When life just doesn’t make sense

Joseph is one of my favourite Bible characters. The story has been well known over the centuries, and more recently was the subject of a musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Who was Joseph? He was the favourite son of Jacob. Jacob in turn was the grandson of Abraham, greatly revered in the three great monotheistic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Joseph was given the famous multi-coloured coat and also had the ability to interpret dreams. However, he went through a series of unfortunate and undeserved betrayals and tragedies.

Joseph was betrayed by his brothers to be sold as a slave to Egypt. In Egypt he began to prosper as slave to a rich official in Pharaoh’s court called Potiphar. However, Potiphar’s wife persisted in making sexual advances towards him, which because of his faith in God he refused to succumb to. Even so on one day when they were alone she attempted to grab him with the intention of seducing him. Joseph had no choice but to run away, leaving Potiphar’s wife to claim that he had tried to rape her. Thus started a long and undeserved 13 year prison sentence.

The short video above is from the film ‘Joseph, King of Dreams‘. Yes it is a cartoon, and there is artistic licence, but don’t let that deceive you into thinking it is simplistic or childish.

I think the movie clip powerfully conveys something of the confusion we all at times struggle through when life does not go the way we intended or hoped for.

Here are the words of the song to ponder and reflect on:

I thought I did what’s right, I thought I had the answers, I thought I chose the surest road,
But that road brought me here,
So I put up a fight, And told you how to help me,
Now, just when I have given up, The truth is coming clear, You know better than I,
You know the way, I’ve let go the need to know why, For you know better than I

If this has been a test, I cannot see the reason,
But maybe knowing I don’t know, Is part of getting through,
I try to do what’s best, And faith has made it easy,
To see the best thing I can do, Is put my trust in you,

For you know better than I, You know the way,
I’ve let go the need to know why, For you know better than I

I saw one cloud and thought it was the sky, I saw a bird and thought that I could follow,
But it was you who taught that bird to fly, If I let you reach me, Will you teach me,
For you know better than I, You know the way, I’ve let go the need to know why,
I’ll take what answers you supply, You know better than I

At this stage Joseph had no idea how after 13 years of imprisonment his fortunes were about to change dramatically. Having correctly interpreted the dreams of two previous prisoners (a baker and wine taster 2 years earlier), he was to be called before the most powerful man in the world at that time, Pharaoh of Egypt. Within 24 hours Joseph would go from the obscurity and shame of a prison cell to becoming the second most powerful man in Egypt. But at this point he has no way of knowing how his life would dramatically change.

Joseph’s life story takes a whole series of amazing twists and turns. You can read about it in more detail in Genesis chapters 37-50 of the Old Testament.

My intention in sharing this video with you is that whatever you may be going through in your life this can be of some encouragement to you. It is also a reminder that our lives are like a whole movie and not just a single scene.

If we are honest there are many occasions in our lives when we go through suffering and undeserved hardship that on the surface makes no sense whatsoever. It is most likely not anywhere on the scale of what Joseph went through, but the feelings of loss and confusion can be just as real. My most recent example of that was the loss of my friend Bunty on 17 March 2014.

The words of the song convey the wisdom of submitting our confusion and lack of answers in suffering to the One who knows all and sees the big picture far more than we can. There is real struggle to get to that point, and it may take many years, but once we can reach that place of acceptance God can begin to do His work within us.

If you would like to explore these themes further do see:

How Can I Find Hope In My Darkest Days?

Do You Need Hope Today?

Why Understanding Easter Brings Hope

3 More Life Lessons On Turning 50

Why Does A Loving God Allow Pain and Suffering?

Walking With God Through Pain and Suffering Part 1 and Part 2

Should A God of Love Get Angry?

What questions and reflections does the example of Joseph and his unjust suffering raise for you?

5 things you can control in an increasingly uncontrollable world

Life is complex and unpredictable. So much happens that is outside of our control. Just in this past week I have had to contend with major organisational changes at work, a gas leak at home with freezing temperatures outside and cataract surgery.

