Celebration of simple

I was about eight years old, and in a car with my parents. We were driving on a country road at night. Ahead, along the middle of the road, I could see a row of lights, and my Dad was keeping the car just to the side of them.

‘What are those lights in the middle of the road?’ I asked.

Mum said, ‘They’re not lights. They’re cats’ eyes.’

I had an eight-year-old’s reaction to that answer. ‘Cats’ eyes?!’

‘Not actual cats,’ she laughed. ‘They’re mirrors, and just like a cat’s eyes reflect light back, so those mirrors reflect back the beam of our car’s headlights so we can see where to go.’

I was amazed, and, of course, asked more questions. How could we could drive over mirrors without breaking them? (They sink down when compressed.) How do the mirrors stay clean? (Every time a car runs over they’re pushed down into a tiny reservoir of rain water, and they get cleaned.) To this day I’m still impressed.

A ‘cat’s eye’ set in the middle of the road. Dozens more will be spaced about 20 yards apart. The white circles are the mirrors.

Cats’ eyes were invented by Percy Shaw. There are various stories of  how he got the idea, including seeing a cat’s eyes reflecting back light on a dark night, or noticing how light bounced off tram tracks set in the road. Whatever the true story, he had the genius to translate inspiration into invention, and he patented his cat’s eye design in 1934. Initially sales were slow, but grew considerably during blackout restrictions in Britain during World War II (because roadside lights were off). Soon his firm were manufacturing more than a million ‘roadstuds’ a year and exporting them all over the world.

Percy’s idea was simple, but brilliant and lasting.

Many inventions have been simple, and so obvious we wonder ‘why no-one thought of it before’.

The wheel is the most often-cited example. Before the wheel, people dragged things along the ground, which was difficult to do and damaging to whatever was being pulled. Then came the idea of laying round tree trunks across the path, and rolling heavy objects over them. Finally someone had the simple but important thought that those trunks could be cut into narrow circles and attached to the side of ‘carts’. Soon those ‘wheels’ were put on wagons and chariots, not unlike the wheels I have now on my Nissan chariot.

Buttons were first used in the Indus Valley (in modern day Pakistan) several thousand years ago. Tiny holes were drilled into a disc so it could be sewn on to clothing, and then fastened with a loop. Amazingly simple. It changed clothing design forever.

Nails were invented 5500 years ago. Before nails, rope was used to bind interlocking boards. But rope can be of variable strength, and tends not to weather well. Once techniques were invented to cast and shape metal, someone had the idea that short, sharp lengths of bronze could be used to hold lengths of wood together. The humble, simple nail was born, and we’re still using them, albeit now made of steel.

As you’ll gather, what fascinates me about these life-changing inventions is their simplicity. Because we live in a technologically-advanced world, we think inventions must be highly complex. Some are, but others – like the cats’ eyes – have been relatively simple. Just a matter of seeing how things could be put to a new use.

And that’s true for more than inventions. ‘Identify the simple and do it’ could be a useful life principle.

John told me his children had drifted away from him. They were teenagers – and, of course, teens often want to do their own thing – but John feared something more serious was happening. We talked it through. He reckoned the change had begun when his son and daughter were about eight and ten. They started showing little interest in talking to him or being with him. ‘To be fair,’ John said, ‘my work had most of my time anyway. I couldn’t be with them very much.’

‘So, in what ways were you involved with the children?’ I asked.

‘Well, I made sure there was money for them to have the best brand clothes that would impress their friends. And we gave them TVs for their bedrooms, and the latest computer games.’

I was gentle with John, but the hard truth was that instead of building a relationship with his son and daughter he’d tried to buy one. Before it was finally too late there was one simple and vital thing he had to give them: love. Which would mean: a) reserving time to be with them, doing what they wanted to do; b) being interested in their lives and futures; c) making himself someone worth relating to.

Often the best answer to a problem or need is not complicated, at least not in principle.

For many years I listened as people poured out their troubles. They found every day wearying. Their marriage had lost its lustre. They had unpayable debt. Their career was going nowhere. They drank too much, smoked too much, ate too much.

I never claimed there were simple solutions for these problems, but for some there were certainly simple steps they could take. Energy lacking? Stop sitting up late at night watching TV, and instead get a solid night’s sleep. Children distant? Marriage lost its excitement and joy? Invest energy, commitment, inventiveness, tenderness into the relationship, and be more interested in him/her than you. Overcome with debt? Get help, make a plan, stick to it. Career boring? Do whatever it takes to get out of the rut, learn new skills, consider changing career. And so on.

Is this simplistic? Yes, if words like these are meant as a total solution. But not simplistic if seen:

  • As a direction to start out on
  • As a guide to the heart of their problem.

I like the saying that a journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step, because it points us to a destination and encourages us to get started. The biggest decision is to take the first step. But of course after that there’ll still be many challenges, and a 1000-mile journey is wearying. But worth it.

So, to be clear:

Simple does not equal easy. What’s the cure for smoking? Stopping. Sounds simple, and it is when we’re defining the goal. And it’s an achievable goal. Many have quit. But it’s hard, very hard, and plenty give up. So, let’s be honest: there are simple answers, but nothing easy about achieving them.

Simple often (though not always) identifies the core issue. You’re driving and suddenly the car engine stops. You’re able to pull over, and you ponder why the engine has failed. Maybe there wasn’t enough coolant, it overheated, and the pistons melted. Or, there wasn’t sufficient oil and, without lubrication, the engine seized. Or your transmission fluid was low, the transmission overheated and gears were damaged. Or there were electrical problems, and the clever little computer sent the wrong signals to the engine which became confused and stopped. Which of these is right? None.

Because the right answer was the simplest of all. You ran out of fuel. You meant to fill up but forgot, and cars won’t go without fuel.

We can bury ourselves among options, but the simplest one is often the right one.

