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.


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.


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.


[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.

Blind to what’s obvious

How do we fail to see something that’s completely obvious? Later we’ll say ‘It was staring me in the face. How could I have missed that?’ But we did.

Motorcyclists have died when a car driver pulled out in front of them at a road junction. Afterwards the driver says ‘I just never saw him’. But the rider was there, plainly there.

Most of us miss errors in our writing. After I’ve written this blog, I’ll re-read it two or three times, correcting mistakes or improving sentences. Then I’ll print it out and my wife, Alison, will proof read it for errors and unclear meaning. After that I’ll go through the paper copy line by line, and I’ll find even more mistakes. Finally, all changes made, I’ll read through it one last time. And always – always! – I’ll still find another error. How did I not see that earlier?

In the first example the driver was blind to what he didn’t expect to see – a motorcycle. It was obvious, but he was looking for larger vehicles, not motorbikes. In the second example my eyes see wrongly spelled words on the page but assume they’re correct.

Blindness to what’s obvious is an odd phenomenon. But also a common one.

It’s a kind of blindness which can affect our view of big and small issues.

We’re blind when we don’t want to see what’s there    I’m writing a year and a half after Covid-19 began affecting everyone’s lives significantly. The number of infections and deaths runs into many millions, and most countries have had repeated levels of lockdown. My friend Richard said to me, ‘I’m fed up with lockdowns. I can’t accept another one’. A little impatiently I asked him what that meant – that instead of lockdown he was accepting he might get seriously ill or that he might make others seriously ill? He’s still my friend, but Richard didn’t like my questions. He didn’t want to see the hard reality of a virus we hadn’t overcome and may never wholly overcome.

I met similar defiance on another subject from Paul. He’s so utterly opposed to ideas of global warming or climate change he evangelises denial. He knows the vast majority of scientists argue differently, but he doesn’t believe them. Paul is not a scientist. He’s simply someone who doesn’t want to change his consumerist lifestyle, so prefers not to see truth in the scientists’ research conclusions.

I’ve seen much the same blindness in those who look down on black people as somehow inferior. And in men who can’t see why women would want the opportunities and positions of leadership and influence that they have.

These are not stupid people. But they deny overwhelming scientific or moral evidence and argument. They’re blind to what they don’t want to see.

We’re blind when we don’t recognise what’s there    That’s why the car driver says ‘I never saw the motorcycle’. Because he was looking only for bigger vehicles like cars and buses, he didn’t recognise what was right before him.

The same problem occurs with relationships. I can’t be the only person who’s tried to help a couple save their marriage but privately thought: ‘This couple should never have got married in the first place’. They’re struggling because they were always fundamentally unsuited. Perhaps others saw there would be problems, but the couple didn’t. And now the relationship is in trouble.

There’s an old saying ‘Love is blind’. It can be, but it never should be. People excuse or bypass problems they should recognise as serious. I’ve jotted down the kinds of statements people make, and added my own comments after each.

‘The problems will go away once we’re married.’ [That’s naïve. A wedding service doesn’t magically make deep-rooted problems vanish.]

‘This may be the only chance I’ll ever have to be married. I’m sure it’ll all work out.’ [False optimism can’t justify getting married. Marriage is great, but only between the right people.]

‘I’ll be able to change him once we’re married.’ [There are two problems here: a) it isn’t true; b) while she’s thinking she’ll change him, he may be thinking he’ll change her. Collision ahead.]

‘I really want to have children; nothing else matters.’ [I knew someone who married exactly on that basis. The parents and their children were miserable and damaged.]

‘Everyone thinks we’re a great match; we’ll be fine.’ [Everyone may be saying you’re a great match. But that may be no more than politeness or fear of sounding negative. In any case, they don’t know the inner reality of your relationship.]

‘Perhaps real love will come later.’ [There are marriages where that happens, sometimes in cultures with arranged marriages. But gambling on ‘perhaps’ is a bad bet.]

‘It doesn’t matter that we have different values and goals. All that counts is that we love each other.’ [John Lennon wrote the song ‘All you need is love’ while fascinated by the power of slogans. It became a hit, but that doesn’t prove the slogan is true. Where a couple’s values and goals pull in different directions, love will be under great strain.]

What these small scenarios have in common is a blindness to how things really are. Perhaps all their friends are getting married, so surely they should too. And they convince themselves that marriage will be wonderful while failing to see serious problems which will undermine a wonderful life together.

