Where Does Compassion Fit?

I really started to learn about compassion when I made a decision to love someone deemed by others to be unworthy of that love. I started to understand the cost of compassion when I was judged on that decision.  When I was going to be loved on the basis of that decision.  Then I knew that compassion is easy when people are nice, animals are cute and cuddly, and when no one’s done anything that might harm us.

When others stand and literally spit at you and call you names, then you start to realise that sometimes compassion has a cost.  Yet I still want to be a human being who has compassion for my fellow beings.  It’s simply a harder battle.  It simply makes me be sure of what (and who) I believe in.

We talk of compassion as something that rolls off the tongue, but I’m starting to realise that those who practise it most pay a price when they choose to exercise it to those who the rest of the world deem unworthy.

“Anyone can slay a dragon …but try waking up every morning and loving the world all over again. That’s what takes a real hero.” 

― Brian Andreas

I thought I started to learn about compassion as a teen.  I don’t remember it being raised earlier, although I am sure it was implied.  When people hurt me, I was told to have compassion for them.  Usually that compassion came with the word ‘Christian‘ in front of it, although I have never understood why.  My experience is that when compassion is prefaced by religion then it sadly comes with conditions.  Some people are deemed unworthy of compassion simply because they choose to be different.  That just screams ‘wrong’ to me.  It did then, and it does even more so now.

But still, that’s what I was taught.  Put aside my own hurts and be compassionate towards the ones who had hurt me.  As a teen that was really hard, especially when I had been hurt badly.  It seemed to me that no one was being compassionate toward me.  My hurt didn’t matter and I learned from that, rightly or wrongly, that I didn’t matter.  I couldn’t understand people who loved me telling me in this way that I didn’t matter. Although they claimed that’s not what they were doing.

As I’ve grown I have distanced myself from the prefaced type of compassion.  It seemed false to me, although I hasten to add that there are some very loving and caring people in any community.  It just seemed inconsistent and uninterested in my needs or my beliefs.

Now I see compassion as something that all human beings should have for all other beings.  But as I’ve already suggested, it’s perhaps hard to be compassionate when you’ve been hurt.  That said, I don’t believe it’s impossible.

Last year I was hurt very badly by someone.  While I was still picking up the pieces, that person accused me of hypocrisy.  I was accused of writing in my blog about compassion, yet not showing it to the person who hurt me.  Did I laugh or did I cry?  I admit that accusation stopped me in my tracks, because I knew it was something I had blogged about and I needed to question my actions since.  For a while there, it was difficult to write at all.  I also knew that the person accusing me had hurt me bad yet I had done nothing to deserve it.

I eventually came to the conclusion, that I hadn’t been hypocritical.  The person who had hurt me was entitled as anyone to my compassion, but I was also entitled to theirs.  Is that confusing?  Hopefully not.  It came back to that issue of how to be compassionate when you’ve been hurt.

Actually it led to a realisation that I needed to be able to forgive their actions/words in order to have compassion.  It didn’t come immediately, because I still hurt like hell, but it has come since.  It didn’t fix the relationship (that won’t happen) but it gave me some peace, and actually, that was enough.

As human beings I think that we make judgements about who does, and doesn’t deserve compassion.  I’m not convinced that the judgement is mine to make.  Who am I to determine who deserves compassion?

The reason for this post comes from things I’ve seen, heard and read lately, on a number of different subjects.  Watching people determine that they have the right to destroy another person’s life rather than have compassion.  I’m not referring to anything specific because it’s there every day, anywhere we look.  Often that destruction occurs of people who are unknown to the destroyer.  They don’t even understand the effects of their actions.  They simply don’t know who they choose to destroy.

I’m not perfect.  I make mistakes, and maybe at times I don’t have as much compassion as I should for someone.  We’re all human.  And when we’ve been hurt, compassion seems next to impossible.  It makes me so sad how easily, we as humans, can set out to destroy others, and then we congratulate ourselves on a job well done without stopping to think of the price, without stopping to think of the alternative… compassion.

So you think I’m crazy?  No.  Just thinking about another way of being.

It’s not my right to destroy another, but I believe it is my job to offer compassion where I can.  I was told recently that if I had compassion for a person who had hurt me, then I hadn’t suffered enough at their hands.  The person who said it hardly knew me and certainly didn’t know of what I had, or hadn’t suffered.  I disagreed strongly with that view for so many reasons.  But mostly I just don’t see it as my role to destroy others.

I know all too well how hard it is to be compassionate towards a person who has hurt me.  Being hurt doesn’t give me the right to hurt back, although I know that’s what comes naturally.  I think if someone has hurt me and I find it hard to give compassion to them, I need to back off  (and probably shut my mouth) rather than seek to destroy.  Eventually I will work to a point of peace again, and maybe then I can find that compassion.

In case you’re wondering, this is all me just wondering out loud.  I’m working out something for myself.  I’m not saying that it’s how it has to be for anyone else.  Although I think for me, it has to be.

“Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.” 

― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

Where Is My God When It Hurts?

Last week I wrote about struggling to find hope in the midst of the chronic pain and fatigue of  fibromyalgia (see Fatigued Hope). I admit I’m still battling this one. I don’t think there is a simple answer, yet I am frustrated by having previously written about hope, but not being able to find it to apply in this situation.

