Mental Health
4 min read

Don't try and cope on your own

The company of those who care helps when handling traumas.
a man in a wheelchair sits in a subway station holding a sign reading 'seeking human kindness'.
Michael, Boston, 2018.
Matt Collamer on Unsplash.

I did a horrible piece of training at the weekend. You have to do a lot of continual learning if you’re a counsellor, and some of it is hard going. This particular session (with Cruse, a national bereavement charity) was about self-harm, and it contained sheets and slides and lists of the ways in which people hurt, damage and punish themselves. Usually as a way of expressing another kind of pain or because it’s the only thing they can control in a chaotic world. Six hours of it, on Zoom. 

All of us have topics that we struggle with – areas that we find difficult to contemplate – and self-harm is one of mine. It is so far from my own experience of reality that it makes me feel square and naïve and overprotected, and every part of me revolts against it in some way. How terrible that people who are already suffering can only find relief by inflicting further harm on themselves! And some of the injuries are so grievous. Mortifyingly, my main reaction on this occasion was an urge to put my fingers in my ears and tell everyone to STOP IT... not just the trainer, but the poor souls involved in hurting themselves too. Training can be humbling, in the way it reveals the limits of your own compassion to you.  

Clearly though, telling people to ‘stop it’ is not an option, however you might feel! So what to do? 

Christianity, usefully, offers quite a lot of different options for coping with difficult life stuff, so I started considering some of these as I attended to the trainer. The peaceful, thoughtful series of Lent reflections I’ve been listening to recently, for instance… might they help? Um no, not suitable really. Too meditative. You can’t ‘gather the scattered pieces of your consciousness and centre them on God’ when someone is talking about teenagers cutting themselves in ‘risky places, or too deep’ I found. Tranquillity of mind is too passive a response.  

So then I thought about people talking sometimes of being able to hand over their troubles to Christ. He ‘takest away the sins of the world’, as the communion service puts it... his arms are open and he is God, so he can bear the weight. But that didn’t work either. Too mystical. It felt as if action was required, not meek handing over of sorrows because I couldn’t bear to contemplate them. I don’t think we’re meant to dodge responsibility and simply go, ‘Ugh, you have these ones Lord because I don’t want them’.  

So, I sat there writhing inwardly and feeling sweaty and miserable and wishing I was somewhere else. 

This kind, accepting, unshocked conversation was immensely comforting and reassuring, I found. There was safety in it, and daylight, and hope. 

But then I started wondering how everyone else at Cruse copes with such things. I began looking at the other faces on my screen… the 21 of my colleagues who were also attending the training, almost all of them volunteers.  

There was the strong, calm face of Manju, an Indian doctor lady, and Suki, a smiley gappy-toothed African lady, who both work on the triaging team, assessing callers as they come in and assigning them to helpers. There was Richard the First and Richard the Second, both white, one younger than me, one older, both friendly and knowledgeable and kind. There was Naga, a retired nursing sister who looked Scandewegian, and Christina, ditto – except she’d been a teacher. And Nick, not much more than a teenager by the look of him, and Sat, a big Brummie taxi driver in a turban. William looked as if he might be an academic, with his leather elbow patches, and Keith had his sound off due to the presence of a large cat on his desk, which leaned over periodically to miaow into his mike. Lots of others too. 

And suddenly I realised that there was my answer: all those good people, giving up their Saturday because they cared. Listening to stories of suffering because they wanted to understand better, in order to be able to help – to do something for the broken and the sad among us. 

That’s the presence of God, surely: that an army of people turn out, day in, day out, to do things simply because they are good. There is no payment, no special recognition. They have to listen to some very difficult things and contemplate darkness that they wouldn’t necessarily in their own lives. But there they all were that morning, one small group among thousands of others all over the country no doubt – ready to serve, and cheerful and friendly and attentive. 