The simple solution may be right before our eyes but we don’t see it. There are at least two reasons we’re blind to what’s obvious.

  • We don’t see what we’ve never seen. Long before Percy Shaw, someone else could have invented cats’ eyes. All the necessary parts existed. But nothing like a cat’s eye roadstud had ever existed, so no-one thought of it before Percy.
  • Often our vision is clouded by emotion, panic, and haste. We’re overwhelmed by the complexity of our problems, and excitement or fear turn a straight line into a spider’s web. Panic, depression, anxiety mean we can’t think straight – our vision is clouded – we can’t conceive of any answer to our troubles. One of the least helpful things to say to someone entangled by emotion is ‘just think straight’. They can’t. They see everything through the prism of their fear or nervousness. Instead, be their friend, someone not caught up in their emotions, a person they trust who can help them take steps to a better place.

Simple can feel too challenging. Many of my golfing friends slice their shots (which, for a right-handed golfer, means the ball curves in the air from left to right). Slicing means losing distance and accuracy, so golfers hate doing it. But they don’t need to. They could stop slicing by changing their swing. But, even after lessons from a professional golfer, they don’t change. Why not? Because curing a slice takes hours of practice and ongoing discipline to erase the old habit and create a new swing pattern. Most won’t put in the work. They shrug, and say, ‘I guess I’ll always be a slicer…’

There’s a general truth here: it’s one thing to know a simple answer, and quite another to apply it. It happens with priorities, with lifestyle, and with attitudes. They could change. Getting more sleep and taking more exercise would improve life. Spending more time with spouse and children would vastly improve relationships. Learning new skills could transform a career. But, for many, these things are too challenging, and they settle for a permanent second best. Which is very sad. Simple is challenging but worth it.

One last story in celebration of simple. When I was a pastor in Aberdeen, numbers grew, we searched for a larger building and were eventually able to buy one. There was work to be done to get the place ready, but there was one unexpected and welcome find: a safe. It was built into a wall, and hidden behind a panel. We’d had a safe in our previous building, but it had stayed there. We were planning to buy a new safe for our new building, but good safes are not cheap. So, finding one already installed was great news.

Except we couldn’t open it. This safe was operated by turning a key and then a handle. There was no key and the handle wouldn’t move. It was locked. People had searched everywhere in the building for the key – searched several times – but there was no key. The only way to get that safe open was bring in a locksmith. Perhaps he had a professional secret for opening a super-strong safe. In a sense, he did. The locksmith listened as we explained that the safe was locked and there was no key. He stood and looked at the safe, then walked up to it, and pushed down very hard on the handle. The safe opened. The handle had just been stiff. And inside the safe? The key.

There are times when solutions really are simple.

Have you forgotten something?

I stared at the phone, willing it to ring. Why hadn’t she phoned? Alison always phoned. She’d call, say ‘I’m on my way – about 15 minutes – put the kettle on for a cup of tea’. So why didn’t she ring today? It was well past when I expected her home. It was freezing cold outside. Maybe her car hadn’t started, but then she’d call. Maybe she’d skidded off the road, and couldn’t call. Should I head out and try to find her? Then I saw why she hadn’t called. Her phone lay on the kitchen work surface. She’d forgotten to take it with her. Five minutes later Alison breezed through the door, saying ‘Forgot the phone, but have you made tea?’

Alison was fine, of course. Just forgetful. As I have been too. I left my phone in a toilet cubicle at a massive conference centre. When I realised it was missing, a deep dread ran through me. I ran back – no phone in the toilet now. Was someone already using it to call relatives in Australia? Alison, calmly, said ‘I’ll try calling your number’. It rang and a voice answered. The thief! No, a security guard. My phone had been handed in, and within ten minutes I was reunited with it.

We all forget things.

This week – one unusually busy for me because of my studies – I’ve kept this blog simple by jotting down situations when we forget things. (Those I remember, that is.) Perhaps they’ll amuse you; perhaps make you feel guilty (‘yes, I’ve done that too’), perhaps help you think more about what matters.

Here’s my list.

Appointments or events    Until I had my first job I never needed an appointments diary. My earlier life was going to school, doing homework, playing football, watching TV. Then I was off to the big city and the world of work, and life was more complicated. Journalism isn’t a 9 to 5 job, so I had to know whether I was starting at 10.00 am, at 2.00 pm, or 8.00 pm, and who I was meeting with, and when, and where. A diary was essential. Life was even busier when I became a pastor, with more who, when, where notes to make, plus details of events at which I’d speak, funerals at which I’d officiate, and wedding services I’d conduct.

I’d have been lost without my calendar-style diary. I’d forget half of what I had to do. Besides, some things simply mustn’t be forgotten. Imagine mourners gathered at a crematorium or graveside waiting for a minister who’s on the golf course. What if I’d been in my home office still writing a sermon, while at the church building wedding guests were getting restless in the pews, the bride on hold in one room, the groom in another, and the organist stoically playing her way through the whole hymn book? Forgetting engagements like those is professional suicide.

It nearly happened to my pastor friend Jack. He didn’t miss weddings or funerals, but he started getting phone calls asking why he hadn’t turned up for a meeting, or visited a parishioner with whom he’d made an appointment. Jack would apologise, of course. He was sure he’d noted these things in his diary, but clearly hadn’t. But the ‘where are you?’ calls kept coming. That’s when Jack discovered the problem. Somehow, in his old-style diary, the month of May had been printed twice. So he really had noted down his appointments, but when he checked for upcoming events he’d looked at the ‘other’ May, and found nothing scheduled. In the future Jack always checked his annual diary had 12 months, not 13.

Names    I’m impressed when someone I’ve met only once remembers my name. They must have a really good memory for faces. Some don’t have a good memory; they’re just good at noting down who they’ve met and anything they’ve learned about them.

