Plundering the archives

We all have the experience that ‘life gets in the way’ of what we plan to do. Last week we had an unexpected need to transport a bed inside our car. (Yes, inside the car – and it’s not an especially big car but we got the bed in.) This week builders arrived to repair the fence between our house and the neighbour’s which, even though it’s not our fence, took time and imprisoned our dogs indoors. We were glad to move the bed to help out family, and we’re glad the fence has been fixed. Things like these come along, and they have to be fitted in.

All this is to say that right now I have one of my major study assignments to write, and it’s taken longer than I expected. So – with another major part of my life taking my time – I haven’t been able to create a blog article this week. My apologies, but the assignment really must have priority over the blog.

Instead, I’ve looked back over 2021 and identified a few of the archived blogs which I know have been read more often than most. (I don’t know who reads each blog, but I do know the number who read each one.)

There are six listed just below. One is fairly recent (The Tay Bridge disaster) and the rest from further back.

Of course there are 40+ in the archives, and you can pick out any of them for reading now.

Whether my selection or others, I hope you find something useful. And my sincere apologies for the delay in offering a fresh article. Normal service will be resumed as soon as possible.

Here’s the list:

How a motorcycle crash changed my life (but not in the way you think)  June 19, 2021

Blind to what’s obvious August 22, 2021

The Tay Bridge disaster October 31, 2021

How we caused a plague of frogs  June 12, 2021

Surviving Susie April 18, 2021

Being true to your word (and suspicious of your car nav system) June 6, 2021

To find any of these, just click on the ‘month’ links under Archived blogs and you’ll be in the right month to find the one you want.

You get to the same place by using a web link like this: The numbers in the link are a date, so the link I’ve used as an example would take you to blogs in the month of June 2021. If you wanted to access April, change the ‘06’ to ‘04’, or to September by changing the ‘06’ to ‘09’, and so on.

When to say no

I don’t like trite formulae for success. But – when my life was overloaded – this saying made me stop and think: If you never say no, what is your yes worth?

It makes a serious point and, years later, I’m still trying to apply its question to my time choices.

Time choices aren’t usually between right and wrong options. Our dilemma is as simple but difficult as this: should I do this good thing, or should I do that good thing? Both are worthwhile, but we shouldn’t do both. Yet often we can’t say ‘no’ to either. Instead of making choices, we squeeze everything into our lives, and, in return, become inefficient, worn out, frustrated and stressed.

So, let’s find a way to say ‘no’.

Why is saying no so difficult?

Guilt    If something is well within my abilities, I feel guilty at not taking it on. I don’t have time for it, but my mindset is: ‘I could do this, so should do this’. That’s bad logic. Could doesn’t mean should. There are a hundred things we could do, but we should do only a fraction of those. Guilt cannot decide our priorities.

We’d let someone down    This was a problem in church life. Maggie starts visiting elderly people in a nearby care home, then persuades her friend Maureen to visit too. They try to persuade others to come along, saying, ‘If only more would join us, we could spend time with everyone in the care home.’ But people don’t join them. Maggie and Maureen are overstretched, and urge: ‘This is important work. You’ve got to help us.’ At last some do. They haven’t the time but feel they can’t let Maggie and Maureen down. Visiting the elderly is good work, but they were already doing other ‘good work’ and now have little time for it. It’s been sacrificed, principally because they didn’t feel able to let Maggie and Maureen down.

We like to please people    From my earliest times as minister of a church, I realised I had power to persuade people to take on responsibilities: join a task group, attend a meeting, give money to a cause. It didn’t work with everyone, but a sizeable number accepted roles because they wanted to please me. That was helpful for me, but not always for them. They had other things to do, whether with family, leisure, work, or other activities. They were busy people. But they wanted to please, so didn’t say ‘no’.

We can’t cope with no-one doing it    A leader asks for a volunteer to take on a task. Heads go down. No-one speaks. The silence is deafening. Finally, George sighs, ‘Okay, I’ll do it if no-one else will.’ Why does George volunteer? It’s because George can’t stand the silence and can’t cope with no-one taking on the task. But George was already over his head with work so probably isn’t the right person for the task. Part of me wants to say ‘good for you’ to those who volunteer when others won’t, but it’s not good for them when they take on causes just because no-one else will. Especially if that means less time for the many things to which they were already committed. Neither embarrassment nor awkwardness is a reason to volunteer. We simply can’t fill every void that exists.

Personal ambition    People with drive and ambition often assume their work or responsibility limit is somewhere far ahead of where they are now. They can always take on something else. But most people don’t know they’ve reached their limit until they’ve passed it. And then they’re in trouble. Their drive to do more is commendable, but taking on too much only leads to problems down the line.

