Healing, brokenness, and the mental health industrial complex

Photo by SIMON LEE on Unsplash

It’s interesting to watch — from the safe vantage point of vast ignorance — cracks in the gleaming exterior of Western mental health care. To say the least, it’s not like flying a plane, where highly trained people, following international standards of safety and expertise, successfully take people to places they want to go. Psychiatry and psychology are not like that. They may want to look like that, but they are not like that. 1 Here are some of the cracks:

  1. The standards aren’t, well, standard. The American Psychiatric Association publishes a thing called the DSM (the diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders), currently on its fifth edition, DSM-5. It’s widely referred and accepted and is the product of much scholarly endeavour. But it changes, and practice changes with it. After DSM-4 was published, ADHD diagnoses tripled, autism diagnoses increased 20-fold and bipolar diagnoses 40-fold. 2 This was not a sudden epidemic of mental illness, it was a consequence of widening the categories. So, beware, with the next edition of the book, your illness could become a variant of normalcy, or your normalcy be re-categorized as illness.
  2. It’s subjective, not objective. Physical medicine is at least a mixture of both, blood tests and MRI scans complementing the doctor’s own judgement. Mental illness appears not to be independently testable. This subjectivity on the part of mental health professionals has consequences: I have seen people bounced between diagnoses of Borderline Personality Disorder, PTSD, Bipolar, and schizophrenia in a process that seems a bit like different practitioners sticking random Post-It stickers on people’s heads. (Though it’s worth remembering that people who practice mental health care all are there to do something good for the broken and damaged people whom they meet every day and they want to help them thrive. They are not dabbling with words; getting it right matters. The bitterness of the debate is because everyone cares, not because no-one does.)
  3. Commercial interests are involved. As one kept alive by various drugs, I am very fond of big pharma, but I do acknowledge that they have a commercial interest in selling drugs for mental health, and that must influence their own influence in this subjective area. Certainly different groups of all stripes campaign to change the DSM in their favour, which must mean each DSM is a product of power struggles as well as pure evidence.
  4. It victimizes people. Telling my liver that it is abnormally swollen does not upset my liver too much; telling my head I have a personality disorder, and that, no, they haven’t really found a cure, affects my whole sense of who I am and what I am to do about it.
  5. It oversimplifies, or at least wrongly frames, the problem. Have mental health problems rocketed, powered by social media, relationship breakdown, unwise romantic choices, and covid-19 exclusions? Or have otherwise normal people across our communities been battered by exceptional stresses? Are they, at root, diseased or injured? That matters a great deal for how, and if, you can get well again.
  6. It’s not been great for children. Apparently (according to my source article again) as late as the 1990s it was ‘unusual to prescribe medication or give diagnostic labels to under-18s.’ That is no longer the case. It would be good to know what the evidence is for this change. I hope it’s solid. I can’t help thinking that diagnosing children -a subjective process and one that is inconsistent across practitioners- on the basis of the child’s own grasp of the problem, is a shaky place from which to start chemical intervention or medical labelling.
  7. Can it mean that problems are treated here in the West as primarily medical, rather than, say, primarily to do with relationships, poverty, trauma, abuse, poor choices, or just the kind of ennui that doesn’t know what to aim for or what to aspire to be, or what the point of living is; that we are attempting to treat medically a kind of lostness?
  8. Can it be that we are underplaying the social, the relational, the physical, and the spiritual and overemphasising the medical? This I find really intriguing because I think I have learnt that healing in any sphere is basically about shalom, peace and contentment; that’s the mark of the healed, even if those same healed ones limp around in broken bodies and perhaps with damaged minds. To thrive before God and people, in all circumstances, that’s healing.

So much to learn!

My books of the year

Yet again it’s been an utterly absorbing and fascinating year for reading books. So enjoyable to climb into people’s heads and the book – long, processed, considered, skippable, re-readable, sumarizable and quotable – is still the best format I know for deep and prolonged happiness. So here’s a few of the most enjoyable.

BTW – I never read books because they are ‘important’ or ‘significant’ but only because they give joy. Most of them were found by wandering randomly in our branch of Waterstones, still the best way to find a book that no algorithm would send you. I read plenty of other books too, but these stick out.

They aren’t in any order.

Powers and thrones – a new history of the Middle Ages by Dan Jones, rollicking, thousand-year European centred history.

