Category Archives: Sociology

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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The Great Unknown – Guest Post by Mark Conner

A guest post by my life partner, Mark – The Great Unknown:

 

Great Unknown

Yesterday was the one-year anniversary of me finishing up 32 years of employment in the one place and stepping out into the great unknown. [See my post from February 2017 called “Time to Say Goodbye” and a poem I wrote in December 2016 called “The Great Unknown“). One year on, I am so glad I did. Words can’t quite express the increasing amounts of joy, excitement and meaning I am starting to experience. I am extremely grateful.

So, what have I learned? There are many things, but here are 10 reflections:

  1. Your calling isn’t limited to your current role. In fact, don’t allow your calling to ever become merely a duty or an obligation. Keep following your curiosity.
  2. Sometimes we need to let our roots go down deep and stick it out through the various seasons of life, being faithful where we have been planted. At others time we need to let go, step out of the boat, and go on an adventure to new places.
  3. Your current world is a lot smaller than you think. There is a much bigger world waiting outside the confines of your pond.
  4. Life goes on. No one is indispensable. True, you can’t replace people but roles can be filled and the wheels of every organisation or industry keep moving on, one way or another.
  5. Your identity, your significance and your security are not in what you do or the position or title you have but in who you are as a person.
  6. Growth means change and change can be hard, especially letting go, but it is healthy and can be good for you. It helps you avoid becoming ‘risk averse’ and losing the sense of adventure in life.
  7. Once you are through the threshold of change, you will see things from a totally different perspective.
  8. Relationships change through every season of life. Not everyone goes with you on your journey. Some old friendships fade but new ones will emerge. Having those closest to you (especially your family) love and respect you the most is what is most important.
  9. Life becomes very liminal as your new world continues to unfold. You have to go of certainty and embrace paradox and a lot of loose ends. Go slowly as you walk this liminal path, moving forward with openness rather than seeking a pre-mature sense of permanence.
  10. There will be grief and loss but there is much joy just around the corner.

May you follow your curiosity, even if it leads you out of your comfort zone and on an adventure into the great unknown!

“Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming, ‘Wow! What a ride!'” Hunter S. Thompson

LINK to Mark’s Blog

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Dismantling Our Ivory Towers One Human Story At A Time

“Each member (of society) must be ever attentive to his social surroundings – they must avoid shutting themselves up in their own peculiar character as a philosopher in their ivory tower.” Frederick Rothwell (H.L. Bergson’s Laughter, 1911)

Ivory Tower by Hideyoshi on DeviantArt

For anyone who has ever attempted to learn a new language, you may have found that exercise both frustrating and intriguing – so many ‘rules’ that have ‘exceptions’! As a young German migrant child, I was fascinated by the English language and the many new phrases, metaphors, and expression I learned when we moved to South Africa. To this day, as someone who also loves and studies history, I often find myself asking Dr. Google the genesis of a word or phrase, especially when I am encouraged or accused of something using a metaphor – like “living inside an ivory tower.”

Someone told me that I was living in one of those ‘ivory towers’ many years ago. A disgruntled parishioner who did not appreciate the hours of work I put into trying to resolve their issue. Well, at that time I was still operating from a blind, privileged, fundamentalist, hierarchy power structure – a structure that found it unfathomable to consider that a person – not a priest, pastor, therapist or politician – is the expert of their own story. An ideological domination structure whose embedded splinters I still pick out of my psyche from time to time. Anyway, back to this mysterious ivory tower …

Historians tell us there was never such a thing as an Ivory Tower. It was always a figure of speech. Towers throughout time were considered defensible, fortified structures, “rising above the normal surface of things …practical ways of distancing inhabitants from mundane human affairs.” They were concrete displays of religious aspiration. Ivory was considered something exotic, so costly it could only be turned into a work of art or aids to worship.

One of the first mentions of ivory towers is in the Bible: “Thy neck is as a tower of ivory; thine eyes like the fishpools in Heshbon” (Song of Songs 7:4). The Odyssey (Bk 19, 560-569), quotes Penelope, “Those dreams that pass through the gate of sawn ivory deceive men, bringing words that find no fulfillment. But those that come forth through the gate of polished horn bring true issues to pass.” The figure Mary, mother of Jesus, in the Litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary (the Litany of Loreto) references her as, “Mystical rose, Tower of David, Tower of Ivory, house of gold…”

Over time the Ivory Tower became a symbolic space of retreat and solitude. It was a feud between poets that drew the ‘living in an ivory tower’ expression into a negative notion and by the 1930’s it had become a politically charged. It became a pathological place. Today, anyone living in an ivory tower is held with certain contempt and distrust. Ivory Tower Dwellers are thought to have an attitude of superiority, divorced from reality and the rawness that is known as life.

