Author Archives: Nicole Conner

‘Just Be Yourself’: It’s Bloody Annoying!

“This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man …”
-Polonius to Laertes (Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 3)

 

‘Just be yourself’ – One of the most confusing things we tell ourselves and each other! In my youth, I cheered this idea from Western individual capitalism – an idea for the privileged. I thought is was an admirable and simple way to exist as a human. As I grow older, I find it not just a complex and confusing ideal, but cruel and dangerous.

You, like me, may have been part of some sort of tribe of belonging that had a habit of telling us to ‘just be yourself’ … However, if you observe closely, it is mainly when we stand up or resist or speak out about something they agree with – a form of praise. When our words and actions fail these tribal ideological constructs, the sentiment of ‘Just be yourself’ quickly dissipates. It is often replaced with hostility and comments like, ‘You have changed’ or ‘That doesn’t sound like you’. ‘Just be yourself’, I have found, can be another phrase that compliments conformity.

I also stand guilty as charged of throwing this phrase around carelessly. How many times have I said this to an individual who was questioning and processing their sense of self with me? In the past, I gave little thought of the price that this person may pay if they followed my sloppy advice. Advice given to them from a position of my own blind privilege. I shudder as I think back to my youthful arrogance, using my power and platform to propagate this lofty and confusing ideal. It is only in recent years that I have become acutely aware of how ‘just be yourself’ can not only be dangerous, but devastating for individuals whose sense of self or identity has been rejected and shunned by their family or community.

If you live as part of a dominant Western capitalistic culture, this notion has probably dogged you since you can remember. Like oxygen, the idea is inescapable – ‘just be yourself’. And like a blind herd we attempt to heed its call – going down every path of existential angst and despair. We literally exhaust ourselves trying to be ourselves! The problem with ‘just be yourself’ is that in order to BE yourself, you have to KNOW yourself … and to know yourself is a lifelong quest. Our concept of self is the sum of the stories of what other people, as well as our culture and history, have told us we are. It takes a lot of life, a lot of questions, a lot of listening, and a good dose of humility, and vulnerability, to begin to question these stories. Perhaps one of the first questions to ask is, “Am I ok with the advice – ‘Just be yourself’?”

I can no longer heed this notion. It is not advice I will be giving. My questions have changed. To assist me in telling the stories of who I am, I now have one very important question to ask: ‘What do I value?’ I have found this so incredibly helpful. Let me give you an example:

I value kindness. So does that mean that by ‘just being myself’ I am kind? Not at all! I have many moments of incongruence when what I value and how I behave or the things that come out of my mouth do not match. This shows me that kindness is not inherent. Rather, it is something I become skilled in harnessing. When we externalise both good and bad traits, we create hope! Just as I can become skilled at harnessing kindness, I can learn to discard for example, shame, or whatever trait negatively impacts my life.

When our mantra changes from ‘Just be Yourself’ to ‘What do I value?’, we begin to construct our life and stories in ways that align themselves to our hopes and dreams. Kindness as a value very quickly highlights any discrepancy of how I live my life. The value of kindness begins to weave itself into my life stories. I begin to narrate my stories and my actions from this value. Richard Rohr says that we do not think (or believe) ourselves into a new way of living (our preferred stories). We live ourselves into a new way of thinking. Values become like a compass – giving us direction and insight.

So next time you are glibly thrown the line, ‘Just be Yourself’, stop. Pause. Ask, “When you say that, what do you mean?” Most of the time, we don’t really know what we mean. Perhaps that person has seen a value from which you live your life that resonates with them. Discovering and discussing this can move us beyond annoying cliches to meaningful conversations and insights.

For you, dear reader, may you take time to consider what in life you really value. May these values be a light for your path and central to the stories you tell yourself about who you are.

“Narratives are the primary way in which we make sense of our lives, as opposed to, for example schema, cognition, beliefs, constructs. Definition of narrative include the important element of giving meaning to events and experiences over time by connecting them as a developing, continuing story.”

 – Jacqui Stedmon – 

The Unseen Crisis

Words seem inadequate to begin to describe the carnage and devastation that the bushfires in Australia have created (and continue to create). So far, 23 people have lost their lives, over 500 million animals have been killed, 1,300 homes are lost, and over 12 million acres of the land has gone up in smoke. We are not even halfway through the fire season …

Trauma, grief, and anger, have broken down the front door of so many lives. Uninvited, they bring with them emotional turmoil and confusion, making it hard to think or cope. Sometimes they turn the TV on and keep playing distressing scenes over and over again. They can also create all sorts of physical responses such as nausea, vomiting, trembling, dizziness, etc.

In the weeks, months, and years to come, Australians in their various communities, need to be aware of the unseen crisis that will continue in the lives of many of their family, friends, colleagues, and the stranger they encounter. What are some ways that you can help with this unseen crisis of continued distress?

