Category Archives: Sociology

A Tyrant called Should

“Stop Shoulding on yourself!” – Albert Ellis

 

I don’t know how this tyrant found me. Somewhere in the more hazy, early years of my life, it arrived amidst whispers of fears of belonging and identity that are part of human existence.  It settled like a squatter in the shaping of who I was becoming. Over time the squatter seemed to grow in size and volume and it became ginormous within the ethereal walls of conservative fundamentalism. Perhaps you too know this tyrant I speak of? It’s called ‘Should’, first name ‘I’. I should.

I Should do this …
I Should be that …
I Should have this …
I Should not do this …
I Should…
SHOULD…!

Now don’t get me wrong. I think a healthy dose of ‘Should’ or ‘Responsibility’ around the table of our life is not tyrannical in any way. Should, in its proper place, keeps boundaries around our lives that keep us and others safe, and contributing to a greater good. Should holds the possibility of great rewards – and perhaps it is those rewards that cause us to obsess about it? However, to give in to its power is to live in the clutches of tyranny. Its endless demands on our lives and the lives of others is a source of anxiety, guilt, shame, depression and self-hatred. When we don’t measure up to Should we become angry and disappointed with ourselves. And when we place Should on the shoulders of others we end up consistently unhappy in our relationships.

Should is also the master of disguise. It is hard to recognise this exaggerated sense of obligation when we are convinced it’s ‘love’. We SHOULD love others, right? If you, like me, identify as a person of faith, it is often our notions about ‘loving others as ourselves’ that feeds this mutated idea of human kindness and compassion. And the more we feed it, the more we discover something … the beast is never satisfied.

Should also disguises itself as ‘virtue’ and hides the fact that in many ways it is our fear of being ‘disliked’ by others that keeps this tyrant in power. What if I don’t ‘Should’ one day and people don’t like me? What about my reputation? What if I upset them and it gets messy? The truth monster: Should is a mirror to I … and unless we confront an anxious ego, the tyrant keeps the crown.

For me, conservative fundamentalism was the compost the tyrant needed to grow even bigger in my life. The culture and history that informed my identity, taught me that the world is a serious place and we all need to do our part to keep it spinning. I was the perpetual ‘good girl’ wanting to please those around me. Then I discovered a form of religious expression that consistently enshrined and rewarded Should. In fundamentalism, Should came with accolades. It was a match made in hell. It became difficult to differentiate between Should and God. Should was cloaked in piety and had Bible chapters and verses to prove its legitimacy in my life. So walking away from fundamentalism, breaking the rules and ‘disappointing’ people, was really like sticking the middle finger up to Should. It was a most painful and liberating process.

Nowadays, Should still sits at my table. There are even days when it inflates, yells, and tries to snatch back the scepter. But it is no longer a tyrant – it’s more like a toddler, throwing an occasional massive tantrum. I recognise those days. I raise my eyebrows and speak to Should, “Should, you are loved and needed at this table. I am grateful for your voice in my life. But you are not in charge and if you don’t lower your voice I will spontaneously throw myself into the sea, eat a whole chocolate cake and drink copious amounts of beer … just to remind you that I also have other voices around this table. They are called Playful, Imaginative, Spontaneous, Fun, and Risky. When you shout at me like that, I will dial up their volume. Get it? You are NOT in charge.”

So, friend, maybe it’s time to examine ‘Should’ in your life? If you can’t find it, then perhaps you need to dial down the ‘reckless’ voice? If you, like me, find Should has a tendency to become overtly bossy and pushy then maybe it’s time to listen to what this is actually telling you about your life? Your relationships? And there is this little word that has magical powers when it comes to dialing down Should – it’s ‘No’. It has a beautiful ring, doesn’t it? “No, Should, I do not want to do that or be that. Now go away!” – I dare you to try it!

 

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Voices from the Grave: Frederick Douglass

“Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe.” Frederick Douglas

We know little of the woman Harriet Bailey. We just know she was the mother of the man that would struggle, resist, and rise to become one of America’s great thinkers and staunch abolitionists. There is every chance that she lived her whole life in harsh oppression. The baby she birthed and held in her arms somewhere in the year 1818 was probably fathered by one of the plantation owners in Talbot County, Maryland, where she was a slave. No matter the argument, there was nothing consensual about their sexual relationship. She died when he was seven years old: She died when I was about seven years old, on one of my master’s farms, near Lee’s Mill. I was not allowed to be present during her illness, at her death, or burial. She was gone long before I knew anything about it.” (Narratives of the Life of Frederick Douglass)

Harriet was one of the millions who died at the hands of a brutal regime, an insidious ideology that upheld the notion that people could be ‘property’ based on the colour of their skin. An injustice held in place by the powers of government and religion. The theological hermeneutics of the day, informed by culture, history and social norms (the same aspects that shape our hermeneutics today) had built a sound argument from the Bible, not just defending, but praising the virtues of enslavement, marginalisation and exclusion of African Americans.

“Revivals of religion and revivals in the slave-trade go hand in hand together. The slave prison and the church stand near each other. The clanking of fetters and the rattling of chains in the prison, and the pious psalm and solemn prayer in the church, may be heard at the same time. The dealers in the bodies of men erect their stand in the presence of the pulpit, and they mutually help each other. The dealer gives his blood-stained gold to support the pulpit, and the pulpit, in return, covers his infernal business with the garb of Christianity. Here we have religion and robbery the allies of each other — devils dressed in angels’ robes, and hell presenting the semblance of paradise.” (Narratives) 

It was Sophia, the wife of one of Frederick’s slaveholders who gave him a gift of a lifetime. She taught him the alphabet and he continued to learn to read from the white children in his area after her husband forbade it. This gift of a small and limited education was all that Frederick needed to fuel his passion to learn and to sharpen his arguments against slavery. He also taught other enslaved children to read. His endeavours to educate others drew the ire of his slave master and he was transferred to Edward Covey, a farmer who was known for his brutal treatment of slaves. Covey nearly broke him – but Frederick managed to escape …

“No Man can put a chain about the ankle of his fellow man without at last finding the other end fastened about his own neck.”

