Today’s blog is written by the University of Cumbria’s Chaplain, Rev. Caroline Kennedy.
During lockdown, the journeys we’ve been able to make have been restricted, and for many of us that must be quite a change. If you’re someone who loves travel and has looked forward to and enjoyed, exploring new places, or holidays in other countries, then life might feel smaller and limited right now. And if, like me, you’ve been used to travelling for work or study, hopping on to trains or taking the car out regularly, you might also feel that life is a bit narrower. Even shopping is something most of us go out less to do, and the enforced changes brought about by lockdown will surely have an impact on our habits, possibly meaning that online buying is the preferred option for many of us in the future.
To state the obvious, journeys involve movement; the going from one place to another. Before lockdown, we probably took the small everyday journeys for granted- going to see friends, calling in on relatives, meeting in the pub, having something to eat in the Cube if we were on the Fusehill campus…and although things are changing and lockdown is easing, it’s hard to imagine that all of these things will come back fast. Yet a journey doesn’t have to be understood solely in terms of physical movement. Journeys can be connected to inner growth and change, to experience and to the passing of time. You’ve no doubt heard phrases like ‘life’s a journey,’ and ‘life has many paths.’ The image or metaphor of life as a journey is a very ancient, deep seated one, and it can help us to understand and grapple with the idea that life holds tough times as well as periods of happiness. In a long journey made on foot it’s probable there would be different scenery, places where the path was steep and rocky, as well as points of being high up with wonderful views. The journey metaphor can encourage us in the places where we struggle and seem to be making no progress. It reminds us that there could be something wonderful round the corner, that at the end of a steep uphill climb there’s often a great view, and that stopping to look back and see how far we’ve come is a really important part of journeying well and understanding our current situation.
I wonder what stage of life’s journey you’re in now? And whether you feel as though you’ve reached the top of a hill or are starting to climb a very steep one. Perhaps you have a sense of reaching a plateau, being in a flat place where there’s not much change. Maybe, because of the pandemic we’re still facing, the view you’re dealing with has suddenly switched from a wide open space where you could walk or run fast, and knew where you were going, to a ravine you didn’t expect to come across, or a place with a high wall blocking your progress. Whether you’re a student about to graduate or planning to go into another year of study, or a member of the university’s staff, the view you have now is probably different from the one you saw before the arrival of Covid 19.
The writer of psalm 139, addressing his thoughts to God, says in verse two: “You mark out my journeys and my resting place.” This person, living in what we think of as the Mediterranean basin and believed to have been writing from his position as king almost three thousand years ago, surely understood life as a journey, held and directed by a god who wanted his character to develop and saw a much wider picture than the circumstances faced by the writer at the time. And taking a wide perspective, understanding our own situation as part of something much bigger, can be a very helpful lens to see things through, one which eases anxiety, and lessens the tendency to drive and put pressure on ourselves.
In fact, understanding that the world of our own immediate experience isn’t all there is can be part of what ‘s called awe. The word ‘awesome’ is so commonly used now that we can take it generally to mean ‘good’ or ‘great,’ but awe is actually about wonder; about being aware that there are things so amazing and so much bigger than us, that we’re left breathless. Like seeing a huge mountain topped with snow, a waterfall higher than we’ve ever seen, or being in a powerful storm. American scientists have found that experiencing awe releases endorphins, the hormones that make us feel good. So to be able to experience awe, or a sense of wonder at what is much bigger than us, is a great attitude or ability to carry on a journey through life. If you’re based near our Ambleside campus, then getting out into the countryside close by could be a good way of promoting this. Looking at the night sky or getting up early to watch the sun rise are recognised ways of promoting a sense of awe and wonder at the mystery of the natural world around us. Being up on Donkins Hill at the heart of the campus itself gives a great sense of the mountains close by, and a feeling of being held in a wonderful, colourful bowl of countryside with all sorts of possibilities for exploration and escape from day to day pressures. The campus isn’t open currently, but when it is, try standing or sitting up on Donkins Hill and just take in the view.
