What I wish I’d known when I was 13

Experience is something young people can’t have. It’s impossible to teach, learn from a book, or borrow from another person. Experience – good or bad – is what we discover during life’s journey. And, if there’s an advantage from being older, you’ve a lot of experience.

My mind started thinking about that after I came across a photo of me when I was 13. It was a semi-official picture taken at school, probably to have a photo of me in my file. I know exactly when the photo was taken because there’s a poppy in my lapel, which was the custom around the time of Remembrance Day each November.[1]

I look young, and untroubled by issues that concern adults. However, I began to wonder what my 13-year-old self would like to have known but didn’t. Were there things it would have been good for me to understand at age 13?

I’d like to have known that one day I’d have a girlfriend

I’m starting here because girls are exactly what this 13-year-old boy was bothered about. Girls were no longer a nuisance. In fact, they had become rather interesting.

But, at 13, and with only a brother, girls were a mystery to me. How could you know if a girl liked you, and what should you say to her? If only everyone was fitted with a light and when two were attracted to each other their lights would go on. But we hadn’t been fitted with lights, and the mystery remained for a few more years.

By my later teens, though, I had a wide circle of friends, and my breakthrough realisation was that getting close to a girl was less about attraction, and more about being interested in each other, about really getting to know someone, enjoying being together, sharing ideas and plans. Then, one Sunday evening, I found myself walking up a road in Edinburgh chatting to a girl who was more interesting than anyone else. Decades later, now with children and grandchildren, Alison is still more interesting than anyone else.

The 13-year-old me would have been so much more at peace if only I’d known that would happen.

I’d like to have had a career goal

Some know the work they want to do from an early age. Perhaps their ambition is to be a ballerina, an international footballer, win a Formula One championship, do research that wins a Nobel Peace Prize, invent world-changing technology, write block-buster novels. They’re good thoughts, but most will disappear when faced with massive challenges. Some, however, will dedicate themselves to a particular career path, and get there. They’ll be great doctors, top scientists, own a profitable business, or become a member of Parliament.

But I had no idea what I would do for a career. When I was eight or nine I thought I’d like to be a bus driver, or become an Automobile Association patrolman who rode around on an old style yellow motorcycle with sidecar looking for members whose cars needed rescue.[2] But these were just a child’s idle dreams, not serious career goals.

At 13 I had no idea what work I might do. However, when I was 15, my school ran a careers evening with spokespeople describing their work. One was a police officer, and he highlighted all the different specialities that existed within policing. The wide range of options appealed to me, so later I read up about police service. Then I found a problem. In those days the minimum height for men to enter the police force was 5’8”, and in my area even higher at 5’10”. I didn’t think I’d reach either of those heights, so abandoned that plan.[3] When I was 16 I began to think about leaving school,[4] but had no idea still about a career.

I’ve mixed feelings now about that lack of a sense of direction. A career goal would have motivated me about my school work, and reassured me about where my life was headed. Yet, without a particular goal, I was open to any possibility, and that may have been helpful. In the end I began in journalism, became a church minister, then led a large international mission agency, and finished by being President of a seminary in the USA. I changed my work (not just my employer) several times, something that is now considered normal. I was ahead of my time.

So, though I wish I’d had a career goal, the lack of one did me no harm. I was flexible, and accepted change when it presented itself.

It would have helped if I’d had confidence in my own abilities

When I was 13 I was moderately good at rugby. I could tackle, catch and pass the ball, and kick it well too. I was also good at cricket, not so much as a batter but as a bowler and fielder. Somehow I could flip my wrist to make the ball break sharply left, completely confusing batters as the ball zipped past and hit their wickets. And, because I had fast reactions and virtually never dropped a catch, I relished every chance to be a slip fielder.

But sport was simply enjoyable. It was a pastime, not a passion nor a career goal. What was supposed to matter to me aged 13 was my academic work. But, in that area, I had every reason to be modest with my expectations. My teachers were equally modest in their expectations of me. When I was 13 the set curriculum I had to study covered a wide range of subjects, including physics, chemistry, biology and Latin. When I was 14 I was allowed to narrow my schedule. I dropped all the sciences and Latin with the approval and relief of my teachers. After another year I was due to take national exams. My teachers wouldn’t present me for the German exam since I was bound to fail. And fail was exactly all I achieved in three subjects, French, Maths, and Arithmetic. My only successes were in English and history, and I passed those at a higher level the following year.

But, with that track record, I had no confidence in my abilities. I never imagined I could be admitted to university, and no-one ever suggested I should try. In fact a career advisor advised me to start work in a department store sweeping the floors, and perhaps I could work my way up to being a store manager. I swept that idea aside, but he was not the only one with low expectations of me in those early to mid teen years.

For a while that was discouraging and unhelpful. Yet, looking back, it may have triggered a desire to prove them all wrong. Which was probably the best response.

I wish I’d understood that not all people are good

I grew up in a loving family unit with two parents and a brother. Nearby were aunts, uncles, and cousins we saw regularly. Our town was relatively crime free, big enough to have shops for everyday needs but small enough that traffic jams were unknown. I walked or cycled to school, came home for lunch, and, when daylight allowed, spent evenings playing football or cricket with friends. During summer holidays from school I’d play golf in the morning and cricket in the afternoon, and when I wanted a change I’d play cricket in the morning and golf in the afternoon. I had a very privileged early life.

The only downside is that it was also a very protected life. When I was 13 almost all I knew of the ills of the world was that I should never go off with a stranger, that a girl in my class had died from a serious illness, and a boy had fallen from his bike in front of a lorry and been killed. But I didn’t know of anyone dying of cancer, anyone getting divorced, anyone without food, anyone committing a major crime. My parents would watch the news on TV, but, as far as I was concerned, bad things happened far away. I had a sheltered existence.

That resulted in an unhelpful innocence, a naivety that everyone is kind and good and no harm can befall you. Of course we must not make children fearful or untrusting. But – as with many things – I wish there had been an age-appropriate way of making me aware that bad things happen in this world.

