While the virus has locked us all at home, the pandemic was not on the horizon when Charles Handy wrote his 21 Letters on Life and Its Challenges. Yet his thoughts on intangibles like faith, enough and companionship are very relevant today as we pray for us and others, introspect about what matters, and cherish the time with family even as we miss our team.
Do you believe in God, or a god, or in anything else? Let no one tell you what to believe about things that are beyond our understanding. They can only be matters of faith and faith is not subject to reason. Indeed, faith begins where reason runs out. My own journey [took me] through faith to the experience of living in comfortable doubt. As Julian Barnes said, “I don’t believe in God, but I miss Him.”
It was nice in a way to think that there was this person watching over me, even if he was often disapproving. When my reason told me that this was a fanciful concoction, I felt very much alone in the world, left to my own devices, forced to work out for myself what was right and what was wrong.
I would not be surprised if you did not also wonder from time to time whether there was not something more than our dull earthly existence, some sense of the numinous or the spiritual that brought out the best in us. That, to me, is what prayer is: asking myself if I am yet in the fullness of my being.
Wendell Berry, the wonderful farmer poet from Kentucky, puts it well at the end of one of his poems:
And we pray, not
for new earth or heaven, but to be
quiet in heart, and in eye
clear. What we need is here.
Laws define what you can and can’t do but don’t tell you what you should do. That is the sphere of ethics. A good society would be one in which there was a common understanding of what was right and proper in human relationships.
Newer generations are beginning to set out their own guidelines, spread through social media, a development that can lead to relativism and a divergent society, with different groups asserting different values and priorities.
If such a fluid society of mixed values emerges it becomes critical that each individual forms his or her own set of moral standards rather than going with the values of whatever gang or group attracts their loyalty.
I started this letter with God. I ended it with You. I think they are the same. God is shorthand for the Goodness in You.
In 1930 John Maynard Keynes, the great economist, suggested that for his grandchildren the economic problem would be solved, by which he meant that there would be no more scarcity. Technological and productivity advances would create an economic utopia in which nobody would have to work more than fifteen hours a week; we would all, if everything was fairly distributed, have enough. That worried him because, he said, we have been expressly evolved by nature – with all our impulses and deepest instincts – for the purpose of solving the economic problem. If the economic problem is solved, mankind will be deprived of its traditional purpose. We won’t, in other words, know what to do with ourselves if we no longer have to work all the hours in the week to support ourselves.
Keynes was right, but only in theory. As it is, the idea that enough is a good as a feast competes with the other slogan that you can never have enough of a good thing – and the latter often wins.
Keynes’s forecast has not yet come true. More people are working more hours than ever before even though they already probably have enough to lead a reasonably comfortable life. Why do we do it? Is it to buy more stuff, or to show how important we are? Or because our colleagues are getting more than us? Whatever the reason we do seem to have an insatiable appetite for more: more things, more money, more entertainment, more everything.
Part of the reason, however, must surely be that we love work: not necessarily the actual work itself but everything that goes with it. Work gives many of us our identity. We are what we do. It provides the glue of society, brings people together, shapes our day and gives us a reason to get up in the morning.
Our hunter ancestors did not have that urge. Research on the Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert showed that the idea that our prehistoric ancestors had a hard life of unremitting toil was not true. They only worked when they had to, did not store food, had few wants, which were easily satisfied. They only had to take up their spears and go hunting when more was food was needed. As a result, they worked only fifteen hours a week. There would have been no point in working more. Some have called them ‘the first affluent society’. The missing ingredient, however, was money. Had the Bushmen had money or other means of exchange their lives might have been less leisured. Perhaps the love of money really was the root of all evil.
My wife and I, however, were not collectors. Each year, during my working career, we would calculate how many money-making contracts to speak or teach or write I needed to undertake in order to make sure that we would have enough; enough, that is, to enable us to live relatively comfortable lives. We soon realised that the lower we set the bar for enough the more freedom we had to do all the other things. Blessed are the poor, you could say, provided always that you are poor by choice and not necessity.
Along with many others, I have found that the work I do for free is much more satisfying that the work I do or did for money to support my family. By work for free I include not only work for charities or good causes, but also the work I do at home: cooking, entertaining, caring for children – including you – fixing things that go wrong. I love cooking but after a day at the chopping board I know that it is work as well as pleasure.
The idea of enough is not confined to money and work. It works in every part of life. Food and drink, most obviously, where enough is literally as good as a feast. There is also the temptation to concentrate on some subject or activity to the exclusion of anything else. That runs the risk of what economists call opportunity cost, when you miss out on the opportunity of developing an alternative interest or activity. One year, when I was totally absorbed in my work, my wife told me that I had become the most boring man she knew. By ignoring the rule of enough I had narrowed my life and might have ruined my marriage.
I hope that you will be lucky enough to go through life saying “we” more often than “I”. Companionship is so important, to have someone with whom you can share your hopes and uncertainties. It does not have to be a life partner. It can be your family, a work group or a whole organisation, even a movement.
What people don’t tell you, however, is that to enjoy the undoubted benefits of “we” in any relationship, be it a partnership, a close friendship or a work group, you have to first invest in it. There can be no free ride in a true togetherness. To get you first have to give, and you can only give if you care, and, ideally, care more for the other than yourself.
The poet Philip Larkin put it well:
We should be careful
Of each other,
we should be kind
While there is still time.
Kindness is the glue of friendship. You can argue with a friend, disagree with their political or religious views, as long as you do it kindly, respecting their right to disagree with you.
The “we” carries over into the workplace, even when it isn’t an actual place. When I did a study of entrepreneurs they all agreed that they could not have done it on their own, even if they were the ones who had the original idea. I have already argued that small is best but for small to work the groups have to be teams. Teams are groups with a shared purpose in which each member has their own individual contribution to make. They are a looser form of friendship but function best when there is a real commitment to a shared purpose and a respect for each other’s contribution. Individuals are chosen for their individual contribution but have to work closely together or the whole does not work.
No one is too good not to need to learn. Small groups, changing leadership, a common focus and a clear objective: it is a recipe for excellence. Note, too, the role of the outside coach and the regular briefing sessions. No one is so good that they have no need of an outside perspective, nor should any activity go without regular reviews. It is a comradeship based on trust and shared interests. If you find yourself in such a group you will be fortunate.
Perhaps you only know how special someone or something is when you have lost it. So, it is with friendship. Never take it for granted. Cherish those special friends. You will miss them if they go.
All text in this post is adapted from the book “21 Letters on Life and Its Challenges” written by Charles Handy. Copyright © Charles Handy 2019. Published by Hutchinson, a part of Penguin Random House.
Charles Handy has written this book for his four grandchildren. In the Introduction to the book, he writes:
“You are living in a very different world to the one I knew, but I suspect that the issues you come up against will not be that dissimilar. It is hard to learn from other people’s experiences, but my reflections may make you at least pause and think before you act, or, sometimes, think again after you have acted. These letters, you might say, contain all the stuff that I wished I had known when I was your age, before I went out into the world and had to make my own future, my own contract with life.”
Charles Handy CBE (born 1932) is an independent Irish writer, broadcaster, teacher and philosopher specializing in organisational behaviour and management. He has been an oil executive, an economist, a professor at the London Business School, the Warden of St. George’s House in Windsor Castle and the chairman of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufacture and Commerce. He has been rated among the Thinkers 50, a private list of the most influential living management thinkers.