Part 29 - Dignity

How on earth is it the end of another year again already?!

As 2019 draws, or rather speeds to a close, and I look back over the past twelve months, it’s hard to believe that some of the memorable moments that seem like they only took place yesterday actually occurred many months, even up to a year ago.

There are a few particular moments from my own 2019 that stand out. Some of them didn’t quite turn out as planned, but still proved to be in my Top Four Most Memorable – even if for the most unexpected of reasons.

Riding My Best On A Wave

As far back as April, Tess, Jack, Freddie and I headed to Hawaii for a ten-day holiday. I decided that while we were there, I was finally going to tick off one particularly challenging item on my bucket list.

Even though I only learned to swim in my thirties, I’d always wanted to experience, even if just once, the feeling of catching a wave on a surf board. So much so that I also told Jack and Freddie that catching a wave was my mission for this holiday.

We were leaving behind a mild mid-autumn Melbourne to immerse ourselves in the onset of a Hawaiian summer. So, it didn’t take long at all on our first day before we found ourselves basking in the heat at what would become our spot for the week on Waikiki beach.

Not wanting to dwell too long on my mission, I had a surfing lesson on that first morning. Even in the infamously long, consistent rolling waves off Waikiki Beach, I very quickly realised that trying to stand up and stay up on a moving surf board was going to be a lot harder for me than I’d anticipated.

I tried on and off over the next few days, but to not even a smidgeon of an avail. Many frustrating falls and splashdowns later, and halfway through our holiday yet still having not caught a wave, I swapped the surf board for a more relaxing paddle board.

This paddle board, I should point out, was the biggest and most buoyant I could hire. It felt more akin to standing up in a small boat at times. But hey, a paddle board is a paddle board, and I enjoyed not putting so much pressure on myself for a change. I spent the next few days cruising around in the calmer waters under far less challenging conditions.

I was enjoying the paddle board so much that I was about to give up on the notion of catching a wave. But then I remembered the commitment I’d made to Jack and Freddie – that I would catch a wave in Hawaii.

And so, on our second last day, I found my stubborn old self back on a surf board, in the right spot of water, with the waves at just the right height, me in just the right frame of mind, and kneeling on just the right (very, very long and very, very wide) surf board. Did I mention I was also being helped by an instructor?

I felt the board pick up momentum, and I just knew this was it. I stood up. I didn’t fall. I looked ahead. I was moving. I still hadn’t fallen! Time seemed to stand still for a few seconds as I realised – I was catching a wave!

If the truth be told, it wasn’t the most dignified surfing of a wave. It was more like I was pushed into a wave, and the wave caught me. It was no gold medal winning performance, and a seasoned surfer would likely scoff at my performance.

But none of that mattered to me, and there was certainly no sense of failure on my part. No, what mattered to me was the sheer exhilaration, the sheer sense of dignity, in pushing myself to my limit, standing up – and staying up – while surfing a wave on a tiny piece of the Pacific Ocean.

Time then speeded back up to normal, and brought me splashing back to reality as I realised I was no longer standing, but falling. My ride was over, but I had the biggest smile on my face as I splashed awkwardly and rear-first into the water, all the while mentally drawing a great big tick on my bucket list.

Who knows, perhaps one day I might try to catch a few more waves – perhaps even bigger ones, by myself and staying upright for a bit longer – but none, I am sure, will ever feel quite as liberating as that very first time.

A wave caught me!

Step Aside, Mick Dundee – Introducing That Pat Dude

It was a busy year both on my bucket list front and on the family adventure front. In late June, eight weeks after we returned from Hawaii, we headed to Darwin for a short holiday with the extended family. We had pre-booked day trips to the likes of Kakadu National Park and Litchfield National Park to look forward to, as well as enjoying the amazing sunsets at the Mindil Beach Night Market.

After facing and defeating the anxiety and depression demons inside my own head an unbelievable nine years ago now, I was also set to tick off a monster-related item on my bucket on this trip too – seeing crocodiles in their natural environment. In particular, for some time I’d wanted to see the leaping crocodiles that jump vertically, full body and tail almost clean out of the water, to snatch some bait that has been dangled above them.

