INTRODUCTION: THE POWER OF YOU
Many years ago, when I was younger and more idealistic about life, I read an extraordinary essay that changed my whole view of the world. I had forgotten it and the amazing insights it contained until about two years ago. I found it in the basement, among the boxes of research for my as yet unfinished PhD. It is really only a matter of luck that I came across it at all. The box was worn and the bottom finally crumbled under the weight of all those long unopened binders and papers. I was searching at the time to find a new challenge in my life and among the many possibilities on my list was the option of re-energising that doctorate and the early work that had begun in London more than a decade previously. But then, among the papers that tumbled from the now bottomless box, was this copy of the essay that had once captivated me. So as I sat down on the stairs to the basement and read those long-forgotten pages, I could feel the stirrings of something new inside me. A thought that has remained a constant companion since then: at times like an annoying tune that gets tangled up in your brain in an endless loop; at other times a little spark that lit a fuse that kept me going through some tough times. I promise to share with you that incredible essay that lit that little tiny light inside me if you will allow me to explain why I wrote this book.
It’s not easy to lay yourself bare. One of the hardest parts of living through the moments, hours and days since Richard died has been the isolation. It is part of our journey through life that we experience catastrophic events and none is more devastating than to lose the person you love. I am an honest person at heart. By that I don’t mean that I am a slave to the truth at all costs. I am, however, true to myself and in my personal life and business life I have a reputation for telling it how it is. Bluff, bluster, semantics – I have no time for them. So it was hard for me to keep up the banal responses when people asked how I was doing in the aftermath of Richard’s death. I found myself saying the usual things people say to ensure the moment is not too awkward for either party to the conversation. Time is a great healer was always my favourite, and we would nod at each other and move on to the order of business, whether it was buying the groceries or doing a deal. Sometime after his death I decided to do a radio interview with a woman who I have always admired, Marian Finucane. She has had her own dealings with personal tragedy. So I agreed to talk about me and my life, but mostly I knew, even if I didn’t admit it fully to myself, I would be talking about this terrible tragedy that had happened. I don’t remember thinking too much about it. I went into the studio and chatted comfortably about the business (magazine publishing), my boy Dara and the trajectory of my life from a young girl growing up in the Phoenix Park through to becoming a nurse, a journalist, a boss and a business owner. Inevitably, the time came when the conversation turned to Richard’s diagnosis with cancer and the short months that we endured while it progressed relentlessly through his body, until his death a few short months later.
I wanted to be honest. I didn’t want to whitewash those emotions and pretend that they weren’t real and devastating. I managed to remain somewhat composed until reaching the part of Richard’s final moments. I began to cry – in the studio – full-blown tears. I was embarrassed. Marian, ever the professional, filled in the silence and went to a break. I drove away from there shattered, but also lightened – just a little – by speaking honestly about something that happens to all of us. Since then I have spoken many times about grief, about those emotions we are often embarrassed to speak of or share, even with those close to us. I was on my way into Newstalk to do my weekly radio show recently and a woman stopped me in Drury Street. I was late and thinking only of getting to the studio on time. She grabbed my arm and said, ‘I know you’re probably in a hurry but I just wanted to tell you that you could have been speaking for me because that is exactly how I felt and I could never tell anyone.’ We hugged. I have had thousands of letters and talked to many people about their loss, strangers like the woman on Drury Street, who felt a connection. I stopped opening the letters because they were difficult emotional accounts of loss and sadness.
Being honest and brave enough to admit my vulnerabilities and the cataclysmic impact of Richard’s death wasn’t the easiest of things to do. For one thing, people knew me as a ‘Dragon’ from Dragons’ Den. I had built up a personae in the public eye as a formidable business woman (tremendously helpful if you are negotiating, by the way). But sometimes when you take a courageous step, life rewards you in other ways. And this is why I wanted to write this book and share with you my own extraordinary journey from there to here.
Spark seemed like an apt title. It was from that small little flicker in the basement, re-reading that essay, that I reignited my life and learned how to live again. Along the way I learned some things. This book is much more about my experience. Put aside any pre-conceived notions of ‘self-help’ – this book is the furthest you well get from that claim. There are no blinding flashes of brilliance. I’m a graduate of the university of life and where there is evidence, I try to share. What I offer you is my own story and how I found a different way of thinking about who I am and how I could be better at being me.
The more I know about life, the more amazed I am that we achieve what we achieve.
My life was far from mundane up to that pivotal turning-point, but I think I was driven to succeed without truly thinking about the value of what I was achieving.
I gave myself permission to choose life. I like the simplicity of that idea. Life and how we live it is a decision that most of us don’t get to make. For the most part, that is not because we are denied that right. There are many on our planet who have no choice, but most of you reading this do. You, however, have probably never thought, really thought, about what a privilege that is. Conscious living is the most important lesson I have learned.
