Hey, Lord, well you made me like I am.
Can You heal this restlessness?
Will there be a void in my heart
When they carry me out to rest?
– John Mellencamp – Void In My Heart
In the last few years the financial institution, Credit Suisse, has ranked Australia, per capita, in the top three richest countries in the world. At the same time, loneliness, depression and anxiety are at epidemic levels, and the suicide rate is at a peak not seen in the last decade.
Our culture teaches us that life is found in the freedom to be yourself, which generally means without the distractions and interruptions of others, even our significant others. But while that excitement might last for a season, it ultimately leaves us unsatisfied. Then we try to fill the hole with the next experience, only to find that that doesn’t last either.
We try to fill our lives with externals. We try to make ourselves rich so we can live a life of leisure; we want to be entertained constantly; we are addicted to our devices to the point where we check them when we wake up in the middle of the night in case there might be something we are missing out on. Continue reading
The last twenty years or so have seen an encouraging increase in the number of books being written focusing on what it means to be an authentic male in our culture. Ever since Steve Bidduph wrote his epic Manhood in the mid-1990s, the growth in the men’s movement has seen more men work towards becoming more emotionally centred and available to their families and other loved ones.
This life-giving trend towards becoming better men has been equally seen in Christian circles. Richard Rohr, Parker Palmer, John Eldredge and others have written and taught much on what a real man looks like in a culture that pressures men to be someone they are not.
Into this mix comes probably the best book I have read on being a man among men. Nate Pyle’s Man Enough: How Jesus Redefines Manhood is a breath of fresh air in the increasing volume of literature on men and their issues.
It is wonderful to see an author be so open and vulnerable about his own vulnerability about not feeling like a man for such a long period of his life. Pyle’s experience will resonate with many men in the Church, including myself. It is only in recent years that I have done a lot of work on what a genuine man looks like. Reading Pyle’s book has allowed me to breathe a huge sigh of relief that you don’t have to be a “warrior man” – as some Christian authors emphasise, to be a godly man.
Great but tragic article from George Monbiot on this age in our existence being known as the age of loneliness. Check out some of these startling quotes:
- “Ebola is unlikely ever to kill as many people as this disease strikes down. Social isolation is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day; loneliness, research suggests, is twice as deadly as obesity. Dementia, high blood pressure, alcoholism and accidents – all these, like depression, paranoia, anxiety and suicide, become more prevalent when connections are cut. We cannot cope alone.”
- “Structural changes have been accompanied by a life-denying ideology, which enforces and celebrates our social isolation. The war of every man against every man – competition and individualism, in other words – is the religion of our time, justified by a mythology of lone rangers, sole traders, self-starters, self-made men and women, going it alone. For the most social of creatures, who cannot prosper without love, there is no such thing as society, only heroic individualism.”
- “For [all our technological and material prowess], we have ripped the natural world apart, degraded our conditions of life, surrendered our freedoms and prospects of contentment to a compulsive, atomising, joyless hedonism, in which, having consumed all else, we start to prey upon ourselves. For this, we have destroyed the essence of humanity: our connectedness.”
I turned 45 this year, so I guess it’s about time I had a midlife crisis. Mine has been partly self-inflicted and partly forced upon me. I suppose that’s they way they happen though. No one really chooses to go through a crisis of identity.
And identity is what crises of these types are all about. Having a couple of major traumas in my life in the last 12 months has led me to look at just where my identity has lain. It turns out that, to a large extent, I have been building my house on sand as well as on the rock of the love and security of God.
That is not to criticise where my heart has been (for the most part) in the years leading up to these traumas. It’s more that God has been calling me to a deeper level of commitment. As they say, be careful what you pray for, because there’s a good chance it will be answered! And, thankfully, God is not “nice” as we Western Christians often are when we try to deal with things. This is no Sunday School “gentle Jesus, meek and mild, tiptoeing through the meadows.” This is a God who takes the bull by its horns.
If you surrender yourself to this God, you can guarantee that surgery will be performed on your soul. And there are no anaesthetics when God is at the operating table. That doesn’t mean that God is mean; quite the contrary. This is surgery that gets to the root causes and cuts out the cancer for it never to return. This is love at its best, polishing the rough edges of the diamond so it resembles the exquisite beauty that the Master Surgeon originally intended for it. Continue reading
We live in an analgesic society. We have come to believe that when we feel pain we should do something to medicate it. We have tablets for everything. Got depression? Take some more anti-depressants. Over-stressed? Binge out on food, sex or drink. Long ago we lost the ability and the belief that sitting with pain can be a good thing. Please note that I am not saying things like anti-depressants are always a bad thing. Many people suffering the debilitating effects of depression and other mental illnesses need medication. The point I am making here is that our society is too quick to dole out tablets when other options can be more beneficial.
