‘Where words fail, music speaks.’ (Hans Christian Andersen)
Music, like all forms of art, can bypass the rational filters of our minds and transport a message, a mood, deep into our bodies and souls. Many of the earliest musical influences on my own life had a profoundly existential feel, including Pink Floyd’s Time and Supertramp’s Logical Song. These songs have continued to carry that same resonance throughout my life, reflecting and reinforcing a deep sense of restlessness, resistance and reaching.
Others have had a more overtly spiritual influence, including Tim Rice’s and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar and U2’s Under a Blood Red Sky. They lifted me out of myself, helped make sense of what I knew and felt intuitively and galvanised my stance of faith. Some gave voice to the deep angst and discordant dissonance I felt in my life and in the world, including David Bowie’s Scream Like a Baby and The Saints’ This Perfect Day.
What music or songs have had the deepest resonance or impact in your life?
'The first Advent was the embodiment of God's peace plan.' (CMEP)
Advent is the anticipation of an arrival. Not just any arrival, but a re-living of the first arrival of Jesus Christ in this world. It’s also a looking forward in anticipation to the re-arrival of this Jesus in the future. In this sense, Christmas, for Christians, represents a fundamental pivotal event, a radical Kairos moment in human history. Against that backdrop, a Nigerian visitor commented in astonishment at how, in the UK, the Christmas miracle appears to have been drained of all life, vitality and meaning. We seem to have exchanged this amazing earth-shattering event for superficial, glittery materialism.
Some Iranian friends asked me to explain what Christmas does mean for Christians. What’s its significance for us now? I drew on Francis Spufford’s words in Unapologetic (2012) that, if we look honestly at our own lives and across the world today, we can see evidence of the ‘human propensity to f*** things up’ everywhere. In biblical language, that’s the impact of sin (an unpopular word and concept today!). In essence, Jesus came to save us from it, to reconcile us to God and, that way, to transform humanity. We can see the effects of authentic spiritual transformation in people’s lives:
‘Mine was a happy family. I had one brother and one sister, but I do not like to talk about it. It is not important now. The important thing is to follow God’s way, the way he leads us to do something beautiful for him.’ (Mother Teresa) ‘Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. He's allowed me to go up to the mountain top. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land.’ (Martin Luther King) ‘I have lost everything. Now I just want to know Christ, to become like him’. (Paul in Philippians, the Bible)
For me, Advent is a period of critical reflection on my own faith and stance in the world, to consider how far I’m allowing God to arrive in and transform my life. As we approach the New Year, I think of Advent as preparation to venture out on a new advent-ure in faith, to discover God afresh who arrives there before us. ‘I’m not saying that I have this all together, but I am well on my way, reaching out for Jesus who has so wondrously reached out for me. I’ve got my eye on the goal where God is beckoning us onward – to Jesus. I’m running and I’m not turning back.’ (Paul in Philippians, the Bible)
What does Advent mean to you? May God give you peace and hope.
[See also: Arrival; Advent; Discovering our true selves]
Power of love
‘It’s a question of what the relationship can bear.’ (Alison Bailie)
You may have heard the old adage, the received wisdom that says, ‘Don’t try to run before you can walk.’ It normally refers to avoiding taking on complex tasks until we have mastered simpler ones. Yet the same principle can apply in relationships too. Think of leadership, teamworking, coaching or an action learning set; any relationship or web of relationships where an optimal balance of support and challenge is needed to achieve an important goal.
Too much challenge, too early, and we can cause fracture and hurt. It takes time, patience and commitment to build understanding and trust. I like Stephen Covey’s insight that, ‘Trust grows when we take a risk and find ourselves supported.’ It’s an invitation to humility, vulnerability and courage. It sometimes calls for us to take the first step, to offer our own humanity with all our insecurities and frailties first, as a gift we hope the other party will hold tenderly.
It's an invitation, too, for the receiver to respond with love. John, in the Bible, comments that, ‘Love takes away fear’. To love in the context of work isn’t something soft and sentimental as some cynics would have us believe. It’s an attitude and stance that reveals itself in tangible action. Reg Revans, founder of action learning, said, ‘Swap your difficulties, not your cleverness.’ A hidden subtext could read, ‘Respond to my fragility with love, and I will trust you.’
I joined one organisation as a new leader. On day 3, one of my team members led an all-staff event and, afterwards, she approached me anxiously for feedback. I asked firstly and warmly, with a smile, ‘What would you find most useful at this point in our relationship – affirmation or critique?’ She laughed, breathed a sigh of relief, and said, ‘To be honest, affirmation – I felt so nervous and hoped that, as my new boss, you would like how I had handled it!’
