Human beings are poorly named. We are more comfortable “doing” than “being”. We rush from place to place, rarely stopping to smell the roses. When we ask each other “how are you?” we love to say, “oh you know, just really busy.” American author Annie Dillard once said, “How we spend our days, is of course, how we spend our lives.” And that busyness isn’t always such a good thing.
Nowadays so much of our time is spent at work — over 90,000 hours during our lives. And if work isn’t exactly joyous then we can end up as rather lost and sorry souls.
This is where I found myself at the beginning of 2016. I was really quite unhappy at work, uncomfortable with the direction it was going. I didn’t fit in so I had to pretend. I was on stage, mask on, but without a script. I wasn’t sure what my character was supposed to say. And the faster we went the more we got rewarded. Rushing from meeting to meeting, from project to project — being busy, they said, was good. But it felt as though I was endlessly doing, rather than being and I didn’t have the energy or the know-how to change.
Then on the 21st March, 2016, my husband was diagnosed with incurable cancer. Really? Incurable cancer at 44? He’d only gone to see the doctor with dizziness. We stared dumbfounded at each other and back at the impassive looking consultant. When at last we stumbled out onto the streets we wandered around for hours, unable to process what had happened. Life really was short. Why had no one ever mentioned this before?
The next few months were filled with endless rounds of chemotherapy, a stem cell transplant and, when that didn’t work, radiotherapy until his lovely blond hair fell out, slowly, in uneven chunks, all over the pillow. Monthly blood tests followed and trips to the consultant: was he better? The same? Worse? Every trip delivered a mini-shock and a question — how long has he got left to live? Will this journey be a short jog or a marathon? No one could, or would, tell us. Should we blow all the money on an amazing trip (maybe his last), or should we hoard it all away, in case a cure emerged somewhere on the horizon?
But despite all of this we slowly adjusted to the monthly jolts. Each time they wore our senses down a little more until we stopped feeling quite so much. Over the years we slipped back under the covers, became busy with appointments and pills and the daily grind. Ultimately we didn’t want to remember that life was short. Somehow we humans like to forget. Our brains are wired to move on. Like a dripping tap — annoying at first, but quite soon you don’t hear it anymore. We stop seeing what is wrong and forget the message: “You need to change.”
And this is how it stayed for me until the spring of 2019 when a close friend rang me up in tears. She had taken her employer to court but had just found she had lost. For her, it felt like a horrible divorce — as though her company had taken the kids, the money and left her with the shit vinyl that neither of them wanted.
She cried and asked: “Why didn’t I leave before?” As we talked it became clear. For years her employer had chipped away, bit by bit. She had said “Yes” too much and “No” not enough. She had let them take chunks off her until she didn’t recognise herself anymore, a slow disintegration that wasn’t obvious day by day. Like putting on weight: we pull on a pair of jeans and find the zip won’t close. “How did that happen?” we ask ourselves. It’s hard to notice these things when they happen, bit by bit.
As I listened to my friend I felt a rising panic. Was this happening to me? Was I disintegrating too? I felt an urge to do something, quickly, to try and surface again. I had to find an escape hatch. I had to find my way out too.
It took a while to prise open the lid as I wanted a soft landing. I talked to a few people and eventually engineered a way out. I would leave and come back as a contractor. Do some of my previous work a few days each month. It would tide me over while I worked out what I wanted to do next.
In the middle of May 2019, I handed in my notice. It was one of those warm, sunny spring days, the ones that make you want to go outside just to breathe. I shut my laptop and went for a walk around the block. I felt better already.
My noticed period was three long months and I was champing at the bit. So in June I joined a career change course. They encouraged us to pursue a number of projects. They said follow our noses, be curious. I wondered what I could do. There was one question that had been bouncing around in my head. Was there something in my friend’s experience? This drip, drip, drip? Were other people going through this too?
I sat and thought about it. Why do we lose ourselves to work, relationships, or life? Is it our own choices that take us away from what we enjoy? Or do we let others do this to us? What would happen if we caught it early? Could we nourish ourselves with the right things, feed ourselves spoon by spoon to get back to who we are?
