Thursday, December 31, 2015

New Years Song For The Broken-Hearted

for those whose situation does not yield for a cup of kindness here.
for those who will still wonder where their next meal will come from in 2016.

for those who have long given up on 2017 and 2018,
and the years beyond long long ago when you were deeply hurt.

for those who lost their jobs in 2015 and are tired of all the paperwork to complete
in order to receive benefits that are pathetically shrinking.

for the disabled, either short term or long-term,
mentally, physically, or in any way.

for those for whom holidays lost their meaning long long ago,
perhaps during childhood.
instead they shine a light on a shattered innocence and faded laughter and dreams.

for the lonely.

for all of you, I have been to many of your desolate places.

i wish you a spark of hope, some warmth for your heart,
and a silent prayer that despite all appearances,
you will know the simple but life-giving fact that you are loved and lovable.

a sincere happy new year 2015, my sisters and brothers
~ mark andrew nouwen

At The End Of The Year

At The End Of The Year

The particular mind of the ocean
Filling the coastline’s longing
With such brief harvest
Of elegant, vanishing waves
Is like the mind of time
Opening us shapes of days.
As this year draws to its end,
We give thanks for the gifts it brought
And how they became inlaid within
Where neither time nor tide can touch them.
The days when the veil lifted
And the soul could see delight;
When a quiver caressed the heart
In the sheer exuberance of being here.
Surprises that came awake
In forgotten corners of old fields
Where expectation seemed to have quenched.
The slow, brooding times
When all was awkward
And the wave in the mind
Pierced every sore with salt.
The darkened days that stopped
The confidence of the dawn.
Days when beloved faces shone brighter
With light from beyond themselves;
And from the granite of some secret sorrow
A stream of buried tears loosened.
We bless this year for all we learned,
For all we loved and lost
And for the quiet way it brought us
Nearer to our invisible destination.

John O’Donohue (1956 – 2008)

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Co-existence Is A Foundation, But Peace Is Much Deeper.

"Real peace implies something deeper than polite acceptance of those who are different. It means meeting those who are different, appreciating them and their culture, and creating bonds of friendship with them. Family, culture, religion, community, and friendship are all realities that are vital for human growth. But we need to learn how not to remain enclosed or imprisoned in such groups. We have to cross boundaries and meet others who are different. Coexistence is a foundation, and it is important, but peace is something much deeper. To create peace we have to go further than just saying hello. We have to discover who the other person is and reveal who we are. As we listen to and really meet one another, we begin to see the work of God in the beauty and value, in the deepest personhood, of those who are different."
~ Jean Vanier, Finding Peace (Anansi 2003).

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Scraping Off The Mud That Hides The Light

How long have you been caked in mud? I'm not talking about dirt, the kind that you can quickly shake off like a Taylor Swift song; I'm talking about deep, dense mud that you've either covered yourself in or had flung at you by someone else. Maybe you think that this is all there is to life, that your ship has sailed, that happiness, even contentment is something for those other people, but not you. You're just surviving, and it seems that's all there ever will be. I don't have a magic potion, I can not snap my fingers and send you back in time to a place when you felt unsullied and non-violated by the spindly cold fingers of that someone, or that system that kept you from shining the light inside. But I can stay here and say that no matter how dark, no matter how grim things may seem or actually may be, that light is still inside of each and every one of you. It may take time to uncover it, to scrape off the mud, but it is there. As much as you may have tried to go it alone, to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps - something that we often hear is a noble thing to do - that is just another lie. We need others - others who will confirm our inner light even when we can't see it, others who won't provide easy answers, but will sit there with us as we scrape off the mud. The priest and author Henri Nouwen was wise when he wrote that we must be careful where and with whom we share our pain. If we are not on the road to healing - be that through professional help or some other aid - we may soon find ourselves bleeding all over the place and feeling that many people are walking away with different parts of ourselves. Cry inward, he writes, and the inner light that you do still possess will eventually pierce the darkness.

This is not the end, no matter how dark, dank, and devastating as this may be. Let us begin again and again and again.

Mark Andrew Nouwen

Sunday, November 29, 2015

The Role Of Religion & Inner Wholeness As We Seek Global Peace

Quaker pastor and author Philip Gulley.
"I have a friend who believes a personal relationship with Jesus is essential for peace. He cites as proof the violence and upheaval in nations that aren't predominantly Christian. Though predominantly Christian nations aren't exempt from violence, he believes that is an aberration, not indicative of a general trend. I believe my friend, despite his many virtues, is unaware of the tendency of Christians to be just as violent as our fellow religionists.
I don't say this to denigrate Christianity or any other faith. Religion, when grounded in an ethos of grace, forgiveness, and reconciliation, can be a powerful tool in the struggle for peace. It matters little whether that religion is Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, or Hinduism. What matters is the believer's commitment to the highest ideals of his or her religion. But our tendency to believe our own religion or nation is uniquely qualified to attain a virtuous goal is part and parcel of our dilemma - we believe the best about ourselves and suspect the worst about others. This inward lack of trust breeds outward suspicion, generates ill will, and makes peace all the more unlikely. 
Violence is a human problem with a human solution. I believe in a Divine Presence, but I see little evidence that God miraculously intervenes to bring peace. While some who work for peace are motivated by religious principles, even those who are not religious have a role to play. The work of reconciliation begins when we believe in the inward capacity of people of all religions (and people of no religion), nations, and cultures to contribute to that end.
Inward wholeness is the foundation on which outward peace rests. We live from the inside out. Inward imperfections rise to the surface, just as magma pushes through to the earth's surface. Consequently, the work of peace begins with a sincere consideration of our inner condition and its effect on our world. Does our greed create economic inequality? Do our prejudices make it easier to despise and exclude others? Do our religious beliefs breed distrust? Do we expect moral perfection from others with little awareness of our own ethical frailties? What inward deficiencies of our own push to the surface in our lives, causing harm to others? 
~ Philip Gulley, "Living The Quaker Way: Discover The Hidden Happiness In The Simple Life," 2013. 

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Recovering Our Love Of Mystery

"As our dark nights deepen, we find ourselves recovering our love of mystery. When we were children, most of us were good friends with mystery. The world was full of it and we loved it. Then as we grew older, we slowly accepted the indoctrination that mystery exists only to be solved. For many of us, mystery became an adversary; unknowing became a weakness. The contemplative spiritual life is an ongoing reversal of this adjustment. It is a slow and sometimes painful process of becoming 'as little children' again in which we first make friends with mystery and finally fall in love again with it. And in that love we find an ever increasing freedom to be who we really are in an identity that is continually emerging and never defined. We are freed to join the dance of life in fullness without having a clue about what the steps are."
 ~ Gerald G. May "The Dark Night Of The Soul: A Psychiatrist Explores the Connection Between Darkness and Spiritual Growth" 2005.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Terrorism & You: Go Ahead And Be Afraid

The last few weeks, and if I'd been paying closer attention the last few months, have perhaps been the most shockingly violent that I've seen when turning on The National or listening to CBC Radio 1 in the morning. Like many, I largely ignored terrorist attacks by ISIS, al-Qaeda, or other extremist groups, because the attacks were in the Middle East or Africa, and frankly, that kind of stuff just happens over there.

