My workplace is keen on open-plan offices. If you’ve ever been forced to work in an open-plan office, you probably flinched with me. You’re probably having a flashback: the noise, the jarring lunch smells, the person who taps their teeth with their pencil and can be heard 25 desks away, that person who hums the Casualty theme tune everytime they fill out a spreadsheet.
Working or living in close proximity to other people reminds us of how annoying we all are, and how circumstances affect us: that great walk to work where the birds were singing and the sky was blue can be cancelled out by 10 seconds of Bob in accounts audibly scratching his dry skin.
A book that is going round our office at the moment is The Chimp Paradox by Steve Peters. It’s billed as a ‘mind management’ book, essentially a self-help book based on Transactional Analysis* with the aim of helping people to manage their responses to stressful situations. This is why it’s so popular in our open-plan office.
Another strand of Peters’ argument is that often we are unhappy because our actions and choices don’t match with our true desire. To find our true desire he asks his reader to imagine they are at the end of their life, and have 2 minutes to tell a younger relative how they should live: what they should prioritise and what values are actually important.
Peters then reveals that the younger person is yourself, now. That is what you want from your life, what you truly value. He invites his reader to reassess their current life choices based on this. His argument is that if we know what we want our life to be, then we should live accordingly.
It’s this part of the book that has caused the most conversation in the office. It seems totally obvious to review what you do based on your values, and yet this doesn’t seem to be built into the pattern of our lives.
In church at the moment we’re studying the gospel of John, and I was struck by how Jesus’ call to believe and have life in Him was echoed by Peters’ secular call to live life coherently according to our true aims.
In John’s gospel Jesus says “Whoever follows me will never walk in the darkness, but will have the light of life.”(Chapter 8, verse 12). The sense of the on-going-ness of faith, the following daily, reminds me of Peters’ call to check we are going in the direction we want to. Jesus calls me to follow Him, and I need to check that my life is congruent with walking in his light, if I have chosen to follow him.
Whether we take Peters’ secular call, or Jesus’ spiritual one, it’s clear that sometimes when we review our current life, there will be things that need to be changed to allow us to continue to be true to our values.
At this point I think of my geranium. I love my geranium. A friend gave it to me 2 years ago in a small clay pot, when it was a tiny plant with 4 leaves. Nelgected on my windowsill, and watered only when I dusted (virtually never), it gamely flowered for the next two years.
In the first week I had it, my mum told me I should pinch out the top to make it grow into a bushy plant that would support itself. That sounded like a good idea, but… that would have involved getting rid of the flowers. So I thought I’d wait until the flowers had gone.
2 years later it had never stopped flowering, and was now a single 3ft stem eminating from a 5inch clay pot. Looking at it leaning precariously against the window, ungainly, unwieldy, and the height of a child, I realised that if I wanted a plant that was self-supporting, I ought to have pinched it out two years ago.
My actions had not been consistent with my aim of a healthy plant.
Worrying that I might be too late, and armed with a pair of kitchen scissors, I cut the stem off at pot level. In the next month I paid it more attention than in the last 2 years as I checked to see if it had survived and would grow back. In week 5 I found myself talking to the dry brown stump, urging it to grow. These were desperate times.
When we were talking about Peters’ book at work, and when I link it to Jesus’ call to follow Him and walk in the light, sometimes we might feel that we have done too much damage, entrenched ourselves in a position too far from our actual aims and desires. We are afraid of change, afraid of the radical decisions that we would need to bring our lives back to the path we want to choose.
We worry that if we make the cut, change direction, our lives would be like the geranium stump – a damaged shadow of our former selves. We feel that we stand to lose so much, that perhaps it is better to limp on in a direction that we don’t really want to go in. If we were to look from the outside, we might urge ourselves to make that cut, but stuck in our inside perspective, that cut might seem risky and dangerous.
John’s gospel would argue that Jesus is worth following. Worth making changes for. Not for the sake of small-minded rules, but because Jesus, the Son of God, promises that ‘Whoever follows me will walk in the light’. For me this week, it’s a reminder to actively follow Jesus, to make choices that allow me to carve out times to pray and read the bible.
I truly believe that while we have breath, it’s not too late. Whether we think about the challenge from the Son of God or from Professor Steve Peters, I believe that we can make choices that will alter our lives. Our lives won’t look the same, and it won’t be as though we never made those off-course choices, but change is possible. A different life, built on past experiences, but shaped by our current choices. Just like my geranium.
*Peter’s book is a self-help version of Transactional Analysis, whereby we’re encouraged to see some of our responses as a) reflexes (our ‘Chimp brain’in Peters’ model), others as b) reacting to past patterns of events (our ‘Computer’) and a third set of responses c) which, Peters would say, is who we really want to be (our ‘Human brain’).