Suddenly 31

 

529052263_1280x720It was only a couple of months ago that I noticed something strange afoot. Something deeply, disturbingly shocking in the celebrity pages of every broadsheet and blog. It wasn’t the plethora of dazzlingly white smiles or never-seen-in-nature orange skin. It was far more cruel and unreasoning.

I noticed that suddenly, all the celebrities in the ‘bright young things’ category were the same age, or worse: younger than me.

Now, hang on. Wasn’t it just the other day that I was happily festooning my walls with pull-out posters of Hanson, dreaming of winning literary awards for my YA dystopian five-volume novel, and/or becoming the sixth Spice Girl (they needed a ‘Nerdy Spice’ with thick glasses and knee-high socks so badly)?

My pre-teen celebrity crushes seemed so much more sophisticated than the real boys I knew (although considering the unaccountably large number of boys with bowl haircuts I knew in my youth, this was perhaps not so difficult).

These celebrities existed a world away from my quiet suburban background and bespectacled, youthful angst. They were mysterious and older and resplendent with charm.

They were, I told myself, who I would date or even be when I was older: when I too, was sophisticated and had a wardrobe of Tencel™ crop tops and those black elasticated chokers that Mum wouldn’t let me wear yet.

But now. Now, I have suddenly, abruptly landed upon the fact that I am much, much older than any one of those celebs I plastered on my walls in the mid-nineties.

And yes, I’ve occasionally felt bad about this, because Lena Dunham.

I suppose it’s a fear, no –  a knowledge, that Lena and her ilk have been given a not-too-dissimilar amount of time as me on this planet, but while they have been busy writing and producing TV shows, creating art, selling millions of EPs, and generally covering themselves with joy and glory, I’ve been collecting snow globes and vintage cable knits and genuinely experiencing a feeling of achievement when I remember the spelling of ‘yacht’.

So, what’s a millennial to do? Tear up the aforementioned five-volume novel in a pique of rage? Have a public meltdown in the local Westfield wearing only a shower cap and plastic jellies, hoping someone uploads it to YouTube?

No. We shall keep marching on, the thirty-something non-celebrity ‘underachievers’ amongst us. And we won’t feel bad about not being published yet, not being shortlisted for the Sundance yet, or not even having a failed cold-pressed juice social enterprise/reclaimed wood/tech start-up on our hands. Hell no.

Why? Because I have an amazing snow globe collection, a brilliant bunch of people in my life who support and encourage me in all my harebrained schemes and ideas, and the capacity to dream said harebrained schemes and ideas with abandon, because LIFE IS NOT OVER YET.

Please remember, I’m only 31.

First published on The Huffington Post blog

 

Visiting the stations

Walking into the crypt of St-Martin-in-the-Fields on Monday night to see The Stations installation, I didn’t really know what to expect.

After being confronted with a steady stream of footage of the refugee crisis, I’m ashamed to say that my compassion sometimes needs new ways of being sparked. My eyes become hardened to what I see on my TV screen or online, and the personal stories, the things that really drive connection, become easier to miss.

But on Monday night, I was confronted once again with these stories. The faces in the photographs, incredibly captured by Marksteen Adamson, had eyes that seemed to search mine as I walked past. Many of the photos captured elements from everyday life – ordinary things we all recognise: worn-out stairs, slogan-emblazoned sweatshirts – which oddly, I found jarring.

I don’t know what my mental picture had been: perhaps something more like the powerfully dramatic portrait of Station 6 (Humiliation); but I find even more moving the simple, evocative pictures of people just trying to gain a sense of normality and order in the midst of transience and chaos. People sitting in living rooms and standing in stairwells. People passing the time of day in what must seem like a remorseless stream of identical days. Waiting.

It struck me too, reflecting on the fact that we’re constantly remembering the story of a refugee and His suffering, that as Christians, we may allow our familiarity with the gospel narrative to be a refuge for us from the hard facts of what is going on, here and now.

What I mean is this: we can become overly familiar with suffering. We fail to see it as the gaping wound, the terrible blight on the world that it is. We accept the verdict that to be human is to suffer and die, failing to remember that this brokenness was not the Plan A. Forgetting hat we should fight brokenness and injustice with a passion that comes from knowing that this is not what the world was designed to be.

