At this time of major change in the way we live our lives and with many people feeling isolated, anxious or unsettled, I’ve put together some short films to help provide some stability.
Click on this link to find out more and to watch them.
At this time of major change in the way we live our lives and with many people feeling isolated, anxious or unsettled, I’ve put together some short films to help provide some stability.
Click on this link to find out more and to watch them.
Driving through a local town the other week, I was behind a white van. My prejudices were in full flow. This was a typical, indeed stereotypical, white van, no doubt driven by stereotypical white van man. I knew this to be true (for such is the nature of ill-informed prejudice) because he was going 40 in a 30 mile an hour zone. Typical. Humph. Tut.
And I too was well over the speed limit. The van travelled fast, so I felt the need to do so as well. I was so close I couldn’t see the road ahead. I chose to slow down.
It was an image of today’s busy lifestyle. Others rush around so we do too. Workplaces, churches, shops, loads of places are full of people caught up in the need to do everything quickly. ‘Look at how fast I’m going,’ we cry. ‘Why are you working so slowly?’
It’s not just ‘the Jones’ we try to keep up with – it’s everybody. As if somehow, we will be a better person by doing so – or a lesser one if we don’t.
Of course, we live in a society which demands – and provides – instant gratification. A click of a button can bring a meal to our doorstep in minutes. We send e-mails and get annoyed if someone doesn’t reply straight away. We watch whole TV series at once: gone are the days of ‘And in next week’s exciting episode…’ Bosses, customers, families (and congregations) want everything done yesterday and if not then, sooner.
We rush from meeting to meeting, place to place. Not realising that rushing around uses up so much energy that we are left with less of it for when we arrive for the intended purpose – and the people.
Such rushing is counter-productive and not good for our wellbeing. We are forgetting how to wait. We are forgetting how to slow down. And quite often it’s hard to see the way ahead.
One way to address such things is to take time out. Set aside specific times for reflection or simply to stop. St Benedict offers ‘tools in the toolbox‘ to help with this and you may like to use my own thoughts contained in a book of daily reflections. Or go on a Quiet Day or retreat.
Jesus was a great one for taking things slowly. Admittedly, it got him in to a bit of bother on occasions – like when Martha and Mary’s brother Lazarus died and Jesus took ages to get there, and when Jairus wanted him to come straight away to his poorly daughter and Jesus stopped to heal someone else first.
In human terms, we might look upon those incidents as Jesus giving himself time to think and to conserve some energy because he knew he was walking in to an important situation.
Jesus also made sure he took time out – and he choose to do so. Jesus made time to rest, to think, to pray…
That is to be our pattern. Our pattern for living. Our vision when we are too close to everything that we can’t see the way ahead.
Looking back on 2019, what’s your vision for 2020?
Much of the same? With the same results…
Or time to make some changes?
Two minutes silence.
The season of remembrance. A time to remember the many people who gave their lives during war and conflict. A time for memories of the loved and lost.
Memories. Memories can be both reliable and unreliable. Accurate and embellished. Reassuring and frightening. Clear and unclear. Timebound and timeless.
Memories of an encounter or a place cheer the soul. Memories make us laugh and cry. Memories can be private and can be shared. Memories can be encouraging and demoralising. Memories may be reinterpreted and gain a different meaning.
Memories shape what we do – be that improvements because of bad experiences or the ubiquitous ‘I’ve always done it that way.’
Memories of a critical comment may stop us from doing something: or make us do it out of fear of repetition.
Memories of being bullied at school or work influence current relationships: feeling we’re bring criticised or having our faults pointed out – even though it doesn’t happen.
Memories of getting lost make us doubt where we are another time.
Memories of lost friendships may cause us not to seek new ones.
Memories remind us of who we used to be.
The memories we have – whether inaccurate or accurate, helpful or unhelpful – influence how well we live life and relate to others. While some memories fade and disappear, others retain the accompanying pain.
So, when did we last give ourselves two minutes’ silence? When did we take time to remember?