Overconfidence    Last week I listened to an interview with an American military commander who was reflecting on the war in Afghanistan. Sadly, he said, he couldn’t consider the 20-year conflict a success. Then he went on to describe (what he called) a dangerous ‘can do’ culture in the military. No matter how great or challenging the mission, the view was ‘we can do this’, as if anything was possible. If the strategists said there was only a 30% chance of ‘taking’ an enemy-occupied hill, they’d likely still charge up the slope. But it would cost the lives of many soldiers and the mission might well fail. Most of us don’t face life and death choices, but overconfidence – ‘I can take this on too’ – is a danger, not an asset.

So, what are the consequences of never saying no?

An unmanageable workload. When I talked about being over-busy, Hamish told me ‘all you need is to be well-organised’. Two years later he was in a senior role in an organisation, and working in his office in the early hours of the morning to meet a project deadline. When there’s more work to do than time to do it, even the best organisation isn’t enough.

An unfocused workload. When we don’t say ‘no’ we accept someone else’s agenda for our lives. We’re not prioritising what’s most important for us. That’s a bad strategy. We may succeed in a scattering of miscellaneous tasks, but fail in vital things that were uniquely for us to do.

We work outside our skill set. The big gain from making our own choices is that we play to our strengths. We do what we’re trained and skilled to do. When we accept choices made by others we lose that advantage, and struggle with tasks for which we’re not suited. If our church was looking for a new treasurer, and I agreed to take on the role, the church would be in financial chaos. I’m not a numbers person. Give me words to read or write, and I’m in my element. Give me a spreadsheet, and I’m lost. New challenges are good from time to time, but letting others define what we do is usually folly.

We experience serious stress. I can juggle two balls, and be relaxed enough to hold a conversation at the same time. Throw me a third ball, and I might keep them in the air but only with all my attention on the task. Throw me a fourth ball, and within seconds every ball would be on the floor. And perhaps I would be too. I could not juggle four balls. All of us can operate beyond our limits, but only for a very short time. After that we’re being damaged, and that’s always dangerous.

When should you say no?

When current obligations already fill your life    In theory you can always get more money, or more friends, or more possessions. But you can never get more time. I’ve often wished for 25 hours in the day, but there’s always been only 24. And when those 24 are full – including adequate time to sleep – fitting something else in only pressurises everything already there.

One way, though, to add a new thing is to throw out an existing thing. In an earlier blog I wrote about a friend who kept her house immaculately tidy by following that method ruthlessly. If she bought a new sweater, she got rid of an existing sweater. When she bought new shoes, she got rid of the old shoes. I could never be that severe, but it’s a principle which could be used to manage time. Providing, that is, you can be at peace with stopping something else. And that’s not easy. We may displease people by withdrawing our help, or leave no-one doing the task we’ve stopped. The new thing has to be weighed against the old things already filling our lives. Hard choices.

When important people would be hurt by saying yes    I’ve always been busy with studies, with church, with employment. It would have been very easy to miss the children’s growing up years. In part, I did. But, I hope, only in part. As often as I could I was home for dinner, listening to their stories, then tucking them into bed. Sometimes I watched them at swimming practice. When our son was about seven I drove miles to buy him a second hand Sinclair ZX81 (the most basic of computers). His work today is with electronics. When heavy snow was on the ground, I took one of our daughters on the back of my motorbike to deliver newspapers. (I’ve no idea now why she was safer on my motorbike.) I protected time so I could attend school concerts and athletic events. Later, when I travelled to dozens of countries, I sent them postcards, not so much so they saw a pretty picture but knew I was thinking about them. None of this was perfect, but we muddled through with a lot of laughter and togetherness. Those children are now adults, and also great friends.

Through all these years I was acutely aware that the time spent with the family would never come back. That sharpened my will when people wanted more of my time. To be away even more from my family was to impose a sacrifice on them as much as on me. Very easily we ask too much of people who care for us. Saying ‘yes’ to things may hurt most those who care for us most.

When your health would suffer    Being over-committed doesn’t directly cause conditions like depression. But taking on too much doesn’t help. We’re overtired and over-stressed. We don’t feel in control. We don’t cope. And our mental health deteriorates. Also, we can’t be experts at everything, so an overloaded life will include work for which we’re not suited. Then we’re both time-pressured and out of our depth. Quality of work suffers, as does quality of life. That’s bad, very bad. And not survivable in the long-term.

We can’t just ignore these truths, grit our teeth, and plough on with a chaotic life. Our health matters. Abusing it has serious consequences, affecting not just us but everyone who depends on us. Guarding our health is a primary reason to work up the courage to say ‘no’ to things we shouldn’t be doing.

Many of us don’t find it easy to turn down new opportunities. We hate disappointing others, or leaving a task undone. We feel obliged to help.

