Why such vitriol?

I find myself returning again and again to thinking about a Facebook status update I saw a few days ago. I can’t find a way to write the post I want to without quoting the post a little. I don’t know how to make my point without using the illustration. Nonetheless while the illustration is particular, the point I am trying to make is general.

The person who posted was clearly deeply frustrated with an issue he was having with a product. The post began with a comment a wish for the face most associated with this brand to be burning in hell, and ended a statement saying that all fans for this brand are idiots. This is someone whom I have never met, but whose posts I generally enjoy, and for whom I have respect. As a result, this particular post jarred. (There are others who post regularly in this fashion and whom I have long since removed from my newsfeed!)

In a related fashion, there was an article about Pope Francis in Rolling Stone magazine this week. Whilst the author was clearly a fan of Pope Francis, he took a couple of shots of Pope Benedict XVI in a manner that was completely unnecessary.

In such cases the criticisms may well be deserved and justified, but again, in both cases, there is a slide from legitimate complaint to personal accusation. That troubles me.

Somehow the slippage between ‘I hate this product’ and ‘I hate the person who made the product’ is not noticed. Likewise ‘I hate this behaviour’ and ‘I hate the person who has behaved in this way’ are not distinct categories.

Why is that? Perhaps more importantly, why are we all okay with that?

Liz Gilbert of ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ fame tweeted this a few weeks ago ‘Don’t let people throw vitriol at you & get away with it by calling themselves “truth-tellers”. Honesty needs kindness to be a virtue’.

Honest needs kindness to be a virtue – This is an idea worth promoting, and certainly one that I hope I can learn to embrace.

Of course, we need spaces where we can let off steam and rant a little, maybe some use social media for this. But I am not sure any of this helps to make the world a more loving, more compassionate place. For my part, I do rant and blame at times, but I am trying to become more aware of the impact that has on my world.

To criticize and complain may well be justified, but how do we do it in a way that is not too general or too personal. How do we do it in a way that the person involved can actually take on board what we are trying to say?

With gratitude to my spiritual directors

In recent weeks I have received some feedback on Rooted in Love. I have been awed by the way in which it seems to have touched at least a few people. It seems it has been the right message at just the time it was needed.

I had hoped and perhaps even dared to expect that a good number of people would find the book helpful. And that certainly seems to be true. But it is extraordinary to me that there are a few people who seem to be finding it transformative. Such is the grace of God.

Nonetheless, I find myself wanting to pay tribute to my spiritual directors. Over the last 15 years I have been blessed in six people who have been willing to accompany me over various periods of time. Some have accompanied me for four or five years, some for shorter periods. But I can honestly say that each of them has left a lasting impression.

I am who I am today because of the encouragement and care that they have taken. Their willingness to sit with me in celebration and in confusion has been invaluable. In many ways they have been the guardians of my progress into adulthood.

If Rooted in Love is indeed a book which is touching people, then I must own my indebtedness to my spiritual directors. They were instrumental to varying degrees and in different ways to my development. I am sure I have unconsciously drawn on ideas they have given me, and I am sure that I do not give any of them due credit in the book itself.

I will not name them here either, because spiritual direction is a private ministry. The personal dynamics between director and directee play an important role in the flow of grace. I don’t wish to burden any of them with a sense of expectation or obligation in any of their other relationships.

But as I write I see each one before me. I feel the chair I sat in as I spoke and they listened. I see the rooms we met in. And I give thanks to God for their presence in my life. Each had a particular gift.

For those who have read Rooted in Love and found it helpful, spare a prayer today for those who have accompanied me on my journey. It would not be the book it is without them.

Thoughts on equanimity

Equanimity is a state of calmness or composure in the face of difficult circumstances. I suspect many of us presume that achieving that state means somehow bypassing the strong and perhaps difficult emotions. I do not believe that that is necessarily true. It may be true for some of the great masters (although I somehow doubt it), but I don’t it is true for those of us starting out. If I relate equanimity to Ignatian indifference – something I am far more familiar with and have written about¬†here¬†– I suspect that any attempt to suppress our emotions leads us up a blind alley. In my much the same way that denial of our desires doesn’t lead to indifference. (Indifference can be understood as freedom with respect to the outcome – regardless of my desire) I am beginning to believe that we need to let the emotions flow through us. Not to get trapped by them, or indeed, to over identify with them. But we do need to acknowledge them, to feel them, and then to let them pass. The point here is that the lived experience of equanimity may not feel totally calm and unfazed by whatever life has to through at me. I may indeed experience strong emotions, but if I acknowledge them, they can ebb and flow without consuming me. When we presume that we are striving to achieve a state of inner peace, too often we think that means that strong emotions have no place. I think the capacity to experience emotion is one of the greatest gifts we have as human beings. Without this capacity we would have no experience of love. So surely to be fully human is to fully integrate our emotional experience. For those well versed in Myers-Briggs – I am an ISTJ, for the enneagram conversant I am a 5. I admit this simply by way of saying I am not naturally a great ‘feeler’ – I am still learning to value my emotional experience. So this comes not as a plea to the analytical to ‘feel’ more, but rather as an analytical person beginning to discover what may be an important path.

I believe in grace

I don’t believe that things necessarily happen for a reason, but I do believe fundamentally and unshakeably in grace.

When something bad happens, out of a desire to make some sense out of our suffering, someone will inevitably say – well everything happens for a reason.

I find that kind of thinking profoundly unhelpful. The immediate image that comes to mind for me is a 17 year old girl whose life was cut short by a car accident in December 1992. I simply cannot believe that my childhood friend had to die for some mysterious, hidden plan.

It implies a theology which requires God to inflict suffering upon us for some greater good. If that is true then that god is not a God I have any desire to associate with.

