Category Archives: Theology

Guilt – the summing up

A very old friend of mine used to say, “Guilt is a wasted emotion.” I’m not sure I  can make a lot of sense out of the idea of any emotion being a waste, but she wasn’t entirely wrong. Guilt is certainly exhausting. It drives you to second guess yourself, and tie yourself in knots worrying about what other people think of you, and none of that does you a scrap of good.

Because the thing is, most of our guilt doesn’t come from within. It comes from the expectations we let other people lay upon us – sometimes the expectations that we project onto their entirely innocent selves. Guilt is heavily tied up with shame – the fear that other people will find out the terrible, secret truths about who we really are.

If your guilt is genuinely driven by the knowledge that you did a bad thing, then the best thing you can do for your own peace of mind is look for forgiveness – if you’re lucky, from the person you injured in the process. But really, whether that person exists, noticed, and is prepared to forgive you, or not, forgiving yourself is where the growth is going to be. To be able to say, “I did this thing. I should have done something else, or else done nothing at all, but I can’t go back and change it now. I choose to learn from my mistake, I choose to do my best to do better in future, and since I can do no more, I’m through beating myself up over it.” – that’s where freedom lies. Arguably, the entire theological idea of God’s forgiveness is a mechanism to allow people to forgive themselves. It’s a way of saying, “Look – God forgives you! And if it’s good enough for him, why not cut yourself some slack, too?”

But for most of the stuff we feel bad about, most of the pressures we put on ourselves, it’s really not as dramatic as that. It’s just about making your own choices about priorities – whether that’s prioritising how hard you will work, how thinly you’re prepared to spread yourself, what you want to eat at a given time, it’s your life. They are your choices. Only you can make them, and if someone is trying to make them for you, they’re wrong. Don’t let them. Your very freedom depends on it.

A guilt-free existence: Part 2, Keeping house, guilt-free

Now, the first thing I should say is that I don’t think I have ever met a mother who didn’t feel guilty. You wake up after your first post-delivery sleep, and the crushing fear that you’re just not doing it well enough is with you from pretty much that moment onwards. So, when I’m talking about being guilt-free in this context, I’m probably only talking about being relatively guilt-free, if I’m honest. At best.

When our first child was born, and I found myself doing the stay-at-home mum thing for the first time, I made one thing very clear to Kevin: I am here to take care of the baby. If, by the time you walk in the door, the baby is alive, more or less clean and more or less fed, then I have done my job. If during the intervening period I have also washed some dishes, then you are having a good day, because that’s a bonus.

Kevin is lovely, and had no particular problem with this approach. The division of domestic labour had been more or less equal before we had Daisy, and there was no obvious reason why it should be less equal once she arrived – she did, after all, increase the workload, not reduce it.

Of course, as she grew up, and became less dependent, and I was hanging out in the house so much more than he was, most of the household jobs did end up falling to me. Not cooking (except for a brief period when I still only had one child, and she was big enough to put in front of CBeebies). And not food shopping, once I got too pregnant with number two to successfully man-handle number one into the trolley seat. But most of the rest of it has been my job for most of the time.

I am not a natural housekeeper. I am not one of these people who never sits down, and who instinctively both sees and is compelled to resolve every item out of place at all times. I’m more of a natural sit-on-the-sofa-reading-Twitter person. At one time I was a strong advocate of the Flylady system, with its heavy emphasis on the idea that I was, in fact, good enough, and it’s very logical breakdown of just what the jobs were that needed to be done. The biggest flaw I found with the Flylady system, was the way the minimum number of jobs to be done was always on the increase. At the beginning, she’d say, “Just shine your sink. That’s all. Make it beautiful, make it something you’re proud of. Don’t worry about the rest of it, it’ll still be there tomorrow.” And I shined my sink, and I felt great. Two months later, I had a weekly plan to adhere to, with a strong sense of failure if I didn’t get all the things done in the one hour that I was supposed to, I had missions to fulfil to clean obscure corners of my bathroom that no-one ever saw, I had a timer to set for fifteen minute bouts of decluttering (and I hate decluttering – it’s hard!), and I had a list of “deep cleaning” jobs that were supposed to come around monthly, but which I never got around to at all. The sense of guilt and failure regularly became overwhelming, with the result that I stopped doing anything, and then, when I couldn’t live with the result any longer, had to start the whole system again from scratch.

I made many attempts to tweak the system so that it worked better for me. It kind of worked, but never for very long. It was like dieting – the effect might be impressive in the short term, but sooner or later, I would find myself right back where I started, plus an extra five pounds or so for good measure.

When I eventually spotted the pattern, it dawned on me that part way through the Flylady process, a switch was being flipped – probably by me, rather than by Flylady, but it was still being flipped. It went from being about celebrating the fact that I achieved anything, to being focussed on getting the whole list done. And the further into the system I got, the longer the list was, and the less likely I was to get through it. And that made me feel so bad, that I didn’t even start the list any more.

