Category Archives: Sociology

The Compass in our Hand

“We are asleep with compasses in our hands.”
– W.S. Merwin –

 

Overnight my world became more silent. The ceasing of so much noise and activity was not planned or expected. It just happens when a pandemic comes calling. Not in a million light years would I have predicted this or seen it coming. Nonetheless it has. Very few lives remain unaffected.

‘Lockdown’ has brought us many things. Change is one of them. We are assigned a new way of going about our daily business. Change requires renegotiation. There is a give and a take in this new world. We grieve the loss of so many things we took for granted … and we also stare wide eyed at the ‘new’.

The ‘new’ confronts us with the realisation that ‘normal’ is simply an imagined, constructed idea. The ‘old’ normal has disappeared, and, yes, we miss it, but, surprisingly, we also go on. Our survival never has and never will be dependent on ‘normal’. ‘Normal’ is simply the story a culture, society or tribe tells itself. ’Normal’ is the myth peddled as truth. Sadly, the shaming of those who do not adhere to ’normal’ is brutal, while those who colour within the lines of Normal’s strict Code of Conduct Colouring book, are rewarded.

So, in this new, silent, unexpected, changing world we realise that ‘normal’ can be a drug that puts us to sleep as it sings the lullabies of ‘familiar’. Adrift in this sea of ‘normal’ we sleep, under the spell of promises of ’success’. Until a pandemic … then we wake up, and we realise we have a compass in our hands and a neglected sail we can hoist.

“I don’t ever want to go back to eating out that much.”
“I realised how … has spoken to/treated me in the past is not okay.”
“I have never paid so much attention to my health before.”
“I didn’t realise that silence was so important.”
“I don’t want to go back to working so hard that I never stop.”
“I can’t remember why I stopped drawing, but I have started again.”
“Is staring into space a skill?”
“Why was I so worried about what everyone thought?”
“I am reading all my books again and I forgot how much I loved reading.”
“It never occurred to me that a day spent in pyjamas could be so wonderful.”
“Community is all that really matters to me.”

These are snippets of the many conversations I am having at the moment. It seems like the pandemic has had an alarm clock effect. We have awoken from our ‘normal’ trance and are no longer okay to have our stories dominated by the values of others. We are the experts of our own story. Our values, like a compass, have always been in our hands. So we wake from our value amnesia and look at them like someone recognising a long, lost friend.

In this ever-changing, strange new world, why not consider your life in light of the hopes and dreams you hold for it? What has sabotaged those dreams? Are you okay with that? If not, what does this resistance tell you about you as a person and the values you hold?

I don’t know how long we will live with the effects of this pandemic. I would take a guess and say there are years ahead of us. ‘Normal’, as we previously knew it, may never again return. May I suggest that as we sail into this new world, let’s resist the urge to fall asleep again to the beguiling tune of someone else’s dominant story. You have a compass in your hand, a way of deriving meaning out of life that is linked to your values and what you hold precious. It is a gift. Read it and hoist the sails!

“The compass opened, if I may so express myself, the universe. “
-Charles de Montesquieu-

 

 

When Global Crisis Comes Knocking at our Door …

… you can say “it’s a hoax” and “it will go away”, but like world leaders have found out, this was not the case for COVID-19. A crisis does not go away because some demagogue wishes it so. A crisis like a pandemic knocks at the door, then bashes it in and unleashes hell.

COVID-19 has crept in like an invisible terrorist that has taken the world hostage. Randomly, it chooses victims, and with heinous cruelty, it focuses on those already weak and vulnerable. The rest of us are required to co-operate. One wrong move might mean the death of another. Suddenly, words like ‘independent’ and ‘individual’ are exposed for the fraud they are. Our individuality means little if we cannot collaborate with or recognise the importance of ‘all’. Solidarity is what COVID-19 fears the most.

