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Building our self-compassion

What is self-compassion?

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word compassion is rooted in the understanding that we ‘suffer with’ someone. Compassion implies that our suffering is a shared experience. So when we show compassion towards another person, we open our hearts to them in their suffering. Our emotions either mirror or absorb theirs helping us to connect meaningfully.

When we are self-compassionate, we act in the same way we do when compassionate towards other people, only this time, we apply our skills to ourselves. But this is no easy option and does not come naturally to most of us. Many of us find it easier to support someone else rather than ourselves. Caring for ourselves is never easy and can’t be taken for granted. Somehow we find it difficult to care for ourselves, and we end up being hard on ourselves over a failure or embarrassment.

Before we can apply compassion to ourselves, we must first understand what occurs in our minds when we criticise ourselves. Our thinking follows set patterns. To improve our mental well-being, we must understand the structure of self-criticism. We must develop the ability to stand apart from our thoughts so that we can observe them. Dispassionately observing our thoughts is the first vital step on the road to improve our mental health. Once we see how our thoughts lead to negative thoughts or emotions, we can become skilled at seeing our inner health. When our thought-life is defective, then negative emotions follow; if our thought-life is robust, healthier emotions follow. Self-compassion aims to stand back from our thought processes and find strategies to manage our mental health.

The need to be understood

Suppose someone’s careless words have hurt my friend. When I sit and listen to his story and offer non-judgemental support, I show compassion to him. Compassion places me in their shoes, and as they tell their story, I actively listen so that they feel supported. My listening becomes an act of love, and I hope they begin to feel better about their situation.

Photo by an unknown author. Licensed under CC BY-SA-CC.

I can offer love that eases their pain because I am sufficiently uncoupled from the heat of their situation. I exercise care towards my friend, yet I remain sufficiently distanced enough to be free from their distress. It is a basic human need to be heard and understood, and our main defence against painful experiences dominating our lives. As with my friend, so it is with ourselves.

Compassion does not change the circumstances, but it does change the way I see the situation. Our perceptions drive our emotions. We are more emotionally orientated than we may think, and it is generally acknowledged that men are more reluctant to talk about their mental health than women.

Mind the gap

Lying between our knee-jerk reactions and our thoughtful responses is a void waiting for us to fill. If we do not choose to invest in it with considered thoughts and actions, our emotions will jump in and fill it for us. If we fill it with considered choices, we have chosen to build a healthier outlook and improve our mental health. The stimulus-response space lies largely dormant and untrained until we choose to invest in it. The more we remain untrained, the more we will react to situations, often regretting our ill-considered actions.

Photo by an unknown author. Licensed under CC BY-SA-CC.

Auschwitz survivor and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl riveted a generation of readers with his descriptions of concentration camp life and its lessons for spiritual survival. Frankl argues that we cannot avoid suffering, but we can choose how to cope with it, find meaning through it, and then move forward. His book Man’s Search for Meaning [1] remains one of the most influential books today and was first published in English in 1959.

Later, Stephen Covey developed the concept further, adding a series of searching questions we can ask ourselves to build our resilience. In First Things First, [2] Covey identifies that we each have four foundations to build stronger and healthier inner structures to support our mental health and well-being.

Covey’s focus is on four inner regions of our being called ‘endowments’ on which our inner strength can be built.

Self-awareness is the capacity to stand apart from ourselves and examine our thinking, motives, history, scripts, and habits. It enables us to take off our filters to look at ourselves objectively.

Conscience connects us with the inherited wisdom of our values and to direct our heart. Our internal guidance system signals within us to direct us when we contemplate acting in a way that’s contrary to principle.

Independent will is our capacity to act and give us the power to rise above our circumstances. It enables us to overcome our set outlook on life, rewrites our scripts and establishes healthier behaviour patterns.

Creative imagination is the power to envision our lives beyond the present. It’s the endowment that enables us to see ourselves and others differently and better than we are now.

After describing the four foundations and how they interact with one another, he suggests a series of searching statements that help us think deeply about our temperament, giving suggestions about how we can invest in them.

