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Navigating the Great Unkown

“Leave your native country, your relatives, and your father’s
family, and go to the land that I will show you …” – 
Genesis 12:1
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I dream vividly every night. Some of my dreams are rather significant. Two years ago (yes, I keep a dream journal with dates), I dreamt that I was standing on the shores of a stormy sea. The skies were grey and menacing, the water green and dark, with white foam churning on top, creating the appearance of a bubbling cauldron. The wind was howling. I was holding a windsurfing sail, just the sail, no board. For whatever
peculiar reason, I waded into the water and began to windsurf over the top of the waves with bare feet – a near impossible feat. Flying over the water at the mercy of the wind, I began to noticbreakwater-379242_1920e dark shadows under my feet – the whole ocean, it seemed, was alive with monsters of the deep. I was terrified. Finally, I made it back to shore and stood there panting, with exhilarating horror … and then I went back into the water … to do it all again …
Fortunately, I woke up!

The dream was compelling. My subconscious was trying to desperately process what was happening in my life. It was a season of great risk, new defining moments, pivotal paradigm shifts, deep inner work, and I was staring down the path of an adventure that would take me into uncharted territory. A very similar place to where my partner and I are standing right now, as we face momentous changes in our lives. These times come to all of us; some through our own choice, some far beyond our control, and they all lead us to the mist-covered space of the Great Unknown.

Maybe you have been there? Maybe you are there right now – this murky, foreign place, where you wake up one morning and realise you are “not in Kansas anymore”. This new neighbourhood, perhaps filled with grief, most often with great fear and, at times, a sense of loss.
Perhaps you lost a loved one? Or you have been diagnosed with an
illness? Maybe it is a drastic shift in an area of tightly-held ideology or worldview? Or a literal geographical move? Everything within you wants to again feel the safety of the familiar harbour. Frantically, you search for that mysterious rabbit hole you accidentally fell down that took you to this faraway corner. When you find it you discover, to your horror, that it is locked and bolted. You cannot go back, you are not the same anymore. So, you have to gather your courage, grab your walking stick (or windsurfing sail), and take the first tentative step into the unknown.

Here are some reflections from a fellow pilgrim that may be of help:

1. You will feel lost and there’s nothing you can do to change or hurry that process. When Providence guides you to the Great Unknown, you will feel lost and disorientated. Familiar habits and belief systems are now under threat, or may even be discarded. You have been beckoned to a radical adventure in which you are asked to leave behind so much of what once brought you security and comfort. Lostness, after all, is a
hidden gift, for in the midst of it you begin to really wake up and pay
attention.

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2. You may discover some very awkward travelling companions: Silence and Darkness. How our modern world fears these friends. Look around, everything is geared for you to ignore them. But when you step into the Great Unknown, they are there, forever at your side. At first you freak out, then you ignore them, and then … then you become their friend. For Silence and Darkness are the womb of the Great Unknown. These are the friends sent to you at this time to confront the greatest of all fears – yourself.

3. You will leave some friends behind. Nothing tests friendship like the Great Unknown. Ask anyone who has travelled here: the ones suddenly unable to partake in ‘normal’ activities because of illness or an accident, the ones who have ‘lost’ job or finance and can no longer ‘benefit’ their friends, the ones who shift in ideas and thought that threaten others, the list goes on. The reality is, for whatever reason, the Great Unknown will show you that the notion that you will take everyone with you, is simply not true. We can get angry and bitter, or we accept this as part of what this space is all about. There are a few friends who stay at your side for a lifetime. There are others that cannot take the journey with you. There are also others who are sent to you at this time – a whole different group of travelling companions, bidding you welcome.

4. You are, and will continue to, change. There is no other place that quite exposes the raw nerve of false cliches and ego than the Great Unknown. The place where we stop pretending, where we realise that
paradox is part of being human, where amongst our friends of Darkness and Silence, we recognise the Grace that has brought us here. It is in this place, fearful and exposed, we discover that we are greatly loved, and we look at the world in a whole new way. “I took the path less travelled,” wrote Robert Frost, “… and it made all the difference.” The Great
Unknown transforms our lives.

If you, like me at this time, feel like you are surfing over deep, dark
waters with no surf board, know that you are in good company. You are not alone. There is nothing wrong with you. You, dear friend, are simply being called to an adventure of a different kind. May you find the courage to answer.

