Live Better, Help Often & Wonder More: Presentation for Sunday Assembly
It is a pleasure to speak at Sunday Assembly, and I will be sharing how helping others led me to understanding all I needed to find the community I always wanted. Starting the Ragged University project of knowledge sharing has been the greatest learning journey that I’ve ever undertaken, and through doing it I quickly came to identify the basic ingredients that I needed for a happy, balanced life.
I will tell you a little about this journey and what it has meant to me. I used to want to live in an isolated way until I realised that I could live as a hermit if everyone came with me.
I’m going to try and talk about how I’ve come to do what I do and share some of the key junctures of my life
1. Everyone has a story, and through life I have learned that it is these stories which are most precious. At one point I did not understand this. I felt at odds with a world which kept on promoting extrinsic rewards. I felt at odds with myself as I tried to enthuse myself in pursuing extrinsic rewards. Money seemed more like a promise broken than a covenant I made with other people. I mean that it had come to represent a broken covenant.
2. I always wanted to be a hermit. I realised that I could be a hermit if everyone came with me. At one point in my life I had very effectively isolated myself. I had become homeless and in that homelessness I had invested myself in alcoholism and drug addiction. I was very unhappy on a number of levels and had got lost in any intoxication that I could find.
3. I was lost because I did not understand what a home was. On my journey, I discovered people who always made me welcome. They were always pleasant, always interested and interesting. They were kind and they gave me time. It was through this proximity and contact that I first started to understand how to be. I think, like a mouse in the cold is drawn near to the warm ashes of a fire, I was drawn near to these people.
4. It was through their company that I gained the courage to confront myself. I had gained the strength to try, bit by bit, to deal with the pain which had driven me to drink and damage myself. I was given food and company through a genuine sharing rather than a dispensary of smug righteousness.
I was discovered through respect; something which I have come to understand as only ever existing as a mutuality, and when it is mutual, I discovered an imperative for me to look after myself just as there is one to look after others.
5. I became better; I improved year after year. It takes many years to recover from the physical damage which is done from deep addiction and drug abuse. It arguably never disappears, it comes to shape the character and psychology of one’s being; but then, each and every lived moment makes its mark in this way.
What we carry with us are the stories of how we have connected with others, and what we have become for those connections.
6. Our lives are woven in this respect, and I have come to appreciate and enjoy my own braid, knowing its bitter bits and the sweet, and the warm and cold, the happy and the overwhelmed. These textures combine to allow me to navigate a better future. They allow me to find rest within a smile, content that I am alive and that I have found friends.
7. These many people helped me without labeling it help; they assumed nothing; they were simply doing what was meaningful to them – what was natural to their being. They shared what they knew with me when I had questions. Be it about matters of the heart or how to set up a computer, all of it was knowledge which was important to me at the time. Likewise, they shared their time and their food – and given under such conditions, it was always earmarked by fun and levity.
8. I had learned what it is to give and be given to. For the first time I had discovered an effortlessness in living. I had all the energy I ever needed to carry out whatever needed to be done. A switch had been flipped in my head where helping other people to do stuff was a pleasurable way of being, learning, and participating in my life. Richard Gunn expresses it as a freedom which is living in and through others, rather than from other people.
9. This is what I owe my friends – a whole life. I personally try to embody it now in the Ragged University project, however, what it really is is something that happens all around us, all the time.
We are creatures which gift knowledge; I argue that this trait is more than a currency of our sentience, it is how we continue to be a part of each others experience. I think of Tom Waits, Turandot and Church Street, and they are alive in me when I think them. I ask you, What songs have your friends given to you ?
10. To finish off. I will tell you what sits in all travellers’ souls. I told this to my sister on her wedding day and it is the wisest thing I have been told. Treat your family like they are strangers, and treat strangers like they are family. We should do this because we should always afford those we love and who are nearest to us all the manners and etiquette we do to a stranger, lest we take them for granted and assume upon them. And we should treat strangers like they are family because you never know when you are going to meet someone you care about.
11. The ancient Greeks called it Xenia, the concept of ‘guest friendship’, and it is something which I cherish in all of you. Thank you for having me here today to speak and take part. You are all warmly welcomed in this evening for some vegetarian curry and to watch a film.
by Alex Dunedin