“Youer Than You” – Saying No To Comparison

“Today you are You, that is truer than true. There is no one alive that is Youer than You.”
– Dr Seuss –

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You may be someone who looks back fondly on your school years: friendships, laughter and camaraderie. My school years were complicated. We moved around continents and countries and I changed schools regularly. It felt like the moment I began to settle and form new friendships there would be another house move and the inevitable change of schools. A new environment meant a whole new silent learning about the social order of the classroom and the playground. When I compared myself to the other kids in my new environment it didn’t take long to realise that I was the one on the outer. A skinny, dorky, spectacled German child, who did not really care for cheerleading or sports (unless it was watching heavyweight boxing matches or German soccer games with my dad), did not bode well when trying to fit into the country of “braaivleis, rugby, sunny skies and Chevrolet” (South Africa).

Comparison seems to be the social motivation upon which most schools are built upon. We learn the technique of comparison far more quickly and intrinsically than we do English or Maths. From a young age, we are taught to recognise those who are different to us and with it comes the cruel social obligation to make sure this person, or these people, know that they are different. This creates a herd angst to ensure that we all fit in. Comparison has made idiots out of all of us. Through the power of social media, we have now enabled a younger generation to analyse themselves 24/7, unable to escape that sense of incompetence and self-loathing that comparison brings.

Centuries before psychologists raised the alarm about this detrimental human behaviour of comparison, there was a man who touched on it in his writings. Saint Paul wrote numerous letters, or epistles, to various congregations in the first century, which can be read in the New Testament. Amongst his many words of wisdom was the idea that when we are children we think and behave like children but when we grow up we need to put childish thought and behaviour patterns behind us (1 Corinthians 13:11). Writing to the same Corinthian congregation in another letter he says that those who compare themselves with each other are serious idiots (my translation – 2 Corinthians 10:12). It seems that part of Paul’s plea to Corinth was to stop the childishness of allowing egos to run unbridled, to grow up and learn that love is the greatest of all. We should heed his words. There is nothing loving about comparison and there comes a time when we need to silence it’s very loud, mouthy and judgemental voice in our heads.

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Mark Twain once said that “comparison is the death of joy”. Research backs his statement showing how when we compare ourselves with others we become increasingly envious, depressed, distrusting and lacking in self-confidence. Engaging in paralysing comparison creates self-loathing. Remember, that in most instances, especially when it comes to social media, you are comparing yourself to someone’s highlight snapshot: a tiny fragment of their life, nearly always positive, adventuresome and happy. This is NOT their whole life – it’s a tiny SNAPSHOT and sometimes it is totally incongruent with what is actually going on in their life! When you compare yourself to someone’s SNAPSHOT you will think that you are missing out on life … but, darling friend, their life has just as many issues, mundanity, hardship, tears and suffering as yours … it’s just not on Snapchat, Facebook or Instagram!

When we compare we will always lose. Always! Why? Because we are not meant to live someone else’s life, dream someone else’s dream or envy someone else’s journey. Our social compass and sense of ‘self’ became scrambled when comparison entered the mix! Violence, greed and murder … list all the evil of humanity … many of these things started when we stopped being satisfied and content with the path we were given and wanted another life. In contrast, joy comes creeping back when we start to retrain our brain to stop comparing our life to another. When we recognise that our life, with all its ups and downs, is a gift, and only we can live it!

“There is no one alive that is Youer than You” is the prophetic statement of Dr Seuss into each one of our lives. Maybe it is time to lay aside the glamorous, photo-shopped magazines that crowd our shelves and pick up our own dusty, neglected personal epic? Maybe it’s time to delete some personas off social media or go on a tech blackout? Maybe it’s time to make friends again with the person staring back at you in the mirror? Marcus Aurelius once mused about how much time we gain when we stop worrying about what others are doing, thinking or saying, but rather focus on living our lives. So stand up tall, get back on your track and live your magnificent life.

“Owning our story and loving ourselves through that process is the bravest thing we will ever do.”
– Brene Brown –

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The Avoidance Crisis

“Everything worthwhile in life is won through surmounting the associated negative experience. Any attempt to escape the negative, to avoid it or quash it or silence it, only backfires. The avoidance of suffering is a form of suffering. The avoidance of struggle is a struggle. The denial of failure is a failure. Hiding what is shameful is itself a form of shame.
Pain is an inextricable thread in the fabric of life …”
– Mark Manson –

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Last week I blogged about death and how we live in a society that avoids this subject to the point of delusional insanity. The response was overwhelming. What became clear amongst the many messages I received was that our collective existential angst has created a social and cultural avoidance crisis. It is difficult for us to acknowledge that life can be very painful and challenging and that we have very little control over it.