We’re blind when we don’t care what’s there     Some eat so much they’re seriously obese, ignore their doctor’s warnings, and take years off their life expectancy. Others drink to excess, damaging their liver and family life too. Or they drink and drive, risking death for them and others. Or (going back a few decades) they manufacture cigarettes and deny there’s any proof that smoking harms health. Or career climbers work 18 hours a day, ignoring signs of ulcers or heart irregularities. Or overbearing bosses create a toxic work environment with bullying and threatening behaviour. Or the management of a chemical plant pumps waste into waterways, contaminating drinking water. Or planners and builders pack so many homes into small areas, there’s nowhere for recreation, and cars congest streets which diminishes air quality to levels that damage health. And so on.

Perhaps all of us have our ‘blind spots’ – areas of life we don’t examine much in case we find something that should change but we don’t want to change. It happens at personal levels (such as eating, drinking, driving), management levels (wellbeing of staff or customers), planning and regulatory levels (quality of life issues). We don’t care enough to look closely at what’s happening with ourselves or the lives of others.

Some things are complicated. Losing weight or stopping an addiction isn’t simple for anyone. And planning in an overcrowded city is compromised by the need to house people. But other things aren’t complicated, such as the morality of promoting a lethal product or disposing carcinogenic chemicals recklessly.

At root, there’s a kind of blindness. If we don’t care enough to look, we don’t see the consequences of our actions. But later we regret not putting things right. One man said: ‘I didn’t value my health until I didn’t have it any more’. Exactly. He had been blind to how valuable his health was.

Of course, the challenge with any of these forms of ‘blindness’ is that we don’t realise we’re blind. We think we see the world perfectly clearly.

Two things can change that.

The first is that something shatters our delusion. It could be dramatic like driving straight into the path of a motorcyclist, or a marriage ends, or health breaks down. Or more gentle such as realising we’re out of synch with the views of most people.

The second way to change is by choice. The choice is determining to be open to new ideas or perspectives. Willing to rethink big issues. Willing to view people differently. Willing to change lifestyle. Willing to review the quality of relationships. And so on. It’s taking the risk of seeing truths differently from before. That’s not easy. You might need a real friend to help you, because it may involve accepting being wrong in the past, and rethinking how to live for the future.

But it’s worth it. It could end dangerous blindness in your life.


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Yesterday is yesterday

When I started school, among many things I didn’t understand was why my desk had a hole. It was a perfectly round hole, nearly three inches across, in the top right corner.

I didn’t know what that hole was for until, three years later, the teacher came to each of our 42 desks and placed a black cup into the hole. She filled each cup with ink, and laid a pen and paper on our desks. The pen wasn’t a ball-point or fountain pen, just a shaped wooden shaft with a stylus on the end. She told us to dip the stylus in the ink, and then write on the paper. The ink quickly ran out so after each short sentence we had to dip our pens in the ink again. Writing was slow, and very, very messy.

We practised with ink and stylus for a year, and then our suffering ended. Why? Because someone realised this was a complete waste of time because ball-point pens and fountain pens were common by then. There must have been virtually no-one who dipped a stylus-only pen in and out of a reservoir of ink. Those days were gone.

Two other glaring instances of ‘persevering when the day is past’ stand out.

Typewriters    Part of my training for journalism was typing. I practised the drills and learned to touch type. Every finger except the left thumb was used, and soon I had no need to look at the keyboard. It’s a skill I still use today.

But that skill tempted me into my last, longest and least pleasurable experience with a typewriter. I made the brave but foolish decision to type my own doctoral thesis. As well as being 436 pages long, each of which had to be letter perfect, there were two special difficulties: a) much of the argument involved New Testament Greek, so I had to type each page leaving spaces to handwrite Greek into the gaps; b) I decided to create footnotes which, with a typewriter, requires calculating in advance the number of lines needed for that page’s footnotes so you could stop the main text with exactly enough space for the footnotes. My worst ever page to type had only two lines of main text and over 40 lines of a footnote. I lost count how many times I retyped that page. Almost every page was typed at least three times, but some pages many more than that.

Every page was typed on a small, portable electric typewriter. It was important that the margins didn’t change so I glued their settings in place. That typewriter lasted just long enough for me to finish. What a relief!

