Have you ever been the recipient of these tidings? Or been the one who utters them?
“No one else could deal with what you’ve been through!”
In so many ways, to tell someone they’re strong is one of the highest compliments we can give –
“Hey you – congratulations on navigating [this often crappy] life so well!”
It’s a symbol of recognition and admiration – you’ve come out and through the other side of something challenging and difficult to navigate. So we celebrate and see you for that achievement. It’s a compliment unhindered by age, gender, class, race – an aspect of humanity that we champion and commend.
But the thing is – as much as the compliment is so lovingly uttered – and in most cases – lovingly received, the ‘silence’ of this statement – and the reason why we give the compliment in the first place – is because someone’s life has been awful. There has been a significant, long term, debilitating challenge that they have had to be strong for – and for many people, it is multiple somethings.
So sometimes – as much as the statement is meant to be heard at its best as “I love you! I see you in this moment!” – what I have heard is “Look how crap your life is – and well done on being strong despite that” – to which my response is usually “I kinda had to”.
I was chatting to a girlfriend today about this exact thing. She and her husband have navigated significant challenges for their family, many of which us “lucky ones” will never have to contemplate – and they’ve done it with grace and good humour – it has been a sight to see, to be honest. My hat goes off to them. I’ve often told her (or at least I hope I have) how amazing/strong/resilient she is.
But does she actually need to hear that so often? Is it helpful?
I myself have been through a number of significant traumas in my life and people have told me many times at how strong I am. I love them for it in so many ways – I do feel seen. And there is a fair amount of pride in me that I can and do show resilience in the face of trial.
But if I’m brutally honest, friends –
I’d prefer not to be.
I’d like it if I didn’t need to be strong.
I’d like it if the muscles of resilience and ‘coping’ weren’t so exercised.
It’s pretty tiring, hey.
It can make you be cynical about things to come when you expect to have to cope with “what’s next”,
it can make you unreasonably triggered in situations/emotions/contexts that feel similar- or adjacent – to situations you’ve experienced,
and the ‘strength’ can also come with a side of anger, trauma, scars, distrust, anxiety, depression, jealousy and exhaustion (just to name a few).
I’d much prefer my life to be awesome and struggle-free.
Obviously good counselling, therapy, medical care and healthy relationships all have a vital place for those of us who have been through ‘stuff’, and I am of course grateful for the lessons i’ve learned about myself along the way – mostly I’m grateful for the solidarity I can offer when people are stuck in the mire.
But again – if I could trade those character lessons and not have to have lost what I have? – not even a thought.
I would exchange it in a heartbeat. Happy to return the goods to sender.
I would rather not have to be so resilient.
The loss of what was, the grief of what could have been: it’s a long term, heavy price to pay for that bit of character development.
This is an exercise in honesty rather than criticism – I hope I’m not coming across as hypersensitive or censorious –
But I wanted to offer the solidarity for those in the mire – or those who remember the mire like it was yesterday – perhaps the option to not only feel complemented that you’re strong – but instead the freedom to also recognise the grief and trauma that leaves it mark.
The two things can be true at once.
So Friends – if this is you –
I’m sorry that you’ve had to be strong.
I’m sorry that your resilience was so hard fought.
I’m sorry that your wisdom came at such a high price.
I’m sorry that you didn’t have a choice in the matter.
and finally – It’s ok if you don’t feel strong sometimes.
We can be grateful for the lessons but also sad that they were so hard to learn.
Perhaps the gift we can give ourselves and each other is to permission – and practice – space for both sides of the story to exist.
So in light of this: here’s my greeting: I spent the beginning of the year feeling guilty. Guilty about putting my one year old into childcare – and not one, but two days a week. He’s also with my in-laws another day per week which gives me 3 whole days a week where I’m being a terrible mother guys. I’m not home with him (enough) thus I’m making a bad choice and also setting a bad foundation for his early start. Anyone want to judge me? Go ahead. I deserve it. That has been my ick.
OF course I can understand from a logical standpoint that this isn’t the case, of course. This post is not about debating the merits and strengths of being a working or stay at home mum. Both are valid and necessary for different people and in different contexts.