However, when it happens in the West, whether it be in Manhattan, Ottawa, or Paris, I stand up and take notice. But my thoughts tonight are not about the hypocrisy of caring about terror closer to home or where the majority of victims are white (and it's a huge hypocrisy, even with racial undertones); my thoughts are about the reaction that our leaders suggest we have in response to terror.

After the attacks of 9/11 as well as those in my capital city and then in Paris, one by one Prime Ministers and Presidents from affected countries as well as those in solidarity with them, well, they seem to have a common theme in their messages:

"ISIS (or insert other terrorist organization here) wants to make us afraid. But they have failed. We are not afraid. Instead these acts have brought us together and we are stronger than we have ever been in our resolve."

Friends, have you seen any interviews from the streets of Brussels this weekend, where Belgian leaders have declared a state of emergency and banned public gatherings while deploying major security throughout the capital? Have you seen the look of worry on the faces of Parisians as they're still shell-shocked by the acts in the Bataclan club and the restaurants?

This is my thought tonight. Don't be afraid to be afraid! Fear is an emotion, and I've too often found in my life that when I try to bury my emotions, whatever they may be, the consequence is often ugly, from further anxiety to physical, mental, or emotional illness.

Like hell there's nothing to be afraid of rather than fear itself - sorry FDR! If it isn't scary to think of the possibility of walking down a city street and being beheaded, or attending a concert and having terrorists walk in and use the crowd as target practice, or having a Molotov cocktail thrown into your place of worship, then I don't know what is.

The question then is, what do we do with our fear once we stop playing pretend and admitting that it is present? I don't have all those answers tonight as my sleeping pills kick in, but I think it can mean many things, including being mindful during our day, breathing deeply, and reducing the amount of time we spend in front of the gory images coming out of Paris or wherever it may be.

But for god's sakes, feel free to feel afraid. It's not going to kill you, and you're not handing a win to any terrorist.

Mark Andrew Nouwen

Monday, November 9, 2015

Tempest In A Pee-Cup

Each of us faces adversity in our lives. Some of us seem to face more of it than others, and to varying degrees. We're unhappy with our relationship statuses (stati?), jobs, family life, or how our preferred sports teams are performing. Someone cuts in front of us in line at the coffee shop, or we get caught in a rainstorm without an umby. 

However, on this day, I can think of no greater challenge, no greater frustration than having to pee on command. That's right, this entry is about pee.

This morning I went to the hospital in order to have blood work done - my cholesterol is "off the scale" at times according to my doctors - and peeing was not the only obstacle that I faced. I had to fast for twelve hours before having my arm poked in a not-so-random act of vial-in-ce. That's right, I had to forego my toasted tomato sandwich, banana, yogurt, and soy milk (at this point you may be thinking "Good for you, Mark Andrew! That's a fairly healthy breakie!") And you'd be right. 

However, immediately after having my blood drawn by some prick (ahem), I faced the dreaded task of having to slip into the side washroom and attempt to take a leak into a small plastic jar. I hate doing this. I've hated it for as long as I can remember. And that's because I'm almost never able to do it. Call it performance identity or call it by any other name - I just can't do it. Knowing that I would have to go through the stream-lined process before going to the hospital, I drank three and a half cups of water before the short walk down the street to the lab, but to no avail. After about fifteen minutes - yes, fifteen - of remaining in the washroom attempting to contact Flo (it was such a long time that I could have written an epistle,) I gave up and sheepishly walked out of the washroom with the empty cup. The nurse - or technician - or phlebotomist - looked at me approvingly, thinking I had done the deed, and motioned me to place the cup on the silver table beside me. I had to reveal my frustration, and she was kind, but also gave me the look that a mother gives when she has to tell you that Fluffy was very sick and wouldn't be coming home anymore. 

I felt so defeated.

I proceeded to walk the three minutes to the local Tim Hortons in order to have some lunch, now that I could at least eat, and there was a swarm of high school students in front of me on their lunch break. I kept thinking, "I bet none of these kids would have difficulty peeing into a cup." I had my lunch, consisting of a sandwich, a Canadian Maple donut, and a dark roast coffee (with two creams and two sweeteners, because I knew you'd ask), and I found a paper and read several articles. And then it came. NO, not literally!!! But all of a sudden, because I wasn't being prompted, I felt the relief to, well, relieve. 

After completing the task, I walked back to the hospital and walked into the lab - something that I do often with other people's various samples, as I volunteer at the hospital. However, it was strangely different this time. When I went to hand the biohazard bag containing the cup which therein contained my pee, I felt a sort of pride, the kind of pride that a child must feel when they finally master the art of using the potty. I then felt a strange kind of disappointment that no one was giving me a sucker or ice cream in order to reward me for my accomplishment. This had been a day to remember, and it was only 12:30pm. Needing some validation, I asked the lab technician: "On a scale of one to ten, how fabulous do I look today?" 

"Well, I'd have to say... 'yer an eight." 

Mark Andrew Nouwen

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Pretty In Pink? Cancer Is Not Cotton Candy

It's that time of the year again. No, I'm not talking about Remembrance Day, nor am I talking about Christmas, though by the displays in many stores, December 25th is just around the corner. What's with that? It's early November.

It is the eleventh month, so that can only mean one thing: men across the country will bid adieu to their Gillette and Schick razors, and take up the call to rise for Movember. Yes, Movember. I too have decided to grow my beard out again (you're welcome ladies).

However, I am not doing so for "cancer awareness."

According to Prostate Cancer Canada, "Movember is the month formerly known as November, where men and women across the globe join together to raise awareness and funds for men's health, specifically prostate cancer, testicular cancer and men's mental health. Men (also known as Mo Bros) sign up online at" Yes, that's right, Mo Bros.

I was similarly unsettled several weeks ago when I went to a local hockey game in my small city and they were making a big deal of the players wearing pink jerseys as well as skate laces, etc to "raise awareness" for breast cancer in conjunction with an event called "Bowling For Boobs." (It makes me wonder what's next - Ninjutsu for Nuts?)

My problem is two-fold when it comes to campaigns such as the popular Pink Ribbon campaign as well as the countless runs, walks, fundraisers that dot the landscape each and every year. (Each month seems to be an awareness month for a certain type of cancer).

