I hate New Year resolutions

I have never been a fan of making New Year resolutions. On the occasions I have tried to make resolutions I have usually forgotten them by the end of January. But I think I finally understand a little of what makes me so resistant to the whole idea.

Several threads feed into my thinking on this.

Firstly, I have been able to make some significant changes in my life, but each time I have been responding to an invitation of some kind. I have the will to make the necessary change and to sustain it.

Secondly, every time I have tried to make a change because I felt it was something that I ought to do I have failed. Those same changes have been possible when a real motivation emerged.

Thirdly, and most importantly, I think the idea of New Year resolutions is predicated on an illusion. The illusion that the stresses that prevented me from making better choices this year will be less next year.

Why would I think that something I struggle with today will be easier tomorrow? (Unless there has been something real, concrete and highly unusual that got in my way today).

So, once more I am not making a resolution. I will simply write up on the white board in my office – the simple phrase ‘You are not likely to feel like doing this task any more tomorrow’.

The messiness of the incarnation

Several others have written this season of the significance of mess at Christmas – I am personally indebted to both Margaret Felice and Brene Brown. Nonetheless it is a message worth mulling over and living into.

Christmas is, for many of us, a challenging time. It is the season in which our ideals of what family should be are confronted with the stark reality. Our desires for simple Norman Rockwell-esque harmony is disrupted by the awkward complexity of what is.

Karen Armstrong in a recent interview with Oprah spoke of the concentric circles of compassion. She suggests starting practicing compassion with one’s own family. This has to be (for some) the most challenging place to start.

How do we practice compassion in the face of so much personal history? It is somehow more challenging to me than practicing compassion with the nameless stranger.

At this time of year – perhaps as no other (except Thanksgiving for those in North America) we are confronted with the challenge of compassion.

Somehow it is easier to practice when it is the nameless stranger – but until we learn to embrace those with whom we have shared most we have not fully grasped the message.

The incarnation is messy.

Practicing compassion does not require that we fully understand what we are committing to – it is simply the commitment to starting to work off trying to protect others from the worst of ourselves. Trying to live by the golden rule – do not do unto others what you would not wish to be done unto you.

The words are so familiar. But they are so incredibly challenging. I find the only way I can get a handle on a starting point is the recognition that the first hit is rarely intentional.

It may be mean-spirited and it may lack generosity, but rarely is full on hurt intended. And, if it is, it is because that person is in a tremendous amount of unresolved, unexpressed pain themselves.

The incarnation is messy because Christ is born amidst wounded, suffering people. The communication of the significance of the incarnation is messier still because those same people are trying to be perfect. Is there any wonder we continually miss the point?

Compassion is the only way forward – because it allows us to see the fullness of humanity in the other.

I pray that as I step forward out of the memory of this particular remembering of the incarnation that I will remember this.

The truth shall set you free

Many of us struggle with telling the whole truth. We may well manage to be mostly honest, most of the time, but that doesn’t quite cut it.

There are several different layers which explain why we may struggle with honesty.

Firstly, if we do not take time to reflect on what is going on internally, we may not actually know. Some people do seem to operate happily out of a mixture of projection and self-righteousness. It is hard to be honest if you don’t bother to ask yourself what you are doing. If you have made it this far into this post – you are probably reasonably reflective. But you may still have a few blind spots where this is your modus operandi.

At a slightly deeper level, we may be able to reflect and see the truth (as we understand it!!) but speaking that truth feels too threatening. Normally when this happens we find great justifications for why we are approaching things in a less than honest manner. It is usually some kind of self-protection, but we will often blame others for forcing our behaviour.

Then there is the level at which being honest may well initiate some kind of change which may impact us negatively. This is the level at which the phrase ‘the truth shall set you free’ is most often misused. Telling the truth will increase your interior freedom – it will silence the voices of fear. But telling the truth may precipitate an undesirable change.

I have been thinking a great deal about the importance of honesty. This year there have been a couple of occasions  where I have failed in this regard. Where I have understood my internal state, and yet, for fear of an unwanted outcome, I misrepresented myself. I know myself well enough to understand some of the motivating factors, but even this understanding can be insufficient to speak the truth.

Of course I must quickly add that I do think that it is important to examine our motivations. Truth must always be tempered with compassion. Truth telling can be a vehicle of grace, but only if it is grounded in compassion rather than self-righteousness. It is hard to convey the nuance I wish to in a short post. There are times when silence is more appropriate.

I firmly believe that honesty is the crucial entry point to real interior freedom. And yet I know that there are certain very particular areas or situations where I have failed to be honest. Why is that?

If I truly believe in the centrality of honesty in my spiritual journey, why do I sometimes sacrifice honesty? Mostly I will tell myself it is self-protection, but I wonder how I good I am at distinguishing self-protection and self-interest. Too often I have dressed up my self-interest as self-protection and in so-doing sacrificed my very being.

You don’t know until you know

You don’t know until you know.

This phrase has been echoing in my mind for last couple of months. I have been rolling it around trying to understand its texture and its contours.

What it means to me is a real recognition of the limitations of my own empathy. I am pretty good listener and I have been practicing as a spiritual director for over a decade. I have heard many stories, many life contexts, many struggles. And all along the way I have felt that I have been able to walk alongside people fairly well.

But a few things have happened this year to those around me which have made me realise that there is still a huge gap in my capacity to truly empathise. There are a great many life experiences which one can extrapolate into. An experience of grief can help you to walk alongside some who is grieving. Nonetheless, I have come up against experiences which have taken on a completely new light because of new knowledge.

