Wednesday 27 December 2023

2023: My Year in Photos and Blog Posts

I used to spend hours with my diary each December reviewing the year that was coming to a close. I’d recall favourite moments, examine things that hadn’t gone so well, and summarise my key relationships and friendships. I still write a daily journal, but I’ve not done that kind of end of year review since I posted my 2016 retrospective here on our blog.

For a few years, I shared a “things I’d quite like to do” blog post in January, with a review at the end of the year. If you’re interested, you can check how I got on with the Six Things I’d Quite Like to Do in 2017, the Seven Things I’d Quite Like to Do in 2018, and the Six Things I’d Quite Like to Do in 2019. Any plans I might have had for 2020 were overtaken by events. That December, I shared one photo and one blog post for each month of a year that no one could have predicted. I did the same thing at the end of 2021 and at the end of 2022.

Continuing the tradition, here’s my personal look back at 2023 in photos and blog posts. I hope you enjoy looking through it as much as I did putting it together.


I’ve chosen to start with a photo of my favourite coffee shop, Costa Coffee in Kingston Park. It’s a ten minute walk from where I live, one of my four all-time happy places, and my absolute favourite place to sit and write. I no longer visit seven days a week but I’m here almost every Saturday and Sunday. In the past year I’ve spent more hours in Costa than anywhere apart from home and the office. Many of the staff I’d come to know over the past few years have left now but the cosy, friendly atmosphere remains. The two messages on the wall ring true of this place. We make our coffee to make you smile and Businesses don’t make great coffee. People do.

The blog post I’ve chosen was something of a departure from my usual writing here at Gum on My Shoe. To begin with, it wasn’t a new piece, having been written in 1999 for Middle-earth Reunion, a Tolkien fan group I ran between 1996 and 2005. Seondly, it’s a short story, with no obvious links to our blog’s key themes of mental health and supportive friendships. Without giving too much away, Home Eleven describes me meeting some very interesting people at Newcastle’s Green Festival. I explored the broader relevance of storytelling in We Are All Made of Stories.


This photo was taken at my local Metro train station just after seven in the morning on my commute to work. For the whole of 2023 I’ve been hybrid working: working at home on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Fridays, and going in to the office on Wednesdays and Thursdays. It’s a pattern which suits me well enough. Skies like this are a bonus.

Awareness events such as Time to Talk Day encourage us to open up to family, friends, and colleagues about how we’re feeling, and to be there for others who want to share with us. It’s an important message, but things are often not as simple as that message suggests. In It’s Time to Talk. But What If You Don’t Want To? I addressed a question I’ve encountered at various times: “What if you don’t want to talk about what’s going on for you? What if our friends and loved ones don’t want to talk to us?”


This photo makes me smile every time I see it! My birthday falls in March and it’s become something of a tradition that I celebrate it with my friend and fellow blogger Aimee Wilson. It’s fair to say I was totally spoiled this year! Aimee, your friendship, care, and support are the best gifts of all, but I also loved the pressies, cheesecake, Guinness, and pizza!

Most of the people I talk to about mental health — theirs or mine — are friends, family, or colleagues I’ve known for some time. Sometimes, though, I find myself discussing mental health topics with strangers or people I hardly know at all. In How to Give Mental Health Help and Advice to People You Don’t Know I describe how I approach such situations, because it can be very different from talking about mental health with people you know.


This dapper gentleman was spotted at The Badger pub in Ponteland. Built in the 1700s, The Badger is a short walk from Newcastle Airport and a lovely venue for a spot of lunch. On this occasion I treated myself to mushroom burger with fries. I may never get over the closure of my all-time favourite drinking establishment, STACK Newcastle, but I’ve visited a few local pubs this year. In addition to The Badger, I’ve been to The Snowy Owl, Cramlington; The Falcon’s Nest and The Job Bulman in Gosforth; and The Windsor, which is no more than a five minute walk from home.

I’ve written several open letters in the past, including to my mother, my father, several to Fran, and even one to myself. In April, I shared something slightly different. Ten Things I Want You to Know: An Open Letter from a Supportive Friend isn’t written to any one person in particular. Instead, it’s drawn from a number of friendships, some of which were current at the time, some of which had come to an end. It includes things I’ve said in person, as well as things I wish I had.

