Live to fight another day

‘Strategic capitulation’ is a term used in behaviour management programmes to refer to the technique of giving in to whatever is being demanded by someone who is being aggressive and potentially violent. It is intended as a last resort. The way it works is this: if you have someone (child or adult) who is behaving in a hostile, aggressive or threatening way, there are various methods that can be used to handle the situation (distraction, for example). But, if those techniques don’t work (no technique is guaranteed to work), then it can be safer and wiser to give in and give them what they want than to risk being assaulted.

Unless you work in a setting where aggression and violence are a feature of the work, you may never come across this type of situation. However, the notion of ‘strategic capitulation’ can be extended to apply to a much wider set of circumstances. It is a useful concept that can help us to realize that sometimes we just need to give up, to accept that we are not going to be able to win the day.

This is captured by the saying of ‘live to fight another day’, although it does not necessarily have to be a fight, literally or metaphorically that we are talking about. Persistence is generally a good thing. There are many positives in life that people would not be able to achieve if they gave up too easily. Sticking it out is generally a good strategy. However, there will be times when it makes more sense to opt for strategic capitulation.

The key work here, though, is ‘strategic’. It is not about capitulating just because you are tired or there is some other reason why you don’t want to be persistent. It is about making a well-informed strategic decision that the wisest option is to give up on your efforts – which is exactly how the technique is intended to be used in a behaviour management context. So, we have to have our wits about us, rather than just choose this option without thinking it through carefully.

This idea is likely to be of most use to people who are very determined and may even take a pride in being so. This is because, at times, the desire to be successful in whatever you are trying to do can mean determination crosses the line and becomes doggedness and the signals that this situation is not going to work out are being missed. We have to know when to quit.

Basically it is a matter of balance. There are those people who are likely to have problems because they give up too easily, they are too easily discouraged or disheartened. At the other extreme, there are people who put their heart and soul into what they do – something that is very positive and helpful as a general rule – and can therefore run the risk that they don’t (or won’t) recognize when the time to let go has come. So, once again, what is needed is a healthy balance between the two potentially unhelpful extremes.

Of course, this may not always be an easy balance to achieve, but it will certainly be worth the effort, given that putting more and more effort into something that is simply not going to work out will involve a significant waste of time, effort and energy and, in some cases, money or other resources too. As with so many other things, the more often we are able to achieve that balance, the easier it becomes and the more benefit we can potentially gain from cultivating this approach.


Don’t be a fashion victim

When anyone mentions fashion, we tend to think of clothes, the latest designer trends and so on. Indeed, there is a huge, multi-million pound business based on fashion in clothing. But, fashion is not restricted to clothes or other relatively superficial matters. There are also fashions in thought and, because of that, fashions in behaviour. For example, think about how certain ideas have changed since your childhood. Changes in people’s thinking about same sex relationships is a clear instance of what I have in mind. With the changes in thinking have come changes in attitude, changes in behaviour and changes in how we relate to one another.

These changes were in large part due to years of campaigning and political pressure being brought to bear to tackle the injustice of certain people being discriminated against. There were therefore reasons for the changes. This is often how changes in our thinking come about. However, it is not the only way. Ideas also follow trends, just like clothes and popular music do.

This reflects a tendency to value the new, to see novelty as a good thing in its own right, while well-established ideas can be seen as dusty and old fashioned, to be abandoned on the scrapheap of history (even though they may be very valuable and useful ideas). The fact that an idea is perceived as new can make it appear exciting and give it extra appeal. Novelty brings a degree of glamour. It gives it some sort of extra standing, as if the very fact that something is new and different makes it valuable.

However, if you have been around long enough, you will be aware that ideas come around for a second or third time, generally with a different name, spin or gloss (but basically a well-established idea) and get a new lease of life until another ‘new’ idea comes along to take its place as the height of fashion. We often laugh about ‘that old chestnut’, when an old idea makes a reappearance in a new garb or in a slightly modified form, presented it as if it is an exciting new way of thinking.

This is not to say that we should disregard new ideas just because they are new (or appear to be) and value only ideas that are well established, as that would stifle innovation and limit our options for moving forward constructively. Valuing something just because it is ‘traditional’ can be just as misleading as valuing something just because it is new. Whether an idea is new or old is not (or should not be) the issue; what is important is how useful the idea is in helping us understand whatever it relates to and that it is a valid idea worthy of our attention.

