The Seven Rainbow Monsters of Unhealthy Phone Usage: Monster #7 – The Purple Monster of Addiction

purple-cartoon-monster-clipart-free-clip-art-images-clipart-kidDo you find that you frequently interact with the substance even when you said you were going to limit it or stop it all together?  Do you make promises to yourself that you are only going to keep to a certain limit only to discover later that you have far exceeded it? Do you wish you could cut down on your usage? Does this substance consume a significant amount of your time and energy?  Does the substance impact important areas in life such as your job, your finances, your friendships or relationships?  Have you ever neglected important responsibilities due to the substance? Do you sometimes feel out of control when using the substance? Do you go through “withdrawal” such as feeling nervous, anxious, or on-edge when the substance is taken away from you or is not available?  Have you ever worried about your usage or have you ever had a friend or family member comment on your usage?  If you answered yes to any of these questions, you may have an addiction.

The paragraph you just read about was from a quick Google search highlighting some of the ways that someone can tell if they *may* have a drug addiction.  I have been interested in addiction for several years and done quite a bit of personal research, so this obviously just scratches the surface, however, it does paint a stark picture doesn’t it? The exact same traits that we can find in someone who abuses drugs and alcohol are similar to what many of us find ourselves doing with technology on a daily basis.

During the spring months, there is a Christian tradition called Lent.  Lent is the 40 day period leading up to Easter.  During this time, it is customary for people to give up something which they enjoy or find pleasure in to remind them of personal sacrifice.  Some common things people give up are: junk food, eating out, alcohol, and one of the most common ones in the past few years: SOCIAL MEDIA.  However, it was soon discovered that many people who chose to give up social media and/or technology in general went through withdrawal symptoms in the same way as someone does when they give up smoking, excessive coffee drinking or drugs and alcohol.  In fact, many professionals are contemplating opening up treatment facilities and programs for chronic technology users.  In the most recent Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM V which is used by mental health professionals including psychologists and psychiatrists) video game addiction was finally mentioned as a mental health issue. I believe it is only a matter of time before cell phone addiction will also grace the pages of this text book(if it hasn’t already).


Many people who face addictions have similar behaviours and mindsets, however, in my short time studying addiction, I have come to believe that everyone is addicted to something.  People with addiction usually live in denial.  I recently heard denial described as “Don’t even notice I am lying.”  Basically people who are truly addicted don’t think their addiction is that bad. Many of them don’t even realize the devastation it is causing for those around them.  It’s the same with internet and technology addiction.  People may joke and say “I’m addicted to my phone” or “I’m a Facebook addict” but if you were actually to confront them on this many would backpedal and even become defensive. In fact, I was told once that this is the first step of identifying an addiction – if you’re not addicted you wouldn’t need to argue the point.

The six other monsters I introduced which preceded this final monster helped to flesh out a bit more some of the ways social media is addictive and what to do about it.  Just a quick recap: the red monster of anger, the orange monster of insincerity, the yellow monster of fear, the green monster of envy, the blue monster of depression and anxiety, and the indigo monster of distraction.  When we look at each one, we can also see that these are all common traits in someone who is going through addiction themselves.

Now, please note, as I said right from the beginning, not everyone who uses technology is or will become addicted just like not everyone who drinks is an alcoholic.  Many people are able to find a balance with work, social life and technology.  Many people inherently know how to use technology well and productively so that it is purely for fun and recreation.  Many people are able to turn their apps off and get a good night’s rest.  But a vast majority aren’t.  A vast majority find social media more stressful than pleasurable.  Lots of individuals lament each day about the hours lost in “screentime” only to mindlessly scroll the following day.  Please note: I am not sharing this from a judgmental pedestal, it is something I have struggled with in the past and I still have a long way to go before I am completely free of technology’s shackles as well.

However, as one fellow traveller to another, if you are worried about potential cell phone addictive behaviours, here are a few tips I’d like to leave with you:

1) Notice the times when you are drawn to Facebook and other social media.  Are you scrolling or checking your phone just because you are bored?  Are you trying to distract yourself from an otherwise upsetting event?  Are you procrastinating from a project that legitimately needs to get done? Or are you simply on it because you’d like to have some fun and enjoy yourself?

2) Notice your emotions.  Do you come away from social media feeling more angry at the state of world affairs, jealous of your friends, insecure, or depressed? Or are you genuinely able to put what you just saw online behind you and move on with the rest of your day?

3) The opposite of  addiction is connection.   Use social media to foster rather than replace real relationships.  I do not disparage that there are genuine communities online.  I am part of a number of groups and circles online focussing on many different helpful areas and sometimes despite not knowing the people in real life, I have formed friendships and even professional working agreements. However, be careful not to neglect friends in real life.  Be careful to connect with other people in the day to day.  If you’re up for a challenge, keep your cell phone in your room for a whole day and see how much more you notice and can take in from life.

I hope these rainbow monsters have been helpful in showing you some of the ways technology can adversely affect us.  Technology in itself is not a monster, however, if we do not properly tame our minds and hearts when interacting with it we can become one. Please do something good for yourself today and be kind to yourself when using social media remembering that it is a tool and it is in our hands what kind of tool to make it.

The Seven Deadly Monsters of Unhealthy Phone Usage: Monster #6: The Indigo Monster of Distraction

indigomonster-lalanta“I’m listening,” my friend said as we sat across from each other at the cafe catching up on our latest news. “Uh hun, hmmm, yeah” she was making all the usual noises someone makes when they are following a conversation whilst holding the phone in her hands presumably scrolling through a favourite social media site. Suddenly she puts it down and looks me straight in the eyes, “I’m sorry, what were we talking about again?” She genuinely asks.

I think it goes without saying that distraction has become the biggest monster in our day and age when it comes to technology and cell phone use. From the big like getting into a car accident due to texting, to the small like spending more time than needed online, technology can be very addictive. How often do we say “I’m just going to pop over to Facebook for 5 minutes to get caught up on the latest news?” only to realize that 15 or 20 minutes later we are still on there. Did you know that statistically speaking, almost everyone has been late to work, an appointment or a social engagement at least once in their life due to being distracted by social media and overspending time on it. However, aside from the time lost online, there are also the emotional effects it produces such as your friend feeling unheard, unvalued, and unappreciated. There is also the addictive quality it produces in some people as a way to numb out of reality in a similar way that other addictive behaviours can produce such as drinking, gambling or online shopping. Furthermore, hearing all those distracting buzzes and pings can also add pressure for us to respond right away. We may be on a day off work when our boss sends us a DM and we feel compelled to respond. We may be in the middle of doing an important task and we hear a ping or a buzz and we feel compelled to answer our phone. In fact, there is even a phenomena called “Phantom vibrations” whereby we have become so used to feeling our phone vibrate that when it’s in our pocket we feel we have felt it vibrating or we think we hear the ring tone, when it is still silent. I think we all can relate. You’re at an event where you have clearly been told to silence your phones or shut them off completely, and someone forgets or doesn’t bother to do so. Suddenly you hear a familiar ring tone and everyone jumps to put their hands into their pockets, purses or rucksacks, even you who are aware that your phone has never had that particular ringtone. It’s a real thing. And then, of course, to end on a light and funny note – I once fell because I was rushing to catch the bus in another city and using my phone for Google Maps. My ankle hurt for days and I couldn’t help but think what a Millennial Facepalm moment that was.

When I told my friend that I had been asked to write about some of the unhealthy ways phones and technology can control us if left unchecked he scoffed. He is rarely on Facebook or social media and never posts anything. He said, “who, you? You’re always posting every day.” And that’s true. I definitely am imperfect when it comes to cell use and I probably am still on it way more than I need to be. However, there are certain rules I abide to which I think can also benefit you:

1) I don’t use my phone when I am out with friends. When I am having a coffee or dinner with someone I focus on them, not on my social media.I usually put the phone into my purse so it’s out of sight out of mind. This also includes not using my phone when I am at the doctor’s, at the dinner table at home, or at church. I generally would not have my phone on me when watching Netflix or movies with others either. [Caveat: cell phones are vicariously addictive, so I have become more aware that when your friend takes out their mobile it’s more likely for you to do so as well, it’s kind of like yawning. However, I have been challenging myself not to do that even then.]

2) I have put my cell phone on silent. This means that I get to respond to texts and DMs when I feel like it. I don’t have to jump right away to answering as soon as I hear my phone. The exception is that my phone does ring if someone tries to call me twice back-to-back or if they leave a message in which case I will respond as it could be someone important such as a GP.

3) I installed a screentime app on my phone. It’s gotten a bit complicated with lockdown due to being on platforms quite a lot for social events which normally would have happened in person. However, the general idea is that I only allow myself 1 hour of Facebook and 4 hours of cell phone use in general then my screen goes grey and I can’t open my apps. I have a password to log back in but it is such a random number combination with no significance so it’s a bit more of a hassle to remember what it is.

