The Stories We Tell Ourselves

“It’s like everyone tells a story about themselves inside their own head. Always. All the time. That story makes you what you are. We build ourselves out of that story.”
– Patrick Rothfuss –

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Stories: they shape our world, they change our world, they are our world. We all live our lives to the rhythm of a story we have been told and we have believed. The stories we have been told about how our world works and who is in charge has created our worldview. The stories we have been told about our country, its history and context, has shaped how we view and live in the nation we exist in. The stories we have been told about the tribe we call ‘home’ or ‘family’ or ‘extended community’, reflects on how we behave and interact in that space. The stories we have been told about the ‘other’ who does not fit our worldview, imagined national ideas, or notions about tribe or culture, is reflected in our opinions and paradigms of them.

If we really want to understand someone we have to listen to their story. Really listen. This year I completed the first level of a Narrative Therapy course. It was a fascinating exercise on so many levels. I always thought I was a fairly good listener, this course was challenging as I realised how quickly I tended to analyse someone’s story in my own head. The course required us not to do that. Rather, we were asked to listen, to ask questions, to walk alongside the other and allow them to tell THEIR story. Assumptions,  while listening, is one of the great enemies of relationship and intimacy.

I was confronted how a few decades of clutching to certain fundamentalist ideals that shaped my first half of life had affected my ability to listen and hear. Fundamentalism believes its own story as the ultimate truth, therefore anyone else’s story is seen as inferior … in need of ‘salvation’. Fundamentalism is the perfect coloniser. By the very nature of the story it tells, it cannot really listen or validate the story of another who does not hold to the same ideals. That is why fundamentalism is also so good at creating exiles.

Over the last several years I have begun to examine some of the stories I have told myself in those early years. This is no easy exercise. I discovered that some of my self-perceptions are simply other people’s stories of my life and I have believed them. There is a need in all of us to tell ourselves a story about the other – when that ‘other’ wanders off the path of that story it leads to confusion and disappointment. I have done the same to people around me. I have assumed a certain story and was offended when that person did not stick to my grand epic.

We also notice the power of story in our culture. Whoever has the dominant voice defines its terms and agendas. The sad result is that we honour those loud voices, while the stories of others are forgotten. Our fragmented overview, for example, of the Aboriginal culture is a result of listening to the dominant voice of media and questionable history books, whilst neglecting the Dreamtime stories that are the oral textbooks of Australia’s First Peoples.

Truth be told, if we really faced our own shadows we would discover the horrible truth: that in many ways we are all colonisers of other people’s stories. We all want to overlay and control the narrative of the other person’s life according to our own ideas. If you don’t believe me, you should have sat in my office many years ago as I listened to the countless, tearful accounts of young people whose parents refused to listen or acknowledge their dreams for their future, rather forcing them into their own (parent’s) chosen career path. Or just observe the current rush of religious leaders ‘making a stand’ against Marriage Equality and telling their congregation how to vote, whilst failing to listen to the hopes and dreams and stories of so many LGBTIQ people who sit right under their noses. We all like to tell others how to play a certain character in the grand narrative that runs around our heads.

Listening is difficult. To truly listen we need to, first of all, acknowledge our shortcoming as a listener: our inattentiveness, our need for control, our easily offended minds when someone strays from our ideals, etc. Listening says to the other person that you honour them enough to hold their story without interjecting or changing it. To truly listen is to realise that for that moment of time this vulnerable human being, who is confiding in you, pleads with you to be a safe space. Listening without judgement, without the need for dumb cliches, resisting all temptations to change the person who is telling the story, takes time and discipline. If we all learned to listen we would live in a different world.

So, friend, perhaps it’s time to learn to listen – to those around you, to the ‘other’, and perhaps the most ignored voice of all: your own heart.

“Stories can conquer fear, you know. They can make the heart bigger.”
– Ben Okri –

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Acid Rain? Clean Up Your Life

“Whether we and our 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 –

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Just a few weeks ago my partner and I paused on our hike and admired the beautiful Black Forest near Triberg in Germany. We had reached a high point in the trek and could see the dark, majestic trees covering miles of rolling hills. With a clear blue sky above and the warmth of a late summer, it was as mystical and magical as all the story books lead us to believe. However, this was not always the case. All of Germany’s forests, especially the Black Forest, were in serious decline in the 1980’s … and they are not out of the woods yet (never miss an opportunity for a well-placed pun!) … the reason? Acid Rain.

Acid rain is the wet and dry deposits that come from the atmosphere and contain more than the normal amount of nitric and sulphuric acids. They cause the rain to become acidic in nature, mainly because of environmental pollutants from cars and industrial processes. Decaying vegetation, wildfires and biological processes also generate acid rain forming gases, but human activity leading to chemical gas emissions such as sulphur and nitrogen, are the primary contributors.