He escaped to New York and found refuge in the home of David Ruggles, an abolitionist. In September 1838, he married Anna Murray and they had five children together. It was during this time he changed his surname to Douglass, inspired by Sir Walter Scott’s poem “The Lady of the Lake”.

Frederick Douglass found a mentor in William Lloyd Garrison who encouraged him in his speaking and writing as he rose to leadership in the abolitionist movement. He toured the country with the American Anti-Slavery Society, giving convincing and informed speeches against the practice of slavery. Tragically he was often rewarded with violence. Once he had his hand broken when attacked. He sustained wounds that never really healed.

Douglass worked tirelessly and also became an advocate for the women’s rights movement:

“In this denial of the right to participate in government, not merely the degradation of woman and the perpetuation of a great injustice happens, but the maiming and repudiation of one-half of the moral and intellectual power of the government of the world.” (Seneca Falls Convention, New York, 1848).

But it was the flavour of Christianity of his day that drew Frederick’s greatest outrage. He drew a sharp distinction between the person of Christ and the national religion that paraded around under the name of the lowly carpenter. I will finish this blog with Frederick’s scorching rebuke … I think so much of what he said and wrote bears meaning and wisdom for us today. We should take the time to contemplate how religion influences politics in our particular settings – and is that influence Good News? Or does it enable the oppression and marginalisation of others? Selah.

“I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I, therefore, hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land. Indeed, I can see no reason, but the most deceitful one, for calling the religion of this land Christianity. I look upon it as the climax of all misnomers, the boldest of all frauds, and the grossest of all libels. Never was there a clearer case of “stealing the livery of the court of heaven to serve the devil in.”

I am filled with unutterable loathing when I contemplate the religious pomp and show, together with the horrible inconsistencies, which every where surround me. We have men-stealers for ministers, women- whippers for missionaries, and cradle-plunderers for church members. The man who wields the blood-clotted cow skin during the week fills the pulpit on Sunday and claims to be a minister of the meek and lowly Jesus. The man who robs me of my earnings at the end of each week meets me as a class-leader on Sunday morning, to show me the way of life, and the path of salvation. He who sells my sister, for purposes of prostitution, stands forth as the pious advocate of purity. He who proclaims it a religious duty to read the Bible denies me the right of learning to read the name of the God who made me. He who is the religious advocate of marriage robs whole millions of its sacred influence, and leaves them to the ravages of wholesale pollution.

The warm defender of the sacredness of the family relation is the same that scatters whole families, — sundering husbands and wives, parents and children, sisters and brothers, — leaving the hut vacant, and the hearth desolate. We see the thief preaching against theft, and the adulterer against adultery. We have men sold to build churches, women sold to support the gospel, and babes sold to purchase Bibles for the poor heathen! All for the glory of God and the good of souls!”

 

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Suffer the little Children

“There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.” Nelson Mandela

 

 

With bated breath I watched the commencement of the rescue of the Thai soccer team stuck in a cave for over two weeks. It would be very hard not to feel any empathy for these boys, their coach, their families, and the members of the rescue team who risked their lives to see these children liberated. We can only imagine what it would have felt like to be one of them, entombed in total darkness for such a long time, then discovered, and hope returns softly. And what would it have been like to be one of those family members, sitting outside the entrance of the monstrous darkness that holds captive their loved one? Being engulfed in feelings of helplessness, just waiting and trusting the people that have come to assist. No wonder the world was watching. It caught all our attention and empathy. We celebrated at the news they had all been rescued. And so we should!

Yet, as I watched the drama unfolding, there was a gnawing pain, a disturbance of conscience that will not leave me alone. It is the recognition that with every story of hope there are untold stories of despair. We may not like to hear this, yet around our blue planet children are suffering and children are dying. They “die quietly in some of the poorest villages on earth, removed from the scrutiny and the conscience of the world. Being meek and weak in life makes these dying multitudes even more invisible in death” (Global Issues). Perhaps the hardest thing to hear is that in some way we are all connected and complicit to their death. Unless we begin to recognise these painful shadows of social and economic collaboration, we will never address the systemic issues that cause their suffering. In the words of Richard Rohr, “You cannot heal what you do not acknowledge.”

Today, more than 357 million children are living in a conflict zone. That is one in six children in the world today are afflicted by conflict. Of these, 165 million are classified as living in ‘high-intensity’ conflict zones and their suffering includes: being recruited as child soldiers, sexual violence, abduction, personal attacks, denial of humanitarian access, as well as maiming and killing. If there’s a child you love in your life, take a moment to look in their eyes. There is absolutely nothing you have done that has privileged that child to be born into an environment of safety and care. Instead, in this paradox of life, that child you are looking at is likely to live in relative peace in comparison to one of the 357 million children who is now traumatised because their little eyes have seen too much.

Whether we like it or not, globalisation is a reality. We are all connected. Australia’s island status and the insular identity that it fashions through this in politics, society, and culture, is somewhat laughable but certainly imagined. We cannot simply claim global connection when it suits us economically. Instead, we also have to consider our global responsibility, especially as we have been part of conflicts that have left countries debilitated and as ongoing war zones. Children are suffering in those countries.

Poverty is, of course, another contributor to the suffering of children around the globe. Despite our wealth, the Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS) released statistics in 2016 that showed that 731,300 children or 17.4% of all children in Australia are living in poverty – an increase of 2% over the past ten years. Children account for nearly half of the world’s extreme poor and 1 in 4 children are living in poverty in the world’s wealthiest countries. Only half of all countries in the world have child poverty data, ensuring their suffering remains invisible and a most convenient way to keep up the lies we tell ourselves!