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

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

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

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

Gandalf:  No. And if you do, you will not be the same  

[The Hobbit – JRR Tolkien]

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This is My Story

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

Joe Borysenko

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Disappointing Messiah

There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love.
Martin Luther King, Jr.

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Several years ago, we had the opportunity to visit beautiful France. Our time in Paris included a trip to the famous Louvre Museum. It was everything I imagined. Every step left me stunned and mesmerised. I do
confess hurrying through the first part just to clap my eyes on the world’s most famous painting: Leonardo DaVinci’s Mona Lisa. Holding my breath as I walked into the great hall that housed her, surrounded by a huge crowd of admirers, I stood therpicture-1053852_1920e … disappointed. I had built up an idea about how this moment would unfold, how I would feel, and none of my imagined ideals where realised. The admiring tourists were annoying (yes, I was one of them, thanks for pointing that out), and Mona just seemed shrivelled and small in her place of honour. Others have different experiences, but I left feeling rather underwhelmed.

As Easter approaches, the most significant event on the Christian
calendar, commemorating the death and resurrection of Christ, it may be lost on us how disappointing the person of Christ would have been to the original Jewish audience. The prophets that strode through the pages of the Old Testament spoke of a Messiah, or an Anointed One, that would deliver the people of Israel from their oppression and their enemies. This Messianic hope would have reached fever pitch with the wild man, John the Baptist, coming out of the desert, announcing the imminent
arrival of the Messiah. Every eye would have been on Jesus as he began to minister in Roman-occupied Judea. But they would be severely disappointed.

Jesus was not the blazing, Thor-like character that people had
anticipated. He was humble, from questionable origin, and annoyingly subversive. He did not play the expected power games and then, just to top it all off, he gets himself crucified. He was betrayed by one of his own … perhaps because the betrayer was so disappointed in him. To die
between accursed criminals, was not the ideal that people of Jesus’ day held about the Messiah. His very disciples and family questioned his identity and claims – questions that culminated with great grief and
confusion the day he was crucified. This was not what they expected. A crucified, silent Messiah was most certainly disappointing.

Very quickly modern readers and people of Christian faith jump to the resurrection. Very quickly we seek to settle our own nagging doubts and disappointments. Very quickly we ignore the disappointing Messiah of Friday and Saturday, because, after all, we know that “Sunday is
coming!” However, we deny our own humanity, our own important doubts, questions, and lament, when we ignore the disappointment of Easter Friday and Saturday – the days the Messiah was killed and tombed. The days of violence, horror, and silence. The days that we, at some stage in our lives, will all face. The days of gut-wrenching defeat.

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At the heart of disappointment lie failed expectations. We thought one thing but got something else. For people of faith, disappointment with God is an uneasy subject. The faith tradition that shaped so much of the first half of my life was constructed on positive certitudes. To discuss doubt and disappointment was not that welcome. However, a faith that is built on the predictability of God and carefully honed triumphant mantras, allowing no room for suffering, failure, or disappointment, is in danger of being shipwrecked on the  harsh cliffs of life experience. When we have not been given permission to hold our doubts and
disappointments, times of paradox and seeming unanswered prayers will erupt our spiritual Neverland into giant volcanic activity – because disappointment will not be pacified through platitudes.

So as Easter approaches, do not rush for Sunday. Sit with the horror of Friday, lean into the silence of a tombed king on Saturday. Reflect on your disappointments – particularly in your relationship with God.
Consider a disappointed Christ who begged for the cup to be taken from him in Gethsemane. In the words of C.S. Lewis: “In Gethsemane, the
holiest of all petitioners prayed three times that a cup may pass from him. It did not. After that the idea that prayer is recommended to us as a sort of infallible gimmick may be dismissed.
” In a world that looks for an instant fix we forget that some things are not that fixable. Sometimes God, just like my ideas about Mona Lisa, does not meet any of our expectations.  Sometimes life is disappointing. Sometimes the Messiah is silent. Sometimes that disappointment becomes the great Iconoclast … and that too, is grace.

Talk to me about the truth of religion and I’ll listen gladly. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I’ll listen submissively. But don’t come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don’t understand. – C.S. Lewis

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The Colours of Autumn

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Autumn burned brightly, a running flame through the mountains, a torch flung to the trees.
– Faith Baldwin

I love Autumn. I love watching the light change to thick, plush gold as our planet tilts on its axis while we orbit the sun. In our Southern Hemisphere, the temperature begins to drop in March. Well, that is in most years! This year of 2016, Melbourne is achieving record high temperatures. It seems the Summer Diva is throwing a tantrum as she has to exit center stage to make room for Sister Autumn.