1) And I'll put this in bold, though I'll refrain from using capslock: We're "aware" already, for god's sake! What it is about awareness? Do organizers think that just because we hear an announcement for a benefit barbecue in the park, that thousands will steer their cars to the side of the road and say, "Holy Shit! There's a breast/colorectal/lung/prostate cancer crisis in this country?!" Who among us has not either been personally affected or known someone very close to us personally affected or who have died of this horrible disease? Enough awareness, it's time that more is done to actually see it and tackle it for the terrible disease that it is. More research, more money, stronger commitments. Now, I do realize that some of these fundraisers and benefits and campaigns do support and provide money for research. I guess I would just like to hear the usage of the word awareness disappear. In the last two years alone, I have had two cousins, a great-aunt, an aunt, and a good friend die of cancer, with other friends or family members surviving lengthy battles with it. I'm aware.

2) My second point is that cancer is not pretty. But there it is, pink pink, everywhere! According to the source of all things, Wikipedia, the pink ribbon was adopted as the official symbol of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month in 1992. Since that time, you see pink on everything from t-shirts to teddy bears to car decals to toilet paper packaging. What you may not be "aware" of is that the Pink Ribbon movement is also a big money maker, with a significant amount of your donations not going to cancer research. Another interesting piece of history is before the dawn of the pink ribbon, Estée Lauder and Self Magazine initially approached Charlotte Haley, who had begun a peach-coloured ribbon campaign to press the National Cancer Institute to increase its budget for cancer prevention research. Haley refused to be part of what she felt was a commercial effort, so Estée Lauder and Self changed the colour of their ribbon to light pink in 2005, to circumvent Haley's efforts to stop them. Since then, billions of dollars have went to the Susan G. Komen Foundation, with consumers thinking that just because something has the colour pink on it and the words "cancer awareness" or "cancer research" on it, that your money is going to those things.

But back to the "cancer is not pretty" notion for a minute. Let me say now that I am sure that supporters wearing pink and rallying around family members and friends has helped millions of women and men throughout the years, and it will continue to do so. But there is a large group of people for whom this is not the case. I have not personally had cancer, but many who have or who have been affected by it say that "dolling" the disease up by slapping pink on it is not helpful to them.

To this effect, I highly recommend that you go to this link and watch the extremely eye-opening and somewhat shocking 2011 documentary Pink Ribbons, Inc. which talks about where the money is going, as well as how dolling up cancer is more than a little frustrating for many who have had or currently have the disease. It's worth skipping a movie on Netflix and watching this hour and a half doc.

So this November, I'll grow the 'stache, but I'll call it an early playoff beard.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Our Need To Reinvent The Wheel

"What I have discovered by following the call to consciously discover and live the meaning in my life is not something unique or new. It echoes the experiences and insights of seekers and students and teachers on many different spiritual paths. Sometimes, when I write in my journal of some insight I have had into my own experience, I realize that it is familiar, similar or identical to something I have read or heard from a spiritual teacher. And I laugh at my own sense of discovery. One morning, shaking my head at the length of my journey to discover the truth in something I had been told years before, I think to myself, 'Does each of us have to reinvent the wheel?' Even as the question comes I know the answer is yes. Yes, each of us needs to experience the truth for ourselves, each of us needs to follow our own path to self-realization even though the self we realize is in essence identical to and not truly separate from all others. There is simply no way to get there except by going through the process yourself."
~ Oriah Mountain Dreamer, "The Call: Discovering Why You Are Here"

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Allow Yourself To Be Fully Received

Henri J.M. Nouwen (1932 ~ 1996)

"Giving yourself to others without expecting anything in return is only possible when you have been fully received. Every time you discover that you expect something in return for what you have given or are disappointed when nothing comes back to you, you are being made aware that you yourself are not yet fully received. Only when you know yourself as unconditionally loved–that is, fully received–by God can you give gratuitously. Giving without wanting anything in return is trusting that all your needs will be provided for by the One who loves you unconditionally. It is trusting that you do not need to protect your own security but can give yourself completely to the service of others.
Faith is precisely trusting that you who give gratuitously will receive gratuitously, but not necessarily from the person to whom you gave. The danger is in pouring yourself out to others in the hope that they will fully receive you. You will soon feel as if others are walking away with parts of you. You cannot give yourself to others if you do not own yourself, and you can only truly own yourself when you have been fully received in unconditional love.
A lot of giving and receiving has a violent quality, because the givers and receivers act more out of need than out of trust. What looks like generosity is actually manipulation, and what looks like love is really a cry for affection or support. When you know yourself as fully loved, you will be able to give according to the other’s capacity to receive, and you will be able to receive according to the other’s capacity to give. You will be grateful for what is given to you without clinging to it, and joyful for what you can give without bragging about it. You will be a free person, free to love."
~ Henri Nouwen, "The Inner Voice of Love: A Journey Through Anguish to Freedom

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Welcome To Wild Open Spaces!

Welcome to my blog, Wild Open Spaces. I'll be writing about spirituality, politics, social justice issues, and life in general. In the past I have tended to be rather polarizing in my writings; I am looking to change that, while still remaining passionate! Thanks for Liking my page, and I look forward to our conversations!

Sunday, April 19, 2015

That Time When I Gave Up On Giving Up

Maybe you're a little like me. Once upon a time you dreamed big dreams, you envisioned yourself in a career or a relationship, or pursuing that thing that you were passionate about. You were young and you were awkward and your clothes didn't always match, but that didn't matter, because your ego hadn't completely taken over and you were still impervious to the World of Success and Dream-Crushing. When you were three, maybe you wanted to be a fireman or princess; when you were sixteen, maybe you wanted to travel to Africa and set up malaria clinics or be a Hollywood actor.

But at some point, you gave up on your dreams. Maybe it was the Dream-Crushing World, or maybe it was one or two people who beat you down, little by little each day, and you learned, like me, to settle. Yes, you showed signs of passion and inspiration, because the light inside never really dies, but storm clouds became the norm. First it was a few days without seeing the sun, then a few weeks, and then maybe twenty years. Life refused to slow down to let you somehow get out of this stunned and shocked feeling, in fact it sped up as you began to get a little older.

Your dreams became mere fantasies rather than a life that was achievable. Somewhere in there, you learned to retreat deep into your head, over-thinking your obsessions, and obsessing about your over-thinking. Living turned into thinking.

Whatever the reason that it happened, it happened. Maybe it was a result of being the ugly duckling at school. Maybe it was major depression and other mental illnesses. Maybe it was a parent, like the one at the coffee shop today who looked at her maybe-seven-year-old boy and told him "Stop being a friggin' ass, you're never coming here with me again." Maybe someone stole your innocence when you were completely powerless.

Have you settled? Have you given up? Giving up can take many forms and it has many faces. Maybe you stay in bed everyday until two in the afternoon and refuse to get help. Maybe you carry yourself very well in a decent career, but quietly you hate it and wonder "How did I ever get here?"

As long as there is breath, there is something in our favour. There is choice, and a chance to start dreaming again. What is it that you want to do? Who is it that you want to be? When will you allow yourself to be vulnerable enough to fall madly in love, even if it means getting your heart broken?