Solidarity can only truly emerge when we deconstruct the barriers that have been set up through toxic narratives. Toxic stories that, sadly, have been propagated through the clever messaging of some politics or the fear-mongering of some religions. Toxic narratives that divide humans into those who matter and those who don’t. Toxic narratives that create a Messiah-complex for the powerful, and diminish those seen as ‘weak’. Toxic narratives that divide us by race, nationality, gender, age, ethnicity, religion … Toxic narratives that do their very best to blind us from one of our great skills of resistance: Love.

When crisis comes knocking we have a choice to make – selfishness or love? A hard choice when we have been conditioned to listen to an alluring and embedded cultural story. A story that attempts to convince us that the pursuit of our own needs and wants is the most important activity if we want to survive. Crisis builds its devastation on that idea. COVID-19 is reliant on selfishness for its survival.

So when Global Crisis comes knocking at our door we have some decisions to make. Each of us decides what meal we serve this viral terrorist. Its favourite meal of human selfishness and greed? Or a lethal dose of sacrificial love?

Love that washes its hands often, so as not to spread the disease to another.
Love that buys just what it needs, and maybe just a little more to give to a neighbour in need.
Love that stays home instead of indulging itself at some packed venue.

Love that goes to great length in order to stand between this terrorist and the vulnerable and says, ‘Not on my watch’.

Love that picks up the phone and checks in on family and neighbours.
Love that gathers the table of life participants with tenderness. It speaks to Fear, Grief, and Anxiety, not with irritation and anger, but gentleness and kindness, recognising their role in protecting our lives.
Love that speaks to all of us in times like this from a sacred text written long ago … that there is nothing greater than love (including a terrorist virus) … that nothing separates us from love (including a terrorist virus) … and that in the end, all things may fail but that both in death and in life, love endures …

Selfishness in these times may bring us momentary comfort until we realise how we have enabled a pandemic and contributed to another person’s heartache. Love, on the other hand, calls us to choose the narrow path, the difficult path, of loving our neighbour as ourselves.

So what do we do when a Global Crisis bashes in our door and interrupts our peaceful lives? We respond by unleashing a virus of our own – a virus of love, kindness, compassion, respect, and consideration. The rest is History … because Love Always Wins.

 

Weaponising Forgiveness

“The weak can never forgive…”  – I don’t know who said this, but it’s BOLLOCKS!

“You just need to forgive and move on!” How many times have we heard this? How many times have we said it? Forgiveness: one of the most central virtues of human existence. Religion, in all its different shapes and sizes, sings its praises. Psychologists and counsellors focus on its merit. Forgiveness, an internal experience that manifests itself in thinking, feeling, and behaviour of the harmed towards the one(s) who committed the harm. Unlike reconciliation, contact with the one who harmed is not necessary.

For those who have come from a religious background, forgiveness is an expression of God’s love towards humanity. Disciples of Christ have sought to emulate this stance of forgiveness – especially forgiving those considered enemies or those who have ‘trespassed against us.’

Forgiveness has been lauded as the pathway to healing, enlightenment, peace, and self-love. Psychologists have tied it to well-being in life in that the forgiveness of wrongs committed brings meaning and ties to values. The research and writing that are available on the benefits of forgiveness trace back into ancient history. I am not here to argue with these findings or undermine the virtues of forgiveness. Rather, my aim is to raise awareness of the shame and guilt that people experience when the ‘tribe’ demands their forgiveness or shames them into forgiving.

As I reflect back over the years I spent in a religious institution, I can think of countless times we had ‘altar calls’ for those who had ‘unforgiveness’. The front was always packed with people wanting to forgive and to be forgiven for holding ‘unforgiveness’. They didn’t really have much choice, did they? Sermons on this topic were often structured and delivered with great gusto around Jesus’ words of ‘Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sinned against us.’ The implication was clear – unless you forgive, you won’t find forgiveness. I certainly preached along those themes … in my young, idealist, zealot days, when everything was so very black and white.