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The result of acid rain? Acid rain accumulates in water and changes the pH level that certain plants and fish need to survive and breed. A reduction in biodiversity is one of the many effects. It destroys forests as they become vulnerable to disease, extreme weather, and insects. Soil composition is altered and destroyed, sensitive micro-organisms are killed. This has a direct impact on other vegetation which becomes stunted and dies. Also, architecture, especially buildings made of limestone, corrode and are destroyed. In short: Acid Rain is a disaster. You can read more about this environmental disaster on the Conserve Energy Future web site.

Recovery has been slow. Government solutions have been varied and there is a focus on seeking alternative energy sources. Eco-systems are slowly being restored. The severity of this disaster still eludes so many – especially if we do not recognise that Mother Nature, although patient, kind and long-suffering, is definitely not indestructible. Everyone has to play a part. Acid rain ultimately affects all of us.

So we carry an environmental responsibility in our wider world, but what about our personal lives? Noticed any effects of acid rain lately? Deposits of toxic pollutants that are killing you? Perhaps it is a relationship that has become dysfunctional, but you have put up with it for so long you no longer notice how it has stripped your soul? Maybe it is a barrage of poisonous words that have been levelled at you with sniper precision when you were least expecting or prepared? Or maybe it is the refusal to look at your own shadow, acknowledging the pain or wound that is hurting not just you, but the environment you exist in? Perhaps it is your relentless schedule, your inability to say “No”, or your addiction to pleasing others? Maybe it’s time to seek an alternative way of life?

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Friends, the sad phenomenon of acid rain is a reality that, whether we know it or not, like it or not, affects our world. We are all consumers. We are all responsible to live in a way that leaves no heavy footprints. In an “I-Need-This-Stuff” world this is no small feat. We are also responsible for the energy we use in our own lives and relationships. This becomes very confronting when there is toxicity in our close relationships. Acknowledgement is the first step. A healthier space is not created overnight because often it has to do with an embedded way of relating or thinking. It takes courage, recognition and a refusal to be resigned to an environment that is killing us.

Acid Rain in your life? Time for action. Take the first step. Be Brave!

“Toxic relationships are dangerous to your health; they will literally kill you. Stress shortens your lifespan. Even a broken heart can kill you. There is an undeniable mind-body connection … Don’t carve a roadmap of pain into the sweet wrinkles on your face. Don’t lay in the quiet with your heart pounding like a trapped, frightened creature. For your own precious and beautiful life, and for those around you — seek help or get out before it is too late. This is your wake-up call!”
– Bryan McGill –

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Oh The Places You Will Go … And The Places You Must Leave …

“Our hearts of stone become hearts of flesh when we learn where the outcast weeps.” Brennan Manning

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I remember walking through the doors of a house we had built in semi-rural Melbourne. It was a home that in years ahead would be the place where many friends and family members would gather – a place of welcome, tears, laughter, food and stories. I loved that home. It was a place that I wanted to grow old in. But it was not to be. The day came that a SOLD sign went up outside the gates, boxes were packed and I took one last look at the magnificent garden that had been a labour of love for my partner, my dad and I. It was so hard to say goodbye.

There are people we meet and places we belong to that have us convinced that they will play a significant role for the rest of our lives. But that is not always the case. Dr. Seuss was right – there are many places you will go, but in life there are also places you will have to leave. Places that can no longer hold who you are. Places that have changed. Places that become unsafe.

This can be incredibly difficult when the commentary in these places is one of welcome, belonging and unconditional love. Places where you have been led to believe that you matter, only to have that change in a moment, can have devastating repercussions. Let me share a story with you – and, yes, the name of this person has been changed.

I knew Harry from when he was little. He used to be in the same Sunday school class as one of my children. I did not know him well – enough to say hello and recognise the various family members. Harry grew up in the faith community I came to as an adult. He had only ever known this place as a spiritual home and the people were his spiritual family. He grew into a young man who became part of the youth group; a strong, dedicated leader, adored by those he cared for on a pastoral level. It all changed overnight.

Harry was gay. It took him a very long time to come to grips with his orientation and the consequences this would have in a conservative religious setting, not only for himself, but also for his family. It was handled kindly at first. Harry was allowed to continue leading, even amidst complaints from concerned parents as word got out. Eventually, Harry fell in love. This was problematic. Harry could no longer lead and was ‘relieved’ from all his responsibility. In an instant he went from a contributing member of the community to a ‘problem’.

Harry tried very hard to keep connected and involved – an impossible task in an environment where someone like him is viewed with great suspicion and concern. Sheepish smiles and general avoidance was probably the only way most community members knew how to handle Harry’s exile. He tried desperately to convince people that nothing had changed – he was still the same Harry they had known, loved and trusted for nearly twenty years. But for Harry, like many others, his status had changed from ‘human’ to ‘issue’. His parents received sympathetic looks and offers for prayer. They rejected them all. Harry’s decision to come out and live authentically, and to fall in love, now meant a whole family somehow found themselves on the margins. The family eventually left the church.

“There are other churches he can go to,” was the comment made when concerns were raised. I wonder whether people really understood the heartache of being forced out of your community simply because of being true to who you are? I wonder whether anyone understood the pain of rejection that Harry had to face and how this haunted him for years to come? I wonder what these concerned parents, that complained about Harry, will do and say when one of their children or grandchildren come out to them?

