Mental Health
1 min read

Removing pain’s barriers to healing

How do we open the window to let the air in?
A window sheds light through locked bars into a dusty and dark room,
Denny Müller on Unsplash.

One of the trickiest situations you can encounter if you’re a counsellor is having a client you can’t reach. They sit there in front of you, pain in their eyes, but somehow every approach you make meets with resistance. It’s like trying to touch someone through a closed window – you can see them, but you keep bumping into the glass. 

I have two at the moment. One is Cypriot; I’ll call her Androulla, and she scares me rather as she is a doctor and never smiles and knows everything. ‘Yes, I have tried that,’ she says. ‘Yes, I am familiar with that book/ line of thinking/ philosophical method – it hasn’t worked for me.’ 

And I know that we’ve found the poisonous plant in the heart of her heart and pulled it up by the roots. I am as sure as I can be that she will get better now.

Yet she is dreadfully sad. Her mother died out in Cyprus, and she couldn’t get there in time. Her grief is eating her. She glares at me, desperate to be helped but bristling with gun turrets. Hmm. 

Eventually I remember something Jane Goodall said. Jane Goodall is one of the world’s wonderful people… her work with chimpanzees back in the 60s dramatically changed our relationship with animals, and she still travels the world at the age of nearly 90 encouraging young people to take action on climate change. In her lovely Book of Hope she describes how when she’s completely knackered or stuck with something, she sort of hands herself over to an outside power. ‘I just relax and decide to appeal to the source of hidden strength,’ she writes. ‘There’s a wisdom that’s far, far, far greater than my own.’ When she surrenders in this way, she often gives her best lectures she says.  

I think I might give it a try with Androulla. As a gradually-learning-to-be-more-trusting Christian, it seems most appropriate to follow in the footsteps of St Francis. So just before our next session I shut my eyes and say, ‘Help Lord, I don’t know what to say to her. Please take over and use me as a channel – she could really do with your peace and grace, and I seem to be in the way’. I’m quite a controlling person normally so I feel a bit reluctant… but if it works for Jane Goodall and for St Francis, I’m not going to argue! 

To my surprise, I find myself asking Androulla what her understanding of the word ‘mercy’ might be – not a very usual counselling question. Even more surprising, her eyes fill with tears and suddenly she says that the last time she saw her mother, she told her she hated her, and had a physical fight with her and hurt the skin on her old arms. Crying properly now, the poor woman says she doesn’t deserve forgiveness after that, and I find myself telling her how mercy sees everything with utter clarity and loves and accepts it whatever is deserved or not deserved. And I know that we’ve found the poisonous plant in the heart of her heart and pulled it up by the roots. I am as sure as I can be that she will get better now. 

Something compassionate has breathed on these locks, and the stuck windows have suddenly yielded and opened to let the air in. 

Then today the same thing happens again – with Bella, my other client who cannot forgive herself, in this case for the fact that her violent alcoholic husband drank even more after she finally left him and died of organ failure in a homeless shelter. We’ve gone over and over her guilt for weeks, and she has remained shiny and brittle and artificially bright and fine. We’ve got nowhere. Until now. ‘Dear Lord,’ I say before I ring her, ‘help me find a way through to her. Let me remove myself and all my assumptions, so that your healing can flow through to her and give her some rest.’ I do my best to relax into our conversation, just to let what wants to come, come. And out of nowhere, I am suddenly inspired to ask her whether she’d feel guilty if her husband had died of some terrible illness like cancer. 

‘No,’ she says. 

‘Well… you’re a medical secretary. You’ll know better than me that alcoholism is an illness,’ I say. 

There’s a very long silence. 

‘Doesn’t that mean you’ve both been suffering from this terrible illness?’ I ask eventually. ‘Dave because it drove him crazy and then killed him; you because it blighted your life, and is blighting it still? Isn’t it time you said, “No, enough!” to this pestilence?’ 

I can see it in my mind’s eye, the alcoholism, like a swarm of red locusts or a scarlet dragon, devouring both Bella and Dave. I don’t feel that’s an image I came up with, it’s just there in my mind. I can feel this lodging in Bella’s mind too… a whole new way of thinking, a great big shift in emphasis, a transfer of responsibility from her to the monster. 

I don’t know whether the idea is fully rooted yet, whether we can rely on it to grow and flourish and bear good fruit. But I sense that it is at least planted and watered. A bit more sunshine, some careful tending… and probably a lot more trusting would seem to be the way forward. 

It’s not in the training manual, this technique. You won’t hear the British Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy recommending that therapists hand themselves over to Jane Goodall’s ‘outside power’. But something compassionate has breathed on these locks, and the stuck windows have suddenly yielded and opened to let the air in. 

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.