They talked matter-of-factly about cases they’d encountered and situations which can lead people to injure themselves, and about self-harm as a phenomenon in certain social groups. About how it can be treated, about how it can heal and disappear with the right care and compassion. About how sometimes it can even be preferable to other alternatives. It is much easier, for example, to stop self-harming than it is to recover from an eating disorder. 

This kind, accepting, unshocked conversation was immensely comforting and reassuring, I found. There was safety in it, and daylight, and hope. A feeling that even if someone is suffering, there are others who are able to meet them there, to keep them warm and hold them up. That people do act as the hands and feet of God actually sometimes, regardless of creed or faith or fallenness. 

Looking at them all I felt so much better… and that if they could do it, I could. We only need to work in company together and our collective strength will keep us all afloat, rescuers and rescued alike. ‘Be not afraid’ the Bible says over and over again. It is very much easier not to be, when you’re not trying to be brave by yourself. 


1 min read

How to be (un)successful

Could busyness really be the counterfeit of significance?
A man sits cross legged in a park with a laptop on the grass in front of him. He looks to one side.
Malte Helmhold on Unsplash.

You probably want to be a success. 

That’s OK – it’s a very reasonable thing to desire.  

The questions ‘Am I successful?’ or ‘What is success?’ are deeply significant and to ask such questions is a normal part of the human experience. The yearning for a life of purpose, as elusive as it can seem, is felt acutely by the majority of those who have ever lived – certainly by more than might admit it. (Those feelings of inadequacy you experience may be more common than you think.) And now more than ever it is understandable that you may feel you are not particularly successful, or not successful enough. We are assaulted by a combination of capitalism and consumerism, social media and cancel culture, polarised ideologies and virtue signalling, topped off by the wounds of our parents passed down – all of which can amalgamate into producing some pretty angsty, pressure-driven people. 

It’s not just you; I’m pretty sure we all have a bit of a problem with success (the word itself is so subjective), and our idea of it can often be fuelled by wounds rather than vision, romanticised projections rather than reality. Because we are all somewhat flawed, any worldly contribution we try to make can get precariously entangled with a me-fixated narcissism on a fairly regular basis.  

Most of us know that being successful is not simply about money, looks, large numbers or power. That’s just a caricature to which very few reasonable people actually subscribe, right?  

Well, sure – at least on the surface. 

My social-media feeds are rammed full of early-to-mid-thirties enjoying a kind of spandex-clad transcendence. 

The thing is, despite seeing through it and being repelled by it in others (we see it’s all vanity, inch-deep), something in us longs for success on these terms. But much more interesting than skimming along the surface of ‘success’ is excavating deeper into some of the core motivating beliefs we humans have about ourselves, such as mistaken pride in thinking we each control our destiny, or paranoia that tells us there’s an inherent scarcity of everything in the world. These are the swell that carry along the undercurrent of comparison – where we see the lives of others and long for a different reality for ourselves. And comparison – so often eliciting either pride or despondency – rarely ends well.  

A cursory glance through the wisdom of online articles on the matter tells us millennials typically understand that material wealth isn’t the marker of success – there are enough old, sad, rich people to show that. Instead, success has now become synonymous with living a life that others want. Chase an experience. Go adventure. Wanderlust. #yolo. To succeed in life is to publicly consume as many unique experiences as you can during your short time on earth.  

I don’t know about you, but my social-media feeds are rammed full of early-to-mid-thirties enjoying a kind of spandex-clad transcendence. Success for today’s generation would seem to look a lot less like the overweight suit-clad city trader selling their soul to the system, making shedloads of cash to buy a slice of suburban real estate with a Porsche in the drive, and more like the lithe and mindful global citizen doing ‘life on my terms’. Think coastal living, yoga on a stand-up paddleboard in the morning, slaying the emails in your industrial co-working space, eating a superfood lunch, nailing a couple of zoom calls early evening before smashing some gua bao and margaritas with ‘your peeps’ at the latest pop-up restaurant before taking an Uber home. #squadgoals  

There’s no escaping the fact that technology has shrunk the world and as James Mumford notes, ‘global capitalism has brought so many different ways of life closer to us than ever before. We can see vividly a greater number of people who we want to be.’ This can bring up hidden feelings we thought we’d buried long ago.  