With Autumn comes the changing colour of the leaves. The stuff of poets and artists. “Autumn … the year’s last loveliest smile,” writes William Cullen Bryant. John Donne chimes in, “No spring nor summer beauty hath such grace as I have seen in one autumnal face.” French author,
Albert Camus, saw autumn as the second spring, where every leaf is a flower. George Eliot was totally smitten, “Delicious autumn! My very soul is wedded to it, and if I were a bird I would fly about the earth seeking the successive autumns.” Emily Bronte discovered that every fluttering
autumn leaf spoke of bliss to her. The colours of autumn are indeed one of those spectacular reminders of a rapid fading season of warmth and light.

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Stanley Horowitz wrote, “Winter is an
etching, spring a watercolour, summer an oil painting, and autumn a mosaic of them all
.” Autumn, to me, is the great crescendo of the seasons. As we observe this dramatic display, we can also take time to ponder the colours and seasons of our lives. Autumn can teach us many things, perhaps one of the greatest lessons is the certainty of change.

In a constructed social culture that generally measures success through growth, influence and numbers, you would be forgiven to think that a ‘Summer Witch’ has taken over ‘Narnia’. Summer speaks of vibrancy, happiness, and growth: the mantras of today’s modern world. Yet, as charming as it is, an unending summer would destroy us. Autumn stops us in our tracks. It reminds us that Winter is Coming. In its flaming glory it tells us to rejoice and stop wasting our energy in the pursuit of a fantastical, everlasting summer.  

forest-411491_1920So take some time out of your busy
schedule. Walk through a magnificent deciduous forest and take in nature’s masterclass on change. Notice the grace and ease with which trees let go of what once was. Discover the easy rhythm with which they embrace transition. There is no frantic panic, for in these magnificent woodlands, change is celebrated.

Autumn colours also have a sobering reminder of death, something our western culture is so ill prepared for. Autumn advises us to live with humility, for nothing is permanent. We need to consider our days carefully, for they are indeed fleeting. Autumn beckons us to surrender ourselves to this divine dance of change. It whispers to us with hope. For there are a few things that remain – Faith, Hope and Love … and the greatest of all is Love. Perhaps this is an indication of how we should colour the leaves of our lives? 

There is a harmony in autumn, and a luster in its sky, which through the summer is not heard or seen, as if it could not be, as if it had not been!
Percy Bysshe Shelley
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Laughter: Tonic for the Soul

 

Among those whom I like or admire, I can find no common
denominator, but among those whom I love, I can: all of them make me laugh.

— W. H. Auden

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A couple of days ago, I was sitting in my car at the traffic lights, deep in thought and paying very little attention to the world around me.
Suddenly I began to awake from my mindless stupor and noticed that the couple in the car next to me were having a rather animated
conversation, possibly a family feud or a heated disagreement. The
elderly female passenger turned her head my way, threw up her hands, rolled her eyes and uttered a rather choice expletive, one that even my limited lip reading skills could decipher without any difficulty. We then caught each other’s eyes and began to laugh. Two strangers, no language to connect, just a moment of hilarity and laughter that stayed with me through to my destination. Laughter truly is a tonic for the soul.

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Laughter cleans the soul. It has the ability to create an effervescent transformation that is tangible. The pursuit of laughter can dramatically change our lives. Laughter reduces pain, strengthens the immune
function, decreases stress, and triggers creativity. Laughing at ourselves prevents us from becoming serious, intolerable, and very self-important pains in the arse. Did you know that laughter contributes to the lowering of blood pressure, reduces stress hormone levels, improves cardiac health, boosts T cells, triggers the release of endorphins and produces a general sense of well-being? The author of Proverbs suggests that a ‘cheerful or merry’ heart is fabulous medicine (17:22).

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Meaningful relationships are far too important to be taken seriously. Laughter improves communication and builds relationship because everyone laughs in the same language. Children are more receptive when they are having fun. Laughter improves all of our memories,
because we tend to remember what we laughed about. Laughter makes us approachable, removes barriers and smoothes over differences.
Humour is vital in delicate circumstances and provides fantastic cover for shooting sacred cows, like Oscar Wilde drily remarked, “If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they’ll kill you.” Of course, humour that is used to intimidate, manipulate, silence or embarrass another person is not really humour, it’s being a jerk.

