Freedom Costs

In our rich, safe countries where too much, not too little, is the problem, we live with life’s settings at three or four, but outside it the settings are pretty full-volume and tonally rich. Relationships are deeper, life is more intense, risky, edgy, uncertain and alive.

In this blog I seek to share some of the things that come up for me, as a cancer patient. This one was written while I was on the amphetamine cancer drug Dexamethasone, and perhaps it demonstrates the scatty mindset it generates – though hopefully not as disastrously as what happened with Donald Trump when he was on it. So here we go…

I was thinking back to a time thirtyish years ago when a number of us were cooking up an idea and designs for a complex in an old, deserted industrial estate outside Glastonbury, including a holistic hospital, conference centre and university. I also worked on a campaign to change Glastonbury into a county borough with special planning status – one idea was to initiate a ten-year programme to make Glastonbury into Britain’s first totally traffic-free town.

All this didn’t happen. It couldn’t. It was far too big a stretch for British people to encompass, and it grated with the politics, media-manias and vested interests of the 1990s. But I need that holistic hospital now. It doesn’t exist. I cannot resort to holistic healthcare because there is no all-round system for supporting a cancer patient – not something I can afford, that is within my limited travel range, including availability of an ambulance, paramedic or nurse if I had a need.

The best chance for this was killed off thirtyish years ago when the Bristol Cancer Help Centre was discredited, defunded and closed, for entirely political reasons. There are a few options further away (such as the Care Oncology Clinic), but these are just not doable, for me, in the state I’m in. Besides, these options didn’t appear quickly enough at the moment I needed them, when I had to make urgent life-or-death, next-day choices.

As I wrote this I was sitting once again in the cancer unit at Treliske hospital. The tea lady came round. The guy sitting next to me, with his arm hooked up to a chemo drip, requested strong coffee with three sugars in. It’s amazing that this is permitted in a cancer unit. I was sitting there surrounded by cancer patients getting pumped up with drugs, some at £1,000 per shot, and most were sitting with their mobile phone radiation-generators held just one foot from their prostate, stomach or breast, irradiating themselves.

Somehow, they don’t feel it. Somehow, the medical profession studiously ignores this, even though the figures for epilepsy, headaches, anxiety, depression, alcoholism and domestic violence have risen sharply in the last year, thanks partially to all the wi-fi radiation generated by the video-streaming so many people are doing, for hours on end.

A nurse came round who was there last week. We had had a conversation about humanitarian work – she had a wish to do something like that. Good on her. Many believe they would have to be taken on by a big NGO, and I encouraged her to think and act independently, to go as a freelance volunteer humanitarian to a country she felt drawn to in her heart. I think she was rather stirred by that conversation. As has happened so many times, I found myself appearing in a person’s life to act as a magical prompt, a timely whisper from the soul, giving a jog from The Fates.

I also mentioned to her that you don’t have to completely change your life for this: do three months every year or two and you will serve optimally as a humanitarian. Keep part of your life anchored and normal so that you can handle stirring, chaotic and emotionally challenging stuff more easily, and so that you can bring a certain calm and openness to the people you’re mixing with. Above all, follow your heart: you will fall in love with these people and they with you.

So this week I brought her a copy of Pictures of Palestine – a humanitarian blogging from Bethelehem that I wrote ten years ago. It reads like a travel book, telling of a three-month stay in 2009, talking of ordinary life in Palestine’s West Bank and the daily life of an activist humanitarian. (You can get a free online copy here.).

Such a life is not as excitingly romantic as you might imagine: there’s a lot of waiting, drudge, complexity, chaos, broken plans, roadblocks, funding problems, form-filling and plenty of assholes to deal with. You land up wondering whether you’re actually helping, whether you’re making just minuscule ripples in a vast, turbulent ocean of need, or even whether you’re part of their problem. After all, we Brits have given the world loads of problems: my own maternal grandfather was in General Allenby’s army invading Iraq and Palestine in WW1.