A number of people commented, in relation to that post, that I should perhaps look to my spiritual beliefs. Hence my question: where is my God when it hurts? The question is phrased as it is because I believe that spirituality is an individual thing, and as such where your God is when I hurt is not actually of much significance to me. It is in terms of how you might find comfort in your trials, but for me personally, it only about my perception of who my God, or higher power, or whatever I like to call it, is for me.

When I google the question ‘Where is God when it hurts?‘ I find that Google kindly has about 95 million responses for me including a book title, by that name, by a Philip Yancey… which I’m sure my father owned.  I suspect I would have come across it as I dealt with Dad’s enormous collection of books after his death.  Maybe I should have stopped to read it, although I would have been there forever if I had taken that approach to every book that caught my eye.

Quite frankly the answer to all my questions was probably in my garden shed (that’s where Dad kept his library), or maybe I could say right under my nose.  What’s more, if my father had been alive, he would have been quick to answer my question for me.  He was, after all a Christian minister, well versed in theology and my blief in God is based on the Christian god figure (although not some of the organisational aspects of churches).  But even if he had been here, that would have been his answer, not mine.  And I suspect I would have been still wondering.

The reality I learnt long ago is that other people’s views on spirituality actually don’t answer my questions.  They might provide the answers for them, but I have to find my own answers.  So I’m not even going to bother with Google’s suggestions, or what I know would have been Dad’s.

I believe that religion  serves a different purpose for each person.  Nothing is right or wrong, as we are each different people with different needs.  My own beliefs form a basis for how I treat other people, and I think I’m slowly forming a means of how I treat myself.

Translating that into hope in spite of trials is not something I have yet achieved.  Oh, I was trained well and can quote a million Bible verses at myself about having hope and trust in the God I was brought up to know, but that doesn’t actually cut it for me in terms of finding purpose in my suffering.

I find it incredibly frustrating when I am told that everything happens for a reason.  Maybe it’s true, maybe it isn’t, but it seems an incredibly cold way of comprehending, and giving reason to why some people suffer so much.

This posted started in terms of my own struggle with pain and fatigue.  I know that it is nothing compared to what some people suffer each day, and actually in that I can find a little peace for myself.  I can be thankful for what I have and have not.  But I will find it incrediblyy annoying and frustrating if you tell me to find joy in my pain, just because my Bible tells me to.  It just doesn’t work that way for me.

A book that I have found useful over the years, mostly to dive in and out of because I have yet to read it cover to cover, is Harold Kushner’s When Bad Things Happen To Good People.  I like this book because it is written by someone who has had plenty of bad things happen.  He knows suffering yet he still somehow believes in who he sees as God.  Here is an excerpt:

“I have to believe,” one friend said, “that everything that happens in life, happens for a purpose.  Somehow or other, everything that happens to us is meant for our good.  Look at it this way.  You were a pretty cocky guy, popular with girls, flashy cars, confident you were going to make a lot of money.  You never really took time to worry about the people who couldn’t keep up with you.  Maybe this is God’s way of teaching you a lesson, making you more thoughtful, more sensitive to others.  Maybe this is God’s way of purging you of pride and arrogance, and thinking about how you were going to be a success.  It’s his way of making you a better, more sensitive person.”

 Harold Kushner - When Bad Things Happen To Good People  (p. 30,31)

It’s a pretty common way of thinking.  Suffering is God’s way of teaching us a lesson and making me a better person.  Me?  I hate it when I am told that.  Everything in me gets angry because I think things like ‘What was wrong with me before?‘ and ‘Why do I get this lesson in suffering when others get off scot-free?‘.  Oh, and,‘Why does God hate me so much?’

That frame of thinking is easily said to another person (sadly) but for me it makes God into a hateful , hurtful and vengeful god.  And that’s not who my God is.  My God doesn’t want me to be hurt, and has great compassion for me and all others.  If it works for you, that’s great but it doesn’t work for me.

Having said that, I know what doesn’t fit for me but I still have no answers in terms of needing to find hope in chronic illness.  I still need to find some purpose to it, and I still need to find a way of accepting it as my reality.  Some years ago I came to the point where I could accept my mental illness.  It’s not that I liked it, but I could accept that it is part of me and what makes me who I am.  I can even see some purpose to it in terms of sharing my experiences hopefully in a way that will encourage others.

But accepting the physical illness is not easy for me.  I’m struggling to find purpose in day after day of pain and fatigue.  I struggle to live with it because my life becomes so impaired by it.  I also struggle with the invisible nature of it, which means that people around me assume and expect me to do more than I am physically capable of.  Yet I want to be able to do those things.  I don’t want to be so limited, but I also need compassion from people.  If I accept these illnesses and the chronic nature of them, I feel like I am giving in to them.  I don’t want to do that.

So where is my God when it hurts?  Actually I’m not sure.  Quote the Bible at me, and it will leave me cold.  I know all that in my head, but my heart struggles to find personal purpose and hope.  I admire people who are able to take their faith and apply it to their current situation, but right now that isn’t working for me.  I guess I’m still a work in progress, and I hope my God treats me gently.

I finish with something my mother used to say to me when I was young.  I had no idea what it meant, but somehow it’s still stuck in my mind.  She just used to quote the first part.

