Category Archives: Family, Friends & Foe

Scapegoats: Our Desperate Need to Blame Others

“The search for scapegoats is essentially an abnegation of responsibility: it indicates an inability to assess honestly and intelligently the true nature of the problems which lie at the root of social and economic difficulties and a lack of resolve in grappling with them.”
–  Aung San Suu Kyi –

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We find our Scapegoats at a young age.

Her name was Helen. She wore glasses that were too big for her face. Her school skirt nearly touched her ankles. She smelt of mothballs. She was the perfect playground scapegoat. And we all reminded her of her role everyday. Our need to deflect from our own anger, guilt, aggression, rejection, and project it on someone else, starts very early in our life. In fact, it seems like we have a genetic human default of wanting to blame someone or something else for the angst we carry as vulnerable
humans.

History eagerly awaits to be summoned and reveal its countless files on scapegoats. Animals often wore the brunt of the blame game. The early pilgrims to the USA brought a religious superstition to its shores that
resulted in wariness of anything not defined in their worldview. Black cats were among their targets in looking for explanations for disasters. Unfortunately, this irrational belief lingers to this day as black cats are five times more likely to be euthanised and continue to be subjected to horrendous abuse. Christian pig farmers in Egypt found their property attacked and pigs killed by Sunni Muslims who blamed the pigs and the Christian farmers for spreading the Swine Flu pandemic in 2009 (a pointless carnage). And, of course, then there’s Mrs. O’Leary’s famous scapegoat cow who was blamed for the Great Chicago Fires.

Charlie Campbell’s excellent book, Scapegoat: A History of Blaming Other People, devotes a great deal of attention to the scapegoating of women throughout history. He contends that the witch hunts and trials of early modern Europe were mainly motivated by men’s fear and hatred of women. Scapegoating women is as old as the story of Adam and Eve. Alexis Carrel blamed the shambles and ageing of a post World War I France on women, for they had “ceased to obey the law that binds them to the propagation of the human race.” The Spanish Civil war was blamed on women whose “vaginas had given birth to republican filth.” From the Laws of Manu to early Christian apologists like Tertullian to the Buddhist thinker Santideva, men found solace in blaming women for their desires. Women were called evil and confined to the home, as
society needed to be protected. Jack Holland in his book Misogyny: The World’s Oldest Prejudice argues that women are the universal scapegoat of history.

History is littered with notorious individual scapegoats like the French Army Captain, Alfred Dreyfus, or the Communist leader, Leon Trotsky, or Hitler’s Party Leader, Rudolf Hess, or the tragic figure of Gaëtan Dugas (Patient Zero). Then there are the minority groups that become the scapegoats for community ignorance, religious beliefs, or fear: the Albino children in Africa, the LGBTIQ community, Jews, Palestinians, and perhaps in modern Australian history nothing exemplifies the scapegoating of minority groups more perfectly than the consistent
slandering of refugees by political power puppets. All of this to say that us humans have never had a problem of finding someone to blame!

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We often tend to think of scapegoating as something that happens outside our family of origin. Nothing can be further from the truth. There are many  people who will tell their stories of being picked on and
excluded from the people who were meant to love and care for them. Scapegoating is often a way for families to hide problems they cannot face. Blaming a vulnerable family member can be the practice, for
example, of a parent with Borderline Personality or Narcissistic Personality Disorder. The child, or scapegoat, is the one who wears their
frustrations, aggression and hatred, as they unite the rest of the family against the one being attacked. If you have been a family scapegoat there is no sugar-coating it: you have been abused. This is not ok! Please consider the effect it has had on your life. Perhaps it is time to say “No More” to the bullies?

Sadly, religious institutions are not immune from scapegoating. The ‘God of Wrath and Judgement’ is keenly at work in the minds of some
religious leaders, zapping anyone who does not agree with that leader’s
interpretation of the Sacred Text. I think the fairly modern flavours of Christian Fundamentalism and biblicism, that have permeated some faith communities, have contributed to the fervency devoted to scapegoat hunting. When adherence to a certain code of beliefs and behaviour is the litmus test to achieve belonging and affirmation, then it is fairly easy to find a scapegoat that is not living up to the ’standards of holiness’. Blaming another for our own existential angst and catastrophes is nothing new. Hear the echoes of the disciples asking Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2). Of course, if we can convince the rest of our social tribe that God also blames them, then the dehumanising has even greater repercussions for the damned scapegoats.

A month ago, many people around the world celebrated one of the most significant events of the Christian Liturgical Year: Easter. We reflected on the Passion of the Christ: The Innocent One, without any guilt, who breaks the mythical cycle of human superstitious violence. The scapegoat becomes the Lamb of God. With his brutal death, “the foolish genesis of blood-stained idols and the false gods of superstition, politics, and ideologies” are exposed. “It is finished,” is the Gospel declaration of a Kingdom that is not of this world and has put an end to scapegoating. The unjust slaying of Christ reveals the foundation of a culture built on murder and a lie. Jesus, knowing we are mimetic creatures, calls us to follow his footsteps on the path of peace. It is time to lay aside the scapegoat. It is time to face our own souls.

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What can we learn from a Hobbit?

Roads go ever ever on,
Over rock and under tree,
By caves where never sun has shone,
By streams that never find the sea …

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Our family is Tolkien possessed. My deep appreciation of the writing of this wonderful author has fortunately spilt over to my partner and
children. So when Peter Jackson put the Lord of the Rings series and The Hobbit to film, you guessed it, we watched it … over and over again … extended version, of course.

So, we have just finished watching The Hobbit … again. It is always interesting how these books and films speak to us in certain significant
seasons of our lives. As I watched Bilbo Baggins, the unlikely travelling companion of a company of dwarves and a wizard, take the hazardous journey to the Lonely Mountain, I took away some reflections on what we can learn from a hairy-footed Hobbit …

1. Always be ready for an Adventure

Bilbo is rather reluctant to leave the comfort of his home in the Shire to travel into the unknown. His conversation with Gandalf reveals his
apprehension:

Gandalf: “I am looking for someone to share in an adventure that I am
arranging, and it’s very difficult to find anyone.”