In this vein, psychologist John Bowlby emphasised the early need for and value of establishing a ‘secure base’: that is, key relationship(s) where a person feels loved and psychologically safe, and from which she or he can feel confident to explore in a spirit of curiosity, daring and freedom. It provides an existential foundation on which to build, and enables a person to invite and welcome stretching challenge without feeling defensive, threatened or bruised.
How do you demonstrate love at work? What does it look like in practice?
‘I turned my head and saw yet another wisp of smoke, on its way to nothingness…’ (King Solomon)
On three separate occasions, a female grass roots activist in the Philippines was followed at night by strangers: men on motorbikes. As she walked alone, they would ride slowly and menacingly behind her, aiming to threaten and intimidate her into silence. She had taken a very public stance against corruption in high places – a stance that, for other activists in her country, had resulted in a deadly blade or a bullet in the back from a passing motorcyclist.
Undeterred, this young woman turned around and confronted the bikers, fearlessly: ‘Even if you kill me, you can’t take my life.’ She’s a radical follower of Jesus who has chosen a determined, startling and courageous life stance at the cutting edge of faith. It stands in stark contrast to the greyness of nothingness that the writer of Ecclesiastes speaks to at the start of this blog. It’s a spiritual-existential stance that holds the potential to transform…everything.
Zoom out now, back to our own lives. Strip back the trappings and tear away the superficial facades. What lays behind and beneath for us? This is the deep stuff of spiritual and existential coaching. It touches on fundamental questions: identity, meaning, purpose and stance. ‘Human life must be risked if it is to be won.’ (Jürgen Moltmann). ‘If you risk nothing, then you risk everything.’ (Geena Davis). I don’t want my life to be a wisp of smoke. You?
(See also: Deep; Spirituality in coaching; Existential coaching)
‘Anticipation is a gift. Anticipation is born of hope.’ (Steven L. Peck)
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry tells the entrancing, magical story of a Little Prince from a faraway world who visits Earth and makes friends with a wild fox. When making preparations for his visits, the fox explains to the Prince earnestly: ‘If you come at four in the afternoon, I'll begin to be happy by three. The closer it gets to four, the happier I'll feel. By four I'll be excited and worried; I'll discover what it costs to be happy! But if you come at any old time, I'll never know when I should prepare my heart.’
The fox’s yearning resonates with a love poem by an unknown author: ‘There’s a moment between a glance and a kiss where the world stops for the briefest of times. And the only thing between us is the anticipation of your lips on mine. A moment so intense it hangs in the air as it pulls us closer. A moment so perfect that, when it comes to an end, we realize it’s only just beginning.’ It’s that not-quite-yet sense of an I-can-almost-touch-it moment; filled with tension, desire and anticipation.
Dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT) draws on the visceral power of this anticipation phenomenon in its intriguing half-smile technique. An anxious person is invited to begin to start to smile – without allowing it to become a full smile – then to pause and hold the half-smile for a few…brief…moments. Subconsciously, we associate the physical sensation of an almost-smile with an anticipation of a positive mood and experience, and this can create a positive shift in how we feel.
How well do you deal with waiting, with harnessing anticipation?
[See also: Wait; and Instant]
Heartbreak and hope
I spent last week in Ethiopia, facilitating a vision-casting, relationship-building and insights-sharing event for an inspiring group of committed human rights activists from countries and contexts as diverse as: Australia, Bangladesh, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, China, Denmark, Egypt, Ethiopia, France, Germany, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Iran, Italy, Kenya, Myanmar, Nepal, Netherlands, Nigeria, Norway, Pakistan, Philippines, Poland, Russia, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Sweden, United Kingdom and United States.
Listening to their accounts of lived experience, alongside the oft-harrowing accounts of other people and communities too, was a deeply-sobering and yet, at times, life-giving experience. These activists are followers of Jesus from diverse backgrounds who commit their lives and expertise to help ensure, where possible, protection and support for people and groups facing unspeakable persecution. They often take considerable personal risks in the course of their own work too.
One day, I went into a local town for a short break. A very poor, elderly man walked up and called out from behind me, a stranger. He grasped my hand, looked earnestly into my eyes and said, emphatically, “Whatever you need, reach out to God. He has the power to heal you.” Then, pointing upwards, as if to God, “He will give you whatever you need.” I felt completely entranced by this man’s presence. I asked his name. “ጥላሁን (Tilahun)”, he replied. I learned later it means: ‘shadow, guide, protector...’