Conflict, persecution, and poverty have been the major cause of the unprecedented rise of displaced people like we have never seen before. Considering what we know about how children are suffering through this, it would make sense that a rational response would be to enable forums of people with the necessary knowledge and skills to urgently discuss how we can address this in a global, compassionate and united way? Especially considering we are connected and complicit? Not so! Fear, slander, and control is the order of the day. From Trump’s horrendous “Zero Tolerance” policy, separating children from their parents, the trauma of which will be recorded for years to come, to the concentration-style camps that prove to be places of mental torture, that the Australian government(s) provides for the destitute. We know these policies are causing children to suffer but unlike the Thai soccer team, they do not make it to the headlines.

There really is no argument that justifies such political/social evil that puts a child in harm’s way. Any religious notions that refuse to condemn these actions, yet insist on the rights of the unborn, need to be questioned, critiqued and ultimately, dismissed. If the religious elite who hold these ideas genuinely want to save unborn children then they would also fight for a world in which all women and men can be confident that their children’s future will include education, food, and housing. They would make contraception a major issue, instead of allowing their beliefs to take precedence over the unborn child they are fighting for. As Joan Chittister put it, “I do not believe that just because you’re opposed to abortion that makes you pro-life. In fact, I think in many cases, your morality is deeply lacking if all you want is a child born but not a child fed, not a child educated, not a child housed. And why would I think that you don’t? Because you don’t want tax money to go there. That’s not pro-life. That’s pro-birth. We need a much broader conversation on what the morality of pro-life is.” Selah.

I am part of a modern society that is outraged over having their plastic bags culled at the supermarket, yet remains relatively silent at the imprisonment of children at the hands of my own government. I do not remove myself from this society. In hundreds of different ways I have enabled it. I look back and I cringe at some of the things I have done and believed. I am not ok with this. I can do better. We can do better. We can rise above the fear and the slander. We have and hold collective solutions that, if given consideration, pave a better way forward in line with values of kindness and sustainability. Like that little soccer team, huddled in the darkness, let us refuse to give up hope. In fact, let us demand that hope and the actions that give it wings, of each other.

Suffer the little children … unless we resist.
Long live the resistance.

 

 

 

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In a World of Blind Privilege and Exclusion – Be a Mama Tammye

“I am on this planet, not for myself, but for the betterment of humanity” – Mamma Tammye
(Queer Eye SO2, EO1)

 

It started a few weeks ago. The texts, that is …

“Have you started Queer Eye Season 2? OMG!!!”
“Ok – STOP what you are doing and watch Queer Eye Season 2, Episode 1 … now…. text me…”
“Can’t stop crying – you must have seen Mama Tammye on Queer Eye?”
“Now you know what I think about church, but you might just drag me along if Mama Tammye was preaching.”

So, needless to say, I positioned my derriere on the couch, a glass of red in hand, 2 fur children snoring loudly next to me and started watching Queer Eye – Season 2, Episode 1 as instructed. I nearly convulsed, I was sobbing so hard through the show. I love the Fab 5 and the way they seek to bring meaning and transformation to the lives of others. And who would not fall in love with Mama Tammye?? She reminded me of everything that was okay about religion – she was a personification of the Good News that Jesus talks about.

Watching Mama Tammye interact with the Fab 5 and her complete love and acceptance of her magnificent gay son, Myles, brought up much grief and disappointment for me. If only modern expressions of church and Christianity, held so tightly and loudly by powers and authorities that are often very conservative, privileged and exclusive, had more of Mama Tammy and less of fear and control. What would that look like? Is an ‘old wineskin’ of ecclesiastical methodology and tradition, shaped by the triumphant rise of Christianity as a super-religion under Constantine, even able to hold such a dream? Does it need a whole new wineskin? Could we imagine religious settings that are able to love as fierce and fearless as Mama Tammye? I know there are many that do. Unfortunately, they are not always the ones who are seen or heard. Fundamentalism, that undergirds so much of modern Christianity, has set itself up as the truth bearer – shaming those who do not heed its ideas or peddle its control. So silencing critics and dreamers becomes very important. Yet nothing good has ever come from shaming people into silence.

But back to Mama Tammye and her genuine love, welcome, and affirmation of the diverse expressions of what it means to be human. She is truly welcoming. A welcome that says – “You are loved, just the way you are.” Let’s be like Mama Tammye and open our hearts and arms to love and include for the ‘betterment of humanity.’ Let’s open our eyes to the harmful ideas that claim to be welcoming but not affirming. But what does that even mean?! It means LGBTIQ people can be lulled into a false sense of safety, that a space or group is welcoming, while the toxic ideas of ‘ex-gay’ are still the oxygen that people breathe. “You are welcome here … but you can’t serve or lead until you become straight or at least stay celibate.” The demand for LGBTIQ people to be celibate is the new ex-gay movement, and in the same vein as its insidious ‘pray-the-gay-away therapy’ predecessor (a belief that people who are gay can become straight and that it is God’s will for them to be straight) it continues to wreak havoc with vulnerable lives – to understand some of the heartbreak, please take time to listen to this excellent interview with Vicky Beeching. So let me spell it out – any religious space or group that claims to be welcoming, but not affirming, that sees LGBTIQ people as ‘broken’ and ‘not ideal’, but is motivated by a ‘burden’ to ‘love’ them with a messiah-like, saccharine approach is NOT a safe place. We can all exercise our freedom to go to these places but please do so with your eyes wide open.

I loved the way Mama Tammye repented of the idea that her son was anything but beautiful because he was gay. She rejected a dogma of exclusion that says you are accepted and affirmed by God if you are hetero or celibate. Dogmas of exclusion have been around for centuries. Politics and religion keep them alive. Study Germany when Hitler rose to power. We see similarities in the vilification and exclusion of people in the modern day phenomenon that is unravelling in Trump’s USA. I have witnessed it in apartheid South Africa and as a woman of faith, I very quickly realised that in some denominational circles it is only if you possess certain genitalia that you are fit to preach from a pulpit or be in any form of governmental church roles.

