Watershed year

2014 has been a watershed year for me.

There have been some significant deaths; I have taught for the first time in the Faculty of Theology; I have had a good year in terms of research; I have been invited to talk about spirituality in a wider circle. Whilst these things have made this year significant, they are not the reason it has been a watershed.

The year began with a sense of being profoundly unsettled. Something was stirring in the core of my being. I began looking around trying to figure out what I could change. And I did resolve to change some of my commitments. Were it not for the fact that I knew I needed to stay put to support a good friend, I may well have tried to change my job.

But as time wore on, it became clear, that the sense of disturbance would not be resolved through external changes. It was time for some interior work. Changing my job may have distracted me from the interior discomfort for a while, but it wouldn’t have solved the problem.

So it has been a year of doing interior work. Some of it has been about looking at my childhood and early adult years. Some of it has been about coming to see myself as I am – accepting that this is my life. This blend of science and spirituality; hard work and laziness; compassion and lack of caring; is who I am. This is the life I have created.

At the end of it, something has shifted. I can’t name it and I can’t describe it, but I know I am in a different space. I think I have been through that strange transition which called mid-life. It hasn’t been a crisis, but it could so easily have been.

In many ways I think I have been building towards this transition for at least the last five years. I feel as though I have just cross the threshold into a new phase. I have no idea what this time will bring. For the moment, I am simply grateful that some of the ghosts of my past have finally been laid to rest.

The roots of desire

Music holds a unique place in my life. I don’t listen to music much apart from the offerings of Fine Music Radio on my daily commute. But music and liturgical worship are somehow inextricably linked in my soul. Perhaps the best experience I have had of the integration of music and liturgy was in Taize. The music is easy to sing but there are layers of complexity which can be added. And I continue to yearn for the richness of the deeply meditative liturgy which was carved out by the combination of music and silence.

I continue to make my contributions on my flute to the church band with my thoroughly mediocre musical ability. I enjoy playing in the band, and I play well enough to make a positive contribution. But somehow music making is an area in which I am totally comfortable with my own level of performance. I am surrounded by much more talented musicians but I feel no need to try to raise my game. It is both a space of incredible freedom to simply be myself as I am, and yet the absence of the desire to improve means that my standard of playing will not improve.

I am tremendously grateful for the freedom that affords me. It means I can give my humble offering without shame, guilt, embarrassment or self-consciousness. It is probably the only space in my life where I have that degree of freedom. But at the same time, I am aware that I have no motivation to improve. I don’t practice on my own, and I have no desire to. It is a space in which I am also completely unambitious.

I find the juxtaposition of those two ideas interesting. It makes me realise that for me the will to improve or to expend further effort usually requires some kind of driver. When I was younger the main driver was the desire to prove myself. Now, I think the driver is shifting to something a little less fear based and a little more positive – the desire to make a meaningful contribution.

Maybe in the context of the church band I feel I don’t need to expend any more effort because it wouldn’t make all that much difference to the quality of my contribution, and so I  can simply relish my contentment. Nonetheless I find it helpful to look at the things which motivate me and to recognise that there has to be a desire to do better for any change to occur. The question I will need to return to periodically is whether the desire to do better has its roots in fear (in my case trying to make myself acceptable) or love (in my case making my contribution).

Sacred spaces

A young friend of mine is working on an assignment. She asked me to respond to a couple of questions about my living space, and it got me thinking…

I love where I live. I’m sure it wouldn’t be everyone’s first choice but it works very well for me. Aside from the convenience and security afforded by the situation, it is a happy space for me. I get to watch the sun rising over the mountains as I sit in my bed for my morning prayer. I have magnificent view of the Table Mountain range from my study.

My lounge is a sacred space too. It is a space where I get to have good conversations. Conversations with friends which last long into the night, over all sorts of things. Conversations with those who come for spiritual direction and supervision – which are much more focused.

I am not the kind of person who needs my living space to look ‘just so’. I have bought furniture that I like, and haven’t quite got around to hanging my pictures. And yet somehow my living space is my sanctuary. It is a place where I feel entirely myself.

There are other spaces in my life which I would consider sacred – being immersed in nature is always reviving for my spirit. And there are a few places which are deeply laded with particular memories – the Kolbe library and chapel, the chapel at Loyola Hall, the chapel at St Beuno’s. I am deeply appreciative of those spaces, and the memories associated with them.

But for now, I am most grateful that my home provides me with such a sanctuary: A space both of retreat and of rich encounter.

Wait for the clouds to clear

I love my job. The combination of teaching and research is both enjoyable and stimulating. I work in a young vibrant department in which we have a good balance between wisdom and a willingness for change to happen. In organic chemistry we work well together as a team, and I am blessed with generous and able colleagues. My research is slowly gaining traction. Most importantly, I really do believe that I am in the place most suited to my particular giftedness.

And yet, for the last few months I have struggled. I have felt tired and frustrated. I haven’t quite been able to isolate the source of my malaise, but as most of the niggles have been associated with my job, I have found myself wondering about that. Maybe the job isn’t such a good fit after all. This is not to say that I was seriously thinking about quitting and trying something else, but rather I engaged in a nebulous grappling with the idea that my perfect job was maybe not so perfect after all. Occasionally I would find myself thinking, if not this, then what?