I’ve often suspected, as many of us do, the easy, trite theology of: “God has a plan for this/moves in mysterious ways,” et al. I do believe that this is true ultimately, of course – but it’s the sort of “Job’s comforter” vibe that this advice gives off, when presented in the face of need, that puts me on edge; not to mention the fact that it can get used as a sort of get-out-of-jail-free card by lazy Christians, keen to keep their hands clean of our world’s problems. God’s going to sort it, He’s waaaaay better at this than me, kthanksbye.

It’s just not good enough.

And that’s where the beauty of this exhibition lies. In retelling the refugees’ stories through the familiar lense of the stations of the cross, the plight of the refugees and the journey of Jesus to the cross are both brought back, sharply, into focus.

One picture, at Station 5 (Outlaw), depicts a young man with his arms outstretched, standing in the makeshift chapel of the Calais camp. As I gazed at the scene before me, full of iconography and crucifixes, I wondered why the prayers in that tent weren’t being answered fast enough. I wondered what God was thinking. And then I remembered that the journey of faith is not filled with easy answers to the question of: “Why have you abandoned me?”, even for the Son of God.

We can either throw our faith away in response to this hard fact, or we can choose to stay, even in the doubt and the unknown.

Just like in matters of faith, no one has easy answers to the refugee crisis. If they did, we’d probably (rightly) distrust them anyway. But we are called to a response, even in the doubt and unknowing.

The Stations invite us to ‘journey together’, to explore what others are doing in response – including partner organisation Home for Good, who are speaking up on behalf of refugee children – and to respond to the crisis in whatever way we can.

The Stations is at the crypt in St-Martin-In-The-Fields from 15 March to 10 April and Spring Harvest Minehead from 28 March to 10 April. Response packs and further information can be found at http://thestations.org.uk/

 

Escaping the cringe

There are very few times in life when you say something so keenly insightful and significant that you know you have stumbled upon something of great sociological importance to humankind. I would like to humbly announce that so far in my life I have managed this only once, but it was a truly golden moment.

It came about from a conversation that I was having with a friend who had just ended a relationship, but was second-guessing their choice; I was trying to say something – anything – that would be remotely helpful to their situation, and what came out was: “There’s no escaping the cringe.”

We both looked at each other dumbfounded, as we realised the enormity of our discovery. This was exactly what was happening here. My friend had the cringe – had it bad, in fact – and there was no coming back from it. Any relationship struck by the cringe was doomed.

On further reflection, I realised there were two types of cringe: outer cringe and inner cringe. Which you experience the most – and most people experience both at some point – depends largely on your perspective of yourself and the world:

Inner cringe is arguably the most painful to personally experience. Your inner cringe is the reason you know the exact tone and texture of the object of your affection’s shoelaces, but not their eye colour; the reason why you blush and stammer as if their simple question about your day was straight from the second round of Mastermind, and perhaps even the reason why you loudly and catastrophically snorted into your fizzy orange drink as they brushed past you at the last church social. Suspiciously over-specific examples aside, whatever form inner cringe takes, you can rest assured that it’s always characterised by deep feelings of self-loathing and a sudden and mysterious loss of hand-eye coordination.

Outer cringe is equally cruel and malicious, and its ways are even more mysterious, but the fear and loathing tends to be projected outward, onto the people around you. Outer cringe – also known on the depths of the internet as Sudden Revulsion Syndrome, or SRS – is where, out of nowhere, your other half’s innocent habits or quirks invoke a cringe so sudden and violent as to be irrevocable. It’s cruel and unsparing, and impossible to ignore.

I have to admit to being both an inner and outer cringer for much of my life, but with a definite preference toward the outer cringe. And outer cringers have it easy, it must be said. Sure, we feel a little guilty sometimes, when we’ve decided that our date’s penchant for kale has left little to the orthodontist’s imagination (hello, teenage years), or when their laugh has an unusually high squeak  at the end, but in general, we come out of the process relatively unscathed. Your date meanwhile, may or may not be bankrolling Kleenex in a fluffy nightie (or male equiv.). Love truly is cruel sometimes.

