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An Optimist Dweller on the Threshold

17 May 2020

Have you ever wondered why a random thought enters your psyche with no rhyme nor reason for its arrival? It seems to happen to me a lot. In most instances, they are wonderful and helpful and often take me to ideas that provide me with new and refreshing solutions. Of course, we have to be careful that these don’t become a source of constant distraction but rather than this, have the ability to channel this new energy into something meaningful. I had one of these random thoughts last week. 

Every morning I get up quite early. Tuesday was no exception. In fact, it was half an hour earlier than usual I had planned a call into the USA. An opportunity had arisen to deliver an XVenture VR Mind Games program into one of the National Soccer League teams so a call was needed to explain how it all worked. It was going to be made a little easier in relation to technical and time arrangements as we had just locked in another Mind Games at a University in Ontario. Anyhow, I went to do my twelve minutes of floor exercises which I’ve been doing well before lockdown. Incidentally, I can’t pretend that I love this morning ritual. I just think it’s probably a good idea to keep some level of fitness. Reluctantly I do notice I’m a little more alert as a result, so I keep pushing myself to do it.  

Anyhow, back to the point. As I was in the middle of the exercises a distant memory came into my mind. It was of a holiday in Ireland in the early 1990s. One of the best. Three weeks in Cork and Kerry staying in farmhouses and properties overlooking stunning scenery such as Dingle. Travelling from village to village, pub to pub, beach to beach. Incredible memories.

One memory caught me by surprise. I can distinctly picture myself sitting in a big old chair by a warm fire on a cooler evening, a glass of something decent in one hand and a book in the other. The book was called an Evil Cradling written by Brian Keenan. For those who don’t know who Brian Keenan is, his story is incredible. A teacher and writer from Northern Ireland who arrived for a new job at the American University in Lebanon. Within a few days, Brian had been kidnapped by Islamic jihad and placed in a cell blindfolded and in solitary confinement. After a couple of months, he was moved to another cell which he shared with another captive, journalist John McCarthy.  This would be his home for the next four years. If solitary and blindfolded wasn’t enough he would be interrogated half-naked, bereft of decent food and beaten at the whim of those who would hold him. Other captives included the Archbishop of Canterbury’s envoy, Terry Waite and the American academic Tom Sutherland.  Brian did eventually get released and wrote the book soon after. 

I remember that the book left a deep impression on me and during that exercise on Tuesday morning last week, it all came flooding back. There were so many lessons. Here are a few. 

First and foremost: today is all we have. Tomorrow the world may be a very different place for me. For you. For Brian, four years of captivity. No radio, no tv, phones, computers, showers, newspapers, cappuccinos, beers. No friends. No family.  Nothing but his memory which was his solace and also his sadness. As a writer, he longed for a pencil. The tool of the trade for a writer, but he didn’t get it.

I remember a particular moment when a bowl of fruit became the focus of Brian’s joy in his cell. A unique moment where his captives gave him a treat!

“But wait. My eyes are almost burned by what I see. There’s a bowl in front of me that wasn’t there before. A brown button bowl and in it some apricots, some small oranges, some nuts, cherries, a banana. The fruits, the colours, mesmerize me in a quiet rapture that spins through my head. I am entranced by colour. I lift an orange into the flat filthy palm of my hand and feel and smell and lick it. The colour orange, the colour, the colour, my God the colour orange. Before me is a feast of colour. I feel myself begin to dance, slowly, I am intoxicated by colour. I feel the colour in a quiet somnambulant rage. Such wonder, such absolute wonder in such an insignificant fruit……. I sit in quiet joy, so complete, beyond the meaning of joy. My soul finds its own completeness in that bowl of colour. The forms of each fruit. The shape and curl and bend all so rich, so perfect."

When was the last time we were thankful for something so small? I remember reading this then and feel it now. I’m very thankful for what I have. That evening in that farmhouse in Cork I gave thanks for the good fortune I had and now the incredible life I get to experience.

Secondly, I was stunned by this man’s incredible resilience. When we have a bad day, we often whinge, grumble and complain. We can affect the whole mood of the room, family and work colleagues by our disappointments. At the very least there is every likelihood we have a tomorrow where we can put things right or start over. For Brian: this wasn’t the case, yet every day he didn’t lose hope of a future that was better. He had what those with strong resilience demonstrate: internal control. Whatever the circumstances of the day he faced, he would drive the things he could control and not dwell on those things he couldn’t. He saw stress as something to face up to rather than a threat.

I grabbed this thought in particular and remembered this in moments of fear. I recall once having to play a guitar solo at the Sydney Opera house. (For those who don’t know my evening job for many years was a musician!). Anyhow. A big solo which I knew was coming. A full audience. A spotlight and me and guitar. Get it right and the orchestra joins in perfect timing. Get it wrong and the floor will open up. Nowhere to hide. I remember the Keenan messages – it gave me strength. Face my fear and control what I can. Practice. Practice. Practice. Enjoy it because if I get it right will be with me forever as one of my special moments in life. Everything went well. I did enjoy it. It’s a cherished memory for sure.

The third thing that caught my imagination from the book was one of the toughest things people face. Marked even more for some now due to social isolation. That is loneliness. I’ve written about this several times in the past. One of the biggest causes of depression and suicide is loneliness. I’m not sure why I write about it. Maybe it’s as a sharp reminder to myself that none of us is immune. I do know that I’ve been in rooms full of people sometimes and yet still felt alone. It’s hard enough when people don’t return calls but being alone day in day out? That’s tough. Thankfully it’s a rare experience for me. Yet Brian Keenan threw a new light on this for me. He saw a big difference between what he describes as “aloneness” and “loneliness.” He was the first person to really introduce me to deep self-reflection. Sure, I’d read, studied and attempted to apply self-reflection in the past. However, his candour hit me between the eyes. Taking a good hard look at myself.  What do I see? What do I like, what do I not like about what I see and what do I need to change?

“I quite enjoy solitude but loneliness is different. We all need somebody to talk to, explain things to. If we don’t have that we don’t have validation and life lacks meaning……However, I think everybody has a place inside themselves that you alone can go to. You know how to get there because you’ve got a key. When you go there it can be deeply enriching- it can also be a bit disturbing because it forces you to look at yourself. That’s what aloneness is to me. It’s about taking the time to look at what you are and make good what you are. Sometimes you need to put a sticking plaster on here and there. Aloneness, when you can deal with it, is about liberation.”

After I had finished my exercises and my memories of Brian Keenan and the Evil Cradling, I hit the day with a renewed vigour excited about what I can contribute. I now saw the humour in the things I found annoying the day before. Long may this last!

Later that day a moment of serendipity. One of my favourite podcasts is the BBC program Desert Island Discs. An interviewer chats to a famous person about their life interspersed with 8 favourite pieces of music, a book and a luxury item. I was flicking through the old archives and there was Brian Keenan! I played the podcast – an interview with Sue Lawley. It and his commentary were as deep and meaningful as when I had read that book in that farmhouse all those years ago. “There is so much more in us that we can find in ourselves.” was his encouragement. Wise and true words. Something I share with many others in my work.

I’m going to read The Evil Cradling Again to top up my sense of optimism. I encourage you to read it too if you’ve not already done so.

FOOTNOTE: “DWELLER ON THRESHOLD” WAS CHOSEN BY BRIAN KEENAN AS HIS FAVOURITE TRACK ON DESERT ISLAND DISCS. WRITTEN AND PERFORMED BY VAN MORRISON.

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