“Be Happy” – yes, but how?

Is it me or has anyone else noticed that we are being bombarded by lists of instructions to ‘Be happy/Be creative/Be patient’ at every turn.

Here is one such list I saw for sale in shop whilst on holiday

2014-07-23 16.35.20These lists pop up all over the place. Twice I’ve seen them on shopping bags (but I didn’t have the courage to stalk the person carrying them just to take a photo) but clearly there is a marketing trend trying to tap into our deepest aspirations – to be happy, good, beautiful, kind, considerate people.

There are several reasons such lists make me say ‘Hmm’ . I don’t mean to be contentious as  the qualities we are urged to express are very often worthy but there is a big part of me that says ‘Yes BUT, it’s not that easy.

First objection: It’s not that easy to pin down what are the actual things it would be most beneficial for us to be. One bag I saw said ‘Dance, sing, floss and travel’. Now I understand items 1,2 and 4 but ‘floss’? Really? Will I be a better person if I simply floss consistently?  Anyway some of the loveliest people I know can’t dance, can’t sing and have never travelled much beyond their home town.  In spite of this (and perhaps to the astonishment of those who think such things as travel or music essential) they still manage to be human beings with big, generous, calm, contented and well-ordered souls.

Second objection: the propaganda behind such lists is a false assumption –  and the false assumption is that ‘merely wanting to be a nice person’ will make me a nice person. It really isn’t that straightforward. Who of us doesn’t want to be a nice person? No-one would disagree with the idea that if we could all just be nice/polite/kind/generous etc the world would be a better place. But we aren’t and the world is often a yucky place where children are oppressed and the vulnerable rejected.

Just sitting having beatific thoughts about love, truth, goodness, honesty, compassion isn’t enough to change us.

We are fundamentally and  deeply flawed – broken inside- and this disintegration between our wills (our good intentions), our feelings, and our actions is what the Bible calls sin. Paul in the letter to the Romans writes

‘so the trouble is not with the law, for it is spiritual and good. The trouble is with me, for I am all too human, a slave to sin. I don’t really understand myself, for I want todo what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead I do what I hate’

Substitute the word ‘law’ for ‘list’ like the one above and Paul is expressing exactly my discomfort with this list. I admire the list, I want to have/demonstrate all those good qualities but some how I simply can’t: I stop short of stealing (clearly wrong) but can I give generously (clearly good)? I don’t like it when people are unkind, or inconsiderate to me or call me names but when I call them names or speak disparagingly about them, I rationalise it ‘I’m not a bad person, they deserved it, they hurt me’. We rationalise  all sort of small deceits and slights (‘I’m not really queue jumping or speeding, I’m just a very busy person with a lot of things to do’).

We have what John Ortberg calls a ‘God given ache for goodness’ which is why we admire these aspirational lists but without God reintegrating (‘curing’) our souls we have no power to achieve it. There are numerous lists in New Testament of qualities which God followers should reflect but  none of these passages suggest we should just get on with it by ourselves. Every time we are directed to the fact that it is only as we stand in right relationship with the one who made us, that we find the power to live the way that Creator intended us to live.

‘The Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control’. Galatians 5:22

‘To focus on my soul means to look at my life under the care and connection of God… to focus on my self apart from God leaves me powerless to change’ but the modern world revolves around the self and not the soul. ‘The self is a stand alone, do it yourself unit while the soul reminds us we were not made for ourselves’ (summarised from a brilliant book I have just read called Soul-keeping: caring for the most important part of you by John Ortberg).

And that’s the problem with all of these lists – they are ‘self improvement’ projects and we can no more self improve ourselves than we can pull ourselves up by our own bootlaces.  God offers ‘soul transformation’ but it only comes about slowly and only when God has a proper place in our lives.

