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On losing a friend. What will we leave behind?

It was the best of days. It was the worst of days.

Doing work you love is fabulous. Doing it with people you love to work with goes a long way toward a happy life.

July 2008. I'd had an amazing, sunny, fun filled work day in Blackpool, filming interviews with my journalist friend Lara. We were asking people what makes them happy, and what ideas they could pass on to help the rest of us look on the bright side a bit more. Most people's answers, when we got 'em to think about what really mattered, came down to relationships (after good health as a prerequisite for almost everything else): namely a loving family and caring, supportive friends.

We'd got some good interviews "in-the-can", enjoyed everyone's company, and had a blast working with a team made up mostly of fab people we know and like.

Driving home I thought about how much I'd enjoyed my working day and how I appreciate folk who are not only good at what they do, but care about others too - it makes all the difference! It made me smile thinking how much my own friends and good relationships mean to me, and how rich I am to have such great people around - to love, and to be loved.

When I got home, my missus opened the door in tears. She told me our good friend Dr. Paul Fletcher had had a heart attack shortly after delivering a paper at conference in Australia. He'd suffered irretrievable brain damage.

A week later, Paul was dead. He was only 43, the father of a five month old girl, May, and partner to Debs.

It must have been incredibly painful for Debs to write Paul's obituary.

Here's an extract from that beautifully written piece Debs did for the Guardian newspaper. It gives some background to Paul, a friend of outstanding character, intellect, personality, warmth and extraordinary talent. A person who made my life, and many others, richer and happier:

My partner Paul was a meticulous and accomplished philosophical theologian who had spent seven years, from 1984 to 1991, as a Christian Brother working in London, Plymouth, Liverpool and at a leprosarium in Liberia.

Born and raised in Birkenhead, Paul attended St Hughes RC secondary school. As he was about to escape to a sixth-form place at St Anselm's college, owned and run by the Irish Christian Brothers, he lost Dessie, his best childhood friend, to a drug overdose. He felt the event marked a transition from boy to adult, and he announced his intention to become a monk. The news, I am told, was taken badly by the female population of Birkenhead.

In 1988, while still a Christian Brother, he went to study theology at Durham University. He left the order shortly before taking his final vows, disillusioned by the restrictions increasingly placed upon the social work of the Brothers in Liverpool. Later he returned to Durham for an MA in systematic philosophy and subsequently a PhD. In 1997, he was appointed as a lecturer in religious studies at Lancaster University, where he remained until his death.

Paul believed that philosophy belonged everywhere. His love of scholarship made him a confident speaker and formidable interlocutor. His love of life meant that nothing stood outside the world of ideas: politics, love, travel, beauty, food and football. His spirit shone in teaching. He could crack a subject like a code, and distil its essence in a single image or sentence. The breadth and depth of his reading were remarkable, but it was not just knowledge and intellect that made him a great teacher. It was integrity of character. He had a gift for putting people at their ease and encouraging others to enjoy the world as much as he did.

He was also a talented sportsman and, in particular, footballer. At Durham he was awarded his colours and at Lancaster played for Red Star Bailrigg. Above all, he was a devoted fan of Liverpool. He is survived, and will be missed desperately, by me, his partner of five years, and by his greatest work, his baby daughter May Naz Fletcher.

Paul was one of the most "sorted" people I've ever known. I wanted to write a little about what I learned from him that's helped me and will help you too. Even though Paul is no longer around, I'm grateful for the eight years in which I got to know him and for what he's left behind. Things that enriched me, my family, and countless other people.

What I learned from our friend Dr. Paul Fletcher is just a little part of what he left behind.

Though this post is sad, I don't want it to be depressing since Paul brought loads of joy and left us with great memories of a life short, but well-lived. So here are some of the good things for which I am thankful.

* He built his life around the things that matter.

Whether serving as a monk in a war zone, helping students and academics understand complex ideas, or enjoying time with family and friends, Paul's life was focused on doing the things that mattered. He lived a life consistent with his beliefs and values.

Determining what is really important and then working to create a life around those things is a key to the "good life", a life of meaning and purpose.

* There was no compartmentalising, no deep division between "public" and "private".

The good ideas Paul discovered, the truths he found, were applied to his life. He was consistent. What he was in public was a reflection of his true self. He didn't say or do things outwardly that didn't reflect what he was privately. His life and his work were totally connected and they informed and enriched each other.

Psychologists tend to agree a disconnect between what we really are and how we behave is not healthy and eventually leads to misery. The opposite is also true. When we develop the confidence to allow the "real us" to direct our lives, we become more joyous, more peaceful, more connected to what matters, and ultimately, much happier. I think Paul lived that.

* People matter. They are worth caring about. They deserve our time.

Paul had worked in some terrible environments, helping people as they experienced real suffering, hardship, even death. He cared about them as a monk, and as a human being. I have met loads of people who knew Paul and I have found no one who didn't like him. I think it is largely because, like Debs said, he had a gift for putting people at their ease, encouraging us to stretch and make the most of our talents, and to enjoy the world despite the difficulties.