Praying for the healing of painful memories can be very beneficial. Like with praying for healing from a physical or mental health problem, some elements, some symptoms if you like, may well remain but with prayer for inner peace and wholeness, the ability to live life and relate to others can improve. (It’ll take more than two minutes, though.)
In a book that was influential in my own experience, David Seamands wrote:
‘In this special prayer, we allow the Spirit to take us back in time to the actual experience and to walk through those painful memories with us. It is then through the use of our sanctified imaginations, that we pray as if we were actually there at the time it took place, allowing God to minister to us in the manner we needed at that time.’ (Healing of Memories by David Seamands [Victor Books 1985] now available as Redeeming the Past [David C Cook 2002])
To pray for such healing requires the setting aside of time. Time which won’t be interrupted or foreshortened. Time to recall the memory. Time for silence.
In a context of prayer, open to the Holy Spirit, we carefully relive what took place. To remember the words, the actions, the people, the detail, the consequences, the pain.
As we recall the memory, we bring the person of Jesus right in to the midst of all that took place. Imagining him there for you and any others involved.
To ask for God’s forgiveness. To forgive those involved. To forgive ourselves.
To reach out to God for healing of the pain.
To receive God’s love.
To listen to God as the pain is healed.
Oh, how I hated role-play!
Waiting for the moment when the enthusiastic, upbeat, uber-confident, staff trainer or presenter would make us act out what they’d been teaching us to do. ‘Please don’t pick me, please don’t pick me,’ my inner voice repeated over and over again.
Thankfully on many occasions, it was the confident extroverts who had their moment to show everyone else how it should be done. ‘Phew, not me,’ says the relieved inner voice. ‘Until next time…’ I whisper back. I’ve had enough trouble playing myself at times, let alone trying to be someone else… They’re bound to be better in any case.
A previous post reflected on how, as human beings, comparing ourselves with others is one of our least helpful attributes. Usually applied negatively, doing so exacerbates feelings of stress, inadequacy and failure – especially when it all gets too much or we perceive someone is more successful than we are.
In a recent interview with Radio Times, the broadcaster Paddy O’Connell put it like this: ‘You don’t measure success in Volvos. Success is being the sort of person people want to bump into.’
So, what makes us that sort of person?
We all have our public persona and our private persona. Most people see the public, outer person we present. Many like the public version of themselves – for some it’s a role they can play with confidence. For others, the outside is a uncomfortable place to inhabit. Whereas, much fewer people (if any) meet our private, inner being. There also, in that location, some are happy with who they are, while others are deeply unhappy.
In her excellent new book, fellow BRF author, Cally Hammond reflects on what we can learn from the public and private personas of one the prominent figures of the early church, Augustine of Hippo. She writes one of the most perceptive comments I’ve read for a long time:
‘It is a mistake… to compare the outside of other people’s lives with the inside of our own life.’
We all do it. We compare our inner, private self with someone else’s outer, public self. But, if we think about it, how crazy is that? We’re being the person we are and they’re playing a role… no wonder we don’t feel happy or successful…
Whether it’s at work, socially or more personally, many relationships are built through those public, outside portrayals. However, the deepest, most special relationships are often the ones in which the role-play mask is put aside and the inner person is revealed. And it is in such relationships, the ones built on love, trust, acceptance and communication, that often we discover there are no comparisons that need to be made.
For deep down inside, many people are very similar to ourselves.
Think of those times when you thought you were the only one going through a particular experience. What a relief and reassurance it was when you discovered other people felt the same.
One of the other prominent early church figures, St Benedict quotes words of Paul ‘By God’s grace I am what I am’ (1 Corinthians 15:10). It is one of the great joys of God’s love that we are enabled to draw closer and closer to the point of being able to say, ‘I am who I am’. Of accepting the person we are. Of accepting that God’s love is for the person we are.
Maybe that’s the sort of person we’d like people to bump into.