That’s why you don’t see the advertising/marketing people mass producing fancy artworked version of the 10 Commandments or even of Jesus’s summary of 2 Commandments (love God and love other people) both of which are impossible to improve on as far as a summary of how humans should live in way that results in a good society. When God gave the first list he as good as said ‘write it down, pin it up on your walls, (he actually said ‘pin it to your forehead’ which is why devout Jews have little boxes on their head and wrists to remind them of the law).  But because both of these lists start with putting God in his proper place, they are no longer popular, instead we get these hopeful but fairly vapid, meaningless alternatives. We all want to be nice people but only when we orientate our lives around worship and love for God (what we were made for) do we find that we are no longer alone in the process of transformation.  The trouble is most people prefer to be self-directed not God directed.

‘You are an unceasing spiritual being with an eternal destiny in God’s great universe… the most important thing about you is your soul. What you are constructing, the person you are becoming is the only thing that will last. You were made for God, and made to need God, which means you were not made to be self sufficient.  Your soul can be right when everything in your world is all wrong. And sooner or later everything in your world will feel all wrong – what will matter at that moment is the soul you have constructed’. (Ortberg)

So ‘be happy/be understanding/generous/patient’ but don’t kid yourself that you can do it on your own. You need forgiveness first for the cracked pot state of your own soul and only then can you find forgiveness/patience/compassion/kindness for all the other cracked pots around you.

 soulkeepingPublished byZondervan 2014

Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes – A Book Review

This is one of the most thought provoking novels I’ve read in a long time. It was published in 1966, won awards and has been a film, a stage play and even a ballet since then.

It tells the story of Charlie, a young man in his twenties who is ‘retarded’ (the author’s word for it). He becomes the first human subject of an experimental surgical procedure that makes him hugely intelligent. The ‘Algernon’ in the title is a white mouse, the only other living creature to have undergone this operation who is, at the start of the book, ‘one very smart mouse’.  The main body of the  story is the brief episode in his life when he becomes phenomenally intelligent and self-aware. Charlie is a kind of everyman character, we follow the story through his own diary entries as he experiences the common human experiences of growing up, becoming disillusioned and losing it all again in a very accelerated way.

The big question posed by the book is ‘how much does intelligence matter?’ It also asks the question ‘what makes people valuable?’ and ‘what does it mean to be created?’ I have to warn you, it’s a desperately sad book, there is no comfort, no redemption. It offers no ‘key’ to unlock the meaning of life. In fact it graphically depicts the hopeless despair of a world view completely without God.  So why would you want to read it? Well, it’s beautifully written and deeply moving. It makes a very strong case for accepting the ‘differently-abled’ exactly as they are which is quite an achievement as it draws on no moral arguments to make that case, this is a book totally devoid of any sense of Divine presence or love.

For me the most compelling part of the story was Charlie’s recovery of his earlier memories. He comes to know himself only as he begins to remember all the experiences that formed him and almost all of those experiences were bad and abusive. But somehow knowing who he is seems to matter more than anything else, even if that self-knowledge is dark.  The introduction in my edition asked the question ‘is it better to be Socrates or a happy pig?’  Daniel Keyes seems to have come to a cleverly conflicted conclusion: ignorance is not bliss but neither is knowledge the route to contentment.

As a Christian, I’d want to say ‘knowing yourself loved’ is the key to contentment. Charlie does experience both love and sex and concludes that sex is the only possible of source of connection and meaning, after an all too brief affair with the woman he loves.  Sex he says is ‘the only counterweight, an act of binding and holding… in a universe that …eternally tears us away from one another, child out of the womb, friend away from friend, each through his own pathway toward the goal box of solitary death’.  Personally I think that’s expecting alot from Eros. Agape, the biblical word for unconditional, undeserved, unending love is much more of what we need.

