An Unshakeable Identity

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Carlton Beach, Tasmania, July 2018

The world tells us that we have to achieve great things in order to be significant. Our identity is shaped by what we do, and so we strive tirelessly to make a name for ourselves by establishing a career. We study for years, work long hours, fight for the awards and the accolades and the promotions, all in the hope that we will finally feel fulfilled. We constantly compare ourselves to others, shaping our lives around their expectations or being driven by a desperate need for approval. Yet none of these things will ultimately satisfy, because we were made for so much more. All these things only, at most, bring temporary satisfaction. If this is where we find our identity, what happens when we don’t succeed – when we fall short, when we don’t get the marks we need, or get overlooked for progression. What happens when, due to discrimination or sickness or other circumstances beyond our control, we lose the career we’ve been striving for? What are the implications of the world’s model of identity for someone who has a profound intellectual disability, like my sister who has Down Syndrome?

From a young age, I bought into the world’s model of finding identity; my worth and value were measured by my achievements. I worked hard at school to be top of my grade, practiced hours each day to excel in the musical instruments I played, and trained hours each week to succeed in sport. I had my life mapped out – I would conquer high-school and music grades, get into an elite music school and go on to play in the world’s best orchestras. I had a dream, and I had a plan to fulfill it. Every hour of my day was consumed by this pursuit, so I should have been happy, right? Well, I wasn’t – I was being bullied at school, so as much as I loved everything I was doing, I was pretty miserable. I was never good enough, even when I was at the top. No matter how hard I strived, there was always someone who was better, or someone who would tear me down (in classic Australian tall-poppy style) for being too good. By the world’s standard, I had it all, but I felt so very empty.

Then one day, at the beginning of the week of my year 8 mid-term exams that I’d studied (too) hard for, everything fell apart. I couldn’t get out of bed for 6 months. I couldn’t go to school. For a while, I was still able to play my beloved instruments, but eventually sickness left me unable to breathe properly and hold up my body to play. (You can read a more detailed explanation of my now 10 year battle with Chronic Fatigue here). Overnight, everything I had worked for, the foundations that I built my identity and my life upon, had slipped out of my grasp. My dream of pursuing an international career in music was shattered. At times, I couldn’t even read. I slipped into depression, lived out my days in a state of overwhelming fatigue and pain, riddled with anxiety and confusion about what was happening to my body. Sickness stole much of my adolescent life away, and I discovered just how fragile building your life around the world’s model of identity is.

Through years of chronic sickness, I’ve wrestled with this concept of identity. If my body and my mind significantly limit me from achieving my ‘potential’, what is left for me to build my life upon? If depressive thoughts rob me of joy, if anxiety keeps me from performing well, if fatigue and pain decrease my daily capacity – what am I left with? If sickness, or death, were to limit my life even further, or take it away entirely, what hope do I have left? For me, as for my sister who has Downs, the answer to these questions is found in one man, who gave up his own life in our place 2000 years ago. Jesus Christ died for us, because there is nothing we could ever do to save ourselves (Rom 3:23); without him, we are broken sinners striving to find unattainable purpose in a world broken by sin. But in him, we have been saved – not because of who we are or what we do, but wholly because of who Christ is and what He has done (Eph 2:8-10; 2 Cor 5:21). He chose us before the creation of the world, to be called children of God, to be forgiven of all our sin, to be given the promise of an eternity with him where the disability and pain we experience now will no longer be a reality (Eph 1:3-12; Rev 21:1-4).

I still struggle to not find my identity according to the world’s ways of thinking. At university especially, its hard not to buy into the competitive drive for academic success. I fall into old patterns of thinking, comparing myself to others, allowing marks to be a measure of my value. I have to fight daily against yearning for the approval of my peers and against my own self-doubt. Its in these moments I find it so helpful to look at my beautiful sister Karlie, who, despite all the difficulties she has faced in her life, by God’s grace is living a life of purpose. How can I measure my own value by such fragile, temporal things, when I see her and know her value, her identity, is one chosen and loved by God? She is a daily reminder to me that the world’s model of identity is SO very broken. To the world, she is disabled, but to God, she is made in His image, so beloved she was worth dying for! Christ offers us a secure and significant, unshakeable foundation on which to build our identity in a way the world never can.

What will you build your identity on?


If this has challenged you and you want to think through issues of identity/work more, I can’t more highly recommend this talk given by Carl Matthei at a conference I attended last week.

https://www.campusbiblestudy.org/sermons/lovingly-identified-myc18-thursday/

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The Brain Benefits of Boredom

 

I sit on the lounge, staring out the window, fighting the urge to not pick up my phone again. I’ve been on holidays for less than a week, and I find myself thinking…”I’m bored”. This is a strange sensation. It feels oddly familiar but simultaneously foreign, like a sense of deja vu felt upon returning to a place I haven’t visited since childhood. I can identify that I’m bored, but I don’t know what to do with it.

At a loss, I succumb to the urge to pick up my phone and mindlessly scroll through the newsfeeds that are designed to keep my attention endlessly captured. I gain nothing of any value from my scrolling, just more celebrity gossip that I don’t really care about and memes that make me laugh for a brief moment. I’ll share them with friends so they can laugh for a second too, temporarily escaping from their own blackhole of boredom-avoidance. At the end of the day, all I’ve achieved is avoiding boredom. And that does feel like an achievement…but is it, really?