On our first full day in Darwin, we booked ourselves on a croc cruise that was about 90 minutes’ drive from our hotel. Following the directions, we eventually passed through the sleepy town of Humpty Doo, took a left turn onto an unsealed road, and reached the cruise departure site. We were well off the beaten track, and as we left the comfort of our air-conditioned cars, we were hit by the sharply contrasting dry red dust blowing around on a windy day under the hot sun.

We boarded the big cruise boat and set off up the river. We did spot a few crocodiles, and some had their full head coaxed out of the water by bait. But that was as far as they leapt. Being on such a large boat, it also felt a bit commercialised, and it also wasn’t quite the leaping crocs experience that was on my bucket list.

A few days later, however, as part of our guided day tour of Litchfield National Park, we found ourselves back in Humpty Doo, as a sunset croc cruise was included in the tour. I wasn’t holding out much hope after our initial cruise a few days earlier, but this time we were driven even more off the beaten track, to the home of local croc expert, Pat Chappell.

Before we got to the boat, Pat explained to our group how crocs are simple creatures of habit, who operate on instinct. They are more territorial reactors than thinking hunters. He also explained that on his boat, we’d be getting up close to the crocs like no other operator in the region could offer.

Pat then led us through some cleared bushes and brought us to what looked more like a cross between a tin boat and a dinghy, with a not very solid-looking metal cage-like structure encompassing the top.

“The cage isn’t there to keep the crocs out”, explained Pat in his matter-of-fact, take-no-shit, gruff tone. “No, it’s there to keep you in”.

After we had all boarded and took our seats, I found myself sitting right next to the cage, and I realised that our feet and legs were actually below the surface line of the water, albeit within the boat. Yet all the while, I felt totally safe.

Just like on our first croc cruise, we set off up the same river, this time a little further upstream. Again, the wind was gusting and the sun was strong, but this time it felt comfortable, and added to the authenticity.

Pat steered us to one of the many spots he was familiar with. He then attached a large leg of lamb to a pole, and began splashing it in the river to attract the croc whose patch of river he knew we were in.

And then out of nowhere she came. With nothing between us except the metal cage, this huge, stunning crocodile swam right up beside the boat. She snapped her jaws shut as she clamped them onto the leg of lamb. She then briefly battled with Pat, who was never going to win this contest even if he tried, before snatching the lamb off the pole and settling in the shallows beside us to gorge on her mini feast.

You could practically hear the air flowing in and out of her nostrils as she finished off the lamb, and sat there calmly right next to me, breathing deeply, waiting to see if Pat was going to try to lure her with some more bait.

Not wanting to damage their natural predatory instincts with too much bait, Pat didn’t offer her seconds. But it didn’t stop her from sitting there gracefully next to me for a few minutes as I literally gasped in awe at this amazing specimen of a species that had inhabited these waters for over 100 million years.

It was then that I understood Pat’s comment about the cage being there to keep us in. The croc looked so calm that it felt like you could just reach out and give her a gentle pat on the snout. She could probably have got onto the open back of the boat and snatched us if she wanted to, or sank the boat if she’d ganged up with some more crocs. But she seemed to lack the ability to want to. This was no monster. As she calmly sat in the shallows beside our boat, she had an aura of what I can only describe as dignity about her.

A close encounter of the crocodileth kind

We saw a few more crocs on Pat’s cruise, in different spots of the river, each with their own tale for Pat to tell. He also gave everyone on the boat their own chance to get up close, caged, safe and personal, with the crocs remaining in their natural habitat.

We are all in unanimous agreement that the highlight by far of our trip to Darwin was this cruise. Or as Freddie put it – ‘The Crocodile Trip With That Pat Dude’. I didn’t actually tick off the specific leaping croc-related item on my bucket list. But leaping crocs are no longer on the bucket list. That item was removed, replaced and immediately ticked off by what I experienced on The Crocodile Trip With That Pat Dude.

I also came to realise that sometimes you don’t know something is on your bucket list till you just do it. After all, The Crocodile Trip With That Pat Dude was far, far greater than any crocodile-related experience I could ever have imagined, and – if you pardon the completely intentional but highly accurate pun – it really was an absolutely jaw-dropping experience.

Uncle Bob

The third moment I’d like to share with you was part of a conversation with my good friend, Bob McDowell.

