About a month ago, I listened to a podcast interview with Alastair Humphreys, adventurer extraordinaire. In the closing moments, he uttered a phrase that has held me absolutely captivated:
“I’m obsessed with the idea of trying to make myself brave enough to begin things.”
I cannot tell you how often I’ve been turning that over (and over, and over) in my mind this last month or so.
There are dreams that have lain silent in my heart for some time. Dreams I thought long dead are making rumblings again, like a dormant volcano reminding the environment not to get too settled.
Eight years ago, I did a gap year that changed my life. I got to spend twelve months telling stories about the devastation poverty causes, and walking alongside people to show them how they could bring change into those situations. One of the great privileges of that year was the friendships I made.
One of those women, Jen, has played the role of confidant, encourager and mischief-maker in my life since then. Over the last few years her job has taken her to places well off the beaten track, and she’s discovered that her unique gifts line up perfectly with a job we could never have imagined of as kids – the kind that seems so tailor made you’d think we dreamt it up.
It has brought me great joy to see her discover that what she has to offer is not only enough, it is essential.
She was brave enough to begin, and she makes me braver by her inspiration.
Bravery is a strange word. Just the mention of it conjures up images of warriors and windswept landscapes. I am more interested, though, in the silent, unseen kind of bravery. The kind that of bravery that notices a change in a friend and points it out in love. The kind that sees an opportunity and doesn’t shrink back from it, even if it might unbalance the scales. I want to be more like that kind of person; to have the kind of bravery Jen exhibits. I want to be brave enough to begin.
This 6 minute film brought tears to my eyes and broke my heart all over again for the land I was born and raised in, making me long afresh for the courage to imagine a better future.
I have a deep love for the land I grew up in. It is full-to-bursting with hope. There is redemption breaking out on macro and micro levels all over the country – stories of communities changed, perceptions challenged, fears overcome.
It seems that the more I have found my place in Scotland, made my home in Glasgow, the more I have grown to love and hope for my first home, for Northern Ireland.
The last two years saw a lot of political posturing in my second home, and brought that first home to mind often.
The stories we tell ourselves matter.
On the whole, I found myself deeply excited and encourage by the discussions surrounding the Scottish independence vote in Sept 2014. What started as a mud-slinging campaign became, for many of us, a real conversation about the kind of nation we wanted to live in (regardless of how we intended to vote).
The similarities between Northern Ireland and Scotland are many.
Is it possible for us to hold intelligent conversations – to imagine a better future – regardless of our political system, religion, school, village…?
Walter Brueggemann reflects on this need for imagination.
We need to ask not whether it is realistic or practical or viable but whether it is imaginable. We need to ask if our consciousness and imagination have been so assaulted and co-opted by the royal consciousness that we have been robbed of the courage or power to think an alternative thought.
The Prophetic Imagination – Walter Brueggemann
I dream of this for Northern Ireland, in the same ways I dream of it for Scotland. In the post-referendum haze, it was easy to find ourselves sidetracked and lazy in the language we used. It was tempting to take the easy way out and stigmatise ‘the other side’.
This, I think, is our greatest challenge: a failure of imagination.
Having already spent a long time in a deeply divided nation, I have no desire to see Scotland become (more of) one too. Can we be brave enough, have courage enough, to not settle for polarisation but to push and prod our nations onwards? Can we commit together to walk slowly towards a better life?
There are so many ways to be brave in this world. Sometimes bravery involves laying down your life for something bigger than yourself, or for someone else. Sometimes it involves giving up everything you have ever known, or everyone you have ever loved, for the sake of something greater.
But sometimes it doesn’t.
Sometimes it is nothing more than gritting your teeth through pain, and the work of every day, the slow walk toward a better life.
It is easy to sit and contemplate, to craft my words with care and attention and to carefully decide how much of me, of my heart, you get to see. How far to peel back the curtain.
Doing that in person is a different thing altogether.
I believe in the power of story. I believe that it is strong enough to shape us and transform us. I know that is true because I’ve watched stories change me, and because of that I will never stop writing or photographing stories.
But stories fail us when they’re only ever veiled.
“There is something about witnessing an individual’s search for the right phrases, looking into their eyes, shaking hands, or hugging shoulders that makes our stories come alive in a way that is overwhelmingly real and unforgettable.”
I can turn a phrase on paper, but in person I get tongue-tied and trip all over my words. Countless silent nights and teary phone calls with friends only prove how difficult it is to wrap words around the human experience.
Despite this, we must try.
We must be brave. We must find someone to share our story with, with courage and determination. We must find people to fight for us, to fight for our stories when we can’t. We must fumble and mumble and say all the wrong things, until anger and frustration and fear run out and give way to hope.
“I will always write. I will always read. Yet, in the end, it wasn’t the blinking screen or the paper and ink stories that I will most remember about these past few years. What I will remember — what saved me, transformed me, and got me through — were the hours on my couch with friends, the countless coffee dates, the hugs and smiles, the prayers and tears.”
We can all suffer from unhealthy expectations, but the worst are often the expectations we have of ourselves.
You know, save the world single-handedly before breakfast and look great doing it.
Or, something like that….
The problem is, what happens when we don’t meet those expectations?
When we fall short of the standards we set for ourselves?
I have some crazy-big dreams that absolutely terrify me, and right now I feel like I’m falling short of them. That can be paralysing. Or it can be freeing.
“The only expectation when creating should be doing the work in front of you. Now.”
So, I’m starting over. I’m trying to rediscover those crazy dreams and why I even had them in the first place. It starts like this:
Read, write, watch, listen, remember.
“Our job as artists is to learn how to confess what lies unknown with us so that others might as well.”
It begins with doing the hard work of figuring out what it is that lies unknown within ourselves. Why we are driven to do what we do. Why it matters. And then we share it. Because the world needs what God is doing in your heart.
My flat mate has just returned from a month in his native Germany, and you can tell: toiletries strewn across the bathroom, bowls and mugs MIA, Dr Pepper and pizza lying around the kitchen.
I like everything to have a place. Cosmetic products neatly spaced on the bathroom shelf. Dr Pepper and cereal boxes stowed away in cupboards.
My life’s like that, too. Everything has its place. Hurt goes here; instinct here; logic here. Shame and anger, well I hide them so deep not even I know where they are stowed.
Pity it doesn’t work that way. Life is messy.
I’m fighting to unshackle my emotions. They’ve been kept buried for so long, most of the time I don’t even recognise them. I’ve lived a long time in logic, in my head. But that’s no way to live, to really live. Fear and hurt and embarrassment and joy and love… they all have a role to play.
The mess helps us know we are alive.
Maybe I know this deep down. I like order, but when my flatmate was gone? Books strewn across the living room table; dishes stacking up for days on end in the kitchen.