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!


Advertisements

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…