So, the important message is this: don’t allow yourself to be seduced into thinking that an idea has value just because it is new. Many ideas that appear new are anything but, and even in those circumstances where an idea is genuinely new, it doesn’t mean that it is necessarily any better than the ideas that preceded it. We need to be able get past fashions in thinking and be prepared to weigh up ideas in their own right, evaluate their legitimacy and what use they are, regardless of whether they reflect the latest ‘in’ trend or ideas that have been around for centuries or even millennia.

Adopting ideas just because they are perceived as new and exciting can lead us astray, distort our perception and leave us in some difficulties in various ways. Uncritically following fashions in ideas is therefore not a wise move.


Find ‘flow’

Athletes will often talk about being ‘in the zone’, by which they mean achieving optimal performance, with body and mind operating to the full. That is when they get the best results. Similarly, psychologists have talked more broadly about finding ‘flow’, by which they mean getting to a state of mind where you are, to use the modern idiom, ‘cooking on gas’. It refers to feeling that things are ‘just right’ and you are achieving your best. This can apply to any aspect of life – not just athletics – where the conditions are right.

Flow happens when we are fully immersed in an activity, when we are free from distractions, interruptions or anything else that can stand in the way. When the state of ‘flow’ is reached, our concentration level is at its maximum, our creativity is enhanced and we produce our best work. Strange though it may sound, it is as if we have reached some sort of higher plane. By its very nature, it can only ever be a temporary state, but it is one that we can revisit whenever possible.

Have you ever been so fully engaged in an activity that everything else is blocked out? A situation where you feel things are going really well, you are making great progress and it all seems to be coming together. Time can pass very quickly and you are surprised at how long you have been engaged in that activity. That is ‘flow’. That is when you are in the zone – the zone of optimal creativity and effectiveness.

To achieve flow we need to be doing something we want to do and are committed to doing well. We need to give it our full attention and not be trying to do something else at the same time (like checking our email or phone texts!).

We also need to be free of distractions and interruptions. This can be very difficult in the modern ‘always on’ world. Open plan offices, hot desking and other features of contemporary working life can be major obstacles to achieving flow, so you may need to think carefully about how to create the right conditions that you will need. Just trying to achieve flow in the wrong place or the wrong circumstances is almost certainly doomed to failure. You will be wasting your time and may become cynical about ever achieving flow.

Of course, we cannot expect achieving flow to be an everyday occurrence, although creating the right circumstances to facilitate flow will help us to concentrate and achieve better results anyway. The closer we can get to flow conditions, the more productive we can be – and the more satisfaction we can gain from our activities.

You may find it helpful to think about what activities are most likely to achieve flow, what the things that really stimulate you are. If you match those activities with the right circumstances (no distractions, no interruptions and so on), then you are maximising the chances of achieving flow.

It can also help to think about the activities you are called upon to perform and consider what you could potentially do to make them more appealing and stimulating. There is no easy or simple formulas for this, but there is certainly much to be gained from giving these matters some careful thought.

There is also much to be gained from examining other people’s experiences of flow. What do other people do that enables them to achieve flow? Do they have any specific strategies, or does it just happen? Is there anything you can learn from what other people do that can increase your chances of getting ‘into the zone’ more often?

You are never too old to learn and grow – intellectually or emotionally

For many years there was an assumption that learning is what children do – libraries had plenty of material about child development and education, but relatively little on adult education. Then along came the ‘lifelong learning movement’ which argued that we need to stop associating learning with children and recognise that everyone has the potential to keep learning and to keep benefiting from that learning throughout our lives.

However, it is unfortunately the case that the ageist assumptions that are so firmly embedded in our society often mean that it can so easily be forgotten that this applies to older people just the same as it does to anyone else. The idea that ‘you can’t teach an old dog new tricks’ is not borne out by the evidence (consider, for example, the success of the Open University in working successfully with learners right across the adult age spectrum). Older people can not only continue to grow and develop, but also thereby stand as excellent sources of learning for everybody else.