Reach out and spend time. Listen. Don’t attempt to solve a problem, provide any great wisdom or cliches, or try ‘cheering’ them up. Listen and ask questions about the stories they want to talk about.

Respect a person’s requests. If they wish to be alone, respect their wishes. If they would like you to not talk or do something – don’t be offended. Respect their wishes.

Run around – do those seemingly menial tasks that are sometimes so overwhelming for someone finding it hard to cope with the magnitude of loss – cook a meal, pick up the children from school, do the washing, care for a pet, or offer your company in the difficult times.

Regularly check-in. The outpouring of care and relief amidst a crisis is helpful. However, it is often in the months after that the reality of loss becomes such a heavy burden. Connect people to the support they may need – doctors, social services, mental health therapists, financial advisors, etc. Offer to drive them to those appointments.

We cannot for a moment assume to understand what a person who has gone through trauma feels, thinks or wants. We don’t. Don’t assume. Respect. Ask permission. Listen. Most of all, be present. 

I know I speak on behalf of many Australians when I say a heartfelt thank you to all those who have gathered courage, kindness, and a vast array of skills to help – a special mention to the hundreds of fireys who have worked tirelessly.

Australian, we are in this together. Let’s be there for one another.
Connect. Commit. Care.

If you have not done so already, please consider a DONATION to help people and animals alike.

Counselling Supports for people affected by bushfires.

Defining Stories offers free counselling support to bushfire communities – please contact via webpage.

– A little consideration, a little thought for others, makes all the difference. – Eeyore

 

 

 

What is your Christmas Story?

To perceive Christmas through its wrappings becomes more difficult with every year.
– E.B. White –

Christmas! It’s here again. I am quite convinced that 365 days a year speed up the older you get, and here we are in another Jingle Bell Season.

I wonder what Christmas means to you? Amidst all the festive fuss that this time brings, what is the Christmas story that is read at your table of life? For many people, this is a season of festive joy and hope. Happy memories arrive at the door alongside family members and friends to celebrate and remember the birth of the Christ child.

There are others who have a friendly relationship with Christmas, even though they may be of a different faith or none at all. For many, it is a story of connectedness and togetherness, of eccentric family members and ancestral storytelling – if Christmas was an emoji, for many people it would be a happy one. But that is not everyone’s story…

The Christmas story for other people is not as joyful. Christmas, for some, is a trauma stalker, an uninvited guest that rushes in to remind them of loss, violence, grief, betrayal, or loneliness. Maybe that is your Christmas story? At your table of life, Christmas is not decked with holly but shrouded in black. You stare at it and tell yourself that this is not a ’normal’ Christmas story, and in a way that makes you feel even sadder.

I find it helpful to reflect on the ‘original’ Christmas story. A story that holds a context of political uncertainty and dominance; a tyrant empire that places burdens on people that many cannot carry. It is the story of a poor couple that birth a child in squalor conditions, a story of terror and having to flee for their lives… refugees… displaced… outcasts. The original Christmas story was a far cry from Melbourne’s Myer windows.

In a strange way, this story brings me comfort. What is a ‘normal’ Christmas anyway? What does it mean to ‘celebrate’ Christmas? So much of what we say and do is a social construct of behaviour and expectations that are then branded as ‘normal’. And all those who don’t fit that caricature are reminded in a thousand different ways how they don’t ‘fit’.

So, dear reader, if you celebrate Christmas with gusto – Enjoy! Merry Christmas!

I especially want to acknowledge all those who are reading this who don’t have a ’normal’ modern Christmas story. Your place and space and story are as valid as anyone else’s. ‘Normal’ can be a bully … and sometimes our Christmas story is a sad emoji.

The stories of our life are multi-tiered. Like a rich tapestry, there are shades of light and dark. Remember, you are not the sum of your Christmas story – your life has many, many stories: Stories of resistance, of skills, hopes, and dreams for the future. Christmas will come and go. Right now it may dominate the world you live in, but it is not the world.  So as you acknowledge your Christmas story, also acknowledge the many other stories around your table of life … for they are a fascinating company.

“As we become aware of ourselves as storytellers we realise we can use our stories to heal and make ourselves whole.”  (Susan Wittig Albert)

Life Atlas Therapy and the Reclaiming of Precious Memories (Part 2)

“There are, of course, many forms of memory, some of which are constructive, some of which are destructive and some of which are redemptive.”
-Fr. Michael Lapsley (The Healing of Memories: An Interview)

Dear Reader – if you have not already done so, please read Part 1 of this BLOG post in order to understand the context for Part 2.

Life Atlas Therapy is a method that was developed in collaboration with a team of people who were prepared to explore with me how this approach re-engages a person with their life stories in a ‘way that makes us stronger’ (Aunty Barb Wingard, Kaurna Elder). I am indebted to their generosity in sharing so many of their life stories. There were many ‘Aha’ moments along the way. One of them was the discovery and reclaiming of precious memories.

