I earn my daily bread working for a large commercial organisation and as much as I enjoy the cut n’ thrust of mammon, it just isn’t enough. So, I started doing voluntary work about the same time as I started writing. Why? Well, aged thirty-four, I’d thought myself into a bad place. I’d become selfish and self-pitying, a man blessed by life who somehow believed himself cursed. I was ready to give up on life as an adventure and see it as survival; my well had run dry and I’d lost that sense of beauty and potential within me. I knew it was up to me to dig out my own soul, rather than looking to steal the water of life from somebody else.
It was a couple of months into the voluntary work that I met the enlightened witness – the great rota in the sky conspiring to put me and Connor on the same overnight shift. Connor was in his early twenties and he looked tough: pasty white, close-shaven head, wiry verging on malnourished, 5’7”-ish, looking like an ex-prisoner which, as it turned out, he was. We got talking. Connor told me he’d been detained at Her Majesty’s pleasure after a fight at a cash point had turned ugly late one Friday night, in Liverpool. The guy had a conviction for Grievous Bodily Harm, but he was one of the wisest, humblest men that I’ve ever had the fortune to meet. Connor was the younger man by more than a decade, but that night I was the student and he the teacher.
During his prison sentence, Connor had met a counsellor who helped him to turn his life around. The counsellor became his resilience tutor, his ‘responsible.’ The angry young man found understanding and empathy in his enlightened witness and then found himself in the works of Karl Jung, Karl Rogers and Viktor Frankl.
After his release, Connor enrolled on a counselling course and took up voluntary work to help others in similar situations to his own. He worked with other ex-offenders, sharing his own experience. One of the themes of his discourse that night was that young men lose touch with their own feelings as they grow into adulthood and it is this process of detachment that manifests itself as aggression, anger and violence to others and to self.
The man in front of me looked like a drug dealer, the kind of man you’d want to avoid bumping into in a pub or nightclub in case you took a knife to the guts. The man in front of me was rapping out the rhetoric, spitting out the story, telling me that our true selves want to be loved and to give love back. He talked about the actualising tendency, meditation, person-centred counselling based on congruence and personal authenticity, empathy and positive non-judgemental regard for others and how he had learned to focus on the here-and-now and let go of yesterday and tomorrow.
I soaked it all up, scrawling spidery notes, trying to keep up with his mind. Connor talked about synchronicity. He told me that Karl Jung coined the term to describe those moments when co-incidences happen, when you are thinking about someone and the phone rings and it is them. For Jung, it was when a female patient described a vivid dream about a moth she had never seen: a moth Jung later saw outside his study window. Jung used the term the collective unconscious… I’ve come to believe in this collective unconscious, the soul of the world, a deep human connectivity, and in synchronicity as the arrival at a point in a journey where I have only a vague understanding of the direction and I meet someone who has the next set of co-ordinates.
Connor told me that endless reflection is dangerous, that leaving our minds to wander aimlessly leads us to look for signs of negativity within ourselves – we review the day’s events and spend time wondering how we were perceived. He explained that the key is accepting one’s self, to be and to do, and that power comes from focusing on the present.
‘Project Book’ was a secret project as far as I was concerned. Only a few month’s in, I didn’t want to tell anyone in case I gave up. Connor had been open with me, so I mentioned that I’d started writing, that my book was scrapbook literature, a poor attempt but I was having a go. And then came his Exocet question: ‘Why do you think your book is poor?’
That floored me. Why did I think the infant book was poor? Why did I think that the thing that I was creating was second best? Did I, do I, think somewhere that I am second best? My parents were always supportive of the decisions I made, so where did this limiting belief come from? From the lad that was no good at football, from the lad that was streamed into a low set for Maths, aged 13? I never ever thought about aiming for a first-class degree at university, getting a second-class degree was good enough. What could I have done if I had decided to really try? What could I do now, now that I saw the barriers that I put up myself?
‘What if?’ replaced ‘If only!’
A day later, and I ran my normal route through the valley and knocked a full minute off my fastest time. Coincidence? I still didn’t fully understand the impact of that conversation, but it changed how I felt about the book and it made me realise the value that other adventurers add to our own adventure. And it made me appreciate the potential in me – if only I had the courage to try.
Connor and I only met once. A month or so afterwards, I found out that he had moved on.
That’s how it goes on the road: you meet people in airports, in gyms, in cafes; you meet, you talk, you pass the vibe on, or you don’t.