It only takes one experience to reconfigure the whole story of our lives. I was approached by a Dutch person this week to consider a regional job in eastern Europe, the middle east and central Asia. It hadn’t been in my mind before but suddenly all kind of past experiences flashed before me.
The Dutch kids I made friends with as a child, the stint I did in a Palestinian hospital as a young adult, the visit to reconstruction projects in Beirut, the trip to Albania during the Kosova crisis, the time I almost made it into Afghanistan, the work I’ve done with leaders in the Asia region.
It was as if all these experiences and others, which until now had appeared random and disconnected, instantly constellated themselves into a coherent life story, a sequence of events leading to this and now. A pattern emerged, clear and unexpected, it suddenly all made sense.
I don’t know yet how things will work out. The possibility is curious, intriguing and exciting. Two things strike me as significant. Firstly, the way God can use a single insight, experience or event to radically change our perspective, secondly, how He guides our lives silently without us even knowing it.
Our early childhood experiences can have quite an impact. One view, known as attachment theory, proposes that every child needs to form an attachment, a secure relationship, with at least one person in order to feel secure in future relationships. The child develops an impression of itself, others and relationships as a whole through the lens of this early significant relationship.
If this primary relationship is missing, inconsistent, broken or abusive, the child can struggle to form healthy attachments or relationships with people in the future. The child nevertheless develops patterns of coping and relating aimed at getting his or her needs met. Without developing such coping mechanisms, the child could experience what feels like intolerable anxiety or distress.
A typical coping mechanism could involve manipulative behaviours, designed to evoke what the child needs from others to feel loved, to feel secure. Conversely, it could involve withdrawing into oneself as a way of defending oneself from emotional deprivation, as a way of not-needing others, as a way of getting by on one’s own. It’s all very complex.
Under pressure or stress, an adult can regress to feelings and behaviours he or she experienced and developed as a child. Sometimes, such behaviours are constructive and helpful. Sometimes, however, they are inappropriate to the adult’s world (e.g. in a family, community or work). A person can find him or herself reacting in ways that feel surprising, uncomfortable, strange-yet-familiar.
Some psychologists have proposed that the notion of ‘God’ is simply a projection of human imagination, a transcendent figure to attach to, the ultimate parental figure, a compensation for some deep unmet emotional, psychological and relational need. It’s as if a person can inadvertently confuse their need for an attachment figure with the reality-or-not of an actual figure.
At one level, this hypothesis sounds quite plausible. If I didn’t have other good reasons for believing in God’s existence, I could be convinced that my faith is a projection, a delusion. However, the fact that a person is able to find security in belief in and relationship with God does not of itself negate the possibility that the source of that security, God, is genuine and real.
The challenge I experience day-to-day is more existential than philosophical, logical. It’s about how to believe, trust, hold onto belief that God loves me. It’s an internal struggle. As a child, the complicating issue isn’t primarily about whether a parent figure actually loves the child, but whether the child believes it is loved and finds that experience reliable, trustworthy and secure.
And so I wonder how my own childhood experiences of love influence my ability to believe, accept and trust God’s love. I wonder how I might live if I truly knew that love, how I might relate to God, others and myself, uncluttered by my need to feel secure. I wonder how freeing that might feel, what potential God could release within and between me and others. It’s an intriguing possibility.
Touch is so difficult, so awkward, so suspect even, in British culture. We’ve relegated physical contact to analogy, to expressing it in words. ‘I felt touched when you did that’, ‘let’s stay in contact’, ‘that really moved me’. We say to our children, ‘look – but don’t touch’. In fact, even looking is a bit tricky. It’s as if looking, really looking, constitutes an extension of touch, an invasion of space.
When was last time you really looked at someone, gazed at them intently, studied their features, their body, their movement, without you or they feeling acutely embarrassed? ‘Don’t look – it’s rude to stare!’ It’s a cultural thing, we learn from our earliest experiences what is acceptable, what kind of behaviours will bring punishment, awkwardness, surprise, fulfilment or reward.
So it is with touch. We have unwritten rules about what constitutes appropriate touch, exacerbated by a desire to prevent inappropriate contact with children or other vulnerable people. And so we don’t touch. We live lives largely devoid of contact, of the joy, support and healing that can come from a simple touch, a feeling of tangible human contact that bridges the space between us.
I remember visiting my parents a few years ago. In my family, we certainly didn’t touch. It would feel awkward, embarrassing. But I decided to hug each of my parents on arrival. They looked shocked, it felt rigid, stiff, difficult – but they didn’t push away. I persevered each time we met or I left, until the time came when they protested if I left without giving them that now traditional embrace.
And I’m reminded of how often Jesus touched people, often in surprising ways and with unexpected impacts. He didn’t just work miracles through words, connect with people from what we would regard as a safe distance. He touched people physically and, in doing so, touched them at a profound human, deeply spiritual level, resulting in transformational experience and effect.
We have cultural norms and boundaries, often with good reason to safeguard people and relationships. It’s sometimes about protecting ourselves from embarrassment, hurt or rejection. Often it’s a matter of unquestioned reserve, a cultural heritage we inherit as children and perpetuate through our own beliefs and actions. So, reader, what do you think? Let’s keep in touch.
