“Who is it that I want to be becoming?”

Elizabeth Oldfield

“Who is it that I want to be becoming?”

Elizabeth Oldfield

Writer, speaker, podcaster

Elizabeth Oldfield was the former director the religion and society think tank Theos. Since leaving this role she has become a freelance writer, speaker, and coach, including hosting an excellent podcast called The Sacred. Elizabeth also has a book coming out later this month called Fully Alive, which is also the title of her newsletter – both of which come highly recommended.


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EO When I ask the question, who is it that I want to be becoming, the way I am answering or the way I am using? The answer is right, what do I need to set up in my life to make it easier for myself? What structures, what do I need to commit to publicly in advance to give my future self, who is as weak and feeble as I am, the best chance of making the choice I hope she makes the best chance of making the choice I hope she makes?


KP What do you hope that people might say about you at your funeral? How would you like to be remembered by those who knew you? It’s a powerful question and a sobering one too, and it’s one that today’s conversation takes seriously. You’re listening to the Examined Life. This is a podcast where I speak to a range of influential thinkers about the question they think we should be asking ourselves. I’m delighted to be joined today by the writer, podcaster and all-round interesting human being, elizabeth Oldfield. I came across Elizabeth many years ago when she was director of the think tank Theos. She currently hosts a podcast called the Sacred, where she interviews a range of fascinating and often high-profile individuals about the values that they hold sacred. She writes for a range of publications and has a newsletter that I really look forward to reading, called Fully Alive. She’s also just in the process of releasing a book by the same name, which is currently available for pre-order and to be highly recommended.

KP I really valued this conversation. We dive into Liz’s key question who am I becoming? And while the conversation dances around and sometimes draws from the Christian tradition, I think there’s material here for anyone, regardless of perspective or worldview. It’s a conversation that’s really about character and formation and why we may well be setting ourselves up for disaster if we don’t pay close attention to our own character. I think it ties into this season’s theme of being positively maladjusted, because being deliberate about your character formation will generally mean being subversive towards the cultural forces around us, whether it’s consumerism or whatever’s piped through our social media channels. My hope is that you might find something in this conversation helpful in your own thinking, in your own journey. If you do, and if you do enjoy this episode in general, then please do like, share, subscribe, as ever.

As a podcast which exists without sponsors, it’s mainly through word of mouth that this finds an audience. So if you find encouraging words in your mouth about this podcast, or this conversation in particular, then do please share them with others. And so, without further ado, I hope you find this conversation as helpful, provocative and hopeful as I did.

KP Elizabeth, thank you so much for joining me in conversation today. It’s a joy to have you on the podcast. In your own podcast, the Sacred, you often skip the small talk and jump straight in with the question what are your sacred values? And I wonder if I could start by taking the same liberty and jumping in with the kind of the peg that this series is hung on. And that’s what question is it that you think we should be asking ourselves, and kind of the peg that this series is hung on, and that’s what question is it that you think we should be asking ourselves, and kind of exploring together and maybe we can begin to unpack that. So what is the question that animates you?

EO Yes, um, I mean it’s going to sound very meta, but what a great question about questions. I am, um, I I’m married to someone for whom good, honest questions is their sacred value, and I think, um, I do kind of coaching and reflective listening to people which is almost entirely question-based and can be extremely transformative for people, and I am very moved and inspired by the life of Jesus, who asked way, way more questions than he did, kind of give straight answers to things, I think. So I would align with you in wanting to pay attention to the power of a good question as a way of living intentionally and fruitfully. And when you said what is the question you think we should be asking ourselves, the thing that kind of bubbled up in me was who am I becoming Because? Or maybe who are we becoming Because?

I think a lot about what it sounds like quite a technical, theological term, and I think it is originally a Jesuit term this idea of formation, this idea of how we change and grow over the course of our lives and how we can do that more carefully and with more purpose, rather than just allowing the kind of events and the influences and the situations that we find ourselves in to shape us, you know, towards cynicism or hope or despair, or courage or cowardice or these kind of big virtue words. What does it mean to and sometimes I wonder if it’s just hubris but what does it mean to think about the kind of person we want to be at the end of our lives? You know the kind of things we would love people to say about us at our funeral. What do we want our lives to be defined by? And then work back from there and think, okay, if actually I’m less concerned about being famous or, you know, earning a lot of money or finally getting a kitchen island or a flat stomach, or finally getting a kitchen island or a flat stomach than I am, about someone standing up and saying, you know she cared for other people or she was brave, or you know she lived a life defined by generosity, Knowing what I know about myself, that I am neither of those things yet and if I’m not careful, we’ll just become less those things.

How do I set out my life and focus my intention and journey alongside people that give me the best possible chance of becoming those things that I wanted to find my life? So there’s lots of ways we could go with that and directions we could go in, but I think that heart check of is this who I want to be becoming? Is this not? I want to find and somehow, you know, um, archeologically dig out my true self, which is perfect and eternal. And if I can only find my true self, I will be, you know, fully actualized in the world. But I’m always changing and growing and and I want to point myself in in the direction towards the good. Um, that’s the question that that leads me.