I find the idea endlessly fascinating, providing us with some powerful tools for improving our mental health. When we practice mindfulness, we allow our thoughts to de-couple from the pressures of life, and we can begin to think or behave positively.

When we use mindfulness in this way, we usually find that a wise response comes to mind, and from there, we can make better choices that lead to making sense of our troubles and herald a better tomorrow.

Instead of judging and criticising myself for my shortcomings, I can use these same principles for my well-being. It’s a skill that takes some practice, but by offering myself self-compassion, I can ease my mental anguish and improve my mental well-being, but as the old proverb says, ‘Rome was not built in a day.’ It takes time and practice.

The nature of thoughts

There is a world of difference between a reaction and a response. When self-critical thoughts emerge in our minds, we will either react or respond. The fact that they happen to us is taken as a given – it’s part of our humanity. And because we are human and these things happen to us, we need self-compassion. It is a foundational human need.

In his book, The Chimp Paradox[3], Steve Peters uses a chimp metaphor to describe how our impulses behave like chimps that jump into our minds without warning. Whenever we have been assaulted by feelings, thoughts or behaviours that are unwelcome, the chimp has jumped into our minds. The central idea is that you cannot control your inner chimp; it jumps in unannounced. It’s a compelling metaphor.

In her book The Battlefield of the Mind, Joyce Meyer[4], writing from a Christian perspective, sees the battle for our mind as a spiritual struggle. Meyer’s is an intensely practical approach that has attracted a huge international following. Her insights appeal to our unwanted feelings and thoughts, providing useful strategies to overcome them.

The key point here is that Frankl, Covey, Peters, and Meyer identify the nature of our dilemmas. In whatever way you see things, each author suggests methods to develop the skills necessary to overcome or lessen the impact of unwanted thoughts on our lives and provide a way to develop our human potential.

Taken together, they provide us with a starting point for further study since each author speaks from a distinct and separate field of study. Their approach is broadly the same: to develop a healthy space for us to choose. Only through choice can we refute harmful thoughts and find a way towards a kinder future.

[1] Frankl, V, E., Man’s Search For Meaning, (Rider Publications, London, 1992) 2nd edition

[2] Covey, S., First Things First, (London, Simon & Schuster, 1994) pp.59-63

[3] Peters, S., The Chimp Paradox, (London, Random House Books, 2012) p.44

[4] Meyer, J., The Battlefield of the Mind, (Missouri, Time Warner Books, 1995)

New Year resolutions?

As the year ends, many of us turn our thoughts to making New Year resolutions. My advice: don’t or at least not until you have carefully worked through what each goal will mean to you. Think about the benefits to your life, the joy it might bring and the cost of getting to the end. Making changes in our lives is no casual thing.

So many of us start out with good intentions to reform our lives at this time of year. The idea behind new year resolutions is that we want to add a new skill or pursue a new relationship or change some aspect of our lives for the better. It is a noble desire to want to set ourselves a target for the year. But to achieve success, we need more than good intentions and a wave of enthusiasm as we herald in another year.

Oscar Wilde once quipped, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” The trick with achieving new things in our lives is to understand that few of them just happen. We have to be intentional, and being intentional means that we need some sort of intention; a plan.

Studies have shown that over a quarter of us will have abandoned our quest after one month, and less than 10% achieve any level of success. One study has shown that only 8% of people achieve their year-end goal. It’s all rather depressing when we read these results. What, I wonder, is the secret of the 8%? The answer is not altogether clear, but there are some common strands to their success.

Faced with these results, I have reviewed what will dramatically improve our chances of success. Achieving a goal requires us to change our behaviour for the better. Reform is far more challenging than we often imagine and requires a serious plan to make it all work. I have spent some years refining my plan. Here is what I have learned.

1 Small is beautiful

In setting a goal, we have a tendency to promise ourselves sweeping changes with big gestures. Frankly, we are tempted to go for the big goal. Research shows that it is much better to set an achievable goal. But what is achievable?