And then – then! – I bought my first computer (an Apple IIe). If only earlier. If I’d had a word processor before typing the thesis it would have calculated automatically the space needed for each page’s footnotes and every error would have been corrected before printing out. But I had stuck with my faithful old typewriter and made my life very difficult.

Typewriter manufacturers fought the good fight to keep their products selling after computer word processors became affordable. They gave them small memories so the typist had a chance to correct a mis-typing before the keys struck the paper. And they developed ‘golf ball’ typewriters which had no keys, just a super-fast spinning ball which struck the paper with exactly the same force every time ridding the script of light and dark letters. But no innovation could save the typewriter. The more that manufacturers churned out typewriters the more money they lost. The days of the typewriter were over.

Digital photography    As I understand it a Kodak engineer invented a digital camera in 1975. But Kodak made its money selling film, so did nothing with the idea. Other firms developed digital photography, while Kodak still tried to sell film. The giant of a former era of photography filed for bankruptcy in 2012. Film cameras still exist but only for a niche market. Film’s days are gone.

Those two examples could be multiplied. Most of us are slow to recognise when big change is happening around us, and even when we do we’re slow to let go of what’s familiar.

I’ll set down four categories where we’re ‘guilty’ of that. Some concern what’s happening in the world around us but all of them also touch on our internal reactions to change.

1. When we see change but don’t realise its significance

That would be true for Kodak and typewriter manufacturers. Some have said Kodak’s leadership thought they were in the photographic film business whereas they were really in the imaging business. That mistake imprisoned them in doing what they’d always done. Something the same happened with typewriters. Their manufacturers thought all the public wanted was better typewriters, not recognising that the disruptive technology of word processors would make their products permanently obsolete.

We think their mistakes were glaring failures to recognise new needs and opportunities. But at the time it wouldn’t have seemed like that to the CEO of Kodak or a typewriter manufacturer, someone immersed for years in one line of business and thinking all they needed to do was improve the product and raise the marketing budget. And, with no expertise in digital cameras or word processors, it’s not so surprising they shied away from what they didn’t understand or think important.

Many shun what they don’t understand or doubt. It happens with viruses and vaccines. With being told to abandon our petrol or diesel cars. With giving up the office for working from home. With radical changes to diet to counter obesity, diabetes and heart disease. What disturbs us frightens us, and we may react by denying the need to change.

2. When we don’t recognise a goal is unachievable

It happens in sport, in entertainment, in politics, with those chasing career promotion or, sadly, with those pursuing a significant personal relationship.

For every top golfer who is winning millions on a professional tour, there are tens of thousands slogging away in near poverty but still hoping that one day they’ll break through. And thousands of musicians borrowing small fortunes to produce professional standard videos believing that’ll give them a break in the pop world. And politicians aiming to run the country, but never getting further than the lowest level of local council work. Also millions working all hours at great cost to family life and personal health to climb the corporate ladder but never getting there. And the many women and some men I’ve counselled who want companionship and probably marriage, to love and be loved, but year after year it doesn’t happen.

My pain for that last group is as nothing compared to the pain they feel. And I’d never counsel anyone to close down their feelings. But, for those in other categories, there is a case for a reality check and accepting the goal that drove them on will never be achieved.

Arthur reached very high levels in one of the major oil-related companies. The work had been super-demanding, but very financially rewarding. Soon after he passed his 50th birthday, Arthur told me that if you hadn’t reached the top by age 50 in his line of business you’d never get there. He knew now his career goal was out of reach. Soon after he was offered a ‘package’ to leave. Once that’s offered, staying isn’t really an option. He accepted the deal, retired, and filled his life with voluntary work that fulfilled him, and at last he was able to give time to his wife and family.

3. When we don’t see or accept that something is over

Two blogs ago (‘Values and friendship’) I described a day out in my early 20s with then girlfriend Kate. On long drives I realised I was having to think up subjects for us to talk about. That was stressful. I wrote: ‘Warning bells rang, and the relationship with Kate gradually came to an end’. That was true. But that gradual ending actually took six months. Those extra months were not good for either of us. We should have recognised reality and ended the relationship earlier.

Many small and large things in our lives won’t work out. The only shame in that is when we won’t let them go.

Here is a little ancient wisdom from the book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible:

There is a time for everything,
    a time to be born and a time to die,
    a time to plant and a time to uproot,
    a time to tear down and a time to build,
    a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
    a time to search and a time to give up

These are selected verses from a longer list in Ecclesiastes chapter 3. Their message is that we need wisdom to know when to start, and wisdom to know when to stop.