I posted this question tentatively on the career change Facebook page. I was worried they would think I was a nutter! Or worse, they would ignore me. I felt anxious when I hit send. What came back was reassuring. “Yes, this is a thing,” they said. “Yes, we are going through this too!” After two test interviews, a new project was born. Spoon by Spoon.
In the middle of August 2019 I handed in my laptop and badge at work and walked out of the front door of the office. It felt like I was a step closer to freedom. But it didn’t really work out.
Five months of contracting and it dawned on me that it was just the same as before. I don’t know why I thought it would it would be different. The same people, the same culture, the same expectations. Clearly I am a slow learner. By January 2020, I’d had enough and quit that role too. So here I am, free as a bird but, as yet, no job.
I don’t yet have a paid role but I am running Spoon by Spoon. It is almost becoming a full-time job. After fifty-nine interviews the project is gaining momentum. So what is this thing, Spoon by Spoon?
On one level, I am simply gathering stories from the world, talking to people who are unhappy and who want to change. For many it is work, others relationships and for some a general disquiet that there must be more than all of this. On another level there’s something comforting about sharing this journey together. We live in interesting times, disconnected from each other and becoming more and more lonely. Can I help, in some very small way, to bring us back together?
I want to understand what we have in common and what we could learn from these folk going through change. I also want to find out what is different about each person I interview — the myriad of things they do to help themselves feel a little happier each day, slowly getting themselves back on track. Great intelligence flows through a group of people and I want to bottle this and hand it over to you. A spoonful of wisdom every few weeks.
Does Spoon by Spoon benefit my interviewees — yes definitely. They enjoy the conversations and tell me that they are cathartic. I think that sometimes just being heard is enough. When do we get half an hour of talking about ourselves — being truly listened to, without judgement? It’s an odd thing to share deeply personal stories to a stranger on the phone. But sometimes it’s easier than talking to friends or family.
They tell me they learn something new about themselves. And sometimes they just re-affirm what is important. But I feel I’m doing something good just by being there. One person messaged me this week: “A big Thank You for Thursday’s chat. It’s a long time since I have felt so listened-to and understood, you really helped me a lot. So many insights have been popping up since we spoke. Good luck with your project and keep in touch!”
Is Spoon by Spoon for me? Yes of course. It’s life affirming to hear that others are going through a similar journey. Every time I speak to someone I’m learning something new. A different way of working, some wisdom they share, or the realisation that despite it all, I am lucky in many ways. It’s easy to forget what we have, to focus on what we don’t. It’s important to be grateful and sometimes this is just the little things each day. A steaming cup of tea in the morning, a blue sky after a storm, a smile from someone on the bus.
Is Spoon by Spoon for you? Yes, absolutely! I have more interviews planned, but I’m starting to see the themes already. I want to offer these to you. I want to help you learn from their (and my) mistakes. I want to share our learning and our wisdom. I will regularly post on a topic or theme that is bubbling up and will tell you what I hear. The stories, the quotes and the ways people have helped themselves to find a way through. I’d also like to hear from others. Please tell me what is working for you!
And finally… my husband? Will Spoon by Spoon help him too? Absolutely. Because I’m a happier, nicer person to be around, more fulfilled and doing something that feels meaningful. And how is his health? Well it’ll be four years in March since the initial diagnosis but he’s still very much here.
We had good news this week from one of his tests. He is close to being in remission. It doesn’t mean he’s cured — there is no cure for his type of cancer and it will always come back. But just by being close to remission means he’s likely to get a bit more time. So, he’s still stuffing bucket-loads of pills every day like there’s no tomorrow, but he’s still here.
We haven’t blown all the money on an expensive trip of a lifetime. But we have sold our house and are renting. We organise small trips away instead, taking life as it comes, trying to be kind to each other every day. Some days I feel excited. Some days I’m scared. But I’m definitely now more “human being” than “human doing.”
This is part of a series called Spoon by Spoon — a project I’m running interviewing 100 people going through career, relationship and wider life changes. Each week I’ll share the themes — how they are getting back on track and the wisdom they are developing as they work their way through.
Photos copyright of Charlotte Sheridan