And then, earlier this week I realised that the problem lay not with my job, it lay with me. The job isn’t perfect, but then I don’t think any environment is. My issue over the last few months is that I haven’t enjoyed the way in which I have engaged with the various tasks that I need to attend to. I have been a little off the boil, and feeling less than enthusiastic about my capacity to engage has left me feeling disappointed and frustrated. What I failed to notice was that my general disease was actually about myself in the environment. I presumed it was a function of the environment itself.

In the last week through two very different sources, I have been able to get in touch with my passion again. And that in itself, has been sufficient to energise me just a little. As I have attended to the ideas which were brought back into the light through those encounters, I have found yet more energy. I remember now why I love my job.

It was a shock to me to recognise that I was quite willing to blame my job for my sense of discontent, when the real source of discontent was myself. It makes me wonder how often I do that – how often I blame something in my immediate environment when really it is my internal process. It makes me wonder how often people do that: Changing jobs or relationships when the real issue is internal.

It reminds me of the wisdom of Ignatius – don’t try and make major decisions when you are in desolation! The time in the well of frustration is not the right moment to begin thinking about making a life shaping choice. Wait for the clouds to clear, find the even keel and then, if appropriate, make a change.

Dealing with conflict

My instinctual response when faced with conflict is to withdraw into myself, pull up the drawbridge and to simmer gently in the juices of my own self-righteousness. This response is partly the natural response of an introvert, but it is perhaps exacerbated by childhood experiences and the fact that I live on my own. The problem though is that it is entirely self-referential. My perspective, which includes my thoughts, feelings and experiences, is not open to scrutiny.

The obvious solution to this is to find a willing ear. But I have discovered that I need to be extremely careful about who I talk to. The temptation is to find someone who will take my side: Reassure me of the justification of my anger and the unreasonableness of the other. But this simply adds fuel to fire and does not actually cut through the opacity of my own perspective to something which may be more representative of the truth.

In the Spiritual Exercises in his rules of discernment of spirits, Ignatius writes of the importance of bringing things into the light. The enemy of our human nature thrives on secrecy, and so often simply the process of verbalising a thought which has been compelling diminishes its power. So taking my situation of conflict into conversation with another can be useful.

I have discovered several important factors. Firstly, I am most aided by those who I know care deeply for me, but who are willing to challenge my point of view, or, at the very least, to offer some thoughts on the possible perspective of the person with whom I am in conflict. Secondly, the person to whom I am talking ideally would not have any contact with the person with whom I am in conflict, or must have sufficient depth character to be able to separate my conflict from their own relationship with the person. Thirdly, I must be able to trust that the person to whom I am talking will keep the conversation confidential.

At the heart of these factors is the recognition that when such conflictual situations arise, I am not at my best. My capacity to see the other’s actions or words with generosity vanishes and inevitably the way I present my side of the story will be warped. I therefore need to limit the possibility for the spread of damage by choosing those who can actually help me discern. Those who can allow me to vent, and then help me to see the nuggets of truth in the distorted mess.

On setting goals

Many years ago, when I was still an undergraduate student, one of my parents’ friends commented that we tend to overestimate what we can achieve in one year and underestimate what we can achieve in ten years. Whilst I have long since forgotten the context of the conversation, I can still hear his voice in my head. It is such an important thought.

If we are not aware of this tendency, we can easily become despondent at the pace of our progress. Things tend to take longer than we think they should. And, for the most part, we find it difficult to take a long term view either in our reflections or our planning.

In reflecting on our progress over a relatively short period, like a year, we notice that we didn’t quite achieve our goals. Perhaps we make allowances because unforeseen diversions did occur which slowed our pace. But in planning for the next year, we somehow forget to factor in the possibility of diversions. For me, this pattern is most evident around New Year. The text for reflection over the past year goes something like ‘It hasn’t been a bad year, considering…’ or ‘I managed to achieve a fair bit, even though…’ And yet, somehow when I look into the bright shiny New Year ahead, I presume that this year will be different, I won’t have the difficulties of the year just past. This year will be better. And inevitably challenges arise which throw me off course a little.

But when I think of what I have done and what I learnt over the last decade I find little need to prevaricate in this way. And as I pause to recall some of the things that I was disappointed that I had failed to make manifest in my annual reflections six or seven years ago, are now beginning to blossom. On reflection I realize that for some, it was a matter of timing, but for others, although the idea was good, I wasn’t yet ready then. There was stuff I needed to learn before I could put it out there.

Having said all of this, the truth is that I am terrible procrastinator, and if I am not careful ‘it’s just not quite the right time’ becomes perpetual! So I also hold the idea that ‘a small daily task, if it be realy daily, will beat the labours of a spasmodic Hercules’ (Antony Trollope).

The tension held by these two ideas, to understand my incapacity to be realistic about what I can achieve in a given time and to commit to taking small frequent steps towards the goal, provides the impetus I need to keep on going.