KP Well, thank, you, that’s an incredibly rich question. You brought to mind David Brooks’s distinction between kind of resume virtues and eulogy virtues, and so, for you, this question of formation comes out of that kind of reflecting on what do I want people to say about me at my funeral and what’s my idea of the good or the flourishing life? Um, have there been kind of moments when this question has has really become a particularly sharp one, ways that you feel like, oh, I’m being formed in this way, to the good or not, that you realize that this, this really is the question I need to keep coming back to. Who am I becoming?

EO I don’t know that I would have um, framed it quite like that. But there was a real fork in the road in my life, um, at university, because I had been very involved in drama and performance and had been um kind of Saturday morning stage school kid. I did tap, I did ballet, I did jazz, um, I did drama. Gcse I did theatre studies a level and the sort of trajectory of my. Honestly, if someone had said, what do you want to be when you grow up? I would have said Judi Dench, that is what I want to be when I grow up.

KP I want that’s a pretty good role model to have.

EO Yeah I want to be a national treasure. I want to be someone who, uh, is an extraordinary performer, who uses that talent to bless people’s lives. And, um, in my first year at university I got a bunch of different parts with the drama society and, um, it’s so embarrassing looking back, but definitely like, felt myself to be the sort of up, one of the upcoming young actors on campus, you know. And this university is so funny, isn’t it? This like weird microcosm of society, these like hugely over-inflated egos and, uh, it’s a tiny arena that feels huge, you know. But there was sort of like third years who were aspiring playwrights and directors and they wanted me to be in their plays and I’m brilliant, um, and uh, I was acting some parts which I found really fascinating and interesting but weren’t particularly lovely people to inhabit. I had this really funny thing where I was, I had to have like special lessons on how to say the C word because I couldn’t say it. I couldn’t say it with conviction, um, which is not to say you know that people who use that word, I’d love it anyway, but it was just, it was the the. I’re spending a lot of time deliberately, imaginatively, imaginatively immersing myself in um, different characters, different people. I played lady macbeth and loved playing lady um and and some you know nicer parts as well. But that actually the nature of being a tall woman is you you play character parts. It’s very, it’s very like that industry is very clear. Like if you are short and hot, you play bland leads and if you are tall and brunette, you pay, you play character. I was like you play villains, you play prostitutes, you play um, the interesting, the interesting ones, but that those were the kind of parts that I was always getting um and then I had become a Christian when I was about 15 and this was kind of running alongside that.

And on one of my summer holidays I went with a group to um with a development charity to Kenya to work alongside a charity out there that was working with people living in, was working with children living in the slums, and we were basically there to relieve the Kenyans so they could go and deliver the aid and education and medicine to children in the slums. So you know there’s always questions around those kind of projects and some of them are definitely kind of problematically white saviory. But I think this one was kind of um, as thought out as it could be about. How do you use basically the free labor of students to do something good, um, for people who actually need it and don’t make it about the students, um. So we were there like built, building accommodation and helping cook and various other things.

But it was my first exposure to the reality of grinding poverty for most of the world and my first up close encounter with just the shattering injustice that defines so many people’s lives. And I came back and had this real sense of discomfort and disconnect between the thing I had thought I wanted to do and how it was forming me and the kind of lives that I had got to know and made friends alongside and seen the sort of the struggle and the value of people working in that sector. And I went back and did another play and found myself in the bar afterwards like drinking in the compliments and feeling my ego kind of stretch and purr and just had this real. I don’t think this is good for me. I don’t think I currently have the kind of character that can cope with other people’s praise about who I am in my body and myself and my presentation on a stage, and presumably who would also not have been able to cope with other people’s criticism or their dismissal or their ignoring right.

The the life of a performer felt likely to feed the worst parts of myself, and I don’t think that’s true of everyone. I think some that’s a really noble calling and some people are cool to it and have a really steady sense of self and can do that kind of work without becoming a monster, and we need those people. But I was like I think this is going to make me a monster and I want instead to work out. Are there ways about the way our world is set up and the way that we live together and the deep injustices and the deep divisions between us that I can have a go at tackling? That’s not the path I ended up on exactly, but that was the turn.

KP Thank you so much for sharing that, Elizabeth. I didn’t know that that you had this history of stage work. It’s fascinating and that kind of Damascene moment is really interesting. I’d love to, I’d love to come back to the ways you have sought to deliberately be shaped and formed. There’s all sorts of practices and things that you do. I mean you’ve you’ve deliberately chosen to live in an intentional community, something that I’m sure we’ll come back to discussing.

Um, picking up on this theme of having, you know, one’s ego massaged, being like center stage of I think that’s just a very natural place to go. When, when you’re receiving praise, when you literally have a follow spot on you and it seems like that’s just social media culture generally now, like Instagram or whatever, this idea of you know being the star part in the movie of your life To what extent do you see that being a very formative influence in people who are not, you know, am-dram or you know aspiring professional dramatic, but just it’s in the air and water of the culture we’re in now. So I guess sorry, this is a clumsy question my question is do you see that kind of formative influence being pretty toxic generally?

