“Do not be afraid or terrified…. For the Lord your God goes with you.”

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.”

 

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Buy Long-life Milk

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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
  3. When you are ready to date again (there are countless variations of ready), try and keep a few things in mind:
  4. 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)
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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).
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.

Peace

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.

Entitlement

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.

Brokenness

Brokenness: lacking wholeness

I’m unsure whether the term ‘brokenness’ is widely used in religious circles, psychological circles or it is a word that has become part of our mainstream lexicon. Regardless of the origin or the most widely used context, the state of brokenness affect us all whether we are broken ourselves or affected by the brokenness of others.

In “The Life God Blesses- Weathering the Storms of Life that Threaten the Soul”, Gordon MacDonald speaks about looking into the centre of our souls and facing the inadequacies there. This usually takes place during difficult times in our lives which MacDonald describes as ‘disruptive moments’-unanticipated events which we would mostly choose to avoid if possible. Disruptive moments of crisis are often associated with pain and inconvenience, failure and humiliation. MacDonald asserts that it is during these times that we are most receptive to the distressing truths about ourselves and the world.

It is during these times too that we need to make a choice. MacDonald believes that we can try and deny or avoid the pain or we can accept the necessity of walking straight though it until the end. But, he feels, that denying or avoiding the pain can lead to emptiness and is characterized by denial, defensiveness, blaming and escape whereas accepting the necessity of the pain and working through it offers unimagined growth and depth.

Tim and Kathy Keller in their book, “The Meaning of Marriage” talk about the difficulty with seeing our own self-centeredness as a result of our ‘woundedness’. The Kellers believe that woundedness is compounded self-doubt and guilt, resentment and disillusionment. If selfish behaviour is pointed out, the response may be, “Maybe, but you don’t know what it’s like”. The wounds justify the behaviour. The woundedness makes people minimize their own selfishness. But they also talk about how only we have complete access to our own selfishness and only we have complete responsibility for it. The principle that needs to be put into practice is not to think less or more of ourselves, but to think of ourselves less.

Brennan Manning in “The Ragamuffin Gospel” explains how Christians believe that justification by grace through faith means that we know that we are accepted by God as we are. When we have accepted this to be true in both our heads and our hearts, then we can accept ourselves. Manning believes that the more fully we accept ourselves, the more successfully we begin to grow because love is a far better motivator than threat or pressure. Self-acceptance also means we have less need for the acceptance of others because we have an inner sense of security. We are no longer preoccupied with being powerful or popular and we no longer fear criticism because we accept the reality of our human limitations. It means that we feel less pressure to please others because being true to ourselves brings lasting peace. He also believes that the way we see others is often the way we see ourselves. And that if we have made peace with our flawed humanity and embraced our ragamuffin identity, then we are able to tolerate in others what was previously unacceptable in ourselves.

This concept of brokenness or woundedness is one that I have been wrestling with. And the pain that must be processed in order to have a chance of wholeness. At times, self-absorption and selfishness dominate, but the hope is that the process will lead to growth and depth, not so that I will feel superior or self-righteous, but so that I can be more gentle, gracious and compassionate. And that the message so simply put by Brennan Manning would be, “Yes ragamuffin, I understand, I’ve been there too”

