Tuesday, 7 June 2016

I was chatting to a friend on Twitter the other day about my post on the script we use when we do vulnerability online and we ended up talking about writing in general. I mentioned that these days, I worry that anything I publish will just be awful navelgazing. I joked then that actually, when I look at my navel it reminds me that there’s a story there. Even gazing at my own navel is a storytelling opportunity. See, I am a storyteller after all.

When I look at my navel, there’s a funny little line inside it and only I can really tell that it’s a little misshapen compared to how it used to be. It’s the only visible evidence of a laparoscopy I had done at the beginning of 2013; one of the three incisions the doctors made right before they removed one of my ovaries, the associated Fallopian tube and something else - something hidden.


It’s about 1994 or 1995, I think, one morning at Sunday School and we are talking about ‘gifts’. We are asked to draw something depicting what we are good at. I set to work with my sheet on paper, drawing something or another to show that I am ‘good at writing’. Imagine my horror, when we have to explain to the rest of the group, what we’ve drawn and the girl sitting next to me - my age, the sort of girl who everyone thinks is good and kind and sweet - stands up and presents her piece of paper that explains that she is ‘good at helping’. Why didn’t I think of that? ‘Helping’ is nice. Helping is thoughtful. Maybe my admission that I’m good at writing is big-headed and not particularly holy. And so I feel a little bit envious and also, as if I’ve done something wrong, even though no-one gives me that impression.


It’s 2011, I’m 20 weeks pregnant and I’m lying down with my midriff exposed watching my baby on a screen across the room; arms, legs, organs, brain all looking healthy. The sonographer moves the probe to the right as he finishes up. He looks more closely. “Do you have endometriosis?” he asks. I don't.“Have you ever noticed a lump in your abdomen?” I haven’t.

“I can see a mass to the right of your womb,” he says. He leaves the room and comes back with someone else who has another look. It looks like some sort of cyst, they say, but a solid one, a big one. It’s the size of my fist - my actual fist. It might be growing. It might cause problems for the baby in the third trimester. I might have to have an operation to remove it and there’s a chance that this would bring on premature labour.

Over the course of the next few weeks, it's determined that this uninvited guest is a dermoid cyst, that it isn’t growing, that it’s not malignant and that it’s so snugly tucked away inside me that nothing needs to be done about it until after I’ve given birth. I’m told that its size coupled with the fact it hasn’t grown in the time we’ve known about it means it may well have been camping out on my right ovary since before I was born, carefully hidden yet growing ever more significant.


It’s 2015 and I’m going to a Christian festival. I’m going with no expectations. I’m over the hype, the anticipation that it’s going to be the week that God does something amazing because we’re all a bit jaded with expecting that much of festivals, relying on the ‘high’ they provide and besides, I’m working there so any sort of experience will be a bonus. On my first afternoon off I head to a seminar and at the end, I stay for the ministry because the seminar is about juggling all life’s demands as a woman and what I really want to know, what I’ve really been praying about, is whether I should give up my responsibilities at church and maybe even step back from church for a while because all it does it make me anxious and cross.

A woman comes to pray for me and as she finishes, she tells me about a word she has for me. Later that day I excitedly message a friend from church because just a couple of weeks earlier, she’d told me the very same thing that this woman has just said. It’s a picture so specific and detailed that there’s no way anyone can say it’s just a coincidence - but I have no idea what it means. 

Several weeks later I was talking to another friend about a mission trip she was going on. She was talking about what she feels is her calling in life and all of a sudden, the words of two different women, one of whom didn’t even know me, made sense.

My tale of that day at Sunday School when I didn’t feel I’d said the right thing was something I’d forgotten about for years until fairly recently, when it suddenly came back to me as I was trying to plan a devotional about God-given gifts. It was probably a jolt I needed, because it helped me to start making sense of something I’ve always struggled with - accepting and embracing what I can do rather than feeling shame about the things I’m not so good at.

As I’ve often shared in the past, much of my time in the church has been characterised by the sneaking suspicion that I don’t really fit in anywhere, with my distinct lack of characteristics I’ve always felt you’re supposed to have as a Christian and particularly a Christian woman. I read this piece the other day and it made me laugh because I recognised myself in it - particularly over the last couple of years, as I’ve struggled more and more with writing for an audience, impostor syndrome a constant presence. 

Yes, I could do writing and speaking and presenting and creativity and ideas, but I didn’t know what all that was for outside of work. It's been like a mantra that I have work skills, not church skills. I’ve also come to realise that even I still have a bit of discomfort with being open about what I’m good at because I’m a woman. So many people unfortunately see women who can talk and women who can write as having an agenda, as pushy, putting themselves out there for the sake of it. 

