In 2012 Shannon and I had the great privilege of travelling around the world (pre-covid days. Obviously). I remember several conversations in the months leading up to our trip, where select people, upon hearing our plans, responded with the following:
Of course, this is a lighthearted statement. We don’t actually mean harm in it: It is a response intended to show your conversation partner how good their news is: “Your news is so good I wish it was true for me”.
We hope that they hear the virtue of this statement – “Your news is so good!!” But as I often did – the statement more often falls flat, because what the person actually hears louder than its goodness, – is “I wish it were true for me”. It is really a backhanded compliment because you’re really saying “I haven’t been as lucky as you”. When we make statements like this, we steal the moment, making someone else’s joy about us.
The thing is, sometimes it’s hard not to see beyond that space. Sometimes people’s lives just seem SO MUCH EASIER than ours. “How come things seem to turn out for those guys?” “How come they get what they want?” “When will it be my turn???”
I have been the author of many of these statements. It is really hard when you seem to get passed over, time and time again, for the good things in life.
This post is not about comparison and stopping it – I mean comparison isn’t healthy, nor fulfilling – and nor is it even based in reality – we NEVER know the full story of someone’s context, or what it cost for them to get where they’re at.
yet – sometimes it’s hard not to compare – I mean, we’re human, right?
sometimes it goes beyond your run of the mill jealous comparison to full blown rage. Someone’s joy (especially when it is seemingly easily won) feels like a personal attack – how DARE they get a boyfriend/get married/fall pregnant/get a job/lose weight/get ripped/find their calling/start a successful podcast – when they KNOW how much I’ve been struggling with it??!!!!!
The rage can be real. So can the pain.
BUT. BUT. BUT, dear friends –
when we extend empathetic joy – when we are generous in our support, even, especially when, we’re not in the same place as our friend/acqaintence/stranger – oh the gift of grace we offer in that moment? priceless.
To say to someone – THIS moment – THIS joy – right now? This is yours. I echo it. I celebrate you – I think it’s one of the truer marks of maturity. And it’s something to aspire to. I guarantee the gift of sharing in someone’s happiness is actually far more healing than if you withdrawal out of envy or spite.
Yes friends, sometimes it is about us. Our griefs and longings are completely real. Sometimes we need to rant and rave about what isn’t happening in our own plan. But we don’t always have to bring it up in this moment, or to this person. It is the art – and gift – of responding well.
This can be really hard when/if we’re struggling ourselves.
But more than one thing can be true at once –
we can grieve, but at the same time, champion our neighbours.
Even if someone’s life seems to be easier/more attractive than yours, it doesn’t demean your story in the slightest.
It can feel lonely – but this is the work of generous grace, friends. And in this you are in fine company indeed.
ps – as a standing invitation – if you ever are in the need for some empathetic joy in your lives – Hit me up. Tell me your news.
“You don’t have to fill ice cube trays to the top!” exclaimed a dear friend in a phone call to me a few years ago.
The excited revelation came after we had both been married and out of home for several years. “Kirsten, you don’t have to fill ice cubes to the top. You can leave a gap!”
“Oh my GOODNESS!” I replied. “YOU DON’T HAVE TO FILL ICE CUBE TRAYS TO THE TOP!”
I can appreciate the lame incredible revelation that this information would give you dear reader. Did you know this?!
I’m not being sarcastic. This was amazing news to me. Like me, my friend had grown up in a house in which you just filled the trays to the brim. If you do this, of course the water overflows. Of course it is harder to ‘crack’ the tray to release the ice. Of course the trays stick together. But it’s what you did in the house – so it’s what you did in the house. So when I got my own home, I filled up my trays like a good girl, to the brim.
But I didn’t have to.
So I don’t anymore.
And it’s glorious.
Why do we do the things we do?
So much of the different habits, from big to small, are inherited through tradition and repeated exposure in our lives. Whether it is the tradition of the family, religion, workplace, or even our own selves, the cultures of these different contexts give us guidance and templates for how to act in similar situations. And for so much of our lives, this is incredibly helpful. Traditions allow us to borrow wisdom from those who have gone before us; we benefit from the often hard-won advances in knowledge, and can shortcut processes that otherwise would have to come from our own learning.
it may be helpful – and freeing – every once a while, to ask ourselves the following question:
What are you doing that no longer needs doing?
This is not a question to ‘stop and smell the roses’. There may be many things in your diary and calendar that need to be prioritised or deferred in lieu of rest and restoration. Nope. This is a question of ‘is this helpful?’
Traditions in our families, and in our faiths, and in our homes, and in our own selves, are simply rituals that point TO something. Traditions speak of our people’s stories and our values; they simultaneously help us internalise and operationalise what we hold dear.
But. They are not sacred in and of themselves.
Traditions are valuable, when they actually help us remember our values
Inherited habits are worthy, are worth our time, when they provide solution to the question they are answering.
If they don’t, then maybe we need to revisit them.
Please hear me. This is not about change for change’s sake. This post is not about forgetting traditions.
but it IS about the consideration of them
What are you doing that no longer needs to be done?