One of the things I love most about us is that we’re open and honest with each other. We talk about pretty much anything and everything. There are some things, though, that maybe I’ve never told you. Things I’d like you to know. Maybe you already do. You’re a smart cookie! I want to tell you, nevertheless, because sometimes it’s good to hear things, even when we know them already.

The letter closes with the most important thing of all, my gratitude. Because no matter what happens in my friendships, no matter whether we’re still friends or not, I am and will always be grateful for the people who have graced my life.


During the first part of the year I found myself paying attention to my appearance. I still wore — and wear — my BOYS GET SAD TOO hoodies and my collection of mental health t-shirts, but I wanted a new look. After some deliberation I treated myself to four new t-shirts, three of which are shown here. The first two reflect my passion for writing and blogging. The third, celebrating the band RØRY, is the first music-related merchandise I’ve ever owned. I also bought a t-shirt by German band AnnenMayKantereit (not shown).

It might seem silly or even a bit sad that the purchase of four new t-shirts features in my highlights of the year, but it represented more than a few additions to my wardrobe. It was, and is, more about exploring what and who I am, and which aspects of myself I wish to project. Mental health remains an incredibly important part of my life, but it’s not the only thing I’m interested in or that motivates me. (Just the other day I was complimented on my flower-design BGST hoodie, which led to a nice little conversation about the brand and what it stands for. Thank you, Bethan, you made my day!)

I’d not heard of RØRY or AnnenMayKantereit until this year, but both affected me deeply in different ways. My blog post RØRY and AMK: Two Brilliant Bands Living Rent-Free in My Head discusses the bands, their music, and my responses to it.


This photo was taken at Kirkharle Courtyard, birthplace of Lancelot “Capability” Brown, Britain’s most celebrated landscape gardener. Over the years I’ve grown to love the place. The serpentine lake was installed in 2010 following Capability Brown’s original design. The lakeside walk affords plenty of opportunity to think, to not think, and simply to be. The courtyard hosts a number of speciality shops, and a café that’s well worth a visit.

The blog post I’ve chosen is How Are You, Really? Eight Things I’ve Learned About Suicidality and Self-Harm. It’s a piece I’d wanted to write for some time, reflecting the importance of the topic and its prevalence. As I wrote, “[w]hether you realise it or not, whether they mention it to you or not, you know someone who lives with thoughts like these. That may or may not be an easy realisation, but it’s true.”


The photo I’ve selected is one of many I took on a week-long vacation in the English Lake District. It shows the view along the River Brathay from the lounge of River House, Ambleside. It was the only time away from home I’ve spent this year, and provided a wonderfully peaceful escape from my usual routine. I revisited several places I love, including the boat ride from Ambleside to Bowness, the Lakeside and Haverthwaite Railway, and the Wateredge Inn on the banks of Windermere, another of my all-time happy places.

I shared two related posts in July. The Currency of Friendship was inspired by Fran telling me she felt friendship was her only currency; the only thing she had to offer to others. It led to me exploring the idea of friendship and relationships as exchange. (“Whatever their nature, relationships are transactional. You offer something and I offer something in return.”) I pondered what “currencies” I value in my relationships, and indeed what I bring to the party, as it were. What is my currency of friendship?

My questions were answered by my friend Aimee Wilson in a guest post titled All The Currency I See in Martin Through Our Friendship. It would be immodest to quote from it here, but Aimee’s testament to our friendship reminds me that no matter the doubts I often have about myself, my abilities, and indeed my qualities as a friend, I am valued and loved. Thank you, Aimee.


I mentioned earlier how I spent part of this year seeking a new look. This came to fruition in August when I visited an optician for the first time in many years. I explored the background to my visit and what it meant to me in To See and Be Seen: My Visit to Grey St. Opticians.

The crucial thing is to see clearly again. [...] But choosing new frames is also important. That bit’s down to me and it’s the part I’m most nervous about. I’ve never been cool or stylish, or even had much of an idea what those words mean. My new glasses will be a statement of who-I-am-now that I’ll be living with for the next few years. I want to get it right. I’m hoping the folk at Grey St. can give me some advice and suggestions.

