Our life is what our thoughts make it

This morning I found another short but devastatingly profound quote. This one is by Marcus Aurelius. ‘Our life is what our thoughts make it’. When I read these words the immediate thought that springs to mind is the realisation that amidst a global pandemic that has already claimed so many lives, the real monsters I see devouring people in society are anxiety and depression. I have never suffered from depression or at least I don’t think I have. I have certainly felt depressed on many occasions and have been close to that cliff edge of darkness often enough, but have been providentially lucky to have never actually fallen. Anxiety is the demon I battle regularly. The battles rage in frequency and intensity but I am always fighting that war. Much of it is down to how I am wired, to my genes, but a lot of it is to do with the environment I find myself in and the external agents I choose to put around me or feed from.

Marcus Aurelius statement is so simple yet it encompasses such power, one wonders how so many of us inherently know this to be the truth and yet, we choose to feed our minds with all the wrong things, the very things that are triggers for our thoughts to go on a downward spiral of negativity and self-destruction. We spend so much time of our lives watching tv, feeding our brain with all kinds of images, thoughts, behaviours, responses and attitudes. We spend even more countless hours on social media gulping down negativity, hatred, vileness, insults, threats, misinformation, sheer aggression, scaremongering and endless other sources of fear and hopelessness.

And further still, what about the people that we choose to hang around with, invest our energy in or after whom we mould our psyche, our soul, our behaviour? Why are we all so easily influenced by others? Is it because it is easier to follow than to lead by example? Why do we care so much what others think and in doing so we train our minds to suit the needs of others, when in reality the golden key to an anxiety-free life lies within each of us? If we don’t put our bodies at risk by jumping in a car with someone whose driving skills are decidedly doubtful, why do we allow others’ flawed, damaging reasoning and pathological patterns of behaviour and logic to shape our own?

I have never been a social animal. Quite the opposite: the awkward child who struggled in large social gatherings; who always felt like I didn’t fit in. But why is it so excruciatingly vital to us that we fit in in the first place? I have punished myself mentally for most of my life for being that person that always stood out for hiding in the background in awkwardness. Growing up I didn’t have the ‘know-how’ of how to get out of that rut, but over the years I have been on this path to freedom from ‘outside influences’. Medical staff wear protective equipment when fighting a virus so that the assailant does not enter their bodies. And yet, we are perilous and irreparably careless with neglecting to put a protective shield round our minds everyday. We open up the gates and let all kinds of enemies trample in and rob us of our joy, our peace, our security.

Apart from my family, I have become a bit of an island in my later years. Disillusioned and disenchanted from the very sources of hope, guidance and encouragement most of us entrust our lives and our minds to: religion, the system, politics and even friends. I have learnt to wear that mental shield every single day; to filter carefully what I feed my mind with; who I listen to and whose truth I abide by. I am not lonely, though I choose to be alone in this process of soul-building. The power to overrule the thoughts that determine my quality of mental life resides within me and me alone, so solitude is for me the biggest blessing and not a curse as I have always been pushed to believe.

Comfortable being afraid

‘Comfortable being afraid’ is something I read this morning on https://after-the-rain.org/ and it truly struck a chord deep in my psyche. I can totally relate to that notion! Years ago, a bunch of women including myself who were members of the same church, went on a ‘Ladies Weekend Away’. It was ‘advertised’ as a team-building weekend full of physical and emotional challenges designed to push us beyond our own limitations; to overcome our deepest fears; to build courage and trust. Blinded by years of indoctrination, I swallowed the bait and marched on so proud of myself for putting myself in ‘the line of fire’. I have in my later years grown very afraid of heights, and one of the very first activities we were faced with that weekend was abseiling off a very high bridge above a river. This was it. This was the one: my demon. I let others go first in the hope of watching how they went about leaping over the side of the bridge and beginning their descend. My turn came and even before starting, I was already struggling to breathe; shaking beyond control. Everybody else who had completed the task cheered me on, as did those waiting to have a turn. I put one leg over the side of the bridge, then the other and held on for dear life not daring to look down. The instructor started giving me a pep talk to build me up so I would finally start my descend, but I already knew I was not going to do it.

With every second perched on that bridge ledge came a new wave of suffocating dread. I was utterly paralysed mentally and physically. Couldn’t bring myself to move either way, even though I was already trying to get back on the safe side of the bridge. I burst into tears. I guess it was the huge release I needed to bring me back to myself; I was totally inconsolable once I stepped back into safety. I don’t remember ever crying like that before. Afterwards, I felt dead inside, numb.

