The one about…expectation!

Life was spiralling out of control. It had been a year since she’d left home but her understanding of who she was and where her life was headed was not becoming any clearer. Her eating habits were becoming more erratic as she desperately tried to have control over something. She’d failed to gain a place at university for the second year in a row and she had sixteen rejection letters to prove it. As she neared the end of her ‘year out’ she was very aware that life wasn’t going as she’d expected, not only had she failed to meet her own expectations she knew she’d pretty much failed to meet everyone else’s. That’s when the cutting began.

Maybe no ones actually got it together, despite appearances. Maybe we’re all living with expectation in some form or another. We don’t expect relationships to require so much work, we’ve been brought up with the fairy tales full of “happy ever afters.” We expect that we’ll find a job we’ll succeed at and enjoy, after all we’ve spent so many years in the education system surely that’s what we’re entitled to. We don’t even expect our loved ones to die when they do, even though we know it will happen to us all eventually, we never really expect death. We’re not really prepared for what life expects of us and sometimes we don’t cope with that!

Maybe we should be taught to manage our expectations; maybe then we’d cope with those feelings of anger, grief, frustration, sadness, loneliness and fear a little better. I imagine though, if we did learn to manage our expectations, that we’d also manage out the joy, laughter, hope and excitement and life would become incredibly monotone or mundane. So we’re left living with the challenge of expectation! Maybe if we could understand expectation our understanding of what it means to cope, or not, would make more sense.

Often in the ordinariness of the everyday we deal with a whole range of emotions because that what life invites. What if intertwined somewhere in those ordinary emotions that we all experience we also juggle that set of expectations placed on us either by ourselves or by others? What if just below the surface of our lives, we’re constantly managing those expectations? Like the pressure from the media to look a certain way, eat certain food or shop in a certain place? Or the pressure from our own family, friends or belief system to live up to a particular way of being in the world. We expect, or are expected, to cope and when we don’t we’re left somewhere between bewildered and depressed.

I know many people grow up with a strongly ingrained set of beliefs and a fierce loyalty to family. When we break away from that and find ourselves “free” of parental control or tribal constraints we take on the challenge of living those expectations. There’s a whole new world to explore. Many of us carry with us throughout life the expectations of the family that raised us, it acts as our moral compass, our marker for how to be in the world! For some that’s intertwined with “religious” belief, for others it’s simply family values. The expectation we get a job, earn money, buy a house, find a partner maybe even have children. Even if we feel our family don’t expect much from us there’s still social expectations that we’ll supposedly conform to. Somehow we learn to cope with those expectations but sometimes we find the demands of them stifling.

Here’s the thing, what if there’s some value in not coping, in not conforming, at least for a while? What if mental or emotional lapses, where we “don’t cope” actually are moments where we discover more about ourselves? What if some breakdowns in stability, some rebellion against societal expectation, or some failure to meet familial goals, are opportunities to reconnect with ourselves, to actually discover who we really are?

It seems that some of the greatest musicians, lyricists, writers and artists often struggled with depression or other issues which compromised their mental health. Some of the most beautful, creative and inspiring work is borne out of that place of pain. What if not coping provides opportunity for creativity to flourish? What if in those moments there is a deeper connection with soul, with meaning and purpose?

What if to some extent we need to celebrate our inability to cope rather than rush to find a quick fix? What if, when the temptation to meet all those expectations takes hold along with the stark reality that we either can’t or simply don’t want to, instead of adopting our usual coping strategies we take time out, to listen to ourselves, to reconnect with who we are and learn from what we’re experiencing because it is actually teaching us something! What if that’s really the role of religion in the world; not to place more expectation on us but to provide spaces and places to reconnect with ourselves and others, to encounter something more and share in the story we find ourselves in. What if then we find we’re better placed to navigate all that life asks of us? What if there’s something about being more honest with ourselves and others that allows us all to realise everyone’s just figuring it out, no one is completely sorted and everyone else is doing today for the first time too?

The one about…coping.

Alone, she sat, the silver blade pressed against her arm. Slowly and deliberately she moved the metal across her skin, the gaping flesh making way for the trickle of the thick crimson blood.

She tried hard to work out how she felt as she watched the blood ooze from the wound. There was no anger or fear, she didn’t feel any pain, it was something else….relief, she felt relief.

Relief that she was still alive, the blood was proof of that much. Relief that she finally had something that was hers, something secret and special, her own way of retreating from the world. Relief that she could still feel, the tears had long since run out and she wasn’t sure she was capable of feeling anymore but for that moment she felt peaceful, content and alive.