I’ve scrambled through life without a great memory for faces, and without the diligence of writing notes about people. I did try making notes once, just after starting ministry in a new church, but then I forgot to consult it and eventually forgot where my list was. Which was not a lot of use. My biggest struggle was that, after you’ve met someone a couple of times, it’s too embarrassing to ask their name again.

My biggest name challenges happened at large conferences. I would have met many of the attendees before, but perhaps not for one or several years. They’d greet me, ‘Hello Alistair – how are you?’ and I’d lamely reply, ‘Well hello there… So nice to see you again’. I’d no idea what their name was. Perhaps they’d be wearing a name tag, but a furtive glance down to the badge was a dead give-away that you hadn’t remembered their name. Besides, at one conference, a lady complained to the organisers that she’d never had so many men stare at her chest.

But, when Alison was with me at a conference, she’d bale me out about names. First of all, I told her, ‘If I don’t introduce you to someone, it won’t be because I’ve forgotten your name!’ And, second, she devised her own name-discovery strategy. If I didn’t introduce her, she’d quickly step forward, shake the person’s hand and say, ‘Hi, I’m Alison, Alistair’s wife – what’s your name?’ and follow up with questions about where they were from, what position they held, and did they have ten children? (Okay, she didn’t ask if they had ten.) Alison rescued me many, many times.

Birthdays / Anniversaries    Probably most find some cards or gifts don’t arrive on time. Maybe there’s a message that ‘It’s on its way’, which could mean it’s in the post or on next week’s shopping list. Happily, I remember the date of my wife’s birthday and my children’s birthdays. Unhappily, that’s far from a complete solution because I don’t always remember to buy a card or present.

But, of course, Alison has a system. For the two of us, all these key dates are in our shared electronic calendar with reminders popping up several days before. For the wider family she also sends out ‘the list’ once or twice a year. As well as birthdays, it lists changes of address, phone numbers, and additions to the family such as new nephews and nieces. But some admit they forget to check the list. Hard to criticise when you’re guilty yourself.

My phone number    In the days before mobile phones, I knew my home number because I often dialled it. But now we call people, not places. That means many more phone numbers, but we don’t need to remember them because they’re stored in our phones.

My awkward moment occurs when someone asks me for my mobile number. I can never remember it because I never dial it. So embarrassing.

Where your car is    I can’t be the only who’s lost his car in a large car park. It happened most often for me while living in America, where a shopping mall would be surrounded on all sides by expansive parking areas. The problem wasn’t just the size of the car parks, but because you might enter the mall by one door and exit by a door on the other side of the mall – and not realise that the sea of cars ahead is a different sea of cars from where you parked. I’ve always found my car again, but not quickly. Some car parks erect signs showing row numbers. Which is very helpful, providing you don’t forget to look at the sign when you park your car.

Time zone    I include this one for American friends who follow this blog. I was scheduled to preach at a church in Indiana, and, since we’d arrive the evening before, our hosts had invited us for a Saturday evening dinner at a country club. All very nice. We set off from Chicago mid afternoon for the two to three hours journey to our next door state.

Then, when we were three quarters way there, my phone rang. Our host, very calmly, said ‘Are you about to arrive? We’ve been waiting for you.’ Alison and I looked at each other, checked the time, and suddenly it hit us: Chicago is Central Time; Indiana is Eastern Time. When we crossed the state line, we ‘lost’ an hour. It was 5.00 on our watches but 6.00 in Indiana. Thankfully, the problem was more amusing than serious, we adjusted the arrangements and eventually enjoyed our host’s company and dinner at the country club. [1]

Time zones are not an issue in the UK. We only have one. But, like many countries, we adjust our clocks by an hour in spring and autumn for the changing seasons. And every year, some people would arrive an hour late or an hour early for church because they hadn’t allowed for the time change. It’s easy to forget.

Things you’ve promised to do    I don’t often borrow library books. If I did, I’d go broke paying fines because I’d always forget to return them on time. If I promise to call or write to someone, I have to do it within no more than two days because after that I’m likely to forget. But I’ll probably remember a promise to help a family member or a neighbour with something practical, because the task will rattle around in my brain until it’s done. Nor have I ever forgotten to pick up one of our children arriving by plane or train – my angst about them waiting, feeling abandoned, would guarantee I couldn’t forget.

But I’m not infallible. It was early April, and for three evenings I’d watched The Masters golf tournament from America on TV. Now it was Sunday – the final round – and there was an evening church service at which I’d lead and preach. Thankfully coverage didn’t start until about 8.00, so with a quick exit and dash home I wouldn’t miss much. ‘Can I come with you tonight?’ my daughter Rachel asked. That was fine. She was 15, and had friends who attended evening services, so it wasn’t unusual for her to tag along. The service went fine. I kept a good pace throughout, not rushing but not dawdling. The sermon was on the short side, but apparently all the more appreciated for that. When the service was over, I greeted those leaving immediately but didn’t join those staying for coffee and chat. This was not the evening for lengthy conversations. I grabbed my briefcase, drove the five miles home, and settled down in front of the TV.

Then the phone rang.

‘Surely no emergency right now!’ I hoped.

The calIer was a good friend who’d been at the evening service. ‘Did you leave anything at church tonight?’ she asked.

‘I don’t think so…’ I began.

‘How about your daughter?’

Sharp intake of breath. ‘Oh no, I’m so sorry’ Quick thinking, ‘but would you like to come here and have coffee and cake with us?’

Laughter at the other end, ‘And bring Rachel with me?’

‘Yes, that would be wonderful’.

A lot of years have passed since then, but neither Rachel nor I have forgotten how I forgot her. Just as well I’m good at apologising. I’ve so often had to be.


