Stories of lives

I was reading an article in the newish Aeon magazine, by Galen Strawson. His conclusion, I thought, was rather tame…

I concede it. Consideration of the sequence – the ‘narrative’, if you like – might be important for some people in some cases. For most of us, however, I think self-knowledge comes best in bits and pieces. Nor does this concession yield anything to the sweeping view with which I began, the view – in Sacks’s words – that all human life is life-writing, that ‘each of us constructs and lives a “narrative”, and that ‘this narrative is us’.

… so I felt moved to comment. Here’s my comment.

I’m quite surprised no one has yet quoted T S Eliot. So much in Four Quartets. Working backwards:

History may be servitude,
History may be freedom.


Either you had no purpose
Or the purpose is beyond the end you figured
And is altered in fulfilment.

and earlier still

There is, it seems to us,
At best, only a limited value
In the knowledge derived from experience.
The knowledge imposes a pattern, and falsifies,
For the pattern is new in every moment
And every moment is a new and shocking
Valuation of all we have been.

Surely, it seems to me, no personal stories can be passed off as “the truth”. And yet, stories are all we have to make sense of lives, our own and those of others. So, if we are mature (and not bound to any supposed “fundamental” narrative truth) I guess we have just to live with a plurality of narratives about our selves. We tell stories to convey sense to the listener. Sometimes the listener is ourselves. The more we need a coherent story, the more vehemently we will tell ourselves the selected story that confirms the identity that we need to affirm. Our stories to others can sometimes be self-conscious lies, if we think that’s what they need to hear.

But perhaps we can let go of the centrality of our own self-narratives. We can take St Paul’s position – “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.” Perhaps our deepest value is the role we can play in other people’s stories? The transformation from being something like “lost” to something more like “found” doesn’t always need a narrative beyond the proto-story: “I was blind; now I can see.” Sometimes, elaborating that story is just creating a fictional narrative. The truth may just be the moment of transformation.

Why being older now is full of potential

If you are the same kind of age as I am, or older, have you brooded sometimes, like me, over missed opportunities? Like how you didn’t become a professor / change the world / become rich / create that sought-after startup / have your ideas internationally recognised / become a speaker on the speaker circuit having people hanging on your every word? Join the club.

And now let’s leave it, together! Many people who have been successful have burned out, or accepted the assumptions of the system as part of their core set of beliefs. Now, around the time when traditionally successful people are retiring, now is the time to rise and shine. Why? Because they are tired, they want or need a break, they are (with some truly wonderful exceptions) a spent force. Not only do you have the energy, because you haven’t wasted it on “the rat race”, but you are open minded as well, because you haven’t “sold your soul” to the dominant ideology. Age, at our age, has the great advantage of experience, provided that we don’t let ourselves get stuck in stale assumptions or fixed positions. We are free, just because we have so little invested in the status quo.

You may have twenty years of active life in front of you, because you are still in good health, again partly because you have suffered less stress than many, because you have lived your life nearer, or at least not so far away from, your genuine deeply held beliefs. Many at our age have lost their beliefs, out of cynicism or complacency — or maybe just from too much comfort. We still have deeply held beliefs, and they are developing in richness, because our minds are still well and truly open, growing, ever fresh.

We are hungry for conversation, because it keeps becoming clearer that no one is to be despised, that all have their own stories, their own value, and that we can sometimes learn the most from people who are the least like ourselves. As we make more sense of the world, have more experience, we are able to relate to, and empathise with, more and more kinds of people. In conversation, we long to share our knowledge and experience, not imposing it, but offering it as another angle, another contribution, just as we value the contributions and angles of others.

We are hungry also for collaboration, because our experience has proved beyond doubt that we cannot do a great deal by ourselves alone, separately. We have had the time and opportunity to pit ourselves against the challenges of life, and to have experienced resounding failures. Many successful people have done that as well; but failing in the public eye runs huge risks to mental health and stability. Not many have that resilience. We have had more time to build up our resilience, out of the limelight. And it is the stronger for that.

