Last summer, for a variety of reasons, was not fun for me. One was the intense stress of having to submit my Masters Dissertation at the end of August, but … Continue reading Being Thankful in 2020
That time I learned a positive life lesson from counselling
Memories are important to helping me understand what Gods Kingdom will be like.
So I think after five months, lockdown is beginning to break me a little bit.
In the beginning it wasn’t so bad. The stress of it all sucked, and not seeing my friends who mean the world to me was really hard, but lots of things were ok. I live with my parents so money wasn’t an issue, as they are far too generous to let me squat here for nothing. I got to take my dog on daily walks and started a daily readings group with my church. I was furloughed so for the first time in about two years I actually earned money (most of my big expenses we’re driving), so I had plenty of spare capital and time to spend on hobbies. I even had some phone counselling sessions (not related to the pandemic, and its a story for another time) which have really helped clarify some things. All in all, things were not looking too bad.
But in the past month or so, things have taken a bit of a downturn mood wise. Not critically, but enough for me to notice. I began watching a video essay by Patrick H Willems on timeloop movies (e.g. Groundhog Day) and how they reflect so much of the present moment. The feeling of endless repeating days that have no meaning, stuck in a perpetual loop with no end in sight. It’s a good essay, and really clarified some things in my head. https://youtu.be/2IrZD94CTxw
For me, it’s the monotony of it all. Wake up late, walk the dog, watch some Netflix, have lunch, think about doing something productive, get depressed reading Twitter, play some old Xbox games, have dinner, watch some more Netflix/ play Xbox/ stay on Twitter/Facebook/Hinge, stay up too late, sleep, repeat. Every day the same, no variation, except which app takes up most of my time that day. The hobbies no longer bring the joy they did because they aren’t there to be a break from everything anymore; the counselling finished; the reading group stopped being fulfilling; Hinge, started out of boredom, never went anywhere, and I’m convinced now I wasn’t in it for it to do that (although I have made a couple of friends from it which is positive). Even writing this blog, something which was a welcome cathartic release after work and other stressful things became its own work just to think of anything. It’s just like everything has become the sludge zone, just oozing, slimy nothing that sucks you in like quicksand and doesn’t let you go.
Gods work – Invisible String
So how is all of that relevant to the title?
I was chatting to my friend the other day about the new Taylor Swift album Folklore. We were talking about our favourite tracks, and she said one of hers was Invisible String, a song all about connections between two lovers that brought them together. My friend said it was her favourite because she had just got married, so she could look back and see all the invisible string that tied her and him together.
Christians often say and believe that God works in our lives. The degree to which He does and what He chooses to get involved in vary from person to person. I used to pray for Gods intervention in my exams, but now I’d hope something more important would get priority! I also do not think God intervenes in favour of any given side of a football match, unless he is a [INSERT WINNING TEAM AT YOUR SPORT OF CHOICE HERE] fan. But millions, perhaps billions of people believe that God is actively at work in their lives, guiding their footsteps in the right direction. This is not restricted to things that are positive, because that’s not what God is there for. God is not a genie designed to fulfil our deepest desires (I’m looking at you prosperity gospel people), so it makes sense that some things that happen to us that are bad are also from God right?
Thisnis the idea that God puts trials in our lives to test us; can we go through something bad and become better people? I can agree with this to an extent, because I can look back on moments in my life where I think God was working for me and putting me in the best position possible, even when the thing that caused it was painful. For example, because it’s news relevant in the U.K. at the moment, I didn’t get the required grades to go to my first choice of university, despite many hours of procrastination and hastily said prayers and promises to be good as I sat down in front of the exam! I was shocked at the time, but now looking back I see it was all for my good. I went to a Uni where in my second year, a student group was created for likeminded Christians. This group was one of the best things to ever happen to me, and many of the people who went are still my friends today. I do not know if I’d have had the same experience going to my first choice of uni.
