Looking backwards, looking forwards

The New Year is typically the time when we reflect on the past and then look forward to the coming year in the hope that it will be better.  The desire to have something to hope for that will improve our life is strong. The month of January gets its name from the Roman god Janus who has one face looking back and the others looking forwards. He is the god of gates and transitions.

Often, we can’t move forwards unless we have looked back, retraced our steps and asked some serious reflective questions such as: Is there a pattern in my behaviour and relationships that keeps repeating itself? Is there something I need to acknowledge and take responsibility for? Do I recognise my reactions could have been different? The key is to learn from the past and not just glance at it, so we don’t get stuck in the same old patterns of behaviour. If we do this well, we will grow and develop ways and means of working better with others; as well as being authentic to ourselves.

Jesus calls us to love our neighbour as ourselves. But it’s possible we cant’ love our neighbour because we haven’t really learnt to love and value ourselves in the right way. Part of this is recognising the power of shame and guilt others will try to put on us: either to make them feel better or to control the outcome of a situation.  My wife gave me a useful piece of advice in this respect by telling me not to wear anyone else’s coat. I have a 17 inch neck and broad shoulders. If I wear someone else’s coat I usually find it very tight and restrictive and I have to take it off. Someone else may paint a picture of you and try to make you feel squashed but simply refuse to let that happen; refuse to put on their coat.  But how can you recognise when this happens and how can you make sure you go home with your own coat?

Brene Brown, a TED speaker, a professor and expert on vulnerability and shame talks about how she acknowledges the power of shame and how others can use this to make you feel that shame. Shame and guilt are different and it’s worth noting that. Brene say:

‘The easiest way to separate shame from guilt is to say shame is “I’m bad” and guilt is

 “I did something bad.” Shame is a focus on self; guilt is a focus on behaviour’

When I first started singing and playing as a musician at open mics I remember becoming nervous and had the strong desire to leave as I watched others confidently perform their songs. I felt vulnerable and wanted to escape the judgement of others and the shame of failure; especially if I made mistakes. But part of me wanted to stay and face the vulnerability for, as Brene says:

 ‘vulnerability is the core, the heart, the centre of meaningful human experiences’

When others try to make us feel bad or lay blame at our feet we go into fight or flight mode. We only have to see certain people who make us feel bad and we want to run away or cross the street. The alternative response is to have a face off and, if they dare say anything bad about us or run us down with their double-edged remarks, we’re going to come out fighting or get seriously defensive. We care deeply about what others think about us and something happens to our cerebral cortex when we feel vulnerable and the adrenalin begins rushing through us.

Brene tells us to acknowledge when this is happening (counting to ten helps) and tell ourselves not to run away because that wouldn’t be an authentic response. Neither is it best to push forwards and make ourselves big and important because that’s not who we really are either. It’s better to sit with the vulnerability and acknowledge the powerful physiological mechanism of fight or flight. Then decide to choose the authentic response which is to stand. In this I mean we don’t diminish ourselves or puff ourselves up but we dare to face this person and do a reality check.  As a Christian this means I am deeply loved by the Father, and I am precious. Then I remember that so is the person in front of me. I’m going to have an encounter where I seek to be truthful and loving and not be afraid (though I may have to simply walk away if it becomes too much or even seek the wisdom of others to help me).

This year don’t worry so much about getting more or better or bigger but look to focus on really learning from the past and, as you understand your own story better, begin to learn from it and to love yourself. This then is the key to growing and living a fuller life where you move into authentic encounters with others and learn to love. Remember, God loves you and ultimately wants you and I to live in loving relationships with others.

Happy New Year

Joe Lannon (Rector of the Callington Cluster)