4. When we can’t let go of our past

This is different from the earlier subjects, because it focuses on our internal feelings.

With people I’ve counselled, two things are often said:

  • I can never be different
  • I can never forgive myself

The first of these – the thought they could never change – imprisoned some. Usually they believed they could never escape their background. Perhaps been abused physically and/or sexually as children. Perhaps developed damaging and dangerous habits related to smoking, drinking, drugs. Perhaps grew up in an economically challenged area, with no opportunity or expectation other than drudgery, hard work and an early grave. Or perhaps been raised in such a privileged environment that later on they couldn’t relate to anyone from any other background.

The challenge for these folk was believing – really believing – it was possible to be different. That the old was yesterday and the new is today and those ‘days’ won’t be the same.

Not for a moment did I ever suggest that was easy. And very few changed overnight, so my ‘yesterday’ and ‘today’ statement shouldn’t be taken literally. But a new beginning really is possible. I’ve seen it happen with people from their teens through middle age to old age. The grip of what controls us can be broken.

The second statement – that they can’t forgive themselves – is a curious one. Why curious? Because often the full version is: ‘I know God can forgive me, but I can never forgive myself’. The cheating spouse can’t let go of their guilt for such an enormous betrayal. Or the exam cheat is dogged by knowing they didn’t deserve their degree, their job, their salary. God says they’re forgiven, but they can’t accept it.

I’ve never been a priest (just as well since I have a wife and four children) but have acted in a priestly way for some tortured by their past failings. They’ve told me exactly what they did (confession) and how they don’t live like that now (repentance). I’ve been able to assure them of God’s forgiveness and tell them his will now is that they release their guilt burden and live with no sense of condemnation (restoration/renewal). God has cast their sins into the deepest sea and erected a sign saying ‘No fishing’. Truly ‘the old has gone, the new is here!’ (2 Corinthians 5:17) Not all have found peace, but, with help, many have.

For every person who ever breathed, there have been days which were good and days which were bad. But those days are gone now. I sometimes tell myself that past things have drifted down river and round a bend, and they’ll never flow upstream back to me. Today is a new day. A good day. And there are better things to do than grieve over my old typewriter, film camera, unfulfilled goals, or past sins. Yesterday is yesterday.

Lasting relationships are not lucky or unlucky

In the last blog, I left a mystery. What is it that Alison and I have in common which is odd and possibly unique?

Here’s the answer.

I was five years old, and playing with my older brother Alan in our front garden. Mum told us to stay there while she talked to the lady at the house opposite. Alan and I chased each other – the front garden was very small – I didn’t want to be caught any more – I unlatched the gate and ran to the safety of mum.

Except I never got there. All I remember was glimpsing something coming fast towards me. My mum remembered a screech of brakes, a massive thud, and seeing her son in the air, landing twenty feet down the road. I was conscious, so she got me to my feet and helped me indoors. (Moving someone just hit by a car isn’t an example to follow!) I was put to bed, and a doctor was called. Apparently all my ‘vitals’ were sound, but I was kept in bed for two days. The utterly blameless car driver returned the day after the accident to see how I was, and left relieved that I was well.

Alison was five years old. She was playing in the front garden, while her mum was across the street talking with a neighbour. Alison wanted to be with her mum, so unlatched her gate, and ran across the road.

And never got there. Her mum heard the bang, turned, saw Alison bouncing on the front of the car before being pitched forward down the road. Alison was helped up, taken into the house, perched on the kitchen worktop, and bumps and scrapes cleaned. Alison doesn’t remember a doctor being called but, thankfully, she was perfectly fine.

So I was five and run down by a car, and Alison was five and run down by a car. If we lived in the same town, you might think there was a crazy driver targeting five-year-olds. But those accidents were 400 miles apart. We grew up in very different places, but met, married, and eventually discovered we had nearly identical accidents when we were five. That may not be unique, but is highly unusual.

What is also unusual today is for relationships to last long-term. The divorce rate in both the UK and the USA is heading towards 50%, and a high percentage of unmarried couples also don’t stay together for as long as they first planned.

I’ve heard many talk of being either ‘lucky’ or ‘unlucky’ in marriage, as if there’s a marriage lottery where chance decides if you win or lose. It really isn’t that simple. Certainly, you should make a wise choice, but there are also important beliefs, attitudes, principles, practices which determine how a relationship will go. I shared two of those in the last blog – commitment and dependency – and, in a moment, I’ll add two more. (And another two next week.)

