living genuinely. I find that profoundly validating. We’re not wrong or bad for thinking differently, seeing the world through our own eyes, or seeking meaning in ways that work for us.

Sisyphus and the Absurd Man

I mentioned Sisyphus earlier but who is he and what’s his relevance to Camus’ thinking? Sisyphus was the king of Ephyra (Corinth) in Greek mythology. As I expressed it recently to a friend, he was punished by the gods for being “a bit cheeky” — which is something of an understatement. His full story is worth reading, but it’s the nature of his final punishment that’s relevant here. In Camus’ words:

The gods had condemned Sisyphus to ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back of its own weight. They had thought with some reason that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labour.

It’s not hard to see this as an analogy for the repetitive, tedious, and seemingly endless drudgery of modern life. It’s captured perfectly in a meme which began as a post on Twitter/X by Kramski.

I love how being an adult is just saying “But after this week things will slow down a bit again” to yourself until you die.

Sisyphus is the model for what Camus calls the Absurd Man; someone who exemplifies the appropriate response to the paradox of meaninglessness. The following summary is is taken from The Absurd Man by James Clark Ross.

The absurd man lives for his passions. He exists here and now, hoping for no more than what he’s been given. Though he abandons meaning, he is determined to live in the present and takes this perspective forward with him over the course of his life.

Yet the absurd man revolts against his very existence. He sees death as finality: there is no place for God. Nor is there any other source of intrinsic value to justify his existence in this world, nor a way to have consequence in another. The absurd man is torn from his urge to find unity.

But the absurd man is at least able to face the absurdity of his life squarely; for he accepts his own obscurity. In so doing, in renouncing the various falsities of hope, the absurd man finds freedom.

I find much here that reflects how I’ve lived my life. It makes sense to me. But what does it mean in practice? How is the Absurd Man — the Absurd Person — supposed to live?

Acceptance: The Third Way

Having set physical and philosophical suicide aside, what does Camus offer as a way through the dilemma of the Absurd? In a word, acceptance. Acceptance of the reality of the situation in which we find ourselves, and the determination to nevertheless live fully, relying on our courage, inventiveness and spirit to find a personal sense of meaning and purpose. Camus gives three examples of the Absurd Man, which he labels the lover, the actor, and the warrior, but it’s up to us to figure things out for ourselves. I recommend the excellent twenty minute video 7 Life Lessons from Albert Camus on the Philosophies for Life YouTube channel. It describes seven approaches to help us appreciate the Absurdity of life.

  1. Create your own meaning for life
  2. Don’t make happiness a distant goal
  3. Don’t be ignorant
  4. Be a rebel
  5. Spend time with yourself
  6. Be flexible
  7. Choose love

These are all important and I encourage you to watch the video in full, but I’ll touch on four that seem especially relevant to me: creating your own meaning, being a rebel, spending time with yourself, and not making happiness a distant goal. The quoted sentences are from the video narration.

Create your own meaning for life

No one is watching you. You are absolutely free to choose how your life will be.

I’ve written elsewhere about how important it is to acknowledge and celebrate our successes, whether or not they fit society’s model of what achievement should look like, or what others expect of us. Camus invites us to make our own choices about what matters for us, because ultimately no one and nothing else can do that for us.

Be a rebel

It’s important to know yourself in order to know when to rebel.

This can be interpreted in different ways, but essentially it means having the courage to say no when we need to. It’s about not accepting prescribed or expected norms if they don’t sit well with us. This could be seen as a rejection of morality and a licence to do anything we want to with no regard to other people, but Camus stresses the importance of balancing the freedom of being who you are with a strong sense of justice for others. The challenge is to act authentically rather than merely following the accepted or easy way. This means understanding who we actually are.

Spend time with yourself

Solitude makes it possible for you to meditate on the absurdity of life.

Time to myself has always been an important part of my life, whether it’s taking myself for a walk, meditating, keeping up with my diary as I’ve done every day for almost fifty years, or sitting in coffee shops to write my weekly blog post. The value of taking even short opportunities for solitude can’t be overstated. It’s in these moments that we can be most truly ourselves and explore our relationship with the Absurd.

I also spend a lot of time listening to and watching YouTube videos. I’m fascinated with cosmology and mathematics, especially anything to do with the scale and origins of the universe, incomprehensively large numbers such as Graham’s number and Tree 3, Gödel’s incompleteness theorems, Turing machines, and Russell’s paradox. Topics such as these speak to me of the urgent and fascinating, yet ultimately pointless urge to seek for understanding.

Don’t make happiness a distant goal

The more we can enjoy the process of achieving our goals, the happier we become.

Many people live and work towards future goals, setting aside any appreciation of the journey they are on in getting there. This may not cause any issues with relatively short-term goals. We can press on through the hardship and drudgery until we get there. For longer term goals and aspirations, however, we miss out on so much if we fail to appreciate where we are along the way. A need to be always pushing on towards the next goal means we are never happy with where we are or what we have achieved. We probably all know someone who never seems content with what they have, but is always looking for the next experience, relationship, or acquisition, believing that then they will be happy and at peace. The way out of this dilemma is to learn to find value in the journey, worrying less about what we our journeying towards.

There are no goals or aspirations for Sisyphus. He knows he is condemned to push his boulder up the hill for eternity. Likewise, it sometimes seems to us that there’s no possibility of escape or change in our future, and we’re going to be stuck where we are forever. If we allow ourselves to be lost in the seeming impossibility of change, we can lose hope altogether. If we imagine our life will only have meaning if it changes in specific desired ways, we will be mired in despair. The lesson we can take from Sisyphus — at least as Camus’ presents him — is to become fully aware of the present moment and find happiness there. Find meaning there. As he writes in the closing lines of The Myth of Sisyphus, we must imagine Sisyphus happy.

This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.

So, to return to the beginning of this piece and my reflections on my life so far, I’ll keep pushing on. Like Sisyphus I’ll make the most of each step along the way, allowing the struggle to fill my heart. In doing so, I can imagine myself happy.

Further Information

Existential Psychology: Camus (Eric Dodson lectures)

Albert Camus (Life and works)

7 Life Lessons from Albert Camus (video)

The Myth of Sisyphus (video)

The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays (book)

The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays (audio book)

The Stranger (video) 1967 film by Italian film director Luchino Visconti, based on Albert Camus’ 1942 novel The Stranger.


Photo by Vidar Nordli-Mathisen on Unsplash. Sculpture by Norwegian sculptor Gustav Vigeland in Frogner Park, Oslo.


Wednesday 22 November 2023

Writing the Foreword for My Friend's Book

Foreword /ˈfɔːwəːd/
Noun: a short introduction to a book, typically by a person other than the author.