From my later teens and into my twenties I was a journalist with a national newspaper. That gave me a rude awakening to tragedies and evils. I attended car, rail and plane disasters where mangled bodies were pulled from wreckage. I sat through murder trials, such as the killing of a 15-year-old girl by beating and strangling.[5] It shocked me that one person should so violently and deliberately end another person’s life. There were cases of gang warfare, often drug related. Some politicians were considered corrupt, others attention-seeking. I attended court sessions and local government meetings which were supremely tedious. Some of my colleagues were deep in debt, unfaithful in their marriages, addicted to alcohol, or dying of lung cancer. Of course there were also ‘good news’ stories, but I was used to them from my upbringing. It was the ‘bad news’ that jolted me into a broader understanding of the world.

It would have helped me, certainly by the time I was 13, to have learned something about the harsher sides of life.

I could have known more of how poor most of the world is

My Aunt Milla – whose working life was mostly as a community nurse – rarely spent much on her housing. During two periods she lived in run-down tenements. The first had no toilet facilities inside the building. None at all. Instead there was a small hut out the back which contained a simple toilet. No wash-hand basin, and sometimes no toilet roll, only torn sheets of newspaper which were guaranteed to leave their mark. Day or night, perhaps in pouring rain, the ‘need to go’ was an unpleasant adventure into the outdoors to use the ‘privy’. Milla moved upmarket with her later tenement living. There still was no toilet in the flat, but there was one on the ‘half-landing’ (so named because it was up some steps from the level of flats just below and down some steps from the level of flats above). Since there were two flats on each level, the toilet might be shared by four households. Perhaps queues were avoided only by exploring for ‘vacancies’ at toilets on other half-landings.

These were poor facilities – unhygienic and inconvenient – but were common in many towns and cities, and not just in the UK. We often stayed with my aunt, and therefore used the outhouse or half-landing toilets many times. At home we had indoor plumbing, but I knew many lived with facilities like my aunt, so never thought of her situation as poor or bad. When I was 13, I had no idea at all that most of the world lived in very much worse circumstances.

Almost 30 years later I visited remote desert areas of Pakistan, sleeping overnight in tribal villages. Toilet facilities? The far side of the sand dunes. In a mountainside village in Nepal, there was an outhouse for toilet use, but it was no more than a small enclosure around an open hole with charcoal six feet below to (unsuccessfully) deaden the stench. In a remote Congo village I thought that children were wearing dirty and torn t-shirts as play clothes, then realised those t-shirts were their only clothes. There I also met a mother with seriously malnourished children, hoping for help from medical missionaries. I saw many small houses with damaged roofs. I was told: “There’s no longer anyone skilled in repairing roofs. When people don’t have money to buy food, no-one pays to have their roof repaired.”

I could multiply these stories, but won’t. The hard truth is that a large part of the world’s population live in poverty. I never knew that when I was 13. As children grow up, and gradually decide on lifestyle and career priorities, shouldn’t those priorities take account of world need? In affluent countries, we shelter children from harsh realities. That’s understandable, but should they not know billions are less well off, and their needs may matter more than our comfort?

I wish I’d known what I needed to do for God to become real in my life

God was never absent from my life (nor is he from anyone’s), but when I was 13 I didn’t relate much to God other than with some prayers. My mother told me several times that she made a special commitment to God when she was 13. That commitment coloured everything she did, and a lot of her time went on supporting church activities and helping neighbours. So, when I became 13, I imagined something might happen in my life to make me a Christian like her. Nothing did, and as the next few years passed I wondered if it ever would.

What I’d failed to realise is that I had a responsibility to reach out to God. I was waiting for God to invade me while, in a sense, he was waiting to be invited. That did all change when I was 18, and I’ve written about that before (https://occasionallywise.com/2021/02/20/serious-business/).

It wasn’t that I was ignorant about the Christian message. I just needed to respond to it. Thankfully I was only five years beyond 13 in doing so. But, if I’d known sooner, my life would have changed much earlier.

Writing this blog post about what I wished I’d known when I was 13 has kept generating more thoughts than I’ve recorded here. Perhaps I’ll set them down another time. And one day I may also write things I’m glad I did know when I was 13. That seems just as important a subject.

I’d encourage you to think what you wish you’d known when you were younger, and what you’re glad you did know. You might be surprised about your conclusions.

[1] Fighting in World War I ceased at the 11th hour of the 11th month in 1918, commemorated annually throughout Commonwealth countries ever since. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Remembrance_Day

[2] There’s a good photo of an AA motorcycle and sidecar here: https://www.theaa.com/breakdown-cover/our-heritage-vehicles

[3] Actually I did reach 5’8” but my interests by then lay elsewhere.

[4] In Scotland, the school leaving age was raised to 14 in 1901, and though from the 1940s there were plans to make the minimum age 15 that was never made law. The minimum age was set at 16 in 1973.

[5] The case set a new legal precedent because the accused was identified by having left unique bite marks on his victim’s body. See https://www.dentaltown.com/magazine/article/7528/the-biggar-murder-some-personal-recollections

Christmas shreddings

It was mid-afternoon on Christmas Eve, and I was alone in the large office building where I was General Director. Every staff member had left already, but I’d stayed late to clear my in-tray before the holiday break. And now I was on my knees.

I’d realised some documents had to be shredded. That was straightforward. We had a large capacity shredder which I’d used many times. I switched it on, and dropped a few sheets into the slot. The shredder immediately cut out. I tried again, and again it stopped. I noticed a small light had illuminated – apparently the bag which caught the shreddings was full. Really? That shouldn’t happen, but someone had wanted a quick exit and cleared off without replacing the shredder bag.

But all I had to do was switch the full bag with an empty bag. Easy. Well, easy if you know where the replacement bags are kept. Which I didn’t. I searched every cupboard within any sensible distance from the shredder. No bags. I moved my search further out, and finally, 20 minutes after starting, I found a roll of large black bags. I pulled one from the roll, opened up the shredder, dragged out the vastly over-filled bag, attached the new one, inserted my documents and they were instantly annihilated. All was well.

All was not well because it’s impossible to slide clear an overfull bag of shreddings without spilling some of its contents. Tiny slivers of paper were scattered across the office carpet. If I left them there the cleaners would be unjustly blamed for not doing their job. So a new search began, this time for a vacuum cleaner or brush to sweep up the shreddings. I knew the cupboard where such things were kept, pulled on the door, but those cleaners guarded their equipment carefully. The cupboard was locked. Though I had many keys to the building, no-one had thought I’d ever need one for the brooms and brushes cupboard. Back I went to the shredder. Mary Poppins had not passed through and made all the shreddings disappear. The paper shards were still all over the carpet.

