01/07/2014 12:35 BST | Updated 28/08/2014 06:59 BST

How I Turned My Unhappy Past Into a Happy One

I was brought up in an agnostic house- my parents were not particularly interested in religion and made it plain to us three children that we could do whatever we wanted. In a sense I am grateful to my parents who both came from relatively liberal families and were not that ingrained with God and the rest. Many authors and creative types bash on endlessly about their upbringing and how their parents ruined their lives. Suffice it to say in my case that I had a fractious and unhappy relationship with my late mother and a loving one with my late father. I do not think that it would be fair to say that my mother didn't love me but put it this way, she never really noticed me. My mother probably did the best she could with a willful child but my sensitive spirit never recovered from my mother's harsh hands and words. I've learned though after 50 years that we're all unique yet so similar in our unhappiness.


La merde, oil on canvas, painting and photo copyright S. van Dalen

For the last six months I have been in and out of the some of the most diverse homes in the country. I have met with all types of people- all different colours and religions. They all share something in common- a desire to open up about their lives and to tell a complete stranger their most private thoughts. How this has come about that I illicit confessions from strangers, well perhaps this could be a new career for me. I have listened to the stories of these individuals, some of whom despite the fact they have been living in this country for thirty years, can still only speak halting English. And everyone has a story to tell. Who on earth has not suffered in some way? The most common story I heard was from women who wished they could ditch the husband for good, walk away and never look back. The second most popular story was the illness that had ravaged lives- the engineer who developed MS, was now living on disability benefits and who had lost his confidence, the former bus driver whose allergies were so severe she couldn't breathe and lived off an oxygen tank, the stroke victims who one day felt fine and the next were incapacitated and maimed for good and who cursed God every day. I've heard it all- the couples who had struggled for years to conceive, went through IVF only to split up once the child was born, the women whose husbands left without explanation, the housewives who secretly despise themselves, the polio victim who had competed in the Paralympics and met his perfectly formed future wife as a result (he never thought anyone would love him), the ravages of loss- stolen property, stolen dreams, stolen money. Why do strangers seek to share their story? Because there is a camaraderie between humans - we all crave solace but without the reflection we see of ourselves in someone else it is almost as if we do not actually exist. To be able to empathise and care is what makes us human. Often these strangers tell me that I seemingly have it all. I smile and assure them that no. Who does?


Photo copyright S. van Dalen

I'm not perfect and I couldn't be anything further than. I'm flawed and I struggle like everyone else. My secret weapon though is philosophy- spending hours just thinking, reflecting and placing my faith not just in God but in myself. I do believe that everyone should study philosophy and learn how to think. Just yesterday I interviewed an astrologer on my radio show and she was discussing how she helps her clients gain confidence in order to be able to cope with life. I am frequently alarmed at how fragile people actually are as if there is a tremendous dearth of soul within them. And yet we are all capable of being strong- we're definitely not born that way- we have to learn from hard knocks how to be brave. Ironically, a warrior is the most bruised and (secretly) vulnerable person you will ever meet.

And finally, what do I tell these strangers about where my journey led me? How did I recover from my unhappy family history? Philosophy teaches one to make sense of why we are here but it was nature that saved me. It was a type of pleasing calmness and tranquility within my soul as I walked in the woods and looked up and around me as I had always done for years and in all weathers. My healing began when I finally heard the silence within my own head. A completeness that was enough, an acceptance of who I was and that no fanfare and trumpets would follow my going out or coming in. The breath of the hound as he lay at my feet, the dewdrops on the leaves, the cyclical nature of everything- and the ephemerality of what irks us and pleases us too. Those lessons were all there as I trampled my way though the woods and as we do through life without heeding what we need to learn. But it wasn't anything man-made that taught me the most important lesson of all; it was the rhythmical cycle of nature that showed me the inevitability of all things. Sadness turns to joy. And a broken spirit can find wings again.


Photo copyright S. van Dalen