Just my type, a book about fonts by Simon Garfield. Geekish, obsessive and very enjoyable book about fonts and font choices. A book I’ve wanted to give to the literary obsessives in my life, and a book that makes you look at every street sign, shopfront, advert, book and newspaper differently. Now I know, for example, why hospital corridors are such unsettling places: they are font chaos.

When the dust settles: stories of love, loss and hope from an expert in disaster, by Lucy Easthope. The story of people who prepare for, and mop up after, disasters. A very moving account of how people do, don’t, can, and can’t help when catastrophe strikes, and how much better things would be if we prepared for them (as we could’ve) rather than paring away the budgets of the planners. An unusual paeon to local councils who often have to clear up the messes. A really fine read that tugs suprisingly hard at the heart.

Are we having fun yet by Lucy Mangan, a book about family life, her husband, child-rearing, friendship, haircuts, pink-on-pink warfare and playdate power struggles by a person who is these days the most consistently, riotously funny and joyful columnist on the Guardian newspaper. Also the second book by someone called ‘Lucy’ that I have read this year. Perhaps I should devote a whole year to reading books written by people called Lucy; the two I landed on this year were in different ways, objects of wonder.

If these stones could talk: the history of Christianity in Britain and Ireland through twenty buildings by Peter Stanford. Does what it says on the tin, but is beautifully but unobtrusively researched and written. Lovely, gorgeous, thoughtful book.

I’ve also, courtesy of my subscription to Audible, been listening to lecture courses from the Great Courses series which those all-engulfing types at Amazon have brought into the Audible list. Here are three that had me gripped while I did my cardio physio.

Classics of British Literature by John Sutherland. A mind-expanding summary of the long history of great books and poems written by British authors, starting way back with Beowolf and ending in the 21st century, and nicely meshed with summaries of the cultural history that surrounded them and gave them birth. Failed to mention Anthony Trollope except perhaps in passing, but nobody’s perfect.

Augustine: Philosopher and saint by Philip Cary, an introduction to the thought of St Augustine, who is this great unavoidable massif in the Western theological tradition, standing, alone, between us and the apostles and prophets. Sufficiently simple for me to understand and enjoy.

London: A short history of the greatest city in the Western World by Robert Buchloz. 24 or so lectures from someone based, I think, at Loyola university in Chicago, but which in my listening did not skip a beat in its accuracy, presentation or overall fascination.

Everything we touch

Photo by Ruthson Zimmerman on Unsplash

We’ve noted before in this blog that we humans are all spliced together: what we do, even what we believe, is steered by the people around us. It’s been measured and proven to crazy extents: if you are slim, or self-harming, or right-wing there is a measurable effect on the slimness, self-harming tendencies or right-wing views of your friends’ friends’ friends.

And none of this is static. As we go about our days, all of us are processing the views of everyone else. The whole human network is humming to itself, tossing thoughts around.

If we had clever software, or a suitable imagination (another novel, anyone?), we could watch opinions flood through the human network like the networked pulses of neurons they are. Surveys catch some of it: see how cultures change their views on marriage, divorce, violence. Flowing through the human network are endless upgrades to human cultures. Like software upgrades, some of them are even worth having.

Who changes the network? We all do. We all do. Everything we touch, every word we speak, every response we make, filters into the humming background of inter-human processing.

The implications of this for those of us who seek to be shepherded by Jesus Christ are enormous. I have just finished reading the Letter to the Philippians in the Bible, in my attempt to read the whole NT in Greek, and I noticed that the apostle Paul got this. He thought like a networked being. My imprisonment makes other people bold, he says. What’s happened to me has stiffened the spines of others. And later on he sails into that magnificient passage: whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me, put it into practice. 1 He was encouraging his hearers to bear the image of Christ themselves, and to praise it in whatever unlikely spots they saw it.

The sticky, fluid culture

A hugely cool thing about influencing networks is that things can stay set up for generations. Our imprint on the culture outlives us. What we are and how we believe and behave, as a nation for example, bears the imprint of culture-changers long-departed. As one of the 16th century Protestant martyrs said to another, as the barbecue underneath him was being lit: ‘we shall this day light such a candle by God’s grace in England as I trust shall never be put out’ 2 –and nor has it.