So I got down on my knees, and, with no way to sweep those pieces of paper into a pile, began the laborious, wearying job of picking them up one by one. That took at least 15 minutes. At some point I heard myself say, ‘On Christmas Eve, what other CEO is on his knees picking up pieces of shredded paper?’ Not many. Probably not any.

But that task brought home an important lesson:

Never think yourself too important to do the humblest of tasks

As I’ve thought about Christmas, I realised that down through the years the Christmas season has taught me many simple lessons like that one.

An early childhood memory was that my Dad went to work for half of Christmas Day. His occupation was on the administration side of the Post Office, and with mail being moved around and house deliveries made even on that day, someone had to be at the main office making sure everything went smoothly. That person was my Dad.

To wholly understand why he and many others in Scotland worked on Christmas Day you need some background details:

  • Until the Reformation happened in Scotland – in 1560 – Christmas was a recognised religious feast day of the Roman Catholic Church. But when Presbyterianism became dominant, gradually most Catholic festivals disappeared. That included Christmas, and an Act was passed in the Scottish Parliament in 1640 making any observance of Christmas illegal.
  • The mid-winter celebrations became transferred to New Year’s Eve – known in Scotland as Hogmanay. That change caused no problem for the religious authorities because Hogmanay was a secular event.
  • So, right into the second half of the 20th century Christmas Day was another working day in Scotland. Hence my father went to his office.

Of course, over many years the traditions from down south in England had crept north, and once television had spread and religious fervour diminished, Scots were also celebrating Christmas with trees, lights, presents and parties. Nevertheless, it was only in 1958 that Christmas Day was designated a public holiday in Scotland. (Did that diminish the celebrations of Hogmanay? Absolutely not! Canny Scots just chose to revel at Christmas and New Year, and often to do so with more enthusiasm than wisdom.)

However, remembering that my Dad went off to work on Christmas morning, there is another lesson:

Many people – especially in emergency or caring professions – have to work on Christmas Day, and for that we should be grateful.

Like most small children, my brother Alan and I were always up early on Christmas Day, running through to the room where we’d hung stockings by the fireplace, to see what presents we’d got. There was never much in those long socks – an apple, an orange and perhaps a bar of chocolate and tiny toy car. But we were fortunate because there was more for us. We gazed in awe at the nicely wrapped larger presents laid on the floor.

I never wasted a moment, ripping open the Christmas paper to find the toys or games or clothes inside those boxes. The clothes never excited me, but the games and toys did, and I’d have them all out and be playing with them in very little time.

But my brother Alan had a different temperament, and took great care about opening his presents. He’d examine each parcel, undo the paper neatly, be excited about the contents, and then extract the toy and play with it. All before moving on to his next gift.

His meticulous process meant I was finished and done with my presents when Alan had only just started. I had to watch while he moved through his gifts one at a time. Some years I complained to my Mum that Alan clearly had more presents than I did. She assured me he didn’t. He just enjoyed each one fully before moving to the next.

So, another lesson:

There’s a lot to be said for what is now called ‘delayed (or deferred) gratification’, because many things are better by not being rushed.[1]

I grew up in a home where green vegetables were not a major part of the diet. My Dad grew peas, cabbages and cauliflowers along with root crops and fruit. But we didn’t eat ‘greens’ in any quantity. My Aunt Milla – a nurse who should have maximised health benefits – would put a tiny spoonful of peas alongside meat and potatoes ‘for decoration’.

But, on Christmas Day, we were always given a generous portion of what we called ‘Brussel sprouts’, though the first word probably should be pluralised because of the vegetables’ origin. What are Brussel sprouts? Let me tell you:

  • The Brussels sprout is a member of the Gemmifera cultivar group of cabbages (Brassica oleracea), grown for its edible buds. The leaf vegetables are typically 1.5–4.0 cm (0.6–1.6 in) in diameter and resemble miniature cabbages. The Brussels sprout has long been popular in Brussels, Belgium, from which it gained its name.[2]

I did not enjoy eating those edible buds of a cabbage. I simply didn’t like their taste. Some people don’t like broccoli[3], and I didn’t like Brussel sprouts.

But what was put on my plate had to be eaten. The usual warning was: ‘If you don’t eat your sprouts, you won’t get any dessert’. And since dessert was Christmas pudding, perhaps with cream, the blackmail to swallow those sprouts worked.

I must add that age has improved my taste. My willingness to eat Brussel sprouts gradually moved into the positive column. They are actually very good. But, in my early years, I ate them only because I had to.

So there is another lesson here:

We all have to do things we don’t like or want – that’s life.

Christmas has one form of annoying and unnecessary delayed gratification. It concerns the toy or appliance that won’t work without batteries, but no-one thought to buy them. When I was about seven I got one of those presents – a toy that was exactly what I wanted – but no batteries came with it and there were none in the house. My frustration was expressed loudly. So loudly my Dad set off on foot to find any shop open, but the few doing business didn’t sell batteries. I suffered (but not in silence) for about 24 hours, by which time batteries had been bought.

These days batteries are often packaged with the product, which helps avoid a Christmas crisis. But it’s not good to assume they’ll be included. Nor is it good to buy gloves that fit your hands but not the hands of the person receiving the gift. Or wrong-sized boots. Or a sweater with a dazzling design the recipient will hate. Or a tool they don’t need or want. Or music they’ll never play. Or a ‘Cooking for Beginners’ book for someone who already considers him or herself an expert. Or a dog for someone who likes cats. I even know a case where a few well-off individuals bought a CEO who was retiring a brand new SUV to replace the car he’d driven for years. The gift was amazingly generous, except the retiree whispered to me, ‘The problem is I really, really like my old car. I didn’t want a new car.’

The lesson, then, is this:

When buying presents, do your research and plan ahead.

When we lived in America we adjusted to the custom of eating turkey at Thanksgiving. In the UK turkey is the traditional meal at Christmas. Sometimes we’d travel back to the UK to spend Christmas with family, so we overate with US turkey in late November and overate with UK turkey in late December. Just as well we like turkey.