As I stood there beaten, ashamed, watching others march on without any fear towards what had been for me a horrific ordeal, I heard one of the ladies ask a question to the vicar’s wife, who happened to have organised this weekend away and had been to this same Activities Centre previously and was therefore well rehearsed in all the activities and confident in her ability to ‘conquer her fears ( didn’t have any)’. I heard this lady ask the vicar’s wife: What happened to Mercedes? Did she do it?, and the vicar’s wife replied with great pride and a shockingly disgusting lack of Christian spirit and empathy: ‘No she didn’t, she chickened out‘.

I don’t know what broke me more int that instant: the realisation that I was always going to have certain fears which I would never overcome, or knowing that so many in the ‘Evangelical Squad’ can be so profoundly clueless as to use an opportunity like this to exalt themselves (not the God they preach to others about), ridicule another person, and further beat them when they are already down.

It took me a while longer to abandon the church system for good, but I know it was in that very instant that I realised the God I believe in was not to be found around those who claim to have all the answers; those who claim to have been called to leadership of any kind; those who proclaim one thing but do quite another. I realised God’s Spirit (and I use that term loosely because I accept that it means very different things to different people) lives within me and it is that voice and that alone I need to heed to and trust.

I also learnt at that very moment a huge lesson about fear. I am not to be ashamed of being scared of doing the things that others can or want to do; ashamed of letting fear stop me from taking on certain new challenges. Who is to say the challenges that are right for you must also be right for me? I do hope, however, that I never lose the ability to be paralysed when tempted to trample down on another human being in their moment of greatest weakness in order to make myself look grandiose to everyone else; to validate my self-perceived greatness. I hope that for every person I encounter in my life who is struggling in any way, I don’t use their weakness as a chance for point-scoring, but rather as an opportunity to lift them up, offer them comfort and a shoulder to lean on; to cry on.

Our biggest fear shouldn’t be not being able to do certain things; to miss certain opportunities; to fail at certain things. Our biggest fear should be becoming so caught up in our own sense of advancement, righteousness and knowledge that we forget we are just human beings not Gods. Is it really courage that makes us overcome our greatest fears or is it pride that makes us think of ourselves higher than we ought to; pride that gives us the determination to beat our own limits, because we cannot bring ourselves to accept that we are after all limited beings?

There is a reason why we experience fear. We are imperfect beings without all the answers. We are lost creatures in the midst of a vast unknown. Being fearless means losing sight of that awareness and dangerously inflating, stroking our egos; it means we forget ourselves and set ourselves above others whom we no longer see as equals but as the rivals we need to beat in order to protect our own and others’ notion of our superiority.

I am very comfortable these days being afraid. It keeps me grounded. It keeps me humble. I take risks and chances like everybody else, and of course sometimes I make mistakes, but I remain rooted in the awareness of my many limitations, and when I do attempt new scary things, I always try not to trample on others in my pursuit for self development, self-fulfillment, self-discovery.

A parallel reality

Sat in my office now for twenty minutes but struggling to get on with work. I guess I am facing the daily conundrum of which voice to adhere to: my rampaging thoughts that assail me like bullets or the quiet still small voice of my soul that beckons me to step out outside of myself into another dimension where neither time nor space are of any consequence. The former is comforting in as much as it is familiar, rehearsed but it is also frenetic, mechanic, lifeless, repetitive. The later is liberating, life-giving, tempting, dangerous, annoyingly quiet to the point where one has to go seeking, escaping the safe confines of routine.

Is it just me or it is becoming increasingly harder to find light and hope in this messed up old world? Desperately trying to keep seeing my glass half full which is ironic, because to many who know me, it will seem overflowing with abundance and contentment. Life is all a matter of perspective, though, isn’t it? As cliche as it sounds, most of us judge a book by its cover and none of us really have a clue of the demons, the agonies lurking in the depths of a human being; the battles raging in the innermost layers of their soul. Just as most of us fail to discern the true joys and epiphanies that fan another one’s flame to keep going. In the end, even those with great perceptive skills only see in us the layers which we allow them to see. Can anyone say that a person truly knows another? Very much doubt that. I am on the other side of the hill and am still peeling my own layers of character development, growth, morality and spirituality. No one can claim they truly know us until we know ourselves, and that is an on-going process, so by logic, each of us will remain an unlocked mystery even beyond death.

Spring is coming!