But I still feel guilty. It’s uncomfortable. And the worst thing is I can’t do anything to alleviate or solve the problem. because the situation is probably not going to change any time soon. I hate it.
Anyone with me? I hate it when I can’t solve a problem straight away. No thankyou.
But here’s the rub.
Even if I could solve the problem,
solving the problem doesn’t solve the problem….
…of how I feel about myself.
Our attempts at alleviating the issues we deal with is perhaps not the thing we need to do first.
There will always be things to feel angry, anxious, fearful, apathetic, guilty, ashamed of. And likewise, there may be many different ways to change our situation. But they’re probably not quick fixes.
One of the most important – perhaps the most important things we need to do with our
anger anxiety fear apathy guilt shame ick,
all of it,
is to greet it.
Speak its name.
It is as simple, and as hard, as that.
Our ick doesn’t get more powerful in the acknowledgement: rather, the opposite occurs. When we greet our ick, it materialises in a more helpful form, as we as people can appreciate its limits, its core, of what it is, and what it is not.
There’s a scene in one of the Harry Potter books where students are taught a spell to hold off a powerful enemy who feeds off their fear: Students were asked to acknowledge what they feared the most, and through it, were given the power to make that fear ridiculous, dispelling its might.
The power of saying “I feel this” – and not leaping away from that acknowledgement – is the most powerful action we can take in knowing ourselves. We can then ask questions of the fear/anxiety/ anger – & ourselves – to unpack and distil it.
Research is growing around the real impact that naming emotions can have. Not only can it help in down-regulating emotions (Kircanski, Lieberman& Craske, 2012), but it has a consistent and positive effect on health and psychological states (Frattaroli, 2006). In children, emotion regulation is a major asset in helping them navigate inevitable stressors (see great article here by Chowdhury, 2021 on definitions and strategies on emotion regulation in children and adults). These studies affirm what I have seen in my own life: when we have language and a framework – and we are given opportunities to use them – it not only enables us to grasp our present realties with greater clarity, but it gives us the power to imagine the what-is-next.
The challenge, thus is twofold. In the ick, greet it. This is helpful and healthy and NEEDED and entirely valid.
The second part is perhaps even harder: allowing the ick to be witnessed. This can be a terrifying prospect. We feel stupid and vulnerable and weak in the acknowledgement. But not only does it increase the opportunity of someone sharing your pain, but the opportunity for solidarity with others can be one of the greatest gifts we ever receive – or give.
Thus lastly, If you are have the privilege of witnessing someone’s ick, our first impulse cannot be to fix it – if we are in the mire, a front-forward solution approach can actually feel like a dismissal or a smothering – despite the good intentions of you as friend/parent/sibling/spouse. This is not to say that there is never the time to move towards solution, but this cannot be our first impulse. It is unhelpful. Timing is everything. Instead, I would invite you to first, give someone the gift and space of a quiet witness.
Greet the ick, friends. The honesty may grant a – even brief – respite in return.
Kircanski, K., Lieberman, M. D., & Craske, M. G. (2012). Feelings into words: contributions of language to exposure therapy. Psychological science, 23(10), 1086–1091. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797612443830
*this is not your average pep talk. believe me. please read on.
a couple of months ago I came downstairs after settling my son for his morning nap, to find that there was a whole heap of blonde hair sitting on our dining room table.
My daughter was suspiciously out of sight. and quiet.
I stop. I stare. I say to my friend, recently arrived
“Why is there and enormous pile of hair on the table??!!!!”
“Maybe it’s doll’s hair?” she replies.
I suspect that it is in fact, not doll hair.
I proceed to leg it upstairs into my daughter’s bedroom, where I find my darling daughter has chopped off allsome so, so, much of her beautiful hair.
so so much – hair which she had been growing so that she ‘could look like Elsa”. Not any more, it seems.
After staring, dumbfounded at her for a long time, I say through clenched teeth “Sweetheart, we were booked to go to the hairdresser TODAY“, upon which she replied “But we don’t have to go now!”
Yep. Also when asked if she’d looked in the mirror to see how much damage she had done, her reply was “Yep! and I love it!