To continue with the journey metaphor, if we don’t have a map or SatNav, if we come across unexpected disasters, or if we meet people along the way who ask us to go somewhere with them for a while, there will be points when we need to stop and rest, re-think our route or direction, look for another way, or decide to spend some time taking in what’s right in front of us. I wonder whether you feel the compass that guides you through life is a reliable one, or whether you’ve always been too busy to really think about what helps you navigate each stage? Whatever is leading you, the practice of stopping to look back and see how far you’ve come is a good one to remind yourself of your achievements so far, and how much ground you’ve covered. And if you need a bit of encouragement and are feeling low in your own sense of value, taking a few minutes to write a list of your achievements (academic and personal- from gaining qualifications and completing assignments to things like walking the Roman Wall, finishing a book, writing a blog, managing a budget, making new friends…anything that for you has meant a step forward), is a great way to remind yourself that you have ‘made progress’ and are in fact, journeying well, whether this particular time feels like being stuck in a bog or not.
On March 1st it was St David’s Day. “And what,” you might be asking, “has that got to do with where I am now? I’m really not interested in hearing about some old saint…”
Fair point. Saint David though, has a link with the practice of kindness which is being recommended nowadays to boost our mental health as we journey through life. During Mental Health week recently, kindness was the theme that was promoted. Saint David (the patron saint of Wales), is believed to have said to his followers before he died “Do the little things.” This didn’t mean finding tiny and easy tasks. It meant doing the things that seem very ordinary and wouldn’t attract attention. The things you can’t point to on your CV when you want to demonstrate success, but that really matter to other people. Like taking time to listen to someone who has trouble expressing him/herself, encouraging someone who’s feeling low, sending a card or making a call to an elderly relative, praising someone who doesn’t get much praise, cooking dinner when others are tired, and being generous when you feel overlooked. Doing things for others makes us feel good, and the value of the ‘little things’, unseen by the wider world (and that’s the point), shouldn’t be underestimated. These actions move us in a direction that’s to do with contribution and service, with the development of our character, and they add to our inner journey, our growth as people. When we feel stuck and bored, unable to make progress in the way we’d thought, or to move on in a way that’s visible to others, noticing what we might be able to do quietly for good, in our immediate environment, paying attention to the ‘little things,’ can help us to re-focus, look out and move in our souls.
The organisation Mind says that giving to others is one of its Five Ways to Wellbeing. Being kind to someone else is also being kind to you. And in times of change, when things may feel uncertain and unclear, as they do now on a national and worldwide level due to the Corona pandemic, it’s worth remembering our ‘circles of influence’ as Stephen Covey, the Leadership guru and organizational consultant advises. These are the areas of our lives we CAN control, and they encompass the values we decide to live out, the amount of time we put into our relationships, the way we behave in our families, the encouragement we give to our friends, the level of effort we put into our studies as well as many other things. These are all the things under our hands, the things within our reach, which done well, can actually be transformative. They’re the steps along the way to successful living, and they involve us in the process of prioritising and deciding what is most precious, most of value to us.
I’ve spoken to lots of people who, over the last few months, say they’ve re-evaluated, changed their priorities, and don’t want to ‘go back to normal.’ This could mean they want to slow down, spend more time with their families, get outside more…make changes which mean that their lives will seem richer, not in financial terms, but in relationships and feeling alive. You could say they’ve decided to change direction or take a detour on the journey of life. Perhaps they’ve found a shortcut or gone off the main road and decided to travel a bit more slowly, but in a way that seems to have better views!
Wherever you are on your journey, remember that it’s important to be you. Your life matters to the world, and you will have skills and abilities and experiences that no-one else will have in quite the same combination. There are things that only you can contribute and bring, and taking time to notice and reflect on your skills and the things you enjoy is important to help you understand which direction to take and when to stop for a rest. Put hope, and faith in the way you’re made, generosity and openness in your backpack as you journey this year, as well as some awe and wonder, courage and patience…I’d love to know how you get on, and imagine you’ll make great progress!