The problem partly stems from the work of Freud, as he assumed that the main part of human development takes place in the first five years of life. While these early ‘formative’ years are clearly extremely important, it would be a mistake – and a serious one at that – to assume that we are fully formed by the age of five. There is no shortage of evidence that we continue to develop throughout our lives – indeed, life can be understood to be that very process of development itself. The idea that ‘learning is for the young’ is therefore a dangerously misleading one, and one that can be unnecessarily obstructive and disempowering. The old idea that education is wasted on the young has some degree of merit, as it is often the case that people returning to education later in life do much better than they did first time round. I have met very many people who flourished at university, even though they may have struggled at school years before.

And this doesn’t just apply to intellectual learning, of course. Emotional growth and learning are lifelong phenomena too. Indeed, the older we get and the more we come under pressure to face our own mortality, the more emotional challenges we will face. It would be naïve to think that we would ever reach a stage in life where there are no more such challenges to contend with – and every such challenge brings opportunities for personal growth and development. The more life experience we have, the more raw materials we have from which to learn and grow.

In my career I have also worked with many people who have been struggling with depression and have felt that they were ‘stuck’, as if emotionally paralysed. Helping them to get past this and to get them learning and growing again has brought me a lot of job satisfaction over the years. Seeing that ‘spark’ come back is an incredible sight. Depression is a complex matter, but the sense of no longer growing or developing is often, if not always, a part of it.

So, if your work, or indeed your private life, brings you into contact with older people, don’t make the mistake of assuming that lifelong learning does not apply to them. Likewise, don’t assume that once you reach a certain age you can forget about learning and growing. Lifelong learning means precisely that – lifelong. Don’t let anyone (or any misguided ideas) tell you any different. Personal growth, development and learning are far too important to allow that to happen.

Seek out awe and wonder

The demands of everyday living mean that we need to spend a fair amount of time doing fairly mundane things like earning a living and managing a household. These can be quite enjoyable, of course, and offer us some degree of fulfilment, but we have to be wary of the danger of allowing all the mundane stuff to squeeze out opportunities for those things that go beyond the day-to-day basics.

The literature relating to spirituality (whether religious spirituality or not) uses fairly obscure terms like transcendence, exaltation and the numinous, often without offering any explanation of what they mean. It’s worth considering each of these in turn because, despite their obscurity, they are important ideas.

To transcend literally means to go beyond. It is therefore used in a spiritual sense to refer to going beyond the everyday, to finding something more meaningful than day-to-day activities and concerns. It is linked to the idea of ‘connectedness’, the notion of connecting with something bigger than ourselves, whether that be a cause, a belief system, a set of people or whatever. Such connectedness can be an important part of what makes our lives meaningful.

Exaltation refers to the experience of joy, a sense of stepping beyond (transcendence again!) our everyday feelings, rising above them to a higher plane of happiness. The reason I am mentioning this here is that getting bogged down in everyday matters can stand in the way of any such exaltation. We can become so focused on our mundane challenges that we lose sight of the things (and people) in our lives that can bring us joy.

The numinous is used to describe those experiences that are distinctive and meaningful in some way, things that stand out as very special and awe inspiring. It could refer to natural phenomena, such as a splendid sunset, a beautiful forest, a magnificent mountain range. But it would also include a wider range of experiences, such as giving birth (or being present at a birth) and other special, emotionally intense moments where we feel our humanity acutely. For religious people this could be equated with those aspects of life that are thought of as ‘divine’, but experiences of the numinous are not restricted to people of faith.

The theme that unites these three ideas is that of not allowing day-to-day pressures (however important and pressing they may be) to leave little or no room for the more special aspects of life. And, underpinning that is the importance of awe and wonder – the ability to rise above what the textbooks call ‘normalcy’.

It is important to emphasise that I am not advocating that we should abandon or neglect our everyday concerns. Rather, it is a case of not limiting ourselves to those concerns and to make sure that we are open to the many opportunities for awe and wonder that are around us if we know how and where to look.

Awe and wonder can arise at any time, sometimes when we least expect them, but there is no need to sit back and wait for them to happen – it is also possible to seek them out. You may struggle with this at first, but it is worth persevering with what is involved, as the longer you do it, the more successful you are likely to be. You can also learn a great deal from seeing how other people make use of awe and wonder, how they manage to rise above the daily grind and get the benefits of doing so. Or perhaps you are already very good at it, in which case you can perhaps help others to learn how to do it.

