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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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…

Fearless

fearless“Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgement that something is more important than fear.” – Meg Cabot

Today my best friend gave me a necklace for my 21st birthday; a golden chain with an old, worn key as the pendant. Engraved into the key is the word FEARLESS. She expressed to me that ‘fearless’ is a word that describes me – the way that I approach life, the way that I endure through suffering, the way that I love those around me and the way that I seek God. This present could not have been given to me at a more important time; of all the words I need spoken into my life right now, ‘fearless’ is the one I need most.

I do not feel fearless. Lately I have been feeling confused and overwhelmed by what has been, what is and what will be. I have felt lost and spiritually low. I have felt emotionally (and physically) exhausted. Not that I reveal any of these things to the world; only those closest to me see my brokenness. Too often I allow anxiety to consume my being, cutting me off from the people and my God who I love most. Fearless is the last word I would use to describe myself.

Reflecting on fearlessness with another dear friend this afternoon, I have realised that being fearless is not being unafraid. Being fearless is persevering in spite of and through ever-present fear. Being fearless is trusting that God is at work for His glory in every circumstance in a world that proclaims the exact opposite. Being fearless is waking up each day and surrendering each moment to God, asking Him to act through us and in us according to His will.

In the midst of change, broken relationships, sickness, spiritual warfare, financial uncertainty and the innumerable issues we face in life, it is easy to lose sight of the God in whom we trust. Being fearless is not a matter of conquering fear, but surrendering our fears to our God who is greater than our fears. Being fearless is trusting in His sovereignty and goodness, in His enduring love, no matter how deeply anxiety is gnawing at our souls. Being fearless is having confidence that God’s purposes are greater than our own, finding strength in this knowledge, and persevering through disappointment and despondency.

This morning, in a deeply fatigued, emotionally low state, I typed “fear” into my phone’s bible search tool, seeking a verse that would point me to the God of all comfort. I found this:

‘Is not your fear of God your confidence, and the integrity of your ways your hope?’ – Job 4:6

Though I don’t like to read verses out of context, this was a great encouragement. I am not fearless because I am not afraid of anything – I am afraid of many things. Fear is an important emotion to experience; our bodies and minds respond to dangerous and uncertain situations with fear. I am fearless because I place my confidence in Christ, who sacrificed His life to deliver me from bondage to sin. I find courage and strength in what He has done, what He is doing and what He will do. My ability to endure through the trials of life comes from Him alone; it is His strength at work in me. I am able to love fearlessly because He first loved me – and paid the price for my sin in love.

I experience anxiety daily, and am often consumed by it. Yet God is greater than my anxiety, and in Him I do not have to be a slave to fear. In Christ I have been set free, and though fear still overwhelms, He gives me the strength to hold on to the truth of His love and grace. In Him, fear has no power over my life. In Him, I am able to endure through fear and uncertainty. In Him, I am fearless.


 

Photo captured with a Canon Eos 600D.

Key necklace designed by The Giving Keys.

Great Expectations

There is a scene in the indie rom-com (500) Days of Summer where the main character, Tom Hansen – played by Joseph Gordon Levitt – goes to a party his ex is throwing. The screen is split in half: on the left we see what Tom expects will happen (“Expectations”), whilst simultaneously on the right we see what actually happens (“Reality”). As has become clear from the previous hour of the movie, Tom’s expectations rarely meet reality. He is a dreamer, an optimist, a “glass half-full kind of guy”, a hopeless romantic at heart. I am the female version of Tom. I suspect we all are, really. Except for the bitter, pessimistic realists of the world. (No judgement if that is you – I envy your ability to see reality as it is; it must save you a lot of hurt.) I have great expectations, of others, of life, and most especially of myself. And yet, more often than not (if not always), reality doesn’t play out in the way that I expect it will.

(500) Days of Summer, (2009).

In my early teen years I had great expectations of what adult life would be like. I imagined being a “hip”, leather satchel carrying uni student, studying philosophy, history and literature in Hogwarts-esque buildings. I dreamed of backpacking through Europe and Asia, climbing mountains, eating exotic food, visiting historic sights and seeing Monet, Da Vinci and Van Gogh’s paintings with my own eyes. I envisioned moving out of home, living in the city or on the beach with friends. I anticipated independence, having the freedom to do what I wanted, when I wanted. I had great plans for myself, for who I would be and what I would do.

Yet, at twenty, my life looks very different than that which I had aspired towards. I’m not at uni, but at bible college studying theology and ministry at diploma level. I still haven’t been overseas (not even to Tasmania!), I’m allergic to most exotic food and my body certainly wouldn’t allow me to do any mountain climbing anytime soon. I’m still living at home in the suburbs, with my family. I don’t feel particularly independent (I don’t even have my drivers license!) and my social activities depend greatly on whether my parents can drive me or on public transport. While I do have some freedom of choice, much of my daily life is dictated by others or by things beyond my control.

What I am realizing though, is that sometimes reality is far better than my expectations. My life may not be as exciting, creative, romantic or adventurous as I would like, but it is still pretty great. I love bible college; I could not be more grateful for the people I have studied and fellowshipped with this year, and for how I’ve grown in my relationship with God. I may not have been overseas, but I regularly adventure to beautiful areas of Sydney and beyond. My health is gradually improving and I may be able to climb mountains and eat exotic food someday. It is a great privilege to live with my family, whose love and support have sustained me through the hardest of times. I appreciate what I have more for having had to fight for it, and though I experience times of pain, depression and loneliness, the good far outweighs the bad.

So I’ve decided that, while it’s ok to dream, it is more fruitful to enjoy the present, to live in the moment and be thankful for what God has blessed me with now. I know that ultimately, my life is in His hands, and that the reality of His purposes are far beyond what I could ever expect. In faith, I surrender my plans to Him and trust that He will use me for His glory.