A few days ago while working in the garden, I listened to a podcast by Ted Radio Hour on attention. It included an interview with Manoush Zomorodi, author of the book Bored and Brilliant. She talks about how we don’t experience boredom anymore because we are constantly filling our minds with stimulation. We avoid boredom at all costs, having learnt that boredom is a bad thing. Yet research into boredom shows the opposite – it’s when we are bored that our brains are active in really important ways.

Zomorodi says: “It turns out that when you get bored, you ignite a network in your brain called the “default mode.” When we are functioning on autopilot, “that is when our brain gets really busy”. Through constantly filling out minds with stimulation, we miss out on important cognitive processing. That processing includes problem solving, making links between seemingly disconnected ideas and what is called “autobiographical planning” – looking over our lives, setting goals and determining how to achieve them.

So, boredom is actually a good thing. Why is it then that we have become so hardwired to jump to our phones whenever we feel the creep of boredom? Why do I constantly find myself pulling out my phone when I’m on public transport, instead of just people-watching or enjoying the view? Why can’t I sit still anymore when watching a movie at home, but feel the need to do something else – scroll through Pinterest, do a crossword or attempt a 1000 piece puzzle?

Part of the problem is we’ve believed the idea that multitasking is a sign of intellectual prowess, and the technology we use is designed to stimulate that belief. Neuroscientist Dr. Daniel Levitin explains that: “every time you shift your attention from one thing to another, the brain has to engage a neurochemical switch that uses up nutrients in the brain to accomplish that. So if you’re attempting to multitask…you’re not actually doing four or five things at once, because the brain doesn’t work that way. Instead, you’re rapidly shifting from one thing to the next, depleting neural resources as you go.”

We fill our moments with constant stimulation and activity because we’ve programmed our brains to rapidly shift from one thing to another. We pick up our phones hundreds of times each day, thus constantly shifting our attention away from the tasks we need to perform. It becomes habitual – we don’t even think about it, it’s just automatic. We scroll endlessly through Facebook because its precisely designed to make us do exactly that. Google designer Tristan Harris said: “If I’m Facebook or I’m Netflix or Snapchat, I have literally a thousand engineers whose job is to get more attention from you. I’m very good at this, and I don’t want you to ever stop.”

This may sound like some cunning conspiracy, but really, its just feeding into our own habitual behaviour. If we didn’t have social media, we’d find other ways to stimulate our minds. When I logged out of social media for two months last year, I found myself seeking to fill the void with other things. I was definitely more productive, but I found it difficult to deal with the emotions that I normally suppressed (with constant stimulation) and still tried to escape from boredom in any way possible.

So, if you’ve managed to read this far (and haven’t gotten distracted by something else), is there a solution? Manoush Zomorodi ran a project (called ‘Bored and Brilliant’) to see if people could change the cycle of habitual phone-checking out of boredom, and therefore be more productive and creative. One participant, Tina, reported prior to the project spending an average of 150 and 200 minutes on her phone per day. She said: “it’s really concerning, because that’s so much time that I could have spent doing something more productive, more creative, more towards myself, because when I’m on my phone, I’m not doing anything important.” 

At the end of the week-long project, of 20,000 participants, 90% cut down on their phone use and 70% said they had more time to think. Overall, participants said their sleep and happiness improved, and many reported feeling emotions that they didn’t recognise. If we’re always on our phones, we’re never processing how we feel or allowing our brains the space to think! We are less creative and less equipped to solve life’s problems.

Let’s spend less time multitasking, constantly checking our phones to escape boredom, and instead focus on what is right in front of us. I don’t think anyone would advocate for staring at a wall doing nothing all day (unless you’ve really got a thing for walls). Rather, we need to start putting our phones down and picking up a book, or going outside for a walk, or actually having a conversation with another human being using our mouths and not our swift-typing fingers.

For me, I find myself most relaxed when my phone is away and I’m out in the garden planting flowers, or at the gym doing laps in the pool, or kayaking along a beautiful stretch of river, or just sitting in a quite place praying. I hate that I am so drawn to wasting time on social media, and struggle so much to stay focused on one task at a time. We all have the power to change our behaviour, and we need to. Our brains (and our relationships!) will benefit from it in wonderful ways.


Discover more:

Check out Manoush Zomorodi’s TedTalk here.

The TedRadioHour podcast on attention (which covers much more than what I’ve written about) – listen here.

Read more about the benefits of boredom here.

 

 

 

Reflecting on the year that was: Lessons learnt in 2017

Callala Bay, NSW / Canon EOS600D

Twenty seventeen has been a year of triumph and of failure, a year of learning to take risks and make hard decisions, a year of great highs and devastating lows. Reflecting on the year that was, I have learnt many things, but four lessons stand out most. I am still learning and growing and making many mistakes along the way, but I am thankful for the life that I have, and the God who has made it all possible.

It’s OK to say ‘NO’…

I’ve never been very good at saying ‘no’. I struggle with wanting to be available for everyone, all the time, yet not having the energy to sustain such a lifestyle. Part of this struggle is the classic FOMO (fear of missing out) on fun and potentially life-changing experiences. Yet there is also guilt accompanied with saying ‘no’ – even if that guilt is unfounded. This past year I’ve been learning that it is OK to say no from the beginning when an opportunity arises than to have to pull out at the last minute. While people may be disappointed that you turn them down with plenty of time to spare, they will be far more disappointed if you do not give them significant notice.