There are some places we hope will hold us and truly ‘see’ us in times of vulnerability, but that is not always the case. We can stay, endure and hope, but that comes at a price. For LGBTIQ people raised or existing in non-accepting or homophobic spaces, the price is highlighted in the horrific statistics of mental health, self-harm, rejection and suicide. It is extremely difficult to ‘hang around’ in a setting that questions your very identity.

The wheels of change grind very slowly. For many conservative religious people, someone who identifies as LGBTIQ and ‘Christian’ still remains an oxymoron, someone they think who has made a ‘lifestyle choice’ that is against their understanding and interpretation of the Bible. In these settings, the fear and distrust of a community has already condemned that person.

As I have observed my social media feed over the last month of Australia’s Marriage Equality ‘debate’, I am hopeful in that there are many more folk who are seeking to understand, read and educate themselves – they are eager to ask questions and listen to the many stories. I am also discouraged by so much misinformation and continued acceptance of “ex-gay therapy” by religious and political leaders that hold influence. Like a friend of mine says, “Ex-gay therapy and homophobia are like the oxygen in these settings. There is no true welcome there.” If you are an LGBTIQ person in these places, please be careful, they are not safe.

We made a choice to sell and leave our home and place of belonging. It hurt like hell. Yet it holds no comparison to the momentous grief for people like Harry. They most often have had to leave the places of spiritual belonging by no choice of their own. By their very identity they have become the scapegoat that carries a community’s angst and phobias under the guise of orthodoxy and dogma. The place they had loved so deeply is no longer safe.

This blog post is dedicated to the ‘Harrys’ of the ecclesiastical zoo all over the world. It is dedicated to the many people whose stories of heartache have pierced my own heart and who I am honoured to call friends. I want you to know that there are many who see you and who love you … just the way you are. I want to acknowledge the grief you have had to face in leaving behind your spiritual home. I want you to know that your tears have not gone unnoticed. Your lament is heard, I believe in the highest heavens, and the One who became the ultimate scapegoat stands with you on the margins. You are the prophetic voice of protest to a religious world that lost its way when pursuing its ‘rights’ became the focus, instead of the Gospel. You are brave.

It took Harry several years to recover from what he had to walk through. But Dr. Seuss was right, he did find new places to go – places of true welcome and embrace. He did find safe spaces and friends, communities who shared his faith. He did find skilled counsellors who listened and walked with him as he chiseled out a path for a different tomorrow. He also exceeded in his studies and chosen career. He is still with the one he fell in love with all those years ago. Harry is proof that life can be gut wrenchingly hard and life can also be beautiful.

Do not give up, dear friend. There are places you must leave and grieve – and these places do not know it yet, but the loss is ultimately theirs. There are also many new and amazing places and people that await your arrival … Oh The Places You Will Go …

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Let’s Talk about Shame

 

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It’s only taken me several decades to work out what a powerful motivator shame has been in my life. As an idealist and dreamer, the need to make things right has so often been driven by an exhausting sense of shame.

Psychologist Michael Lewis calls shame the ‘quintessential human emotion’. In many ways, shame is somewhat of a normal feeling about ourselves and our behaviour. The problems occur when shame or humiliation become an integral part of our self-image and worth. Marilyn J. Sorensen, Ph.D., differentiates guilt and shame as guilt being the feeling of ‘doing’ something wrong, whilst shame is the feeling of ‘being’ something wrong. Gershin puts it this way: “Shame is an inner sense of being completely diminished or insufficient as a person. It is the self-judging the self. A moment of shame may be humiliation so painful or an indignity so profound that one feels one has been robbed of her or his dignity or exposed as basically inadequate, bad, or worthy of rejection. A pervasive sense of shame is the ongoing premise that one is fundamentally bad, inadequate, defective, unworthy, or not valid as a human being.

Brene Brown would say shame is the unspoken epidemic, the secret behind broken behaviour because shame shuts down vulnerability: “Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change.” That’s why the fastest way to stifle creativity and pioneering adventures in your organisation is to foster a culture of shame. Shame is a most powerful form of control. When we take a moment to consider our place of belonging, or our social ‘tribes’, that provide not just protection, belonging and nourishment, but also meaning, we realise these tribes tell us not just who we are, but what to believe and how to behave. Shame can become a tribe’s most powerful and degrading tool. Tribal shaming is a dark magic and a form of social control that ensures people do not dare question the status quo because questioning presents a threat to the tribe. If you are anything like me you have been both victim of tribal shaming and perpetrator. Change starts with recognition.

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Shame undergirds fundamentalist-type religions, and it is a match made in hell. In these sort of groups, judgement is based on a “goodness vs. badness scale”. A person’s inclusion or exclusion in these groups depends on where they are perceived on this scale. Therefore, to remain in the ‘in’ group of belonging one’s perceived ‘goodness’ is foundational. Acceptance and belonging are extended to those who fit the groups’ philosophical ideals of ‘good’.