The warm blood ran down the inside of her arm and for a while she watched in awe of the beauty, the colour, the warmth, the pattern it made as she traced the lines and then, very calmly she picked up a tissue and pressed it over the gaping skin, she lay back in the bed and for the first time in a long time she genuinely smiled.

She wasn’t sure how long she lay there for, or if she slept but when she did finally move she very carefully tended to her wound. It never crossed her mind that it might heal better with stitches, or that it could get infected….all that made sense was that now she had something to care for, a reason to look after herself and probably for the first time, something about herself that she loved.

The cutting continued for months, not every day and rarely as a result of anger. It was her secret, her moment of punishment and protection, penance and passion, revulsion and tenderness, a tangible expression of self loathing and yet also a reason to love herself. A living articulation of the great paradox of life; a way she could express, hold, contain and release some of those emotions she struggled to otherwise give language to.

She knew people judged her for it, labelled her as mentally ill, maybe she was but maybe most people were! Maybe they just chose the more socially acceptable methods of processing their emotions.

Those days, months, years were not my finest, not moments I’m proud of but I equally don’t regret living life that way. I guess I do regret the pain I caused to those who loved me, the worry and the disappointment they felt but I hold to the belief that those years shaped me. I also know that still, when life is overwhelming and the myriad of emotions that confuse any given experience seem to take over I think about finding a blade. I never have. I stopped cutting over fifteen years ago when I realised that it had become a habit rather than a release. I guess I’ve found other ways to understand, hold and express how I feel.

What I’ve also come to realise is that when those emotions dominate and all I want to do is hide away or distract myself from the intensity of feeling they demand, instead of employing yet another coping mechanism I’m now more able to name that emotion and mark it as holy! I know! Sounds a little crazy right!

Here’s how I now understand all of this: we all face times in life where emotions surface. Sometimes stirred by a song or a film, sometimes evoked by a smell or a sound. Sometimes storming to the forefront of who we are because of words spoken or words left unsaid; a response to our own or others actions. There are occasions of immense sadness and grief, others that cause us to fear or to doubt, some that just make us angry. Yet there are also times where a deep sense of joy and connection to something more releases feelings were not sure what to do with. I know now that there are many ways of releasing, burying or ignoring emotions; that extra glass of wine, an intoxicatingly wrong relationship, another evening spent watching pointless television or indulging in that extra piece of cake. Some of those ways we use to cope aren’t healthy, aren’t the best for us and others are deemed more acceptable, like an addiction to exercise or work. We all find ways of coping. Other times we don’t “cope” and we find ourselves reeling from the shock, embarrassment or disappointment of another outburst.

Yet what if we choose to name those emotions that hold us so violently. Fear. Doubt. Loneliness. Anger. Anxiety. Confusion. Grief. Hope. Joy. What if we draw a circle around whatever it is we’re feeling and allow it just to be. Not good or bad, just holy.

What if it sits in that holy circle either until the intensity passes or until we’re ready to deal with it, or more fully enjoy it? What if we listen carefully and calmly to what it’s telling us about where our life is at but we don’t allow it to push us into unhealthy behaviours or dependencies. What if we dare to stay awake, fully present in our own lives, in tune with who we are and where our lives are headed? What if some moments are simply holy, set apart as unexplainable, and uncontrollably beautiful? What if we have the courage to embrace that! What if that’s what it means to be fully human, fully alive? What if it all belongs? What if in that place we can truly know what love is?

The one about…poverty.

Have you ever experienced being poor? The dictionary defines poor as:

lacking sufficient money to live at a standard considered comfortable or normal in a society.

Yet poverty isn’t just financial or material hardship. Poverty can take many forms. We can be physically or mentally disadvantaged, not capable of doing or processing life as we once could or the way others do.

We can be emotionally poor, those days or seasons where we go through the motions but emotionally we’re quite numb and disconnected. There are other times where we’ve been overwhelmed by emotion and we then feel drained, exhausted by what life demands of us. There are times where we lack the resources to function coherently in the world and we’re simply not able to relate to those around us in a life giving way. We might also describe this as spiritually poor, when we’re low in spirit, those times where we feel void of sparkle or vitality, somewhat bereft of energy and purpose.

Often it seems poverty is a comparable state. Maybe we compare our financial, physical, mental, emotional or spiritual wealth to what we perceive others to have or maybe we compare our wealth or lack of, to what we’ve previously experienced. Sometimes we simply measure our wealth against what we believe we’re entitled to and believe that it comes up short! That said, when we’re in a place of need the knowledge that there are people in the world with less might put things in perspective but often isn’t a huge comfort! Yet there must be something we can learn from the poverty we experience.

