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.

Empathy, Pain and Compassion

New Scientist (11 May 2016) – How sharing can make you sick
Something I’ve done a lot in the last decade is empathy. Indeed it has become one of the things I do the most at work: connecting with people and quite literally ‘feeling their pain’.

Walk a mile in another person’s shoes and you see the world differently; better understand different opinions and why people do what they do – even when it seems to be hurting both them and you.

But it comes at a cost. Connecting with the pain of others is painful for me too. It hurts to see someone hurting; and even more if you go with them to the very source of their pain – deep fears, anxiety, sadness and loneliness.

And this is a problem, because once you’ve seen the contents of someone’s soul, you can’t just shrug and say: “Oh dear, how sad, never mind.”

Not least because neuroscience is proving that our own brain copies the pain and suffering of others when we empathise. We do literally ‘feel their pain’ when we listen and put ourselves in their place. Mirror neurones fire in sympathy – in exactly the same pattern as in the sufferer; and the suffering is shared.

So I was fascinated to read in the New Scientist (in the article pictured above), that we should consider cutting the empathy; and boosting our compassion instead.

What’s the difference? I’m not sure I exactly know – but I can ‘feel’ the difference… Empathy feels like touching a person and connecting directly with their emotions – literally feeling what they are feeling. The science says that’s also what’s happening in your brain.

The problem is that in sharing, experiencing and absorbing the pain of others, we lessen our own reserves of optimism, energy and resilience. And that means ultimately we are less able to summon the strength to help or improve anything. Empathy feels draining.

Compassion feels different. Compassion ‘connects’ like empathy does but instead of firing the pain-mimicking mirror neurones, compassion digs deeper: for warmth, care, appreciation and common humanity. 

I reckon this must be how the Pope, aid workers and others who have the suffering of hundreds, even thousands of people thrust upon them daily must cope. Not by directly empathising; but by digging deeper for compassion. Certainly it’s the Dalai Lama’s philosophy.

One thing’s for sure I haven’t cracked it yet. Now I know it, I can feel the difference – beleaguered by too much empathy; strangely strengthened by tapping into warmth and compassion.

But I can’t manage compassion confidently yet; I still want to say at the end of sad conversations “I feel you pain.” But I know now that’s the invitation and trigger to fire those mirror neurones, and carry away my share of another’s suffering.

Talking to a very smart work colleague about it this week, we concluded: if a person is in a deep dark hole, you’re not always helping them that much, if you just jump in next to them. 

Similarly if you do try to feel another person’s pain and offer the classic line “I know how you feel” you risk real failing yourself and the person you’re talking to – how can you really know how someone feels? 

When someone is in a dark place this week’s realisation is the answer isn’t necessarily to join them in the gloom. Compassion – if I can learn how to channel it – creates the same connection, but offers a better chance of staying happy and healthy; and being some help.

The Fear of Dying

20111224-222302.jpgA good friend’s mother died last week. But we went to the footie together on Wednesday, as we’d planned despite – and because of it.

We didn’t talk much about it, but talking to others, one of the things in anyone’s head when parents die is: who will I turn to when I need some help? Some advice? Some love? Someone to be unconditionally proud of me?

Then there’s the realisation – I’m next. No-one can bear the thought of burying their own child, so the inescapable conclusion has to be that the least worst outcome is – I go next.

When I was worried about cancer 18 months ago I read David Servan-Schrieber’s excellent book Anticancer. Since then I’ve recommended it to four people – two diagnosed, one with a brother diagnosed and one with a terminal friend.

There’s a chapter I’ve mentioned to all four which describes the six worst fears about dying. I found it hard to read – it made my heart beat faster and feeling of anxiety rise in my chest. I knew I’d want to read it again – but couldn’t bring myself to do it, until today, remembering my friend.

Servan-Schreiber himself died this year, which feels strange. In a way he was speaking in the abstract when I read it last – now he’s been there and done it. This time though, the chapter didn’t make me anxious at all. The cloud of cancer has lifted from over my head. But also writing and reading Montaigne and others on death has defused the bomb for me – at least for now.

I feel calmer at the prospect of death, not least because I now have some answers for the six greatest fears:

1) The fear of suffering: as Montaigne convincingly tells, Mother Nature gives us all we need to cope at the end – dehydration, delirium, distance, departure.

2) The fear of nothingness: people and increasingly science concur: Oxygen depletion automatically creates a welcoming white light to which we are drawn, leaving only an eternal moment to reflect on the unique trace on the universe we have left with our lives.

3) The fear of dying alone: Servan-Schreiber quotes someone else’s advice: ‘Escape the prison of positive thinking’, accept time’s up and make your peace with those around you so they can cope with being near.

4) The fear of being a burden: Servan-Schreiber makes a good point, that in death rather than being ‘useless’ we become pioneers and guides for everyone close to us – we’re all going on this journey.

5) The fear of abandoning your children: an enormous amount of resourcefulness has already been carefully placed there – love, confidence, care – which they will draw on their whole lives.

6) The fear of unfinished stories: as Mike Oldfield says in ‘The living years’ – say it now, say it loud. Say the things you always wanted to say and do the things you wanted to do – or get over them. I reckon I’ve already had a good knock and said most of what I need – so far – to say to those who matter the most.

‘Pretty, act young, be fearless’ – as ‘Scorpios’, my choice of funeral music goes. I still have my folks though, so perhaps I’m kidding myself.