Never forget the things that matter most to you    This is the last but probably most important on my list. You could be the most organised person in the world – a place for everything and everything in its place. You could schedule your tasks and appointments for every 15 minute slot of the day. You could have a system to recall any name, any number, any place you’ve visited. But if you forget to care for the things of highest importance – like your family or your health – the rest won’t matter. The same is true about neglecting your character, thus gaining a bad reputation and no longer being trusted. In the film Rob Roy, Rob is accused of a theft he did not do. Friends tell him to run and hide. But he can’t. ‘My honour is at stake,’ he says. ‘I must restore it.’ Reputation matters.

There are things you never get back once they’re gone. The relationship with your spouse or partner, and with your children. The respect of colleagues and friends.

We can laugh about forgetfulness, but not about being forgetful regarding the things that most matter. Never forget those.

———————

[1] Our main host that evening was Carl Erskine who was a pitcher with the Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team (later the Los Angeles Dodgers) when they won the World Series in 1955. He’s now 95 years old. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carl_Erskine


Cautious boldness

We use maxims, aphorisms and proverbs all the time. Short, pithy sayings that we think wise and helpful.

My parents taught me ‘Waste not, want not’ and ‘Every penny counts’. The Scouts gave me the motto ‘Be prepared’. Nowadays we warn children about ‘stranger danger’. Signs and ads say ‘Don’t drink and drive’. Short sayings are remembered, and often keep us right.

A few years back I coined my own to improve my golf game: ‘Cautious boldness’. Those two words have helped me win trophies. With golf, it’s sometimes best to play safe. Perhaps there are deep bushes alongside a fairway – time for caution. But you can’t be cautious all the time. If you’re on the green, putting from only a few metres, you must be bold. ‘Never up, never in’ is the right thought, because, obviously, no putt has ever been holed which didn’t reach the hole. So, I realised being cautious all the time was no good, and being bold all the time was no good. Therefore cautious boldness became my maxim – sometimes one, sometimes the other. Winning depended on knowing which was right in each situation.

That seemingly contradictory mix, cautious boldness, is also relevant to living life wisely and well. I’ll illustrate how it could apply in four contexts. The first two concern important life-directing issues. The other two are more down-to-earth, but perhaps will make you think and smile.

Relationships

Like many I suffered the teenage angst of wondering ‘Does she like me?’ and ‘Will she laugh if I ask her out?’ But I worked my way through my inner turmoil, occasionally holding back wrongly and occasionally pushing forward wrongly. Sometimes too much caution. Sometimes too much boldness. (It was all better in my early 20s when I met Alison…)

Getting the caution/boldness balance right is important too in long-term relationships. Let’s imagine Colin and Christine. Colin is struggling with depression. He feels his life is useless; he can’t see a good future. The last thing he needs, at that moment, is Christine telling him to pull himself together, to brighten up and be positive. Colin can’t handle that. Christine needs to take a more cautious, gentle, reassuring approach.[1]

A few years earlier Christine had her own struggle, albeit of a very different kind. She excelled in her administrative role for a large firm, and was often called on to supervise new colleagues. She had a gift for bringing out the best in them. One day the managing director asked Christine if she’d consider being appointed department head. Christine’s head spun, and sensibly asked for a day or two to decide. At home Colin listened as she poured out a catalogue of doubts and fears about her abilities. Wisely, Colin let Christine get it all out of her system, and then carefully but positively drew out from her an equal catalogue of abilities and strengths she knew she had. He followed that with encouragement, helping her believe this was a deserved promotion, and one good for her and for her firm. She took the job, and never regretted it.

There are times to exercise caution and times to offer boldness.

Career / work

In my journalism years I had two types of colleagues. One group were ‘journeymen’ (they were all men at that time). The news editor could send them to a meeting, where they’d take shorthand notes and write an accurate report of what had happened. Or they might interview someone making news, and write an acceptable story. But that’s all they did. They didn’t spot news opportunities. They never wrote in an exciting, captivating style. They just went about things in their quiet and cautious way year after year.

Some were different. They could do the routine stuff, but they had eyes and ears to discover news. Maybe it was something a politician let slip. Maybe they picked up on gossip about a sports star. They followed up on their leads, and often had a front page story in the next edition. They showed initiative and talent, and moved on fast in their careers.

I’ve seen the same distinction in other places where I’ve worked. One type of worker is slow and dependable, another type creative and pushing forward. Each has their strengths. But most of us can have both strengths. There is wisdom in moving between times of caution (working carefully and steadily) and times of boldness (offering new ideas, striving for advancement). Those with only an abundance of caution may come to regret the tedium of doing the same thing constantly. Those with overmuch boldness may find themselves promoted beyond their competence (aka, promoted to the point of incompetence).

Caution at times and boldness at times – when rightly judged – has much to commend it.

Driving

My friend Keith, a policeman, was an examiner for motorbike riders attempting to pass an advanced test. He’d been my examiner, and we’d remained friends afterwards. ‘You wouldn’t believe,’ he told me one day, ‘how many flagrantly break the speed limit while taking their test.’ Keith eventually realised they never rode within the speed limit, so it didn’t occur to them to ride differently during the test. ‘And speeding is a definite failure,’ he said.

Interestingly, though, just as you can fail an advanced test for going too fast, you can also fail it for going too slow. I’ve taken both car and motorcycle advanced tests, and, thankfully, remembered the formula for getting the speed right: ‘make good progress’. In other words, don’t go too slow because then you’re a hazard, and don’t go too fast because then you’re a danger. So, in a 30 mph area, I should aim to drive or ride very close to 30, but not more than 30. That’s good progress.

Not everyone makes good (and safe) progress. We’ve likely all moaned about a slow driver on a standard (single lane each way) road, with tight bends, oblivious that there’s a queue of 20 cars behind with frustrated drivers because there’s next to no chance of a safe overtake. It’s little better on a busy motorway. The slow driver cruises along at 40 or 50 mph in the middle lane, causing a blockage and hazard as cars jostle to move into the outside lane to get past. (In the UK, going past another car on its nearside isn’t allowed.)