One thing all types of poverty seem to have in common is that those who are impoverished find themselves at the end of their own resources. Poverty, of whatever kind, can leave us helpless, at the mercy of others; be it the system, individuals or the universe.

There’s a book called “The End of Me” by Kyle Idleman, it’s a great read, I bought it because I liked the title. For me, the concept of “the end of me” sums up poverty quite well. That experience of being at the end of our own financial, emotional, mental, physical or spiritual resources. Have you ever felt like you’ve got to “the end” of yourself, as though if one more bad or difficult or trying event occurs you might actually fall apart? Do you ever dread checking your emails, or hearing the phone ring or waiting for the post to arrive because you’re so spent that if you’re required to do something else, pay one more bill, or sort one more disagreement you might just break down?

What if that’s a good place to be? What if experiencing poverty, requires us on some level to surrender control, to recognise we can’t hold it all, that we can’t keep going at that pace? To recognise that some “fixes” take time and we simply have to surrender to the moment, to the universe or to our need to dominate?

What if finding ourselves at the end of our own reserves means we’re in a place where we’re instead ready to receive? Maybe running out of our own resources means we have to look to others or other sources?

What if in that place of poverty there is more room for “otherness” (if you need a word, make it up!), more space for something or someone else? Maybe in a place of poverty there’s more space for creativity, for new ideas to be birthed? What if in that place we’re more willing to try new methods or adopt a different outlook and then those occasions, where we feel we’re at the mercy of the universe, actually become opportunities for something new to occur? What if it’s in that place that we find a whole wealth of story, of possibility and of life? What if that’s where the adventure really begins!

The one about…mourning

mourn

/mɔːn/

verb

feel or show sorrow for the death of (someone), typically by following conventions such as the wearing of black clothes.

feel regret or sadness about (the loss or disappearance of something).

Mourning can take many forms and opportunities to mourn can vary. We mourn the loss of a job or relationship. The realisation that a situation has changed and we’re not going to do life in quite the same way can leave us feeling bereft of familiar routines, experiences or places and a type of mourning takes place. Most commonly though, when we talk of mourning, we talk of it in relation to physical death.

Mourning death varies from culture to culture. In the UK we’re often quite ordered and reserved, a viewing of the body is generally only for immediate family and the work of preparing the body for burial is left to a funeral director. Funerals are often solemn occasions, followed by burial or cremation and then a shared meal with family and friends.

In other parts of the world though the deceased’s body stays with the family, openly on view for visitors to pay their respects. Some cultures are very vocal and express their grief with wailing or song. Some cultures have set mourning periods with rituals that have to be observed.

Across the world, however it’s carried out, mourning is recognised as an outward expression of grief, a more visible, tangible display of those feelings we hold inside.

Mourning isn’t just culturally influenced, our personality, previous experiences and relationship to the deceased also influence when, where and how we mourn. However we practice mourning, however prescriptive our tribes methods of mourning are, mourning is a healthy part of the grieving process.

There ability and need to mourn privately has its place and is unique to the individual but there is something beautiful that occurs when a community comes together to mourn. While each individual holds their own thoughts and feelings the act of sharing together allows a deeper sense of solidarity and understanding to be expressed. In coming together there’s also somehow a recognition that the need to mourn isn’t always in proportion to the loss experienced. This shared experience is often one which strengthens community and unites those who participate. Mourning together goes further though because it allows space for community members to comfort each other, to stand alongside each other, it requires courage to admit feelings and to hold others feelings alongside our own.

It seems that often as we mourn what’s taking place is an admission of those feelings that are deepest within us. For most people death within the community or family stirs our deepest fears about our own mortality. It’s as though death reminds us how vulnerable we are and how uncertain life is. Maybe death isn’t just the loss of someone but also the loss of our own innocence and security and a reminder that we can’t hold anything too tightly.

What if this is why mourning is so essential? What if mourning allows us to feel those fears, to let them surface and to acknowledge them in the presence of others who share those feelings too.

So as those feelings of sadness and fear surface, as moments of despair, hopelessness and grief manifest what if we choose not to avoid feeling? What if we’re not too quick to distract ourselves from feeling? What if we choose not to bury those feelings underneath the mundanity of life or deny their existence but what if instead we allow ourselves to feel, to embrace feeling and to be embraced because what if that’s where we find life?

