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Nov 15

2022

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Helen Whitten

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When I was in my teens my father gave me The Pensées by Blaise Pascal.  I was fascinated by its combination of science and philosophy. I can’t pretend to have understood it all. After all, what did I know about life at the age of 15? Nothing. Yet his mind and his writings intrigued me and a particular passage stands out even now from the book, as it was, perhaps, the first indication that there is much in life that I shall never be able to comprehend.  Talking about infinity:

Nature is an infinite sphere, whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.

What does that do to your mind I wonder? My mind went into a kind of spin when I read this for the first time. It still does.  It’s like black holes, which I equally find well nigh impossible to grasp. This thought causes a sort of black hole of space in my mind as I try to think about the universe and what I am supposed to make of it in a lifetime.

Man’s search for meaning is probably as endless as our search for the understanding of the infinite. I was interested to read today in Kieran Setiya’s book Life is Hard: How Philosophy Can Help us Find our Way, that apparently man’s search for meaning does not come up in Plato or Aristotle, Seneca or Epictetus, Augustine or Aquinas, Descartes, Hume or Kant. They, as many other philosopher, focus more on how to live well, how to make the most of our human life.

I just saw Bill Nighy in Living, a movie about a man waking up to his true nature, to life, in the last few months of life.  He is determined, in that time, to live and laugh, and also to make a difference. His example makes a lasting imprint on some, but only some, of those around him.

Yet I think we all search for some kind of personal meaning. And that means taking time to stop and reflect on our values, on the legacy we want to leave with our children and grandchildren, on the fact that the world is full of wonder and, if we appreciate it, then we can give time to consider what we might contribute towards it, in our own small way.  I find there is so much spoken now about ‘rights’ that people seek to get from governments, and far too little about ‘responsibilities’, and what we can each do to contribute, to make life in our country more prosperous or enjoyable. My goodness, do we need it now, that pulling together towards rebuilding the economy post-Covid, post-Ukraine and in the midst of global economic challenges.

As I think of the senselessness of the war in Ukraine I am reminded of Pascal’s statement about young men meeting at a border. In one situation they would be friends, in another enemies.

We must kill them in war, just because they live beyond the river. If they lived on this side, we would be called murderers.

This is so true of Ukraine and Russia, who share so much history. And I read today that, inevitably, the consequence of this war has been to emit horrendous toxicity into the universe. Just what no human being needs.

And if we do all die out, I turn to another wonderful book, given to me by my dear departed friend Bruce – The Human Situation by W. Macneile Dixon. In this, Dixon writes of the concept of the planets and galaxies of the universe churning away for millennia whether we are here to watch, wonder or measure, or not.  This sends my mind into the same black hole of life’s mysteries as Pascal!

It’s a miserable rainy day here in Kew but I am sure there are things we can all wonder at, nonetheless, despite the ghastly news, things we wish to do with our lives, books we want to read, or re-read?

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Oct 31

2022

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Helen Whitten

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Sorry I have been silent for a while. I have been dealing with one of those life-defining moments we have. Do you know the ones? The moments where your life turns on a pivot, or turns direction, where something inside of you bursts out and shows you the truth, or shows you a potential road ahead, or a possible dead end, so you have to do something about it, or it almost feels like a part of you might die. In a way, these are moments of growth, where all norms are void and you have to journey off the map you have created in the past. And others often won’t understand you.

We recently attended a talk at the Appledore Literary Festival by Cathy Rentzenbrink on the subject of memoir. She raised this question of life-defining moments and how they may come about. For her it was the tragic death of her brother after a car accident at the age of seventeen. You may have had a traumatic event such as this that changes all our perspectives and has ripples for the rest of your life. The loss of our first son as a baby certainly changed some perspectives for me. I knew I wanted so much to be a mother again. I also knew that I no longer feared death. If he was there, what was there to fear?

Then there are less dramatic, yet significant moments, some of which we choose and some of which happen to us.  It could be who you date, a career change, whether you chose to travel to a foreign country to live or stay for a period, a death or illness, a new home, new hobby, anything that shifts you from your previous path.