My current housework regime owes a lot to Flylady – she taught me a taxonomy of housework which I’ve found very useful. In short, some things need to happen most days; some things need to happen most weeks; and some things need to happen eventually. I prefer the idea of doing a single load of laundry every day, to having a week’s worth to catch up on all at once. I know that if I go a whole day without washing any dishes, the kitchen will be unusable (our kitchen has precisely four feet of work surface, including the bit under the microwave, so it gets overwhelmed very easily). I know that Other People hoover their floors every other day, but really, it’s a category two job. It would be great if it happened every week, but it doesn’t, and that’s OK.

So instead of lists of things that I feel bad about not doing, I reworked the way I thought about it. The daily jobs remain pretty much daily, though I have them prioritised – I try not to skip laundry or dishes, because my experience has taught me that it’s worse for me if I do. The rest is all about achievement. I did my exercise – go me! I ironed some creased stuff, hurrah! I spent five minutes (not fifteen – it turns out fifteen minutes is too long, and becomes a psychological barrier to doing anything at all) tidying one corner of Daisy’s bedroom – aren’t I fabulous?!

From the weekly list I took the word “weekly” away. It’s not a list of things I must do this week, it’s a rolling list of things that need to be done. As long as I do one thing from that list, I am making progress. If I do more than one, I’m amazing. Sometimes it takes two weeks, or even more, to get back to the beginning, and by then the floor can look pretty desperate for lack of hoovering, but it doesn’t matter, because I know I’ll get to it sooner or later. It’s great that I did it today, it’s not significant that I hadn’t previously done it in three weeks. Once the room is dusted, it no longer shows that I left it so long.

Doing it this way does mean that there is never a single moment when the house is “clean”. It might be hoovered, but dusty. It might have clean sheets on the beds, but sticky, unmopped floors. To be honest, that’s probably a good thing. Busting a gut to make the place nice just makes me unfriendly with family members who then have the audacity to live their ordinary life in my nice clean house. Almost every day I do SOMETHING, and every thing I do is reason for celebration.

My good friend @mamamallon lent me a book by Rachel Held Evans, called A Year of Biblical Womanhood. I was roughly as sceptical as you currently are, having read the title. Most of it didn’t blow my mind, though the author was rather less alarming, and more ordinary, than I had feared. I gained one important thing from it: the  bit of the bible in Proverbs 31, where it talks about all the amazing things a “Woman of Valour” does, and sets up a seemingly impossible standard for what a decent wife/mother is like, wasn’t designed to be a stick to beat me with. It’s not a check list. It’s a celebration – a love poem, to be recited in honour of a wife/mother, not to make her feel bad, but to make her feel good! It’s there to do exactly what my housework list does – to make a tiny celebration of something getting done. She doesn’t do those things every single day – not all of them, anyway. That she does them at all, though, is worthy of celebration, so the Jews, having a small amount of wisdom in this area, celebrate it. Jewish women, to this day, according to Held Evans, congratulate one another with the Hebrew phrase, “Eshet Chayil” – “Woman of Valour!” You washed the dishes! Woman of Valour! Everyone has clean underwear! Eshet Chayil!

Living a guilt-free life is all about celebrating what you did, not obsessing about what you didn’t do. Because every little thing is, in fact, an achievement, and it’s too easy to underestimate that truth.

A guilt-free existence: Part 1, Guilt-free church

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.

Guilt-free church

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.

Halloween, or How difficult it is to be this uptight

When I was a little girl, on a random Sunday morning one autumn, a chap stood up to address my church. I noticed this, because he was a) someone whom I had never seen addressing the church before, though I had seen him playing an electric organ there on many occasions, and b) I wasn’t usually there when people stood up to address the church. This wasn’t the sermon, when I would normally be in Sunday School with all the other little darlings, this was an additional message for the church, and it caught my attention.

The chap concerned – Keith, his name was – had stood up to regale the church about the the evilnesses that schools were inflicting on their children under the guise of Halloween. Witches, wizards, ghosts and gouls, spells and potions – it was all bad, and evil, and wrong, and the children’s heads were being filled with it all.

His message hit home, with me at least. I was nine. I realise now, of course, that his message wasn’t targeted at my nine-year-old self. It was aimed at my thirty-something-year-old parents, who needed to Be Aware of the Danger, and Do Something About It. But I was there, I was listening, he didn’t explicitly exclude me from his intended audience, and in my innocence, I took his message to heart.

School that week was very uncomfortable for me. Mr Liddle, in his wisdom, had decided to use a large navy blue sheet to mock up a kind of a spooky corner at one end of our classroom. I forget the details of what was in there, or what we were expected to do about it, but I remember the overwhelming feeling of wanting to avoid the Halloween corner, because it was BadAndWrongAndWickedAndEvil. I said nothing. I just fretted. And, a bit, hated myself for not telling Mr Liddle about the BadAndWrongAndWickedAndEvil, thereby enabling him to see the error of his ways, and take the blue sheet down.