‘How old are you?’ Seems like a question with an obvious answer, at first glance. It depends on what you mean. I could say, for instance, ’50’ which says something, measured in chronological years. It’s not quite that straightforward, however, because (a) 50 only stems back to the date of my physical birth, (b) it is only an approximate age and (c) it only indicates my physical age.
Strange as it may sound, notions of age are actually socially constructed. In some other cultures, a person’s birthday is based on date of conception, not on date of birth, according to which reckoning I am now 51, not 50. In other words, the answer to the question of how old I am isn’t fixed but actually depends on the cultural context within which the question is framed.
And 50 is only an approximation. I could add a certain number of months, weeks, hours, minutes and seconds to make it more precise but that still creates another difficulty. Firstly, it depends on at which specific moment in time I was technically ‘born’ as distinct from ‘not born’ and how accurate we want to make the measurement. This gets quite challenging mathematically.
The reason is that measuring time is a bit like measuring space, or distance. It’s difficult to get a precise reading because it assumes two clearly defined points, whether in time or space, and fixed units of measurement to measure the difference between them. Each unit, no matter how small, can be subdivided into smaller units which, when measuring time, weirdly makes age infinite.
Now if that’s not hard enough to get our heads around, I will try to explain what I mean. We break down years into months, months into weeks, weeks into days, days into hours, hours into minutes, minutes into seconds etc. The fact is, however, that no matter how hard we try to measure my age, we could make it more accurate still by subdividing the units...indefinitely.
If that all sounds a bit pedantic, I want to raise another issue concerning age. Why do we use physical duration as the sole or primary determinant’? After all, this paradigm or emphasis is itself socially constructed. We could conceive, for instance, a culture within which physical age isn’t regarded as at all significant, but where other features or characteristics are.
In such an imagined culture, I could answer the question along the lines of, for instance, ‘I am 20 countries old’ (using number of places I’ve visited as the unit of measurement) or, ‘I am two children old’ (using number of offspring) or, ‘I am 15 places old’ (using number of places where I have lived) etc. The unit of measurement, although appearing self-evident, is culturally determined.
So what does all this point to? That reality isn’t always as fixed or straightforward as we naturally assume it to be, that there are multiple different ways of constructing the same experience or phenomenon, that our focus and way of seeing the world is shaped largely by culture, that exploring alternatives can free up fresh and exciting possibilities for thought, feeling and action.
I have a dream, a crazy drama played out in the subconscious which seems to make sense at the time but leaves me with a strange feeling, a feeling of loss, even as the images fade away. The drama was based loosely on something I had experienced a long time ago, virtually forgotten about, and yet reappeared with fresh dynamism and vividness. What’s that all about?
Some dream therapists try to analyse the images, at least the dreamer’s recollection of them, to explore and interpret what they could represent in the real world. It’s a tricky business, especially as it’s often hard to retain a clear memory of them. It assumes a symbolic significance to the dream and the images within it, a rare opportunity to explore the hidden unconscious.
I’m not sure. It strikes me that one significant aspect is the feeling, what a person experiences emotionally in the dream. Is it possible that the feeling points to something the dreamer is experiencing in the conscious present but that lies out of awareness? What is the loss I’m experiencing now, the loss that lies unacknowledged or that I’m not paying attention to?
I’m really interested in this idea of representation. The dream example suggests that something we experience at face value within the dream could represent and reveal something else in reality. It’s a sign that points beyond itself. I think it could the same in waking experiences too. The challenging part is knowing how to distinguish representation from reality.
So we meet this person. We talk, laugh, do stuff together. The person starts to feel like a friend, a lover, whatever he or she means to us. And we wonder what this person, this experience, this relationship, represents for us. Is it really the person per se, or something he or she evokes – an idea, an aspiration, an unfulfilled dream, a substitute for something we're missing elsewhere?
I don’t know, perhaps it’s both. I can enjoy the new person, relationship, encounter, experience and I can inquire of myself what it may point to in other aspects of my life that lie unacknowledged or that I need to pay attention to. At times it can serve as a wake-up call, an opportunity for raised awareness, a chance to step back from the normal to examine things in a fresh light.
It's about discernment. We risk projecting our hopes and expectations onto another, creating of them what we subconsciously need and yearn for rather than seeing them for who they really are. We risk projecting the same onto new experiences, a new job, a new home that prevent us experiencing them afresh for what they really are and for the potential they may hold.
The opportunity is then to ask the right questions of myself, of new relationships, situations and experiences. ‘What is this person, this situation, this experience to me? Why this, why now? What feelings does it evoke for me? What does that mean, point to? What am I at risk of projecting onto another? What am I not noticing or paying attention to in other aspects of my life?’
And I think about my belief in God, my relationship with him. I think about the language he uses to communicate, a human language. I think about the many different analogies he uses to reveal himself. I’m aware of how I can confuse the representation with the reality, to naiively assume that God is confined to the limits of my own language, knowledge, experience and imagination.
So, the challenge lies here. It’s about distinguishing the signpost, the symbol from the actual. It's about recognising that new encounters, relationships and experiences can carry meaning for us at multiple levels. It’s about trying our best to face reality with eyes wide open, open to see ourselves, people and situations, even God for who and what they truly are and can be.
Nick is a freelance coach, trainer and OD consultant specialising in reflective practice.