This aspect was so important that I put considerable thought into how I presented at my initial appointment. I chose my LIFE IS SHORT BLOG MORE t-shirt because it expressed an important aspect of who I am. I certainly wasn’t disappointed, as I covered in that first blog post and a follow-up piece when I went back to collect my new glasses. On that occasion I wore my beloved Scottish tweed jacket and my AMK t-shirt. The photo I’ve chosen was taken minutes after leaving Grey St Opticians. Four months later I’m still delighted with the look, and how well I can see! Many thanks to Nic, Becks, and Fran for all your help, and for taking such good care of me.


Earlier in the year I wrote about how I tend to live vicariously through my friends’ adventures and experiences. There was a fun example of this in September when my friend Louise travelled abroad on holiday. She was delighted when I offered to follow her flight in real-time. The image I’ve chosen is a screenshot from the Flightradar24 app as her plane approached Palma de Mallorca airport in Mallorca, Spain.

It was Louise’s month because she also got a mention in my blog post Six Times I Felt Proud This Week, in which I shared occasions I’d felt pride in myself or in other people. Way to go, Lou!


The photo I’ve chosen is one of hundreds I’ve taken over the years of this specific view close to where I live. I began doing so to share the moment with Fran as I set out into my day. In time, it became a valued part of our connection; something we both looked forward to. This all changed in May 2021, when one tree — our tree, as Fran and I had come to think of it — was cut down with no warning and for no apparent reason. Had it still been standing, it would fill the centre of the photo I’ve shared here. Fran and I felt the loss deeply. I gathered together all the photos I’d taken, intending to do something creative with them by way of a tribute when the time felt right.

Sadly, it felt right in October this year, following the senseless — and illegal — felling of the famous tree at Sycamore Gap beside Hadrian’s Wall in Northumberland. I’d never visited the site, but I knew it well through the work of other photographers and artists. It achieved International attention in 1991 when it featured in the Kevin Costner movie Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. The culprit or culprits have yet to be brought to justice, but the desecration of such an iconic tree led me to explore my response to the destruction of our tree in a post I titled Of Fellings and Feelings: An Exploration of Loss and Renewal. As I wrote there, “I’m still learning about the gap that was left when the tree close to my home was felled,” but it gave me the chance to share a few of the many photographs I’d taken of it over the years.

I’ll briefly mention another article I published during October. Communicate or Hide? The Creative Dilemma was inspired by a quotation by Donald Woods Winnicott: “Artists are people driven by the tension between the desire to communicate and the desire to hide.” It allowed me to examine my reasons for writing, topics I’m at ease writing about, and those I’ve previously chosen not to explore, or have actively hidden from others — and in some cases myself. It’s a topic that strikes at the essence of my identity as a writer. As I wrote in that article, I do no one any good, myself included, by hiding away the dark bits, or hiding from them.


When it comes to writing with honesty and integrity, there’s no one I respect more than my friend and fellow mental health blogger Aimee Wilson. I was proud and happy to attend the publication party for Aimee’s latest book, You’re NOT Disordered: The Ultimate Wellbeing Guide for Bloggers, for which I wrote the foreword. Great or small it’s a delight to celebrate friends’ achievements, and this was a big one. Well done, Aimee!

This year marked my having achieved thirty years continuous service at my place of work. It didn’t seem all that much of an achievement to me, more a case of never having sought alternative employment in all that time. It led me to examine how I feel at this stage in my life in a post titled Getting a Living, Forgetting to Live: A Few Thoughts on My 30 Years Service. As I wrote there, “[t]hese 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?”


This photo was taken at 6:30 am one Wednesday morning as I made my way to work. As I mentioned earlier, all year I’ve worked two days a week in the office, and three days from home. There are indications this may change next year, possibly reversing the pattern so it’s three days in the office and two working from home. I’m not keen, but it won’t be a problem if it happens. Views like this definitely make the early starts worthwhile.

The blog post I’ve chosen to highlight is Present and Correct: How to Do the Right Thing at the Right Time. It was inspired by a conversation with Fran about when’s the right time to open Christmas presents. More generally, it’s about recognising that we all have our ideas about when things should happen.

So, whether it’s opening Christmas presents, spending time with a friend, or taking a significant life decision, being conscious of our needs helps us make the most of the current moment. It’s arguably the greatest gift of all.