Would you mind writing a foreword for me?

I was happy and proud earlier this year when my friend Aimee Wilson invited me to write the foreword for her new book You’re NOT Disordered: The Ultimate Wellbeing Guide for Bloggers. It was a great honour and responsibility, and something I took very seriously. I remember when Fran and I were looking for someone to write the foreword for our book High Tide, Low Tide: The Caring Friend’s Guide to Bipolar Disorder. It was important to find someone we trusted, who also had relevant experience and standing. For Aimee to extend me that degree of trust meant a great deal, not least because I knew how important her writing in general — and this book in particular — was to her.

I’d reviewed Aimee’s previous book Everything Disordered: A Practical Guide to Blogging but this was different and I took care to do the very best job I could for my friend. As a blogger myself, I’m very conscious of the pressure and stresses it can involve. Some issues are more obvious than others, some problems are bigger than others, but there’s very little out there to guide you through such predicaments. As far as I’m aware, there isn’t another book on the market addressing blogging from a wellbeing perspective. That’s why You’re NOT Disordered is so important and valuable.

With more than ten years’ experience running a very successful blog, Aimee is ideally qualified to write on this subject. At the time of writing, her blog I’m NOT Disordered tops the Feedspot listing of UK Borderline Personality Disorder blogs. She’s collaborated with numerous charities, companies, and organisations. She’s also appeared on television and radio, and featured in newspaper articles and magazines. She’s drawn on all this experience and more in writing her new guide on wellbeing for fellow bloggers.

Aimee and I met in early 2016 at a volunteer event for UK mental health charity Time to Change. At that time Aimee had been blogging for three years, me a little less. Despite the fact that we both blog in the mental health arena, we approach even the same topics differently, reflecting our personal perspectives and life experience. What we do have in common are the many challenges which anyone who blogs will understand. Blogging can be a lonely pursuit, and it helps enormously to have someone who understands what we’re going through. Aimee’s helped me many times on all kinds of levels. Through her new book, she’s making that experience and wisdom available to others.

Fran and I were very fortunate to have best-selling author and mental health advocate Rachel Kelly write the foreword for our book. I hope Aimee is just as pleased with her choice! I enjoyed the opportunity immensely and wish her every success with You’re NOT Disordered: The Ultimate Wellbeing Guide for Bloggers. I’m certain I’ll use it a lot to help keep me on track.


You’re NOT Disordered: The Ultimate Wellbeing Guide for Bloggers is available from Amazon. You can follow Aimee Wilson on her blog I’m NOT Disordered and on Twitter/X (@aimes_wilson).

Photo by Aimee Wilson.

Originally published at I’m NOT Disordered.


Wednesday 15 November 2023

Big Boys Cry Too: Challenging Toxic Masculinity for International Men's Day

Be quiet, big boys don’t cry.

— Eric Stewart / Graham Gouldman. “I’m Not in Love.”

Observed each year on November 19, International Men’s Day (IMD) celebrates the positive value men bring to the world, their families and communities. It highlights positive role models and raises awareness of men’s well-being, including mental health. It’s also an opportunity to face up to some of the less wholesome aspects of men’s lives and behaviour. For IMD 2022 I explored what being a man means to me. This year, I’m taking a look at toxic masculinity, which affects not only men but also our families, relationships, and wider society.

What Is Toxic Masculinity?

Let’s start with what toxic masculinity isn’t. It’s not an attack on men, men-shaming, blaming men for all the ills in the world, or denying the rich and varied contributions men make in all walks of life. It doesn’t claim that being male or masculine is toxic or unhealthy. Rather, it highlights some attitudes and behaviours conventionally associated with being a “real man” which are demonstrably hurtful and harmful. Here’s a definition by Mental Health UK.

Toxic masculinity is a term describing certain unhelpful assumptions about what it means to be “masculine” such as being stoic, not showing emotions, or being outwardly violent and “tough” versus being “soft” and emotional. These perceptions can be perpetuated by the media, which portrays men showing vulnerability as “weak” and something to be mocked.

Attitudes such as these have been passed down from generation to generation and remain deeply ingrained in gender expectations and stereotypes. We see them perpetuated by the media and social media, in movies and on television, and within social settings including our co-workers, families, and friends. They’re so commonplace that many people see them as completely normal and acceptable. When you hear “boys will be boys” as an excuse for aggressive or inappropriate behaviour, that’s toxic masculinity at work.

Toxic masculinity manifests in many different ways, including the repression of emotions, dominance, aggression, and inflexible ideas about what it means to be a man or boy. It serves as a foundation for mysogyny; inappropriate behaviour; and physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. It underlies extremist ideologies including male supremacy and the incel (“involuntary celibate”) sub-culture.

In a less extreme but nonetheless harmful context, toxic masculinity asserts that it’s unmanly to express emotions, to cry, to show sadness, admit we’re feeling depressed or anxious, or demonstrate vulnerability in any way. My father lived with physical illness and pain all his adult life, but he kept his feelings and emotions close to his chest. I can only recall him crying once in my presence. As I wrote in an open letter to my father decades after he died: “You never let me see it’s okay to cry and be weak sometimes, and share how you’re feeling when life is really shitty. I have no idea how you felt about your life. Or your death.” That open letter was challenged by a friend who called out my use of “weak” in that context. She felt I was still perpetuating the idea that crying is a sign of weakness. Her challenge led me to explore the idea of weakness itself. I shared some of the healthy male role models I’ve known in my life in Being a Man: Exploring My Gender Identity.

There’s nothing wrong with competition, with striving to excel, or wanting to improve one’s standing. But the idea that we need to win at all costs, that losing means failure, and that failure is unacceptable, drives unhealthy competitiveness and a lack of compassion and understanding for others. The never-ending urge to succeed, to beat those around us, to push ourselves on relentlessly, can lead to problems in our relationships, and stress-related health issues.

The assertion that certain careers, jobs, or roles are specifically and uniquely masculine or “man-like” is as toxic as the idea that certain roles are specifically and only for women. Anyone not conforming to these roles and expectations, whether from choice or otherwise, faces significant push-back, and discrimination which can affect our sense of identity, self-esteem, and well-being.

What’s the Problem?

Having set out what toxic masculinity is (and isn’t) let’s explore it’s impact in more detail. Why does this matter?

It can be hard for men to talk about how we’re feeling or allow ourselves to be vulnerable in front of others when we’ve been raised on the idea that it’s unmanly to express and explore our emotions. Not everyone feels the need to share how they’re feeling all the time, but wanting to open up and feeling unable to do so is a different thing entirely. Bottling things up with no healthy means of release can manifest as anxiety, depression, or other mental health conditions. Toxic masculinity discourages men from asking for help or using healthy coping strategies. In their absence, men may turn to less healthy options such as alcohol or drugs. Pent up stresses may also be released in violence, aggression, and other negative behaviours.

