[This is the text of a talk I gave recently about the ways that we bolster our inner resources to help us stand up against life’s fluctuations, variations, permutations and sudden transformations.]
What do you need to keep your inner calm or sunshine when all around you the “weather” of your life is less than inspiring?
I am a fan of those little sayings that you often get on fridge magnets or on little hanging notices. (So much David has banned me from buying any more of them). You know the kind of thing I mean
“I’d give up chocolate but I’m no quitter”
“Warning: I have character defects and I’m not afraid to use them”
“Husband and dog missing: reward for the dog”
My current favourites are “I read recipes the same way that I read science fiction, I get to the end and think well that’s never can happen” and, on my study door, I’m going to have one made which says “come on in, I’m already disturbed”.
I suppose the appeal of these is that they are short, pithy and sometimes entertaining nuggets of wisdom I tend to prefer the darker more cynical take on life but I have yet to see the one which is the most truthful and possibly the most useful but not at all funny. There are funny versions of this saying which you sometimes see as bumper stickers on cars, but you very rarely see this simple but fundamentally important statement anywhere:
LIFE IS DIFFICULT
Well… you can see why that’s not an idea that will sell!
Scott Peck wrote a very well-known book probably at least 30 years ago now called “The Road Less Travelled” it was an international bestseller for many years. ‘Life is difficult’ was his opening sentence. And life is difficult, but once you really settle down and agree to get along with this statement, pull out a comfy chair have a cup of tea with it, once you get over your indignation and upset over its truth and reality then, paradoxically life gets easier.
If you were born between 1982 and 1994, you are probably the youngest person in the room! But if you were born in that era you are also known as a millennial, presumably because you reached adulthood around the turn of the millennium. One of the characteristics of this generation, if we can believe those who make such sweeping generalisations, is that they grew up believing that anything was possible. Success, fortune, freedom, fulfillment. They grew up expecting to be able to travel the world and look fantastic whilst doing it, they are sometimes much maligned as the generation that behaves as if the world owes them a living. In fact they perhaps are only unwitting victims of parents, such as me, who brought them up to believe in themselves, to be self-confident. Not bad things in themselves you might think except when these millennials run full force into an “unbending wall of obstinate difficulty”. For example, when they face a rejection in a relationship, they don’t get the dream job, their talents as a football player/dancer/singer/actor turn out not to be sufficiently good enough to propel them into the stardom they grew up believing was possible. Or when someone they love dies.
Now you might say that ‘life is a school of hard knocks’, and have very little pity for them but the trouble is they didn’t simply not see the “unbending wall of obstinate difficulty”, they maybe did see it, but they firmly believed that they had the internal resources to overcome it or to dodge it. If only they can spend enough time at the gym, eat a low-fat, high protein, organic diet, slather themselves with expensive extract of yak milk, get sufficient coverage on social media then ‘surely’ they will be able to prove that IF life is difficult, it’s only difficult for other people.
Now before you distance yourself too much from those silly millennial’s, all of us have difficulty accepting the saying “life is difficult”.
But there is really no difference between saying “life is difficult” and saying “weather happens”
We all know that weather happens, we know there is absolutely nothing we can do to affect the weather, but nonetheless when bad weather happens to us, especially on our holidays, we take it personally. We are illogical in this but we do it anyway.
My husband David is a person who has been scarred for life by this phenomena. When he was a little lad growing up in Derby, his family would make the annual pilgrimage to some seaside Methodist holiday home, which in the days before motorways entailed hours and hours on A roads and year after year throughout his childhood the whole of the summer would be sunny right up until the first morning of the Bridge family holiday, whereupon the clouds would come over, the heavens would open and complete misery would set in for the next seven days. Beaches were only places where you sat behind a windbreak underneath an umbrella eating sodden sandwiches. His family’s reputation was so bad that friends and neighbours took to ringing them up to ask them when they were going away on holiday so as to be sure of not going away the same week. In the boiling hot heatwave summer of 1976, true to form the Bridge family arrived on holiday the day the weather broke.
After an entire childhood of these experiences it has been very hard for David not to take the weather personally, the sun will go behind a cloud if he so much as thinks about going inside to fetches sunglasses and as for planning barbecues….. To say he is a doom and gloom merchant over the weather would be an understatement. We laugh at him because we know it is ridiculous to take the weather personally, the weather is just there, it simply happens, it is not personal.
So why then do we take the misery of the universe personally? When it is not personal. “Life is difficult”. Weather happens…
We all know this to be true in our heads, nevertheless in our hearts when crap happens we react as if it shouldn’t. In our heart of hearts we think that we ought to have the power to make it alright or the ability to dodge this principle. Maybe it’s by being good, eating healthily, exercising regularly? Surely if I do all of these things and take good care of myself then yes, crap will happen, but not to me “ha, ha”!