Bilbo: “I should think so — in these parts! We are plain quiet folk and have no use for adventures. Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner! I can’t think what anybody sees in them …”

Gandalf: “You’ll have a tale or two to tell when you come back.”

Bilbo: “You can promise that I’ll come back?”

Gandalf: “No. And if you do, you will not be the same …” 
 
Bilbo overcame his fears to take part in a life-changing adventure. Many years later, he would warn a young Frodo about the hazardous nature of adventures:

“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door. You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to.
 
Bilbo would advise us to always keep our walking stick within reach – ready for an unexpected adventure.

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2. The Adventure is always bigger than You
 
Amidst a group of seasoned warrior dwarves, Gandalf’s choice of Bilbo to travel with the company was rather odd. Yet he managed to outsmart trolls, spiders, goblins, elves and dragons. He faced grave dangers. He was also carried on the wings of the eagles of Gwaihir to safety. Gandalf saw in this ordinary hobbit something else:

“Some believe it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but that is not what I have found. It is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay. Small acts of kindness and love. Why Bilbo
Baggins? Perhaps, because I am afraid, and he gives me courage.”

Bilbo himself saw this as an adventure much bigger than himself.
Despite being desperately homesick for the Shire, he was on a quest:

“Look, I know you doubt me, I know you always have. And you’re right. I often think of Bag End. I miss my books. And my armchair. And my
garden. See, that’s where I belong. That’s home. That’s why I came back,
because you don’t have one. A home. It was taken from you. But I will help you take it back, if I can.
“ 

Bilbo would tell us that “even the smallest person can change the course of history”. The adventure we are called to is always bigger than ourselves.

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3. It simply isn’t an Adventure worth telling if there aren’t any Dragons.
 
“Well, thief! I smell you and I feel your air. I hear you breathe. Come along! Help yourself again, there is plenty and to spare!”
 
Smaug! The mountain had been left desolate, no one would venture near it, because amidst all the gold and glitter, lay a sleeping fire breather. How dull Bilbo’s tale would have been without this magnificent, cranky dragon.

Life was so pleasant in the Shire. A peaceful rhythm of life. Yet for Bilbo, just like for each of us, there may come moments when, often by no choice of our own, we are called from the Shire to go on an adventure and to face adversity. Staring into the face of our fear we wish it wasn’t so – but we are the people we are today because somewhere in our lives a dragon came calling.

The lesson we learn from a hobbit other than to “speak politely to enraged dragons”, or to “never laugh at live dragons”, is that our adventure is all the richer because of dragons.

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4. There is a bond with the Friends you make on an Adventure.
 
“Goodbye and good luck, wherever you fare,said Balin at last. “If ever you visit us again, when our halls are made fair once more, then the feast shall indeed be splendid.”
“If ever you are passing my way,” said Bilbo, “don’t wait to knock! Tea is at four; but any of you are welcome at any time!”
 
There is a ‘fellowship’ and an ‘unsaid knowing’ amongst friends who share in an Adventure. There are many dark and perilous journeys that we will take in our lifetime. How fortunate the person that gets to share it with friends. 

The lesson we learn from a hobbit is that to share our adventures with friends is “more than any Baggins deserves.”

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So, dear friend, take some time to reflect on the wisdom of hobbits. And just for you, the words of Thorin Oakenshield:

“There is more in you of good than you know, child of the kindly West. Some courage and some wisdom, blended in measure. If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.”

This post is dedicated to my travelling companion and adventure partner, who also happens to be the love of my life.

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This is My Story

“We cannot wish old feelings away nor do spiritual exercises for overcoming them until we have woven a healing story that
transforms our previous life’s experience and gives meaning to whatever pain we have endured.”

Joe Borysenko

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When was the first story ever told? We do not know. We do know that storytelling has been an intrinsic part of every society and culture.
Before we could write, we told stories. Stories shape our world. Stories are everywhere: in songs, books, news, religions, art – wherever we look we are being told a story. Stories resonate, we remember stories. Most historians and psychologists would assert that it is storytelling that defines and binds our common humanity.

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The stories that we are told or tell ourselves dramatically shape our world. Both sets of my grandparents were wonderful storytellers. My Oma, from my father’s side, would recall memories of what it was like to live in East Prussia. She would paint pictures with her words of lush forests, mushroom picking, and the giant lake of Lyck (now Elk) that was synonymous with ‘home’. My Oma, on my mother’s side, would
reminisce about what it was like to be one of nine children, the tragic loss of her brother in WWI, and describe the lives of everyday people of Northern Germany. Their stories defined them, how they lived and their interaction with the world. Their stories impacted my life. So, in a sense, I tell my own story, but the stories of my ancestors live on through me.

There are some stories we live by that need desperate revision. We may find that there are a few life experiences that remain attached to the recording device in our head. Our perspective of those experiences, or the words directed at us through those seasons, will determine how we view ourselves and how we relate to others. David Denborough writes, “Who we are and what we do are influenced by the stories that we tell ourselves  herold-letters-436502_1920e are many different events in our lives, but only some of them get formed into the storylines of our
identities. Whatever storyline we have about our lives makes a
difference in who we are and how we act.
  There are some narratives that need revising in our lives because they paralyse us or affect us in a profoundly negative way. It is time to take back those false memoirs and say: “No, that is not true, but this is my story.”  Perhaps it is time to give yourself permission to rewrite those toxic lines into a healing
autobiography?

Stories are one of the things that make us human. They help explain the world and make sense of what, at times, seems nonsense. For people who are grieving, stories provide a way of coping with loss and assists in healing. Telling one’s story has proved to have significant health benefits as it contributes to creating a sense of meaning and belonging, because we feel both seen and heard. One of the greatest gifts we can give each other is to listen. Listening is the gift of kindness. It is a modern tragedy that we have so many elderly folk now sitting in isolated care homes, with a rich tapestry of life and adventures, with no one willing to listen to their story.