Boschen sums up the rules of shame-bound persons, marriage, churches, synagogues, mosques and temples:

1. Always give the impression of being in control of one’s life at all times. This is the cardinal rule of shame-bound religion and relationships – all other rules flow from here.
2. The second rule of shame-bound fundamentalism is that one must always be right and do the right thing according to the laws of the group, especially the leadership.
3. Blaming is vital in ensuring that a person remains above reproach. Blame the other. Blame helps maintain an illusion of control and keeps the system pure.
4. Denial is very important in a shame culture. The person controlled by shame must deny certain feelings, especially the negative and vulnerable ones like anxiety, fear, loneliness, grief, rejection, neediness, and caring. In the shame-controlled family, group, or church, remaining task-focused can keep dangerous inner realities hidden.
5. Unreliability and inconsistency: a shame driven culture can create a person who shines with ‘holiness’ on Sundays and abuses their partner the following day.
6. Incompleteness – resolving hurt and conflict in families or church is not important. Issues can remain unresolved for months and years.
7. And Golden Rule number seven weighs in at ‘Do Not Talk’. Never discuss the disrespect, abuse and shame you feel. To talk about it would be to bring up the past and with that a sense of shame. For religious fundamentalism, this is vital as to talk means to transfer information, and with that power. Ideas about ‘honour’ keep this ‘no talk’ policy in place, along with excusing the shaming behaviour as ‘preserving the integrity of Scripture’ or ‘defending orthodoxy from liberalism’.
8. Last lucky number eight is the rule of disguising shame. Shame-bound behaviour is minimised and outworked in other addictive behaviours.

Boschen concludes with: Religious fundamentalists are shame-bound persons in shame-based systems. They are guided by a set of rules generally designed by those in positions of power, who require conformity in order to be acceptable.

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The effect of shaming on children is extremely detrimental. In shame-bound settings, a child’s behaviour reflects directly on a parent’s ideal image or their sense of shame. Therefore, shame is used in turn to modify a child’s behaviour. This is often seen as an acceptable form of ‘discipline‘ in homes or schools, where a child can be reduced to nothing more than their behaviour. Self-concept, the way we see ourselves, is formed in our earliest years by our parents, caregivers and figures of authority. Therefore, if a child is consistently shamed, told they are ‘bad’, ‘naughty’, or ‘sinful’ because of their childish behaviour, this is the perceived reality of themselves that they will take into adulthood.

This blog post is only a tiny tip of the iceberg on this enormous subject of shame that so drastically affects human thought and behaviour. I am still unravelling the role of shame in my own life, especially the years of tightly held fundamentalist philosophies that disguised themselves as ‘pleasing God’. Shame’s need to have it all together only produces hypocrisy and judgement. I am learning to trust grace in a whole new way and rediscovered the words of Jesus, “I have come to give you life, life to the full”.

Shame, blame, disrespect, betrayal, and the withholding of affection damage the roots from which love grows. Love can only survive these injuries if they are acknowledged, healed and rare. – Brene Brown

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A Letter to My Heart

 “The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched – they must be felt with the heart.” – Helen Keller 

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It was a remarkable experience to observe my heart on the echocardiographer’s screen. A tiny benefit of having a sudden onset of heart palpitations and the myriad of tests that accompany this complaint. I listed to my heart as he turned the sound up – pumping in a regular rhythm like it has for fifty-one years. Life really is phenomenal.

Aristotle described the heart as the most important organ in the body. Ancient civilisations identified the heart as the seat of intelligence, spirituality and emotion. All over the world, the heart shape is synonymous with romantic love and affection. It grew particularly popular through the Renaissance when it was used in the religious arts, depicting the Sacred Heart of Christ. Today the heart symbol dominates our social media feed – like the ancient Romans, we use the heart as a symbol of love and life.

Mystics of every faith tradition have had a connection to the heart and the Way of Love. Mystics speak to the heart. They see the journey of the heart as a cosmic love song. The prayer of the mystic is one of the heart, of deepening love and finding inner peace and solace. This prayer begins by listening to the heart …

“My heart, aflame in love, set afire every heart that came in touch with it.
My heart has been rent and joined again;
My heart has been broken and again made whole;
My heart has been wounded and healed again,” writes Hazrat Inayat Khan (The Dance of the Soul)

“Only from the heart can you touch the sky.” Rumi

“Happy the heart where love has come to birth.” Teresa of Avila

“The seasons of my heart change like the seasons of the fields. There are seasons of wonder and hope, seasons of suffering and love, seasons of healing. There are seasons of dying and rising, seasons of faith.” Macrina Wiederkehr (Seasons of Your Heart)

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So as I lay there, looking at my hard working heart, I was overcome with gratitude. My heart and I have been through the storms and sunshine of life. Together we have loved deeply, raged bitterly, grieved quietly and laughed outrageously. So I write this note of gratitude to my heart:

Dear Heart,

Seldom do I stop to express my gratitude to you. Thank you for being there through the many seasons of my life. As a young child, travelling the world and continents, anxiously trying to adapt to new people and new surroundings, you were there, your rhythm brought me comfort.