I’ll give you another example. My husband and I have forcibly become very familiar with the cartoon My Little Pony over the past couple of years. There is an episode where the pony Applejack, an apple farmer, has a day off, leaving an extensive and elaborate list of tasks for her friends to complete in her absence. The thing was, the intricate steps detailed to complete the chores were often unnecessary: previously timid pets no longer needed to be coaxed inside to be fed, and jobs with machinery no longer needed to be completed by hand. With a few adjustments to the process, her friends completed the list in record time. When she arrived home, Applejack had a hard time understanding how effective her friends were; it took perspective to understand that processes that were once central and necessary were perhaps no longer needed.
Growth required an adjustment of process.
Tradition needed a reconsideration.
SO I ask you again; What are you doing that no longer needs to be done?
If we have traditions, processes, habits in our family, workplace, community, and they still ‘do the job’ –
that is – remind us of the value that we hold dear
solve the problem that exists
then GREAT. We can continue in the same practice. That’s excellent. We are given a renewed sense of purpose and security in ourselves.
But if they don’t,
if they are precarious, taxing, hurtful or limiting,
what can we do about it?
We can be grateful for the practices, processes and traditions that brought us to where we are. But we don’t have to continue to be a slave to the tradition in order for its legacy to be held in tact. Acknowledgement doesn’t necessarily require perpetual continuation.
it might be a freeing thing to cease an activity that is no longer helpful – or even is now painful
if might be a game changer to simply adjust or modify the practice – like leaving a gap on the ice cube tray.
What are you doing that no longer needs doing?
You don’t have to fill up the ice cubes to the top.
There are several things that I love about this photo. It’s a list of quotes and sayings that Joan collected & compiled. Let me tell you why I love it.
The pad is full. Every page. Back and front.
It’s one of many that she filled over her life.
She didn’t discriminate in her wisdom; there’s quotes here from poets and world leaders and the bible to name a few
Her handwriting changes from page to page: the project required visits from different times
It demonstrates mum’s incredibly annoying endearing tendency to use shorthand unnecessarily and incorrectly (example: I got a text from her once that read: “My f is low” Decipher that).
The pad she chose to record her gems of wisdom was free merch for a Nasal Spray
It’s pure gold. It’s also pure Joan.
We’re remembering Joan today; it’s been 10 years since we said goodbye. A decade! It’s a really long time. It’s also not a really long time, but that’s the beast of living post/without/after people you love, hey. It’s living with the reality of multiple things being true at the same time. It’s peaceful but also too silent. Memories are rich but also gut-wrenching. You’re totally ok but also carrying the weight of a longtime longing. It’s a both/and situation.
In any case, as has become tradition on our anniversaries, I was pondering how to mark the day. The thought came to mind to sit amongst her handwriting; somehow it seemed fitting, especially considering the post I wrote on Dad’s anniversary this year. Sonya and I have been spoiled with the letters, journals, and cards that both Mum & Dad wrote to each other, us, and their friends (seriously, I have a whole pack of draft letters that they wrote to their mates: who has ever been that dedicated in their friendships?).
I think if i’m being truly honest, I think I wanted to get as close as I could to having a conversation with mum, adult to adult; now me being a mum, to her being a mum. That’s what feels missing. I think if you ask anyone who’s lost a loved one, it’s the inability to have conversations about your daily run-of-the-mill-life that’s the real kicker. It’s the “You’ll never guess what happened today!”, the “Just checking in”, and the big one, “What did you do when I did this?!”
I don’t know what it’s like to be truly peer to peer with Mum. It sucks. I mean, I thought that I was far more mature than her when I was a teenager/young adult, and I like to think that I can fairly accurately fill in the gaps of our conversations from her end in the exchanges I imagine from time to time; but it isn’t the same. The older I get, the more I realise that as much as I think I knew her, I still saw her through the lens of a mum-of-me-growing-up rather than seeing her as a woman in her 30s, raising young children, as a woman in her 40s, working full time and navigating life with a husband who had significant depression, or as a woman in her 50s, raising young adults on her own while she battled cancer. That’s the woman I want to talk to now.
I guess I’m trying to acknowledge the reality that relationships are supposed to a be a living, breathing thing. When they get cut off (especially early), you have to accept the shifting dynamic that only one of you is moving. And that blows.
What i’m grateful for, though, is that I think I’m being given the gift of compassion towards mum as I get older. So much of my early adulthood was filled with frustration towards her: I saw her hesitations and fears through her illness and Dad’s death, and wanted to shake her because she didn’t want to seem to move: I didn’t understand her lack of drive or follow through, or appreciate her desire to cling to the friendships in her life. Maybe I wouldn’t ever have been able to do so at that age/stage.
But now: I read her words and I see a woman who wants to be inspired, who wants to grow and be and do great things. When I read her journals, I see a woman who was prepared to admit her weaknesses and dreams for her marriage, for herself, for her children. She wrote many of these words at my age. Her kids were the age of my kids. Her challenges are my challenges. I think about all the fears and frustrations and complete stuff ups Shan and I navigate as parents and adults, and I get it. I get her. I think I know her a bit better.
What a gift and promise for us all: regardless of whether our parents are with us or not, maturity brings us compassion. And compassion, dear friend, you are a balm.
You are so very welcome.
so. Mum’s top quotes reads
“When we confront sadness, misfortune and defeat with a gallant spirit, our children will learn to live bravely.”
Oh, you were gallant, Joan. Thank you. Love you. x
There is NOTHING more specific than a four year old.