Inner cringe seems fairly easy to pin down to a lack of confidence, but outer cringe is more complex. I once asked my boyfriend whether he’d experienced the phenomena of outer cringe, and he looked at me like I’d grown another limb. “You know,” I said, hoping that clarification would somehow make me look less monstrous, “it’s when you suddenly just go off someone? You’re really into them one minute and then – poof – the next you’re wishing they were as far away from you as possible?” He just looked at me incredulously. Finally he said: “But why would anyone do that? How is that even a thing?”

It was about this time that I realised that outer cringe is probably the domain of the emotionally unstable. And lest you think I’m being unnecessarily harsh here, I would like to remind you of the definition of unstable, because thinking someone is great one minute and unbearable the next definitely seems like shifting sands to me.

I’m thankful to say I’m now a reformed outer cringer – it’s been quite some time since I really experienced those feelings in full force, and much longer since I’ve acted on them. But what’s changed in me? Why was I so compelled to push people away from me for so long, for seemingly harmless reasons? And is there hope for outer cringers everywhere in my story?

You’ll find plenty of articles on SRS online which continue to firmly pin the blame for outer cringe on outward influences: the relationship had passed its use-by date, it’s a sign of incompatibility, etc. I suspect this is because many of the writers are themselves outer cringers, and outer cringers tend to externalise their issues. But I felt I had to face up to facts and accept responsibility.

I began to realise that my cringe is probably a whole lot more about me and my dislike of certain traits within myself, than it is about the other person. Projection is a word that is over-used in popular culture, but in psychotherapy it specifically applies to the mind’s ability to, often inaccurately, view someone through the lens of certain undesirable traits we dislike in ourselves or in significant others. If I dislike my own selfish nature, I may react quite strongly to any indication, real or imagined, that my boyfriend has similarly selfish traits.

Now, some of this dislike is, if a little hypocritical, at least defensible – who wants to be with a selfish person, after all?! But the reasons for ending relationships were, for me, usually much more innocuous than this, and in many cases, were quite frankly a symptom of a deep-rooted inability to deal with imperfection in myself. Ouch.

So now, if I had my chance again, what would I say to my friend about the cringe? Would I really announce that it’s the final word, the last hurrah, the nail in the coffin of a half-dead relationship?

It’s nowhere near as pithy and will probably never be put onto one of those desk-quote calendar thingies, but I have to say that facing the cringe head-on and pushing through it was probably one of the best choices I ever made. So goodbye, outer cringe. It’s really not me this time, it’s you.

 

What if we’re not all meant to save the world?

“Unemployed at last!” is the immortal first line from the classic Australian novel Such Is Life, and like all good first lines, it lends itself to being shouted wildly at the top of your lungs as you charge out of the (literal/metaphorical) revolving doors of your hated workplace for the last time, reports and paperwork billowing up around you as you release them to the will of the wind. Hopefully there will also be some work colleagues watching you, wistfully or aghast, faces pressed to the (dirty, basement) window.

At least, this is the resignation scenario I have played out in my dreams. I’ve actually always enjoyed my job, which is the only fly in the ointment when it comes to dramatic career exits – this kind of behaviour really is the preserve of the downtrodden corporate slave, rising like a phoenix from the pile of shredded legal documents they were supposed to archive, ready to launch into a new career in online organic juicing.

The thing is, part of the reason why this dream holds such allure is that for many of us, our perspective on careers is radically different from the one we imagined when we were at university. If you’re anything like me, your early thoughts on career varied wildly between the perceived grit and glamour of policewoman/investigative journalist/lawyer (human rights, obvs) and something creative yet unassuming like, oh, senior stylist at Vogue with my own globally successful fashion line and a celebrity friend or two – you know, the usual.

In my head, my job was always glamourous, always well-paid, and NEVER involved filing, stapling, tax returns, or spending 20 minutes every week trying to sort and filter data from tabbed spreadsheets (please, please, why?! And where does the other data go once you’ve filtered it? WHERE?!).

But somewhere along my extremely varied career path, as I stand facing my 31st year square in the eye, I know that my priorities have changed. And it seems that’s the case for many of my peers as well.

According to Fortune, people in their 20s and 30s are far more likely to seek a career that gives them a sense of purpose and fulfilment, rather than chasing the dollar. As our generational spokeswoman (Jessie J) once sang: “It ain’t about the (uh) cha-ching cha-ching.” No, forget about the price tag. We want to MAKE THE WORLD DANCE. We do. And the thing is, why not?

