Mark continues his attempt to make sense of the world for his grandson – and for himself. Theo was six months old at time of publication.
A wise man once gave me some advice at precisely the moment I didn’t want to hear it.
Wise man? I make him sound almost biblical – but he wasn’t some magus travelling through the starlit desert night by camel from the east. He didn’t bear much resemblance to a guru, shaman, swami or mahatma either; nor a saffron-wearing sadhu, an ascetic bringing enlightenment.
Nothing so mystical.
He was a craggy chain-smoking Yorkshireman in a business suit breaking bad news to me.
It was thirty years ago when I working in newspapers; I’d been hoping for a big promotion but didn’t get it.
My wise man saw the shock of disappointment register and what he told me then was this: it’s how you bounce that counts.
No one judges you when times are good, he said. And you shouldn’t judge yourself then either. What’s important is how you react when things go against you. It’s how you bounce. How high. How quickly.
When he said it, I dismissed it; didn’t want to hear. It was insult heaped upon injury. He turns me down for the job and then hits me with platitudes?
But later I reflected on what he’d said and it was the bounce that struck me. It was such an optimistic word.
People have, of course, talked through the ages about overcoming adversity.
In 300 BC, Epicurus said: ‘You don’t develop courage by being happy … You develop it by surviving difficult times and challenging adversity.’
A few centuries later, Lucius Annaeus Seneca offered: ‘Brave men rejoice in adversity, just as brave soldiers triumph in war.’
Wind the clock on again and Shakespeare had this to say: ‘Let me embrace thee, sour adversity, for wise men say it is the wisest course.’
In truth, writers have been queuing up through history to make much the same point. So I could go on, and on. And I will, with just one more. This from the endlessly irascible Thomas Carlyle: ‘Adversity is the diamond dust Heaven polishes its jewels with.’
And with a lifetime of gastric ulcers, he knew a thing or two about adversity.
But I think my wise man was saying was saying something more, something slightly different to anything I’d read before or since.
I don’t think he was simply saying toughen up, take bad news on the chin, learn, endure, come back stronger. What I think he was saying was: reflect, be resilient, believe in yourself, be optimistic, come back smiling, work harder, smarter. Disappointment, setbacks and loss can corrode. Don’t let them.
He didn’t intend that I should go around Tiggerishly, with a daft euphoric grin on my face, impervious to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.
What he meant was that I should always try to bounce. Bounce back, certainly. But high. Higher. Like one of those composite rubber balls that seem to learn from when they first hit the ground and find greater elasticity the second time.
At least, that’s what I took from his words. When I finally listened.
Since then, I’ve tried to take the advice to heart – in any situation. And sometimes it’s been hard.
In the face of any new setback, my first reaction is, I confess, still rarely good. I still register disappointment, sometimes outrage. Depending on the situation, it can take me time – an hour, a night, a day, more – to remind myself, to get a proper perspective.
In my career, first in newspapers and then in education, it was sometimes hard to bounce. But when things went against me, I got my raging over as quickly and as privately as I could. I tried to learn, I moved on. Optimistically.
It was harder still when I started writing: all those letters of rejection. It was tough to keep going with that constant drip of disappointment. There seemed so little point to it, the chance of success was so slim.
But it was a passion, a dream; and I didn’t want to let my dream go. So I kept on bouncing. But perhaps not quite so high as each new letter arrived.
Another quote, this time more contemporary: ‘It’s how you handle adversity, not how it affects you. The main thing is never quit, never quit, never quit.’
That was from Bill Clinton – who, on reflection, perhaps should have quit doing some of the less advisable things he was up to in White House.
But I can go along with what he says. Up to a point. You should never give in, until there is absolutely no alternative. Because there is wisdom too in knowing when to walk away.
I’d started to think I might eventually get to that point with writing. Other than self-amusement, there’s no point in speaking if no one hears you, no point in words that are never read. I could see, in those circumstances, that to keep constantly bashing away for hours every day at the keyboard was a kind of madness. But I never reached that point. Because I wrote Love, Love Me Do and found an agent and then a publisher.
So it was sometimes hard to bounce in my career, harder still with writing. But the hardest of all, of course, has been dealing with private pain, with hurt and loss. Although I’ve tried.
It’s how you bounce, Mark. That’s what I’ve always tried to tell myself. Sometimes through tears.
Which brings me at last to you, Theo: not the tears, the bouncing. Because I sometimes catch myself thinking about all of this when I see you jiggling in your mother’s arms, rocking in your buggy, bouncing in your chair. With a smile on your face. And so much life to come.
And every time I make the same promise to myself; to tell you one day what a wise man once told me.
This is important. Remember. It’s how you bounce. How quickly. How high.
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