My home office has a lovely live view of Istanbul playing out in front of me. A couple of stories below, a street full of cafes meets steps which take you to the waterfront. Staring out of my window, there's always something to point one’s eyes at when lost in thought.
Several weeks ago, a homeless man set up a bed at the top of the steps. For a few days, I watched as he greeted each passer-by with a smile and often struck up a conversation.
I intently watched these interactions. I wanted to see if the conversation taking place was one of those 'I'm just being polite' chats where you see people with nervous smiles talking out of politeness whilst taking small steps in the opposite direction (don't pretend you've never done it). But I was pleased to see that this wasn't the case and, in fact, quite a few people sat down beside the man to talk. It was a happy view that day.
The man appeared again a couple of weeks later, but his demeanour was different. This time he looked distressed, sitting hunched on the steps, continuously wiping his face. After a while, I could see he was wiping away tears. Yet as people passed, he seemed to change his face, pulling out a big smile and greeting people with a 'Merhaba' (hello) and a small wave. Once they passed, his head tilted downwards again.
I'd been feeling down that particular week, upset about work, about losing some money in an investment, about a bunch of stupid things I can't even recall now. But then I began to imagine what his life must be like, how all the security I take for granted - a bed, food, and a family - would mean so much to him. I felt guilty and I started writing about it to get my thoughts straightened out. I struggled, so instead I went downstairs to see him and didn't finish my writing.
But then, some weeks later, a man by the name of Taylor Hawkins died and this got me thinking again about how we view the lives of others as a reference point to our own. And so I started writing again.
Famous people dying is a strange phenomenon. You feel like you know them, except you don't. You feel like you've met them, except you haven't. You feel like they'll be a permanent fixture in your life, until they aren't. Something like this happened to me with the death of Hawkins, drummer of the band Foo Fighters.
Taylor Hawkins wasn't someone I knew much about but Foo Fighters is a band I followed closely in my younger years. I can't count how many times I listened to their album The Colour and the Shape. What I did know was that being the drummer for a band fronted by Nirvana's former drummer Dave Grohl - often viewed as one of rock's greatest hitters - meant Hawkins must be exceptional at hitting things. And he was; I'd seen him play live for the band on at least ten occasions.
Hawkins was found dead in his hotel room with ten substances in his bloodstream. Having seen him play, with his scraggly blonde hair whipping around while he clenched his bright white teeth, I felt sad for my younger self losing a vital member of this band I had loved. On top of this, I couldn't help but ask myself: how could he be unhappy?
To sit and look at Hawkins' life, it's difficult to imagine a cooler job than his. Playing live in huge stadiums to enthusiastic and loving fans worldwide is the dream of many people like teenage Simon. Yet, it turns out Hawkins was a human being with feelings and stuff. We can't know how he felt before he died, but I imagine he was using a cocktail of substances to hush some mental demons (I can only speculate here). The deaths of people like Hawkins can be particularly difficult for many ordinary, non-rock star types like us because the little snippet of their lives we see feels like it is their entire life.
Too often we get tricked by these snippets of happiness that seem to surround us like gnats circling our heads by a beautiful lake. I still sometimes flick through Instagram and Facebook when I'm feeling particularly bored or if I'm having intestinal problems and it is striking how it has become so typical for us to broadcast all the good to the outside world whilst hiding all the bad. At any given moment we can see a hundred people - 'friends' - having a good day when we are not. We can infinitely scroll through a sea of compressed happy moments by friends and non-friends alike, moments amplified to look like a state of permanence.
Cropping out the bad has become second nature to us and we're getting better and better at it in every corner of our lives. We know it isn't reality, we know it isn't good for people, yet most of us do it anyway. Why?
Well, back to death I suppose. We humans have an obsession with our finitude. Time moves forward and therefore we march with it, away from it, and try to run ahead of it. We must achieve and achieve again. We must show that we are doing well. Young Simons can look to people like Taylor Hawkins and assume that they have reached a pinnacle and, in doing so, have found total internal calm and happiness. When it turns out that they are human and have shitty days, we feel shocked.
Broadcasting nice pictures on Instagram not only gives the impression our lives are fun and exciting to friends and strangers, it also helps us prove that 'yes, my life is good'.
