Interior shifts

I am a strong introvert and, for a long time, social interaction was a major stress. For many years I was not sure of my capacity for friendship. Mostly I felt that people probably hung out with me because I was useful to them in some way. Either I could help them out with stuff, or that I was in convenient proximity.

Then in 2006 on an eight day retreat something shifted. I had a powerful prayer experience which convinced me that I was valued for who I am. It remains a watershed moment. There is a clear before and a clear after. It didn’t change the external reality, but I really did learn that I do have good friendships. Those friendships aren’t based on utility, but rather on real connection.

In a similar vein, I have always found casual conversations with strangers to be stressful. I don’t really want to engage with my neighbours, I don’t want to chat in the queue at the grocery store, and I really don’t want to talk to the person sitting next to me on an aeroplane. But all of those situations are fairly easily avoidable.

The real stress comes when I am in a social situation with acquaintances when conversation is expected. This also includes meeting people that I would like to develop a connection with, but I haven’t met yet (meeting up with people who I know through email or Facebook who have a common interest).

But in the last year there have been several occasions of meeting up, of connecting with strangers and acquaintances, and even the odd casual conversation which has been a great blessing. I am beginning to recognise that I can have those conversations. And, importantly, that those conversations can be tremendously enjoyable. Sometimes they lead somewhere, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes the entire extent of the connection has been an enjoyable conversation in a short period of time.

I feel another interior shift. I think, perhaps, I am no longer fearful in the way that I have been in the past. I am much happier now to simply show up and let what happens happen. I have less fear of being judged.

I suspect this shift has its roots in the shift of 2006. I think it emerges precisely out of the lived experience of having good, solid, strong friendships. I know that there are people I can laugh with if I do have a disastrous interaction. I also know that some of the casual connections might grow into something more substantial but I have no grasping need for them to do so.

It is a wonderful place of freedom.

The tension of inquiry

I have started to delve into the work of Bernard Lonergan SJ. In my initial foray I came across the idea of the tension of inquiry. I find it a useful idea. Our educational systems tend to reward getting the right answer, but do not necessarily encourage developing a degree of comfort with the tension of inquiry.

The tension of inquiry is uncomfortable. It is that uncertainty of not quite knowing how everything fits together that precedes what Lonergan would call insight. That aha moment of understanding.

I suppose the ‘tension’ arises not simply out of confusion or the lack of clarity. There are many things in the world which I don’t understand which I am perfectly happy not to understand. Rather the tension arises out of the desire for clarity, the desire for insight, the desire to understand, and the recognition that I am not there yet.

Learning to live in this space of tension is important. It is the thing that will motivate us to do the work that is required for discovery.

But I wonder if our desire for contentment, and all the memes that encourage happiness (let go of relationships that don’t feed you; make sure that you love your job; life too short for …… etc.) don’t actually actively discourage living with tension. I think that at times, we need to live with a healthy tension in order to allow something new to emerge.

Educationally, the ‘new’ thing is understanding or insight. In life terms, the ‘new’ thing may be a career path or a relationship, or something smaller but no less significant. In my own life, I have learnt the importance of living with the uncertainty of the next step. Trying to resolve that tension too quickly shuts down real possibilities.

In the next few months I am going to be working on actively increasing my capacity to be comfortable with the tension of inquiry. I think it could have a positive effect on my research career!


What gets in the way of change?

After the last post on the importance if pausing, a friend commented on Twitter that she valued the reminder that dissent isn’t always personal. What caught my attention about this particular comment by this particular person is that I know that she is a strong proponent of the idea that unity does not necessarily require uniformity. That is to say that people with differing opinions could still be part of a larger grouping without contradiction.

In this one comment I suddenly realized that herein lies the problem with so many of our great ideals. We want to say that we can have unity without uniformity. This is our espoused position. But actually our operational position is to take offense when anyone thinks differently to the way I do. In that interior disjuncture lies the root of our failure to actually achieve unity without uniformity.

I can’t help but wonder what other of our grand ideals fail in the same place? Where else do we fail to notice the disparity between our own operational mode and the ideals that we espouse?

It reminds me of one of the saying of one of the Desert Fathers, John the Dwarf:

‘He said: “You don’t build a house by starting with the roof and working down. You start with the foundation.” They said, “What does that mean?” He said, “The foundation is our neighbor whom we must win. The neighbor is where we must start. Every commandment of Christ depends on this.”

I am not trying to pick on my friend, it is just so much easier to notice such inconsistencies in someone else than it is to notice them in myself. I am grateful to her for her comment, because it has raised an important question for me. One I will sit with for some time to come.