Working in conflict and disaster zones is deeply rewarding: life is lived more fully and intensively. In our rich, safe countries where too much, not too little, is the problem, we live with life’s settings at three or four, but outside it the settings are pretty full-volume and tonally rich. Relationships are deeper, life is more intense, risky, edgy, uncertain and alive. This said, an old friend from Devon, Gillian, was killed not in Bosnia or Palestine but in a taxi-crash in Luton, near London, on the way home from the airport – life takes strange twists.

Here am I, stuck in Britain, homesick for Bethlehem. Missing old friends there, and missing its amplified humanity. In Palestine I would not have access to the cancer medicat‭ion I’m receiving here but I would be under all-embracing human care because Bethlehem has pretty fully-functioning clans, communities and families – a family of forty can take in a cancer patient without great difficulty. The warm, dry climate of the Judaean Desert would be better for the aching arthritis I’ve acquired through my cancer treatment – a side-effect of violent pharmaceuticals I might not have needed if that holistic hospital had come into being in the 1990s.

This is why I like living at the far end of Cornwall: the people here understand the frailness of life – sometimes the storms here can be frightening, and Cornwall has long traditions of marine rescue, mining accidents and self-sufficiency. Living here is more edgy, a bit more alive, and we’re all in it together. Except we live under English colonial governance – Boris and his cronies.

Out here in the ‘Celtic Fringe’, during 2020 we left the UK in our hearts: we have better governance and more social solidarity, and Covid and Brexit have accentuated it. When Covid came along, we looked after each other. My shopping lady, Karen, who has breast cancer and osteoporosis, and who knows nothing about meditation or all the cosmic stuff I’m into, is nevertheless an amazing walking angel: she knows what it’s like being human and she’ll do anything she can to save souls while she’s still alive. She’s a good example. If she went to Palestine she’d quickly be taken in and made an ‘honorary Palestinian’.

The gift of cancer is that you start valuing life in a new way. If you so choose. You have to get straight with people too. It’s amazing how many people think they know what’s right for you. The people who don’t do that become your true friends and helpers. The English do have a habit of marking their own homework, assuming they’re right and telling everyone else what they ought to think – and this is why they are losing the Celtic Fringe.

I have this right now with a dear old English friend and brother who wanted to come and visit for some time and space in Cornwall. But while I’m on chemo, taking immuno-suppressant drugs, I can be seriously affected by the slightest infection of any kind, even a common cold. I’ve had to tell him straight that he has more likelihood of killing me than I have of killing him, and that’s not equal or true friendship, so please modify his behaviour when he comes. He’s welcome though: we’re soul-brothers.

I don’t take the same stand on Covid as many people do. I can relate to anti-maskers and anti-vaxx types. People are free to follow their conscience. But there’s something far greater here than individual freedom: you are not free to impose your values on others. You may not harm others because of your beliefs. Social and transnational solidarity is a key issue for the whole 21st Century: we will not survive the future unless we all work together.

So it is imcumbent on people who are unhappy about masks and vaccinations to take extra measures to protect their fellow humans, to avoid imposing on the vulnerable and to recognise that freedom applies to all of us. This means behavioural change, such as social distancing and emphasised thoughtful behaviour.

Who wants change?” – and everyone shouts Yes! “Who wants to change?” – silence. This attitude undermines humanity.

This pandemic is the beginning of a big, long, total, global process of social change, and every pandemic in history has lasted 30-40 years. There are more crises and crunches coming – Covid has uncorked a formerly stoppered bottle and the genie is now out. We have an intelligent virus in our midst that has come to change us because we’re reluctant to change ourselves. It’s faster than us – nature’s answer to artificial intelligence. And it raises many other questions, such as that of social control – and Covid dissenters are at least partially right on this point.

The 1920s pursuit of individual freedom, understandably born out of a legitimate breakout-reaction to the Spanish flu pandemic and WW1, brought about a political disunity that allowed Nazism to gain power by 1930 in Germany. Take a lesson from this. Today, overblown individualism is helping the rise of a privatised form of totalitarian control called Google, Facebook, Apple and Amazon, now becoming embedded in governments too – the Stalinists’ dream come true – and few people really notice.