An achievable goal is one we have considered and deemed doable. It has to be small enough to manage. When one of my daughters was at university, she came home one weekend with the title of her first essay, threw her arms around me and cried, “I can’t do it!” As she clung onto me, I started to think about what I would say to her, to help her through her crisis. I simply asked her “How do you eat an elephant?” At first, there was a pained look on her face. She was thinking, she later told me, ‘what does this old fool know about my life?’ Then she looked pained and puzzled at me, I said, “One bite at a time.” With that, she laughed, and I helped her to set about making a plan, even though I knew nothing about her subject. The big must become small.

I’m the sort of person who needs to consider a commitment before choosing to embrace it. I need to turn it over in my mind, visualise what achieving the goal looks like, and see the setbacks I might encounter. Once that is done, I move onto the next stage. If I find that my goal is more easily achieved than I first thought, it becomes an early success.

2 The few versus the many

One of the key drivers in achieving our goals is to limit ourselves to a few well-chosen ones. I suggest no more than five. Too many will mean that we will have difficulty managing them. The final number we choose might also depend on the type of objective we have in mind.

If I have five resolutions for the year, I find it helpful to have perhaps two easier ones to achieve, leaving one more meaty goal and another that will stretch me. I think it is better to have too few than too many. One can always add another goal later if you want. Choosing the right number of goals for the year is a matter of knowing how you respond to challenges of this type.

We live in a world filled with choices. Too much choice can be bad for us since we will find that decision making is more draining and difficult. Narrowing our choices helps us to decide what is really important. In turn, this means that we must have the courage to reject perfectly worthy options in favour of one or two goals.

The secret to choosing our goals is to restrict our options. Restricting our options helps us to focus on those things that are the most important to us. Positive restriction makes managing our choices easier.

It helps to visualise achieving the goal, but we can make the mistake of thinking that achieving a goal is the same thing as living in the goal’s success. Our most significant objectives must be places where we can live. For example, let us suppose that I want to lose some weight and set a target. Is my goal to reach the weight or to stay at that weight permanently? Reaching the weight is one thing; staying there is quite another. This is the main reason why I might narrow my options. I don’t want to visit my goals; I want to live in them.

3 A powerful pen

Martin Luther, the sixteenth-century Reformer wrote, “If you want to change the world, pick up your pen and write.” Most of us will not change the world; we will have enough trouble changing ourselves.

We can apply that principle to our goals for the year. Writing down my goals does several things. First, the very act of recording our goals makes our commitment to them stronger. Writing clarifies our thinking and strengthens our resolve, and it does not matter whether we use a pen or a keyboard. Second, writing down our goals for the year means I have a record of them, giving me a visual cue to remind me of them and their phrasing. Thirdly, writing them down helps me cement my decisions, and improves the chances of keeping them in the front of my mind.

If we choose small enough goals, narrow our selection to a few well-chosen ones, and write them down, then we are well-placed for success. With these considerations finalised, our chances of success increase with every small refinement. We have moved from the crowd and towards the 8%.

4 Monitor and manage

Most of us need some way of keeping our goals in mind. Take, for example, my goal of losing weight. I have set a goal weight to reach and to make sure that I continue my downward trend, I monitor my weight every day. I build the weigh-in into my morning routines and hand-write the result in my day-book. This goal requires measurement every day. I chose to record my weight every day because I know how easily my work can be undone.

In another example, I have some investment goals for 2021. In this case, I record the performance of my investments each Saturday morning on my spreadsheet. As the weeks pass by, I can soon see how they perform, building a picture on how well or otherwise they are progressing.

Every goal requires a unique response to monitoring progress or regress. It is only through close monitoring that I can see what is happening. In my first goal, I want to lose; in the second, I want to gain, but it is only through monitoring the situation that I can see if I am moving in the right direction. I use my task manager to remind me of my resolutions. Every three months, I set an automatic reminder, and I have an embedded a link to the file so that review is easy and never more than a click away. I have found that the way the goal is monitored is just as important as the goal itself. It can make all the difference between success and failure.