This felt far more profound and spiritually-significant than a chance encounter. I returned to the work in a reflective mood, reminded of the mental and emotional burnout I had faced as a young human rights activist during the brutal civil war in El Salvador. At that time, my efforts had felt painfully impotent in the face of such overwhelming suffering. This mysterious figure reminded me to look upward as well as outward, and there beyond the heartbreak to discover transcendent hope.
‘Those who hope in Christ can no longer put up with reality as it is but begin to suffer under it and to oppose it. Because I believe in eternal life, I shall be active for the life of the people. Because I hope in the resurrection, I shall take part in the revolt of the people against all deadly oppressive powers.’ (Jürgen Moltmann)
It was tough living under martial law. Her father and neighbours were working hard in the fields during harvest time. As evening approached, without realising it, they were out slightly later than was allowed under the imposed curfew. When soldiers appeared, the farmers didn’t expect to have their hands and feet tied or to be wrongly accused of insurgency. Her father, now badly beaten and blooded, was dragged home to his wooden hut and thrown down a bank. She was only 5 years old at the time and, witnessing this horror, in desperation picked up a stone and threw it at one of the soldiers. He pulled out a gun, held it to her head and said, ‘I could kill you.’ Only the intervention of another soldier saved her: ‘Leave her. She’s a child.’
As I listened to this simple yet harrowing account, I could only imagine how this incident, this trauma, could have impacted on this young girl’s life. Certainly, as an adult, it has influenced her passion and stance against injustice, particularly violence in whatever form – whether physical via war, social-psychological via exclusion or insidious via corruption – against the poorest and most vulnerable people. Some years later, her uncle, a leader in a remote village, opposed the unethical practices of a powerful business and paid for it with his life. She too was hunted by a death squad for challenging a corrupt government official in front of the media. Only after he too was murdered, could she and her family return safely to their home.
It's a world that terrifies me. I don’t know if I could find the courage to stand firm on my beliefs and values in such circumstances. I’m afraid that I would shrink back, try to protect myself – and find ways to justify it. Later in her childhood years, this girl met Mother Teresa of Calcutta who placed her hands on her head and prayed for her. I do wonder if something profoundly spiritual happened in that moment. She throws her life on Jesus – for others, in love – relentlessly and at significant personal cost. When I appeal to her to keep safe, she cautions me to beware of being too safe: ‘If you cling to your life, you will lose it; but if you give up your life for Jesus, you will find it.’ Jesus is her hard-edged hope. She takes him at his word.
‘What is it your plan to do with your one wild and precious life?’ (Mary Oliver)
Íñigo López de Loyola suggests a fast-forward in your imagination to the end of your life, then to ask yourself seriously from that standpoint what you will want your life story to have been. Having decided it, rewind back to the present and ensure that your vision of the future guides your priorities, decisions and actions now. This idea resonates with Stephen Covey’s 'begin with the end in mind', and Simon Sinek’s 'start with why'. According to John Kotter, if our vision is convincing enough to the mind and compelling enough to the heart, we are most likely to see it through. Without such a vision, we may drift meaninglessly.
I believe the best visions are rooted deeply in ethics and values and, in essence, a fulfilment of them. I have been incredibly inspired by Jasmin’s vision, a poor follower of Jesus who lives among the poor in the Philippines: ‘Whatever status or power you have, use it for those who are vulnerable; whatever money you have, use it for the poor; whatever strength you have, use it for the weak; whatever hope you have, use it to bring hope to those who live without hope. Speak up for justice and truth – whatever the cost. Pray.’ The challenge is not just in the aspiration itself but in her sheer determination to live it out in practice. She scares me.
My own vision is shaped by a trust in God too. I slip and slide on route and have sustained and caused too many scars to prove it, yet Jesus still influences profoundly the purpose, focus, boundaries and possibilities of my life and my work. As I get older, I'm experiencing a subtle and gradual shift from what I want to do in the future, to what legacy I want to leave behind me. It doesn’t feel like a mid-life crisis. Echoing Richard Rohr, it feels more like a falling upward than a falling apart. I still want to make a significant, positive and tangible difference in the lives of the poor and most vulnerable people in the world. I – you – we can be hope.
What’s your vision for 2022 and beyond? How will it influence your decisions now?
Agents of change
‘The opportunity to make effective personal choices is highly unequal.’ (Robert A. Dahl - After the Revolution)
New Years’ Resolutions. A time and practice in Western cultures when some of the more reflective or impulsive among us will commit to do something new. It could be, for instance, a new relationship, a new job, a new home, a new diet or a new fitness routine. For many people, very soon after having made a decision, the resolve will dissolve and be lost in the mists of time. Yet central to this idea of resolution is the notion of personal choice and, with it, the principle that I can succeed in achieving what I choose – if I’m willing to do whatever it takes.