On the importance of pausing

I had an interesting experience last night. On seeing someone’s post on Facebook I felt like I had been punched in the stomach. I knew my reaction was a little off, because the comment was fair. All that had happened was that this person had shared an article that I had posted but highlighting quite a different angle. This person hadn’t commented on my original post at all. (It was clear from Facebook that my posting had been the source of her posting).

As I sat and reflected on it, untangling the mess. I realised that actually what had happened for me was that one my faultlines had been triggered. I have a real problem with people being critical behind my back. I have some major baggage on that one.

As I sat with this I realised that actually none of what had happened was personal. The opinion that the other person expressed was perfectly valid and fair. It wasn’t necessary at all to respond directly to my post (although I do wish she had).

The point of writing about this at all is to say that this small incident could so easily have become a big deal. Either by responding too quickly on Facebook, or simply because I happen to be seeing this particular person fairly soon and I could so easily have been quite frosty! All over a complete non-incident that just happened to trigger a major reaction in me because of my own history.

I wonder how often substantial conflict could be avoided if we were just a little more self-aware, and a little less inclined to take things personally.

I am reminded again of the wise words of Ignatius of Loyola that ‘every good Chris­tian ought to be more eager to put a good interpretation on a neighbor’s statement than to condemn it.’

Perhaps we can add to the wisdom of Ignatius by reminding ourselves that a person holding a different opinion is not a personal attack!

The Two Standards

There is a meditation in the Spiritual Exercises entitled ‘The Two Standards’. The purpose of the exercise is to get an interior map for discernment. The metaphor used in the exercise itself is a medieval battle scene between the forces of Jesus and the forces of Satan. The ‘standards’ are the banners of each. The one making the exercise is invited to consider the different tactics used by each camp.

Some years ago I participated in a weekend seminar focusing on the Second Week of Exercises which includes ‘The Two Standards’. I think it was Philip Endean SJ who asked us to read a paper written by Lavinia Byrne on this exercise (you can find a pdf here). Byrne had developed her own modern version of these two. It was over this weekend, that the penny finally dropped for me on the purpose of The Two Standards – it is to find the symbols which represent the Two Standards in my own life.

The image I have held since that weekend, is reminiscent of Byrne’s but it has a personal twist. For me the image of Satan is a well dressed business man. He is serious, organised, and controlled. The image of Jesus is a surfer dude in board shorts.

The image is a powerful one for me – because my temptation is to take myself a little too seriously. To take a little more responsibility than I should. And taking this road paralyses me. It is the path to unfreedom, to constriction, ultimately to destruction.

Being able to evoke this image as a tool for discernment has been tremendously useful. It has given me a handle to cut through the subtle deception.

We are not tempted by things we know to be inherently destructive. There is always some lure, some attractive disguise. This image speaks to my own pet temptations, the things I will fall for.

What are the images you use as your touchstones for discernment? What are The Two Standards you use?


Recognising privilege

About a week ago I returned some library books to the university library. I am embarrassed to say that these books were so overdue that they were declared lost. I had put off returning the books for a couple of weeks. I had unearthed them when I excavated my desk a few weeks ago. I had procrastinated about returning them because I dreaded the ticking off from the librarian.

The librarian didn’t even bat an eyelid. She just took the books from me and kindly checked (at my request) whether there was anything else outstanding. I walked away without any rebuke and I hadn’t had to pay any fine.

As I walked away I wondered what would have happened if I had been student? Obviously I would have had to pay the fine, but I rather suspect I would have been subject to some verbally expressed disapproval. But the university is still steeped in a hierarchical culture where I as academic am higher in the pecking order than the librarian and so I got away scot-free.

But it got me thinking about positions of privilege. It occurred to me that being an English speaker is a tremendously privileged position which I take utterly for granted. I work at an Afrikaans university, but I get away with not speaking the language (or even understanding it). That is a bit ridiculous. Most meetings I attend are conducted in English. Either by habit, or because someone at the start asks if anyone doesn’t speak Afrikaans – I duly raise my hand and the language used switches to English. (There are few larger meetings which are conducted in Afrikaans by habit, but in those there is a translation service available).

I had accepted this as quite normal until it occurred to me that I would never have the luxury of not having to learn the language of my institution if I worked at an English university. I then began to notice that when I go to the garage to fill my car, or the shops to buy anything, regardless of the language spoken by the person helping me, I respond in English, and here’s the rub – I expect them to understand me.

Now there are all sorts of good reasons why I can have that expectation, but the point is that I have lived in bubble of privilege for far too long. I have not appreciated the extraordinary step up I have had just by virtue of my mother tongue.

There is also a privilege I carry simply by the whiteness of my skin. I am given the benefit of the doubt more frequently. I expect to be trusted. I expect to be treated with respect.

I am only now truly beginning to appreciate that my experience has been privileged. I am not quite sure how to repay that. But I know I need to figure out how to pay it forward in a way which is more equitable.