Many years before, when we lived in north east Scotland, our good friends Malcolm and Tina decided that they would buy us a turkey every Christmas. The only problem was that they never said explicitly that they’d give us a turkey every Christmas. Initially we thought they’d gift us a turkey once or twice, and then move on to give turkeys to other friends. But their turkey-at-Christmas kindness didn’t stop. A few days before each Christmas they’d call round with a turkey.

Then the year came when they didn’t. Not on December 20, or 21, or 22, or 23. By then we’d realised no turkey would be arriving. Alison, happily, had put some turkey in our freezer, so we wouldn’t fail to have our traditional meal. The 24th – Christmas Eve – dawned and Alison and I spent a hectic day preparing food, organising presents, putting final decorations in place, and, as pastor of a large church, I had events to prepare for and attend. In the evening I joined a group singing carols in a local hospital, hurried home and then went out again to lead and preach at our Watchnight Service which started at 11.15 pm and continued into a celebration of Christ’s birth at midnight. Around 12.30 am I headed home. Thankfully the children were all in bed and asleep. Alison was busy preparing various parts of our Christmas Day meal. I hadn’t had a moment to wrap presents, so I settled down to that task. Given my significant lack of expertise, gift wrapping was not a quick process. I finished around 3.00 am. Alison was still occupied in the kitchen, and I had a few more things to do before I could go to bed. At 3.30 am we heard a van arrive in our driveway, our doorbell rang, and it was our friend Malcolm with our turkey. Apparently we were his final delivery and he’d made us last because, as he said: ‘I knew you wouldn’t be in your beds yet!’ No, we weren’t. But it was 3.30 on Christmas morning!! More than a little on the late side to be delivering a turkey for that day’s meal. But we were very grateful, not just for the turkey but for friends like Malcolm and Tina.

So, this time two lessons:

Be generous and kind to all this Christmas.

But, if you can, don’t deliver turkeys at 3.30 in the morning.


This message is posted on Christmas Eve, and comes with my sincere hope that you are able to enjoy a happy Christmas, appreciating the wonderful truth that God sent his Son into this world. And, if possible, I long that you will have good food and friendship to enjoy.

This particular year (2022) the news is filled with stories of severely cold weather across much of the USA and Canada, and of power cuts imposed on the people of Ukraine resulting in much suffering from the cold and shortages throughout this winter. Many others in our world also struggle, so please keep them in your thoughts and prayers, and, if you can, provide support for those in such great need. May 2023 bring many good days for which you can be thankful.

[1] In the UK there is a magazine called Delayed Gratification, which covers news which is moving out of the headlines. Its slogan is ‘last to breaking news’. https://www.slow-journalism.com/

[2] From Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brussels_sprout

[3] Including some US Presidents: https://today.yougov.com/topics/politics/articles-reports/2013/07/13/presidential-broccoli-debate

‘Is my family odd?’ Yes, but that’s normal

My wife, Alison, was planting bulbs around a family grave in my home town. I wandered off, reading the words on headstones. One made me stop and stare. I had never seen a grave stone inscribed like this one.

Three things made it different from all others. Two of the three were truly remarkable.

First, though the headstone was not unusually large, there were more family names on that stone than I would have thought possible. Several generations were being memorialised.

Second, very strangely, the last name listed was someone not yet dead. The person who’d had all the family names inscribed on the headstone had added his own. His name and date of birth were there after which there was simply a space, presumably to be filled eventually with the date of his death.

Third, and most peculiar of all, was the inscription right at the foot. I had never seen anything like it on any grave stone anywhere, so I took a photograph.

The wording may not be readable, so here it is:

All of the above names and characters evoke a lifetime of memories / mostly really good – a few not quite so good / and some amazingly bizarre and in any normal life, unbelievable!

Gravestones usually have tender words, kind sentiments praising the life of the deceased. This inscription wasn’t unkind; just the most honest I’ve ever seen.

The truth is that all of us – or, at least, most of  us – belong to odd families. When Alison studied health science, including the sociology of health, her lecturer said most people wonder why they’re the only one to struggle with health issues, while the truth is that everyone has health problems. And, likewise, we wonder why our family is so odd compared to others, but actually almost every family has its share of mad, bad, sad and some glad individuals.

It might be the eccentric and extrovert uncle who embarrasses everyone at weddings with his off-key singing or crazy dancing, so dreadful the rest of the family pretend he’s not related to them. Or a brother who’s recently re-joined the family after several years of being accommodated by the government because he dealt in drugs. Or the sister who has been married and divorced so many times that everyone is terrified they’ll use the wrong name for her latest partner. Or the father who abused his daughters. No-one who knows what happened ever mentions his name. Or the niece who has been weak and ill almost all her life. Or the cousin who has changed jobs repeatedly and been spectacularly unsuccessful every time. Or another brother and his wife who lost their only child, killed by a drunk driver. And sometimes, one or more who have found happiness in relationships, success in career, and comfort and hope in their beliefs.

I can’t think of any family who has the whole package I’ve just described. But I also can’t think of any family without a substantial mix of stresses and struggles. Is it the norm to have a happy extended family with everyone friends and no serious problems? Absolutely not.

One of the most memorable speeches of Queen Elizabeth, who died in 2022, was given 30 years earlier when she described 1992 as an annus horribilis, literally a ‘horrible year’. What especially made it so horrible were family troubles:

  • February: The estrangement between (then) Prince Charles and Princess Diana became all too evident when she was photographed seated alone in front of the Taj Mahal.
  • March: Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson announced they were separating.
  • April: Princess Anne and Mark Phillips were divorced. They were already separated, and news had recently broken that he had fathered a child a few years earlier with a New Zealand woman.
  • June: the ‘tell-all’ book Diana: Her True Story, written by Andrew Morton, was published. It revealed Diana’s deep unhappiness, including an attempted suicide.
  • August: Photographs appeared in the press of Sarah Ferguson in an intimate relationship with her Texan financial advisor.
  • November: Windsor Castle, the beloved retreat of the Queen just outside London, went up in flames. A spotlight in Queen Victoria’s chapel had ignited a curtain, and the fire then spread to the roof and other locations. It destroyed 115 rooms, including nine state rooms. (The castle was restored at a cost of £36.5 million, a cost equal to almost £90 million in 2022.)