The impact of toxic masculinity can be far-reaching. The impulse to exemplify macho “real man” behaviours and roles can place enormous strain on relationships with colleagues, partners, and family. Addressing such interpersonal issues is hindered by a stifled emotional vocabulary. This isn’t to excuse unreasonable or toxic behaviour, but it’s hard to discuss things or address the consequences of our behaviour when we have little experience of talking maturely about our feelings, fears, and motivations.

At work and in the home, stereotypes that view men as dominant and women as submissive perpetuate and reinforce inequality, limit opportunities, and stifle the aspirations of all of us. This is especially insidious in the family, where fathers and other male figures may unconsciously pass unhealthy attitudes and behaviours to the next generation.

What Can We Do About It?

As deeply entrenched as some of these ideas are, there’s plenty we can do to challenge toxic masculinity and work towards a more tolerant, equal, and healthy society for all.

It’s vital that men are encouraged to speak, in public and privately, about their feelings, fears, motivations, and problems. There are signs this is starting to happen but there remains a great deal of societal pressure to “man up” and deal with things internally. There’s an important role for media, film, and television in modeling healthy behaviours, but it falls to each of us to encourage sharing without judgment or recrimination.

More generally, we need to move away from narrow concepts of what it means to be a man. People of all genders and none exhibit a wide spectrum of abilities, qualities, and natures. Allowing each other to be who we are without being forced into restrictive gender stereotypes, benefits everyone. Promoting a culture where we feel safe, whether we “fit the mould” or not, builds genuine and stronger relationships and connections. It’s something I’m proud to say happens in my workplace. This doesn’t happen overnight or automatically. That it does is testament to the willingness and determination of people at all levels in the organisation to foster a working environment where people feel able to be and express who they are.

Campaigns such as International Men’s Day and Movember promote mental health awareness for men and counter the idea that admitting we’re struggling or need support is unbecoming, weak, or “unmanly.” Being open about how we feel helps counter the stigma traditionally associated with mental illness and encourages men to seek professional help. Online and in person support groups and communities such as Andy’s Man Club, MANUP?, and Mantality provide safe spaces in which men can share their experiences and support one another.

Starting this International Men’s Day, let’s pledge to:

  • Model attitudes and behaviours that counter toxic gender stereotypes.
  • Examine our own attitudes and behaviours. It’s too easy to disown responsibility for perpetuating, consciously or otherwise, unhealthy stereotypes.
  • Challenge toxic masculinity whenever and wherever we encounter it, whether in person or online. Calling out ignorant, outdated, and inappropriate behaviour empowers others to do the same.
  • Help create a culture in our workplaces and other environments where people feel safe and confident discussing their emotions and mental health.
  • Support and signpost groups and organisations that promote men’s mental health and work to improve access to mental health services.

Toxic masculinity is deeply embedded in society and breaking free from it isn’t easy, on either a personal or collective level. That said, it’s a journey worth making because the rewards benefit us all.

Further Reading

For more on International Men’s Day check out the official IMD website, International Men’s Day UK, and the Men’s Health Forum. For more general resources and information regarding men’s mental health Mental Health UK is a great starting point.

We have a number of related blog posts here at Gum on My Shoe.

Our resources page includes links to a range of crisis lines, support organisations, training resources, and books.

Over to You

In this post I’ve described what toxic masculinity is and its impact on men, our relationships, families, and wider society. What are your thoughts about toxic masculinity? Has it affected you personally? Have you felt pressured to behave in certain ways because of gender stereotypes which don’t align with how you think and feel? Perhaps you believe too much is being made of it or that men are under attack. Fran and I would love to hear from you, either in the comments below or via our contact page.


Photo by Tom Pumford at Unsplash.


Wednesday 8 November 2023

Getting a Living, Forgetting to Live: A Few Thoughts on My 30 Years Service

Men for the sake of getting a living forget to live. (Margaret Fuller)

A few weeks ago I was listening in to the regular “all colleague call” at work. I was caught totally by surprise when I heard my name called out, to recognise my having completed thirty years of service. The anniversary had completely escaped my notice. In that time, I’ve actually worked for at least five employers, as the agency or company that employed me was outsourced, renamed, bought out, or merged with another entity. For reasons I’ve never quite understood, this all counts as continuous service.

Many of my colleagues underwent the same transformation, depending on when they boarded the carousel. There aren’t too many, though, who’ve worked here as long as I have. Almost everyone I started out with has long since retired, left, or otherwise moved on. I follow a few of them on social media, but most were colleagues rather than friends and I’ve not sought to keep the connections alive. In passing, I count this as growth on my part. In the more distant past I’ve attempted to hold on to connections long beyond their sell-by date.

Listening to my three decade career being briefly summarised on the call felt ... strange. I wasn’t embarrassed at being, momentarily, the focus of attention. I don’t embarrass easily. That said, it would have been nice if all the details had been correct. I was reminded of the eulogy at my mother’s funeral. The minister misrepresented aspects not only of her life — perhaps in a deliberate spirit of generosity — but mine too. It wasn’t a huge deal then, and it wasn’t a huge deal on the work call either. But little things matter. Getting it right matters. It’s not that they didn’t care. The truth, in both scenarios, is that almost no one present knew me well enough to get the details right.

After the call, I accepted the congratulations and comradely teasing of my team mates. We get on well and I enjoy their company, but the experience left me feeling demotivated. Demoralised. More than anything else, I felt sad. Thirty years working for essentially the same employer — and in essentially the same role — doesn’t feel much of an achievement to me. It feels like what happens when you never pushed yourself to find something better.

It’s not that I feel old. I’m sixty-two and happy for anyone to know it. That said, those thirty years represent almost half of my life so far. What have I achieved? I’ve advanced one grade, from Executive Officer (EO) to Higher Executive Officer (HEO). I was a team leader for many years, but am now a team member again. I’m content enough and I’m not looking for advancement in what remains of my working career. As I described in a post about lifelong learning, accepting that I’m not a natural leader (and have no desire to become one) has been liberating. It points, nonetheless, to a singular lack of ambition.

I don’t want to sound ungrateful. I’m aware how fortunate I am to be in work at all. In those thirty years I’ve never felt my job was at risk. It’s been very stressful at times, but that’s less of an issue nowadays. I may gripe about my lack of progression and the fact there’s no chance of a pay rise in my remaining years here, but I’m paid well enough for what I do. There are many people who work far harder than I do in much more challenging environments for far less money. I’m thinking especially of the caring and support sectors, but there are many others. This was brought home to me — literally — during the pandemic. While so many lost their jobs, were unable to work for a time, or continued working under increasingly onerous and dangerous conditions, my job was safe and I could work from home.