And that, my friends, is why they call it the present.

Post of the Year

This has been a year in which I’ve thought a lot about who I am, how I present to others, and what my purpose in life might be. Spending a little money on new t-shirts — and rather a lot of money on new glasses — was an important part of that journey. Not the money as such, although it’s nice to treat oneself now and again, but the way these things have allowed me to explore new ways of expressing my identity. This photo of me wearing my LIFE IS SHORT BLOG MORE t-shirt was taken at Starbucks in Newcastle International Airport, and is my favourite selfie of the year. I hope to carry that confidence and sense of who I am forward into 2024.

Realising I’ve spent the past thirty years in the same employ led me to ponder what I’ve done with my life and still want to achieve. In doing so I chanced on the Absurdist philosophy of Albert Camus, with its emphasis on finding personal meaning and purpose in the absence of any outside references. In One Must Imagine Sisyphus Happy: Encounters With the Absurd Man I described how and why I identify so closely with Camus on this. I also publically affirmed my lack of religious or spiritual belief for the first time. It’s an important article from my point of view, and one which takes me a few steps further on the path to writing — and living — authentically. For that reason, I’ve chosen it as my keynote blog post of the year. I feel it’s something I will be returning to again.

I’d like to close by saying a huge thank you to all our readers, and to everyone who has contributed, helped, or supported us and our blog in the past year. Fran and I are immensely grateful to you all.

Here’s to 2024, whatever it may bring.


All photos by Martin Baker.


Wednesday 20 December 2023

Time Management for the Stationery Lover (One More Filofax for the Road)

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.

— Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

In a recent blog post I discussed how people have different ideas about the most appropriate time to do things. This led me to ponder how people keep track of time. Specifically, how I keep track of what’s going on in my life and the things that have happened to me. As we approach the close of the year, I thought it would be interesting to review some of the time management methods I’ve employed over the course of my lifetime. This post was further inspired by me buying — and almost immediately regretting buying — yet another Filofax planner. More on that later!

Personal Diary

Regular readers will know that I’ve kept a daily diary since I was fourteen years old. My diaries represent the definitive account of my life as I experienced it. They have captured, and continue to capture, the most significant details — events, emotions, thoughts, and relationships — as I’ve moved through my life, one day at a time. Excepting a few years in the eighties when I’d occasionally tip in sketches and drawings, there are no photos, clippings, or other embellishments. Just my words, handwritten in black ink.

They proved an invaluable resource when Fran and I were writing our book. We included numerous excerpts to illustrate what I was thinking and feeling at different times in our journey as friends. I rarely look through old diaries nowadays, however. I archive each volume as it’s completed, and hardly ever take them up again. I sometimes wonder why I continue to write a diary at all if I never look back over what I’ve written. I don’t have an answer, other than to say I continue writing my journal because doing so is part of me, and how I process what’s happening in my life. I’m unsure who I’d be if I no longer committed my thoughts and feelings to paper. As I expressed it recently in relation to my writing generally, “if I’m honest, I write because I’m scared to stop.”

My diaries contain what I’ve done and how I felt about it at the time, but there’s no high-level perspective and no summary of highlights. Being hand-written, it’s also not easily searchable. Over the years I’ve developed various strategies to provide these alternate views. In different ways, they help me navigate to a particular date or event. From there, should I wish to, I can pull the relevant volume of my diary and revisit how I was feeling on that day. These strategies include my Traveler’s Notebook, online calendar, to do lists, online notes, timelines, and photos. Let’s take a look at these in more detail.

Traveler’s Notebook

As I wrote a few years ago in Every Day Essentials for the Successful Blogger, I own two Traveler’s Journals. I love how easy it is to swap out individual inserts, folders, and other accessories. I started out using my Standard Traveler’s Notebook for work notes and for drafting blog posts, but I’ve not used it in quite a while. My smaller Passport Traveler’s Notebook serves as a memory journal, and is very much still in use. I keepsake days out, holidays, and other special occasions. I decorate the pages with washi tape, stickers and stamps, and photos printed on my little HP Sprocket printer. I carry it with me pretty much everywhere I go. It’s my go-to if I want to reminisce about a special event, or check the date so I can look it up elsewhere. There’s a wonderful online community of people who use and love Traveler’s notebooks, and creative journaling in general. Apparently, there’s a word for us: papyrophiliacs, literally those who love paper!