Obviously there's many problems with this approach, namely that it's not the full picture of reality, like this:
The underlying issue here is chasing pinnacles. This whole pinnacle thing is a trick of the mind to make us cope with our fear of time passing. Like Instagram photos, which are different to traditional photos as they are primarily made with an audience in mind rather than sitting hidden in a photo book somewhere, we fool ourselves into carving out some part of reality that helps us feel like we are moving onwards and upwards on the mountain of achievement.
Yet whether it be a top job, being a rock star, or breaking a world record, that pinnacle is only a moment among a collection of moments. That's why when people hit pinnacles, they aim for a new pinnacle, making the previous pinnacle a non-pinnacle. That's why when you say you want to save the world from climate change and get rich trying, you then go and buy Twitter.
"[T]here’s something odder about the ambitious and well-paid architect, employed in the profession she always longed to join, who nonetheless finds herself treating every moment of her experience as worthwhile only in terms of bringing her closer to the completion of a project, so that she can move on to the next one, or move up the ranks, or move towards retirement." - Oliver Burkeman, Four Thousand Weeks
The above quote from a book I enjoyed immensely struck a chord because I often find myself doing something to get it completed so I can get on to the next thing, to then get onto the next thing.
Perhaps it's all a problem of terminology that's messing with our heads—pinnacles you can see and it's a definite end. We imagine the pinnacle being the tip of the mountain, with nowhere else to go. Or that gold medal on the podium, with no more steps to climb. In fact, we're actually aiming for horizons, the ever-moving limits to where we can see. We all know that we can never reach a horizon; once we reach the point to which our vision met its limit, we have already readjusted to new horizons.
Life treated as a series of stepping stones to an ultimate destination rather than, say, a collection of (non-Instagramed) photos that make an album is by definition buggered. And traditional photography makes for a good metaphor for how we can build our lives, as well as a seamless segue into the next paragraph...
You see, two years ago I found a box of old family photos which I had scanned by a gentleman in a van (another story right there). Hundreds of images are now sitting on my hard drive waiting to be organised, but I have no clue where to start so I haven't. Instead, every now and then, I simply open photos randomly and hope I'll come across something nice.
It feels like a treasure trove and each time I dip in I find a moment I had never seen between my parents before I was born, or a candid shot of me with my mum or dad from my early years. The hero image at the top is me standing with my mum, I think in somewhere in Turkey.
With such a collection taken mainly by one person, my dad, I began to see fragments come together to form a body of work. The story of my family, the story of my childhood, the story of my dad towards his illness that changed our worlds.
When I was 11, my dad suffered a huge brain haemorrhage. It's a type of stroke where an artery in the brain suddenly bursts, causing bleeding in the tissue around it which then begins to kill brain cells. Many people die and the lucky souls who survive come back physically and, in some cases, mentally disabled. My dad survived against the odds, but he came back a different person. A parent surviving but coming back different presents a child with a complex set of feelings to contend with.
I remember the day it happened. Before leaving for school I went to say goodbye to dad who was in bed still. As I gave him a peck on the cheek he told me he 'felt groggy'. By the afternoon, he collapsed and was whisked off to intensive care. That peck on the cheek was the final moment with my dad in our 'normal life'.
28 years on, my dad has a huge scar, more of a crater really, on his head. The left side of his body is quite numb, making it difficult for him to walk and operate his left hand, and he is blind to anything on his left. Things since that day nearly three decades ago have been complicated, to say the least.
In the box of photos I could see, or rather feel, a distinct before the illness and after illness period in our lives.
Before his illness, Dad was a keen photographer. He had good camera gear and there are a bunch of beautifully composed shots, particularly of me and my mum together. I appreciated discovering them as I lost my mother to cancer 10 years ago and I had few photos of me and her together.
There was a lot of joy and beauty to be found in that box. It was great to see my parents happy with me and later my younger brothers. So many trips I vaguely remembered were now vivid. But after a while of flicking through the photos, my feelings became more complicated.
First, there were photos of my younger brother, George. My dad called him 'gorgeous George' - he was a ridiculously cute toddler with huge blue eyes and curly blonde locks. George passed away when he was 25 due to a seizure, weeks after the birth of my first child. I miss him terribly, and it's still hard to comprehend that little boy is gone from our lives.
After dad's stroke, everything changed for him, me, and my family. Everything. It took years of recovery work and it put enormous pressure on my mother who had three children, including a toddler, to care for while attempting to run a pub, our only source of income.