4) Even just being aware of how much I had been on my phone was mind-blowing. Matt offers a course called “The Phone Freedom Challenge” and he provided a lot of insight into how and why I am using my phone. It’s important to remember that phones aren’t bad. There are so many good apps and useful resources on them, however, it’s more how we are using the apps productively. Social media in itself is a good thing, but it’s not a good thing when it consumes our entire life.

5) I still do activities which I enjoy and I don’t let phone use dictate my day. I make a schedule of all I need to accomplish in a day and I have been able to stick by it. Some activities I enjoy doing that don’t include phone use at all are: walking (I often still listen to a podcast or music when walking by myself but I am definitely not scrolling and walking or stopping to scroll), going to the cinema, going to live theatre, reading a book, writing, taking online courses, and travelling. When I do these things I enjoy, I may still have my phone on me for pictures and emergencies, but they take my mind to the present and the last thing I am doing is thinking about what is happening in my Newsfeed.

Distraction is a very real issue of our day and I think many of us would be kidding ourselves to say we are never distracted by technology. I know that I still have a long ways to go myself and could further limit my phone use, but I also know that these 5 small steps I have taken have generally improved my relationship with social media and given me a clearer head especially in the midst of these pandemic times. What are some things you enjoy doing that take your mind off of social media?

The 7 Deadly Monsters of Unhealthy Phone Usage – Monster #5 – The Blue Monster of Depression

Screenshot_20200615_095835

Many of us have heard the word “depression” used flippantly. People often use depression to explain frustration or surface level sadness over a particular event or to describe a certain mood they might be feeling on that particular day, however, for over a quarter of the population, depression is a real issue. Depression differs from sadness in that sadness is a normal human emotion. It is totally normal and expected to be sad at times for example when someone has lost a job, when someone breaks up with a partner, when someone has to say goodbye to a friend moving abroad, or when someone has lost a loved one. Although unpleasant, sadness is there to remind us of how important a person is in our lives and how when their presence is not there with us it affects us. In fact, sadness often stems from love (not necessarily in the romantic sense, but in the sense that we were built for community and compassion). However, depression is something quite different. Depression is a prolonged state of just feeling empty, dull and devoid of feeling. Unlike sadness, depression is not meant to be there. When someone experiences depression it can often feel as if a large and dark presence is hovering over their bed or in their room. Sometimes depression can be the result of certain circumstances such as job loss, marital trouble or financial difficulty (this is called situational depression) or the result of hormonal changes after childbirth (this is generally called postpartum or post-natal depression). Depression can also be the result of chemical imbalances within the brain – for whatever reason, some of us are not able to produce the necessary hormones needed such as serotonin (“the happiness hormone”) and many others face depression during the winter due to lack of sunlight (this is commonly referred to as SAD or “Seasonal Affective Disorder.”)

I have struggled with depression for most of my life. The very first instance I can remember was at the age of 4 wondering at times why I had even been born. However, it was not until I was 12 that depression really consumed my life. From the ages of 12 up until 21 there were periods of time when I lost my appetite, did not feel like meeting with friends (despite being a fairly outgoing extrovert), would have crying spells, would feel lethargic and with no energy, would have difficulty concentrating or following along in a conversation, and would generally regard myself as a worthless human being. There were days when I thought life was rather pointless and it took me to the extreme sometimes of wondering if people would be better off without me. I did not talk about depression for a long time because I grew up in a culture that said it was not okay to discuss these types of issues. I was subjected to the same stigma that many others are even being told the classic phrases such as “snap out of it” and that I had so many good things in life and therefore no reason to be sad. Unfortunately, these individuals did not or could not understand that depression is a significant mental illness, but with the right help and support people can thrive and oftentimes recover. When I received my diagnosis at 17, I thought it was a life sentence due to me being a terribly evil person. Today, I know that many individuals who experience depression are highly creative (for whatever reason, there seems to be a link between those in the arts and those who have depression), many are very intelligent, and most are highly sensitive. Today, I know that my own struggles with depression are the very reason I am able to reach out and help so many others. My own dark nights have helped provide light to others so that they know there is a way out even when it does not seem that way at all.

When Matt asked me to write about the 7 Rainbow Monsters of Unhealthy Technology use, I knew that depression had to be one of my monsters, in fact, it is probably the most glaring and obvious monster there is. I did a bit of research beforehand, and while there is some division, there are two main ideas presented: 1) Depression and Anxiety has significantly increased since the mid-1990s (also known as the I-Gen) particularly amongst children and teens.
2) For people with pre-existing mental health issues such as depression and anxiety, internet and cellphone usage is more likely to have a negative effect than a positive one.

Why is this? Firstly, there are the physical reasons. Extended cell phone usage seems to cause poor posture, slight hearing and sight decline, and poor sleep. Many of us are aware of the “blue light” which our laptops, phones, and other electronics emit. This prevents us from getting to sleep as it tells our minds that we should still be awake and alert. As well, scrolling through social media right before bed can often get us riled up over political posts or unpopular opinions we may not like. I personally had to guard myself when lockdown first began. Throughout lockdown I have been invited to several virtual events. At first, I really wanted to connect with my Canadian friends. I guess just living abroad in these uncertain times made me crave the familiar. I used to log on to Zoom or other platforms and talk to my friends well into the night sometimes past midnight. While I did enjoy talking with my friends, I noticed I couldn’t get to sleep after especially when the discussion had been very interesting and intellectually stimulating. After about two weeks, I realized that I needed to change this pattern so now I try to end most conversations by 11pm GMT so that I can still have an hour to unwind. Most of us are aware of the “body-mind-soul” connection. In order to function at our top level mentally, we need to take care of our physical bodies. Most of us have had sleepless nights where we have woken up exhausted and we remember being cranky at our friends, coworkers and partners. We may have felt physically exhausted and this contributed to a poorer work performance on that particular day. Now, imagine what it would feel like for one to subject themselves to that same mindset daily (which is what a lot of people do subconsciously due to social media and technology).

Secondly, there are the mental and emotional aspects about cell phone usage. As discussed previously, there are so many ways social media gives us a skewed version of reality. Constantly being online produces FOMO (fear of missing out), can cause us to be envious of what others have, and produce loneliness. Even something as simple as sending someone a DM or text message and viewing the read receipt only to have them not respond can cause anxiety over our friend being upset with us or not wanting to talk to us anymore (meanwhile the vast majority of the time the person just forgot).

Social media can also be mentally exhausting as many of us feel we need to keep up a certain appearance. An interesting fact I discovered in my research is that the more platforms one uses the higher their chance of social media having a negative mental effect on them. For example, if you only use Facebook you might still be negatively affected, but if you then add 9 different apps to your phone you probably will be affected much more. This is because the more platforms we use, the more appearances we have to try to keep up with especially tailoring our statues and photos to suit what that particular platform requires of us. It’s hard work. In order for people to “remember us” we need to post constantly (this is especially true in the blogging, YouTube, and Tik Tok worlds which demand fresh content daily). Platforms such as Facebook and Instagram also add the pressure of finding the best photos and it almost becomes a popularity contest to post about how many friends were at a party or a lunch. Many Millenials and Gen-Zs actually end up spending more time obsessing over the perfect picture than they do actually enjoying the event. Food photography makes their plates grow cold, and the fact that a woman can’t post a picture of her without make-up (and if she does she has to draw attention to that fact) further plays into body image issues. In fact, I remember about three years ago someone said something very hurtful about my appearance. It has stayed with me since that day and for a while led me down the path of photoshopping each one of my pictures. Social media definitely plays a role in how we view ourselves from the superficial to the internal.

Of course, not everyone who uses social media will become depressed, however, it is a good idea to be aware of this being a reality for some. If you are going through depression, whether social media related or not here are a few tips I have picked up from my own experience:

1) Try to do things which you still enjoy. A hallmark of depression is losing interest in hobbies and interests, but having something to look forward to can really boost your mood. A very practical idea would be to plan a nature walk. Being out in nature has been shown to improve one’s mental state and if you take a friend along, you’ll also have company and socialization.

2) Try to keep to a routine as much as possible. Just like a mountain climber needs little nooks and ledges to put his or her feet on, we also need little “grip hooks” in our daily lives. Take control of what you can during this uncertain period even if it’s as simple as deciding what to eat, what music to listen to, or what to wear.

3) Try to practice meditation and mindfulness. There are many free apps which can help with this. Destress from all the ugliness that social media can bring and invest into yourself and providing a positive space.

4) When your mind starts to spiral out of control, stop it. Don’t allow yourself to go down those endless rabbit holes which tell you you are an awful person (often for some superficial reason). Instead, remind yourself of your worth and how many people value you and love you.