Part of learning to say no is recognising your limitations and may involve realigning your expectations of yourself. We have not all been given the same capacity, and life circumstances may alter your capacity to be present. For me, fluctuating health means that my capacity is fluid, and what I can do in one season may be different in another. This year I had to take a break from a ministry I loved doing – the highlight of my week – because my health and life circumstances meant that I did not have the energy to serve effectively. This was hard and I still feel a sense of loss, but it has given me the freedom to engage in a different form of ministry which better suits my capacity.

Furthermore, I have learnt that we can only control our own expectations, and fearing others’ expectations is a burden that doesn’t need to be carried. True friends love you and accept you as you are, and will be understanding when you have to say no to their plans. People who put pressure on you, or who unfairly judge you as lazy or unreliable, perhaps aren’t true friends after all. It’s important that we make it as clear as possible to people in our daily life what we can and can’t do, and why – and to not be ashamed of the capacity we have, however limited it may be.

People will be critical of what they don’t understand

We are creatures of habit and order. Part of this is our biological design – our bodies and minds function according to pattern, and when they don’t there is disease and abnormality. Children learn and develop in similar ways – with a degree of individual difference – and so we are wired to like what we like and dislike what we don’t understand. This is evident across the spectrum of human behaviour, and is fascinating to observe in our own lives and the lives of others. Yet, it also has negative effects on our relationships, and can lead to discord and, at an extreme, discrimination and injustice.

In the past I have really struggled with people being critical of aspects of my life (and the lives of loved ones) that they don’t understand. When I was younger I had kids come up to me in playgrounds and ask me why my sister – who has Down Syndrome – looked “funny”. When I developed chronic fatigue in high school, I lost friends who didn’t understand why I was sick all the time and couldn’t come to parties. I have friends now who, though I know they don’t mean to be hurtful, regularly make jokes about my diet. Working as a teacher’s aide I see kids constantly teasing each other for things that are beyond their control, and shunning those who they perceive to be ‘different’.

While these are all more serious examples, it is sad when people are critical of good, honourable things that they don’t understand – or are different to how things are “always done”. This year a group of three friends and I started up a bible study because we were, for various reasons, unable to attend the established bible studies for our church service. While some were encouraging, many of our peers were critical (though well-intended) of what we were doing – purely because it wasn’t like other bible studies. We didn’t have a designated ‘leader’, but used books written by Bible scholars that required us to do the studies ourselves during the week and come prepared to have an in-depth discussion.

Our bible study has been the highlight of my year, and has led to huge spiritual growth in all of us. We are four women simply meeting together to read and study God’s word, apply it to our lives, keep each other accountable and pray with and for each other. We took a situation that was beyond our control, and chose to not give up meeting together, but to do something different that met our needs. This is just a small example, but through it I have learnt that it is important to persevere with what is good even when people unfairly judge, and for myself – to try to be more accepting of what I don’t understand.

Failure enables you to learn and grow

As a high achiever and chronic people-pleaser, I have always been afraid of failure. My expectations of myself in the academic world, as well as in my relationships, have always been to strive for perfection – which is not healthy, as perfection is impossible. I recognise that I am sinful and broken, and no matter how hard I try, I will always make mistakes and disappoint people. Yet despite this knowledge, I regularly struggle with perfectionism and am never fully satisfied with my achievements, no matter how great.

Early this year, for the first time in my life, I failed an assessment. I was not alone, as my mark was still higher than over half the course, despite being below 50%. Needless to say, I was devastated, and couldn’t believe that the result was real. This may seem like an over-reaction, and in hindsight I can see that it was, but my confidence was crushed. I felt physically sick for days and couldn’t sleep properly due to anxiety. I had worked so hard, and yet my performance didn’t reflect this. My reaction was a combination of putting too much pressure on myself to perform to an unreachable standard, as well as a lifelong battle with placing my identity in my achievements instead of in God.

Ironically, failing that assessment was probably one of the best things that could have happened to me. Instead of giving up – which is what I felt like doing – it drove me to work harder and practice until I truly understood the content I’d stumbled over. In the past I would have adopted a fixed mindset and assumed that because I’d failed, that meant I was a failure and would never achieve anything again. Instead, failure taught me to adopt a growth mindset, to see the result as not defining my whole person, to strive after challenge and learn from my mistakes. I’m still learning, but I’m finding that when my performance/behaviour doesn’t meet my expectations, instead of falling apart, I work out how to do better next time. When I got my final results for the semester, I was more excited by my mark for that subject than the subjects I got high distinctions in – because I struggled and overcame.

You are where you are meant to be

Part of our human nature is the pull to compare our lives to the lives of others. As I approach my mid-twenties, I find it hard to not feel inadequate when I see friends my age reaching life milestones – graduating university, obtaining full time work, buying property, adventuring around the world and even getting married and having kids. I worry that I am not achieving these milestones in the same timeline too – and wonder if I am doing life right. Ironically, as I share these worries with friends, I find they too share my worries – even if they have achieved the life milestones I’m comparing myself to!

The reality is, we’re never satisfied with what we have, as there is always something more to obtain. Other people will place their expectations on you; the number of recently married friends I have talked to who are constantly asked when they’ll have kids proves this point. We need to learn to be content with what we have, and trust that the timeline of our life is exactly what it is meant to be. There is no perfect age to graduate, no perfect age to get married, no perfect age to buy a house. Our unique life circumstances may mean that certain milestones take longer to achieve than others, or maybe are never achieved, and that is totally OK. Comparison only ever leads to discontentment.

