Changes – actively choosing a different way of living

Of all the recorded sayings of Jesus, none seems to be more relevant to the problem of addiction than the question he asked of a paralyzed man. “Do you really want to get well?”  At first reading, it seems a little crazy – I mean who doesn’t want to get well? But on reflection it makes a lot of sense, especially when the words were spoken to someone who had been ill for a long time and who had become so used to the life and ways that this had necessitated. The account by St John says that the man had been an invalid for 38 years; doubtless he still talked about getting well, but he probably no longer really expected it and was comfortably stuck in a mindset that fitted his circumstances. Jesus recognised that the man was going to have to let go of things he was used to and familiar with in order to embrace the new direction his life was going to take. Things were going to be turned upside down by getting well – did he really want that?

The man wasn’t unusual, nor are people with addictions, because we all have this tendency to prefer to stick with our unhealthy, unhelpful mindset and behaviours, even when we can see that they’re not good for us. The unknown is scary and we don’t want to let go of the securities, the comforts, the safety of our current situation and behaviours, even the destructive ones. These may be our addictions, resentments, selfish habits, blaming, self-pity and misery, entrenched behaviours and ways of being – things that appear to bring us some sort of comfort or pay-off, whereas changing or stopping them poses a threat. We may not even be aware that these things exist in our lives, or they may appear to be our best friends or just harmless security blankets. Do we really want to let go of them? Change doesn’t come easy and we have to be up for it. As the old joke goes, “How many psychiatrists does it take to change a light bulb?” “One, but the light bulb has to really want to change”.

Since it is all about our thinking and our behaviours which keep us trapped and because telling other people that they don’t want to change is so open to abuse, we are really best placed to regularly ask this question of ourselves, generally with the help of a trusted other who can sensitively pose the question. And the question Jesus seems to be asking the man, which we need to ask ourselves when we have a problem, is how desperate is he to embrace change and do things differently? Is he willing to give up everything he knows from his 38 years of living with his illness and learn everything anew?  To lose what control he believes he has and opt instead for an unknown future?  Will he take the leap of faith? Because like a parachute jump, once you’re out of the plane, there is no going back!

I know that there have been occasions and situations in my life when I haven’t wanted to change or move on. I have held onto activities, behaviours and resentments which prevent progress or healing. Like charms on a bracelet, these resentments and mind-sets seem friendly and alluring, but if we could see them for what they are, we’d see instead a set of handcuffs shackling us to a static, unsatisfying, possibly even self-destructive life. Instead of eating a beautiful crisp apple, we are swallowing a mouthful of ash, all the while trying to convince ourselves that it really does have a very strong apple flavour. But the process of change is hard; sometimes the best we can do is to say that we want to want to change.

For addicts in recovery, none of this is very earth shattering. They know it because they’ve been there. “Do you really want to recover?” Yes and no. And it’s true for us all. Fortunately, the hound of heaven doesn’t give up and the persistent footsteps are never far away. It may be desperation, a breaking point, rock bottom, reaching the end of our rope or it could just be a recognition that what we are doing isn’t really working anymore. Like walkers who’ve lost our way we may have to retrace our steps to find the old path, but more often than not we discover that we are embarking on a new pathway, where we take the next tentative steps on our pilgrim journey. In the parables of Jesus, the Kingdom of Heaven is often likened to a banquet, a wedding or a party. The choice is simple – are we going to stick to the ordinary, mundane ways in which we feel safely in control or do we choose instead to go to the celebration that we don’t yet fully understand.

On the precipice of any great change, we can see with terrifying clarity the familiar firm footing we stand to lose, but we fill the abyss of the unfamiliar before us with dread at the potential loss rather than jubilation over the potential gain of gladnesses and gratifications we fail to envision because we haven’t yet experienced them. Maria Popova

(Turn and face the strange) Ch-ch-Changes, Just gonna have to be a different man; Time may change me, But I can’t trace time. David Bowie

In any given moment we have two options: to step forward into growth or step back into safety. Abraham Maslow

I put a pound in a change machine. Nothing changed.  Anonymous.

Spirit-led people never stop growing and changing and recognizing the new moment of opportunity. How strange to think that so much of religion became a worship of the status quo, until you remember that the one thing the ego hates and fears more than anything else is change.  Richard Rohr

I cannot say whether things will get better if we change; what I can say is they must change if they are to get better. Georg C. Lichtenberg


On Gratitude Street – with grateful thanks

A couple of weeks ago I overheard a young woman I know talking to herself. She was saying how very fortunate she was to have friends who cared for her and expressing gratitude for the many good things in her life. Knowing a little about her situation I am aware that she has had a very troubled life. A professional woman, she fled her own country a few years ago, with her son and young daughter following persecution, violence and torture, arriving in the UK with nothing but the clothes they wore. Life here hasn’t been easy, and the road ahead is very uncertain, yet she was still able to reflect on her current situation with thankfulness and gratitude. I found it very humbling.