Only the last of these was not a problem of relationships within the royal family. The year was truly an annus horribilis for the Queen, sadly not her only one. There is no family without its troubles.

If worries and woes are the norm, what are wise ways to respond and cope? There are probably many, but here I’ll suggest four.

Let’s be honest. I like the inscription on the grave stone because of its honesty. Not everyone in the family had been good, and some were bizarre to the point of being unbelievable. I’ve sat through funeral services where the deceased person is made to sound like the greatest of all saints, except everyone knew he wasn’t. Someone might well have turned to his neighbour and asked, ‘Whose funeral was that, because the preacher certainly wasn’t describing Joe?’ Our family troubles shouldn’t be turned into headline news, but neither should we pretend everything and everyone is wonderful. A reasonable honesty about life and relationships is good.

Let’s be comforted. If it’s news to you that having odd, difficult or bad people in your family is normal, it may reassure you that, after all, your family isn’t unique. Over the years Alison and I have received Christmas newsletters which mention only great achievements for someone’s children and other near relations. We have looked at each other, and smiled as we said ‘our family is not like that’ and ‘we don’t believe that’s the whole story for their family either’. Sometimes the harder truths have emerged later, perhaps that someone’s marriage has broken up, or a family member has dropped out of university without any plan for what’s next. There is no place for rejoicing over anyone else’s troubles, but there is reassurance in knowing your family is not the only one with misfits and miscreants.

Let’s be caring. I was being humorous earlier about having an uncle so embarrassingly crazy the rest of the family pretend they’re not related to him. That’s not exactly true, but it’s also not exactly untrue. Sometimes families shun relatives who are weird, or super-needy, or old, or behaved badly, or who are simply unlikeable. Can that ever be right? I don’t believe it is. Yes, family members can be difficult or demanding, but they are family members and that relationship creates an obligation to care. The New Testament is very straight about family responsibility: ‘Anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.’ (1 Timothy 5:8)

My Aunt Milla was a nurse, her career spent mainly in challenging places with very disadvantaged people. She was hard to shock. For the last few years of her professional life, however, she was a hospital almoner (a social-service worker in a large hospital). Her work included liaising with families whose elderly mother had completed treatment, and was now fit to be discharged except she could no longer live alone. Would the patient’s family take in their mother? Most times the answer was a very firm ‘No!’ That did shock my aunt. Their children were grown up and long gone from home, so the house had spare bedrooms, but people would not look after their mother. They enjoyed their freedom, and caring for mother would restrict that. The only thing they were willing to do was put mother into a care home.

Family members are often not easy, but please let’s care for them.

Let’s be gracious. The word gracious comes from ‘grace’ which means undeserved favour. In the Bible parable, grace is what the father showed to his prodigal son, the one who took his inheritance early, then squandered it and nearly starved before coming to his senses and returning home. His father could have shunned him, but instead flung his arms around the boy and welcomed him back into the family.[1]

Our relatives know when they’re being shunned, or judged, or looked down on, or hated. I won’t pretend it’s easy to be kind to those who have hurt us in terrible ways. But – as far as possible – our goal should be forgiveness and restoration.

Some years ago, during long car journeys, I’d listen to the songs of Chuck Girard. One stood out particularly. Here’s the chorus: Don’t shoot the wounded. They need us more than ever. They need our love no matter what it is they’ve done. Sometimes we just condemn them, and don’t take time to hear their story. Don’t shoot the wounded. Someday you might be one. At one time Chuck Girard struggled with alcoholism. His song may reflect the need he once felt to be taken back into family and fellowship. What’s more, as Girard points out at the end of the chorus, one day we might be one of the wounded, and then long desperately for restoration.

Let me finish with this. Over the years I’ve often been tempted to label a colleague or a church member as a ‘problem person’, someone with a special ability to annoy me or make my life difficult. Then, one day, I realised something obvious: that if someone was a ‘problem person’ for me, I was surely a ‘problem person’ for someone else. That person would find things I said or did annoying, or my decisions difficult to accept.

The hard truth is that none of us are perfect. All of us need forgiveness and acceptance, not just from God but probably from our families too. The writer of the gravestone inscription didn’t think all his family had been good, and some were amazingly bizarre. He was a little odd himself, with the strange summary of his family and having his own name on the gravestone while still alive. But oddness is normal, and recognising and accepting that will make for happier families.

[1] The story can be found in the New Testament, Luke chapter 15. I wrote about the prodigal a few blog posts ago – see https://occasionallywise.com/2022/11/02/change/

Change that lasts

I was 18, renting one room from a delightful New Zealand couple, Brian and Sally. For a reason I don’t recall, I went shopping with my landlady. We bought various things, and then Sally said it was time for a coffee break at a nearby café. For her, it was far more than a coffee break, as I watched her also order a large piece of cake smothered in cream. Now, Sally was considerably overweight and, I thought, on a strict slimming diet. I said nothing, but she saw a puzzled look on my face. ‘You mustn’t tell Brian,’ she said. ‘He thinks I’m sticking rigidly to my diet.’

During the time I knew her Sally never lost any weight, and I suspect Brian was well aware of what his wife was doing – sometimes sticking to the healthy-eating rules, sometimes secretly yielding to unhealthy-eating habits. Thankfully he loved her whatever her weight.

In the last two blog posts I’ve written about change. In the first, about a dramatic change in the life of a convicted murderer, so great a change that after prison he studied theology and became a church pastor. In the second, I outlined four important steps for personal change.

However, here’s the problem with change: often it doesn’t last. By a few weeks into January most of us have broken our New Year resolutions. My one-time landlady Sally couldn’t sustain a lower weight. She was a yo-yo dieter: the weight would go down (when she controlled her eating) and then up again (when temptation took over).

It’s important that changes ‘stick’, because when they don’t the effort is wasted, the experience is depressing, and we’re tempted to think ‘I can never change’.

So, how do we make change last? Inconveniently, the answer to that varies from person to person, and is different from one situation to another. Which means there is no simple answer. However, some principles or practices help. I’ve listed seven below.