In moments of my greatest joy, like meeting the love of my life, or holding my three precious babies in my arms, you beat a little faster to remind me of the wonder of love.

When I walked through the storm and fire, when I had to say goodbye and I thought you would break, you remained steadfast.

I don’t always heed your warnings: slow down, listen, come sit for awhile. Rather, I often charge through life like a tornado that has lost its way. Yet you do not give up on me, your remain faithful as the tides of the sea.

So, dear heart, as I walk through this second half of life, I choose to listen to you. I realise that love is what makes this world go round and that all my endeavours are in vain unless I have you filled with love. Love for those around me, love for my enemies, love for our fragile planet, love for myself … which probably is the hardest of all. I choose to listen and I choose love. I choose the path of gratitude. I choose the journey of the heart.”

Now, dear friend, it’s your turn. Take a moment to listen to your heart. What does it want to say to you? Draw a picture, write a poem and remember that you, you are fearfully and wonderfully made.

“Keep love in your heart. A life without it is like a sunless garden when the flowers are dead.” – Oscar Wilde

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Lisa’s Story: The Path of Courage

“Courage is a heart word. The root of the word courage is ‘cor’ – the Latin word for heart. In one of its earliest forms, the word courage meant, ‘To speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart.’ Over time, this definition has changed, and today, we typically associate courage with heroic and brave deeds. But in my opinion, this definition fails to recognise the inner strength and level of commitment required for us to actually speak honestly and openly about who we are and about our experiences – good and bad. Speaking from our hearts is what I think of as ‘ordinary courage’.”

Brené Brown, I Thought It Was Just Me: Women Reclaiming Power and Courage in a Culture of Shame

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What can tell you about my friend Lisa?

Hers is a story of pain, abuse, survival, hope and courage … courage that is so ordinary and yet so magnificent.

Hers is the story of a turbulent childhood, raised in an abusive cult.

Hers is a story through the valley of the shadow of death as she had to bid goodbye to her husband, who lost his life to cancer.

Hers is the story of being exiled from all the people she loved and finding the strength to go on with three young children.

Hers is the story of rebuilding, of finding love again, of raising a blended family with all its ups and downs.

Hers is the story of trusting again, of using her amazing creative gifts in a new faith community, only to once again be disappointed.

Hers is the story of digging deep, starting yet again, of standing tall.

If there is one word I would use to define Lisa it would be courage – and her story will bring you hope.

  1. “Lisa, thank you so much for being willing to share a bit of your life. You have written more extensively about your experience in growing up in a religious cult (readers, please find the link here and here).
    If we could go back in time, what are some of the thoughts that defined who you were as a six, twelve and sixteen years old?”

Hello. Wow what a question:

At six, I was third in birth order and had a small adopted sister 12 months younger than me. At the time, I was still living with both biological parents and three siblings under the same roof. The home was emotionally very turbulent. Being a small empath, those emotional storms were channelled into my body so I was actually a very sick child. I suffered from migraines, high temperatures and dark hallucinations.

One day in my sixth year, the cult leader, Ray Jackson Snr (the then leader of a group called Immanuel, now called Melbourne Christian Fellowship), lined us all up in the kitchen and made us all say out loud, one by one, in front of my father that he – ‘Ray Jackson’ was our father – (spiritual head). This was the last straw for my Dad who was trying to get us all out of the cult. Realising that he was losing the battle he attempted suicide. The suicide attempt was at home and my sister found him unconscious in his bed. This was the event the cult needed to remove us from my father. A truck arrived and whisked us all away in deep secrecy to a ‘safe’ house.

Sadness and confusion would have been my overriding thoughts. I became an observer in my own life and learned very early on that I had little or no control over what happened to me or to those that I loved. This was a lesson that helped me later on in life.

At the age of twelve, my mother was living in a relationship with a woman who was an elder in the cult. I had no contact with my father and very little with my older siblings.

It was the 1970’s and my home life became even more turbulent. Our home was called “Immanuel House” and was also a home for Bible college students and for many young girls who were wards of the state:

Children have been placed in institutions for many reasons, including family poverty; being orphaned; being born to a single mother; family dislocation from domestic violence, divorce or mental illness; lack of assistance to single parents and parents’ inability to cope with their children … State wards were listed as ‘being uncontrollable’, ‘neglected’ or ‘in moral danger’. In other words, children were often declared ‘uncontrollable’, ‘neglected’ or ‘exposed to moral danger’ and deemed to be wards of the state, not because they had done anything wrong, but because the circumstances in which they found themselves in.” (link)

At times there were 3 or 4 wards of the state living with us. You can imagine how scary this was for a 12-year-old. These older 14 and 15-year-old girls were often quite terrifying, they were traumatised and street smart.

One of the rules for those living with us was that they had to attend our church on a weekly basis. Unbeknownst to my mother, the cult leaders were using this house to collect and groom young women. Ironically, these girls who came to us from situations of moral danger were put directly in the path of those who were morally dangerous. These women have their own stories of sexual abuse and mind control.

