The one about…the story we’re telling ourselves!

“You’re already telling yourself a story so tell yourself a better one!” The words jumped out at me and everything else seemed muffled or irrelevant. What if he’s right? What if it’s that simple? The thought stayed with me.

Psychologists talk about the “tapes” we play.* Sometimes it’s called self- talk, it can be positive or negative but at its very essence it’s the story we tell ourselves about our lives and it’s influenced by every encounter and experience we’ve had, good or bad.

We all have accounts we can relay of moments that have stayed with us, words spoken over us, experiences that have impacted us or memorable occasions that have changed us. There are millions of other encounters and conversations that we don’t remember but are stored somewhere deep within us. We all have parents, teachers, siblings, colleagues, peers, who have influenced us subtly and sometimes not so subtly. They’ve created a frame for how we see ourselves and what or how we believe our lives should be. We’re also influenced immensely by the dominant culture that surrounds us, music, news, film, literature; all shape what we believe to be true about ourselves.

Some people have had mostly positive messages spoken over them, others are better at filtering the negatives like Jack in the film Titanic who, when he’s asked if he enjoys his “rootless existence” replies:

Well yes ma’am I do…I mean I got everything I need right here with me. I’ve got the air in my lungs and a few blank sheets of paper. I love waking up in the morning not knowing what’s going to happen or who I’m going to meet…Just the other night I was sleeping under a bridge and now, here I am on the grandest ship in the world having champagne with you fine people.”

Oh to interpret a story with such positivity!

Yet for others, the message they’ve received has damaged them and their ability to really know who they are and the tapes they play aren’t positive or necessarily even true.

What if it’s possible to start telling yourself a different story?

Whatever your opinion or understanding of the bible what the book does is continually take the story being told to a nation, tribe or individual and tell a better one. So slaves are told they are a people, the childless are told they will grow a nation, prisoners are told they will be free, women are told they have value, prostitutes are told they are loved, the outcasts are told they are welcome, the illiterate and uneducated are told they’ll change the world! Stories are re-told. Even the ones we read as primitive and barbaric are often actually a step forward for those people, in that time, in the way they interact with the world!** The work of the divine has always been to tell a better story.

Which takes us back to the question what if our stories can be retold? Maybe you don’t need it retelling, maybe you’re able to hold a positive, authentic, humble opinion of yourself with integrity constantly. What if though, there are times that challenge us, that daunt us, that leave us feeling less than capable? What if at times we feel anxious, insecure, bitter or frustrated and the story we tell ourselves just feeds deeper into those emotions? What if we’re able to take a step back, to review the story, to ask why we believe that about ourselves? What if we to dare to believe there’s a better story, another view, an alternative path, which that particular story can follow?

What if we choose to focus on what we can do rather than what we can’t, who we are instead of who we aren’t? What if we change the negative talk about that person and start seeing them as the more fragile human we know ourselves to be? What if we choose to believe we can do good in this world and as a result, in every interaction, we seek to record a positive message onto someone else’s tape? What if there’s a true story at work in the world that we can be part of? What if we’re all telling ourselves a story and it really is possible to tell ourselves a better one!

* tapes, a throwback to how life was but also a recognised psychological term!!! Maybe now we’d just have it all stored in our “cloud”??

** you’ll see what I mean!!! In “What is the Bible?” Rob Bell writes:

Does it surprise you when someone in the bible wins a battle and then gives their gods the credit? That’s what people did at that time.

Does it surprise you when after, winning, they wiped out the women and children and then said their gods told them to do it? That’s what people did at that time.

Does it surprise you when they won and then let no one escape but put everyone to the sword, and then said they did it with their gods power? That’s what people did at that time….

You find these stories violent and repulsive and barbaric because they are.

If you didn’t find them shocking and awful and confusing, something is wrong with you.

The violence isn’t that surprising; what’s surprising is that among all that violence there are new ideas about serving and blessing and nonviolence….What you find in the bible are stories accurately reflecting the dominant consciousness of the day, and yet right in among and sometimes even within those very same violent stories, you find radically new ideas about freedom, equality, justice, compassion and love.

The one about…why I write!

The human body is extraordinary!

  • An adult human body is made up of about 7 octillion atoms. To give you an idea of the size of an atom apparently there are more atoms in a glass of water than there are glasses of water in all of the oceans put together! They’re quite small!*
  • There are ten times more bacteria cells in your body than human cells! Nice!
  • In an adult human, blood circulates about 12,000 miles a day, that’s like travelling from the UK to Hong Kong and back every day!
  • You get a new top layer of skin every 30 days so if you don’t see someone for a month technically you’ve not seen them before!
  • The human body contains over 35 trillion cells. Earth has about 7 billion people, which means that there are 5,000 times more cells in one body than there are people on the planet.**

It’s not just the human body that’s remarkable. The wonder echoes throughout nature, apparently trees send distress signals about drought and disease, or insect attacks, and other trees alter their behavior when they receive these messages. Scientists call these mycorrhizal networks.*** The scientific facts, phrases, discoveries and explanations about human beings, their world and the universe are mind blowing. Sub-atomic theorising leaves even the most intelligent scientists baffled at times! We have oceanography, palaeontology, astronomy, geology, meteorology, quantum physics, to mention a few, and all present their own formulas, theories and equations as a way of giving meaning and understanding to their field.

Science can tell us so much but what about that which can’t be explained by logic and reason? For example, how do you explain the feeling that stirs when you hear that particular song, the emotions that surface when you watch that movie or the connection you feel to that piece of art? How do we really give language to falling in love, or the grief we feel when someone we love dies? How do we explain how it feels to stand at the edge of the ocean or on the top of a mountain or walk through the trees and realise we’re quite small (imagine how the atom feels?!)! Some experiences need poetry, prose, music, mime, dance or drawing; some encounters do not come down to rational, scientific explanation. There is mystery, soul, and spirit alive in our world which are dancing with, working with and complementing scientific study.

There are many ways science helps us care for our minds and bodies, but what if there is also a need to care for, nurture and nourish our souls? What if to take a moment, in the midst of this awesome experience we call life, and connect back into that force or energy which sustains us deep within, is as necessary as a healthy diet, regular exercise and medical checkups? What if there is, within our culture, a growing awareness or experience of otherness, of another way of being, of a bigger story or consciousness that holds the whole narrative together?

What I find interesting is how a deeper understanding of self through science and soul allows for a deeper understanding of our connection to others and nature. Exploring these themes is one of the main reasons I write. What if this deeper understanding, connection and appreciation of soul changes how we live around, work with and relate to others in our world? What if a deeper respect for mystery allows us to hold other perspectives more openly? What if a greater reverence for love inspires action, a more practical care for those we would sometimes more readily dismiss? What if a stronger ability to appreciate beauty in the world around us energises us to work with the natural world rather than against it? Maybe an ability to embrace both science and soul could change the way we all share life on planet earth and open our eyes to what it really means to be human.

* Robcast Episode 5

**https://www.factretriever.com/karin-lehnardt

***www.smithsonian.com

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…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?