Incremental changes and seismic shifts

I celebrated my 38th birthday on Saturday. Culturally once we get past 18 and 21, we tend only to focus on the ‘big’ birthdays – the ones which mark a new decade. But this has been a significant birthday for me. It has marked a transition for me – I am no longer young. Three factors have played into that realisation.

  1. In the week that I celebrated my 18th birthday I had my last day of school and my first A level exam. That was 20 years ago.
  2. When I was 22 I first met the man who would be my first long term spiritual director. He was 38 at the time. I didn’t think of him as being ‘young’.
  3. Just over a month ago I launched my book on Ignatian spirituality ‘Rooted in Love’. Amongst all the comments that are slowly filtering back – there is a notable absence of remark on my youth!

It isn’t that I am obsessed with the idea of being ‘young’ but rather a recognition that I need to let go of an identity which I have carried for about a decade. It began when I joined the team at Loyola Hall, a Jesuit spirituality centre in the UK. I was 27 years old. It wasn’t just that I was 27, but at the time I joined the next youngest person on the team was 18 years my senior. Added to my rather youthful appearance and the fact that most spiritual directors are north of 60 – meant that being the young one was challenging but gave me a handle – a sense of identity.

Obviously the shift hasn’t happened over night. It has been a slow gradual transition. But it is only in the confluence of events around this birthday that I have spotted the change.

I think many of the transitions that happen in life are a bit like this. The incremental change creeps up on us. Sometimes we resist the obvious shift – desperately trying to cling to the identity that we had before. The thought of change is just too scary.

But if we can dare to let go of the old identities, what emerges will be better. It may not feel terribly comfortable at first, and it may require a bit of reframing. But it will be better because it is more authentic; it is more honest.

I’m talking about age here because it is the transition which has precipitated the thoughts for me. It could be thinking about ourselves as a victim, or as a survivor of something. It could be clinging to a role which we no longer fulfill. It could be letting go of a vision of what a ‘perfect’ life should look like. Each of us uses different props to support our sense of self, and not one of those props will last a lifetime.

Is there an invitation to you today to let go of a dearly held image?

You’ll never feel like it

I am a procrastinator. I put things off for another time, always hoping that the will to do it will magically manifest itself.

It doesn’t.

One of two things happen. Either I am eventually forced to act because not to do so would be highly problematic. Or I let the opportunity pass by and convince myself it never really mattered anyway.

Neither alternative is good. The only thing that helps cut through the cycle of procrastination is honesty with myself. However little I feel like doing the task I have set myself today, I am highly unlikely to feel more motivated tomorrow.

In my procrastination, the lie I always fall for is that it will be easier tomorrow. It won’t!

Putting off the awkward conversation or the taxing task doesn’t make it easier – in fact the opposite is true. The longer it sits in my mental radar, the more difficult it seems. It takes on a life of its own and slowly saps energy from my being.

On the white board in my office I have written the phrase ‘Don’t go for minimum energy output – go for minimum fatigue inducement’. It is this distinction that helps me overcome procrastination. Minimum energy output says – conserve your energy today, tomorrow will be better. In other words it gives a reason to procrastinate. Minimum fatigue inducement does the opposite – I know that when I put things off they slowly eat at me; leaching energy from my being.

I wish that having that note on my board was sufficient motivation to stop procrastinating. Sometimes it helps, often it doesn’t. But I hope that each time I manage to attend to something timeously that the next time will be a little easier.

The need for connection

I have never had difficulty making circumstantial friendships. The kinds of relationships where you can have a relaxed meal or drink together. Or you can enjoy each others company in the context of some shared activity. But the spectrum of friendly relationships is far wider than this.

I have found that I need a wide range of connections to feel at home. When I lived in community at Loyola Hall I found I missed the casual connections of acquaintances. As I didn’t go to a parish or do regular shopping or belong to any kind of club there was no one in the vicinity who even recognised me as a neighbour. I didn’t know those kinds of connections were important to me. I didn’t know that a brief acknowledgement of recognition by a variety of people helps me feel connected.

At the other end of the spectrum are a very small number of powerful relationships. These are the relationships which are entirely mutual. In these relationships I know that the existential of the friendship makes a substantial difference to both of us. At different times we each play the role of supporting and being supported. I will certainly go to great lengths to nurture and sustain these connections.

I have never regarded myself as being ‘social’ and for many years in my adolescence and early adulthood I wasn’t sure I was capable of having significant relationships. So for me the existence of these few substantial connections is something of a surprise and an incredible joy. On of the joys of modern technology has been these relationships can be easily maintained even though we live in different parts of the world.

We humans are social creatures and we thrive in quality relationships. But quality connections don’t happen by accident – they require a bit of nurturing and intentional effort, before the glue of the mutual connection takes hold. In the same way, the casual acquaintances only develop when you keep showing up in the same place with some regularity.

I have learnt that it is worth risking investing in relationships which appear to be promising. The benefit of establishing a connection far outweighs the risk of getting hurt. But be prepared to invest for a good while, quality relationships need time to develop.