For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.

 – 1 Corinthians 13:12  – King James Version

I Matter

One of the things I battle with on a daily basis is that I matter, and whether I actually matter to anyone else.  Do I love myself enough to say I matter to me?  And does anyone else love me enough to say that I matter to them?  And will they show it by their actions?

Some of the struggle with this comes from the Christian upbringing I had which constantly told me to put others before myself.  Songs I sang in Sunday School taught me that I came last.  And I guess that’s where I always put myself.  As the youngest child in the family, my name always came last.  I’m not saying that my parents put my needs last, but that my brother’s and my parents names always came before mine.

In the school roll my name came near the end because my surname was Reddell, near the end of the alphabet.  I can remember wishing my name started with a A, so that I could be at the beginning.  But then the Christian upbringing  would no doubt have listed that as a sin.

Another thing I was taught was “pride cometh before a fall“.  That meant I couldn’t be proud of myself, I couldn’t take pride in my achievements, and actually no one else was ever going to proud of me.  It might not be what I was meant to learn from the statement, but it is what my young mind concluded.

My Christian upbringing even served to protect those who stalked me.  I was specifically told in relation to them that I should ‘love my neighbour and do good to them that hate you“.  What that meant in reality was I was supposed to be nice to them, and my needs for protection didn’t seem matter to anyone.  Christian love and compassion was what was called for.  When I was a teenager I thought that was just how life was.  My needs didn’t matter.  Now I am an adult I worry that teenagers might be taught this stuff now days.  I hope not.

Since my mental health ever became an issue (it’s interesting that it simply doesn’t matter until diagnosed with a mental illness) people have been telling me that it is okay to put myself first.  It’s okay for my needs to matter.  At this stage, after many hours of therapy I can tell you that I do matter, but I still find it hard to put it into practise.

At what point do my needs matter more than loving and accepting another person?  I still haven’t worked that out.  I still am not sure how to put this into practise in everyday situations.

I struggle with it in a number of places in my life, and still there is this little voice in the back of my head that recites ‘Jesus first, Yourself last and Others in between’.  It’s so ingrained in my head that I don’t know how to say ‘well actually my needs come first’.  Even as I type that, I’m thinking “selfish“.  I’ve done the textbook learning but I still don’t have it totally in operation in my life.  I don’t yet know how to strike the balance between me and the rest of the world.

Last week in What Matters To Me This Christmas Eve I told you about my family starting a family meal before I had arrived.  As I sat there that day my thoughts were “I don’t matter to these people“.  It seemed to me that I didn’t matter enough for them to think/say “We can’t start yet because Cate’s not here yet“.  Now I can see a number of logical reasons for why it might have happened, but it still hurts.  Not that they started lunch without me, but that I didn’t matter to them enough for them to think of me.

What makes it more painful is that I look around for people who I matter to, and actually most people have their own lives, their partners and children, and I am just me.  I know that I mattered to my father when he was alive, and so it makes his absence is more painful when something like that happens with my family.

The thing that I wonder is ‘who’s going to put me first?’  Will anyone?  Or has everyone got greater priorities than me?  I promise I’m not having some pity party for which I need huge doses of sympathy.  I don’t.  But I know that learning to matter to myself is helped when I can know that other people say to me “you matter to me“.

Maybe the psychology of that is all wrong, and I need to be able to just matter to myself.  But don’t we all want to matter to other people?  And surely knowing that I matter to someone else teaches me about mattering (Is that a word?  It is now.)  to myself.

I know I matter to some people, and yesterday I spent time with some of those people, purposely because I desperately needed to feel I matter to someone.  I knew with them, I would feel that, and I did.  It was in complete contrast to the lunch I nearly missed last week, simply because I knew without at doubt that I mattered to them and that my needs were important.

PS.  I need to say this isn’t at all a criticism of Christianity.  It’s not.  All it is, is my experience.

“Wanting to be someone else is a waste of the
person you are.” 

―    Marilyn Monroe

“Never be bullied into silence. Never allow yourself to be made a victim. Accept no one’s definition of your life, but define yourself.” 

―    Harvey Fierstein

A Long Hard Journey

Music has always been a really good way for me to learn.  Give me a song, and I’ll learn is quickly, but trying to learn a poem is really difficult for me.  It’s always been that way.  I can easily remember all the songs I ever learnt.  I can sing perfectly the parts I had to learn for school choir, so many years ago that I’m not saying how many.  But I don’t remember much of what I learnt in classes at school, or even university for that matter.

So it makes sense that the songs I learnt as a child, had their impact.  I still know them word for word.  The songs regularly leap to mind and actually when I think about how I learnt how to live my life, it came from songs.  That can be good, but it depends what those songs were.  And like I spoke of in Happiness Is…, the songs I learnt in Sunday School  made the biggest impact on me.

This isn’t a theological discussion of what children learn in Sunday School, but rather an explanation of my personal experience.  I’m not saying it was wrong to use such songs.  Actually I think music is an excellent tool in such settings.  I’m simply saying that for me, they made their mark.

This is one song that perhaps left the biggest mark.  It was sung to the Jingle Bells music:

J O Y,    J O Y,
This must surely mean
Jesus first, yourself last and others in between,
J O Y,    J O Y,
This must surely mean,
Jesus first, yourself last and others in between.