So, with countless evidence on the benefits of laughter, how can we
introduce more of it into our lives?

– Learn to laugh in the dark and serious times. This is a ‘skill’ I learnt from my parents. They managed to find humour even in the darkest
moments. We found ourselves laughing even at the most inappropriate times, not to be inappropriate, but to cope with life. It is a ‘skill’ now developed in my children. An ‘evil’ sense of humour is one of the great weapons against stress.

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– Learn to laugh at yourself. To my religious friends out there – please don’t become a serious, pious pain in the bum, so that people think that’s what your faith does to you. It’s not meant to do that. Laughter is a choice. Learning to not take
ourselves seriously is tonic for the soul. Serious self-importance really is one of those major relationship killers.

– Watch the kind of comedy shows that make you laugh.

– Tell your face it drastically improves it’s appearance when it smiles. Smiling is so underrated. A smile can literally make someone’s day. It
really is an instant makeover for our skull surface.

PIC BY THOMAS MARENT / ARDEA / CATERS NEWS - (PICTURED: A juvenile Borneo Orangutan in, Tanjung Puting National Park, Indonesia laughing) - These comical creatures are clearly up FUR a laugh in these sidesplitting images which show a variety of ecstatic animals enjoying a good old chuckle. The hilarious snaps, taken by a whole host of photographers from around the globe, prove life in the jungle is most definitely jolly, as creatures from an orangutan to a elephant seal are pictured mid-laugh. A cheery chimpanzee can be seen sporting a toothy grin as he enjoys life at Chimfunshi Wildlife Orphanage in Zambia. And a pot-bellied pig is clearly tickled pink at his home in Lower Saxony, Germany. In another image an Icelandic horse appears to crack up when he spots a photographers camera, while a chuckling cheetah creases up in Kenya. SEE CATERS COPY

PIC BY THOMAS MARENT

Friend, I wish you much laughter. Life is not always easy. There are many times when we find ourselves trudging through the valley of tears. Even in those sacred moments, may you notice something ridiculous, throw your head back and laugh in the face of your opposition!

“Laughter is poison to fear.”

– George R.R. Martin

Welcome to the Dark Side: Understanding Your Shadow

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“There is no other way. To be known is to be pursued, examined, and shaken. To be known is to be loved and to have hopes and even demands placed on you. It is to risk, not only the furniture in your home being re-arranged, but your floor plans being re-written, your walls being demolished and re-constructed. To be known means that you allow your shame and guilt to be exposed – in order for them to be healed.” Curt Tompson

Those who have an understanding of the Enneagram, would know how much the Ones (Moi!) need to have their shit together. As a result, like most people, I find it difficult to face my dark side. However, let me
assure you, suffering and failure tends to make you far more open to face your own Darth Vader. Learning to welcome your own dark side can be most confronting.

It was Carl Jung who first used the idea of our shadow or dark side in a psychological context. He used the idea of a shadow to describe the part of ourselves that we consider ‘bad’ or ‘evil’. As a result, our shadow is what we try to keep hidden from others. We are ashamed of our dark side. Unfortunately, what we hide or repress always ends up controlling us.

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It is foolish to dismiss our shadow as an evil entity, existing apart from our personhood. When we ignore our own darkness, or repress it, we build a bogus identity or ‘false self’, as Thomas Merton suggested. This denied shadow self can often present itself as virtuous and righteous, whilst its underlying motivations are fear, control or manipulation. It is important to remember that the shadow self is not of itself evil; it just
allows us to do evil without calling it evil. It is this sort of hypocrisy that caused Jesus to get really upset.

If we are serious about growth in our lives, we need to be serious about ‘shadow boxing’ or facing our shadow. Sadly, this is something that
religion, which tends to focus on being an exemplary model of virtue,  is not very good at. When our belonging is based on believing ‘right’ and keeping up appearances, vulnerability and authenticity, two elements crucial for growth, are sacrificed on the altar of ego and denial.

So how do we recognise our shadow? By asking ourselves what causes us to overreact? There’s a clue in that. Most of us have never been taught, either in our homes, education, or our religion, to recognise our shadows, and, therefore, we tend to respond in irrational over-reaction when we catch glimpses of it – often reflected in others! Richard Rohr says this, “Invariably when something upsets you, and you have a strong emotional reaction out of proportion to the moment, your shadow self has been exposed. Watch for any over-reaction or denials. When you notice them, notice also that the cock has crowed (Mark 14:72)!” We often try to deflect from our own shadow by pointing to the apparent deficiency in another person and in this way we can avoid confronting our own evil or hateful behaviour. History bears
witness to this: Nazism, the Spanish Inquisition, violence agains women, Colonialism, Apartheid and some of the religious hatred levelled at LGBTI people.

