The Stories We Tell Ourselves

“It’s like everyone tells a story about themselves inside their own head. Always. All the time. That story makes you what you are. We build ourselves out of that story.”
– Patrick Rothfuss –

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Stories: they shape our world, they change our world, they are our world. We all live our lives to the rhythm of a story we have been told and we have believed. The stories we have been told about how our world works and who is in charge has created our worldview. The stories we have been told about our country, its history and context, has shaped how we view and live in the nation we exist in. The stories we have been told about the tribe we call ‘home’ or ‘family’ or ‘extended community’, reflects on how we behave and interact in that space. The stories we have been told about the ‘other’ who does not fit our worldview, imagined national ideas, or notions about tribe or culture, is reflected in our opinions and paradigms of them.

If we really want to understand someone we have to listen to their story. Really listen. This year I completed the first level of a Narrative Therapy course. It was a fascinating exercise on so many levels. I always thought I was a fairly good listener, this course was challenging as I realised how quickly I tended to analyse someone’s story in my own head. The course required us not to do that. Rather, we were asked to listen, to ask questions, to walk alongside the other and allow them to tell THEIR story. Assumptions,  while listening, is one of the great enemies of relationship and intimacy.

I was confronted how a few decades of clutching to certain fundamentalist ideals that shaped my first half of life had affected my ability to listen and hear. Fundamentalism believes its own story as the ultimate truth, therefore anyone else’s story is seen as inferior … in need of ‘salvation’. Fundamentalism is the perfect coloniser. By the very nature of the story it tells, it cannot really listen or validate the story of another who does not hold to the same ideals. That is why fundamentalism is also so good at creating exiles.

Over the last several years I have begun to examine some of the stories I have told myself in those early years. This is no easy exercise. I discovered that some of my self-perceptions are simply other people’s stories of my life and I have believed them. There is a need in all of us to tell ourselves a story about the other – when that ‘other’ wanders off the path of that story it leads to confusion and disappointment. I have done the same to people around me. I have assumed a certain story and was offended when that person did not stick to my grand epic.

We also notice the power of story in our culture. Whoever has the dominant voice defines its terms and agendas. The sad result is that we honour those loud voices, while the stories of others are forgotten. Our fragmented overview, for example, of the Aboriginal culture is a result of listening to the dominant voice of media and questionable history books, whilst neglecting the Dreamtime stories that are the oral textbooks of Australia’s First Peoples.

Truth be told, if we really faced our own shadows we would discover the horrible truth: that in many ways we are all colonisers of other people’s stories. We all want to overlay and control the narrative of the other person’s life according to our own ideas. If you don’t believe me, you should have sat in my office many years ago as I listened to the countless, tearful accounts of young people whose parents refused to listen or acknowledge their dreams for their future, rather forcing them into their own (parent’s) chosen career path. Or just observe the current rush of religious leaders ‘making a stand’ against Marriage Equality and telling their congregation how to vote, whilst failing to listen to the hopes and dreams and stories of so many LGBTIQ people who sit right under their noses. We all like to tell others how to play a certain character in the grand narrative that runs around our heads.

Listening is difficult. To truly listen we need to, first of all, acknowledge our shortcoming as a listener: our inattentiveness, our need for control, our easily offended minds when someone strays from our ideals, etc. Listening says to the other person that you honour them enough to hold their story without interjecting or changing it. To truly listen is to realise that for that moment of time this vulnerable human being, who is confiding in you, pleads with you to be a safe space. Listening without judgement, without the need for dumb cliches, resisting all temptations to change the person who is telling the story, takes time and discipline. If we all learned to listen we would live in a different world.

So, friend, perhaps it’s time to learn to listen – to those around you, to the ‘other’, and perhaps the most ignored voice of all: your own heart.

“Stories can conquer fear, you know. They can make the heart bigger.”
– Ben Okri –

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A Letter to My Heart

 “The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched – they must be felt with the heart.” – Helen Keller 

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It was a remarkable experience to observe my heart on the echocardiographer’s screen. A tiny benefit of having a sudden onset of heart palpitations and the myriad of tests that accompany this complaint. I listed to my heart as he turned the sound up – pumping in a regular rhythm like it has for fifty-one years. Life really is phenomenal.

Aristotle described the heart as the most important organ in the body. Ancient civilisations identified the heart as the seat of intelligence, spirituality and emotion. All over the world, the heart shape is synonymous with romantic love and affection. It grew particularly popular through the Renaissance when it was used in the religious arts, depicting the Sacred Heart of Christ. Today the heart symbol dominates our social media feed – like the ancient Romans, we use the heart as a symbol of love and life.