Paul made a positive difference to people in all kinds of ways. If we aim to do that, we will win. We will be happier. We will be rewarded in ways only kind, giving people can know.

* He was humble and modest.

I've met lots of bright people. I don't think I've met anyone as bright as Paul. He was "frighteningly" intelligent - in a non-scary way if you know what I mean! His knowledge was amazing. He could pull scholarly and popular sources from thousands of years of history out of his head so fast it was unbelievable. His ideas were unique and exciting.

Despite his intellectual hugeness, being a confident speaker and formidable interlocutor, he never belittled anyone or appeared boastful or superior. Quite the opposite really, he was so down-to-earth he made me feel like he'd great respect for my ideas and for my struggle to try and understand the complexities of our world and beyond. I suppose that was one of the signs of Paul's inner security and peace - he didn't need to show how smart he was or make unnecessary plays to win approval. He was at ease with himself and others.

I'm learning how to stay calm and to not need to jump on everyone who makes a comment that I believe is intellectually unsound or who says something that shows they are not as bright as they like to think. Instead, I'm trying to see the good in people, to find better ways of engaging, and being more helpful.

* He knew how to suck the marrow out of life, to be fully alive, to seize the day.

The first time I saw Paul Fletcher I was in my favourite pub. I was at the bar ordering drinks and overheard snippets of an amazing conversation. Paul and his mates where discussing everything from philosophy to football, politics to bingo, ancient history to how to make a proper curry.

That was Paul.

His charismatic personality and ability to make everyone laugh naturally placed him at the centre of things. He loved life. He had so many interests. He loved conversation over a pint. He loved his football. His mates. He loved his partner Debs and little girl May. He didn't spend his time needlessly worrying about the past or things that might happen. He wasn't discontentedly waiting for some future time in which life would be perfect. Not at all. Paul was present in the moment. He was fully alive to the immediate possibilities life had to offer each day.

Perhaps we don't have enough kind, caring, generous people in our world, and now we've got one less.

What about your friends, the ones who are still here?

I hope my description of Paul doesn't make anyone feel bad because he seems like such a "good egg". Well, he absolutely was a great person.

I hope you have great friends too. If you do, you will know who they are. They are the people who make your life and the lives of others infinitely better. They enable you to be greater than you would have been without them. They help you to grow, to think differently. They challenge you. Or they make you laugh. They turn up when you need them. They give a crap about what happens in your life. Oh yea they screw up, but when it comes down to it, they genuinely care about you. You can trust them. They won't rip you off. They listen to you. You listen to them. You learn from them. Sometimes they learn from you.

Above all you understand, and want the best for, each other.

It isn't always easy to find these people, so when you do, don't let them down.

Do your best to preserve the goodness that great friends bring. Appreciate their love and kindness. Don't mess it up with pettiness and selfish stupidity.

And perhaps there's much mileage in the idea that by being a good friend, we will have good friends.

When it all boils down, for me at least, alongside good health, the thing that truly matters is the quality of my relationships. I'll do what it takes to protect them, nurture them, and be grateful while I have them.

The friends we care about most will not be here forever. They may not be here tomorrow. I know the practical responsibilities of making a living, having a family, living many miles apart etc. all impact upon our ability to spend time with those people. But think about the ultimate and irreversible difficulty of losing them forever. Perhaps that will help us bring what truly matters into sharper focus.

Sometimes I walk down a little narrow street in Lancaster where I live.

At the other end I see the silhouette of a chap with a shoulder bag and think for a split second that it's Paul.

What I would give to have another pint together and chat about all those big ideas one more time!

So let's stop wasting our time on crap that doesn't matter and take every opportunity to enjoy the good friends we have now.

Paul's book, published recently, is available here.

If you found this post helpful, please pass it on.  There's more inspiring stuff here:  "Will our digital footprint eventually reveal the truth about us? Or, what will we leave behind?". 

I'd love to know if you find this helpful, and if you have lost a close friend or relative, how did you cope?  Hope to see you in the comments.  Much love, Ian.

Your comments:

Charlis says:
25/08/2015 22:36:32

Paul was my lecturer at Lancaster Uni 1997-2000. I had no idea of his passing until I came across this. So sad. Brilliant lecturer and yet not at all like a lecturer, I think it was the soft, down to earth accent that made him easy to listen to. Often saw him puffing numerous ciggies outside Furness in between lectures. What a terrible loss.
JoJons says:
05/08/2013 14:38:39

I found this post because I've read Paul's book. Your tribute to Paul is inspiring and well-written. I've re-read it several times and it still touches me and reminds me of what matters. Thanks.
Bryce Redford says:
28/10/2009 00:10:14

Thanks for writing this, it touched me deeply and moved me to tears reading it. Bryce


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  • Ian AspinLocation: Lancaster Lake District, UK
  • Bio: I’m passionate about my work:TV journalist, producer, presenter, business ideas person. I care about: family, friends, helping people, finding meaning, running