5) Lastly, if you are concerned about your mental health or the depression of a family member or friend, please reach out. Your first point of contact might be a helpline, a GP, or someone in the community. If you live in Scotland, the NHS website provides a lot of helpful resources about this you might like to browse. Remember that you do not suffer alone. Depression is nothing to be ashamed of and with the right help and support you’ll be able to come through it and emerge as an even stronger person. (Here’s another great resource I discovered today: https://sadagain.com/let-depression-lead-to-change/)

The 7 Deadly Monsters of Unhealthy Phone Usage: Monster #4 – The Green Monster of Jealousy

915875When I was graduating from high school, I had the opportunity to present at a local drama festival. The play my school presented was called “Jealousy Jane” and I had the supporting role of being the green monster. Although this was years ago now and I have forgotten the intricacies of the play, the main premise was that Jane (a high school teen) kept a monster in her purse.  The monster’s name was Jealousy.  At first, the monster was cute and even a bit playful and Jane regarded it as a pet.  She kept it on a lead (leash) and was able to command it where to walk or when to sleep. However, every time Jane got jealous the monster grew until one day she could no longer control the monster and the monster controlled her.  The monster now had her on a lead.  The only way for Jane to combat the monster was to learn to give up her jealousy.  Everytime Jane genuinely complimented someone or was truly happy for that person the monster got smaller and shrunk. Eventually the monster became pet size again and one day it disappeared completely.  What a great story for most teens who constantly compare themselves to others. What a great reminder as well for everyone who owns a social media account and has found it difficult to not give into the temptation of jealousy.

The dictionary describes jealousy as “feeling or showing an envious resentment of someone for their achievements, possessions or perceived advantages.” Jealousy basically means wishing you had something that someone else does (or perceives to have).  Sometimes jealousy is just a niggling feeling one can walk away from, but other times, jealousy can destroy friendships, marriages, and basically eat away at your mental and physical health.  It can cause one to stay up all night grinding their teeth, it can even cause ulcers. Grudges, jealousy, resentment and unforgiveness have even been linked to very serious medical conditions such as addictions and even cancer.

I briefly touched on it in other posts, but let’s quickly recap. During this lockdown period, most of us have spent more time online than we normally would. Mindlessly scrolling social media has become a favourite pastime of many.  Suddenly you see a post about a high school friend who beat the odds and managed to have a socially distanced wedding, you read about another friend who has been accepted into grad school because quarantine has finally clarified what they want to do with their life, your cousin has posted that they have written a new book which has been sent off to the publishers because their creativity hasn’t stopped flowing during their time off work, and your great aunt Edna just got herself an adorable puppy and her smile in the selfie says it all.  And what about you? You glance away from the screen feeling embarrassed and you notice your flushed cheeks in the bedroom mirror.  “All I’ve done this whole quarantine is binge watch Netflix.”  You lament.  “I can’t believe life is getting back to normal and I have nothing to show for it.  Where have these last 3 months gone?  There’s so much more I was capable of accomplishing.” And then your mind starts to spiral out of control. All of a sudden you regard yourself as a horrible person.  A waste of space. Not just that you may have “wasted” time in the pandemic, but you seriously start contemplating if you truly do have any good and admirable traits.  The problem with a spiral is that if it isn’t stopped, it continues.  I know because back in the day, my mind spiralled for weeks, months and years at a time.  I have been there. 

Ok, so maybe that’s an extreme example.  Maybe some people can relate and others reading this think “yeah right, I’ve never gone that far.” Maybe not, but consider: have you ever wished you had a partner just because you constantly see pictures and posts about your friends in relationships?  Have you ever gotten bitter about your situation in life barely making ends meet because you see pictures of your friends posting about trips, clothes and holidays?  Has reading through posts made you feel insecure – perhaps questioning if you are pretty or make the cut?  Do you come away from social media truly feeling happy for your friends or do you come away in a state of depression more frustrated than when you logged in?

For those of us who face the normal human emotion of jealousy from time to time, I would like to offer a few practical tips and suggestions:

1) Remember that people only post their “best life.” For every picture of something amazing someone has done during lockdown, there have been many more moments which weren’t pictured of them being frustrated, discouraged and maybe even depressed.  There might have been one day when all the children got along and a beautiful family selfie was snapped, but there were probably many other days of an exhausted mother wishing her kids could just get back to school.

2) Remember that everyone is on a different timeline.  There are certain challenges we may face in life that others would not consider a burden at all and vice versa.  Always have patience and grace for someone when they are going through a winning period, you have no idea what they may have lost during their losing season.

3) Create goals for yourself rather than for anyone else.  What are the things you want to learn?  Where are the places you want to travel to? What hobbies and interests do you want to further explore?  What books do you want to read?  What music do you want to listen to?  Do these things because they fuel your soul, not because you need to catch up with what everyone else is interested in.

4) I mentioned this in another post, but I’d like to reiterate it here – hide or unfollow any celebrities or friends who are triggering to you. 

5) Be aware of your own internal triggers and state of mind.  You may notice that certain topics are more touchy to you than others right now.  That’s okay.  These are unusual times for all of us and all of us process it differently.  Have grace with those you interact with online, but also have grace with yourself.  If something online upsets you, walk away from it and ask yourself why it upset you.  Knowing your personal triggers will enhance your self-awareness.

 

The 7 Deadly Monsters of Unhealthy Phone Usage

8i68jyXiEThe colour yellow has long been associated with sunshines, smiley face emojis, and brightness, however it has also been associated with the word “coward” which means someone who is too afraid to do something of importance.  There’s a long and interesting reason for how yellow became synonymous with fear and cowardice, and while I don’t have time in this short post to go into it, if you are curious feel free to Google it.  You might be surprised.

While we have already established and I will continue to reiterate the positives of using social media and technology, over the years, it has also fueled a lot of fear and even cowardice.

Let’s look at each one separately before coming together to make our concluding remarks.

Fear: A recent term that millenials and Gen Zs have adopted is “FOMO” (Fear of Missing Out).  It started just as slang for when young adults spoke to each other, but now I have even heard older populations using this term. FOMO has always existed and it impacts some more than others, however, FOMO is exasperated due to being online. I am a huge extrovert who is so thankful to have so many friends.  I know that my friends care about me and love me and that has been demonstrated over and over.  Yet, I distinctly remember (moreso in my early 20s than today) scrolling through my Facebook and seeing pictures of people at birthday parties and other celebrations.  Suddenly FOMO would set in.  My mind would negatively spiral towards why I wasn’t invited to that particular event.  Did the person not like me? Did the person not think about me? What about the wedding of a person I thought was my friend that I wasn’t invited to just to turn on Facebook and see 10 other university friends with the bride and groom?  FOMO then breeds comparison which in turn can bread jealousy or even anger.  However, when I spent time to rationally dissect it I realized in most of those cases the reason for not being invited was either because I simply was not that close to the person (many times they were an acquaintance) or because my friends knew I wouldn’t enjoy an event and they organized a different event for me to take part in.  One issue with social media is that it often makes people appear emotionally closer to us than they truly are (we feel we know them so well because we know where they go on their jogs and what they eat for breakfast and what their 2 year old did today, but in reality, we are not really all that connected to them).  FOMO can also occur when we see other friends on expensive holidays or in relationships (especially couples which post sappy posts about how their husband/wife cooked them dinner or bought them a nice gift).  We can fear we are missing out on these life experiences, again leading to FOMO.

Cowardice: In the younger teen, middle school (and increasingly elementary school) environments, social media and cell phones have played a huge part in the cyber bullying and sexting culture.  Sadly, many each year succumb to its effects.  There are certain apps out there now which make it almost impossible to trace what one teen is saying to another.  This does not help with teachers or parents providing proof to match their cases.  I feel that in a way, cyberbullying is cowardly.  Like I discussed in yesterday’s post, people can be different behind a screen than in person.  People feel freer to say whatever they want without thinking about it and they don’t consider the other person’s emotions because they can’t see the other person. There have been so many individuals  who have unfriended people simply for sharing or commenting on a different political view than the one they have, rather than walking away from those upsetting posts and reminding themselves that we are all entitled to our own opinions.  There have also been so many stories of people breaking up with their partners over text rather than in person, or families airing all of their dirty laundry online in a smear campaign against other relatives.

To help combat the problems that fear and cowardice involve, I would like to leave you with 5 tips you might like to try in this coming week:

1) When FOMO sets in, write a gratitude list.  Think of all the people you are happy to have in your life and maybe send a DM or text to one of them.  If you are feeling FOMO due to materialistic things such as not affording a nice holiday, write a gratitude list about what you do have.

2) If you see someone posting something negative online, have the courage to walk away rather than to engage in that post.

3) If you’re a parent, do a bit of research into what apps your teen/child is using.  Know about them and how they can be used both positively and negatively.  Understand what bullying is, its signs and symptoms and know how to talk to your child about cyberbullying or sexting if need be.

4) Try to avoid being contentious for one week.  Right now, there are so many political posts floating around about several different topics.  There will always be people to take one side or the other.  It can be tempting to write about your own beliefs and values online and it can be tempting to contribute fuel to other heated discussions. For one week, challenge yourself to post only positive statues which will build up, encourage, and add something of value to conversation.  Think about the 3 gatekeepers: Is it true, is it kind, is it necessary?