If you, like me, have been part of a more fundamentalist religious setting you have probably been complicit in some form of dogma that marginalised others. Nowadays, the flavour of the month for exclusion in religious settings is LGBTIQ people and it seems immigrants and asylum seekers are the favourites on the political front. We all love ‘others’ as long as they all look and think like us 🙂 We all love God – especially when God is male, white, conservative, and approving only of heterosexual orientation 🙂 The idea that the gospel is bigger than our constructed, socialised interpretation of sacred text is a terrifying thought. Mama Tammye repented from that fear and arrogance. What a breath of fresh air she was blowing into her church and giving that marvellous speech:

“How can I say I love God, but I cannot love the ones who are right next to me?”

Imagine a world filled with Mama Tammyes?
Imagine a world were people like Antoni Porowski and Bobby Berk are brought to tears as they are reminded that the love and face of Jesus are often very different to the words and actions of those who proclaim to be his followers?
Imagine a religious space that has let go of the fundamentalist idea that we need to control who people are and what they believe?
Imagine a group of people that simply spread the good news: that God is not the enemy, rather God is revealed in Immanuel – with us.

In the current climate of increasing political and religious exclusion – let’s be counter-cultural. Let’s be people of a different way. The way of Jesus. Let’s open up our arms wide, tell fear to get back into the box, and trust that love will win the day.

Be like Mama Tammye.

“But I need to ask you for your forgiveness because Mama has not loved you unconditionally.” Mama Tammye – speaking of her son, Myles.

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The Relationship Glue: Kindness

“When I was young I admired clever people, now that I am old I admire kind people.”
– Abraham Joshua Heschel-

 

Psychologists John and Julie Gottman spent four decades studying relationships. They set up a research centre at the Washington University and together with a colleague, Robert Levenson, analysed hundreds of relationships (now referred to as “The Gottman Method”) – some successful and some disasters. One of the critical discoveries in their research had to do with how a person responded to their partner when the partner was making a request or ‘bid’ for conversation and interaction:

“People who turned toward their partners in the study responded by engaging the bidder, showing interest and support in the bid. Those who didn’t – those who turned away – would not respond or respond minimally and continue doing whatever they were doing, like watching TV or reading the paper. Sometimes they would respond with overt hostility, saying something like, “Stop interrupting me, I’m reading.”

They concluded that contempt is the driving factor behind relationships breaking down! But what holds it all together? What is the key ingredient to healthy relationships? It’s kindness:

“Kindness, on the other hand, glues couples together. Research independent from theirs has shown that kindness (along with emotional stability) is the most important predictor of satisfaction and stability in a marriage. Kindness makes each partner feel cared for, understood, and validated – feel loved. ‘My bounty is as boundless as the sea,’ says Shakespeare’s Juliet. ‘My love as deep; the more I give to thee, the more I have, for both are infinite.’ That’s how kindness works too: there’s a great deal of evidence showing the more someone receives or witnesses kindness, the more they will be kind themselves, which leads to upward spirals of love and generosity in a relationship.”

I have been very fortunate to be surrounded by many kind people. Their selfless acts of kindness have often left me choked up as I consider what a cold world I would live in without them. My parents modelled kindness to me. Money or status was not something that ranked high on their value system, but kindness was. Through their actions and discussions, I learnt that accomplishments turn to ash if you cannot live a life of kindness. My ever-chirpy life partner is one of ‘booming’ kindness. His consistent acts of love and care often make me stop and think how I happen to do life with an exceptional human. Kindness really is the ancient new black 😃

But what is kindness? To me, kindness is love in action. It is creating benefits for another at the expense or risk of yourself. There are many forms of kindness. We can be kind with our emotions by showing empathy and compassion. We can be kind with a “there you are” attitude. “There you are” people exude kindness when noticing the stranger, the one that is alone, or afraid. They are the people who walk into a room and are kind (and secure) enough to put the focus on the other. In recent weeks I have had so many acts of kindness come my way – a friend who dropped everything to wash my windows when we left our home in Queensland, someone else who offered a meal and bought a banquet that lasted for days, another person who hopped on their motorbike to help unload our furniture (a daunting task considering the nightmare we experienced with our removalist), a friend who drove for a couple of hours to help sort my vast array of books onto shelves … This last month I was reminded over and over again that the attribute of kindness is the most noble of human traits.

There have been studies on the biology and evolution of kindness:

“Oxytocin is a neuropeptide that works like a hormone in our bodies, reducing fear, anxiety, and stress while increasing feelings of trust, calm, safety, and connectedness. On a biological level, it improves our digestion, reduces inflammation, lowers blood pressure, and improves healing. It’s the same chemical that is released when we feel love and have sex. No wonder kindness feels good!”

Kindness inspires me. I want to ‘hang’ in the kind space, with these giants of kindness.

People who have learnt that ultimately no one gives a flying rip about how clever we are, how many material toys we have, or how important we perceive ourselves to be. Rather, the energy and power shifts and changes when kindness walks into a room.

I want to live my life as a kind and generous human.

Kind to others.

Kind to the planet and all its inhabitants.

Kind to myself.

Will you join me on this quest?

Let’s make the world a better place one kind step at a time.

“Do your little bit of good where you are; it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.” – Desmond Tutu –

“Three things in human life are important: the first is to be kind; the second is to be kind; and the third is to be kind.”  – Henry James –

“Kindness is a language which the deaf can hear and the blind can see.” – Mark Twain –

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Lessons from the Fockers: The Circle of Trust

“This is the reason I created the circle of trust – so we can discuss these things.” – Jack Byrnes

What are your favourite movies? You know, those movies that you’ve watched a hundred times but if someone suggested a night that includes red wine and that movie, you would cancel the meeting with royalty to be there! One of mine is Meet the Fockers. There are many reasons why I like this film – the uncanny resemblance of the different family dynamics is uncomfortably familiar and similar to those of my partner’s and my own life. My mother could have embodied Barbara Streisand 🙂 For us, it wasn’t even a comedy – it was the story of our lives.

