Around the end of November 2020, I felt I’d reached a point of dissatisfaction and despondency — particularly in my writing but in other aspects of my life too.
I’m conscious that many of us have suffered greatly in what was an extremely challenging year. Most people have likely had far more serious and legitimate reasons and causes to have struggled than I did. Acknowledging this fact only made me double-down in my pity-party for one instead of snapping me out of it.
Sometimes that’s how it seems to go — we know that many others have it tougher than we do, and know we should feel grateful for our lot in life. Knowing this, and believing it though, are often two different things.
2020 was a year in which I felt I’d done all I could to stretch myself and grow as an individual, and more specifically as a writer. Instead of feeling fulfilled and contented as the year-end approached, I felt bogged-down at what I saw as disappointing (verging on inconsequential) progress to show for the year’s efforts.
I vented my frustrations like a petulant schoolboy towards anyone who would listen — friends, family and (possibly most embarrassing), in a writers group hosted by a couple of my most idolised Medium writers.
For all the encouragement and kind words of support that were offered, I couldn’t escape the feeling that my considerable efforts had been for nothing. There came a point where the only decent thing to do was to retire gracefully and to take a break from it all.
I granted myself a month off in the hope that taking December out to relax and consider my options and intentions for 2021 might help me rediscover my writing-mojo. I felt like lifting the pressure in life may help me to find the joy again — at least I hoped it would.
I’d become fixated on stats and followers. I monitored my earnings daily, and felt frustrated and jealous of the worthy accomplishments of others. I knew that if I were ever to be able to continue as a writer, it had to be for the right reasons.
I knew that I had to get out of my own way and stop being the cause of my own problems and the source of my own unhappiness.
I didn’t read anything nor write a word in the month of December except for the tags on Christmas gifts.
Clarity can come from unlikely places.
The new year is now upon us and with time to reflect and having enjoyed a month of relative leisure, I feel rejuvenated and ready to start 2021 with vigour.
As welcome as the break was, I don’t think it’s merely that I needed a rest before picking up where I left off.
Instead, I believe that Prince Phillip, Duke of Edinburgh (or at least a fictional representation of him) helped me to see the light about my own situation and how it had come about.
During December my wife and I watched the entirety of the Netflix series ‘The Crown’. I enjoyed it immensely and as a patriotic Brit with leanings towards supporting our monarchy I was ashamed at how little I knew about the recent history of my country and our royal family. It was entertaining, but also provided a real historical education. We’d often pause an episode to Google the backstory of certain events and the associated characters.
I know that the series is a dramatisation and has been heavily criticised for inaccuracies and how it portrays the royal family. Nonetheless, it helped me to gain a better understanding about my country and ultimately about myself too.
A Question of Faith
My awakening came as we watched episode 7 of Season 3, entitled ‘Moon Dust’. It’s set around the time of the 1969 lunar landing — an event which it seems was of significant interest to the Duke of Edinburgh.
He followed the space mission with keen interest and it seemed to coincide with a phase of his life when he was feeling lost and without purpose, unhappy in his own skin. In the episode we witness him completing various of his duties with an obvious lack of passion, and at other times pushing himself physically with exercise and taking risks in pursuit of thrills in order to try and achieve a sense of joy and purpose that was once present and now presumably lacking.
Instead of recounting the entire episode, I’ll jump to one of the closing scenes — one that moved me significantly.
After meeting Neil Armstrong and his fellow Apollo 11 astronauts for a private audience — an event which was clearly disappointing to Phillip, we find him seated before a group of clergymen in St George’s House. This institution, located within the grounds of Windsor Castle was established and dedicated to exploring faith and philosophy. It’s presented in ‘The Crown’ as a place for members of the clergy who are struggling with their faith, to meet others who are similarly troubled in the hope of restoring their belief and sense of peace.
Prince Philip sits before the assembled group with the clear intention of baring his soul and seeking help from them. He reflects on his life:
“There wasn’t a specific moment when it started. It’s been more of a gradual thing. A drip… drip… drip of doubt. Disaffection. Disease. Discomfort. People around me have noticed my general irritability… not to mention an almost jealous fascination with the achievements of these young astronauts.
Compulsive over-exercising. An inability to find calm or satisfaction, or fulfilment. When you look at all these symptoms, it doesn’t take a genius to tell you that they all suggest that I’m slap bang in the middle of a… a crisis.”
He can’t bring himself to label it a mid-life crisis but it’s clear that’s what he believes he’s having.
I was by now riveted and hanging on his words. Apart from my jealousy being directed towards other more-successful writers on Medium rather than astronauts, it could have been me talking. How to escape this situation though?
“ Of course one’s read or heard about other people hitting that crisis. Just like them you look in all the usual places, resort to all the usual things to try and make yourself feel better.”