I'm not sure of a whole lot of things today. But in a week, in a month, in a year, I can look back and say, "Remember that time when I gave up on giving up?"

Mark Andrew Nouwen

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Easter: Our Yearly Reminder That We Really Are Trash

Here we are again in the middle of Easter weekend, and throughout progressive Christian churches and circles you will hear sermons and read articles which try to shed a different light on the Jesus story. They will focus on liberation theology, how Jesus’ mission was to reach out to the marginalized, and how he was so inwardly free that he was able to give himself up totally, even to the point of death. Many of these sermons and articles will hold a measure of insight and truth.

But this isn’t that kind of article.

This evening a Facebook friend of mine who I attended a fundamentalist Bible college with posted one of those dreaded meme’s – you know, a cutesy or even powerful picture with an equal cutesy or powerful/insightful quote. But it’s holy week, so the flippancy and absurd nature of such meme’s have found their way into my Facebook feed. This particular meme featured a picture of Jesus on the cross, accompanied by a quote by the American Calvinist theologian and author R.C. Sproul. The quote reads as follows: “Why do bad things happen to good people? That only happened once, and He volunteered.”

There it was – the essential message of fundamentalist Christianity this time of year. In order to raise up Christ, we must naturally denigrate every single human being who ever lived or whoever will live. The rest of us are bad boys and girls who deserve a spanking – an eternal spanking at that. Fundamentalist evangelical Christian preachers and authors thus become bully-enablers.  Jesus is the most powerful person on the playground, and you must submit to his awesomeness at the expense of your own dignity.

I don’t know about you, but I’m so over the idea of original sin. Does anyone with a rational mind still believe that a long time ago in a place far far away (to most of us), a woman was given a piece of fruit by a talking snake, and that this woman then handed it to her husband, who upon taking a bite, ensured the filthiness and depravity of each and every person who would ever live from that time forward? (It was also probably convenient for the author of the creation myth to blame “Eve,” simply on the basis that she was the subordinate woman.)

Ever since this teaching of the fall of humanity became popular and then vastly accepted as traditional Christian doctrine, guilt and shame has been burned, etched into the psyche’s of those of us who were fortunate enough (tongue-in-cheek) to grow up within fundamentalism. “Guilt: the gift that keeps on giving!” as Bishop John Shelby Spong is fond of saying.  We are wretches, worms, unworthy of gathering up the crumbs from God’s table – that is, until the supposedly perfect Jewish Christ relented and finally granted the Gentile woman her wish after a clever reply that she managed to give.

This guilt complex has often invaded us at almost every level and in almost every instance at one point or another in our lives. Not only have we often heard from one or both parents that we’re a “bad boy” or a “dirty girl,” but it is reinforced with a divine devastation. We’re guilty of acts of commission, we’re guilty of acts of omission. We’re guilty for being sexual beings, we’re guilty for using our brains and questioning our pastors or a centuries-old worldview. We’re guilty for only praying for 15 minutes and not 20.

If we’ve had religious guilt pounded into our psyche’s and hearts by those we consider our holy leaders, it has seemed only natural that we turn to them for some way – ANY way – out of our dire predicament in order to escape this earthly guilt as well as eternal hellfire.

And so we bought into the idea of blood atonement. Many of us heard and sang about the blood of Jesus so much growing up that we were practically "brain-washed in the blood" of God’s only son. And it seemed like a perfectly natural idea, probably because it drastically reduced (at least for a fleeting time) our unbearable guilt complex. However, once we give up the notion that every person within every belief (or non-belief) system must be redeemed through what was originally an ancient Jewish atonement ritual, the grotesque and macabre nature of the crucifixion story begin to be realized. Growing up as a fundamentalist Christian teenager (the word Christian has been bastardized by others such as Paul, but I digress,) I joyously and fervently sang hymns like “Nothing But The Blood Of Jesus,” “Power In The Blood,” and “The Solid Rock (My Hope Is Built On Nothing Less).” I had no problem with the imagery.

Today it seems bizarre and, again, grotesque. The only way for all of humanity to be saved is to be “washed in the blood” or “cleansed by the blood”?  It sounds like something more out of the latest horror film than it does out of any sane and rational thinking. As Spong points out, Catholics drink the blood (with the official doctrine stating that when one partakes in the Eucharist, they are literally drinking the actual blood of Jesus,) while Protestants choose to immerse themselves in it.

Another disturbing element of the Easter story which I never questioned at all when I was a fundamentalist was the idea that God the Father sent his only begotten son to die on the cross for my (and the whole world’s) sins. Perhaps you are familiar with the popular modern hymn “How Deep The Father’s Love For Us." Its first verse reads: "How deep the Father's love for us/How vast beyond all measure/That He should give His only Son/To make a wretch His treasure."

Basically, God the Father loved me – ME – so much that he put his son in my place on the cross. Here are two questions: Is such a supposedly all-powerful and great God unable to forgive to the point where he needs shed blood to atone for sin? Secondly, is this not a dolled-up, glorified example of divine child-abuse?

The holy week, including the crucifixion and Easter may or may not be salvageable. Re-interpreting the symbols and language may be fulfilling for you.  A message which focuses on Jesus’ inclusive, compassionate, and loving nature may help a lot of people, as well as his penchant for a refreshing downward mobility. But for me, at least this year, the long-told stories only bring anger, as the “good news” of Easter only further excludes non-Christians such as myself, as well as those who Jesus may very well have died for.

For the fundamentalist, there is no room at the foot of the cross or at Christ’s table  for the untouchables. Those who are called the heathen, the whores, the sick, the queer - we shrug our shoulders and look for a welcoming home elsewhere.

Mark Andrew Nouwen

Thursday, April 2, 2015

The Boy Who Should Have Lived

"Chazz Petrella had an idyllic childhood in Cobourg, Ontario - 4 older siblings, loving parents, a hobby farm. But that all changed when his rages became too much for his family to handle. He was diagnosed with mental illness at age ten and was eventually on the files of nine agencies and services - including residential placements. Despite all of this care, he committed suicide just after he turned 12. His parents are now calling for an inquest into his death." - via CBC's the fifth estate. Broadcast date: March 27th, 2015.

Rev. Robert Schuller (1926 ~ 2015)

Monday, March 30, 2015

Moving Beyond Guilt-Laden Christianity Into A New Vision

The following are lectures given by the retired Bishop John Shelby Spong at Community Christian Church of Springfield, Illinois on August 3rd, 2013.

In his first lecture, Bishop Spong speaks about the guilt-laden message of traditional Christianity, particularly when it comes to sexuality, as well as the idea of atonement, and the control of the traditional Christian church.

"Our problem is not that you and I are fallen sinners; our problem is that you and I have not yet evolved into being fully human."

In his second lecture, Bishop Spong speaks at length about the origins of life, and a new vision for Christianity, one where Jesus is seen as a barrier-breaker who dared to go beyond humanity's instinct to survive at all costs. This kind of Christianity stands up for the oppressed, and does not fear science.