The danger in thinking in this way is that we very quickly get smug when things go well for us. It’s too easy for us to think that somehow we have deserved it when things to go well. And this attitude doesn’t help us when things don’t go well for us because, having believed that we might be able to dodge crap, when we fail to do so we very unhelpfully hold ourselves to blame.
There may be some situations that you are experiencing right now in which you have caught yourself saying or thinking “I shouldn’t have…” or “I should have…”
We are very quick to find reasons within ourselves for the bad things that happen to us and I am not denying that there are situations in which our actions have contributed to the difficulties we find ourselves in.
But if you find yourself suddenly facing a life-threatening illness and you catch a thought going through your head along the lines of “I haven’t been drinking enough soya milk/yaks milk/eating sufficient red berries/smearing myself regularly with aloe vera” or whatever, then what you are doing is saying to yourself ‘this has happened because of something I have done’ and quite frankly that is as daft as David saying the sun has gone behind a cloud just because he went inside to fetch his sunglasses.
But we do say such things and we do feel that way: we do take the misery of the universe personally even when it is not personal
And if you are a Christian then possibly you are doubly complicit in this way of thinking (which is not what you’d perhaps expect me to say) but because as Christians we pray, we are good, we behave ourselves morally, it is even more tempting for us to think that somehow God and the universe owes us a favour and that if crap happens it shouldn’t happen to us thank you very much and if it does we’re even more liable to screw ourselves up looking for some secret sin we might have committed for which we are being punished.
But being a Christian does not grant you an exemption certificate from the rest of the misery that the world is going through.
So you might reasonably ask what is the point of being a Christian? I’d like to try to answer that question by just picking up on that one little phrase “going through”
If there is no way round or under, no way of ducking the fact that “life is difficult” (AND there is no way), then there is only a way through those difficulties. And it seems to me that this is where the idea of faith or an understanding of God present with us in the midst of our difficulties, very much has something to offer.
Quite often, as you’d expect in my role, I speak to people who have recently been bereaved, sometimes they articulate the question “I don’t know how I am going to get over this” to which my answer is you are NOT going to get over it as if it never happened, but you can reasonably hope to get through it.
It seems to me that what we need to do is learn to “whether the weather”. We need that inner flexibility and endurance to both stand up to and keep going through when life throws tough stuff at us. In fact we need something more than that, we also need to actually be able to transform the very stuff that is thrown at us into something good.
I was looking around for a metaphor about surviving or thriving through life’s ups and downs and I was reminded of an experience I had last September whilst on holiday in Spain.
David and I went to a beach one afternoon and I decided to go for a swim. I consider myself to be quite a strong swimmer so even though I could see the waves were quite powerful I waded in confidently. As the water came up to my knees I realised the waves were indeed quite strong, once I’d waded into my waist I was beginning to have second thoughts. I think it was at about that point where one huge enormous wave crashed virtually over my head and almost sent me flying.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to make out that I was in any danger, not seriously anyway although I suppose one should always treat the sea with the respect it is due.
I retreated a few feet and contented myself with wave jumping rather than swimming, the experience had scared me just enough to remind me that we should never be casual or overconfident in the face of an unpredictable force, such as the sea. There were the waves I could see but who knows there could have been an undertow or current that I couldn’t see.
I thought about this experience quite a lot afterwards, in the way that you do sometimes when you wonder if you’ve done something foolish but happened to have got away with it.
It became for me an image of how all of us are in the face of the fact that “life is difficult”. Life is like wading into the sea and not being sure of the strength of the waves or the power of the currents. All you can do is try to keep yourself stable as possible by digging your feet into the sand but actually in order to stay upright you also need a degree of flexibility, you need to go with the flow, bend or jump as the breakers crash over you, hold your breath and hope that you will pop up on the other side.
It was this interesting idea about needing to be fixed yet also flexible which took me onto another, I think better metaphor. Another picture of how we might stand up to the elements, the forces around us that are outside of our control, a picture not only of how we might stand up, but a picture of how we might actually thrive.
And the image I came to was that of a tree, the tree thrives when its roots go down deep yet it can also sway in the wind, it will be affected by the seasons but not necessarily diminished. A tree does literally “store up sunshine” it grows because it drinks in light and turns it into energy.
What has all this got to do with you and me, and life in general?
Before I begin sounding like my secondary school drama teacher and tell you to “make like you’re a tree” please let me reassure you that I’m talking metaphorically. But this image, this metaphor is a very powerful picture. It’s also a picture that gets mentioned in the Bible a lot, the first prayer poem in the book of Psalms talks about the person who trusts God being like a tree that is planted beside streams of water. The last book of the Bible also refers to trees that flourish continuously. Jesus told stories about trees, specifically one that didn’t appear to flourish, when other people wanted to hastily give up on an unfruitful tree Jesus’ response was that it should be given more care more time and more attention in order to see if it would flourish.