5 Long haul or short haul?

My examples are long-term goals and appear in my list for most years. I have lost over seventy-five pounds in weight over the last few years, and since I have chosen to lose weight permanently, I decided to lose weight slowly. My achievement takes me to within a few pounds of my weight when I married some forty-two years ago. So far, I am pleased with the result. I recommend breaking larger resolutions into manageable chunks, each smaller success is a milestone on a long journey. The win comes in achieving the smaller units of the larger objective.

And finally

If I have a setback and I have had many, I am resolved to treat myself with self-compassion and kindness. By sticking with our resolutions, we can achieve worthwhile changes in our life and enjoy the journey. And now, I must finish my resolutions for 2021 – the new year is fast approaching.

The Tomb of the Unknown Warrior Sealed

The Times, 19 November 1920:

Last night the tomb of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey was sealed, and there was an end of the great pilgrimage of the public to see the coffin that has become a memorial to all the British dead. The pilgrimage started soon after the Burial Service finished on Armistice Day.

Altogether about a million people must have passed through the Abbey. The queue yesterday was again very large. For the greater part of the day people stood six abreast, and although they passed through the Abbey at a quicker rate than on preceding days the queue steadily grew longer. It was intended to close the doors at 3.45, but there was a quarter of an hour’s grace, and even then there were still many people unable to pass through.

At the very last moment a lady came to the Deanery bringing a maple leaf that had been sent from Canada by a soldier who had earned the Victoria Cross at Lucknow. She asked that this should be placed on the coffin before the grave was sealed up, and her wish was carried out.

The grave was filled with soil brought from the battlefields of France and Flanders.

Within half an hour the nave had been cleared of people. The Abbey was nearly in darkness, and the Unknown Warrior was at last alone. For three hours the coffin was not touched. An organ recital had been arranged, and it was decided not to close the grave until this had finished. For nearly two hours the organ pealed out, and the Warrior received a fitting last requiem.

The recital over, a beginning was made with the work of burial. The grave was filled with soil brought from the battlefields of France and Flanders. The inscription on the temporary slab has been printed in The Times. It will now be possible to get close enough to the grave to read it. The barriers have been narrowed, and the procession of mourners will in future pass directly by the grave. The Dean of Westminster hopes that it will be possible to reopen this part of the Abbey to the public today.

The queues at the Cenotaph were very little smaller yesterday than on preceding days. It is now a week since the memorial was unveiled, and in that time quite a million and a quarter people must have filed past it. During the afternoon a number of men on wheeled chairs, some of whom had lost both legs, laid wreaths. One of these was inscribed with the words, “Lest we forget”.

From The Times Archive, retrieved 19 November 2020.

Armistice Day 1920

1920 – Westminster Abbey – 4 military sentinels and 4 wax tapers surround the tomb of the unknown warrior.

On Thursday, 11th November 1920, an unknown soldier was buried in Westminster Abbey in a poignant ceremony to commemorate the immense loss of life during The Great War. The Tomb of the Unknown Warrior is now known throughout the world, though the soldier’s identity remains a mystery. That the soldier is unknown deeply resonated in 1920 and continues to do so to this day. We are the inheritors of their sacrifice. The British Army lost 886,000 killed during the war. Most died on the battlefields of France and Flanders, and over one hundred years later, they are almost total strangers to us.

We may have one or two servicemen in our family histories who fought in the Great War, who were wounded or killed, as I have, but these are the exceptions, albeit very personal exceptions. And that’s the point of the tomb of the unknown soldier – he is by nature unknown to us and probably will never be identified but represents the loss we all suffered. He is unknown and yet known. Indeed, if we discovered his identity, something of the poignancy of his ‘unknown-ness’ would be lost. Sometimes being unknown is the message.

Let’s back up a little. Armistice Day always falls on 11th November each year and is quite distinct from Remembrance Sunday, held on the second Sunday of November. Armistice Day commemorates the cessation of hostilities of the Great War on the 11th November 1918, at 11:00 am. Remembrance Sunday is our national commemoration of the same event, but because Armistice Day is usually a weekday, a Sunday is more convenient for the nation to remember. Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday work hand-in-hand.