Of course I’ve seen many dangerous attempts to overtake on narrow roads, and plenty times, when I’ve been driving on a motorway at the speed limit of 70 mph, a car has roared past me doing at least 90 if not 100 mph. Is it a sin to pray there’s a police speed trap just ahead? If so, I have sinned.

People die trying to overtake someone who’s dawdling along at a dangerously slow speed. And people die because they’re driving far too fast, killing not only themselves but possibly others too. There are times to be cautious and times to be bold. Lives depend on judging which is appropriate.

Practical tasks

I have no memory of my father doing DIY jobs around the house. He worked, played golf and did gardening. He didn’t repair or maintain things. So, when I left home aged 16, I’d no idea how to look after a property.

I learned fast when, with family help, I bought a near 100-year old tenement flat in Edinburgh. It was affordable for two reasons: 1) It was very small, just two rooms; 2) it had never been modernised – it had an old range, electric wiring hung loose, there was no bathroom, and so on. There was plenty to fix. I couldn’t take on a complete renovation of the place. That would involve new walls, new electrics, new plumbing, which would require experts. But there were innumerable small jobs.

I got hold of a DIY book, read the relevant sections, and did my best. Much was trial and error, but I soon learned how to drill holes, use wall plugs, and hang towel rails or shelves. I replastered a section of wall – not perfect but acceptable. I stripped about seven layers of wallpaper away, including varnished wallcoverings which may have dated from the flat’s construction. After a while I was quite good at DIY.

It was several years before I had a car, and the first was not at all in good condition. I set about treating the rust with metal brush, fiberglass, filler, hardener and careful, gentle rubbing to get the surface perfectly smooth. Eventually I resprayed the whole car. In the engine area I put in new spark plugs, adjusted the tappets and fitted a new clutch. The sills on the underside of the car were rusted through, so I welded fresh metal in place. I had to do something about the car’s poor braking, so bought new brake shoes, fitted them, and, thankfully, the car stopped when it was meant to.

As the years went on, I did less DIY work. For three reasons:

  • I simply didn’t have time. My real work was all-consuming.
  • We had enough money to pay mechanics, plumbers, electricians. They did things better and in a fraction of the time I would have taken.
  • I realised the limits of my skills, and that I’d probably overstepped those limits in the past. There were no disasters, but there might have been. It was time to be more realistic about what I could do and what it was best I didn’t do.

But I’d learned that with a lot of courage and a bit of skill I could do many practical things. There was no mystery about most of them; nothing about which to be frightened – and a lot of money could be saved. But, the wisdom of the years taught me about my limits, and when it was best (and sometimes legally required) to bring in professionals.

Times for boldness and times for caution.

Two last things.

First, I don’t believe for a minute that DIY is a ‘man thing’. While working in America, a colleague mentioned his wife was visiting her parents for a few days, so he’d be on his own. ‘But,’ he said, ‘I won’t be idle. She’s left me a long Honey Do list’. I had to ask what a Honey Do list was, the answer being ‘Honey, I want you to do this and do that’ – a long list of jobs his wife wanted done while she was away. (Go online, type in Honey Do, and you’ll find templates for a Honey Do list, plus innumerable posters or cartoons related to it – my favourite is of a skeleton on a bench with the caption ‘Waiting on that honey-do-list to be done’.)

I’m happy to report that my wife, Alison, is very capable with DIY – mending our shower, unblocking sinks, laying carpet, painting, wall-papering, sharpening tools, repairing appliances. She’s about to replace a tap washer (which she’s done before). But, like me, she’s well aware of her limits.

Second, I’ll tell the story of when we literally pushed our personal boundaries.

Alison and I lived in that tenement flat after we were married. We modernised most of it, but of course it was still very small. When Alison was pregnant, we knew a baby came with baggage, and we’d need another chest of drawers to store baby things. Except, we didn’t have anywhere for another chest of drawers. There never was a lot of wall space, and every inch had something against it already. Except the back wall of a deep cupboard. We measured its width, bought a chest of drawers an inch or two smaller, and thought ‘problem solved’. It wasn’t solved. We’d only measured the back wall, and the doorway into the cupboard was narrower, even with the door removed. We could carry the chest of drawers into the cupboard by turning it sideways, but then it had to be straightened, and at an angle it was wider than the cupboard, so that didn’t work. So, we took the chest of drawers out again, thought hard, thought some more, and then we knew what to do.

First we took out the drawers and then dismantled the ‘carcass’. Off came the top, sides and back panel, leaving us with the equivalent of a modern ‘flat pack’. We took all the parts into the cupboard, and reassembled the chest of drawers facing in the correct direction. Alison was at the far end of the cupboard to screw the back panel into place. She did her job perfectly. But, of course, Alison was now completely blocked in behind the chest of drawers. However, we had a plan. I’d lift the chest of drawers as high as I could, spread my legs as wide as I could, and Alison would crawl out underneath the chest and underneath me, and then I’d lower the chest in place. At any time that plan was at the far edge of boldness because the chest of drawers was not light and the space for Alison to crawl through was small. At this time there was another complication. Alison was now fully nine months pregnant. But we had to try. I spread my feet to each side of the cupboard, lifted up the chest of drawers, Alison crawled, and all was well. Our son was born two days later.

(When we eventually left the tenement flat, the chest of drawers was dismantled again to get it out of the cupboard, then later rebuilt, and used in four other homes for over 20 years.)  

I tell that story hoping only to amuse. But perhaps it has some lessons. We were thoughtless in our purchase, but bold with our idea for how we could fit the chest of drawers into the cupboard, and then actually quite cautious/careful about how we did it. But I would urge: be bold about what you do, but super cautious when someone is nine months pregnant.

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[1] During my own time of deep depression, Alison had the wisdom not to scold me for feeling so low, and not to offer trite solutions. But, when I was at my worst during the darkest hours of the night, I’d feel her hand take mine gently and just hold on. It was all I could cope with, but also all I needed.