One more thing before launching out. I believe almost every relationship can work out well, but that requires willing people. I’ll explain. Early on as a pastor, I hurried to meet with Lauren who’d walked out on husband Bernard the previous day. I never got the chance to share my good advice. As soon as I began talking about healing the marriage, Lauren said ‘I don’t want it healed. I don’t love Bernard any more’. And though we talked for longer, that was Lauren’s position and nothing I said or Bernard said could change that. She was determined to go her own way.

Three scenarios, therefore:

  • A troubled relationship can be restored when both want it.
  • A troubled relationship will likely dissolve when neither wants it.
  • A troubled relationship is also likely to be lost if only one wants it restored.

So no-one should think ‘If only I’d done more my relationship would have lasted’. Where two are willing to work at it, there’s an excellent chance. But if one won’t try, nothing the other does will compensate. That’s sad, but reality.

All that said, here we go with two more important principles for a lasting relationship.  

Sharing – being a couple, not two individuals

Chris and Janice’s marriage didn’t survive because Chris had an eccentric idea of what sharing meant. Half of the furniture was his, and half Janice’s. Half of the space on a window shelf was where he put his things, and the other half was where Janice put hers. Half the cups and mugs were his, half hers. He washed half the front steps of their house, and Janice should wash the other half. I don’t know if Chris thought half the TV screen was his, and half Janice’s, but he likely believed half the time he could watch his programmes and half the time Janice could watch hers.

Chris had no concept of everything belonging to both of them. For him, it all came under a Chris heading or a Janice heading. I tried to help him see how a deep relationship meant just one heading with both their names, but he couldn’t compute that. Janice found his rigidity intolerable, and the marriage ended.

There isn’t a one-size-fits-all formula for sharing. What matters is they think as a couple, and work that out in ways mutually comfortable. So, for example, Alison and I have never thought of having personal money or personal property. What we have is ‘ours’. When our children were very young, Alison’s full-time employment centred on the home. In later years she earned a wage. But nothing changed regarding money. When either of us thought we should buy something exceptional, we discussed it and agreed a way forward. It worked, and still does. Others will have their own ways, and that’s fine too providing both are content.

Intrinsic to what I’ve just written is openness and honesty. At one time I longed to start a club to train people in advanced motorcycling. (If you read the last blog, you’ll know my path to being an ‘advanced motorcyclist’ was rocky to say the least, but I got there.) But I couldn’t do that with the underpowered bike I was riding. My eyes were set on a 900cc Yamaha. Alison studied our annual budget. The unwelcome news was that we simply didn’t have the money for the Yamaha. I was disappointed but accepted that. But a month or two later, Alison said, ‘I’ve redone the budget, and if we make some changes there’s enough for the motorbike’. I asked lots of questions. I didn’t want the wrong kind of sacrifices just so I could have a 900cc motorbike. Alison showed me the figures, reassured me, and the Yamaha 900cc was bought. (A good investment – that was more than 30 years ago and I still have the bike.)

Three things made that possible – communication, honesty and flexibility. Communication – we talked about the situation. Honesty – both about the desirability of the purchase and the reality of the budget. Flexibility – I would have accepted a negative decision, but Alison made the effort to reorganise our finances to make the new bike possible.

Sharing feelings, dreams, fears, possessions, money all centre on seeing yourselves as one couple. Get that right, and most things fall into place.

Forgiveness – finding a way to move forward

A and B are a couple. For A never to wrong B, and for B never to wrong A, either A and B must both be perfect, or A’s and B’s relationship must be entirely bland and boring. Since all relationships exist between imperfect people, the first of these isn’t possible. And, since two people will inevitably pull in different directions sometimes, the second isn’t possible.

So we have to be able to forgive each other.

This isn’t the place for a comprehensive thesis on forgiveness. But I have preached and counselled about forgiveness for decades, so I’ll set down three key statements.

Forgiveness isn’t only what we need to give another, it’s what we need ourselves.

Larry has plunged himself and Lizzie into debt. He’d assured Lizzie he was on top of their finances, and they could afford the foreign holiday, the big screen TV, the second car, the bikes for the kids. But, while rummaging in a drawer, Lizzie found letters making final demands for payment, and threats of court action against them. Confronted, Larry admitted he’d been weak and greedy, hoping somehow it would all work out. But it hadn’t.

