Stations on the road to Freedom

I shared Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “Stations on the road to freedom” with an old friend this week.

I bought a copy of Bonhoeffer’s Ethicswhen I was searching for a famous quotation – which is actually by Martin Niemöller. Niemöller was arrested in 1937 by the Nazi authorities and survived first Sachsenhausen and then Dachau concentration camps.

Niemöller’s famous statement, reminds us that sometimes if you don’t take a stand, there may be no-one left to stand up for you:

“In Germany they came first for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me, and by that time no one was left to speak up.” 

Bonhoeffer didn’t survive the war. His ‘Stations on the road to freedom’ were written in Tegel prison before his death at the hands of the Nazis.

His words really speak to me. But they have a few bits where God intervenes as the ultimate answer. Those bits aren’t for me. So with a gentle edit, here is my secular version of Bonhoeffer’s four stations.

Secular “Stations on the Road to Freedom” after Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

Discipline

If you set out to seek freedom, then learn above all things to govern your soul and your senses, for fear that your passions and longing may lead you away from the path you should follow. Only through discipline may a man learn to be free.

Action

Daring to do what is right, not what fancy may tell you, valiantly grasping occasions, not cravenly doubting – freedom comes only through deeds, not through thoughts taking wing. Faint not nor fear, but go out to the storm and the action, trusting in those commandment you faithfully follow; freedom, exultant, will welcome your spirit with joy.

Suffering

A change has come indeed. Your hands, so strong and active, are bound; in helplessness now you see your action is ended; you sigh in relief; so now you may rest contented.

Death

Come now, thou greatest of feasts on the journey to freedom eternal; death, cast aside all the burdensome chains, and demolish the walls of our temporal body, the walls of our souls that are blinded. Freedom, how long we have sought thee in discipline, action, and suffering; dying, we now may behold thee revealed.

As I said in an email to my good friend: 

“I’m doing ok on 1) Discipline and 2) Action, haven’t a huge amount to complain about on 3) Suffering by global standards, and I’m still in the prime of life – albeit number four will get us all in the end.”

“That and the greater number of protons which have cascaded across membranes in my body than there are stars in the observable universe in the time it has taken to write you this, are my thoughts for the day.”

I’m somewhere between half and two thirds down the ‘road to freedom’. Important, amid all the ‘action’ to remember that; and enjoy the ride.

Forme et fond

I remember, from working in advertising in France, the slippery distinction between ‘forme’ and ‘fond’ – broadly style versus substance.

Much of organisational life lies in the interplay between these two; what’s the underlying ‘thing’ you’re tackling and how do you package and talk about it; as Wikipedia has it here.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned at work: it’s once you’ve sorted what you’re going to say; how you then say it will largely determine how it goes down – and that’s all about tone. Especially if it’s bad news, when some honesty and some humility are required.

The flip side though, is this week I’ve recognised when it comes to what others ask of me: I’m much better focusing on the ‘fond’ than the ‘forme’. 

Forget the wrapper, ditch the interpretation, don’t fret about being patronised, ignore any implied criticism, leave aside the irritation, accept any humiliation; just spot the action arising.

99 times out of 100, all that interpretation just makes you brood and ruminate: “can’t you see I’m busy”; “you really think I hadn’t thought of that”; or indeed occasionally “how bloody dare you…”

Leave all that alone and simply spot the action arising – edit the document, chase the right person, connect the protagonists; get the thing done. And the miracle of this approach is… No brooding (well not much anyway), problems solved, stuff sorted and even the odd word of thanks!

I conclude: if you want someone else to something; it’s all in the tone. If you are being asked to do something; ignore the style and focus on the substance – the action arising – however mundane, trivial or irritating; and do it directly. 

Rumination is ruination; happiness lies in action.

Rumination

  
An interesting discovery from Learned optimismis that rumination is the optimist’s worst enemy… Chewing the cud leads to pessimism and inaction.

One thing I’ve learned at work down the years is: ‘if in doubt, do something’

Armed with this new insight I’m even more sure taking and helping others take action – sometimes any action – is my best defence against mine and their pessimism.

And this reminded me to look up Hannah Arendt the great 20th century philosopher, who I seemed to remember was big on action too… 

  

I was right. Here’s a boiled down extract from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:  

“For Arendt, action constitutes the highest realization of the vita activa, via three categories which correspond to the three fundamental activities of our being-in-the-world: labor, work, and action. 

Labor is judged by its ability to sustain human life, to cater to our biological needs of consumption and reproduction.

Work is judged by its ability to build and maintain a world fit for human use.

Action is judged by its ability to [manifest] the identity of the agent and to actualize our capacity for freedom.

Although Arendt considers the three activities of labor, work and action equally necessary to a complete human life, it is clear from her writings that she takes action to be the ‘differentia specifica’ of human beings.

Action distinguishes [us] from both the life of animals (who are similar to us insofar as they need to labor to sustain and reproduce themselves) and the life of the gods (with whom we share, intermittently, the activity of contemplation).”