You could argue that Bob and I are unlikely friends. Bob is in his mid-70s now – a retired successful self-made businessman from the construction industry, with whom I catch up two or three times a year and we have a good yarn.

Bob never married and has no kids, so he likes to be referred to as “Uncle Bob – everybody’s Uncle Bob”. And he refers to me as McPacitti. We first met about five years ago through an association we both share with another charity – The Cambodian Children’s Trust.

Halfway through 2019, I was telling Uncle Bob about the challenges I was facing at work – some situations I’d found myself in largely due to the fact I’d decided a year earlier to move into a sales role in the IT industry. After almost twenty years working in other technical and IT management roles, I’d decided I wanted to step outside my comfort zone.

I knew a move into sales wasn’t going to be easy – but it was something else I’d always wanted to do. And like a crocodile with a leg of lamb in its mouth, once I get an idea firmly in my head, I find it hard to let go.

Not unexpectedly, and somewhat unlike a crocodile, I’d felt totally out of my depth when I first made the move. I put this down to the dramatic change in my career, and my first step onto a steep learning curve.

As I told Uncle Bob about the stresses, trials and tribulations of the various situations I’d been in, I also told him it was getting easier, and I was well aware all the stresses were caused by my taking a much bigger step outside my comfort zone than I had anticipated.

Uncle Bob replied calmly, matter-of-factly and wisely, with words I’ll never forget.

“Geez, McPacitti, you don’t half put yourself into stressful situations, do you?”

And with that, my jaw literally dropped for the second time in 2019. While it was glaringly obvious once he put it that way, I realised just how right Uncle Bob was. I’d always been a stubborn creature, which wasn’t always a bad thing. Without that sense of stubbornness, for example, I’d never have caught a wave in Hawaii.

But my stubbornness also meant I’d often found myself in unnecessarily stressful predicaments in various jobs over the years. I’d stuck them out largely because of the analogy that “the grass isn’t always greener”. I’d also felt a sense of pride, resilience and – dare I say, dignity – in not just fleeing when times got tough.

On hearing Uncle Bob’s words, however, I thought to myself – how less green can the grass really be? I’d been thinking about changing jobs for some time, but Uncle Bob’s words were like the final stamp of ink that caused me to not so much jump ship, but rather to wait for the right ship to come along so I could step on board.

I would not change one thing about what I learned from my first two years in sales. The job I was in at the time I had this conversation with Uncle Bob was an amazing opportunity, through which I met and learned from some great people. It just wasn’t the right job for me. I still work in sales in the IT industry, but in a different kind of role. I’m sailing on a different kind of ship now, one that is more playing to my strengths than my sense of stubbornness.

When Deacon Blue Sailed Into Town

There’s one final moment I’d like to share with you. Again, it didn’t turn out quite how I’d imagined. This one is related to Dancing With The Black Dog, and our “it’s ok to say” charity initiative, which has also had its moments over the past year. Of these, one of the more recent moments stands above the rest.

Just to put context behind it, we’ve been growing. Since 2015 we’ve now sold nearly 100,000 pieces of our branded merchandise – and more importantly, the message it conveys – across 30,000 individual orders, mainly from the UK and Australia. Individual orders also increased from 8,000 in 2018 to 12,000 in 2019.

We’ve also now had the charity video endorsed by over twenty celebrities from as far afield as Australia, the UK and USA. The whole point of getting celebrities endorsements is because the charity is still relatively unknown; having endorsements from famous faces gives it a sense of validation.

During 2019, the number of video endorsements we have has also grown. We’ve received endorsements from Aussie actors and singers Bonnie Anderson, Conrad Sewell and Shane Jacobson. Local Melbourne lad and rising Public Figure, Will Connolly, also joined Scotland’s Sanjeev Kohli and Australia’s Ray Meagher on our team of Official Ambassadors. As more rising stars begin to emerge, or as more existing stars visit Melbourne from overseas, I will continue to seek new endorsements, though it is no longer a main focus.

On that note, and onto memorable moment number four, popular Scottish band, Deacon Blue, toured Australia and New Zealand in November this year, including two shows in Melbourne.

Deacon Blue was the first band I ever saw perform live, all the way back in 1987. One of their most popular and iconic songs is called Dignity. It’s about a man the songwriter meets, walking up his street. The man is a poor council worker who sweeps the streets for a living. But he knows that so long as he works hard, keeps his head down, and works with pride regardless, his real dream will come true one day.