Armistice and Remembrance Days

On Armistice Day in 1920, our nation witnessed the burial of an unknown soldier in Westminster Abbey, London as a permanent memorial to the casualties of the war. Our hero was certainly not the only unknown soldier: sadly, there were many more, too many.

Deeply regret to inform you

Among the killed was my relative Arthur Parkes who died in 1916 in the battles of the Somme; never survived, never found, never buried by his comrades, encased in the mud bogs of Belgium. He was an ordinary man, from the village of Lowdham, Nottinghamshire, and at only five feet three inches tall, he was a small man.

Arthur signed up as a regular soldier in 1912, serving as a Private in the Sherwood Foresters from the start of the war. In March 1916, aged 26, he left the army on completion of his service but was then conscripted the following month. Seven months later, and back in Flanders, this time with the Lancashire Fusiliers, he was killed blown to infinity by an exploding shell.

“Deeply regret to inform you that Pte. A. Parkes, of the Lancashire Fusiliers, was killed in action on 23rd October. Lord Kitchener expresses his sympathy. The War Office London.”

The dreaded GPO telegram

And that was it. Your son is dead; no coffin, no funeral, no opportunity to say goodbye, and no grave to mark his life. Perhaps a letter to his mother from the Padre a few days later? If so, it has not survived. A loss like this happened to so many families, and the scars live on to this day.

In London: an idea is born

The idea for a lasting memorial to the unknown casualties of the Great War was birthed in August 1920 in London; it’s a fascinating story. But by early November plans to commemorate the vast loss of life started to take shape. (The full story can be found here) On the night of 7th November, the grim task of selecting an unnamed candidate fell to the Commander of the troops in France and Flanders, Brigadier-General Wyatt.

Four exhumed bodies were brought to a chapel at St. Pol, Flanders, on the night of 7th November 1920. Brigadier-General Wyatt and Colonel Gell went into the chapel alone. Union Flags covered the bodies. General Wyatt selected one, and the two officers placed the remains in a plain coffin.

In the morning Chaplains of the Church of England, the Roman Catholic Church and Non-Conformist churches held a service in the chapel. The body was placed in a specially made two-inch-thick oak coffin made from a tree grown in Hampton Court Palace garden. The casket was covered with the flag used as an altar cloth during the war and known as the Padre’s Flag, which now hangs in St George’s Chapel, Westminster Abbey. The body was then shipped back to London.

The burial

On the morning of 11th November, the coffin began its journey through the crowd-lined streets, making its first stop in Whitehall where the Cenotaph was unveiled by King George V. The King placed his wreath of red roses and bay leaves on the coffin. His card read “In proud memory of those Warriors who died unknown in the Great War. Unknown, and yet well-known; as dying, and behold they live. George R.I. 11th November 1920”.

The King, now at Westminster Chapel, stepped forward and dropped a handful of French earth onto the coffin from a silver shell as it was lowered into the grave. The hymn “Abide with me” was sung at the close of the service. Other eminent members of the congregation were Queen Alexandra, the queens of Spain and Norway, the Duke of Connaught, politicians Lloyd George and Asquith, and Sir Douglas Dawson.

The grave was then covered by an embroidered silk funeral pall, with the Padre’s flag lying over this. Four sentries kept watch over the grave while thousands of mourners filed past. The Abbey organ played while the church remained open to the public.

The Westminster Abbey service was recorded, but only part of the recording could be used for a record for the public to buy. Although the recording was only partially successful, it was the first electric recording made for public sale in Britain.

The grave was filled, using 100 sandbags of earth from the battlefields, on 18th November.

A powerful symbol of loss

The unknown soldier remains a powerful symbol of the Great War, made more potent by the fact that he is the only repatriated serviceman at that time. The tomb serves as a potent reminder of the grief and loss felt so powerfully across our nation in 1920. It continues to this day. We will remember them.

See how The Guardian covered the story in 1920

Purple with rage?

Photo by Mudassir Ali from Pexels

It’s happened again. And why? I’ll tell you why: for no reason at all. It’s the clocks; stealing my daylight and pitching me headlong into the dark tunnel of winter gloom. It’s bad for my health; bad for my routines; bad for my mood, increasing my risk of yet another deep depression. As if I need another depressive episode. What are the benefits of this annual ritual? None.