Note that I didn’t have to go looking for lyrics.  I know this one perfectly so many years later.  Whether or not this is my, or your, interpretation of what joy might be is not what message I got from singing this repeatedly.  What I got from it is that I always had to put myself last.  My needs didn’t count, but that Jesus came first and then other people.  Actually this is a message I got repeatedly as a child.  I’m not saying it was intentional for me to learn that what I needed didn’t matter, but it is the lesson that fixed itself in my head.

That ‘yourself last’ is what I heard over and over again, right through to well into my adult years.  It was what would make me a ‘good Christian’, apparently.  And if Christianity wants to believe it, that’s fine, but for me, it was actually very harmful to learn about where I came in the world.

I was last.  My needs were last.  Actually my needs didn’t matter because it was what other people needed that did matter.  It’s an often taught principle in the part of Christianity that I grew up in, to put the needs of others ahead of yourself.

But what if I’m being harmed by my needs coming last?  On a number of occasions this idea that my needs didn’t matter, caused me great harm (physically and emotionally) because other people took advantage and it was said that what they wanted was more important than what was safe for me.

The following is an example of the type of teaching I got, both as a child and adult:

We must aim to put Jesus Christ first in our lives. Matthew 6: 33 says “But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these things shall be added unto you”.

If we want to know the fruit of joy in our lives we must do all we can to have a close growing relationship with Jesus Christ. We must seek to be like Him And to live for His glory in our daily lives. We must put ourselves last. Too often we are taught in these life that we need to blow our own horn .We need to praise ourselves. But God tells us to be humble and not braggers about ourselves.

In humility we are supposed to seek to live gentle lives for the glory of God. In our day to day lives we are to seek to help others. We are to seek to be light in our dark world. The lives of others and their needs ought to be the emphasis of our lives and we need to seek to be extended leaders pouring out ourselves for the glory of God. We are to seek to put others in-between Jesus and ourselves. We are to seek to be magnets that draw others to you our Lord.  ( 1.)

Let me be clear that my point is not about whether individuals choose to ‘put Jesus first’.  To me, that is an entirely individual choice and it’s not what I have the issue with.  My issue is that I was taught to always put other people’s needs ahead of my own, and how I interpreted that (as a child and then an adult struggling with serious self-esteem issues) was that what I needed didn’t count.  Even my safety didn’t count, and I saw this demonstrated in a number of ways over the years as both child and adult.

I don’t mean to offend anyone’s beliefs but for me this didn’t work, and I don’t even believe that God wanted me to get harmed by what I as taught was my Christian duty.  I believe it is important that we practise compassion and be there for other people, but I don’t accept sacrificing my safety and my needs in order to do that.  Let me put it this way: by having this teaching, I was harmed and I have spent many years very unwell because of that harm.  That meant that  I have been unable to be there for other people.  Isn’t that crazy?  If I had been protected then maybe my journey would have been different, and maybe I would have been able to help more people.

I totally agree with helping others, and much of my life at the moment is devoted to trying to do that.  But I can’t do it unless I put my needs first.  I have to make sure I am safe, and I have to make sure that my needs are met.  If I don’t do that, I can’t adequately be there for others.

In practice what this means for me is realising that I, personally, can’t help some people because it is harmful, or at least triggering, for me.  It’s okay for me to leave those people to someone else to help.  I have to do this or I never get free from my own past hurts.  Maybe one day I can use my experience to help, but for now my physical and emotional safety has to come first.

The lyrics of the song were harmful to me, but then I was taught this message repeatedly in different ways, and so I can’t completely blame the lyrics.  I needed to know that I was important.  I needed to know that I was safe.  I needed to know that I was loved.  And I needed to know that my service to others was not to be at the expense of myself.

It has been a long, hard journey to learn this, and actually removing myself from a church environment was necessary for me to ‘get’ that I matter.  I’m not saying anyone else needs to do that, nor am I saying that I have given up my Christian beliefs.  It’s just that these particular beliefs didn’t work for me.  Actually they worked completely against me and I was hurt by them badly.  I’m inclined to think that too often religious beliefs like these get warped by people who don’t care about what happens to others, and they simply cause harm.

“Putting yourself first is the highest level of service you can offer in the world. It allows you to serve your partner, family, friends and others with joy and generosity. As long as you put yourself first to keep your love tank on overflow, your heart knows no limits in its ability to love.”

 – Susan Blackburn

What Love Isn’t

This pretty much says it all!
Image credit: Anna Strumillo/Fotopedia.com

I grew up in a pretty traditional, nuclear family and was fortunate to have both parents, who lived together and loved each other.  I was pretty lucky really as I know so many children don’t have that experience.  I in no way want to disrespect the wonderful job that sole parents do, but I know that to have a loving relationship in front of me every day had to be a good thing for me in terms of learning about love.

I also grew up in a strongly Christian family as I talked about in Preacher’s Kid.  This also influenced what I knew about love and perhaps the strongest influence there was this Bible passage:

1 Corinthians 13
(NIV)

If I speak in the tongues[a]   of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 If I have the gift of prophecy   and can fathom all mysteries   and all knowledge,   and if I have a faith   that can move mountains,   but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give all I possess to the poor   and give over my body to hardship that I may boast,[b]  but do not have love, I gain nothing.