Nor have I hated working here. Far from it. I have some great memories and have enjoyed good working relationships with almost everyone I’ve encountered. I can point to things I’ve done that added value and contributed greatly to the achievements of my team, the organisation, and the people we support. I know I’ve made a difference. I’m especially proud of helping establish the mental health team a few years ago and securing buy-in from our then chief exec and senior management team to apply for the Time to Change Employer Pledge Scheme. In truth it was an easy sell, but it meant a lot to have their support for what we wanted to do. Presenting our CEO with the certificate of attainment at a corporate event a year later was a moment I treasure.

If I’m grateful for my job, happy enough in it, and feel I’ve made — and continue to make — a meaningful contribution, what’s the problem? It comes down to feeling I’ve not made the most of my opportunities. American journalist, critic, and women’s rights activist Margaret Fuller asserted that “Men for the sake of getting a living forget to live.” That’s not exactly true in my case. I take my work seriously, but I’ve not focused on my career to the exclusion of everything else. Rather, I’ve taken the path of least resistance — the next easiest step — almost all my life, in work and generally. I’ve rarely followed my passion or my dreams, mostly because I’ve not known what I wanted. I envy people who have a clear sense of who they are and what they want to achieve. Mostly, I’ve settled for wanting what I had or seemed within easy reach.

A few years ago I enrolled in a series of mentoring sessions at work. I was delighted that my then chief exec agreed to be my mentor. We got on famously and I enjoyed our sessions, but they didn’t help me much. That’s no reflection on my mentor. She could hardly help me move towards my goals when I was incapable of identifying them. I know I disappointed her — and others — in that regard.

I’ve always been this way. I remember a similar period of uncertainty and disillusionment in the late 1980s when I lived and worked in London. I was part way through working towards my PhD and lost all motivation and direction. I applied for a wide range of jobs, including a Braille translator and art conservator, but ended up taking the easiest next step and remaining in academic research. It’s not that I necessarily regret the steps I’ve taken, but I’d feel better about them if I’d exercised a degree of agency occationally.

My life and career are far from over, of course. I’m sixty-two not ninety-two! That said, the end of my working career is approaching. I’ve no clear idea when would be best to retire, or what to do with afterwards. I could choose to leave any time, but that requires making a decision. It’s easier to just continue turning up. I imagine that’s what I’ll do for at least a few more years. Maybe I’ll get another shout-out at thirty-five years service, or when I finally leave. Will there still be anyone there who knows me? Not just the projects I’ve worked on but who I am.

These thirty years passed almost without me noticing. I doubt I’ll be graced with another thirty. Twenty, maybe. What do I want to achieve? How do I want to live? I’m reminded of an excerpt from the British television sitcom Fawlty Towers in which the inept hotel manager Basil Fawlty experiences a rare moment of insight.

[Talking to himself] Zhoooom! What was that?
That was your life, mate.
Oh, that was quick. Do I get another?
Sorry, mate. That’s your lot.

One day, it won’t be a workplace shout-out on a Teams call, but my final eulogy. What will they say about me at my funeral, and will they get it right? What would I like them to say? These are questions for another day, but at least — at last — I’m asking them.


Photo by Martin Reisch at Unsplash.


Wednesday 25 October 2023

Communicate or Hide? The Creative Dilemma

Artists are people driven by the tension between the desire to communicate and the desire to hide. (Donald Woods Winnicott)

The above quotation describes a dynamic I know well. Publishing a new blog post every Wednesday means each week I need to identify a topic and then write a piece I’m happy to present to the world. Some are more personal than others, but whatever the topic there’s a balance to be struck between wanting to communicate and respecting my vulnerability.

The Desire to Communicate

As I’ve written previously, I can’t imagine a time when I’m not expressing myself creatively in some way. That’s taken many different forms over the years, including clay modeling, painting, woodwork, and photography. Mostly, though, I’ve sought to communicate through my writing. These days that’s primarily through this blog, but in the past it’s included poetry, factual articles, short stories, and books.

Friends have described me as having a passion for writing, or it being my purpose in life. Neither feels right to me. I do spend a considerable amount of time writing, one way or another. Apart from blogging, this includes personal correspondence, chatting online with friends, and the diary I’ve written ever day since I was fourteen years old. For all that, it’s not something I enjoy.

The book Fran and I wrote took four years of almost constant work, from original idea to publication. I don’t regret it. I’m immensely proud and consider it one of my greatest achievements in any field. But it wasn’t an easy road for either of us and there were times we came close to setting it aside. Blogging is no less demanding of my time, energy, and focus. There’s a sense of achievement when I complete a post, but my publishing schedule means there’s little time to appreciate my success before pressing on with the next article.

Why do it then? From my perspective, writing isn’t something I choose to do at all. It’s more like a need or compulsion that’s been a part of my life — a part of me — since my teens. If I try and rationalise it, I can identify three reasons for writing.

  • To explore my situation and experience
  • To share and educate
  • To invite input from others

Most fundamentally, writing is how I process and explore what’s going on for me. That’s especially true of my journal, but applies more generally. This blog post is a good example. It’s giving me the opportunity to examine what writing means to me, and my creative boundaries. I keep a “scrapbook” document within easy reach on my phone. I use this to capture ideas, notes, and thoughts whenever they occur to me. Some may be further expanded in my journal or blog posts, but many go no further. They exist as an informal appendix to my life, and I review them regularly for the insights and ideas they contain.

Sharing and educating were the motivations behind the book Fran and I wrote together. Recognising there was little material available for anyone wanting to help and support a friend who lives with mental illness, we wrote High Tide, Low Tide: The Caring Friend’s Guide to Bipolar Disorder to share what we’d learned through our own mutually supportive friendship. That same desire to share and educate underlies the content we publish on our blog and elsewhere.

Communicating isn’t all one way, of course. Whether it’s through our book or blog, social media, or private conversations, one of the key aspects of writing for me is receiving feedback and input from other people. We get fewer blog comments than I’d like, but those we do receive are incredibly valuable. For the same reason, we love having guest bloggers. If you’d like to guest here, check out our contact page for guidelines. Many of our posts include ideas and insights from other people. One recent example explored sympathy, empathy, and compassion and featured contributions from people who responded to my invitation on social media.