For the triumph of evil it is necessary only that good people do nothing. That’s a quote from 18th C philosopher Edmund Burke.

As a lifelong dissenter I have exercised my personal freedom, and this has brought blessings and it has also charged a price to me and to others. I had to learn to stop being a male crusader and to wait for people to come, of their own choice, toward my way of seeing things – and only a few actually did. Who wants to learn astrology when there’s a mortgage to pay? That’s a big lesson in itself. Visiting cultures outside the rich world changed me: I saw societies that were economically deprived yet socially richer than in the materially rich world, with communities that work better, in real terms of mutual support.

This was blatantly obvious in Israel and Palestine: Israelis are by nature individualists while, as one Palestinian put it, “We have each other, but they just have themselves“. Though the Palestinians have repeatedly lost the battle, when you cross through the checkpoints from Israel to Palestine you’re entering a society that, despite everything, is strangely happier, more secure and more free. Despite everything. By social consensus.

In Israel, many people would say to me, “Why do you come here to interfere when your own country has plenty of problems?“. In Palestine people would say, “Willcome in Falastin, and why you not bring your children too?“.

Now the Celtic countries are pulling away from England, our former colonial master. We have each other, relatively speaking, while the English have themselves, and many prefer things that way. Seen from here, England seems to care more about money than people, yet in so doing they lose economically in the longterm. Brexit, born of an eruption of English exceptionalism and media-owning offshore tycoons’ profit margins, is now demonstrating the point.

I’m half-English and half-Welsh, but I have become one of the ‘new Cornish’. This isn’t just a matter of moving here and bringing English ways with you: it’s necessary to change, to become Cornish. Besides, the Cornish winter gets rid of people who think it’s a holiday paradise that’s here for their leisure. Celtic nationalism welcomes anyone who is truly here, in body and in heart – your bloodline is secondary. The Cornish are a European minority respected more by Brussels than by London.

So these issues are personal to me, as an English-Welsh new-Cornishman living closer to Dublin than to London. When I visit others’ countries I sit on the floor with them and pray with them in their mosques and temples – when invited. I’m not a big-booted Englishman, and one of my underlying purposes has been to help redeem the shadow of the British Empire.

There’s still an Englishman in me though, and here I wish to honour the human side of the English, that decent, fair-minded, broader-thinking aspect of Englishness that the rest of the world loves and respects. You find a lot of these amongst humanitarians abroad, and the carers, nurses and charitably-driven people here in Britain. The people who, when all is said and done, hold this world up. My partner Lynne is one.

She sobbed deep tears last weekend because of a new wave of realisation that, when I die, she’ll have a yawning gap in her life. She was feeling it in her heart, in advance of the event. This wasn’t self-pity – it was far deeper. After passing away I shall be with her in spirit but that will just not be the same, whatever anyone says. It has something to do with that special quality of love we humans can generate, here in this benighted world, stuck between a rock and a hard place – a kind of love that doesn’t exist up in heaven, where love and soul-melding come more naturally and easily.

We have a tremendous power to love despite everything. Paradoxically, those who have gone through it, feeling the full power of the pain and the joy of earthly life, tackling life’s questions instead of avoiding them, seem to love in a profoundly real way. It’s rather like the wise maturity that some ex-criminals, terrorists, druggies and alcoholics can gain when they pull back from the brink – a benefit gained from having visited hell and returned, much the wiser. Some of these people are the most principled, human, courageous people around. By their actions, not their words and beliefs, you will know them. And there are lots of words and beliefs flying round nowadays, including mine.

Bless you all. Be yourself. Have your beliefs. Be willing to review them and consider everyone else too, for none of us is free until we all are free. From now on, personal freedom has to balance with collective needs, worldwide, and Westerners are not the only people with big ideas on this front. We’re just 15% of the world’s population.

With love from me. Palden.

What’s it all about?

