A group of us has recently returned from a trip to Madagascar on an outreach which saw us share our resources and our skills and hopefully express our love to 30 families and their children who had varying degrees of disability. In return, they shared, among other things, their lives, their enduring love and their courage with us.
A few days before our departure, the words of Deuteronomy 31:6: “Do not be afraid or terrified for the Lord your God goes with you,” kept coming into my head. (I had to use Google to find the source of the words because although my faith is robust, my knowledge of bible verses is not).
I have been a therapist for almost twenty years and have worked in a wide range of settings in a number of places with children with different types of challenges. What I experience in Madagascar (this was not my first trip), is often the most terrifying and overwhelming of anything or any place I have encountered. I have seldom been in a position where the lack of access to what could be considered basic services is so serious. We would walk to and from work some days, through sewerage running in the streets, ceaseless noise and neglected and desperate-looking dogs, no clean running water for many people, and most distressing, old men living next to piles of rubbish and tiny children with flies their faces and torn clothes sitting or playing in the dust or dirt.
But what I noticed most, as we worked and engaged with the children and their families and with others, was that, although life appeared to be a ceaseless struggle for so many, there was not sense of overwhelming hopelessness or of bitterness, but rather a humble resilience and quiet courage.
I have returned, forever changed, as I was by my trip there last year. And I have realized how afraid and terrified I have been of so much and so many things for so long. I know that I am not alone in this.
Our family of three have had a challenging week and as I was tidying the house this weekend, I found the photo album that one of my children had been tearfully looking at. The photos were taken around the time that their father and I separated and it was as unbelievable to me as it was to that child that the marriage ended when our children were barely out of toddlerhood. They are such beautiful children who love us both so much and will never know what it feels like to have parents who love each other, delight in each others company and work through hardship in the pursuit of a deeper, stronger and enduring relationship. And how my other child with a new Instagram account searched the profile of the man who used to be a father-figure to both of them and took some comfort in seeing that the pictures of our time together had not been deleted as if that somehow proved that child worthy rather than erasable. I also received a diagnosis that finally explained the chronic fatigue and pain that I have been experiencing that could not be explained by my ulcerative colitis.
Previously, I would have been overwhelmed by events such as these and in order to deal with the fear, would have made myself feel courage. But what I have realized is, that being afraid meant that I found courage like a boxer prepares for a fight and my courage took the form of protecting myself or attacking, not allowing my vulnerabilities to show because that would have risked being wounded. But thankfully life should not be a boxing match and I am no longer overwhelmingly afraid nor terrified because I know God truly does go with me. I also know that everyone experiences something that makes them feel afraid, terrified and overwhelmed at times. And so we need not feel alone. What I was learned in Madagascar was that courage means standing strong and firm, but with gentleness and humility, not allowing fear or circumstances to overwhelm us.
So, “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the Lord your God goes with you; He will never leave you nor forsake you.”
I am in the process of packing up Anna, Ben and my home (along with Sophie, Rufus and Muffy and our latest foster, Lloyd) to move to a more manageable place that we will doubtless come to love as much as every place that we have ever lived, regardless of the circumstances that led us to move.
During the sorting and packing, I have found many things including my knitting and sewing from grade 9 (maybe my Home Economics ability was an early ‘heads up’ that wife may not be my calling); my wedding speech (I can still remember my second one, so yes, the one spoken at the marriage to the father of my children); as well as much that represented the wonders and disappointments of my marriage(s).
And as I say goodbye to the parts I have grieved and take with me the parts I have loved (as well as the Le Creuset pots), it has made me think of my friends who have begun the journey of divorce. This post is for you.
- Don’t for one moment think that this will be your ‘new normal’ indefinitely. Having your dreams crushed or crushing those of someone you once loved , while trying, among other things, to parent, friend and earn, while being emotionally battered as well as consonantly forgetting to buy milk for that soothing cup of tea, IS NOT NORMAL, new or not. Contentment, a strong and healthy sense of your identity as an individual, showing vulnerability and having it lovingly and graciously received and reciprocated is normal. As is buying long-life milk in bulk.