As a Christian, I find huge comfort in knowing that my life is not a series of chance events, but has been designed and ordained by a loving, wise God who has greater purposes than I can imagine for myself. I know that the purpose of my life is not to graduate uni or to travel around the world or to get married and live in a nice house. The purpose of my life is to enjoy God and glorify him, forever. He has given me everything I need to live a life of godliness right now, and has promised that my future is secure in Christ. So instead of looking at others, and feeling that my life is insignificant in comparison, I can look to God and know that everything that happens in my life – whether good or bad – has eternal significance.

Goodbye 2017…hello 2018!


Learning to rest well, productively

Photo captured in Minamurra, NSW / Canon EOS 600D.

Rest is hard. If you’re anything like me, rest is so often accompanied by guilt. We live in a world that tells us our lives are all about experience and productivity and success. Rest doesn’t fit well into that equation. We can’t stop, we won’t stop, for we fear that if we do stop, we will miss out – on the opportunity, the experience, the acclaim. So we feel guilty when we take a moment for ourselves, feeling we aren’t using our time productively. Or we play the comparison game, scrolling through our newsfeeds to find evidence of others’ busy, exciting lives. We feel inadequate, so we rush to look like we are busy too, even though internally we groan at the thought of going out because we are burnt out.

A hard lesson I have had to learn through years of struggling with chronic illness is that rest is vital for a healthy life. Before I developed CFS, I never stopped. There is a cliche that adolescents are lazy, but when you’re a high achiever, laziness isn’t an option. Every spare moment of my early teenage life was filled with activity. When I wasn’t at school, I was at lessons for multiple musical instruments, or at orchestra practise, or at gymnastics training, or swimming, running, cycling…not to mention church commitments. I never stopped, and I liked it that way. I felt guilty for watching TV, so I read books or played instruments instead. No one told me that it was ok to rest, that I didn’t have to always be doing something…until my body stopped working and I couldn’t do anything anymore.

To this day I still find rest hard, buying into the idea that if I’m not out doing something then I’m not really living life properly. Part of this is due to a sense of loss from the years where sickness stole my capacity to do most of the things I loved. I fight against the thought that I have to make up for years of forced inactivity, as well as the perception of others that I am limited due to illness. I’m learning though, one day at a time, that it’s possible to be productive and still rest well. Finding a balance between making the most of the energy I do have, and maintaining that energy through intentional rest, has become a survival tactic for me. I’ve learnt that I do life and relationships better when I am willing to say no when I need to stop, that sometimes it is more loving to take time for myself than to push and exhaust my body further.

What does productive rest look like? Here are some things I’ve found helpful:

Writing lists and setting goals

It’s hard to keep track of life well without writing things down. I find that my memory gets pretty hazy when I’m busy, and I often don’t realise how much I’ve been doing until I crash. Keeping a calendar and diary where I record the events/appointments/activities I am doing throughout the week helps me to see when I haven’t taken time to rest. I find it helpful to have one on my phone (Google Calendar) to carry around with me as well as a paper version at home that I update every couple of days.

I try to designate one or two rest days each week where I keep my activity to a minimum. I’m not very good at being idle though; unless I’m super unwell, you won’t find me bingeing shows on Netflix. On my rest days, I find it helpful to write out a list of small goals I’d like to achieve, including activities as simple as ‘get dressed’ and ‘make lunch’. One of the keys to rest is finding relaxing activities you love that don’t feel like work. My list today included: ‘write a blog post’, ‘re-pot the succulent’ and ‘play piano’, among other things. Rest doesn’t mean you can’t be productive, and there is something immensely satisfying in looking back over your day and seeing goals you’ve achieved and enjoyed.

Prioritising your inner circle

We only have a limited number of hours in the day, and days in the week, to see people. While it’s quite normal to have 1000+ Facebook friends, the reality is our social circles – the people we see and interact with in life – likely ranges between 100-200 people. Our inner circle – the people we are closest to among family and friends – are the ones who most impact our physical and mental health. Not everyone is going to be in our inner circle – we just can’t maintain that many deep relationships! It’s important to establish who is in our inner circle (think: who can I depend on? who knows me best? who invests equally in me?), and prioritise spending time with them first.

That does not mean you only have 5 close friends and refuse to spend time with anyone else. Some of my dearest friends I only see a few times a year due to where we live, and other good friends I see every week. Every relationship is unique and requires different levels of time and commitment. It’s important to learn that you cannot invest equally in everyone, and it’s ok to not be everyone’s best friend. It’s also ok to let go of toxic friendships and maintain boundaries in how much you share with people you are not as close to. In order to rest well, every moment of your spare time can’t be filled up with social engagements. This is a lesson I’m still learning (fighting my inner FOMO), but I’ve found I can be a much better friend when I am not exhausted from seeing too many people.

Having realistic expectations

Each of us has a different capacity in life, and learning how your body and mind function takes time. I need to regularly adjust my expectations of myself in reference to my physical and mental health which fluctuate seasonally. I have days where I can walk across the city, go on bushwalks, spend hours writing an essay or stay out past midnight at a party. There are other days where simply getting out of bed is a huge achievement, where getting dressed and putting food into my body consumes all my energy. Learning to accept this difference, and to plan life accordingly, has helped me to appreciate the days when I need to rest.