4 Love is patient,   love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking,   it is not easily angered,   it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil   but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

8 Love never fails. But where there are prophecies,   they will cease; where there are tongues,   they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. 9 For we know in part   and we prophesy in part, 10 but when completeness comes,   what is in part disappears. 11 When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood   behind me. 12 For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror;   then we shall see face to face.   Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

13 And now these three remain: faith, hope and love.   But the greatest of these is love.

I wouldn’t normally be quoting the Bible in my blog.  I consider myself a Christian but I do not attend church and haven’t for a long time.  It’s a personal thing for me, not anything I wish to force onto anyone else.  That’s just not me, but the reason I quote it now is that I learnt this so young, and it is so firmly drummed into my mind, that this is my first thought of what love is.  I know it’s a Christian perspective, and that’s not always acceptable to some people but it is actually some pretty sound ideals.  Maybe I don’t accept all of it, maybe not all of it is relevant, but it is what I think of when I think about what love is.

This is, of course, all fine and dandy in a perfect world, and I’d like to think I can work towards this idea.  But it’s not a perfect world and the real difficulty for me is the what love isn’t.  While I am grateful to have had this learning to create my own version of love, what love isn’t has tripped me up far too many times. Let me explain.

My parents were good, but they weren’t emotionally demonstrative people.  I saw very few displays of affection, and all that I really observed was the odd peck on the cheek.  I knew in my head that they loved each other but as a child, it wasn’t something I could see or comprehend.  Also, emotions were rarely talked about in the family.  Feelings were a completely foreign word to me until well into my twenties, because we never talked, or were asked how we felt.  How we might feel just wasn’t an issue.  There wasn’t much conversation about relationships or growing up either and when I got my first boyfriend at fourteen, I was in for more than a few surprises.

Aside from those surprises this relationship turned for me into a perfect explanation of what love isn’t.  I was excited to have my first boyfriend but was soon overwhelmed and feeling trapped.  I couldn’t breathe. I felt like I was losing grasp of who I was, and I was being somehow swallowed up by this person.

I made my escape after about nine months.  It took that long because I had been taught to be nice, and I somehow thought being nice meant accepting something that wasn’t me.  I can remember vividly that after we split I was running down the road with my best girlfriend shouting “I’m free”.  It was the most amazing feeling (it was a feeling but I didn’t recognise it as such at the time).  I just knew I was relieved to be free.  To be perfectly honest I don’t remember a lot of the content of the relationship.  It was a long time ago and much has happened since.  I only knew I felt trapped… and that would repeat itself throughout my life in the years ahead.  Constantly trapped, always feeling like I couldn’t breathe in the relationships I later went into.

Unfortunately, life still wasn’t perfect and the boyfriend I just thought I was free from became obsessed.  I wrote about that in Stalked… But Still Hiding Some Of Me.  Suddenly he literally couldn’t live without me, and tried to kill himself (stating loudly that the reason for this was that he couldn’t have me).  When that didn’t work he persisted, and eventually gave me a loaded gun and asked me to kill him for the same reason (that’s where my objection to firearms comes from).  I was followed constantly and it was a regular for me to see him just waiting for me… anywhere and everywhere.   He was completely obsessed.

It occurs to me as I write this that, as I was 14, so I have a 14 year old nephew; one of my favourite people along with his younger brother and sister.  The idea of something this traumatic and damaging happening to him at 14 appalls me.  I would move heaven and earth to do all I could to protect him from such harm and make sure he was okay.  But no one did it for me, and leaves me feeling rather tearful for that 14 year old girl (me) who was pretty much alone.

I described above what my family dynamics were and that is pretty much why no one really knew the extent of what was happening to me, and no one stepped in to help me.  I just assumed this was normal post-relationship behaviour.   As a Christian I had been taught to be nice to people, feel sorry for them if they’re struggling, and to forgive them if they hurt me.  The problem with that was… what about me?  Who was looking after me?  Actually no one was.  I now just had this completely screwed up idea of what love was, let alone having any idea of a healthy relationship.

The stalking continued actively for years, and while it stopped when I left the city some 14 years later (in my last ditch effort to get away) I know it would still be an issue for him today, if he knew where I was.  My first experience of love (or a 14 year old’s version of love) was a long running nightmare and I learnt quickly to expect that with every future relationship.  Even when I married, one of the reasons I did was that I feared my future husband would do the same.  If I didn’t agree to marry him, he would haunt me for the rest of my days.  That wasn’t because he did anything to make me think that but I just thought that’s what men did.

I got two lessons in what love isn’t.  Actually more, but I won’t go into that now.  Firstly love was a trap.  Secondly, my needs didn’t count.  The people who said they loved me were more interested in Christian compassion for others (the perpetrator) than in protecting me.

It’s really not surprising that I opted to be alone eventually, if that was my understanding of love.  It was a safe thing to do.  To be alone was the best way to protect myself, and you know, in that respect it worked.  It was probably the best course of action at the time.  Nobody could hurt me, because I didn’t give them a chance.