- Time does not heal just because time passes. If it mattered, you will need to intentionally grieve what you lost, even if it was just the dream of your marriage. Go through the stages in your own way and in your own time. In the beginning, dating felt like cheating, as in the infidelity kind. Forever becoming never is like a time-machine gone wrong. Bad drugs couldn’t even take you on that trip
- When you are ready to date again (there are countless variations of ready), try and keep a few things in mind:
- If the answer to “How did you contribute to the breakdown of your marriage?” involves, I don’t know; my ex is…. ; I tried so hard to love him/her but….; RUN (like Usain)
- Being dry humped (absolutely terrible phrase, I know) while kissing him goodbye at the door is not a good sign. I have foster dogs who are also lonely and desperate. Say goodbye and come to my house where the dog will add a lick in the face too if you’re into that. And I will make soothing tea with my long-life milk.
- If he/she wants to marry you within six weeks because you are perfect, do not be flattered. Wait until he/she has shown he/she loves the whole you, good and bad, and that you feel the same before even considering a commitment that involves life-long promises.
- Don’t waste time with people who don’t think you are beautiful. Beauty is the sum of all your parts. Anyone who dates you and implies your beauty is conditional, may be considered a beast (Or a narcissist, *insert swear word here).
- If your ex meets another woman/man (no matter when or how or where), and he/she spends time with your children, be gracious (medication may be necessary). You may believe you have control over what goes on in his/her house, but I assure you, you do not. Being bitter, blaming, self-righteous and pretending it is ‘in the childrens’ best interests’ fools nobody, least of all your children. This is a first hand account. I am not proud of it. Neither would you be, my precious friend.
- There are so many good people in the world. Open your heart to them once you have experienced their goodness (not just been told) and have made sure you can love their badness too.
- Most importantly, always remember that you are loveable no matter what. And allow yourself to be loved by those who love well, with generosity of spirit, openly and unconditionally. You are so worth it.
And don’t forget to buy long-life milk.
Yes: an expression of agreement
“If the wounds on her heart and the bruises on her soul were translated on her skin, you wouldn’t recognise her at all” (Barrie Davenport, 2014)
The word ‘yes’ can deeply wound and even destroy, but when spoken with authenticity and freedom, can be powerful, redemptive and healing.
I often refer to Danny Silk’s book, “Keep Your Love On! Connection, Communication and Boundaries” when I’m trying to make sense of something in my life or relationships.
He talks about how, if our hearts are governed by fear, then much of what we communicate is designed to hide what is really happening internally. We hold back, pretend something doesn’t hurt or act as if we’re happy when our heart is breaking, in an attempt to avoid the pain of being ‘real’. Sometimes, we were not taught how to interpret our thoughts, emotions and desires and translate them into words, much less communicate them to others. The consequence of not knowing how to communicate our feelings are shame and fear, which leads to hiding behind an acceptable social mask. Not having the courage or the ability to face the truth of what we feel think and need, results in confusing and inaccurate information being communicated. At times even falsehoods.
It is important to remember that only those who value and understand themselves can value and understand others. Only those who communicate honestly with themselves can communicate honestly with others.
One of the most undermining and devastating types of communication is the passive -aggressive style. It can make anyone feel crazy because of the mixed messages, veiled criticisms, insinuations and discounting of another person’s thoughts and feelings, while the passive-aggressive communicator maintains the good-person façade. To be in agreement with the message communicated by those with a passive-aggressive style is to perpetuate our feelings of unworthiness.
But what if we only say yes to relationships where communication is assertive and the core belief of both people is that “You matter and so do I. My thoughts, feelings and needs matter and so do yours” (Danny Silk).