But what if it doesn’t end up like that? What if our efforts to make the global population do the two-step end up in a disastrous polka, or worse still, they stay standing at the sidelines?

This metaphor probably reached its natural limit some time ago, so I’ll just get to the point: you’ve decided that you don’t want to pursue a career unless it offers you meaning and purpose. That’s great. But what if we’re still missing the point? What if we’re not all meant to save the world after all?

Now, before you get me excommunicated, I want to say clearly that my faith gives my life purpose and meaning, and whatever I do, I want to stay connected to that. And I believe that my faith is capable of transforming and renewing this world and seeing God’s kingdom come. But I don’t think that’s about my job; that’s about my life. My job might explicitly be part of that (and actually, it is), but it could equally be something seemingly unrelated, and that’s ok.

The point is, our measures of success, whether it be a ‘purposeful’ job or a ‘meaningful’ career, can become as narrow-minded and limiting as we have found the pursuit of success or wealth to be. It’s still a way for us to categorise certain professions into a toxic hierarchy, often to shore up a low sense of self-worth.

I will leave you with some final wisdom from Bill Watterson, the creator of the Calvin & Hobbes comics, which makes exactly my point (check out a cartoon version here): your job, no matter how meaningful and fulfilling, is never the sole measure of your worth. Isn’t that kind of a relief?

 

Why I won’t be doing a digital detox this year

January, as we all know, is the month of the detox. Work colleagues are coming to work clutching five thermos flasks of putrid-smelling green juices, eyeing even the spinach salad lunches of their companions with envy, and snapping half-way through the afternoon with furtive KitKats in the hallway.

Also gaining momentum is the idea of the digital detox, with establishments like the Four Seasons Hotel in Hampshire now offering a ‘Digital Detox Spa’ as part of their weekend packages. And for those of us with a more interventionist mindset, military-style ‘internet detox boot camps’ (which it turns out, are about as fun as they sound) are particularly big in China and Korea, and now appear to be gaining popularity globally.

To top it all off, the Guardian reported this week that schoolchildren in the state of Illinois could be forced to give authorities access to their Facebook accounts, in a bid to curb the rise of cyberbullying. With certain social networking sites such as Yik Yak already being banned by schools in the UK, the tide of popular opinion certainly seems to be that social media is threatening the fabric of our society.

The thing is, we can ban social media all we like. We can, like a friend of mine, have ‘designated Twitter times’ marked into our diaries, so that we can curb the impulse to scroll through the feed at work.  We can remove the apps from our phones so that it’s not our go-to fix when we’re feeling bored in a queue or train station. But that doesn’t really solve the problem.

The problem isn’t social media. The problem is us.

No matter how shocking the latest cyber-bullying story may be, if we’re honest we know that in those stories we recognise familiar echoes. The same weaknesses run through all of us: the same capacity to be short with someone in a moment of irritation, to say something in a fit of jealousy, the capacity to ignore or ostracise those to whom we feel in some way superior.

It’s not pleasant or comfortable to admit. Those of us who have never put a cyber-foot wrong don’t want to identify with the type of person who would hound a child online, until they felt life was unbearable. We don’t want to admit that someone we know: a neighbour, a sister, or a friend, may be capable of tweeting something offensive to a perfect stranger.

Even the label we use for these offenders, ‘internet troll’, betrays our unwillingness to identify with them; we use the word ‘troll’ to remove the ugliness a step further away from ourselves, placing cyber-bullying into the realm of the mythic and the horrible.

Social psychologists believe that even those without naturally sadistic tendencies can become cyber-bullies, in the right context. It’s called deindividuation – the phenomenon of ordinary people behaving uncharacteristically when they are part of a group – a description of what can happen when, coupled with the anonymity of the internet, the darker parts of us are given free reign online.

So, what do we do with this? Should we all be going ‘off the grid’ and writing notes to one another on parchment paper, whilst we tend our organic allotments? Is the best response to check out of the whole thing and hope for a swift and sudden rapture?