Ivory towers do become strongholds. They become a place of privilege and entitlement. They delude Tower Dwellers into thinking this is the real world, the true world – I guess in a sense Ivory Towers are the set of the Truman show. They keep those who dwell in them from reality – a huge moat of wealth, power, fear, superstition and dogmatism bolstering the separation. So what would cause anyone who has fallen under the spell of the enchanted Ivory Tower to wake up to the delusion? Normally freedom comes with one human story at a time.

You see, that disgruntled parishioner all those years ago woke me up from the slumber of certainty. It wasn’t her hostile words, but her life story that caught my attention. Suddenly some of the ideas that I had fashioned and formed so carefully in that tower, surrounded by people who thought exactly like me, was found wanting in the light of her story. A little splinter entered my heart that day, a splinter of grace and providence. It would take many more of such encounters to free me from the illusion held in Ivory Towers.

The Ivory Tower begins to crumble like a Jenga tower when we recognise our human connectedness. Herman Melville wrote, “We cannot live for ourselves alone. Our lives are connected by a thousand invisible threads, and along these sympathetic fibers, our actions run as causes and return to us as results.” John Muir said, “When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.” The way we connect is by recognising the fear that keeps us removed from others, by learning to listen: “The most basic and powerful way to connect to another person is to listen. Just listen. Perhaps the most important thing we ever give each other is our attention …” (Rachel Naomi Remen). Listening to each other breaks down barriers.

So, friend, perhaps we need to face the hard truth that in some ways we all live in ivory towers of our own making? Perhaps some have taken shelter in Ivory Tower organisations that provided a sense of safety and security – but it is time to step out again? Ivory Tower Dwellers stagnate, and fear and paranoia creeps in, feeding our sense of elitism or ‘specialness’. We adopt cult-like thinking and mannerisms. Stepping out of our towers can be terrifying. And then we look up … to a world that is so much bigger and beautiful than we ever thought possible. The Ivory Tower is recognised for the childish notion it is. Our life and our story becomes connected to the many colourful stories of people around us. And after a while, we look back and realise that we have been forever changed one human story at time.

“Stories make us more alive, more human, more courageous, more loving.”
– Madeleine L’Engle –

 

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Patience or Procrastination? Know the Difference … Know Thyself

“The two hardest tests on the spiritual road are the patience to wait for the right moment and the courage not to be disappointed with what we encounter.”  – Paulo Coehlo –

I often wonder how much of what I call “Patience” is simply me avoiding a decision that I do not want to make? Calling my avoidance-crisis patience has such a pleasant, self-deluding ring to it, doesn’t it? On the other hand, how many of you, like me, have found yourselves in less than favourable circumstances because the idea of waiting patiently was not a comforting option – so you jumped too soon? How do we know the difference between these two “P’s”?

Patience has often been called a virtue. It is the ability to wait for things, accepting our lack of control over our world. In an age of immediate gratification and super-fast technology, patience often has no value or meaning in our lives. We would rather have fulfillment, stuff, money, and all kinds of others things NOW than wait and receive a little more later. It’s called “present bias.” Present bias is the tendency to over-value immediate rewards at the expense of our long-term intentions. We prefer to eat the seed, instead of waiting for it to grow. We live in a culture that suffers from present bias and unless we recognise how this has affected us, we will never understand the virtue of Patience or the sacrament of Waiting.

Procrastination, even though it can be so beautifully dressed up in a patience camouflage, is not a virtue. It simply is avoiding what needs to be done. All of us struggle with delaying and avoiding on important issues. Strangely enough, IMpatience and procrastination both have to do with present bias or what behavioral psychology calls “time inconsistency”. In the case of procrastination, we put things off because we value the immediate gratification of having ‘no pain’ more highly than doing what we need to do, which often involves feeling pain for a moment but it can change our future. For example, we would like to lose weight but we procrastinate because five donuts and a can of coke keep ambushing us at 10 am and 3 pm every day. It’s too painful to say no to them. So, we procrastinate.

Underneath all of our impatience or procrastination issues lies a very common human trait – fear! Anxiety feeds both of these gremlins. We may never have articulated our angst of what it means to live as vulnerable humans in a world that we have very little control over but it can still take its toll by manifesting itself through anxiety, depression, anger, etc. We all try to drown out that reality in many different ways. Some use harmful substances, some drown themselves in work, some turn to religion or philosophy or accumulating stuff or … do nothing – immobilised by the whole caboodle. We all have to face the many ways we cope with this fear of lack of control, and how these coping mechanisms have made us all addicts. Acknowledging this is the first step to living a more peaceful, integrated life. Know thyself.

Practicing mindfulness can be so helpful. Instead of rushing through your day, practice being present, practice breathing, practice listening – just be. Instead of being impatient when you have to wait, consider changing how you perceive ‘waiting’. Waiting can be a holy moment, a sacrament. While you wait, be present, even if that is painful. Waiting is part of the rhythm of life. You see it in the winter seasons when everything seems dead … waiting for new life. Your 24 hour day should at least have about 8 hours of sleep … sleep is you waiting for your body to rest and recover.