I have learned quite quickly that if my daughter wants toast, I’d better ask her how she wants it cut, because cut into squares is of course not the same as triangles. It’s a completely different meal. There is a right way to fold a piece of paper. There is a right (and consequently very wrong way) to sing a song. There is a certainty in the way that this tshirt that doesn’t have Elsa on it is and never will be as good as one that does. It’s in the details. It’s in the specifics. I love her and hate am frustrated by her daily for it.
But there is actually something beautiful and comforting about specifics. On our drive home from kindy yesterday she said didn’t have a great day because her friend said that she wasn’t very nice; (to be fair, Cadi had instigated the exchange by telling her that she was a slowcoach with her scissors). But as we were talking about it, I mentioned that I too had had similar experiences in school where a friend said a mean thing to me – and her eyes lit up and said “can you tell me more about that?!!” I, of course have a terrible memory and so scrambled to think of a specific example with which she could relate. Because it was important to do so. A generalisation or platitude of “be kind, treat others like you treat yourself” wouldn’t be sufficient.
She needed a specific story that was grounded in that moment to be real. Analogies can be helpful but aren’t always the most appropriate tool, especially in times of pain and grief.
Which brings me to adulting. Adults are very good at analogies. People of faith are even better at it.
Think of all the analogies that (completely good intentioned) Christian songs are full of: times in the valley. In the shadow. In the mire. In the mud. On high places. In the storm. In the waves.
I have sung many of these songs many times over and many times have received connection and healing and peace through them. The point and power of an analogy is its ability to connect with thousands of people or stories and helping us feel seen and heard. They also don’t date – hence the way that songs can transcend time and context. They’re great.
But I was feeling rubbish on my way to work this morning and so wanted to listen to some worship music to lift my spirit a little. And the analogies weren’t cutting it for me. “The dark lasts longer than the night” wasn’t enough. “Where feet may fail” wasn’t enough in that moment. It felt trite and vague in a way that didn’t resonate.
I think I was crying for some specificity. I didn’t need everybody’s pain to be recognised in that moment, just my own. I just wanted to hear a word of “I’m really worried about my parenting a four year old” or “I’m scared of what a pandemic will do for my job prospects” or “you come to me in my lack of patience with my partner” or “I’m crying out for some advocacy”:
People of faith talk of a God that presents us with himself. We talk of a Jesus that has experienced humanity so to empathise with us. Of course we are told that we shouldn’t worry, and of course there are greater concerns than our bank account or my lack of disorganisation or my relational troubles. We are called to ‘seek first his kingdom – and all these things will be given’. But aren’t we are also called to present all our cares to him? Aren’t we invited to pray about everything? The scriptures are filled with relatable content – but they’re also full of specific stories with real people and interactions and definite circumstances.
So perhaps it’s ok to have specific laments.
Being specific invites and challenges us to name the thing we’re actually scared of, the particular hope that’s disappointed, the anger that resides under the surface. I don’t think this is about comparing pain or generalising your experience – that’s good ol’ analogy’s job. Instead, in recognising specifics, maybe there’s an opportunity for deep empathy in that moment both for ourselves and also from the God that we are seeking or crying out for. Perhaps it can be an opportunity for welcome and hospitality for others in their own specific pain.
In response, here’s my offering: a psalm of specifics. I thought about reworking an existing psalm but I ain’t no Eugene Peterson.
May you be heard in the specifics x
A Psalm of specificity
From the shame of my thoughtlessness yesterday
From the worry of my bank account
From the laziness of my disorganised diary/house/life
from my loneliness and envy of others’ closeness
From the lethargy of interrupted sleep
From the fear of parenting in the wrong direction
From the lack of respite. The piling on of responsibility, of expectations, of effort that a positive mindset requires to maintain
From the frustration of plans cancelled.
From the disappointment of people that didn’t call, of relationships that are painful rather than life-giving. From the effort it takes to avoid or placate those same friendships
From the story of me that others have taken or written
From the envy of myself in 2019 – where the unawareness of what was to come was a blissful blinker
My new favourite place is the Mt Crawford Forest. My family and I ‘discovered’ it during the recent lockdown and consequently found ourselves returning there every few days: It’s a beautiful place, stuff your Narnia-dreams are made of. Closed to traffic, it was so quiet, and hardly seeing any other people there, it felt like ‘ours’. It was easy to spend many hours exploring; I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of the stillness amongst the seemingly never-ending rows of trees. We had picnics and played hide and seek and drank coffee and read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe – perfection, right?! There’s a large part of me that wishes it was still locked to traffic so that it can be that quiet and idyllic again.
Now if you take a walk amongst those seemingly thousands of trees, they’re all different in their own way: Height, branches, number of pinecones, if they are situated on a hill or on a flat, if they’re sheltered in the middle of the row or exposed on the edge; you could spend a lifetime describing the details that make all of these trees unique and distinctive.
In contrast however, one day Shan and I hiked to the lookout of the same forest and before us spread the expanse of the plantation. It was hard to pick out the afore mentioned distinction of the trees: the carpet of green was similarly impressive – but at that height, in its uniformity, not in its ‘specialness’.
So. If a tree [actually] looks like all the other trees in a forest, is it still beautiful? Does it retain value and worth – even if it is hard to distinguish it from others?