EO Hmm, yes, I think it defaults to that extremely easily and I feel it in myself. You know it defaults to that extremely easily and I feel it in myself. You know I, interestingly, I’ve kind of come full circle and I feel not full circle but like, two decades later I’m writing and doing more public things. I’m not acting, but I am sort of not behind an organization. Now I’m more, you know, I’m writing under my own name. I’ve got a book coming out. All of these things which are closer to the life I walked away from.

And I hope, and I kind of you know I’m a Christian, so in my tradition, you know, I pray about like is this okay? Like, have I put my roots down deep enough now? Like, have I got a steady enough sense of self to do this without turning into a monster? I really hope not. But do this without turning into a monster? I really hope I am. But it means that some of those temptations are more alive.

For me, when I was using social media in my previous job, it was much more like we have this report out and if people liked it and shared it, I felt a glow of collective achievement.

But it wasn’t as compulsively addictive as it is when I write a piece and I put it online and then I have to do everything I can to stop myself going to open my dopamine mining. It’s like, oh, check again, check again, check again, affirm me, affirm me, affirm me. You know I have to have all these blockers. I have to have very strong, um, disciplinary approaches and like 24 hours off, all technology a week and, um, you know, uh, a week a year where I have nothing and like regularly removing myself from that arena and going is your, is your sense of self stable enough without this? Like this can be a tool to communicate some things. I need communicating, but if it’s where I’m finding my worth and my identity, it is definitely not forming me into the kind of person I want to be. It’s forming me into a performing monkey for that algorithm. That is not what I want someone to say at my funeral.

KP So I think this is helpful personally for me, but I think perhaps for others listening to this. You are a public figure, you have a significant following and it’s still you know with all your awareness a danger that you feed the beast. And so when you talk about kind of ways of staying grounded, you mention practices. I hear in what you’re saying, perhaps a Shabbat practice, digital detoxing and things like that. So what are the practices that keep you grounded? Practices that keep you grounded because you know, although most of us don’t have significant followings, we’re not public figures, we are still subject to the kind of limbic capitalism and individualism of our day and require some kind of deliberate practice to to not be trapped by it.

EO So I wonder if you could say something a bit about that you’re going to preach to my own soul here, kenny um, and I think public figure is definitely an overstatement, but we are in a time when there we have lots of micro public figures because of all of these overlapping filter bubbles that we all sit in. Um, so I find and it’s something I’ve been writing about a lot I find the kind of practices of my tradition just enormously useful. I became a Christian into a part of the church that does have very formative practices but doesn’t think of itself as liturgical, doesn’t think of itself as intentional, puts high value on kind of emotional experiences, on things happening in the moment, on free prayer, those kinds of things. And honestly I still love that stuff. It’s still a big part of my life. I have no disdain for it. But I lost my faith, became an atheist or tried to be an atheist. I failed at being an atheist and then I found my way back in and I’m now very much aware of the glory.

So Rowan William talks about that. One of the hidden geniuses it’s probably my phrase, not his cause, it’s clumpy of religions are the way they help us structure time. And the way we structure time is how we structure attention. And the way we structure attention is the way we form ourselves, and so almost every religious or spiritual wisdom path will have really clear structure of time, really clear rhythm and, importantly, repetition. There’s a famous phrase no formation without repetition. And we live in a novelty culture, right? And so we try something new. We’re going to have green drinks this week. That’s boring. The next new thing is gong baths. The next new thing is microdosing or whatever it is, the search to stabilize ourselves and to be becoming the kind of people we want. To be right, I think it’s not a question that most people are asking that question implicitly or explicitly, but because of hedonic adaptation, because of the way capitalism works, explicitly, but because of hedonic adaptation. Because of the way capitalism works, the sort of undifferentiated secular marketplace runs on novelty, and so it will say this thing will change you, this other thing will change you, this other thing will change you and keeps dragging you into new and different practices, new and different focuses for your attention, new and different rhythms, and I think the kind of genius of things that have being done for 2000 years is there’s no novelty. We get up.

I live in this. We sometimes call it micro monastery, tiny, intentional community, two families we have. We’ve turned a shed at the end of the garden into a chapel and we pray not every day, but we pray a lot of days morning prayer in the morning, and at the moment it’s pitch black and we light some candles and we pray the same words, listen to different bits of the Bible, but we still pray the same words. And then in the evening we pray Compline, and it’s dark and we pray. There’s a different in the book. We use this different Compline for the day of the week, but we mainly do it on a few days, and so we’re always hearing Monday Compline, right, always hearing Thursday Compline. So I now know those words.

Teach me, dear Lord, to number my days that I may turn my heart unto wisdom. There’s a midday prayer that we pray a lot. Let the beauty of the Lord be upon me and establish thou the work of my hands when you’re worried that my work will be all about my beauty and my glory and my edification and my self-actualization, none of which, I think, is the root satisfaction. I am in a set of rhythms that mean I repeatedly, without having to choose to or remember to say the words let the beauty of the lord, our god be upon me and establish thou the work of my hand and those, the structures of regular, repeated written prayers, which my younger self would have been like. That sounds so boring. Repetition is boring. It’s all about free expression, god. I sound like turning to classic middle-aged conservative turn, but um, the, the, the way the things we repeatedly pay attention to form us are baked into my tradition, and so I’m just increasingly wanting to draw deep on those resources.