Back in 1992 I didn’t really know how to grieve, let alone search for meaning in such circumstances. But I am older now, I have lived a little and I have encountered different sorts of pain.

I have begun to discover that God’s grace is tremendous. Earlier this week I stumbled across a sentence I had written in ‘Rooted in Love’ – ‘With the compost of grace, new life can emerge from the detritus of suffering’.

I believe that wholeheartedly because I have both witnessed it in the lives of others and experienced in my own.

The grace of God is given generously and abundantly. I’m not sure that soothes the pain of suffering, but in that grace there is hope. The shape that hope takes may be tinged with sorrow and loss. It may take some living into. It may not looked like anything that we could have imagined, but somehow beauty and new life manage to emerge.

Living in the moment

In the southern hemisphere the new calendar year coincides with the anticipation of a new academic year. Having been back at work for a week I find myself gearing up for the start of another year. Part of that gearing up is thinking about my goals and desires for the year ahead. At the start of my fifth year as an academic I am beginning to be a little more realistic about what is actually achievable within a year.

I find myself considering some of the questions which drive me. What are the things that I will regret if another year goes by without some substantial progress? What are the things that ‘count’ in terms of the university? What are the things I am excited about? What are things that I am dreading?

With all of these thoughts, it is easy to get swept up in a current of ‘oughts’ and ‘shoulds’. And yet, when I pause and look at those around me who are facing major challenges I realise that it is important to appreciate the gift of each day.

There is a tension between those two things – because if I do not pay attention to the bigger goals I know I will be disappointed with what I have achieved. And yet, the contemplation of those goals and the attempt to achieve them, can take me away from living in the moment.

I don’t believe the answer lies in choosing which one to emphasize, but rather in finding a way to hold both. So that I am truly able to celebrate each day. Not simply because it has brought me one step closer to a bigger goal, but because I was able to be present to those I encountered.

It is a daily challenge – and most things worth achieving take both time and effort. At the same time I am firm believer in the importance of celebrating the small things.

Hopefully somewhere in the midst of all of this I will find life.

Walking with someone who is in pain

This is a very difficult post of me to write because whilst I think I have something important to say I fear that I am trespassing on the privacy of a friend. I also do not wish at all to elicit any sympathy for my own position – my burden is truly light by comparison. In as much as it is any burden at all I bear it most willingly and with great appreciation that I am trusted.

The husband of a very close friend is seriously ill at the moment. It has got me thinking about how to be a good companion in these circumstances.

I don’t know that I am getting it right but these are the guidelines I am using:

1. I trust that my friend has her husband’s back. She is providing the best care of him that she can. My role (in as much as I participate at all) is to attend to my friend.

2. I recognise that there is very little I can physically do to make her experience any easier right now.

In such circumstances, if we are to be useful we must undertake befriending our own sense of powerlessness. Trying to assuage our fear of lack of control by second guessing our companion’s choices is not helpful. If my sense of powerlessness is strange and confusing to me – my job is to find someone else (removed from the situation) to help me to deal with that. Otherwise the person in my friend’s position is burdened with caring for me too!

I am beginning to think that all I can offer is my willingness to be powerless and to trust that if something tangible is needed either I will see it, or she will ask me.

Most of us find confronting our own lack of control disorientating and frustrating. So we do all we can to avoid it. But in such cases our avoidance comes at tremendous cost for the person who is in pain. In our avoidance we leave our companion out in the cold alone whilst we hover around trying desperately to be useful.

If we cannot befriend our powerlessness we must understand that however generous our intentions we are probably adding to the burden, not mitigating it. The real pain of suffering is the inability to change anything. Until we confront that in ourselves we are not really walking alongside at all, we are merely spectators.

One of the joys of social media

This week I had a rather long journey. The details of the journey are rather tedious to recount and are not really the point of this post. So the short version is that I was travelling from Boston to Cape Town via Heathrow. The trip is a 6 hour flight followed by a 14 hour lay over followed by a 12 hour flight. So it was ugly to start, and then I was delayed in Boston for 24 hours. I left my sister’s house in Massachusetts on Monday at 3:30pm local time and arrived home on Thursday shortly after noon.

Fortunately I had access to social media. I was travelling alone and I am not one to strike up conversation with anyone around me. So I began posting on where I was and what was going on. Partly my motivation was to help pass the tedium of the long journey, but as the time went on I found the comments and suggestions both sympathetic and encouraging.

I was careful not to rant, but simply to say – hey this is where I am now. Most of the responses were simply of the ‘thinking of you’. And most comments were from people I interact with frequently online. The whole process was profoundly helpful. Purposely connecting allowed me to feel that I wasn’t alone – others could empathise. It helped me keep reasonably calm and peaceful through the journey.

Then after I had arrived home and checked in with Facebook to announce my final arrival home I saw I had some new messages. One of them was from a recent addition to my Facebook friends – someone who lives nearby but whom I have never met. He offered to pick me up from the airport. As it happened I didn’t need the lift, but I was really moved by the generous offer.

I know that social media (like any human endeavour) is equally blessing and curse. My own experience of social media has been very positive. This experience this week has been a concentration of my broader experience. It gives me a way to connect with people far and wide. It has brought me new friends, and exposed me to new communities of like-minded people. It has also allowed the continuation of connections which otherwise would have died.

So this post is really my way of saying thank you to those who journeyed with me over the last few days. I appreciated even the small gesture of liking my posts. It made the whole thing a lot more bearable.

I know in the grand scheme of things a long journey is not too high on the list of life’s traumas, but being on the receiving end of encouraging notes made me realise that it really does make a difference. Social media is wonderful addition to normal human contact.