But alone has drawbacks.  Not only can no one hurt me but I can’t experience loving someone, I know I can do the ‘alone’ thing if that’s how life works out, but do I want to?  Actually I think I’d like a chance to change my understanding and experience of love.  That has to be the healthier option and the more enjoyable one.  To put away what love isn’t, and find my own version of what love is.  It’s a chance to live again, without the fear.  This is all pretty weird for me right now.  I’m just becoming a bit more open to life (and love) than I was, and that has to be a good thing.

“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.” 

―    C.S. Lewis,    The Four Loves

 

Stigma (Passions Profile Challenge #6)

If you have been following my journey through The Passions Profile Challenge, you will be getting an impression of the types of things that are important to me, along with the things I hate.  Stigma is one of those things that I hate, and would passionately desire to be stamped out.  Why?  Because there is no reason for it and it is totally unfair.  Why can’t we all just accept each other?

Stigma, according to the Oxford Dictionary, means:

noun (plural stigmas or especially in sense)

  • mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person:
    for example: the stigma of mental disorder,
    to be a non-reader carries a social stigma

I also saw it described as a stain or reproach on one’s reputation (1.); a mark or token of infamy, disgrace, or reproach (2.); or when people disapprove of something (3.).

So I take it as something that isn’t liked about one’s character.  And that’s where I have a problem.  Who are we to judge another’s character, qualities or anything as unlikable or disgraceful?  My belief is that I do not have the right to judge another.  I guess for me, that belief is based on my Christian beliefs and regardless of what you think of those, I’m sure you will agree that most religions tell us not to judge another man (or woman) in some form or other.

Here’s some truths about me, for you to judge, should you so wish:

  • I am a woman
  • I am white skinned (in New Zealand I am known as a Pakeha, meaning ‘white skinned person’ in Maori)
  • I am attracted to men (so far)
  • I am of average weight
  • I follow (most) Christian beliefs
  • I am child-less
  • I am HIV negative
  • I have a mental illness
  • I am not in paid employment
  • I have invisible illnesses (Fibromyalgia and Graves’ Disease)
  • I take psychiatric medication and am probably addicted to pain killers

There are probably other aspects of me I could list there but hopefully I have the main elements, from which people might choose to dislike me, and see me as disgraceful.  That’s even before I open my mouth.  Go ahead.

But why?  How does the colour of my skin affect who I am?  And how does my sexuality affect who I am?  You didn’t know from reading my earlier posts what sexuality I am but I wonder whether now you know, whether it has affected what you think of me?  I really don’t see why it should.  I haven’t done anything but label myself.

In my previous post Normal, I talked about the need to accept mental illness as something that can happen to any of us.  I didn’t expect it to happen to me and struggled with something called self stigma.  I was embarrassed to have that mental illness, so straight away I faced criticism from myself.  And actually it is probably the worst I have faced.  I have also faced personal discrimination, another form of stigma, by people who didn’t want to know me because of that illness.  On a cultural level, it has been presumed that because I have Borderline Personality Disorder, that I am beyond help and am a drama queen.  How dare they decide that on the basis of a label.  The last type of stigma I have faced because of my mental illness is an institutional stigma.  I get that from the health sector surprisingly because they don’t take me seriously as a fibromyalgic patient with a mental illness.  Because of my mental illness they won’t treat me with medication that they  say they can’t ‘trust’ me with’.  They are using my actions of over 14 years ago when I was very unwell to make that judgement.  And my insurance company refuses to accept chronic mental illness as a valid expenditure. (4.)

That all makes mental illness stigma seem pretty crazy but what about other stigmas?  How about if I tell you now that actually I am gay, morbidly obese, and am HIV positive?  How does that change your view of me?

Remember I still haven’t opened my mouth to say anything, nor have I done anything.  These are just labels used to describe me.  If I say I have dark skin, am a single woman with five school age children?  What then?

I don’t deserve to be judged as unacceptable, disgraceful or even embarrassing because of these things.  They really don’t tell you accurately what kind of person I am.  All you can do is use assumptions and generalisations to make your judgement, and I would suggest that you will not be accurate.

There are lots of things about each person that we may decide we like or dislike.  We do that all the time by the way someone is dressed, by the car they drive, by the job they have, by the volume of the children with them.  But I don’t accept that as a fair way to make a decision about anyone.  And I don’t accept that it is my right to judge anyone.

For me personal experience taught me some very useful lessons.  I had a learning experience when I worked with a person who was going through a transgender transition.  The person I knew as a man at work , I also knew that outside of work she lived as a woman, and eventually as part of the transition this person was going through, their sexual identity in the workplace changed.  It might seem crazy but suddenly someone I knew as a man, was facing me in the women’s toilets.  Actually that was what woke me up to realising that she was a person (who was going through hell) and I had no right to object or disagree.  She was a person.  She deserved my acceptance and compassion.  End of story.

Some of my friends thought I was being ‘too liberal’ or ‘too broad-minded’.  They said it wasn’t right.  I disagreed.  The best thing I could do for both her, and for me, was to accept her as she was and support her, just as I would support any other friend going through any other life change.

Easy.  As we might say in New Zealand, it’s just not worth getting your knickers in a knot.  It’s so much easier if we simply accept.

