1 January, 2020

Endings and beginnings – some reflections at the end of the year and decade and start of the same.

Exactly a decade ago I was at the first phase of a wrenching period of my life. At exactly this time ten years back, at the end of 2009, I was 48 hours away from waking up on New Year’s Day with an excruciating back pain caused by an inflammation in my lower vertebrae, which saw me crawling on all fours to the loo in tears of pain and being incapacitated for weeks afterwards. I told myself at the time that the reason for my condition was years of mountain-biking which had worn away the discs at the base of my spine, but it wasn’t, or rather that may have been the proximate cause of the mechanical injury, but it wasn’t the root cause. That took a few more years of self-exploration and pain of a higher order to figure out.

Back pain is symbolic of overload, of carrying the weight of the world or your little part of it alone. I was never very good at asking for help, was living in my own mental construct of the world and not really used to things going elementally pear-shaped as they did when the Great Financial Crisis rolled over us all like a tsunami in 2008 and 2009. My world and all its certainties disappeared in that tidal wave: my business was decimated and the partnership it was founded on was smashed and didn’t even survive the first wave. I found to my horror that risks that I had not even imagined were present in my business, were manifesting themselves and demonstrating the awesome power of dynamic contagion, seeking out every synapse and connecting passageway in my little construction, finding every weakness and exploiting it to destruction ruthlessly.

When the debris settled in 2010, I discovered another unpleasant truth, namely that tax is no respecter of ill-fortune and that the second wave after the initial hits, is inevitably longer, more painful and possibly more life-threatening than the initial catastrophe. Dealing with the tax consequences of an erstwhile successful business operation in the aftermath of a crisis is the bigger crisis. Tax assessed in the good times comes due at the worst of times and in a crisis, the once dependable assets and cashflows budgeted to meet those liabilities have not-so-mysteriously vanished. It is like waking up in the Ritz and finding you only have a £20 note and no credit cards in your wallet – you know that somehow it is going to be an awkward checkout. In the end, it took nine years and more capital than I could spare to sort the mess out – divided into equal parts between the Revenue and the tax advisors necessary to deal with them.

I managed to salvage a lifeboat from the wreckage of my much larger business and began rebuilding from there and on the way I learned all the lessons that I should possibly have learned at a much earlier stage in my life. The first half of the past decade I was more or less in denial. I recently re-watched the film Company Men, with Tommy Lee Jones and Ben Affleck. Ben Affleck after he gets fired, that was me: raging against reality, maintaining my facade, desperate to keep my toys and my outward symbols of success, equally desperate not to let the sense of failure and loss overwhelm me and wholly uncertain of who I was without all of those things. And Ben Affleck’s wife, that was my wife: practical, loving, at times impatient with my inability or unwillingness to accept what is, patient to breaking point and – most important – never giving up on me, although I suspect I pushed that specific faith to its outer most limit. At one point during those ten years, she sent me a card with the words “Sometimes the bad things that happen in our lives put us on the path to the best things that will ever happen to us.” She is my lifeline.

The second half of the decade saw me still trying to reconstruct the world that I had lost in the previous period, but with declining levels of energy and enthusiasm. I obviously needed to learn Einstein’s dictum about madness being defined as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. I saw that eventually, and accepted it a little later (one of my great challenges in life is reducing the time between realisation (usually very early) and acceptance (only when I have been punched square in the face often enough) and meaningful change). I left Munich, Germany which had been home for 28 years at the beginning of 2015 – mid-decade – and moved the family to Ireland, as much to demonstrate to myself that I needed to change as to reconnect with my language, which I was sorely missing. But how steadfastly we cling to the image of ourselves, the one we have carefully constructed and present to the outside world! How loth we are to give that up, how painful it is to reveal our own Wizard of Oz to ourselves, to draw back the curtain on our vanity and see the smaller man. Only to find that the smaller man, is in fact the essence and larger than life itself, he just doesn’t look like the facade we have so carefully constructed.

Three years ago I attended a funeral for a friend – actually the husband of a dear friend – who had taken his own life. He was my age, give or take, popular and apparently successful, very well connected and well-loved by his wife and two children. The memorial hall at the cemetery was packed to capacity with the great and the good and all his friends and family. The coffin was groaning under the weight of flowers and a large photograph of his happy, beaming face was positioned behind the casket in the midst of a profusion of roses and wreaths. Everyone knew the general circumstance of his death, but no details and no-one mentioned it. It was the elephant in the memorial hall. The vicar, who had presided over his wedding and christened his children, knew him well and decided to shoot the elephant from the get-go. He started the service with a quotation from Christian Friedrich Hebbel “Der ich bin grüsst trauernd den, der ich sein könnte.” which roughly translated reads “The man that I am greets in sadness the man that I could be.” I can’t remember any of the rest of the service, as that quotation kept me occupied for the rest of the day, the days afterwards and still gives me gristle to chew on. I realised, sitting in the rotunda surrounded by 300 grieving friends of my friend, that if the distance between your reality and your image of what you could or should be, grows too large, then, at an age when you have more of your life behind you than ahead of you, the effort of closing the gap appears overwhelming and resignation and desperate sadness follow. Then taking the exit voluntarily makes sense if you have convinced yourself that closing that gap between who you are and who you might have been is impossible. All the love of family and friends counts for nothing once you have calculated that you cannot close that gap and that the pain and sadness will increase as your potential self “the man you could be” fades further into the distance. This especially true if your measure of you is primarily in units of material wealth and currency.

Only it is an illusion. There is no “distance”, just faith. And, as trite as it might seem, prosperity is not measured in money: using the right yardstick is key. If the last ten years have been good for anything (and they have been good for so much) it is this: The realisation that the “you you could be” is always there inside and close by. Time is irrelevant, distance is a false construct, and what you measure with determines the answer. In the sadness is hidden the energy to change. Resignation is comfortable and reality is just a question of perspective.

So, the day before the end of the year, with the prospect of a long hike along St. Kevin’s Trail tomorrow and all to play for, I am so looking forward to this next decade. Bring it on.