Perhaps you feel overwhelmed with life and this sense has almost immobilised you. You keep calling it waiting or patience but deep inside you know that you are simply putting off a difficult task(s). Procrastination can become a habit. To change a habit, we need to rewire our brain! We need to break out of the rut. The Ivy Lee Method may be of some assistance. It has been successfully applied in various contexts since 1918. Just a little word of warning: sometimes we go through ‘wobbly’ seasons, seasons of grief, disappointment, etc. As we surface from the valley and begin to take life by the horns again, writing down six tasks, as Ivy Lee recommends, may be too much. Instead, start with two, then add another one every week. Step by step you are, what Richard Rohr would say, “living yourself into a new way of thinking.”

So, dear friend, on this journey of life – know thyself. The answer in discovering the difference between patience and procrastination is in our motivation. If we are putting things off that we know we need to do because of fear, then we may be procrastinating (please note, our fear can be directly related to our safety and well-being – I encourage you to seek help and counsel if this is the case). Procrastination always ends with regret. However, I may also be putting things off because I know I have done what needs to be done, there is no more I can do, now I wait patiently. This sort of waiting, although it may be painful, is calm and rational. Know the difference. Take courage.

“How wonderful that no one need wait a single moment to improve the world.” Anne Frank

 

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Why don’t you all take a hike?!

A repost and a good reminder for 2018!

“There comes … a longing never to travel again except on foot.”

Wendell Berry, ‘Remembering’

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“Komm, wir gehen im Wald spazieren”,  was our family weekend anthem when I was growing up. “Let’s take a walk in the forest.” Like all children, I often had much better things to do than to trudge through a forest, but my parents never understood this. So we would walk for miles through the woodlands surrounding our village in northern Germany, and later through the bushland in South Africa. Both my parents were interested in local flora and fauna, and to this day dad brews all sorts of healing potions from herbs and exotic plants that he finds or grows … but more of that in another post.

When I married and had children, I became as cruel as my parents. Amidst howls of protest, I would drag the offspring from their crucial tasks of mutilating creatures on the computer screens to take a walk. “It’s sooooobeach-768642_1280o boring, mum!” Yes, it is. It certainly is. When we compare a walk to what assaults our senses on a daily basis, from news channels to social media updates, advertisements, and a very loud world, a walk in the woods is by comparison … boring!

A walk in nature creates perspective. When I walk past a giant gum, I consider how this magnificent tree has stood the test of time. It is still here, while many ‘important’ people are not. The chances are that it will still be here when you and I no longer walk on this earth. Apart from the scared wallaby dashing past me at break-neck speed, nature reminds me of rhythm and seasons, and how in a bygone era, humans used to try and live by these. “Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better,” said Albert Einstein. Studies reveal how great minds; Goethe, Dickens, Darwin, Steve Jobs, and others, all took a daily walk. It has a direct, positive effect on a person’s health, creativity, productivity, and communication. Life makes a little more sense when you take a walk.

Wanderlust’ runs deep in a German’s veins. It’s hard to translate this wonderful word. It is about a philosophy, a way you look at life. It is insatiable curiosity, a desire to discover and learn. The word is derived from ‘wander’ and holds the idea of roaming or hiking. From Schopenhauer to Schumann to Goethe, German literature, poetry, and song, heralds the romantic notion of being deeply connected to nature by ‘wandering’ (for a delightful series on wanderlust by BBC, check out this link).

For some, wanderlust is translated into their own spiritual pilgrimage. Camino de Santiago is certainly on my bucket list. To join the joy of walking with the idea that thousands of other people have walked this path, for spiritual or personal reasons, certainly inspires me.

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Today, walking has become a regular way of keeping fit for many folks around the globe. The evidence of physical and mental benefits that a daily walk provides is massive. IMG_0855In a developed world, which faces an epidemic of coronary heart disease, diabetes, and the health complications related to obesity, walking is a simple way to improve health. You can walk nearly anywhere – all you need is some comfortable clothes and good shoes.

So, if you have not already done so, why not start a habit that could change your life? It can help slow your frantic pace, make you aware of the beautiful home we call Planet Earth, and improve your health. Up for the challenge?

A few reminders:

  • Please don’t randomly throw yourself on some bushwalking trail and hope for the best! If you are going for a hike, inform others, walk with someone else, have a phone with full battery, and good directions. It is a sobering thought that your survival is not very high on Mother Nature’s priority list!
  • Stay hydrated.
  • Wear comfortable clothes, a hat, and most importantly, great shoes. My personal choice are a pair of lightweight, waterproof hiking boots.
  • Please lose the headphones! Firstly, they are a safety hazard as you become unaware of your surrounding with AC/DC blasting out your ear canals. Secondly, they hinder mindfulness, the discipline of being present. So tell your brain that the songs of Mother Nature are quite adequate for an hour or so.

If all this sounds too complicated, why not start with a simple walk in a beautiful garden? Go on, get off your butt and enjoy a few hours outdoors … it is annoying how your social media ‘friends’ won’t even miss you.

This is far more important … start something new, be radical, take a hike!

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