Determination   The decision to change must be much more than wishful thinking. All of us would like some things in our lives to be different, but often the idea is little more than a fleeting desire. And that won’t do. Change demands effort well beyond the thought that we’d like to live or work better.

Sandy had a hot temper which upset everyone on whom he vented his anger. It nearly cost him his job. He promised to change, and believed that recognising his problem and resolving to be different was all he needed to do. But next time the red mist came down, his anger flared, and terrible words were shouted. He was no better. Simon had a hot temper too. He caused damage every time he inflicted his rage on family and his business customers. Simon also knew he must change, but Simon’s advantage was a determination which verged on stubbornness. He absolutely resolved that his temper would not control him. When he  felt his anger building, he’d pause, calm himself, and control what he said and did next. And the change ‘stuck’. Simon was no longer the man with a fiery temper. Deep determination to be different is a necessary part of lasting change.

Vigilance    Those who make change last are vigilant in two ways.

First, they recognise and avoid situations where temptation might get the better of them. For landlady Sally that would mean not entering a café where she’d have to walk past a counter of super-fattening delicacies. For Murray, it meant developing a social life outside his home. Why? Murray was in his thirties, lived alone, and found little fulfilment in his work or anything else. His loneliness led to evenings of accessing extreme social media sites and online porn. Eventually that diet of evil made Murray feel even worse. His decision to change involved joining a volunteer group which maintained the homes and gardens of those too old or infirm to cope, and becoming a member of a computer club where he learned programming. He made friends, attended football matches with them, and afterwards joined them for meals and a drink at a local pub. In time Murray’s life became enjoyable and purposeful. He’d recognised and avoided the circumstances that generated his bad habits, and created a rich and pleasant set of friends and activities.

Second, change also requires vigilance to notice tendencies back to old habits. That’s what Simon – the man with the fiery temper – learned. Spot the problem when it’s only a small problem, and prevent it becoming a big problem. A couple I knew got into deep debt simply because they loved buying things. Debt collectors came to the house, sometimes very late at night. The couple hated how bad things had got, said they’d change, but they kept their sales catalogues (there was no internet back then). Inevitably when the old desires stirred, out would come the catalogues which they’d scour for goods, buy things they could not afford, and thus get into yet more debt. Change requires vigilance to recognise and deal with old patterns before they do damage.

Timing    Imagine this scenario:

  • there’s a deadline for the most major work project in which you’ve ever been involved. You feel stressed and exhausted
  • your son has failed his university exams, and come home depressed with no idea now what he’ll do with his life
  • your wife is ill, going through tests, with the potential that her condition is terminal
  • your car keeps breaking down, and you should buy a better one but there’s no money for that

Given these circumstances, is this the time to make another attempt to stop smoking? Quitting cigarettes is entirely a good idea, but is it realistic when faced with serious life-pressures?

In fact, sometimes what I’ve called ‘life pressures’ are exactly the things that cause our bad habits. Drinking too much alcohol, over-eating, being irritable, are often responses to negative events around us. Certainly, such bad habits need to go, but we may have to delay the challenge until some of the stress-causing events of life have eased. I don’t like writing that, but I think it’s realistic. You can’t plant a tree and expect it to grow if it’s placed in the middle of a building site with earth-moving vehicles heaving up the soil almost every day. Likewise, change that lasts often requires other things in our lives to be relatively settled, thus allowing the change to grow and take root.

Habits    We think that change means giving up bad habits. But lasting change means picking up good habits. We can liken this to ways of improving memory. When I’m setting off to play a golf match, I must take ten different golf-related things with me. Several times I’ve forgotten one of those ten, but thankfully the course where I usually play is only two minutes drive from home. If there’s time, I come back for the omitted item. If my tee time is imminent, Alison (wonderful wife that she is) will bring it to me. But now I’m almost never without all ten golfing essentials. A miracle? No miracle, just that I’ve developed a routine – a habit – about the order in which I put the ten in the car. So, the sequence for the last five is this: electric trolley, trolley battery, golf shoes, bag of clubs, and last my driver and fairway wood because they’re the longest clubs and they rest on everything else. My sequencing isn’t evidence of an obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) – I don’t do this with anything else – just a way of ensuring I have everything I need to play golf.

Developing good habits – ways we should think or act – serve a similar purpose. If what we need to change is that we don’t get enough sleep, then the practice of making, say, 10.00 the latest stopping point for work or watching TV, and then being in bed by 10.30, is a good  habit. It’s an aid to sustain our goal of sleeping better and longer.

Baby steps    Every parent is excited when their child takes his or her first steps. Suddenly your little girl is standing up, moves one leg, then the other, perhaps one more step and then… she falls over. Hopefully she’s not hurt, and she’s up trying out her walking skills again. Parents hug and congratulate their child when those baby steps are taken. What they don’t do is announce: ‘Great, you’re walking now. We’re going for a hike over the hill.’ One day that hike will happen, but right now parents and child have to be content with just two or three steps across the lounge.

I could give plenty more examples where there’s value in starting gradually, such as someone training for a marathon beginning with a gentle jog and not attempting a 26 mile run. But you get the point, which is that some (not all) changes shouldn’t be attempted in one super-ambitious effort. The person spending more than they earn might be wise to lower their purchasing budget by only ten per cent per month, and, when that’s accomplished, to then lower it a further ten per cent, and so on. The person working well beyond their finishing time might be wise to start by working one hour less, and cut out another hour only when the first goal is settled. For most, attempting too much too soon is a recipe for failure, and thus discouragement and giving up.

But are there some changes which shouldn’t be done gradually? Yes. I won’t spell them out but they’d fit under the headings of law-breaking or immorality. Those demand immediate attention.

Persistence    My landlady Sally had tried dieting many times. She wasn’t grossly obese but certainly overweight enough to be damaging her health. But every time the weight-loss plan failed, she gave up. She stopped believing she could ever change; she’d always be large. After a year or two, though, the guilt and concern of being overweight would lead to another diet, and then the recurring cycle of failing, condemning herself, deciding she could never be slimmer, and giving up for at least a year.