5) Lastly, keep arguments and disagreements private whenever possible.  People don’t need to know all about family fights and romantic arguments.  Those things are meant to be private and discussed within the family unit, not to all of your friends and followers online.

FOMO is a difficult fear to shake and sometimes it has made people question whether they should get off social media entirely.  If you are finding that FOMO is causing undue anxiety, or that every time you see a divisive point your blood boils and you need to comment, think about taking a step back. Turn off your notifications, walk away from the screen to collect your thoughts, and don’t act out of impulse.  If the trouble persists even after a few deep breaths and limiting screen time, consider potentially going on a social media fast for a week to see how it helps. Remember, there are a number of resources available  which can help support you in your technological struggles and offer tips and encouragement for you to find healthier and more productive ways to use a tool which is able to benefit many. 

The 7 Monsters of Unhealthy Phone Use: Monster #2: Inauthenticity

pngkey.com-monster-clipart-png-2876178Yesterday we looked at the first monster: The Red Monster of Anger.  Today, I would like us to draw our attention to the Orange Monster of Inauthenticity.

The dictionary described Inauthentic as “not in fact what it is said to be,” “not genuinely belonging to a style or period” and “lacking sincerity.”  The word the majority of us would use to describe something or someone who is inauthentic is “fake.”

Through the years, social media has experienced various phases of inauthenticity or “fakeness.”  Here’s a classic example: young women taking down pictures of themselves when they haven’t received enough likes or comments.  There was even a fad for a few months in Europe where people would spend money on holidays, clothes or accessories which they otherwise could not afford to create a certain persona online.  These individuals would occasionally buy a new dress or suit for no other reason than their new profile picture.  There were even some individuals who “faked” holidays by posing at a local beach and claiming that it was abroad because they simply wanted to fit in and not be left out.  And then, of course, there is the obvious elephant in the room that we can’t ignore “fake news.”  
Social media outlets lend themselves to what North Americans would call “Keeping up with the Joneses” a snappy way of saying “trying to fit in with neighbours and others around us” and what many of us know as “Imposter Syndrome.”  A common phrase we hear is that many use social media to impress people one doesn’t know intimately and who likely don’t really matter or at least are not the ones we need to impress.

People can get caught up in how many followers, friends or subscribers they have on various platforms.  It can almost become a popularity competition.  And yet, as someone who has well over 1,000 friends, I know that I only hold the ability to be emotionally connected and share everything about my life intricately with a handful.  It is an oddity of our time that while someone may have thousands of friends or followers, loneliness and isolation have increased.  I overheard a 20 something say once “I have so many ‘friends’ but I have no idea who I can call to go out for a coffee with.”

Facebook and social media can also give us the wrong impression that everyone’s life is better than ours.  There were once two mums in lockdown. Mum number 1 was a nurse who was working on the frontlines daily and came home exhausted to her two children.  Mum number 2 was a stay at home mum who spent lockdown doing crafts, activities and nature walks with her children.  The two mums were best friends.  One day Mum number 1 wearily called Mum number 2. “I feel so jealous” she confided “your life is so great.  You’re always finding the best crafts on Pinterest, making the best recipes from TikTok and you still have time to blog.” “Are you kidding me?” Asked mum number 2. “I was thinking that you were such a hero for going to work every day and still making a classy dinner for your family at night.” The problem is that Facebook and Insta only show the highlights of our lives.  They show the good points of a friendship, marriage, parenting or pet owning, they don’t show the reality of day to day life and how difficult rather than idyllic it can be.  As a single person, I remember those hours scrolling Facebook seeing “all” my other friends getting married.  They were having fairy tale weddings and seemed to be having an amazing life and then the honeymoon pictures followed by the baby pictures.  It filled my heart with jealousy and envy.  What I didn’t know is that first of all not all of my friends are married (it gives a false perception that was the case) and secondly, within a few years many of those people got divorced.  Facebook made it appear that marriage was all about holidays and concerts.  It didn’t highlight the fights, the messiness with the inlaws, or the truth. In fact, it is a proven statistic that couples who DO NOT share everything about their personal lives online tend to have happier marriages as they feel there are some things which they are still able to keep private between them.  I will never forget the day I once heard a woman who recently went through a divorce confide “the truth is, my husband and I posted all those pictures of us out on trips and events and socializing with other couples, because we simply could not stand being alone with ourselves.”

And fake news is a whole other area which I won’t get into, but suffice it to say, with all the topics floating around in our world, especially topics which many of us have found scary and confusing lately, it becomes a real challenge to sort out the fact from the fiction. 

If you are struggling with being your authentic self on social media, here are a few  tips adapted from a podcast entitled “7 Ways to Have a Healthy Relationship with Social Media” by Nils Smith:

1) Be the authentic you (don’t pretend to be someone you’re not, this could include photoshopping pictures or posting just to impress when it doesn’t add value.  Simply share your life)

2) Don’t play the comparison game (unfollow/hide friends or celebrities who you find triggering)

3) Listen and think before you speak (it’s easy to get a fake confidence when posting or texting and attack people or act cruel when behind a screen rather than in person)

4) Create accountability structures within your life regarding social media (be particularly careful with DMs because these can often have the potential to lead us further into temptations)

5) Set Limits (primarily with your time.  Most phones have a screen time app you can use to help)

6) Encourage, Encourage, Encourage! (Encourage people with a like, a positive comment, or a DM. Try to encourage 1 person a day for 10 days and see how you get on)

7) Have fun! (If you’re not having fun on social media, you’re not doing it right)

Looking forward to writing tomorrow’s lesson on the Yellow Monster.  Any guesses?

The Seven Rainbow Monsters of Unhealthy Phone Use: Monster #1 Anger

I have started writing about some unhealthy phone habits on my Facebook account, but I  thought it might be beneficial to make these more public. Today there will be two posts because I started this project yesterday:

I was given the task of writing about the different ways technologically addictive behaviour or just plain bad habits when it comes to phone use can negatively affect our mental health, relationships, and well-being. Each day for the next week, I will be posting a different coloured monster with a description of what that monster can become and look like if left unchecked.

Today, I would like to introduce you to the red monster. He goes by many names including rage, annoyance and resentment, however, he is best known as ANGER.
As a noun anger is defined as “a strong feeling of annoyance, displeasure or hostility.” As a verb, anger refers to provoking, irritating, or exasperating someone else.”
Many of us have experienced anger at various points in our lives and oftentimes the anger is justified. Anger is not necessarily a negative emotion, rather it can be helpful in pointing out areas in our lives where we have been wronged or treated unfairly and with injustice. However, anger can become a problem when it robs us of our peace of mind, impacts our sleep, or causes us to lash out at another human being physically or emotionally.
One of the jobs I had in the past was being an au pair (nanny) to 3 young children with varying disabilities. One of the children was three years old and was given one hour to use her IPad.Her mother had no issues with this at all and had been setting an example by playing on her own IPad and phone all day. When the time ended for the girl to be using technology, I let her know. I had given her a 10 minute warning and then a 5 minute warning. I let the girl know that in 2 minutes we would be ending to play outside. I still remember the girl screaming and kicking while I more or less wrestled the IPad out of her hands. She was in a full out rage at technology being taken away from her. Internet and app addiction had already clenched her in its awful grips. The girl and her siblings had become zombies to the technological apocalypse.
Most of us as adults would not have responded in such an overt temper-tantrum type way, but many of us still respond negatively when technology is taken from our grasp. We may react with panic and anxiety when we leave our phones at home. We may become restless and distracted in conversations thinking that we have lost something valuable even though we know we’re just missing out on superficial likes and debates. Many of us have snapped at friends, coworkers or partners when they have asked us to do something in the midst of our mindless scrolling. We might not have overtly yelled at them but our tone of voice and body language conveyed annoyance at being ripped from the latest Candy Crush game. Some of us have felt our blood boiling at night after a long day debating the latest politically controversial point on Facebook. Whether for or against we will always come up against opponents and sometimes those internet debates can turn nasty with name calling and borderline hate speech. Even if our controversial posts remain civil, we can still find ourselves making straw men and poking holes at the other person’s ideologies rather than walking away. One of the phenomena of our time is that if someone doesn’t like what we say they can simply unfriend or block us with a single click of a mouse. Years of built up relationships, years of friendship, years of good times spent together, can be destroyed simply because someone doesn’t like what we have to say and they can do it all by a simple mouse click rather than a sit down conversation or phone call explaining what went wrong. When this happens and we realize we have been unfollowed or unfriended it just further fuels our anger and upset making us think negatively towards that person. Suddenly an otherwise good day has filled us with anger and bitterness. It robs our sleep as we think about the best comebacks for the day ahead and how we will continue to be crusaders for whatever cause no one else seems to get but us.
103519305_10163593617125291_1099014274296629156_o
To help combat the anger we can feel over Facebook posts, I would like to leave you with “The 10 Commandments of Using Social Media” adapted from the book #struggles by Craig Groeshel:
  1. Think about how what you are going to say or post will benefit the other person
  2. Love others the way you want to be loved
  3. Use social media to facilitate, not replace, real relationships
  4. Use social media instead of being controlled by it as an idol
  5. Turn your virtual other cheek to posts that offend you
  6. Do not post out of emotion
  7. Always reflect love whether online or off
  8. Do not use social media to fuel temptations
  9. Form your own opinions, do not follow the crowd
  10. Do not base your identity on what people think
Social media can be used for a lot of good. Whether keeping in touch with family and friends, making people laugh, educating and informing people, or even the occasional advocacy, however, it has to be done in the right way. People will not change their minds due to anger, fear, or endless debates. People will come to a healthier view of themselves by seeing our positivity and the ways we react in a healthy manner towards challenging people and posts. Tomorrow we will talk about the Orange Monster…until then, hope you all have a great day

GUEST BLOG: Letters Written Never Sent

Today’s blog features a guest writer who wishes to remain anonymous.  Here is her story about dealing with an eating disorder. 