Jack Byrnes’ (Robert De Niro) insistence of establishing an exclusive “Circle of Trust” that is built on a very fickle set of rules, bullying tactics, and paranoia is a most interesting study in human relations. He obviously does not believe that Gregory Focker is a suitable groom for his “first-born” and threatens him with the removal from the “circle of trust” – “and once you are out, you are out – there is no return.” Ouch! Poor Focker.

Now I do not want to condone Jack’s bullying, manipulative power tactics – BUT Jack has a lesson for all of us. We all have a “circle of trust” or “club membership to our life story” – people who through history and relationship have an elevated position in our lives. We listen to their voices, even when they are long gone, and we take their advice far more seriously because they have impacted our lives in some way or another. Often this is a very positive exchange. We can all think of people who have contributed to our identity in meaningful ways. People who have added to the hopes and dreams we have held. People whose values and ethics have aligned with our own, creating a sense of belonging. Take the time to remember them.

And then there are the others …!! The people who have an elevated access to our lives because of friendship, work association, faith community or family relationship, and who routinely through their words and actions undermine us and compound a problem-laden story-line in our lives. People who break the “circle of trust” not just once or twice but who are consistent in that form of negative behaviour. Perhaps, like me, you tend to put up with this much longer than you should?

I don’t assume to know your story, but one of the reasons I have tolerated this in my life is that I was operating under the false idea that to be a “good Christian” you have to allow people to treat you like shit and then forgive them. Now there’s a lot to say about the journey of forgiveness – perhaps for another blog post. But often in religious circles, we are told we are “loved” and that we “matter” – and we drink the cool aid. So then when abuse happens, we cannot believe that we have been treated that badly. It creates a sense of unreality, confusion and we simply do not trust our perception of the situation – so we stick around. It’s called cognitive dissonance – we are holding two contradicting beliefs. On the one hand, we are told that we are loved, yet on the other, we are treated terribly by those who profess that love. When you go to confront it, you are met with passive aggressive smiles and denial that again throws you into confusion and anxiety. Don’t be surprised that this form of gas-lighting is often rampant by the power brokers of organisations or family units. We may feel powerless caught in such a circle – like Greg Focker.

We may need a neutral or impartial person to come alongside us and help us recognise what is actually going on. When your trust has been badly violated over a long period of time it helps to talk about it, recognise it and build a preferred story-line where the perpetrators are, in Jack Byrne’s words “removed from the circle.” Trust is one of the most precious components in relationships. It is an unrealistic expectation to think that no one we are in relationship with will break our trust, or for that matter, that we won’t break the trust of someone else. However, there is a massive difference between breaking trust, owning it, and providing the hurting party with an unreserved apology, and a pattern of abusive behaviour that consistently breaks our trust and spirals us into anxiety.

We also have to identify and own our complicity in often enabling a toxic circle of trust. Most of us would have played a part of controlling such a circle at some stage or another, often with good intentions. It starts in kindergarten. We form circles with people who think like us, look like us and believe like us. Like Jack, we have prided ourselves on being the guardians of such a circle and have contributed to a plethora of dogmas and policies to hold it all in place. When people don’t measure up they are ousted and become part of the throng of exiles who simply could not fit in. I stand guilty as charged.

So, dear friend, we can take many lessons from Jack Byrne and his circle of trust. Let’s take a good look at whether we are playing a role in a toxic circle that is harming people’s lives. And let’s also consider that healthy circles of trust play a crucial role in relationships. We actually have a choice about whose ‘voice’ we will elevate in our lives. You have that choice.

So, dear friend, take a leaf from the life of Jack Byrnes and choose the Fockers in your circle carefully. Live your rich and multi-faceted life with gusto! xx

 

 

 

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My Addiction to Certitude

There are all kinds of addicts, I guess. We all have pain. And we all look for ways to make the pain go away.
– Sherman Alexie –

In a recent conversation with a friend on the topic of liminality and religion, I entered a path of greater self-discovery. The question he posed that allowed me to enlarge the narrative I tell myself about myself was this: “You speak of being in a form of conservative, religious fundamentalism for thirty years – what you need to ask yourself was what drew you there in the first place?”

It’s a good question. What draws us into spaces of community and belonging? Why do we hang around even when we realise that the values we hold have become juxtaposed to the policies of an organisation? And, specifically, what is it especially about religious communities that make it extremely difficult to discern that the time has come to say goodbye?

The question took me back to my childhood and the recognition from a young age that although I grew up in a loving and encouraging home this was not the reality for many other people. My parents did not shield me from the realisation that this world holds much suffering – something I would witness first hand when we moved to Africa. My pre-liminal space was one that recognised chaos … and as a young person, I yearned for order and structure. I was a prime candidate for the zealous, orderly world of fundamentalism.

In an upcoming book by Tim Carson, I will share more deeply about this experience (thank you, Tim, for the opportunity to contribute). Looking back, I recognise the longing that led me to structure and the addiction that kept me there – an addiction to certitude.

The black and white world of literalism, “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it”, became my ‘God drug’. I was convinced that I, and the tradition I was part of, held the truth and needed to save the souls of those who did not share this euphoric space of transcendence. I became a zealot – a zealot with the privilege of a platform. I used it to speak of absolutes around the world … and I was cheered on, fuelling my dependence on certainty.

In those days I had no room in my life for paradox – questions and doubts were tucked away and hidden. They were not to be spoken of as I did not want to upset this wonderful world I was in … a world where everything was ‘awesome’. A world that had created order out of my chaos, provided foolproof answers to my yearning and showed me a clear and triumphant way. Certitude, like the matrix, is an intoxicating hyper-reality.