Lizzie, a disciplined and organised person, resents Larry’s folly. How can she forgive recklessness which has jeopardised their financial future? And then she remembers how, last week, she ranted at one of their children’s teachers, and claimed their daughter’s poor exam marks must be the result of incompetent teaching. But once she got home, she calmed down, realised her allegations were unfounded, and she was venting her own guilt and disappointment on an easy target. She’d have to apologise and ask forgiveness.

So, just as Lizzie is thinking that Larry is in the wrong, she realises she’s also in the wrong, albeit in a different way. Larry needs forgiveness; Lizzie needs forgiveness. Neither is perfect. ‘We are all sinners’ says the Bible (Romans 3:23). We need forgiveness from those we’ve wronged, and need to give forgiveness to those who’ve wronged us.

Forgiveness isn’t ignoring a wrong, but an essential step towards putting things right.

I learned violin from ages seven to twelve, and played in concerts organised by the violin teacher, Mrs Black. One evening we played in a village community hall, and though we were all string players one piece needed the sound of a church bell striking eight times. I was handed a musical triangle, and at the right moment I was to solemnly strike the sound of the bell. I got it spectacularly wrong. When the pause came in the music, I began with firm strikes on the triangle: BONG (long pause) BONG (long pause) BONG (long pause) – and then, realising I was going far too slowly, I quickened my bonging – BONG  BONG  BONG  BONG  BONG. Three slow strikes, five super fast strikes – the strangest church bell ever. The concert finished, and what Mrs Black said to me was … absolutely nothing. She didn’t speak to me at all. But she did bring it up at the next rehearsal, scolding me in front of others in the orchestra. And my relationship with Mrs Black never recovered.

I knew I’d messed up. A private word would have sorted it out, and I’d have played in that orchestra under Mrs Black’s leadership for years more. Instead I left.

There’s no need to pretend a wrong hasn’t been done, but forgiveness is a vital early step to restoring a relationship.

Forgiveness is not only a gift for the other, but one for yourself.

Jenny’s relationship with Martin was completely broken. That wasn’t surprising because she only found out Martin was having an affair with her best friend when Martin announced he was leaving. For months Jenny was in a state of shock, then gradually began to get life together again for herself and their two children. Around then I got to know her, and Jenny was very clear she could never forgive Martin for his betrayal.

The bitterness I heard in Jenny’s voice was unmistakeable and understandable. We talked over a lengthy period, and she accepted she hadn’t moved past the pain Martin had caused. She wasn’t sure she ever could. I reassured her it was possible. Then one day she told me she wanted to forgive him.

‘But I can’t feel anything but sadness and anger,’ she said.

‘Okay, I recognise that. But keep acknowledging you want to forgive even though you don’t feel forgiving.’

And that’s what she did. Over time, Jenny’s desire to forgive became a decision to forgive. And that’s when healing began, the bitterness eased, and a seed of trust was planted. That seed grew, and after some years she met Jack who was a wonderfully steady, loving man. Jenny responded to his love, they got married, and last I knew they were enjoying years of great happiness.

Every story won’t be like that. But the principle is sound: forgiving someone isn’t just a gift for them, it’s also a gift you give yourself.

That’s almost where I’m ending on this theme of lasting relationships. There’ll be two more important principles in the next blog. Please join me for that.

But finally, there’s one more factor that Alison and I have in common.

I left home aged 16 to become a trainee journalist with Scotland’s premier quality newspaper. Two years later I became a Christian, and soon sensed a new direction for my life. But I needed more qualifications for admission to university, which added another two years before I could enrol at the University of Edinburgh.

Alison finished school at age 18 with great qualifications for university, except that her university of choice was revamping the course she wanted to study and enrolling no-one that year. Rather than go anywhere else, Alison deferred her application and meanwhile searched for work. She lasted three weeks in a cigarette lighter factory, after which she felt so brain dead she resigned. Instead she worked the rest of the year as a checkout operator with the British supermarket chain Sainsbury’s. The work wasn’t exciting, but she enjoyed meeting customers, especially those who made a deliberate choice to bring their purchases to her checkout. Then her year was over, and she enrolled at (you’ve guessed) the University of Edinburgh.

Lots of factors could have been different about when and where each of us went to university. But they were what they were. We enrolled at the same time, met three weeks later, and so it all began… It must have been meant.