It didn’t have to be like that. Sally needed to know six things:

  • Most people fail in the early stages of change.
  • The best response to failing is to return immediately to doing what’s right. One lost battle doesn’t mean you can’t win the war.
  • Set a new and realistic time target for sustaining the changed behaviour (healthy eating in Sally’s case). It might be as short as two days.
  • Tell someone else what you’re doing, and get their support.
  • When you achieve your short-term goal, celebrate – not with something unhealthy, but certainly with something you like. It might be watching a favourite film.
  • Set another goal, which should be a little more challenging but never too much.

Most of us get very excited that we’re changing our lives. The price of that enthusiasm is deep disappointment when we fail. We must not let our discouragement rob us of starting over again. There’s an old saying: falling down is not the problem; staying down is the problem. When we fail, if at all possible we should get up and get on with doing the right thing.

Support    One of the points just above is telling a friend or partner or spouse about the change you’re trying to make, and getting their encouragement and help. That is so important I could have put it at the top of my list.

When I struggled with depression my wife Alison and friend Jim were essential to help me escape the dark pit in which I felt trapped. Alison never judged me, just gently spoke hope into my thinking, and loved me no matter what. Jim kept telling me my depression wouldn’t be forever, that one day I’d see my life and the world in a better light. Despite his busy schedule, he’d meet with me or we’d talk by phone at least once a week. I remember he called one evening when I couldn’t bear to speak with anyone. Alison explained to him, and Jim said to reassure me that was fine and we’d talk again when I felt better. Many times I wanted to give up on myself, but neither Alison nor Jim would give up on me. They kept me going, and eventually I got out of that pit.

A good supporter will never give up on someone trying to change. When you doubt you’ll ever change, they’ll help you believe it will happen. When you fail, they won’t condemn. When you confess what you’re doing wrong, they’ll listen and respect your privacy. When you’re not coping, they’ll be patient. When you’re being awkward, they’ll make allowances. When you’re going astray, they’ll care for you enough to tell you to get back on the right path. When you achieve a goal, they’ll celebrate with you.

I strongly encourage you to find support, someone with whom you can be ruthlessly honest and to whom you can make yourself accountable. You need that person if the change you want is to last.

In conclusion, then, change is tough. Small changes are easy to make, but the big ones are hard. If only we could just throw a switch and behave differently from that moment forward. But there’s no switch. We need time, perseverance, willingness to sacrifice, and support along the way. I’ve known some who never reached their goal, but I’ve also known many who did. And I’ve walked that hard road in my own life, and I’m so thankful I did. When we know we need to change, we must never shy away from doing whatever it takes to achieve that goal.


In my last blog post, I told the story of Ernst Dumoulin. He murdered his wife on their wedding night, spent 16 years in prison, but, after release, became a church pastor. He had changed. His life after prison was completely different compared to his life before prison.

Change is not easy. Ask anyone who’s lost weight but put it all back on later. Or tried to cure their short temper and stay calm. Or to resist driving above the speed limit on an empty road with no-one else around. Attitudes and habits are stubbornly resistant to change, like weeds you hack down which soon return.

But change can happen, and to explain how I’ll use a story of change which includes four essential steps for turning life around. Some self-help books seem to suggest change can occur without cost or effort. It can’t, and I will not pretend that the four steps here are painless. Almost always change requires time, hard work, and sacrifice, but it is unimaginably worth it.

The story of change I’ll use is often called the Parable of the Prodigal Son.[1] It was told by Jesus and sits alongside other lost/found stories in Luke’s gospel, chapter 15. I will summarise the story, and when I quote the exact words I’ll be using the translation called the New International Version (NIV).

A father had two sons, both grown up. The younger son got weary of the quiet life on the family farm, and made an outrageous request to his father, to give him his inheritance money now. Remarkably, his father agreed, and gave his son a small fortune. Soon after, the young man walked away, and he kept going until he reached another country. Then his crazy spending started. Jesus said he ‘squandered his wealth in wild living’ (Luke 15:13). When money is thrown around, so-called friends are plentiful. From later in the story, we know many of those ‘friends’ were prostitutes.

But, of course, the boy didn’t have a bottomless pit of money. When it ran out the friends were gone. The lad was destitute and, to make matters worse, a famine ravaged the land. He was in another country, with no support, no nearby family, and now no money. The boy was famished. In desperation he begged a farmer to hire him, which he did and sent him into the fields to feed his pigs. Jewish law did not permit eating pork, so his work was demeaning and counter to his upbringing and beliefs. When he’d asked for his inheritance, he’d imagined the vast sum would provide him with a life of ease and pleasure, but that dream was now a nightmare. The boy stared at the pods he fed to the pigs, knowing they had more food than he did. No-one gave him anything, and before long he would die of hunger.

But one day, the wayward son came to his senses. He realised that back home even his father’s servants had food to spare ‘and here I am starving to death!’ (Luke 15:17). To stay was to die. To go home might mean rejection, but, if he confessed how wrong he’d been, just possibly his father would allow him to become a servant. His clothes in tatters and no sandals on his feet, he set off on the long trek home. The reception he got there was very different from what he expected.

It’s a great story, but what are its four steps to personal change?

STEP ONE  Realism    ‘I’m not an alcoholic,’ Jerry told me, ‘I just like a drink’. He liked a drink so much that consuming a few pints of beer had become a daily habit. Often it was more than a few and he’d have to be helped home. Jerry’s drink problem had wrecked the family finances, almost destroyed the last vestiges of his relationship with his wife and children, and he was about to lose his job. But he kept insisting he just liked a drink. Everyone except Jerry knew he was an out-of-control alcoholic. Many had tried to help him, but they got nowhere because Jerry denied he had a problem.

Nothing changes in our lives until we believe it must change. The word ‘must’ in that last sentence is important. Most people I’ve known who smoked wished they didn’t. Plenty of them had tried giving up but failed after a few days or weeks. But wishful thinking is far short of the total rejection of the status quo which change requires.

My favourite short book is one that has been used extensively in management and leadership training, but also has lessons for the ordinary lives of everyday people: ‘Who Moved My Cheese?’, by Dr Spencer Johnson.[2]  The main text covers just over 70 pages, but is a great example of how to use a fable to communicate deep truth.

