“I am only one, but still I am one.
I cannot do everything, but still I can do something.
And because I cannot do everything,
I will not refuse to do the something I can do.”

Edward Everett Hale

Thursday, 25 October 2012

Change: Challenge or Opportunity

Last night a kind friend lent me an amazing book: Who Moved My Cheese? by Dr. Spencer Johnson. It is subtitled An amazing way to deal with change in your work and in your life, and it really appealed to me.

The basic plot is simple: four beings (two mice and two Littlepeople) are living in a maze, and looking for Cheese - "cheese being a metaphor for what we want to have in life, whether it is a job, a relationship, money, a big house, freedom, health, recognition, spiritual peace, or even an activity like jogging or golf." The two mice are Sniff "who sniffs out change early" and Scurry "who scurries into action." The two Littlepeople are Hem "who denies and resists change as he fears it will lead to something worse" and Haw "who learns to adapt in time when he sees changing can lead to something better."

Although on one level, it is a very simple tale - when the cheese runs out at one Cheese Station, the two mice immediately head off to another part of the Maze and eventually find some new cheese, whereas the two Littlepeople take longer to react - it is a profound metaphor for our attitudes to change. Some people sense very early on that change is in the air, and trim their sails accordingly; and some rush straight into action in the new direction. But some, like the Littlepeople, find change very challenging. Some, like Hem, simply cannot accept that a change has taken place, and stay as they are, in the stubborn and despairing belief that things will go back to what they were. They are resistant to change, because it doesn't feel safe. Others, like Haw, are afraid of change at first, but then common sense kicks in, and they realise that anything is better than staying on the sinking ship, or in the losing situation, and slowly, warily, move on and discover that actually, change can be good.

In the story, Haw leaves Hem at the old, empty Cheese Station, and sets out to find New Cheese. On the way, he makes a series of discoveries about himself, and leaves little notices up on the walls of the Maze for Hem to find, should he summon up the courage to leave the old Cheese Station. In the process, he learns how to cope productively with change, so that it is an opportunity, rather than a challenge. The notices read as follows:

  • "They Keep Moving The Cheese (change happens)
  • Get Ready For The Cheese To Move (anticipate change)
  • Smell The Cheese Often So You Know When It Is Getting Old (monitor change)
  • The Quicker You Let Go Of Old Cheese, The Sooner You Can Enjoy New Cheese (adapt to change quickly)
  • Move With The Cheese (change)
  • Savour The Adventure And Enjoy The Taste Of New Cheese! (enjoy change!)
  • They Keep Moving The Cheese (be ready to change quickly and enjoy it again and again."
The whole story reminds me of two of my favourite advices in Quaker Advices and Queries:

"Live adventurously. When choices arise, do you take the way that offers the fullest opportunity for the use of your gifts in the service of God and the community. Let your life speak."

"Every stage of our lives offers fresh opportunities. Responding to divine guidance, try to discern the right time to undertake or relinquish responsibilities without undue pride or guilt. Attend to what love requires of you, which may not be great busyness."

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Music of the Heart

Human beings are complicated organisms - we have bodies, we have minds and we have souls. In order to grow into the best people that we can be, we need to nourish all of them. In religion, our bodies often get ignored; all the emphasis is on what we think and believe and feel. But our bodies need nourishment too - we have to eat a balanced diet, exercise regularly, get enough sleep and so on. If we neglect them, we will become unhealthy, and all of a sudden everything seems twice as difficult, like pushing a hippopotamus uphill. If we look after our bodies, they will look after us.

And our bodies have feelings of their own. If I am sad, I don't want reasons or explanations or even spiritual insights; I just want a cuddle. And it is my body - through my sense - which gives me access to a whole world of beauty and spirituality. This morning, on my run, the feel of the sunlight on my skin, the taste of cool water, the wonderful variegated colours of the autumn leaves, and the sound of birdsong combined into one joyous paean of praise for the universe. Through what we see and hear, smell, touch and taste, we can be transported from our mundance lives into another dimension.

Bodies have their own memories too - for example, have you ever been transported to another time and another place by a smell or a sound or a taste? I only have to hear the first chord of The Air That I Breathe by the Hollies to be back in 1974, fourteen years old and very sad. I cry every time I hear it - can't help it! Even though the circumstances of my life have changed beyone recognition, and the emotional scars of young love have long healed, my fourteen-year-old self is somewhere in there, and reacts when she hears that song.

image: youthvoices.net

Music can affect us in many ways, some obvious, some not so obvious. For example, when I am driving, and get stuck in a traffic jam, I automatically switch the radio on to Classic fm, which I find soothing; it helps me to keep my patience and not get wound up about the delay. And when I am on the M45, which is a short stretch of generally empty motorway, I like to put on something fast-paced and exciting, like Highway Star by Deep Purple, and put my foot down. In fact, I am very careful not to listen to music like that when I am on a busy road, because it subconsciously makes me drive faster.

Music has the power to move us, to change our mood. This is well-recognised by the people in charge of public spaces - shops, restaurants, pubs, for example. The organisation Music Works has conducted research about the effect of music on shoppers, and the results are startling. 90% of the people surveyed said they were more likely to recommend a store that plays music they like to their friends and family. 76% of retailers believe that they can positively influence the behaviour of customers through playing music; and 60% of retailers agreed that playing music not only increases staff productivity, but also makes the staff more friendly towards customers. Furthermore, 84% of customers like shops that play in-store music, and 77% of people say that music is an important factor in creating the ideal atmosphere in-store.

Personally, I found this research startling - I actively dislike the loud music in most stores these days, but I guess I must accept that I am in a small, out-of-date minority!

Music can also be used more subtly to stir people's emotions. For example, who remembers that marvellous moment in the Humphrey Bogart film Casablanca, when the singer in Rick's Bar begins to sing the Marseillaise to drown out the Nazi singing on the other side of the bar? I am getting tingles down my spine just thinking about it. And I am sure that most people could name particular instants in films where the music - often a song - has a profound effect on the mood of not only the people in the film, but also on the cinema audience. Another example might be the singing at football matches, which unites fans in a bond of partisanship. And of course, it can also be used less harmlessly, to control the hearts and minds of those who hear it.

What is it about music that has the power to thrill us, to move us to tears or laughter, to calm us? I have often wondered what it is about music that elicits such emotions. Philosophers and biologists have asked the question for centuries, noting that humans are universally drawn to music. It consoles us when we are sad, pumps us up in happier times, and bonds us to others, even though listening to an iPod or singing "Happy Birthday" does not seem necessary for survival or reproduction.

An article in Scientific American comes to the following conclusions: "that music's influence over us may be a chance event, arising from its ability to hijack brain systems built for other purposes such as language,emotion and movement. Music seems to offer a novel method of communication rooted in emotions rather than in meaning. Research shows that what we feel when we hear a piece of music is remarkably similar to what everyone else in the room is experiencing. Songs facilitate emotional bonding and even physical interactions such as marching or dancing together, and thus may help cement ties that underlie the formaton of human societies."

All is know is that it is an important part of my life, and I thank God for it.