Mourning is painful, mourning requires vulnerability but what if, in doing so, we create an opportunity to know ourselves a little more, to allow others in and to allow love to comfort and heal? Maybe it’s good for us to mourn…

The one about…grief

Devastatingly sad news, like the death of someone you all knew and admired, someone who inspired others, affects everyone in the community. We all cope in different ways for many reasons, maybe because of the intensity, or not, of relationship; maybe because of our differing personalities; maybe because of previous experiences of grief and loss. Some will cry, some will be angry, others will be quiet, some will behave as though nothing’s changed. Some will have to be strong and brave despite their own feelings, to allow the younger members of the community to mourn. There is no right way to mourn, grief, however it’s expressed, is valid.

When the grief hits, however it hits, we will need to stand with each other and to allow each other to grieve. This might require courage; courage to talk, courage to listen and courage to love. We might need to allow each other to express feelings in unique ways; to talk, cry, shout, draw, write, think, however best allows us to move forwards…because we will move forwards.

Life calls us onwards, even when for a while death causes us to pause and wait indefinitely in a place that we don’t really want to be. Death awakens us to feelings we’ve often subdued, denied, hidden or maybe never experienced before and reminds us that one day death will meet us personally. Death is real. Yet, until the time death meets us, a time we don’t know for certain, life invites us to live; to adventure. Life asks us to journey with those emotions and to live, fully alive, knowing joy, pain, sadness, fear, anger and love…because they all belong. Those emotions travel with us and the hope is that somehow we allow love to take the lead, the other emotions will have their place, they will need to make room for each other but love must win. For now, because we love, we’ll grieve.

I’ll leave you with the words of Elizabeth Gilbert, taken from her Instagram account after the death of her partner and best friend…

People keep asking me how I’m doing, and I’m not always sure how to answer that. It depends on the day. It depends on the minute. Right this moment, I’m OK. Yesterday, not so good. Tomorrow, we’ll see.

Here is what I have learned about Grief, though.

I have learned that Grief is a force of energy that cannot be controlled or predicted. It comes and goes on its own schedule. Grief does not obey your plans, or your wishes. Grief will do whatever it wants to you, whenever it wants to. In that regard, Grief has a lot in common with Love.

The only way that I can “handle” Grief, then, is the same way that I “handle” Love — by not “handling” it. By bowing down before its power, in complete humility.

When Grief comes to visit me, it’s like being visited by a tsunami. I am given just enough warning to say, “Oh my god, this is happening RIGHT NOW,” and then I drop to the floor on my knees and let it rock me. How do you survive the tsunami of Grief? By being willing to experience it, without resistance.

The conversation of Grief, then, is one of prayer-and-response.

Grief says to me: “You will never love anyone the way you loved Rayya.” And I reply: “I am willing for that to be true.” Grief says: “She’s gone, and she’s never coming back.” I reply: “I am willing for that to be true.” Grief says: “You will never hear that laugh again.” I say: “I am willing.” Grief says, “You will never smell her skin again.” I get down on the floor on my fucking knees, and — and through my sheets of tears — I say, “I AM WILLING.” This is the job of the living — to be willing to bow down before EVERYTHING that is bigger than you. And nearly everything in this world is bigger than you.

I don’t know where Rayya is now. It’s not mine to know. I only know that I will love her forever. And that I am willing.

The one about…believing!

It’s Christmas! It really is!! The music, the lights, the tinsel; the presents wrapped, food bought, cards written, nativity plays done, stockings hung…and now the final details come together to create the magic we love to believe in, as we wait to see what unfolds.

We watched a movie about two siblings experiencing Christmas after the death of their dad; the girl trying desperately to hold onto the magic while her older brother gets in with the wrong crowd and becomes angry, distant and cold. That is until they meet Santa. The theme that underpins the whole movie is “belief” and at Christmas there is so much to believe in…cheeky little elves who choose a family to spend December with, flying reindeer and of course the jolly bearded man himself. Then there’s all the details; the reindeer eating carrots and glittered oats, Father Christmas nibbling mince pies and drinking the milk or whisky! There’s the questions of how he gets it all done in one night and of how he gets in, even if you have a chimney! The whole thing is encapsulated in awe, wonder and mystery!

The Christmas experience requires belief. Even if we don’t “believe” anymore it seems that somehow, in some mysterious way, we do believe; we believe in the love that’s shared, the joy and delight it brings or at the very least we believe in creating the magic for others. We believe in Christmas!

Children are good at believing all year; the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, the God character, heaven and hell…they immerse themselves in believing! Yet as adults we’re often quick to dismiss those things as childhood fantasies or ideologies we outgrew. But what if believing isn’t some childish, immature craze that we grow out of but a skill, an art form, an ability we should hone, one that is fundamental to human flourishing!

In ‘The Christmas Chronicles’, Santa Claus declares that:

People need Christmas to remind themselves of how good they can be.