But these positive aspects don’t tell the whole story. In and of themselves, they’re probably not enough to keep me writing. If I’m honest, I write because I’m scared to stop. It often feels to me as though writing is the only thing I have that has any real meaning, value, or purpose. If I stopped writing, what would be left? At different times, I’ve thought about stopping my personal journal. I’ve certainly considered giving up blogging, or at least taking a break from it. In both cases, the very routine — daily journal entries and weekly blog posts — imposes an imperative to continue. Were I to interrupt either, I’d find it very difficult to pick up again at some later date. And so I continue, as much from fear as anything else.

The Desire to Hide

There can be many reasons for hiding, which in this context I’ll define as choosing not to communicate about something. We may feel inadequate to the task because we lack the skills or the experience to do so effectively. This is the reason I choose not to write about certain things, as I described in a post about blogging honestly.

There are topics I’d like to write about but haven’t yet found a way to approach them as I’d wish to. These include my perspective as a caring friend when someone I know has taken an overdose or harmed themself. I can’t imagine ever writing about abuse, addiction, rape, or trauma. Those are too far beyond my lived experience for me to do them justice.

It’s wise to be aware of our limitations, but it’s easy to become stuck in a mindset that keeps us from trying new things or exploring beyond the boundaries of our comfort zone. Those boundaries may still be relevant and useful, but it’s possible we’ve outgrown them. It’s worth checking in with the stories we tell ourselves, especially those that begin “I’m not the kind of person who ...” Maybe we are or could be, if we gave ourself permission to try.

I’ve written about things I’d once have felt uncomfortable sharing. These include open letters to my mother and to my father, and how I let a friend down when she was most in need. In recent years I’ve written about my physical and mental health for the first time, in such articles as My First Doctor’s Appointment in 30 Years, My Visit to Grey St. Opticians, Anxiety and Me, Return to Down, and This Boy Gets Sad Too. I explored what being a man means to me for International Men’s Day last year, and have described my self-doubt and feeling a fraud. This blog post is something I couldn’t have imagined writing in the past. It’s an example of how I feel increasingly comfortable being open and honest about myself.

That said, there are areas where I still feel the need to hide. For right or wrong, most of the reasons are fear-based. As I’ve previously described:

I would like to be completely honest, open, and genuine in everything I do and write, but honesty means admitting I’m afraid people might not like what I’ve shared, and won’t like me as a result. Who I am — who I really am, with my insights, experience, and wisdom; but also my faults, failings, and hang-ups — is all I have to offer. There are things I’ve chosen not to write about because of that fear.

I’m wary of discussing topics where I’ve not reached a clear decision or opinion, or where I feel unable to justify my position logically or respond adequately to the counter arguments. For these reasons amongst others, I choose not to write publically about religion, politics, gender issues, or war and conflict. With a few exceptions, I don’t write about my personal relationships, present or past. I don’t discuss sex, things I’m ashamed of or embarrassed about, or things entrusted to me by others. What are my fears, exactly? Several spring to mind.

  • Fear of embarrassment
  • Fear of ridicule, censure, or criticism
  • Fear of negative or hurtful repercussions
  • Fear of upsetting or disappointing people
  • Fear of inciting controversy or anger

How realistic are these fears? That’s difficult to gauge in advance, which is why the urge to hide can be so debilitating. I mentioned there were times Fran and I came close to setting our book aside. That wasn’t because of the effort involved, although that brought its own challenges. It was because Fran feared the negative repercussions of revealing so much about herself, especially her mental health. She had good reason to be cautious, having experienced a great deal of stigma and discrimination in the past. Her health and wellbeing were always my primary concern. On several occasions we came close to setting the entire thing aside. It’s a testament to Fran’s courage that we completed the project.

I had no such fears, but the situation was very different for me. I was mostly sharing caring and supportive aspects of myself which were unlikely to attract negative attention. The closest thing to criticism directed at me was a sense of incredulity that I could devote so much time and attention to someone outside my immediate family. I feel far less confident sharing other aspects of my life, personality, and behaviour. It’s scary to contemplate lifting the lid and exposing my inner self to the world. Hiding may be neither honest nor honourable, but it can be comfortable. Fear can also be healthy, in that it guards us against sharing too much or inappropriately. Maintaining healthy boundaries is important. We can be honest and genuine without sharing everything with everyone all the time.

You may have heard the injunction “write what scares you.” But why would you? Why would I? One reason is to help other people take an equivalent step. So much of what I’ve learned about mental illness is the result of reading, watching, and listening to people willing to share what it’s like for them. It’s one of the very best ways to educate yourself about your loved one’s mental health condition, or indeed your own. There are other benefits too. We grow by being open about ourselves. That doesn’t have to mean sharing publically, but however we do it, choosing to communicate rather than hide is an act of commitment to who we are. Knowing that something we’ve said or shared has helped someone is profoundly encouraging and validating. In simple terms, helping people helps you too.

But what about the dark bits? I was discussing some of my past writing with a friend recently. Specifically, the short stories written between 1996 and 2005 when I ran a Tolkien fan group called Middle-earth Reunion. I’m proud of many of those tales. I referenced a few in We Are All Made of Stories, in which I discussed storytelling as a vehicle for self-exploration. My friend asked if any of the characters in my stories represented me. Aside from a few tales in which I appear as myself — including this one — there are only two characters I identify with to any great extent. The first is Malcolm, the confused and largely inadequate antihero of “Playing at Darkness.” The second is dour widower William (Bill) Stokes in “And Men Myrtles.”

It’s neither easy not straightforward for me to admit this. I’m fond of Malcolm and Bill, and the stories in which they appear represent the best fiction I’ve ever written. Nevertheless, there are aspects of their personalities and behaviour that I strongly disavow. In these and other tales there are instances of sexism, classism, obsession, inappropriate behaviour, and aggression. Some of these are fundamental to the narrative, others arguably less so. They sit uneasily with me now precisely because I recognise echoes in my own nature, behaviour, and experience in the past.

These stories were written almost twenty years ago. It would be convenient to say that’s where I was at the time, but I’ve learned and moved on. In many cases I believe that to be true, but the fact they make uneasy reading today suggests not all of the work has been done. I may or may not make these pieces public, but these are important topics in their own right. I do no one any good, myself included, by hiding them away or hiding from them.

I’ll close with two quotations by therapist and coach Saadia Z. Yunus. The first speaks to the fear of wanting to speak our truth.

Your heart may race every time you’re about to speak up for yourself. This doesn’t mean it is wrong. It means it didn’t feel safe when you spoke up in the past. Have grace for yourself, breathe through it and speak. Your voice deserves to be heard.

I’m reminded of something I wrote myself, years ago: “Speak your truth. Whisper it. Scream it. You never know who might need to hear what only you can say. This stuff matters. You matter.” The second quotation by Saadia Z. Yunus asks a very important question.