Imagine my relief, then, when he came over to where I was sitting, and said, “You’re not at all happy about all this, are you?” I shook my head, miserably. He smiled at me encouragingly, and my spirits lifted. He understood! About the dilemma of BadAndWrongAndWickedAndEvil. He’d stop, now. He’d take the sheet down, and stop.

Oddly enough, the unarticulated discomfort of a nine-year-old girl was not enough for Mr Liddle to change his plan for the week’s lessons. I quite see, now, that it would be an extremely odd state of affairs if it had, but the realisation that the Halloween stuff was going ahead anyway, in SPITE of that conversation, was something of a blow, at the time. I avoided it as far as possible, and took comfort in the fact that once Halloween is over, it’s downhill all the way to Christmas, a festival I felt much more comfortable with.

I’m telling you this story, because I still get that feeling about Halloween. That uncomfortable feeling that I’d prefer it just not to be there. That it would be better for everyone if we just didn’t do it. All the spooky-spooky programmes on CBBC; the trick-or-treating; the randomly ghoulish fancy-dress of the staff in the Pizza Hut – all of it. Bobbing for apples, is, as far as I can tell, harmless, but my gut instinct is to bob for them another time. So that it’s a fun game, rather than a Halloween Activity.

We carved pumpkins in church*, on Sunday. My initial reaction was pretty much the same as that of the nine-year-old in Mr Liddle’s class – Why? It’s uncomfortable. It’s associated with the BadAndWrongAndWickedAndEvil, and it’s not necessary. Why would we choose to do something that’s neither comfortable nor necessary?

Well, I can tell you that, having never carved a pumpkin in my life before, it’s a lot of fun. We sort of justified the event by discussing All Saints Day, and the remembering of Those Who Have Gone Before, which seems like a very Catholic thing to do, for someone of my religious background, but not beyond the pale. Besides, we all knew that we were REALLY there to carve pictures into fruit, because that’s fun. And you can’t get a pumpkin for love nor money at any other time of year, so unless you want to switch to carving strawberries or clementines, it’s not easy to break the link with a certain late-October festival. But I really wanted to.

It’s all part of a very confused thought process surrounding a great number of things, of which Halloween is the pinnacle. I blame Keith from church – I think I’ve probably been confused from that day forward.

I am not against Harry Potter. I have friends who are, and when I’m with them, I feel lax, and naive, and foolish, and like I’m taking massive spiritual risks with my children’s well-being and future. But I have other friends who produce pumpkins to carve in church situations, and when I’m with THEM, I feel uptight, paranoid, and like I need to Get A Grip.

Don’t tell me that I primarily need to drop the angst over what other people think. I know that already.

I’m definitely not against dressing up – I love that my seven-year-old still dresses up, and whilst finding dressing up clothes to fit her is getting trickier (apparently, dressing up is an under-fives activity), I think it’s a fabulous part of being a child. But perhaps not dressing up on the night of BadAndWrongAndWickedAndEvil, in case that which is usually fine suddenly becomes BadAndWrongAndWickedAndEvil, by association (I’ve now got “BadAndWrongAndWickedAndEvil” in my Copy-And-Paste clipboard, because it’s awkward to type).

Can you see how utterly tangled up and irrational my thinking is on this? I’m finding it all very confusing.

So, yesterday, I did what I often do when I have no clear idea of what I think about something. I talked to my dad about it. And, in the way that he very often does, he threw some very interesting light on the thing for me. What if, he said, Halloween is actually necessary? What if there is genuinely BadAndWrongAndWickedAndEvil, in terms of real spiritual influences, but that the stuff that goes on at Halloween – the dressing up, the pumpkin carving, the being delightfully scared, but not TOO scared – what if the role of those things is specifically to fulfil a need in us to acknowledge the scary. What if, without it, many more people would be driven to seek out the genuinely BadAndWrongAndWickedAndEvil spiritual experiences? What if Harry Potter and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, rather than opening us up to such things, actually protect us from them?

I had honestly never considered such an angle before, and I’m still working out whether I think it’s valid or not. It does sound a little like precisely the argument one might construct if one was seeking to justify something that was actually BadAndWrongAndWickedAndEvil. But it certainly gave me some food for thought.

Don’t get me wrong, I remain very much against Trick-or-Treating – it amounts to demanding sweets with menaces, and is a no-brainer, as far as I’m concerned. But maybe I might just calm down a bit over the rest of it.

* For the record, whatever picture entered your mind when I used the word “church” just there, I can guarantee it was more formal and structured than the way we are currently spending our Sunday mornings. Picture a dozen people hanging out at someone’s house, carving pumpkins and cooking lunch.