Kindness

My day began in New Delhi, India, around 7.00. I was due at a school to address their morning assembly. I’d skipped breakfast because I’d been told my colleague and I would have food after the assembly. Delhi traffic was as crazy as ever, but we arrived safely, the assembly went well, and a small group of us gathered in the headteacher’s office afterwards. Breakfast was served – hamburgers. So began the day of seven cooked meals.

It was one of those days when visit followed visit in rapid succession. And at every project and in every home, we were fed. Perhaps a few were motivated to please foreign guests who might provide funding for their organisation. But mostly the hospitality reflected a culture of kindness: guests should be honoured, and honoured guests are served food.

Most of our meals that day were traditional for north India. I preferred that. I had no wish to be given European-style meals when in India. Every stop was another breakfast or a lunch or, as the day wore on, a dinner. These were not snacks. They were substantial meals.

Can you have too much of a good thing? Yes, you can. By mid afternoon I was moving from feeling full to feeling ill. My queasiness wasn’t helped by city traffic. We veered this way, that way, stopped and then roared ahead. Thankfully, each time we arrived at a new destination, I could walk around. Soon I’d be fine again.

After six stops – now at nearly 8.00 in the evening – we paid our final call to thank friends who’d helped organize our day’s visits. We were invited into their home, and politeness required we accept. The inevitable happened. Their politeness meant they insisted on giving us a meal. And our politeness meant we couldn’t refuse. Our seventh cooked meal in one day.

Other days rivalled that one, but happily none ever beat it. I loved the food, and loved the people even more. But if seven meals a day happened every day I’d have been charged for excess baggage for the flight home.

I was shown great kindness by people in many poor countries, and it’s left the enduring thought that they had so little but gave so much. Sometimes we were able, quietly, to pass on a ‘gift’ in thanks, because otherwise their generosity to us would have meant their family didn’t eat for several days. But their kindness was given without knowing there’d be any reimbursement; they simply used the little they had to bless us.

I saw that principle – ‘those who have little give much’ – during my years as a pastor in the UK. Senior citizens, often with little money, were the first to give when the congregation were asked to help the poor at home or abroad. Relative to their means, they were super generous. They reminded me of the poor widow Jesus saw putting a couple of coins into the temple offering. He said she’d given more than any of the rich people because the rich had plenty left whereas she’d given everything she had.[1]

Kindness matters, and there are good principles underpinning it, including these.

As people have done for us, so we should do for others

In America, I finished my supermarket shopping, waited in the checkout queue, the operator scanned my purchases, and I got ready to pay. Then I was told, ‘Your bill has already been paid’. I looked puzzled, and said I didn’t understand. She explained, ‘The person two places in front of you has already paid for the next three customers after him’. I walked away, humbled and grateful.

I’d just experienced an instance of ‘pay it forward’. Pay it forward has a long tradition which has been popularised in books and film.[2] The core idea is that when someone has been good to you, there’s no need to repay them but you should pass on an equivalent kindness to someone else.

How would the world be if everyone followed that principle? We’ve all been helped by others, probably many times. What if the benefit they gave us was ‘paid back’ with equivalent kindness to others who need it?

Kindness means you meet some strange but wonderful people

The culture of the ancient Middle East included hospitality to passing strangers, welcoming them into your home for a meal, and perhaps providing a bed for the night. That custom is the background to a strange Bible verse:

‘Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.’ (Hebrews 13:2)

Many believe the reference to ‘angels’ is meant literally, that unknown guests may actually be angelic creatures. Others think the Greek word used here – angelos (ἄγγελος) – only has the general meaning of ‘one sent’ or ‘messenger’. If that second view is correct, the guest must still be a VIP++. There’s no reason to call visitors angels unless they are very special messengers, likely messengers sent by God.

I’m not aware that we’ve ever given hospitality to angels, but some who came our way were certainly special. During their stay we were helped, encouraged, motivated and even sometimes guided regarding what we were meant to do. Without these guests, our lives would not have been complete. Kindness introduces you to the best and most important of people.

We don’t show kindness for our own sake.

How could kindness ever be for our own benefit? Surely kindness is always about helping others? It is about helping others, but there can still be the issue of motivation.

In the entrance halls of many public buildings in America – including churches – I’d see a wall of plaques containing the names of those whose gifts had built or furnished that building. The names of the biggest givers were usually in the largest type, with progressively smaller font sizes for lesser donor categories. Outside there might be a pathway with donor names inscribed on the stones. Or a room would be named after a donor. Of course, a very generous donor might have their name emblazoned right across the whole building. Publicising donors’ names isn’t unique to America; I just saw more of it there.

Why would anyone want their name on a building? Or on a plaque promoting how much they’d given? Some motivations will be good. But others perhaps less so. I know from fundraisers that the offer of a donor’s name on a building can be a ‘hook’ to secure a very large gift. So, would that donor be motivated by generosity? Or motivated to be thought generous? Only they could know the answer.

Jesus gave the perfect antidote to seeking glory by your giving – don’t reveal your generosity to anyone.

‘But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.’ (Matthew 6:3-4)[3]

Is that an impossible standard? That we should keep our generosity secret? It’s not impossible.

In one church where I was pastor, several times a couple presented me with a box of groceries and other necessities to give to families they saw going through hard times. I was to pass on the gift, but say only that it came from friends who cared. Those packages fed families with food and also warmed their hearts. Someone had seen and someone had cared. But they never knew who the ‘someone’ was.

Kindness is not about what we get; it’s about what we give.

Our goal must be to provide the kindest, not to provide the finest.

