Sep 26




Helen Whitten

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Revisiting the philosophers of Renaissance Italy, I am struck by the fact that wealthy, influential and powerful men such as Cosimo de Medici sat around with others to discuss the nature of love, or the nature of virtue.  How often do you think our own wealthy influentials have or take the time to consider these elevated but crucial concepts of life?  I suspect not often, and yet both love and virtue are essential ingredients of life and of leadership, whether you are leading a country, an organisation or a family.

It has made me aware of how transactional life has become – you do this, I get that, and this serves a purpose. Yet sometimes we need to take time out from that activity and consider the higher aspects of life, as otherwise we don’t necessarily have the compass with which to steer our decisions.

Did it all begin with the moment when Personnel became Human Resources and people became like widgets to be used, sometimes abused, and seen for their practical contribution? There is a lot of talk of creativity but often only in the context of what that can do for the business or organisation. There are wellbeing and mindfulness classes which are excellent interventions to help people stay balanced and yet I would argue that we also need to encourage and give senior staff, in particular, the time to go beyond focusing simply on the present and stretch them to think about the nature of love, the nature of truth, justice, wisdom or virtue. And I mean not solely in the focused context of their business, whatever that may be, but in general contemplation, for the good of their soul, if you like, because nurturing such qualities will have an inevitable impact on those around them and therefore ultimately on their organisation.

When I worked as a researcher on Alistair Horne’s biography of Harold Macmillan, I remember a comment of HM’s grandson saying he would like to be Prime Minister one day because that meant that he would be able to sit under a tree and read a book.  Do you wonder if any of our global leaders get time to read a book these days, with the inevitable cascade of emails and documents they have to go through? Or go to the theatre, a ballet, read a novel? Yet all these activities take people out of the day to day, into different situations, different characters, different cultures and perspectives and so broaden our thinking and understanding of life and the human condition.

I think we can see the lack of this type of activity in the way politicians leap to follow one policy one week only to flip to another the week after. It’s as if they don’t have that inner compass of values or allow themselves to express their own sense of what is right or wrong but instead follow the idiosyncrasies of social media or newspaper commentary.  They jump on some bandwagon rather than stop and consider what is wise action. It’s hardly surprising that society is rather lost on what standards people might aspire to when leaders sycophantically faun to celebrities like Russell Brand, or dance to misogynistic rap lyrics at Glastonbury, or are unable to articulate what a woman is.  Like a parent, a leader needs to be willing to be unpopular in order to stand for what they consider to be right – but our leaders today seem to have forgotten this.  Yet the wider population aren’t necessarily fooled by those who sway in the wind. Many know a centred and thoughtful person when they see one, I think, and aren’t impressed by lies, shiftiness, or arrogance.  We can be reminded of our higher selves, of the dignity of humankind and yes, the dignity of work. We have the ability to rise up rather than sink down but may need some space and encouragement to do so.

It is so easy to while away the hours on screen instead of sitting quietly doing nothing, or reading a book, or just enjoying some beautiful uplifting music. I know this well myself, so maybe on the strategy days that organisations or political parties take, they could allocate more time to doing nothing, to walking silently in nature, and then to sitting around discussing the higher aspects of being a human being – asking what life is all about, how we can make meaning out of work, how we can make the most of the time here on earth and leave a legacy that we can be proud of. In this fast-paced life, could we encourage our leaders to use their downtime to get off the screen, get out of their everyday practicalities of life, and rise above the baying crowd to reflect on these values and concepts?  After all, we desperately need to motivate people to apply their skills for the good of all but they will not do so if they feel they are following straw men or women.

If the influencers of Renaissance Italy could take time to think, could we not benefit from ensuring our leaders do the same and encourage them in this pursuit? And then follow their example and do it for ourselves? I believe that after a quiet moment of contemplation away from screens and noise, people might return to work and life refreshed and energised, with a greater sense of purpose and direction. Even a short time makes a difference.


