“…problems with a Christ-less vision of flourishing; a God-less understanding of wellbeing…”
As most children returned to schools across Australia this week, so many globally remained at home and even within our own community, colleagues in WA were required to pivot once again as children were forced to stay away. We pray that that disruption will be short-lived. For many, however, remote teaching has become routine. It has been a period where access to the very relationships which we know underpin our physical and mental health have been restricted or prohibited.
What has been the impact of that – long-term? Well, we can learn a great deal from history to inform that view.
At the start of World War II, millions of children were evacuated from cities and sent to live with foster parents in more remote rural locations. What happened to these children became the subject of a significant body of research by psychoanalyst Anna Freud in the early 1940’s which itself inspired the work of John Bowlby and his work on attachment. Freud observed that those children who remained with their families, despite the terrifying circumstances around them, were much happier than those who experienced separation.
But those circumstances were different to the times we are experiencing now. What might we see if we began to unpack the letters and diaries of those who lived through the Great Plague of the 1660s or the 1918 influenza pandemic?
JUNE 7th, 1665 was an unusually hot day, perhaps one of the hottest that the English diarist Samuel Pepys could remember. He describes himself as being overwhelmed by the “mighty heat” and his journal of that day clearly reveals both physical and psychological discomfort. We know he paced his garden for some time with much on his mind: the English, “mad for war”, were fighting the Dutch and there was no news of the conflict. But he was clearly more concerned about the welfare of his wife, caught in a heavy downpour; but the storm on the horizon was far more menacing. Earlier that the day, Pepys had observed newly painted red crosses on the doors of houses in Drury Lane and the words “Lord have mercy upon us” inscribed below. The plague, that all hoped might never reach the shores of England at all, was in the capital city. It would go on to kill a quarter of the population of 18 months.
That entry reminded me of that sense of doom I had returning home from Australia last February. I’d been out here for a week house, school and church hunting and landed at Heathrow only to be met my medical personnel who boarded the flight in breathing apparatus to remove a passenger “taken unwell in the flight”. What happened after, I began to document myself in a diary which I have continued that to this day. I wonder, should I decide to look back on my words in years to come, what they might reveal about this period and the navigation of it.
What you notice in Pepys’ diary in particular, is an extraordinary optimism. He began nearly every entry with the word “up”. He is thankful to have risen that day and like the psalmist, he praises God for his blessings that morning. He is excited about the opportunities that waking now affords him. Entries recorded by Pepys at the end of the day are similarly striking:
This day by God’s mercy I am 29 years of age, and in very good health and if I have a heart to be contented, I think I may reckon myself as happy a man as any is in the world, for which God be praised. So, to prayers and to bed.”
That’s quite something. Notwithstanding the circumstances of their pandemic, 17th Century living in Britain was a brutal existence. Thomas Hobbs had already famously characterised human life in this period as “nasty, brutish and short.” People seldom lived beyond on their twenties. Pepys, one of eleven, lost all his older siblings by the time of his eighth birthday. The pandemic ripped through communities unable or ill-equipped to act. Social distancing was impossible and hygiene an unknown phenomenon. Life was very hard and yet, whilst people then had fewer economic choices like we do; fewer freedoms than we enjoy; little or no leisure resources, time or opportunity to rest (vacations we largely unheard of), in spite of all that, if you read these journals and diaries, in most periods, what is striking is the optimism and assurance they reveal.
By comparison, the prevalence of social media platforms today, mean we have access to the daily thoughts and sentiments of vast numbers of people across the world which expose, and this is particularly true of this time, feelings of great loneliness, isolation, meaninglessness, despair and depression. I think it would be difficult to make a case, particularly in the West, that we are happier than the generations that have gone before us. But I think you could make a strong case that that those who lived through similar times were happier and more hopeful than we are. Why?
I think there’s a fundamental problem with how we think about wellbeing.