Being social beings, it’s impossible not to compare ourselves to others. When I see my friends working full time and filling their weekends with social events and leisure, I struggle not to feel inadequate. Recognising that your capacity is not the same as others’, and setting (and ACCEPTING) your expectations of yourself, helps you to balance life and rest more effectively. Learning to say no to people – and to be OK with that – can be hard, but ultimately gives you the freedom to enjoy life more. Articulating to others that you cannot meet their (unrealistic) expectations is difficult, but true friends will accept you as you are and not push you beyond your limits.

Acknowledging we were made to rest

Biologically, we are beings who need rest. The fact that a third of our lives are spent sleeping makes this clear. In rest and sleep, our bodies heal and grow and renew. We cannot work 24/7, because our bodies – especially our brains – require us to stop. A life without proper rest leads to a greater susceptibility to illness, causes imbalance in our circadian rhythm (our internal body clock that manages sleep), decreases our attention and memory performance and can negatively impact mental health. Paradoxically, in order to work and function well we NEED to rest.

As a Christian, I recognise that rest was part of God’s design in creation – after the work of creating, God himself rested (see see Genesis 2:1-3). This pattern of work and rest is seen throughout the Bible, ultimately pointing to Jesus. The gospel writers take care to note that Jesus took time out from ministry to pray and rest, reflecting God’s pattern for creation (eg: Mark 4:38). Ultimately, Jesus death and resurrection are the means by which we ourselves can enter God’s rest – eternal life in His presence (see Hebrews 4:9-11, 10:12). The work and rest we experience now are preparing us for God’s glorious rest. We are also promised rest now, in Jesus, who says:

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.
~ Matthew 11:28-30


 

Embracing the silence: Not another social media hate article

STANWELL (1 of 1)-21

Social media is deeply entwined in our twenty-first century lives. Everyone is connected, all the time. There is the expectation of always being available to communicate, and the impulse to publish one’s daily activity for a larger audience to see. We invite people into the intimate moments of our existence through carefully edited images, words and video. We tag each other in the memes that pop up in our bottomless newsfeeds and it makes us feel connected.

There are too many articles circulating the internet warning of how social media is dangerous, that we are addicted to our screens and damaging our relationships. I think there is some truth behind these claims, but I’m not sure anymore that social media is really to blame. Social media is just an innovative tool for communicating creatively; it is how we choose to use it that can be harmful. Maybe the solution isn’t to boycott social media entirely, but rather, to learn to use it – and take time away from it – more sustainably.

People have been ‘detoxing’ from social media – going ‘feed free’ – for years. The entry ‘digital detox’ is even in the (online) dictionary:

digital detox (noun)

  1. ‘a period during which a person refrains from using digital or electronic devices, as to avoid distractions or make time for other activities’.

It seems an inherent part of human nature that we can turn good things into addictions – poisonous substances that we need to remove (‘detox’) from our lives. However, the old saying goes, “all good things in moderation”. Rather than raging against the machine, perhaps balance is what is needed. Social media is part of our lives – but it isn’t as essential as we have come to believe, and time away can be a very good thing.

I spent the previous two months away from social media. If I’m being honest this decision wasn’t motivated by some noble desire to ‘rediscover’ my identity and purpose in life away from the time-sucking vortex of my newsfeeds. I was just a desperate uni student wanting to cut off the main source of my procrastination (I’m looking at you, Relatable Psych Memes). I’d tried numerous apps to limit my screen time, but as assignments piled up and my stress levels skyrocketed, going cold turkey was my only salvation.

I will not muse existential or claim to have discovered the key to healthy living. For me, being cut off from social media wasn’t the door to enlightenment. I was confronted by the silence – the deep, overwhelming vortex of boredom and an anxious mind. I couldn’t just pick up my phone and scroll to alleviate my restless cognitions; my passwords had been changed by a trusted confidante. It was just me, my thoughts and my fidgeting limbs – a nightmarish combination. My discomfort with being screen-free really just highlighted for me how greatly I needed to break away and face reality.

Eventually I began to find solace in the silence. I used the time I’d previously spent attached to my phone to actually be productive. I read 21 books (compared to just 12 in the previous 2 months). I tamed the jungle of our front garden – who knew pruning trees and digging up weeds could be so therapeutic for anxiety? I submitted assignments before they were due and kept up with all my lectures. I had undistracted prayer time and read more of my bible than I had the whole previous year. I (successfully!) baked cakes, spent more time playing piano and tried my hardest to just be, without always having to share my activities for the affirmation of my social group.

After about a month, I realised I wasn’t so sure I wanted to log back in to social media after all. Ultimately though, I must admit that I didn’t quite last the distance, giving in to Instagram a week early and logging onto Facebook 2 days before my designated finish line. I’d like to say that I conquered my screen addiction and maintained the healthy habits I’d established during my detox, but I’m human so I’m weak. Once I was back online, I was allured by those seductive endless newsfeeds and regressed to my old excessive meme-tagging ways. When bored, to Instagram stories I fled.

There’s a reason why going cold turkey didn’t kick my addiction. Like any consistent habit, using social media rewires our brains. Every ‘like’ or ‘view’ gives us a hit of dopamine (the neurotransmitter in our brains linked to, among other things, reward/pleasure). This chemical is also what drives the habitual desire to scroll, and when our brains learn that boredom is alleviated by clicking on that blue/white ‘F’ icon…well, pre-social media Pavlov could have predicted the outcome.