Over 90% of these collaborating cartographers of Life Atlas participants began to have memories that they had totally forgotten. Comments included:

“I had totally forgotten that.”
“I just need to sit here for a moment, it feels like waves of recollection are coming to me.”
“Working on this timeline … I think my subconscious thought it’s time to ‘burp’ this memory up.”
“This dream brought back so many forgotten moments … they are filling the gaps.”
“This memory came back – I suddenly don’t feel so ‘lost’ anymore.”

The memories and/or dreams surfaced shortly after a Life Atlas therapy session. Trauma has many diverse effects on an individual’s (or community’s) life. It can become the dominant narrative that, like a schoolyard bully, shoves the many multi-tiered, mosaic stories of someone’s life into the corner and demands silence. Trauma is also a thief. It steals the key to the filing cabinet of meaningful memories, leaving a person feeling ‘lost’ or ‘confused’.

As Fr. Michael Lapsley points out (above quote), there are many forms of memory. Whereas precious memories that align with our preferred narrative are often ‘hijacked’ by trauma, traumatic memories can often become ‘timeless’ memories. “These memories are apart from the storylines of people’s lives which are constituted of experiences linked in sequence across time according to specific themes. Being located on the outside of the dimension of time, these traumatic memories have no beginning and no end … These traumatic memories are re-lived as present experience and the outcome is re-traumatisation.” (David Denborough, Trauma: Narrative response to traumatic experience, 2006, p. 78). In Reclaiming Heimat, Jacqueline Vansant focuses on nine memoirs by seven Austrian reéimigrés. She observes how traumatic memories seem to have ‘a life of their own, dictating themselves’ (2001, p.70). This escalates the power of trauma memories.

Life Atlas Therapy can assist an individual (or community) to reclaim the key to the filing cabinet that holds the memories that speak to their preferred sense of self and identity. One client had a specific memory that showed her she was not a ‘shadow child’, but that she was happy and skilled at resisting the trauma that visited her childhood home. Another client was extremely surprised at the positive memories that began to emerge of her brother and their childhood relationship. The trauma that visited the family after a horrific accident and that negatively affected her relationship with her brother had her convinced that it had ‘always been like that’. The precious memories that returned to her of ‘funny, silly’ childhood moments dramatically changed her perspective and the story about her brother (and herself).

The research and discussion surrounding memory and how they shape our sense of self is extensive. This short post is simply to have the reader consider that Life Atlas can be useful in reclaiming precious memories that the individual (or community) gives shape to and invests with meaning as the expert story-teller of their own lives. These precious memories serve as a witness to the person’s preferred story, their skills of resisting trauma and connect them to the hopes and dreams they hold for the future.

“The past beats inside me like a second heart.”
-John Banville –

Nicole Conner is a qualified Narrative Therapist working in Elsternwick, Victoria. Nicole’s work is built on the premise that the stories we hold to shape who we are, what we do, how we think and how we feel. In other words, our stories give meaning to our lived experience. For more information visit the Defining Stories webpage.

Life Atlas Therapy … and why You may find it Helpful (Part 1)

“Neither the life of an individual nor the history of a society can be understood without understanding both.”

(C. Wright Mills, The Sociological Imagination)

The many ideas and methodologies that comprise Narrative Therapy have me regularly intrigued. I witness their effects as I work with individuals and groups. Perhaps one of the most noticeable reactions from clients comes as they consider how their life narrative has taken shape by the greater social and historical context in which they exist. What they realise in this exercise is not only that they (clients) are not the ‘problem’, but that the ‘problem’ is carried and propagated in the imagined social construct of their culture and history.

I was curious about how this recognition of one’s own experiences can be traced back to one’s location within a system of power relationships – “the personal is political” (attributed to Carol Hanisch, 1970). It was this curiosity that contributed to the development of Life Atlas Therapy.

Life Atlas Therapy draws on a timeline concept. Instead of a linear trajectory that maps the positive and negative influences on a client’s life, it maps out a person’s life stories within ‘countries’ of culture and history. This approach considers problem-laden stories within a ‘country’ in which that ‘problem’ originated. For example, ‘Jay’ (not their real name) wanted to discuss a part of their story that they drew in black. They called it ‘Disaster Cove’ – a place where they felt they had been hijacked by trauma and grief and which continued to have a negative influence on their life.

‘Disaster Cove’ was richly described. We use this conversation to externalise ‘Disaster Cove’ with the help of a metaphor. It now becomes a ‘country’ with politics, culture, folklore, themes, and song. Narrative questions included:

  1. What colour is this place?
  2. Does it remind you of any actual country?
  3. What government is in place?
  4. What parts would you avoid visiting?
  5. What parts would you recommend for sightseeing?
  6. Tell me a story that made this place meaningful to you.
  7. Who was someone that impacted your life in this place?
  8. Etc, etc, etc.