Avoidance has helped us cope and survive in life. We naturally choose the path of least resistance to escape danger or suffering. Our early childhood lessons were often about learning what, or who, to avoid in order to make it to adulthood. We have an inbred protective reflex when exposed to adverse stimuli and that is beneficial – unless it becomes driven by anxiety.

Anxiety can cause us to protect ourselves from things we perceive as threats, but often these very threats are important life experiences. We may think avoidance is a cure, not realising it can actually heighten our distress. We begin to be consumed with the very thing that we are trying to avoid. There are many examples of this. People suffering from eating disorders trying to avoid certain foods, so food and calories become their obsession. People suffering from social disorders trying to avoid encounters with others and feeling continually panicked. My previous blog on death discussed our society’s avoidance of talking about death, underscoring a primal fear that drives us to all sorts of unrealistic beliefs or behaviours, both in religious and social settings.

Mark Manson’s quote above is so accurate: “The avoidance of suffering is a form of suffering.” The more dogmatic and hostile we become in areas of our lives, the more we are struggling to avoid something unpleasant, perhaps a shadow side to ourselves. It’s an internal struggle and a form of suffering. That is why vulnerability is such an important transformational tool. When we learn to be vulnerable we begin to recognise that avoidance is not the answer. In fact, avoidance comes at a very high price as we barricade ourselves from life’s inevitabilities and our own flaws.

Facing our fears takes courage. In a society that is caught in an avoidance crisis as it pursues experience after experience to feel ‘better’ or ‘happy’, it takes guts to stop, reflect and become counter-cultural. We need to learn to build our tolerance to things that are challenging, painful and uncomfortable. It is in the full embrace of life, with all its ups and downs, laughter and tears, that we experience what it means to be truly human and to build relationships that are genuine, healthy and have longevity.

Dear reader, take a moment to think about your life. Are there areas that you are avoiding that desperately need your attention? Are you sidestepping conversations because even though they are important and should not wait any longer, you know they will be difficult and awkward? Are there shadows you need to face that you have denied?

Avoiding avoidance is risky. Will it all go well when you stop running and turn around? I don’t know. “It all going well” is not what life is about. Life is raw, risky and at times filled with peril. We become vulnerable and our Jenga blocks, sometimes built on lofty ideals and a protective guise, can all topple over … and then we have to rebuild … one honest, humble, vulnerable block at a time …

“Pain in this life is not avoidable, but the pain we create avoiding pain is avoidable.”
– R.D. Laing –

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Life’s Most Ignored Partner: Death

“It is hard to have patience with people who say, ‘There is no death’ or ‘Death doesn’t matter.’ There is death. And whatever it is matters. And whatever happens has consequences, and it and they are irrevocable and irreversible. You might as well say that birth doesn’t matter.”
– C.S. Lewis –

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My sprightly father has been researching the price of funerals in the Sunshine Coast. Or should I say, he has been exploring the cheapest possible way to dispose of his body when he dies. His Melbourne plan to donate his body to research at a local university was sabotaged when we moved to the Coast. Never fear, he just discovered that he can save a whopping $2,000 by using a funeral home near Brisbane and he reported his finding to me with a smug sense of satisfaction! As you can tell, I grew up in a home where we talked about death. It was as natural as talking about life. I only discovered that talking about death was a social taboo when I moved to Australia, and strangely enough, especially in church.

It remains somewhat of a mystery to me why people avoid this subject at all cost. Last time I checked, the death rate of Homo sapiens was pretty high – sitting very close to 100%. Death is inevitable. Considering this, why wouldn’t we ensure that we have a will in place (no matter what age) and clear instructions for end-of-life care? “DO NOT RESUSCITATE”, for example, has been emphasised to me by my father. If he could, he would have that clause tattooed on his forehead. I know it’s hard, but we need to talk about our mortality and death with our loved ones.

Our society’s strange avoidance of death is really quite insane. It seems like we fear death so much that we have convinced ourselves that by not talking about it we can dodge it. Anyone grieving the loss of a loved one in such a cultural “Truman Show” is normally met with awkward comments, a change of subject, or, a total lack of contact and care. By refusing to see life and death as part of the human existence we have created hell for those touched by death.