I don’t know really where to start. Part of me is always confused about how to speak about my eating disorder history when for most of my life I did not even see it that way. Part of me also sees it as a “first world problem” and whenever I’d feel an incredible sadness regarding my looks and failures (that’s often how I’d connect those topics) I’d just let myself go through the awful days of secret crying and maybe a few days/weeks of bad mood without telling anyone what the nature of it really was. Just simply “bad times that I’ll get over and just move on with my life”.

Of course, it wasn’t about having only a bad mood. Most of the times I’m a highly functioning, depth seeking person, who does not want to focus on looks only. I’m aware that self-love is the key to create a balance in life, in self-progress. I’m aware of so many traps that we, as human beings fall very easily into. But that does not stop the weak part of my mind from being very puzzled, miserable, self-loathing, toxic, desperate at times.

It’s safe to say, an eating disorder is never just about looks. Most of the time I felt loved by my family and friends, but certain “family drama” for sure influenced my perspectives (like my parents splitting before I reached age 1), and added to many unpleasant memories regarding my looks. For example, my dad made a lot of comments about how good it is that I lost weight when I was 18. I think he hinted that he was worried about my health, but it still sounded incredibly judgmental.

Actually, I should say it started with my mum who was scared of – for health reasons as well – me gaining a lot of weight when I was a kid. And I understand that. Yet still, how I remember one specific summer when me, my mum, her friend and the friend’s two sons had holidays together at the seaside. It was great and fun, but I was constantly reminded by my mom how to avoid sugary and fatty foods cause it’s bad for me. I was around 9 (I think) and I had no idea what her problem was. The only feeling that stuck with me was that the sons of my mum’s friend are better than me, because they somehow deserve to eat whatever they want and I have to be limited to tastless youghurt and banana as a sweet treat. I demanded an explanation after few days of bubbling childish frustration and I got it – I have to be careful with fat in my body, because it’s harming me and since I had a heart surgery as a baby, I have to be even more mindful. Obviously, in hindsight, I’m glad my mom taught me so much about healthy eating and understanding chemistry within our bodies (she studied food technology and to this day is passionate about science). But that specific summer I remember getting very bitter over “my looks.”

Believe me, it didn’t end with my parents though. A lot of people in my close surroundings (my parent’s age or older) liked to comment on my looks, including my grandma’s sister and sometimes they were nice, sometimes brutally harsh, especially about me being chubby – I already start to feel upset just thinking of all this. Mainly because a lot of times I wished to be thin just so people could get off my back and stop harassing me with their opinions. Don’t get me wrong though – I liked discussing all sorts of topics, but my weight was not one of them and I have not asked for it. And that suppressed anger had slowly grown into a very unbalanced attitude towards myself.

The thing is, I loved food. I started loving sports and movement too (at age 11 I started playing volleyball in an amateur sports club; I was kayaking regularly with my mum; sometimes I was swimming) but I loved food and that did not work to my benefit. What’s more, the more I dreamed of being thin and not eating, the more I got myself to binge eat. I obsessively read blogs about anorexia, watched awfully skinny girls photos, read hundreds of stories of losing weight with a crazy envy. I tried starving myself, I tried using anti-cough pills with ephedrine (which is a stimulant) to motivate myself to excersise at home, I tried to throw up every time I binged… I tried many things…

I can recognize the similarities between my thinking and the classical eating disorder reasons like gaining control, feeling like losing weight could prevent me from getting the unwanted attention (at age 14 I didn’t want some elder creeps to be interested in my curves) + attention of people all ages around me, including a teacher at my school who said I shouldn’t be wearing the type of jeans I liked because it “doesn’t suit my body type”. FYI, I never heard from my other classmates who would also be considered “bigger” to have such experiences with our teachers which makes me wonder why was I so “blessed” with “advices” all the time. Basically, the fat started to equal failure. (Still is, but a lot of things changed in the meantime which helped me to stay reasonable and focus on health). I’ve learned that I can’t starve and I can’t throw up. I felt like a loser cause I can’t even have a “proper” eating disorder. I can’t have the one that would make me thin. No one would see, no one would expect anything unless I said something disturbing out loud. But even then, I was surrounded with girls and adult women
saying constantly “I need to lose some fat” so everyone was numb to my comments (to this day I believe the society I grew up with is incredibly, but not always willingly judgemental, so even when you’re slim, it’s polite to be humble aka criticize yourself so you don’t seem full of yourself; even  if in reality you still like to show your body, you crave for attention, but you cannot complement yourself – ’cause you might sound like a diva). Imagine, I got to a point where I literally have wished I could have been anorectic cause maybe people would care. Maybe I could draw the attention to myself without using words and once I’d be so thin I’d be falling apart they could finally feel guilty about their comments and I could openly blame them. I fantasized about it a lot.

The thing is I lost a significant amount of weight few times in my life and every time it felt awesome. I got compliments all the time. You might think it sounds shallow, but believe me, the more I stopped caring about people’s feedback, the more compliments I’ve received. Of course it boosted my fragile ego, fed the narcissistic little ugly duckling in me. Every time, for a while it was amazing to experience the positive attention, the “love and affection”, the “ooh lala” in people’s reactions. Though I liked it, I also hated it, because I was wondering was I so worthless and disgusting being my “normal self”? And it created a huge amount of pressure. At the end of high school I got ill (to this day I have no idea what it was) and I could barely eat as my gums were constantly swollen and I had a fever every evening for like 2 weeks. When I came back to school 2 sizes smaller one of my favorite teachers asked me if I’m anorexic. I was shocked cause I didn’t see myself being slimmer (body dysmorphia at it’s best), I also was not prepared to have that question asked, and definitely not in front of other people from my class. I wish I could describe to you that tremendous happiness when I heard that question! The most messed up part of the day is me glowing with pride that I had finally made someone think I might be sick. Yet I never really considered myself sick up to age 25.

I don’t really want to get more into the details of how my weight was up and down, but it is a vicious circle of people’s comments. Luckily, it’s so much less important to me nowadays. I know how I can defend myself, I’m trying to be honest and polite in my explanation of why the topic should be no one’s concern but my own (and maybe my doctor’s if there are some actual health issues). Yet with all the support and wisdom I receive I just can’t get over that time of judgment, humiliation and anger from the past. Especially now that I’m struggling with gaining weight. For the past 2 years I have had so many weight struggles due to my change of metabolism, very irregular life rhythm, a lot of travelling and lack of focus.

I will openly say I’m a chronic dieter, but I feel lucky to finally have a mindset where I search for a healthy lifestyle that suits me and is not the absolute bullshit calorie count. I started to enjoy workouts which are easy to do wherever I go, instead of depending on sports that I love but cannot access so left me not having enough movement in my life. But most of all, I’m lucky ’cause I want to become healthy with my mindset and I hope to help others in the future. The hardest, longest and most challenging fight is always to love yourself as you are.

Reflecting on the Anniversary of Jean’s Death

The following are my own opinions and do not reflect those of L’Arche International.

Screenshot_20200226_105259 I still remember sitting at home in my pjs when an email pinged on my phone.  Breaking news: Jean Vanier is Dead.  At that point, I had been connected with L’Arche for 6 years and I considered Jean somewhat of a hero.  No one could ever take his place, I thought.  Those are some pretty big shoes to fill.  Would the movement survive without his gentle guidance and presence, or would it crumble?  That’s the problem when we saint someone before they are even gone.  When people heard the name L’Arche their minds were instantly drawn to Jean.  Yes, there have been many men and women throughout the years who have made great strides for L’Arche at both a local and international level, but surely no one could ever do as much for the movement as he did himself.  His death seemed almost surreal.  None of us wanted it to happen, but it happened.  I was faraway from my Scottish community at that time.  I was back home renewing my visa, so the timing all seemed a bit unfortunate.  However, it wasn’t long before I was rushing to my laptop to stream in his service.  Remembrance ceremonies were taking place all over the world.  My Facebook page was lit-up with tributes and kind words of sympathy. 