A rich description of Disaster Cove assisted Jay in understanding why Trauma and Grief had such a dominant voice in their life. We also discussed the ‘sparkling moments’ (White, Re-authoring Lives, 1995) that began to emerge out of Disaster Cove. Jay identified unique outcome stories, strengths, hopes, dreams, and skills of resistance that they teamed up with in this place. In Jay’s words, “It seems like Disaster Cove is not all black … it has a starry sky.” The ‘starry sky’ had been rendered invisible by Trauma and Grief, but now Jay began to uncover alternative landscapes on their Disaster Cove narrative.

Disaster Cove was a ‘country’ that had emerged out of their social and historical context. For example, Jay discovered that it was the ‘stiff upper lip’ cultural norm of this place that allowed trauma such a loud ‘inner’ voice in their life. “I remember being reprimanded for my tears in a public place … it shut me down.” Later on, Jay would remember stories of ‘angry crying’ – a skill of resistance against a social norm that sought to silence them. Jay was beginning to write their Disaster Cove narrative from a whole new perspective.

Life Atlas Therapy is a method I have developed (and am developing in different contexts) that assists individuals and communities to re-engage with their life stories and histories to bring about rich, double story development. In the words of Kaurna Elder, Aunty Barb Wingard, it is a method that helps us remember stories in a way that makes us stronger and connects us to our hopes and dreams.

One of the astounding findings in this research and practice has been the re-emergence of precious stories and memories that been hidden by trauma… a topic for the next post (TBC).

The problem is the problem; the person is not the problem.

– Michael White and David Epston –

 

Nicole Conner is a qualified Narrative Therapist working in Elsternwick, Victoria. Nicole’s work is built on the premise that the stories we hold to shape who we are, what we do, how we think and how we feel. In other words, our stories give meaning to our lived experience. For more information visit the Defining Stories webpage.

 

 

I Weep and I ‘Remember’

“Whether we and your politicians know it or not, Nature is party to all our deals and decisions, and she has more votes, a longer memory, and a sterner sense of justice than we do.” – Wendell Berry – 

The walks on the beach are not always pleasant these days.
There are mornings when I feel quite overwhelmed as I look at the amount of litter – water bottles, cans, plastic bags, etc, etc, etc – that lay strewn across the shore.

The reports coming in from around the globe are depressing,
Human greed continues to drive so much of our destructive actions,
disguised in the language of ‘progress’ or ‘economical need’.

How can we go on like this?
How can we pretend that this blue planet that we call home is not in serious trouble?

It is futile to look to the political elite for wisdom – they are as useful as the ‘thoughts and prayers’ they send to victims affected by climate change.

Our earth has a voice and she is weeping …
Weeping at the loss of entire species and eco-systems.

I look for a sparrow for comfort.
After all, isn’t ‘his eye on the sparrow’?
But there are no sparrows.
And nowadays I do a happy dance when I see a bee.

People have diagnosed my condition.
‘Eco-anxiety’ is a fairly new label.
I pray it begins to afflict all humans before it’s too late.

I pick up some plastic bottles and cans and put them in the bin.
It does not ‘fix’ anything – it simply hides the problem of our over consumption
(of which I am guilty).

So I pray the poem of Native American poet, Joy Harjo, ‘Remember’.
May we weep and may we remember … and may our pain guide our actions.

Remember the sky that you were born under,
know each of the star’s stories.
Remember the moon, know who she is.
Remember the sun’s birth at dawn, that is the
strongest point of time. Remember sundown
and the giving away to night.
Remember your birth, how your mother struggled
to give you form and breath. You are evidence of
her life, and her mother’s, and hers.
Remember your father. He is your life, also.
Remember the earth whose skin you are:
red earth, black earth, yellow earth, white earth
brown earth, we are earth.
Remember the plants, trees, animal life who all have their
tribes, their families, their histories, too. Talk to them,
listen to them. They are alive poems.
Remember the wind. Remember her voice. She knows the
origin of this universe.
Remember you are all people and all people
are you.
Remember you are this universe and this
universe is you.
Remember all is in motion, is growing, is you.
Remember language comes from this.
Remember the dance language is, that life is.
Remember.

 

Falling Down the Rabbit Hole: Betwixt and Between (Epilogue)

Last year I contributed to a book edited by Tim Carson called Neither Here Nor There: The Many Voices of Liminality. The book draws together the expertise, experience, and insights of a coterie of authors, all of whom relate the core concepts of liminality to their unique experiences. Unfortunately, this book is still not available in Australia.

The blog posts that follow are my contribution to this book.

(Please note that this is the Epilogue – follow the links to Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4)

It is hard to recognise the kindness and mercy of Providence when your soul seems to convulse with heartache …

Only hindsight provides us with that perspective …

Now I can say that it was mercy that led me to the shadows and the margins.

