This has been a thought that has been going through my mind over the last couple of days, as I have been thinking (or perhaps over thinking) about everything.
There are some things I know I will never be, or do, or achieve that I am fine with -I will never be an olympic gymnast does not cause me huge great disappointment.
We all have our dreams, some which might happen and others that might not, and those that did not, -or tougher still nearly happened- can be tough. Sometimes these have to be grieved, and grief can take time -and sometimes bereavement counsellors tell us we get ‘stuck’ in a bit of a grief ‘cul de sac’.
I also know that I have expectations of myself that sometimes are realistic and others that are not, I think I drove myself in my work life partly due to a drive of unrealistic expectations I placed on myself.
Yet, some expectations are realistic and yet not achievable all the time, most of us who are parents want to be good ones -and yet the truth is we will all have bad days, none of us can get it right all the time. We might never manage ‘perfect’ and that’s okay, no one (other than perhaps us and our inner critic) demands perfection of us (and if they do, that is an unfair and unrealistic expectation).
Sometimes, we hear other peoples voices in our inner monologues, sometimes people who are no longer in our lives, but their words have gone really deep into our perception of ourselves. I realised I was trying to prove a teacher from primary school wrong when I had not seen him in years, but his voice telling me I was “a waste of space” went deep.
Sometimes these false expectations of ourselves need to be laid to rest.
I had this idealised picture of “Super-vicar” with the revival kicking off and life looking like something out of Enid Blyton with everything perpetually happy “with lashings of ginger beer” -to quite EB! Realising that life is not a fairytale with everything covered in glitter is a tough realisation that some of us still secretly believe, the world is fallen as our we and delusion is sadly within all of us, as we chase illusive things that wont actually make us happy, as once again we buy into the fantasy that a certain aftershave (or whatever) will make everything good. Advertisers rarely sell a product, they sell a dream of a different life featuring their product at its centre, we buy the product partly because we get hooked into the illusion they catch us with.
Someone once said “comparison is the thief of joy” as too often we spend our days looking at everyone else and feeling like we’re not as good; or more dangerous is we also sometimes look out for someone else whose worse than us to help us feel better about ourselves “at least I am not as bad as…”
Comparisons either beat us up, or let us off dealing with something, both of which are probably unhelpful.
Yet, if we think of life as running a race focusing on the other competitors actually inhibits us from running as well as we could. I remember we had a mission in Kingswood, and a very gifted guy, Greg Sharples, came and helped, and he was so good at talking to people normally about Jesus in a way that was not freaky or weird, I remember walking home feeling a bit jealous and I remember praying “God I want people in Kingswood to hear about Jesus, Greg has been AMAZING, why am I feeling these silly thoughts!” I remember God saying: “If I wanted 2 Gregs his mum would have had twins!” -I wondered Greg was amazing on a mission, but I was called to be there for eight years -the long haul- and maybe it was okay -it was not a like for like comparison- he was him and I was me, and that was okay.
Yet too often we don’t “own” or notice our comparisons and do not deal with them in a right and a healthy way.
I know I sometimes live in an unrealistic fantasy of what I expect from myself, learning to accept that I cannot be liked by everyone all the time as a leader trying to move a set of Churches forward, was -for me- a painful lesson.
The Bible makes it clear that we are not perfect, but flawed human beings, ‘remember you are but dust’ it says on one occasion. If you are like me, then sometimes we are our own fiercest critic, rarely ‘patting ourselves on the back’ but often hard on our mistakes, holding ourself often to an impossible and unachievable standard. We cannot be perfect, but be better than we are.
Yet to we can sometimes cherish a wrong view of ourselves, sometimes we (although we notice it more in others) cling onto a vision of ourselves that is not us, or perhaps never was, sometimes we lack a self awareness -and even if we are pretty good with our self awareness I think we probably all have blindspots. Please don’t tell me I’m like this, when I really believe (or want to believe) I am like that, and sometimes hearing the truth that confronts and conflicts our image of ourselves is really painful. I think that is why I struggled to accept I might have ADHD because it did not fit my picture of myself in my head, or rather it did and I did not want to admit it did. I think too we sometimes use sweeping statements like being “a good listener” and the truth is that even the best lister in the world might get distracted when they are watching football, a more truthful comment is: “in those one on one conversations you have the ability to listen really well”.
I think too, it is important to realise afresh we are works in progress, the biggest danger I think we all face is a belief we have arrived, when none of us have, we are never fully sorted, yet we can be more sorted than we are at the moment.
St. Anthony talked of “your cell being your best teacher” by which he meant that time on your own being confronted by yourself as you are, rather than as you would like to be, will teach you lots about discipleship and yourself, many of us have had to stop what we are doing, and are at this moment due to this crazy virus and the lockdown, confronted with ourselves and maybe doing that ‘Soul Work’ with realising who we are, who we are not, whether our picture of ourselves in our own hearts and minds is accurate or whether actually bit need adjusting, difficult comments need processing, expectations need challenging and re-visiting.
This is a rare opportunity we have been granted, and for some of us it feels pretty scary, just as I am rubbish at tidying my bedroom I can procrastinate about sorting out what the Buddhists call my internal life.
Yet in doing this, it is not letting our inner critic take the gloves off and really go for us -which was sometimes how I would feel after some retreat times- but it is meeting the God who loves us passionately, who wants to spend time with us, who cannot possibly love us anymore than he does already (and wont love us any less by the end of it) walk through who we are with him, the person he made us to be.
Now I have plenty of “why have you made me like this God” -not just because I haven’t got a 6 pack and have a chin like buzz lightyear- but the internal stuff too, and maybe this will get somewhat resolved at this time, and maybe it won’t, but gently learning what he wants to teach us, to be the us he created us to be, to help us thrive at being us, the best us, which I find exciting. I love seeing my daughter on the trampoline (except of late it is freezing when stood outside watching her!) because she is so happy, she’s good at it and getting better all the time, she seems at her best there. God’s the same, he wants to see us excelling in the things he has called us to do, to thrive in being us.
I think my other problem with coping with those times of ‘encountering myself’ was that I had a wrong image of God, stern and disapproving -sometimes his voice in my head got blended with my own inner critic- and discovering a God rooting for me, who loves me, “who rejoices over me with singing” (Zeph.3.17). For me, the most transformative thing in my concept of my understanding of God was becoming a dad, I remember watching my beautiful little girl take a few steps unaided and cheering her with tears in my eyes, and thinking that is how God is with us.
My inner critic that tells me I am rubbish is not God’s voice, God does challenge and convict us, but a feeling of condemnation is not from him.
So, when we emerge from this time, my prayer is for me -and all those reading this blog- that we may have entered like caterpillars but exit like butterflies, beautiful and confident in who God has made us, thriving in who God has called us to be, and liberated from what we are not meant, called or expected to be.
As we emerge, thinking of God as a parent on school sports day cheering us on with love and pride in his wet eyes.