So maybe it’s time, dear friend, to take a pen, or your computer or iPad, and begin to write your stories down. Live them as you write them.
Describe them in intricacies and with a sense of wonder. Reflect on them as you read and re-read your story. What does your story tell you? How do the whispers of the past beckon you to consider your ways today?
Remember, this alone is your story and your story matters, because,
after all, no other human being will see things, dream things or
experience things just the same as you. This is your story – it is time to remember.

“Don’t let anyone tell your story. Pick up a pen and write your own.”
– Majid Kasmi

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I See You!

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“ … for there is nothing heavier than compassion. Not even one’s own pain weighs so heavy as the pain one feels with someone, for someone, a pain intensified by the imagination and prolonged by a hundred echoes.” 
– Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Empathy. A word flung around in many contexts today. It is the
experience of understanding another person’s condition from their
perspective. It is the ability to imagine what it is like to walk in someone else’s shoes. It is feeling what the other person or people are feeling in their circumstance. Empathy is all about seeing the other.

Empathy enables us to see ourselves in the other. When someone
stumbles and falls in public, we see their pain and embarrassment, and rush to help them. Empathy sees the other. It imagines their narrative and this moves one to action.

The opposite of empathy is the need to protect ourselves from
‘the other’. De-personification enables us to treat the other as an object (‘objectification’), without having to consider their needs or feelings.
Objectifying is fed by fear and a need to protect: to protect ourselves, our ideals, and even our religious beliefs. It may be towards those we don’t like, the perceived ‘out-group’, the disadvantaged and marginalised, or those considered as ‘enemies’. When we objectify, we create a sanctuary for our cruelty, apathy or neglect.

Currently, our government continues on the historical road of objectifying asylum seekers. It is hard to imagine that we are at this moment protesting a government’s decision about thirty-seven babies born in Australia, and their families, being sent to Nauru – a camp-like environment that doctors, lawyers and welfare workers consider harmful to anyone, let alone vulnerable children. The deafening sound of silence from many Australians, even some Christian lobby groups that claim to have children’s best interest at heart, is a result of a successful objectifying campaign, complete with altered terminology like ‘illegal maritime arrivals’. The difference between empathy and objectifying is in the
language we use to describe others, as history has demonstrated over and over again.

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It takes courage to act on empathy. To truly see the other often means that tightly held tribal laws have to be severed in order to walk and stand with the other. When these tribal laws are contained in religious dogma, the belonging of an individual, and a fear of ‘displeasing God’, it suddenly gives clarity to the perplexing issue of why some religious folks, claiming to believe in a loving God, can be so utterly cruel to those who do not hold to their beliefs.

To see the other means we have to make a choice. A choice to relinquish our power. A choice to relinquish a tightly held position in the ‘inner group’. A choice to believe that love is greater than fear. A choice to seek to understand the belief systems of others, without feeling threatened by them. A choice to let go.

To truly see the other we have to begin to understand and respect the image of God in everyone we meet. Empathy begins when we recognise our own humanity in that of the other. We begin to truly see the other when we wake up from a matrix of tightly held ideas, which we have often uncritically ingested out of a need to protect ourselves.
Empathy says, “I see you.”

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Anxiety and Eating Disorders: Tash’s Story

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In the previous blog post, I presented an introduction to anxiety disorders, which affect a large percentage of the general population. I would like to keep the conversation going in the hope of creating further awareness and chipping away at the ridiculous stigma that often
surrounds mental disorders.

Anxiety disorders are one of the most common mental disorders in
Australia. One in four Australians will experience a form of anxiety
disorder in their lifetime. Eating disorders often go hand in hand with
anxiety disorders. In struggling with severe anxiety, for instance, being able to control an aspect of one’s life, such as food, weight, and exercise,
indirectly gives the sufferer a false sense of control.

In this post, I am interviewing my daughter, Natasha. Tash is 23. She is a vibrant, passionate, focused and determined woman – characteristics that were always there from an early age. She completed her Bachelor in Health Science with Honours and is currently pursuing a career as a chef. Tash went through an exceptionally difficult time as she struggled with anxiety that outworked itself in an eating disorder. As a family, we were totally unprepared and uneducated in dealing with this.

Several years on from this dark time in her life, she is now well on to the road to recovery. She was prepared to be interviewed for the same
reason I am blogging about this: to create awareness and help destroy the stigma. As a family that cherishes privacy, this has not been an easy post.

1. “Tash, when was the first time it dawned on you that you were struggling with anxiety disorder?” 

“I started dealing with anxiety during my first year out of high school. I was involved in two car accidents in a short period of time. It was the second car crash, only a few weeks after getting my driver’s license, that I slowly began to spiral and develop, what I now recognise as, an anxiety
disorder. In the years that followed the crash, I was conscious of my
anxiety, but I only became aware of it as a disorder when I
acknowledged my eating disorder. As mentioned, the two are often
interrelated.”

2. “Was there anything you think that triggered it?”

“The second car crash was when I began to unravel. However, I think this was merely the trigger, not the cause, of the disorders. Through my last three years in high school, I had repressed a lot. Not only was I repressing the death of my Oma and the near fatal car crash involving my brothers, I was repressing years of unrealistic expectations and forced beliefs/ideologies experienced in a religious church and education
system as a pastor’s daughter. These unrealistic expectations, projected upon me by systems and people (most of them well-meaning, I’m sure), burdened me with an ongoing sense of guilt and shame. I still struggle with this and, no doubt, it was also a key trigger in my anxiety and
eating disorder.

What I have learnt in my battle with anxiety and eating disorders is that triggers are different for everyone and in many situations there are
multiple triggers. My own experience, and also my studies in health at
university, showed me that a person’s traits and characteristics can also determine their likelihood of experiencing a mental illness. OCD and perfectionist tendencies are not uncommon in our family, and, in my non-healthy mental state, they became my enemy and drove me further into my disorders than I could ever imagine.”

