Category Archives: Being Human

Distracted by Envy

I’ve been thinking a lot, recently, about envy. This is not a new theme for me: which is a sad and sorry thing for someone with so many blessings in her life to admit. I don’t envy people’s smartphones, or holiday destinations, husbands, houses, handbags or lack of thread veins (actually that last denial is probably a fib). But I envy their gifts, skills, social capital, spheres of influence; and of course their impressive Twitter following and blog statistics.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m sufficiently conflicted to genuinely rejoice in other people’s achievements and successes whilst simultaneously wanting some of what they’ve got. I’m energized by the new wave of younger female clergy who are articulate, well-educated and formidably able. Yet I do sometimes envy their confidence. I love to see women of my own, mid-life generation, beginning to occupy senior roles with a combination of gravitas and refreshing new perspectives. I absolutely do not want their jobs: I would much rather be part of the way in which they are equipped and encouraged to get there. Yet I do sometimes envy their achievements.

There are, of course, people who are so (enviably) comfortable in their own skin that they can rejoice in other people’s successes without even a slight twinge of ‘wish that were me’. But there are also many, I think, who share my tendency to the distraction of envy.

I think it’s time we got a grip on it. Even if it’s only a small part of ourselves, and a deluded one, that thinks it wants to be someone else, it distracts us from the unique and wonderful project of exploring our own God-given gifts, strengths and opportunities. It disables our thinking and our doing. It diverts us from the things-about-the-world-that-only-we-can-change-for-the-better.

None of us has the same combination of knowledge, wisdom, understanding and experience as another. We have access to different places. We relate to different issues and individuals. Our passions and interests, our social background, where we’ve lived and what we’ve seen, our particular competences and strengths and, yes, our fragility and mistakes: all of these things put each of us in an entirely unique position.

So we do need to accept that God is calling us, not to be someone else, but to take the heady risk of becoming truly, madly, deeply, all that we, and only we, can possibly become.

On Mute During Airtime

Many column inches have been filled on the subject of writer’s block but in a refreshing twist on the theme of being lost for words The Observer’s Eva Wiseman has been musing instead on how it feels to be tongue-tied. Describing the experience as ‘a physical reaction to something invisible’, she puts it down to a momentary confluence of forgetfulness, hesitation, insecurity and the ‘fear of being found out’. It’s a relief to see a professional communicator admit that she struggles with the ‘red-faced muteness’ that afflicts most of us at one time or another.

I admit that ‘tongue-tied’ is not a phrase with which I’m often associated. When I first started blogging and shared with my brother the fear that I would run out of things to say, his response was: ‘Sis, you’ve never had a problem filling a space with words’. Similarly, those present when I chair meetings frequently see me wrestle with my own tendency to run-at-the-mouth at the expense of other people’s airtime.

Yet in spite of all this I sometimes find myself involuntarily on mute.The process of articulating something heart-felt can leave me red-faced and faltering. No matter how passionate we are about our subject, no matter how much we trust the biblical promise* that even in extremis we will be given the words to say, a sudden sense of complete inadequacy can turn eloquence to ashes.

Wiseman reflects on all this embarrassment, confusion and adult shyness then inverts the problem. She rejects the solution of teaching everyone to articulate their thoughts seamlessly and without hesitation. Instead she reminds us that life is a dialogue not a TED talk: therefore ‘something is lost when only those who speak well are heard’.

If we’re overcome by muteness and embarrassing blushes it could be because what we’re trying to say is too important to be left unsaid, no matter how painful it is to find a way of saying it. And when we witness someone else struggling to express themselves it might be that what they are longing to articulate goes right to the heart of who they are and what they believe. Wiseman is right. It’s worth persevering in our speaking and our listening. Let’s not lose each other’s deepest insights because we lack the patience to listen. Nor because we give up before we’ve said what we really wanted to say.

*Matthew 10:19; Mark 13:11; Luke 12:12

Beneath Our Feet

I love those electric moments when somebody else’s writing echoes so deeply in my soul that I want to shout ‘YES’. I’ve just finished reading Barbara Brown Taylor’s An Altar in the World: Finding the sacred beneath our feet (2009 HarperCollins and Canterbury Press) and if I hadn’t been sitting on trains, buses and the steps of public buildings at the time I would often have exclaimed out loud. It made me laugh, it brought me to tears, it inspired new ripples of thought, it expanded my understanding of life.

And it’s all about ‘kissing the ground’. In twelve chapters we are offered twelve different ways of connecting more fully and deeply with the life of the world around us, including: getting lost, carrying water, feeling pain and pronouncing blessings. Each chapter contains countless suggestions and stories that give us many more ways of connecting spirit and flesh; ways, as Brown Taylor would put it, of practising our own priesthood at the altar of our own life and ‘finding the sacred beneath our feet’.