The Hand that First Held Mine

This is the title of a novel by Maggie O’Farrell. We read it for our book group and discussed it a couple of weeks ago.  I highly recommend it for any one out there running book groups. (Or anyone just looking for a good book).  The story centres around two couples, Lexie and Innes in the 1950s and Elina and Ted in the 1990s but it’s not just an exploration of love and relationships, it looks quite deeply as the whole subject of parenthood.
Elina and Ted have a baby and I really ‘enjoyed’ the author’s description of the ‘fog’ of those early days as a parent, even though some of it was so vivid it was terrifying! While Elina bonds deeply with the child, Ted is deeply disturbed by the birth and finds that fatherhood raises really deep questions for him about his own childhood. Some of my group members found Elina and Ted’s story not as engaging because for a long time they fail to connect with one another but I think this is perhaps a very realistic situation for couples who drift unintentionally into parenthood.
Lexie and Innes live in Soho in the 1950s and an entire era is brilliantly evoked.
I won’t tell you very much more of the plot apart from the fact that it’s very clever and has something to do with how we all live in the ghost lives of those who have preceded us. The book’s themes are memory (particularly how what we choose to forget continues to affect us deeply) and parenthood (how who we are is largely formed before we are three). It is a book that made me cry (there was a whole page about loss that I found too distressing to even read) and laugh and remember that I’d ‘been there and felt like that’. It’s also beautifully written. There are some brilliantly drawn characters, part of the writer’s skill is that you loathe one particular character but actually come to pity her.
I rarely read a book twice but I’ve started this one over and expect to enjoy it even more the second time. I may even have to buy a hard copy to give away. (The great Kindle disadvantage is not being able to say ‘Hey, here’s a great book, would you like to borrow it?’)

Finding the Still Point

The title above is the title of one of the most useful books on my bookshelf.  I have given away about dozen copies of this book over the years. It is by Gerald O’Mahony, and although it is published under a series title called Exploring Prayer, it is actually about understanding your moods.  It is brilliant… and can still be bought on Amazon, buy up now any copies you can find, I had difficulty getting my last copy and I hope it’s not going out of print!

Anyway as my homage to this excellent book I’d like to say why it’s so helpful.  Do you ever have days when you feel rushed, hassled, stressed, like you are trying to keep a million things in your head and feel so defeated if you reach the end of the day and haven’t completed everything on ‘list of things to do’?  Then maybe you have other days when you just really cannot be bothered, everything feels like an effort, like you are wading through treacle and quite frankly you’d rather go back to bed?

Gerald O’Mahony is a Jesuit priest and survivor of two major breakdowns, he writes with authenticity about how our moods affect us and a huge amount of wisdom. He urges us to pay attention to our moods and he likens them to tides.

Imagine a low tide – feel the emptiness and desolation of the vast expanse of empty beach, feel the drag of the water as it pulls back out to sea and drains the beach of all life and energy.  This lowest point we will call zero on his scale of 0-10.

Now picture a beach in full chaotic turmoil of a spring high tide, the waves are crashing maybe even over the harbour wall, there is churning, energy, power but also danger and things are quite out of control. This is the mood that he calls ‘high’ and he rates it as 10 on his scale. 

If you are familiar with bipolar disorder you will have recognised that swinging between these two desperate extremes of mood is the major feature of that mental illness. However it is really helpful for the rest of us to remember that our moods also feature somewhere on that scale between 1 and 10

0 – very low, despairing, possibly suicidal

1 – very depressed, not able to cope or take responsibility, only able to concentrate on own survival

(people at o or 1 need to be cared for by others and anyone between 0-2 needs medical intervention)

2 – still depressed but able to manage… just. If on the way up from 1 perhaps beginning  to take an interest in life but only able to cope with small tasks. If coming down from  3, they are only just holding on grimly to what has to be done.

3- depressed but competent. What we might call ‘normal’ bad depression, may well respond to interventions such as talking therapy, more exercise, improvements in sleep/lifestyle

4- slightly depressed but hardly noticeable, this might be the normal state of people who are naturally a little sad ‘Eeyore’ types, but they have learned to live with it.

5 – The STILL POINT – the happy state in the middle of the two tides, perfectly still, clear, happy, content. He warns us that we all only enjoy this state rarely and fleetingly or when we are totally absorbed in some activity we enjoy deeply (Riding my Bike is a 5 moment!)

6 – Slightly strained, slightly over-excited, but barely noticeable, the natural state of optimists or busy, positive, meticulous people.