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One of the most famous historians of death, Philippe Ariès, claimed that death became a shameful scandal in modern society, that the dying were hidden away in hospitals and that grieving survivors were silenced to repress this scandal of death: “We ignore the existence of a scandal that we have been unable to prevent; we act as if it did not exist, and thus mercilessly force the bereaved to say nothing. A heavy silence has fallen over the subject of death.” Ariès is amongst a growing chorus of voices calling on society to stop this nutty denial and recognise and humanise death, “Death must simply become the discreet but dignified exit of a peaceful person from a helpful society that is not torn, not even overly upset by the idea of a biological transition without significance, without pain and suffering, and ultimately without fear.” Ignoring our mortality does not make death go away, rather, it creates even greater fear and hysteria about this unavoidable life event.

Looking back it also seems rather strange to me that for the many years I spent in church I only ever heard one whole sermon dedicated to death and preparation for dying. I know not all faith traditions avoid the subject, but in the Pentecostal/Charismatic scene a sound theology of suffering and death still remains fairly undeveloped. In fact, talking about death in these places is taboo. An almost superstitious-like fear hangs in the air, coupled with an often over-emphasis on healing (understood in the limited context of physical symptoms), miracles and positive confessions. The disappointment that an individual who had invested into this ideology encounters when touched by death or suffering cannot be understated. It can take someone years to recover from the toxic idea that God has let them down or they did not have enough ‘faith’ to avoid disaster.

My life and the life of our family was irrevocably changed with the sudden death of my mother in 2007. She played a key role as a very loved matriarch in our family structure. Her absence is felt to this day. C.S. Lewis wrote a most poignant journal where he recorded the death of his beloved wife, Joy, in A Grief Observed. He writes, “Her absence is like the sky, spread over everything” and “The death of a loved one is like an amputation.” So I am not for a moment suggesting that talking about death is easy. The very idea of losing the people we love is too sad for words. Yet life requires us not to ignore its partner, death. If the consequences of someone’s absence are so monumental and devastating, we have to be able to talk about our mortality and the decisions that await us or another person in such a tragic event.

Friend, take courage. We do not have much say into life choosing death as its partner. We do have a choice about ensuring that we have things in place for our departure. We also have a choice to talk about death, to discover the wishes of loved ones, and discover the details surrounding wills, accounts, legacy plans, etc. The stories we hear of the distress of people left in chaos when this unpleasant topic has been neglected should be enough to convince us that it is time to defy this silly social taboo and become vocal about mortality. Life is a journey, so is death, and both need our attention.

 

“End? No, the journey doesn’t end here. Death is just another path, one that we all must take. The grey rain-curtain of this world rolls back, and all turns to silver glass, and then you see it.”
– J.R.R. Tolkien “Return of the King” –

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New Streets and Old Maps

“Not all those who wander are lost …” – Bilbo Baggins

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In the 1990’s nearly every car in Melbourne still had an often mangled, coffee-stained Melway in the back seat. In the ‘good old days’ we did not have any fancy satellite navigation systems that talk to you in that annoying, patronising voice (you can almost see Mr or Mrs Automated Voice roll their eyes as they incessantly repeat: “Make a U-turn, Dumbass!” when you take the wrong turn). No, we were tough. We had printed maps that led us to our destination – most of the time!

Using a printed map for direction is problematic in several ways. First, you have to keep driving with your eyes on the road, while frantically scanning the map on your lap to ensure you are going the right way. Second, due to destructive car occupants such as dogs and toddlers, you may have found that the page you needed has been ripped out and chewed. Third, if you got lost, there were no mobile phones to let people know that you accidentally arrived in Wangary instead of Wanguri. But most frustrating of all, if you had a Melway that was several years old, you found yourself in deep custard when navigating a new sub-division with brand new streets.

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Old maps and new streets are not great travelling companions. The map will tell you that the street you are looking for does not exist, has never existed, and you are wasting your time looking for it. In fact, if the map suddenly turned into a talking, philosophical, map-person (yep, imagination needed here) they would probably say something like, “Look, I know you desperately think that you can visit someone in Gertrude Street, but I hate to break it to you, Gertrude Street does not exist. Trust me, we have been doing this for a very long time. My father, my father’s father, and my father’s father’s father have all said the same thing. There is no Gertrude Street. You have to let it go. You are looking for a destination we have never been to … and we are the experts.”

No one has told the old maps that landscapes change. These maps, like the old wineskins that Jesus talks about in Luke 5, have only ever known old streets or old wine. It is ludicrous to demand anything else of them. We can hope, we can try, we can get angry, but in the end, old maps direct you around old streets and old wineskins hold only old wine. If you want to drive around new spaces, then you will either have to find a new map or you will have to draw your own.