I often create (prayerfully) a list of key aspirations at the start of each year, then put practical steps in place so that, all things being equal, I will be able to look back at the end of that year and see that I have fulfilled them. The goals are intentionally inspiring and stretching. They are, with God’s help, within my grasp and, therefore, possible. On the whole, this discipline works by ensuring focus, parameters and accountability. It also centres on people and things that are genuinely important to me and, thereby, taps into values, motivation and determination.
We can think of this choosing-acting-influencing phenomenon as exercising personal agency. Shaun Gallagher describes this as, ‘the sense that I am the one who is causing or generating an action’. ‘I can choose’ is a profound existential, psychological and political statement and stance. It means I can break out beyond the apparent default of my circumstances. We hold the potential to be catalysts of real change in the world, within ourselves as well as in broader relationships and situations – and this brings opportunity and responsibility.
I can choose and you can choose. I think vividly of Jasmin in the Philippines, a poor woman among the poor who chooses to follow Jesus’ call and example, whatever the cost. Rather than allowing herself to be limited by her circumstances or by expediency, she exercises radical personal agency and transforms everyone and everything in her path. Malala Yousafzai and Greta Thunberg are famous examples of women too who take personal choice, action and influence seriously – and, similarly, at considerable personal risk.
There are wider dimensions. A person's sense and scope of agency are affected by structural factors that transcend the individual, e.g. social status; wealth; education; gender; ethnicity; culture. Mustafa Emirbayer and Ann Mische observed that a person’s lived experience limits what possible alternatives or future scenarios he or she is able to imagine. Paulo Freire proposed, on a similar basis, that critical consciousness (‘conscientisation’) is a necessary condition for people to exercise freer choices and agency for change.
I worked with a client from Myanmar and asked her what she dreamed of. She looked at me blankly then responded that she was unable to conceive of a different reality to the one that she had lived until now. She felt crushed by the mental and practical constraints of living as an ethnic minority in a country dominated by a military dictatorship. The impact of unequal and unjust social-political power is not a fixed determinant of agency – but the stark psychological and tangible inequalities of choice and opportunity it engenders are significant.
Other influences include personal confidence, competence and capacity. If a person operates psychologically and relationally from a secure base with trust and support, he or she is more likely to choose to take a positive risk. If, conversely, someone is and-or feels alone and has experienced or anticipates unfair discrimination, negative evaluation or other painful consequences, to act can feel hazardous – especially if the stakes are high. Agency can demand energy, courage and resilience. A person may not (yet) feel ready, willing or able to take that step.
If a client is unaware of or avoiding personal agency, William Glasser suggests stimulating his or her sense of reality, responsibility and relationship in order to enable more life-giving choices. If stuck in a pattern of apathy or passivity, John Blakey and Ian Day propose offering high challenge with high support. If we risk inadvertently colluding with or disempowering a client, Reg and Madge Batten advise focusing attention on what the person can do for him- or herself and, only after that, what we could do by agreement with them, or on their behalf.
Viktor Frankl, victim of Nazi persecution concluded that, fundamentally: ‘The one thing you can’t take away from me is the way I choose to respond.’ In our personal, social and political lives, we can see how a person’s choices, actions and influence are affected by a diverse range of factors. These include the privileges a person may hold (or not) and the opportunities he or she has benefited from by birth, background or context. Jesus – help me choose this year to exercise my own agency for the life and liberation of others. We can be hope.
(Would you like to discover how to exercise greater personal agency? Get in touch!)
Advent is – arrival. I bought an Advent calendar for some refugee friends in the UK recently. It was the first time they had seen one and they were intrigued by its idea of opening numbered doors, or windows, as a countdown…to what? For followers of Jesus, the deeper question is to Who. Advent signals the arrival of Jesus in the world, the Saviour who shines dazzling-divine light and dispels spiritual darkness. It’s a celebration, anticipation and invitation to radical faith, love and hope.
Jasmin, a Filipina, spoke today – a voice of the poor, a lived experience of the poor, from among the poor: ‘The poor feel invisible. To discover that God sees us, that he truly loves us, is the greatest gift.’ She’s working hard to provide Christmas gifts for children in a slum community who live beside an open sewer, whose makeshift homes were burnt down in a fire last week. She lives Advent by arriving with Jesus in dark places so that the poor and vulnerable experience God’s love as real.
Whatever Advent means to you this Christmas: Light shines in darkness. Remember the poor.
I'm a psychological coach, trainer and OD consultant. Curious to discover how can I help you? Get in touch!
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