I remember that when, as a mature student, I started to think of a career towards the end of my history degree at King’s London, I could have returned to the work I was doing previously, in research. But my tutor pointed out to me that he had noticed I was good at communicating with the younger students and had I ever thought of teaching or working in a pastoral way with people? I hadn’t, but it sewed a seed that seemed worth exploring and two years later, after a great deal of retraining and a heap of self-doubt, I launched Positiveworks, my consultancy in coaching and training. I hadn’t a clue what I was doing, many people around me did not understand what I was doing, but that little bubble inside me was saying ‘this is the way to go. It could be good.” And my goodness it was better than good. It was marvellous.

Holidays and travel can be life-defining too. Many people go on holiday somewhere and end up buying a property. Sometimes, also, you gain a view of life that you would not have had before. I think this happened for me and my teenage sons when we travelled into a village in Zambia and saw how happy the children were playing games in the sand. There was no Lego, no Barbie dolls. Just imagination and laughter.

My trip to Lagos, Nigeria, back in 1995 taught me to follow my gut. When I was invited out there to run some training courses for local Nigerian companies my family were unsure whether it would be safe for me to travel alone. But I had just read Ben Okri’s amazing book The Famished Road and that little voice inside me bubbled up again and said ‘Yes, go. You will be fine.’ And I was, and I met some wonderful people and got a taste for a country I would probably never have seen otherwise.

Of course gut feelings can lead you into darker places sometimes. As they say of investments, things can go down as well as up, but quite often, even when something has not turned out the way you hoped, you have gained more insights into yourself and life than you would have done had you not taken that path.

So maybe go back over your own life-defining moments, write them down for your children and grandchildren. Your experiences might show them a road they hadn’t thought of taking before, or give them the courage to follow a road that their inner voice is pointing out to them. Who knows…

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Sep 06

2022

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Helen Whitten

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No-one said life would be easy but for sure it is about to get harder for us all, here in the UK, for those in Europe, and for many people around the world. Putin is intent on that. It’s a perfect storm of events, following a global pandemic, and our leaders, including our new Prime Minister, are going to need to keep their heads and, hopefully, cooperate and collaborate to keep the world at peace, and to ensure that the poorest and most vulnerable do not suffer. We are all going to need to draw on our inner resources.

How do we do that?

Well, I guess we’ll need to budget and prioritise what we choose to spend our money on. But I believe it is our thinking that is going to be the most important resource for us to call on. Catastrophising, that thing the media love to do, is not going to help us. Being realistic, planning and adapting stage by stage, step by step, is. And, as I have mentioned before, I am greatly in favour of being a ‘rational optimist’: staying in the real world but noticing where we can rationally and reasonably feel optimistic and positive. This can bolster our confidence that we can manage the situation rather than convincing ourselves that we can’t. “I’d rather this wasn’t happening but I can manage it one way or another” can be a helpful mantra.

It’s easy to spend our life saying, “I’ll be happy when …” or “I’ll be happy if …” and miss the moment. Yet sometimes things do unexpectedly change for the better. Keep a watchful eye out for this.  But if things do get worse, then we will not have squandered the moment worrying about what might happen and be more energised and capable of managing whatever does transpire. So, let’s not run Hollywood disaster movies in our heads. It just keeps us up at night and that doesn’t help our ability to think clearly or positively.

A friend told me a story yesterday of an old lady who happened to be sitting in a café in the countryside and the man next to her sighed and said, “I can’t believe that just at the moment I sit down to enjoy my coffee the sun goes in!” The elderly lady looked at him and reminded him, quite forcefully apparently, of how lucky he was to be sitting in a nice café under a safe, if cloudy, sky, and not struggling to survive in the floods in Pakistan, or taking shelter from bombs in the Ukraine. The man looked sheepish and was grateful to her for pointing this out to him.

The news focuses on the negative, on those who can’t cope rather than those who have found ways to cope in difficult circumstances. The tendency to ramp up the fear factor is not good for us – it doesn’t help us make good decisions, and it lowers our immune system. Anxiety is not good for the brain or the body. And it certainly won’t be everyone who is affected in the same way by the rise in inflation and living costs, but some people will be adversely affected, and it is those we should be focusing on and helping. I hope the government gets this message. Surely, giving handouts to everyone deprives those who need it most.