Sep 17


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Helen Whitten

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I returned to my old church, St Peter’s in Limpsfield, Surrey, recently. It was the church where we would go in my childhood for Christmas Eve carols with my parents, and Christmas Day and Sunday matins with my mother; it’s where I got married aged just 21, where my son’s funeral took place and where he is buried. It was like coming home and the rector and various members of the congregation could not have been kinder, for not only was I visiting my son’s grave but I also came to pray for my sister, who is very ill.

And her illness makes me feel very small, for I am eight years younger than her and so she has always been a part in my life, the sophisticated older sister who in the 50s was going out with her first boyfriends when I was a giggling 8 year old, and who, due to my mother’s illness, took me to Gorringes’ to buy my school uniform and put me on the school train to Cranborne Chase in Wiltshire.

And as she is my big sister her being ill makes me feel small again, and rather lost, but going to church at St Peter’s, to the eucharist, was like being with family again. I met people I didn’t know but who had been to the same local schools, I visited my son’s grave and took a plant to put beside the gravestone. And I thought about the need to keep the Christian church alive.

There have been articles recently that report that we are no longer a Christian country and that makes me feel sad.  Being in a cathedral raises my spirit, literally; sitting and contemplating a beautiful stained-glass window in the local church calms my mind and takes it to other quieter places.  Does it totally matter whether people believe in the whole story – maybe. But does it matter that people believe in the values of the Christian faith in one way or another – absolutely.

I felt let down by the church during Covid. It could have been a time when vicars spoke some words of comfort, reminded us that it is our soul that resides within this fragile body of ours, and that many believe this soul to be immortal.  None of us will ever know, probably, nor definitively, but it is a comforting thought and would have been so when we were losing friends and family during the pandemic but no, there was near silence and the doors to these beautiful sacred buildings were locked.

I am re-reading the Italian Renaissance philosopher Marsilio Ficino and about to go on a retreat focused on his work. I am no expert but I studied him when I read history at King’s College London as a mature student. I was bowled over by how inspiring his words were, how he believed we all have a sense of the divine within us and can spread that divinity into the world, that through the dignity of our behaviour we can reflect God’s love.  He wrote at a time when society was also impacted by greed and corruption and he strived to remind people that we can aspire to a spiritual life through philosophy and everyday practice as well as through religion.

I feel that spiritual voices have been rather quiet recently, especially now that schools tend to embrace all religions and walk on eggshells not to upset others. Yet there is so much that is echoed throughout the prayers of all religions that encourages people to be honest, live well and seek the highest good in themselves and those around them. I think we need to hear these messages more often.

Ficino seemed to suggest that the intellect strives constantly and throughout our lives to know things, and the body and will to enjoy things. The intellect will never be satisfied, for there is always more to discover or learn, but entering the stillness that is a sacred building can help our mind rest in the moment and be open to goodness and truth, for buildings take on the energy of the events that occur in them, I find.

I am fed up with the whole ‘broken world’ narrative that is played out now, and certainly there have been some terrible natural events recently, but there have been other times when the world has surely been at least if not more broken. And don’t we need to give people comfort and raise them up to believe that they have the powers to make change happen, that they are carved out of the same rock as Jesus or other Gods or wise prophets? That we can come together and aspire for inner peace and collaborative action? After all, we see the most phenomenal global cooperation in these disasters. Don’t let’s forget that.

But my visit to St Peter’s reminded me that I am a Christian, brought up in a Christian society, so just as a Muslim brought up in the Middle East or a Hindu brought up in India will find the words in their holy books restorative, so do I and all of us can receive comfort and love from being in a community where you feel at home, where the words of the hymns or songs or prayers are familiar.

So I am grateful that I went down to my old church last week and am grateful for the kind words of those around me who saw that I was sad and comforted me, as did the gospel readings. I shall return.