…What happens to us when we’re not unique?
Now we come to one of the pressing identity dilemmas of our generation: in our culture, our worth has become intrinsically linked with the idea of uniqueness, of specialness. Who we are is only really valuable if we’re not like everyone else: if we’re a new/exciting reinterpretation or voice on the stage, we can rest assured in our worth.
Please hear me that I’m not denying the goodness in fresh expressions or new stories, or even strangeness and uniqueness. There is bravery and courage and intelligence when people do find a ‘new space’ or a new voice. Furthermore, the impetus to be different and unique can often come as a healthy push back against unhelpful voices of conformity and ‘sameness’, the peer pressure and group think to conform to the status quo. The pursuit of being ‘normal’ can also fall in this unhelpful category.
But in our day and age, there is a real shadow side and danger for us when we pursue difference for the sake of it, when it is championed to the detriment of all other qualities of our contribution or identity.
We don’t need to be telling each other or ourselves that we need to be new and shiny to be desirable.
My girlfriend commented recently that she was reflecting on some dreams and projects she has in her chosen vocation. She said she was scrolling Instagram and the thought hit her; “You don’t have original thought. That’s not special. Don’t worry about it. Go home”. This accusation came not because she had been proven wrong, just because she saw a post that resonated with what she was already thinking. Instead of reading that post as an affirmation of her ideas, the fear of ‘being the same’ – or arriving at an idea second – turned a moment of confirmation into a narrative of dismissal.
Wouldn’t it be incredible if when thoughts are heard in concert, when you thought the same way as someone else, it was not taken as a criticism of your own lack of creativity, but rather an affirmation of the humanity that we share?1
I am aware that there is danger in only engaging with ideas that we agree with instead of educating our selves about diverse perspectives. Please hear me. This is not what I’m talking about here. I’m just curious why the most revered form of creative judgement – and indeed identity judgement – is in the form of UNIQUENESS = WORTH.
Yes we are different. Yes we carry incredible stories of wins/loss/pain/love. And our stories and context are the very things that shape our contribution. You know, I even wrote an entire piece on this. It utilised the French oenological (wine) term of terroir to make the point. But I’m not going to publish it. Because we hear enough about the pursuit of individualism in our culture: it is implicit in our consumerism, in our relationships, in our spiritual life:
Indeed, our entire political and social model is supported by the concept of individualism: the core of individualism insists that we see our lives through the lens and unit of the individual: instead of communities or collectives, we champion a life that is autonomous and choice-based. Many, many other people (especially sociologists) have written about the story of individualism in our lives, but in short, the ‘gift’ of modernity is the reported stripping-off the burdens of race, religion, class distinctions, giving us a ‘project of the self’ where we can be whoever we want to be.
life is not about finding yourself – it’s about creating yourself
George Bernard Shaw
What an inspiring quote…right?
We have the freedom to be anyone we want. We don’t have to be the same.
This is a wonderful idea. Of course. But we also need to recognise that it is an idea.
Firstly, we still continue to live in a society with realities of race (ism), wealth (poverty), gender (discrimination) and power (imbalance). We can’t always ‘live our best lives’, because our reality may be incredibly hard.
Furthermore, if we can no longer rely on ‘concrete labels’ of identity that our previous generations wore, then “Identity is no longer a ‘given’ on the basis of belonging to a collective, but has become a ‘task’” (Cortois 2017). The consequence? We judge people on their ‘ability’ to make the best life for themselves, even when their social circumstances make that project a really hard – or unachievable – task. This means that those with privilege usually get more opportunities to be ‘acceptably special’.
Secondly, the story of an autonomous, powerful actor, is that –
An idea. A myth – a story of how life is best lived. Here we think of a myth not just as an un-reality, a ‘fake’ or wrong narrative, but a teaching-story. As Cortois (2017) tells us, a myth offers us ‘guidance for orienting ourselves’, and offers us clear expressions of cultural stories – of the values we hold dear.
So what do we learn about our cultural values from a myth of individualism?
I don’t think it’s that we necessarily or always like to be different, or separate from anyone else, because the pressure to be different runs parallel to stories of belonging, of being part of something bigger than ourselves.
The story of being an individual – at its heart- is perhaps a longing for us simply to be seen and recognised.
We want to be special. We want to feel worth something.
And if the loudest voice of society is that in order to do that, you have to do or be someone worth noticing,
than the consequences of that society – are that many of us are exhausted. And intimidated. And paralysed.
I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that this thinking can impact and hinder so many aspects of our lives – that we need to prove ourselves so that we can be worthy. We curate our wardrobes, our social media profiles, our podcast selections, in order to be interesting and notable. I’ve noticed it in my relationships, but also in my work life, and even in my faith life – that I need to sprout the newest instagrammable-sharable-profile that becomes a business but also a ministry so that I am reassured in my acceptance and love. It’s exhausting. And not something I want to be modelling to those around me.
I could finish this post by sprouting encouraging and comforting ideas that if your voice is the ‘same’ as someone else, it’s no less beautiful: indeed, a choir of harmonised and echoed voices is one of the most beautiful sounds you’ll here.
But I won’t do that (even though yes I have written a post about that too)
I could tell you to dance like nobody’s watching
But I’m not going to tell you that either.