Perhaps a clue as to the best way forward is in the remarkable story of Cambridge University professor Mary Beard, who ended up writing a job reference for a former student who had sent her an abusive message online. She had publically confronted him after the comments, and he apologised. Since then, she has befriended and helped not only him, but several other online bullies, using social media to identify the person behind the abusive comments, confront their behaviour and then extend kindness toward them.

The fact is, we may not all be facing down Twitter trolls or composing toxic messages to strangers, but as the internet becomes more integrated into our lives, the risk that we will encounter the dark side of it only increases. We can’t check out of this, or plead ignorance any longer.

Our journey to overcoming the ‘problem of social media’ is exactly the same journey of redemption we are called to undertake throughout our lives: the humility to realise our own brokenness; the empathy to see others as human and therefore broken too; and the wisdom to cultivate truth and love in all our interactions.

We can create all the resolutions we want this January, but perhaps the best one we can make is to spread some light in a very dark world, to all people, by all possible means. (Even on Twitter.)

This essay was written in January 2015, as part of the Friday Night Theology series

Benefits Street

If you’ve been going about your business this week as usual, you may have been unaware of the fact that Belgium is currently in the throes of a national crisis.

The tiny country, which has survived two world wars and countless invasions, has, according to the Telegraph, been ‘gripped’ by perhaps the most daring crime in its history – the theft of the mayor of Brussels’ underpants.

The underpants were part of a collection by anarchist Jan Bucquoy, who runs a museum in Belgium dedicated to ‘exploring the relationship between politicians and their underwear’. Well I guess someone had to do it.

However, Bucquoy’s exhibition has hinged not so much on an unhealthy fascination with the undergarments of dignitaries and more to do with the idea that ‘all people are equal in their underpants, whether they are famous, rich, powerful or all three at the same time’.

Written starkly like that, as a political statement, I’m suddenly aware that these notions of equality and democracy seem a little trite. Hackneyed and clichéd. We’ve heard it all before, surely? We all believe it, don’t we?

Then I read this.

It’s a feature by the Daily Mail which came out on Tuesday, reporting the completely foreseeable news that the documentary Benefits Street was the most watched Channel 4 show in two years (beaten only by the Paralympic Closing Ceremony in 2012, if you want to know). Frankly, anyone who’s tuned into this show over the last couple of weeks must find this news about as unsurprising as this year’s Oscar nominations.

I’ll give Channel 4 their dues, the show is fine-tuned to perfection. Showcasing the lives of the inhabitants of James Turner Street in Birmingham – a street where over 90% of the residents are on benefits – it lingers upon the daily trials of life on the street in brutal, agonising detail. It’s dark, depressing and impossible to turn away.

So yes, we know how this happened. We know how Channel 4 got their ratings. But do we actually know how this happened?

Because I’ve got some questions. I want to know how they got people – ordinary people with lives and hopes and dreams like us – to give away pieces of themselves on screen, for our entertainment?

Apparently they weren’t paid; it’s claimed they were given ‘gifts’ to the tune of beer, cigarettes and McDonald’s. (As long as it’s all by the book, hey chaps?) I mean, did they just go around from house to house on James Turner Street and say, ‘Hey just so you know, we want to create a TV show that’s going to completely humiliate you and oh, maybe ruin your lives, but here’s a Dairy Milk McFlurry?’ How did they get them to sign away their faces, their stories, their lives? What did they promise?

Actually, I think I know the answer to that one. You see, the thing that struck me the most when watching Benefits Street was that, mixed with the quiet (and occasionally not-to-so-quiet) desperation on the faces of residents like Mark and Becky, a couple barely out of their teens, was a mute appeal for help. The kind of appeal made by those who feel they’ve already been beaten down by life.

Mark, a father of two who goes for his first job during the series, at one point heartbreakingly says: ‘I want my life to plan out and [I think about] what else I can do to make it better … but no answers yet.’ Meanwhile, another resident hopes that change will come when viewers, ‘take a step in our shoes and see how it is, living on benefits.’

And perhaps they’re being naïve, the residents of James Turner Street. Maybe they believe too much in the power of television; maybe in a weird way, they’re not quite so cynical and jaded as us. I think we’ve learned, mostly, to keep our head down (with the obvious exception of Russell Brand). We know how this plays out. We know that things can turn bad really, really fast.