I recently read the resignation letter of the UK’s Lord Chief Justice. He said this: ‘I have been honoured to lead a wholly independent judiciary dedicated to the rule of law, the administration of justice and public service which confidently celebrates its traditions yet has quietly assimilated very many modern working practices.‘ Having worked in bits of the justice system over the years, I tend to agree with him. The judicial types I work with are passionate about justice, rather than, for example, using their position to leverage money from claimants. Who set that culture up? Who maintained and refined it? Generations before us, I suppose, and (while it can be corrupted) it has been embedded and passed down to the current lot of wig-wearers.

The great subversive

Everything we touch or talk about. It’s Advent as I write this 3, and so we’re thinking about the Incarnation, and it makes a lot of sense that God, wanting to reclaim the human species to himself, should deploy the tactic of becoming a single fertilized cell– undermining the whole human network by being born to a teenage mum and raised in a peasant village; embedding himself in the network. As we see churches spreading or having spread through the Mediterranean, through Europe, through all the Americas, through sub-Saharan Africa, and the Pacific, across the Philippines and China and Indonesia, and now in various irruptions across the Islamic world, and with Christ now standing as a kind of Morning Star for a third of the earth’s inhabitants–his subversive scheme seems to be working.

‘Theology after Bucha’

The team that I am part of reads hundreds of magazines each year and we file references and notes about them to use in the new version of the best-selling prayer handbook ‘Operation World’, eighth edition due out sometime.

Sometimes we share articles around. Here’s one from the person who monitors Russian and Ukranian magazines. I’m sorry it’s not in the cheerier terms in which I usually try to write.

Last week Ukrainian troops liberated the entire territory of the Kyiv region. What they discovered in the cities of Irpin, Gostomel, Bucha, and dozens of surrounding villages, words cannot convey. As I write these lines, my hands begin to tremble, and my eyes fill with tears.

Hundreds and hundreds of unarmed civilians were shot dead with their hands tied. Burned bodies of raped women. Dead bodies cover the streets of cities, fill basements, and decompose in looted apartments. Entire towns and villages destroyed to the ground. Russian military vehicles are full of stolen goods (household appliances, jewellery, underwear, perfumes, plumbing fixtures, etc.). The Russian soldiers in the border regions’ post offices send everything they looted to their families back in Russia.

I don’t know how to live with it. We have liberated only a tiny part of our country from the invaders. However, we can already say that in Ukraine, Russian troops have repeated the crimes of Srebrenica and Rwanda.

A month and a half ago, I could have given a lecture or preached a sermon on how to forgive enemies and support victims of violence. But today, I can only cry. I used to be tormented by the question of why so many Holocaust survivors later committed suicide. It is worth mentioning the poet Paul Celan, the philosopher Jean Amery, a great witness to the horrors of Auschwitz (in which my own grandmother also died), and Primo Levy.

A month ago, I could have given a lecture or preached a sermon on how to forgive enemies and support victims of violence. But today…

Today, I understand that the violence and evil they experienced deprived them of ways to return to everyday life, normal relationships, and trust in other people. They, like Eli Wiesel, have been in such an abyss of evil that it is almost impossible to look away from it.

Who knows how to pray with a woman raped for a week by a Russian soldier, who then shot dead her sick mother when the woman refused to go with him to Russia? How should I pray for a six-year-old boy who turned grey because the Russian military raped his mother day after day in front of him?

What words can be said to the elderly residents of a care home that ruthlessly reduced to rubble by a Russian tank? What can be said to the people who survived hell on earth, which was arranged for them by the Russian military? How can we bring comfort a wife whose husband ran out to seek help because she had given birth but was killed near the house? How do we mourn civilians who have been tortured so much that they cannot be identified?

Apparently, my readers find it hard to believe all this. A few weeks ago, I would not have believed that this is possible. But this is Ukraine, and this is the 21st century. And I think with even greater horror, what else will we learn when we liberate the rest of our territories?

I am not ready to talk more about this today, but I know that a new theology has emerged in Ukraine these days: Theology after Bucha.

This piece was written by Ukrainian church leader Rev. Dr. Roman Soloviy and published by The Dnipro Hope Mission.

What does revolution look like?

Nice try, but hélas! Photo by Pierre Herman on Unsplash

What does a revolution look like? Most of them involve armed thugs, which is hardly a good start.

That kind of revolution –which is most so-called revolutions — is only a revolution in the sense once defined by Terry Prachett: they call them revolutions because everything goes round and round.

What does a real revolution look like, one that actually changes things? The Kingdom of God, heralded and inaugurated in the New Testament, is supposed to be such a thing. What would it look like?