I find the analogy of trees very helpful, because a tree will simply grow where it is planted, it will grow around obstacles, allowing itself to be shaped by them. A tree doesn’t try too hard, you never see an apple tree straining to produce apples: fruitfulness and flourishing are simply natural consequences of being rooted and absorbing sunshine.
So where is the connection between imagining ourselves as a tree and the idea of those resources that I hinted at earlier, that faith and trust in God might actually help us get through situations.
One of the New Testament writers speaks about how as Christians we should be rooted and established in the knowledge and love of God. The idea is that we find our firm foundations in the truths that the Bible explains over and over again that God made us, God knows us, God calls us, God loves us, that God surrounds us, that God will carry us even to our old age; these truths are the firm ground around our feet. More than that they are the life-giving SAP that can cause us to grow and flourish and bend and sway and blossom and bear fruit in spite of the prevailing weather conditions. A tree has the power to transform both sunshine and showers into new life and transformation.
Whatever your understanding of God, whatever your views or beliefs, I think that you will agree with me about the one factor that gets us all through difficult experiences. There is one factor or element that matters and only one… And that factor is love. I’m not talking about the slushy romantic type of love, as helpful as that might be, I’m talking about the everyday love: the regular warm love that simply expresses itself in friendliness, the neighbours who stop and talk to us, water our plants or feed our cat while we are away, the love of friends who have known us for years and laugh with us and sometimes at us. The love of parents who gave us a foundation in love if we were fortunate enough to have loving parents.
Prisoners of war who often endured the most appalling torture or ill-treatment will still say that the worst kind of torture is solitary confinement. Whatever we are facing we will be able to face it better and are more likely to endure it if we have the companionship, love, support or care from even just one other human being.
Love matters, it is the stuff of life. It is what makes life worth living. I don’t think any of you would have difficulty agreeing with that statement. All I would then simply like to do is to take you one step further and to introduce you to the God who defines himself as love. Your understanding of God may be that he is a distant despot, indifferent, possibly uncaring. Seemingly very partial, blessing some not blessing others. But this is not the God that I know the God revealed in the Bible the God whose face I see in the face of Jesus.
Some people will say “I can’t believe in God because of all the suffering in the world because life is difficult” what God would say to that is that this is not how the world was ever intended to be, that he grieves for those in pain and suffering.
Going back to those fridge magnets I’m so fond of I saw one once that said “sometimes I want to ask God why there is so much pain, suffering and injustice in the world but then I realise that he might ask me the same question”.
Most of the reasons why life is difficult for most people are down to human inhumanity to others.
If we become fully human as God desires for us then although life remains difficult, Love gets us through.
Don’t miss out on the deepest most profound source of unconditional love there is: the love of the Creator who made you, don’t miss out on tapping into this source of love in your life simply because you prefer to cling onto your own assumptions about who or what God is. The only way ultimately to stay steady and content regardless of our circumstances is to have our roots sunk down deep into a love that gives us a strong sense of our identity, our significance, our self-worth.
Don’t let misunderstanding stand in your way, I’m going to finish now by clearing up a misunderstanding of the phrase you might often have heard, just as a way of showing you how different things might be from the way you assume they are.
I am sure all of you have heard of the phrase from the teachings of Jesus “blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth” the promise sounds good but the word meek is very off-putting, we think it sounds like weak, we associate it with being submissive, simply putting up and shutting up about anything and everything, being a doormat.
But that is not what the word meek means. I recently read this blessing of Jesus in French, ‘Heureux sont les debonaires’ happy are the debonair!
The debonair?? Yes really!
Are the French just not very good at translating the original Greek? No, the word ‘meek’ came into our language from the French. It is a Middle English word that comes from the old French meaning ‘debonaire’ – de bon aire ‘of good disposition”.
Now to us ‘debonair’ means it means to be confident, stylish, charming. But ‘meek’ means ‘soft, wuzzy and a bit limp’. We need to hear the first definition not the second for the word ‘meek’.
How about that for a rewriting of your assumptions? “Blessed are the confident stylish charming people, of good disposition, for they shall inherit the earth”
So I hope you will go from here wearing your scarves in whichever debonair fashion you feel like, maybe having had some of your assumptions about God challenged, or maybe having heard for the first time that God is a God who loves you unconditionally and wants to pour his blessing into your life to give you the strength and stability to stand up to the stuff that life throws at you, to even be fruitfully transformed by those experiences but most of all the God who wishes to go through everything alongside you. You do not ever have to be alone.