“The opinion which other people have of you is their problem, not yours
Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

“Whatever gets you through the night” 
John Lennon

‘Losing’ my Religion (Passions Profile Challenge #5)

“I judge a religion as being good or bad based on whether its adherents
become better people as a result of practicing it.” 
~Joe Mullally

“This is my simple religion.  There is no need for temples;
no need for
complicated philosophy.  Our own brain, our own
heart is our temple;
the philosophy is kindness.”
~Dalai Lama

Regularly irrelevant, judgemental, inaccessible… that is my experience of Christianity.

That doesn’t mean though, that I don’t see that for many people it is relevant, accepting and accessible.  For some people, Christianity has saved their lives, and setting aside my own experience, I think that’s great.  The thing is though, that I’m not just talking about Christianity.  You’ll have to excuse me for referring mostly to that, because that is where my knowledge and my experience comes from, but what I am passionate about is that all religion should be relevant, non-judgemental and accessible to all people.

I was raised as a Christian.  My father was a minister, so everything revolved around the church.  At some point (as a teen) I made a decision that Christianity was my religion too, rather than being simply what my parents believed.  That is, until I was 28 years old when I came to a conclusion that really changed my whole life.  I think it was a bit challenging for both my family and my friends (many of them being Christians) too.  I decided church wasn’t for me.

That was a radical change.  For a long time I just didn’t want to know about religion.  I felt I had been judged and deemed unacceptable by something that I had previously regarded as my life.  It wasn’t just a ‘church on Sunday’ thing for me.  It was a 24/7 way of life.  I read my Bible everyday, I prayed, I was involved in a range of church activities.  And I stopped it all.

I guess for me my mental illness was the deciding factor.  My illness wasn’t accepted by some people, who seemed to regard it as a product of sin.  I was told by people that my illness was because I didn’t have enough faith in God.  I was also told by friends that using any type of psychology (I was seeing a clinical psychologist at the time) was evil.  Actually I was even given a book telling exactly why I shouldn’t use any form of psychological medicine.  I never read the book, and I have long since thrown it out (in the rubbish) because I couldn’t bear the thought of someone picking it up and concluding they were evil too.  I was also told that because my maternal grandfather had been a Freemason most of his life, this was an evil influence on me and so my mental illness was his fault.  Thankfully he had died by this time so he never knew of this because I know he loved me and he would have been devastated.  By the way he was also a Christian.  I’m sure other criticisms and judgements were cast my way too.  I’m just glad I have either forgotten them, or never heard them

Because I was almost overly sensitive at the time, I took those judgements, from perhaps a few, as being from all Christians.  That was hardly fair of me.  But in the occasional times I have ventured back my sense of being judged was still there.  If it wasn’t me being judged, it was other people I could see being judged, and actually that was even more angry making than what was thrown my direction.

When I see people being ignored because they’re different from the norm, when I see gay people told they’re not welcome or they can’t live with the person they love, when I see gay ministers being told they can’t minister anymore.  I just think that’s wrong.  When particular cultures are judged as evil, I think that is wrong.  One thing I learnt very early in my experience of religion was to “let the one who has never fallen cast the first stone” (John 8:7).  It’s not my place to judge, nor is it the place of any other human being to judge, because we have all got things wrong and none of us are perfect.

I know people who would scoff at my attitude, and that’s okay.  The thing for me is that each person can believe their truth but they don’t need to criticise, or condemn someone else’s truth.  I still believe in a Christian God, although it took a long time before I could accept it after the judgements I’d had thrown at me.  That’s my belief but it doesn’t make anyone else’s belief in another religion invalid.

Some of what I see leads me to think that some of religion is not relevant.  In my own city, which has been devastated by earthquakes recently I am struck by the intense arguments there have been over the demolition of Christ Church Cathedral (consecrated in 1881), and the subsequent arguments over replacing it with a temporary (10 year) building until they can decide what is appropriate long term.  I have my own views on the arguments that are continuing and some of the crazy things that have been happening, but it makes me so sad that a great fuss is made of spending millions of dollars on a  building for worship when the reality is that because of the earthquake damage we have a great shortage of homes.  Some may say I’m being simplistic, but I don’t think simplicity is a bad thing.  Surely we need to address the basic needs of the people before worrying about a building to worship in.  The city has survived for about 16 months without a Cathedral, so why can’t we continue to survive without it and use the money to make sure people have housing.  That would be relevance.

I worked for a charitable trust associated with a church a few years ago.  I wasn’t involved in the church but was basically the front person for both the trust, which provided social services to the community, and the church, from Monday to Friday.  Many people came in for a range of reasons but mostly it was to meet their basic needs.  They needed food from the foodbank, a meal, and social activity and interaction. It seemed to me that not many people were too interested in the fact that this was a church, until their basic needs got meet, and they felt accepted.  Interestingly a number of different religions used the premises for various activities that some might say weren’t Christian.  I think it was great, although I admit that it took me a while to reach that conclusion, and that is because I had my mind trained to think there was only one true faith and everything else was evil.  I don’t believe that now.

Having something to believe in is important, but I think that when you’re really struggling to meet your basic needs, barely hanging onto life, there just isn’t time or energy into thinking about that stuff.  What matters is where my next meal is coming from, or how do I shut up the goddamned voices in my head.  I think we are wasting time and effort if we think that those people are not holy, are not faithful (to which ever religion is relevant).  Singing hymns just doesn’t cut it when there are real needs out there.  And I don’t want a part of it.