When did you receive the message that everyone around you has to be OK and comfortable at the expense of your own comfort, autonomy, and self?

We may, with good reason, fear the repercussions if by speaking out we upset other people. No one, however, has the right not to be upset or offended. Other people’s comfort is not more important than our commitment to the truth as we perceive it or our lives as we live them. On my bookshelf is a copy of Susan Jeffers’ Feel the Fear And Do It Anyway. I think it’s due for a re-read.


Photo by Road Trip with Raj at Unsplash.


Wednesday 18 October 2023

Of Fellings and Feelings: An Exploration of Loss and Renewal

And now I’m just left with this stump — this space — which I want to also understand. (Andy Goldsworthy)

This post was inspired by a recent act of vandalism that resulted in the felling of the “Robin Hood Tree” at Sycamore Gap beside Hadrian’s Wall in Northumberland, England. Believed to have been planted between 1860–1890, the tree achieved international recognition in 1991 when it featured in the Kevin Costner movie Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. It was a favourite subject for photographers and artists. People proposed to their spouses there. Ashes of loved ones were scattered there. It was voted Tree of the Year in 2016 in a public competition run by The Woodland Trust. For a fuller account of the tree’s significance and the effect of its loss, check out this BBC News article. This post isn’t about the Gap sycamore alone, however. It’s something I’ve wanted to write since the unexpected — and unexplained — loss of a tree close to my home in May 2021. It didn’t have the sycamore’s pedigree. It never appeared in a blockbuster movie. But it lived. And it was loved.

I’m very much a city boy and trees didn’t feature much at all as I was growing up in Liverpool. I never climbed trees; never had a tree house in the back garden. Even our Christmas tree was a tinsel affair. The first trees in my life were literary. I remember the pathos I felt reading Hans Christian Andersen’s The Fir-Tree in the family book of fairy tales, as the tree languished in the attic, discarded and alone, until it was taken out and cut up for fire wood.

And the gardener’s boy chopped the Tree into small pieces; there was a whole heap lying there. The wood flamed up splendidly under the large brewing copper, and it sighed so deeply! Each sigh was like a shot.

In my teens, I was introduced to the fantasy writings of JRR Tolkien, in which trees play a mythic role characterised by loss and destruction. The Two Trees of Valinor, Telperion and Laurel, are destroyed by Melkor and Ungoliant. The Ents were created to protect trees from destruction by other creatures and races but are practically doomed to extinction in the process. Not even the Party Tree of the Hobbits was safe, as this passage from The Return of the King describes.

“They’ve cut it down!’ cried Sam. “They’ve cut down the Party Tree!” He pointed to where the tree had stood under which Bilbo had made his Farewell Speech. It was lying lopped and dead in the field ... As if this was the last straw Sam burst into tears.

In a more positive vein, I remember the tree at the conclusion of Tolkien’s short story “Leaf, by Niggle.”

Before him stood the Tree, his Tree, finished. If you could say that of a Tree that was alive, its leaves opening, its branches growing and bending in the wind that Niggle had so often felt or guessed, and had so often failed to catch. He gazed at the Tree, and slowly he lifted his arms and opened them wide.

“It’s a gift!” he said. He was referring to his art, and also to the result; but he was using the word quite literally.

Even the tiny trees on the maps of Middle-earth made an impression on me. I traced the maps from The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, painstakingly inking each line, each mountain, each tree, by hand. Trees featured several times in my poetry, most explicitly in “What happened to the Lovetrees?” written in 1984. The pain of that loss still resonates, after almost forty years.

Without a word we set our backs to oneanother, walked the slopes alone, our fields and hills pastoral: darker vales disdained, pretending not to see the forests moving.

Till one night unseen some secrets in the guise of willows crept into the stream we called our bed, took root, and in the morning we awoke to find between us woods impregnable.

From 1996 to 2005, I ran a Tolkien fan group called Middle-earth Reunion. Amongst the many pieces I wrote for our quarterly journal, two stories evoke the central role of trees in the Professor’s legendarium. Kindling tells the story of an ancient piece of timber and the artisan who discovers its secret.

A sudden spark of light caught his attention. He walked across and knelt in the dirt to examine it more closely. By chance the morning sun had struck upon what seemed to be a shard of silver buried deep in the heart of the wood and exposed only because of the ancient, time-wrought fracturing. What the thing was and how it had got there he could only guess. Heart racing now, he fetched the chain-hoist and canvas sling.

In “And Men Myrtles” dour widower William (Bill) Stokes encounters a group of Tolkien fans in the cemetery at Wolvercote in Oxford. Over the next two years, he immerses himself in the mythos Tolkien created. He grows tiny oak trees from two acorns — one stolen, one gifted to him — and finally comes to understand the nature of his role supporting his wife through her battle with cancer. One tiny oak tree is casually destroyed.

She had waited for him by the standpipe until it was clear he was not going to turn up. As she joined the ranks of the Tolkien Society at the graveside she overheard three thirty-somethings muttering in front of her.

“Doesn’t the plot look nice?”

“I know — the family keep it tidy.”

“Just as well someone does! You wouldn’t believe what some of those so-called fans get up to! Someone actually planted an oak tree a few months back — can you imagine? Only a little one it was, but honestly.”

“What happened?”

“They got rid of it, of course!”

“Some people have no respect ...”

The second tree clings to life on another grave, leaving the reader with the hope it might yet survive.

The rose chose that precise moment to relinquish its last petals. Most drifted across the plot like pink confetti, two or three catching in the branches of a tiny oak tree standing hard against the simple headstone.

So much for fictional trees. What significance have actual trees held for me? In one of my most treasured memories from university days I’m sitting with two friends at Alderley Edge, as night falls across the Cheshire Plain. The experience was almost spiritual in its intensity. It’s captured — and still evoked — by these few lines written at the time.

Beneath the trees
Beneath the stars
Cautiously we found each other
And a place for silence.

Like my fictional anti-hero Bill Stokes, I grew several oak trees from acorns in my garden. Rather than choosing a cemetery as he did, however, I planted them on land owned by one of the friends who’d shared my Alderley Edge experience. I’ve never thought of it as repaying a debt of gratitude to the natural world for that evening, but I can see it as such now.

In 2003 I sponsored the planting of a tree by The Woodland Trust to honour the memory of one of Middle-earth Reunion’s founding members, Reg Arnold. He was a pagan and held the natural world in high regard. I believe he would have approved. Two years later I attended a tree planting ceremony for one of my dearest friends from university days. I’ve not been back, but I can hope the tree still stands, in parkland not far from her home.

Closer to my home, I remember with affection the “Big Toe Tree” in Jesmond Dene, named for an exposed root that resembled a human toe complete with nail. It was felled years ago for reasons I never discovered.