Social media memes are consistently persuasive on the subject of forgiveness. In a sense, there is a subtle message that forgiveness makes the victim the ‘bigger, better’ person and also ‘your well-being will be stunted if you don’t forgive’. ‘Unforgiveness is the poison we drink, hoping others will die’ is one of those famous, pithy quotes we share. I certainly have. All these well-intended messages of forgiveness, coming at a person from every direction, are not always helpful because the path of forgiveness is not just a simple choice. It is complex and as different as the various stories that surround it.

There are many reasons why a person may not be in a place where forgiveness is their choice or option. To cliche this possible path of forgiveness into a simple decision that is waiting to be made not only minimises a person’s story and the impact of the harm done, it also assumes that a person can forgive by willpower alone. This is not always the case. Perhaps most challenging to the dominant forgiveness narrative is the thought that the socially-acceptable idea of ‘you need to forgive’ is not what everyone wants for their life. To allow someone that choice, without judgement, is confronting when ‘to forgive’ has been idealised in the way that it has in our culture.

When we pressure survivors to forgive their perpetrators, we again punish the victim. I have heard horrendous stories of people being told they will go to hell if they don’t forgive or that they should forgive their abusive spouse because it’s what ‘God requires.’ So, let’s just get this straight: according to this reasoning an all-powerful deity did not stop a person being harmed and now requires their forgiveness of the perpetrator or they, the victim, will suffer more harm? Sounds pretty screwed up to me!

In a recent story, I learnt how a survivor’s refusal to forgive has cost them their relationship with their immediate family. The people who meant to love and care for them were so angry that the person refused to forgive a grievous violation, they took the side of the perpetrator and now have broken off all contact with the victim until they forgive. As a result, vulnerable people are ‘blackmailed’ into forgiveness in order to gain peace and stability.

When a person feels extorted or blackmailed into forgiveness it has very negative effects on their life. There is incongruence with the anger, the resentment, the hostility they feel, and the forgiveness they have been made to profess in order to make others feel more comfortable! Weaponising forgiveness will only ever do harm in the long run.

If you are reading this and feeling forced into forgiving your perpetrator by your family, or community, can I encourage you to consider your own well-being first and foremost? You do not need to forgive in order to move on! Do not be rushed into any step that you don’t feel ready to take. If you feel safe, you may want to consider letting the people that are close to you in your ‘club of life’ know that any well-intended push to forgive is not productive.

Maybe it would also be helpful to replace the word ‘forgive’ as it is problematic for many people? I like the word used by Richard Schwartz – ‘unburdening’. You can begin to unburden yourself from the effects of trauma without criticism and expectations. We can begin to learn what these negative effects are actually protecting. We can appreciate their protection and ask to interact with the story that is being told in this internal space. Richard Rohr says we can begin to dismiss the loyal soldiers that maybe have taken a very heavy-handed approach in keeping us safe. Suddenly anger, resentment, hatred, etc are no longer seen or felt as our ‘enemies’ but something that we perceive in a very different light. We begin to tell a different story from this perspective – an unburdening begins.

You are the expert of your story. It is your story to tell, your journey to negotiate, and you are not being timed.

Finally on my way to yes
I bump into
all the places
where I said no
to my life

all the untended wounds
the red and purple scars
those hieroglyphs of pain
carved into my skin, my bones,

those coded messages
that send me down
the wrong street
again and again
where I find them
the old wounds
the old misdirections

and I lift them
one by one
close to my heart
and I say
holy
holy.
– Pesha Gertler (The Healing Times)

Grief Needs No Justification

“Today, in our “shut up, get over it, and move on” mentality, our society misses so much, it’s no wonder we are a generation that longs to tell our stories.” – Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, On Grief and Grieving –

 

 

It was a Sunday morning in 1997. The 31st of August, to be exact. I was attempting the impossible: clothe three rocket-charged children for church. The TV was blaring in the background when the reporter’s words sunk into my tired brain – “Princess Diana, her boyfriend Dodi Fayed, and the driver, Henri Paul, had all passed away following a horrific car accident in a road tunnel in Paris.” I sat staring at the TV, stunned … then the tears started.