I do, however, think one of the most important things we can do is recognise the times in our lives or perhaps the parts of ourselves that lean into either or both of these needs –
the need to be recognised (as different), the need to belong (with others)
and be friends with both parts of ourselves in that moment.
nb: This is just the beginning of hopefully a series on the story of creativity in our lives: I want to explore how we view/how society shapes our creativity or simply contribution. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this if you’re inclined.
1The fear that is loud in this space speaks of the myth of a scarcity model of contribution– something I’m planning on teasing and debunking out in a future post.
Liza Cortois (2017) The myth of individualism: From individualisation to a cultural sociology of individualism, European Journal of Cultural and Political Sociology, 4:4, 407-429, DOI: 10.1080/23254823.2017.1334568
I have a very specific memory of my Dad just a few weeks before he died in 2000. He and I were home alone, and he was working in his office. I can easily picture him in that room: surrounded by timber panelling, in a desk he made himself, made out of old doors and supported by filing cabinets. We were chatting, and I remember asking him how he was doing; his response was “Not well.” He then proceeded to be honest with my then 16-year-old self, sharing how he was feeling particularly down of late; symptoms we as a family were eminently familiar with, following the years that Dad navigated Bi-polar depression. The conversation went on for some time, and concluded with us praying together about his health and mental wellbeing. I’ve always treasured that memory: what a moment of sadness (and greatness) for a man to be that vulnerable with his daughter.
Likewise, you can see above the types of cards and letters he used to write to the ladies in his life. Filled with apologies, hopes, frustrations, he was honest to a fault. The card with the bird on it came after a big fight we had when I was around 15: He had been earnestly trying to convey a life lesson that he had learned to an unwilling audience; an angsty teenager. My angry response had been in the vein of “Just let me live my life! Let me make my own mistakes!!”. In the card he had confessed that his frustrations that day had stemmed from a work disappointment and not completely in our conversation; furthermore, he promised to try to step back and give me space as I navigated the season. Again: What a profound thing – to confess his humanity in that moment, to speak beyond platitudes to how he was feeling, and give context to where he was coming from. I treasure his cards – not only for his handwriting, but also for the rich cries of LANCE that the prose within proclaim.
The other day in a moment of frustration my daughter hit me in the face. Mostly with surprise but with also a deal of pain, I started crying. Arcadia was really confused and said But mummy, “grown ups don’t cry like that”. “Yeah honey, they do”, was my response. For it is 20 years today since dad died. 20 years. And as I’ve been remembering him this day, these moments of confession and vulnerability have been really real. I’m grateful for the gift of seeing Dad – Lance – as he was – seeing how lonely and frustrating it was to go through bright and ‘shiny’ periods of mania – filled with ideas and dreams and the energy to pursue them, followed by seasons of sleep, pain, lethargy, isolation, depression and disappointment. It has given me such insight into his story, and likewise mental illness and depression – something I’m really grateful for.
But in the same breath, the gift has also been a burden. It is a scary and dislocating thing to have your parents exposed as ‘humans’ at any age, much more when you’re a teenager. Like an image that has been scratched off with a coin to reveal the ‘true nature’ underneath, I know I still grieve the pedestal and hero that we inevitably hold our parents up on. I have asked myself – and Dad – many times- could you have kept the shiny silver layer for a little while longer? Could you have stayed up there on the stage – for a few more years at least? Now being a parent, perhaps what I’m actually angry about, or truly scared, of is how early I’m going to fall off the pedestal for my kids. How do I navigate that safely? Honesty vs protection; Vulnerability vs stoicism. Anyone got the magic formula?
In the end though, I think I would choose vulnerability every time. Of course there’s an appropriate time, age, and circumstance to be vulnerable. Of course I would have preferred that the mental illness wasn’t present, or that he is – they are – both around to be parent to me now- I don’t care that I’m all grown up- I’ll take whatever form they could have offered. But perhaps the vulnerability that was offered opened the door for me to be vulnerable in turn. Not that it has always been the path I’ve taken. But I like to think that my healthy self knows the good that it can do.
So it does raise a question then. What exactly is parenting? Is it pedestal perfection? Perhaps not.
Perhaps it is proximity & being present. As myself. Perhaps with some vulnerability-as-courage.
I hope that I can gift some blend of that to my kids as they grow up.
Cos Dad’s still my hero. Depression, faults, weakness, and all.
In the summer of 2003, my sister and I travelled around the United States, spending a number of days in Washington D.C. Now what does one spend their time doing in Washington D.C.? Museums, of course. Museums, museums and more museums. It was an interesting, sometimes wonderful, and often-times somber trip. We saw monuments and memorials and spaceships and piles of suitcases and sparkly sequinned red shoes. I loved it. I was emotional in many moments of the few days, standing in front of Abraham Lincoln and reading his Gettysburg Address, visiting the Holocaust museum, and gazing up at Iwo Jima at Arlington Cemetery.
Our museum tour culminated in our visit to the Library of Congress. Exciting, right? Very famous treasure maps pieces of paper. The thing is, as we were standing in front of the Declaration of Independence, I felt nothing.
My brain was telling myself that it was a really important document and I should be excited seeing it – but I got nothing from my heart. I was spent. It wasn’t possible for me to emote any more about American History in that moment. We had reached emotional saturation and lethargy. So that night we went to the movies. We felt guilty for doing so, for it seemed almost sacrilegious – but we just needed something different, something that didn’t require an emotional response; an escape.