That student group was really uplifting, and convinced me I needed something new from my church life. This meant I moved churches to my current church, where it’s safe to say all of the good things that have happened in my life since have come from. I do think God helped me to get to this place, to realise how much I need and thrive when I have a strong community behind me.
This I think relates to the invisible string conversation I had with my friend. We can look back on our lives and see how God created situations both good and bad that allowed us to grow. It’s lie driving a car and looking in the rear view mirror to see where we have been.
The Flaw in Looking Back
But I can’t find it that comforting, and I haven’t for about a year. The past year has not been brilliant, even without the lockdown. I lost a relationship and friendship in one go, and then had to write a dissertation I hated doing. The qualification I achieved has only served to make getting new jobs harder as it overqualifies me for some jobs, but I lack the experience for others, meaning I stayed trapped in a dead end job until the pandemic happened. I have sent out dozens of applications without success, getting close but “I’m sorry we’ve found another candidate with more direct experience”. Not only isn’t the string tying together, it’s seems to be completely frayed.
Trying to stitch things together yourself doesn’t always help either. I tried that with some things, trying to see what Gods pattern might be and putting together an apparent map for myself; getting a job in the city where my church is, moving out, getting my own place, starting a life. But that dream seems a little further away. I saw all of that happening after finishing my qualification, creating that life with my then partner, being part of a thriving church; but all of that stuff has either fallen away or seems to be in jeopardy. All of these feelings have been compounded in this global pandemic, the lack of direction and purpose it has created in me merely adding to the crushing weight of everything that came before.
And I think I understand the flaw in what I was doing. Looking back and seeing God’s invisible string tying things together is only possible when those things are good, or if they were bad, they have created something better. Its easy for me to see now that going to a different university because I didn’t get my grades was ultimately a good thing, because I have the good things that resulted from it. But at the time I couldn’t have foreseen all of that! It sucked! I felt like a complete failure! And that is where I am at now with all my current baggage. I cannot see the good in it yet because the good hasn’t happened, and I do not know if it ever will.
The book of Job is a strange book. It tells the story of a righteous man called Job who loses everything; his crops are burned, his house falls down, his kids are killed and he becomes diseased. His friends show up and they try to make sense of it. They decide he must have done something bad in order to be suffering this way. It reads almost like a debate, or a Shakespeare scene, four guys meditating on suffering because there must be a reason for it. But in the end, God speaks to them, and he doesn’t give them an answer, even though in Job chapter 1 it tells God has done it to test Job’s faith. God asks them where they were when he made everything, in a really poetic passage:
4 “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?
Tell me, if you understand.
5 Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!
Who stretched a measuring line across it?
6 On what were its footings set,
or who laid its cornerstone—
7 while the morning stars sang together
and all the angels shouted for joy? (Job 38:4-7)
Gods point is that his ways and means are so far beyond our comprehension we cannot understand. There sometimes is no discernible reason as to why bad things happen to us, they just do. There doesn’t have to be some life lesson for us to learn right away.
This is really frustrating because we as human beings like completed stories, a neat little ending wrapped up in a fancy bow. Imagine a murder mystery novel where the mystery is never solved! It would suck! But that is what life is sometimes. We don’t always get closure handed to us without pain, and sometimes we don’t get closure at all. We just have to keep muddling along, having to accept that things sometimes will not make sense.
Something I tried to do very quickly as all of this stuff was happening was try to make sense of it all. I tried to predict why God would be doing this to me, if indeed it was from him, and draw lessons early. I think that was a mistake. A healthy perspective on things requires some emotional distance from the events, so a lot of the supposed lessons I was trying to take from it weren’t actually helping me, only making me feel worse. I took on all the blame for them in an effort to force change, but was not in a position at that time to bring it about, which lead to further uneasiness. In a weird way, I was trying to use my God rear view mirror to drive forward, which wasn’t working.