A donkey in Bethlehem, Palestine – Jesustown.

What’s it all about?

2020 has brought us all a lot to think about and, for many, a lot of time to think about it. ‘What am I here for?’ and ‘What’s it all about?’. Some folks have had big reveals and pointers, others have had to dig deeper than ever before, and some have made little or no progress, and some have been run off their feet and burned out by it.

I’ve always been rather purpose-driven. When I was about ten I wanted to be prime minister. By 15 I won a big public speaking competition with a notes-free speech about why Britain should join the European Community – seven years before it happened. Does Brexit, 55 years later, mean I’ve failed? By 18 I realised that politics was too dirty for me. So I followed another path and you got Maggie Thatcher and Tony Blair instead.

It took until I was about 34 to acknowledge that I was at last on track (when I started the Glastonbury Camps). It just had that feeling. Before that I felt like a footloose jack of all trades and master of none. When ‘received my instructions’ I quaked and resisted, but then I realised that, if I didn’t do it, it would not happen. And it needed to happen.

God doesn’t come down and say ‘This is your life-purpose‘. It’s not like that. It’s just that, when you’re more or less on it or you’re heading towards it, you feel it – you’re in the right place at the right time doing the right thing, even if others disapprove, discourage or block you. If you aren’t on it, you feel stuck in a blind alley, getting nowhere, with a meaningless life, as if you’ll stay like that forever. Depression and feeling an unfulfilled calling are closely related.

Purpose is programmed within us. It’s already there. Before getting born, we had a discussion with our angels about the purpose, the motivation, for going to the trouble of birthing ourselves, growing up and living a life on earth. Incarnation is hard work, even for people born in privileged circumstances. Two key things were covered in that discussion: what you were to learn and master, and what you were to contribute. Then you signed a contract in your soul, and it still holds.

Quite often you get clues when you’re about 8-12 years of age – visions of what we want to be when we grow up. Then, during your teenage years, this vision can be clouded and lost (often not helped by parents and careers advisers). These early-life visions can be literal or symbolic. I wanted to be an airline pilot. When I was 15 they ruled that short-sighted ginks like me couldn’t be pilots (that changed back later on, but too late for me). So that door closed. But later in life I realised that I had taken thousands of people on long journeys, up into heaven-worlds and landed them safely at the other end. Mission kinda accomplished.

By 18 I was aiming to become a diplomat, but by 20 I was involved in a life-changing near-revolution at the LSE that ended all that – yet in my adult life I’ve scored some pretty good informal diplomatic hits. So the vision and intention were symbolically correct, but the way things panned out was very different.

As life goes on, our purpose reveals itself through situations that present themselves. We find ourselves doing things we hadn’t foreseen but, when doing it, we feel remarkably fired up, or we make a difference, or we do something really meaningful, sometimes without even realising it. Even washing the dishes or cleaning the toilets can make a big difference in some situations – the chef at a peace conference can save thousands of lives without even knowing it, just by cooking good food for the delegates. So note this and follow it, because there’s your clue – even if it doesn’t make money, look realistic or gain approval, if it fires you up, why aren’t you getting on with it?

We must be willing, if necessary, to tread that path alone. In the Arab revolutions ten years ago, a big issue for people was ‘losing our fear’. Sometimes we must stand up and be counted – and if we hold back we can regret it for the rest of our lives. Like the near-revolution I was a part of fortyish years before, the Arab revolutions failed in the short term yet they started deep changes that will outlast the dictators who tried to stop them.

Here’s an interesting truth: it’s better to fail in something that ultimately will succeed than to succeed in something that ultimately will fail. This concerns posterity and holding out for what is right – and taking a bet that it’ll work, even when you’re not sure, and everyone and everything are against you. Even if you have cerebral palsy. Even if, or perhaps because, you’ve been damaged, disadvantaged and traumatised.