One of the pains we feel a lot in Western society is the pain of an empty soul. Many call it the God-shaped hole.We all have it, though many of us don’t feel it because we constantly cover it over with some sort of medication. Usually that medication involves immersing ourselves in the busyness and “wiredness” of daily life.
Our greatest fear in life seems to be the fear of missing out if we don’t always feel good. We are terrified of feeling pain, let alone sitting with it for periods at a time. We believe it is pointless, even masochistic. Why would anyone in their right mind want to consciously not get rid of pain they are feeling?
Life is painful a heck of a lot of the time. There are many days when we don’t feel good, when we don’t feel the pleasure that life can bring. We see others around us laughing and smiling. Are they really happier than us? Do they really have it more together than us and we are just struggling too much and need to get our act together? Or are these people in denial? Are they medicating their pain and not growing as a result?
And speaking of growing, when was the last time you heard anyone say that personal growth was a noble goal in life, rather than always trying to feel good? Unfortunately our churches are also often places where we are subtly (and not so subtly) given the message that life is about feeling good. We call it “the joy of the Lord.” If you’re not smiling all the time, if you’re struggling, you’re not right with God.
I’ve shared at different times about the insanity of how rushed we are in December each year in the lead-up to Christmas. It’s sadly ironic that the time of Advent – which covers most of December – is designed to be a time of reflection when we have turned it into the most stressful time of the year.
Having time to sit and reflect is good for our emotional and mental health, as well as our spiritual health. We are more rounded, whole people when we spend time doing these things. And we are invariably happier as well. The fact in Australis is though that, as a nation, we spent $8billion on Christmas and $14billion on post-Christmas sales.
Over the next 3 days I will be reflecting on the 11th anniversary of 9/11. The events of that terrible day reveal some fascinating insights into our Western contradictions, hope, happiness and what really matters in life. Today’s post is called ‘The Last Days of Mohamed Atta’ (Atta was of course one of the hijackers).
In his latest book, The Road Trip that Changed the World, Mark Sayers talks about the contradictions we all live with. He uses the very revealing example of the 9/11 hijackers and their exploits in the days before they slammed planes into icons of what they saw as Western decadence. Here is what Sayers says:
[vimeo http://vimeo.com/40927169 ]
The extraordinary actions of the hijackers highlights for me, not just the contradictions of our lives, but the confusion and deception we all buy into, whether or not we are aware of them (and mostly I don’t think we are aware).
All humans want to be happy. To quote an unlikely source – current Collingwood AFL coach Nathan Buckley – we all want to feel good. And our culture drums the message into us that a certain type of lifestyle will bring us the happiness we all crave. As M. Scott Peck said, we are people of the lie. In this case it is the lie that possessions will fill the void within.
In The Road Trip that Changed the World, Sayers goes on to talk about the consumer Christianity which has become so dominant in The US and in Australia. Relevant Magazine recently had an article questioning whether or not we would still follow Jesus if your life didn’t get any better. Here is a penetrating quote from the article:
“If we’re not careful, we inadvertently imply that if one only focuses enough on Jesus, one’s circumstances will get better, and better, and oh-so infinitely better.” This is the subtle promise of much Christianity today. If it is not straight out prosperity teaching, where the idea is that God has a plan for you to be fabulously rich and beautiful, then it is something more subtle where the idea is that God will ‘bless’ you when you serve him. And ‘blessing’ implies that things will go well for you.”
This very good book starts by hammering home some truths that speak powerfully to our Western way of living and explain quite clearly how depression has become nothing less than an epidemic in our culture. The author, Stephen Ilardi, highlights the fact that our modern way of living is a wonderful recipe for depression. Although written primarily for a US-based audience, our very similar lifestyle in Australia makes this book particularly relevant for us too.
Some of the facts that the author points out are the following:
- The only American people group that hasn’t been hit by the epidemic of depression are the Amish – and we all know their slow-paced lifestyle
- In third-world countries, the rate of depression is a fraction of that in the West. But it has begun to increase in those countries that are moving from a more traditional-based lifestyle to a more American (read Australian) one
- Modern day hunter gatherer groups, like the Kaluli people of the PNG highlands, have almost no incidence of depression at all
- Despite the soaring rate of antidepressant use in recent years, the rate of depression is actually increasing
These findings reminded me of research that US psychologist Martin Seligman has done which found that the rate of depression in industrialised countries has risen tenfold since the Second World War. My dad, who lived through the war, sometimes points out to me that “we’re living all wrong”. I couldn’t agree more.