So I am going to ease up a little on trying to make sense of things. I can still use my God rear view mirror to look back on past events and I can see how God was connecting things together. But I am going to stop using that mirror to try and make sense of things that I do not have enough distance on yet. The car has to keep going down the road, and only when these problems are dots in the rear view mirror can I begin to look for the lessons.
So if you’ve been to a number of weddings in your life, chances are that if a Bible quote is used, you will have heard someone use 1 Corinthians 13. I don’t know if Paul realised that his words would become synonymous with fancy suits and dresses, speeches full of corny jokes or drunk-dancing to ‘Come On Eileen’, but thems the brakes. And why not? They’re good words that tell us a lot about what love should be like in an ideal relationship (I am using relationships in a general sense, not specifically romantic ones). I may end up writing a little bit about each one for the blog, I may not; but today I’ll focus on one specific section in verse 5: ‘it is never self-seeking’.
Too Hot to Handle
As much as we all pretend to be high cultured, i’m sure all of us enjoy a bit of trash tv. I am not immune; one of my favourite YouTube binges is Kitchen Nightmares. I love trash TV as a social experience too; shows like Love Island and Naked Attraction are hilarious car crashes of TV that make you wonder how this ever got made and why people would agree to go on them!
Lockdown is leading some of us down strange roads, and it lead me to Netflix’ new show Too Hot to Handle. The premise of the show is a typical dating show set up; put a bunch of single people in a tropical resort and see what happens. The twist to this show is that in order to win $100,000, they must all collectively abstain from sex, sexual touching and even kissing! If any of these rules are broken, the group as a collective is fined (a single kiss costs $3,000). This sets up the shows objective – to teach these people how to have more meaningful relationships by removing the physical aspects.
The show is equally frustrating and hilarious as all of these shows tend to be. One of the frustrating things is how some of the group treat the prize money as something to be spent rather than kept. The phrase ‘its only money’ is repeated over and over again by these people, which is fine when thinking about dropping £5 by accident, but not when talking about $100,000! What kiss is worth three grand?! That’s a life-changing amount of money! If I’d have been there it would have rapidly devolved into a hostage situation with me holding the contestants at gunpoint to run out the clock! However, it does lead to the hilarity that ensues as all of these people are just useless at keeping it in their pants! Six grand is spent within the first twenty-four hours, and half of that was out of spite! This is even more hilarious as Lana, a sort of Alexa pod that communicates to the group, will often read out the rules broken in excruciating detail!
Now you might be wondering “David, what is the point of all this?!”. Well young grasshopper, lets discuss!
The show’s objective, aside from forcing people to blue-ball themselves for our enjoyment, is one of personal growth. The people who are selected are people who have a lot of casual sex, but never get any further with relationships. Its intimacy at its most superficial; one based on money, appearance and the number of Instagram followers you have. The goal of the show is to help these people grow by allowing them to develop more intimate relationships based upon emotional connection, rather than banging. All of the young singles are stunted in some way, whether due to emotional trauma or just because they cannot do one thing; compromise!
The people on Too Hot to Handle are to a person bad at this fundamental concept. Its a shame we don’t find out more about their backstories because they might clue us in to their thinking in this way. But they are almost always unable to control their urges for the sake of the group, with some of the rule-breakers becoming outright hostile towards the rest of the group for being upset. A few individuals are incapable of seeing their actions as being hurtful, not just to the money, but to the cohesion and trust within the group and amongst couples. Or they don’t care that their actions may hurt others, because who cares as long as I get what I want right?
We’ve all seen or heard people like this. Someone who is unable to compromise on the littlest things and cant understand why people have a problem with that, because why should they delay their gratification for someone else? Its a fundamentally selfish thing to be, and that’s why Paul says that love isn’t self-seeking. You choose not your own gratification, but to put others needs before your own. I think this has been brought home to a large extent by people’s reactions to the lockdown around the world. We have all seen the videos of backyard BBQs, sunbathers in the park or even larger protests in cities across the United States; all people who think that their ‘freedoms’ should not be compromised because of a deadly pandemic. Its the ultimate f*** you to everyone else; why should your safety matter more than my ability to get a haircut?