"Jesus said, 'I have come that you might have life and have it abundantly.' That's the business we're in, we're in the life business. We're in the business of expanding the life of every person; that's why it is impossible to be Christian and to be prejudiced at the same time. That's why when I watch the Christian church debate issues of human sexuality about which they know almost nothing, and spend their time saying who is acceptable in the house of God, that is such a violation of what I understand the Christ to be, that is is repelling to me. That's not what it's about. I've come that you might have life. I've come to call you and to empower you beyond the limits of your humanity, to escape your survival-driven, prejudiced life, to call you into something that's different. To let you pass from self-consciousness into universal consciousness, from expanded humanity into divinity. The way that you become divine is to become fully human. Dualism must cease. Jesus is one of those breakthrough lives that sets those barriers aside so that we have some vision of what it means when the human and divine come together.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Everything Doesn't Happen For A Reason

Memes. You love them, I love them. Ok, if you're like me, most of the time I hate them; they're often trite and they fill up your Facebook feed like mosquitoes infest your backyard on a hot summers day. Of course there are exceptions, but most of the time, they leave me wanting to reach for my empty Wal-Mart bag in case my Kraft Dinner regurgitates. For those of you who aren't familiar with memes, they are short quotes or inspirational sayings that are often placed on cutesy pictures of kittens or daffodils. Here's an example (though sadly without any felines or flowers):

Just in case you are looking for a little bit of extra "inspiration," here's exhibit B:

Now, I realize that for some people - ok, a lot of people, considering how many people create and post these memes - sayings and beliefs like this seem to be helpful. This particular article is, admittedly, not for those people. It's for those of us who see these memes, or worse are told these things in person, and immediately wish we were truly in a better place - like in a dentists chair having a root canal.

Let's look at the first meme:

1) "You are exactly where you are supposed to be." Really? Would you say this to people in any of the following situations?

  • The child who is born with fetal alcohol syndrome and then bounces around foster homes, wherein they are abused and neglected.
  • The promising young ballet dancer who is struck by ALS at the very beginning of her career.
  • The father of four who works countless hours as a trucker in order to support his family, only to accidentally fall asleep at the wheel and crash on the highway, losing his life.
  • The families of the 227,898 people who died on Boxing Day 2004 after a massive earthquake caused a tsunami, ravaging South Asia.
  • The grandmother who has to go down to the police station and bail out her grandson - again - just because of the colour of his skin.
  • Families of the 6,000,000 Jews, mentally ill people, homosexuals, and the disabled, etc, who were gassed, shot, or starved to death at the hands of the Nazis.
Looking at the second meme, there's this quote: 

1) "Sometimes the best thing you can do is not think, not wonder, not imagine, not obsess. Just breathe, and have faith that everything will work out for the best."

I can agree that it's seldom a great idea to obsess over anything, but not think, not wonder, not imagine? Really? What species does one have to belong to in order to practice this? Let's face it, we all go through things in our lives that challenge us; perhaps it isn't ALS or abuse, maybe it's loneliness or an unfulfilling job, or grief at the loss of our youth. Sometimes it is helpful to distract ourselves by putting on a funny movie or listening to our favourite music, but at some point, we're going to have to face what it is we are truly living with and feeling. Going through life with a mentality that "well, I know that this will work out for the best" is not always possible, nor does such a mentality always endure. Sometimes the next-door neighbours will always choose to live in a mutually-abusive relationship. Sometimes a relative will be diagnosed with Alzheimer's and they will not receive a miracle cure. Sometimes a perfectly well-mannered boy will find his mother's gun collection, travel to the school where she teaches, and murder 26 people, 20 of them children. Tell these people that "everything will work out for the best."

There are two words within the second meme that I will only briefly touch on: They are: "have faith" that everything will work out for the best. If there's one thing that I dislike more than pithiness or triteness, perhaps it is religious pithiness or triteness. Now, several people who read this blog will know that I have a distaste for fundamentalist, evangelical religion; I fully admit this. Let me also say that I know that religious (or other kinds) of faith can be very helpful and very comforting to many people - millions of people. Also, not every religious person's faith is pithy or trite; they take their faith seriously, know what they believe and why, and have logical, rational reasons for believing what they do. But there are those, I believe, who for years have barely managed to hang on to their version of faith because without it they simply wouldn't know what to do. They'd fall apart. Often this kind of faith can be comforting for a time, but after awhile can become more of a passive resignation that "someone up there" is handling things and is taking care of them. It would take another article for me to articulate what I think of this kind of God/Deity. Countless questions arise such as "How does God decide which child makes it through leukemia and which one dies? Does God not save a mother from a traffic accident because she failed to pray enough? The questions go on and on, but I'll leave that for now.

Everything does not happen for a reason. 

Babies are stillborn.

Young men from stable, loving families become hooked on crack.

Seemingly perfect marriages break up after 20 years and the wife learns that her husband has been cheating on her whenever he goes away on business.

Earthquakes level entire towns and cities.

Now, can we learn from the adversities or tragedies that we face? Of course. Can we make the best of a situation and turn things around? Sometimes. Does everything that seems like an obstacle have to be crippling? No. But please, don't tell me, or anyone who is going through a difficult or tragic time, that everything happens for a reason. 

A bit earlier, I wrote that some people of faith hold onto it because without faith they would fall apart. 

Why not fall apart? 

Isn't this how we feel anyways when tragedy/sickness/insert here happens? Rather than trying a myriad of coping mechanisms to make it through each day, each week, each year, or our entire lives, why can't we be honest with our reality and with our feelings? In the movie Shadowlands, professor and author C.S. Lewis (played by Anthony Hopkins) tells one of his students "Fight me. I can take it!" The truth is, sometimes we have good days, and sometimes life just really really sucks; it's horrible and lonely and bleak and it's all we can do to wake up in the morning and manage to put one foot in front of the other. 

What then, if things don't always happen for a reason and we do not use the coping mechanisms that many times leave us embattled, frayed, and weary? This is where the importance of personal honesty comes in. Yes, I feel like shit today, and I'm going to admit it. I feel like shit. Now what can I do about it? Perhaps I will let myself feel this way for an hour, a day, or even months. But then I will take the time to do what works for me to get into a better frame of mind when it becomes possible. For myself, mindfulness and brief times of meditation are helping. The second key, I believe, is relationships. We are not here to fix anybody. We are not here to take on anyone's heavy load forever. However, in times of great need, we can come alongside another, and have them come alongside us, and slowly some healing takes place and some peace may be found. Friends are important. Family is important. For myself, a personal therapist is important.

I just need to be for real, and feel all these emotions that make me human. I have no room for pithiness or for trite sayings. Everything does not happen for a reason.

Mark Andrew Nouwen

Monday, March 9, 2015

When Hope Is Our Enemy

There are minutes and hours in our days when hope is not our friend. There are days when hope is not only seemingly unattainable, but it is detrimental.