Today, marks one year since Jean’s death, but today we are living in a very different world and in a very different reality.  When news came out about Jean’s abuse of power, my Facebook lit up once again, but this time the words, sentiments and tones were much different.  The words were not of kindness but of harshness, not of sympathy about Jean, but of empathy towards the women he had harmed, and not of tributes, but of dismay and disdain.

I remember shortly after the news was made public about Jean, my pastor emailed me to check in on me.  This was a very kind gesture as she knew how much L’Arche meant to me and how much I considered it a vocational ministry.  That Sunday at church (only a day or two after I received the email), we met privately after the service.  As I sat there with her next to me, I unleashed many words.  I do not remember those spoken words anymore, but I remember the intensity of emotion behind them.  It was like going through a grieving process.  There was anger at Jean and what he had done, there was denial because I couldn’t bring myself to admit that one of my heroes in the faith had truly done such a thing, there was the question of whether I wanted to continue on in L’Arche, and then underneath it all there was this unsettling feeling that sometimes no matter how good we think a person is, they are still capable of having a shadow side.  As my mentor would remind me time and time again since that terrible day “we are all only human.”

Life went on in the L’Arche community following not only Jean’s death but this awful news.  Our local minister was constantly in and out providing pastoral care and support.  Our leadership team got dialogues up and running and thankfully many people felt safe enough to come out and share their own thoughts and feelings about the news.  Some even were brave enough to relate their own personal experiences and tragedies.  There comes a time for transparency in all organizations, but more than that, there comes a time to honour our stories and to hold them tightly and in confidence.  I have no doubt that communities throughout the world were met with the same pastoral response and processing opportunities.  I know that as a L’Arche community we were “all in this together.”  It was something that all L’Arche communities had to face and process.  We were not alone.

My thoughts cycled through various stages.  Somedays, I was so glad to be part of L’Arche still and see this new resilience blossoming and a new courage igniting.  Other days, I found my enthusiasm waning.  I had already started thinking of a new ministry opportunity several months before and I knew that regardless of how enjoyable my time in L’Arche might have been, I was swiftly being called out of it to a different vocational role.  And then there were days when I sat in front of a Jean Vanier book agonizing over what to do with it.  In the end of the day, I decided to put them all in a drawer, but I haven’t opened that drawer since.  The academician in me is not willing to give up all that he contributed to disability theology.  The student in me is angry that we relied so much on one voice when there are hundreds more who have contributed but we have ignored.

It seemed like things were just getting in full swing with our individual and collective processing of Jean Vanier, when another tragedy hit us.  That of COVID-19.  The virus put a halt to any group processing meetings.  Pastoral care shifted to telephone and video calls.  A local organization which previously informed women they could reach out to them to talk about Jean was forced to suspend its services indefinitely.  In the words of a long-term L’Arche member who is a friend of mine “It seemed like the dirty bugger got off lucky.”  Isn’t that just like him?  A man of charm, escaping any further scrutiny because the world turned on its head.  As I sit here today, it amazes me how finite the human mind is.  We are only able to process one tragedy at a time.  No matter how devastating a blow something can be, when another difficulty comes along, we shelve the first and direct our energy solely on the new challenge.  Thus, we forgot about Jean, and started focussing instead on a wide-scale pandemic.

I hadn’t thought much about Jean until today.  The anniversary of his death.  And it seems we are all still grieving in our own ways.  Maybe there is a part of us which is still grieving Jean himself.  For all the evil he may have caused to women (and he did), he also was successful in founding an international movement which has impacted thousands and touched the hearts and souls of many young assistants.  He is a man who rescued people with disabilities from the horrors of institutions.  He is a man who informed a lot of what we know and rely on today in the disability movement as the cornerstones for a person centered approach.  Perhaps we are grieving the vision we once held of Jean.  That’s normal enough.  It is one of the hardest things for a human to process when they realize a person they loved and trusted is not who they once thought the person was.  And then there is the sense of grief we feel today – holed up in our homes, the loss of human interaction and connection, the loss of activities and hobbies once enjoyed, and the loss of many of our personal freedoms we once took for granted.

All of these events roll into one big lump of collective grief and an overwhelming sense of loss.  Every day we are hearing in the news that these are “unprecedented times” and that we are going to have to adapt to a “new normal.”  Human beings are incredibly resilient and while many of us have not enjoyed these new measures, we have come to understand them and abide by them.  The day we heard about Jean was perhaps not unprecedented.  Sadly, stories of abuse of power have swept both the religious and secular worlds.  Leaders who have abused the vulnerable is not a new story to tell, yet sadly, there is a part of us all that wishes it was.  There is a part of us that still may feel unprepared to deal with the reality.  A part of us that perhaps thinks somewhere in the back of our mind that there weren’t signs we could have seen.   And now L’Arche is forced to live in a “new normal.”  A normal which still includes Jean as part of our story, but which also uses pastoral sensitivity to show that what he did should never have been and will never be the norm.  It was unacceptable and it should never have happened.  Our new normal in L’Arche has called for all of us to be adaptable.  To find ways of being “L’Archey” (holding the core values and visions we always have) but in a different way.  

Today one year after Jean’s death, I joined the L’Arche prayers.  People’s faces filling the screen.  Trouble with mics and with WiFi.  Off key singing.  A bit of confusion about who does what when.  This has become the new normal for us.  We are all in this together. A year ago if you were to say we would be meeting in this fashion, I never would have believed it.  But this is now the seventh week we have done this and it will likely be several more weeks left to go.  We are adaptable, and we will find ways to thrive as a community both locally and globally and that’s exactly the same with our relationship with Jean. We have reached a new normal, but we are ready to be courageous as we face this change.  We can’t change the past and what our founder has done, but we can be responsible for having a positive outlook as we look for ways to continue to help and support all those who have been harmed by this tragic news.

You can access my first blog about Jean here: https://debdebbarak.wordpress.com/2020/02/26/reconciling-the-news-of-jean-vanier-with-the-work-of-larche/

The Midnight Hour (Short Story)

William’s Last Day 

It was 11:59pm and the ward at the local nursing home, Oak Terrace, was silent.  William MacDonald, an elderly gentleman in his early 90s was in a deep sleep. He had mentioned earlier that afternoon that he was not feeling well. His mind was still sharp, but his body was slowly decaying. He didn’t have the stamina he once did and he found himself getting agitated and angry lately.  All the staff loved him. He was a retired war vet and had spent his life proudly serving his country in WWII, he had even won a few medals for bravery. Yet now, as he sat in his wheelchair staring out the window, all he could think about was his grandkids.  They had done well for themselves. They had all married, had children of their own, and were now working in various professions. Yet, he felt sad that his legacy was slowly being lost. The grandkids did not care much about his old war stories, they simply enjoyed catching up on the latest celeb gossip.  “Ah well,” he breathed heavily, “a generation that came and went.”

At 7pm, he asked his favourite nurse, Ruth-Alice, to wheel him to his room.  He had finished his favourite dinner of roast pork and mashed potatoes with a side of green beans, brussel sprouts, carrots and mashed turnips and suddenly he felt like sleeping.  Usually, William was a night owl, keeping other residents awake with his antics, but today, he just didn’t feel like it. Ruth-Alice brought him to his room, drew the curtains, helped him get into his warm flannel pyjamas and put on his favourite soothing music.  5 hours later, the bedroom was filled with his light snoring. Ruth-Alice decided to peak in before she went home for the night. He seemed to be okay. Peaceful. Ruth-Alice grinned. A lovely rest for a lovely gentleman. Tomorrow will be a new day. She thought.  The nursing home was planning a special service to commemorate the vets, and she knew how proud William would be dressed up in his favourite army uniform which still fit him. Just like last year and the year before that, he would make a point of taking out his medals and showing all the visiting children what he had accomplished for the sake of his nation.  Ruth-Alice didn’t know that William was not about to wake from his sleep, that actually William had already started drifting into the land of no return, and that actually, the medals would not be displayed outside of his door, but rather on the inside of his coffin.

At 12:01am William awoke.  At least he thought he did.  He looked around his room and it all looked the exact same, but suddenly he felt peaceful and warm.  As his eyes snapped open, he saw a giant angel standing by his bed. The angel was dressed in white, had long flowing silver hair and blazing blue eyes.  The angel was also carrying a flaming sword, but William did not feel any fear or panic. In fact, he had never felt so peaceful in his entire life. “I am Michael,” the angel said, “I have come to take you home.”  William gaped at the angel with his mouth wide open. “Where am I? What’s happening?” He still was not panicked, but he was highly curious. Michael spoke to him in a soothing and even voice, “Your time to depart has come, you will not need anything.  Please follow me.” William, who had been confined to his wheelchair for the past 10 years after a stroke, suddenly felt his limbs moving freely again. He felt himself leave the chair as if he was flying. Suddenly, he did not feel like a 90 year old man anymore, he felt like a 23 year old full of stamina and strength.  As he was being lifted from his chair, he suddenly felt energetic. His face broke into a grin, “I’m ready for an adventure” he yelled. “Hang tight,” said Michael, “we are on our way!”