This week I was reminded of my addiction. A cruel tweet from a religious leader against the rainbow community triggered me and I responded with outrage. Amidst the comments on my facebook page, a friend (Daniels Sims) wrote, “I feel for him (religious leader). I really do. It is hard to be saved from behind a wall of certitude.” His words struck such a deep chord with me.

How hard it is to be saved from behind a wall of certitude! That was me … for nearly three decades. I partook and was complicit in supplying the drugs needed to keep our certainty addiction alive and with it dulled some of the discomforts that derive from ‘not knowing’ and embracing mystery. Certitude provides us with all the answers we need to live a cloistered life of dogmatism, perhaps because the alternative is just too scary and difficult.

I look at my life now – what a far cry from the young, impassioned, self-assured, and absolutely convinced person I once was. Most of the time I am not certain and mystery has now become a dear friend. Like any recovering addict, I am still drawn to certainty but I now realise that just like the idea of normality, certainty is a myth. What St Paul wrote is true, we look at the world through a dark, smokey glass. To proclaim anything else is presumption … to recognise it is to walk with humility and compassion.

So, friend, if you, like me, have identified your addiction and need for certitude, perhaps we can sit around a virtual room of belonging together and proclaim: “I am *insert name* and I am a certitude addict.” And then smile and realise that here too, grace abounds and is sufficient.

A paradox is a seeming contradiction, always demanding a change on the side of the observer. If we look at almost all things honestly we see everything has a character of paradox to it. Everything, including ourselves. – Richard Rohr – 

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Unsubscribing from Normal

As I opened my emails one morning and started deleting about twenty of them without even engaging with the content, I knew it was time for another ‘unsubscribe’ purge. Over several years I had subscribed, or was subscribed by the invisible email subscription ghost, to dozens of newsletters, specials, advertisements, health tips, etc, etc… and they all wanted me to hear from them first thing in the morning … but I had lost all interest! Isn’t it peculiar how we remain subscribed to something that is no longer relevant to our lives?!

Just like those pesky emails, I wonder what social norms we have subscribed to over our lives, most often without even considering the price of subscription or their relevance? Things we do and say and judge simply because somewhere in our history and culture we determined that we needed to be subscribers to ‘normal’ in order to ‘fit in’? As an immigrant into various different cultures and contexts, I felt I was forever playing catch up to ‘normal’ … and I never felt certain that I had achieved this social, cultural or later, religious ideal that was held in high regard amongst my ‘tribe’.

I have a vivid memory of my ten-year-old school friend looking at the dark rye sandwich my mother had lovingly prepared for me, complete with cheese and pickles, pulling up her nose and commenting, “I don’t know who eats stuff like that. It’s just not normal.” There it was again! That dreaded word that I had been conscripted to and had no idea how to fulfil all of its demands.

Perhaps most of us don’t spend enough time reflecting on what normal means in our lives? How has it enhanced our way of life? How has it limited our life? In what forum are we picking up ideas about normality and are we actually applying critical thinking to those forums and the rhetoric before putting them to work in our lives? Normality can be the cruellest of taskmasters.

Jane Hutton writes, “The concept of ‘normality’ is relatively new and yet insidiously powerful. It provides the criteria we are comparing ourselves to. Normality can sometimes work for us and often works against us. Perceptions of what is ‘normal’ can marginalise individuals and groups of people and give great power to those who live their lives within its boundaries. They can be used to diminish people on the basis of cultural or spiritual practices, sexuality, physical and mental health, and ability.” (The International Journal of Narrative Therapy and Community Work 2008 No.1)

We have Adolphe Quetelet and his study of social behaviour in a hope to develop a science for managing society, to thank for our obsession with ‘normal’. His cosmic template for the “Average Man” has created all kinds of hell and headaches. This includes parents who are obsessed that their child should not just reach ‘ average‘ milestones but surpass them. Quetelet created a powerful Normal monster. But it would have NO power without OUR consent. You see, ‘normal’ is a myth.

Think about all the ideas we have about normal and then ask yourself seriously:
* What is a normal skin colour?
* What are normal clothes?
* Normal sleep?
* Normal poop?
* What is a normal family?
* What is a normal relationship?
* What the hell really is a normal person?

Normal has created absolute havoc for so many people. It has caused society to create margins for those who we deem not ‘normal’ and sadly that sort of exclusion is so often backed by religion. It’s time we consider … think … STOP!

Friend, I am suggesting that if Normal is making you miserable then it’s time to Kiss or Kick Normal Goodbye.

It is time to unsubscribe to Normal. If you can’t think of a way to do it then here is a little note – you have my permission to use and adapt it as you please … and live your precious life.

Dear Normal,

Somehow I managed to be on your list of everyday emails and I would like you to unsubscribe me.

The moment I wake up you are there dictating to me how I should dress and what I should wear. Then you berate me about my abnormal job choice, you worry me with questions about my non-compliant sleeping patterns, and you yell at me for being a peculiar sort of parent. All through the day you judge me about how I laugh, speak, walk, relate … Normal, I have had it. I am tired of you. You are no longer going to have such a damn loud voice in my life.

Don’t take me wrong – I appreciate some of your concerns about my safety and self-care – and I will allow you to whisper to me in those times. But I am turning off your bloody booming voice.

So, Normal, today I unsubscribe from your daily ranting emails. I wish you well. And I am off to live my bizarrely absurdly preposterously marvellous life.

Ciao

Sincerely,

(Insert your name)

P.s. Normal, please don’t call me – I will call you!

 

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Psalm 139: Treasures of Darkness – Guest Post by Tim Carson

Friends make the world a much better place and when you find a new friend you feel the universe smiling on you 🙂 This is a guest post by a new friend, Tim Carson.