Friend, I wish I could tell you that the maps you have used in your formative years, or in times of flourishing success, would be sufficient for the rest of your life – but that is not the case. Ideas, paradigms and methods we use to navigate life can disappoint us as we continue to learn new things and drive down streets we have never visited before. Some maps may last a lifetime but the way we read them may need to change, and the person who taught you to read that map is not always the expert. That realisation alone can be life changing.

In this life we have choices. We can allow old maps to rule our lives because the very idea of new streets terrifies us. Or, we can recognise that from the moment of birth, life is an ever changing landscape and without taking risks we will never discover new possibilities. Today we live our lives with certain knowledge, like the earth being round and orbiting around the sun. We forget that this knowledge came at a great price for people who, many years ago, threw away their old maps of thinking. Now it’s our turn. Time to explore some new streets.

I’ll show you a place
High on the desert plain
Where the streets have no name
Where the streets have no name (U2) 

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Scars Sealed In Gold

“To banish imperfection is to destroy expression, to check exertion, to paralyze vitality. All things are literally better, lovelier, and more beloved for the imperfections which have been divinely appointed, that the law of human life may be effort, and the law of human judgment, mercy.”
– John Rushkin –

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It seems that “banishing imperfection” is the obsessive past time of our modern society. Current ideas about beauty, success, wealth or piety become enshrined upon the golden altar of desire and happiness that the faithful flock to. Perfection is the ultimate goal. It is celebrated and rewarded. Individuals or groups who achieve this rare state are paraded around platforms, their voices filling our sound waves, their images filling our screens, and their formulas filling our bookshelves. It is a lucrative business to be perfect. No wonder we are living in such an epidemic of human anxiety and fear as the banishing of imperfection is not working out that well for 99.99999% of us!

There are many reasons why we may crave perfection. Perhaps the fear of vulnerability is one of the greatest? When we are vulnerable we expose ourselves to the possibility of rejection. Vulnerability is risky. Vulnerability destroys the enshrined ideas of perfection. When we choose vulnerability we choose courage instead of fear, authenticity instead of image, and the messiness of what it means to be human, instead of perfection. Vulnerability takes a sledge hammer to the golden calf of perfectionism that reigns supreme in our political, religious and celebrity spaces, and in our own lives.

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I am someone who, especially in my first half of life, struggled with the constant need to get it ‘right’. The fear of failure or not being the ‘good girl’ left me open to all sorts of dreadful possibilities. Ones on the Enneagram are known for our often unhealthy relationship with perfectionism. Over the years it has been crisis and wounding that have served as my faithful and undesirable coaches, calling me out of this unhealthy obsession. Like Rushkin (and my parents) would say, life is not easy. We live with effort and we all need mercy and compassion, not just for others, but most often we need a healthy dose for ourselves.

There is a Japanese philosophy of ‘wabi sabi’ which compels us to consider the beauty in the flawed. It is hinged to the Japanese feeling of ‘mottainai’, the regret of seeing anything wasted. In other words, in Japanese thought the idea of suppressing something that has happened because it is considered painful, a failure or imperfect, is a total waste. There is something beautiful in life’s imperfections. It is this philosophy that undergirds the art of ‘Kintsugi’, of mending broken pottery not in a way that makes the breaks invisible, but rather highlights them with gold.

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These exceptional pieces of art are not only beautiful because they are crafted by a master potter, but because their imperfections are displayed for the world to see. In a sense, Kintsugi art is a celebration of scars. What a totally different philosophy than the angst-inducing ones that permeate our modern culture.

The idea that we can eradicate imperfection is a futile one and the pursuit of perfection is ultimately meaningless. Consider this in light of ‘body image’, wealth, work, religion, and the expectations of modern life. Humans are not meant to be displayed as a piece of perfect pottery on some grandstand built on cultural, religious or relational accolades. We were meant to live life to the full – to love, to embrace, to listen, to consider, to risk, to fall, to fail, to triumph, to trudge through valleys and to scale mountains. In order to do that we need a huge supply of special golden lacquer so that we can take time to highlight our story when the cracks appear.

So, dear friend, stop listening to the voices from without and within that demand your perfection. Take the risk of becoming vulnerable. You may lose some ‘friends’ and no longer sing in the choir of the impeccably dressed, or stand on the platform of the piously accomplished, but rather you will join the crack pots on the margins, with their bucket loads of gold lacquer … and there you will find grace beyond measure.