For the last twenty years, I have been unable to restrain myself about its useless and harmful imposition. My self-control evaporates, my blood pressure soars, and anyone in earshot gets a salvo, as I ride my hobbyhorse into the afternoon gloom of 3 p.m.

Name me one good reason why turning the clocks back an hour benefits our nation? I’ve searched the land from north to south, and east to west, high and low, and have yet to find one compelling argument. There isn’t one.

You might counter that Scotland would be plunged into very dark mornings. That’s true, I’ve lived there. Well, the Scots want independence, let them have it, and then they can do what works best for them. And anyway, there is no particular problem with two time-zones in one country. Lots of countries have two or more time-zones and manage very well.

You might counter that leaving the clocks on GMT+1 exposes road users and school children to the dangers of morning darkness. This is an old chestnut, but a miss-informed view. Studies have shown that more school students and road users will die because we have moved the clock back to GMT than otherwise would have done if the clocks had been left at GMT+1 (British Summer Time). The reason cited is that road users and children are more alert in the mornings and prone to be tired when they travel home, thus increasing their risk to poor road-safety judgement.

There I’ve said it. What do you say? Stick or twist? Yes or no? Back or not? When will we come to our senses? I’m not hopeful for change – no one is listening, but I feel a little brighter for writing about the subject again. I’m just a rather nice shade of lilac now.

75 Years of controversy

And, the controversy continues. The argument against the use of the first atomic bomb runs on set rails. Should such a weapon of mass destruction have been used, or even made? The dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima was undoubtedly a terrible act. The impact on human life was beyond imagination, causing the death of an estimated 70,000-126,000 civilians and 20,000 military personnel. The military personnel were killed mainly outright, while about 50% of the civilian deaths were as a result of the blast.

Three days later a second bomb was unleashed on Nagasaki causing a further death toll of 80,000. What is not so well known however, is that the USA had an additional seven weapons in preparation with the intent of using them to make the invasion of Japan easier. The invasion plan, operation Downfall, was scheduled to start by 1 November 1945, and the bombs were to be used before the start of the invasion.

So was there a plan to drop the next bomb? Yes, there was, and the next weapon was to be deployed on 19 August 1945, though the final target had not been determined. Japan’s surrender on 15 August halted another nuclear disaster.

While the death toll is deeply lamentable, it is the injuries to survivors who evoke such passion. Their injuries were grotesque, and I do not want to see an atomic weapon used on this planet ever again.

At the time, President Truman was racked by a relatively straight forward calculation. A study of casualties for the invasion of Japan, for the American Secretary of State for War, Henry Stimson, conducted by Quincy Wright and William Shockley, estimated that the invading Allies would suffer 1.7-4 million casualties. Of these between 400,000-800,000 would die, while Japanese fatalities would be between 5 to 10 million. The timescale to bring a surrender of Japan by conventional military means puts the end of the conflict at an estimated 1946 or early 1947.

Today, the focus on the ethical use of atomic weapons rests on the number of Japanese civilian casualties, especially the burns, radiation sickness and the emergence of cancer in the years following. Whilst these effects are truly horrendous and make us squirm today at the sheer horror of it all, President Truman was focussed on the casualties of the Wright and Shockley report.

To the President, using the bomb brought the war to an end by almost two years, and spared at least 5 million lives, Americans and Japanese. What would any of us do? Save lives by sacrificing 150,000 lives at Hiroshima and 80,000 at Nagasaki or let millions die in the invasion of Japan, or do nothing?

On 25 July 1945, President Truman authorised the use of the two weapons already built and two more, then under construction, one more in August and a second that would be ready by early September if the surrender of Japan was not forthcoming.

In the aftermath of the use of the weapons, the Soviet Union (1949), Great Britain (1952), France (1960) and China (1964), developed nuclear weapons. The Cold War brought about a situation where atomic arsenals soon were capable of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). The proliferation of nuclear warheads remains an issue, though two treaties exist to deter aspiring countries from gaining nuclear weapons. Despite this effort to restrain nations building bombs, Israel, Pakistan, India and North Korea have acquired them. South Africa is the only country that has developed the bomb and voluntarily dismantled its stockpile and renounced any nuclear weapons intention.