That said, I know what I believe and will do my best to practise accordingly without casting judgement on others.

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury,pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; and where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen

(Prayer of St Francis of Assisi)


What Dad Taught Me About Shoes (Passions Profile Challenge #4)

When I introduced my Passions Profile Challenge, this is what I said I would do with this topic of Social Justice:

“For want of a description of what I mean I found that in my country (of New Zealand) Social Justice is seen as Equal Distribution, Tolerance, Equal Treatment, Criminal Justice, Equal Rights, Equal Opportunities, Legislative, Responsibility, Democratic, Collectivism  and Individualism(1.) While I feel strongly about all of these, to tackle them all will be more than a mouthful.  So please excuse me for concentrating on equality in distribution, treatment, opportunities and rights.”

Image via Fresh Minds Matter

I could take an academic approach to this topic (like I implied I would) but that just isn’t me.  Rather, social justice to me is simply about treating people the way I would want to be treated myself.  Simple.  I don’t want to be hurt, judged, segregated, refused my rights, denied opportunity.  I want to be treated in exactly the way I want you to treat me.  I want you to put yourself in my shoes, live my life for a day, week, year or however long it takes, to understand my reality and appreciate my need for compassion and acceptance regardless of my beliefs, preferences, income, health, skin colour, religion.  Getting the picture?

It’s actually a much easier way to live.  There’s no having to think “does this person share my… religion, skin colour, sexual preference, income status, etc?”  None of that matters.  It is simply that they have the same rights as I do.  No exceptions.  And I am passionate to see the world adopt this way of treating each other.

So where did I develop this way of looking at the world?

Actually I learnt this from my Dad.  He was a good man, and a great example.  While my father was a Baptist Church minister for most of my life, he also had a strong sense of compassion for others, regardless of who, or what they might be.  He always opened our home to a wide range of people, and while a couple of times that left a young Cate feeling a little fearful, I could always see that Dad was just treating these people as he would want to be treated himself.  My fear came out of the unknown, probably caused by youth.  Sometimes these people were very different from what I knew, and sometimes they acted in ways to different to me.  Everything about them was different, yet Dad opened our home to them, and showed me how I could do the same, if that is what I chose.

Dad also taught me something else.  As a Christian he used the principle of What would Jesus do? to determine his actions.  This was Christian philosophy that built in the 1990’s (but I think Dad adopted it much earlier than that) and was a moral imperative to act in a manner that would demonstrate the love of Jesus through action.  Regardless of your religious belief I think this isn’t a bad way to work.  Maybe it suits to take ‘Jesus’ out and supplement it with something from your own faith.  One thing I like about a variety of religions is that they give a guide of how to live and how to treat others.  I mention Dad’s belief not so much for its religious significance but because it is something he lived day to day.  It was something that he used to determine how he acted towards others, and for him, it worked.  For me, watching him was a 45 year lesson in compassion and how to treat other people.

As a result of Dad’s influence on how I live I ended up in a wide range of situations for which now, I am very grateful.  It lead me into jobs where I could show compassion and then lead me into study (I have a degree in Sociology and Social Work) where I could hopefully make more use of those skills.  Because of my physical health I am not currently able to work but it is still the way I live, by putting myself in another’s shoes.

Image via Try God’s Patience

I strongly believe that it is not my place to judge another person.  I also strongly believe that I should stand up for what I believe in and support people who are unable to stand up for themselves.  I am not some ardent activist, at every protest going, although at 16 I joined a large portion of my country to protest against apartheid at the time when our national rugby team wanted the national team from South Africa  (the Springboks) to play here in 1981.  In New Zealand it was a big thing at the time and many people first chose to stand up for what they believed in.  In hindsight I’m not exactly sure that this is something dad wanted me to be involved in but I think he would have appreciated my sense of wanting to do the right thing.  I admit though that at 16, while I felt strongly about the issue of apartheid in South Africa, there was also an element of excitement in being rebellious and doing what my friends were doing.  To be honest, I’m not sure what was the over-riding factor at the time..

Something that I’ve noticed is that s/he who shouts the loudest gets the action, and for some reason that often seems to be that the loudest is the one with the resources (even if that is just the microphone).  This makes me sad because it means that s/he who does not have the resources, maybe does not have the language skills, does not have the confidence… (there are lots of things they may not have) are the ones who miss out.  Time and time again.  For five years, in an earlier life, I worked for New Zealand’s social security system and I saw this all the time.  People who were confident, English speakers, who knew how a government organisation worked… were much more likely to get the help they needed than those for whom English was not a first language and possibly had some type of health issue (including mental health).  And it will be the same anywhere.  In your country and in mine.  It pays to know how to work ;the system’ and shout loudly.

This is what breaks my heart and really does my head in.  The people who really need the help, aren’t always able to make themselves heard, and to access what is available.

Maybe that’s slightly veering off track but Dad taught me to walk in those people’s shoes, to experience their pain, and not to judge.  He taught me to make a difference.  Dad died suddenly just over a year ago, but this is something that I am very glad he left me.

“Do not wait for leaders; do it alone, person to person.”
- Mother Teresa

“You must be the change you wish to see in the world.”
- Mahatma Gandhi