We accept, naturally, that we will never be Olympic athletes. That is for youth of body. We will never be grandmasters at chess. That is mostly for youth of mind. But emotional, psychological and spiritual resilience and wisdom can grow throughout life.

Perhaps I am just revisiting T. S. Eliot:

Old men ought to be explorers
Here and there does not matter
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
Through the dark cold and empty desolation,
The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters
Of the petrel and the porpoise. In my end is my beginning.

Carpe diem — the unexpected day, not the expected one.

Order and chaos inside ourselves

I’ve been musing on order and chaos.

One hears of “chaotic” lives, people for whom it is difficult to arrange to set an alarm clock to get up in the morning, or to make an appointment and keep it. But, rather than thinking of chaotic people as “them”, people we want to distance ourselves from, how about thinking of the chaos in ourselves, and how we deal with it?

Some people, it seems, maybe those who have compulsions or obsessions, might use obsessive or compulsive behaviour as a way of keeping the chaos at bay. Things are not chaotic, they tell themselves, just as long as they keep whatever it is they are obsessive about under control. Maybe we all have an aspect of that? Maybe we all have limits — if certain things are not under control, we feel subject to chaos. The size of that set is what varies between individuals.

The greater the chaos in a given historical era, perhaps the greater has been the striving for order. Monasticism is a great example. It is an archetype of an ordered life. Not for nothing are they called “monastic orders” or “religious orders”. But is this over the top? I think immediately of Hermann Hesse’s “Glass Bead Game”, or “Glasperlenspiel”. In Hesse’s opinion, the ordered life seems not necessarily to be the summit of human existence.

So where is the balance? Where is the sweet spot for different individuals, and how do we find it?

In Personal Construct Psychology, there is the idea that when a construct system is in the process of change, the individual feels lost, perhaps rather chaotic, while awaiting the building up of the new construct system. So maybe it is not so much a balance, as a highly dynamic equilibrium?

I’d like to go into this more, because to me it points to some key questions concerning individual identity and personality.

What kind of resources should be shared?

Living in a cohousing project, and being one of the directors of the next door workspace co-op (Green Elephant), I have more than the average interest in what is best shared. Yet there seems to be little guidance I can find on what to share, and what not to share.

It’s easy to go astray either way. If you don’t share anything, what’s the point? That’s how our society is set to keep us down and to keep the profits accumulating to the business elite. The more we share, the less we buy – that can’t be good news for those who make profits from selling us stuff. Then there’s the economics and the environment. If we share nothing, we carry on pumping more and more unsustainable CO2 into the atmosphere. Global resources are degraded faster than they can be renewed. It is neither sustainable nor resilient.

On the other hand, one of the reasons co-housing has developed in practice is to hold off from the kind of communal living in which extreme sharing overrides boundaries. Indeed, I have seen (though never participated in) communes where any kind of exclusivity is frowned on, even including family relationships. But, does this give the kind of warm stability and security needed in a good environment for raising children? I would say, extreme sharing definitely does not.

At a more political level, the aspect I grasp of the communism/capitalism ideological conflict is that people care more about their “own” things, they look after them better, they take more pride in them, and it is plausible that the more care and pride devoted to any enterprise, the more successful it is.

The level at which I now see myself as operating lies between the individualised household and society at large. In a group of people who know each other, and have sufficient trust, whether at work or at home, there is potential for sharing things. So how much sharing is good?

These kind of questions were coming up the other day about some of the resources at Halton Mill where Green Elephant operates. We directors are carefully considering ways forward, but in the meanwhile I’d like to put forward a completely personal point of view that is not the point of view of the Green Elephant directors collectively.

We currently manage a fair amount of office and workshop space. Assuming there is some elasticity in the demand for space, raising the prices would lead to some people moving out because they could not afford it, and others might squeeze in tighter to give more room for others.