I often feel unfulfilled. Sometimes completely lost. For years I haven’t been able to admit that. Until fairly recently I would find myself looking at others and thinking: ‘Don’t they ever struggle with life’s big questions? Don’t they ever want to give up? Surely, I can’t be the only one sinking under the weight of comparison?’ Far from freeing me from my broken sense of self, the version of faith I was trying to live by was exacerbating the core wound I recognised in myself. That wound was a sense of feeling a failure, unsuccessful. And like an unwelcome parasite, it fed on comparison to others.  

Read any random couple of articles on ‘successful’ people talking about how ‘successful’ they are, and a lot of what’s conveyed is a profoundly angsty relationship with time: ‘You only have one shot at life’; ‘I don’t want to waste my time on earth’; ‘You can never get it back.’  

It’s as though we have an inherent recognition – and for some, dread – of the physical limits placed on us by virtue of being mortal and human. But what if unencumbered productivity, unceasing activity and unrelenting progress – however that is defined – are signs less of success than of self-centred insecurity? Could busyness really be the counterfeit of significance?  

It’s as if we have, left unchecked, an insatiable appetite for accomplishment. It’s not hard to see where this comes from. Paul Kingsnorth comments that: “Modern economies thrive by encouraging ever-increasing consumption of harmful junk, and our hyper-liberal culture encourages us to satiate any and all of our appetites in our pursuit of happiness. If that pursuit turns out to make us unhappy instead – well, that’s probably just because some limits remain un-busted.” He goes on to suggest that this is a fundamentally spiritual problem, because ‘a crisis of limits is a crisis of culture, and a crisis of culture is a crisis of spirit.’ 

So far so depressing? 

It needn’t be. 

Fullness of life – true success, if you like - is found in living to serve others above ourselves. 

Despite my continued struggle with all of the above, (neatly summarised by the inner critic’s voice asking me ‘what have you got to show for your life?’), I am beginning to learn that ‘life in its fullness’ (as Jesus once described what he came to offer) is found elsewhere. So, what does this look like and how do we successfully access this fullness of life? This quote can come across – and I’ve heard it used as such – like a marketing slogan, dangling a golden carrot in front of sad or vulnerable people to recruit them into church. Presumably that wasn’t what Jesus had in mind.  

Now there’s no denying the fact that Jesus was one of the most influential people who ever lived. Arguably THE most influential. Generally, even those who don’t follow him recognize that what he taught was pretty timeless. (Also evidenced by the 2.6 billion people today who are happy to be called Christian.) All of this suggests he had some fairly wise takes on how to live life well, and that his perspectives have stood the test of time. So, when he is recorded as teaching about how to discover what he described as ‘life in its fullness’, the chances are there is something valuable and insightful for those of us searching for success.  

The thing is, in this particular speech, Jesus conceptualized ‘life in its fullness’ as a shepherd who ‘lays down his life for the sheep’. Sure, he was talking about himself, but he was also talking more broadly about the human experience. Jesus’ point is that fullness of life – true success, if you like - is found in living to serve others above ourselves. This flies in the face of much conventional ‘self-help’ wisdom, but it would seem you cannot find true abundance any other way.  

We might well think: ‘Well hang on a minute, Jesus claimed to die for the sins of humanity – we can’t all do that!’ Absolutely right, and please don’t try. But in dying and raising to life again, Jesus foreshadowed the journey of surrender and rebirth that each person who chooses true success must go through. As C. S. Lewis said: ‘Nothing that you have not given away will be really yours. Nothing in you that has not died will ever be raised from the dead.’ This new life of serving others above ourselves – where we seek to align our desires, loves and motivations, our use of time and energy, words and actions with those of Jesus – comes to resemble the promise of life in its fullness. Discovering that would seem fairly successful wouldn’t it? 


How to be (UnSuccessful) is published by SPCK.