Have you ever felt that way? In a season of immersion, or even grief and trauma, we emote and respond – up to a point. There is surprise, fear, anxiety, warmth, sorrow – appropriate responses to the information and situation presented. Good or bad, there seems to be a latent response mechanism present in our emotional arsenal.
But if it continues too long, if the days trickle into weeks and months, if the list of hits keep coming, if the cancer comes back again- and again- and again, sometimes we’re too tired to respond with the same level of grief and sorrow – even if the news is the worst we’ve heard yet.
Lethargic, tired, and guilty, our response may come out in a surprising way: In an inappropriate joke in a laugh when you ‘should’ be crying in a dismissal-like acceptance when we may expect a full-blown riot against what is happening.
…but is that always a bad thing?
Many of you would know that my mum went through a long journey of cancer before she passed in 2010. Her story was not an uncommon tale: diagnosis, shock, surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy, grief, pain, hair loss, sickness, (repeat), remission, lymph node removal, lymphedema, sickness, deterioration…the process went on for many years.
I remember at one point during the last couple of months, amongst being surrounded by many prayers and hope of healing, that I just felt exhausted. I was even exhausted by the thought of mum miraculously getting better. It had been such a long few months of contemplating life without her, of tending her bedside, of sorting through financial and medical matters, that the long journey back to health seemed like an insurmountable process. So I couldn’t entertain the idea.
Of course this was a symptom of grief, of depression, of trauma, but I felt guilty feeling this way. Shouldn’t I care? Shouldn’t I want her to get better? Of course I did – the healthy and whole part of me of course did – but I had reached emotional saturation. I didn’t have capacity to emote any more at that point in time.
We can grit our teeth and clench our fists and ‘think’ our way into a response that we ‘should’ be engaging in in prolonged periods of suffering, but maybe that’s not the most helpful thing to do. Perhaps our body and soul is craving a release valve and respite, a some-thing other than the options our grief story is offering us.
Take for example; a side affect to doctors removing lymph nodes in mum’s arm was lymphedema. Her arm swelled up to around 3 times its original size, to the point where she had to constantly support her massive left arm with her right. It was horrible and debilitating. But man it was also hilarious, watching her having to deliberately move her hand from place to place; her ‘throwing’ her left arm into a high five was a particular highlight. I know this is in poor humour. But it offered a light moment and relief to my family during those awful months.
This is why compartmentalism/bad taste humour/online shopping/watching bad TV/not talking about Covid-19/etc can be helpful, life giving, and dare I argue, necessary. Long term or continual trauma is a marathon, not a sprint. We only have so much emotional capacity or energy before we get saturated and tired. I believe it is a life giving process for us to find spaces of respite that allow us to tend both heaviness and lightness at the same time.
Even if we think about this time of pandemic. We’ve had significant restrictions of our way of life for a number of weeks now, and even if some social distancing measures start opening up in the near future, we won’t be returning to ‘normal’ for a really long time: indeed for many around the world, Covid-19 is not just an inconvenience, it is – and will continue to be- a harbinger of long-term emotional, physical, social and financial trauma. So how do we sustain? How can we seek rhythms of rest amongst the enduring circumstance?
Rest – true rest – is a long term goal that is supported and maintained through intentional rhythms. It is spaces of self care and gratefulness and consideration. It is found in relationship and faith and peace and hope…but it doesn’t happen over night.
So in the mean time, while the trauma continues, while the exhaustion is present, I think it is far more important to celebrate and enable respite than it is to police ourselves (read: others) in our behavioural response. We don’t know other people’s stories. Most likely, there has already been tears – and there will most likely be more tears to come. Even more likely, they’re just tired.
So firstly, an acknowledgement of lethargy is paramount. Having grace for our tired souls is the first thing we should seek.
Repeat after me: “I’m tired. I’ve reached my emotional capacity”: The saying, the seeing, is important.
Secondly, we create spaces of respite: Permission it for yourself. Champion it for others.
Laugh at the joke. Go for a meal. Watch the bad TV. Send the meme. Moments of lightness allow spaces – and breath – for the heaviness to be continued to be carried. Let’s not judge ourselves or others in their handling of trauma – but encourage and enable spaces for relief, respite and restoration.
It’s 445am and Solomon is feeding. He’s not settling. Which is fine. I mean I’d prefer to be asleep, of course. But it’s ok. I’ll sit here longer and feed. I’ve got nowhere else to be. I can sit here longer and rock on my chair.
I’ve started reading The Handmaid’s Tale. It is confronting in a new way since I’ve watched the series. Not because of the atrocities that the depicted culture performs and condones; this of course is present, but tonight/this morning/lately, the protagonist speaks of what life used to look like, the things she misses and that which she took for granted. I can only read a couple pages at a time: the topic hits much closer to home than it ever did.
That’s my confession tonight. It is not particularly profound: I just miss lots of things. I miss certainty in work. I miss opportunities to occupy outside my home. I miss playgrounds and play dates. I miss the lack of fear and risk that permeates our interactions with other people. I also know that it hasn’t been that long, and I also acknowledge what a privilege it is to have a safe home to be.