C.S. Lewis writes, “My idea of God is not a divine idea. It has to be shattered from time to time. God shatters it. God is the great Iconoclast. Could we not almost say that this shattering is one of the marks of God’s presence?” (A Grief Observed). My carefully constructed ideas of God and church lay shattered. I looked at the pieces and knew there was no rebuilding – I had to let go. How hard it is to trust that letting go process. David Foster sums it up beautifully, “Everything I’ve ever let go has claw marks on it.” Faith communities provide an instantaneous essential ingredient of what it means to be human: belonging. To leave is never easy.

Liminality is the ultimate life lesson in trust. It sounds very noble to say that we ‘choose’ to trust. I have found that I trust because I have no other options. No one throws themselves down some random rabbit hole in order to experience trust. Rather, the rabbit hole finds us, often through crisis or suffering, ushered in through our questions, or when our theological ideas no longer match our life experience. Liminality introduces us to trust.

For over two decades I had kept the oceans of mystery and paradox at bay. Suddenly the niggling doubts, the contradictions, the many questions that I used to wave to from a far and safe distance away, loomed like a tidal wave above me.

The ocean was no longer friendly. It had invaded my life and turned my world upside down.

This poem was helpful through that flood-filled time:

Breathing Underwater

I built my house by the sea.
Not on the sands, mind you,
Not on the shifting sand.
And I built it of rock.

A strong house
By a strong sea.
And we got well acquainted, the sea and I.
Good neighbours.
Not that we spoke much.
We met in silences.
Respectful, keeping our distance
But looking at our thoughts across the fence of sand.
Always the fence of sand our barrier,
Always the sand between.

And then one day
(and I still don’t know how it happened)
The sea came.
Without warning.

Without welcome even.
Not sudden and swift, but a shifting across the sand like wine.
Less like the flow of water than the flow of blood.
Slow, but flowing like an open wound.
And I thought of flight, and I thought of drowning, and I thought of death.
But while I thought, the sea crept higher till it reached my door.
And I knew that there was neither flight nor death nor drowning.
That when the sea comes calling you stop being good neighbours,
Well acquainted, friendly from a distance neighbours.
And you give your house for a coral castle
And you learn to breathe under water.

Sr. Carol Bieleck, RSCJ (from an unpublished work)

I felt like I was drifting in an endless ocean with no shore in sight.

It was the observation of a friend that brought me back from the house of sadness. “Nic, I don’t even pretend to understand what this must all feel like, but as your friend, I can tell you that the world and religious structure you were part of is really, really small. I know you think it’s the centre of the universe, but it’s not. Your world is about to get so much bigger.” He was right. Falling into liminality was about letting go of so much. I do not want to downplay the grief associated with the loss I experienced. It felt as if I was saying goodbye to something or someone else nearly every day. But I was also saying hello – to a new world, to new friends, and to a whole new way of being and seeing.

A few years have passed since saying goodbye to so much of life the way I knew it. These days I find myself quite removed from this first half of life with its overtures of religious zealotry. It has been a time of healing, detoxifying, learning to breathe again, and acclimatising to a very different world. There is a sense of standing on a threshold, “betwixt and between,” as Victor Turner once described liminality. According to Turner, it is temporal space – the midpoint between a starting point and an ending point. It holds the idea of temporarily having fallen between the cracks of social structure. However, I would agree with the wisdom of a friend who remarked that our whole life is a liminal space. It is a way of holding ourselves in this world – with an open hand, instead of tightly clutching.

Liminality, presented to me wrapped in pain, exile, and humiliation, was and is a gift. It highlighted to me the bars of my ideological and structural prison of fear, all dressed up in religious morality.

I also experienced a reunion with old friends I had left behind when entering my version of religious absolutism all those years ago. One of them was the joy of not knowing, and the other was the delight of wonder. That most ignored and banished exile of fundamentalism, wonder, has returned to me. Tentative at first, and then, detecting a safe place, she brought her suitcases and moved in …
… Every day she delights me with her songs …
… Every day she teaches me to return her gaze and open my eyes …

Liminality has also changed my taste for music. There is a new rhythm: an unforced rhythm of grace that is now free from being reduced to a necessary tick on my doctrinal boxes of orthodoxy. A rhythm that is tangible, warm, comforting, strong, and relentless.

All is grace!

So, dear Liminal Traveler, I offer you my story in the hope it will bring you a sense of connection to the many others who, like you, may have fallen down the rabbit hole. For me, liminality is the ‘thin space’ of which the Celts have spoken, the rabbit hole where the door between this world and the next is cracked open for a moment, a most uncomfortable place that not everyone will care to hear about or understand.

May you be present in it, for it is indeed a most confusing and liberating gift. Holy.

Don’t surrender your loneliness
So quickly.
Let it cut more deeply.
Let it ferment and season you
As few humans
Or even divine ingredients can.
Something missing in my heart tonight
Has made my eyes so soft,
My voice
So tender,
My need of God
Absolutely
Clear.