Being true to your word (and suspicious of your car nav system)

I’m sure you’ve been told not to rely too much on your SatNav (your car GPS system). That’s not just true; it’s very true. But it’s a lesson you learn only from experience, in our case bitter experience.

I’d preached on the Sunday night to a large congregation in the south of Illinois. Alison and I stayed in a local hotel overnight, and set off in good spirits first thing on Monday morning. There had been rainstorms in the early part of the weekend, but the new week had begun dry and sunny.

Part of my role as seminary president was to cultivate ‘contacts’, new and old, so ahead of time we’d arranged to make two visits on our way back north. We’d plenty time to arrive at the first in early afternoon and be at the second by late afternoon.

It didn’t happen. Not then.

Our first mistake was not realising for the first half hour that we were going the wrong way. The car GPS had been trying to direct us, but we weren’t paying attention. We stopped, thought about turning back, but then I uttered the fateful words, ‘Let’s just follow the GPS from here. It’ll know the best way’. That was the second mistake: not realising the GPS’s definition of ‘best way’ wouldn’t be ours.

We started well, but then got directed on to more minor roads. And then on to a particularly narrow road. We stopped, thought, and made our third mistake. I saw a sign saying this road was a ‘County Road’. That sounded important. It must soon get wider. It didn’t. It got narrower, and flooded, and very, very muddy. I couldn’t see potholes but we certainly felt them.

Alison wanted me to turn the car around. The road wasn’t wide enough to allow that, but I could have reversed. Then my fourth mistake. I told Alison, ‘We’re in a Subaru which has 4-wheel drive. We’ll be fine.’ And we were, almost. We bounced, banged and splashed along until only three hundred yards from a better road surface, and then the car lurched into a super-deep pothole and all forward progress stopped. I quickly tried to reverse. The car did not budge. I tried forward again, reverse again. No movement at all. Blame was equally attributed to the GPS and to my stubbornness.

I sat thinking but my only idea was to wedge branches from the nearby hedge under the wheels. I swung open the car door, stepped down and sank in mud right over my shoes. I waded across, got some branches, and pushed them under the wheels as best I could. Then I paddled to the rear of the car, ready to push as Alison drove. She put the car in gear and gently accelerated. The wheels turned, but the car stayed exactly where it was, and I got muddier than ever.

After an hour of failed attempts, we phoned a rescue service. ‘They’ll be with you in two hours’ I was told. Two hours! I managed to call the folks we were due to visit, and both assured us not to worry and we should just come another day. ‘No, we’ll be there, just later than we said.’ I’m not sure they believed we’d ever make it.

Two hours later and we saw movement in the distance back down the road. A truck was offloading a strange looking smaller vehicle which moved slowly through the mud towards us. As it got nearer I could see one person inside a continuous tread (a caterpillar tread) vehicle. Clearly the perfect transport for Illinois county roads.

Our friendly rescuer told us he’d already pulled three others out of mud that day. I was almost encouraged that we were not alone in our folly. He hitched a chain to our car, and we were dragged the remaining three hundred yards to a decently paved and dry road. With a friendly ‘hope the rest of your journey goes well’ he was off, perhaps to save some more.

It was now afternoon. I phoned our contacts, said we were still coming, just several hours late. They sounded sceptical. There were still many miles to cover, and we’d mostly be on minor roads.

Thankfully we soon reached a town with a row of car washes. An elderly man was supervising, took one look at our mud-covered car, and said, ‘You’ll be wanting the premium wash’. It was definitely a statement, not a question. Thankfully the premium wash was only $4 – prices aren’t high in rural Illinois. So the jets sprayed and the brushes whirred, but when I drove the car out, the supervisor said, ‘That won’t do. Go through again.’ Jets sprayed, brushes whirred, but again I was told, ‘Take it through another time’. Really? Really. Jets and brushes did their work a third time. The wash supervisor was still not happy. ‘I’ll give it a manual jet wash as well.’ So, he picked up a jet hose, and directed it into every corner and under every wheel arch. I think we were his project of the day.

‘How much do I owe you now?’ I asked.

He looked puzzled. ‘It’s $4’, he said. We had just had the best investment possible for $4.

One other stop was necessary. It was at a ‘gas station’, not really for the petrol we put in the car but so I could wash my shoes in the toilet. I mean ‘wash’. They were caked in mud, and all I could do was run them under the tap, over and over again, and then use paper towels to try and get them clean. I was very unsuccessful. They still looked dreadful. But we had to get moving, so I pushed my feet into sodden shoes, apologised to the counter attendant that I’d left his toilet ‘in a bit of a mess’ and on we went.

