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Leaders - how powerful are they?

Posted by Simon Parke, 25 November 2020, 2.07pm

Leaders are not as powerful as people imagine; because things happen. Or as the Tory Prime Minister Harold Macmillan put it, ‘Events, dear boy, events.’

(This was probably not Johnson’s vision of his prime ministerial reign.)

You may be a competent skipper of a boat. But when the storm comes, there’s only so much you can do. And sometimes there’s nothing at all – but hope.

This is how leadership is sometimes.

And the healthy leader will acknowledge this lack of control - and what a relief it will be. They are not responsible for everything! Their blood pressure can relax.

They can smile more, speak less anxiously to people; listen even. And they can apologise, rather than bluster, distract or deny which is the way of control-freakery.

In a 1995 interview with Andrew Neil, Jimmy Saville – hugely concerned with control for reasons we now understand - famously produced a banana and started eating it when he found his private life in the spotlight.

To maintain his power in the exchange, to keep control, he needed a distraction – and chose a stunt with a banana.

It worked brilliantly. There was no way back to the truth from there.

Former US President Barack Obama, a healthier figure, was aware of this lack of control.

‘Nothing that comes to my desk is perfectly soluble,’ he said. ‘Otherwise someone else would have solved it. So you wind up dealing with probabilities. Any given decision you make, you’ll wind up with a 30 to 40 per cent chance that it isn’t going to work.’

Obama’s words invite us to be realistic in our leadership – whether at work, home or in the community.

They also invite us to be humble; but more than that, they invite us to be free.

‘I am not in control, hallelujah!’

A leader who is free is infinitely preferable, and a great deal more creative, to one still living the mirage of power over all they survey.

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The Good Therapist

Posted by Simon Parke, 25 November 2020, 10.26am

When the good therapist sits down with their client, they will know there is no simple answer.

They will be aware of the deep wilderness in which our lives must be lived; what Yalom calls ‘existence pain’ - the harsh facts of life.

Harsh facts like the inevitability of death for each of us and those we love.

The frightening freedom we possess to make our lives and to destroy them.

Our ultimate aloneness in the journey.

The absence of any obvious meaning or sense to life; or justice in how things work and work out.

And, I would add to this list, the scream of our forgotten formation; the unresolved echoes of our past.

The good therapist may need to tell the client this process cannot be compared to medicine; there is no simple pill that can make things better.

It is more helpfully compared with going to the gym. There is hard work to be put in, if there is to be benefit. Fifty minutes in a comfy chair can be very exhausting.

The good therapist knows that they do not know everything, whatever the client may imagine.

But they do know the client possesses all they need to know, if only the ground can be cleared. Truth is the removal of barrier and impediment.

The therapist is not a guru - but a remover of rubbish which covers over hope and beauty.

And the good therapist notices when they are bored, and uses this knowledge.

The therapist becomes bored when the client is skating round an issue, in avoidance or denial. This is dull and the clock can appear to stop.

But when the client engages with the issues they need to engage with, the therapist’s attention returns; nothing could keep it away. Honesty is gripping.

The good therapist will not rush lazily toward a theory or a certainty, towards label or stereotype - but rather, will keep the encounter spontaneous and uncertain, where life is.

The presenting issue is never the issue, though; you can be almost certain of that.

The good therapist knows they are in it together with their client. It is not their problem but our problem. Every life has within it an echo of our own. No therapist is an island, ‘entire unto itself’.

The good therapist will not fear entering darkness, even if the client’s rage is transferred onto them. As Thomas Hardy said, ‘If a way to the better there be, it exacts a full look at the worst.’

But this can get messy.

So the good therapist will offer a safe space, where the worst - instead of being hidden away - can be unpacked without fear. It may even bring laughter.

And then the good therapist will get up and let go because they can save no one but themselves, a daily and ongoing challenge.

As TS Eliot prayed, ‘Teach me to care and not to care.’

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Stress - the friendly and unfriendly sort

Posted by Simon Parke, 17 November 2020, 7.03am

Stress can help or hinder when we are faced with a challenge.

If stress helps us to focus on a challenge, whatever it is, then it is our friend.

If stress brings our attention to something that needs facing – like an exam or a difficult conversation or some big event - then wonderful. Attention brings energy, sensible preparation, it brings clarity and calm.

We are doing all we can do; and no one can do more.

But not all stress is a friend. It ceases being friendly when it brings distracted behaviour, paralysis or loss of focus. These are the signs.

Perhaps everything all suddenly seems too much; there is no place of peace in our lives.

If our stress is the unfriendly sort, it’s worth having a conversation with it. I’d ask it questions like ‘Why are you here? Why now?’ and ‘Where have you come from?’

I may also ask, ‘When are you going?’

Stress, like a cloud in the sky, is passing through. It has no more substance than the substance we give it – so, where possible, don’t give it any.