  1. A culture where leaders are accountable, to law, to being sacked by the people they rule.
  2. A culture grown kinder so that people are more patient, more honest, more generous, more likely to share your load.
  3. A culture where personal integrity is valued. Personal integrity forms, drip by drip, over a lifetime, like a stalagmite. Once formed, and if genuine, it reaches deep and extends far into the networks of people around us. When it connects with the integrity of others it provides a scaffold upon which decent human cultures can grow and thrive.
  4. A healing culture. That would be nice: people restored to joy and usefulness as part of a community, love flowing, even as lives bloom and decay.
  5. A worshipping culture. Perhaps all cultures are worshipping cultures; but this would be worshipping the maker rather than the made.
  6. A culture committed to living at peace: in harmony with creation; with forgiveness and forbearance to others at its heart; aiming to restore the broken.
  7. A learning culture, so that we are curious about the world around us; able to experiment; able to fail; willing to change.
  8. A culture committed to changing. I think much of what is loosely called ‘progress’ fits here. We can learn stuff and discover how to do things better. I personally prefer, for example, hi-tech, unnatural births over having all these dead babies or mothers taking up needless space in graveyards. Free markets distribute the good things of the earth around with great efficiency. Property rights and the rule of law ensure that the whole of society rises together, like boats on a rising tide. Unjust leaders get moved on. The Old Testament appears to regulate rather than abhor all these things.
  9. A remembering culture that knows other generations walked this way too and knew and did stuff and are owed respect at times.
  10. A respectful culture, sensing the preciousness and autonomy of every human, and letting that inform our corporate life.
  11. A creative culture, valuing playfulness, and invention, and engineering, and hypothesising, and art, and music, and literature.
  12. An ambitious culture, ambitious for human thriving, dreaming of still more goodness piled on the goodness of earlier years, like bank upon bank of clouds in the sky, all reflecting the sun from different angles.
  13. A culture committed to the long term. I’ve walked round a reservoir in the Peak District that was built in the 1930s, built to solve permanently the need of nearby cities for water. Ninety years on, our generation and culture doesn’t have to worry so much. Then in the 1940s Clement Attlee, that modest man ‘with much to be modest about’ in Churchill’s phrase, implemented across the nation the ideal of free healthcare for everyone. Eighty years on, for all the problems, we still stand in the good of that. What will we add? Imagine, for example, if we solved the problem of generating electricity sustainably; imagine if future generations hardly had to worry about flicking a power switch. Imagine if we found better ways of keeping warm, or feeding ourselves, or doing construction, or living alongside a thriving Earth. What gifts all that would be to generation after generation, to the grandchildren of our grandchildren, leaving them free to work on other stuff.
  14. A hopeful culture – when all the above is ripped apart, or becomes a monstrous idol of its own self, when everything is back to square 1 or square minus 10: still straining for ‘church bells beyond the stars heard’ (as George Herbert wrote) that make us stand and go again.

Relevance in an age of transience

Any excuse for a pic of Ely Cathdral. This was a day or two before the first lockdown when it shut its doors for the first time in approximately forever.

What do you when when you were the young whippersnapper but are being replaced by still younger whippersnappers? I found this brilliant piece from Wired magazine by Megan O’Gyblin (March 2021) in my notebook. It made me want to read a lot more of her stuff. She was answering the question from a 30-year-old that began, ‘I’m only 30 but already I feel myself disengaging from youth trends.’ (This is an excerpt.)

The sense that our lives are part of an ongoing narrative that began before we were born and will continue after we die.’ I have barely dipped my toes in this, even after the all decades my heart has been beating.

I don’t mean to depress you, only to slightly reframe the question. If perpetual relevance is a chimeric virtue, as futile as the quest for eternal life, the question then becomes: What will make your life more enriching and meaningful? On one hand, it might seem that acquiring more knowledge—staying up to date on music, slang, whatever—will lead to more meaning, at least in its most literal sense. To grow old, after all, is to watch the world become ever more crowded with empty signifiers. It is to become like one of those natural language processing models that understands syntax but not semantics, that can use words convincingly in a sentence while remaining ignorant of the real-world concepts they represent. It feels, in other words, as though you’re becoming less human.

