“How do we continue to glow when the lights turn out? All we can do really is keep placing one foot on the earth, then the other, to seek out ancient paths and forests, certain in the knowledge that others have endured before us. We must love. And we must look outwards and upwards at all times, caring for others, seeking wonder and stalking awe, every day, to find the magic that will sustain us and fuel the light within – our own phosphorescence.“
Two years ago I doubt that we could have imagined that a little bug could almost bring the global world to its knees: closing borders, bringing international travel to an abrupt halt, disrupting supply lines and introducing a whole new vocabulary. On the eve of 2020 who could have guessed we would soon learn the meaning of lock-downs, social distancing and sanitisation. Who would have thought the modern world would shift to a do-everything-at-home mode of operation. As the corona virus spread across the world, we saw rising infection rates and death tolls we could not have imagined outside of war-time.
Without a doubt the last two years have been incredibly stressful. People have lost jobs and loved ones. Education has been disrupted and we worry about the long term effects of the pandemic on developing minds. But it’s also provided an opportunity for reflection and soul-searching. Working from home has led many to question their relationship with the office and wonder about the things that really matter in life. When all that we know becomes decidedly shaky, what really brings contentment, well-being and joy? This is the question at the heart of Julia Baird’s book, Phosphorescence.
The book comprises a series of essays grouped into four parts that explore the essential aspects of our lives that ground us and help us find meaning, joy and contentment in life, even when life is falling apart around our ears. While I doubt that Baird could have predicted the pandemic, Phosphorescence has turned out to be one of the most popular reads of the last year or so. Perhaps it is a book written for times such as these.
Phosphorescence is a celebration of the ordinary. In the 21st century life often feels like a rush to get to the next big thing. In fear of missing out, we rush from here to there, packing our lives to the brim with high intensity experiences, collecting achievements, always with an eye on the next rung of the ladder. Instead Baird invites us to slow down, to appreciate the mundane and ordinary parts of life and to shift our gaze a little lower. It’s not always the biggest and highest things that bring the most joy, but the everyday miracles of life: a coffee shared with a friend, a book and a cuddle with our child, the rainbow at the end of the storm. After weeks in lockdown, a real coffee, in a real cafe, face to face with a friend is an everyday miracle to be savoured.
If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is about the preciousness of life and the importance of relationships. During lockdowns many have been stuck within four walls – alone. Some of us have been physically cut off from families who live on the other side of the country. Technology is good, after all, where would we be without Zoom? But it only takes us so far. There are days when we really need to feel the touch of somebody else’s skin apart from our own. Even before the pandemic, loneliness was said to be endemic in the 21st century. We need connection. Real connection. Not just fleeting conversations around the water cooler, but deep intellectual and emotional connection. Baird says that the key to true contentment is relationships, not things, not promotions, not wealth. Relationships can come in all shapes and sizes, but Baird particularly highlights the potential of other-centred relationships in creating and nurturing “a virtuous cycle of care, generation after generation.” She uses the term generativity to refer to the responsibility we have as adults to dedicate ourselves to ensuring the well-being of future generations. This is our legacy – a caring and connected society.
True contentment is also about finding balance. While relationships are important, so also is our need for silence. Now if you are an introvert, like me, this won’t be news to you at all, however silence and solitude are often underrated and misunderstood. Baird explains that when we are talking about silence, we are actually meaning the absence of man-made sound. When the machines and the traffic stop- what do you hear? The sounds of nature. The birds singing, the leaves rustling in the breeze, the lap of waves, the chirp of insects. Throughout her book Baird draws on plenty of research and research teaches us that unwanted noise is actually bad for our health. In a busy, noisy city we are surrounded by unwanted noise – it causes headaches, loss of hearing, stress and anxiety. There’s not a lot we can do about it sometimes, which is why Baird says it is important to deliberately seek out silence. In the absence of the artificial, and often harsh, man-made sounds, we can relax, breathe deeply, listen, reflect, think, and just be.
Seeking silence leads us to one of the dominant themes of Baird’s book, the importance of nature. Researchers have long known the healing properties of nature. Those of us who like to get out in nature, dig in the backyard, stroll along the beach, know the restorative potential of nature. It’s amazing how a fresh sea breeze can clear the head, the squelch of sand between the toes can make our skin tingle, and how restful the sound of birds can be on our ears. This love of nature, though, is not just reserved for conservationists, greenies and those of us living in regional areas – it is actually inherent to all humanity. Apparently it is called biophilia. Whenever we go bush walking, camping or even open sea swimming, it is our innate love of nature drawing us out of our urban environment. Nature inspires us. We see its natural beauty. We might even feel a sense of awe at its beauty and power. It not only makes us feel good, it also has the capacity to make us kinder and generous. If we appreciate the beauty and awe found in nature, then we are much less likely to trash it. Perhaps one of the best motivations to tackle climate change could be the first-hand experience of nature.
Humans are wrecking the Earth and trashing our natural abundance…if we delight in nature and find joy there, we will not so carelessly plunder, neglect and destroy it. (We can call) it ‘defence through joy. Nature is, after all, ‘part of our essence–the natural home for our psyches.’
Phosphorescence is one of my catch-up reviews for the Gaia Reading Challenge of 2021. It is a gentle book that encourages and invites us to explore and appreciate the ordinary and extraordinary found in the world around us. All the elements that Baird highlights: the wonder of the ordinary, slowing down, finding connection, developing compassion, discovering the awe in nature ….they all come together to not only appreciate nature for ourselves, but to want to protect it for future generations. As Baird shows, we cannot divorce ourselves from nature – we have an innate need to connect with nature, whether it be in the bush or at the beach, in a few indoor plants or a goldfish. We find true contentment, meaning and joy when we …
“Show kindness; practise grace; eschew vanity; be bold; embrace friends, family, faith and doubt, imperfection and mess; and live deliberately.”