A way into humility

“We must be willing to be completely ordinary people, which means accepting ourselves as we are without trying to become greater, purer, more spiritual, more insightful. If we can accept our imperfections as they are, quite ordinarily, then we can use them as part of the path. But if we try to get rid of our imperfections, then they will be enemies, obstacles on the road to our ‘self-improvement’.”

Chögyam Trungpa From The Myth of Freedom

I came across this quote on my Facebook feed last Thursday and I find myself returning to it again and again. It is clearly resonating with something deep within.

To me, this is humility. The willingness to be utterly ordinary. To live in my small sphere of influence and to offer what I can is exactly what I am called to. And I am called as I am, with the parts of myself I wish I could shake and the parts I quite like. I am called to accept the whole package. To acknowledge my limitations, and to trust that if I am able to live with them amicably that grace might just flow in these spaces too.

If we can get to that place of self-acceptance we will discover real interior freedom. At the heart of the Christian message is the idea that we are loved unconditionally by God. In my experience it is through the experience of the love of God that I find access to my own self-acceptance. But it isn’t an instant thing, it is an ongoing conversation, an ongoing discovery. So it is through the taste of freedom that I am able to be more self-accepting. It is through noticing God’s compassionate gaze that I discover self-compassion.

Too often in our attempts to help one another become ‘good Christians’ we cut through that dynamic. Putting conditions and expectations on each other, and propping ourselves up by a constructed image. If we could let go of the ideas we have of ‘right living’ and get instead with acknowledging that we are simply ordinary people trying to live in relationship with God, we may be pleasantly surprised both by ourselves and our communities.

Growth through suffering

Richard Rohr writes that beyond the age of about 30 we do not grow significantly except through suffering. As 30 is a little way behind me now I don’t relish that idea. I am certainly not eager to endorse it, and I’d like to keep open the possibility of learning in other ways too. Except that I know that my own most significant periods of growth in my adult life have been associated with times that have been personally challenging.

So why is it that suffering composts our souls? In my own experience it is because it is only really in challenging times that I discover the limitations of my own will. When things are going well I don’t notice my limitations, I am less aware of my need for grace. It is only when circumstances beyond my control pull me out into the deep water that I recognise my lack of self-sufficiency.

In those times there is no choice but to pray for grace – and I am always surprised by what emerges. Praying for grace isn’t a magic wand. It normally takes a while for things to shift. But the creativity of the new space that develops is always surprising. I often find a capacity within myself I didn’t know I had, and importantly, one or two relationships are usually strengthened in the process.

Rohr frames suffering as any experience where we are confronted with our lack of control. It’s a useful start, but it doesn’t quite hit the mark for me. I see suffering as those experiences where I discover the limitations of my will. Those times when either I cannot see a way through (and therefore I am unable to move in any direction), or when I can see what is required but I have no desire to go where I see I need to.

In these circumstances all I can do is pray for grace: To ask God to help me. And each time I have been through that, in retrospect it has been a time of growth. It is exactly this surrendering of will and the reliance on grace which Ignatius invites us to pray for at the end of the Spiritual Exercises:

‘Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding and my entire will. All I have and call my own. You have given all to me. To you, Lord, I return it. Everything is yours; do with it what you will. Give me only your love and your grace, that is enough for me.’

I think this is precisely why I resist Rohr’s unequivocal statement with respect to only growing through suffering. I think growth is possible at all times, but we have to learn to live in grace rather that through will power. I suspect I will spend the rest of my life stumbling into that truth occasionally – I wish it were easier to hold and to live by.

Watching the dawn sky

My bedroom is on the sixth floor of an apartment block. The view from my bed is across the Cape Peninsular to the Hottentot’s Holland mountain range. The sun rises from behind these mountains.

It is my habit to pray in the early morning, and I sit in my bed to pray – looking out towards the promise of the rising sun. At this time of year, my usual prayer time is in during the dawn – before the sun rises.

Yesterday as I sat in my bed praying there was a lot of high level cloud around which always makes that time of day spectacular. A flood of oranges and pinks. But much closer to me, not quite blocking out the entire sky was a low level grey cloud. As I sat praying I could see the pinks and oranges just above the mountains, but the rest was blocked out by the nearby cloud. Over the course of my prayer period the grey cloud slowly moved across the sky revealing more and more of the spectacular colour beyond.

Apart from enjoying the beauty, it got me thinking. The grey cloud somehow came to represent the minutiae of daily reality. The small frustrations, the unresolved woundings, the stresses and strains of just getting things done. But when I am able to pause and notice the beauty of the bigger picture, and I am able to offer gratitude for that, sometimes the perspective shifts. The grey cloud doesn’t magically disappear – it is still there, but it is no longer the thing which dominates my line of sight.

The practice of gratitude helps shift perspective. It doesn’t eliminate the need to process woundings, or to do the laundry, or phone the plumber or whatever else. But it puts those tasks in perspective. They are an important small detail, but they are not the whole picture. When I can focus on the hints of beauty, the small irritations are somehow a little more manageable.