But knowledge is not the only source of meaning. In fact, at a moment when information is ubiquitous, cheap, and appended with expiration dates, what most of us long for, whether we realize it or not, is continuity—the sense that our lives are part of an ongoing narrative that began before we were born and will continue after we die. For centuries, the fear of growing old was assuaged by the knowledge that the wisdom, skills, and experience one acquired would be passed down, a phenomenon the historian Christopher Lasch called “a vicarious immortality in posterity.” When major technological innovations arrived every few hundred years rather than every decade it was reasonable to assume your children and grandchildren would live a life much like your own. This sense of permanence made it possible to construct medieval cathedrals over the course of several centuries, with artisanal techniques bequeathed like family heirlooms.

This relationship to the future has become all but impossible in our accelerated digital age. What of our lives today will remain in 10 years, or 20, or into the next century? When the only guarantee is that the future will be radically unlike the past, it’s difficult to believe that the generations have anything to offer one another. How do you prepare someone for a future whose only certainty is that it will be unprecedented? What can you hope to learn from someone whose experience is already obsolete? To grow old in the 21st century is to become superfluous, which might explain why the notion of aging gracefully has become an alien concept. (As one Gen Z-er complained of millennials in Vice: “It all feels like they’re trying to prolong their youth.”) Meanwhile, the young become, for the old, not beneficiaries of wisdom and knowledge but aides in navigating the bewildering world of perpetual disruption—in other words, tech support.

Someone of your age, of course, has a foot in both worlds: still young enough to count yourself as part of the rising culture, yet mature enough to perceive that you are not exempt from the pull of gradual irrelevance. One difficulty of this phase of life is feeling like you don’t have a clear role; another is the constant anxiety over when you will finally tip into fustiness yourself. But to take a brighter outlook, you also inhabit a unique vantage with a clear-eyed view of both the past and the future, and if there’s one thing we could all benefit from right now, it’s a sense of perspective. Rather than merely serving as IT for your older friends and relatives, you might ask them about their lives, if only to remind them—and yourself—that there remain aspects of human nature that are not subject to the tireless engine of planned obsolescence.

As for those younger than you, I suspect your life would seem more meaningful if you focused less on keeping up with transient fads and considered instead whether you have acquired any lasting knowledge that might be useful to the next generation

Ukraine, Russia and Orthodox Christianity

I enjoyed this fascinating article that is doing the rounds where I work, and thought it was worth sharing. It’s a criticism of Russian Orthodoxy’s support for Russia’s actions in Ukraine, signed by representatives of other Orthodox groups.

It’s also a critique of Christian religious nationalism in general. Worth brewing a coffee and reading.

If nothing else, after you’ve read it, you might have a new phrase to accuse people of, ‘ethno-phyletism’. It might also send you scurrying, as it did me, to look up the Epistle to Diognetus.

A declaration on the “Russian World” teaching.

Not quite so good for the autocrats

In the latest annual report from the charity Human Rights Watch, director Kenneth Roth, in his usual thoughtful mood, sounds a nuanced note of hope for the world:

The conventional wisdom these days is that autocracy is ascendent, democracy on the decline. That view gains currency from the intensifying crackdown on opposition voices in China, Russia, Belarus, Myanmar, Turkey, Thailand, Egypt, Uganda, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Venezuela, and Nicaragua. It finds support in military takeovers in Myanmar, Sudan, Mali, and Guinea, and undemocratic transfers of power in Tunisia and Chad. And it gains sustenance from the emergence of leaders with autocratic tendencies in once- or still-established democracies such as Hungary, Poland, Brazil, El Salvador, India, the Philippines, and, until a year ago, the United States.

But the superficial appeal of the rise-of-autocracy thesis belies a more complex reality—and a bleaker future for autocrats. As people see that unaccountable rulers inevitably prioritize their own interests over the public’s, the popular demand for rights-respecting democracy often remains strong. In country after country, large numbers of people have recently taken to the streets, even at the risk of being arrested or shot.

So, many an autocracy may be more fragile than it appears. And autocrats, he implies, have a shrinking menu of options to choose from in the face of public discontent. You can shut down media sites, jail opposition leaders, neuter the courts but if that fails, you have to start shooting people. Or run away.

What can democracies learn from this? Do better, says Roth. Thought-provoking stuff, and well worth reading the whole thing.

Slices of bread – 9 – The missing something

Can you smell bread being baked somewhere? Go find the loaf.