Hafiz

 

Falling Down the Rabbit Hole: Disenchantment (Part 4)

Last year I contributed to a book edited by Tim Carson with the title of Neither Here Nor There: The Many Voices of Liminality. The book draws together the expertise, experience, and insights of a coterie of authors, all of whom relate the core concepts of liminality to their unique experiences. Unfortunately, this book is still not available in Australia.

The blog posts that follow are my contribution to this book.

(Please note that this is Part 4 – following the links to Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3)

The questions that started to arise brought with them red-hot anger. Hindsight is helpful. I now realise I was disappointed and disenchanted. When there is a head-on collision of values that have been denied, a deconstruction of idealism that had to do with identity and belonging, and a deep disappointment of personal and community expectations, anger is often the prevalent emotion and lead member of the ‘rescue team’. Ironically, with this anger, I faced the dilemma that the emotion of anger is shamed in religious spaces where being ‘nice’ is a virtue. The niceness culture in some parts of religious institutionalism is as caustic as rat poison mixed with icing sugar. It breeds shallow relationships that are held in place by the fear of judgment.

My inner torment was amplified by the fact that critical and robust dialogue was often interpreted as negative, and everyone was terrified about being ‘negative’. I had very few safe places or people with whom to process my questions, doubts, and thought processes. Pentecostals, in general, hold to a triumphant happiness theology. The rhetoric from pulpits is one of ‘victory’, ‘triumphs’, ‘breakthrough’, ‘better’, and ‘greater’. It is a victory over negativity, poverty, sickness, anxiety, and depression. The result is that anyone who is unable to live in that suspended, Eden-like utopia is considered with caution. When I began to raise some of the doubts I was wrestling with, I recall being asked by one church leader whether I had adopted a ‘new kind of spirituality’. It was a question that silenced me for a few more months. Institutions of any kind tend to guard the structure of certainty over people. It can become a dangerous place for anyone who has begun to fall down the rabbit hole of questions, and who has started deconstructing embedded dogma.

At the end of 2010, I resigned from a prominent role as Associate Pastor. I was terrified. It was a massive step made far more complex as my husband would continue to serve as Senior Minister for the next six years. My decision to step away from the high-profile role was complicated. Perhaps I can simply say that I fell out of love with certainty addiction. The black and white absolutism required of leaders in conservative religious institutions was something I could no longer hold on to with any form of integrity.

My self-assured stance on life and the world had been shaken and found desperately wanting. Perhaps, with a bit of fierce intentionality and some open conversations, my continued dislocation from the community would have been salvageable. However, in the words of Frodo Baggins, “How do you pick up the threads of an old life? How do you go on, when in your heart you begin to understand there is no going back?” There is no going back once you wake up in the matrix – and, more importantly, once you begin to engage with people who have been shunned by some of these very institutions that I have been part of and helped to build.

The last blow to what was left of my extravagantly structured system of certainty came via a very familiar medium: stories. It started with conversations and friendships amidst LGBTIQA+ people of faith several years prior to my resignation. Since then, I have listened to many people who have had to navigate exile from their homes or faith communities based on their gender identity or sexual orientation. I am indebted to them. They opened their hearts to me, and through their vulnerability, they opened my eyes to a dominant, patriarchal system of ideas that cloaks itself as orthodoxy and truth amongst religious institutions. The stories were hard to hear. The cruelty and brutality so many faced in the name of God was unfathomable. I realised that I had supported, enabled, and helped build a ministry within a wider religious structure that was responsible for causing much trauma. My own blind privilege had not even considered those who were suffering. It is so easy to de-humanise another when you are removed from their pain, ignorant of their plight, and assured of your own ‘truth’!

My eyes were also opened to the effect that ex-gay practices had on people. It is a deeply embedded ideology that is built on the assumption that there is something intrinsically ‘broken’ about anyone who identifies as anything else other than heteronormative. This ideology (and the practices/rhetoric that it enables) is as common as oxygen in conservative religious settings. It is driven by the idea that a person can be healed from their ‘brokenness’ and live a ‘normal’ (aka straight) life. However, some conservative religious communities have now conceded that this ‘healing’ is unlikely (No Shit, Sherlock!!) The latest form of ex-gay torture is to require LGBTIQA+ people to remain celibate. The toll of this torment and quackery is hard to put into words – anguish, disillusionment, mental health issues, and suicides. The day will come when the modern, conservative church has to face the reality of what this ill-informed dogma has done to people.

For me, there came a day when I was asked to talk about the trauma I had observed in the last several years amongst LGBTIQA+ people of faith. I could no longer remain a silent, horrified witness. So, I agreed to be interviewed on Melbourne’s JOY FM (April, 2015) – and all hell was unleashed.

The hysteria that unfurled was spectacular. The interview even managed to raise an extreme right activist out of retirement in order to write one more newsletter to his faithful followers – an e-mail that mysteriously made its way to many of our church parishioners. He demanded that my husband should keep his wife ‘under control’ – a violent rhetoric that seemed to find support from many others based on the e-mails and letters we both received. After several unpleasant confrontations and conversations, I became hesitant to darken the doors of the church. Until that day I had a lot of sympathy for people who found their lives dominated by anxiety, but this was the season when my sympathy became empathy. I had never known the crippling effect of anxiety until I became the focal point of the angry religious faithful. My earnest prayer became, ‘Lord, save me from Your followers.’