640px-Generic-remote-control-shallow-focusOn the grand scale of things these are all relatively minor, but each has the capability to unsettle or cause major disquiet,especially if you are something of a control addict like me! There is also so much that happens we don’t expect or takes us by surprise. It is so easy to feel powerless and at the mercy of whatever is latest and loudest. Some have described this as a VUCA world – volatile, unpredictable, complex and ambiguous. And with each passing year it doesn’t seem to get any less turbulent.

So what is controllable in what is an increasingly complex and challenging world? Maybe not a lot in the wider world, but there are specific actions we can take. We can, however, still move forward when we take responsibility for our lives. Here is how the late Stephen Covey put it:

“Look at the word responsibility – “response-ability” – the ability to choose your response. Highly proactive people recognise that responsibility. They do not blame circumstances, conditions or conditioning for their behaviour. Their behaviour is a product of their own conscious choice, based on values, rather than a product of their conditions, based on feeling.”

So what can you control in a fast changing and increasingly turbulent and uncontrollable world?
As I give this list to you I am very much aware of how I too need to implement these in my own life.

  • Our aim or purpose. What is it you want to do or achieve with your life, this year, this month, this day, this hour? While being open to the needs around you, what is the overall goal and direction of where you are going. Keeping the big picture in mind gives purpose and direction to the apparently trivial or mundane that is in front of us.
  • Our attention or focus. Contrary to what it at times feels like, we do have a choice as to what we focus our attention on at any given moment. You are choosing to read this blog post which means your attention is not (hopefully!) somewhere else. You can try to multi-task, but what you are actually doing is rapidly task-switiching from one thing to another, giving away your attention partially to a number of other things. So are the things I am continually focussing on  bringing me joy, fulfilment, connection or growth? Or alternatively am I allowing myself to be distracted by trivia or gossip?
  • Our attitude. This again is counter-intuitive. We are responsible for the attitude we project to the world. Happiness and a positive disposition is a choice, as much as is a complaining and negative attitude. Here are three reasons why this is important:
    • Attitude is contagious. We have mirror neurones in our brains that make our emotions catchable by other people. So whether it is a positive or a negative attitude, that rubs onto other people. For this reason it is so important to take responsibility for the kind of energy we project to the world.
    • This moment makes your future moments. In other words how you do what you do impacts how people respond to you and very often the results you get. Going into a difficult situation with a positive attitude increases the likelihood of finding a path through or a possible solution.The way we go about a task, no matter how apparently trivial or unglamorous, can have huge implications in the lives of others.
  • Our affections. One of the best way to reduce the stress we are feeling is to increase the amount of connectedness we feel in our lives to other trusted and safe people. Just being able to talk and off load to a friend or colleague who can safely handle our feelings is enormously powerful. Am I connected with those I love and am I sensing the beauty of this life?
  • Our actions. Our future is dictated by our disciplined actions in the form of what we do each day, the habits we develop and what we strive for with purpose. The opposite is also true – if you take no effort, you will have no sense of purpose or direction. However with the Law of Process it is amazing what small consistent actions can produce. As the saying goes:

“Sow a thought and you reap an action; sow an act and you reap a habit; sow a habit and you reap a character; sow a character and you reap a destiny.”

Which of these five responses do you currently need to focus on developing in this increasingly uncontrollable and complex world?

 

 

Podcast #026: The search for happiness

I like to cheekily describe my friend Andy Parnham as a happiness guru. He works part of the week for the charity Livability, that serves people with disabilities, while the rest of the time he acts as an independent wellbeing advisor and coach, running amongst other things, The Happiness Course. This is in a variety of settings, including schools, health centres, companies and the voluntary sector.

Screen Shot 2017-01-24 at 10.00.28Do join us on this podcast as Andy and I discuss a subject of relevance to every one of us. We discuss and explore:

How happiness is not the same as wellness.

The over-emphasis on physical health when we talk about wellness.

The need to also include emotional, psychological, spiritual, relational and community aspects to fully understand wellness.

How and why Andy developed The Happiness Course.

How positive psychology research emphasises health is not just the absence of illness.