Aug 07




Helen Whitten

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Isn’t it about time we celebrated families? In recent weeks we have had marches through London and other cities for Pride, LGBT and more, and that is great but let’s not forget the families who are often silently getting on with life. Why don’t we celebrate them with a march too? Apparently, according to my Google diary, there is such a thing as Family Day in the UK on 26 September this year. I am no good at organising these things, especially having just had a knee replacement so marching is not exactly my thing at the moment, but perhaps we can all raise a toast in some way on 26 September?

After all, keeping a family together is tough. Just this week I was telling my granddaughter that one of the very worst moments in a parent’s life is clearing up a child’s sick in the middle of the night. The next morning her Dad, my son, told me that my 7 year old grandson had been sick seven times all over the house throughout that night. There we go, you have to drag yourself out of bed, tend the sick child, change them, settle them and then clear up the disgusting mess, the smell of which lingers in your nostrils for days!

Other countries celebrate family far more than we do – look at the Greeks and Italians, it’s a part of their culture and it’s part of the joy of visiting those places. Whilst it is a step forward to celebrate many different ways of life, let’s not forget the family in that process. It’s hard work to put your children’s needs before your own over and over again, pull yourself out of bed to feed or change a baby or toddler, do a school run, prepare the lunchbox, go to work, pick them up and go through the whole homework, bathtime, and testing games of getting a child to stay in bed and go to sleep when finally one may be able to relax.  But then there’s the adult relationship to keep going too.  I didn’t manage that myself, sadly, and it is demanding to maintain a loving parental adult relationship over the long stretch of years, and I am full of admiration and envy of those who have managed it.

The wider family is also key to the successful functioning of any community – grandparents, aunts, uncles, siblings, cousins and more. As they say, it takes a village to raise a child and it is lovely when one becomes fond of the children of friends as well as enjoying a loving relationship with grandchildren, nieces and nephews. The new generations.

This is the glue of the stability of a country because one invests so much love, work, and money into keeping a family together and so it matters that there is a good school in the neighbourhood, doctors, reasonable facilities, playgrounds. It makes us demanding of decent services and that keeps local and hopefully national standards up.

Presidents Putin and Xi would love it if our society fell to pieces. How they would laugh and take advantage were European civilisation to crumble – and you can be sure that their bots are busy undermining everything that we have built up over the centuries as it serves their purpose to weaken us.

So will you raise a glass with me to your own family and the families of all those you know and love on 26 September? I think they deserve it!


Yes, I know, it’s not a jolly subject. In fact it’s a subject many people don’t like to think about, let alone talk about or address with lawyers or family. Yet when we don’t, it can leave chaos for those left behind.  I have witnessed adult children having to spend hours of their time going through the muddle that parents have left behind them and I read recently that the law courts are filling up with many more contested wills now that there is an increase in ‘blended’ families, all with their own ideas of who should get what.

This week we have seen the contrast of the fintech entrepreneur, Nick Hungerford, who sadly died aged 43, and the legendary singer, Aretha Franklin, who died a few years ago aged 76.  I heard Nick Hungerford talk very movingly about how his diagnosis of cancer and prognosis of a limited life had given him the ‘opportunity’ to reflect on life and decide both how he wanted to live his last days but also consider the legacy he would leave behind.  With this in mind, he has set up a charity for bereaved children in his two-year-old daughter Elizabeth’s name, www.elizabeth.org.

Aretha Franklin, on the other hand, did make a will, it seems, in 2010 but then her niece found another handwritten note under her sofa dated 2014 and the jury has just decided that the latest will should be regarded as her wishes.  Yes, you read the word ‘jury’ and that means lawyers and money spent on sorting out who gets what.  As I mentioned above, this is apparently happening more and more when a will is either unwritten or not clear and especially in blended families where it may be easy to perceive injustice in how an estate is parcelled out.