I see what he’s saying, and I’d never want to contradict the big man but what if we need Christmas not just to be reminded of how good we can be but to be reminded of how good life can be?

There’s something about choosing to believe in the good that enables us to overcome doubt and suspicion. At Christmas we seem to make that choice more readily. We all know that that the reality of life is often brutal and painful. There’s way too much sadness and hopelessness in our world. We read it in the news, we see it in our communities and we know it within ourselves. Yet the choice to believe allows us, even if only for brief moments, to dream; to hope; to live.

What if, when we believe, the world becomes alive with possibilities? Some of the things we believed in as children we know to be from a world of fantasty yet what if to dismiss all of it leaves us sceptical, suspicious and somewhat sad. What if to loose that sense of mystery and magic means we loose our ability to see beyond what ‘is’ into what ‘could be’? What if so often we parcel up all thoughts of soul and spirit, of awe and wonder and put them away with the Christmas decorations as though they are only allowed to dance when Santa and his elves make an appearance?

What if as we shift our focus towards that baby born as a refugee, living his first years with a very real threat of death we see within his unfolding story a way of life that brought reconciliation, restoration, hope and love? What if we believe that the birth of that baby, at the very least, is symbolic of life, new beginnings and new possibilities?

What if Christmas is God’s way of saying “I believe in humanity”?What if at Christmas we hear the universe whisper “I believe in you”? What if knowing someone or something believes in us changes everything? What if Christmas is a reminder to us of how life could be if we believed in the mystery, and the magic; in love, in the goodness of others and in ourselves? What if believing in ourselves and others is how we’re then inspired to bring light to the world?

The one about…Christmas light!

There are lights everywhere, hanging from houses, entwined into trees, projected onto walls, glowing as the outlines of reindeers and sleighs; all so good because it’s dark out there! It’s dark when I walk the dog. It’s only just light when the children leave for school. Every morning our two year old wakes up and with his head tilted and an inquisitive look on his face says, “It morning? Dark gone?”

We don’t like to linger in the darkness; we’re often quite desperate to find the light. Human beings are actually quite good at light! Bonfire night is all fire and fireworks, at Halloween we light pumpkin carved lanterns, during advent we light candles, and now our streets are glowing with Christmas lights! It’s almost as though in the darkness of winter we jump from one light-filled celebration to the next as we attempt to live in light.

Darkness can take many forms, it’s there in the natural cycle of day and night, it can also be there like a cloud that hangs over us; an experience that leaves us feeling hopeless; an event that rocks the very core of our being or simply days/weeks/months of life just being tough. We talk about dark places, those spaces that are eerie, that make us feel uneasy. We talk about living in dark times; local, national and international events occur that make us realise our world isn’t all brightness and light!

Darkness can take us by surprise, darkness can seem endless, darkness can lead to despair. Darkness is real. It’s no wonder we like light, it’s no wonder we create occasions to pin our hopes on and get us through dark times; the next weekend, the next holiday, or the next event become the lights that we stumble towards as we try to avoid the darkness in our world, or in our lives.

Yet there’s wisdom to be found in the darkness. Wisdom shows us the glimmer of light, a star that shines as a spark of hope. Yet our problem often isn’t the darkness, it’s more that we don’t stop in the darkness to find our way. We don’t stop to take in the lights that are shining, to look at what they show us or where they point, we too often just stumble from one to another without any real sense of direction.

Our four year old was a sheep in his school nativity play, lost in the dark because of a star that couldn’t shine! The plot is described as:

The big star has to show the way to the stable where a special baby has been born – but he just can’t shine. How will the shepherds and kings find their way if they cannot follow the star?

Fortunately, all the other stars lead the big star to the stable where he sees Mary, Joseph and the beautiful baby. He realises that Jesus loves all the stars, angels and people of the world and this love gives the big star the strength to shine again.

For some Jesus is the light. The bible describes him as ‘the Light of the world’. For others that light is perhaps more simply described as love. What if, whatever language we use to describe that light, we need that brighter light so that we don’t live life just stumbling from one thing to the next without any real sense of direction?

What if this Christmas as the stars shine, the lights twinkle and the candles flicker, we take time to stop and think about the direction our lives are going? What if we stop to think about the bigger light that guides our way? Because what if there actually is a brighter light, a true light that illuminates the bigger picture of our lives? A light that influences the way we think and act?

A true light will show the way, disperse the fear, expose the lies and reveal the truth. Maybe there’s something important about the light we choose to follow! What if we’re inspired by that light to shine in the darkness too, to bring hope and help show the way. What if, with enough of us shining, the whole world becomes a brighter place and we can all wake up saying “It morning? Dark gone?”