“There is a Japanese word, kintsukuroi, that means “golden repair.” It is the art of restoring broken pottery with gold so the fractures are literally illuminated – a kind of physical expression of its spirit. As a philosophy, kintsukuroi celebrates imperfection as an integral part of the story, not something to be disguised … In kintsukuroi, the true life of an object (or a person) begins the moment it breaks and reveals that it is vulnerable.”
– Georgia Pellegrini –

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Are You Getting Your Beauty Sleep?

“Laugh and the world laughs with you, snore and you sleep alone” Anthony Burgess

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I love my bed. There is something totally therapeutic and delicious about sinking into flannel sheets after a long day. As an introvert I have memories of being at those hideous children’s parties and counting down the minutes until I can go home, crawl into bed and read a book. What words are there to describe that feeling of lying in bed and listening to the pouring rain? Or waking up in the morning, pulling the curtains back, making a cup of coffee and hopping back into bed? Pure luxury comes to mind.

I also love to sleep. I realise that I am one of the more fortunate ones that seldom struggles with insomnia for any great length of time. Sometimes I wonder whether all the different messages we receive about sleep and how important it is to get certain amount of hours of sleep, doesn’t make us all anxious about not sleeping, so we don’t sleep?! Perhaps taking a quick look at the history of sleep will help? As an avid student of history, I always find this a most comforting exercise.

Adam Bulger provides an interesting brief history of how we slept from 8,000 BCE to today. Our nomadic ancestors stuffed grass or straw into hollows near the walls of a cave and slept in an almost foetal position. The Romans simply endured sleep – the wealthy stuffed mattresses with feathers, the poor with straw. Their boudoirs were small rooms with low ceilings and no fuss. Not so with the Egyptians! They treated sleep with great respect and analysed their dreams for greater meaning.

The Middle Ages was a most unpleasant time to sleep. In short, it consisted of small rooms, filled with many bodies and chamber pots. If you have a good nose you can still smell the Middle Ages! Thank God for the Renaissance which provided the great awakening for many areas of European life, including sleep. Meantime China was far more advanced, building exquisite beds with large and ornate bed frames. Their beds were so magnificent that it was a total waste to just use them for sleep – they began to receive and host guests in their beds …!

Prior to the Industrial Revolution and the introduction of artificial light, people were bi-phasic, sleeping in two four-hour intervals, with a waking time in between that they used for prayer, meditation or really great sex! Our current mono-phasic form of attempting to sleep eight hours straight is a modern social convention and has been called the “golden age of rest”.

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This tiny glimpse into history shows us that our idea of having to get those all important eight hours of sleep is a fairly recent development. So if you struggle with a ‘solid’ night’s sleep, maybe your body is simply protesting the imposing sleep virtues of the Industrial Revolution? Maybe you are a sleep revolutionary at heart?! In all seriousness, lack of sleep can be debilitating – so what are some of the things we can do to improve our sleep?

– I try and turn off my computer and social media by 10 pm (unless it’s Eurovision – then my urge to commentate on people who yodel or swing their ponytails around becomes more important than sleep!) Technology keeps my brain alert.

– Don’t have caffeine in the afternoon. I love coffee but having it in the evening has diabolical effects on my sleep, so I stick to herbal tea.

– Develop a relaxing routine at night that helps you sleep. I find reading helpful, others have told me that relaxation exercises work a treat.

– Keep your bedroom dark.

– Try and stick to a consistent schedule of when you go to bed and when you wake up – this sets your ‘internal clock’.

– If you have trouble sleeping, don’t toss and turn and become anxious about not sleeping. Remember, our ancestors survived. Get up, say “Damn you” to the Industrial Revolution, and have a cup of chamomile tea.

One last thing. Shortly after our wedding, now over thirty years ago, we discovered the miracle of separate doonas. Why, o, why did we ever think we had to ‘share’ our doonas? What a stupid idea. It created great marital hostility and lack of sleep as one of us would cocoon themselves, while the other froze and became increasingly frustrated. So we bought separate doonas. It created a sleep revolution – and we lived happily ever after!

And if tonight my soul may find her peace
in sleep, and sink in good oblivion,
and in the morning wake like a new-opened flower
then I have been dipped again in God, and new-created.
– D.H. Lawrence –

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Autumn: A Time to See More Clearly

“There is something incredibly nostalgic and significant about the annual cascade of autumn leaves.”
– Joe L. Wheeler –

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I was on retreat at the beautiful and cold Bellarine Peninsula in Victoria, Australia, this past week. It is autumn in our ‘down under’ part of the world. Each season speaks to us, holding its own treasures and reflections – but I love Autumn the most. I can almost feel the Autumn Equinox arrive each year. There is a shift in the atmosphere as summer gives her last hurrah and is ushered off the stage. Dressed in Jacob’s coat of many colours, Autumn takes centre stage, bringing with her breathless beauty a sense of melancholy and the paradox of life and death.

