This turns out to be the first part of a
two three, erm, multi-part series on guilt. This stuff has been an evolving part of my life philosophy for a while, now, and I thought I’d share. Apologies to the non-religious among you for the first one being focussed on church. Actually, apologies to the rest of you, too.
Over the last three years or so, I’ve been working extra hard on being able to live a guilt-free existence.
Now, if I’m honest, this isn’t a new idea in the psychology of me. I can remember horrifying my university flat-mate, nearly twenty years ago, by declaring that I didn’t ‘do’ guilt, which was both untrue, and in her eyes, morally bankrupt. Presumably, she thought that without guilt, there was no moral compass at all. I disagreed then, and I disagree even more, now. Guilt is a hugely exhausting and damaging emotional driver, and there are much, much more positive ways of making moral choices.
More recently, however, I’ve become aware of just how easily guilt takes over all the rational decision-making functions of a person’s life, and I have been making a small but determined stand against its power in my life, and where I can, in the lives of the people around me.
Probably the starting point for this line of reasoning, was the decision to join a small group of friends in starting a new church. We define ourselves both as a church (mostly – some people baulk at the word itself) and as a community group, determined to do what we can to make a real difference to the local area in which we find ourselves. Over the three years we’ve been meeting, that has meant a wide variety of projects, both one-offs, and on-going, from street-sweeping to debt advice, from youth work to food banks, some things involving all of us, some only one or two.
It very quickly became apparent that if we, as a group, were so focussed on Getting Things Done, we had a lot of potential to put a great deal of pressure, both on ourselves, and on each other. So, at a very early stage, we had important conversations, where we explicitly outlined our expectation that everyone’s contribution would be different; that some people had enough energy and enthusiasm for three of us, while others would burn out in weeks if they tried to match the pace. We stated, and promised for the future, that the people in our group were valued for who they were, not for what they delivered, and that every contribution was fantastic, however small, and however outpaced it may be by other people.
That mattered hugely, to me. I am not a pacey person. I have spent nearly 9 years as a stay-at-home mum, and during that time, my pace has dropped to that of a snail. We rarely do more than one thing in a day – if we have a thing in the calendar, then that day is full, as far as we’re concerned. Among my friends are people who do more by the time I’ve finished breakfast, than I’m likely to achieve all day. And you know what? That’s OK. I can choose to live life more slowly, take time to smell the flowers, work less hard, live on less money, and ultimately, know that I’m better off for it. I’m a happier, healthier person as a result. This is the pace that suits me, because we’re all different. It would be just as bad for some of my friends to live my life, as it would be for me to live theirs.
Guilt-free church is a great thing. I’ve knocked around a fair few churches in my life, and they have all, to a greater or lesser degree, functioned on the basic premise that if what we are doing is supposed to be to the glory of God, then to not do it isn’t an option. In my middle thirties, I started to see just how much this contradicted the things those same churches had (mostly) been trying to teach me about God.
The bible is all about God’s grace. It’s all about how he loves me and accepts me for who I really am, irrespective of what I do or don’t do. But then, churches are too often full of busy-work and guilt, and people run ragged by the belief that if they don’t do it, no-one will, and if no-one does it, God will be sad.
My old dad used to say, if you’re afraid God will stop loving you if you stop working, try it and see what happens. My old dad is not always right about things, but on this one he had it spot on. God’s love is unconditional. You don’t have to earn it.
So, why do anything at all, then? Why volunteer for anything?
Because I want to. In my church, I only do the things I want to do. The things that just don’t seem to be playing to my strengths, the things that are so far out of my comfort zone as to make me feel stressed, the things that threaten to take up so much of my time that they are destined to send me into some kind of stress-related illness – I don’t have to do those things. Nobody expects me to, and if I’m asked, and I choose to say no, that’s fine. If I’ve been doing it, and choose to stop, that’s fine. I am motivated, not by guilt, or fear, or duty (another dirty word in my book), but by my own desire to do what I can – but not more than I can.
Now, I prefer not to let people down. So, I tend to be a little cagey about agreeing to things, on the grounds that when I’m committed, I’m really committed. I try not to duck out of things at the last minute, and create problems for other people. But do you know what? If I was a thoroughly unreliable person, who only turned up a third the time that I promised to, I’m pretty sure my church group would quietly reorganise themselves around an assumption of my unreliability, be delighted when I came and helped, and hold no expectations about me for the rest of the time (if you’re reading this, guys, I don’t plan to go down this route!).
It’s all about a shift in focus. Instead of perpetually feeling bad about the things I don’t do (and no matter how hard you work, there’s always something you haven’t done), I am interested in celebrating the things I do. Church isn’t a stick to beat me with, it’s an opportunity to enrich myself and other people by pitching in. I benefit from that as much as anyone else, but my criteria are largely made up of the questions, “Will this activity help me? Will it help someone else? Do I have the time, energy and skills to do this? Do I want to, or is this probably more up someone else’s street?” And it’s OK to leave it to someone else, and it’s OK if the thing doesn’t get done, because none of us are suited to it. That’s a thing that wasn’t getting done before we came along, and can continue to not be done, if there’s no-one to do it.
Churches change and shift as they grow and progress. Guilt-free church is a very important value to me, and one I shall be defending carefully in ours.