Feelings are real, but they don’t always reflect the reality

Many people adopt a very ‘rational’ approach to life and relegate feelings or anything to do with emotions to a secondary position, as if they are somehow less important. In reality, of course, feelings are generally much more powerful sources of motivation than reasoning or rationality, and emotions are so often a key factor in decision making, however hard people will work to make the basis of their decisions appear entirely objective and rational, uninfluenced by such subjective matters as human emotions.

Consequently, if we pay no attention to emotions, we are leaving a major part of the equation out of the picture. However, this does not mean that we can let emotions rule the day or be given free reign. Emotions are a vitally important element of what it means to be human and, as such, they can be incredibly enriching and powerful. Unfortunately, though, they can also be highly problematic – for example, by leading to very unwise decisions or reactions.

Another way in which feelings can be problematic is when they are an understandable and justifiable response to a situation, but in those particular circumstances they do not reflect the reality of the situation. For example, imagine a situation in which a misunderstanding occurs. Person A feels that they have been insulted and demeaned by Person B, and understandably become very angry about it. But what if it is just a misunderstanding and no actual insulting has taken place. The feelings of anger and hurt are real, even if the grounds for them are not. Sadly, a common mistake in such circumstances is for those feelings to be played down because it was ‘just a misunderstanding’.

Strong emotional responses involve strong biological reactions, such as adrenaline being pumped into the bloodstream (the renowned ‘fight or flight’ mechanism). Finding out that no insult actually occurred does not make the adrenaline disappear all of a sudden or return the body or mind to their pre-emotive state. In addition, there are psychological factors to consider. For example, a strong emotional response can easily ‘open old wounds’, bringing back powerful memories of other times when they have felt slighted, disrespected or worse. Those memories will not disappear all of a sudden either, once they have resurfaced. In addition, the person concerned can feel embarrassed when it emerges that they became angry and/or upset ‘for no good reason’, especially if one or more people is not handling the situation very sensitively. These will all be real, valid feelings, despite the fact that the actual trigger was not ‘real’ in the conventional sense.

Another way in which feelings can be real, but not actually reflect reality is when people become very anxious. It is not uncommon for anxiety to lead to a vicious circle in which a small amount of anxiety (quite appropriate in the circumstances, given the level of threat involved) leads to more anxiety and then more again. What can easily happen is that this process leads to a level of anxiety that is excessive for the degree of risk or threat involved. Ironically, at times knowing that this position has been reached can make the person concerned even more anxious, recognizing or fearing that they are losing control. The level and intensity of emotional response may well not match the reality of the level of threat, but that does not make the feelings (and their impact) any less real. Nor does it make it any less unhelpful (or potentially harmful) if the significance of the feelings involved is not acknowledged and handled appropriately.

We would do well, therefore, to keep in mind the fact that a disparity between feelings and the reality of the situation they are a response to does not make the feelings any less real or any less significant.

The journey is more important than the arrival

It is, of course, a very common experience to have a great sense of excitement as you look forward to something, only to have a sense of anti-climax once what you have been anticipating actually comes to pass. This is one of the ways in which the idea that the journey is more important than the arrival has a degree of truth.

In a similar vein, Buddhist thought includes the idea that it is wise to disengage from worldly pursuits, as the acquisition of one ‘prize ‘ or reward, one achievement of a goal, simply leads to our formulating the next goal and anticipating the next achievement. Perhaps it is not realistic to expect such disengagement on a mass scale, so we are likely to continue to face the challenges involved in what amounts to reaching what we think is the top of the hill, only to find that there is a another summit beyond it (and quite possibly another one beyond that).

What is particularly important about this is that, if we are relying on reaching that summit, whatever it may be, for our well-being and happiness, then we are limiting ourselves to relatively brief moments once an achievement is gained. We are missing out on the satisfactions to be gained from enjoying the journey; we are letting our lives pass by: the present moment becomes dominated by future aspirations, many of which will never come to fruition, of course, however skilled, committed or fortunate we may be in our endeavours.

This is partly what mindfulness is about – savouring the present moment, rather than allowing ourselves to get bogged down in the past or sacrifice today’s joys to tomorrow’s hopes.

I am not suggesting that we should not have goals or aspirations. On the contrary, I see them as very important. What I am suggesting – quite strongly – is that we need to be aware of the common danger of being so future oriented that we lose sight of what the present offers. To return to the journey analogy, we can so easily be focusing so much on the destination that we miss the spectacular scenery along the way.