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3. “How did it outwork in your life?”

“An eating disorder can be paralysing, suffocating and exhausting. I
consider myself a pretty rational, educated person, but when anxiety hits you, ‘reason’ does not help. Sometimes it hit me hard in the forms of panic attacks, where it felt like I couldn’t breathe. However, most of the time it was just this ongoing sense of dread that I just couldn’t shake. As an introvert, it also made me withdraw more from social events because being around some groups of people only made it worse. I obsessed over whatever was making me anxious and then I crashed emotionally once it had passed. My moods were often up and down and this affected my
relationships, even with my family. I would then feel anxious and guilty for being so moody towards them. I felt as if I was at war with myself, fighting a battle that no one understood.
 
4. Can you describe to people what goes on inside you when anxiety outworks itself in trying to gain control through eating/food?”

“Poor body image is often a trigger that comes to mind when you hear about someone with an eating disorder. My case was very different. My eating disorder stemmed from my anxiety. It was perpetuated through a need to control and a deep self-loathing from years of shame and guilt.”

“What made the combination of the two disorders so detrimental is the strain I put on my body from losing so much weight. I was completely
irrational, moody, cold and exhausted all the time. Battling an anxiety
disorder while being somewhat physically healthy is hard enough, but when your body is malnourished all it’s energy is focused on staying alive.”

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5. “What was helpful during this time?”

“When I was in the midst of it, I only spoke to my mum about it. At that time, I had no interest in talking to anyone else because I was in denial about how big of an issue it really was. I know now that this would have been quite a burden for her, but it was life saving for me. I knew she couldn’t ‘fix me’. I didn’t expect that. But she was there. She calmed me down when I was hysterical, rationalised with me when I was troubled, and celebrated with me in my triumphs. Most importantly, she didn’t give up on me despite probably feeling very hopeless and helpless many times. It wasn’t a quick and easy step, but eventually I came to accept what I was battling, and this was when I began building my support
system.”

“Once I had acknowledged my disorders, the most helpful, yet painful thing to do was talking about it. I remember telling my oldest brother over dinner. I was emotional, ashamed and embarrassed. I didn’t like showing vulnerability and I felt silly trying to explain what anxiety feels like, especially to my brother. He’s the least anxious person I know, but,
despite having no understanding of what it felt like, he recognised the
torment it put me through. He listened and comforted me. I walked away from that dinner as if I had taken my first breath of air after being
underwater for so long.

“Again, it didn’t happen overnight, I am a very private person, but I began to talk about my situation more with safe people from different walks of life. One of mum’s friends was a saving grace. She understood anxiety and she understood me. She encouraged me to talk to another one of her friends who went through a similar struggle growing up.”

“Eventually, I sought out professional help and that wasn’t without a few failures. I ended up seeing a friend’s doctor who specialised in mental health and it was one of the best things to happen to me. He gave me a proper diagnosis and helped me address it from a psychological and medical point of view. The ongoing support from my family and friends and the help from my doctor was the most helpful and significant step in my recovery.”

6. “What made you decide to seek help?”

“Although I didn’t talk about it for a while, my family and many of my friends could see something was wrong when I began losing so much weight. No one really understood what I was going through and no one said anything, mainly because they were worried I would react. It was an emotional, eye-opening moment when I realised how many people were so concerned about my health and drastic weight loss.”

“As important as a support system is, no one could help me make changes but me. I got to a place where the pain of living like this outweighed the fear and denial. I know of many other people’s situations that become so life-threatening that someone has to intervene. I’m thankful that I came to acknowledge my problem before it got to that state, but that didn’t mean that I was very proactive about seeking help. I wanted to deal with it myself and it felt like I was being dragged kicking and screaming at times. I certainly would not have persevered without the encouragement of my support system.”

7. “What was unhelpful during this time?”

“People trying to diagnose me by reading a book or something they have heard. Books are certainly helpful, but if you are not an expert don’t try and diagnose people from a book or random stuff you find on the
Internet.”

“Downplaying someone’s anxiety is not helpful and can cause great harm. I know that for people who have never experienced anxiety or eating disorders, it can all seem silly and unreasonable, but telling someone that is not helpful. Most of the time we know this and if it was as easy as just shaking it off, believe me, we would.”

Thank you so much, Tash, for being willing to share some of your story. What is a final thing you would like to say to anyone dealing with anxiety and/or eating disorders (or for that matter any mental disorders) reading this, who perhaps is concerned about any stigma/perception from the world around them? 

“Be hopeful about recovery and be kind to yourself in the process. Recovery is not easy and you will battle everyday between wanting to recover and wanting to stick to your habits. Don’t be disheartened. Whether it is an eating disorder or anxiety you are struggling with, there will be bad days and set backs and that is okay. Sometimes you just have to accept that it’s a setback sort of day and that it will be a new day tomorrow. Bad days don’t mean failure. If anything they can give you perspective on how far you have come. What’s important is that you keep choosing life, be kind to yourself and be patient.

The process is not easy either. I tried multiple methods including doctors, focus groups and self research. Many were hit and miss, but it was important that I continued to pursue recovery, even when these things weren’t always helpful.

I also had to let go of the idea that recovery meant going back to who I was before my disorders. I can’t promise you that life after recovery means you will never be anxious again or think about your food or weight. The difference is that you get to a point where you control the power they have over your life rather than them controlling you.”

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Let’s Talk about Anxiety

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Anxiety disorders are one of the most common class of mental disorders, affecting a large percentage of the general population. There are six main types of the disorder, including post-traumatic stress disorder,
phobias and panic disorder, and they tend to be more prevalent in women than men. Anxiety disorders affect 9.7% or 1.3 million adult
Australians
, from all walks of life. The causes of the disorder are likely to be complex. However, assistance and recovery is possible with
specialised treatment, education and support.