I’ve visited and preached from the northern islands of Scotland to the south coast of England and across to the west coast of Wales. And also in many other countries of the world. Often I’ve eaten and stayed overnight in people’s homes. Some of those houses were lavish; others were very humble. If I was to draw up a list of  the top 20 homes I’m grateful to have visited, none would be on that list because of how grand they were. The best were those with gracious, helpful, thoughtful people who made it clear I was welcome and ensured I was comfortable. I felt cared for, and didn’t mind at all whether their furniture came from high-end stores or charity shops. It was simply a joy to be looked after by good, kind people.

Kindness counts. It’s a wonderful privilege to be able to bless people with acts and attitudes of kindness. It may be life-changing for them. And it’s wonderful when we’re on the receiving end of kindness, though it may mean eating seven cooked meals in the same day.


[1] As Jesus looked up, he saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury. He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins. ‘Truly I tell you,’ he said, ‘this poor widow has put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.’  (Luke 21:1-4)

[2] Nicely summarized by Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pay_it_forward

[3] Almost all of Matthew chapter 6 is teaching of Jesus about not making a ‘show’ of our spiritual or humanitarian actions. God sees it all, and that’s enough.

The left-handed ironing board

My skills at ironing were close to non-existent. But I was alone in America for two months before Alison could join me. I needed smart shirts each day, so ironing would have to be done. Surely it couldn’t be difficult.

I was living in temporary housing so owned none of the furniture or household objects. Thankfully there was an iron and ironing board. I got it all set up, and took a shirt from the basket.

Now, Alison could probably watch TV, juggle four balls, drink tea and iron a shirt all at the same time. My ability was in a different league. A much lower league. For understandable but inconvenient reasons, shirts are not flat. They just won’t lie down and stay still on an ironing board, so I was creating creases as fast as I was removing them. It took me an hour to iron that first shirt. Shirt number two fought me as fiercely as its predecessor, but I did better – just 55 minutes for that one. However, a rate of two shirts ironed per movie watched was appalling.

As I was picking up shirt three, I stepped back and looked closely at the ironing board. That’s when I saw my problem. Whoever had lived in this house before me must have been left-handed because they’d bought a left-handed ironing board. Since I’m right-handed that explained why I was crossing my hands, reaching awkwardly, and fighting constantly to apply the iron to uncooperative shirts. But leftie was the only ironing board available, so I kept going, got marginally quicker, and drove my average down to 45 minutes a shirt. It seemed I’d be wrestling with that ironing board for a long time.

Two evenings later I assembled my left-handed ironing board again, ready to restart my inept ironing. Suddenly – iron held over a rumpled shirt – I stopped. I was experiencing an epiphany. Carefully I placed the iron off to the side, put both hands under the ironing board, picked it up, turned it round, and then stepped back and looked.

Now I had a right-handed ironing board!

How on earth had I not realised what was wrong before? Well, the first time I’d taken the ironing board from its cupboard, I’d struggled to assemble it at all. Bits moved in all directions simultaneously, almost worse than an old-fashioned deck chair. But finally I got there. The tricky beast stood in front of me. It never occurred to me that the ironing board was anything other than correct now. But it was the correct only for a left-hander. And I’d concluded that’s how it had been manufactured, as a left-handed ironing board.[1]

Looking back I see my stupidity was a mix of perspective, faulty assumptions, ignorance and inexperience. Any or all of these can cause problems. And they occur with things much more serious than ironing boards.

When we don’t really understand what we’re seeing or what’s happening

Let me explain this with a strange example. I visited friends David and Irene in Sindh Province, Pakistan. They were involved in humanitarian projects in a remote area which, to me, seemed impoverished and lawless. The journey to my friends’ home was across mile after mile of desert, at the mercy of a local driver who didn’t hesitate to steer his car off the far edge of the road in order to complete an overtake. An accident in an isolated area would have been disastrous. Thankfully I arrived safely.

David and Irene had a shelf of family photos, placed prominently so they’d see and remember their loved ones back home. Given the landscape all around, it was impossible to stop sand blowing into their home, so they employed a local lady to clean. With a smile Irene said, ‘something odd happened after the first time our cleaner dusted the shelf with the photos’. Apparently the cleaner had taken all the pictures off, wiped the shelf, and then put the photos back. ‘Except,’ Irene continued, ‘she replaced some upside down, some on their sides, and some the right way up. The problem was our cleaner had no idea what a photo was; the frames they were in were just objects to her, so she had no idea of a right or wrong way up.’

I was astonished. I’d never imagined anyone could be unaware of what a photograph was. But the cleaner was unaware. She’d never used a camera, never had her photo taken, never seen a photo. Therefore, she didn’t recognise these objects as images of people. In any case, people aren’t three or four inches tall. So, all she saw on that shelf were things with flat edges which, after dusting, she could put back any way that was convenient.

Likewise it had never occurred to me that there was a right or wrong way round for an ironing board, so, when using it was awkward, I assumed that board had been made for a left-hander.

We can all be guilty of not realising what we’re seeing, not understanding what’s really going on.

An industry magnate may gaze out across the idyllic beauty of a forest and a gently flowing stream. But what he sees isn’t beauty. Nor is it a pristine environment that must be protected. The only thing he sees is the perfect site for his new car plant. The magnate’s focus is functional, thinking only of what increases his business empire and personal fortune. He’s not concerned with aesthetics or valuable ecosystems. Hence he doesn’t see what he’s not looking for.

Colleagues criticise the woman who arrives late most days, especially because she’s also one of the first to leave when work is over. What they don’t see is her husband at home with advanced cancer. He’s too ill to work, so she must. Every day she rises at 5 a.m., and spends three hours caring for him and making sure he has everything he needs while she’s away. Then she rushes off, and after her job is done for the day, she hurries home to check he’s all right, and then to start on six hours of caring, cooking, washing, cleaning, and everything else. Day after day after day. Her colleagues see none of that and, in their ignorance, they judge her.

