Monday, November 28, 2016

Knowing me, knowing you.

Several close acquaintances and I have been getting into the Enneagram. It's not hard to find out about, using a respected introduction.

The Enneagram is a personality profiling tool, comparable to Myers Briggs but more profound, nuanced, relational and spiritual (privileging no particular religion).

No wonder, then, that it hits the spot for many of today's pop-psychology-literate sojourners, disillusioned with tribal religion, interested in finding themselves, yearning for deep connection.

There are nine 'types' on the Enneagram wheel, each with depths to be plumbed. Personalities, we learn, are essential and morally neutral. Shaped by our earliest and childhood experiences, they are a skin, important, strong but flexible, not our deepest self.

Personality-assessment tools can be written off as a waste of time, encouraging self-absorption in an already narcissistic generation. Or else accused of encouraging individuals to use their 'type' as an excuse for laziness and immorality. It depends how they're used - they are only tools, after all. With the Enneagram, you can learn to at once accept yourself and recognise the traps your personality sets for you, becoming healthier and able to give much more.

Seeing your personality clearly for what it is, as something you can mould but not totally discard or change, something you can use rather than be controlled by, is proving helpful for me. It took me quite a few goes of the Enneagram questions, alongside other inner work, to even answer them honestly. It turns out I really didn't want to admit to being the Achiever, ....but I'm finally ready to own it!

I can only speak for myself, but in that case working through what being an Achiever means (in Enneagram terms, rather than meaning I achieve lots, well!) has helped enormously in a few short weeks:
1) I see that it is ok to want to achieve things and be admired. I had dedicated much energy to repressing that desire, believing it to be 'wrong' and arrogant, burdening myself hugely in the process
2) I see that I go into situations needing attention and praise, so I am alert to, rather than in denial of, the less healthy ways I might try to get it
3) I am so relieved to have articulated as 'normal' a feeling I have always assumed to be a sign of inauthenticity: for an Achiever, given the extent to which "they have adapted their lives to the expectations of others, [when] the question arises, “Well, then, what do I want?” They often simply did not know".

Believing I'm ok (1) and knowing my weaknesses (2) means that I am closer to believing I already have, or am, what I want (3). So I can stop exhausting myself, flapping about in an attempt to find it somewhere else all the time.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

A life well spent (dedicated to Jo Cox MP)

In Awake My Soul , Mumford and Sons tell us that where we invest our love, we invest our life. This is poetic not precise but it chimes with the disconnect I see in hivemind between input and output. Sometimes, I think we would rather deny any relationship between the two.

As part of today's Western culture, I am steeped in the Protestant Work Ethic. Theologically speaking, this says visible, attritional effort is a 'sign' that a person is among God's elect. We must 'consider the ant' and get busy. Not to achieve anything - only God can do that - but in obedience to the bible / our parents / some other inscrutable external authority.

Accordingly, my youthful busyness was divorced from efficiency or productivity. In fact, until the age of about 35, I played cello (for example) because I thought I should. The idea that practising scales might fuel improvement or musical beauty and pleasure was either absent or suspect. Scales. Were. My. Responsibility. The person who looks busyest and gets least reward is the hero, in this tale.

Marriage is a battleground for reality and fantasy, a victim of our failure to invest in the things we expect to pay us back. We behave as if a good relationship will simply occur because in our dreams it materialises thus. Once marriage lands on our laps, we like to think it will sit there contentedly marinading while we pour our energies into having babies, pursuing careers, picture-perfect homes and social lives and whatever else gets us going. Unlikely.

In a different manner, we like to deceive ourselves about the connection between work and money. Clearly, this is more a chaotic than an orderly relationship. And yet, the rich will rarely thank luck, fate or God. Usually, hard work and suffering are credited. Even though hundreds of millions of the overworked live in slums, by accident of birth and a million of our countryfolk depend on food banks. We wealthy love to boast of long office hours and diminished bank accounts, with no acceptance that this is our choice - no time spent figuring out what work we actually need to do to have enough.

And then, we have a Western world embracing Brexit and Trump. Whatever it is Donald poured his life's energies into, it wasn't getting qualified to be a world leader. The dismissal of opinions from anybody with the professional and academic heritage to grasp what Leave would mean was a key tactic of the winning campaign. We are worryingly prone to being conned into making the wrong investment. We scoff at real work, credentials or ability and spend our life's savings on pride and presentation skills.