Therefore, my home life was unstable, unpredictable and confusing. I did, however, have a faith in God and used to pray and read the Bible a lot. I did have a knowledge of the supernatural and understood quite clearly the impact of good and evil as I saw it out work in my life firsthand. One of the things these girls used to do, as a way of flipping the bird to my mother, was to hold seances. When you are used as a guinea pig in a spiritual ritual and are floating 2 feet off the ground unassisted, you understand that there are supernatural powers at work.

Grief, fear and loss were overriding emotions in my little life at this time. I was also initiated into the supernatural in many ways during this period. The world of angels and demons, prophecies, dreams and hallucinations became very real for me.

By the age of sixteen, I was living 50% of my time with a cult family. My mother, in consultation with the cult leader, ‘gave me’ to another family within the cult when I was about 14. I adored this family and was grafted in very easily. They were a pretty stereotypical nuclear family and I thrived in the order and predictability of ‘normal’ family life (if being part of a cult can be normal). The father was the music director of the church and, being a creative, I absolutely loved the music and creativity of this space.

At sixteen, I was highly mind-controlled and was in weekly private programming meetings with the cult leaders and eldership.I was being groomed for total control and manipulation. My overriding thoughts were of fear and panic as I never knew what punishment was coming or how I would be treated. I received beatings at this age by the cult leader in front of groups of men. I would have to publicly repent and pray out loud for my sins and faults which were brought to my attention weekly. I was by this stage completely consumed by cult life and was 100% submissive.

I believed that submission was the way to God. If that were the case then I must be very close to God because I was too terrified to disobey.

I was defined by hierarchy and patriarchy. I began to understand that to be close to the cult leader and those high on the hierarchy ladder brought special privileges and allowances. It also brought horrifying oppression and dominance.

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2. “You have faced some of life’s greatest challenges, including the death of your husband, Ken, and shortly afterwards being totally cut off from your place and people of belonging by the cult. How did you go on? What were the thoughts that pulled you through?”

One of the things that helped me to go on from a place of complete devastation and loss was the understanding that my journey was incomplete. I still had a road to travel and I had to be strong for my children. They were completely reliant on me and needed me to be able to function.

I understood that bad things happen to people, good or bad. In fact, in my life, they happened a lot. Today I see many people completely dissolve under pressure or loss because they have this mindset that bad things shouldn’t happen to them. They are somehow blessed or exempt. These people seem to struggle with the concept of suffering. They feel that they are above it, immune to it.

The biggest illusion is that we have control over our lives. We plan, we save, we dream, we plot our lives and the lives of our children. In reality, we have no control. Illness, tragedy, accidents can hit us out of nowhere. I realised early on that I wasn’t in control. Everything that was happening to me was completely out of my control. So acceptance came to me a little earlier perhaps than those who had led a picture perfect life.

Suffering and grief are a human condition. No one is immune to it and we often have no choice. Up to 90% of what has happened to me has not been my choice. We do have a choice about how we deal with it and the legacy that we leave behind.

Do we allow suffering to mould and strengthen us or do we allow it to break us and make us bitter?

This realisation hit me when I had to choose a tomb stone for my husband. My thought was this. “What could I write that would still speak to my children when they stood here 20 years from now as adults”. I also had a deep faith in God and knew that I was not completely alone in this journey. He was beside me. He could not take the suffering away, but he could support and comfort me.

This was the reading that I chose for the tombstone.

Psalm 84

What joy for those whose strength comes from the LORD,
Who have set their minds on a pilgrimage.
When they walk through the Valley of Weeping (Baca),
It will become a place of refreshing springs.
The autumn rains will clothe it with blessings.
They will continue to grow stronger,
and each of them will appear before God

These are my overriding thoughts through this time:
We are each of us, on a journey, a pilgrimage.
We will undoubtedly pass through valleys of weeping this is a given.
However, those valleys can become places of refreshing if we allow them to.
The autumn rains come: inevitably life continues, life goes on.
The promise for us is that we can become stronger until it is our turn to appear before God.

3. “You found love again with Phil, and together with yours and his three children became the ‘Brady Bunch’. Yet in so many ways you were still recovering from trauma – can you tell us a bit about these years? What got you through the tough times?”

Out of the frying pan and into the fire. LOL…

Being a stepmother is one of the hardest gigs that I have ever done. (And can I just say that it was the Brady Bunch without Alice).

It was a whole new world. We had just left the cult and did not know a soul. We had to start again. Completely from scratch. I was still very mind controlled and affected by extreme conservative fundamentalist thinking and very sick physically.

In some ways, this total isolation gave us the space we needed to start again without any external influences. I had to hold everything very loosely, all my support structures were gone. I didn’t know which way was up.

I engaged the help of professionals. We had an amazing family doctor and for the first three years we had a standing weekly appointment. I also made regular appointments with a clinical child psychologist from the Royal Children’s Hospital and took all eight of us along. I needed to know:

What were normal teenage and child behaviours?
What was grief?
What was abandonment?
What was it like to blend a family and for children to change birth orders?