But as well as plain space, there are other more specialised resources. We already have a shared printer, that has been running very well for over a year. Some things we haven’t had up to now, but are or will be working on. The example closest to my personal interest is a secure space for Internet servers. Other examples may come up for discussion later.

To digress a little, many of us have been working hard as volunteers to get B4RN here — “hyperfast” Broadband for the Rural North — and when it comes (some time in 2015) we will have an enviable setup, with community interest carbon-free electricity (from Halton Lune Hydro) able to power servers through a community-interest Internet provider, in space managed by our grass roots Green Elephant co-op. No elites in sight here!

To stand by the co-operative principles, my personally preferred solution for a scarce resource would be to manage it co-operatively. That management co-op would be open to any Green Elephant member business or individual who wished to use the scarce resource as part or the whole of their business offering.

There’s an important point here that is worth stressing. Each business, or indeed individual, would still run their own business, and the co-op, whose members are those individuals or businesses, would manage the sharing of the relevant facilities. It would make sense for the basic hard-to-move or bespoke fixtures to belong to Green Elephant, but things that are easily removable and changeable would belong either to the management co-op or the individual businesses, according to what worked for the people involved.

Surely, one of the reasons for co-operative structures is that people as a whole should be better off as a result. If co-operation is done well, better decisions can be made with more people involved – a little like the principle that “given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow”, which Eric Raymond dubbed “Linus’s Law”. Not only that, but also that people feel more involved, and more likely to give the enterprise care as if it were “their own”.

The pattern is pretty clear to me.

For plentiful business resources, let people have their own, without the restrictions of having to consult and agree with others. For scarce, valued resources, set up a co-op to manage a related set of resources equitably as well as prudently, in a way that maximises the use of the resource through sharing, and at the same time clearly places the responsibility of management, maintenance, legal compliance, etc. to exactly those users, without needing to involve other people who have less interest. Then, let every co-op reflect carefully on those co-operative principles, and co-operate with the other co-operatives.

In a non-business context, where there are no legal requirements to fulfill, there is less need to incorporate. This is what we do at Lancaster Cohousing, where there are different service teams for each separate area of collective responsibility, including all those with the interest and time to be positively involved.

In both cases, the first question to be asked is, is this resource valuable, scarce or precious enough to prompt sharing? The more valued and scarce a resource is, the more important it is to share the ownership, control and responsibility in the spirit of co-operation. The “magic” will be to arrange what is shared, and the governance structures, so that people are engaged in roles and tasks they care about, or have a natural interest in.

Does that make good sense as a way of deciding what to share?


Background: I read the article “The Permaculture Fail” by Frank Aragona on, duplicating a blog post giving a extract from a podcast on Aragona’s own Agricultural Innovations site.

The discussions are worth looking at to get a flavour of how people respond to these issues.

Aragona’s argument comes across to me like this. Small time farming, even using permaculture methods, barely works by itself, and certainly doesn’t offer a good life. What is needed is to understand how to work with the economic mechanisms of our society. As he says, “it is time we started creating the socio-economic models that will make permaculture successful”. In a follow-up post, Aragona discusses “understanding economies of scale.

Here at Lancaster Cohousing there are several people interested in permaculture. They recognise that it needs substantial knowledge. Not many people both have that substantial knowledge and are able to put it into practice.

My response is clearly positive. This is, it seems to me, exactly the kind of approach that would be good to take. Naive idealism has never worked out well. I have needed to move away and on, over decades, from such an idealistic perspective. We would all do well to move on. And here, most have done so. We generally recognise that the world is not to be saved on one issue: not if everyone turns vegan, not if everyone eats organic or local food, not if everyone has a miniscule carbon footprint.

One root cause seems to me to be the fallacy that any one of us can know enough, individually, to make a big difference. We need to specialise, but not see our chosen specialty as unique. Rather, we need to continue exploring how to collaborate effectively, and (don’t underestimate this next word) efficiently.

Efficiency is a vital part of what will make a culture genuinely sustainable and resilient.