In the very last line of the book I discovered with delight that the title of this blog is an unconscious echo of the 13th century Persian poet and mystic, Rumi. In the absence of copyright permission I’m not able to quote the passage in full, but essentially Rumi makes a connection between beauty, love and motivation. He suggests that we should be guided in our actions by what we find beautiful; what we love most; whatever it is that awakens our passion. Which for each of us will be something distinctive and particular because there are many different ways, as Rumi observes, ‘to kneel and kiss the ground’.

Just back from a couple of days in the lovely seaside town of Whitstable on the Kent coast, I haven’t been to church this weekend. But I’ve found altars, practised my priesthood and kissed the ground countless times. Intricately-spiralling shells; individually painted beach-huts; pebbles with holes drilled through them by tiny sea creatures; deep-fried pillowy white cod; dogs with wind-blown ears; purple and yellow wild flowers at the beach edge; children balancing on the breakwater, leaning into the wind: the sacred in everyday life, beauty in the ordinary, there to be noticed, kissed, relished, embraced. As Brown Taylor wisely reminds us, we search far and wide for the ‘more’ than we long for in life. Sometimes the last place we remember to look is right here, beneath our feet.

Quieter and Quieter

It’s half term in our household, so this will be a briefer blog post and more top-of-the-head in style.

On Monday I spent an idyllic day at Kew Gardens. A lush, green, verdant day in the company of my lovely and lively family. On the way home, walking the short distance from the tube station to our front door, we passed a homeless man sitting on the steps outside Marks and Spencer’s.

I try always, at least, to acknowledge people who have no choice but to beg on the streets: with a greeting, a smile, or at least a meeting-of-the-eyes. Sometimes I may give them nothing else. There’s an ongoing debate within me about how, when, what and where it is most effective to give. But to meet someone’s eye seems like the minimum required by human decency.

Perhaps it was the juxtaposition between the blessings of a family day out and the loneliness and physical poverty of the man on the step. For whatever reason, my embarrassment outweighed my decency. I chose not to look that man in the eye. Or in fact to look at him properly at all.

But I reckoned without our five year old, who sees everything and processes what he sees out loud. ‘Mum,’ he said, as I pulled him hastily past, ‘There was a man there and he was asking for money because he had no money. And every time somebody gave him no money his voice got quieter and quieter, because he was SO SAD, because nobody was giving him anything he needed’.

‘His voice got quieter and quieter.’ Those words and the image they convey will stay with me for a long time. As I wonder how many voices, articulating how many basic needs, get quieter and quieter until they fade away: quite simply because nobody replies.

Vulnerable Adults

Honesty and vulnerability have stopped me in my tracks three times in the past few weeks. Not my own heart-on-sleeve habit, which regularly trips me up, but other people’s willingness to acknowledge their fragility in public.

Firstly it was Katharine Welby’s musings about her ongoing experience of hope and despair in the midst of depression. Then Giles Fraser’s ‘Thought for the Day’ in which he tipped off a million or so listeners to the fact that he spends time on the therapist’s couch. And finally Vicky Walker’s anguished and hilarious blog story of a day of mess and awkwardness – life as lived by the gloriously imperfect.

Most of us struggle to some degree with issues around vulnerability and openness. How much we reveal of our deepest hopes, questions and fears will depend on our personality and preferences, our comfort level with the individual or group that we’re talking to, our awareness of the impact on relationships and professional roles, and quite simply our fear of being misunderstood.

If you don’t want to make yourself vulnerable then the answer is simple: keep your thoughts and struggles to yourself. Katharine’s blog went viral, and was followed by an excellent interview in The Telegraph where she acknowledged both her fear of ‘getting boxed up as the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Depressed Daughter’ and also the relief she experienced – and the countless grateful responses she received – when she did speak out.

We generally learn most about ourselves, others, life and God when we are willing to take off our metaphorical protective clothing. As Vicky Walker puts it, ‘How can anyone really know me if I hide? And how can you really be known if you say you’re OK too?’ Of course the appropriate level of disclosure does require some good sense. In a subsequent interview on Radio 4’s ‘PM’, Giles Fraser was asked what drove him to therapy in the first place. Laughing, he replied, ‘The point about the therapist’s couch is it’s a safe space to talk about one’s own problems and anxieties – and the point about the PM programme is that it’s not!’

Richard Rohr writes‘Intimacy lets itself out and lets the other in … You are always larger after any intimate encounter … It is always grace’. Even if we’re not living life in the public eye, any decision about opening our hearts involves a risk assessment. But at the right time and with the right person the risks are often outweighed by the potential for new understanding, deepened relationships and real growth, together, in wisdom.