Tim is a writer, musician, holds a D.Min, pastor, traveller, horseman, scuba diver, healer, and when the weather is fair found atop his Indian motorcycle heading into the next liminal space. For a more extensive bio and his blog please follow this link.

Tim blogs:

Have you ever felt surrounded? I know I have.

A long time ago I was in Bangladesh and taking a riverboat to travel from the capital city of Dhaka to another part of the country. As a passenger, you move through shoulder-to-shoulder crowds to the landing where the triple-decker ships are lined up. And after you make it to the gangplank you have to find a place on one of the decks, the lower two being open air decks. There are mats everywhere with people camped out as far as the eye can see. The scene is like a gymnasium shelter after a disaster with all the people camped out on cots. It would be like our Room at the Inn except instead of 50 there are 200 campers.

I had never felt so absolutely surrounded and haven’t since. Everywhere I turned there were people. No matter whether I looked before or behind, decks below or above, I was surrounded. There was no escape. And certainly, no privacy.

If you have had a similar experience or even a time when you felt you were under the microscope with no chance of evading the eyes of those watching, you might share some of the feelings of the Psalmist.

The difference is that the Psalmist was not speaking of being surrounded by people. He was speaking of being surrounded by God. This is the hymn to the inescapable God, the all-knowing and all-present God. There is not a place, a time, a word, or a thought that is not known. Regardless of where and when God is in the centre of it, or as the Psalmist says, “You lay your hand upon me.”

There is no suffering, there is no ecstasy, there is no despair, there is no hope without God in the centre of it. So we are never alone. But we also can’t escape, because escaping would mean somehow leaving our own being, our own souls.

This awareness of the inescapability of God may come to many of us: wonder and awe before the mystery of the cosmos.

Or in his words, “It is too high for me, I cannot comprehend it.” It is beyond the capacity of finite minds to grasp the infinite.

This is the story of anyone who dares leave the certainty of the known and entertain the uncertainty of God’s vastness and mystery. What the Psalmist teaches us and what we intuitively know is that there is more unknown than is known. We are surrounded by an all-knowing God even as we know hardly anything. Welcome to the mystery.

In Biblical imagery, this mystery of God is often represented by the shadows, the darkness, the dark cloud. And mystics through the ages have described it in similar ways, a dark unknowing that is more powerful than anything we do know.

Imagine the iceberg with the tip showing itself above the water line. What we see above the water is a very small percentage of the whole – maybe 10% of what is beneath the water line, beneath what we see or comprehend. The 90% below is present whether we see it or not.

Like the shadows of the unconscious, it is there whether we are aware of it or not.

One of my favourite sayings, one that Carl Jung chose to put on his tombstone, is “Called or not called, God is present.” (vocatus atque non vocatus Deus aderit)

And so the Psalmist is slain by the all-present and all-knowing sacred spirit that animates the cosmos, what physicists might describe as the “field” of energy and forces that sustain all things. Nothing escapes their influence whether we see them or don’t. This is the dark matter and energy that makes up almost everything.

Like Richard Rohr’s now-famous analogy, we are “falling upward” to the mystery of God. Once you let go of your illusions of control and knowledge, you abandon yourself, surrender yourself to the God who knows and loves you before you can possibly know and love God back. That leap of faith – required over and over again – transports us to the realm of God we cannot know in fullness.

Now we only “see through a darkened glass, but then face to face.”(I Cor 13)

And how does the Psalmist describe this? He describes this as the luminous darkness: “Even the dark is not dark to You.”

We’re not just talking about a nightlight in the darkness. No, the darkness is not dark to God because God is in the dark, a part of the dark. God is in the realm of the unknown mystery, the hidden treasures of God. What seems dark to us is not dark to God. Since the energy of God is everywhere God is not limited by our perception of light/darkness.

I want to suggest that the unknown realm of God, the darkness of knowledge in which the treasures of God may be found, is found in that interval between truth and illusion, somewhere in the margins of life. There are the words on the page, the obvious rational meanings, but then there are the spaces between the words, between the letters. If we were speaking of music we would say there is the silence between the notes.

So often the hidden meanings of God are found there, in the margins. Much of the rest belongs to illusion. And here is the secret to walking by faith in these margins: You don’t need to own or control the mystery of God as much as point to it, give testimony to it. “Even the dark is not dark to You,” prayed the Psalmist. In a world of truth and illusion, God’s truth always shines through. But how do we know the difference? Where do we look? In what intervals? In what margins?

One of the most beloved children’s stories of all time was written by the Danish Hans Christian Andersen and is entitled The Emperor’s New Clothing.

Many years ago there was an Emperor so exceedingly fond of new clothes that he spent all his money and time on being well dressed. In fact, he cared about little else.

One day two swindlers came to town and masqueraded as fine weavers and they said they could weave the most magnificent fabrics imaginable. Not only were their colours and patterns uncommonly fine, but clothes made of this cloth had a wonderful way of becoming invisible to anyone who was unfit for his office, or who was unusually stupid.

“Those would be just the clothes for me,” thought the Emperor. “I could tell the wise men from the fools.” He paid the two swindlers a large sum of money to start work at once.

They set up two looms and pretended to weave, though there was nothing on the looms.

As the Emperor sent his emissaries to the weavers to check on their progress they would always remark on how beautiful they were, even though they couldn’t see a thing. They didn’t want to be revealed as fools.

Finally, the Emperor came in to view the new clothing for himself. But looking he couldn’t see a thing. He wondered to himself, “Am I a fool? Am I unfit to be the Emperor?”

And so he said in the presence of them all, “Oh! It’s very pretty. It has my highest approval.” Nothing could make him say that he couldn’t see anything.

Finally, the day came for the Emperor to show his new clothing and the town was all a flutter. The Emperor went to the weavers to be dressed and they said to him, holding up the invisible clothing, “All of them are as light as a spider web. One would almost think he had nothing on, but that’s what makes them so fine.” The Emperor nodded with appreciation.

