Flicking through a pile of back newspapers papers from the start of the year, it’s strange to think how far out many of those 2020 predictions will have been. 2020 as many of you will know is also the year of Beethoven, the 250th anniversary of his birth this December, an event that was to be celebrated throughout the year, across the world – not that anyone will be visiting a concert hall any time soon.
I listened to a podcast on Radio 3 last week. It was 90 minutes very well spent with Donald Macleod, the conductor Marin Alsop and the historian Simon Schama. No one at the time of its recording in early January could have foreseen how the world was going to withdraw. And yet, in what was a stroke of coincidence, they made a compelling case for this great composer as a man of the moment.
During the programme, “Why Beethoven?” they discussed how his deafness (pretty severe by his late twenties) forced him to retreat from society. Alsop wondered how isolated he must have felt and at the magnitude of having the one thing you valued more than anything else, being taken away from you. Not one of this august trio could think of a blind painter to match Beethoven’s stature.
“Can you imagine him not giving up?” asked Alsop, “ And somehow going inward”. Which he did by just buggering on. There are many of us currently trying to ‘be more Beethoven’.
Certainly, Stoicism, a six-pack for the mind is having its moment. Penguin reports that sales of Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic have rocketed 747% since March, while Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations are up by 356%. I contemplated reading Camus’s La Peste for all of five seconds (four of those seconds were actually spent puzzling as to why my copy, bought 25 years ago as part of my degree course looked so well-thumbed when I know it has never been read) and then I decided to go and look at flowers instead.
I use the term loosely here; rather, the flowery looking thing attached to the strawberry plant in my postage stamp sized garden. Coping mechanisms eh? The difficulty of life has thrown into relief the beauty of modest things, something that others have written about over the past few weeks. In a very dark world that bar of Pump Street chocolate or the blossom I pass on Clapham Common, fills my heart with inexplicable joy.
I think we are all at the stage – week six, week eight? – when who really knows about the bigger picture or what Boris will announce tomorrow, but goodness does that blossom not look beautiful. And putting health before business is all fine and dandy until you realise, as one friend pointed out, that there’s a huge synergy between the two.
The Stoics were chiefly concerned with not getting upset about things over which they had no control. There’s a lot to applaud here, as in, life is Shakespearean and that shit happens is a given, but how we deal with it is what counts.
Setbacks were not to be feared but to be embraced because they made us stronger, more emotionally resilient, valuable tools for enduring the unstable and challenging times in which we find ourselves.
Some Stoics went as far as to practice poverty (sleeping on the floor/not spending money) so as to prepare themselves for future setbacks (a very stoic activity). The slight sticking point with Stoicism is that whilst it is very rational, it encourages an approach to life that lacks instinctive empathy.
And frankly, a little kindness to oneself goes a long way right now. So I’m proposing my own golden mean, a middle ground which overlooks the fact I have the inability to focus on anything for more than 27 minutes (I know I’ve timed myself), but that I might want to feel as if I have achieved something at the end of each day.
It is being agile. A wise woman I met in Copenhagen this January told me at the start of each year that she thinks of a word and holds it in her thoughts. I chose agility and I am really going to need it this year.
I love all that it stands for: it suggests a lightness, a going with the flow, yet it is a mindset that is strong, powerful, graceful and supple. It means being resilient when required both emotionally and physically, but also bending, recalibrating and being okay with things that go awry. It is admitting that imperfection is no bad thing, that it is in fact to be embraced. We need to try many, many things and pivot as necessary to find our own way to cope, how to work in a new, unfamiliar landscape, figure out how to be.
A few years ago, I interviewed a very talented American crystal glassware designer, called Deborah Ehrlich, whose exquisite work has been likened to designing ‘light and air’ (check her out on thegarnered.com). She told me that ‘being light – or agile – is about having a predisposition to being joyful, being light is a choice.
As a fully signed up convert to acupuncture and the infinite wisdom of Traditional Chinese Medicine, I have tried to practice “Wu Wei” every day. It is a concept from the Tao Te Ching (a Chinese text from the 600 BC) that literally translates as the action of non-action. It is a sort of lightness/agility which means going about in a manner that does not involve struggle or excessive effort (although that isn’t to be confused with laziness). All too often we are pulled down a myriad of negative paths which are pretty soul sapping.
Adopt a Wu Wei approach or ‘go with the flow’ and my guess is that you will find yourself doing the right thing effortlessly without even trying. Going with the flow, even if it might not appear obvious at first, means things usually turn out for the best. And really at the moment, that’s all that anyone can hope for.
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