What the research shows are the factors that contribute to a flourishing life
– living lives of appreciation and gratitude.
– nurturing healthy relationships.
– forgiveness
– practising acts of kindness
– savouring experiences

Some hard bottom line results that result from happy employees:

– spend twice as long in their jobs as their least happy colleagues.
– believe they are achieving their potential twice as much.
– spend 65% more time feeling energised.
– are 58% more likely to go out of the way to help their colleagues.
– identify 98% more strongly with the values of their organisation.
– are 186% more likely to recommend their organisation to a friend.

What do we mean by the word happy or subjective well-being.

The three dimensions of subjective well-being – pleasure, engagement and meaning.

Distinguishing between happiness and joy.

The four areas covered in the happiness course – the happy life, the successful life, the relational life and the meaningful life.

Going on a journey from what makes me happy to what makes me fulfilled.

A corporate view of happiness.

The Jewish concept of ‘shalom’ that brings together the idea of overall wellbeing.

For more on Andy’s work and The Happiness Course see his and his wife Jill’s website here.

Andy has also written a guest posts for me: We’re all materialists now!

You may also find of interest

Podcast #006: Rediscovering Joy

Why I am working at becoming a happier person.

Why is joy more important than happiness?

The search for joy.

The lies we tell ourselves about joy.

Moving from disappointment to joy.

What questions, thoughts and reflections does the search for happiness raise for you?

 

What is your culture?

When we think about culture we tend to think about the foods different people eat, how they eat that food as well as the clothes they wear. (For a fun quiz on food habits around the world see here). While that has a place, it is only the start.

Talking about culture is a bit like asking a fish, ‘What is water?’ Because the water is such a fundamental part of its existence, the fish hardly notices it is there – unless the water is taken away or changes for some reason.

by Snoron.com

by Snoron.com

 

Another way to put it is, culture is the lens through which we look at the world. They are the spectacles through which we interpret the world around us. Cultural patterns of behaviour and belief frequently impact our:
– Perceptions (what we see)
– Cognitions (what we think)
– Actions (what we do).

In other words culture is really important! It has a powerful impact on so much of our lives. We can hold onto our cultural beliefs with great tenacity and conviction, even in spite of evidence to the contrary showing it to be harmful. That is why challenging someone’s culture can evoke the same response as criticising someone’s mother. You may have mixed feelings about your mother; there may be some habits or idiosyncrasies about her that annoy you, but should anyone criticise your mother then all sorts of defences and emotions can quickly come to the surface!

One of my favourite authors, Tim Keller helpfully gives a working definition of culture as a ‘collective heart’ – ” a set of commanding commitments held and shared by a community of people…. it is the source of so many ….. deep aspirations, unspoken fears and inner conflicts….. It (shapes) their daily work, their romantic and family relationships, their attitudes toward sex, money, and power.”

So in other words, everyone has a culture, even if they choose to recognise it it or not.

Growing up in between Western and Asian culture this was a big issue for me……

5 lessons I’ve learnt from burnout

Looking back I have burnt out at least three times in my life. The first two times were at the end of my first and third year at university, studying medicine. The challenges of moving away from home, being out of my depth academically, feeling isolated and alone all gradually took their toll.

The third time was around 2009. I was juggling being on the leadership team of a church with all its demands while having a growing family and working as a psychiatrist. It  all became too much for me to take. Something had to give. I wasn’t liking the person I was becoming. I could sense a critical and discontented spirit growing inside of me. It was time to step down from church leadership and re-evaluate my priorities.

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In all three cases, there were significant learning opportunities and growth from these experiences. However, at the time it felt very different to that! For more on the first experience see here. After the second, I found a greater purpose and direction to stay in medicine and begin to focus on psychiatry; while as for the third, it lay the foundation for this blog and subsequent podcasts!

Burnout is a state of chronic stress. It gradually develops over a period of time and leads to:

Both physical and emotional exhaustion.
On each occasion I gradually found myself lacking energy, sleeping poorly and not able to give proper attention to what needed to be done.

Feelings of cynicism and detachment.
I became quick to focus at the negative aspects of my life, as well as feeling disconnected from others. I found myself often attributing unnecessary ulterior motives to others and putting myself in a victim mindset.