I felt slightly like an observer in a really affirming dating relationship I was involved in, which was a catalyst for the change of many of my skewed perceptions and incorrect assumptions about myself and others. He showed me unconditional generosity, empathy, kindness, respect, encouragement, honour and protection. He shared the truth of his heart with me which allowed me to share mine. While expecting me to be accountable, he allowed me my failures. But me weeping when he unreservedly told me I was beautiful, kind or loving, made us realize that my wounds were deep and my core beliefs about how unworthy I was because of mistakes I had made, needed to be healed. And healing cannot come from the opinions of another person. It must come from within.
Often we have intellectual knowledge that has not yet penetrated our hearts or minds and until it does, our perspective is affected. I recently went on a heart-changing mission trip to Madagascar with a team from my church and one of the words that kept coming into my head was ‘enough’.
It made me think of Tim Keller’s explanations in his book “The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness”. He explains that because of the death and resurrection of Jesus, we are no longer on trial. Jesus, as our substitute, has taken the condemnation we deserve and so we are acceptable; we are enough in God’s eyes because of what Jesus did on the cross. Knowing that the underserved verdict of ‘not guilty’ has been given, not because of our performance, but because of God’s grace, encourages us to perform on the basis of that verdict. In Him, our identity is secure. We can do things for the joy of doing them and we help people to help people, not so that we can feel better about ourselves nor fill up any emptiness. We say yes to good out of abundance.
In Madagascar, one of the life-changing experiences was connecting with one of the Malagasy volunteers. We were both under a table trying to manage the challenging behaviour of one of the children when we caught the eye of the other. It felt almost like recognition. Later that night, when we were at church, we were part of the same little group who were praying together. And the next day, we found ourselves standing in a bathroom without a common spoken language, with me showing her how to apply ointment that I had brought with me from South Africa. As she took off her second layer (I also never wear less than two layers on my upper body because of my scars), and I rubbed the ointment into her wounds, I looked at her and thought, “You are beautiful, you are precious, you are loved”. I realized then, that although we both had physical scars and had been emotionally wounded, we were still beautiful, precious and loved. And it felt like it was a message for every person that had ever felt disqualified or unworthy at any time, for any reason, to remember to say yes to being beautiful, precious and loved.
Peace: freedom from disturbance, tranquility
“There must be a quiet place where all is in order, a place from which comes the energy that overcomes turbulence and is not intimidated by it” Gordon MacDonald, 2003
A change in my life, which felt almost catastrophic to me at times, led to a purposeful and intentional search for peace. The search mostly felt like a struggle and during the worst of it, I felt overwhelmed by an internal restlessness that I could not quiet. Much healing took place, but I found myself in a place where I was unable to move forward in the process.
Whilst having dinner with a friend, she told me of her plans to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. She would be climbing to raise money for a charity that supports children affected by war through which healing is facilitated by encouraging healthy relationships. I knew that I had to join her. I hoped that as I climbed for War Child, I would also be walking for my own healing.
Arriving at our lodge in Arusha and meeting the other members of Mountain Network and War Child’s group two, made what I was about to attempt a reality which was both thrilling and terrifying. In an exercise we completed the evening before we started our climb, it became clear that each of us was not only climbing to raise funds for War Child, but to remind ourselves how to engage in the present, slow our pace in life, free ourselves from internal and external limitations, be more mindful, lead our children better, find happiness and regain perspective.
To me, the group was unique in the way the varied personalities worked together without losing our individuality. We had a unified purpose which helped us to leave our egos at the entrance gate of Kilimanjaro National Park and climb that mountain with an attitude of curiosity and openness, not controlling the journey in any way but rather willing to be led.
Every expectation was exceeded and we walked down the highest mountain in Africa having experienced, learned, reflected on, freed ourselves from and absorbed far more than we could ever have hoped.
