Monday, 25 August 2014

The summer is over and we are not yet saved

 A rather chilly second half of August has been topped off by a Bank Holiday weekend which has managed to continue the theme of cold and wet weather, even delivering frost in some areas on Saturday night. Add to this the fact that I can no longer convince myself that I am not yet back at work, and it certainly does seem that the summer is over.
In the meeting yesterday, I was thinking about this summer, about how I have not wanted it to come to an end and my fervent hopes that this coming year at work will not be as difficult as the last one was (please Lord...) In many ways this has been a blissful summer for me as I have really taken the opportunity to relax and have enjoyed doing simple things, growing vegetables, walking the dog, reading along with the occasional day out. Kev and I also went on holiday alone together for the first time since the boys were born. I was pleased to find that I thoroughly enjoyed it just being the two of us, and this was a relief as, after twenty years, it isn't always the case!
In terms of what we have heard on the news and seen on our TV screens, this has been a far from blissful summer. The shooting down of flight MH17 over Ukraine in July, the worsening situation in Palestine, the terrible atrocities in Iraq and concerns about the increasing power of the so called Islamic state in the region are all not just distressing in themselves but a cause for international concern and anxiety about the future. I also personally am saddened and horrified by the way that religious extremism can lead to such evil, and I am not complacent as I know that religious extremism of any shade can lead to the justification of inhumanity. In the words of Jeremiah, we might say that the summer is over and we are not yet saved.
It was a very silent meeting yesterday. Perhaps, like me, people have come to the end of knowing what to say or feeling that words are very helpful. I find it more and more of a tragedy that in this difficult world, in which we suffer what Shakespeare referred to as "the heartache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to", that on top of this we feel the need to engage in conflict and inflict further wounds on each other. I have not blogged this summer about any of the horrible events in the news. What is there to say that has  not said by others or does not seem like a platitude?
It may seem pale and pusillanimous, but in the face of  this summer, with all its personal goodness and happiness for myself and all its suffering, conflict and atrocity for this world, all I could do was to place it, myself and the future in the hands of God.

Thursday, 14 August 2014

Seizing the day

The very sad death of Robin Williams has led to a lot of media comment on the stigma surrounding mental health and suicide. There has been a lot of  thoughtful coverage but also many twitter comments and opinion pieces which still show how people can react with hostility and condemnation to an illness which they do not really understand, perhaps partly because they find the subject matter baffling or threatening. Unfortunately, religion has often helped perpetuate the idea that suicide is sinful, a viewpoint which fails to see that the sufferer may be so ill that they may believe their loved ones are better off without them.
I am interested in the issue of our mental health, partly because I have had contact with a fair number of students with depression and other mental illnesses in the course of my job, and partly because my early life was characterised by some level of mental health problems. I was diagnosed with a mental health issue which affected me quite seriously from my early to mid teens  and I experienced an episode of post natal depression following the birth of my second child. I have however been enormously fortunate in that I have been free from any mental health problems from my late twenties onward, something which I attribute to having come to terms with some personal issues, in particular  the fact that I was sexually abused, a life circumstance which can lead to a range of effects in later life.
 Mental health problems such as depression are not necessarily rooted in external circumstances and it is possible that, as with other illnesses, depression can arise that seemingly has no cause. Anyone who is suffering from a serious mental health problem should not hesitate to seek professional help, so I do not want to offer the following in a way that suggests that self help alone is always the right way forward. At the same time, we all need to be aware of our mental and emotional well being just as we would any aspect of our health, and these are things that I have found helpful.

1. Accept yourself.

You can't be whole unless you are prepared to believe that basically you are OK, that you are deserving of being valued and respected by others and that you can forgive yourself. This process  can be more difficult for anyone who has faced abuse, neglect or bullying in childhood, however many of us can find it difficult to suppress our inner critic and to realise that our shortcomings and failings are really just a part of being human. One of the most positive aspects of a faith can be that understanding of the intrinsic value of every person and the knowledge of being forgiven and cherished. Sadly faith can sometimes work in the opposite way and encourage a critical attitude towards the sinfulness of self and/ or others. Of course we should try to be good and Godly- virtue really is its own reward - but avoid a joyless and hand wringing type of faith.