Feelings of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment.
I struggled to find meaning and purpose in day to day activities that became more and more burdensome. What I previously had been able to do with ease felt like an upward struggle with no apparent end in sight.

So what have I learnt from these experiences?

Where do I find the time?

Following the compass rather than the clock

In 2017 where do I find the time to do the things that I tell myself are important to me? All of us know what it feels like to be overwhelmed and rushed. We also all know what it feels like to have time seem to be moving quickly ahead and not getting to that important project or task we know we should be doing.

As someone humorously once said, ‘Life is like a toilet roll. The nearer you get to the end the faster it goes, and the more your realise you have wasted!’

In the 10 minute TED talk below time management expert Laura Vanderkam describes her work learning about how busy productive people spend their lives. She’s discovered that many of us drastically overestimate our commitments each week, while underestimating the time we have to ourselves. She offers a few practical strategies to help find more time for what matters to us, so we can, as she puts it, “build the lives we want in the time we’ve got.” Taking a few minutes out of your busy schedule to watch this video could reap rich dividends in your use of time:

What is particularly fascinating is the group she chose to study and her means of studying them. She chose to look at 1,001 days in the lives of extremely busy but productive women. One woman for example, was running a small business with 12 employees as well as looking after 6 children!

The important point she makes is opposite to what we naturally think. As she says, “We don’t build the lives we want by saving time. We build the lives we want, and then time saves itself.”

The reason is that time is highly elastic….

Podcast #025: Is there a difficult person in your life?

3 steps to breaking through interpersonal conflict

To be human is to have conflict with other people. You cannot avoid it. Conflict can cause stress, as well as a host of other consequences, such as loss of sleep and even physical illness. But if you’ve had a difficult relationship, you come to realise that just ignoring it is often not the best way to handle it. So how can conflict be a means to growth and getting closer to others rather than being driven further apart? Is that even a possiblity for the difficult relationship in your own life?

On this podcast I have the privilege of talking to Linda Outka about her book, “Pebbles In My Shoe- Three Steps For Breaking Through Interpersonal Conflict.”

The 4 minute video below gives a flavour of why this is such an important subject for all of us.

Linda Outka is a certified coach, speaker and trainer. She has over 20 years experience in helping people resolve conflicts. She is also the founder of Breakthrough Solutions Inc, which creates a space  where people can feel safe to be real and discover new insights that open doors to their potential.

Do join Linda and I as we discuss:

  • How relational hurts are like pebbles in our shoes
  • How strained relationships, failed conversations and unresolved conflicts drain our energy and sabotage our success.
  • Why trying to just ignore the conflict does not mean it necessarily will go away.
  • The metaphor of mountain climbing as a simple model for dealing with conflict.
  • What it means to move from basecamp (the preparation) to ascent (the conversation) and reach the summit (the gratification of a more fulfilled relationship).
  • The importance of preparing both your heart and you mind for dealing with that difficult conversation.
  • What is at stake by not resolving the conflict?
  • Distinguishing between fact and story in the conflict. Or as Linda likes to say, “When someone spits on you, they don’t make you mad, but they do make you wet!”
  • How at the root of every conflict is the assumption of negative intention. But what the other person did made sense to them.
  • Acknowledging the role I may have played in the conflict situation and why that is so important in order to move forward.
  • Accepting it may not always be possible to satisfactorily resolve the conflict if the other person does not want to engage.
  • How to keep defences low so as to have a productive non-blame conversation.
  • Examples from Linda’s 20 years’ experience in working with a large variety of conflict situations and much more…..

For more on Linda Outka and her work see here.

You may also find of interest Podcast #022: The Stories We Tell Ourselves and the blog post Is It Really That Person’s Fault They Are Irritating You So Much?

What questions, thoughts and comments does the issue of conflict raise for you?

To find out more you can also order the book from the link below.

 

Looking Back With Gratitude on 2016

7 questions to learn and grow forward

What a year 2016 has been! Internationally there has been the surprise and for many the shock of the Brexit vote in the UK; the chaos and hardship of the demonetisation of the 500 and 1000 Indian Rupee note and the election of Donald Trump in the United States. Less publicised, but just as significant and probably the most clearly positive event, was the end of the 50 year war in Colombia that has claimed as many as 220,000 lives.