Built around sixteen mature lime trees, the Tree House at Alnwick Garden in Northumberland has been the largest wooden treehouse in the world since the previous record-holder in Tennessee burned to the ground in 2019. The Tree House restaurant is a wonderful venue for birthdays and other special occasions and I’ve enjoyed many meals there in the past decade or so.

During covid lockdown, I took daily walks around my neighbourhood. I noticed, often for the first time, the little things — and sometimes the big things — I’d previously overlooked. These included a fallen tree in a secluded area beside the Ouseburn stream. I’d go there maybe once a week to chill by myself for a little while. My walks also took me along the old waggonway, where the trees turn beautiful colours in the autumn. Nothing to rival the richness of New England in the fall, but beautiful, nonetheless. I remember calls with friends along that path and beneath those trees.

And then there’s the tree no more than a hundred feet from my home. I don’t know how long it stood there or when I first properly noticed it, but in the autumn of 2016 I began taking a photograph of the tree every morning to share with Fran. It soon became a treasured part of my daily routine.

As I walk to the Metro station, I message Fran good morning for when she wakes later, and send a photo of the tree and path just outside our court. This is a new tradition, started a couple of months ago when the leaves on that tree were first turning towards autumn. It’s a nice way of sharing how the weather is here in Newcastle without getting all meteorological.

I didn’t keep every photo but I still have maybe a hundred, taken at all times of day, throughout the year, and in all kinds of weather. I never thought to discover what kind of tree it was while it was alive, but from a few of those photographs LeafSnap suggests it was a Norway Maple. It was cut down one day in May 2021. There was no warning, no explanation. Maybe it was diseased, and was felled to prevent it falling on someone. Maybe it was just in the way. Fran and I felt the loss immensely, and still do. Not knowing why, not understanding the rationale or reason, makes it all the harder. It was chainsawed a few inches above the ground. The stump of it is still there. I walk past it every day.

It’s in that context that I mourn the loss of the Gap sycamore, a tree I never saw and was unlikely ever to have visited. I knew it, though, through photographs and paintings, as a potent symbol of the region, set in silhouette against brooding skies, whirling starscapes, or the fluorescent whorls of the Northern Lights. It’s been described as one of the most photographed trees in the country. And now it’s gone. I’m not going to indulge in guesswork over who might have done it or why. It’s the subject of a criminal investigation, with two people currently released on police bail. There are discussions as to how the tree should be commemorated. Suggestions include using wood from the tree in some creative and meaningful way, planting a new tree in its place, or allowing the stump — which has effectively been coppiced — to regenerate naturally. The last option seems most fitting to me, but whatever decision is reached, and whether we ever learn the culprit and reason, the destructive act cannot be undone. The loss and the hurt remain.

How are we to make sense of such wanton destruction? In researching this piece I came across an interview by Terry Gross with English sculptor, photographer, and environmentalist Andy Goldsworthy. Goldsworthy discusses his creative response to the loss of a beloved oak tree in Scotland, which fell victim to high winds.

You know, if you’ve ever come across a tree that you’ve lived with for many years and then one day it’s blown over, there’s incredible shock and violence about that. And I worked with the tree when it was collapsed, before it was chopped up on the ground. And now I’m just left with this stump — this space — which I want to also understand.

Loss is an inevitable part of life, of course. There’s a difference, emotionally, depending on whether it’s natural or the result of deliberate human action. The former is harder in many ways, because there’s no one to blame. No one to hold accountable. But no matter how it happened, at the heart of it there is the loss itself. In Goldsworthy’s words, we are left with the stump. And the most creative and positive thing we can do with our loss is to understand the space, the gap, that is left behind.

I’m still learning about the gap that was left when the tree close to my home was felled. I’d like to do something with the many photographs I took over the years, but I’ll close here with a few that capture a little of what made it special to me.


All photographs by Martin Baker.


Wednesday 11 October 2023

The Empathy Factor: Exploring Sympathy, Empathy, and Compassion

In this post my aim is to explore how sympathy, empathy, and compassion relate to one another. I began with a quick search through the book Fran and I wrote about our friendship. I was surprised to discover the word sympathy doesn’t appear even once in the book’s 259 pages. Sympathetic occurs three times. Empathy twice. Compassion / compassionate appears thirteen times. It’s clear which feels most relevant to us, but that didn’t help me define or differentiate between them. I looked online next. Two definitions caught my attention. The first is from an article by Sara Schairer.

While these words are close cousins, they are not synonymous with one another. Sympathy means you can understand what the person is feeling. Empathy means that you feel what a person is feeling. Compassion is the willingness to relieve the suffering of another.

The second is from a post by Olivia Guy-Evans.

Simply put, sympathy is feeling for someone, while empathy is feeling with someone.

The idea of feeling for someone finds an echo in a quotation by Audrey Hepburn, although she equated it with empathy rather than sympathy.

Nothing is more important than empathy for another human being’s suffering. Nothing. Not a career, not wealth, not intelligence, certainly not status. We have to feel for one another if we’re going to survive with dignity.

It was then that I remembered the excellent short animated video on sympathy and empathy by Brené Brown. I can’t hope to capture her brevity, wisdom, and humour, so do take a few minutes to watch the video or read the transcript. There’s one part I find particularly relevant.

I always think of empathy as this kind of sacred space when someone is kind of in a deep hole, and they shout out from the bottom and they say, I’m stuck. It’s dark. I’m overwhelmed. And then we look and we say, hey, I’m down. I know what it’s like down here, and you’re not alone. Sympathy is, oh, it’s bad, uh-huh. No. Do you want a sandwich?

I love this description of empathy because it’s how Fran has spoken about our friendship.

[Marty] did not reach down a hand to pull me up from my dark hole. He came down and sat with me while I began rethreading, bit by bit, what could be mended. He let me baby step on his feet until I could dance on my own. To him it wasn’t about getting me to climb out. It was about being with me in all of it.

It’s tempting to think of sympathy as just a less intense form of empathy, but to me they’re fundamentally different. Rather than relating as equals, sympathy expresses sorrow or pity from a position of safety and disengagement. We might offer help or advice, but it’s likely to be on our terms and — like the sandwich in Brené Brown’s video — not necessarily what’s needed. Any sentence that begins with the words “Well, at least...” is an expression of sympathy. Brené Brown has some excruciating examples in her video, but it’s not hard to think of others. It’s something I catch myself doing, even though I know how insensitive and distancing it can be. If you find you’re about to respond to someone with an “at least” — stop and reframe what you were about to say.