So, we’re all addicted…is there any hope? Yes, our neural pathways aren’t fixed – addictions can be conquered – praise God for neuroplasticity! I don’t feel very qualified to hand out advice to improve your existence, and I’m no neuroscientist. What I can say is that time away from social media is beneficial, yet it is a matter of agency. Time away from our screens needs to be a choice – to read more, exercise more, go outside and experience this beautiful world we call home. We need to not be afraid of boredom but embrace it, and not hide from the silence by distracting ourselves with your screens.

Social media can be used for good – connecting us with friends on the other side of the world, campaigning for social justice and sharing the positive things in our lives. It can also be used in negative ways, because we are human and we don’t always use our freedom wisely. We need to learn to use social media well, and not allow ourselves to be enslaved by it. The social media façade we paint for the world isn’t real life, it’s just a cover for the insecurities that we must deal with. Real life is messy and painful, but also beautiful. We must choose, every day, to prioritise the activities and people we love, and not fall into complacency with our eyes fixed on our screens.


Disclaimer: as soon as I finished this article, I was on my phone checking my newsfeeds. What can I say, I’m a work in progress…

This Light, Momentary Affliction: Suffering and Faith

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Location: Jervis Bay // Canon EOS 600D

In a world where suffering is an acute reality, where people struggle daily with pain, abuse and trauma, how is it possible to maintain faith? Last week I shared an article –  The Reality of Living with an Invisible Illness – seeking to honestly explore the battles people with chronic physical and mental illnesses face. Here though, I want to articulate how it is possible to have faith in the midst of chronic illness, in the loss of a loved one, in the shock of a cancer diagnosis, in the hunger of famine, in the chaos of a natural disaster. Suffering and faith are not mutually exclusive; I would argue, from my experience and the testimonies of numerous friends, that faith is essential for surviving suffering.

Whether you know God, are searching for truth or believe God can’t possibly exist, please know that I’ve wrestled with these truths for almost a decade, reading widely in the hope of finding answers to my own suffering. I’ve battled with doubt, and by no means walked in ‘blind faith’; my faith and hope have been hard won. I’ve questioned and looked for truth in other worldviews and religions, but nowhere have I found a solution to suffering, a promise in suffering and a purpose for suffering that even come close to explaining my personal experience and what I see in the world like the Bible does. I write this with certainty, and I hope that whatever your background or present circumstance, you can read this with an open mind.

The problem and solution to suffering

Many people think that the God of the Bible (if he even exists) is an impersonal being who has the power to end suffering but doesn’t. However, the biblical narrative does not ignore or minimise suffering; it unapologetically addresses the cruel reality of our world, in which suffering is an unavoidable problem, inherent to life on this earth. It explains suffering’s origin: human sin and the resulting brokenness of our world; and it provides the solution: Jesus Christ. In Jesus, God became fully human – facing all the pain and temptation we face daily, in total obedience to God. He chose to enter into our weakness, so that He could minister to our brokenness. Jesus was mocked, whipped, crowned with thorns and ultimately crucified on a Roman cross – taking all our sin upon Himself and experiencing the agony of our separation from God. He rose to life, conquering death and bringing, through His resurrection, the hope of a new creation. He did this all for us – so that we could have life and the hope of ultimately being freed from our sin and the pain and suffering of this world.

John Stott once wrote: ‘I could never myself believe in God if it were not for the cross. In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it?’1 No other worldview or religion provides a solution to suffering that involves a loving, relational God humbling Himself by becoming human to suffer on our behalf. In this, the God of the Bible is unique, and He is a God we can relate to personally. He understands our pain, and He does something about it. In the midst of suffering, our world questions how a good God can allow it to continue – while refusing to acknowledge that He’s already worked, through Jesus, to bring it to an end. Revelation 21:4 says: ‘…and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away.’ God has promised a new creation free from suffering and sin, and though our present pain is very real, we can look forward to the day when it will be a distant echo of reality.

The promise in suffering

The God of the Bible does not promise a suffering free life to those who believe in Him; in fact, He promises the opposite! We will suffer in this life; this is inevitable. John 16:33 recounts some of Jesus last words to his disciples – the men who walked alongside Him as He did his ministry on earth, the men who watched Him suffer and die on the cross, only to come back to life and appear to them. Jesus said: “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” Jesus promised his disciples that they would suffer, and they did. Yet they had courage even as they faced death for preaching the gospel, knowing that Jesus had overcome death for their sake. We too have this promise, and can take heart in the midst of our own suffering!

God does not leave us to suffer alone; the Psalms speak to God being present with us in our suffering. Psalm 23 says: ‘The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want…Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.’ The Psalmist recognises that God provides for us in the midst of our suffering, that He walks beside us as we face death and pain and trauma, that He guides us and comforts us in our suffering. In my previous article I explored how chronic illness can be isolating, as the sufferer faces stigma and the assumptions of misguided people. The Bible reveals a God who does not leave us to suffer alone in our illness, but provides us with His word: pages filled with accounts of people who suffered in numerous ways, yet trusted in God not just to deliver them, but also to equip them to endure their suffering. This faithful God promises that no suffering – no matter how great – can separate us from His love

The apostle Paul recounts the suffering he experienced as he shared the gospel: imprisonment, beatings, shipwrecks, hunger, thirst and all kinds of danger (see 2 Cor 11:23-30). He later says that though he pleaded with God to take away his suffering, God didn’t – rather, ‘He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness”. And how does Paul respond? ‘Therefore I will boast all the more gladly in my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor 12:9-10). In our weakness, like Paul we can learn to rely on God more – to recognise how much we need Him. When our bodies are weak, overwhelmed by pain and fatigue, we can look to God for strength, knowing that His grace is sufficient. When our minds are in chaos and anxiety leaves us reeling, we can pray, knowing that God not only hears our prayers but is already working for His glory in our lives.