For many of us, hope is something that we latch onto, whether we are going through a specific difficulty or crisis, or if we are in a period of extended despair. We repeat sayings to ourselves such as "Don't worry, tomorrow will be better," or "When <insert here> happens or <this person> comes into my life, all will better and I will not feel this way."

Society and many self-help gurus and preachers only reinforce this. Who among us has not clicked on an article about how to achieve happiness in 8 easy steps, or listened to a sermon that distracts us from our current depression by ensuring that there is another realm waiting for us where there are no tears or sadness? 

Hope, at best, can be a temporary fix from our pain; in this way it is like crack or some other drug. At its worst, hope can keep us on a never-ending merry-go-round of avoiding what we're feeling in the present. It can be the constant distraction. It is in this way that hope is very much like regret.

Why is it that we are so afraid of letting go of hope? Why do we attach ourselves to it like we attached ourselves to our childhood teddybear? 

Can it be that we retain hope at all costs because it is the only remaining buffer between ourselves and our pain that may be running deep just underneath the surface? Could it be that we hang onto hope so tightly because we are afraid that if we let it go we may find ourselves so immersed in our own pain that we may lose ourselves, never to return? 

Only a rare few choose to live their lives outside of a society which says "Watch this new show," "Try this new dessert," "Pray harder," "Stay busy." Relatively, only a handful will pack up and live a life of complete solitude in a monastery or nunnery. But this doesn't mean that we do not have a choice, here in our busy society and lives, to slow down, face our pain, to, for awhile, deny our distractions. 

Giving up the hope that we desperately cling to is the only way to be truly present. We must walk directly through our pain - not around it, above it, or below it - if we are to find some semblance of peace. A true friend is not someone who says "Get over it," or even "Tomorrow will be better." A true friend is someone who realizes they don't have magical solutions, instead choosing to gently walk alongside us as we journey through our pain.

Again, hope can be our enemy if it becomes a habitual way of avoiding our dark places directly and thoroughly. We must be right here, right now if we are to find deep healing. In her book When Things Fall Apart, Buddhist nun and teacher Pema Chödrön writes:

“Hope and fear come from feeling that we lack something; they come from a sense of poverty. We can’t simply relax with ourselves. We hold on to hope, and hope robs us of the present moment. We feel that someone else knows what’s going on, but that there’s something missing in us, and therefore something is lacking in our world.
“Rather than letting our negativity get the better of us, we could acknowledge that right now we feel like a piece of shit and not be squeamish about taking a good look. That’s the compassionate thing to do. That’s the brave thing to do. We could smell that piece of shit. We could feel it; what is it’s texture, color, and shape?
“We can explore the nature of that piece of shit. We can know the nature of dislike, shame, and embarrassment and not believe there’s something wrong with that. We can drop the fundamental hope that there is a better “me” who one day will emerge. We can’t just jump over ourselves as if we were not there. It’s better to take a straight look at all our hopes and fears. Then some kind of confidence in our basic sanity arises.”
Those of us who have been or are going through dark times (that pretty much covers everyone, doesn't it?) tend to have terrible memories. We have been through sickness, trauma, abuse, the loss of family, friends, relationships, employment, our youth - and still when our next crisis hits us we inevitably forget that "Hey, I made it through that shit, and I survived." Why this lack of memory? Could it be that we have been too busy hoping for an easy way out, rather than choosing to be present in this very moment, this current shitty time? This is where perspective is essential. Giving up hope during our shitty times is not the same as being fatalistic. We can take a direct look at our grief, our pain, our loneliness, while realizing that, in one way or another, "this too shall pass." We would do ourselves a favour, though, by not rushing ourselves through the process. This shitty time may pass in a day, a week, or in a few months. We do not have to go through these moments alone. Understanding friends, family, or therapists can do wonders. They are the Sam to our Frodo.

The only way out is through. This requires determination, and letting go of the distractions that may hinder the process. It may mean letting go of hope.

Mark Andrew Nouwen

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Making Out To Nina Simone, & The Ill-Fated Banana Chocolate Chip Muffins


It never feels so good as when it feels so bad to feel so good.

Though it was several years ago now, the memory is still quite clear. I had traveled into the city to visit you; we had been dating for a couple of months and it was Valentine's Day. I met you at the college where you were taking a few courses. After a quick tour, we made a stop at the liquor store and picked up a bottle of red and headed back to your uncle's place where you were staying while in the city. You had bought the juiciest of tenderloins and cooked them up perfectly, along with pine nuts and fresh vegetables. I thought I would be romantic and I did something that I never do - I baked for you. Banana chocolate chip muffins, which were so moist they kind of turned out like cupcakes.

I slept on the couch on the main floor the first night - it wasn't exactly comfortable. The next night you allowed me to sleep with you - only in the literal sense of the word.

But wonderful things happen when you have candlelight, a bottle of red, and Nina Simone. Up to that date, I don't think I had ever had such a great evening. You were always a drop-dead stunner, turning heads wherever you went; I'm sure it must still be the same way. Hours passed, the red wine flowed, your kisses and our passion remain embedded in my mind. The highlight was when Nina started singing the old gospel standard "Draw Me Nearer Blessed Lord." You were still of the faith, I was not, but nothing really mattered in those minutes. God, it was good, so wickedly good.

Mark Andrew Nouwen

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Divine Curiosity & The Pathway Home


If you're like me, you wake up in the morning (after re-setting the alarm at least twice,) jump in the shower, and have a bit of breakfast. On good days, I am able to stay in the present moment for at least a minute or two until my mind plays tricks on me and either retreats into the past, or it presses fast forward and wonders what might lay ahead of me in two hours or two years.

On most days, whether I classify them as good or bad - these are rigid labels that really aren't that helpful - I recognize that I am capable of empathy, compassion, kindness, selflessness, and love. I also recognize that I am capable of jealousy, malice, racism, hatred, and enormous impatience. It is the latter  which I am thinking about this afternoon.

I believe that we are all born as original blessings (a term that I first heard through author Matthew Fox.) I believe that a main characteristic of the Divine/Spirit/Life/God (take your pick) is one of, well, Oneness. My personal understanding, beliefs, and experiences are ever developing - a flexibility and evolution that I find refreshing. One of my current views of life and the Divine goes something like this:

In the beginning was the Divine, a presence of wondrous, childlike curiosity. This divinity is pure love, unblemished peace, and boundless creativity. Somewhere outside of time this divinity sought to experience the phenomenon known as relationship. This may have been out of her aforementioned curiosity, or loneliness, or both. So the Divine entered what we call time, and splintered herself off into countless radiant pieces in order that she might finally experience relationship. This is where duality eventually came into being. Rather than experiencing oneness in relationship, our ancestors began to relate to one another as being different from one another. At first, this was a fascination, and it bore itself out as celebration and fascination. However, as time went by, centuries, millenia, something entered those of us who call ourselves human; this something was fear.  We feared the elements that we could not control, we feared what once were our animal-kin and the shadows that prevailed at nightfall. As we became self-conscious, we feared our status among other women and men, we became jealous and small as our instinct turned from curiosity and fascination to suspicion and competition. Eventually, we, the ancient fragments of the Divine, forgot who we were almost entirely. We forgot our Oneness and our wish for relationship. 