Maybe cold-hearted people who don’t care about consequences have no problem saying ‘no’. For the rest of us, it isn’t a simple decision. We’re faced with things that must be done, and there’s no-one else to do them. So we compromise.

But let that be the exception, not the rule. We’re in trouble very quickly when we open the floodgates for anything and everything to take over our lives. Saying ‘yes’ can ruin us and others we love. Instead, be polite but say ‘no’. Your life will be richer for using that little two letter word.


I took a deep breath, then asked a question no friend expects. Tom’s answer could affect the rest of my life. ‘I’m planning to ask Alison to marry me. You know both of us well. Am I doing the right thing?’

Tom looked startled. He’d never imagined being asked such a question. But he didn’t hesitate. ‘Of course you’re doing the right thing. You should have asked her ages ago.’

I laughed, feeling grateful and relieved in equal measure. I wasn’t inviting Tom to make my marriage decision for me, but as a deep and close friend his support meant a lot. 

Thankfully Alison said ‘yes’ and, as well as being my wife, she’s been the closest friend of my whole life. But Tom probably came next. Sadly, Tom died several years ago but he knew me through and through, and I’d have trusted him with my life. Others have also been important, and some still are. I’ve also had many acquaintances and truly enjoyed their company, but I’ve a feeling there’s room for only a few very special friends.

So, what defines the best of friendships? I’ll share my answers, but others will have their own priorities. They’ll also vary according to who the friendship is with – every friendship is unique.

Here are nine qualities of friendships I think important. They’re not listed in any special order.

Being genuinely interested    I have a secret which is almost a confession. From about the age of 18 I realised that girls are not attracted to boys who talk endlessly about themselves, especially when they brag about their accomplishments. I’d understood that girls were much more drawn to boys who were interested in knowing them. I’d ask simple, non-intrusive questions. Not just learning facts, but discovering what they thought or felt about all sorts of things. It worked.

If that was only a technique to find a girlfriend, it would be manipulative. But if being interested in someone is sincere, it’s appreciated.

That truth isn’t limited to romantic encounters. It’s foundational to all friendships. Every relationship of depth involves really knowing the other person: thoughts, feelings, hopes and fears.

Caring    Knowing someone isn’t enough. Real friendship also involves caring about anything that concerns the other person. It means supporting through tough times, helping with hard decisions, commiserating with disappointments, rejoicing in successes.

Caring marks the difference between deep friendships and more superficial friendships. Lesser friendships aren’t bad. It’s good to have acquaintances with whom you enjoy spending time. But lower-level friendships aren’t about lives intertwined, bearing each other’s burdens, supporting through the worst days and the best days. I shared doubts, fears, ambitions, hopes and dreams with Tom. Why? Because he cared. And I was helped and strengthened by having him to lean on. I believe I was able to do the same for Tom.

Respect    There are long-term relationships that lack respect. They can be bullying or domineering or dependent relationships which go on year after year. But they’re not friendships, and they’re not healthy.

In a real friendship each accepts the other for who they are. No-one’s trying to control. No-one’s taking advantage. Each believes the other person is worth knowing, worth trusting, worth supporting, worth respecting.

At a later point in my life, I built a strong and helpful relationship with Stuart. What began with polite but guarded conversation developed over many years into sharing struggles and disappointments. Stuart was consistently supportive. Eventually I knew I could tell him anything about myself and he’d still respect me. So I talked about areas of life where I was falling short. That wasn’t easy for me to share or him to hear. But he counselled me wisely, and made it clear I was still a person of worth. That really mattered to me.

Despite failings Stuart still respected me. A good friendship has that quality.

Sharing experiences    Tom and I first met on study courses that would give us admission to university where – we discovered – we both hoped to do the same degree before entering Christian ministry. We were from different denominations, but aiming for the same vocation. Our friendship grew, and we found we had similar spiritual questions. Both of us were particularly concerned about living closer to God. We read books, went to meetings, and we talked endlessly. And then we hit on the answer: if we got together and prayed all night, surely we’d be close to God by morning.

So we chose a suitable night, one when we’d have no early classes next morning. We began our praying about 11.00 pm, sitting in chairs with our heads bowed. After an hour we decided it was more spiritual to pray on our knees. After another hour my knees ached unbearably, and I had to sit on the floor. Tom’s knees were in no better shape, so we were both seated on the floor. We got to 2.00 am, but by then our prayers were short and infrequent. Less than half an hour later, I said I’d be more comfortable lying on the floor. I knew nothing more until a short time later Tom shook me by the shoulder and said, ‘I’ve pronounced the benediction. You can go to bed now.’

Next morning we alternated between laughing and pronouncing ourselves spiritual failures. But our ‘failed’ night of prayer wasn’t the end of still seeking ways to be better Christians. Our search went on.