I, approaching my teen years, had to get stuck in with family duties while desperately wanting to play Super Nintendo. I often babysat for my small brothers and was particularly good at getting George to sleep faster than my mum could in the evenings. I tried to carry on with life as usual, sharing little about what was happening with my friends, rarely talking about my fears to my family. I rarely even spoke to myself about them. I see the Simon in photos from that period and wish I could have gone back to tell him to say something, that it was normal to feel scared. That might've saved me a lot of pain in my later years.
My mum, also a person to keep feelings close to her chest, found it difficult to deal with this altered version of the man she married. My dad could only watch on in agony; all he wanted was my mother's love again, and for his son to see him as he was before. I could see my mum was trying, but her reaction was understandably impossible for my dad to accept. Sometimes he got angry and other times he'd start weeping openly. A lot of pain ensued for everyone.
To avoid writing a book I'll cut this short: my mum a few years later asked for a divorce. I was caught in the middle, also struggling to deal with a 'new dad' and all it had triggered, while also dealing with just being a teenager which is known to be a rather odd time in one’s life.
Gradually dad rebuilt his life. He got a new home, a counselling degree, and then volunteered to help people with drug dependencies. Around five years on from the day he collapsed, there was some semblance of a normal life again and my brothers and I could stay with him every other week.
It's beyond impressive how he was able to build something back from such a disaster, I know I don't have his kind of strength, his fight (aka stubbornness). I know for a fact that what motivated his survival were his 'boys'. To say I'm proud of what he has achieved since the illness is a massive understatement.
As for me, well it triggered what in my later years was to be diagnosed as depression, something I still feel today. I can live a normal life but there are moments when I don't exactly feel tickity-boo. It was a strange phenomenon that in the midst of the crisis I felt like I was holding myself together, yet it was only years later that things came out of me that indicated I wasn't dealing with it as well as I had thought.
On the path to keeping myself on some kind of track I have spoken to professionals, tried to cut out things that increase my anxiety such as getting smashed on booze every weekend, and generally tried to ensure whatever I choose to do is in some way healthy, or at least not damaging, to me mentally. I made and still make a lot of mistakes, but I'm doing fine.
Now, I'm not telling you my story to depress you. In fact, strangely enough, I hope it cheers you up.
The reason I'm sharing this much personal detail with you is an amateurish effort to add a new dimension to my public body of work, to demonstrate that while I sometimes share advice and perhaps give the impression I know what I'm doing and my life is fine, that's in fact not always the case.
It's to show that there have been and will continue to be a lot of bumps on my path to realising that 1) a lot of the things I stress about today won't matter one bit when I look back at the bodywork that is my life, 2) things I think are right today might be wrong tomorrow, and 3) things of an unimportant nature today might become important tomorrow.
And this thinking can be applied everywhere. To know that everyone has problems and everyone is winging it can relieve an enormous pressure off our shoulders, but also make us more forgiving of people we previously labelled as little shits.
I think it also points to our need to think of our lives, our work, and our play as moments that build towards a body of work rather than steps to some kind of ultimate pinnacle. Building a collection rather than a track.
The collection of photos can be curated, cropped, or altered any which way and a story of a differing nature can be told depending on how we approach it. And that's exactly what we do when we look back over our lives. Things for some reason change when we look forward. Suddenly a clock starts ticking and we're racing towards something, but when we are looking back, values alter and feelings come into play.
This thinking can also be applied in our working lives. You can't know whether spending a few days on something will benefit you in some way in 10 years, and it needn't be that transactional. Doing something because it interests you, excites you, or challenges you is a good thing to do no matter what the outcome is, or indeed is not.
And on the side of leisure, are you valuing the 'unproductive' moments of eating, drinking, and frolicking through fields of wheat (or something) with family and friends? Any moment might be imbued with deep meaning by future events. The peck on the cheek I gave to my dad the day he fell sick was a hugely important moment in my story. The other 1000 identical pecks I gave him? Can't be recalled.
How about societal progress? Politics today is about quick wins, long term visions be damned. It's impossible to imagine a politician today laying out a 20-year vision to get a country on a new, better path, even though we all know that it's impossible to affect real change at scale in 12 months. It's just not possible now. But there are smaller, manageable things we can do with our family, our neighbours, and our community that can help today.
This isn't to say you must drop all future commitments of course, you need to brush your teeth at some point. But my word don't we get hung up on what we feel we should be doing and what we think others are achieving?
Taking our time, without concern for things being 'too small’ or not fitting into some kind of plan, is the way to go. And to know that it's ok to let the rhythms of life take us towards new, today unseen, horizons.