In some ways, the difference between sympathy and empathy echoes the difference between worrying about someone and caring about them. Sympathy and worry are fear-based, disconnecting, and rarely helpful. Caring and empathy foster engagement and focus on the needs of the person sharing with us. In Brené Brown’s words, “Empathy fuels connection. Sympathy drives disconnection.” I found a great discussion of these concepts in a post by Jessica Schubert. It includes the following summary, attributed to Susan Davis.

I’m sorry you are suffering

I can imagine what this feels like

You are suffering and I will do everything I can to alleviate it
Connected and action oriented.

Keen to learn what these words mean to others, I posted a request on social media.Here are the responses, with minor edits for clarity.

To me, sympathy is when someone is hurting, like a loss of a dear one, and you feel for them. Empathy is when the hurt goes deeper and you actually feel it, too. That is when I am likely to say something along the lines of “I am so sorry. I wish I had the right words to comfort you, and I know I don’t, but I hurt with you and I’m here for you any way I can help.” Compassion is trying to understand the other’s viewpoint, why they act as they do, things like that. If you have compassion, I don’t think you can have judgement.
— Beth

I’d tend to agree with Beth, although I think to be truly empathetic I think it’s necessary for you to have been through something similar so that you know the pain the other person is going through. Compassion, I think means taking it to the next stage, actively wanting to do something to help someone you have sympathy “for” or empathy “with”.
— David

For me, empathy is when I can identify to feelings and unmet needs you have. Compassion is when I feel for you. Sympathy is when I feel pity for you. I do not enjoy pity.
— Cynthia

Sympathy is when you feel sorry about something that has happened to someone. Empathy is when it has happened to you too. Compassion is when you understand what a person does because they’re suffering.
— Janet

I’ve just got back from a North East Humanist talk about empathy. The speaker was a Durham University researcher and placed empathy within a teamwork idea, both how it evolved in primates and as it is expressed in humans. That made sense to me. Sympathy and compassion would be part of that empathy sense us humans have. She said that my problem solving because I care behaviour is empathy all the way.
— Paul

I don’t know, but I always thought it’s because of the bipolar disorder that I can feel when others are hurting and it causes me to hurt deeply. Because of our intense feelings, emotions and such. I think they are important for being humane. I believe sympathy, empathy, and compassion are different from each other, but connected maybe.
— Chris

Sympathy is feeling for that person’s unfortunate situation and expressing your concern to them. Empathy is putting yourself in the other person’s shoes. Compassion is having the grace to put others before yourself.
— Lisa

Empathy is when you can put yourself in the person’s shoes and you can relate and feel what the other person is going through. You express genuine care and love towards this person by what you say, and how you say things is important.
— Carol

The final contribution was from mental health blogger Aimee Wilson.

Since experiencing a trauma when I was younger and then having my mental health deteriorate so drastically, my eyes have really been opened to the importance of empathy, compassion, and sympathy.

Firstly – empathy – I’ve learnt that no one can completely, 100% understand someone else’s experience, no matter how similar what two people have been through might be. This was a hard realisation because it made it incredibly difficult to fight the notion that I was completely alone in the world. Through my mental health recovery, I’ve grown to appreciate that this also means no one has had to experience all the hardship you’ve gone through. For me, that brought enormous feelings of relief. Recognising no one will understand what I’ve experienced also means that some people (including professionals who should arguably “know better”) can still get things wrong. They can say or do the wrong thing. That might not happen if they were able to 100% appreciate my trauma and mental illness and symptoms.

Secondly – sympathy – in finally telling people about the trauma, some of the most frequent responses were completely centred around sympathy. I immediately recognised that this was a totally understandable response because it should (because it isn’t for everyone) really be human nature that if someone is upset and has experienced something horrible, you feel sorry for them. It’s the “nice” thing to do a lot of the time and is almost always considered to have no bad intentions behind it. I kept this in mind when I often felt someone’s sympathy was condescending or patronising. It’s helped me to avoid finding my relationships with others decline.

Finally – compassion – this is one of my favourite qualities for a person to have! I feel that it takes a lot of experience and a very genuinely thoughtful person to have the ability to show compassion, recognising that you can’t completely empathise with someone and will never fully understand what they have gone through, but wanting to reassure, support, help, and comfort them regardless.

I’m grateful to everyone who contributed. There’s consensus on many points, but some interesting differences too. Beth mentions sympathy in the context of loss. It’s probably obvious, but I’d not thought of it that way. We send sympathy cards (not empathy cards or compassion cards) to people who have been bereaved. In doing so, we acknowledge their loss without necessarily feeling it ourselves. I also agree with Beth’s statement “If you have compassion, I don’t think you can have judgement.”

I think judgement is the main thing that separates sympathy from both empathy and compassion. Consciously or not, with sympathy we are relating to the other person as different to or separate from us. Cynthia picks up on this when she equates sympathy with pity. We don’t feel pity for equals. Aimee agrees that sympathy rarely comes across as helpful. (“I often felt someone’s sympathy was condescending or patronising.”) She’s able to set this aside, however, reminding herself that there are rarely any bad intentions. Sympathy is the “nice” or socially conditioned response to someone’s pain or distress.

David and Janet suggest empathy is grounded in shared experience. This idea is echoed by others, including Lisa and Carol who express it as putting yourself in the other person’s shoes. I struggle with this (whilst not necessarily disagreeing) because I have little experience that compares with what Fran and many of my other friends have lived through. I used to feel it left me poorly equipped to offer help or support. It’s something I’m still working on. I’m reassured by Aimee’s take on empathy, which is that no one can fully understand what someone’s going though, no matter how similar their experiences might be. This could be seen as a get-out clause for someone like me; an excuse for messing up from time to time. On the contrary, I believe it calls us to focus on what we do have in common. I might never have experienced exactly what you’re going through, but I have been vulnerable, lost, and afraid. I can meet you in that place.

Most contributors expressed compassion in terms of understanding the other person at a deeply human level and wanting to help in ways that are meaningful to them. I’m reminded of a maxim of Fran’s that I find helpful:

Give people what they need. Not what you need to give them.

A sense of shared humanity is also important. Fran and I have a no pedestals rule that reminds us we serve ourselves and each other best when we relate as equals. The idea is expressed beautifully in a quotation by Brené Brown from her book Rising Strong.

Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It’s a relationship between equals. Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others. Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity.

In this post I’ve explored my understanding of sympathy, empathy, and compassion. I’ve also shared what these mean to a number of people who responded to my invitation on social media. What are your experiences of sympathy, empathy, and compassion? How they relate to one another? Which do you like to receive, or feel most at ease offering to others? Fran and I would love to hear from you, either in the comments below or via our contact page.


Photo by Kenny Eliason at Unsplash.