Its Not a Dirty Word
All of us have things we want out of life. These are the things that if accomplished will make you feel fulfilled, such as dreams, goals, wants and needs. Ill refer to them collectively as your stuff. Your stuff will encompass a wide variety of different things, such as your dream job, place to live, the kind of partner you want, kids, you name it. Its part of our DNA to want things, so there’s nothing wrong with having goals in life.
And were you to go through life alone, then you would be free to pursue your goals to your hearts content (legality and ethics permitting). But no man is an island and you will have to travel along with a collection of people, such as your family, friends and romantic partner(s). All of them will also have stuff, some of which may coincide with yours, some of which might put them at odds with you. The question is, what are you going to do about it?
I think in a lot of ways our cultural time and place is setting us up to fail at this. we live in a highly individualistic society, where you have to pursue your own happiness to be happy and fulfilled in life. You can probably imagine the crappy Instagram life advice posts that say things like “follow your dreams” or “live for you”; I hate these things not only because they are normally posted by people who have a lot of advantages to pursue their dreams to start with, but they also promote the self over other people. My happiness is the supreme importance over everyone else, and anyone who disagrees is a hater!
Now, this is not to say that I think we should give up on all of our stuff. Being in relationships with people is all about the negotiation of our various needs. Sometimes, you should definitely not compromise on your goals! There are definitely situations where you need to have hard boundaries, and if people cross them, you mat need to cut them off! There are relationships not worth maintaining if this keeps happening! But a lot of the time, we have to discern which of our stuff we need to keep, and which we can discard.
All the people in Too Hot To Handle are trying to learn this valuable skill. The show’s goal is to help them find love, not just sex. For many of them, this means sacrificing some things they wish they’d rather keep, things like independence, or the ability to sleep with whoever you want. And some of them do develop some self-awareness, becoming better individuals through it. They stop holding others at emotional distance by sacrificing the things they want that they think make them happy.
In all our relationships we will need to compromise on some things. If you like scary movies, but your friend doesn’t, maybe you decide mot to watch scary movies with them. Or maybe instead of going out you stop to chat to someone who needs an arm around their shoulder. Or maybe you choose to change jobs so you can help support your partner while they study. Obviously this should work both ways, but you need to be willing to do it in order for things to work.
God made us because He wants a relationship with us. He gave us free will so that we wouldn’t be blind robots, but would freely choose to love Him. But we have abused that free will through our sin. we think we know better, or should chase our own desires first, not caring about how we abuse God or abuse each other.
So what did God do? He sent us His Son. Jesus’ whole ministry shows a love that is not self-seeking; he got down into the dirt with the lowest of the low, the people none of us would care to so much as look at, and chose to help them first. he preached sermons about not seeking glory, power or riches, but seeking honesty, compassion and patience. His parable of the prodigal son shows what God will be like for us, welcoming us back with open arms with feasting and joy despite the hurt we have caused him. And most importantly, Jesus died on the cross, Gods ultimate compromise, allowing His Son to take our place, defeating death.
As a Christian, I have chosen to compromise some of my goals for a life with Jesus. This hasn’t been anything major, but has made me reconsider what is actually important to me, and has allowed me to adjust my goals so that I have new ones. Currently, my number one goal is my church family, but I have to prepare myself for a day when God might choose for me to be somewhere different. I hope that doesn’t happen, but someday it might.
We all need to learn to compromise. Without this skill, we will eventually be left alone as no one will want to know us. Compromising on some of your goals allows you to build something greater; deeper and more meaningful relationships of all types with the wonderful people in your life.
This is something I am trying to be better at. I am trying to make sure that I don’t always just follow what suits me best, but to listen to my friends and loved ones, in order to build better friendships with them. And more importantly, build a better relationship with God.