Once you break any sacred tribal rules of conduct and belonging, you often find yourself at the blunt end of a tribe’s most devastating weapon – shame. Elizabeth Gilbert writes:

Shame is the most powerful and degrading tool that a tribe has
at its disposal. Shame is the nuclear option. Shame is how they
keep you in line. Shame is how they let you know that you have
abandoned the collective. Violence may be fast and brutal, but
shame is slow … but still brutal.

The interview created the final rift. Friends I had known for years stopped speaking to me. The pain was overwhelming. I let go of the trapeze bar and found myself free-falling into a liminal space … (to be continued)

 

Falling Down the Rabbit Hole: The Emperor has No Clothes (Part 3)

Last year I contributed to a book edited by Tim Carson with the title of Neither Here Nor There: The Many Voices of Liminality. The book draws together the expertise, experience, and insights of a coterie of authors, all of whom relate the core concepts of liminality to their unique experiences. Unfortunately, this book is still not available in Australia.

The blog posts that follow are my contribution to this book.
This is Part 3 … you can read Part 1 (Meandering Paths) here and Part 2 (The Safety of Institution and an Addiction to Certainty) here.

I understand why people do not want to engage with questions, self-reflection, and critique. It is a humbling, terrifying, and ego-destroying exercise. Most of us will never go here willingly – to this place of no return. However, once we engage with that niggling divine doubt that will not leave us alone (like an itchy mosquito bite), we crack open Pandora’s box – and all hell breaks loose.

It came to me in the quiet, dark, early morning hours. We had just hosted another successful conference that was overflowing with people and goosebumps. Our lives and our schedules at this stage were stretched to maximum capacity. We were adrenaline junkies doing “God’s will” – and God was clearly “blessing” us. Lying in bed exhausted, I wondered whether this is what Jesus had in mind when he said, “I will build the church”? Somehow, I thought, our lives now seemed a million lightyears removed from that of a lowly carpenter, his motley crew, and a humble group of villagers that would make up his growing ecclesiastical constituents. It was the question that never left me, and, like someone who had been underwater for a very long time, I came to the surface gasping for air.

Questions like these were the red carpet on which Paradox made her entrance into my life. Once you see her, you cannot look away. I became the paranoid version of Truman Burbank of The Truman Show, suspiciously examining the somewhat hyper-real environment I was part of and helped create. The safe ivory tower of religious absolutism that has carved such a mega place for itself in modern Christianity started to crumble for me.

I began to notice the consumerism that was hiding under the idea of “blessing.” If we are convinced that God’s blessing is inadvertently tied to more stuff, larger buildings, faster growth, greater mission conquests, extra campuses, and bigger numbers, then the pursuit of more becomes a holy crusade. The pursuit of manifestations and/or healing is also viewed in the same light. If you are “healed” you are blessed, if not, there must be something wrong with you. If there is one word that describes the motivational factors behind some of the empire-building of modern-day Christianity, it is “more.” “More” is the trophy held up in individual and community life as the proof of God’s blessing. The ideology of “more” is deeply embedded. Is it any wonder that the key questions asked at so many leadership conferences that I attended was, “How many people are in your church now” or “How many campuses do you have now?” People spend their life analysing and writing books on this – How to reach more people, raise more money, become more influential, etc. How beautiful the golden calf shimmers in the light of a “more = blessing” philosophy.

Consumerism was but one of the growing number of concerns that now hounded me in the “mega” space of religion. I began to notice the blindness I carried in relation to my own privilege. I had become accustomed to living in an empire that influenced politics, policed morality, and dominated social structures, yet was very quick to cry foul, or rather “persecution”, if it felt threatened. An empire that had to keep “producing” and “growing”. In the middle of it I had grown blind and deaf – it has hard to pay attention to the voices on the margin or the inner voice of caution when you are busy saving the world.  This kind of self-reflection brought with it a fair share of regret. I was complicit in enabling the empire. I was one of its fiercely loyal soldiers.

Brian Walsh writes, “A cold commodity culture in which everything is reduced to its market value will blasphemously obscure our vision that all this earth is hallowed ground” (Colossians Remixed). He is right. The dualistic ideals held in these sectarian enclaves of “us” and “them”, “holy” and “secular”, consistently reduces those who differ to “other” or “sinful.” It creates distance between human connectedness and a refusal to recognise the divine in the “other” who may not think, look, walk, or talk like “us.” Dualism creates binary thinking, while Paradox challenges it with endless examples of exceptions. Paradox must be ignored for the parade to go on …

 … but I could no longer wave.

I had too many questions ….

The values I had silenced began to rise.

