Sunday 11 March 2018

Long time, no post!

This has been the longest gap in my blog for five years. There was no particular reason, except that I felt there was nothing to say. Life has settled into a lovely routine of living and working here in East Africa, the children are all doing well in their homeschooling, with the usual ups and downs and attitudes that most homeschooling blogs describe, and life has just been busy.

Also, round about November, I was hit with some kind of exhaustion. I still don't quite know how to describe it - it was like a tiredness that wouldn't go away, a lack of energy and enthusiasm for things I would normally enjoy, and a very strong loss of confidence in some of my academic work. It is difficult to say whether it was a bout of clinical depression, whether it was simply exhaustion, and hard to work out how much of it was normal and how much was something to be concerned about. There had been a few things that led up to it - having not taken enough leave, feeling life is in a bit of a limbo whilst awaiting the finalisation of our daughter's adoption (the main challenge is that we cannot currently leave the country as a family, and so my husband and I have had to make quite frequent trips alone), and then there were some interesting interpersonal challenges in the workplace. Whatever it was, it was unsettling and frightening and made me take a good long look at my life, consider different aspects of my personality and to reflect on what changes might be necessary to either prevent it getting worse, or to try and prevent it happening again. I am starting to feel a lot more like my usual self, the workplace issues are improving (and a couple of people have remarked that the situation had seemed 'impossible' - I can see God's hand in the changes that have come about!), I am less emotional and more rational about things. But I still feel a vulnerability that is hard to really explain. I am thankful for this time, as with all trials, God has shown many truths to me.

Here are some things I learned:

1. Just how common this type of thing is. I think the devil uses this as a ploy to make us feel alone and isolated, because as soon as I started deliberately trying to be more honest about how I was feeling, it was amazing how many other people told me of times in their lives when they had faced something similar. I think it is easy to only see other people's successes, and this is probably magnified in the social media era - it can seem that everybody else is having a really productive, abundant, joyful life, and that you are the only one who feels ground down and discouraged.

I was reminded again of how God places us in communities, and creates us with a need for interpersonal relationships and fellowship. It can be difficult to open up and be more vulnerable. I find it particularly difficult because at an earlier time in life when I tried to be open about some traumatic events from my earlier life, I was told that I was making things up and seeking to be manipulative, when this was far from the truth. I learnt that one must take a bit of care with whom one shares the deeper struggles - and the book of Proverbs has plenty to say about choosing friends wisely, and taking care from whom one might seek counsel. But this time, I felt encouraged that I have good friends who have walked similar dark paths, and with whom I can be more honest.

2. The need for vulnerability. I love 2 Corinthians 4:7 which reminds us that 'we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us'. A friend told me of a Japanese art form called kintsugi: taking broken pottery and making the cracks part of the design and beauty, something which speaks a lot of how God can use our brokenness. Many people give testimony to how the gospel is more clearly spoken through times of pain and trial, and how seeing a Christian clinging onto their faith and seeking to navigate turbulent waters in a godly way can be a more powerful testimony than a Christian who is bursting with joy and enthusiasm. It can be uncomfortable, it is certainly humbling, but God can use times of darkness to how His light. I have noticed that an element of vulnerability can be helpful in leading teams - to be willing to immediately admit errors and put in place corrective action, to learn from mistakes and keep moving forward, perhaps also to be more aware of the emotions of my team members.

3. The need for spiritual self-examination. Life can get busy, and days can feel like an endless cycle of routine tasks; sometimes even the spiritual disciplines can also feel like 'just another task', rather than relishing in the most wonderful of all relationships. I love the Psalms when I am finding life tough. An example would be Psalm 19, 'But who can discern his errors? Forgive my hidden faults. Keep your servant also from willful sins; let them not rule over me.' or Psalm 139, 'Search me, O God, and know my heart. Test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offence in my way and lead me in your everlasting ways'. Both of these are prayers for God to search our hearts and reveal to us ways in which we are not honouring Him. For me, recently I had to consider what the root causes of my anxiety were. I found that some of it was rooted in pride - the fear of failure or public disgrace of some kind, the concern about what others might think of me, generally taking too much of it onto myself rather than trusting that the God who has always provided me with the necessary grace and strength would continue to provide in changing situations.

4. The need for self-awareness - sometimes I would expect other people to tell me to slow down, to take a break, to acknowledge the workload and so forth. However, everybody is busy and people cannot read minds. I have learnt that in the workplace it helps to be positive and enthusiastic in order to motivate the team, and to persuade others of the value of the work (that is important when it comes to getting new grants and being able to disseminate the work in scientific conferences and journals). I also find that positivity can be self-perpetuating. However, I need to be aware of times when I also need to rest. I recently wrote a little about personality types, and how I have found it helpful to consider the best ways I can recharge. I feel this has given me the confidence to make deliberate choices - for example to structure my workload in ways that enable me to use my strengths best, and not get too drained (for example, if there are several days with multiple face to face meetings, I can then do with a day where I spend longer writing).

5. Need to schedule rest, rather than waiting until exhausted. This overlaps with the previous point, but I realised it had been over a year since we had scheduled any time off. Instead I had taken the odd day here and there, often in response to being exhausted rather than as a pro-active positive choice. Whilst I have the enormous blessing of a flexible working pattern and quite a lot of control over where and when I work, this can also bring the drawback of feeling the need to work almost continuously or at least working within every possible time-slot, rarely taking time off to recharge. Last year I noticed how drained I felt after large grant applications, and decided to take time off after those. It has been good to travel with my husband when he goes to work in a beautiful, peaceful and slightly cooler region several hours from here. By leaving town for a few days, this also gives a break from several of the other activities which I love and which I feel are important, but which I find very tiring (like hosting Christian meetings whilst juggling four young children - it is harder when my husband is away!) It sounds a simple change, but it has made a big difference.

I think that will do for now - but these are five things I have learnt or been reminded of through a recent time of trial. I hope that this post brings some encouragement to you, in whatever situation you currently find yourself.