The purpose of suffering

As well as God providing a solution to our suffering in Jesus and the sufficiency of His grace in our weakness, the Bible is clear that our suffering has purpose: both in this life and the next. 2 Corinthians 1:3-4 explains that God comforts us in our affliction so that “we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.” I’ve seen this in my own life through the love of my family and the friendships I’ve been blessed to form with others who suffer from similar chronic illnesses. As I shared in my previous article, our experiences of suffering enable us to empathise with others who struggle; we can learn to live outwardly and comfort others even in the midst of our own pain. In a world that has no answers for those who suffer in isolation, God provides – both in Himself, and in the blessing of community with fellow sufferers.

Furthermore, God works in us in the midst of our suffering. In 2 Corinthians 4:16-17, Paul writes, ‘So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.’ When we suffer, as our bodies decay with age or sickness and our minds weaken, God is working to strengthen our character through perseverance, to prove our faith genuine, uniting us with Jesus. There is not only hope that our suffering has purpose now, but also a hope that our suffering has purpose beyond this world. Seeing our present suffering in light of eternity changes our perspective. The temporary suffering we experience in this life, however painful and frustrating and unfair it may be, is what God uses to prepare us for the eternal glory that awaits those who hope in Him.

Resources:

Here is a (by no means exhaustive) list of books I’ve read that articulate – with greater clarity and depth than I am capable – the truths I’ve sketched above. I’ve ordered them from most academic to most accessible.

How Long O Lord?: Reflections on Suffering and Evil by D. A. Carson

Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical by Timothy Keller

Suffering and the Sovereignty of God edited by John Piper and Justin Taylor

Is God to Blame: Moving Beyond Pat Answers to the Problem of Suffering by Gregory Boyd

Where is God When It Hurts by Phillip Yancey

Glorious Ruin: How Suffering Sets You Free by Tullian Tchividjian

Suffering Well: The Predictable Surprise of Christian Suffering by Paul Grimmond

If I Were God I’d End All The Pain by John Dickson


My story: If I’m Honest: Life With Chronic Fatigue

1 Quoted in: The Reason for God by Timothy Keller, p195.

The Reality of Living with an Invisible Illness

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Location: Sublime Point, Wollongong // iPhone 6.

Living with a chronic physical or mental illness can be a very isolating experience. Often these illnesses develop unexpectedly and the shock of going from healthy to unwell overnight feels like whiplash. The sufferer is left reeling, needing to readjust to a body and mind that does not work the way it used to. There is resulting grief over a life that feels limited in comparison to before. Most chronic physical and mental illnesses are ‘invisible’ – there are no instantly recognisable symptoms or signs of sickness. Many suffer in silence, faced with stigma and prejudice in a world that idolises health.

I’ve lived with chronic fatigue/pain and depression/anxiety for the last 9 years – you can read my story here. Now I’m seeking to give a voice to those who bravely persevere through illness every day, in the hope that the stigma surrounding chronic physical and mental illnesses (which I will refer to as ‘invisible illnesses’) may be lifted. The words I share are inspired by friends and strangers I’ve surveyed; I’m infinitely thankful for their courage and honesty.

…on guilt and expectations

Life is unpredictable when you live with an invisible illness. Every day you wake up not knowing how you will find the energy to cope with the small things, let alone the big things, when your body and mind are fighting against you. Choosing to go out one day often means sacrificing the next day (or three!) to rest, because you deplete a greater percentage of your energy and it takes twice as long to recover. It’s frustrating to watch people your own age do things you desire to do, but that you are physically incapable of. You worry people will think you’re lazy, when often people with invisible illnesses are actually the most driven – you have to be motivated to persevere through your illness!

The unpredictable nature of an invisible illness means that you often make plans, only to have to cancel them at the last minute. You feel guilty for not being able to push through and live up to people’s expectations, even though you cannot control your body or mind. You fear people will conclude that you’re unreliable and will stop asking to spend time with you, increasing your isolation. Every time you make plans, there is an internal battle between knowing that seeing people may make you feel better, but will cost you physically and mentally.

… on limitation and learning

Invisible illnesses can be incredibly limiting, requiring huge lifestyle change and a need to manage every detail of life. There is a sense of acute loss that accompanies this life adjustment. People with invisible illnesses are often restricted in the amount of work – both cognitive and physical – that they can do daily. Working and studying can so greatly deplete your mental and physical energy resources that there is little left over for interacting socially, impacting relationships with family and friends. You need to pace your activity and plan ahead in order to ‘budget’ your limited energy. Your decreased capacity may limit your involvement in extra-curricular activities like sporting groups and ministries. Management of invisible illnesses can sometimes also require dramatic changes in diet, which brings its own stigma and social isolation.

While being limiting, there are also many positives that come from having an invisible illness. People who face daily pain, fatigue and/or depression learn to empathise with others who suffer. Suffering is a universal aspect of human life, and when you suffer, it enables you to become more tolerant and accepting of those who also face adversity. There is a sensitivity and compassion that is unique to those who understand hardship. When you are restricted in what you can do on a daily basis, you become more aware of what is important in life, and learn to truly value the people around you. The stigma surrounding invisible illnesses teaches you to be more discerning and slower to make assumptions about people. Though illness can be very isolating, it also provides opportunities to form unlikely friendships with people who share similar experiences.