Clocks and Calendars

My diary and journals allow me to record and recall my time and memories, but when it comes to managing the present and planning future activities I turn to the multi-timezone clock and calendars on my phone and tablet. Fran and I live three thousand miles and three hundred minutes apart. After a dozen years of friendship, I rarely need to think about the five hour difference between us. I instinctively think in UK and US Eastern times simultaneously. It’s nonetheless helpful to have both clocks to hand. This is especially true when daylight saving adjustments complicate things, or if Fran travels out of state or abroad. I’ve used various clock apps over the years. Currently, I’m using Universal Clock Widget 2021 by Aaadbic. This simple app allows me to display not only Fran’s time on the East Coast, but also other friends’ times.

I’m a big fan of the Google suite of cloud applications. I use Gmail as my main e-mail client. Our book was written on Google Docs. Our blog is hosted on Google’s Blogger platform. Google Drive is my primary cloud storage, with Microsoft’s Onedrive as backup. I use Keep as my main note-taking app. It’s natural, then, that I should use Google Calendar as my main calendar application. One of the first things Fran and I did was set up a shared calendar. This helped a lot with our book tasks and activities. More generally, it helps to keep us aware of each other’s plans so we can schedule our calls more easily. I’ve shared calendars with other friends in the past too, and found them very useful. That said, I’m not a huge fan of the Google Calendar app itself. I use aCalendar by Tapir Apps GmbH on my Android phone and tablet to manage my Google calendar appointments.

To Do Lists

Although Google Calendar and aCalendar include task functionality, I prefer to use a separate to do list application. I’ve tried many over the years. My favourite is Trello. Fran and I used it extensively in planning the writing, editing, and publication of our book. It’s highly customisable and flexible, but these days I find I have less need of its extensive functionality. I’ve taken to using a single tick box document in Google Keep as my to do list. I keep this displayed in a widget on my phone homescreen. I use it to track my current and upcoming blog posts, as well as domestic tasks like paying bills. Keep’s simplicity is a bonus here, as it keeps me focused on the tasks in hand. For anything more complex or complicated, I would use Trello.

Google Keep

I mentioned using Google Keep for to do lists, but that’s not my main use for this grossly underestimated app. It’s my go to for note taking of any kind, and where every blog post I write begins its life. I have a “scrapbook” document for jotting down spontaneous notes and ideas. I tidy this down on an ongoing basis, but there are entries I don’t wish to lose and I’ve archived my scrapbooks a few times in the past. They serve as informal memory journals, charting thoughts and ideas which may or may not have made it into my diary or been recorded elsewhere. I rarely hit the word limit on individual notes, and there is no limit on the number of notes you can have. Keep is also searchable. This makes it a good starting point if I want to retrieve specific memories quickly.


My diary and blogging aside, I document my life in the many photographs I take. Older digital photos are archived on an external hard drive with DVD backup. Photos taken since the start of 2016 are organised by year on my phone with cloud backup. It’s often the first place I look if I want to check when a specific event happened, or what I was doing around a particular time.

Social Media Posts

Social media provides another valuable index to the events of my life. I wish Facebook had better search options, but I love the Memories stream which reminds me of things I posted or was doing on this day in years gone by. As with photo albums on my phone, I use Facebook albums to home in on images I’ve shared. I post less frequently to Instagram but the photos I share there tend to be ones that are especially significant to me. In that sense, Instagram serves as a digital memory journal.


I use Facebook Messenger to chat with friends all over the world. Its text search means it can be very useful in recalling events and discussions. I use it a lot to recall conversations relevant to whatever I’m blogging about at the time, or to inform my personal reflections in my diary. My chat history with Fran was incredibly important when we were writing our book. I downloaded our conversations in full — we used Skype at that time — and we quoted extensively from them in the book.

Friendship Timelines

The above techniques focus on recording — in words, images, or social media posts — what was happening at a particular point in time. That’s invaluable but doesn’t provide a high level perspective. With this in mind, some years ago I began a timeline to track the ups and downs of one particular friendship. Marking the frequency of our get-togethers, calls, and other significant events helped me see the friendship in broader terms, and respond with more understanding as things changed over time. I’ve used the same approach with other friendships since.