Driving through the Yorkshire Dales. Enjoying a film in the cinema. Coming back from a successful conference. Lying in someone’s arms. Stuck in a car park. Waking in the night. Watching over a poorly child.
If you’ve ever had a panic attack you probably remember exactly where you were and what you were doing at the time. Sometimes totally unexpectedly, they can happen in good times as well as in difficult times.
While the ‘what if’ thoughts rise up occasionally, thankfully mine all happened some years ago now. But I still remember them. The most uncontrollable and frightening feelings I have ever experienced. Anxiety is, as a film once put it, ‘like a bird of prey getting its claws in to you. It takes you to places you don’t want to go to.’
A panic attack is just one aspect of anxiety. When your body experiences a rush of intense mental and physical symptoms. The consequences often lead to then avoiding going somewhere for fear of having another one. Life starts to close down and the anxiety gets worse.
This week is Mental Health Awareness Week and it’s so good that attitudes towards anxiety as well as depression (which is also very common as this film describes), bi-polar disorder, psychosis, body image and other forms of mental ill health have improved considerably – especially over the last two decades. (If you want to know more about mental health conditions don’t ‘Dr Google’ it – go to where the reliable, evidence-based information is such as at NHS Choices.)
Despite those improvements, there are still difficulties for those who experience such issues, not least, alas, in some areas of the church. ‘It has…been the experience of many sufferers that the implicit message in church is that depression is “laziness”, anxiety is a “lack of trust” and that mental health problems can be resolved by greater “obedience to Christ”,’ observed Will Van Der Hart, director of The Mind and Soul Foundation. Thankfully, the church too is responding with initiatives such as the Mental Health Access Pack.
As a previous post considered, feeling anxious or depressed at certain times is perfectly normal. But it is right to be concerned when those feelings or symptoms affect our ability to function. When they affect our ability to live well.
Asking for help in such times is not a sign of failure. Although the act, or even the very thought, of seeking help can feel frightening. We may be scared of ‘what will come out’ or worried about ‘what’s wrong’ or what other people will think. But as Jo Swinney put it, ‘Depression, anxiety and mental anguish are not signs you are a bad Christian.’ Or a bad person, for that matter.
Asking for help is a sign of strength. Seek help, don’t let it get worse. Recovery is possible.
It does take time and effort, though. So, here’s some links that may be helpful…
If you work for a church or Christian organisation, there are some free workshops to help explore what it is to live well and work well mentally – and also to help managers and supervisors support their staff team. If you don’t work for the church then get in touch with MINDFUL EMPLOYER, an NHS initiative which specialises in this area.
And why not share this post with someone you know who’s struggling? Simply send them this link: http://workrestpray.com/anxious-times
So, Pooch and I are sat by the river in the sun as a steam train chugs its way past on the other side. (Yes, I know, we do live in an idyllic place…).
A man stops nearby and as he unpacks his tripod and camera, I ask “Trains, birds or trees?” “Trains.” He replied gruffly. “Who takes photos of trees?”
‘Shame you just missed it, then…’ I (almost) replied…
Lots of people rush through life like a train. Going full steam ahead even when there’s a station nearby. Often running late. The equivalent of leaves on the line or the wrong kind of snow are always getting in the way. When the train can’t take the strain anymore it often leads to a derailment. And I’ve seen hundreds of those…
It’s perhaps not surprising that the most read post on this blog is about when it all gets too much. A recent article in the Church Times illustrates the nub of the issue astutely: ‘Wanting desperately to know how to improve his spiritual health and well-being, the American pastor John Ortberg asked advice of his wise spiritual director. The answer was succinct and to the point, “You must ruthlessly eliminate hurry from your life.” Ortberg jotted that down and waited for the next point, only to be told: “There is nothing else.”’
It’s worth thinking about your stations – the places where the rushing stops.
And what about trees. The above incident reminded me of a photo I took:
Not by a woodland river but in the hustle and bustle of central London, in Kensington Square, one of those lovely private gardens (although do try not to get locked in, as I did).