So, yes, a practice of Sabbath morning and evening prayer, sacred reading, being part of a congregation, right? The people that are not like me do not care whether how many followers I have on social media. I’m just Liz who is on the prayer team, or you know someone who they chat to over coffee and they might be they probably are from a completely different country, from a completely different socioeconomic background. Like being in community with people not like me who are interested in me as a person, not me as a product or me as a sort of status signifier they can hang on to, which is what we do with people in public. Far too often, we do this kind of attempt to stabilize our sense of self by being associated with the kind of people that we want to be becoming rather than working on it for ourselves. We’re like well, if I just you know, I can, just I can just get it from your aura working on it for ourselves.

KP That’s why I’m talking to you, elizabeth. Uh, that’s helpful asking this question. Who am I becoming? I wonder if perhaps another way of asking it is what is getting my attention. And what strikes me is not as much the subject of one’s attention though that’s of course like really important but the kind of attention you pay. So it’s not just the what but the how that makes a difference.

I feel like we’re kind of very well educated in how to instrumentalize our attention for some kind of future gain. Oliver Berkman uses the word etilic, I think, which means kind of non-instrumental. You’re doing something for its own sake or something that you know can’t be leveraged for a future payoff your soul but you’re doing it for its own sake. If you’re spending time with the diversity of your congregation and church or whatever, that is also not something with some kind of future payoff, but it’s inhabiting that moment and paying a kind of attention to that moment. That is kind of formative in itself. So I don’t know if I’m clear at all with this question, but I wonder if you could say something about the nature of attention and how it shapes and forms us.

EO Absolutely yes, and I think, as you know, I’m very influenced by the work of Ian McGilchrist and the shorthand he always uses is attention, is a moral act. And it’s a very radical change when I realized that the time I spend scrolling in Instagram is not just dead time, right, it’s not just lost time or passive time, it is active time and it is actively forming me. Those images are forming me, that restlessness of my thumb, looking, looking, looking. You know what am I looking for? Something, a sort of snackish, satisfying of something, something pretty, something funny. You know what is that? It’s just like I’m looking for some tiny hit of a positive emotion, that I was really uncomfortable saying it because I am so far from being effectively unaddicted to these things. Um, but I think that sense of when we ask the question, who do we want to be becoming? It’s really hard. It sometimes it’s really the stories that we tell about that are. Well, you know, you only have so much control over that. It it relates to your attachment model.

you know, it depends how much trauma you’ve had it depends, you know, what country you were born into or what world you were born into, and that is all true, right, these are all real influences on who we are becoming. A bit some people would say there, there is no control, it’s just your dna, right, genetic determinists, who you are is determined before you, even um are conceived. But I find the idea that there’s something that we can not control but we can choose, we have some agency around and it is our attention and that you know. It’s funny, because my tradition has talked about this for centuries, like literally for centuries, that um, uh, this idea of formation, that what you literally, what you read, what you sing, what you say and who you spend time with, is who you are becoming. And now we know, because of research into neuroplasticity, like the mechanism of that, that we have, you know, neural pathways, and the more we use particular neural pathways, the more they are strengthened. And it’s why forming new habits is so hard, because we have put so much other like repeated ritual, liturgical action of that habit has created a kind of easily is it created a furrow which is easy to go down, and in order to create a new habit, you kind of have to hack your way through the compacted walls of earth to create a new furrow, to create a new pathway for yourself. But I find it very, uh, both liberatory and sort of pleasingly achievable. So I’m like, okay if I set up my day knowing that it will be uncomfortable to pay attention to this poem because it’s not doesn’t have any notifications on it, or this prayer, because I didn’t write it and therefore it’s not completely tailored to my preferences. It might have, you know, a pronoun in it I don’t like, or some language in it I don’t like, but that’s fine, like that. That is not what this exercise about.

This exercise is about sitting in attention on something that I know has something to teach me, has something that I want to learn from. And living in community, we have a huge amount of time where we just invest in our relationships, we just spend time together, and I want to turn my attention to my members of our community repeatedly for its own sake, because I want to know them and I want to be known by them, and that doesn’t increase my comfort, it doesn’t increase my convenience, it doesn’t really help me optimize anything, but we deepen in love. These are one of these great virtues that I want to define my life. We deepen in our ability to live in intimacy and live in respect and live in um these things, that which really do satisfy our hearts, that are hard and slow and costly and which we are not trained to choose because we’re constantly being distracted away with things that are like easier, by sweets and flashing lights and shallow things, and I want to be turning my attention towards what’s deep and slow and real.

KP And I think what you said there that these things are not easy, they’re not convenient you meet resistance. You meet resistance when you’re trying to pay attention to things that don’t have, you know, bells and whistles and so on. I feel like that’s key. So, in terms of the relationship with technology, what technology has done is just make life easier and easier. It’s not demanding at all, it’s convenient, and we’re shaped in the mold of a convenience culture until you’ve got some dystopian, wall-e type future where everything is done for you but your character is withered away and so leaning into things that are uncomfortable and not, you know, being happily distracted I mean, yeah, from the task at hand, which is often other people, right, or ourselves. It seems to be that the two things we often want distracted from are ourselves and the challenges that come from our relationships.