The financial markets are greatly influenced by the moods and emotions of the people. Let’s remember that there are always opportunities to be had even in a recession. We need to believe in the inventors, entrepreneurs and leaders who may innovate to solve the world’s problems, including climate change. These could benefit us all.

To keep ourselves going, we can gain happiness from very simple things – being with family and friends, watching a sunset or a new moon. We may choose to spend on a momentary treat, but long-term happiness is surely arrived at by focusing on our personal values and by treating others as we would wish to be treated ourselves. As a child, having my parents’ attention for an hour or two playing a board game or reading a story together, gave me as much pleasure as some gift or holiday, both of which are transitory. A parents’ love and attention stays with us for life.

Let’s be clear, Putin wants to break the West. He wants to divide us, plant as much disinformation as possible into the system so as to discombobulate our minds and make us disgruntled, despite the fact that conditions in our country are some of the best in the world. So, I feel we should decide not to be divided and to call on our inner resources to withstand the hardships that may lie ahead, as the Ukrainians are doing. We can disagree on all kinds of issues and debate them but let’s stand strong against his efforts to disintegrate Western society.

To break up, at the instigation of an empirical dictator, what we have achieved in the democratic world makes no sense to me whatsoever. Let’s not let him get to us and split us. Let’s rise above that. Let’s show him that we will work hard to protect the world from a war that could destroy all the comfort and advances we have achieved.

For me, gratitude is a powerful reminder of the changes I have seen in my 72 years. I think many are unaware of how much harder life was here in the UK only a short time ago, so perhaps it is a time for people to look at Youtube videos, or read books, about life a century ago, or even less, and notice the comforts, rights and benefits that have been created during this time. We don’t have to believe in any specific religion in order to look around, notice and even list where we can feel gratitude. This can unite us and help us through the next difficult months. As Marcus Aurelius said,

“The happiness of your life depends on the quality of your thoughts.”

So, notice where those thoughts take you – to a positive or negative place – and realize that you are the one who controls that focus. It can change the quality of your life, your health, and your decisions. Hold on tight and good luck!

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Aug 21

2022

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Helen Whitten

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One can’t turn on the radio these days without hearing of someone struggling with some aspect of life or another. And, inevitably, we do all struggle with life and some people more than others, for one reason or another. But I would feel happier (and perhaps everyone else would too?) if these interviews were balanced up by examples of those who have struggled with a challenge, and worked their way through it, rather than become overwhelmed by their problems. If we expose people to endless negative stories, they are going to have to work very hard indeed to keep themselves feeling resilient and able to cope with life.

I have no doubt played some small part in raising the issues of mental and emotional health into greater focus, having written six books on related subjects. However, I am concerned that the media emphasis on the fragility of everyone’s mental health is actually in danger of becoming detrimental to everyone’s mental health!

Right now, we all face many challenges in terms of inflation and the cost of living, climate change, and the Ukrainian war. We need to be resilient. In one of the radio interviews I was listening to, some students talked about their experiences and I ended up feeling rather sorry for them, because they seemed to have expected that things would be much easier than they were. They sounded outraged that they had been forced to share a flat with strangers, or had to move from one flat to another because they couldn’t afford the rent. It was as if they considered that this shouldn’t be happening to them. And the interviewer seemed to go along with this, ramping up the outrage. I suppose it makes better drama for the listeners. But is it helpful?

For who had told these young people that life should be easy, that they wouldn’t have to adapt to changes in the world economy? Because it struck me that they had not being adequately prepared for the fact that life isn’t fair, it isn’t easy, there will always be changes and some of those changes will be uncomfortable, that other people don’t always do what you would like them to, and that perhaps other people might also have trouble with your own behaviour, so there’s a need to be flexible and adapt to changing circumstances and demands, physical, emotional and financial.

Listening to them reminded me of how we had shared flats and bedrooms with strangers when I was moving between teens and adult years. It was the norm. And they were pretty dire places – no heating, we had snails climbing up the wall in one basement flat while condensation dripped down another, a geezer that exploded any time you wanted hot water for a bath and nearly asphyxiated my friend, landlords who did little to keep a place comfortable and who raised the rent from time to time, so we frequently had to move. We didn’t get asked how we felt about it, so we didn’t think it unusual and just carried on.