You deserve some sort of medal for sticking with these extracts over the past few weeks.Thank you. Suffering refocuses us (I have argued); ‘belonging’ and ‘making something beautiful’ show where we should refocus. The final part of the book tries to fit these ideas into a wider, and Christian, framework.

Bread

My search for what really matters – 9

The missing something

A lot of us know we are missing something. Are you missing something? Even in all the good things about you that your loved ones will mention at your funeral, are you missing something?

My testimony is that there are loose threads in our lives that if we trace them to their source, lead to God. This is unsurprising to the Christian, since we are inheritors of a shared story that humanity’s biggest problem is a ruptured relationship with our Creator. No wonder, then, there are loose threads; no wonder there are missing somethings.

I have met people who find one end of a thread of transcendence in their lives but haven’t found the other end. They seek it in music or in nature, for example. Some just get misty-eyed and sentimental. The writer Terry Pratchett had a transcendent encounter with an orang utan once[1]—I am not joking, they stood, unblinking looking at each other—and when dying of Alzheimer’s, he went all the way back to East Asia in a doomed attempt to find the orang again. Terry Pratchett is a hero of mine, a writer’s writer. But you can do better than locking eyes with an orang utan across a crowded jungle. I hope he did.

Others tug at loose threads in their lives by seeking harmony, or peace, or mathematical elegance, or love. Science, I have often thought, is driven by a love of beauty as much as by curiosity or by a desire to serve the common good. The Cavendish Laboratory in my hometown of Cambridge, whose toiling inmates have earned thirty Nobel Prizes as of 2019, has a text written on the old front door, put there by James Clerk Maxwell: ‘The works of the Lord are great, sought out of all of them that have pleasure therein.’ Open the doors to the Cavendish, he was saying, and through physics, seek pleasure, and seek God.

In the previous century, the philosopher Bertrand Russell was a famous atheist, even writing a book entitled Why I am not a Christian. But there are other sides to his story. Russell’s daughter, Katherine Tait, said of him: ‘Somewhere at the back of my father’s mind, at the bottom of his heart, in the depths of his soul, there was an empty space that had once been filled by God, and he never found anything else to put in it.’ Russell was now haunted by a ‘ghost-like feeling of not belonging in this world.’

Russell himself wrote in a private letter, ‘The centre of me is always and eternally a terrible pain . . . a searching for something beyond what the world contains, something transfigured and infinite – the beatific vision, God – I do not find it, I do not think it is to be found – but the love of it is my life . . . it is the actual spring of life within me.’[2] Look again at the main theme of the book, how suffering turns to rubble much of what we thought was good and reveals the main themes of life as networking and vocation, belonging and making. I have come to believe that these can only be fully worked out in relationship with God and his purposes. Their appearance in our lives without God is more like us hearing a melody on the wind, rather than getting the full symphony. They are the smell of baking bread, and they should put us on the hunt for the full loaf.


[1] The orang’s name was Kusasi, and diligent searching on the Internet might reveal more of this story. Pratchett’s Discworld character of the Unseen University’s Librarian is the greatest orang utan in fiction (in my opinion, but it’s a thin field).

[2] Both these Russell quotes were dug out by Prof. Alister McGrath and referenced in his Gresham College lecture Why God Won’t Go Away. Gresham College lectures can be accessed from their website. ‘Three brains’ McGrath has doctorates in biophysics, divinity, and intellectual history.

Slices of bread – 8 – doing something beautiful

Being an extract from my new book

If you’ve been with me over the summer, you’ll have seen that this book is about how adversity and suffering can change your life for the better. Better still, you can change your life for the better without the adversity and suffering (by reading the book). Suffering makes you realistic about you are — strips you down, perhaps. But two things can then build you up. Belonging — the art of belonging — is one (see last week). The second is vocation — doing something beautiful. Which is what this extract is all about.

Bread

My search for what really matters (8)

Don’t die with your music inside you

Vocation is about intentionally not dying with your music still inside you.

I was very ill when I first came across this thought and it was galvanizing. Since ‘galvanizing’ means ‘using electricity to coat something with zinc’, it wasn’t literally galvanizing, but it was a lifeline in the forever-January experience of convalescence. Then, and since, the idea of vocation has lit something in me that helped me fight to be well and stay well.

Don’t die with your music still inside you. Ask yourself. Other things being equal, feet still roughly on the floor, need for realism acknowledged, what would you love to do? I love asking this question of people. What gives you energy? What is fulfilling? What do you love? What would frustrate you if it were never let out? A famous theologian[1] described vocation as the meeting point between ‘your deep gladness’ and ‘the world’s deep need’. Where does that sit for you?