It has been seven weeks since we summited and I have realized how much I learned:
• Being authentic allows for a real connection as it encourages others to be their true selves too
• Accepting both the beauty and ugliness of our character and making peace with who we really are, brings great freedom and contentment
• If you look for good you will see it
• Encouraging words give unbelievable strength whereas discouraging words lead to hopelessness and feelings of failure
• Kindness without conditions or expectations is a beautiful gift to give and receive
• We place so much value on being like-minded, when we should place higher value on being like-hearted
• Being truly unified in purpose facilitates cooperation rather than competition
• We are limited by rules but freed by boundaries
• Fear narrows our world and tells us we can’t
• Yes, we can
• It is easy to become overwhelmed when we think about the entire climb rather than just taking one step at a time- we can apply this principle to our lives
• Being able to accept help rather than only being able to give it, shows strength
• Helping should never make someone else feel powerless even if our intentions are good
• Belonging shouldn’t mean losing our identity
• Although society tries to rank us, we are all equally human in our value, vulnerability and fallibility.
• We need to make time to recharge and regain perspective. This is a necessity rather than a luxury
• People believe what you tell them- we shouldn’t undermine ourselves with negative words
• Being thankful for the little things brings contentment and fulfillment
• We have to grieve our losses whatever they are. We cannot avoid or repress pain and anger forever. Trying to compensate for what we have lost with someone or something else rather than going through the grieving process will ultimately hurt us and others.
• Being fully present and engaged in our lives will gives us little time to dwell on the past or worry unnecessarily about the future
• The actual experience is as good as or better than the picture in our heads if we allow ourselves the freedom of allowing it to be rather than being disappointed that it isn’t the same as what we imagined or expected.
The experience of climbing Kilimanjaro gave me a new perspective. I came down that mountain having left the past in the past, feeling hopeful for the future, fully engaged in the present and at peace.
Forgiveness: the act of forgiving
I have recently been reading a book written by Adam Hamilton called, “Forgiveness-Finding Peace through Letting Go”.
He prefaces his book with these words, “Forgiveness is essential to our lives. Without it, no marriage can survive, no family can stay together, and no society can be sustained. It is a necessary part of lasting friendships and work relationships.” He believes that that forgiveness is essential because our human nature means that we are bound to hurt others and others are bound to hurt us. He believes that if we are ever to know freedom and joy then we need to be able to say. “I am sorry” and “I forgive you”.
I have been wrestling with the concept of forgiveness. Particularly, struggling with being forgiven when it felt undeserved; not being forgiven when my repentance was genuine and brought about deep change in my life, as well as needing to examine even the hidden parts of my soul to determine whether I have truly forgiven those who have hurt me.
Many years ago, I attended a course on prayer where one of our tasks was to hold a stone in our hand and think of all the people who had hurt us in some way and those whom we needed to forgive. Once we had done that we were asked to transfer the stone to our other hand and think about all of the people whom we had wronged. As I sat there quietly with a small group of women reflecting on the people we had hurt in our lives, I realized what a burden it seemed both to forgive someone who had hurt me as well as to admit to needing to be forgiven.
Being forgiven is a healing experience that is encouraging and brings hope. But there are times that we face not being forgiven by those whom we have wronged or have felt wronged by us. Is God’s forgiveness sufficient to ease or remove the burden? Sometimes forgiving ourselves is most difficult and in a society that seeks justice and frequently favours retribution over mercy, we feel we need to suffer in order to ease our guilt. But does that mean that we expect others to suffer to be free of their guilt too?
When we have been hurt, we can seek justice or offer mercy and we need to ask for mercy as well as show mercy.
Forgiveness is most freely and fully given when the person who has done wrong repents.
Repentance is a process that should include awareness, regret, confession and change.
• We need an awareness or a consciousness that something we have done has caused pain to another
• When we acknowledge that and do our best to understand how that made the other person feel, we experience true regret or remorse.
• When we understand the impact our actions have had, we are ready for confession- for taking genuine responsibility for what we did and asking for forgiveness. This is about acknowledging the wrong we’ve done and asking for grace.