Fast forward to today. Most of us, especially on the good days, are capable of experiencing and even creating moments of bliss, friendship, generosity, inclusion, peace, and love. These are the stories that do not make the evening news. A man finds out that his next-door neighbour has just lost their job, and anonymously, he buys gifts for his neighbour's kids and leaves them at the front door. A woman spends several afternoons each week at a nearby nursing home playing crokinole with senior citizens. A young boy is concerned for his classmate who has leukemia, so he decides to go door-to-door collecting nickels and dimes for his family.

However, due to our long ingrained notion of duality, we are also capable of  little incivilities and minor hostilities. These are the times when we find ourselves muttering curses under our breath as the young mother in front of us at the coffeeshop tries to decides what donut to order for her two sons. It's when we pass by the obese man in a wheelchair in the local mall and catch ourselves thinking "How could anyone ever let themselves turn into a slob like that?" This duality, this competition, this suspicion is also responsible for the things that we do hear on the evening news. It is Christian vs Muslim, it is the CEO vs the woman in the cardboard "house," it is the air-brushing of Cosmo vs the perfect smile lines of the middle-aged factory worker.

Amidst all of the chaos and noise that we seem to live in, we have something magnificent going for us, that being free will. Rather than being swept away by the prevailing winds, we have the choice on how we are going to live our seemingly little lives, and impact our little worlds around us. Will it be peace or persecution, generosity or jealousy, inclusion or intolerance? We have no hope of seeing a changed world, One World, if we each do not play our part. Furthermore, we cannot make even the littlest of changes if we do not engage in personal, inner work, which often means facing the ugliness that has seeped in do to dualism, fear, and competition.

No one can say when this great experiment called time will end, either personally or for our universe. All we can do is remember our ancient and inherent wonder and Oneness. Let us begin with kindness.

Mark Andrew Nouwen

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Nashville Evangelical MegaChurch Declares Full Acceptance Of LGBT Members

I grew up as a fundamentalist, evangelical Christian. In high school I remember writing letters to newspapers stating that "homosexuality is a sin" as my country (Canada) was debating same-sex marriage. I then went to Bible college and had serious doubts as my 3rd year came to an end. After a couple of years I left Christianity altogether, and long ago became a strong ally of the LGBTQ community. My first reaction to this story/sermon was to think "What?! It took you 3 years and 50 minutes of a sermon to accept LGBTQ people?!" However, as I dialed down the emotion, and listened to this pastor, I realize that change unfortunately does sometimes come slowly, and this is a very painful, turbulent process for many, many churches. For many non-fundamentalist Christian churches, inclusion of the LGBTQ community came many years ago, but for Evangelical churches, now seems to be the time when they are wrestling with it. I am hopeful that more churches and pastors will have these important discussions, and that it will lead in the direction that this church and leadership has taken. Far too many in the LGBTQ community have been damaged by and left out of faith communities for far too long.

(I don't hold most of the same theological views that Pastor Stan Mitchell expresses, particularly when it comes to the person of Jesus. However, even though this is an hour-long sermon and it takes a few minutes to see where he is going with it, it was worth the viewing as a Unitarian who continues to be curious about the future of Christianity.)

Friday, January 30, 2015

Love's The Only Engine Of Survival

There is no method to this anxiety, this imprint of a ghostly skeleton's palm embedded on my chest. Why can I still hear its voice? Why this cavernous echo from a time long past when I awkwardly built glistening sandcastles on the beach and held the cool waves at bay?

Why this heavy burden on my youthful-looking shoulders, this burden that includes bullies and long-fought battles, Zehaf-Bibeau and Bieber, firebombs and families bickering in the checkout line? Al-Qaeda and cancer, homophobia, heart attacks, and Halle Berry's custody battle. PVR-ing SVU. Poverty and Kanye, Franklin Graham and Boko Haram.

Busyness may be mankind's business, our fascination with the macabre a predilection. Still-forming plans for a future that may or may not exist weigh us down; we continue in the hamster wheel, all the while thinking we are making progress by doing something. Every moment that we live in the future, a piece of us dies now.

In this moment of weariness, we stop, we breathe, there is nothing but now. In the now, we reclaim our inner light, we slow down. We shuffle off this ugly coil, and remember what we have long forgotten.

Mark Andrew Nouwen

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

How Donut Delight Changed My World

I attended a high school with approximately 1000 students in Ontario as I was growing into the debonair stud-muffin that I am today. I entered Grade 9 in 1992 with much of the fear and trepidation that most boys and girls faced as they made the transition into secondary school. I quickly connected with the Christian students club that already existed in the high school. It was a friendly group that met weekly, though it was rather small. However, it was good to know that there was a group of like-minded believers within the daunting hallways that I easily got lost in that first year.

It wasn't long, though, before a new Christian Students Network rose to (humble) power in our high school; I was an eager participant in it. We amped up our organization and activities. These included:

  • Scheduling regular worship music nights at various local churches
  • Beginning a regular newspaper which featured articles from various students. Topics ranged from theological issues to music and upcoming youth group events in the area. People would take turns stuffing the papers inside lockers of those who signed up for them.
  • Before the start of each school day, a group of 10 or 15 of us (sometimes smaller) gathered around the flagpole to pray, often causing snickering from the nonbelievers. 
At our height, the network boasted around 120 students, a thriving group. I spent almost all of my free or spare school time with other Christians. However, this changed as the years passed.

I had never skipped out on a class in my entire life, that is, before my grade 12 and OAC (Ontario Academic Credit) years. It was then that I must have decided that I truly hated math and science classes so much, that I would take the risk and begin my absenteeism. Either that or the coffee and donuts beckoned me.

Donut Delight was, temptingly, a one-minute walk away, kiddy-corner from the high school. This was no Tim Hortons, to be sure, however this added to its charm. I began to skip my dreaded math and science classes, and I would head over to the donut shop, where consistently there would be...shock of all shocks: non-Christian classmates. But rather than head for the exits, and rather than try to proselytize them (as my brand of faith demanded), instead I began to listen to Scott and to Lindsay, to Becca and Julie, and to Damien. There were several others. As we drank our coffee (which was quite good as I recall) and ate our donuts, something important started happening in me. I began to listen to these classmates, and mostly without judgment but more so out of curiosity. As time went on, and the number of classes missed rose, something very significant shifted in me. I realized something very important: "Hey, these are not bad people!" And if they weren't bad people, why should I be trying to save them from a Hell that bad people naturally went to? I learned that my non-Christian friends - as they were now my friends - encapsulated many of the very same dreams, trauma, fears, and curiosity that I also held within me. They weren't bad, they were just different than I in some ways.