Soaring through the night sky, out through the open window, William could see all the trees and houses down below.  He passed over his children’s homes, and then his grandchildren’s homes. He passed over the ravine, the mountains, and the factories.  William suddenly felt a pang of guilt. He knew that where he was going he would not be able to return from, and he felt sad that he couldn’t say goodbye to those dearest, but he also knew there was no time.  As he continued to move up and into the night sky, he started soaring far above all the countries of the world he had never visited. His life flashed before him – images of his 7th birthday party, his wedding day, his first child being born.  Yet, he was not emotionally attached to any of them. Rather, it was as if he was watching someone else’s life on a big cinema screen. Finally, in the last leg of the journey, he saw the planets in outer space, and then he was pushed through a very fast wind tunnel filled with pink, purple, blue, green, and yellow until eventually at the very end, his eyes were assaulted with a pure white light so strong it was blinding, and yet William did not squint or close his eyes, he kept them open until he eventually landed on clouds as soft as marshmallows. 

The Arrival

“Welcome, welcome!” came an exhilarated voice.  “Where am I?” William asked, rubbing his eyes. “In Zion, of course” said the stranger.  “Zion?” William repeated. “I’m not Jewish.” “Well, I suppose for the rest of you, you would call it heaven.”  Came the playful response.

There in front of William stood a middle aged man with a large tummy and a deep jovial laugh.  “Zion, heaven, it’s really one and the same” he snorted. William looked the man up and down, he certainly did not look like an angel.  “So, I’m…” William couldn’t bring himself to say the word. “Dead, passed over, bought the farm, kicked the bucket, yeah all of it” the man giggled again.  “Oh, I seem to have forgotten my manners,” the man corrected himself. “I am Edmund, guardian of the people. And it is my job to show you around. But first, there are a few things we need to take care of.”

“Firstly, you’re a mess.  Let’s take care of that.” Edmund looked William up and down.  William started to feel self-conscious. It was true that in his youth he was quite a charmer.  He was a real ladies man, fit and muscular. But he had aged less than gracefully. He suddenly started feeling like he wouldn’t make the cut.  Edmund seemed to read his thoughts, “Just so you know, you didn’t come here as a 90 year old,” he stated, “in fact, you have the body of a 35 year old.  I am just looking for wounds.”

William suddenly became aware of a few scrapes on his arms, a huge gash down the back of his leg, and a large bruise on his back.  He did not have any of these injuries in real life and he didn’t know where they came from. Edmund gently started applying antiseptic to the leg and William roared in pain.  He had never felt anything like that before and his eyes stung with tears. Edmund soothingly whipped out a tissue and started dabbing William’s eyes. “Sshh.. it’s ok. You need to heal.  We don’t want you bleeding on the rides, we are going to take care of you, it will all be ok.”

“But how?” asked William “I’ve never seen these wounds before.”

“You’re broken.”  Replied Edmund. “Just like everyone else who comes here.  The internal wounds are showing on the outside.” He gently touched William’s leg again with the cream.  “This huge gash is from being told your whole life that you are a failure and not good enough. The bullying from your school days made it very deep indeed, and when your wife walked away, it became impossible to stop the blood flow.” 

He then rubbed ointment on William’s back.  “That huge bruise is from having to carry all the pressures of life.  Being made to grow up fast, to shoulder responsibility which shouldn’t have been yours to carry at 17 when your father walked out and you became the man of the house.”

Finally, he massaged William’s arms with the cream.  “These little scratches were all the ways you tried to cope. Your need to be macho, the horrors you faced in the war just trying to protect your country and your inner need to be a hero, the money lost during your brief spell of gambling all in the thought that building a mansion would cure the emptiness inside.”

William looked at his feet embarrassed.  Edmund put his arm around his shoulder. “Don’t be embarrassed” he replied his voice full of tenderness and compassion.  “Everyone comes here with wounds. It is my job to bandage them up. It takes time, but they all will heal. In fact, they will gradually begin to fade while you are here in this amusement park.  There you go, all bandaged up with kindness and love,” he said as he put on the final plaster.  

“Next up, we have to do something about those filthy clothes,” Edmund said, not unkindly.  William looked down again and noticed his clothes were all tattered and torn. William suddenly felt so ashamed as if he were wearing rags.  Edmund seemed not to notice or to mind. “Let’s see what would look fine on you” he mused bringing out a bundle of freshly pressed white robes.    “Ah ha! This one” he said proudly choosing the cleanest, most sparkling white one, “Try this on.” “Don’t worry,” he mentioned, “everyone comes in like that.  The clothes from your world cannot compare with what is in fashion here. Your clothes display how you lived your life.”

“Was I really that bad?”  William could sense his blood boiling and his nerves become jangly and defensive.  It is true that during the war, he had become quite a player (who didn’t like a man in uniform?), and after he was done his tour, he had resorted to drink to try to drown his sorrows.   This is when his wife left. She had told him it was either her or the bottles, he had chosen the bottles at that point and after he sought help, had regretted it ever since. But, for the most part he considered himself a decent enough man.  He had raised 5 children and tried to be the best provider he could be, and at the nursing home, all the children loved him and referred to him as “Papa William.” He just wished his own great-grands would have visited and called him that.

Edmund’s deep throated laugh knocked him back out of his embarrassment.  With Edmund’s head cocked back,William could feel his insecurities melting away.  “Of course not!” Edmund could barely control his laughter. “The rip here was from the time you changed the tire for your elderly neighbour and managed to somehow rip your jeans, this stain is from playing football in the grass with your kids, and this splash of red?  From the time you tried painting your mother’s house. You were a terrible painter, but how were you to know?!” William couldn’t help but laugh heartily right along with him.  

“OK, I think you’re ready to go in now” Edmund waved his arm towards the park.  “My job here is done. All you have to do now, is go up to the Ticket Collector, tell him your name and he’ll give you an all inclusive pass into the park.”

Let’s Show You Around

“Step right up!”  Yelled the voice. William looked and before him was a man in his mid-20s, tall and skinny.  “What is your name?” He asked. “William.” William mumbled. The man flipped open a huge book and started tracing his finger down the page.  “Ah yes! William MacDonald, is it? A new arrival? We’ve been expecting you. A day late, but hey, what’s a day amongst friends. Come on in!”  He grinned.

As William approached the park he noticed a large arching sign reading, “Door of Hope.”  A huge rainbow arched over it, with palm trees and flowers surrounding it, and 2 large angels carved in olive wood and overlaid with gold on either side.  Also on either side of the sign, there were two live angels with flaming swords similar to the one who had brought William here in the first place, but they did not look scary.  In fact, they were chatting to one another as friends.  

Surrounding the park were more trees of all varieties looming large – higher than he had ever seen before, with pleasing fruits he had never tasted.  An abundance of birds flew brightly overhead with the most stunning colours he had ever seen. The flowers also were more delicate and fragrant than one could imagine, and in the centre was a huge water fountain carved purely of onyx and encased in the purest gold imaginable.  The fountain poured over into the valley watering the trees. The setting felt so peaceful and idyllic.   

The park itself was protected by walls made of layered precious stone interlaced with cedar beams.  Layers of jasper, sapphire, emerald, ruby, topaz, turquoise and amethyst provided a lovely sight with pearls used at the very top as decoration.   There was live music wafting through the air – the swelling of cymbals, harps, trumpets and all sorts of instruments many of which William had never seen or heard, but all were completely in harmony and rhythm with no sense of dissonance.    And it felt that when a voice rose in song, the whole earth echoed back its praise. Everything was alive and bursting with flavour and once the jubilant noise hit the air, the clouds and wind carried it even further. The place was infused with a delicate perfume.  A light and airy fragrance, not too strong, but which lingered – a mix of wild herbs and flowers with a hint of honey and lemon. The place was flooded with light, but it was not the type that blinds you. It was as if one was reliving the calmest day at the beach, but without the risk of a sunburn.  Yet, there was actually no sun. It was not scorching, but it wasn’t cold. It was a unique day – a day which did not distinguish between day and night, and even when the cool of the evening hit, it was still as light as before. It was a place without night and with no darkness.  

William’s mouth naturally wanted to laugh with glee and his tongue felt instantly unleashed to tell everyone around how magnificent and awesome this place was.  The others all just flashed him a knowing grin and made an acknowledging nod. They all knew They had all been around this park many times, but none of them seemed to grow bored with it. 