Mystics of every faith tradition have had a connection to the heart and the Way of Love. Mystics speak to the heart. They see the journey of the heart as a cosmic love song. The prayer of the mystic is one of the heart, of deepening love and finding inner peace and solace. This prayer begins by listening to the heart …

“My heart, aflame in love, set afire every heart that came in touch with it.
My heart has been rent and joined again;
My heart has been broken and again made whole;
My heart has been wounded and healed again,” writes Hazrat Inayat Khan (The Dance of the Soul)

“Only from the heart can you touch the sky.” Rumi

“Happy the heart where love has come to birth.” Teresa of Avila

“The seasons of my heart change like the seasons of the fields. There are seasons of wonder and hope, seasons of suffering and love, seasons of healing. There are seasons of dying and rising, seasons of faith.” Macrina Wiederkehr (Seasons of Your Heart)

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So as I lay there, looking at my hard working heart, I was overcome with gratitude. My heart and I have been through the storms and sunshine of life. Together we have loved deeply, raged bitterly, grieved quietly and laughed outrageously. So I write this note of gratitude to my heart:

Dear Heart,

Seldom do I stop to express my gratitude to you. Thank you for being there through the many seasons of my life. As a young child, travelling the world and continents, anxiously trying to adapt to new people and new surroundings, you were there, your rhythm brought me comfort.

In moments of my greatest joy, like meeting the love of my life, or holding my three precious babies in my arms, you beat a little faster to remind me of the wonder of love.

When I walked through the storm and fire, when I had to say goodbye and I thought you would break, you remained steadfast.

I don’t always heed your warnings: slow down, listen, come sit for awhile. Rather, I often charge through life like a tornado that has lost its way. Yet you do not give up on me, your remain faithful as the tides of the sea.

So, dear heart, as I walk through this second half of life, I choose to listen to you. I realise that love is what makes this world go round and that all my endeavours are in vain unless I have you filled with love. Love for those around me, love for my enemies, love for our fragile planet, love for myself … which probably is the hardest of all. I choose to listen and I choose love. I choose the path of gratitude. I choose the journey of the heart.”

Now, dear friend, it’s your turn. Take a moment to listen to your heart. What does it want to say to you? Draw a picture, write a poem and remember that you, you are fearfully and wonderfully made.

“Keep love in your heart. A life without it is like a sunless garden when the flowers are dead.” – Oscar Wilde

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What The Sea Teaches Us

“Listening through the heart is not something you must learn to do. It is something you need only reclaim and remember.”
– Stephanie Dowrick –

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I loved going to the sea ever since I can remember. In Germany it was the chilly harbours along the North Sea. The fishermen would sit there like a line of dominoes on the freezing cement curbs, their buckets filled with a variety of sole, mackerel, cod or whiting, while their cigarettes created a hazy cloud above their heads.

When we moved to South Africa we would use our weekends to visit Durban’s magnificent Indian Ocean. I have a distinct memory of my father and I enjoying the huge waves before being told off by the lifeguard. As newly arrived immigrants we did not understand a word that this bad-tempered, red-faced man was saying to us until he pointed to the rather obvious warning sign displaying a giant shark. Apparently, we were swimming in unprotected water and had thereby become tantalising human bait.

Since moving to Australia over three decades ago, I have never failed to appreciate the beautiful beaches of this fair isle. I have spent many hours walking the Mornington and Bellarine Peninsulas in Melbourne. The Sunshine Coast here in Queensland, however, has to take the prize for some of the most breathtaking beaches I have ever seen. And there is something so therapeutic about walking on their shores.

The sea teaches us many things. One of them is that there is a rhythm to life that we can miss amongst our often artificial, neon lights of suburbia. Nothing can stop the sun from rising or setting and no barrier can stop the tide from rolling in. Observing and connecting with this rhythmic part of nature stirs something deep inside of us … whispers of hope and providence.

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Swimming in the deep blue sea has always thrilled and scared me. It reminds me of life. The deep is not safe, yet sitting on the shores is not an option. On the shores I will never experience the healing, stinging salt water that washes over me, like my tears and my prayers. You never learn to swim in the shallows. There is something about launching out into the deep. Many years ago Jesus told a disheartened fisherman to launch into the deep. The rest, as they say, is history.