Nuff said. I made myself a little flowchart last Sunday to remind me, which still seems on the money…

 

In the face of setbacks, troubles and ugliness; don’t ruminate – act. 

In the presence of success, progress and beauty; act – but don’t forget to contemplate too.

Or another way to look at it, less Theo van Doesburg

  

More Franz Marc

 

No more chewing the cud.

Corporate Punishment i) Questions

I’ve decided to begin an irregular series on ‘corporate’ behaviours which one encounters in large organisations.

Most of these start with the germ of a good idea from some management book or coach. Some are learnt through imitation and emulation. Taken to excess or with the wrong intent they stymie progress, sap energy and scupper decision making. A common feature is they are safe and look clever but often aren’t. As with so much in life, too much or too little is a vice – only the golden mean is a virtue.

Number one in the series is always asking questions and not stating your own view. Aristotle (not himself a man to beat around the bush) quotes a prior Greek, Hesiod, on this topic.

Hesiod is pungent as an old sock in his critique:

“He is best of all who of himself conceiveth things; Good again is he too who can adopt a good suggestion; But whoso neither of himself conceiveth nor hearing from another layeth it to heart; — he is a useless man.”

It takes Aristotelian effort to develop a new insight and the courage of Achilles to present a new idea. Listening, thinking, improving, adapting and adopting is what you want in return. Questions are too easy.

Curling

I was talking today to a nice person who cares a lot about the organisation I work for about how we are doing. We face some big challenges in the next few months, but I’m pretty confident we know what we need to do and we’ll be stronger for it.

She was anxious that we might not seize the opportunity, and that people and personalities might get in the way. I said after a good break in the summer I realised there are somethings you can’t fix or tackle until the moment comes and rather than worrying sometimes it’s best to save your energy and trust yourself to perform ‘in the moment’ and do what is needed when it’s needed. She looked at me with some empathy, but I suspect was also wondering ‘is he ducking some stuff here’.

I then said to her that since my excellent summer holidays with the family I’ve found myself caring a little less about my work. I still care, and I still work hard, but it’s a bit less all-consuming. I don’t think about things so much, worry about them or try to arrange and fix things – especially around people. I’ve started saying what my gut tells me, not worrying so much about being right, asking for help and admitting to uncertainty and irrationality. It’s working a treat.

She said she sometimes realises she’s guilty of curling – the game with the stones on ice where you polish and polish and polish the ice furiously with what looks like a garden brush to get your stone to the target. I said to her I’d felt she’d been really effective in a meeting with us recently when she ‘bowled’ and said exactly what she thought and cleaned out all the skittles or smacked clear the blocking bowls depending on your type of bowling.

The conclusion was sometimes by caring a bit less at work you can be a lot more effective, more spontaneous, less anxious, more authoritative, and more able to seize the moment. I find I also have a lot more mental energy left for me and my loved ones at the end of the day.

Here’s my quick list tapped out on the iPhone of problems I’m not currently suffering by caring a little less about my work:

Gripping too tightly
Being anxious
Focusing on what I might lose not what I could gain
Driving not attracting
Running down my batteries
Sweating the detail
Overdoing
Interfering
Been seen to meddle
Taking the responsibility away from where it lies
Confusing people
Strobing (rapid jerky interventions with no linking narrative)
Appearing tricksy or political
Guessing not asking
Overpreparing
Not seizing the moment

Best of all though I simply feel better and that’s reason enough.

Death

I saw that larger than life parliamentarian Cyril Smith had died yesterday. He was a big big man. I think I heard he peaked at 29 stone. I was a little surprised to hear he made it to 82, just goes to show being a gourmand won’t necessarily kill you.

What struck me though was the report of his memorial service. How he had spent his last days planning exactly how it would be – including hand written notes to people he cared for to catch them by surprise and delight them after he had gone. A warm hearted joker to the last [albiet subsequent reports in 2014 strongly suggest otherwise].

I’ve often thought mistily about death and the final taking stock of my life I will do. Who will be there smiling at my rosy faced cheeks. But reading about the actual reality of death as I did in Anti-cancer made my heart race, my chest tighten and my anxiety levels rise. David Servan-Schreiber sets out the most common fears, it will hurt, I will be alone, my story will be unfinished, important things will be left unsaid etc. These are very real fears for me. He also writes that some people close on the moment with grace and tranquillity.

Our dog is dying. He has a big and growing lump on his side which will surely kill him in weeks not months. He’s had a good long life and I’ve noticed he’s sleeping more, I can see he’s chasing bunnies – he is running in his sleep, catching and mouthing and happy. A friend told me his dog walked slowly out into the garden one day curled up under a tree and gently floated away.

Much of my attraction to eudaimonia or flourishing (and the ancient Greek version of ‘happiness’ as the product of a life lived) is tied up with this final account. But on my bike this morning it came to me that maybe it will hurt, maybe it will be sudden, maybe it will be banal, maybe I won’t get to write handwritten notes. So the time to achieve the eudaemonia is here and now and the right moment to assess my happiness is today and every day.

Achilles left no handwritten notes.