It is most unfortunate that even in this day and age, people with mental illness remain stigmatised around the globe. This stigmatisation can
result in sufferers not seeking the professional help that is available
because of the fear of rejection. It can also result in misdiagnosis and mismanagement: Misdiagnosis in not taking the symptoms seriously, which in turn results in mismanagement, as there is a reluctance to
investigate the symptoms fully.

Religious ideologies have played a major role in shaping the values and morals of many societies, including perceptions about mental illness. It is sad that patients who come from religious backgrounds are often the ones who fail to receive proper medical care. Although modern
Christianity has taken some steps forward in recognising and addressing mental health issues, including anxiety disorders, there is still a long way to go in recognition and education, as well as in discarding the
tendency to blame the victim.

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My experience with anxiety and anxiety disorders has been fairly minor and I operated out of sheer ignorance for many years. However, a few years ago my daughter developed an eating disorder, something which goes hand in hand with anxiety (an interview with her will be the focus of the next blog post). Suddenly, our family was confronted with the
relentless torment faced by so many people suffering from anxiety.

In retrospect, I would also say that my mother, who passed away suddenly in 2007, suffered from undiagnosed anxiety disorder all her life. As a young child she vividly recalled the horrors of World War II –
running to the bomb shelters, the sounds of Gestapo boots, and her
balcony being blown off by a bomb. Unfortunately, the hyper-vigilance that was part of her everyday life and pointed to post traumatic stress,
remained untreated. Anxiety disorders only began to be recognised in 1980.

Last year, I had to face  anxiety in my own life, which was a result of
bullying. Anxiety is difficult to describe. Everyone experiences it
differently. For me it felt little like being hopelessly tossed around by a giant wave, unable to gain footing or control, feeling like I will never come up for air. I recalled the naive ideas I held over the years and the imbecilic comments I had made – they came back to haunt me!

In this blog post, I simply wanted to present a short introduction to a
disorder that affects so many people. I want to make it very clear that I am not a therapist and I am only blogging my own observations and
experiences. The advice I would give to anyone suffering from anxiety is to seek professional help. You would think nothing about taking yourself to the hospital to have a broken arm tended to. Please do not allow
perceived or self-stigma
from seeking treatment and a better quality of life.

To the family members and friends of people suffering from anxiety
disorders, and anyone in a position of influence (social, religious, etc.), please do not shoot from the hip in ignorance. Educate yourself about
issues surrounding mental health and anxiety disorders. Keep updated and informed. Consider the words that come out of your mouth and be especially careful about silly, religious cliches, that are often simply
recycled, ignorant ideas from someone’s book who holds no qualifications. Instead, read some of the excellent and researched resources available and become proactive in establishing a safe and informed support system.

I finish with the words of blogger Heather Rayne:
 
Living with anxiety and/or depression can feel like constantly
trying to climb out of a deep, muddy hole with an armful of sandbags. Everything seems so much more difficult – even getting out of bed in the morning can be a monumental feat. The simplest tasks can be a dreaded challenge. Nobody
 wants to feel this way. And they are not doing this TO anyone. It is happening TO them and sadly, others are caught in the crossfire. But eventually the bullets will stop flying, the smoke will clear and blissful, fulfilling lives and relationships could appear just beyond the horizon. Together, it can be reached.”

Next Post: Tash’s Story – Recovering from Anxiety and Eating Disorders.

Some Perfectly ‘Normal’ Christmas Traditions from Around the World

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Christmas is all about tradition – beliefs and customs that have been handed from one generation to the next, readily adopted without any question or comment. As a child, my family always had a ‘real’ Christmas tree, decorated with ‘real’ candles, that were lit on Christmas Eve so that the smell of pine needles would waft through the house. It was very, very confronting to visit my friend as an impressionable eight year old and for the first time discover a horrific intruder: The FAKE Christmas tree. How can you have a fake Christmas tree? With fake Christmas candles? Of course, years later I would have my own bogus shrubbery, because this counterfeit made life just a whole lot easier.

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My shock over the discovery of fraudulent firs was the result of not realising that other folk have different traditions. I assumed everyone celebrated Christmas like our family – the perfectly normal family with the normal, real Christmas tree. To this day,  people around the world celebrate Christmas in their very normal homes, thinking that everyone else will be doing exactly the same thing.

If you live in Ethiopia, you would shrug at the commotion that happens on the 24th and 25th December in some of the Western nations. Your Christmas is observed on the 7th of January and is called Ledet or Genna, stemming from the word Gennana which means ‘imminent’. You would be dressed in white and Christmas activities include a lot of dancing and games.

If you visit Slovakian relatives at Christmas time, there’s a great likelihood that you would have to wrangle the carp that is swimming in your bathtub into a bucket, before showering. Carp is  often on the Christmas menu and bought alive at the market. When you sit down for dinner on Christmas Eve, try not to act surprised when the father of the family casually throws a huge spoon of pudding at the ceiling. He is trying to ensure a bumper crop the following season. Remember, this is normal! Meanwhile, in neighbouring Ukraine, they have a whole love affair going with spiders, who, according to legend, spun beautiful webs on the Christmas tree of a poor family that could not afford to decorate it. Ever since Ukrainians decorate the Christmas trees with, you guessed it, masses of arachnids and webs … that would go down so well with some of my friends.

Then we have my tribe: The Germans. If we are not driving our cars at insane speeds on the Autobahn, or drinking copious amounts of beer, or designing some kick-ass new technology, we also like to traumatise our children. If Brothers Grimm doesn’t do it for you then just remind your wee offspring of ‘Knecht Ruprecht’, who is a sort of dark sidekick to Nikolaus (St. Nicholas). A charming, horned monster that scavenges around the countryside looking for the bad children to punish and then present them with a birch inKnecht Ruprecht[1]stead of presents. Other parts of Germany do not fancy Knecht Ruprecht. They prefer a delightful cherub called ‘Schwarzer Peter’ who carries a whip. Our Bavarian brothers and sisters, suffering from ‘Anything-you-can-do-I-can-do-better’ syndrome, cover themselves in straw from head to toe on St. Nicholas day.
They cover their faces with fur masks and roam around Bechtesgadener Land with cow bells hanging from their waist to drive out evil spirits. This normal tradition is called ‘Buttnmandl’ run. On the 1st and 4th Sunday in Advent, in the same place, they dress up in Lederhosen and shoot thousands of rounds of ammunition into the air to awaken nature from its winter slumber … they are yet to analyse how effective this method really is.