I look at my feet as I squelch the sand between my toes. The many broken shells remind me that they too, once held life, and that life passes quickly. “Travel lightly,” they whisper to me. Life is short and these feet are made for walking, not for being tied to the many cumbersome burdens that modernity claims we need. Accompanied by the unruly frivolity that overtakes my hair at the beach, it adds the classic reminder: “Beach Hair Don’t Care.” The sea and its shores reminds us of the splendid and simple joys of life.

Most of all, the sea reminds me that to wait is holy. The sea cannot be rushed or ruled. We can only wait … and in that sacrament of waiting we find untold treasures. Isn’t it about time you took a walk on the beach, dear friend?

“The beach is not a place to work; to read, write or to think … The sea does not reward those who are too anxious, too greedy, or too impatient. To dig for treasures shows not only impatience and greed, but lack of faith. Patience, patience, patience, is what the sea teaches. Patience and faith. One should lie empty, open, choiceless as a beach—waiting for a gift from the sea.”
– Anne Morrow Lindbergh (Gift from the Sea) –

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Reflections from Shabbat: A Call to Rest

“Our relentless emphasis on success and productivity has become a form of violence. We have lost the necessary rhythm of life, the balance between effort and rest, doing and not doing.” Wayne Muller

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If you happen to find yourself in Israel on a Saturday you may encounter this peculiar phenomenon when using the elevators: they automatically stop on every level. And if you want to learn from this post, and not make an idiot of yourself like I did, do not go up to the receptionist and tell them that their elevator is out of order. Have compassion on this poor human. After all, how many ‘tourist ignoramisus’ can one person bear?! On Shabbat, many of the elevators work in a special mode to allow Jews to observe Shabbat and abstain from operating electrical switches. It is a day of rest. And in a speed-crazy world we have so much to learn from our Jewish brothers and sisters.

The Jewish tradition of keeping Shabbat stems from the Creation narrative and the Torah (Law). It was a day of rest and worship for the ancient Israelites. Violating Shabbat had serious consequences as the day was considered holy, dedicated to G-d. It established and bolstered Jewish identity amongst other nations and cultures as it was an expression of Jewish faith, a national identity marker. Today Shabbat is considered the most important day in the Jewish calendar and often referred to as “Shabbat HaMalka”, the Sabbath Queen.

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Abraham Joshua Heschel, the Polish-born American Rabbi and leading Jewish theologian and philosopher of the 20th century, writes this about Shabbat:

“The meaning of the Sabbath is to celebrate time rather than space. Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time. It is a day on which we are called upon to share in what is eternal in time, to turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation, from the world of creation to the creation of the world … When history began, there was only one holiness in the world, holiness in time.” (The Sabbath)

Whether we are people of a particular faith or not, we can all learn from Shabbat. It calls us to mindfulness. It reminds us that rest is to be celebrated. It is not something to be ashamed of or forced. The centrality of keeping Shabbat is to remind Jews of the release of slavery from Egypt. The Egyptian exile is a metaphor for any enslavement, says Rabbi Becher, be it physical or spiritual. By ceasing work and resting we demonstrate that we are not enslaved to the physical world. When a person is incapable of refraining from work, then they have indeed become a slave!

Walter Brueggemann writes, “In our own contemporary context of the rat race of anxiety, the celebration of Sabbath is an act of both resistance and alternative. It is resistance because it is a visible insistence that our lives are not defined by the production and consumption of commodity goods.”
(Sabbath as Resistance)

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Shabbat confronts us with our own restlessness and constant addiction to activity and engagement. For people of faith, Shabbat is a space that is holy and blessed, and beckons us to connect again with creation and the Creator.

In our modern, success-driven, technology-addicted world we stand in danger of loosing our souls in a zombie-like trance of mindlessness. We stand to loose connection to the rhythm of life. Rhythm is the heartbeat that G-d has put as a sacred marker throughout creation to remind us of the sacredness of time and the importance of being mindful of our days. Whether Jewish or not, or whether we are a person of faith or not, considering and learning from Shabbat makes us mindful of this rhythm. It teaches us to listen, to hear, to see … to breathe!

Dear friend, I trust this blog may be helpful in jolting you out of entrenched mindlessness. We are the people of ‘ruach’ and life. All around us is rhythm. May your ears hear its gentle sound and not the hypnotic lies of a fear-mongering, power-hungry, consumer-addicted ideology that blares at us through the various media channels. Rather, may you free yourself from those chains … may you rediscover rest and rhythm … and may you dance …

“Everything has rhythm, everything dances.” Maya Angelou

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(If you are interested in listening to an address I gave at a church on ‘The Sabbath’, please click here.)

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