Responsibility

Responsibility: something one is expected to deal with and take care of, for which one is accountable should something go wrong An essential component of being emotionally and physically healthy is the ability to take responsibility for ourselves, our behaviour, our actions and our responses. Many of us who have a chronic illness or are chronically anxious, stressed or burnt-out are unsure of the distinction between our responsibility and someone else’s responsibility. Taking responsibility for the behaviour of others or not taking responsibility for our behaviour is damaging. Even though great effort is required, for the sake of physical, emotional and spiritual health, we need to work hard to understand responsibility. Henry Cloud and John Townsend’s book, “Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No to Take Control of Your Life” talks about the confusion of responsibility and ownership in our lives being a problem of boundaries. The authors are very clear that the inability to set appropriate boundaries at appropriate times with the appropriate people can be very destructive. I came to a powerful realization a few months ago when I was reading Gary Chapman’s “Desperate Marriages: Moving Towards Hope and Healing in Your Relationship”, that my emotions should not control my actions. I have often been guided by my emotions and have justified inappropriate responses because I felt hurt, I felt wronged, I felt attacked or I felt betrayed. But what I didn’t realize was that I was still responsible for my actions no matter how I felt. It has taken me time to change my mindet in this area. I now understand that although it is essential to acknowledge these emotions, I cannot allow my emotions to control my actions. This knowledge has brought freedom because believing myself to be controlled by my emotions left me feeling powerless and exhausted and caused great damage. Another truth that was revealed in Chapman’s book was that I am responsible for my own attitude. Attitude relates to the way we think about things and what we choose to focus on. Attitude has a profound effect on physical and emotional well-being which affects our relationships and our lives. The challenge for me, is to be realistic without being negative or feeling hopeless, and not being idealistic about my expectations or impractical about what can be accomplished. In his book, “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People”, Stephen Covey talks about being proactive. For him, this means that as humans we are responsible for our own lives and that our behaviour is a function of our decisions rather than our conditions or our feelings. He describes proactive people as those who recognise responsibility and therefore do not blame circumstances, conditions or conditioning for their behaviour. Therefore, it is not what happens to us, but our response to what happens to us that hurts us. This means that our basic identity does not have to be hurt, but that difficult experiences can build character if we choose. Covey talks about how, unlike proactive people, the language of reactive people absolves them of responsibility. Language like, “There’s nothing I can do, that’s just the way I am, if only and I can’t” transfers responsibility. While being proactive rather than reactive leads to healthier relationships, better productivity and being more effective in life, another important lesson is not to allow the reactive responses of others to undermine us. I found hope in Gary Chapman’s words that admitting my imperfections does not mean that I am a failure. It feels dangerous and unsafe to admit to failure, but without that admission and without taking responsibility for those failures, change cannot take place. Chapman writes so beautifully when he says that “To acknowledge your imperfections does not mean that you are a failure, it is an admission that you are human. As humans, you and I have the potential for loving, kind and good behaviour, but we also have the potential for self-centred and destructive behaviour. Admitting past failures and asking for forgiveness is one of the most liberating of all human experiences.” (Chapman, G. 2008)

Anger

Anger: a strong feeling that one has when something has happened or someone has done something that one doesn’t like

Anger is both part of grieving and being human. Anger is frequently felt not only by those of us with a chronic illness but by healthy people every day. But just as illness and health can have an effect on our lives, so can our responses to anger. Sadly, research has shown that there is a correlation between supressed anger and colitis. Responses that try and deny the wrongs that have been inflicted without processing them means that anger is unresolved.

Reading Gary Chapman’s book, “Anger: Handling a Powerful Emotion in a Healthy Way” has encouraged me to reflect on the anger in my life as well as the way anger is viewed in general.
Gary Chapman believes that when dealing with anger we need to ask ourselves what the origin of anger is and what the purpose of anger is. His belief is that understanding the origin of anger is essential to understanding the purpose of anger which is essential to learning how to process anger in a constructive way.

Anger is a response to an event or situation in life that leads us to feel irritation, frustration, pain or displeasure. Chapman explains that anger is fed by feelings of hurt, disappointment, rejection and embarrassment and that anger is the emotion that emerges when we are confronted with something we perceive to be wrong.

It is important to remember that anger itself is not evil or sinful or wrong, but that our response to anger often is.

I like Chapman’s assertion that anger’s fundamental purpose is to motivate us to positive loving action that will leave things better than when we found them. For many of us, healthy anger control is something that we learn as adults, which means we have to reset our default style of dealing with our anger.

For me, the most helpful advice he gives for people processing anger towards someone with whom we have a relationship is the five-step process:
1) Consciously acknowledge to myself that I am angry
2) Restrain my immediate response
3) Find the focus of my anger
4) Analyze my options
5) Take constructive action

When I try and apply these steps to my processing of anger, I have to deal with some uncomfortable and painful truths.

Because the onset of the emotion of anger is so sudden, I often respond verbally before consciously acknowledging what is going on inside me. That is the reason that consciously acknowledging to myself that I am angry is an essential step.

I now understand that restraining my response is not the same as storing my anger. Rather, it is refusing to take the action that I typically take when feeling angry.

Locating the focus of my anger requires me to be intentional and honest about exactly what is making me angry. I need to determine the primary cause of the anger as well being realistic and reasonable about the seriousness of the offence.

Analyzing my options helps me to take responsibility for my actions because I am not allowing myself to be a powerless victim, but rather a powerful person who has choices and options. And it is helpful to try and remember whether the options I am considering are positive and loving. This is an ongoing challenge for me.

Chapman’s book has taught me a new term and hopefully a new way of thinking and acting on anger. Forbearance. This is giving up the right to take revenge as well as refusing to allow what has happened to undermine my sense of well-being.

This is an intellectual insight rather than a practical application in my life at this stage, but I feel assured that the process has begun which gives me hope as well as allowing me to take constructive action.