I hesitate to give it an upmarket name like ‘vocation’ because for some people it means cheerfully and faithfully doing ordinary things. For others, though, it might seem a long way from what they are now and you would never guess it. A person with a career in software wants to turn wood. A researcher would like to be a receptionist in a hospice. Others have found a love of counselling. I know a couple of people who find sanity and happiness through making time to paint. I know that in horrible places of infirmity I have been buoyed by the thought of writing something original, creative and quirky. This is vocation knocking: the chance to take something that belongs to you, and to give it out. Breathe deeply of it, and you oxygenate your soul.

Vocation has designed cathedrals that will last a thousand years and spun melodies that the world will sing forever. It has squeezed goodness and grace out of places where only the banal should exist. Vocation is God’s fingertips brushing the earth through the actions of people. And when we live out our vocation we furnish our lives with satisfaction and happiness. Vocation is bread for the hungry soul, a satisfying meal.

Vocation has designed cathedrals that will last a thousand years and spun melodies that the world will sing forever. It has squeezed goodness and grace out of places where only the banal should exist. Vocation is God’s fingertips brushing the earth through the actions of people.

I love watching people in their vocation. Someone came to our home to do some carpentry. His first love was restoring antique furniture. His eyes lit on our dining chairs, things that had tumbled to us down through our family as heirlooms. He knew which 19th century decade they were built in and named the style. He told us what he could do to them if he had them in his workshop for few days.

My son and I both have physics degrees. My physics degree helped me to ascend a few small hills and look across at mountain peaks of human thought. My son, though, climbs these peaks for fun. He knows how partial differential equations work, for example. He understands Maxwell’s equations, beautiful things that describe all of classical electromagnetism. I see him in a team experimenting on lone atomic particles that are in near-perfect vacuum and nearly at absolute zero. Even as a child he loved maths problems.

https://www.clothinghandy.store/products/and-god-said-maxwell-equation-t-shirt/?msclkid=02db63ba116a1ed5b8b50373f799087d

You stumble into vocation all the time. You wander into an office and find people who have time for you and all the resources you need. Someone bakes you a wonderful cake. You see a mum organizing her children or a teacher with her class interested and working hard and happy or arguing furiously with each other about finer points of maths.

Fine, you may say, but a vocation is a bit of a luxury if you’re a single parent just holding everything together or someone already buckling under the strain of just earning enough, or you are battling pain and depression, or you are in a toxic workplace, or you are retired. I am not so sure that you are right. For these reasons:

  • Thinking about vocation at least enables you to set a direction for where you’d like to go and what you’d like to be.
  • It probably also points to something you’re quite good at.
  • It points you to a higher ambition for your work than just as a vehicle to being solvent or (worse) rich, respected or lauded. These false gods shrivel your soul. Vocation nourishes it.
  • Even if you don’t change career, thinking about the work you love may change how you spend some of the odd scraps of time you already have. If you can’t be a professional musician or artist or footballer, be an amateur one. It still will feed your soul. Who knows where these small beginnings will lead? Take a step.
  • Change to your current circumstances might not be as impossible as you think. If, God forbid, you got a serious illness, or a divorce, you would change things around fast enough. Emails and schedules that tower above you now wouldn’t look that way then. They don’t matter so much really. The world won’t stop even if you stop. If you died tomorrow, someone would fix all the emails or finish the jobs. But that thing which is you, that thing you can give to the world, no-one else can do that like you do it.
  • Negotiate a compromise between vocation and career. This is why artists become graphic designers or would-be session musicians become tutors, or novelists get paid as journalists. Wiggle a little. 
  • Remember life has seasons. The pages turn. Kids grow up. Debts get paid down. The rush to complete qualifications passes. Workplaces change. If your life is a busy river, abuzz with boats and criss-crossed with bridges, so hooting with shipping that you can’t take it all in, it may not stay that way. This river will probably evolve into something fat and lazy as it nears the sea, weaving slowly through the bulrushes like a jazz solo. Maybe your vocation awaits a new season.  But start it now.

Your vocation is your chance to be big, beautiful you.  Do you really want to miss this?  So take some steps. Do something. Do something. Don’t die without giving us a song.


[1] Frederick Buechner

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