EO Yeah, yeah, I think of that stuff as soul work. Am I, did I do any soul work today, or did I just do busy work on things that aren’t Do?

KP you do a bit of what is it? Ignatian kind of An examine.

EO Yeah, in no reliable way. So I go on retreat at least once a year and I’ll often do a kind of examine of the year where I look back and think right. The Ignatian word is consolations and desolations and in some ways they’re kind of highs and lows, highlights and lowlights. But they’re also in the Ignatian language, like when did I turn towards God? When did I turn towards love? When did I turn towards what is deep and real and true and when did I turn away? When did I choose the wide and easy path? When did I draw away from God? When did I draw away from love? When did I draw away from other people?

I talk about sin as disconnection, and so it’s. When did I really allow myself to connect with myself or other people or the earth, or with the divine, and when did I disconnect? When did I passively or actively choose disconnection? And so I will do that practice on retreat. But it is one of those intentions that I’ve never quite managed to do it late at night and look back over the day. I would love to.

KP Yeah, I mean likewise, likewise. I’m an, I’m an absolute failure at it, but you need to kind of it’s creating that space. You don’t really get the. It’s not something you can slip into the day very easily, unless you’re deliberately kind of boundarying some space for doing that. Uh, soul work as you say yeah, I mean.

EO It’s one of the reasons I live in community that I don’t have. I am not. I am not by nature of personally disciplined person.

I am distractible, I am. I like novelty, you know I am uh, I’m not someone with very much willpower and the the joy of community is there’s scaffolding, there’s trellis right For the plant that I want to be growing. I absolutely hate getting out of bed in the morning. I am like a bear with a sore head, but we get up and we pray at 6.30 on a Monday morning in a freezing cold chapel because there are other people who are expecting me to be there and therefore I don’t have to make that choice every Monday morning. It is sort of already made and that positive peer pressure works, and I have never had a time when I’ve got up for morning prayer and regretted it.

And so when I ask the question, who is it that I want to be becoming, the way I am answering or the way I am using? The answer is right. What do I need to set up in my life to make it easier for myself? What structures, what do I need to commit to publicly in advance to give my future self, who is as weak and feeble as I am, the best chance of making the choice I hope she makes right? How do I actually and this is a huge part of living community reduce my choices? How do I act against the formation of my society that says more choice equals better Go?

No, I’m going to narrow my choices, I’m going to rule some things out. We are now financially and legally locked in to living in community with our housemates because we wanted to covenant together, we wanted to commit together, we wanted to remove our ability to go. Man, this is hard, I’m off. You want to essentially get married because marriage can hold you when the feelings and the the fluffy and the you know the woman cuddlies are not there but you. Then you can move through that season and and come out in a deeper place. So, yeah, fewer choices.

KP I always need fewer choices yeah, the tyranny of choice, right, I mean, I, um, I’m with you in terms of, uh, liturgies, that that kind of support you when the enthusiasm isn’t there, but but scaffold, the kind of person you want to be. I I’d love at some point to trade notes with you, elizabeth, and how, how your community is going in lockdown. We did the same thing, uh, with another family, a big, and it’s the only time we’ve, I think, successfully managed to as you use the word trellis it’s a lovely word for it trellis our life around the rhythms of of prayer and cooking and meal times and so on, um, and the more we’ve been allowed to, kind of, since that, really, I you know it was a very spacious time in lots of ways Um, the more we’ve been allowed to be just individuals, that, the more that we failed, uh, creating that space to um, uh, to really lean into the question of who am I becoming?

EO Yeah, I wonder. We’ve only got so much capacity right. It is not. It’s a sort of Mark Zuckerberg thing of completely reducing his wardrobe choices. We have only so much decision-making capacity as a, and we’re using a lot of it on work or on caring responsibilities, and therefore, when we get to these big salt work choices of where do we spend our attention and what do we choose to orient ourselves towards, there’s not much left. And so I’m like okay, how do I mark Zuckerberg my spiritual life and reduce my choices so that I’m not having to repeatedly dig into an extremely empty well of willpower to choose the thing that I know that is actually good for me?

KP Yeah, yeah, yeah, just reducing the friction on that very significant soul part of life. I wonder if um you, so you’ve got this, this boot coming out and maybe, maybe you don’t want to talk about it at all. Uh, you’re keeping that in though, but if you’re happy to, I wonder if that question who am I becoming Um? Do you, you kind of rephrase that to yourself? Am I becoming more fully alive? Is that another way of um, kind of a kind of T loss for that question, if you like.

