I am currently doing an online course in poetry, just for the fun of it. And one of the things that is done in the course, is that they give you an idea to start with, and then you can try and make a poem from that. And one thing was: create a poem with a title that has an image and an abstraction in it. They gave some silly examples, like ‘The cheese of time’ or ‘the arrow of vengeance’ or ‘the bread of hesitation’. First off, I thought, O that is easy, I can use the title of my previous text, that is ‘Quicksand of Questions‘ (question is abstract, isn’t it?). Anyway, as such things go, one moment when I was doing something totally different, a sentence popped up: ‘Warmth of Friendliness’.
Warmth of friendliness: it reminds me of sweet images of cozy Christmas trees and fireplaces and hot chocolate milk and friendly old smiling people. Only, I cannot bring myself to write a sweet little ode to friendliness, I would feel that I ignored a large part of me that is not at all feeling cozy and snug. The world is not a fairy tale place and I’m not going to pretend that it is. But I do want to argue that we need friendliness, precisely because everything is not okay, and we will only be able to bear reality when we are friendly, towards others, and towards ourselves.
Friendliness has come to mean a lot for me in the past years as I go through something of a crisis. I have been dealing with lots of very cold and harsh thoughts that I entertained towards myself. Perhaps you noticed in my texts that I have been struggling with the idea that God wants to decide every detail for me, that I am not welcome as I am, not knowing what freedom really means. I would feel very silly about this, if it weren’t for the fact that I am certainly not the only one, see for example the blogger Annemarie van Heijningen-Steenbergen who is also very open about her struggles. While writing this, I am bracing myself to face all sort of questions that I expect as reaction to my struggles. Questions like ‘but how can you not know that God loves you when that is the main topic in church?’. Well, all I will say about that, is that it is apparently possible to hear all the right words, and still misunderstand the meaning.
Words are very powerful instruments to bring clarity and point out realities that would otherwise not be seen. But they are not the same thing as the reality itself. It is possible to know the words as sort of technical description without the reality. When this is the case, it is time that we describe the same realities with new words. For me such a new word is ‘mindfulness’. I know that there are concerned Christians who warn against this practise, they think it is a dangerous New Age thing, just google for ‘Christian mindfulness’ to find lots of pros and cons. Even so, I will stick with the word, because it has helped me a lot, and I now think that the fear of any new idea is worse than the idea itself. This fear reminds me of the first Narnia book1 where the evil witch had frozen everything. I think this endless cold winter depicts how fear can keep us imprisoned. And I no longer want to serve fear.
I first heard about mindfulness in the book Feeling loved2 where it was explained that we cannot feel loved if we have lost touch with how we really feel. And mindfulness meditations were presented as a way of getting back intouch with your feelings. Then, because I really will not try anything that I don’t understand, I read the book Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World. This book gives a clear and almost technical description of how the brain works, and how it actually functions better if we spend time doing nothing. This was such a religion-free, biological explanation, that I stepped over my concerns and actually started doing these body scan meditations. And once I got started, and really got the hang of listening to these meditations telling me that I should be open and friendly towards myself, accept things as they are, not always wanting to be different, just exploring the situation, etcetera, then all of a sudden I realized that this is exactly what I have been told how Jesus is! He is friendly, and accepts us as we are. I don’t think there is any Christian who would deny that. It is now clear to me that if I want to make the words ‘Jesus loves me’ to really mean anything for me, I must start with following his example and love myself too. Otherwise my own attitude would be denying what I say that I believe.
This being friendly to myself does not mean that I ignore any flaws in my character. On the contrary, it helps me dealing with them. For example whenever I feel angry, I used to tell myself how dangerous anger is and how immature and I need to stay calm. This only made me afraid and caused me to push down the anger until I was no longer aware of it. However, it is much more helpful when I treat myself gently, accept my anger as a fact that’s just there, and explore what it feels like without condemning myself. I have learned that this will deflate the feeling very soon, and open my mind to find a creative solution to the problems.
I think this ‘exploring how we feel’ is the same thing as what the church fathers used to call ‘self research’. Only the word ‘research’ has shifted meaning somewhat, and it now makes me think more of a criminal investigation. Therefore self research has really hurt me, whereas mindfulness is healing.
The Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper, in his book on the virtues also stressed this open attitude and said that we should first look at all the facts with an open mind and only after that make a judgement and decision3. Of course we can only look with an open mind if we are willing to investigate things that might prove useless. This illustrates again that fear is an enemy, because fear will make our minds closed and then we can no longer make prudent decisions.
I never wrote that poem on the Warmth of Friendliness, I could not do it. First I must speak what I feel, not what I ought to say4. I did write another poem, not exactly fit for publication5: ‘The face of anger’. Dare we look our anger in the face, and talk with it? Or do we push it aside as unimportant? Bury it under the earth of busyness. Hurt it with biting criticism? Then we are fighting anger with anger. But we should overcome evil with good, also in ourselves. Be friendly to your anger. Hear what it has to say and take it seriously. Then find out how much truth is in it, and be creative in what to do about it. This might be nothing at all, or perhaps write a poem or a letter to God, we might even address the issue if we think that has any chance of success. Forgiveness is important too, of course, but it is too often presented as the only solution that excludes all others.
The open attitude that I’ve been trying to describe, will help us receive love and friendship from God and people around us. In turn we will then be able to be friendly to others. I see a great illustration of this in the church window that depicts Simeon. He looks to me like such a wise man who has seen lots of troubles, yet remained very friendly. In the picture we see he draws his light from God. I often look at it as an example of how we can warm ourselves in God’s love.
- The lion, the witch and the wardrobe, by C.S.Lewis
- Feeling loved, The Science of Nurturing Meaningful Connections and Building Lasting Happiness, By Jeanne Segal. I found this book on the very informative website www.helpguide.org
- In the chapter on prudence in The four cardinal virtues.
- King Lear, Shakespeare
- Though now I have published it anyway