According to the Arms Control Association, the USA and Russia deploy approximately 1,400 weapons each, and Great Britain has about 120 warheads. To date, there around 9,500 are in active military service and a further 4,500 missiles in the process of dismantlement. What started as a means to end World War Two has escalated, something not foreseen in 1945. We are only ever a few minutes away from some presidential idiot twitching his finger over the launch button. Pray for sanity, wisdom, and peace.

COVID-19: Cultivating a Positive Perspective

Adam Graver, 22, lives and works in Hextable, Kent and is this month’s guest blogger

It’s a bit of a cliché these days, especially in my area of work (Christian ministry), that perspective is everything. Still, despite being wearied by the endless illustrations employed by well-meaning people endorsing adopting a more positive perspective on life, I do have to concede that they do have a point. When navigating the uncharted waters of lock-down and striving to cultivate a healthy mental state, the way that we digest the news and information around the pandemic is key.

Anxiety is understandably on the rise during the pandemic, according to statistics gathered by the BBC, suggesting the impacts of lock-down on daily life as a critical driver of this. One of the vital hallmarks of an anxious mindset is the anticipation of the worst-case scenario. It is certainly easy to fall into this mindset, considering the unprecedented nature of the situation that we are in. A counter for anxiety of this kind, therefore, is to set our minds on dreaming for the future instead. Let me explain how I do this.

Probably the most challenging aspect of lockdown for me is the separation from those that I love. Adopting an anxious mindset, which would probably be my default, promises many more weeks and months of this separation, and the pain that accompanies this. I question how long I can cope without seeing them, and greatly exaggerate how long this period will be. Approaching the reading of the news with this mindset, I will unconsciously reinforce this worst-case scenario in the way that I interpret what the media is saying. For instance, I will focus on the high death rates and spread of infection and interpret that data to mean that it will be a long time before I can see my friends and family. This mindset is unhelpful for obvious reasons. Early on in the lockdown, it became apparent that I needed a more positive way of thinking.

One such way in which I attempted to do this was looking at other countries, which were further on in their epidemics, and observing how their restrictions were being gradually lifted. What could this look like in the UK, and how would the restrictions easing in a similar way affect my life? What would be the first thing I would do when the restrictions were easing here? Suddenly, in focusing on the possibilities and opportunities that will eventually be opened to me when lockdown eases, my mental state is improved. I can begin to dream of how life improves, what I will say to and do with my loved ones when I see them again, and my mindset is switched from one which imagines the worst-case scenario to dreaming for the future.

Perspective is essential, and the way we think – the way we imagine the future to be is critical during these times, and stewarding our thoughts is vital for maintaining a healthy mental state.

Adam Graver

I did not want to go there

A compass in a hand

Have you ever gone where you do not want to go? Early retirement through ill health brought me to this place in 2016, almost exactly four years ago as I write. I neither saw nor wanted to go “there”. I did not know where “there” was at the time, even now a description tests my ability to write.

When Jesus said to Peter, John 21:18, “When you are old, you will go where you don’t want to go,” the statement came on the back of his restoration with Jesus, after Peter’s denials. The incident also took place after the resurrection of Jesus, in the context of new revelation. The encouragement of Peter’s restoration was tempered by the strangeness of Jesus statement.

Jesus words to Peter were first and foremost personal, spoken in the hearing of the other disciples. It was a private revelation given in the presence of others. It is at this point that the Bible falls silent on the matter, nothing further is said. As is often the case, when the Bible falls silent tradition takes up the thread and makes much of the manner of Peter’s eventual death in Rome, some thirty-five years later. And it is here that the story usually comes to a final rest.

Utterly exhausted by ministry, and never having fully recovered from a mental breakdown some six years earlier, retirement thrust me into a landscape that neither had shape nor form. I sought a road map but found none. I looked for familiar landmarks but found none, and I looked for pathways that others have taken but found none.