EO Yeah, I would say that’s probably the summary of my, of my answer to that question. I want to be fully alive and you know there’s things nested in there. I want to be brave, I want to be loving, I want to be free. The book was a really joyful way of scaffolding my attention right Once you’ve picked a book on who is the kind of person we want to be being, how do we pay attention to our souls? How do we steady our souls, um, in a turbulent world. It meant that I had a chance to really go deep and really really reflect. I used the framework of the seven deadly sins loosely to write these personal essays and so digging into that tradition and saying, okay, this feels a bit weird and a bit about day. You know the seven deadly sins are more often used as a joke, but I have a suspicion that there’s something good here, and so spending time thinking about envy and actually status anxiety and that’s related to the dopamine thing, right, the need for attention.

How am I so assured of my belovedness and my worthiness and my seen-ness that I’m not having to negotiate with envy and status, anxiety or with gluttony? How do I stop, sit with my hard feelings, rather than kind of drink or eat or party or whatever you know work in unhealthy, disconnecting ways in order to avoid grief or avoid fear or avoid sadness or anger? And then how do I find sources of kind of awe and ecstasy, which is what I’m really looking for when I’m kind of using and abusing substances or I’m using abusing activities? So yeah, the theme of formation emerged as I was writing about these things, these themes, these temptations in our lives and in our society as a repeated one, and I started with the sin of acedia, which is the kind of latin word that often gets translated sloth, and sloth, a bit like the word shalom, does not really translate into peace. The word shalom has many more meanings within it than just peace. The word acedia has got many more meanings in it than just sloth and the the way I think it’s been used over the centuries is is distraction, is um spiritual destruction, apathy, listlessness, spending our attention on the wrong things, and so when I started with Ascetium, I was like, oh dear, I am spending my attention on things that are forming me in a way that I don’t want to go.

What does it mean to actively turn my attention to the things that are more likely to help me become the kind of person both I want to be and that I think the world needs in this moment? Right, we need to be better than we are. We have been formed to be individual, self-actualizing consumers, and we are heading into a time when we’re going to need to be committed members of community who have each other’s backs and pool our capacity for the common good. I’m not there yet. I find other people annoying a lot of the time. I don’t want my freedoms encroached on. So how do I be becoming the kind of person that the world needs and that’s the kind of? And tradition and so on?

KP Though you have many people within your influence, within your orbit, who don’t hold the same presuppositions as you, who don’t have the same metaphysical kind of beliefs about the universe, and you know they don’t believe the Christian story that you believe. So I guess my question is is this a book for people who share the same worldview as you, or has it got a wider audience than that?

EO My question is is this a book for people who share the same worldview as you, or has it got a wider audience than that? I hope so. It’s not a book written for Christians. I think a lot of Christians might find it a bit disconcerting because, I’m very honest, a lot of Christian books I find difficult to read because people are being extremely careful and they’re really worried about getting it wrong, and they can be not all of them, but many of them can therefore be I find a little bit bland, and I knew that that wasn’t the kind of book I would enjoy reading or enjoy writing, and so it is very much a book for people who would not call themselves Christians, who would not call themselves religious, who don’t know what they think about any of that.

Um, but feel this thing I feel, which is the world is really unsettled and there doesn’t seem to be any uh hope that it’s going to get nice and easy again. Right, this like sunlit, the mid to late 20th century thing of like progress, is just gonna go on and on and humans, we’ve got this, we’ve nailed this, we’ve applied our reason and kind of liberal democratic enlightenment will just roll out across the world and all will be. Well. That’s a hard story to believe now and many people, I think, are going okay. What have we done? What is this world that we’ve left our kids? How have we ended up hating each other this much? You know why, given where I’m from in the West, we have so much actual material prosperity. Are there people sleeping on our streets? I think many of us just feel a background wrongness to the way that we are living and the way we want to be. What I want the book to bring is, even if you don’t know what you think about God and the idea of walking into church is either terrifying or just very unlikely because it does not seem at all relevant to you this is 2000s, years of incredibly deep reflection on how human beings work, what it is that helps us, what are the rhythms and the rituals and the practices and the ideas that steady us and ground us. And these ideas have steadied and grounded communities through, you know, plague, through the fall of the Roman Empire, through turbulent times, right through the Reformation. There’s so many times in which the world has been.

I’ve been reading about the monasteries, because we’re a sort of new monastic community. We’re only inspired by monastic rhythms. I’ve been reading about the roles of, because we’re a sort of new monastic community, we’re only inspired by monastic rhythms. I’ve been reading about the roles of the monasteries in the Middle Ages, and there is this sense in which ways of living collectively that very often come out of religious communities. They build capacity and they build resilience, but they also build beauty. Right, we have this legacy of monastic illumination, of the music of Hildegard of Bingen.

These guys were living in war-torn, plague-ridden, like poverty-ridden lives. Their lives were so unimaginably harder than ours and yet they were able to find time for beauty and care and compassion. And that’s what, um, I think some of these ideas can help steady us, can help ground us, can call us back into being people who are able to connect with our neighbors across our difference, to make the kind of choices that we’re going to need to make to live more simply in order to honor our world. You know the bit? The most challenging chapter of the book is about avarice, which is greed. The Christian tradition is incredibly frank about the love of money and the way that, if we keep choosing comfort and convenience over the needs of the poor or the needs of the earth, we will all end up in trouble and I that right. It’s like more like bracing medicine than moralizing buzzkill. I’m like we need to hear this money will not save us, stuff will not save us. Stop living these over-consuming lives because it is killing us it’s good to hear you talk about this.

