On Being Disturbed

There’s something about Advent that is quite disturbing, perhaps especially when it’s lived against the fairground noise of clanging tills, early Christmas Carols and the newly-imported and oddly-named festival of Black Friday.

Don’t get me wrong, I love this time of year. I’ve even learned to cope with school Nativity plays in late November and the infectious cheeriness of ‘Well here it is, Merry Christmas’, when actually it isn’t.

This faintly crazy dissonance can heighten our awareness that December brings a potent mix of themes and resonances: in church, in the secular calendar, in the natural world. There is hope, judgment and the starkness of stripped branches, endings, ice, expectation, the dying of the year and the promise of a new start. Biblical readings tell of ‘signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars … the roaring of the sea and the waves’, the latter being more than just a metaphor for those living on the east coast of Britain right now.

Through and beyond this time of things falling apart is the promise of a new and breath-taking intimacy between us and God, which will be achieved because a young woman assents to the unquantifiable risk of childbirth and the softening of her own heart to unspeakable loss.

Advent mirrors life. Expectation and joy mingle through our days with fragility and goodbyes. The balance shifts through the weeks and years as we learn to relish the gift of human relationships and the astounding diversity of the created world; to recognise the sacred in the biggest and smallest stuff of our lives; to shape and change what we can in ourselves and our communities; and to create core space in which we can deal with the deepest cuts in ways that encourage growth and healing. 

If Advent is disturbing then that is because it speaks, all at once, of the full range of human experience. It encourages us to face fear and remain standing, to stir up our courage for the realities of risk and to believe in the new landscape that lies beyond our letting go of what’s familiar.

To be disturbed is to be truly alive. The deepest contentment comes not from the ability to deceive ourselves that we are in control, but to admit that quite often we’re not and then live imaginatively in the new space which our honesty opens up.

Separate Lives

A couple of weeks ago the broadcaster, writer and academic researcher Vicky Beeching tweeted the question: ‘What do u think of people having multiple Twitter accounts; a personal/private one & public one? Fair enough, or creating multiple ‘selves’?’

I recognise the dilemma. I started my one Facebook account some years ago with the sole intention of promoting my books online. But once the page was in existence and many of my real life friends had become Facebook friends too, the content and conversations became at least as personal as professional. With the original purpose in mind I’ve accepted ‘friends’ requests from people who know me only through what I write, so the page is a bit of a melting-pot of my different selves. Sometimes the obsessively tidy part of my brain would like to unpick it all and start again: perhaps being more social-media-savvy this time and setting up two separate sites.

Most of us would recognise that different aspects of our personality come to the fore as we inhabit multiple roles, engage with people for a range of reasons and purposes, explore relationships with varying levels of intimacy and belong to groups in a different way and for different reasons. We would also recognise, though, that there’s something that ties all of that together, called ‘me’.

Some who responded to Vicky Beeching’s question believe that it’s useful and appropriate to maintain boundaries between business and personal use of social media, even to have separate accounts relating to different areas of interest. One person questioned why ‘multiple selves’ is necessarily a bad thing and another claimed to have more than 35 Twitter accounts, whilst someone else worried that if he had two accounts he would always confuse them.

We are highly complex creatures. Not only do our personalities have many perfectly compatible aspects that are magnified or submerged depending on where we are, who we are with and what we are doing: we are also full of seeming contradictions, and probably some very real ones.

How much of this we reveal to whom and in what context is a constant negotiation within ourselves; it always was, long before social media came into being to point up the issues. Decisions around Facebook privacy options, Twitter presence and with whom we want to be Linked In simply underline the age-old question: How much of myself is it healthy and helpful for me to reveal to whom?

Thank goodness we can be naked before God without either causing offence or risking someone trampling on our vulnerability. A God who, being three in one and one in three, is unlikely to suggest that we unpick ourselves in an attempt to start again and create something more tidy.

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.