Mostly, we go through life on autopilot. We live carelessly. As though life is disposable and if this one doesn’t work, another one will be along soon. Not in a flippant way, but we don’t think too hard about the passage of time or the imprint we want to leave behind. And then something unexpected happens. It could be the loss of a parent, a sibling, a loved one, which is often the first time we face our own mortality and the fleeting period of time we have on this earth. It could also be the loss of a dream, an earth-shattering blow to our ambitions or the devastation of physical or mental impairment. And instead of that acting as a catalyst to action, it sometimes paralyses us. We get lost in the emotional aftermath. I don’t meditate. I’m not a fan of contemplation. I have always worked through difficult emotions; it feels, instinctively, a healthier way to accept and move beyond the debilitation they cause.
What makes us uniquely human is the ability to learn from our experiences, to work through them and to move on. We live this extraordinary life and are the only species to fully understand how miraculous that is. Yet it is often those emotions that cripple us and make us incapable of being the best we can be. I have faced loss before – my dad and my sister, but nothing quite prepared me for losing the other half of me. I constantly find myself saying, ‘I am no different to anyone else’, because I’m not. But I found a compelling reason to live life even more fully than I did before. To start with, I think I lived in a sort of frenzy – as though time would run out when I was only half-finished what I set out to do. At times at a more leisurely pace, as I took stock of where I had got to. And now? Well now I strive for just beyond the level I feel I can attain, because to strive for what I know I can achieve would be no challenge at all.
So let me tell you about that extraordinary essay. Back in 1948 a man who studied economics in Yale and London was working for the forestry service in Pennsylvania. He had the perfect credentials to write a story which put me, you and the whole of humanity into context. Many have tried to re-tell it or put their own twist on it, but he was the genius who painted this vivid picture in my mind. He called it: ‘”But a Watch in the night”: A scientific fable’. His name was James C. Rettie. In it he talked of a fictional planet, Copernicus, created five billion or so years before the birth of our own Earth. And on that planet there was an intelligent species who learned the art of film-making. From their unique vantage-point, using time-lapsed cameras and super-powered telescopes, they made a film about the history of the Earth’s 757 million years up to that point. So a team from Copernicus arrive on Earth and show the movie at midnight on New Year’s Eve, and it plays continuously until midnight on 31 December – one year later. It plays at 24 pictures a second, 1,440 years per minute, 86,400 years per hour, two million years per day. What unfolds is an extraordinary account of the history of time, from the pre-Cambrian period and the advent of a living organism up to the present day. He describes the desolate months of January, February and March, with raging torrents, mountains melting and new ones thrusting upwards in seconds. The onset of April, and the first single-cell living organisms appear in warmer waters. By the end of May the first vertebrates are swimming in the oceans and by June, oil and gas deposits are forming. July sees the first land plants fighting against the constant erosion to gain a foothold – paving the way for land animals. Early August sees multitudes of fish appear in the seas and by September, crude lizards appear – the first amphibians. A few weeks later the dinosaurs arrive – lasting 140 million years before disappearing. Feathered creatures take to the air in October and animals who have babies who look like smaller versions of themselves emerge – the first mammals on Earth. Flowers, trees, insects arrive in November and a few weeks later mammals have taken control of animal life. December arrives and rivers are formed and mountains that we know today have risen up out of the sea.
By now the humans in the audience are beginning to wonder if the Copernicans have forgotten to include them, as right up to Christmas Day and beyond they still have not been mentioned. Then on 31 December, about twelve noon, a ‘stooped massive creature of man-like proportions’ is seen – Java Ape Man. He uses wooden clubs and crude stones for tools. Massive sheets of ice cover most of Europe, Asia and America. Woolly mammoths and Caribou fight for survival in the cold, inhospitable climate. It’s time for dinner on 31 December and still no sign of man. At 11.00pm Neanderthal man arrives, and at 11.30pm Cro-Magnon man – living in caves and drawing crude animals on the wall. A quarter to midnight sees Neolithic Man with sharper chip stone tools. At five or six minutes to midnight the Dawn of Civilisation unrolls and in the final fourth, third and second minute before the clock chimed midnight, the Egyptians, the Babylonians, Greeks and Romans made an appearance. At one minute and seventeen seconds to midnight the Christian era begins, Columbus discovers the New World at twenty seconds and in those final moments of time, human’s ‘swarm’ the planet. There is an important insight before the end of his essay, but I would encourage you to read it for yourself and make your own judgment. His sign-off: ‘We have just arrived upon this earth – how long will we stay?’
Squeezing the history of the world into this timescale makes me think about how precious and precarious life is. How unbelievably fortunate we are to live here, now, at this time on Earth. For me to move on in my infinitesimal life, I crunched it even more. I looked back on what I had done and how I had come to be me and I made a conscious decision to live differently. I encourage you to do the same. I want to be a speck in the next time-lapsed motion picture of Earth because I can be. For all the Richard’s who didn’t get to fulfil their potential and all the people who, through illness, disability or disadvantage, don’t get a choice to be who they want to be – I have to take this precious gift of health and life while I have it and be the best I can.
SPARK! was published by Penguin Ireland 2014: Order the book