Before a member of my extended family committed suicide I thought I could extrapolate my empathy into that situation. But after that experience and I had seen my own response and the responses of some of those who were affected, I realised that I didn’t really have a frame of reference before.

In recent months a couple of new situations have presented themselves to me and I have realised that I have blind spots that I did not know existed. It is a humbling and sobering realisation.

It makes me far more aware of my reliance on grace in the ministry of spiritual direction. I know that most people who come to me find it useful. But the longer I remain in the role the more I recognise that it truly is the action of the Holy Spirit. I am just a limited vessel.

You don’t know until you know.

As I roll that over in my mind a while longer I recognise the astounding importance of the life of Jesus. Through the incarnation God has the experiential understanding of what it is to be human. That is truly extraordinary. God has the capacity to ‘get it’ from the inside.

God knows what it is to be human.

A small life

Nobel prize winner Kary Muliss wrote of the experience of realising that there was no greater authority overseeing scientific research. He became aware of the responsibility he shared with his peers of being the elders; the overseers; the shepherds.

This week has stirred the beginnings of a similar thought for me in terms of society.

Over the last four days follow the death of Nelson Mandela I have read many Facebook posts, blogs and published articles. I have been reminded of the extraordinary life that he lived. I have found some aspects personally challenging. But I have been most moved by the stories which a few have told.

Some have been stories which reveal their involvement in the struggle. Tales of hidden pictures of Mandela and books covered in brown paper to foil cursory searches by the security police.

I am equally grateful for those who chose to confess their lack of courage or even uncritical acceptance of the oppressive system.

I have seen these people in a new light – some because of their courage then, and some because of their truth telling now. And I respect them all a little more.

In some ways I have found myself thinking that my own life seems so small. I have not had to take a stand on anything. I have not even had the opportunity to vote in any election as an adult (I have always been a foreigner). It seems so utterly bland.

But when I pause for just a heart beat longer I am forced to recognise the selfishness of such thoughts.

We live at time when the disparity between rich and poor is growing. In the country in which I reside the problems seem insurmountable and nebulous. I imagine in South Africa in the 1980’s there were many quiet conversations. Those who read the forbidden books must have felt they were making a difference simply by reading. Some stepped up and spoke out. But those courageous ones did not emerge from a vacuum. They did not make that choice on a whim. It began with a quiet conversation.

Where is the will to combat poverty?

Where is the will to improve education?

Where is the will to resist the powerful lure of personal profit?

Who are the people who having the quiet conversations about how to make to a real difference?

Maybe it is time that I commit to starting those conversations, in the hopes that one day an idea will emerge that is worth pursuing.

The prisons in our minds

‘As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison’ – Nelson Mandela

I am certainly not the only person who will be writing about the legacy of Nelson Mandela. All South Africans owe him a tremendous debt of gratitude. He was an extraordinary man.

But I find myself reflecting the above quote. So many of us are imprisoned by our thoughts. We are imprisoned by our bitterness at the actions of another, or we imprisoned by regret over our own actions.

Many of us do not even recognise that we are imprisoned. We take for granted the well worn perception of reality which we have uncritically accepted to be ‘the truth’. Nursing scars and wounds for far longer than we should.

This is not to suggest that our wounds are not real. It is not suggest that we need time to grieve, to process and to heal. But too often we accept the resultant crippled response as being the new norm. And in so doing we allow our world to shrink.

True healing requires grace. It requires that we consciously put ourselves in God’s path. It requires that we are willing to be shown a new perspective.

There is nothing quite like the liberation from a thought prison which I have created. I cannot claim a great variety of experience with this, but it has happened at least a few times in my life. In my experience, I always find it challenging to remember quite why it seemed like such a big deal before the freedom has emerged.

Sometimes my prisons are old wounds, sometimes they are identities I have created for myself, sometimes they are both. The trick is to recognise that I am indeed trapped.

Nelson Mandela was released from a real physical prison, but he could so easily have carried the mental prison with him. I am deeply grateful to him for this lesson. It is a lesson I need to return to periodically because it is all too easy to forget.

Attitude shapes our perception

I have been thinking a lot in the last few weeks about the importance of gratitude. In my personal life I have found that practicing gratitude shapes my perception of my wellbeing. It hard to feel dissatisfied or feel the need to keep with up with Jones’s when your attitude is one of profound gratitude.

But as I look beyond to personal life to my professional life I find myself challenged. There are times when my attitude in my professional life is not quite what it might be. The dynamics in professional life are a bit different to personal life, but I know that there are times when I show up less than fully committed. To me this is professional equivalent of dissatisfaction.

This is not to say that I think I need to sell my soul to prove my commitment. No, rather there are times when I know that for some reason I have not performed as well as I might have. I have a sneeky suspicion that that doesn’t come down to passion or ability, but rather the way in which I am choosing to show up.

Maybe it is just me, but we seem to get a strong message from society that full commitment requires a massive time commitment. To put this another way – the number of hours we work appears to be directly proportional to our level of commitment. To work the allotted 40 hours indicates minimum commitment. But I think this is horribly warped.

40 hours of focused, committed presence, is much more valuable than 60 hours of physical presence but mental half-heartedness.

I’m still trying to figure out what the equivalent of gratitude is in a work context. Gratitude isn’t quite the right word for me. I know the flavour of the attitude but I haven’t quite put my finger on it yet. It encapsulates whole-heartedness and conscious presence, and gives the freedom to relax at the end of the day.

Whilst I cannot yet name it – I am praying for the grace to have this attitude. I suspect too, that as with gratitude, the practice fosters the attitude and over time may shape my perception of my reality.