But do speak with it. It may be hurting you - but do speak with it. It brings a message.

It can also help to speak the stress out loud. Get it out of your body where you can see it better, where it has less power.

‘I’m finding this difficult. I don’t know what to do.’

This can often best be done in someone else’s company, someone we trust.

Remember, though, this is not who you are. Your sky is blue. But like a cloud in the sky, stress does pass through.

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For those who carry the world on their shoulders

Posted by Simon Parke, 16 November 2020, 10.38am

And so we prise the world from our shoulders, a slow peeling

The weight of the world has weighed heavy, sometimes impossibly so

So heavy, we begin actually to stoop; like Atlas, we bend beneath the load which won’t go away, there’s too much there, digging into our flesh, pressing on our mind

The world makes demands, a thousand every day and each weighs a painful tonne

And so we act, we have no choice or we may collapse – we ease the world from our shoulders

This is allowed, breaking news – we are not asked to carry this load

(no really, we aren’t)

We can care without carrying

We can let go and put the world down, take a rest

We can stand straight again, such lightness of being, so long forgotten

We can care without carrying, and care without carrying

We can ease the world from our shoulders today

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The contemplative in binary times

Posted by Simon Parke, 11 November 2020, 9.49am

In binary times, when everyone is either this or that – and very determinedly so - only one thing is necessary, only one thing required of the contemplative.

It is necessary, just once a day, to give up everything we know.

We may do it twice a day, declare our assumed knowledge to be nothing, a worthless string of beads.

This practice opens such doors.

Once we give up everything we imagine know, our progress towards truth becomes a great deal freer and life jollier, more hopeful.

Here’s a story. Nan-in receives a university professor who has come to enquire about Zen. Nan-in serves tea.

He fills his cup as a good host might. But he then carries on pouring until the cup is spilling over.

The university professor watches until he can contain himself no longer.

‘It’s over-full!’ he says. ‘No more will go in!’

‘Like this cup,’ replies Nan-in, ‘you are full of speculations and opinions. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?’

Meister Eckhart said something similar: ‘To the one who knows nothing, all shall be revealed.’

These words are mad in binary times when each has an opinion dipped in holy water and sanctified by the angels.

But in every other world, they are sane.

There may need to be some unlearning of old things, an unknotting of the mind, some loss of control – for strong opinions can maintain the myth of control.

But such unlearning is wonderful for there are no eggs in last year’s nest.

So once a day, we give up everything we know.

Twice a day, our assumed knowledge is declared to be nothing, a broken string of beads.

And in the fragile space created we see people more clearly; the sky more wonderfully, feel a more hopeful breeze…

... and know again what it is to be free.

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Change. Why do I find it so difficult?

Posted by Simon Parke, 09 November 2020, 5.21pm

Lockdown brings difficulty; but it also brings re-invention.

Recently I listened to a businesswoman talking about how she’s adapting to change, shedding old practices which don’t work anymore and finding new ways to thrive in collaboration with other businesses; people she hadn’t spoken with before..

It was inspiring stuff. And in the best possible way, she reminded me of a snake.

Have you ever watched a snake shed its skin? It’s quite a sight and disturbing in a way. When the time comes, the creature isn’t at all sentimental or troubled by self-pity – it just leaves the old skin on the grass and moves on.

It does this when it no longer needs it, when the old skin has served its purpose and the new skin is ready – ready for fresh adventures.

The snake sheds the old skin because it is wrinkled, dry and uncomfortable and has no more life in it. And this makes sense. But are we as wise as the snake?

We all have old skins. Down the years we have played many different roles and not all of them by choice.

Some we have loved and some have been difficult.

Maybe some suited you better than others; and that’s all right. As Cardinal Newman once said, ‘To live is to change and to be perfect is to have changed often.’ With every role we learn, and failure can be kinder than success. As Leonard Cohen sang,

Forget your perfect offering
There’s a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

And if you were a snake counting your old skins today, how many would there be? If you had time, you could even move through the grass visiting old sites and roles now abandoned.

Which have happy and proud memories and which make you sad, awkward or angry? Different feelings are allowed.

Some people cling on to their lifeless old skin because they cannot believe there is fresh skin underneath, ready to replace it. Perhaps they cling to a version of reality that is no longer true – but which they want to be true. This could relate to work, family or belief.

Familiar ways can help us to feel secure and give us a sense of identity; but like any old skin, they are dry, uncomfortable and stifle fresh adventures. The snake is more vibrantly coloured with the old skin gone. But they must first let go of it.

The Buddha said that just because a boat had got you across the sea, it didn’t mean you had to carry it on your back through the forest. It had served its purpose - better now to leave it behind, with thanks, on the shore.

There is a time and a season for everything. And in lockdown and beyond, every life, like every journey, can be an inspiring tale of letting go and re-invention.

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Posted by Simon Parke, 09 November 2020, 1.46pm

Written twenty six years ago; but truth doesn’t wither.