Mere mortals cannot control the results of our choices - but we can control our choices. Often there is a clear link between input and output (don't pour too many of your personal resources into arpeggios without enjoying their fruits!) Where the link is more elusive, we can at least invest in the things that matter, whether that's social justice or our partner or amateur dramatics. That way, whatever the returns on our investment, our life and love will have been well spent.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Fight or flight. (Or listen to Gandalf.)

Trump, Brexit, a Syrian asylum seeker and school applications have me thinking about resilience. How best do we make ourselves, our families and our societies resilient to the 'thousand Natural shocks' of human life?

I sympathise with Hamlet's desire for annihilation.... but as most of us will never choose suicide, we don't get to decide what events our lives contain. "All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us", as Gandalf says to Frodo so beautifully.

Hamlet and Frodo personify the conflict between natural desires to 1) hide away, retreat, even die, rather than fight and 2) approach the foe and wrestle with it. This is not a simple or once and for all choice - it is nuanced, endless. Many times we will be called upon to decide whether and how to stand against or to capitulate; to speak up or remain silent; to act or wait.

Resilience, then, is the ability to keep making that 'fight or flight' choice well. In ways that promote life and defend it against 'shocks'.

I mention school applications with tongue in cheek. But young children are ill-affected by today's pressurised early education system and I can determine a little of how my own three-year-olds engage with it. Full-blown resistance might mean campaigning, home educating, delaying school, abstaining from tests. I'm shooting for resilience by accepting the 'normal' system so they can learn to cope with it (capitulating) and hoping to keep the home environment untouched by its pressures (standing against).

When it comes to the political landscape - not unrelated - our easy options are to grumble or deny reality. As individuals, we can do nothing about the new leader of the free world. To a certain extent, we must simply wait and see how all this plays out. But there are plenty of ways to act, too. Some of these are explicitly political. (At the very least, we must vote every time we have chance). We can also build resilience to the hatred, scapegoating and false sense of entitlement that fire destructive politics with hospitality, simplicity of lifestyle, rest, spiritual practices, honest conversation, generosity, time spent outdoors, good consumer choices. I could go on.

I won't say much about the Syrian asylum seeker. It's not a close relationship and I'm prone to fantasy. What I see is someone separated from a family and traumatised homeland, transplanted into a vastly diminished quality of life, dependent on others to determine his future. And an acceptance, positivity and openness that show how, even in those dreaded moments of enforced victimhood, we can be resilient in ways that bless others.

Monday, November 07, 2016

Consider the lillies. Or scabs.

What does it mean to worry?

A couple of decades ago, my worrying was exaggerated fear of bad stuff happening. It has morphed. My 38-year-old self rather allows her thoughts to hover in bad places. It's like the internal 'worrying' of a wound - fiddling, picking, fixating. Suffocating time's natural capacity to heal.

Someone who worries about money might be fixated on getting more. Or on spending less. Or on how to manage what they have. The latter might seem good husbandry. Maybe it is, if you'd answer the question "what's the most important thing in your life?" with "money". Otherwise, no, it's not good to allow so much of your mind to be occupied by something you don't want to care about. (Not bothered by money? Try replacing it here with 'career' or 'what other people think of you' or wherever you invest a lot of brain time.)

Parental worrying is a competitive sport. Who worries better, the parents that drive their kids everywhere, shower them with gifts, monitor their homework and fill every minute with fun? Or the ones that loudly reject this, enforcing counter-cultural, frugal, free-range lifestyles? Maybe the better way is not to sweat it. I don't want to liken my kids to scabs but ..... they're probably going to drop off my knee in less of a mess if I haven't fretted over them too much.

I'm not advocating neglect. Worrying About and Neglecting are not opposites. In fact, they are related. It's a widespread falsehood that the mother who worries more about her finances or the father who fixates on his kids' chances of survival is more attentive. Neglect is a failure to act on the needs of the here and now. Worrying is also a failure to attend to the present moment. Going back to our little wound, worrying is a horror of past hurts and / or an impatience for future improvement. It completely misses the truth of the matter - your body is best left alone right now.

Jesus' Do Not Worry speech helped me out loads when I was about 15. My understanding of its meaning has changed but, today, I find it just as helpful. We humans cannot cast off the tendency and temptation to worry, so the advice is never dated. And it is almost always possible, in a given situation, to worry less and therefore be happier. How? By fully focusing on the present.

I'd say the signs a battle is being won against worry are gratitude and generosity. I'm not very good at those. I'm not very good at being present. But I'm trying not to fret about it.