There are times when all of us are blind. We can’t be blamed for what we don’t know. But we can be blamed if we’re so focused on our own agenda or own opinions that we never see another point of view or make hasty judgments.

If we care, and take time, we will understand better what we’re seeing.

When we see only what we expect to see

When I unfolded that ironing board, it looked right to me. It was just like every ironing board I’d ever seen. So I assumed all was correct.

An assumption that this thing must be the same as that thing is a form of ‘cognitive bias’. I believed the ironing board I set up was identical to other ironing boards. And it took me two days to realise something fundamental was wrong. It was the wrong way round.

What is a cognitive bias? Fundamentally it’s about a skewed way of seeing things. Exactly what that involves can vary enormously. Those who’ve counted reckon there are over 150 kinds of cognitive bias. Most of them can be summed up by descriptions like these:

  • They result in prejudiced judgments – we have slanted views of things
  • They’re usually unconscious – we’re not aware of our bias
  • When we try to avoid bias, we become convinced that our perspective now is the correct one – the ‘I think it, therefore it’s true’ effect.
  • Some cognitive biases are useful – such as for those living on the grasslands of tropical Africa who can’t afford the luxury of taking time to examine whether the movement behind a bush is a pig or a lion – they must respond to their gut instinct and flee.

Almost no-one doubts the existence of cognitive biases, but many think bias doesn’t affect them. The way they see things, that’s how they are. Unfortunately pride is far from an infallible guide to reality. Here are two examples about seeing what we expect to see.

Mississippi    My first visit to America began with two weeks in Mississippi. I stayed in three different houses. None were mega-mansions but very pleasant and comfortable middle-class homes. Less than a mile away African-American people lived in very different houses. We drove through those ‘black’ neighbourhoods, and I was shocked. Almost every home was the simplest of wooden structures – small, often leaning, some needing repair, children playing out front in the dirt. I saw proud people beside their homes, but my heart went out to them. The contrast between where I was staying for two weeks and where they’d spend their whole lives was stark. One of my hosts didn’t share my feelings. He said: ‘The black people are lazy. That’s why they live like this.’ Again I was shocked. I disputed those statements as much as a guest in someone else’s culture can. My host was unmoved. That’s how he saw them. He didn’t seem to consider the legacy of slavery, the laws that still disadvantaged black people, the inferior schools their children attended, the lack of opportunities for even the brightest, and so on. ‘They’re lazy.’ That’s how he saw them.

Edinburgh    I studied theology at the University of Edinburgh. That worried my Christian friends, because they considered the university’s ‘divinity school’ to be liberal in its theological positions.[2] But it was a great experience for me. I heard mind-stretching lectures and engaged in challenging conversations. One of those conversations happened in a seminar group gathered to discuss ‘the problem of evil’ – how can a God who is almighty and all-loving allow suffering? Far from an easy subject. There were about 12 of us, and I was in a minority of one coming from an evangelical perspective. But I argued my case, and they argued theirs. We both listened and learned. Afterwards, two or three came to me privately and thanked me for what I’d said. Then each of them added a sentence like this: ‘You’re the first evangelical I’ve met who had reasons for his faith’. They thought evangelicals, faced with difficult questions, simply resorted to blind faith – ‘I don’t know why this is true, but I believe it anyway’. No thought. No evidence. Apparently I’d been different. But they were wrong, hopefully not about me but certainly about many other evangelicals. There were and are many evangelical scholars, preachers and ordinary believers who have studied and thought deeply about their faith, and then put forward sound arguments in favour of evangelical views. But my divinity school fellow-students had, at least until that day, dismissed evangelicals as people who never thought things through.

I can’t teach anyone how to rid themselves of their cognitive biases. If they’re unconscious, you can’t even identify they exist. And many a cognitive bias is comforting, reassuring, it props up our way of seeing the world and justifies the way we live in it.

But I can ask you to be open to the possibility of cognitive bias in your thinking. I suspect all of us have biases – could be about religion, or politics, or sport, or women in the workplace, or people of colour, or those with alternative lifestyles. For example, a few years ago I met people who identified with goth subculture.[3] Initially, I found it hard to get past their strange looks, dress, ideas, but eventually I got to know them. And discovered they were people who were kind, thoughtful, and really worth knowing. Biases can be unseen barriers to good people, good ideas, and good experiences.

So, this blog has taught you how to turn a left-handed ironing board into a right-handed ironing board (or right into left). About 0.0001% of the population needed to know that.

Beyond that, hopefully there’s been something here that helps you ‘see’ and therefore understand our world more completely. Nothing should be frightening about getting a truer perspective on the world. We’re better people for that. And ironing might become a bit easier.

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This blog is posted the day after a new year dawned. Today is just one day more than yesterday, but psychologically most of us flip a switch – ‘off’ for the year gone by, and ‘on’ for the year ahead. It feels like a fresh start.

May this new beginning be the best it can be for you, with far more about which to be thankful than regretful. My warmest wishes.

And, if you would like to read a blog specifically for a new year, my first blog one year ago was about ‘resolutions’. You’ll find it here: https://occasionallywise.com/2021/01/ (It’s dated January 2, 2021, therefore at the beginning of last January’s list.)

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[1] I once told this story of my ‘left-handed ironing board’ to an audience in America. Thankfully they laughed. Afterwards, several women said to me ‘You iron? I’m impressed.’ I’m not sure now if they were surprised a man did ironing, or surprised that anyone in the household did ironing. Certainly some never did – either they only bought ‘non-iron’ clothes, or they sent out their laundry to a cleaner where it was washed, dried, ironed, and then delivered back to home.

[2] On the whole the label ‘liberal’ wasn’t wrong. But, as I told my friends, the school was so liberal that I was never marked down for my views providing I gave academically credible arguments. Besides, if we mix only with people who think exactly like us, we don’t learn much.

[3] If goth subculture is as unknown to you as it once was for me, this may help: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Goth_subculture