Finally, in late afternoon, we got to Ralph’s door. Only once before had I even said ‘hello’ to Ralph, so I’d no idea how we’d be received. He opened the door, gave a wide smile, and said ‘Come on in.’

‘I’d better leave my shoes outside,’ I said.

‘No need…’ he began to say, but then looked down and saw my shoes. ‘Yes, that would be a good idea.’

So, with my not-very-dry socks on full display, we sat talking to Ralph. His wife had died just three weeks before, and he seemed grateful for our company and concern.

After an hour we were on the road again, reaching Ray’s home about 7.00 in the evening. He was a graduate of the seminary from about 1950, and seemed honoured that the president was visiting him, no matter how late the hour. We had a great conversation before finally getting on to the Interstate road north. We reached home just before midnight.

The tailpiece to this tale is that Ralph and Ray became firm friends of both the seminary and of us personally. There were many more visits, each of which was a truly enjoyable experience. And what came up in conversation several times with each of these men? That first visit. The stuck-in-the-mud occasion. And the phrase used by both Ralph and Ray was: ‘After all that happened, I couldn’t believe you still came’. That meant so much to them. We’d said we’d visit, and we’d kept our word. They never forgot that.

In my experience, being true to your word matters for at least three reasons.

First, for our own integrity. We all know stories of people who promise but don’t deliver. It might be at the level of ‘the cheque’s in the post’ or ‘you’ll have your delivery on Monday’ but the cheque hasn’t been written, and the customer may get their order on some Monday but not next Monday. I’ll never understand how people can lie like that.

Then there’s another level, such as the character in one of Jeffrey Archer’s novels who proposes marriage, says the engagement announcement will be in the Times next day, and he’s about to pick up the ring, all to persuade the girl into bed before he goes off to war. There’s no engagement, no newspaper announcement and no ring. Just a broken heart and an unintended consequence… That’s callous selfishness, words that speak of love but come from a cruel heart, promises made that will never be kept. Whatever the short-term gain for the liar, there’s long-term loss for everyone else.

I don’t know how people who do that can live with themselves. They have a serious integrity deficit.

Second, people depend on us keeping our word.  We invited friends to come for dinner at 6 p.m. They said that would be lovely. Six o’clock came but our friends didn’t. Alison began a rescue plan for the meal. Surely they must arrive soon, but no-one appeared. The food rescue plan became one of life support. Not a sign of our friends at 6.30, not at 7.00, not at 7.30. Finally they arrived at 8.00, bright and cheery. There was no apology, other than from Alison that the food wasn’t quite as good as she’d hoped. It’s possible they got mixed up about the time to arrive, but the invitation was crystal clear. If they were unsure, they could have called.

Our friends’ late appearance happened literally decades ago, but I’ve never forgotten. You wouldn’t either if you’d carefully prepared a beautiful meal and experienced the stress and disappointment of trying to keep the food edible two hours longer than planned. (I should be clear, Alison was the cook. But we shared the stress and disappointment.)

When a delivery is promised by a certain date, people believe it and depend on it. It might be a cake for a birthday party, or a gold watch for a long-serving staff member’s retirement event. That cake and that watch matter. For those kinds of occasions, these are not small things. And when a cake or a watch don’t come because someone made false promises, it causes deep disappointment. People depend on us keeping our word, and there are sad and serious consequences when we don’t.

Third, being true to our word builds lasting relationships.  That’s what happened with Ralph and Ray. If the car had been wrecked or we’d been hurt, of course they’d have understood that plans had to change. But the bad time we’d been through just made things difficult, and made us late, but we still prioritised these two elderly men. Because of that, they decided we were people worth knowing, people who could be trusted, people who cared about them, people who would do what they said they’d do. And the friendship begun that day lasted until each of them died several years later.

You can’t buy relationships like that with slogans, or slick advertising, or gifts. It takes commitment, and a big part of commitment is being true to your word.

Therefore I should end with a warning. Be careful what you promise, because you’d better deliver on what you promise. Your words represent who you are, so when your words fail people believe you’ve failed. And there’s no way back after that.

Be true to your word. That’s my wisdom for this blog. Oh, and be careful about believing what your car nav system tells you.