7. Beginning to feel a sense of panic/anxiety. This might affect me in one of two ways: I begin to feel over-whelmed by a pile of small tasks and lose my sense of proportion over them as well as the ability to move calmly from one to another. Or I might begin to suffer delusions about my own competence, my judgement begins to be impaired in a way I might not recognise ie  I might be telling myself ‘I can do this’ when actually I can’t.  Or I might set myself unrealistic goals. Most people cope with this mood without medication but if it becomes long-term, it will begin to exact a physical price (sleeplessness, poor immunity, stress headaches)

8. Internally the sense of panic and anxiety is very heightened but the person remains looking very calm and in control on the surface. This is a dangerous stage because the person in this mood feels their burden is all their own to carry and they will not seek help. This is the ‘classic’ high ‘I can do anything’ mood

9- out of control, paralysed by panic that begins to become obvious to others, the crash is on its way

10 completely out of control, may be delusional, definitely needs hospital care

What I found so very helpful about this scale is the recognition that all of us operate somewhere on it. There will be one side you will recognise more than the other and most of us live either slightly depressed or slightly ‘high’ in other words our moods waver between 4 and 6 or 3 and 7.

Why does this matter? Because only when you recognise your state of mind, can you do something about it. If you don’t stop and think about which way the tide is pulling you, you wont be able to compensate for that pull and keep yourself going in the right direction.  For example, when you know you are low, you can lower your expectations for yourself and only push yourself to do one significant task a day (bearing in mind that getting dressed or eating a meal might count as significant if you are at 2 or 3).  Or, if you know you are trying to cram too much in you need to take yourself in hand, cross of the last 5 items from the bottom of your ‘to do’ list and remind yourself to ask for help, you do not have to ‘do it all’. The sun will still rise tomorrow, you do not have to be a superhero.

It’s also really helpful to work out what it is that helps take you back towards the still point – it might be something that calms you down or something that lifts you up.  The still point is the place where we can hear God best and maybe also the place where we can be most relaxed about ourselves. With Advent just around the corner and the build up to Christmas being classically one of the busiest times of the year, I’d like to wish you all peace for this period. I hope you find your still point even if the midst of life.

“Except for the point, the still point, There would be no dance, and there is only the dance”  T. S. Eliot

As for me, gotta go, it’s a beautiful day and my bike is calling me…

Just Keep Swimming

Dory, the little blue fish in Finding Nemo has to be one of my favourite children’s film characters. She suffers from amnesia and confusion but somehow manages to hold on to her friends, her sanity and her sense of purpose, summed up by her catch phrase ‘Just Keep Swimming’. In other words when you’re not sure about anything else, do the best you can to do the days tasks and just keep at it. 

My frame of mind has felt somewhat fragile for the last couple of months. I have been suffering from a deadly combination of too much in the diary, too many people in the house, and too little time to recharge.  Add in a pinch of ontological despair, a sense of isolation, emotional strain, unsettling changes, actual physical pain and plain old exhaustion and you have pretty toxic recipe.

No, don’t feel sorry for me. This isn’t a pity party.  Everything I’ve described is just the ordinary stuff of life.  Susan Lenzkes once defined stress  as being ‘stoned to death by marbles’ – nothing major, just a pile of everyday hassles – but there comes a ‘tipping point’ when we lose the ability to ‘roll with the punches’ and we find ourselves flat on the floor hoping we can stay there.

This was approximately the state I was in when I arrived at the New Wine summer conference attended by our church.  Feeling  jaded and just a bit cynical I never-the-less took myself along to the first main-stream Bible reading. Due to arriving one day late, the one I turned up for was called ‘Returning from Depression’.  ‘Oh boy’ I thought as I collected the notes on the way in, ‘that’s scarily relevant’.  