But I still feel the lament.
Scrolling social media over the past weeks – which many of us have/are/will do- have you noticed a change in tone? I have. There is still rubbish and information overload, but I also find myself less envious of others’ Instagram posts. I find people are updating statuses with vulnerability and creativity. People are posting far less about #livingmybestflife, or #lookhowawesomeIam, and much more about simple pleasures, aspects of gratefulness, but also their grief for what this pandemic has cost them, or what it is doing to the world, to people they’ve never met. How wonderful. I’ve read more honest stories on social media over the past few weeks than I ever have. I’ve seen less polished performances and more humble offerings of creativity and generosity. It can still be noisy and overwhelming, but the tone is less aggressive somehow.
The collective grief that we’re all experiencing is/may be the singular event of our lives. What other story has impacted every country, economy and family like this? Covid-19 exposes the privilege and poverty of different spaces and places, but it also beautifully reveals the common humanity we have. And the tool that is at our disposal- the true strength of the social media medium- can be a way for us to communicate our collective experience.
There is an incredible spiritual principle of lament* in many faith traditions: the practice of “calling out” our sorrow. It is the deep, guttural “WHY?” when we don’t know the reason or the outcome. As N.T. Wright has argued recently:
It is no part of the Christian vocation, then, to be able to explain what’s happening and why. In fact, it is part of the Christian vocation not to be able to explain—and to lament instead
Lament, then is a heart cry that connects the personal story of loss to the public narrative of grief. It is the practice of speaking out and giving language to the mess- in order for us to move from sorrow into joy. Speaking out pain brings exposure and healing in a way that silence does not; indeed, as Breugemann writes:
Lament is an invitation to a public practice in a society that has no other text that is adequate to our newly embraced loss…
Moreover, one of the incredible aspects of lament is the way that it requires an audience. It is the sharing and hearing of grief that gives the story its healing qualities. In the psalms the audience is God:
Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck. I sink in the miry depths, where there is no foothold. I have come into the deep waters; the floods engulf me. I am worn out calling for help; my throat is parched. My eyes fail, looking for my God.
I have been encouraged time and time again in the way that the scriptures, particularly the Psalms, champion and call us to lament: it speaks of a God who cares about our circumstance, one who Laments with us, and also one who knows the process that healing requires.
While God is often the primary recipient of lament, the audience of confession can also be each other. We are also called to confess to each other to be healed (James 5:16). When we confess to each other, not only are we restored to relationship and connection, but our lament may just give someone else words to voice their own similar story. Confession and lament can be interwoven together in the same grief.
Basically this is my long winded way of saying KEEP confessing. Keep story telling. Start posting. Even if it’s embarrassing and makes you cringe in your vulnerability. Keep lamenting. Even if it feels overwhelming and murky, like a tune that has a discordant chord that longs for a resolve. It’s ok if we don’t know the answer. The point is to speak.
The practice of lament, the celebration of collective and individual confession, is the vehicle of healing and one of the ways that we as a country/culture/world can ride out this storm. X
*many others have written far more extensively on Lament: I refer you to the great N.T. Wright or Walter Bruegemann or Matthew Jacoby for further exploration & illumination of the concept.
About 18 months ago my husband and I were in the latter stages of our house build. After 2 years we were finally coming up to the point that for many is an exciting stage: bathrooms & wet areas. Unfortunately for me however, this is a nightmare scenario. Bathrooms mean fixtures. Sinks. Toilets. And the kicker: TILES. All of these needed to be picked and decided upon.
If you’re decisively-challenged like me, it ain’t no fun being presented with a choice that you’re going to have to look at and live with for the rest of your life, no. Rather, it’s your proper torture device. Kirsten’s internal monologue in this scenario: RUN!!
What if I don’t like it? What if other people don’t like it??
Over the years I’ve almost perfected the art of forgoing and defaulting my choice, often leaving the decision to others, and of late, my husband. This has been something I have done in many relationships, mostly because I have been desperate for people to like me – so if they make the choice (of restaurant, activity, movie, tiles), they can’t be disappointed in me.
Why is this? Do I believe I have bad taste? No. Do I believe that I need to concede my choice to males? No. But the fear of disappointment, the fear of creating a reason for someone not to like me? That’s the world ending. It’s painful. I don’t enjoy it. Even if the consequence of constantly saying “I don’t mind, you pick” is actually the other person resenting you for it, the practice is so deeply ingrained in me, I continue it, despite it being debilitating for me, and deeply annoying for those who know me.
Hence when I was given the task of going down to the local tile store to pick our laundry floor, I couldn’t do it. I tried: I went to the store three times. I returned 2 sets of tiles to the store after bringing them home and hating my selection.
Cue meltdown. I ended up on our kitchen floor in a fetal position because I couldn’t pick a tile. I couldn’t make a choice and back that choice. I stayed on that floor for over an hour, disgusted with myself. I was pathetic. And I hated myself for being so. So now not only could I not make decisions, but even when I recognised the destructive nature of indecision, I still couldn’t make a choice.
I understand the ridiculousness of this moment: tiles don’t matter. Especially laundry floor tiles! Who even cares?
It wasn’t about the tiles. This post isn’t about tiles.
The thing is, even knowing myself, even in the pain of lying on the ground in an anxiety attack, I had no pity for that woman. I was disgusting to myself at this point.