[To be continued]

Falling Down the Rabbit Hole: The Safety of Institution and an Addiction to Certainty

Last year I contributed to a book edited by Tim Carson with the title of Neither Here Nor There: The Many Voices of Liminality. The book draws together the expertise, experience, and insights of a coterie of authors, all of whom relate the core concepts of liminality to their unique experiences. Unfortunately, this book is still not available in Australia.

The blog posts that follow are my contribution to this book.
This is Part 2 … you can read Part 1 (Meandering Paths) here.

I was “saved” in the Newcastle Full Gospel Church, when my father randomly decided he would go to church, prompted by an invitation from his supervisor at work. A visit by aliens would have been less surprising. I walked down the aisle that Sunday morning and “gave my heart” to the Viking-look-alike-god I encountered all those years earlier. I waited for the magic to happen as I was told I was now “saved” and transformed and a whole new being. In a sense, I did experience magic – suddenly, I belonged to a group of people who smiled constantly and fed me delicious South African desserts. The wandering little girl, now in her teens, had found a home.

Like a woman possessed, I frantically built the structures of certainty and absolutism around my life, following my coming to faith. I embodied the zealous figure of Saint Paul before his conversion, slaughtering any and all ideas that contained seeds of doubt and paradox. Fundamentalism, with its overtures in literalism and dogmatism, became the strong tower that produced my concept of God. I was a loyal soldier to the cause. Finally, I had found something that soothed my angst over what appeared to be a harsh, confusing, and meaningless world.

In the meantime, on the geographical front, we returned to Germany for a year and then migrated to Australia. It was in Rockhampton, Queensland, in 1984 that I would meet the man who would become my life partner. He was travelling up the coast with a friend and dropped in to visit my church, an offshoot of the large Pentecostal faith community called Waverley Christian Fellowship based in Melbourne. His father was one of the ministers there. So, one bright, sunny day in February 1985, I packed up my old Valiant station wagon affectionally called “Boris,” and embarked on the long drive to Melbourne, sleeping at the side of the road along the way. So begins my story of a three-decade-long journey as an integral part of a conservative religious institution and my addiction to certainty.

Kierkegaard was an admirer of Socrates and the Socratic dialectical method. He observed how Socrates would consistently examine a student’s certainty in an area of knowledge because certainty eventually leads to paradox. Paradox provided a pathway to higher truth. Kierkegaard believed that engaging in this dialectical process would offer more valid glimpses of the Divine in one’s journey. This belief, for him, was the only developmental certainty – the trek through the “stages of life’s way.” I found this to be a helpful reflection as I look back on thirty years lived within a conservative Pentecostalism that had little room for questions or paradox. Pentecostalism has a strong emphasis on spiritual manifestations. It tends to resist critique and is at times known for its anti-intellectual stance.

I often wonder why it took me nearly thirty years to wake up in the matrix. I think my internal fear of chaos and confusion collaborated so well with the structural ideologies in a place that refused to question. I do not want to give the impression that these were in any way “bad” years – they were not. I experienced a sense of happiness and fulfillment in the various roles I filled in the megachurch of which my husband would become Senior Minister in 1995. They were heady days of success, expansion, and growth. I developed as a speaker and was travelling the world, delivering profundities from various platforms about everything certain and absolute.

People cheered. I had found truth.

In our structure-building phase of life, we often find safety and solace in organisations that exude confidence and assurance. This includes religious institutions that embrace biblical literalism as a form of orthodoxy. They provide an irresistible framework of certitude for anyone seeking guarantees or formulas that will work in this wild ride called life. Unless we foster a strong culture of critique and self-reflection in these settings, we will mistakenly confuse our flourishing ego as faith and our elitism as a community. With such a narrative, held in place by praise and success, it becomes increasingly difficult to change and grow.

Richard Rohr writes, “The human ego prefers anything, just about anything, to falling, or changing, or dying. The ego is that part of you that loves the status quo – even when it’s not working. It attaches to past and present, and fears the future”(Falling Upwards). My ego had hired my love for certainty and structure as security guards to prevent any ideological challenge or change. Working together with the idea of ‘success’ and applause from the multitude, they dulled my senses – a sort of concoction that has us cling to fantasies and keep us blind.

Maybe that is why I didn’t question hierarchical structures or patriarchal dominance for such a long time?

My love affair with certainty ensured that I obediently nodded to ideas and doctrines that were presented as absolute truth, yet jarred deeply with my values. At least I submitted in the early years when influential leaders would propagate the myth of male headship. However, both my husband and I began to fall down the rabbit hole as we opened ourselves to voices outside our tight-knit community, and the wheels of change began to slowly move and creak. Questions started to arise, often uttered in hushed tones, questions that prodded at some of the communal ideology adopted through the adherence to dogma stemming from the Holiness and Latter Rain Movement.

This was not easy.

Holy Cows are very precious.

However, paradox was calling … and her voice was growing louder … (to be continued)