Now, I continued to believe in the evangelical Christian faith, and even went to Bible college after high school; I did not finish my program there, however, as eventually the questions that began inside Donut Delight led to my abandonment of most of the tenets of the fundamentalist evangelical brand of the faith. 

I learned two huge lessons during those last couple of years of high school:
  1. It is better to listen without judgment and be willing to learn, rather than to impose your theology onto someone else. And..

  2. It pays off to stay out of trouble and be a goody two-shoes. I never spent one minute of detention for the 60-70 classes that I spent drinking double-double coffee with my new-found friends.
Mark Andrew Nouwen

Friday, January 23, 2015

The Stainless Purity Of Our Higher Self

"Only the ego makes mistakes. None of our faults, crimes, or ignorant choices affect the stainless purity of our higher Self, our buddha nature, our Christ consciousness - or any conceptualization we use to describe the larger life in us that transcends ego. That life beyond conditions remains sane and infallible in us all our lives. It is accessed in moments of mindfulness and compassion. It cannot be usurped by anyone or anything. This reliable inner life is a form of protection and makes for an immense trust in our basic goodness. This is another way that the conditions of existence lead to the joy of spiritual maturity.
Things are not always as we would like them to be, nor do plans always work out our way. The fact that we are not in control means that the proper bearing for life on the raft of this world is surrender to what is as it is, how it is, when or where it is. We can fight with all our might for what can be changed, but only surrender works with what cannot be changed. The fact that we are not in control and that things happen that we neither sought nor planned means that there are forces at work bigger than our egos. This given is thus an intimation of divinity, as Emerson says: "So nigh is grandeur to our dust."
What is the divine? Something - we know not what or whom, we know not how or when - that is always at work, but we do know why: so we can fulfill our destiny to become unique exemplars of love and wisdom. The divine is the life force of the living universe that yearns to articulate itself in all of us. The finite is a unique moment of focus on the timeless infinite. We exist because of a beatific vision: The divine is focusing into time and space, and we are focusing back. When the divine arrives here, it is I, and when it reaches there, it is you, and when it lands outside my window, it is that fig tree under which Buddha was enlightened, sitting quietly in an attitude of yes for a long time."
~ David Richo, The Five Things We Cannot Change...and the Happiness We Find by Embracing Them, pp. 22-3. Shambhala Publications, Ltd. 2005.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Changing Our Storylines (Or Becoming The Author Of Our Own Lives)

If someone were to ask you "Who are you?" or "Describe your life in only a few words," what would you say? For many of us, it is often easier to answer this question with who we are not anymore, rather than who we are today. This can often be due to the fact that we are still caught up in a storyline or narrative which we have lived in for most, if not all of our lives. For example, when one asks another "Who are you?" or "Will you describe your life for me?", one often hears answers such as "I am an alcoholic," "I was a victim of child abuse," "I am a recovering addict," or "I used to believe <insert here>." When we continually see ourselves in a former light, it can become awfully hard to live in the present moment and experience peace, let alone face the future.

At this point you could be saying, "Well, I was abused as a child," or "I used to believe that but now I don't!" I am not suggesting that we somehow try to magically erase what has happened to us in the past, nor regretful actions that we may have taken. This is denial.  What I am learning, and what I am suggesting, is radical acceptance of what is in the here and now, in the present moment. For example, right now at the noon hour, I am sitting in a coffeeshop. I am quite comfortable. Beautiful sunshine is beaming through the windows, I have a calming peppermint tea beside me, and I am listening to beautiful Celtic music. Right now, in this present moment, I am not being abused, I am not abusing alcohol, and none of the beliefs or teachings that I once held or were handed down to me are being pushed on me. It's just me, Tim Hortons, The Sun, and Enya. 

Now, radical acceptance does not mean approval. It does not justify any horrible things that may have happened to you in the past. As my group therapist said this morning, "No one has the right to cause harm to you." Also, radical acceptance does not mean turning a blind eye to injustices that you may see around you, whether it be abuse, hatred, etc. However, if we continually see ourselves as the victims or as the perpetrators, part of us (or even most of us) will always be held back from our potential. For me, even the word "survivor" doesn't sit well. The term may very well empower other people (one size does not fit all!), but for me that term still takes me back to the past. I am finding that pretty much any label is limiting, even stifling. I have used many labels in the past: victim, survivor, warrior, leader, "the strong one," Christian, non-Christian, etc. All of them are limiting. Even labels that I might use today are limiting, such as "a person in therapy," Unitarian, or Quaker, they're all limiting because no words can adequately convey the vastness and mystery of our unique, beautiful selves.

How can we finally exit the endless merry-go-round of our old, worn storylines that keep us from being present and from moving forward? Here are some suggestions:

1)  Realize - You can't move on from something if you haven't admitted that it happened to you. There are many people who have blocked out entire sections of their lives as a protection mechanism, only to realize years later that they were mistreated or that they mistreated someone else. The phrase "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" may be true, but it's also true that we can't fix something that's broken if we don't realize that it's broken. Often we need professional help to guide us along our healing journey; this may or may not take a very long time. Eventually, though, we can come to the realization that what happened in the past, is, well, in the past.

2) Decide -  After realizing what actually happened to us or what we may have caused, we can realize that we now have choice. Where once we may have been in a situation where we were very vulnerable and powerless (particularly as children), you and I are now adults and we do have a choice on how we are going to live in the present moment. Once we do this, the future doesn't look so dire or grim.

3) Radical Acceptance - Again, acceptance does not mean approval. Rather, acceptance means that "Yes, this happened to me and it was completely abhorrent, but I am no longer going to let the past define my narrative, my life.  I am not just 'the victim' or 'the addict.' I am here, in this moment, and I can now be the author of my own life." Look at your life as a journal, waiting to be filled with whatever you so choose. The pages are blank and full of potential, they are not already covered in ghostly images and shadows.

4) Worthiness -  This, at least for me, is the key, and could very well have been Step 1.  How are we to have a peaceful present or any prospects for a happy future if we don't think that we deserve to be happy and at peace? Some people do not have this problem, but many do. Ask yourself: "Do I deserve to be happy?" and "Do I deserve to be able to change my storyline and be the author of my own life?" Your reaction may surprise you. Many people have lived their lives thinking that they must consider themselves the lowest rung on the ladder, and that others must be placed ahead of them at all costs. In my experience, this only leads to burn-out, self-loathing, and self-doubt. 

My hope is that wherever you are, you can stop, be in the present moment, and realize that no matter what has happened to you or because of you, this moment is new. Each second arrives with new potential and possibilities, and you can become the author of your own, new storyline. After all, you are more than worth it.

Mark Andrew Nouwen