There is much quoting of statistics, and the statistics on loneliness are poignant but I can’t ever remember anyone asking me or my friends whether we were lonely, and we certainly were when we were growing up. Most people are, as they develop from teenage years to adulthood, entering the somewhat traumatic world of work, dating and finding a partner. It can all be a very lonely experience, but I think there was very little introspection at that time. There was, though, certainly, shyness, awkwardness, fear of the future, jealousy and all the usual emotions but I only knew one person who needed help with their mental health. Nowadays all those normal features of growing up have some kind of psychological label, as if they are abnormal and require intervention. But are they abnormal? And do they always require intervention?

I am not so sure they always do, and that if you listen to The Expectation Effect, the series by David Robson on iPlayer, you will hear some short salutary tips for how your beliefs and expectations of life shape the outcome of one’s efforts in many different areas of life – health, ageing, willpower, stress and life in general, so that you programme your mind to work through the difficulties rather than feel swamped.

Of course there are times when a diagnosis, and label, is helpful and intervention is absolutely necessary. But I worry that the more these cases are emphasized, the more likely it might be to develop the sort of culture whereby you’re the odd one out if you don’t have some kind of mental health issue or label. Am I alone in being concerned that this discussion could have got out of balance?

Of course, it is a good thing, on the whole, that mental health has become a topic of everyday conversation and not something people have to hide or feel embarrassed about. It’s a good thing that we understand it better, and that in general people are more compassionate, but it is necessary, at the same time, to build resilience and we often do this by experiencing difficult times. It is perfectly normal to feel bad sometimes, to feel sad sometimes, to feel angry, to feel anxious. It’s human and natural and we can thank those emotions for enriching our lives.

I was reminded this morning of the psychiatrist, Professor Anthony Clare’s tips for happiness, one of which was to ‘avoid introspection’. Yet we seem to be doing nothing but suggesting that people spend a vast amount of time thinking about themselves and their emotions. And then, of course, Socrates famously said that “The unexamined life is not worth living”. Well, both are true, in my view, and we, as individuals, have to learn how much to think about ourselves and how much just to get on with living.  Clare’s advice is to ‘cultivate a passion and become a part of something bigger than yourself’. Great advice, I believe.

All this led me to look up a Positiveworks blog I wrote back in 2008, when we were facing that economic downturn. So, for what it’s worth, I shall share the seven tips I mentioned then and hope they may help you consider how to feel positive as we face this current potential recession:

  1. Focus on the positive. The one thing we have control of is our mental and emotional approach so rather than panic, pull in a thought like “I’d rather it wasn’t happening but I can manage it step by step,” which hopefully will help you stay calm.
  2. Focus on what you can control. Perhaps that’s cash flow, saving money, investing it carefully, letting go of one expenditure in order to be able to afford another.
  3. Focus on personal values. The thing that keeps us sane is to focus on our personal principles and values, not getting swept up by groupthink or the pull of the crowd as to how you respond.
  4. Get real. Work with facts and evidence, not supposition or headlines. Statistics are bandied about that sometimes have no basis in fact (listen to More or Less!). Check them out.
  5. Look for opportunities. In every downturn there is opportunity. I have lived through the 1970s, 1990s (when I set up my business) and 2008 and have watched people discover some innovation that only became possible because of the changing circumstances.
  6. Be discerning. What is reported on social media is not always true. Check it out. Don’t go to the doom-and-gloom sites. Financial markets are influenced by emotions so it doesn’t help to focus on the ‘everything is going to the dogs’ narrative.
  7. Get creative and put your energy into the future. It takes the sum of our individual efforts to make change a positive experience. Turn around, look at things in a new light and see what’s possible, and also how you might support others. As Einstein said “you can’t solve a problem with the same thinking you used to create it.”

If you expect everything to go badly, and that you won’t be able to cope, then you are less likely to be able to cope. If you expect things to be difficult but remind yourself of other times when you have coped, then you are more likely to be able to manage these current challenges. So good luck. Oh, and maybe turn off the radio!