I could not have done this alone. I also started seeing a counsellor and psychologist and have continued to do so for the last 17 years. I needed many tools and a lot of help to navigate these new waters.

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4. “You rebuilt your life and became an integral part of a different faith community where you served diligently for many years. Yet again you were disappointed, and in a sense betrayed, in a space that had become a safe haven for you. How the heck did you recover from that? Has this impacted you in how you view religious communities as a whole?”

I am slowly recovering from the gut wrenching pain of feeling betrayed and mishandled in this space. It has been a slow road to recovery.

I am very grateful for the time spent in that faith community. I learned so much and was empowered to grow and develop in so many areas. It was a season of growth and reinvention. During this time, I committed myself to academic study which helped me enormously. In regard to the brain washing, I threw out all of my theology and started again. I needed to know what to sift, what to throw away and what to keep. I needed to learn how to think critically. I needed new guides and new teachers.

What I have learned now is that patriarchy and hierarchy are everywhere. There is no perfect faith community because community involves people and people are messy. People generally like control, they like packages and they like order. As an artist and creative I think I have had an advantage in many ways because artists embrace chaos and mess. They know that it’s in the space of mystery and darkness that innovation and transformation occur. We take raw materials and transform them into something else.

I feel more freedom now that I am not involved in an institutionalised space. I have learned a lot about myself and what I believe. I don’t believe in patriarchy, I don’t believe in hierarchy, I don’t believe in inequality, and I am very wary of male dominated spaces. Therefore, there is a disconnect for me concerning many of our religious communities today because they are made up of all of the above.

The last three years for me have been a ‘coming alive’ to the teachings of Jesus – His character, His teaching and His concerns.

5. “You have written quite a bit about trauma and mental health (see link here).  What are some practical steps that you recommend for people in recovery, perhaps struggling with poor mental health?”

In your opening, Nicole, you mentioned one of my favourite quotes:

“To speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart.”

For me, mental health has a lot to do with speaking your heart. Healing from abuse starts when you begin to tell your story. Language is powerful – when you can find the words and when you can tell your heart to a safe person, then understanding and healing begins.

Being brave enough to get help is another huge indicator of your ability to recover. You cannot do life alone and you cannot recover alone. You need professionals to help you navigate this space. To give you language to help you to understand where you are and what has happened to you.

6. “Lisa, you are a bit like Fawkes, Dumbledore’s Phoenix in Harry Potter, that keeps rising from the ashes. Today you serve the people in your community, you are one of Victoria’s top 100 Wedding Celebrants, and one of the most others-centred people I know. I am not sure whether I would have your resilience in your circumstances. Can you talk a bit about what goes on inside that makes you rise again?”

Three things: Acceptance, Transformation and Forgiveness

a. Acceptance:

Some people spend more energy fighting the fact that something bad is happening rather than accepting it and getting on with it.

At one, stage in his dying journey, my husband went blind. I was falling apart, crying and he said to me, “Lisa, the sooner you accept that this is God’s will for your life, the easier it will be for you”. The key here is acceptance. I don’t like it, I don’t want it, but this is what it is, this is my life and this is what I need to do about it.

Once a well-intentioned woman said to me: “I don’t know how you do this. I know if this happened to me I just wouldn’t cope.”

My response: Is there a choice? Is there another way to do this? If there is please let me know.

It’s a bit like childbirth. That baby is coming and you cannot get off that conveyor belt. You don’t have a choice, you have to give birth. You may not like it but that’s how it is.

b. Transformation:

Dumbledores Phoenix is an interesting analogy. This mythological bird that is cyclically regenerated or reborn. Isn’t this the work of salvation? Jesus said you cannot see the Kingdom unless you are born again.Spiritual vision comes with rebirth.

Being born again and again means death and rebirth. It is the cycle of life. It is how a seed turns into a tree.

Richard Rohr says that there are two things that transform us: suffering and prayer. Suffering is the catalyst that is used to transform us. Prayer is the vehicle that keeps us in the furnace until the change is complete. Prayer, which I call conversations with God, is the thing that keeps us sane through the transformation process.

c: Forgiveness:

Forgiveness is the gift you give yourself. It is the key to moving on. You cannot move forward if you are tethered to the past. Only you can cut the bondage that is holding you to the event, the hurt, the trauma. Only forgiveness is powerful enough to release you from this binding. You cannot even mature emotionally. Without forgiveness, you will remain the emotional age that the trauma happened to you.

I had to forgive my husband for getting cancer, for dying and for leaving me. Does that make sense? No. He couldn’t control that, he didn’t intend it but nevertheless, I was angry. I was furious that I was left behind without him. I had to let him go. I had to forgive him and forgive myself for my anger.

7. “I know there will be readers who will deeply resonate with your story on many levels. Readers, who like you, are survivors and have had to draw deep in order to rise again. Is there something you would like to say to them?”