Three things block this coming out process: fear, guilt and shame. Too many people take the safe route in life, to please their family or fit in with the rules, or for fear of loss of security, or fear of being singled out and blamed, or fear of being exposed as unworthy or unable. Human society is riddled with such fears. Our planetary disaster is happening because billions of people are withholding their gifts, setting aside their callings and playing safe. We cook up good reasons to justify this but, in doing so, we are choosing complicity in a collective crime against humanity.

Out of fear, we hold back. This becomes a habit and institution. Then we forget what our instructions were, what the agreement was. Instead, we eat, drink, entertain, worry or work ourselves to death – unless or until a crisis shakes it up, strips our defences, propels us into unknown territory and slams the door shut behind us.

This withholding is dead serious. It means we’re omitting to make our contribution. It’s ours to make, and someone else isn’t going to replace you. Since so many are withholding, there’s a shortage of active server-souls. People have questioned my humanitarian work, believing it is dangerous (yes, occasionally it is) and encouraging me to stop and ‘be responsible’. But then, when I ask them to take my place because the work still needs doing, they wander off.

Charity begins at home‘ – sorry, for me that’s only a half-truth. Charity truly begins where the need is greatest. Need pulls the brilliance out of you.

The world is short of active altruists, and the suffering that arises from that is tremendous. It’s all about that old lady down the road who is alone and unvisited, because everyone was too busy and no one thought, no one imagined what it might be like to be that old lady. The world has a crisis of caring, and it’s all to do with withholding our gifts, callings and missions. Playing safe is a very dangerous planetary neurosis.

This brings us to a key issue. It’s not just our option to pursue our life’s calling: it is our duty. It is an imperative. If we don’t do it now, it won’t go away. This is a choiceless choice. Especially in these parlous times.

This isn’t about great and dramatic things. If you’re gifted at embroidery, do it. If you’re good at ‘just’ raising kids, or ‘only’ growing cabbages, you’re here for that. If you can bring light into the life of a hungry or lonely person, do it. Because, when you’re on your deathbed, these are the things you will remember.

And it changes. Life-purpose presents tasks but it is not a job. You can’t resign. It takes on different shapes, progressing as life goes on. One of my big life-lessons and contributions has been in ‘right leadership’ – something I did better in my fifties than in my twenties. I’ve scored a few goals, brought some benefit and made mistakes too. But I learned. It has gone from home-birth campaigns to organising biggish events to helping burned-out Palestinian social activists.

There are paradoxes. Nelson Mandela once confessed that, in his life, he had faced a deep conflict between serving his family and serving his people. He could only do one of them. After all, if you’re doing things that can endanger your family, should you stop serving your people to protect them? Or will your family also benefit if you can improve things for your people?

One of my gifts has been a capacity to struggle for, uncover and articulate insights that other people don’t quite get. I’ve been a speaker, author, editor, broadcaster and a pretty good contributor to public discourse. It didn’t make me rich or famous but I’m really glad I did it and shall continue till I drop – even possibly afterwards. Since I’ve been about 30 years ahead of the times, my work has not succeeded as much as it otherwise might, but after I’m dead it might lift off – you never know – and I’m leaving an online archive of my work just in case.

But perhaps it doesn’t matter. We can never fully see the results of our work and the part it has played in others’ lives. ‘Non-attachment to the fruits of our labours’, is how Buddhists see it. The aim is not to have an impact – it is simply to do your best. Once, when I was in Palestine I confessed to a friend that I didn’t feel I was making much of a contribution on that trip, and I might go home and come back later. She looked at me straight and said, simply: “Balden, when you are here we feel safe“. That hit me hard: sometimes, you don’t even need to do anything. I learned that what I thought was happening didn’t match what actually was happening.

Here’s another thing. Often we think this is all about giving. No, it’s all about interchange. It’s arguable that the people I’ve helped have given me so much more. If you wish to experience true generosity, go to poor people’s houses and countries.

Life purpose has its ins and outs. I’m good at thinking clearly in wider situations but I’m useless at articulating personal feelings on my own behalf – though I’ve done decades of work on myself to change this, and I’ve only made a little progress. But there are things that each of us must accept too: in my case, it’s Asperger’s Syndrome (high-function autism), and that’s what Aspies are like and what we’re good for. Greta Thunberg is a good example – and society is more open to her directness than was the case for me and my kind fifty years ago.