All the more important, then, to take the time and trouble to consider, as Nick Hungerford did, what one really wants one’s legacy to be and make sure it is written legally so that people can be clear and not fight.  For I can imagine nothing more distressing than thinking of one’s children fighting about something after we have gone or for draining money in a legal battle, which is surely not what most people would want.

My friend and colleague, Shirley Conran, described me recently as her ‘death coach’, in an article on the death of Mary Quant in the Daily Mail.  It’s an interesting label and was born, I believe, as a result of talking to her about how my mother had written a Living Will and had lodged the document with her doctor and lawyer and how this helped us to consider her best interests when she had a stroke in old age.

Indeed, I learnt much from the death of my parents, as my father died of cancer but had not spoken to my mother about the kind of funeral he wanted and my mother, in the depth of her grief, had to stop and consider what his wishes might have been – what hymns, what readings, etc.  And so this in turn inspired my mother to think about her own death with greater care.  She kept various quotes and handwritten thoughts about what she believed in, and what she did or didn’t want should she get ill, incapacitated or die.  Between us we knew what she wanted and she and my father had left their estate equally between us and everything was neatly filed so that the aftermath of wrapping up the estate was as straightforward as it could be.  I think we shall always be grateful to them for this.

Death can happen to us at any age.  It holds no fears for me.  We lost our first son Daniel of a sudden cot death when he was nine weeks old.  I was 26 at the time and I guess my feeling since then has been that if he could do it then I can too. That’s not the problem.  It is the process of dying that can give me concern and I have completed my Advanced Directive and registered my sons for both the Health and Wellfare and Financial Powers of Attorney. Why should they have to guess what I might want when they are having to deal with my illness or death, both emotionally and practically? 

An inheritance is a gift and yet I see no point or benefit in making the contents of a will a surprise to be revealed by some lawyer after one’s death.  Surely it helps one’s children to know roughly what they might inherit, where the money or assets are stored, what tax will be due, who gets what and what charities one wishes to support, so they can plan their lives with this in mind.  

We don’t have to be given a prognosis of death, as Nick Hungerford was, in order to stop, reflect on our lives and on our death. For we are, despite what some other tech entrepreneurs are trying to prove in keeping themselves alive for ever, mortal and we owe it to ourselves and those we love to take the time to consider our mortality and plan accordingly.

Writing a will as soon as one becomes adult makes sense.  Ensuring that if something happens to you as parents your children will be cared for emotionally and financially is essential, as I have been horrified by reading of cases of sudden death where the children have been taken into social care, despite there being aunts or grandparents alive, because their guardianship has not been adequately registered.  If you are co-habiting, the division of childcare and an estate can be even more complicated and all the more reason to work out what is equitable while one is fit and well.

Covid taught us that death can occur suddenly at any age.  My own feeling, as I guess you will know by now, is that good old adage ‘be prepared!’. Put things in order, consider what you want for your care if you become ill, what music you might wish to listen to when you are ill, or to be played at your funeral. Help others, so that they don’t have to second guess it all when under duress.

And now I had better go upstairs and try to sort out my filing system!  With that in mind I wish anyone reading this good health and a long life.


What are we doing, colluding with those who insist that we put trigger warnings on everything from books, to films, to theatre and even before a lecture that people may or may not have to go to or listen to? Aren’t we giving people, young people in particular, the message that they are fragile little things that have to be protected from ideas or events that might upset them in some way? Aren’t we giving them the message that they do not have the resilience and resourcefulness required even to attend a lecture should the subject be one with which they disagree?  What if Putin did invade or some catastrophe did occur, what then?

Personally I am somewhat fed up with the inevitable “there may be scenes or discussions in this programme that might upset you”. Surely part of personal development is to be upset occasionally and therefore to learn how to manage people or situations if we can’t avoid them? Or open our minds to new perspectives? How else do we build resilience?