That real dream is to save whatever money he can, and buy a dinghy that he’ll call Dignity. And whenever anyone asks how he afforded Dignity, he’ll simply reply “I saved my money”, to which they’ll reply, “isn’t she pretty, that ship called Dignity?”

When I heard Deacon Blue were coming to Melbourne, well first things first – I bought tickets for a trip down nostalgia lane to their Sunday evening gig. The second thing I did was to make a few enquiries via some contacts – our Scottish Ambassador, Sanjeev, and journalist, Paul English – about requesting an endorsement from the band while they were in town. For something different, it was the first time I’d sought a group endorsement, and it ended up with the band’s manager, Tom.

Tom very kindly got back to me and said that while they wouldn’t have time to record an endorsement video, the band would be happy to meet backstage before the gig I was going to. We could take some promotional photos with our logo, and share them on social media – with which I was delighted.

Due to a slight mix up, I actually ended up going to both of their Melbourne gigs – they couldn’t meet on the Sunday night, so Tom invited me back again to the Tuesday night gig, which I went to solo.

I briefly met all the band back stage before the show, and that part was all over in a blur. But they were very welcoming, gracious, and interested in what I had to say about the charity.

There’s a man I met. And some more men. And a wonderful woman
From left to right – Dougie, James, Lewis, me, Ricky, Lorraine and Gregor

I hung around closer to the stage for the gig this time. Twenty-two songs later, as they came back on for their encore, I noticed that their lead singer, Ricky Ross, had one of our black dog stickers in his hand, which I’d left backstage. Ricky spoke briefly to the audience about my work on the charity, with additional words of support for all those in the world struggling with mental illness. Then for the second time this year, time stood still for a moment as he continued:

“This one’s for Mark. This is Dignity”.

I had to pinch myself.

Wait. What the?!

Did he just say that?!

If the truth be told, I’d never really understood the whole getting-a-song-dedicated-to-you-at-a-concert fuss. But now I did. And to hear these words, from the lead singer in the first band I ever saw live, about such an iconic song, and in support of an initiative that is so important to me. I was literally stunned.

And once again, time speeded back up to normal as the audience burst into a roaring rendition of the opening lines – “there’s a man I meet, walks up our street, he’s a worker for the council….”.

I didn’t manage to capture Ricky’s words on video, and I initially kicked myself for this, as it would have been a great endorsement to share about the charity. And I’ve always said this charity is not and never will be about me, but for once – just for once – in that moment, I let myself make it about me. Nobody around me knew who I was or that Ricky Ross had just been talking about me, which made it all the more personal as I relished the moment by myself.

As for not capturing it all on video, well Ricky’s words remain far clearer in my head than even the highest resolution camera could ever capture. In hindsight it made me realise that especially in this iDay and iAge, some moments are best left in the moment – to be played back and fully savoured as memories rather than pixels and sounds.

On my way home after the show, I also realised I’d that I’d never be able to listen to Dignity in the same way again. One morning, a few days later, while listening again to Dignity on the way to work that’s exactly what happened.

For many years, I’d been listening to the song, thinking Dignity was an actual boat. But then I remembered that the beauty of music is that songs can be interpreted in different ways by different people. And now that I was listening to it differently for the first time, as the busy train headed into Melbourne, and with the words blaring into my ears, I realised that Dignity could also be an analogy.

Perhaps, I thought, life could be likened to a journey on a boat – or even a surf board – called Dignity. You never know how or where you are going to end up. But what matters is that if you try your very best to stay on board, you can hold your head held high. In that way, no matter what the outcome of any situation, you can do so with a sense of dignity.

For many years, most of my irrational fears and anxieties came from the vividly imagined outcomes of making mistakes at work. I’d fear as a result that I’d lose my job and our house, that I’d let my family down, and be left on the scrap heap. Unemployable due to making the most human of mistakes; unable to even sweep the streets for a living.

Throughout those years, I’d also often feared the major bollocking I might get at work for making those most human of mistakes. But now, as I listened to Dignity differently, it dawned on me that I could always handle making mistakes if I could own them and deal with them rationally. It was the loss of dignity from getting a bollocking from an irrational person who couldn’t be reasoned with, that I’d feared the most all those years.