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Jul 26

2022

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Helen Whitten

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“Old age is a bummer” a dear friend of mine said as she arrived for lunch the other day. Well, she actually said something rather stronger, but you get the gist. And that is so true. She’s going through medical problems and trying to work through the complexities of our National Health Service, so, yes, it is a bummer, for her, and for many of us.

Few people warn you about the challenges of old age – although my dear sister did advise me to make the most of my sixties as everything would get worse in my seventies! And how true that has been. But most of us don’t like to think about it, do we, old age or vulnerability, until it lands on us?

Every week now we hear of a friend who is ill, or someone who dies. I hadn’t realized how resilient I was going to need to be at this age, and, looking back, I realize I probably wasn’t as understanding of my mother when her friends were dying as I could have been. I do remember, when working on the biography of Harold Macmillan, how lonely he found it, in his nineties, being one of the few people left of his generation.

So, how do we become resilient within this environment, especially as the medical services seem to have pretty much collapsed, and we are warned that social services are unlikely to be able to provide care for us later, even if we do have enough money to scrabble together to pay for it?

To plan or not to plan, that is the question. Whether it is easier to admit defeat and pack up one’s things and move to a smaller house, or flat, or bungalow, or transfer to one of those posh blocks where they provide restaurants and swimming pools and medical suites if one has the money. Or bury one’s head in the sand and continue as one is?

Of course, our children worry about us falling down the stairs, fracturing something, and making our old age a drama that no one can easily manage. But many of us aren’t ready to give up our lifestyle or our homes. The homes aren’t particularly big but may not be totally practical when we become old and gaga and can no longer climb the stairs, etc. Yet old age often also brings the joys of grandchildren, and one does want a living space large enough to allow them to stay. Indeed, inevitably we want to hold on to the life we are having for as long as possible, be close to our friends and do the things we enjoy doing while we can.

We moved to a smaller house a few years ago, in an area that I consider to be perfect for this time of our life as we are three minutes from the tube, a pharmacy, doctors, Tesco and village shops, plus we have Kew Gardens to walk in. However, it is on three floors and right now my knee is playing up and it takes me quite some time to walk up, or down, to answer the door. What if I need a new hip, how will I manage then?

But on the other hand, one could say that the stairs keep us fit. A friend of mine whose father lived in the States in a residential home with a lift, completely lost his capacity to climb up even one set of stairs.

So, I guess it is about living in the moment but keeping an eye on the future. For sure, thinking about what one wants in the last days of one’s life, making that living will, ensuring one’s will is totally fair and can be easily understood and executed. For myself, I believe in talking to my children about my wishes should I suddenly be taken ill or incapacitated. Others don’t want to have these conversations. Fair enough. There’s no perfect way to live, no perfect way to die.

But for me, also, in order to become resilient enough to keep happy within these changes of old age, it is about touching a sense of the intangible in life, the spiritual, or whatever you want to call it. The small but powerful essence inside us that accepts that life is finite and wants to find some kind of peace and grace within oneself, and with life and relationships, before one moves on to whatever there might be on the other side, even if that is nothing. For me, this takes some solitude, peaceful music, time in nature, time with grandchildren who have that essence somehow still inside of them, and of course spending time with their parents, one’s own children! What is more precious than this?

I recommend, again, Michael Ignatieff’s book On Consolation, which has many examples of how those who have faced illness and death found some consolation and courage to manage it. This can be through writing or journaling, music, prayer, one’s marriage, family. friends. As we think of this, it feels important to consider the legacy we want to leave, the memories we would like people to hold of us, the events that may help them think warmly of us and the times we have spent together.

Those ripples last a lifetime. My grandmother died when I was 17 yet I still remember her every day with such love and affection, remember the times we played cards together, watched horse races, went for walks with our dog. And so, of course, I hope that when I am long-gone, my gorgeous grandchildren will have a few happy memories of the times we are having now, too.

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There was a feeling last weekend, with the celebrations for the Platinum Jubilee, that we came together as a country, putting aside some differences for a brief spell.  That, in our respect and gratitude for a woman who has dedicated her life to the service of us all, in the best way she could, we were drawn together, whether we were monarchists or not.