One fallen tree is held off the ground, supported by another.
It’s an image which is symbolic of the lives of many people. Some are fallen. Others provide support. Neither are upright.
But the lovely thing about this image is that despite those difficulties, both trees are in full leaf. Both flourishing due to the presence of the other.
You may feel you are one who is always giving others support but hopefully you have people who support you too? Such mutual support enables everyone to flourish.
As for the birds. One of Jesus’ most well-known sayings provides a helpful perspective on the things in life which can cause us to rush and fall over:
‘Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?’ (Matthew 6:26)
Indeed, you are.
Picture the scene. The dog’s taking me for my daily walk (a retirement essential). Yesterday’s rain has swelled the brook as it flows gracefully between the trees. Dewdrops on thatched roofs glisten in the winter sun. Birds sing and the local chickens walk the lanes as if they owned the place.
This idyllic scene is broken by a telephone ringing. A hand dives in to my jacket pocket. But it’s not mine – the phone, that is (the hand was). An instinctive action. My mobile doesn’t even ring. Fooled by a landline.
I’d rank myself 7.5 out of 10 on the technological obsession scale (especially laptop and aforementioned phone). When it comes to social media, it’s the strangely-addictive Twitter and the slightly clunky, but nevertheless, useful LinkedIn which keep me posted (do follow me, he says obsessively…).
I do so enjoy the benefits and access to easier communication and information that technology brings. Life is for learning and one can learn so much from all that’s out there as well as communicate so easily with such a vast range of people.
And yet we live in a society which communicates so much but communicates so little too. In cafés and restaurants, people sat together are also sitting apart, conversing with their smartphone. Work colleagues e-mail each other in the same building (mea culpa). Messaging avoids the hassle of the face to face (ditto). Facebook friends number in the hundreds but ‘offline friends’ are few.
Technology has been key in developing the 24/7 work, rest and play culture in which we live and has brought both advantages and disadvantages.
And therein lies the rub. For many people, there’s no downtime. No way to switch off. Texts and e-mails come and go day and night. Mobile is the go-to number. The pressure is to be always on. Always on for what? Good customer service or fear of the boss? A need to feel needed? A want to feel wanted? A belief that there is no choice?
Many have become so dependent on the phone, tablet or whatever, that its absence causes them feelings of tension and insecurity. (Sounds familiar?)
So how do we manage these various aspects of modern living in order to flourish as people beloved by God?
Balance and boundaries.
In the previous post, we considered how living well is not so much about work-life balance but whole life balance. When it comes to technology, there’s another word beginning with b: boundaries.
So here are a few more tools for your toolbox to help reset things (some are from others, some are mine):
“But, what about…”
“I want to…”
Yes, of course. But you do have a choice also.
You’re far too special to be fooled by a phone.
The first Thursday in February is the annual Time to Talk Day. It’s another opportunity to raise awareness about mental health.
Many more people now speak openly about their experience of depression, anxiety or other more severe and enduring conditions such as bi-polar disorder or psychosis. With one in four of us seeking help from a doctor about a mental health problem at some point in life, it is encouraging to see the increased recognition of the importance of looking after our mental wellbeing.
Indeed, when we talk about ‘mental health awareness’, fact is most people are actually talking about mental illness. Thinking about the conditions, the problems, the stigma, the discrimination.
So, it’s important that we also think about our mental health – the ways in which we keep our mind healthy.
‘Mental health is defined as a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community’. (WHO)
That’s a very positive statement. A lot of people spend a lot of time, energy and money looking after their physical health – exercise, diet etc – but I wonder how many of us put the same amount of effort in to keeping ourselves mentally well?
Being mentally unwell is not a weakness. Indeed, it is often those who are the most conscientious and dedicated who experience such difficulties. Depression, for example, has been called ‘the curse of the strong’.