Wellbeing Logs

In 2013 when Fran was traveling in Europe, and again for a period in 2020 when she was out of town, I tracked my health, wellbeing, and self-care routine. It helped keep me on track but I didn’t keep up with it for more than six months or so on either occasion. It’s something I might take up again in the new year.

Blog Posts

I pour a lot of myself into my writing and find it both interesting and instructive to look back over topics I’ve covered in the past. The nature of my blog posts has changed a good deal over the ten years since Fran and I began Gum on My Shoe in August 2013. That’s something I might explore that in a future post. For now I’ll just note that I explore my life, experiences, and issues more now than in the early days of our blog. I’d go so far as to say it’s become my primary vehicle for self-examination, overtaking even my personal diary. Certain articles have come to serve as waypoints, marking key moments in my personal journey. Of these, I’d pick out the following in particular.


Being a Man: Exploring My Gender Identity for International Men’s Day

Return to Down: How My Baseline Mood Has Slipped from Positive to Low

I Can See Clearly: Celebrating My New Glasses from Grey St. Opticians

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

One Must Imagine Sisyphus Happy: Encounters With the Absurd Man

Others are useful as indexes to my experiences and life events. These include the review posts I’ve written for 2020, 2021, and 2022. Look out for the review post for 2023 in the next week or so.

One More Filofax (for the Road)

I’ve focused on techniques I’ve found helpful, but I can’t close without mentioning one that never quite has, despite me wanting it to very much. I refer, of course, to the Filofax personal planner. My first was part of my induction pack when I began working for the UK civil service I.T. Services Agency thirty years ago. It was royal blue with the ITSA logo on the front. I don’t remember how much I used it at the time, or for what, but it caught my imagination. I never quite got over the allure of opening and closing those six little metal rings to add, remove, and rearrange the pages, dividers, pockets, and the like. I still have it, somewhere.

I may have bought another Filofax which didn’t get used — I wasn’t overly enamoured of the colour of the ITSA one — but the next personal planner I remember buying was an A5 zip cover planner sold by WH Smith. I used it for a while, then set it aside because it didn’t quite fit my needs. At some point I donated it to charity. That’s something I bitterly regret because, in my head at least, it was the perfect planner for me. Around ten years ago I saw a black personal size Filofax Domino planner on offer at Staples in Newcastle and bought it without hesitation. Surely, this time, it would be just what I was after. Needless to say, it wasn’t. I liked the planner itself but I simply couldn’t find enough uses for it.

Fast forward to last December, when in a renewed fit of papyrophilia and having mislaid my personal size Domino — somewhere — I bought an A5 Domino with calendar inserts in various formats, dividers, plastic pockets, and extra note paper. I began using it to take notes on various projects, including reworking a novella I wrote years ago. I like the Domino covers, with their elastic closure, but the one I received was slightly damaged on the inside. I didn’t return it for a replacement, but the damage played on me and I was never completely happy using it.

So this year, as Christmas approached, I caught the bug again and ordered myself a black A5 Metropol Zip Filofax planner. I hoped to recapture the satisfaction of the WH Smith zip planner I gave away, but I was sorely disappointed. I knew it was PU (artificial) leather, which is fine, but it’s very shiny and feels horribly tacky. So here I am, again, with yet another planner I’m unlikely to use.

Maybe I’ll go back to the A5 Domino. Maybe I’ll try and track down a second-hand WH Smith planner, only to discover it’s not as great as I remember it being. Maybe, out there somewhere, is the perfect planner for me. In the meantime, I’ll keep on keeping on, living and documenting and managing my life as I go.

Over to You

In this post I’ve described some of the ways I keep track of the events, emotions, and happenings of my life. How do you manage your time? What works for you? Are you a Filofax person? Do you journal at all? I’d love to hear from you, either in the comments below or via our contact page.


Photo by Kevin Ku at Unsplash


Wednesday 13 December 2023

Present and Correct: How to Do the Right Thing at the Right Time

Yesterday is history. Tomorrow is a mystery. Today is a gift. That’s why it is called the present.