As in so many things, it is a matter of balance. We need to have a balanced ‘temporal sense’, by which I mean not losing sight of our past and its importance, but not allowing it to dominate or distort our present either (as will often happen when people have been traumatized); equally, not losing sight of the future and our hopes for what that will hold for us, but also not letting that anticipated future steal the precious moments of the present.

On the surface, this sounds simple and straightforward, but in reality, it can be quite complex and challenging. The pitfalls involved are not only of significant proportions, but also relatively common. So many of people’s life problems will stem from this existential challenge of a balanced approach to time. There will be those who are ‘living in the past’, struggling to get beyond old hurts, for example (hence the use of the word ‘trauma’ which means ‘wound’ – it is as if certain life experiences can leave a scar) and who therefore face an emotionally and spiritually impoverished life. There will also be people who are ‘living in the future’, as if there is some sort of personal utopia they are working towards, a utopia that will never materialize, of course (not as a utopia, anyway). For example, those who are bitten by the bug of ambition will often find that achieving their ambition was not as wonderful as they had envisaged (and it is likely that they will very quickly formulate another ambition anyway).

‘Savour the moment’ is too simplistic a slogan, but it is helpful in alerting us to the need to get our ‘temporal balance’ right.


Grief and trauma can bring learning and growth

Despite the common strong association between grief and death, grief is a reaction to a significant loss, and not just to a death. This means that we can have a grief reaction to any major change in our life, even positive ones. For example, someone excited about moving to a new job or promotion may still grieve for aspects of their old job. Gains will always also be accompanied by losses of some sort.

Grief reactions are perfectly normal responses to loss and change. They are part of our way of adapting to new circumstances. The impact can range from minor and insignificant to devastatingly major. When our reaction is at this latter end of the spectrum, we will often talk of a trauma – a psychological or spiritual wound, parallel with the physical wounds or traumas the medical profession deals with. A traumatic loss is therefore one that harms us in some way, unlike the type of grief that, although painful, exhausting and frightening, is actually a positive process of healing.

Non-traumatic losses will generally produce levels of grief that can be handled with everyday support and with time, although some levels of grief may need some form of professional help at times. However, with a traumatic loss, the impact can be so great that the disruption it brings to our lives can be of major proportions and require intensive help and support.

But, despite these problems and challenges, there is also a positive side to this. That is because grief in general and traumatic loss in particular can be sources of personal learning and growth. These highly distressing experiences can be valuable lessons from which we can learn a lot. They can also make us more resilient and better prepared for any future such experiences.

Over the years I have come across many people who have suffered greatly as a result of a loss or trauma, but who have none the less been able to grow personally in one or more ways as a result of it. Common themes include people becoming more appreciative of the positives in their life; feeling more confident about dealing with adversity in future; and having a greater sense of self-awareness and self-understanding – all things that can be of significant benefit in a number of ways

It may seem strange to think that such difficult and debilitating circumstances can also have a positive side, but that is the reality. Of course, not every loss or trauma will produce such growth, but it is always a possibility – the potential is always there. There is no simple or straightforward formula way for realising that potential, but, if we are aware of – and tuned into – that potential, there is a much greater chance of making the best of the positives.

This is not to say that the positives will outweigh the negatives or even make the negatives easier to bear, but it would be sad, in a time already characterized by great sadness, for certain positives to be missed out on. As with all matters relating to loss and grief, such situations need to be handled carefully and sensitively, but the positive potential is certainly there to be realised when the time is right.  And timing is important, as these things cannot be rushed.


So, the important lesson to be learned from this is that grief and trauma will continue to be extremely painful and challenging, but they will also offer opportunities for personal growth if we are sufficiently aware of this and sufficiently sensitive to capitalise on those opportunities – and, again, I emphasise: when the time is right.

Look back, face forward

‘Learn from the past’ is an oft-quoted piece of wisdom. ‘Don’t look back, focus on the future’ is another one, despite the fact that the latter totally contradicts the former. So, where does that leave us? Well, as is often the case with slogan-type advice, they both oversimplify a complex situation.