I was so angry.
and so so sad.
so so sad.
I was so angry that I couldn’t laugh at it. I was so embarrassed for her.
but in that – in the hours/days that followed,
I had to ask myself
is this her stuff, or is it my stuff?
Was my reaction completely about a parent so so sad about her daughter cutting her own hair –
or was it four year old me, the little girl who so desperately didn’t want to look like a boy, who wanted to be pretty and accepted, projecting that same fear onto my now close-cropped daughter? (rewind to four year old Kirsten whose mother told the hairdresser to give her a crew cut and didn’t ask me how I felt about it- PTSD, people)
We carry many things from our childhood. Our taste in food. Our expectation of how to spend holidays. Our understanding of ‘normalcy’ in relationships. Our acceptance of the status quo. But perhaps more than anything, we carry the stories of how people treat us, the stories of what’s possible for us, the language that is repeated so often that it lives just under our skin.
“You’re so smart!”
“You’re the sporty one!”
“You’re so beautiful!”
“You’re so funny!”
“You’re so creative!”
“You’re so good at problem solving!”
How many of us had these statements repeated to us throughout our formative years? In so many ways, these affirmations are amazing. They give us courage and reinforce our fledging skills. They help build our identity and knowledge about what makes me “me”.
…but how many times do those same “good” statements put a boundary around who you are?
How many times do those “You’re always, you’re so…you…statements feel like they’re saying you can be these things – but only these things. Statements that are reinforced so strongly can also invisibly be statements of “you’re this, but you’re not THAT”
The sporty boy can’t be creative
The clever girl can’t be pretty
The highlighting of one aspect – can put limitations on possibility..and this is the damage that can occur through well meaning comments – let alone language that is intended to hurt, demean, belittle and exclude.
Here’s the thing. I was told my whole life that I was smart.
I hear it now: “Oh woe is me, Kirsten, you were lovingly encouraged as a child in your academic pursuit”.
Clearly this is not a major tragedy. My parents were great. They saw skill in me. and encouraged it. But the problem is, that’s basically the story I created in my mind of who I was. Because I was ‘the smart one’, other stories, narratives, possibilities, weren’t explored or reinforced. Because I was ‘the smart one’, I was intimidated in heaps of other areas. I wasn’t the cool one, or the pretty one, to name a few. And that labelling had actual consequences for me in my choices – throughout childhood, youth and adulthood.
because I wasn’t pretty i couldn’t be a girl that pierced her ears
because I wasn’t cool I wasn’t cool enough to listen to interesting/alternative music.
“because I’m not…” made me stop trying a lot of new things…because I believed that it ‘wasn’t for me’.
These are obviously lame and small examples. But the point is that the FRAMING of something has a SOCIAL REALITY. And these realities can be explicit and large, but also implicit and insidious.
This framing gives our soul hints of what we’re allowed or ‘supposed’ to do in life – that others will judge us if we move outside of those boundaries of self. we say things like “I could never”, “That’s not for me”.
This framing can also give ourselves a template or recipe of how we respond and behave in circumstances.
Abraham Maslow (yes of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs fame) once said “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.” He is referring to what is called Maslow’s Hammer or The Law of Instrument, which is a Cognitive Bias that gives an over-reliance on a certain tool
If we think that we’re hammers, to solve problems, we hit things. Even if there isn’t a nail in sight.
Maybe, to stretch the analogy, it also works when we react to our loved one’s problems: our own framing (or our own trauma) puts a lens or bias on other people’s situations.
If we never thought we were pretty, we rush to help our loved ones to avoid that feeling of ugliness.
If we never thought we were cool enough, we do anything to make our loved ones to feel part of the crowd.
Obviously this analogy can be applied only so far. But it is perhaps a helpful question to ask ourselves, especially when we have a very strong reaction to someone else’s situation/trauma/pain/choices:
Is my reaction about them or am I reliving my own experience?
Am I being a hammer, seeing everything as a nail?
Is this their stuff, or is it my stuff?
In doing so, we might be able to have pause and perspective – for them and us – in the moment, and respond with an appropriate and helpful reaction, rather than one that is triggered by trauma or fear.
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.