Over the last nine years, as I’ve managed to well and truly take back control of my own thoughts and my life, I’ve also tried to focus on being less attached to the physical “things” in life that I feared losing. But as I listened differently to Dignity on the train that morning, it further dawned on me that what I feared the most all those years wasn’t losing “things”. Those “things” were in fact totally unimportant to me. I actually wasn’t afraid of losing them if the loss wasn’t as a result of one of my mistakes.

Did this mean I’d never been as attached as I thought to those “things”, I considered? And was I now focusing too much on becoming less attached? Was the best way forward to try to find and stay on the right ship? Not a ship called “Things” but a ship called “Dignity” – one that anyone can stay on board, no matter how much or little money they have.

Sometimes it may well be about swapping a paddle board for a surf board – even if just temporarily – so you can push yourself and find out where your limits really are. But maybe it’s also about recognising when enough is enough, recognising when you’ve put yourself in an unnecessarily stressful situation and that the bravest thing to do is not be stubborn and stay, but to move on with a sense of dignity.

Perhaps sometimes it’s even about having an Uncle Bob you can have an occasional, open and honest conversation with – not to keep the black dogs off the boat, but to stop putting yourself in unnecessarily stressful situations, to help you stay on board the right boat.

The one thing I’d love our kids to learn from all this is that there’s no such thing as failure. Not if you give something your best shot, and no matter the outcome, no many how mistakes you make along the way, you are left with a sense of dignity for trying your best.

After all, coming away with a sense of victory may be sweet, but the happiness can also be short lived. It seems that victors in all professions are often eventually left feeling empty, returning for more and more wins, with the mistaken belief that the next victory will finally provide them with a sense of permanent fulfillment. Coming away with a sense of victory also means others have to lose.

A sense of dignity, however, can be shared by everyone, no matter what position they finish in, or what position they splash into the sea from a surf board in.

It seems that so many of us – myself included – spend our best years chasing a sense of winning, happiness, success, perfection or peace. Would we all be better off instead chasing a sense of dignity, and letting everything else fall naturally into place behind it?

Because, no matter what you do for a job, whether a street sweeper, a salesman or a successful singer, surely a sense of dignity can last a lifetime.

Perhaps it’s also the key to a life worth living.



Footnote

Since this post has been about a year in review, it seems appropriate also to provide more of an update on the charity.

Firstly, for anyone unclear on what the “it’s ok to say” initiative is about, the idea is actually very simple – so simple that it does need explanation if not at least confirmation. After all, many friends even tell me they know I do something in the mental health space with a black dog logo, but are not sure what it is exactly.

Put simply, we enable people to show their support for anyone around them suffering from anxiety or depression. They can visually say that “it’s ok to say if you don’t feel ok”, by displaying our black dog branded merchandise – be it a lapel pin, a badge, a sticker or whatever else. The black dog of course being an analogy for depression that was popularised by Winston Churchill.

Importantly, you don’t have to be suffering from anxiety or depression yourself in order to wear or display our logo, because doing so does not mean you are saying “I suffer from anxiety or depression”. Rather, it means you are saying “it’s ok to say if you don’t feel ok” to anyone around you who may be suffering from anxiety or depression.

It really is that simple. But we are not just selling pins, badges and stickers with a logo on them – we are selling the message behind the logo. We enable people who wear the logo to provide a support service of sorts to others, without conversation necessarily having to take place. It’s something I felt would have helped me when I was silently struggling in a dark place for many years until a decade ago.

I’m also pleased to say “we” and not just “me” nowadays, because over the past 18 months, I’ve taken on a few locals – Eliza, Gabe, Beau and Josh – on a part time paid (and reported to the tax office!) casual basis to process and post all the orders we receive. There are just too many for me to handle myself now. In addition, my sister Claire, who lives in England, and gives her time to help out a lot with distribution in the UK. So, we are all now a team.

Many also ask me if I have a vision for the charity. Well, yes, I do. I envisage a future for the charity where everyone will know what the black dog logo means, and one in ten people will be wearing or display it. More importantly, in doing so, they’ll be putting the message out to their own worlds that it’s ok for anyone to say if they don’t feel ok.