Time is something we generally take for granted as a common sense issue. However, philosophers have long debated the nature of time. For example, in a sense, there is no past or future, there is just the present moment. The past has gone and the future isn’t here yet. You could even argue that the future won’t come, because every day we wake up it is the present moment again and the future is still out of reach. However, this does not mean that past and future are not real.

The past lives on in our memory (the subjective element) and in our surroundings – physical and institutional: buildings, organizations and so on (the objective element). Its influence continues to affect us in a number of ways. There are also many ways in which we can learn from what has happened in the past and what continues to happen because of that past.

The future also exists, not as something that we will ever reach (now will always be now, the present), but as a set of hopes, aspirations and fears that will be shaping our present. Every time we do something, we normally do it for a reason, to achieve something, to make something happen or to prevent something happening. In this sense, the present is constantly being shaped by the future.

So, in reality, the present moment is all that we have as time, but that does not mean that there is no past or future, that they are not real – they exist as powerful influences on our lives, powerfully shaping our experience, our thoughts, feelings and actions. To put it in slightly poetic terms, today is tomorrow becoming yesterday. In this regard, there is much we can learn. Yes, we can learn from the past, as is well recognized, but we can also learn form the future, in the sense that, by being clear about where we are trying to get to, what we are doing with our lives, we can better understand what we are doing now and what we need to do – and that will not only put us in a stronger position for creating the future we want, but also enrich our lives now.

For a long time it was believed that, when we experience a major loss, we need to put that behind us and ‘move on’, we need to ‘let go’ so that we can grieve properly. However, it is now recognized that this is not helpful. Trying to artificially disconnect from the past is not likely to feel real, and is therefore not likely to help. The much more helpful idea of ‘continuing bonds’ means that we can continue our relationship with the person we have lost, but recognize that the relationship will now take a different form. The past is still meaningful for us, but we move forward towards the future understanding what has changed, understanding that the present is now different, and so will the future be.

So, the past is something we can learn and benefit from, and in many ways it remains with us. But, we must also look to the future, because that too is constantly guiding our choices, influencing our feelings and shaping our thoughts. The past and the future are not alternatives to the present; they are very much part and parcel of the present, and we will be much worse off if we lose sight of that.

Suffering can be positive

It is understandable, of course, that we will seek to avoid suffering whenever possible. We look dimly on people who seek to impose suffering on others and regard wanting to inflict suffering on ourselves as a form of pathology. Clearly, suffering Is not something that tends to get seen in a positive light, and quite rightly so.

However, this is not to say that suffering cannot also bring positives in some ways. There are, of course, lessons that can be learned from suffering – not least in relation to how to take steps to avoid such suffering in the future. However, it is important that we approach such lessons in a balanced way. For example, if we have suffered because we have been hurt by someone we thought we could trust who has let us down, we may be tempted to draw out the lesson from this that we should not trust people in future. That sort of reaction would be understandable as a response to the pain we have experienced, but – understandable or not – it would not be a helpful lesson in the longer term, as it would simply not be practicable.

It is a heart response, whereas what we need to do by way of drawing out the lessons to be learned is to make it a response that balances head and heart. So, rather than over-reacting by saying: ‘I am not going to trust anyone ever again’, the more realistic conclusion we can come to is: ‘I am going t be very careful about who I trust in future’.

But it isn’t just by learning how to avoid future hurt that suffering can be positive. It can also help us to appreciate other positives, to tune in to what we have going for us, rather than just get bogged down in what we have going against us. To put it more figuratively, a light will shine much more brightly in a context of darkness than it would in broad daylight. Suffering provides the contrast that highlights the positives.

In these consumerist days where the potential for happiness is so often equated with purchasing power, suffering can help us be more fully aware that material goods mean relatively little in the overall scheme of things. The negativity of suffering can highlight the non-materialistic positives we have in our lives – our relationships, for example.

In this way, we can see suffering as a spiritual matter, a contribution to our sense of who we are and how we fit into the world. This is why it can be so hurtful if someone belittles our suffering, it strikes it the very heart of our being and undermines us.

Suffering can also be a great motivator. Consider, for example, how many people have committed themselves to good causes because of their own suffering. Hospices generally have lots of volunteers who give up their time to help others who are suffering, because they have been there, they have trodden that painful path.

This is not to say that we should seek out suffering or use its positive value as an excuse to inflict it on others – life is such that suffering is never far away, so there is no need for us to create it artificially.