I might not have had a road map, but I did have a compass, one that kept me pointing to God, and in time, I ripened for revelation. But before that time came and because the familiar danglements of evangelical vocabulary had worn thin, I re-assessed much of my thirty something-years of following Christ.

At no time did God retreat from my experience, though he did stand back and let me wrestle with my emptiness. But it was not so with my relationship with the church or my first language, evangelicalism. I drifted from the church and felt alienated by my native evangelical language, both of which were in full retreat and distant. I was stripped bare of my appetite for church and lost my desire to use an evangelical vocabulary. I was trapped in the vacuum between the old and the new. We do not usually sign up for nakedness of this kind. Nevertheless, that is where I was, and I knew I had to work with what I had at that moment.

At first, I discovered that as I travelled my road, I neither understood the pain of reconstruction nor, could I see the new. There were no easy answers; nothing was ready-made. I wrestled for everything.

Once I realised that God was holding onto me, and not me holding onto God, I was able to see that God reframed my understanding of who he is, and I would not change a thing despite the personal trials I endured during this time.

Perhaps these thoughts have an application during the Coronavirus lockdown; after all, we find ourselves moving where we do not want to go. In these ‘unprecedented times,’ we should not be afraid to trust an unknown future to a known God.

I have lockdown lurgy

The peg in the lawn

I am finding that the novelty of lockdown has worn thin, and frankly, I’m struggling with it all. At first, the lockdown was a new challenge to meet. Responding to these first adjustments to my life gave me something new to conquer. Now, it’s week six, and I am, well, wearied by it all. I feel like I am running a marathon with the finishing line nowhere in sight. I need a fresh injection of hope to keep sane.

I have resorted to staring at the infographic from my last post to keep me on the white line of life. And another thing; I’m watching my self-talk – it drifts off centre. When my self-talk drifts, my mental health slides with it disabling me further. A normally well-ordered life begins a downward plunge into chaos. On these days sucess is making it to bed time.

Arresting my mental decline becomes my new goal. And I have been thinking about my positive routines. I need to treasure them and keep them well maintained.

It sounds counter-intuitive, but once I appreciate my daily routines, seeing them as a positive, I can exercise gratitude for them. Showing appreciation for my habits is a skill that I have developed in later life. I now find that I like my routines; they are my friends. I see them as boundary markers: inside them, I am free to express myself in an endless variety of ways. But, if I treat them casually, then orange lights start to light on my emotional dashboard. These helpful habits provide me with boundary markers that help me stay in the safe zone. And, in the safe zone, I feel more in control – a little like the Ten Commandments really.

New routines may help us to cope with change and helps us form healthy habits, and in turn, this reduces our stress levels.

    Routine acts like an anchor in our souls. For instance, whatever takes place during our day, knowing that our evening meal is around 18:00, and knowing I go to bed around 22:00, can be a real comfort. The certainty of routine gives us a framework for the day. Frameworks hold me.
    That framework provides me with plenty of room to do all the other things I have planned to do. So, rather than a restriction, my routines are a means of regulating my life. A regulated life is a healthy life.
    I find that routine can carry me when I need some support to keep going. If my habits are engrained, then they can help to transport me through a tough time, reducing the stress of blocked goals or ineffectiveness. A blocked goal is frustration. Frustration is stress.
    There are times when our life needs positive reinforcement. Positive reinforcement is vital to keep me steady. I so easily slide away from my ideals or healthy habits; so they bring me back by exercising a mid-course correction. Positive habits steer me away from danger lines.
    If I put a “peg in my lawn” whenever I look out of the window, I will see the peg. Putting a “peg in my lawn” is a metaphor that I have used throughout my professional life, and now that I am retired, I find it just as useful to shape my present and to plan my future. I need pegs.

Can you help?

I’m collecting stories:
I am interested to hear how you are coping with the lockdown. How has it affected your mental and emotional health, and what strategies have you put in place to help?

Please tell me about your routines. Have they changed since our lockdown?

When did you last venture out?

Drop me a line, and your comments could form the foundation of another post. Thank you so much.

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