2. Be yourself

I don't bother to do things that I don't enjoy anymore unless I have to for a good reason. I enjoy walking the dog, doing the garden,  spending time with quite a small circle of family and friends. I try to take time to savour the things I enjoy and to practise mindfulness. I'm not interested in buying a lot of things or going out a lot. I prefer thinking and reading to watching a lot of TV and I only drink alcohol in moderation. It might be really boring but it suits me! A really important part of being yourself is not letting yourself be pressurised by other people's expectations. Know what your values are and do what feels right for you. I think this is something which gets a lot easier as you get older and is one of the few major advantages of your advancing years!

3. Exercise and eat well

This might contradict point 2 for some people, but luckily I mostly enjoy exercise and also really enjoy good food. If they could bottle the benefits of exercise, it would be a wonder drug in terms of physical health. Exercise also contributes to your emotional health by releasing feel good endorphins and is great for lifting the mood if you are feeling down and just giving general mental balance. It is much easier to exercise if you find something you enjoy doing. I also think that when you exercise, you tend to eat better as you have a sense of the need to provide your body with proper nutrients. OK, I can get a bit obsessive about this one, and I don't always want to go to the gym but I know I feel better when I do.

4. Accept that life isn't always fair

Accepting that life is not always fair, that there may have been difficulties in your past and there certainly will be difficulties in your future, is essential to achieving emotional balance. If you can let go of bitterness or resentment or anger that this or that happened to you, or that your boss could treat you better or you are not as smart or beautiful or rich as  some other people, you'll be doing yourself a massive favour. Of course some life events are horrendous, you are bound to feel grief or distress at loss or terrible adversity. There is nothing wrong with grieving, or being angry at times and it is right to fight against injustice. As far as possible, however, aim for balance, recognise that life owes you nothing out of the ordinary, ask yourself if things really are so terrible and try to put things in perspective  as this builds resilience and emotional robustness. Life isn't always fair but it is there to be lived as fully as you can in whatever circumstances you find yourself.

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

The Light of the World

          "The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime."

The above is the remark attributed to the British Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Gray on 3rd August 1914, one which he apparently did not recall saying at all. I think the remark has survived, and been revived for the centenary commemorations due to its wonderful poetic cadences, its sense of ritual and the way it operates as a metaphor for despair and hope, good and evil.

I have been moved by the centenary commemorations, the facts, statistics and stories, some well known and others less so that I have heard over the last few days. Yet, at the same time, it seems to me that the First World War, which in some ways stands out as the first major  conflict which was to involve more nations than any other war in human history up to that time and haunt us with the loss of a generation of young men, is also just a part of the sad continuum of human violence and bloodshed. The Great War only became the First World war when World War Two started, surpassing the Great War in the scale of devastation.
And today, that continuum of hatred and violence continues, perhaps on a smaller scale but still with harrowing consequences in conflicts around the world, the places which have been in the news- Gaza, Syria, Ukraine, with effects that are equally devastating for the individuals involved. A capacity for hatred, brutality, atrocity, indifference to the plight of others, seems to be a hallmark of human existence. Perhaps from a Christian point of view we might reflect not just on the lights going out across Europe but on the vast abyss of darkness that is human sin and hatred, a darkness that afflicts all humans in all times and places and which cannot be subdued by winning wars but only by the much harder business of winning hearts and souls.
I am the Light of the World, whoever follows me will not walk in darkness
but will have the light of life.

Monday, 4 August 2014

Back from holiday

We have returned from a fantastic holiday in Turkey. We spent the time just relaxing but with a few trips out such as a day in Pammukale (below) and a boat trip. We left both our offspring behind. They had a party which was " a bit eventful" apparently. We left each son with an envelope filled with cash for "food and any emergencies". On our return, one son handed his envelope back, still sealed, and said he hadn't needed to spend it, the other son's envelope I discovered crumpled up on his bedroom floor. It was completely empty. There's a parable in there somewhere...
Just glad to be back and everyone OK and the house intact!