Feeling anxious or depressed at certain times is perfectly normal. We’re bound to feel anxious if we’re facing an important exam or a relative is in hospital, for example. It’s natural to feel down or low after a bereavement or the break up of a relationship. Indeed, those emotions and responses are a necessary part of who we are as human beings – and integral to our ability to cope with difficult situations and to live well.
But it is right to be concerned when those feelings or symptoms affect our ability to function. When they affect our ability to live well. When we feel bothered by them. When work, sleep, family life and other everyday matters are increasingly affected. If such things are happening every day for more than two weeks, help needs to be sought.
The difficulty is that a lot of people don’t seek help that quickly. We feel we ‘ought’ or ‘should’ be able to cope. We might tell ourselves ‘not to be so stupid’. Others might tell us to ‘pull ourselves together’. It can be difficult to talk – but as this short film shows it’s important to do so.
Asking for help is not a sign of failure. Although the act, or even the very thought, of seeking help can feel frightening. We may be scared of ‘what will come out’ or worried about ‘what’s wrong’ or what other people will think.
Asking for help is a sign of strength. But it is important to be realistic. Although God can and does enable miraculous healing, generally speaking, there is no quick fix. Medication may help but isn’t always necessary. However, it will take time and effort – which is in itself part of the reason why so many people end up struggling for so long: simply because it takes so much time and so much effort.
The good news is that people get better. Recovery does happen. Unlike many physical health conditions, though, recovery from a period of mental ill health may not mean the complete absence of symptoms but it will see the return to a more comfortable level of day to day functioning. To once again live well.
So, what do you do to look after your mental health? Are you working all the hours God sends and missing out on all the other things God wants to give you?
It’s not so much about work-life balance: it’s about whole life balance. It’s about work, rest and pray. It’s about having time for others perhaps through work (be that paid or unpaid; or in the family home or elsewhere); time for ourself through rest and recreation; time for God through prayer and listening.
As quoted in a previous post, ‘You will live with your mind for the rest of your life, so make it a good companion.’
The above is an edited version of a sermon preached by the author at Portsmouth Cathedral on 3 February 2019 on Mental Health Awareness Sunday. Listen here to full talk.
Shakespeare’s comedy, Twelfth Night tells the story of twins, Viola and Sebastian. Shipwrecked, they become separated. On reaching land, Viola dresses as a young man, calls herself Cesario – and falls in love with the Duke Orsino. However, Orsino is in love with Countess Olivia. But Olivia falls for Cesario (who’s really Viola). And then Sebastian arrives. A flood of confusion and mistaken identity. Spoiler alert… Sebastian marries Olivia; Viola reveals she’s really a girl and marries Orsino. A tale of hilarity and heartbreak amidst the end of the Christmas season.
With Christmas now past, we recall another tale of mistaken identity. January 6th is known as The Feast of the Epiphany. A day to remember the visit of the three kings… not that we know how many they were (it’s three gifts, not people)… not that we know exactly who they were either (kings… wise men [and women too perhaps]… the Magi [a Greek word meaning astrologers])… and, sorry all you Nativity Play lovers, they weren’t at the manger in the stable either (not that it was a stable…). Jesus was probably a toddler by the time they arrived.
Nonetheless, whatever their identity, they are important figures in the Jesus story. Bringing gifts of gold as a symbol of Christ’s kingship on earth; frankincense (perfume or incense) as a symbol of his deity; and, foreshadowing the significance of his death, the embalming oil of myrrh. They had searched for the Messiah and they had found him. It was their Epiphany moment – and their gifts reflected Jesus’ identity as the Son of God.
In a previous post, we considered making time in the Christmas period to think about what you’ll be searching for in the year to come. Maybe you had an epiphany moment? (OK, maybe not… sometimes they do take time to find.)
‘New year, new job’ is a widely used mantra. Indeed, January is the most popular time of year for both vacancies and job searching. For many people, work is a large part of life and integral to their identity. Work occupies many hours, weeks, months and years of our lives. Having a job provides something to talk about and perhaps impress others with. We often define ourselves by the job we do. (By the way, do pray for workplaces using the new feature on this site.)