Slide further south and our thrill-seeking Italian cousins like to ski down slopes carrying torches after Christmas midnight mass. They also don’t stop partying until the 6th January (the day of Epiphany) and finish up with a great feast (I love Italians!). Up north, our Norwegian friends hide their brooms on Christmas Eve, just in case a witch swipes it and take it for a joy ride. Frankly, I would not hide my broom – happy for them to have it and burn all the wheelies they like. It’s interesting that in Guatemala they can’t get enough of brooms on Christmas Eve. Neighbours sweep their houses, then create a sense of community by building a huge pile out of the combined dirt and burn an effigy of the devil on top of it.

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In Gävle, Sweden, patient folk have been building a Yule Goat every Christmas. Nearly every year the goat is destroyed by vandals, Volvo drivers (absolutely no surprise there) and arsonists (I suspect that would be the adrenaline-high, caffeinated witch on some stolen Norwegian broom). The peace-loving, non-assertive Brits, who hate to talk about war, have an age-old tradition of making sure every member of the family stirs the bubbling Christmas pudding in a clockwise direction, while making a wish. They also hide a silver coin in the pudding. This is a touching, nostalgic reminder of the sheer delight in the finding and keeping of treasure. But it’s Christmas – so the activity is limited to the pudding, not other nations.

donald_trump_2016_classic_design_with_photo_snowflake_pewter_christmas_ornament-re959202d654941b9bad1d8af1462f134_idxcc_8byvr_324donald_trump_2016_classic_design_with_photo_snowflake_pewter_christmas_ornament-re959202d654941b9bad1d8af1462f134_idxcc_8byvr_324*Sigh* … so much blog already, so many more countries. In China, people don’t really give a fig about Christmas, but they do give each other apples, because the Chinese words for ‘Christmas Eve’ is ‘Ping An Ye’ and the word for apple is ‘Ping Guo’ … the connection is obvious. In Japan, it is all too hard. You need to make reservations at Kentucky Fried Chicken so you can celebrate Christmas eating your tortured feather friends. Meanwhile, over in the US of A, people are reverently hanging their precious pewter Donald Trump Christmas Snowflake on the tree. That would be the tree that stands as a focal point in the house, right next to the safe filled with assault rifles, and the nativity scene of Middle Eastern Refugees seeking asylum.

And Australia? Well, we’re the lucky country, you see. We don’t give a rip about everybody else’s tradition. We are tough. In a global refugee crisis, we ‘store’ hapless humans on islands. And at Christmas we throw ourselves into the sea to find crustaceans that have run out of luck, and we throw them on the barbie. But don’t worry – our beaches are perfectly safe. We have a whole suppository of previous Prime Ministers who would don Speedos as a lifestyle choice, ready to defend this unsettled, or scarcely settled, nation against marauding lamnidae families … because “Shit happens!” All good, all perfectly normal.

Homo Sapiens do it again: We are the evolved, intelligent, normal species with wonderful traditions. Merry Christmas!

“One can never have enough socks,” said Dumbledore. “Another Christmas has come and gone and I didn’t get a single pair. People will insist on giving me books.”

– J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

Reflecting on a Year of Adversity

Adversity is the first path to truth.

– Lord Byron

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As the hush of Advent falls on many hearts over the next few weeks, it is a good time to reflect on and remember 2015. To ‘remember’ means to consciously acknowledge the past – an event, a person, or a series of circumstances, for example. To remember means that we acknowledge the history of our own lives and those around us.

2015 has been a year of adversity for me, more so than usual. Don’t get me wrong, I am no stranger to grief or difficulty. I have experienced my fair share, just like everyone else. However, this year was different. This year I experienced adversity that drove me to a great state of anxiety, turned me upside down, inside out, and when the silence fell – I somehow was still standing. I want to thank Adversity this year.

It started with an interview in April on Joy FM. An interview in which I discussed my observations of the effect of the ex-gay therapy movement (which is still alive and kicking in many Christian organisations and churches) on LGBTIQ Christians with whom I have journeyed over several years. The healing and comfort this interview brought to so many people was surprising. To this day I am contacted at least once a week by someone who has found some form of healing or shalom listening to it. The emails, calls and messages have often left me in tears. I am so grateful for the opportunity and privilege to serve this brave group of people.

imageThe Adversity that followed the interview was not surprising. Hysteria would be the tone I would use to describe it. It came from all directions – religious lobby groups, Christian folks I have never heard of, and also people that I knew, some fairly well. Anonymous letters, emails, calls, some direct, and some, in classic adherence to a silent patriarchal system, who chose to voice their anger or concern to the men in my life that they thought had some form of ‘authority’ over me. To each one of these people who contributed to the rather heavy storm of Adversity in my life, I want to say thank you. You all played a vital role in providing further helpful information in understanding some of the paradigms held in fundamentalist religious circles. You also helped me recognise some of the tightly held idealistic ‘loyal soldiers‘ that I urgently needed to dismiss. Adversity did that – and you helped. Thank you.

Thank you for creating deep empathy in my life for all who suffer anxiety. I never have experienced anxiety to any great level, but your letters, videos, newsletters helped me understand this space and how helpless you feel tossed about in its waves. Unlike many people in my life, my anxiety was not a permanent companion as much as a temporal result of bullying. This was patiently explained to me by a fantastic GP, whose passionate pep talk helped clear the cobwebs and was invaluable in gaining proper perspective. The Adversity I experienced was a key in realising what a paralysing force anxiety can be. Adversity helped shape a much greater respect and recognition of the people in my life who take on this reality every day of their lives with tremendous courage. Without this episode in my life I would still be getting my problem-solving ‘German’ on, failing to really understand. I am grateful to Adversity as I have become a little bit less of a jerk because of it.

