Overcoming insecurity

I’ve had an interesting experience over the last week. I was at a large spiritual direction conference giving a workshop. As I have over a decade of experience in the field of spiritual direction I didn’t feel like an imposter. But in a room of 600 people I knew less than an handful personally before I arrived. And of those there was only one whom I had actually met in person (and she was the head of the organisation hosting the conference). The others were all connections I had made online – so connecting with them held some stress.

I found the first day of the conference exhausting. But as I reflected on the first evening I realised that there were three kinds of conference attendees:

1) Those who were genuinely interesting

2) Those who thought they were interesting

3) Those who were trying to be interesting

The good connections you make are those where, you both think the other is genuinely interesting.

That first evening, as I was reflecting on the day, it occurred to me that whilst I may think I am genuinely interesting, the person I am talking to may think of me as a type 2 person!

The thought was a useful one. It freed me for the rest of the conference to simply be present to those around me. I no longer tried to make connection. Rather, I allowed casual conversation to begin or not. And once the conversation had begun I again allowed it to evolve or not.

As a result I had some fantastic interactions with a few people. Interactions which would have been hampered had I still be overly keen on ‘making connections’. I was able to fully engage in the conversation that I was having rather than scanning the crowd for better potential. I was able to be myself, and I was able to be present to the other. I had no expectations beyond a brief conversation, and occasionally I bumped into the same people again and enjoyed another conversation.

I cannot describe how liberating it was. I have been affirmed in my capacity to interact meaningfully with a few individuals in a large crowd (not a situation I would normally choose).

As soon as I let go of my need to prove anything to anyone I began to enjoy myself a great deal more. As soon as I let go of my need to take anything from the conference other than the memory of the experience I was far more open to receive.

It has been a tremendously valuable experience for me, and I deeply grateful to those with whom I did manage to connect. I feel like good seeds have been sown and maybe, just maybe, one or two will bear some fruit.

How have I ended up here?

I am sitting in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I am here for a Spiritual Directors’ International conference. I am giving a workshop in a couple of days time.

My question is only partially geographical.

I watched Dead Poets’ Society a few weeks ago. Watching this film when it came out in 1990 was significant to me. I was just a bit younger than the boys depicted in the film. Thoreau’s idea of ‘living deliberately’ have echoed through my late adolescence and emergence into adulthood.

Watching again perhaps 7 or 8 years after I last saw it was illuminating. A substantial shift has happened in those years. I am no longer waiting to see how my life will turn out – I am living it.

Perhaps the thing that delights me most is that I am living a rich and full life. Certainly I would not have imagined back then that my life would look as it does now.

Even five years ago, I could not have imagined that I would be able to fashion an unusual academic career which combines interests in chemistry, spirituality and education.

There are so many things for which I am profoundly grateful.

Yet, sitting here in New Mexico, I am mystified by the journey. How did I get here?

There was some luck, some hard work, some real searching, and a whole heap of grace. Yes. I have taken every step. Yes, I have stuck my neck out on occasion. But I cannot claim credit for the whole thing – there have been many angels along the way.


The resurrection

The resurrection, or experience of the risen Christ, does not leave us where we were found.

I was asked to write an editorial for a weekly Catholic newspaper (you can find the editorial here). As the editorial was to be published on Easter Sunday, the subject matter was obvious – something about the resurrection.

In writing the editorial I found myself struck by the idea that two things were necessary for emergence of Christianity. Firstly, the resurrection. Without this, Christianity has no meaning. The resurrection is what makes the gospel message. This is the central hope. But the spread of the gospel required something more, it required the disciples to step up in a new way.

These men and women, these followers of Jesus, had to become proclaimers of the Word. They had to respond to the new challenge, the new invitation. And their lives (never mind ours and countless others down the centuries) were never the same again. They had begun as followers of charismatic preacher, and ended as martyrs. They didn’t sign on for that, but they got the Word out there sufficiently that it still lasts today.

So does the same hold true for us? I think so. I know that who I am is deeply influenced by my faith.

The encounter with the risen Christ always offers a new path. It may not happen right away, it may take some living into, but always sooner or later there is a choice to be made. A choice which will have a significant impact on your life.

For some that choice will be one major life changing event. For others, an accumulation of hundreds of small decisions. For some the choice is made at the beginning of the journey with Jesus, for others, it happens much later.

But in the end, we are all transformed by grace. We are not left where we were found.

The resurrection offers hope. A hope which the world cannot give.

Where am I standing?

Any time we find ourselves siding with the institution over conscience we are effectively standing in the crowd that gathered in Jerusalem that terrible Friday yelling ‘Crucify him!’

Clearly, that statement needs a little unpacking. What do I mean by ‘siding with institution over conscience’? Institution in this context can mean anything from an actual institution like church or university or company to a small collection of people gathered around a common interest. It doesn’t have to be religiously affiliated but it might be.

The ‘siding’ part of that statement indicates that there is an issue of some kind under debate.

The conscience aspect suggests that the issue under debate is not morally neutral. In such cases it is unlikely that there is a clear ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ rather a ‘better’ and a ‘worse’ which require ‘weighing’.

The dynamics so often associated with institutions tend to foster the more egocentric values – an increase in wealth, power or prestige is a powerful motivator. Institutions also favour compliance – it is hard to build a corporate identity (or group identity) without clear guidelines as to what is acceptable and what is not.

For the most part following those guidelines is not problematic until we get to a point where truly good people are being sacrificed in some way to retain the identity.