David Parker a Pastor from California was talking under the title ‘Pushing Back the Darkness’. Over a series of 5 talks he explored ways of pushing back the darkness from the interior of our personal lives by which he meant things like confusion, discouragement and loss of direction. His subjects were Defeat, Depression, Disease, Doubt and Deceit. Well there’s an uplifting series of words for you!!  Actually it really was an uplifting series of talks, as he gave us solid hand holds for understanding subjects that are everyday realities for all of us. He managed to be realistic yet still give us hope and lots and lots of strategies for ways forward from each of these.

I’ll just tell you about 2 in particular from the session on depression, these from a list of about 7 recommendations: he encouraged ‘pet therapy’, his personal brand of cuddly animal was a lop-eared bunny rabbit. When life got too overwhelming, he would go out to the rabbit run and ‘cuddle a bunny’ for a while. I instantly warmed to this man! My own bouncy, Bobby dog with his joy in the moment does so much for my spirits.

The second strategy I’ll mention was exercise. I already knew this from my research from my book but it is a well documented fact that mild to moderate exercise done consistently can deliver a huge benefit in terms of mental well-being. Not being able to exercise due to the wretched, miserable foot condition described earlier in this blog was one of the boringly normal trigger factors that contributed to this state of mind in the first place. 

So we sat and tried to think laterally: what could I do that wouldn’t put weight on my foot. Swimming!

Just one problem…. sooooo boring.

But okay God, if it’s going help I’ll swim but I not doing it on my own.  David has also stopped exercising for the last couple of months due to a bad back  and swimming is also meant to be good for that too so after a little discussion we made a commitment to one another that we would go swimming together twice a week for a minimum of 3 weeks (let’s not get carried away here!).

Not long after our return from the conference I was telling all this to our daughter on the phone, and concluded my account with,

‘ So, your Dad and I have covenanted to go swimming together for 3 weeks!’

There was a long pause ….

‘You mean ‘metaphorically’? she said

‘Metaphorically!! What the heck is ‘metaphorical swimming’? (Visions of us sitting on the sofa doing the breast-stroke actions and opening our mouths like goldfishes, I’ve done some silly things in my time as a Christian but I’m not doing that, even if it helped!)

‘No, I mean actual swimming,’ I explained, patiently. Not virtual, not metaphorical, but actually getting into the pool and using our limbs to propel us up and down.

Obviously it was the word ‘covenant’ that threw her! I should have known better than to litter my conversation with spiritual concepts. Clearly she was not expecting such a prosaic response to a seminar on spiritual life.

Apparently 1 in 10 people will suffer a major depression in their life time, for women you can double that likelihood. 30% of women may be suffering from depression at any one time. 80% of those suffering are receiving no treatment and a key reason for this is the mistaken belief that depression is a character weakness, a personal flaw, a failure of courage and that to admit to it would stigmatise them. I can certainly identify with that, I began researching it due to coming across so many sufferers pastorally (I am a trainee vicar) but have had to admit my symptoms also fitted the bill. David Parker called depression ‘an epidemic of misery at head spinning level’ by 2020 it will be the 2nd most  common health problem in the world.  Yet 80-90% of cases of depression are highly treatable but you MUST have a plan, a strategy for helping you recover your perspective. This plan might include medication, antidepressants help in 60-70% of cases, talking therapies, exercise, pet therapy, natural supplements or change of environment. I checked out all this info with a psychiatrist friend of mine who was also at the seminar and she said they were sound. For a very painful but honest account of serious depression you could read Shoot the Damn Dog by Sally Brampton (obviously pet therapy didn’t work for her!)  She recommends CBT,meditation, Omega 3 and Vitamin B12 but it’s a book that focusses on the experience rather than the remedy, it’s very insightful though not written from a Christian perspective. If you’ve no personal experience of your own or you look down on sufferers, you need to read this book.  

So meanwhile my plan is to ‘just keep swimming’.  By way of encouragement when I turned up at the pool, I found they were  running a special offer which means we’ve paid hardly anything for unlimited swimming for two whole months. Okay God, I get the message! 

I’ll keep you posted on progress.

p.s if you are interested in the series of talks go to essentialchristian.com and put in David Parker Pushing Back the Darkness