JUST MAKE THE CHOICE, KIRSTEN. BE BETTER. GET OVER IT. I was standing over myself, critical and full of judgement.
I spent an entire session with my wonderful psych about this a couple of weeks later (this is a little embarrassing to admit). We spent time talking about my recurring fear of decision making, but she also encouraged me to spend time looking at my hatred and disgust of myself too. She kept asking me how I was feeling toward myself at that moment, and the words kept repeating: Shame. Disgust. Frustration. Hatred.
She then stopped me in my tracks and asked me what that woman on the floor actually needed:
She asked me to ‘parent myself’ in that moment and imagine what a compassionate parent would be feeling and acting towards me on that kitchen floor. Rather than judgement, not only was it completely acceptable to feel pity towards myself, but it was also appropriate – and much more helpful – to extend compassion and grace to a young girl who just wanted to be told that it was ok that she was scared. And that she was ok too.
We need judgement FAR less than we need compassion. Judgement rarely inspires healing, growth and life-giving decisions. Even if it is ourselves who are floundering or indecisive or completely in the wrong.
I have returned to that moment a lot since it happened. In my times of anxiety and self-hatred I imagine myself on the floor in the kitchen – but now I also try to picture the compassionate parent who sees her. What would be helpful to say to her? I try to imagine the compassion that is needed.
And I try to EXTEND IT TO MYSELF.
Thanks to Shan who told me to write today.
Also thanks to Shan who ended up picking the laundry tile. They’re grey. In case you were wondering. X
“Look guys, here’s a drink that is homemade and environmentally conscious and healthy but also feel free to buy it from us and feel so much better than everyone else when you drink it.”
Many of you will know Kombucha devotees who preach about its benefits to everyone and anyone who will listen. They will tell you to stop buying/drinking soft drink. They even may tell you how easy it is to make your own.
Now my first reaction, like many of these fads things, is a roll of the eyes. FAD ALERT AHOY!! OPPORTUNITY FOR CONSUMERIST EXPLOITATION AHOY! Mostly I wish I bought shares in Kombucha years ago. Even if that were possible.
The amazingly annoying thing, is that kombucha is actually really good for you – as is many many things that are fermented. Fermenting is the process of a chemical breakdown of a substance by bacteria – bringing agitation, excitement and effervescence. The positive outcomes of fermentation, are a plethora. It’s also really tasty. Yes, I admit it.
According to choice Here’s just a few; it Preserves food, Adds good microbes to the gut, Increases micronutrients, Makes food more palatable, Changes taste, Eliminates anti-nutrients, Decreases cooking times, and Produces carbon dioxide (yay for bread and beer and champagne). Indeed, before we understood the chemistry within, fermentation was believed to be a divine process, a gift from God himself.
Now despite the base ingredients, the common feature of all fermentation reactions?
Time. It’s the process that brings the benefit.
So it’s got me thinking lately. Is there also a benefit of allowing ideas, concepts, lessons, to ferment within me?
I am an
educator. I truly love the teaching process. I love introducing concepts to my
students (or friends or family – I
apologise to all of my long suffering mates) and seeing them wrestle with it –
even better if we wrestle with it together.
So many times in my life, if I come across a gem of an idea, or a concept that I read about, I instantly think of how/where/who I could share that concept with. Many times in my study I think – who is this for? What lesson is this? In many ways, this is a good thing right? Long live public debate; the exchange of ideas, the grappling of concepts.
But here’s the thing. Maybe I need to allow concepts a little bit of fermenting time in order for them to achieve their true potential – or even for me to truly learn the lesson for myself – before I share them prematurely.
The story that keeps coming to mind for me is when Mary (mother of Jesus) hears this ridiculously amazing thing about the baby that she’s just given birth to. She is witness to the shepherd’s story of a HOST OF ANGELS in the SKY, singing glory to God. About HER baby. And what is her response to this incredible event/news?
“But Mary kept all these things in her heart and thought about them often.” (Luke 2:19)
For many years I’ve always been dumbfounded and a bit annoyed at Mary and her reaction. Really? This is your response? You have confirmation of the deity of your newborn, and you ‘think about these things often’? Surely the first thing you want to do is tell other people about this, just like the shepherds did.
Mary, don’t be lame.
Mary’s not being lame here. Maybe this is the ferment. Perhaps it’s a picture
of something so wonderful, so special, that it requires a treasuring first before it’s shared with other
people. The discernment and reflection gives honour and worth to the
I understand the perhaps double standard nature of this post: Why are you sharing about not sharing Kirsten, in a format most famous for exposure? I hear this critique. Point Taken.
But mostly I think it’s a wonderful and weighty call that we can take seriously the responsibility of what we learn for ourselves, and then what we can share with the people in our world. All of us have opportunities to speak and be heard; some of us even have the privilege of being in responsibility and paid positions to do so.
are, could I encourage you, sit in the ferment. If you have a lesson that
you’re learning, be honest about that stage – with yourself. It’s not about not
being vulnerable, but perhaps it is a question of honouring what the process of
reflection does for us.
honours the one who prays in secret – can we perhaps honour our stories and
moments, giving ferment to them – so that when we do share, the words are curated, full of life;
of effervescence, and much more palatable?