In cognitive-behavioural approaches and other therapies exposure theory is used extensively to help someone who has a phobia of lifts, or spiders, or public speaking.  It is pretty obvious to most of us that the more we do something the less we worry about it, the more we feel confident that it won’t harm us. But in today’s world the message seems to be that we should never be upset, never harmed, that we should always feel not just physically safe but also emotionally safe.  But this isn’t life.  In giving the message that the majority of the population require trigger warnings and should not be upset we are not preparing people for life.

For life is tough. We all experience slights, indignities, loss, alienation, jealousy, resentment, fear, anger, sadness and more. Sometimes an event or situation can be traumatic – think of those children growing up in Bakhmut right now with bombs falling around them – but as we know from others in warfare, there are some who will suffer post-traumatic stress and others who will go on to live normal lives relatively unimpeded by their horrific experiences.

I am impressed and moved when I hear of people who have been the innocent victims of an IRA bomb yet talk with acceptance of their wounds. Or Hari Budha Maga, the double amputee who lost his legs in Afghanistan who has just climbed Mount Everest. Or people managing a chronic condition with equanimity and stoicism. Just this week Tina Turner died, having turned her life around from poverty and domestic abuse to become, as they call her, the Queen of Rock. She has been a lesson for many young women and her secret, when asked? “Endurance.”

The Epictetus quotation that I and many have mentioned before gives the lesson we all need to remember “it is not what happens to you but how you react to it that matters”. This gives us the choice of whether we decide to find within us the resource we need to overcome difficulty or whether we forget that we have this choice.

And don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that we always have to be strong. Sometimes it can be strong to be vulnerable, to give way to grief for a period, to ask for help, to go for therapy. There is always a place for this. But I don’t believe it is helpful to treat a whole population as if they are infants who need protection, too fragile to read of unpleasant human behaviour in Jane Austen or William Shakespeare.

After all, at the same time, statistics would show that numerous people are watching horror films, or pornography, or playing horrifically violent video games. Let’s get some perspective on this. Let’s not programme people to be victims for that does them no good and nor does it do the rest of us any good as victims point fingers of blame at everyone else and learn to respond like a helpless child. In fact I fear that there is a trend in this direction as the role of victim is a very powerful one. After all they can sit there looking innocent and make everyone feel guilty about something they may or may not have done.  But this is playground stuff, calling people names, blaming others, talking about kindness when they are not necessarily taking responsibility for their own response or, perhaps, for not being kind themselves.

The trouble is the focus is on frailty and not on the extraordinary and wonderful resilience of the human being. The messages given by governments, media, academia surely need to seek to remind young people that humans have, in our history, suffered and yet learnt and survived. And, indeed, thrived. If they are to tackle the major challenges we have in the world today we need to remind them that they have the capacity to do so, not protect them from every little scene in a book or film that might be upsetting. Or make them believe they can’t listen to a lecturer who has a different opinion to them for much of our innovation has derived from different perspectives, from the model of thesis, antithesis then synthesis.

We can get stronger through testing our metal, through exposing ourselves to difficult situations, putting ourselves in the firing line of someone who disagrees with us. Honestly, if we don’t encourage our young, bright and creative people to do this then what would happen if war broke out? Would we all be sunk, or would we discover, as so many people have done through the centuries, that we are far more resilient than some people might imagine? I suspect, and certainly hope, it would be the latter!

Further reading: The Coddling of the American Mind by Jonathan Haidt or Future Directions, a book I wrote with Diane Carrington aimed at helping young people develop confidence and emotional intelligence.


May 07


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Helen Whitten

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I can’t remember Queen Elizabeth II’s Coronation in 1953, although my older brother and sister tell me that we came back from Portugal and watched it on our grandmother’s tiny black and white television. It was the first time my brother had watched television.  I was three. I can’t remember a thing, sadly. So, the Coronation of Charles III was the first time I had witnessed this event and I was struck and moved by the wisdom and gentleness of the words of the service.  It was not gifting the King with unlimited power. Instead, it was reminding him, repeatedly, that the authority of the role does not rest in him personally, but in God and his people. Charles I learnt a thing or two about that of course and I would wish that other autocratic leaders around the world would take heed of the whole concept of leader as servant.  Putin, can you hear me?

