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The Emerging Future. The Bearable Present.

Over the last few months many people in my various networks in Scotland have been gearing up for a journey,  a journey that has just started. It’s a journey to the emerging future, a journey of personal exploration connected to wider explorations which variously circle the idea of learning the leadership qualities needed to transform business and society. (You can still join them here if you want!)

I’ve been intrigued, and excited, and reassured to know that so many people really do want to learn how to ‘bring their real selves to work’, really do want to positively help manage our emerging future by understanding what we need to nurture in ourselves and in our organisations for that emerging future to be one of positive value to all. And yet…

Well I wouldn’t be me if there wasn’t a but in there somewhere. It took a while but finally this week, as I joined all my friends and colleagues at the start of that journey, it clicked. You see I don’t want to take my real self to work. My real self sends my work self to work in order to cope with a reality that is painful and exhausting physically and mentally. My real self stays at home in the bed it takes 10-15 minutes to unfurl and stretch my stiffened and spastic body from when I first get up. My real self stays at home and feels weepy and exhausted and terrified. My work self gets up, and out, and gets on a train, and goes somewhere where energy and work and mission and people keep her focussed on living and contributing, and allow her to forget (for the most part) what fate has decreed for her. My real self needs to keep herself trained on things other than her embodied experience of the present, her nostalgia for the past and her fear of the emerging future. My real self needs to be distracted by doing, by engaging, by being in the world, right now, present with others and with external ideas and challenges. And my real self does not want to know about that emerging future. My emerging future is a trap, from which there is no escape. My emerging future is too close for comfort.

Something I have learnt in the last few more difficult years is that work, good work (and I am so lucky to have that), is the only way a person trapped by an emerging future can survive. We need the external focus, the distraction, and the sense of comfort that works provides. I don’t mean paid employment necessarily, although ideally of course. But labour, communal effort, the dignity and power of labour is that when ahead is too frightening to face, and the past too painful to contemplate, labour is where comfort and respite can be found. It is in shared labour that a bearable present is found.  It is the great tragedy of our society that paradoxically those most trapped are least likely to have access to that bearable present.

Now of course there is an irony here  in that all my friends and colleagues who are on that journey are on it because they want to be part of freeing all the people like me for whom the idea of ‘the future’ means only more pain, more ‘less’. I’m haven’t worked out yet what that means for me. I just know that for now I will be reassured that so many are working to craft a better emerging future in U-Lab Scotland, while I focus on doing my bit from the bearable present. And try to contain the impatience that can bring with it!

“What Do People Do All Day?”… She Said.


I talk to myself as I write. I try not to. I work in an open plan office and lovely as my colleagues are I’m not sure I want them to hear all of my various trains of thought as I write. But I find it increasingly hard to write without doing this. I don’t always and for a long time I didn’t at all. It’s one of those things you learn to lose as a kid keen to become an adult.

I was reminded the other day of a time when I was little, about 3 or so. My parents had given me a book called What Do People Do All Day? by Richard Scarry. I was in love with that book. I mean really in love. When I wasn’t with it I was thinking about it. Longing for it. When I was with it I couldn’t take my eyes off it. I would lie on the floor in the little office of the hotel my parents ran, swinging my legs behind me, staring and staring at its pages. I’d run my fingers along the edges of the book, onto the cover, noticing the different feel of the thicker, harder, slippy material. Sometimes I would just drop my head down a little and inhale. Once or twice I feel asleep on it and woke with the warm smell of its pages in my nostrils and amazed that I could just open my eyes and be back in the story. When I was with it I felt so happy, because when I was with it I was there, in that world.

The book was a series of beautifully illustrated scenes of an imaginary town, American, populated by ‘people’ who were in fact animals – pigs and dogs and cats. It never occurred to me that they were cats dressed as humans. They were just people. Neither human nor animal. I didn’t need that distinction. I drank in every scene in the way I imagine many kids now disappear into a video game. I was there in those scenes when I was reading. Actually I couldn’t really read when I first got it, in fact I kind of taught myself to read using it. If any of the staff or either of my parents came in I’d ask ‘what’s that?’ and point at a word I couldn’t guess. When they told me I’d quietly repeat it over and over. The sounds felt strange in my mouth, I’d notice how my tongue and lips made different shapes, and some words or phrases, Fire Engine, for example, made me feel like something was happening. I began to notice the power of words to make us not just think but feel.

I would make up stories in my head to fill in where I couldn’t read the real story, or later when I could read, to add extra layers to the stories. When I started to write my stories I would speak them aloud, I suppose to help me spell the words. But there was also something comforting about hearing what I was thinking. The whole body engaged in what we try really hard as adults to convince ourselves (at least in Cartesian Western cultures) is the province of the “mind” alone. Years later I’d be reminded of that, listening to Glenn Gould play piano and hearing that lovely humming noise he would make as he played, so much part of the pleasure of those recordings for me.

It’s that comfort that causes me to speak aloud now, I think. A few years ago during a bit of a weird relapse of my MS I lost my inner voice. I was standing outside and suddenly realised that I was talking aloud to myself about a plane flying overhead, and then in the silence as I stopped, realised that there was nothing inside my head. Where for most of my adult life I had been used to a constant inner chatter, now there was nothing. It was one of the most unnerving and unpleasant experiences I have had with MS. I struggled to read (till I realised if I read out loud it was easier). Watching a film or tv was almost impossible. Without the chatter writing, in fact life, became lonely and frustrating – where was my friendly inner voice playing around with ideas and telling my fingers what to do? My inner voice came back in time, although never quite the same, I had to get used to a new me in there. And she goes through phases of quieting if I am fatigued or having a bit of a flare up. The quieter it gets, the louder the external voice. It’s a little odd but in the grand scheme of things not really a big problem.

And sometimes, if I am not around other people, it’s nice to feel words in my mouth like that again. The connection between movement and sound and hand and sight and thought all made open in the world again, just like I remember. So though I sometimes wish that chattering old me was back inside my head again, I also appreciate the comforting and absorbing bubble that talking as I write creates, a good place in which to dream and wonder – what *do* people do all day…?

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