Autumn is a most inviting, contemplative companion. Unlike any other season, it calls us to nature and to listen to her wisdom. Over the years, I have found that I am drawn to thoroughly clean my house in Spring, but my soul cleaning happens in Autumn. Personally, many things have fallen away for me over the last several years. It has been a time of surrender. As the Autumn leaves have fallen, my perspective has changed. It is amazing how we can begin to really see in times of letting go.

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I would like to encourage all my readers to take time out for some ‘soul cleaning’, regardless of whether you are in Autumn or Spring (hello, to my friends in the Northern Hemisphere). There are many great writers, poets and artists who we can choose as ‘alongsiders’ as we sort through the cupboards of our lives.

Here is a piece from Joyce Rupp’s and Macrina Wiederkehr’s “The Circle of Life“. May it bring you joy, hope and wisdom.

“In this lovely season when the dance of surrender is obvious,
We find large spaces left where something beautiful once lived.
As one by one the leaves let go,
A precious emptiness appears in the trees.
The naked beauty of the branches can be seen,
The bird’s abandoned nests become visible.
These new spaces of emptiness reveal mountain ridges.
At night if you stand beneath a tree and gaze upward,
Stars now peer through the branches.

This is an important Autumn lesson – when certain things fall away,
Here are other things that can be seen more clearly.

This same truth is celebrated in our personal lives.
When we are able to let go of a relationship that is not healthy,
The heart is given more room to grow.
We are able to receive new people into our lives whose gifts we never noticed.

Perhaps it is not a person we have lost but our dreams of good health that would last forever.
Our health fails, our dream dies.

Another significant area of surrender comes with possessions.
Our possessions can become like little gods that eventually get in our way.

There are those who struggle to discover the blessing and wisdom of ageing process.
The surrender of youth can be the most difficult of all.

Autumn invites us to let go, to yield … yes, to die.

We are encouraged to let things move in our lives.
Let them flow on into some new life form just as the earth is modelling these changes to us.”

“He found himself wondering at times, especially in the autumn,
about the wild lands, and the strange visions and mountains that he had never seen came into his dreams.”
– J.R.R. Tolkien –

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Hildegard of Bingen and her Love Affair with Fennel

“Even eaten raw fennel does not harm the body in any way. In whatever form one eats fennel, it makes us happy, gives us a good skin colour and body odour and promotes good digestion.”
– Hildegard – 

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Fennel was a regular star in the meals consumed in my childhood. To this day I can identify it blindfolded, simply by its unique, slightly sweet taste. It is also somewhat of a divisive culinary accompaniment, a bit like coriander. People such as my parents and grandparents were devoted to this humble vegetable, while others refuse to allow it anywhere near their kitchen. But there was one historical figure who swore by fennel – and her love affair was recorded in the annals of history.

In the fertile, temperate Rhine valley, near the River Main, a convent of Benedictine nuns became the focal point of many religious devotees in the Twelfth Century. Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) remains somewhat of an historical phenomenon to this day. Her many visions and knowledge about the meaning of Scripture drew the attention of people such as St. Bernard of Clairvaux and the Pope himself, Eugenius (1145-1153), who read her writings to a synod held in the German city of Trier. It did not take long for the news to circulate that a prophetess was living in Disibodenberg. You can read more about her remarkable life here.

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Hildegard may well have been Germany’s first nutritionist and produced writings on medicine, science and the healing power of nature. She saw fennel as one of the most important plants for achieving physical wellbeing. It is excellent, she wrote, for the eyes, brain, hearing and heart. Eating fennel makes one happy. Her applications for fennel were numerous:

– For puffy eyes, place 2 tsp of roasted fennel seeds or ground fennel seeds in hot water, let steep for 5 minutes or more. Once cool enough to touch, dip the corner of a folded paper towel in the solution and apply to the under eye region.

– For weight loss, steep 1/2 tsp roasted fennel seeds in warm water and drink twice a day.

– For a cold, drink warm fennel tea 2-3 times a day.

– For heartburn, bloating and gas, eat a pinch of roasted fennel seeds immediately following a meal.