I would say to my fellow survivors – “You can do this. Not only can you do this, you can do it and come out even stronger than you were before. Accept this pain and allow it to forge steel in your bones.”

What has suffering taught me?

Compassion, mercy, grace, forgiveness, love, acceptance and kindness toward my brother and sister. Suffering teaches you humility in your humanity. Humility makes you realise that we all belong. We are all part of the process. We are not exempt, we are not superhuman, we are not elite.

More than comfort, money or fame; my legacy to my children is the example of my life. Yes, bad things happen, but you are able to survive. More importantly, you have the resilience you need to thrive. You can live in Shalom. You can flourish through the journey of suffering. You can live in community with others as gracious, loving, merciful and compassionate human beings. Everyone has the right to belong. Everyone has a story to tell and everyone deserves to be heard. Your story is your life and your life is your story.

“Thank you, Lisa, for your time, your heart and all you are, dear friend.”

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What The Sea Teaches Us

“Listening through the heart is not something you must learn to do. It is something you need only reclaim and remember.”
– Stephanie Dowrick –

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I loved going to the sea ever since I can remember. In Germany it was the chilly harbours along the North Sea. The fishermen would sit there like a line of dominoes on the freezing cement curbs, their buckets filled with a variety of sole, mackerel, cod or whiting, while their cigarettes created a hazy cloud above their heads.

When we moved to South Africa we would use our weekends to visit Durban’s magnificent Indian Ocean. I have a distinct memory of my father and I enjoying the huge waves before being told off by the lifeguard. As newly arrived immigrants we did not understand a word that this bad-tempered, red-faced man was saying to us until he pointed to the rather obvious warning sign displaying a giant shark. Apparently, we were swimming in unprotected water and had thereby become tantalising human bait.

Since moving to Australia over three decades ago, I have never failed to appreciate the beautiful beaches of this fair isle. I have spent many hours walking the Mornington and Bellarine Peninsulas in Melbourne. The Sunshine Coast here in Queensland, however, has to take the prize for some of the most breathtaking beaches I have ever seen. And there is something so therapeutic about walking on their shores.

The sea teaches us many things. One of them is that there is a rhythm to life that we can miss amongst our often artificial, neon lights of suburbia. Nothing can stop the sun from rising or setting and no barrier can stop the tide from rolling in. Observing and connecting with this rhythmic part of nature stirs something deep inside of us … whispers of hope and providence.

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Swimming in the deep blue sea has always thrilled and scared me. It reminds me of life. The deep is not safe, yet sitting on the shores is not an option. On the shores I will never experience the healing, stinging salt water that washes over me, like my tears and my prayers. You never learn to swim in the shallows. There is something about launching out into the deep. Many years ago Jesus told a disheartened fisherman to launch into the deep. The rest, as they say, is history.

I look at my feet as I squelch the sand between my toes. The many broken shells remind me that they too, once held life, and that life passes quickly. “Travel lightly,” they whisper to me. Life is short and these feet are made for walking, not for being tied to the many cumbersome burdens that modernity claims we need. Accompanied by the unruly frivolity that overtakes my hair at the beach, it adds the classic reminder: “Beach Hair Don’t Care.” The sea and its shores reminds us of the splendid and simple joys of life.

Most of all, the sea reminds me that to wait is holy. The sea cannot be rushed or ruled. We can only wait … and in that sacrament of waiting we find untold treasures. Isn’t it about time you took a walk on the beach, dear friend?

“The beach is not a place to work; to read, write or to think … The sea does not reward those who are too anxious, too greedy, or too impatient. To dig for treasures shows not only impatience and greed, but lack of faith. Patience, patience, patience, is what the sea teaches. Patience and faith. One should lie empty, open, choiceless as a beach—waiting for a gift from the sea.”
– Anne Morrow Lindbergh (Gift from the Sea) –

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The Sacrament of Waiting

“We must let go of the life we have planned, so as to accept the one that is waiting for us.” – Jospeph Campbell – 

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Traffic lights, coffee queues, airport security, hospitals … they have a common theme: waiting! And I am not very good at it. But these last 2 weeks, with a loved on in hospital, I have become reacquainted with this discipline and grace.

I was reminded of Macrina Wiederkehr’s beautiful poem, The Sacrament of Waiting. May it speak to you as it has to me – enjoy!

Slowly
she celebrated the sacrament of letting go.
First she surrendered her green,
then the orange, yellow, and red
finally she let go of her brown.
Shedding her last leaf
she stood empty and silent, stripped bare.
Leaning against the winter sky
she began her vigil of trust.

Shedding her last leaf
she watched its journey to the ground.
She stood in silence
wearing the color of emptiness,
her branches wondering;
How do you give shade with so much gone?

And then,
the sacrament of waiting began.
The sunrise and sunset watched with tenderness.
Clothing her with silhouettes
they kept her hope alive.

They helped her understand that
her vulnerability,
her dependence and need,
her emptiness,
her readiness to receive
were giving her a new kind of beauty.
Every morning and every evening they stood in silence
and celebrated together
the sacrament of waiting.

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“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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