Living with an invisible illness also teaches you the importance of self-care. You become more aware of how your body and mind work, and learn to establish and maintain boundaries to protect you from pushing yourself beyond your limits. Having an illness enables you to adopt a slower lifestyle – to value rest and make space in life for reflection, meditation and prayer. You learn to be patient with yourself and others – to see weakness as an opportunity for growth. To cope with the mental and physical strain of illness, you learn strategies that empower you to be more intentional in everyday life.

…on fighting fear

Most people with invisible illnesses fear the impact that their illness has on the people they love. You worry that you will lose contact with friends and family; there is no greater fear than being alone. You fear that friends and family won’t understand how much your illness is beyond your control – how desperately you want to just be ‘normal’ again. You fear that new people you meet won’t see the real you, because initiating conversation and articulating what you think and feel is exhausting. Those who are single worry about finding someone who will accept them and see beyond their illness. Those who are married fear how their illness burdens their spouse and how it may impact their children.

Many fear how their illness will control their lifestyle, and limit them from living a fulfilling life. Often, the prognosis for physical and mental illness is either unknown or lifelong, so it impacts your whole life – not just a few days of your life like the average illness or stress episode. You fear how your illness will effect your independence and ability to achieve your life goals. You fear missing out on opportunities and experiences that others your age have. Many people with invisible illnesses worry about how the illness will affect them long term and fear relapsing or getting worse with age.

… on impacting others

Invisible illnesses don’t just impact those who suffer from them, but also those who do life alongside them. Family and friends often sacrifice time and energy into looking after you. Your illness can limit how often you are able to go out or where you are able to travel. You are grateful for the way your family and friends try to understand and accept you, illness and all, but feel guilt that you are hindering their enjoyment of life. Having an invisible illness can be eye-opening for those who are close to you, as your capacity decreases and you depend on them in ways you previously didn’t need to. You may have been the solid-rock, the dependable one, the one who always gave their time and energy into looking after others, but now you have to rely on others more. This involves learning that it’s OK – and actually loving – to allow someone else to love and care for you when you need it.

…on identity and empathy

When you have an invisible illness, it often feels like the illness defines you and controls your life. Changing your mindset and recognising that you aren’t defined by your illness is hard, but ultimately freeing. Your illness is part of your life, but it does not change who you are and the value you contribute to your relationships. Knowing who you are and being secure in your identity apart from your illness radically changes how you approach life. You can be grateful for what your body and mind can do, even though your illness may impact your physical and mental functioning. Know that your life has purpose that can be fulfilled even when you are weak – don’t judge yourself based on your own or others’ flawed expectations of who you should be.

Having a strong support system around you is so important for living with an invisible illness. It can be hard to maintain a wide social sphere, but finding a small, understanding group of friends to confide and invest in outside of your immediate family is vital. Connect with other people who share similar experiences with illness – you are in a uniquely valuable position to empathise with others who suffer. Having people in your life who truly understand makes living with illness less isolating. Seek help, and don’t be afraid to admit that you need support.  Use what you’re going through to reach out to others who suffer and to educate people on the nature of invisible illnesses.

…on caring and listening

For those who support a person with an invisible illness – the best thing you can do is to listen. People with invisible illnesses often get bombarded with (usually) well-intended ‘advice’ about how they should care for themselves and where they should seek treatment. However, for most of us, we’ve heard it all before – usually from the medical professionals who oversee our treatment. We know what we can do to get better and we’re already doing everything we can to be as well as we can be.

In relating to someone with an invisible illness, your ears are your biggest asset. Sometimes we just won’t want to talk about it, and that’s OK.  Recognise that until you have experienced a chronic illness yourself, it’s impossible to understand what people go through. Platitudes aren’t helpful, and for many, illnesses don’t just “get better” with time. People sometimes fear saying the wrong thing, so they avoid the subject of illness altogether – which can often be more hurtful than saying something insensitive. Being willing to sit for extended periods of time with open ears, ready to accept and not judge, can be the best way of supporting us.

The most powerful thing for a person suffering from illness is that you show you’re willing to be there to help them in whatever way they need. Saying you will be there for someone means walking alongside them for the long haul – however many months or years they will be affected by illness. Supporting someone with an invisible illness means being prepared to initiate communication and perhaps carry a greater load emotionally and practically. Learning what a person’s physical and mental boundaries are is so important. Believe us when we say we can’t do something and recognise we feel grief at having to say no. Be patient with us, and realise we don’t want to be sick any more than you would want to be!

Everyone’s life is unique, and not everything shared will be universally experienced. In writing this article I’ve sought to paint a vignette of what life can be like for the invisible illness sufferer, both from my own experience and the stories and survey responses I’ve collected. For those who read this who suffer from an invisible illness, I hope that you feel less alone and empowered knowing you have value and can live a fulfilling life, despite your limitations. For those who read this who know and support someone with an invisible illness, I hope you’ve gained some insight into their world, and how you can better care for them. Let’s keep fighting to break the stigma surrounding invisible illnesses!

Resources for people with invisible illnesses:

https://themighty.com/

http://www.invisibleillnessweek.com

https://invisibledisabilities.org/

http://thepillowfort.co.uk/PFC/

https://www.beyondblue.org.au/

 

I’d love to hear from you if you have an invisible illness – I’m hoping to one day write a book, and your input would be invaluable.

You can email me at music_is_my_language@live.com.au – or if you’d prefer to remain anonymous, you can fill out this survey.