Jesus had an antidote. He suggested concentrating on the plank hanging out of our own eye before trying to pick the speck out of our neighbour’s eye (Matthew 7:5). This is an insight that would have most mystics smiling, realising that the process of confronting your own darkness or removing the plank from your own eye really is a lifetime work. It takes a long time before we stop all the excuses, denials, and self-justifying story lines and face the fact: I know Darth Vader – he lives within me 🙂

So when you are ready to meet Darth Vader, here are some suggestions that may help:

  • Don’t kid yourself. Shadow work is humiliating. Personally, for me, it meant learning to face the motives behind my often high ideals and the resentment that brews when these are not reached. Yet, it is the only way forward for enlightenment and growth. Carl Jung said, “Where you stumble and fall, there you find pure gold.
  • Begin to notice and be mindful of your patterns and reactions. What is the narrative you use to justify these? Confronting ourselves is … well, very confronting! To the pointed question, “What is wrong with this world?”, Chesterton replied, “I am!” 
  • Learn to welcome and embrace our shadow in times of prayer. Rohr calls this mirroring: “What’s happening in prayer is that you’re presenting yourself for the ultimate gaze, the ultimate mirroring, the gaze of God. It is also important to have the sort of community around you that allows for vulnerability, openness, and authenticity. Sadly, this is rarely found in modern religion where the emphasis and affirmation is awarded for right behaviour and belief, according to each faith tradition’s interpretation of their sacred text.
  • Remember, your shadow is not evil in itself, it simply is the repressed and hidden part of you. It is the part of you that you are denying or neglecting and therefore often appears in your dreams (but that is a whole different post). The more you face your false, idealised self, accepting the fact that the ludicrous, perfect self-image is not a reality (and extremely stressful to manage), the more you will experience a great sense of freedom. The necessity to judge yourself and all those around you begins to slowly drift away. Jesus said he came to light up our darkness and to give us life. May you live it to the full!
“God comes to us disguised as our lives.” Paula D’Arcy
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I See You!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Lent: A Summons to Live Anew

Lent is a call to weep for what we could have been and are not. Lent is the grace to grieve for what we should have done and did not. Lent is the opportunity to change what we ought to change but have not. Lent is not about penance. Lent is about becoming, doing and changing whatever it is that is blocking the fullness of life in us right now. Lent is a summons to live anew. – Sister Joan Chittister

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This Wednesday, 10th February 2016, is Ash Wednesday and the
beginning of Lent. Lent is a season on the liturgical calendar which is
observed by many Christian faith tradition. It ends on Easter Sunday. Lent commemorates the beginning of Jesus’ forty days of fasting and temptation in the desert, while Easter Sunday remembers his
resurrection. For many Christians it is a season of preparation for Easter. It is a time of fasting, repentance, and moderation; giving time to reflect on the suffering and sacrifice of Jesus.

Lent is one of the oldest observations on the Christian calendar. Irenaus of Lyons (c. 130 – c.200) wrote of such a season, although back then it lasted only several days, not forty. However, it’s purpose has always
remained the same: a season of self-examination, penitence, and
self-denial. It was the Council of Nicea, in 325 AD, that discussed a forty day period of fasting.

The world Lent implies ‘forty’: quaresima. In English, it also has another derivation. It comes from the Anglo-Saxon (early English) world
meaning ‘to lengthen’. In the Northern Hemisphere, it occurs at a time when hours and days are lengthening as Spring approaches and
Christians have applied this to an understanding of ‘lengthening’ or growing spiritually. It is also a time to remember that, despite the many divisions, Christians are more united than divided. Lent is very
ecumenical, reminding the observer that it was a united Church at the council of Nicae to which it traces some of its formal origin. Lent provides Christians an opportunity to celebrate the Eastern roots of their faith.

Lent is both a season of joy and of preparation. It follows the rhythm of life in so many ways, from suffering to silence to triumph. The colour purple is prevalent in Lent, signifying penance and hope. Red is
symbolic of the sacrifice of Good Friday, whilst white celebrates Christ’s triumph. A point of difference between the Eastern and Western observances is that while in the West the chanting of Alleluia ceases during Lent, in the East it is increased. The Eastern churches focus on the hope of God’s forgiveness.