That was part of sharing experiences for me and Tom. Other people will go to football matches, or to music festivals, or be cinema buffs, or read the same books, or climb hills, or work in the same firm, or whatever else they share. My point is only this, that friendships involve journeying together, not merely crossing paths occasionally while going our own ways.

No hidden goals    Relationships are not friendships if either or both have ulterior motives.

I boarded a plane in Kathmandu for my flight home to the UK. Beside me was a young lady, probably aged in her mid-20s. Mo liked to chat, and I thought, ‘This could be an opportunity to share my Christian faith’. Once the plane had taken off and meal served, we had several hours to talk. We got on to the subject of belief remarkably easily. Eventually I realised why. Mo had been in Nepal to study at a Buddhist temple and school. (Buddhism is the second largest religion in Nepal.) She was fired up about her Buddhist beliefs, and as our conversation wore on I realised Mo was trying to evangelise me. So, while I was trying to convert her to Christianity, she was trying to convert me to Buddhism. Both of us had ulterior motives for our conversation. It was a very odd experience.

Friendships can’t have hidden goals. One can’t be trying to ‘sell’ something to the other, whether a religious belief or a political position. And one can’t be trying to ‘get’ something from the other, like the boy who offers a girl friendship (or, what he calls ‘love’) in order to get sex.

Strong friendships don’t come with an agenda. They’re not like business relationships where someone’s trying to make a ‘profit’. Friendships exist because each values the other. No other motive. No other goal.

Openness    Every friendship can’t involve a complete opening of hearts and minds, as if every secret must be told. That would be an impossible burden. But the strongest of friendships work only where there’s a reasonable sharing of thoughts, feelings, experiences, desires, and ambitions. A friendship can’t exist when either is ‘closed’ to the other.

Henry had a hundred friends. He wasn’t difficult to like – gifted, knowledgeable, chatty, generous. With some of the hundred he’d watch football matches, walk in the hills, go to the cinema, accept invitations for meals in their homes. But, just when people felt they were really getting to know Henry, he’d back away. Without explanation he wouldn’t seek their company any more. Why not? No-one knew for sure, other than that Henry had withdrawn as soon as relationships deepened. It seemed he didn’t want his innermost thoughts and feelings known. Which was sad.

Openness is fundamental to any kind of deep friendship. It doesn’t work otherwise.

Honesty    Friends can risk telling truths that would be resisted if spoken by anyone else.

Another way of saying that is this: A superficial friend will tell you what you want to hear. A real friend will tell you what you need to hear.

At times we act foolishly. We might voice prejudice. Or buy a vintage car that’ll cost a fortune to maintain. Or keep bad company. Or run up debt on our credit card buying a new mobile phone every six months. Or skip classes at university. Or constantly turn up late for work. And so on. Someone has to warn us; to tell us we’re being an idiot. We won’t like it. But it needs to be said. Only a friend will take the risk of telling us what we must hear. A strong relationship will stand the strain of that.

Resilience    Children – including young teenagers – fall in and out of friendships. So parents hear words laced with anxiety: ‘She doesn’t like me any more’; ‘He doesn’t want to be my friend now’. Thankfully it’s usually all different just one day later. Back to being the best of buddies.

Real friendships – friendships worth having – are far stronger than one row, one disappointment, one time of letting the other down.

I’d put it this way: deep relationships are not transactional they’re relational. In other words, they’re not like a contract where, if someone breaks the terms of the agreement, the deal is torn up. Strong friendships are like having a brother or sister. We’ll squabble but you’re still my brother or you’re still my sister, so we’ll forgive and move forward. In the same way, commitment to each other is essential to strong friendships.

Perseverance    Six-year-old Hazel comes home after her first day at a new school. Mum asks: ‘Did you make any friends today?’ ‘Yes,’ Hazel says, ‘I sat beside Jackie, and she’s now my best friend.’

Well, I’m glad Hazel found a friend at her new school. But ‘best friends’ after one day? Absolutely possible in a child’s world. But the reality check for those of older years is that the deepest and best of friendships don’t happen in one day. Houses are built brick by brick, and friendships are built day by day, month by month, year by year.

And that takes perseverance. It involves all the attributes listed above put into practice constantly. In the early days there’s no guarantee that a friendship will last. Not all friendships do. But once the days and months turn into years, friends are relaxed with each other, feel secure together, and have confidence in their relationship. Students going off to university for the first time are told: ‘The friends you make in the next year or two may well last for the rest of your life’. That often happens, but it needs commitment and effort from both sides.

Finally,  I know some find it hard to find friends, so I’ll close with one piece of advice.

Be open to friendship, but don’t grasp at it, don’t force, don’t even make friendship your goal. Just be the great person you are, relax, and let friendship happen.

I don’t know you’ll find a great friend. But I also don’t know any reason you won’t.