KP It’s it’s something that you know I I’ve got a dimly aware of constantly, but I’m also crave it being brought to the forefront of my mind, because you’ve all got skin in this game yeah, we’re all implicated.

EO We’re all hypocrites yeah, uh, absolutely.

KP We, um, we kind of imbibe these values from the world around us and and often ignore what we know to be the truth about you know how we should be treating each other, how we should be treating the planet, that the amassing of wealth and materialism isn’t actually going to make us happy, and I was struck by particularly the Gospels in the New Testament, how directly and unapologetically these values are challenged and it’s kind of, you know, it’s something I need to hear and it refreshes how I think of you know faith, of Christianity that it’s not a set of, you know, moral guidelines to follow.

It’s ushering in a different way of attending, if you will, a different way of living.

You mentioned awe and beauty as as things which kind of call out to us and guide us, and maybe they say something about our yearning. I’m interested in a in a previous episode I spoke to the psychologist, dacre kellner, and our conversation I I really enjoyed it, but we spoke about, uh, the subject of his study. He looks at transcendent emotions. Awe, he says, points to what is most meaningful to us in life, and I think about it as also maybe some kind of veritas serum. It also tells us what’s true Moments of awe are when the kind of hierarchy of values that we have is often inverted and flipped and, you know, the holy and the good and the true seem up top and the instrumental and the pleasurable are relegated to the bottom, and there’s a sense that we’re actually always kind of looking for this all to, to realign what’s meaningful and important to us, and so lurking behind many of the toxic trends is is this desire for the transcendent. Would you, can you, speak into that? Does that make make sense?

EO Yeah, it does, and I think it’s another reason why I want to kind of dust off these spiritual jewels and say there is wisdom here, right, and they are misused, often by Christians, and they have been used to hurt people and exclude people. But actually the deep psychological astuteness of these traditions have power in them. Yet there’s a woman called Donella Meadows who was one of the very first people. She wrote a book called Beyond the Limits. She was one of the very first people to kind of sound the alarm about man-made climate change and she talks about how we are living in a society which takes these very deeply rooted human desires for community and distorts them to make them something we can buy.

So you see, you see it all the time. You know it’s that, uh see it all the time in advertising. We know the psychological astuteness of advertising. You know they put they put a legitimate desire on the screen people in deep friendship, people in romantic love it’s almost always relational. You know people in um having an adventure, people in uh, uh, these kind of situations that we long to be in, that, that that speak of meaningful lives, and then they incept a product that promises that we will you know, they never say you know, buy a Budweiser and you will have really good male friends who you can be completely yourself with and know and be known, but also laugh and not get too intense.

You know they never say it, but that is storytelling, right? It’s the beauty and logic and the power of images and storytelling. And so I think, not shaming ourselves for the way we’re living, not saying you know we are a terrible greedy tribal civilization, but trying to sort of dig down and think, okay, this longing to belong and to feel safe is part of what’s driving our tribalism, because when we’re in fight or flight or we’re anxious, it kicks off what’s called our homophily tendency. John Yates calls it people like me. You know our people like me tendency.

When we are afraid or unstabilized, as most of us are most of the time now, because of the actual world, but also because of the way our media environment works, we long to just be with people like me and we find people who are not like us scary and threatening.

And if we can come to okay, how do I get my need to feel safe and known and loved and connected and in relationship and in community met enough, then that natural tribalism response that we all have will be dialed down a bit.

That longing to be meaningful, to be not just one of a great crowd but to be seen and known and loved as ourselves, that longing for significance that drives so much of the performance on social media and reality shows and all of these. Look at me, look at me, look at me, look at me, look at me, look at me. How do we, through spiritual traditions or through psychological support or just through healthy interpersonal relationships, steady our soul enough not to have to go looking for that all the time to to be able to call bs on the lie that we will find it out there, you know, in the glare of um, in the glare of the media or in the glare of professional success. It it takes the vulnerability to admit that stuff in ourselves and then think what actually is a healthy response to that ability to admit that stuff in ourselves and then think what actually is a healthy response to that and I have so far to go on it.

KP Yeah, I mean it’s, it’s uh, as you say, finding those needs met, but also, like calling bs kind of removes the spell that it casts on us. So, paying attention and noticing and having the language for it, I think, think a lot of the conversations you have and what you write about is really helpful at helping people notice the way they are being formed, and so I wonder if I could just kind of pull together some of the threads and then land on one other question, land on one one other question. Um, so this question of who I’m, who am I becoming? Um, it is also like asking what am I paying attention to and what kind of attention am I paying, and how is my soul being shaped?

EO And, um, you know, and you don’t have to buy into the soul language. You can just say how are my neural pathways being shaped? If that is is your preferred language.

KP Oh yes, for anyone listening, absolutely. But I, I’m a hundred percent, I’m bought it. I love the soul language, I think it, I think. Why do I love the soul language? It’s partly my tradition, partly it feels intuitively right to me. It’s not talking about something that the surgeon scalpel will find or that we can find, but it’s talking about something, uh, with kind of weight and value and reality or whatever.