I cried for days. Every day I felt stupid for my inexplicable sorrow for a person I did not know personally. I wept through her funeral, as her boys walked behind their mother’s coffin, heads bowed, their grief visible to the world.

Everyone had an opinion, not just about her death, but about the mass outpouring of grief. Here in Australia, two radio hosts suggested that the grief was ridiculous as none of us knew Diana. Our grief caused confusion. Why did her death affect us all so much?

Since Diana’s death, many celebrities and icons have left us. Most recently, we awoke to the devastating news of nine people who died in a helicopter crash. The victims included basketball legend, Kobe Bryant, and his daughter, Gianna. Yet again the tears were flowing … and yet again I heard the frustration as people tried to explain or justify their grief.

There are many, many reasons we grieve. Grief, in and of itself, is a huge burden – a guest that arrives unannounced and, often, unexpectedly. Grief barges in and takes over the dinner party we are hosting in life and it cannot be ushered away. When we attempt to justify or belittle our grief, it becomes all the more burdensome and belligerent.

I look at life as a narrative tapestry and that tapestry will have grief intertwined in so much of the picture it weaves. Grief is a ‘normal’ part of existence. There is no need to always explain its presence (unless, of course, we are particularly interested in studying our grief to understand our story a bit better). We owe no one an explanation for the tears that may fall for whatever reason.

Grief is best handled with care and tenderness. As you open the door to its loud, incessant knocking, invite it in, sit with it, offer it a cup of tea, listen to the story it wants to tell you. What is your grief telling you about what you value in life? Slowly we can learn to listen to grief, instead of those who find our grief awkward and personally challenging, and therefore attempt to silence it (and, yes, many of those endeavours are well intended … but good intentions are not necessarily ‘good’!) Sometimes it is helpful to ask, “What is it about the grief you observe in my life that challenges you so much that you feel a need to silence (mock?) it?” … It is surprising how that shifts the focus of the conversation.

Then there is the whole notion that we should not grieve those we do not know personally. What a predicament! So here is a thought, icons like Diana or Kobe or Robin Williams or Prince, etc, etc, may represent a dream or a hope that was written into our life story. There was something about their story that resonated with ours. For example, for many young people, growing up in less-than-ideal circumstances, there is a memory of joy and stability that came with the gathering of the neighbourhood clan every afternoon to play basketball. Young players would plant their feet, jump and shoot yelling, “Kobe!” They were mimicking and honouring someone whose life inspired theirs. So, in a sense, Kobe became the neighbour, the family member, the brother, the source of inspiration in a bleak world, that they loved and looked up to. The loss of Kobe feels like the loss of a loved one because for many that’s exactly what he is – a loved one.

The death of celebrities is also a reminder of our own mortality and our attempt to come to grips with life’s impermanence. Freud said that the ego cannot imagine its own dissolution. Our heroes, in our eyes, are often ‘immortal’, so their death is all the more confronting as we face our fears of loss.

Ultimately, grief is all about being human. We live connected lives. We have the capacity to empathise with other people’s suffering. Grief is a dominant colour painted all through the human history mural. So next time you feel burdened by the need to explain or justify your grief, ask yourself ‘Why’? If it simply a response to shame and embarrassment, perhaps it’s time to dismiss those demands? The presence of grief needs no justification. Humans are shaped in a way that leads us to seasons of mourning and lament when we encounter loss. So let the tears flow freely, dear friend, and listen to grief’s stories, for this too, is part of life.

“So it’s true, when all is said and done, grief is the price we pay for love.” – E.A. Bucchianeri –

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 – Jacqui Stedmon – 

What is your Christmas Story?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I Weep and I ‘Remember’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Only hindsight provides us with that perspective …

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

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

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

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

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

This poem was helpful through that flood-filled time:

Breathing Underwater

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All is grace!

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

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

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

Hafiz

 

Falling Down the Rabbit Hole: Disenchantment (Part 4)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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