Much of the profound and pop psychology literature that liters our social media streams, light television and lifestyle magazine living reading, advocate things like rest, specific dietary regimes and exercise (lots of it, and outdoors) as the source of better wellbeing and, yes, there is good science behind some of this stuff. I could point you to a study of 80,000 people who followed a plant-based diet which revealed a correlation between raised consumption of fruit and veg and uplifts in mood despite personal, social and economic challenges. My guess is that January was a month where many of us experimented with programmes just like that, but by now most will have abandoned those good intentions; the majority of resolutions on the eve of New Year are broken within hours of making the pledge. They promised much but left us empty. They didn’t deliver that continual and consistent happiness implied in the small print. Am I wrong?
The bible’s encouragement is to look for our happiness in other things.
The happiness described in scripture is neither unachievable nor inevitable, but it is imaginable. The bible tells us that the happy person is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and its leaf does not wither. The word “blessed” means happy. It means to be “fulfilled“; to be “satisfied”. We learn three things about the “blessed or “happy” person (the person of good wellbeing) and I would encourage you to reflect on these as the term begins and as you disciple your students in the weeks ahead.
1. We will always be subject to seasons…
The tree of Psalm 1 is subject to seasons. It cannot avoid storms nor should it. We know that trees need violent weather to grow strong. It triggers their root systems to go deep and to spread and interlock with other root systems around it. It even activates a certain type of wood to form in the infrastructure of the tree itself; the “stress bark” as it is called. As it happens, howling winds are far less threat to a tree than shallow roots. Even during severe heat and drought, the tree described in Psalm 1 is unlike many other trees because it’s been planted on the riverbank and has access to a constant and consistent supply of water.
The mistake that we often make is to look for happiness in our externalities and yet the Bible says that the genuine foundations of wellbeing, of happiness, are found where your roots are. A tree going through a difficult season has to draw from the bottom even more; it has to put his roots even deeper. There’s something about this time that, I suspect, has necessitated putting our roots down into Jesus in a way we didn’t before. We should reflect on that.
2. Wellbeing is first found in the Word…
Happy, says the psalmist, is the one delights in the law. The Hebrew word “delight” can be translated “to bend.” The happy person is understood to be the one who “bends” towards, or leans into, God. Happy is the person whose primary relationship is with God, through Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit. Happy is the one who meditates “day and night” on that promise; who is embedded in the word of God, and whose chosen human company and community is nourishing.
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3. Happiness is not found within us but between us…
We are urged in verse 1 of Psalm 1, ‘not to stand in the way that sinners take or sit in the company of mockers’. In many languages and cultures around the world, where you stand or where you sit is where you belong, and it matters where you root yourself humanly speaking as well. From the people of Israel to the first peoples of Asia-Pacific, happiness is found not within but between. I was introduced to a new word only this week: “T?rangawaewae” which is a significant and powerful concept for the M?ori people. Literally t?ranga (standing place), waewae (feet), translates as ‘a place to stand’. The T?rangawaewae is regarded as a place where people feel connected and contented as consequence.
And there is an order to these things…
God says the reason why our human communities unravel everywhere is because when our relationship with God crumbles, all other relationships collapse, and when a relationship with God is restored, all other human relationships will regenerate. And therefore, God commands us to invest in our community to reveal to the world that restored relationship…with Him.
So unsurprisingly, the one command on which hangs all the law and words of the prophets is a mandate to root ourselves in relationship with God and each other. It is a fundamental truth that our school communities should be built on. Yes, eating well is good. Yes, exercising is good and doing it outside is good, but colleagues let me say, if you base your whole approach to wellbeing on this – you will struggle. In the Bible – wellbeing is always, and only, a byproduct of seeking something else more than the thing itself. Blessed is not the one who seeks blessedness, nor uses the word incessantly, or appoints a coordinator of it. That’s not how we will encourage the flourishing of people and place.
The problem with a Christ-less vision of flourishing is it’s a God-less understanding of wellbeing.
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