The story is about two mice and two ‘littlepeople’ who live inside a maze. I’ll concentrate only on the littlepeople, Hem and Haw, who find a cheese-filled corridor and settle down to a pleasant life close by. Every day they feast on the cheese. But Hem and Haw become too comfortable. They get complacent and don’t realise the cheese supply is dwindling. One day there’s no cheese in their corridor, and Hem asks ‘Who moved my cheese?’. They’d assumed there would always be cheese, so had no plan what to do if there was none.

At first both are angry. Then Haw suggests they should go looking for new cheese. Hem refuses. There ought to be cheese where there was always cheese. Some time later Haw again proposes a search for new cheese. Hem is stubborn and turns down the idea. He will stay exactly where the cheese has always been abundant. By now both are looking emaciated, so one day Haw gives up waiting for Hem to agree, and off he goes to search the maze for more cheese. Along the way he finds small pieces, and generously takes some back to Hem to encourage him to search too. Hem not only refuses to move, he won’t eat the cheese Haw has brought. Well, Haw concludes, Hem can wait in that corridor if he wants, but he must keep searching. Haw explores ever deeper into the maze, round corner after corner. Finally, Haw finds a place filled with cheese, even some kinds he’s never tasted before. He could not be happier or more satisfied. He left a place with no cheese, and, because he did, he’s discovered a new place where cheese is plentiful and nourishing.

The lesson of the fable is obvious. Change must happen. We must find the ‘new’ when the ‘old’ is no longer there or good for us. Haw recognised the danger and misery of staying where he was. He did a reality check, and knew he must move. Likewise, before anything else, we must recognise when something is making our lives harmful, or wasteful, or unfulfilling, or pointless. Nothing better will happen until we accept that truth.

STEP TWO  Vision    The young man in Jesus’ parable didn’t have a vision in the mystical, dreamy sense. But he looked back, and realised what a better life his father’s servants had compared to what he was experiencing. He was starving, and wouldn’t be able to keep going much longer. The servants back home weren’t hungry; they’d more food than they needed, and they’d have food again tomorrow, the day after, and many more well into the future. That realisation generated a vision, that perhaps he could be like them, and have what they had.

It’s worth noticing his vision wasn’t a big one. All he imagined is that he might become a servant on his father’s estate. He could not have believed that he’d be restored to all he’d once had as a son, the status he had before he took his father’s money and squandered it. To be treated again as a son was impossible, and no-one tries to achieve what he knows is impossible. But he could believe he’d be taken back as a servant. It wasn’t a great vision, but it was possible so he was motivated to try.

Step two is to envision a better future, but it must be a vision you can believe in. You won’t reach further than your faith can stretch.

STEP THREE  Plan    The young man knew what he would do and say. ‘I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants’ (verses 18-19).

I like two things about his plan.

  • First, that it exists. He knew what he had to do: the journey he would take – the admission he would make – the request he would present. People have told me, ‘I want to be a better person’. That sounded good, but, as I probed, they didn’t know what being a better person involved, nor what steps they’d take to become that person. Someone else would say, ‘I want to get out of debt’. That was specific, which is helpful. But they had given no thought to the challenges they’d face in order to owe nothing, such as cutting out all nonessential purchases. Without identifying the steps their plan would involve, they’d near certainly give up when faced with sacrifices. The boy in Jesus’ story was very clear about both his goal and what he’d need to do and say to achieve it.
  • Second, that he would not hide or minimise how wrong he’d been. He would make no excuses or attempt to justify what he’d done. He would admit he’d sinned against heaven and against his father, thus making himself unworthy to be called his son. And, later in the story, that’s exactly what he confessed when he met his father (verse 21).  It’s all too easy to say, ‘I know I did wrong but…’ But I was going through a bad patch… But I didn’t realise the consequences… But I was young at the time… But my friends pressured me… Or any other of many reasons which, while possibly true, don’t justify the wrong we’ve done. The young man would not make any excuses for his betrayal of God and his family.

Step three towards change is a clear plan.

STEP FOUR  Action    I think step one in this list is very hard: getting realistic about the mistakes we’ve made or the mess our lives are in. Steps two and three, envisioning something better and planning for it, are far from easy yet not as difficult as step one. Step four is perhaps the hardest step of all to take towards change: actually beginning. It sounds effortless, and Jesus describes the young man’s start very simply, ‘So he got up and went to his father’ (verse 20).

In one sense, beginning is simple. There’s truth in the old saying that a journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. Of course it does, and any walking journey is only a matter of putting one foot in front of the other. But that first step can be incredibly hard. Why? Because it’s putting our fine thoughts and words about change into action. There’s no cost or challenge about a dream. But when we do something to bring the dream into reality, there are hard and painful challenges. For the boy, it began with an arduous and very long trek home. And day after day he would be bombarded mentally with terrifying thoughts of his past failure and the likely rejection of him by his family that lay in his future. And how would he be able to stand before his father, make his confession of wrongdoing and ask for permission to become a servant. Taking action – starting out – meant all of that would happen.

In the fable of the littlepeople, it seems Hem could never make that move. If he really thought new cheese would magically reappear one day, he was an idiot. If he was simply fearful about setting out without knowing exactly where to go, I’m more sympathetic. Yet, that fear imprisons us where we are, and prevents us finding the new and better thing that lies ahead for our lives.[3] And that’s sad.

The young man in Jesus’ parable didn’t let fear stop him. He returned home, confessed to his father and asked to be treated as a servant. But before he’d got all his words out, his father was embracing and kissing him, overjoyed to have him back, then shouting for the best robe to put on him, for a feast to be prepared and a celebration organised. His father told everyone, ‘For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found’ (verse 24).

The fourth step – action – ended with an outcome far more wonderful than had ever occurred to the young man. He was accepted, reinstated, and his return celebrated. He’d risked changing, and the result was utterly amazing.

Have the courage to make changes – perhaps using the four steps listed here – and I hope you find change makes an amazing difference to your life.

[1] The word ‘prodigal’ means wasteful, lavish, extravagant, as done by a spendthrift.

[2] Who Moved my Cheese? by Spencer Johnson was first published in 1998, originally by GP Putman’s Sons. In the UK it is published by Vermilion, part of the Random House Group.

[3] I wrote once before about letting go of what we have to find something even better – see https://occasionallywise.com/2021/04/11/necessary-endings/