Sometimes the sun shines on the righteous
Sometimes the damaged tree survives
Sometimes the pain it has an ending
Sometimes the darkness in us dies

Sometimes the sun shines on the righteous
Sometimes the abused forgive and grow
Sometimes there’s cause for celebration
Sometimes there’s meaning in the flow

Sometimes the sun shines on the righteous
Sometimes the net seems full to burst
Sometimes there’s friendship in the laughter
Sometimes a drink for those who thirst

Sometimes the sun shines on the righteous
Sometimes God’s whisper echoes far
And sometimes good’s so good it beats the diamond
And shines amid the bleak sky like a star

P.S. Angela Reith put a wonderful tune to it

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Uncertainty. The abandoned child in the desert.

Posted by Simon Parke, 02 November 2020, 6.07pm

Uncertainty is the abandoned child in the desert.

She’s put there by people at the end of their tether, at the end of their terror, who just can’t cope anymore and can’t bear to see her or hear her.

‘Just shut up, will you?!’

She hears that a lot.

‘So do my plans mean nothing?’

She hears that as well.

‘Of course the kid has needs - but we all have needs and I don’t need her right now!’

So folk avert their eyes and hurry on, hurry away. They can’t bear to look at her or listen as she cries her inconvenient truth in the wilderness.

Though some stay, they dare to sit with Uncertainty and not walk away.

Instead they listen to the infant mouthing her words, mad, awkward and frightening, though some say they heal.

And what did the child say out there in the desert? Some heard this:

‘I am not in control and that’s OK. I am not in control and that’s OK.’

That’s what they heard. Though what they were to do with it, no one was sure.

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'A God in Ruins' - a review

Posted by Simon Parke, 02 November 2020, 5.48am

A God in Ruins is a novel about the war and about fiction; and look away now if you don’t wish to know there’s a wicked twist at the end.

Kate Atkinson MBE takes us up in the sky with Bomber Command, terrifying flights of death over Europe. And then in family saga style, asks what we did when all that awfulness was over.

At the heart of this tale is Teddy Todd – would-be poet, heroic World War 2 bomber pilot, husband, father and grandfather, trying to make his way kindly through the 20th century. And it’s not always easy.

He was a Wing Commander at the age of twenty four and so always one of the older pilots. Only ten per cent of those flying in Bomber Command at the beginning of the war were alive at the end. No wonder sex was so freely offered and enjoyed during the war. With random death so busy, no one thought much of tomorrow.

‘War is man’s greatest fall from grace,’ says Atkinson in her afterword. Though there are other falls recorded in more domestic settings.

The novel moves back and forth over sixty years from the arrival of war to the present day, a family saga, as I say, with effortless characterisation achieved by Atkinson without her appearing to try too hard. She finds people quickly and discretely.

We may move around in time, but we are always rooted in the here and now, with these characters, even in the tiniest of moments. Round a dinner table, in a care home, flying above the Ruhr, we are always absolutely there.

The author, as the god of time, exercises her powers freely. In two paragraphs, we might be taken forward fifty years to hear the story of what happened to a family heirloom. And then returned back to where we were to continue.

But in the free movement between different times arises a strong sense of our collective past; how one thing becomes another; and how one thing after another is quickly forgotten as the years pass by. No one wished to remember the war until they were a long way away from it.

There is eye-watering sadness, sharp comedy – and deep wisdom. Kate Atkinson is a dry observer of pretension and poppycock, both private and societal. Some of the transactions which take place in the family are quite as harrying as the dog fights over France.

And so to the twist. There is, what Atkinson calls, ‘a great conceit hidden at the heart of the book’ which brings a savage execution at the end, not to say a massacre. I felt it undermined some of the glory but the critics loved it. Reflecting on the ‘trickery’, (her word) Atkinson says that she wants to be free as a writer with no constraints. (And remember, this is a book about fiction and our relationship to it.)

So, yes, there’s a twist at the end of A God in Ruins which divides people. But such is her ability - some would say genius - only a fool would deny her that freedom.

She’s a top, top writer. And wise as an owl who has seen it all.

My new novel, anchored in the life of Jesus, is called ‘Gospel – Rumours of Love’ and is published on February 1st, 2021

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Posted by Simon Parke, 27 October 2020, 10.48am

It is an interesting story.

A young black man called Marcus, who grew up with nothing, takes on a government crammed with those who grew up with everything.

On the face of it, it is an impossible story, the battle lines too unfair.

He should be crushed by the dull blows of power, laughed out of court, ignored, patronised, mocked, ‘Get back to what you know!’

Only he does know, he knows very well, he knows better than them, and his strength gathers the strength of others around him.

Light a fire and others bring their fuel, or, on this occasion, their food.

Government twists, writhes and contorts as around them goodness flows, it just won’t stop.

Reminding us that nothing is written in stone.


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