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Fennel belongs to the Umbellifereae family, second cousin to parsley, carrots, dill and coriander. It contains a unique combination of phyto-nutrients that allow for strong antioxidant activity. Research has found that one of it’s most interesting phyto-nutrient compounds is anethole. Anethole has reduced inflammation and prevented the occurrence of cancer. It has shown to be able to protect the liver from toxic chemical injury. The high Vitamin C content in the fennel bulb is anti-microbial and needed for the proper function of the immune system. It is also a great source of fiber, folate and potassium.

Fennel has also been called the pearl of aphrodisiacs. A recent concoction of fennel seeds, liquorice root and water was named the ‘tonic for happy lovers’ (yes, I know, you will all rush to brew this now!!). It holds benefits for lungs, liver, pancreas, spleen, kidneys and to help dissolve kidney stones. One of its main historic uses was to cure issues surrounding indigestion. In short – fennel is fantastic! Why aren’t we all in love fennel?!

I find it surprising how many people shake their heads at things they have never tried. Over the years we have had countless people around our dinner table. Herbs and vegetables have been the ones regarded with the greatest suspicion by many. Of course, I understand that once tasted some may decline delicious vegetables or salads because of poorly-evolved, artificially-sabotaged taste buds, but at least give it a go. Shock horror – it may even improve your health!

You may never develop a love affair with fennel like Hildegard did. However, you could discover in fennel a friend that has been sent to make you feel happy! Here is to health, and cheers to a beautiful earth that graciously shares with us her fennel friend.

“There’s fennel for you, and columbines; there’s rue for you; and here’s some for me; we may call it herb of grace o’Sundays.”
– William Shakespeare (Hamlet) –

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The Scarcity of Wonder in our Black-and-White, Know-it-All World

“If I had influence with the good angel who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children, I should ask that her gift to each child in the world would be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life as an unfailing antidote against boredom and disenchantments of later years, the sterile preoccupation with things that are artificial, the alienation from the sources of our strength.”

– Rachel Carson (The Sense of Wonder) –

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I spent my early years in a small village in northern Germany. A village surrounded by endless pine forests that my parents and I would regularly walk through. To me, it was an enchanted forest. From the large ant-hills with their complex and intricate architecture on which my Oma would lay her handkerchief on the way into the forest only to retrieve it afterwards smelling sour (meant to be good for the sinuses?!) to the many creatures that called that forest home, it filled me with a sense of wonder.

Adam Smith, the 18th-century Scottish moral philosopher, defines wonder as something that arises within our emotions when “something quite new and singular is presented … and memory cannot, from all its stores, cast up any image that nearly resembles this strange appearance.” It is a feeling of surprise and admiration when we experience something beautiful, unexpected, unfamiliar, or inexplicable. Wonder is intrinsic to human nature, engaging our curiosity and nurturing our creativity. Descartes called wonder our most fundamental emotion.

Wonder unites science, religion and art. It draws on us emotionally, creatively and instils reverence. Robert Fuller, professor of religious studies at Bradley University in Illinois, says that wonder is “one of the principal human experiences that lead to belief in an unseen order.” Environmentalist Rachel Carson argues that we have an inborn sense of wonder, manifested and prevalent in children. She writes, “If a child is to keep alive their inborn sense of wonder, they need the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with them the joy, excitement, and mystery of the world we live in …” In a world that is becoming increasingly dogmatic, operating from a stagnant black and white perspective, I lament that we are experiencing a scarcity of wonder in our speed-driven, technology-addicted, and artificially-stimulated world!

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Our developed world suffers from excess-syndrome. We have the level and benefits of health and wealth that our ancestors could not even imagine. Today’s ill health is often caused by excess itself as we gorge ourselves on the bounty that capitalism has provided on the backs of our poorer global neighbours. Yet with all the excess we have not only become increasingly dissatisfied, but fearful, cynical, anxious, paranoid and selfish. The wonder that a walk in a forest may bring, has now become a distant memory. At times it is felt through a sense of nostalgia evoked by the rare poem we read when time permits.

The religious sphere in many parts of the world has been hijacked by a blistering, blustering and self-righteous form of fundamentalism that prides itself on being ‘right’. This form of imagined and desired moral absolutism has reduced the mystery of God to a spreadsheet of culturally preferred yes-and-no answers that have created a tribal shame culture where wonder has been ridiculed and alienated. Sadly, it is this religious space that is shaping so much of the next generation’s worldview, impacting on their perspective and wonder.