Anyway, it’s up to you, um listeners, whether you like the soul language or the pathway language that you’re. You’re furrowing those, those pathways for your um, for your being um. So we, we create spaces, hopefully, in our day, in our weeks, in our years. I like this idea of having a week, a year of switching off and devices seem central to that right, that’s, the, the devices of distraction that pull you away from it, um, creating spaces to realize this. But you, you also, you live in a community for lots of reasons, lots of, I think, really uh interesting and helpful uh reasons that are kind of well motivated, and I presume one of the questions that is maybe implicit there is how do we help each other become better? And so maybe that’s a question I’d like to kind of end on is how do we help each other become more fully alive?

EO I think we can just ask them that, to go back to the power of a good question, the answer will be different for each individual.

In our community we have this this phrase we use how can I love you well, which is sort of what do you need? But it is not assuming that we know what would bless them in that moment, and it is also a statement of I really want to love you in this moment, I really want to be your friend, I really want to be someone who is for you in this moment. How can I love you well? And I think being prepared to be the like, earnest, intense person like I am and go for those deep questions like what do you want your life defined by? What would you like people to say at your funeral, helping create that imaginative space. Because, particularly British people, we’re really scared of being earnest. We go straight to humor, straight to sarcasm, the vulnerability of looking these questions in the face. It’s really hard. We’d rather not, because it can be like a psychological depth charge.

It’s not uncommon for people to get a fair way through their life and then go. It’s not uncommon for people to get a fair way through their life and then go. Holy crap, I have been letting myself to become a person that I do not want to be when I die. Ah, like, how do I change course? That’s too much to deal with right now. So doing it with care and tenderness and an awareness of not deliberately setting off bombs in other people’s lives an awareness of not deliberately setting off bombs in other people’s lives. But curious, empathetic questions. Ask them where they are, ask them what they need, ask them if they are becoming the kind of person they want to be and and if they’re not small thing might help, like what tiny change could they make to turn their attention to the kind of things they want to be forming them, and away from the things they really don’t want to be formed by?

KP Thank you, that’s really helpful and practical. We’ve been talking a lot about formation and we’ve discussed the fact that you have a new book coming out Really exciting. So I wonder if, to kind of round off, you could finish this sentence for me If you like dot, dot, dot, you will like my book fully alive. What would you fill that space in with?

EO Oh, it’s such a stressful question. Sorry, I’m sorry. No, it’s all good, it’s fine. I need to get better at this sort of elevator, I mean.

KP I would say, if I’m presuming, knowing the, you know your writing and speaking. If you’re interested in what we’ve just discussed, right, In who you are becoming and finding some kind of compass and what is true North in this world that feels so confusing, then this is your exploration of that question. But I don’t want to, I just put words in your mouth.

EO No, it’s good. So honestly, I don’t know how to answer that question because I feel I’m too close to it, but probably and I know this because they’ve said nice things about it If you’re interested in the work of Krista Tippett in the States, who has a podcast called On being, she has been very kind about the book. If you have enjoyed the work of Oliver Berkman, who has a kind of philosophical reflection in public, he’s been very kind about it. And there’s a guy called Francis Spufford who wrote a book called Unapologetic which is probably the closest thing to it, although it’s much more female and has more jokes, I think.

KP Well, I’m absolutely sold. I love those three people you just mentioned, so I am very much looking forward to reading it. Elizabeth, it’s been such a pleasure to chat to you. Thank you for being so open, for sharing from your own experience and your learned wisdom and bringing the two together into this question. Who am I becoming? Which is one that I will try and create more space for in my days, my weeks, my years. Thank you.

EO Kenny, thank you so much for having me.

KP Thank you so much for listening to this episode of the Examined Life podcast. I’ve been talking to Elizabeth Oldfield about her question who am I becoming? And I hope you can sense in the episode how the discussion here is once again about how to become kind of positively maladjusted to the world around us. The way we are so often formed by the cultural forces that we’re enveloped by is destructive to ourselves, to society, to the natural world, and therefore the question of deliberate formation is a really important one. It’s also perhaps the question that resonates most closely with my own concerns. If I was to be interviewed for this podcast which, let’s face it, it’s highly unlikely I’d probably come up with a similar question on who am I becoming, and in a sense it sits behind a lot of the other interviews and questions in the series, whether it’s talking about dopamine, addiction or how we inhabit time or all. The question that kind of sits behind them is how are we being shaped and formed, and is it kind of helping us? Is it helping us flourish? So I hope, like me, that you’ve found Elizabeth’s experience or wisdom or ability to articulate that has been really helpful.

I certainly have, as ever, if this has been helpful to you if you’ve enjoyed it. If you think others would, then please do share it, rate it, review it. That’s much appreciated. And also, if you haven’t done so, do perhaps sign up for the newsletter. It’s nice to have more subscribers. It’s where I’ll send out, you know, a few process thoughts about how I’m finding this experience of interviewing and how I’m trying to live out the questions. Thank you once again for listening and I wish you well. I’ll be back in a couple of weeks for another episode of the Examined Life.



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