I know that feeling of futility and helplessness. The inner drive that tells you the answer must be out there somewhere, externally, in a place you’ve not yet discovered.
You tell yourself that if only you can take enough relentless action, then you’ll eventually overcome the feelings of despondency. Only you know deep down that that's not the whole answer.
Philip then goes on to share that his mother has recently died — an experience that has clearly left more of a hole in his life than he has been able to admit to now. He describes one of their last exchanges:
“She saw that something was amiss. That’s a good word. Amiss. She saw that something was missing in her youngest child, her only son. Faith.
“How’s your faith?” she’d ask me.
I’m here to admit to you that I’ve lost it. And, without it, what is there? The loneliness and emptiness and anticlimax of going all that way to the moon to find nothing but haunting desolation, ghostly silence, gloom.
That is what faithlessness is.
And as opposed to finding wonder, ecstasy, the miracle of divine creation… I’m trying to say that the solution to our problems is not in the ingenuity of the rocket or the science or the technology or even the bravery. No, the answer is in here [he touches his head]… or here [then his heart], or wherever it is that faith resides.”
At this point, I felt a sudden clarity, like having a mirror turned towards me — I was suddenly able to see my own situation as the same that Prince Phillip himself was facing. My crisis had come from a lack of faith. That the crisis occurred when it did (as I approach my 45th birthday) suggests that there may be a mid-life element to it as well.
It’s not a religious faith that I’d lost, for I’m not blessed to enjoy such beliefs even though I sometimes wish I was.
No, in my case the faith that had been lost was faith in myself — a belief in my own sense of purpose and in my ability to be who I aspire to be. Faith that I was good enough in what I was doing in my work, my writing and in my family life.
In losing my faith I’d lost access to where the answer resides.
Philip concluded his musing with a plea for help from the collected clergymen who I’d assume could empathise to his loss of faith, albeit potentially in different ways and for different reasons.
It was deeply moving — even acknowledging it as a fictional speech that may or may not have been delivered from a man who may or may not have felt that way.
The answer lies within.
I’ve reached some of the most striking moments of clarity at times when I’ve encountered certain quotes or heard particular speeches whose words have echoed with my own thoughts and feelings. It would be pompous and self-important to think that such impact can only come from the words of history’s luminaries and greatest thinkers.
Instead, I’d like to think that the (most-probably fictional) words of a British prince have on this occasion helped me to recognise and unpack the nature of a period in my life that I found extremely difficult at the time.
As I reflect on the mire of life at the end of November 2020, I recognise many factors that contributed to me feeling like I was in the midst of a mid-life crisis of faith in myself. Notwithstanding the cumulative impacts of having lived under the spectre of Coronavirus for most of the year, we lost my father-in-law to cancer at just 73 years of age.
While my focus had been on supporting my wife through the loss of her dad, I doubt that I’d fully processed the loss myself, nor have I fully come to terms with the thoughts and emotions it has evoked regarding my own parents. They live far away from us and we’ve been unable to spend more than a few days together in the last 12 months. They are of a similar age to my father-in-law too, not that that is any indicator of them suffering a similar fate, but it’s weighed heavily on my mind nonetheless.
With such factors as the backdrop to daily life, it seems clear now that the loss of personal faith and self-belief had come about as a cumulative effect of the immense pressure I was putting on myself. I was trying to measure up to impossible standards and expectations that I had set for myself. And then I was beating up on myself to a ridiculous and unhelpful extent when I failed.
New Year, New Start
I’ve begun the year refreshed and enthusiastic about once again getting back to writing. I acknowledge though, a real need not to fall into the same trap as before — where I establish and then maintain impossible standards for myself against which I’m doomed to fail.
Nobody should set themselves up for failure and yet it’s a trap that many of us fall into, frequently. Not good enough at our job. Not fit enough. Not the partner, parent or friend that we’d like to be. We fail to measure up, but we’re setting that standard for ourselves — nobody else is doing it for us.
A member of my writing group had made a comment to one of my more desperate and self-pitying posts during December while I was offline. I only read it this month when I dared to dip back into the Slack channel.
In it she complimented me on my writing and reminded me that in the course of last year I had enjoyed some big wins. She emphasised that letting go of expectations and taking a balanced approach to writing are keys to success.
I’d go as far as to say that expectations and holding ourselves to impossible standards are two of the biggest pitfalls in any aspect of life and when poorly managed, are only likely to lead us all to feel bad about ourselves.
That’s when we lose our way, and with it our faith in whatever had been driving us.
I’m grateful to all those people who’ve helped me reach this realisation, both real and fictional. They’ve helped me recalibrate in a way that feels entirely more positive and healthy, and I’m glad to be starting the new year feeling this way.