In many ways, I think that is what happened on that Good Friday. A good, kind, compassionate man who favoured love over compliance (not in a people pleasing everything is okay kind of a way, but in a courageous, truly loving way) became too much of a threat. And was, quite literally, killed for it.

How often have we been in situations where we have kept quiet whilst a truly good person is thrown to the wolves?

How often have we stayed silent as we witnessed an injustice?

It is so easy to be a smug ‘insider’. We are only too happy to be part of the in-crowd.

Or perhaps we are not so smug, we allow ourselves to feel the prick of conscience, but are too fearful to speak out for fear that we too will be ostracized. It is easy to soothe ourselves with the thought that at least we are aware of what we are choosing. But it is worth remembering that our actions are no different to our smug neighbors.

There are always compelling reasons to stay silent. But what Pilate saw that day was crowd of people shouting ‘Crucify him!’ – those who remained silent were hardly protesting the outcome!

As I contemplate these Holy Days I pray for the grace of forgiveness for the times I have not attended to my conscience and have taken my place in that crowd.

Recovering equilibrium

As a chemist I find the idea of equilibrium much more helpful than balance. Equilibrium is something that is capable of re-establishing itself under new circumstances. The position of the equilibrium shifts, but ultimately it finds a new place and restores itself.

Occasionally life circumstances throw us curve balls. Circumstances that knock us sufficiently that equilibrium is temporarily lost, but sooner or later we adjust.

The last few weeks have presented such circumstances for me. I have been knocked more than I expected. I suspect it was a case of positive interference (to use an analogy from wave mechanics) – two fairly big things coinciding in such a way that the additive effect was substantial. But remarkably quickly I find my equilibrium reasserting itself.

So, I cannot help but pause – taking time to notice those things which have helped.

– Taking time to allow myself to really experience the full impact

– Spending time only with people who I really get me, or those who I presume won’t get me at all.

– Seeing my spiritual director often

– Laughing with my spiritual director often

I think the latter has been especially important. I tend to take life fairly seriously, but a good sense of humour is an invaluable asset.

There certainly have been things that have been less helpful – mostly efforts of well intentioned friends which have really missed the mark.

In the end I am once again humbled by grace. I have not moved myself to a new place of equilibrium, it has just gently reasserted itself.

Attending to my own journey

One of the things I have long been aware of in a spiritual direction context has been the importance of my own journey. As a spiritual director I must attend to my own journey. I cannot accompany others if I am not consciously present to the ‘stuff’ of my own life.

In the spiritual direction conversation itself, of course, my preoccupations must be put to one side. Without this, I cannot be present to the other person in any useful way given the expectations of the conversation. My own stuff may be triggered, but I simply note those moments and come back to them later when I am on my own.

Nonetheless, once the directee has left the room, I don’t feel a great temptation to continue to ‘feel with’ them. I may need a little time for an internal debrief. And there may be things I need to take into my own prayer and reflection, but I find the line fairly easy to draw.

But does the same hold true in close personal relationships?

I have been walking alongside a friend through the illness and recent death of her husband. In such circumstances, how she is, affects me far more deeply. I do have a strong sense of empathy and I believe it is part of my role at the moment to attend to her.

But in the last week or so I have begun to recognise the importance of attending to my own journey too. I have needed to take time to grieve. I have needed to pay attention to the greater trajectory of entering mid-life. I cannot be there fully for the other if and when they need me, unless I invest also in myself.

It is so tempting at these sorts of times to put my own needs to one side because they appear so much less than those of the other. But if we do so everyone loses. I cannot be there fully for the other; I will not be able to allow the other the freedom to process in their own good time if I am putting my own journey on hold.

Paradoxically, I can only be fully present to the other when required if I am fully present to myself. Let me risk stating the obvious – when I say ‘being fully present to myself’ I don’t mean indulging in whatever numbing behaviour works for me. Rather allowing myself to enter the vulnerable spaces that I need to in order to heal. So being fully present to myself isn’t selfish.

It is only if I have invested the time I need to in myself, that I will be able to walk alongside the other through the winding path of avoidance, numbing and raw vulnerability that is the path of grief. My task as friend is not to get the other to be anywhere. It is simply to pay attention to what is needed on any given day and to do that. And I am beginning to recognise that I will only have the capacity to do that if I am not waiting for her to heal before I begin to attend to myself.

In gratitude to friends

When I began this blog I quickly slipped into a habit of posting in a particular rhythm. For the most part that has been relatively easy to maintain. I struggled to write once before in the fatigue of the end of the semester.

And I am struggling again.

This time, not because I am tired, but because I am filled with half processed ‘stuff’. Grief over the death of the husband of a close friend. Empathy for my friend. And a bunch of thoughts and feelings around the way ahead. Alongside that a whirlpool of personal stuff. As is perhaps normal for my phase of life I am facing the early childhood experiences which have shaped the way in which I have engaged with the world. It is both challenging and illuminating.

How do I draw a single thread from this morass of thoughts, feelings and new connections? How do I stick to my interior guideline of only posting on that which I have fully processed? I’m struggling to find a piece of solid ground.

As I write that I realise that I have found solid ground in the last couple of days. I have found my footing in two separate conversations with two good friends. One is ten years older than me, the other almost ten years younger. Both listened as I talked through the things that are going on for me at the moment. Both made observations which I found deeply heartening.

I may be in the midst of a thicket at the moment, and the way through may be far from clear to me. But these two friends have somehow reassured me that I have not lost my way. The thicket is just what life has presented to me at the moment.

I am profoundly grateful for the gift of a conversation over a glass of wine.