So perhaps I could remind you of some of those words that I found profound as I listened and scribbled them down, sitting with friends watching the service together…

What I heard was that the King is here to serve his people, be the servant of his people, attending to their needs, especially those who are poor or vulnerable, and to bear ‘heavy weights’ for us.

When he is given the spurs, which appear like a symbol of war, the message comes instead that he must hold authority ‘with gentleness … in the paths of peace’, not to wage war but to protect his people. Love in action, as an advocate for those in need. The words stated that he must stand for mercy not might, for justice not judgement. To hold authority with wisdom. Ah, that word wisdom that means something so different from power, or intelligence, or being clever. Being wise is what we need from the leaders of the world, especially now.

And so, can this Coronation bring us back to some of the values that bring us all together as a country, that remind us what we stand for and how lucky we are to have this history of constitutional monarchy, where the Queen or King represent us but have no real political power? That they were put firmly in their place several centuries ago, before other countries had realized the harm that one over-powerful man can do to his people. Yet, these lessons haven’t been learnt elsewhere, as there have been no end of world rulers who have done immense harm to their people in their roles as Presidents or dictators. Indeed, we still witness today plenty of over-powerful leaders causing terrible harm, not only to their own people but to the world around them.

Our politicians have not done a good job recently at helping us value the freedoms and rights that we have in this country as a result of our long history of learning. This learning was demonstrated particularly in this coronation service which incorporated so many different aspects of our diverse country now, through the music and prayer, from the fact that Rishi Sunak, a Hindu, read the Christian Lesson, to the presence of so many leaders of different faiths, reminding us that we may believe in different Gods but we do not have to rage or battle over who is right. We can live in peace with different cultures and beliefs yet can share the values of tolerance and kindness.

I am sure I was not alone in rather envying Charles the ability to create such a moment, something between a wedding and a funeral, where he could choose some, though obviously not all, of the readings and music. And that music was sacred and inspiring, the notes soaring above in the beauty that is Westminster Abbey.

And what about us, the people of the UK.  What can we personally do to make this a moment to draw our communities together in a more coherent set of values and appreciate what we have and can enjoy in this country? It has been somehow cool, in recent years, to denigrate everything we stand for, to sweat and apologise over our history, Empire, slavery, intolerance, or whatever. Should we not now look further to remember we were not alone in having empires and colonies, and that other countries had slaves, and continue today to be far less tolerant than we are here, both of religion, race, sexuality and more? That there are important things to consider about our future in a world where people are trafficked daily and others live in fear, repression, poverty and under the impact of climate change? 

To crown a King is certainly a moment in history. Let us, as individuals, use it well, and consider our words and actions more carefully to ensure we keep this country stable and integrated in this precarious time. It doesn’t help to moan about everything, it is more profitable, surely, to consider what needs to be done rather than endlessly discussing what is wrong. Division is exactly what Putin and our enemies wish for us, as it weakens us all.  Let’s consider less what we can get from our country and more what we can do for it. It has been unfashionable to be proud of England and in that I fear we are in danger of alienating our young, who need to feel they belong to something worthwhile. There are many worse places to live in this world, for sure.

King Charles III has proven to be someone who saw before others that the natural world needed care, that plants feel, that trees communicate. He has done good work in communities with the Prince’s Trust, giving young people confidence and opportunities they would never have had without this organisation, and has had to wait for decades for this moment in history.

For me, born in 1950, this Coronation demonstrates how much this country has changed in my lifetime. We were far more intolerant and less inclusive in my childhood than we are now, and lived a far poorer and more basic life in general. Let’s celebrate, with our new King, what we have achieved as a people and build on it, for there is always more to learn.