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So often in our media saturated world there is much that is negative and discouraging. Generally speaking, good news and positive events do not get much publicity in mainstream media.

For this reason and for several years now I have made a deliberate choice not to engage in day to day news as I have found it a significant drain and distraction on my energy levels and meeting my priorities. Also so often what seems significant or important in the media over the fullness of time tends to lose its impact and significance.

Avoiding the media is certainly not my prescription for everyone.  Having said that, if you find yourself sucked in and exhausted by the general negativity of the mainstream media, I would certainly recommend a media fast to see how that impacts your general mental health, energy levels and day-to-day life.

As ever there is so much uncertainty about the future. With that in mind, how much better it is to look back with gratitude and appreciation for all that has happened and which we can be thankful for. The best place to start to do that is in the area I have the most amount of personal control: my own life and the world I personally interact with.

According to Professor Robert Emmons, author and researcher on gratitude, for gratitude to be effective it needs to cover 3 key areas:
1. It should be specific: the power is in the detail. Just trying to say thank you is not enough. The more detailed and specific you can be the better.

2. Surprise: the more you find things to be grateful for in unexpected places and people, the fresh and alive your gratitude will be.

3. Scarcity: what is scarce or unusual or what we won’t have for much longer increases the value of gratitude in our lives.

(For a fun  7 minute video bringing these three together do see How Actually Expressing Your Gratitude Can Be Beneficial To Your Mental Health).

I am also grateful to Michael Hyatt for the following questions to appraise the previous year and look ahead to the coming year. I will also share my answers with you to help you think through your thoughts about 2016. I would strongly encourage you to also write down your own answers and not just keep them in your head. As we write, our thoughts begin to disentangle themselves and bring clarity in a way that is otherwise just not possible.

As I share the questions below I have added some of my own reflections to help you think through your own experiences. If you want more clarification from me feel free to ask in the comments section below. My hope for you as I indulge myself in this way publicly is that you will be prompted to have insights that will put you in a stronger positions for whatever this new year has in store for you….

The Courage of Christmas

Overcoming fear, shame and vulnerability

Courage is not usually the first thing that comes to mind when it comes to thinking about Christmas. It is such a feel good time of year, along with a sense of unreality compared to the rest of life. We look forward to the holidays and putting aside the usual worries and concerns. Everyone seems so relaxed and everything for a few days appears to slow down. All over the world, children enact nativity scenes and Father Christmas comes to jolly everyone with presents and good cheer.

So what does courage have to do with Christmas? For that we need to go back over 2000 years ago and the harsh and brutal realities facing Mary and Joseph.

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Joseph and Mary had a major dilemma on their hands. He was engaged to be married to her and Mary finds herself expecting a child. Here is how the Gospel of Matthew (writing about 80-90 years later) explains the situation (1:19-21)

“This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly. But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.  She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”

Joseph wants to do the honourable thing and quietly divorce Mary to avoid scandal for himself at least. At the same time he must have been very scared. That is why the angel has to tell him not to be afraid. In other words he needs courage.

Courage is not the absence of fear. Courage means you do what is needed even when it scares you.

Here are 3 ways Christmas at its essence is about courage:

The importance of a good night’s sleep

Reflections to make you think

“If you want to be a billionaire, sleep as little as possible.” Donald Trump.

“Sleep is a criminal waste of time. A heritage from our cave days.” Thomas Edison.

“Every important mistake I’ve made in my life, I’ve made because I was too tired.” Bill Clinton

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Sleep. So easy to take for granted, but so essential – especially if you are not getting enough. And yet there is so much bravado and neglect when we think about sleep. Whatever you may think of Donald Trump and Thomas Edison, their opinions on sleep are way off the mark when it comes to what the research and even what common sense shows. And whatever your opinion of Bill Clinton there is much wisdom in his reflection on sleep and making errors of judgement.

Indeed in November 2008, just after the US election, former President Bill Clinton was asked by CNN Talk Asia correspondent Anjali Rao, “If you had to give one piece of advice to offer President-elect Obama, what would it be?”