I’ve been nailed and hammered by so many people to be different from the way I am, yet I’ve found that trying to be what I believe others want me to be does not end up well. This has been painful – to be judged as a bad father, a failure, a fascist dictator, a goodfornothing, a criminal and even traitor. “When are you going to get a proper job?”. Something in me, rightly or wrongly, has soldiered on. I have regrets, but I don’t regret it.

There is no right or wrong: there are simply outcomes. Write that on your toilet wall. We’re called to create the best outcomes we can, and for everyone. Become an expert in making something good out of disasters. Don’t indulge in your failings, inadequacies and wrongs – they go on forever – but throttle up your gifts, assets and contribution. Don’t leave it till later, because later means never.

In my life I’ve been a philanthropist without money. My wealth has been magical, not material. Sometimes I’ve thought of myself as a healer of perceptions. People outside the rich world see me coming and they think, ‘Ah, a European – he can raise funds for us’ (Christians do this more than Muslims). No, this is not what I’m here for, and I’m not good at it. I’m here to help with magic solutions, to raise people up, and it has been a challenge to hold to that because people and projects do indeed need money, often very legitimately so.

The worst bit is that some people get so fixated on the funding bit that they accuse me of being rich, mean and selfish, and they miss what I actually can contribute. It’s better to teach someone to fish than to give them a fish – a common saying in the humanitarian world. (Another is: teach a man and you teach a man, but teach a woman and you teach a generation.) I’ve had to learn to work for a good cause not just because it’s a good cause, but because it is run by people I can work with, and because it fires me up, providing a context in which to serve and contribute best.

So, if you’re struggling with life-purpose matters, here’s a recommendation. Do whatever lifts you up, and avoid whatever weighs you down. This is radical. It’s also far more practical than you might believe. When I was 50 I had a ‘dark night of the soul’ crisis and this truth emerged from it. It doesn’t mean taking the easy option – often you must take the scariest option. A lifelong peace activist, I realised that I had to head for the heart of darkness, so I committed to working in Palestine, sensing that justice for all, not exactly peace, is the main objective there. Justice brings peace, but peace doesn’t necessarily bring justice – so more conflict will follow. If Palestine and Israel can break through, the world’s conflicts will change – and wars and violence block world progress far more than we understand. So what lifted me up was the challenge to follow a difficult path.

Twenty years later, the Palestine problem continues and assholes still prevail, but this work hasn’t been a failure. Deep historic turn-arounds take time, often longer than a lifetime. Brian Eno once said, “I have a feeling I’m part of something that should be much bigger than it is“. Yes indeed – the last fifty years have been a frustrating time for change-agents. But many of the greatest breakthroughs in history were groundlaid by forgotten people you’ve never heard of – the people who prepared the way for those that history recognises. Without these forgotten heroes, you would not have the freedoms and blessings you have today.

Getting cancer and becoming physically disabled wasn’t part of my plan. But it has given me new purpose. I might live one year or ten, and this uncertainty is an awakener: what can I lay to rest and what am I still dissatisfied with? It has reminded me that, no matter how difficult things are, everything in life is a gift. If you choose to see things that way. So even if you feel you have no purpose or you can’t find it, that’s your gift, your resource, your background, and do your best with it. That’s where it starts.

Or perhaps you’re doing it but you downplay it, or you fail to see what’s happening as a result of your being there, or you feel you’re such a rotten, godforsaken shit that you’re a no-hoper.

When I was twenty I read a book by Alan Watts, a psychedelic guru, that deeply stirred me. It was called The Wisdom of Insecurity. Yes, the wisdom of insecurity. Sorry, folks, but in 2020, normality was suspended and this is what we’re being shown. It’s time to roll up our sleeves and pitch in. Make steps. Do it. And if you don’t do it, stop beating yourself up about it. Good luck.