But maybe if we didn’t have so much to lose, it might seem like a legitimate option. Maybe if I were living on James Turner Street, I too might believe that this might be a way out, a way to gain a voice in a society that repeatedly shuns and ignores me.

Well, the residents of James Turner Street are not being ignored anymore. Because I guess if we can turn what we find uncomfortable and confronting into entertainment, then it becomes a little less threatening, doesn’t it? When we feel that we have a semblance of control over what is happening – when the tragedies of James Turner Street can disappear with the click of a button – then we’re able to distance ourselves from the horrors of entrenched poverty that grips communities and neighbourhoods all around our nation.

I speak as a selfish and complacent member of my generation, but it’s worth acknowledging that we all at times play a part in this particular, systemic and quietly malignant oppression of the vulnerable and marginalised. I stand on the sidelines as much as anyone else. I’m as ready to be entertained as anybody.

But I want to challenge that in myself; because despite how clichéd it may be, I want to believe – I do believe – that Jan Bucquoy was right. I believe we’re all equal in our underpants.

This was written in January 2014, as part of the Friday Night Theology series

Beauty is a battlefield

When I was first asked to write about beauty, I didn’t want to. Sticking my head over the parapet isn’t a favourite past-time of mine.

But I said yes. Then I panicked and, in the name of research, mercilessly interrogated anyone luckless enough to cross my path. If I have anything to offer this conversation, I can truthfully say it is has been plagarised from my long-suffering friends.

My uneasy relationship with beauty stems from the fact that growing up, I didn’t feel beautiful. You know the term ‘awkward adolescence’? Well that’s really doing me a kindness. I’m occasionally told I have ‘personality’; well, take it from me, growing up I had to have personality. Where I’m from, they run people out of town for far lesser social crimes than being homely.

I grew up in a family of beautiful women. With sisters who have taken up careers in personal training and modeling, it was hard to figure out where my more awkward looks had their place. My ‘winning personality’ was mentioned quite a lot.

It didn’t help my body-consciousness that I come from an über-athletic, Australian family; though I always participated in the daily ritual of sport in the backyard, it was usually with a book in one hand, which I would insist on keeping on my person at all times (not so easy during rugby or mud-wrestling, but marginally more comfortable when playing cricket). Occasionally I would stop games from deep in left field to make everyone listen to snatches of Austen or sentimental poetry of my own composition.

Such behaviour usually resulted in team huddles on the pitch, where the practicalities of looking after me into my spinsterly old age were fleshed out: ‘Well, you could have her for December, at least! That seems only fair!’

Then I grew up and lost the bad haircut and the glasses. Adulthood seemed thrust upon me, even though I still felt like the same person inside. Beauty became a thorny issue. If I got attention for my looks it annoyed me, because I knew that the same guys would never have looked twice two or three years earlier.

And yet the more reasonable side of me also knew that I did look better; that I, as much as anyone else, made assumptions about people based upon their appearance and that there was a part of me that was happier with my new-found confidence.

I, like everyone else, want to be accepted for my whole self, not just the nice parts. But how do we gain this kind of acceptance? Do we defy the conventions of beauty and just not try anymore, daring the people around us to love us ‘just as we are’? Isn’t that a little bit like asking others to accept our selfishness, laziness or kleptomania because it’s ‘just who I am’?

What does it say about me if I’m not seeking to be the best I can be, inside and out? When I’m too fragile to accept any kind of affection except that of unquestioning acceptance: the friends who always agree with me, the partner who won’t (gently!) encourage me to go for a jog, the family who never pull me up for ungracious attitudes?

I realise there’s a lot of questions here, and not too many answers. But I feel like sometimes I miss the point that it’s not just the inside that needs a little redemption. It seems to me that a common principle applies: that real, dynamic beauty is always seeking to grow, to learn and to engage with all of who we are and could be; accepting who we are intrinsically, but always reaching for something more. I believe that’s a call to both inward and outward beauty.

The thing is, beauty is a battlefield. There are no victors and everyone bears scars. But I’m also beginning to believe that beauty is redemptive and at its core, full of hope; even (perhaps especially) for the wild-haired, book-reading girl from deep in left field.

This essay was written in August 2013, for threads