But maybe the next three expressions of gratitude are the most important. I want to thank you, Adversity, because my life has been even more enriched by the ever growing LGBTIQ family that I love so very much. Friends that have shown me what courage, love and determination really look like. They imagehave shown me what faith, grace and humility look like while they are the objects of religious marginalisation, slander and persecution. If what I went through this year is a tiny fraction of what my LGBTIQ friends face on a regular basis from a section of the ‘devout’ group, I can only marvel at their resilience. I cannot believe I am so fortunate to have the hand of Providence guide my path in such a manner that it collided with these giants of faith.

Thank you, Adversity, that you again showed me the incredible gift of family and old friends. Like the Rock of Gibraltar they stood by my side – their calls, emails, texts and visits healed the wounds and over and over again showed me that love is greater than fear. I am especially grateful for a life partner who is encouraging, kind and faithful. After 30 years we still hold differences with kindness. You reminded me of that incredible gift, Adversity. Thank you.

But most of all I want to thank you, Adversity, that your presence throughout the year reminded me that Grace trumps all. Grace, that consistently seeks to free me from a religious matrix of fear, intimidation and control. Grace that reminded me that I am God’s beloved and not the object of the opinions of others. Grace that has shown me that I can let go. Grace that enabled me to throw back my head and laugh in your face. It was grace that brought you into my life, Adversity, and transformed it. Thank you for heeding the call of Grace. 2015 will go down in my life as a year of great Adversity and a year of even greater Grace. I will remember this year like Jacob’s angelic encounter – forever limping, forever changed, forever grateful.

But what about you? What will you remember? What will be the narrative you would read to me out of your 2015? Was it a year of great joy and shalom? Or was it a rather turbulent year, like mine? As you reflect on 2015 and the years before that, you will then lift your eyes to the present and the future. May the next chapters be filled with more awe-inspiring adventures. You have one life to live. You are greater than the opinions of others and the Adversity that seeks you out. I know in the midst of the storm it really doesn’t feel like it. Please don’t give up. Get up, sing that new and broken song. Howl at the moon. Stand in awe and wonder. Give your life in making this world just a little bit kinder. And dream big dreams. His Grace really is sufficient. Remember that!

Adversity is like a strong wind. It tears away from us all but the things that cannot be torn, so that we see ourselves as we really are.
– Arthur Golden, Memoirs of a Geisha

 

 

 

Welcome to the Table

If you really want to make a friend, go to someone’s house and eat with them … the people who give you their food give you their heart.
– Cesar Chavez
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The dining room table is a most significant and symbolic piece of furniture in my life. It invokes childhood memories of joy and lament, of delicious meals, of arguments, jokes, intense debate and tantrums. It recalls the many different faces that shared the table with my parents and I, and the lives and stories they represented. My parents welcomed many people to the table.

Today we have a large, circular, red gum table that dominates our dining room. It is so heavy you can’t lift it. It is round to remind those who gather there that there is no hierarchy. Many nights it has family, friends and strangers crammed around it. The conversations are as diverse as the people that hold them – laughing, joking, angry, opinionated, silent, sullen, quiet, peaceful, heart-felt and sometimes simply exhausting. Mouths crammed with food with water and wine being passed from one to the other, we defy every meal etiquette. Politics and religion, no doubt, will always be discussed! I often stop and look around with deep gratitude. There is no better place than to be seated by a table, sharing a meal, sharing our lives.

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Tables have been around for literally ages. Different designs were used by different civilisations. Egyptians used wood or stone and their tables were fashioned like pedestals, the Assyrians used metal, Greeks used bronze, others used marble. The use of tables evolved over time and it was in the 16th century that the dining table really came into its own. The earliest Western tables were simple wooden boards on trestles that were set up for eating and then packed away. Today tables come in all shapes and sizes and man-made materials like plastic or fibreglass.

The dining table has held emblematic significance throughout the ages. It symbolises unity, celebration, togetherness, belonging, and acceptance. Cultures across the world view the dining table as very significant. It is tPeople_eating_in_Tunisiahe heartbeat of a home. The importance of sharing meals features in many religions, like the sharing of the Shabbat meal amongst Jews, or the house-hopping and sharing of meals during Eid al-Fitr for Muslims, or the sharing of the Lord’s supper amongst Christian faith traditions.

In ancient traditions, eating together was a way of forming and forging relationship. It was a sign of acceptance and reconciliation. Ancient Israel had strict dietary laws and maintained clear social and religious boundaries – it was very important to obey laws surrounding what you ate and who you ate with! No wonder Jesus was so irksome to a religious establishment that saw his total disregard of meal protocol and tradition as dangerous. He invited himself to the table of ‘filthy’ tax collectors! This wasn’t just a little step over the etiquette boundary. It was the flipping of the proverbial middle finger to the carefully constructed boundaries that ensured racial and religious purity. This rebel seemed to think that all were invited to God’s table – what a ridiculously scandalous idea. A table without boundary or exclusion?? One commentator suggested that Jesus got himself crucified by the way he ate.

In our hurry-sick world, suffering from a loneliness epidemic, it is time to bring the table back to centre stage. It is time to remind ourselves that we become better people when we welcome others to the table. People from all walks of life, people who are different to us, who may not share our views or faith. Something miraculous happens around a table, whether in a home, restaurant, workplace, a table carved of sand on the beach, or flimsily thrown together in small huddles in our faith communities. That moment of sharing food and stories deepens us like no social media network ever could. In times of violence and sadness in our world we need to remind ourselves of our shared humanity and refresh ourselves with new hope and courage in each other’s company. Around a table we don’t just nurture our bodies with food, we heal each others soul.