— Attributed to Alice Morse Earle

This piece was inspired by a conversation with Fran about when’s the right time to open Christmas presents. I sent Fran’s gifts early this year, and she wanted to open them as soon as they arrived. We had a fun time on our video call that evening, each in our matching Santa hats. It was November 27. The fact that I was okay with this shows how much I’ve grown since we first became friends in 2011. In those early years, it was important to me that we open our gifts together at the same time, ideally on Christmas Eve.

I guess I’m attached to the idea of there being a proper time to do things. I buy and wrap gifts in plenty of time — not least because many will be mailed to various locations in the UK and beyond — but the tree and other decorations should go up no earlier than the middle of December. I stock up in advance on festive fayre — mince pies, Christmas cake, chutneys, crackers, crisps (chips) and such — but it’s not to be consumed until a week or so before the big day.

If you’re a regular reader you’ll have noted my use of “should” in the previous paragraph. You’re no doubt thinking “Hmmm... I thought you don’t believe in shoulds!” You’re right, of course. Should implies some shared scale of rightness or propriety. In this case, I have only my personal sense of tradition, and the feeling that celebrations are enhanced by not starting them too early or continuing them too long. Realising that this is personal rather than absolute or universal is what I meant when I said I’d grown. It’s okay that other people feel differently.

My ideas about when things should be done are as valid — no less and no more — as Fran’s or anyone else’s. I like to open presents as close to Christmas Day as possible, but if Fran wants to open hers as soon as they arrive, that’s cool. I send cards in the first week of December, but if my friend wants to mail hers out in the middle of November, that’s good too. (Thank you, Jessie! Yours was the first Christmas card I received this year, and all the more special for that!)

It’s not just Christmas. I celebrate my birthday itself with family, and enjoy a get-together with friends as close to the day as possible. Fran marks her birthday by filling the month in which she was born with things she wants to do, either on her own or with friends. Neither approach is right or wrong. We’re free to mark our birthdays in the ways we wish.

Maybe this all seems obvious, and hardly worth mentioning, let alone discussing at length. I find it interesting, nonetheless. I think it highlights the fact that people have different approaches to the passage of time, and how to mark that passage in ways that are meaningful. I’ve written before about how to reach wise decisions, but deciding when is no less important.

  • When to send the Christmas cards
  • When to put up the decorations
  • When to eat that first mince pie
  • When to open your presents

These decisions may seem trivial, but each time (pun intended) we make one, we’re putting a little flag in the timeline of our life. Being aware of our time-based decisions and how we make them can help when we have larger flags to place.

  • When to look for a new job
  • When to send that letter
  • When to ask that question
  • When to end a relationship or start a new one

Being present and correct — or correctly present — is important. It reminds me that not everyone experiences time the way I do, or marks key moments in their lives the ways I’d choose to. I’ve mentioned Fran’s month-long approach to celebrating her birthdays. My friend Aimee celebrates Christmas in a similar way. She starts early (compared to me), visiting Christmas markets and making other festive trips in the weeks beforehand, and posting a new piece to her blog I’m NOT Disordered every day from December 1 until Christmas Day. Preparing those Blogmas posts is a commitment that starts weeks if not months ahead of time. I can’t imagine devoting so much time and effort myself, but I know how much it means to Aimee and how large a part it plays in her experience of Christmas. I love that she includes me in her celebrations, and we get to enjoy the season in ways that meets her expectations and mine.

That’s what it’s about; being aware of ourselves and our needs in the moment, and respectful of the needs of other people. Just the other day, Fran joined me on our usual video call. I was looking forward to a good catch-up, but she was too exhausted to talk. Instead, she asked if we could have some quiet time together while she rested. I was happy to agree. As I’ve written before, sharing quiet moments like this can deepen your friendship. Half an hour later, Fran felt sufficiently refreshed to ask how my day had gone and share a little of her own. It was a lovely example of how paying attention and making the right decision at the right time can enrich our experience.

There’s a connection here to my recent post about Albert Camus and his philosophy of the Absurd as exemplified in The Myth of Sisyphus.

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.

So, whether it’s opening Christmas presents, spending time with a friend, or taking a significant life decision, being conscious of our needs helps us make the most of the current moment. It’s arguably the greatest gift of all. And that, my friends, is why they call it the present.


Photo by Icons8 Team at Unsplash


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.