Yes, of course you can say that she has lived in luxury and been taken care of well by those who work for her. Yet would you wish to be so much in the public eye as she has been, as much as all those who are in the Royal family are? I certainly wouldn’t. I would hate it. The normal things that befall many of us – tragedies, parenting, divorce, conflicts – are all carried out in front of us, at the mercy of the judgement and criticism of the crowd, then chewed over and talked of for years, in the media across the world.

Some people were saying that the flag-waving was old-hat, that it belonged to a past era of British history and was somehow distasteful. I would ask them to look around at other countries and notice that we seem to be far less critical of others taking pride in their nations, than we are of ourselves. The Italians, French, Spanish and many nations wave flags happily on specific days of the year, and the tribal aspect of football or rugby matches is clear for us all to see. I don’t see there is anything wrong with this, unless it becomes so insular that it excludes others or leads to invasions of other territories.

We can surely value a sense of belonging in our land, perhaps the place we were born, but certainly in the place we live. It is a natural human sentiment and rises above politics or monarchy or republicanism. It is about the place, the land, the people who live in it. And that’s what we saw last weekend as communities came together to arrange celebrations, to talk with one another and celebrate together.

For whatever government is in power, we can be proud of and loyal to the country in which we live. There has been so much endless criticism and backbiting in recent years in the UK and I believe it comes from people mistaking the leader of a political party with a country.  One may criticise Boris Johnson and yet still love England. One may have detested President Trump and yet still have a great affection for America. They aren’t the same thing. The Government is temporary, and of course it can shape what is happening in a country, but it is by no means the whole story.

The divisions that have occurred over recent years are more marked than in previous eras and it saddens me. There were more cross-party friendships in times gone by, there was more friendly debate and discussion between people with different opinions, less of the echo chamber that has evolved from social media. I hope we can go back to this as the tendency to think of those who don’t agree with us as ‘bad people’ is unhealthy. It is as bigoted as those we accuse of being bigots. It means we are closed, not willing to open up to new ideas, to admit we might be wrong, or that we might learn something from others, even if we don’t change our opinion on a subject.

In her 1991 Christmas broadcast, the Queen said “Let us not take ourselves too seriously. None of us has a monopoly of wisdom.” Wise words and words that lead us to be open and question, rather than close our ears and imagine we know everything in some self-righteous way. A little humility goes a long way.

The endless criticism of the UK is self-destructive. You can be sure that not everyone in Ukraine supported President Zelensky when the war started out in February, yet when their country was under attack by Russia the Ukrainians came together in their pride of place, willing to fight and die for their country. This sense of loyalty goes far deeper than any political party. It’s visceral.

Perhaps we can learn from it and realize that politics is important but ultimately all political parties come and go and, ultimately, also all of them are, in their own ways nonetheless striving for better health, better education and peace for their nations. We can all disagree about the ways to achieve these goals but let’s not fight amongst ourselves so fiercely in the process.

The history of civilization is a history of warfare and brutality. Read about life in this country only a few centuries ago and realize that it was bleak, a very basic way of living, and that we have come a long way, through hard work, scientific and medical breakthroughs, and teamwork. We are an extraordinarily diverse country in comparison to the year of the Coronation, and most of the time we get along pretty well. Walking around London one knows that one is mixing with people from all over the world, with a huge variety of opinions and political loyalties, and yet we get along, enjoying the privilege of living in one of the most civilised countries of the world, in an era of unprecedented comfort and peace. Long may it remain that way.

I think there was a great sense of gratitude to the Queen in the celebrations last weekend, and also a question of whether people would have felt the same if it had been President Johnson or President Starmer. Does an elected president have that same continuity, I question?

Nothing is perfect but gratitude goes a long way to make us happy and cooperative.  Focusing on an appreciation of what we do have, even in the midst of challenges such as inflation and high prices, is far better for our mental health than focusing on lack. We have rather torn ourselves apart in recent years, and the cancel culture in which we live does not help.

As Kenneth Clark said in his programme CivilisationWe can destroy ourselves with cynicism and disillusion just as effectively as by bombs.” Let’s not do that. As the Queen said in her 2008 Christmas broadcast “When life seems hard, the courageous do not lie down and accept defeat; instead, they are all the more determined to struggle for a better future.” Let’s do that now, to the best of our abilities.

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