William noticed that the amusement park was completely full, but at the same time it didn’t look busy.  The doors were never shut – people came in and out all day, and along with the brilliantly green blades of grass, the areas which usually would be pavement and concrete had been paved over with gold.   There were people from every culture, country, race, and age, and while their facial features were still retained, everyone all seemed to look alike, but it was the soul they were connecting with. There were many languages being spoken, but it seemed like when someone opened their mouth and spoke German, one was aware it was German but instinctively heard it being translated into Spanish.  And then there was a dialect which all seemed to gain access from, it was known as a heavenly language or the language of angels, which all were able to speak regardless of intelligence or academic achievement on earth. There were enough rides for everyone and the place was so vast. It seemed as if everyone instinctively knew which rides to choose first, and all the queues remained short.   William queued up for his first ride, when he heard four women’s voices behind him. Someone was calling him “Precious, Precious! Wait up!” He ignored it at first because that was not his name. His name was William. But soon it became obvious they were speaking to him.” “Hey Precious!” the voice panted as one who had just run a mile. “Welcome to Door of Hope! I would like to introduce myself.  I am Beloved, and these are my sisters God’s Chosen, Mercy and Anointed. We have been asked by Edmund to show you around.

The Rides 

The first place WIlliam was brought to in the amusement park was the funhouse. This was one of William’s favourites when he took his grandchildren to the park.  Yet, this funhouse was different than any he had ever seen before. It was filled with mirrors – some made him look too big, others too skinny, in some he retained his old sunken face and in others he looked just plain sickly.  In a few he was wearing funny clothes, in some he saw himself giving water to a dog or taking care of an injured animal, and then in others he saw himself in the midst of his alcoholic stupor raging at his wife. Her sobbing, and packing her bags.  Him apologizing, cuddling her, and saying it was all a mistake and he would never do it again only to repeat the exact same action the following day. William was mesmerized by all these mirrors. They seemed to highlight his greatest insecurities and imperfections, but the ones that clung to him most were not him being too fat or too skinny, wearing business suits or silly outfits, but the ones that showed his character and how he acted.  That was lesson number one for William: none of the superficial outward things truly mattered in this place, only the inward actions remained.

His second ride was in a box car made of cedar wood, which went along a gentle rollercoaster track circling a small sea.  There were lily pads and blossoms in the middle and the sea was teeming with all sorts of colourful fish. He wasn’t sure what the point of this ride was, but it was calming, peaceful and relaxing.  It almost put him in a meditative state which he was never able to achieve during his life because he never knew how to shut his brain off.  

Face to Face With God

His last ride, took him up a large mountain in a cable car and dropped him off at a lookout.  Once he exited, he looked around and could see the whole expanse of the earth stretched out. The deep jungles, the picturesque beaches, the vast deserts, the lush oasis and the dotted cities.  He could see all the countries of the world – all the places he had been and everywhere he wished to go. Yet, it all seemed so peaceful. Everything was still. The desert and parched lands suddenly sprang to life before his eyes – cacti started flowering and the crocus started to bloom.  The mountains were higher than imaginable and they were gushing with milk and honey flowing from their sides. William suddenly noticed a huge waterfall that he hadn’t seen before – brilliant and magnificent. The sand started shifting and turning into cooling springs. The deserted haunts also started teeming with plant life. A highway opened up before his eyes and thousands of people wearing white robes started walking upon it.  As they walked, their eyes shone as if dancing and they wore smiles their faces could barely contain. There was certainly no heaviness amongst them and only light, airy, uncontainable joy!

  Suddenly, a great eagle with powerful wings, long feathers and a full plumage of varied colours flew above him, and snapped William out of his reverie.  He then realized he was face to face with his Creator. He heard a deep, resonant voice chuckle and say 7 of the most powerful words William had ever heard in his life “See, I am doing a new thing.”

William was standing before God’s Throne, but he didn’t know it was God.  He thought it was another angel, but this time the angel seemed bigger, brighter, more glorious and more splendid than any he had ever seen.  “Who are you?” He could barely croak, for this time, his body was filled with awe, reverence, and even a tinge of fear. He did not feel endangered, but he also did not feel safe.  “I am known by many names. I am called Blameless, Unfailing Love, Hope, Comfort, Eternal, Righteous, and Faithful. But you probably have always simply heard me referred to as God – Gracious, Overall, Dependable.  There were 24 elders also in white robes seated around God’s throne, but everyone was silent. William had often held a cynical view towards life. He had seen a lot of horror and injustice during the war and he used to make up scenarios in his head.  He used to boldly assert that if he ever met God face to face he would ask him to defend the atrocities of the world and to make a case for why bad things happened to good people, but all of this resolve and defiance faded away and dissolved the moment he actually stood face to face with the Almighty.  
God sat upon a throne made of jasper and ruby, a ring of emerald encircled it and there was a huge rainbow arching over it.  In front of the throne, was a sea made of crystal so that one could be in God’s presence but not too close so as to be consumed by His warmth. 

The 24 elders bid William to step a little closer, and as they ushered him into God’s presence they sang a song:

“Well done, good servant, take your rest,
And here take part in what is best.
Your life’s journey was long and hard,
Here we ask you to let down your guard.
Here before God’s awesome throne,
Make all your wants and wishes known.
What better than to laugh and sing,
Here before the King of Kings.”

Once Wiliam had moved very close to God, he was handed a crown.  “Your whole life, you were told you weren’t enough. You were told what you weren’t and what you could never be.  You weren’t an artist, you weren’t a musician, and you’d never be an athlete. You were told what other people thought of you.  You were too quiet at times, too loud at others. Too timid at moments and too bold in others. Too quick tempered, too apathetic, not invested, not a leader.  And as the school years turned to work years and work years turned to family years, the weight of what you were told continued to add up and squash you from your potential.  Today, I would like to tell you how I view you: I don’t see you as someone who was deserted, I see you as someone I delight in. I don’t see you as weak, I see you as strong. I don’t see you as naive, I see you as pure.  I don’t see you as a burden, I see you as someone I sought after and pursued. I don’t see you as a failure, I see you as my beloved.”

Right there in God’s presence, William began to weep.  A grown man, an old man who had lived a long life, a tough man who had fought in the world’s most gruesome wars, a strong man who had spent his life protecting and providing began to weep inconsolably.  For there in God’s presence, William finally understood. William finally knew that what he had been searching for his whole life was right there. He finally knew that all the battles he had fought both in the field and in his personal life were not forgotten, not neglected, and had amounted to something.  And William finally knew he was completely and utterly loved, cherished and accepted just for being the man God had made him and called him to be throughout his 90 long years.


DISCLAIMER: The above story is obviously fiction and should be regarded as such.  The thought of writing on the topic of heaven came to me when my colleague began asking me questions about what the Bible actually says about heaven.  As I spent hours pouring over Scripture, it soon dawned on me that the Bible actually says very little about what heaven is like.  Rather, we are given descriptions of God’s character, the physical temple which Solomon built (and which was subsequently destroyed), Israel’s longing to rebuild it, and words of hope and comfort towards the exiled Israelites about the kind of heavenly city God would restore to them if they would repent from their wickedness and seek Him with their whole hearts.  We also know from Scripture that the Kingdom of God is when heaven and earth collide and touch each other.

Many of the descriptions chosen above, are taken right from the Bible (though again, they were not specifically meant to be descriptions of heaven).  What was profound for me in my studies was that the same things were being addressed over and over again in various books.  Themes of God’s healing of our brokenness, descriptions of the sea, precious stones and gold, the symbolism of rainbows, mention of music, the promise of a new name and soul identity, as well as the promise that when face to face with God tears, sorrow, and earthly troubles will vanish are apparent again and again. These are topics which are woven throughout both the Old and New Testaments, and to be honest, most of my descriptions were plucked from Old Testament books I did not think I would have turned to (Isaiah, Zechariah, Psalms, and Genesis to name a few) with very few descriptions taken from Revelation itself.

There were a few verses I lifted directly from Scripture and implanted in this story:

1 Kings 6:18 Description of the temple being made of cedar wood rather than stone

Isaiah 32:17 “Your eyes will see the King in His beauty and view a land that stretches afar.”

Ezekiel 17:3 “A great eagle with powerful wings, long feathers and a full plumage of varied colours.”

Habakkuk 2:20 “The Lord is in His Holy Temple, let all the earth keep silent before Him.”

Zechariah 3:4 “The angel said to those who were standing before him, ‘Take off his filthy clothes; then he said to Joshua, ‘See, I have taken away your sin , and I will put a fine garment on you.'”

Zechariah 14:6 “On that day there will be neither sunlight nor cold, frosty darkness.  It will be a unique day – a day known only to the Lord – with no distinction between day and night.  When evening comes there will be light.”

Hosea 2:15 “Then I will give her back her vineyards, and will make the valley of Achor a door of hope.”

Isaiah 35:1-2 “The desert and the parched land will be glad, the wilderness will rejoice and blossom.  Like the crocus it will burst into bloom.”

Joel 3:18 “In that day the mountains will drip with new wine, and the hills will flow with milk, all the ravines of Judah will run with water.  A fountain will flow out of the Lord’s house, and will water the valley of Acacias.”

The description of the Heavenly Language is a loose translation of the prophetic gifts of tongues evidenced in several of Paul’s letters.

And the various names God used to describe Himself in this short story are all indicative of the names given to God in praise in the book of Psalms.