Yet, for people without paid employment, those hours, weeks, months and sometimes years are often very empty. There is nothing to talk about. If we have no job we may feel we have no identity. Instead of being a somebody, we are a nobody.
‘In the world around us,’ writes Tim Chester:
Activity (what we do) -> Identity (who we are)
‘In other words, who I am is based on what I do.’ He continues, ‘The grace of God turns the world’s ways upside down:
Identity (who I am) -> Activity (what I do)
‘In Christ I am someone who does good works. My good works don’t make me who I am.’
In his reflection for the New Year, Martin Gee also challenged our sense of mistaken identity: ‘It matters a great deal how we work; perhaps it matters less what our work is.’
Or as Pope John Paul II put it, ‘The basis for determining the value of human worth is not primarily the kind of work being done, but the fact that the one who is doing it is a person.’
Our identity is a complex thing. At times, we may feel a bit like the Epiphany travellers and not sure who we are. Or like Shakespeare’s Viola, we try to be someone we’re not. I know my sense of my own identity is different now to 40, 20, even 10 years ago. Our identity develops as we grow and mature – and diminishes if we’re always trying to be the person we used to be… or think we ought to be…
Maybe there’s an epiphany moment in there somewhere.
Had a few days in Switzerland earlier this month. Speaking at a conference of business people from across Europe followed by being a tourist in sunny Zurich.
Sharing the conference stage with an English colleague, we were to be interviewed by globetrotting, all-Australian, Greg van Borssum. Martial arts expert, Mr Universe competitor, world champion pistol shooter, film director, fight choreographer and stuntman on Mad Max.
We’d talked beforehand by email and phone about how the panel discussion would go. Greg wanted to talk about my story. I didn’t. He said “It’s going to be a blast!” “I’m British,” I said.
Greg went from failed school kid to Oscar winner via financial ruin and depression. He’d arrived the previous day after a 35 hour-long trip and had had a run in the mountains before breakfast. He had a high energy, high motivation, self-driven approach to life. We were poles apart on the ‘Frost scale of masculinity’. Follow that, I thought.
And, of course, it was fine.
He was the stereotypical gentle giant. And, yes, I did share some of my story. It was a good lesson in how not to compare oneself to others.
From our totally different approaches to life, we stood on common ground. Ambassadors for better mental health. Sharing a passion for enabling people to live and to work in a better place.
One of many things Greg said was that life is not about success but about fulfilment.
Society measures success by achievement. How high the salary. How large the house. How expensive the car. How big the bonus. How lovely the children are. Which university. How fashionable the clothes. What the job title is… But is such success fulfilling?
Fulfilling. Full. Filling.
What is it that fills us? What really nourishes the soul and the inner being?
Greg’s challenge was to look at life differently. In many respects, Christianity is also about looking at life – and living life – from a different approach.
Jesus’ approach was different. It remains, even today, counter-cultural. Sometimes counter-intuitive also.
‘The last will be first, and the first will be last,’ he said. (Matthew 19:30; 20:16; Mark 10:31 & Luke 13:30)
‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven… Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth… Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled… Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’ (The Beatitudes in Matthew 5)
Paul’s letter to the Romans put it another way: ‘Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:2)
In a previous post we considered the tools for the toolbox alluded to in Chapter 4 of the Rule of St Benedict. The same chapter says, ‘Your way of acting should be different from the world’s way; the love of Christ must come before all else.’
It’s easy to look upon those words from the Bible and the Rule and be daunted by such high standards. To feel poles apart from others on some imaginary ‘God’s scale of acceptability’.
But there is no scale. For the love of Christ is the toolbox itself.
The love of Christ is the centre of everything about us. Everything we do stems from that love. That is where fulfilment lies.
Fulfilment gained through experiencing the love of Christ in our own lives.
Fulfilment gained through expressing that love towards others.
Fulfilment gained by taking a different approach.