Life’s Purpose

 

 

With lockdown now into its eleventh week (longer if, like some of us, you went into self-isolation the minute the alarm bells sounded) I’m beginning to wonder if this is what the ‘new normal’ really looks like. For those whose businesses have folded, who have no familiar routine to return to, or who find themselves prematurely retired, getting out of bed in the morning may be the biggest challenge they will face in the ‘new normal’ day. Despite the long weeks of lockdown, nobody is prepared for this sense of purposelessness and for the depression that comes with it.

The shock of the new, if it is new at all, returns us to the age old problem of solitude and loneliness, of purposelessness. But perhaps we also misunderstand the nature of purpose, when it comes to what our lives are for or about. St. Paul, in his letter to the fledgling church in Rome, writes that God works all things to the good for those who love him, who are called according to his purpose (Rom. 8:28) It seems that love, calling and purpose are very closely related. They are bound up in each other.

That, you may say, is all very well for those who have the time to ponder these things, whose thoughts and concerns are not taken up with how to pay the rent and feed their children, once the furlough money stops and their wages with it. And yet there is a connection between loving God and the harsh realities that many people will face post-lockdown. I think it has to do with our ability to somehow anchor our fears and uncertainties in a deep conviction about the transforming possibilities of love.

Every now and then we see these possibilities arising in the most unlikely contexts, in the angry confrontations that we are witnessing on both sides of the Atlantic at the moment, and in the way they oblige us to confront our complicity in what can only be described as the historic sins of slavery, racism and all forms of prejudice. Where we confront prejudice in ourselves, we must turn and seek forgiveness from those we distrust and at the same time fear, because prejudice and fear belong together. But the hardest thing is not the seeking of forgiveness. It is the acceptance of it.

Accepting another’s forgiveness obliges us to open our hearts to those we have wronged, and who we now fear, and then to keep them open. It obliges us to go on accepting love. We have seen small instances of this happening. Riot police taking a knee before protestors and the gentle acceptance of love and forgiveness that follows. Black people refusing to hate white people. The walls of hostility come down, momentarily perhaps, but also irreversibly. Hope replaces despair. Somewhere in all this the loving purposes of God are at work.

The Christian Church is called to embody the loving purposes of God. But it cannot do this unless it re-connects with its own humanity, unless it thinks of itself not as an organisation, or an institution, but as a vulnerable body of human beings called to live out God’s purposes for the world. The Church defines itself as the body of Christ to the extent that it knows itself to be a people whom God loves and who love God. Where there is indifference to God, there is also indifference to the suffering of other human beings. So, for Christians, the living out of God’s purpose begins with self questioning, first in regard to whether we love God and, secondly, in the extent to which others feel our love for God in the way we think of them, speak of them, and act towards them.

All of this returns us to the acceptance of forgiveness which is at the heart of the Christian faith. Accepting that we are forgiven, keeping our hearts open to this often painful reality, disposes us to love others as Christ loves us. We still have time, before the end of lockdown, to decide whether we want to live our lives in the knowledge of this world transforming reality.

Have A Nice Day

 

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Summer colds are the worst. So is depression on a clear blue late September day. There is some consolation in knowing that you are not the only sufferer, but only very little. This is because the worst thing about colds, ‘flu and depression is that they claim you. You may try, if you are a praying sort of person, to think of all those who are suffering from far greater physical or mental conditions than your own, but this seldom takes you to a different place. On the other hand, you might also try being fully present to the moment through owning it fully. This helps but it requires focus, and depression makes focus almost impossible. You are constantly returned to whatever trigger set this particular downward spiral in motion.

Having read few books on the subject of depression (they tend to make me more depressed, so I read them later when the depression has passed) I have evolved my own coping mechanisms. One of these, the most important perhaps, draws on Jon Kabat-Zinn’s helpful thesis; ‘you are not your depression’[1]. Your depression does not own you, so there is no reason to allow yourself to be consumed by it. But trying to suppress it doesn’t work either. It’s better, if possible, to step outside the depression and view it objectively. Ask yourself what it is, rather than what it is about or what has caused it. You find that just like a cold or ‘flu, it is simply depression, a condition that chiefly affects our state of mind, although it can have serious physical side effects, some of them even life threatening.

In looking at depression objectively, hard as that may be at the time, two further things emerge; the first, an objective take on the underlying depression that to a greater or lesser extent most of us carry around for much of our lives and, the second, the will to make something positive and good happen out of it for someone else. This is not self sacrifice. It is self preservation.

It is also the nearest I can get to a definition of depression as prayer. In times of depression prayer has to do with the determination to convert negative energy into something positive and re-creative for another person, or another situation. This conversion of energy is not something we do through our own efforts, but something we want to have happen. Depression adds acuity to the wanting, even if the wanting is not consciously directed to God, but comes from a determination that our depression at least serve some good purpose. The determined wanting is the prayer.

The wanting is important, first because the will to re-create, or to bring life from something that is essentially about death, takes us to a different place of understanding in regard to ourselves and to the purpose of our own lives. The worst thing about depression, and about the lingering viruses that feed depression, is that they weaken us both physically and emotionally to the point that it is hard to believe we have a purpose at all and it is equally hard to believe that there is anyone or anything worth the effort needed to make our experience of depression something that could be life transforming for someone else. I think this is what Christ himself experienced as he walked to the place of his execution – the seeming purposelessness of it all.

But in wanting life to come from our current experience of death, which is what depression amounts to much of the time, we become agents of re-creation for the persons or situations we most care about. Here is where truth comes in. When we hit rock bottom in depression, we also hit truth, if we allow ourselves to. Truth reveals to us, sometimes surprisingly, who these people or situations really are. Depression focuses the mind on the things and the people that really matter to us. It is a great refiner.

In times of depression, we do not have the means for holding on to the delusions which help to cushion us from long hidden pain or from the memory of destructive relationships. Work, alcohol, general activism, or any other addictive pursuit will simply not do it for us once depression takes hold, so it is as well to face this from the beginning.

When it comes to looking at how past pain and the things which trigger it are feeding this particular depression, it helps, once again, to step back, to allow objectivity. In order to do this, I have found it necessary to first let go of all the past circumstances that trigger the pain of the present so that I can come to terms with the fact that I cannot change them. Letting go does not mean burying them by trying to ‘forget’. Letting go is a willingness to allow a transfiguring of the way we experience the pain of today. This helps to re-direct our wanting from a desire to be vindicated for the past, as well as from whatever has contributed to the current depression, into a forceful wanting that life should come out of the darkness and death which threatens to overwhelm us. Sooner or later that determined wanting, that urgent need to be heard by God, will win through.

[1] Jon Kabat-Zinn Full Catastrophe Living: How to cope with stress, pain and illness using mindfulness meditation, Platkus Books Ltd., London (2004)