Roman Walls

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Stop growing and you’re already shrinking. Resolve to hang on to what you’ve got and you’ll probably lose it. Stick to what you’ve always known and you are getting stuck. The best bet in life is to give up self-defence – and march ever onwards.

This came to me, when I was talking to a nice person at work, about her natural desire to protect what she has. When we feel vulnerable or change is in the air, we all get defensive. I admitted I had felt very much the same, until quite recently. Then something I read about the Romans came to my assistance.

Historians sometimes mark the height of the Roman Empire as Marcus Aurelius’ defeat of the Germanians. But you can trace the start of its decline two emperors earlier, to Hadrian’s decision to stop advancing and instead build walls. The construction of walls marked the edge of civilisation and was designed to keep out barbarians. For which, Hadrian famously put one up across the North of Britain.

But in that moment the Romans subtly and implicitly signalled their limits – and invited attack, decline and fall. No longer advancing, assimilating and civilising; they’d said: “That’s it, we’re digging in, hanging on and giving up.”

My conversation partner and I reflected on the fact that perhaps life, and indeed working life, are much the same. Keep moving forward, keep an open mind, keep learning and doing new things; and momentum, new challenges and opportunities come along.

Hunker down, dig in and hang on – even behind the most impressive fortifications, and you’re already sinking into decline and fall. And this couldn’t have been more amply demonstrated, than in a valedictory interview I watched, between two ageing newsmen a few day later: one, retiring, cynical, dogmatic and closed minded; the other delightfully open, interested and enthusiastic about life, other people and the world.

There are always more intellectual aqueducts to construct, chasms of ignorance to span with new bridges and viaducts, roads to pave to fresh knowledge and ideas. Whatever the temptation to stop, rest or settle, the best answer is always to keep moving on, growing and learning.

The Eternal Beauty of the Open Mind

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Surely one of the defining characteristics of the passage of years, is the tendency for the mind to close.

Knowing best, seen it all before, mind made up, declining interest in the new or different, set points of view; these are casts of mind which stalk us all. The secret to evading them, is to strive to remain an ‘open system.’

To adapt Wikipedia: the person who remains an ‘open system’ is one who continuously interacts with their environment or surroundings. The interaction can take the form of information, energy, or intellectual transfers into or out of the system.

This contrasts with the ‘closed minded’ person who exchanges neither energy nor information with their environment – they are substantially uninterested in and unaffected by the views of others and drain energy in their interactions.

There’s a lot of it about. We’re all guilty of it at times. But a true test of a person, is how hard they fight to resist it. The open mind is an interested and interesting mind.

Start closing and you stop learning, growing and thinking. The closed mind is old before its time. An open mind is ageless, limitless and eternally beautiful.

Relevant Complexity 5) Age

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Talking to someone at work, she said she’d been surprised that a very experienced chap in his late 50s had come on a training course.

We concluded that age shouldn’t matter in deciding who gets training. I know plenty of pig-headed twenty and thirtysomethings who’d have got less and will give less as a result of that training course – it’s openness to new ideas that matters.

It dawned on me that nearly all the people I most enjoy conversation and contemplation with, are at least ten years older than me. And many much older. When it comes to thinking about things, you can’t beat the right sort of older person.

Contemporary society glorifies youth. But younger people haven’t always got much to say. Of course there’s freshness and simplicity but relevant complexity in people takes time to grow.

Openness, curiosity and the experience of age are key attributes of the Aristotelian ‘friend in contemplation’. Aquinas’s ‘prudentia’ – practical wisdom – is not innate, it is learned. Wisdom takes time. Forget youth, when comes to interesting people – the oldies are the goodies.

Rope-a-Dope

A friend and I were discussing the relative merits of, in boxing parlance, ‘keeping your guard up’.

In cricket, a careful guard would be a predisposition towards defence – the style of the opening batsman. Endure and accumulate, rather than the flashing blade of the middle order cavalier. It takes discipline and concentration.

Of course whether a boxer or a batsman, defence is only half the job. You have to land or hit a few too. But a hopeful swing in either can cost you your wicket or your teeth. The point of our conversation was how emotionally ‘open’ to be to others. Guard up or guard down?

I think, generally, I’m pretty emotionally open these days. The upside is pleasant surprises, new friends and enriching moments. The downside is the body shots, low blows and bruises of being hit with other people’s emotional angst.

At times this week I’ve felt like Muhammed Ali in the ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ – soaking up head and body shots. There have been occasions for a positive flurry of revelation, knowledge and ideas. But lots of questioning, buffeting and absorbing the needs of others.

Too much ‘Rope a Dope’ cost Ali his gilded tongue and electric wit – knocked clean out of him. Emotional shots take it out of me too, perhaps I should keep my guard up just a fraction more.