So how about you in this season of Lent? Perhaps you are not a person who holds to any particular faith, but the idea of Lent intrigues you. There is a growing number of non-religious people using the Lent season to focus on growth and kick some bad habits. Some are drawn to the spiritual practice of doubt. There are numerous articles on this topic and a whole course by Peter Rollins.

For those who share a Christian faith, you may wish to follow a Lenten Devotional. Prayer is a central focus during this time. Self-denial and acts of service remind those who hold to Lent that ‘the other’ is deeply loved by God and that the self-centred focus of modern culture makes for shallow living. What will you give up to remind yourself of this? How will you serve, especially those on the margins of society?

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Lent is not another task for us to do or a box for us to tick. It is something we can partake of and celebrate. We can also ignore it altogether. Whatever you decide, may these next forty days be filled with unexpected surprises. May you find moments of great joy. May your soul be ‘lengthened’ and your heart full. May you heed the summons to live anew.

The Weed Mat Trap

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It was over seven years ago that we began to build a new home in a semi-rural part of Melbourne. Building on a slope presented its own set of challenges. Large portions of slopes that needed to be turned into
garden was one of them.

In my frenzy to create order out of chaos, I put down tons of old, woollen carpet that I had elegantly and ceremoniously dumpster-dived out of
local carpet factory dumpsters. This was a great idea, as the organic
nature of wool slowly decomposes. However, when the carpet ran out, I bought plastic weed mat. My father, who has only established several umpteen gardens, warned against this. But I wanted a neat, weed-free garden.

Fast forward seven years. What have I been doing with my spare time in the garden? Removing those same layers of weed mat that I’d installed seven years earlier! Weed mat that looks as fresh as the day I put it in – no decomposition. Why am I taking the time, swearing silently in
German at my own stupidity, to cut this stuff out? It created a ‘neat’
garden – and a dead garden.

The places where I had put weed mat were suffering. It took me a long time to realise that it was this plastic invader that created a sterile
environment. Plants that I chose to place in my garden still grew (I had cut holes into the weed mat when I planted them), but the earth smelt dead. There was no thriving eco-system like the rest of my garden. So my beloved partner presented me with a new, large Stanley knife and I have been undoing my doing. The need for order and a clean, effortless
garden, ended up killing life.

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So as I am pulling out this weed mat, I am reflecting how in our modern, time-starved, capitalist society we tend to weed mat our lives. It is easier to shut down ideas, creativity, interaction with messy humanity, or
innovation, than to let these grow and develop in organic, full-of-risk
manners. It is easier to create a corporate culture of water-tight, weed matted  policies, than to consider unique ideas. It’s easier to create hierarchical religious systems that weed mat thought and behaviour, than to create a community of mutuality and open dialogue. It is easier to allow our minds to be hooked to a dictated, re-gurgitated, unexamined set of
paradigms, than to ever step into a place of difficult questions. Weed mat creates order and an appearance of success.

Weeds are annoying. They are time consuming. Weeds are also, as I have since discovered, an indicator of health and healing. In the seven years we have lived here, my father, who lives with us, has taught us how many of these ‘weeds’ hold healing properties, like dandelion and
epilobium. There are also noxious weeds that threaten our native
biodiversity and need to be controlled. Slabs of weed mat provided a tempting solution, but in the long-term, created greater problems. If I wanted a garden, I had to care for a garden. There were no short cuts.

Friend, let’s take time to consider our lives. Have you placed some weed mat into your world, all with good intentions, only to realise that it has affected the quality of your life and well-being? Where have you hastily laid weed mat to try and ignore, perhaps a painful part of your life or history? If you are in a position of leadership or management, have you fallen into the weed mat trap? The tendency to discourage and shut down innovation before it has time to breathe? It is so easy to do. What about if you are a person of faith? Have you placed weed mat over your mind? Have you allowed other people to dictate to you exactly what to believe and how to behave because it is so much easier than doing the hard yards of critical thinking?

In a world where success and order is worshipped, weed mat provides the perfect solution … for a while. Until you realise that you are standing in a sterile field of your own making. Stanley knife anyone?

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Anxiety and Eating Disorders: Tash’s Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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3. “How did it outwork in your life?”

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

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

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

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5. “What was helpful during this time?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7. “What was unhelpful during this time?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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