• Change is the most important step and means “changing one’s heart and mind, leading to change in behaviour”
Hamilton talks about what we are actually looking for when we seek forgiveness. It is not a request for the other person to excuse what we have done, but rather to pardon us. We are looking for reconciliation and for the restoration of our relationship. We are asking for that person to release the right to retaliate. In seeking and finding forgiveness, we experience pardon and restoration, which offers a new beginning.
There are times that we need to forgive without repentance from the person who has hurt us. How does one forgive someone who has inflicted great hurt, much destruction and will not take responsibility for it? This feels like an almost impossible task, but choosing forgiveness means that we choose power rather than powerlessness- we choose not to give the person who has hurt us any more power over us.
In Tim Keller’s book, “Reason for God”, he talks about the need to grant forgiveness before it is felt and that releasing the anger, hurt and bitterness through choosing forgiveness is a process that leads to peace and new life. A process that is difficult and often needs to be repeated. But brings restoration.
I hope that as I continue on my sometimes challenging journey of life, that what I have learned about forgiveness takes hold of me in a way that leads to sincere and absolute forgiveness of myself and others and brings peace and new hope.
“Forgiveness does not change the past, but it does enlarge the future” Paul Boese
Entitlement: the right to have or to do something
“What separates privilege from entitlement is gratitude” Brene Brown
There are times when one’s eyes are opened and realizations become clearer. After reading Gary Chapman’s, “Desperate Marriages-Moving Towards Hope and Healing in Your Relationship” (2008), I have become increasingly aware of the attitude of entitlement in my own life and in those around me. Notably, I have learned the most about entitlement from the grace and authentic demonstration of gratitude in others who do not demonstrate entitlement in any way.
Gary Chapman talks about a concept he calls “Reality Living’ in which one chooses to face life with a positive spirit. He believes in six realities that can facilitate focus and provide direction.
1. I am responsible for my own attitude –this has a profound influence on our physical and emotional well-being.
2. My attitude affects my actions- we can be part of the problem or part of the solution.
3. I cannot change others, but I can influence others.
4. My emotions do not control my actions.
5. Admitting my imperfections does not mean that I am a failure.
6. Love is the most powerful weapon for good in the world- love is less an emotion and more an attitude that is demonstrated with appropriate behaviour.
Something I have come to realize is that entitlement is an attitude that is shaped by the responses and boundaries of those close to us, especially in our early years.
As part of my wish to better understand entitlement and the effects on my life, I have been reading a book called Gratitude and Kindness: A Modern parent’s Guide to Raising Children in an era of Entitlement (Fry, C and Ferarri, L, 2015).
Fry and Ferrari believe that gratitude and kindness are important because they can increase our happiness, decrease our stress, increase our ability to reach goals and allow for more caring friendships and social connections. They believe that giving to or making life easier for our children is great unless we do either to such an extent that our children expect and demand from us or others. An attitude of entitlement can make life difficult, as once advantages are assumed to be deserved, disappointment, anger, hurt and resentment can easily follow.
I have been thinking a great deal about the relationship between entitlement, grace and gratitude. Reading Philip Yancey’s “What’s So Amazing about Grace?” (1997), he talks about the primary reason for doing good being the overwhelming gratitude for what Christ has done for us. This could apply to kindness and compassion being an overflow of the gratitude we have, which is the antithesis of an attitude of entitlement.
Fry and Ferrari believe that gratitude is a way of being. It is an affirmation that there are good things in this world that we have received as well as the recognition that the source of the goodness is outside ourselves.
I have found that those who are grateful for what they have tend to be more gracious towards others. And it is far easier to be gracious and generous to those who do not have an attitude of entitlement.
My hope is to cultivate a deep sense of gratitude by being aware of everything I have to be thankful for. And through this gratitude, may there be more of a sense of privilege than of entitlement demonstrating itself through unending grace towards others.