Without a massive advertising budget, it is a slow grind getting there. Right now, it’s probably more like one in 100,000 who knows what our logo means. But the beauty of it is that while the logo currently remains unknown to the masses, it still starts conversations. For example, many people who I meet for the first time ask me what my lapel pin is – and I am only too happy to explain.

As for financials, well the numbers are not important, but they do tell a story. I’m pleased to say with complete transparency that since we sold our first lapel pin online in February 2016, we’ve now turned over just shy of A$500,000 in revenue.

95% of this has been from the online sale of lapel pins, badges, patches and stickers. To me, our results so far are a proof of concept – for something much larger. But before we take things up a notch or two, we do have some “kinks” to iron out.

This may sound like a lot, but I don’t write this here to brag. Quite the opposite. 18 months ago, I had hoped we’d be double the size we are today. I can’t help but think that with a little extra effort on my part, I’d have ironed out those kinks and we’d be closer to double what we are today – but then I am also known for being hard on myself.

The other 5% of our revenue has been from very generous and welcome donations over the years – from businesses and individual fundraisers – but we’ve never actively sought them. The charity space is just so crowded these days. So, while we are more or less break-even, we are also self-sufficient, focusing on the sale of our merchandise.

To date, we’ve also donated over A$20,000 to Australian mental health charity, Beyond Blue, who provide and therefore need funding for mental health services such as their helpline. Should we ever generate a large surplus, my aim is that we’d donate those funds to other charities not just in Australia. I’d also like to one day be in a position to fund further research into ways of treating mental illnesses. Given how far medical advances have come in recent years, I hold both hope and humble opinion that mental illnesses will be much more easily and readily treatable in the foreseeable future.

As well as being a registered charity, with annual reporting obligations, we are also a social enterprise – we have costs. We have to run like a business and keep an eye on the bottom line. And while we are not about making money, we have to ensure we don’t lose money. I’ve paid myself the princely sum of $0 for my own efforts over the years, and that figure will never change. It’s quite appropriate and accurate to say here that my own “pay” from the charity comes in the form of a sense of dignity.

However, we do have substantial costs. Half of our revenue has been rolled back onto ongoing Social Media advertising – without which we’d never have reached the numbers we’ve managed to. But I don’t like to use the word “advertising”. “Awareness raising” is more accurate – awareness of our logo and what it means.

Put simply, every time someone buys something from our online shop, they are in a small part trickling the continuation of our Social Media awareness raising. We are also getting some help from Facebook in return now, as we have been assigned an Account Manager, Hazel.

Finally, we get the occasional recurring theme mainly in Facebook comments. For example, we post orders free worldwide, and our Social Media adverts currently target Australia and the UK. I often see comments saying, “I see you are an Australian charity, you should roll this out in the UK”. To which I politely reply, “well if you are reading this, it actually is rolled out in the UK”.

Another comment we also get is “this is a good idea but I’ve never heard of it till now, and nobody knows what it means here”. To which I like to point out “well you know what it means now, so why not tell a few friends?” That usually results in a like.

So, for more information, and to tell a few friends, please visit www.itsoktosay.org

Encore

Last but not by any stretch of the imagination least, here is a live rendition of Dignity by Deacon Blue that someone did catch on camera a few years ago.

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1 Comment

Tony Jones responded: 2 weeks, 5 days ago

Hi Mark, I read with interest your https://www.dancingwiththeblackdog.com/dignity/ sent to me by 'Uncle Bob' a mutual friend as it turns out. I admire your efforts through your charity to help people suffering from depression, which of course you have first hand knowledge of. I will make it a must do to visit your shop. I wrote a book entitled 'The Infamy that is War - World War I and its Enduring Legacy' available as a PDF doc on the Healesville Rotary Club website for a donation of $5.00 all monies to be forwarded to Phoenix Australia which is a not for profit organisation doing research and running programmes for sufferers of PTSD. It hasn't proved to be a best seller but I shall keep pushing the barrow for a while yet. Bob downloaded a copy. Having spent a fair amount of time in Kakadu and Nth Qld I am familiar with the crocodile, or as familiar as I want to be from a respectful distance, particularly when they can measure up to five metres in length. A remarkable animal having survived the 200 million years as you mentioned. Regards and keep up the good work. Tony Jones