C.K. Chesterton said that we are perishing from lack of wonder, not for the lack of wonders. Mike Yaconelli wrote, “Children live in a world of dreams and imagination, a world of aliveness … There is a voice of wonder and amazement inside of all of us, but we grow to realise we can no longer hear it …” It is time to have a wonder renaissance!

Maybe it is time you reclaim your human birthright of wonder? Maybe you lost it because your sense of wonder was ridiculed? Or analysed? Or prohibited? When was the last time you stared into the fathomless night sky and wondered? When did you last listen to a piece of music that moved you to tears and made you wonder about what it really means to be fully human? In these uncertain times where so many of the messages we receive on a daily basis are filled with gloom and dread, may you again find the courage to wonder. May this wonder bring you joy.

The root of the word “educate” meant “to care” – a caring that flows naturally from a deep feeling for the world. This kind of care seems to embody a type of wisdom that has nothing to do with information or knowledge in its restricted sense. Our connection to the world is not through information about it, but through a sense of wonder. How long since the cry of insects and the sight of the setting sun brought us deeply into ourselves?
– John Wilson (Reflections on Everyday Life)

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Joy and the Narrow Path

This post is dedicated to the LGBTI community who were and are a prophetic voice in my life – I am forever grateful.
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On the 15th April it was two years since Dean Beck, Nathan Despott and I sat down at the Joy FM Radio station and recorded an interview to discuss the damage done to LGBTI people through ex-gay therapy programmes. This erroneous idea that LGBTI people are ‘broken’ and need to be ‘healed’ or ‘fixed’ goes a lot further than the programmes run through parachurch programmes or ministry. Rather, it is the very oxygen in most conservative, fundamentalist religious spaces that view LGBTI people of faith as ‘other’.

I should know this because I was part of one of the many people that held this idea that there was something ‘wrong’ with those who identified as anything but heterosexual. My paradigms were supported by ignorance, fear, and religious ‘experts’ who had very LOUD opinions and very little knowledge. My doubts and questions about this harmful exclusion started long before that interview.

Two years on and my world has changed … dramatically. The interview literally brought extremist religious leaders out of retirement. There was a bombarding of emails, letters and flyers. The board of the faith community that I was part of, supportive at first of my right to speak as an individual not representing the church, felt the pressure of lobby groups and found this rather difficult. It became easier to distance myself.

It was one of the more difficult journeys of my life. As I reflect back, I realise that anytime we endeavour to live true to our values we often come against strong power structures. Structures and ideals that are deeply embedded and share an umbilical cord with political agendas (similar to the apartheid ideals in South Africa, or the segregation ideals that spurred the civil rights movement in the USA).

I learnt a lot of things through this experience:

Perhaps the most important learning was the bravery shown by LGBTI people and people of faith. My exclusion and treatment shrinks into insignificance as I listened to many, many stories of heartache, rejection, condemnation, prejudice, and sheer hurtful behaviour by people who claim to hold to the Gospel of Christ, while condemning their brothers and sisters in a most saccharine “O-we-love-you-but-hate-your-sin” manner. I discovered friends and heroes on the margins – a magnificent and fierce rainbow clan that I am honoured to call friends.

I discovered a fairly lonely, narrow path. For someone who has spent a decent amount of time surrounded by loads of people, it was a strange experience. It brought its own significant anxiety. On this lonely path there was not much backslapping and grandiose talk about the modern church or its mission to ‘save the world’ – rather I came face to face with my own shadows, with my own insecurities, and with the painful process of detoxing from a hyperreality that creates religious addicts with a silo mentality.

I learnt that to let go is a death experience. I lost reputation, friends, status, power, influence, and all invitations to speak at other churches stopped rather abruptly. It is a dangerous thing to ask questions and make up your own mind. Letting go meant laying it all down and walking away … perhaps you know that space? Perhaps this is what you are walking through right now?

But I also learnt there is resurrection. There is hope. There is freedom and joy on this narrow path that is very hard to describe. When you no longer fear the threats because there is not much more to lose then, in a strange, paradoxical way, you begin to really live. There is an insanely, happy dance that accompanies those who refuse to be bullied into dancing to the tune of religious, cultural norms. You see, dear friend, the Gospel really is very good news.

I am not sure what the future holds. The life I thought I would lead has died many years ago. But this Easter, in an old Uniting Church in Richmond, I heard the whispers of Resurrection. This surprising narrow path of joy holds treasures I would never have found surrounded by the accolades and approval of others. This resurrection hope quietly beckons me to keep walking … and that I shall.

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