I want to live my life with a welcome sign on my table. A place where the stranger can find refuge, where the hungry can be fed, where the marginalised can be affirmed and accepted, and where the sad heart can find hope. I often fail in this endeavour but I will not give up. To me that round red gum table reminds me of welcome and belonging, it reminds me of amazing grace, and most of all it reminds me that love is greater than fear. Welcome to the table.

And Mephibosheth lived in Jerusalem, because he always ate at the king’s table; he was lame in both feet … II Samuel 9
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In the Name of God: Reflections on Bullying and Religion

Bullying: the use of force, threat, or coercion to abuse, intimidate, or dominate others. If you are anything like me, you have experienced your fair share of bullying, especially through those ‘delightful’ school years. In the middle of my cyber-bullying-122156_1280first grade in Germany, they discovered I had severe astigmatism, and I became the proud owner of a rather huge pair of round glasses. My latest acquisition made me the perfect target for those seeking to “intimidate or dominate others”. The following year we relocated to South Africa and I was the immigrant kid who spoke no English or Afrikaans. I became well acquainted with the inside of the school library, as it offered the perfect refuge from bullies.

Today everyone is talking about bullying, sadly because we now need to know how to survive, and teach our children to survive, in a culture of bullying. Social media, reality TV shows, talk shows, politics, schools, workplace, the list goes on – every space has its bullies, with devastating results. People bully because there’s a rush that comes with power, they are often encouraged by others which provides positive reinforcement, they have an inability to feel empathy and may even derive pleasure from someone else’s pain, and/or they come from a background that shows no affection and may even model aggression. Bullying is a rampant social problem and I am pleased to see it addressed in many forums. However, what if that bullying is related to God?

There are a few books released on this subject of bullying and spiritual abuse. Bullying is disastrous in all situations. Yet bullying in the name of God is often tolerated for a very long time. Why? Because it is so hard to recognise. When God is attached to the rhetoric of the bully, the victim is being emotionally attacked and manipulated. However, the victim also has a desire to ‘please God’ or be ‘obedient to God’ and may feel that the bully is speaking for, or acting on, God’s behalf. This makes the whole scenario very confusing. More often than not, the person does not even realise they are being bullied. Someone can use the Bible in such a manner that it sounds correct, but rather than bringing life and comfort, the listener is being intimidated or manipulated. In this case, faith has become toxic.
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I have a dear friend who spent many years of her life in a cult. A cult that determined how she lived her life and that was involved in all major decisions she had to make. A cult that treated her with absolute abusive contempt. Yet she remained faithful and submissive to this group for many years. Brainwashing is a cult tactic. My friend believed that being submissive was ‘God’s will’ and that disobeying the ‘Fatherhood’ (elders and spiritual oversight), was the same as disobeying God. Never underestimate the power of a bully coupled with faith and religion. Some of you may be interested in reading her story.

Religion and bullying take many forms. The bullies are often motivated by sincere religious ideals. As parents we can coerce our children to believe or behave in ways that line up with our faith ideologies. However, these tactics can be soul destroying. I have been listening to the sad stories of many LGBTI young people who have been bullied by their families and/or faith communities, all in the name of God. The ex-gay moment, in their attempt to ‘straighten out’ LGBTI folk, has often resorted to all forms of bullying with devastating results (please know that if you have been a victim of this movement that there is help and information available). Religious schools can resort to a form of bullying in their disciplinary measures. I recall one of my children’s faith and character being questioned because she talked in class, insinuating her childish behaviour does not ‘please God’. This sort of manipulation on impressionable young minds can have long-term effects on a person’s confidence and self-image.
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Perhaps one of the most common forms of bullying is in faith communities themselves. Those deemed spiritual leaders can suggest various things from a place of ‘spiritual authority’ that really is a form of bullying. A friend of mine recently blogged on this topic. He wrote about the harm done to people suffering from mental illness who listen, via sermons or books, to others seeking to ‘educate’ on the subject of mental illness, who have no form of education or qualification: “What is readily apparent throughout The Power of Right Believing is that Prince has no understanding of mental illness and addiction, no awareness of its myriad causes, and no knowledge of the complex medicinal and psychological strategies that will help a person (and their family) to manage (not cure) the lifelong challenge of living with the illness.” This is gross negligence at best, and a form of bullying at its worst.

Although bullying in faith communities is often discussed in regards to abuse from spiritual leaders, I have also observed bullying by congregation members against religious leaders. Most often, both sides believe they have God on their side and therefore the despicable behaviour and/or words are justified. Religious bullies often think themselves as ‘prophetic’, bearers of the truth, and apart from feeling persecuted, they are generally angry with this ‘wicked’ world.

Some signs of religious bullying can include:
– criticism and belittling
– intimidating others
– spreading rumours, gossip and lies
– excluding and isolating others
– never admit any wrong
– refusal to show remorse or seek forgiveness for any wrongdoing
– zero empathy or understanding of what the other feels like
– aggression (this can be in words or even print)bible-879085_1280
– domineering
– martyr complex

 

There are many helpful ideas on how to cope with religious bullies. One of the top rules: Give them no oxygen. Trust me, that sounds a lot easier than it actually is. I faced some serious bullying from religious lobby groups earlier this year and everything in me just wanted to take them out … but then I would become just like them: a bully. When we are the target of religious poison everything in us wants to dexify. Don’t. Let it go. That is horrible punishment for bullies who, often suffering from narcissistic personality disorder, crave our reaction.

In conclusion, maybe a most uncomfortable truth. Most of us, at some stage, have acted like bullies. We have intimidated others. We have coerced and manipulated others to do our bidding. No genuine conversation about bullying can happen without this recognition. I look back on my life and recognise many moments when I was the bully, when I was the oppressor, when I inflicted pain on others. To truly see social change in this area we need to recognise the human malady of insatiable hunger for power and dominance. This distorted survival mode does not exempt anyone, including, and maybe especially, religious folk who also have a God to bring into bullying tactics. We all need to be aware of the bully within, to move our lives from an ego-centric focus to one of love and grace.pogo-enemy(Please note: Links are underlined)