Wrongfooted

How easy it is for us to trip up. A respected Christian friend tells me we can tell the quality of our walk with God by the extent to which we suffer for it. I am alarmed. My face watches her lips move, as she tries perhaps to explain, but all my attention shifts inward, searching for something that might be labelled suffering for my faith.

My ordinary life with its usual stress and distress doesn’t quite measure up. So I am temporarily derailed. I have been on a relatively smooth track recently, oiled by a newly discovered take on the the concept of faith. Faith has come to mean the opposite of worry, working-out-what-next, and telling God what needs to happen and how. If I really have faith, I don’t need to do all that any more.

Except now my Achilles heel of self-condemnation has yawned, stretched and got dressed for work. Once again I have to force myself not to let it in. To trust that God is in control and He may be using this to keep me honest.

A friend once told me that she feels closest to God when things are going well. At the time, I was surprised and almost shocked. I had, I realised, associated closeness to God with crying out to him in adversity. I simply did not associate him with joy or success or any of the stuff that feels good. I thought that true piety equals pain. Painful pain.

When challenged to audit my life for suffering, I began to leave the secret sunny garden of childlike faith I had recently found to return to the cold damp cloister where discomfort demonstrates you’re on the Way.

Because of my earlier ideas about God this felt right, even if it was disappointing. Even if it seemed to reopen the wound of anxiety. Here was a truly enormous thing for me to worry about.

But then I remembered who I’m meant to be looking at. Not myself. Not even my pious sister. She may not be wrong. But she may not have the whole picture.

compared to what?

I was a bit bored. A bit meh, as they say nowadays, with no inclination to work on the plentiful harvest of tasks around me started enthusiastically as recently as yesterday. Instead of getting up from the desk and doing something definite I decided to amble into some vague internet activity. Thought I’d look up a few names from the past. Peek at a few profiles.

Big mistake.

As I read of their apparently glittering lives and careers, I could feel my centre of gravity shift. My air began to escape, soon followed by tears. After an hour or so of this, I was flat, poured out. All my achievements suddenly tiny. My progress miniature. Meaningless. Anxiety pinned me to the ground, like those weights that used to drop from the sky in old Tom & Jerry cartoons.

You see, I haven’t yet grown out of comparing myself with others. A pointless, dangerous activity.

A wonderful discussion broke out on a great blog recently about this sense of inadequacy we all feel (women in particular) when we’re standing near a leggy gorgeous model-type. But our internalised sense of inferiority is what makes us feel cr*p, not how she or he, that glamour puss standing in the spotlight– looks. Surprising numbers of beautiful people feel ugly inside. We somehow believe we’re not quite good enough, or clever enough, or pretty enough or enough enough. I used to spend a lot of time picking at this scab. Comparing myself with my peers, or with people I studied with, or worked, figuring out what I should be aspiring to. Where I should be going, by when.

And where am I now? Right here. Alive. Blessed in countless ways. Challenged every day to get up and get on with it. Mostly succeeding. Making progress towards my own goals, no one else’s. Sometimes remembering to celebrate. So this detour into an old toxic behaviour was a useful lesson.

Don’t play with deliberate sin, a former Bible teacher once said to me. This habit of mine, of seeing what others are doing and comparing myself with them, is a sin for me because it is not based on faith, as it says in Roman 14 v 3. By looking at others I’m not trusting the process that I’m in with God. I’m looking around at the waves, like Peter did when he got out of the boat and started walking on the water towards Jesus. He was doing the impossible under Jesus’s direction until he got distracted.

I was doing the impossible (or at least for me the highly challenging) under Jesus’ direction until I got distracted. Now, my impossible (or highly challenging) may not look like yours. It probably is a bit pedestrian by comparison. But God and I know what progress has been made in this tiny mind and life this last while. And no amount of copying some other beautifully coiffed buffed or polished specimen is going to help me as much as listening to what God is telling me here in my life, in my circumstances, with my hangups and history.

So here’s a reminder for me and perhaps for you, if you need one. If you must measure yourself against someone, choose you. Measure yourself against yourself. Notice your progress. Celebrate your victories, however small. Often just getting through the day with a degree of equilibrium and good humour is victory enough.

Learning to tell the time

A wonderful, strange thing has been happening to me these last few weeks. I am getting things done without stress. I am dismantling the horrible idol of the ideal me, a monster whose perfection would put her beyond reproach and enchant her children into perfection. Yes, I know. Mad.

Heard this classic in the playground. One of the Dads at school got in early one morning after a night shift and set his alarm so he’d wake up in time to collect his daughter that afternoon. He woke up suddenly, glanced at the clock and saw it was half an hour after school finished. He jumped out of bed, got into the car and raced round to the school. The playground was empty. There was no sign of his daughter, or anyone else. He figured he must be even later than he thought. He went to the office to ask if they’d seen her. Nobody had. Thinking perhaps she’d got tired of waiting and walked back herself, he drove home, scanning the route for her all the way. At home, he ran through the house, calling her name. Nothing. He drove back to school and went to the office again, a little surprised that they didn’t seem too concerned. They suggested he go and look in her classroom, as she may be waiting for him there. He rushed up the stairs and burst into the classroom to find his daughter, and the whole class, in the middle of a lesson. He glanced up at the clock on the wall. He was an hour early.  

Great story. We’ve all been there, missing a crucial detail which, had we slowed down, would have saved untold anxiety, stress and embarrassment. My concern about getting things right, remembering everything and everyone, is rarely served by panic, which tends to make me forget rather than remember. There is a nervous energy that I have for a long time thought my friend, the surge that kicks in the night before an assignment or work deadline. I have made lots of room for it, let it drive me into a state of near-hysteria. The kind of state this man was in searching for his unlost daughter.

I was about to reply to his story with something standard like ‘Welcome to my world,’ when I realised that actually, my world is pretty orderly these days. Nothing spectacular, I still have piles of stuff to sort in various corners of the house, but I can tell you, it’s looking pretty tidy in my usually cluttered mind. I seem to have more space to move, more space to think, more time, weirdly, to do stuff. I’m even sleeping better. How has this happened?   I think it’s because I have started to assume the best. I have stopped entertaining the ghosts of what might be, what could happen if, what may have happened, what wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t… that whole crowd.   I have started to assume that everything is already okay. I am not meant to be creating perfection, so there is nothing to fail at. I allow myself to experience relief before the fact. In short, I am learning to trust God. Really. From my gut, not just with my lips. To realise that I am secure. Not immune from difficulty but not defined by it.  

I grew up in church so I know by heart a lot of those lovely words in the book about trusting God. Actually doing it is a whole different thing. Some of us get there quicker than others. For me it has been hard to let go of my security blanket of worries, but now I’ve got started it’s getting easier and easier. I continue to grow. Up.  

Trust in the Lord with all your heart and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him and he will make your paths straight. Proverbs 3 v 3 – 5