It’s a problem in society as a whole but never more evident than in the church, where it often feels as if speaking, writing and having opinions must come with a caveat that you don’t hate men of course, obviously, you don’t have an agenda, you’re not one of those angry or controlling women. The temptation is to minimise yourself, to become small enough to fit into the box of others’ expectations. It’s embarrassing admitting that you’ve fallen prey to that, really, but it’s no wonder.

The words from the two women - my friend and the stranger - both mentioned a gift from God in a box that doesn’t look very exciting or attractive, to the extent that I disregard it and keep on looking for something that I perceive to be ‘better’. All the while, it’s the gift in the less attractive box that’s important - a gift hidden in plain sight, a gift that’s always been there.

Now here’s where my analogy goes slightly awry, because in 2013, that thing that had been hidden away inside me since goodness knows when (growing teeth, just so you know - because dermoid cysts are a fascinating yet slightly terrifying example of the things our bodies can do) was whipped out and disposed of. I never knew it was there before and I can’t tell that it’s gone now. But this is a story about the significance of things unseen, the importance of the things we don’t notice and pay no attention to even though they’re definitely there and have been for a very long time. It's a story about never listening to the people close to us when they affirm us, mentally stamping every positive statement with 'Not good enough, though' until God probably, finally, gets so sick of it that He gives us a smack round the head.

I have a voice that I’ve never been entirely comfortable with or accepting of. And I’m still not entirely sure what it means to embrace it and what that means outside of work these days with blogging having changed the way it has and a busy life and having recently started attending a different church where I’m only just starting to consider how I might be involved. But what I do know is that it no longer means silencing myself and dismissing my voice because somewhere, there must be a pretty box filled with the gifts I think I’m supposed to have, rather than the ones I’ve always had.

Scripted vulnerability

Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Everything bad that happens to you doesn’t have to be a teachable moment. 

It’s probably a product of the boom in confessional journalism and its Christian equivalent, the storytelling boom. We’re all storytellers now and perhaps we’ve internalised the idea that every significant event in our lives must be presented as a carefully-structured essay, a sermon of sorts, or like so many sermons a list of points that speak of the learning and practical application that have come out of our pain. 

We hold off writing about things, not simply until we’ve got our thoughts on the subject organised, but also until we’ve got a structured message, some clear takeaways for our readers and an opportunity to be inspirational - perhaps with a few key ‘shareables’ highlighted specifically for that purpose. 

This week a friend shared a lengthy update on social media, informing people of the tough year they’ve been having and being thankful that things have turned out ok, even though they still have a lot to work through. As people commented with love and support, expressing admiration for how open and ‘real’ my friend had been, it struck me that much of the post's perceived ‘realness’ lay in the fact it didn’t follow what I’m now recognising as the script we, as Christians, often follow (consciously, unconsciously, who knows?) when reflecting on difficult times. 

We describe the difficulties and pain; we bring the focus back to God; we give thanks and count our blessings; we move into reflecting on any positives that have come out of the situation and our lessons learned. We can hit ‘publish’ safe in the knowledge that we’ve followed the approved framework for dealing with life’s knocks and that people will like it. 

Don’t misunderstand me: this ‘script’ isn’t wrong. It’s helpful sometimes and yes, it can be inspirational. It’s quite natural for many people and in many circumstances - but sometimes it’s hard to get there. Sometimes it feels like we’re never going to get there at all. Our feelings aren’t so neatly organised and I wonder if we’ve perhaps lost something in shying away from sharing the messiness of our thought processes, preferring instead, by the time we’re ready to share on our blogs or on Facebook, to tie it all up neatly into a set of inspirational learning points that make us seem like real writers, or teachers, or ‘thought leaders’. Or at least the right sort of Christian. 

We should be able to write about our struggles - if we want to - without waiting for the perfect time to share, when our attitudes are right and we can say all the ‘right’ things. We should understand that praising people and telling them how inspirational they are when they describe their pain using the ‘right’ narrative isn’t always helpful. We pick up on what we see and keep quiet accordingly when our emotions and thoughts and questions don’t follow the approved script because we worry what people might think. Our thoughts aren’t for everyone to see unless they’re ordered correctly. That's something I've been guilty of in recent times, my head a swirling mess of half written essays not considered well-formed enough to be shared because there's no teachable moment for you, or because things are still difficult, or because I can't look at them objectively and give you some life application fat to chew on.

Everything bad that happens to you doesn’t have to be a teachable moment. When being ‘real’ becomes scripted, it doesn’t seem so authentic any more. We can share our truths without completing a checklist of themes and words. And the difference will show, as it did for me this week when I read my friend's Facebook post and as it does always when I think about the stories that have stayed with me the most.


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