It only takes a moment to change the whole world.
A sudden change can rearrange our mental and emotional landscape, raise new things into focus, shed different light on the familiar, move earlier preoccupations into the background and force us to re-evaluate our lives, values and priorities.
It can feel exciting, alarming and disorientating.
My Dad had a stroke 2 weeks ago. Suddenly, we were confronted with challenges of communication, especially over the phone at a distance. Dad’s health that we had taken so much for granted was suddenly threatened. Even a few slurred words felt miraculous.
Our central heating broke down last week. Suddenly we were confronted with the challenges of staying warm in the freezing weather. The heating system we had paid no attention to became the centre of attention and concern - and rejoicing when it was repaired.
In Gestalt psychology, this phenomenon is about changes in perspective, alterations in what we notice (figure) and what lies in the background, out of awareness (ground). It’s about paradigm shifts, a marked transition in what we perceive and experience.
Advent draws our attention to a moment, a cosmic kairos, a world changing event, the arrival of Christ. An encounter with him is deep impact, reeling drama, a healing crisis. It can shake, disorientate and re-orientate our whole lives.
May God grant you a special encounter, an inspiring Christmas and a Spirit-filled new year.
I was reading Richard Rohr’s Preparing for Christmas, a short book of advent meditations, when I came across this extract which I decided to quote in full (...with a few tweeks!).
“One of the major problems in the spiritual life is our attachment to our own self-image, either positively or negatively created. We have to begin with some kind of identity but the trouble is that we confuse this idea of ourselves with who we actually are in God. Ideas about things are not the things in themselves. We all have to start by forming a self-image but the problem is our attachment to it, our need to promote it and protect it and have others like it. What a trap!
This is what the Spirit has to strip away from us so that we can find our true identity in God’s image of us rather than in our image of ourselves, which is always changing anyway. Who we are in God is a much more enduring and solid foundation. As Christians, God always sees his son Jesus in us, and he cannot not love him! This new identity, an image created through God and our relationship to him, is a solid and enduring self-image, no up and down anymore.
We get stuck if our self-image is based on mere social or psychological information rather than theological truth. The gospel promises us that we are objectively and inherently children of God. This is not psychological worthiness, an attempt to feel good about ourselves. It is ontological, metaphysical and substantial and cannot be gained or lost. When this God given image becomes our self-image, the gospel becomes very good news indeed.
Which of your self-images, positive or negative, get in the way of your relationship with God?”
Think back to your early childhood. What was your favourite story? What was the plot? How did it begin, what happened in the middle and how did it end? Which character did you most identify with? Can you see themes and patterns from the story reflected in your own life?
Some psychologists believe childhood stories can act as life scripts. It’s as if there is something in a favourite story that resonates with the child’s experience and expectations to date which then becomes formative in how the child experiences and approaches their own life.
It may be a story from a book. It could equally be a story in a song, or perhaps the real story happening around the child, the observations, interpretations and early sense they make of what they notice in people and situations as they experience them.
The child subconsciously acts out the script, with the script functioning like a self-fulfilling prophecy. Ask a person, ‘what keeps happening to you?’ and they can often identify and articulate repeating patterns, as if trapped in recurring cycles of experience.
‘I keep falling into the same kind of relationships.’ ‘ ‘No matter what I do, I end up on my own.’ ‘Whatever happens, I always land on my feet.’ ‘I always achieve what I want in the end.’ ‘I often get rescued by others.’ ‘People always betray me.’
I find this hypothesis intriguing. I’m curious about it because I’m interested in the stories we construct retrospectively of our own lives, the way we join dots between what we perceive as significant events or experiences to create our own coherent life story.
How far is our life story created by our own expectations? How far do our expectations shape how we experience people, relationships, objects and events? How do our expectations focus or limit what we notice, what we don’t notice and the meanings we attribute?
In transactional analysis, coaches and therapists may help a client to surface their life script with a view to evaluate it and, if they wish, to change it in order to experience greater freedom and autonomy as the client approaches the future.
I’m not sure its possible or desirable to live a script-free life. It’s often our hopes and expectations that draw us forward, inspire us, energise us with the courage we need to face fresh challenges. Nevertheless, I do like the idea of increasing awareness and choice.
So, what’s your story?
A crisis has a way of bringing things into sharp focus, into fresh perspective. This has been a hard week for my family and me, especially for my Dad who had a stroke. He’s in hospital, struggling to recover speech and the use of his arm.
It has been an emotionally disorientating experience. The shock, the concern, the moments of anguish mixed with glimpses of hope. It reminds me of an old Chinese Taoist story cited by Alison Hardingham in Psychology for Trainers.
The story describes a farmer in a poor country village. He was considered very well-to-do because he owned a horse that he used for ploughing, for riding around and for carrying things. One day, his horse ran away.
All his neighbours exclaimed how terrible this was, but the farmer simply said, ‘maybe’. A few days later the horse returned and brought two wild horses with it. The neighbours all rejoiced at his good fortune but the farmer said, ‘maybe’.
The next day the farmer’s son tried to ride one of the wild horses. The horse threw him and broke the boy’s leg. The neighbours all offered their sympathy for this misfortune, but the farmer again said, ‘maybe’.
The next week conscription officers came to the village to take young men for the army. They rejected the farmer’s son because of his broken leg. When the neighbours told him how lucky he was. The farmer simply replied,‘maybe’.
The book goes on to explain, using this story as an example of reframing. The meaning that any event has depends upon the frame in which we perceive it. When we change the frame, we change the meaning.
Having two wild horses is a good thing until it is seen in the context of the son’s broken leg. The broken leg seems to be bad in the context of peaceful village life; but in the context of conscription and war it becomes good.
Changing the frame in which a person perceives events changes the meaning. When the meaning changes, the person’s responses and behaviours also change. The more reframing you can do, the more choices you have.
So I don’t know what’s going to happen next. It’s an uncertain time but I have seen glimpses of God’s frame. Dad’s courage and optimism in the midst of such a traumatic personal ordeal, Mum’s acting to get him to hospital so fast.
The ambulance crew that arrived so quickly, racing through traffic lights to the hospital team that was waiting. Professional staff with care, resources and expertise. A single room where Dad can relax and sleep.
My whole family alongside Dad, supporting him and each other, even from a distance. My brother bringing Dad’s whole motorcycle club to the hospital, dressed in Santa costumes. The excited look on Dad’s face when they arrived!
The colleagues who released me to travel home early from work, the friends who looked after the girls while I was away, the clear roads all the way on route, the friend who offered me a bed for the night to break up the journey.
The technology that allows us all to stay in touch. The kind people on every continent who offered to pray for Dad when they saw my post on Facebook. Is God doing things hidden yet amazing through all of this? ‘Maybe’.
Nick is a psychological coach, OD consultant and trainer, specialising in critical reflective practice.