Gratitude is about an acceptance of things as they are and being thankful for what we have. It sees life and all we have as a gift. This is in stark contrast with a mindset that is not content and which always wants things in our life to change. This often includes those around us changing too. Living in a consumer society doesn’t help, since this cultivates discontentment; the idea that what we have now isn’t sufficient and that if we had a better, newer, smarter something or other, we would be happier and more fulfilled. And of course, we could then be grateful. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work like this. Neither new stuff nor anything else we do such as drinking or drugging to make us feel better or happier can do so more than fleetingly, so we’re never really content, grateful and happy for what we’ve got. Resentments and self-pity can become even greater obstacles. It becomes all too easy to live our lives without ever really reaching a place of gratitude.

Of course, it can be hard to be grateful amidst the humdrum stuff of life, and even harder when difficult, painful things happen to us and to others. Sometimes, with the passage of time we may be able look back and see blessings that arose as a consequence of bad times and be grateful, because mostly we learn through our failure and suffering, not through success. Sometimes though, pain and struggle do not have an obvious purpose or meaning. Gratitude is not about living on a pink cloud or cultivating a false and dishonest positivity. Instead it means realising the power we have to reframe how we see a problem or difficulty and turning it into something more positive for which we can be grateful. Or we can look back or forward to some other things for which we can be grateful. In the midst of the bad stuff, our lives have still been blessed. It is hard for others to show us this or tell us – we have to be open to discovering it for ourselves. Like the young woman I overheard, we can actively decide to be grateful whenever we can; grateful for the glimmers of light, the small joys, blessings and fulfilments that we continue to experience along the way. God is at work around and through us to make something beautiful from the mundane and the messy bits of life – and just believing that, is something for which we can be grateful.

When Jesus healed a group of ten lepers only one of them returned to thank him – a reminder to us that if we seek the gratitude of others for things we do, we’d better get used to working with small percentages! Jesus talked a great deal about God’s loving care, knowing what we need and providing for us. About our relationship with him being as a father who only gives us good things. He sought to encourage a loving, trusting, grateful relationship with God. Giving thanks in all things. And this gratitude is not for the benefit of all those around us; it’s a quiet inner thanksgiving to God for what we receive. It’s a relational thing and a mind-set which always has us openly facing towards God, not turning away.

Gratitude is an important part of recovery too, replacing self-pity and blame which help to sustain addiction. There is gratitude for another chance of life, trusting that all will be well in the end. Seeing good in people and circumstances, concentrating on these rather than the negatives and accepting things as gifts. Gratitude is all about having the right mind-set which helps us to think less about ourselves, develops humility and gives us a much more positive perspective on life.  Seeing our glass as half full not half empty. As a narrative on step ten says, “we seek to have an honest regret for harms we have done, a genuine gratitude for blessings we have received and a willingness to try for better things tomorrow.”

Today on the first day of a New Year, as I look out of the window from where I am sitting, sipping a mug of tea, I can see the sun shining brightly in a pale blue winter sky. From the warmth of my home, I watch Geoffrey, the neighbour’s cat walk briskly down the street with an unusual sense of purpose. A child is laughing and the occasional bird flies past the window heading for a roof or treetop perch. This very ordinary scene becomes truly extra-ordinary when I stop and think about what it entails and suddenly I am full of gratitude. I have sight, hearing, warmth and security, but would I have been thankful for these simple, taken-for-granted things if I weren’t writing this piece about gratitude? I doubt it.

It’s been said that gratitude is a decision of the will, and if it’s a decision of the will, the choice to be grateful or not rests firmly and squarely with each of us. So, although New Year’s resolutions are not really my thing, I’m going to break with this and pledge to practice gratitude every day in 2019. Gratitude for the small and simple things of life, gratitude for the many wonderful people I know, gratitude for the pleasures of living, gratitude about my circumstances – even when they’re not great and I can’t see how things are going to work out. And of course, gratitude for God’s love. If I stick to doing this, I hope that there will be more joy, beauty and happiness in my life and perhaps the world around me may be that little bit better too.

Gratitude bestows reverence, allowing us to encounter everyday epiphanies, those transcendent moments of awe that change forever how we experience life and the world. John Milton

I don’t have to chase extraordinary moments to find happiness – it’s right in front of me if I’m paying attention and practicing gratitude. Brene Brown

To be grateful is to recognize the love of God in everything He has given us – and He has given us everything. Every breath we draw is a gift of His love, every moment of existence is a grace, for it brings with it immense graces from Him. Thomas Merton

It is through gratitude for the present moment that the spiritual dimension of life opens up. Eckhart Toll

As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them. John F. Kennedy