At that, the swindlers asked the Emperor to take off his clothes and they dressed him in his new specially made clothing.

So off went the Emperor in procession and everyone in the streets and the windows said, “Oh, how fine are the Emperor’s new clothes! Don’t they fit him to perfection? And see his long train!”

Nobody would confess that he couldn’t see anything, for that would prove him a fool, but near the end of the procession a little child said: “He hasn’t got anything on!”

“He hasn’t got anything on!” the whole town cried out at last.

The Emperor shivered, for he suspected they were right. But he thought, “This procession has to go on.” So he walked more proudly than ever, as his noblemen held high the train that wasn’t there at all.

Andersen’s comical story reveals just how we live in an interval somewhere between truth and illusion, and how illusions are maintained in our minds and the minds of entire tribes. Only when we become like a child and look out with innocence and simplicity may we see the truth. Out of the crowd, out of the margins, the shadows, the dark, a lone voice arises and names the truth that has been missed, ignored or even distorted. We live in a world of illusions and the truth often emerges from the sidelines, the odd margins, strange places that seem dark to us.

In just a couple of weeks, we will be re-telling the stories of some other processions of truth and illusion. A humble prophet will ride into the city that kills people like him and then take up his part in some street theatre. His ride will provide ironic commentary in which he rides a beast of burden rather than a chariot of imperial power. The crowds will hail him as king and cast branches on the road in tribute. But what sort of king is he?

Then, just a week later, the procession will turn deadly, winding through the same crowds but crowds who now do not praise but rather mock him. Who is he now? Who are we? What is real and what is not? Where is God, the God we think we have? Where now?

We are surrounded by God and there is no escape. We are known and there is no evasion. The mystery is so high that we cannot comprehend it. We have entered the darkness between truth and illusion. It is the place where we may discover and then pray, “Even the dark is not dark to You.”

Chasing Liminality on his Indian at one of the most Liminal places on earth, the Grand Canyon in Arizona

 

“Called or not called, God is present” – Desiderius Erasmus

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Disturbing the Ant Nest: Let’s Talk About Expectations!

“Expectations were like fine pottery. The harder you held them, the more likely they were to crack.”
Brandon Sanderson – The Way of Kings

When I was a child, my parents and I would take walks in the forests that grew rich and lush around the little village we called home in Northern Germany. Ants were amongst the many forest dwellers that set up house along the paths we trod. Their elaborate architectural mounds were taller than I and a never-ending source of fascination. As a small child, I confess to ignoring ant etiquette and poking a stick into the anthill here and there. Thousands of alarmed and indignant ants would come swarming out to inspect the damage. The mound literally came alive.

Our life is one big story that has been shaped by history and culture. Like the ant nests in my childhood forest, we have built our own extravagant narrative by which we live our lives. Expectations play a major role in our constructed memoir. When those expectations are poked and prodded … well, the ants they come swarming!

Expectations assume things from the life we live. They inform us that something will happen or be the case and therefore they determine our reality. We are all Pavlov’s dog salivating at the sound of an invisible bell. It’s called the Rule of Expectation. The expectations we carry of ourselves and others affect our behaviour. The mere suggestion of an expectation influences people. This has been used and abused by everyone from politicians, religious leaders, parents, supervisors and all of us! There is a myriad of books and presentations on how to work (manipulate) people’s expectations through the power of suggestion. I am not saying they are all bad. What I am highlighting is that we need to be aware of how expectations influence our lives.

The expectations we have of life and each other affects our being in this world – our joy and sense of peace. If I hold expectations that life should be fair and just, that everyone should like me, that friends will always be true, that I will not fail and that I will not face pain and suffering, then I will be one giant ball of disappointment. There is a desperate need to critique our expectations and perhaps it is time for a giant spring clean?

I am on a continual mission to live with less. Over the last couple of years, I have given boxes of ‘stuff’ away. I cannot begin to describe the therapeutic effect this has on the soul. I have been challenged to also minimalise my expectations. Learning to do that is learning to let go. In order to accommodate an ‘expectation declutter’ I had to first recognise and deconstruct a whole lot of assumptions I had of myself and others. I invited disappointment to the table.

Disappointment is not an easy guest to listen to. It is the stick we use to prod the ant hill. However, if we refuse to allow it to speak, pretending it’s not present, we will never discover what a gift of liberation it holds. Disappointment pointed out the many boxes of expectations that had grown mould in my life. Expectations of doing things right, of people being ’nice’ and liking me, and of being in control of my life. There were many boxes. It made me realise I did not want to live like this. Disappointment can lead us to wisdom.

Wisdom tells us that hoarding boxes of expectations will only bring misery. Wisdom orders the rubbish skip and gently prises our fingers off the expectations we are clutching to. But it doesn’t leave us empty-handed. Instead of hundreds of boxes of exhausting expectations, it gives us a perfume bottle that says “Gratitude”.

Learning to spray Gratitude instead of placing yet another box of unrealised expectations on some shelf, takes time and reflection. We learn to live our way to a whole new manner of being in this world. Of course, there are expectations that we should not let go of – an expectation to be safe in our environment, an expectation not to linger in toxic places and spaces, an expectation of self to be kind and tread gently in the world we live in. These kinds of expectations are helpers and guardians in our lives. But you may discover that so many of the expectations you have in your story are unnecessary and only wear you down.

A wise man once said that we should go to the ants and consider their ways. I invite you to do that. I also invite you to consider the role Expectation plays in your life. Are you happy with the power it holds? Does it add to your life or take away? Consider the voices of disappointment, wisdom and gratitude. I wish you the blessing of living a ‘light’ life, dear friend. Decluttering is good for the soul.

Live your life, sing your song. Not full of expectations. Not for the ovations. But for the joy of it.”
Rasheed Ogunlaru

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