You will love her new book – AND make sure you have a listen to her moving new song at the end of the article.
Hey remember that time when everything sucked and you thought your whole world was going to end and then it didn’t? Or when you thought the worst possible thing would happen and it did but you kept right on living and kicking ass? I just wanted to remind you of that – Helena Mc Neill
CUP OF COURAGE by Helena McNeill.
I am a creative soul, a singer and musician, who has always expressed my story through music and writing. I’m also a wife, mother, friend and Danish pastry addict. My life may be similar to yours – a crazy mixture of love, laundry, joy, hard stuff, mess, stress and Netflix therapy. Oh, and there is a dog, just to add to the chaos. I also have a child with a severe disability. This part of my story often plunges my heart into unexpected adventures. Somewhere in that busy life, I try to steal a moment to myself. This usually comprises of me huddled over a sacred cup of coffee. There’s something so comforting and familiar about it. I pause and exhale, and somehow mysteriously feel better equipped to get on with my day. It’s like I received a dose of courage to keep going.
I think our souls need that too sometimes – a shot of inspiration, just enough to keep us going. Maybe it’s a word, a thought, a story or song that resonates with us, giving us exactly what we need at that moment. It may be small, but there’s power in the right word at the right time. It speaks to us and we are encouraged. It lifts us, infusing hope. Sometimes that’s all we need – for our soul to be lifted up, enough to get through the day.
The book CUP OF COURAGE is a collection of one-minute thoughts and reflections from my everyday life. The words are simple, honest and raw. It’s written by someone on the same journey as you, wading through the same stuff we all live with. It’s a book that can be slowly sipped or quickly gulped down, whatever you prefer. It’s my hope that as you read, courage rises in your own soul, drawing out a stronger and braver you. Maybe you’ll feel the joy trickle in through the cracks as you realise you are not alone and discover there is still so much hope in your story. There is a beauty to be found in the middle of our messy, challenging lives. We just need the courage to see it.
This book is the perfect gift for a friend going through a challenging season, or someone you know who just needs some encouragement in their life.
How did the book come about?
After sharing my own story in my first book TRAVELLING TIPS FOR THE JOURNEY OF LIFE, I created an online community on FaceBook@helenamcneillartist that gave permission to authentically express our faith, love and struggles in the glorious mess of our lives. My goal was to help others see beauty, even in the difficult days, to explore gratitude and what it means to live with brave love. CUP OF COURAGE started online as a weekly FaceBook Post. I wanted to pour a drop of encouragement into someone’s cup each week. Turns out a drop can go a long way, so I poured all those drops into one cup and created a book! While brainstorming ideas for the book’s design, I happened to glance at all the artwork of my thirteen-year-old girls scattered around our house. I realised my artists were right under my nose! Jaz started sketching cups and they were the exact quirky delight I envisioned. Lucky for me, she works for chocolate. I needed colour to enhance the words on the pages so Sunny created some original paintings at home with me. Voila! My husband Jay guided my jumbled words into an easier read and fired up our studio to record and produce my new songs. I know, he’s wonderful. Did I mention he cooks too? This book became a family affair, and rightly so, because they inspire the courage in me every day.
CUP OF COURAGE SONG
I wanted to write a song that could encourage people as they face their tough stuff. Life can be damn hard sometimes, and I wanted the song to be honest and truthful in acknowledging that fact because it’s important to not pretend everything is ok when it’s not. We’ve gotta deal with our stuff. My own story requires me to find courage daily and I have heartbroken moments of feeling the raw grief and frustration too. It hurts. But life is bittersweet, and the beautiful stuff is slam bam right next to the sorrow. I am learning every day that I can choose to fill my cup with hope and joy in the midst of whatever I am facing. The song CUP OF COURAGE gives us words to sing out over our lives every day – words of courage, hope and strength. You can sing it with tears in your eyes (I have) or just let it wash over you and fill your cup as you listen. The song reminds us of the one unchanging powerful truth that I hold on to with all my might these days. This truth is the rich, strong brew I fill my cup with every morning – the truth that we are never alone, that God is with us, helping us find our way through the mess. And this truth is enough for me. It lifts my soul. It whispers comfort and strength to me at night, and courage as I face a new day each morning. And hey, of course, I fill my cup with a good brew of coffee too, let’s not underestimate the uplifting role of a hit of caffeine.
Helena McNeill is a singer-songwriter-speaker-author. She has worked in numerous churches as a singer, worship leader and creative arts director. She performs at churches, events and house concerts. Helena and her husband Jay reside in Melbourne, Australia, with their twin daughters Sunshine and Jaz.
To contact Helena or purchase her books and music, go to www.helenamcneill.com
You can also find her on Facebook: @helenamcneillartist
It’s Easter Saturday. The in-between day.
For many of us Easter is about extra holidays, easter eggs, hot cross buns, camping, and maybe the obligatory trip to Church to celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
We don’t really talk much about Easter Saturday. I know he died for me yesterday and that he’s coming back tomorrow but what about today.
Holy Saturday, is where we are suspended between loss and hope, death and resurrection, mourning and new life.
Jesus died so that we may be like him, that we may be with him in eternity. He rose from the grave to show us his resurrection power of life over death and give us hope that one day he will return for us. In between these two events is the space where we live. The complex and mundane events that life brings our way.
In-between means between two extremes, two contrasting conditions.
Easter Saturday is about our life here on earth. The space of Easter Saturday is the in bumpy, messy in-between space. The ancients would call it liminal space.
What is Liminal Space?
The word liminal comes from the Latin word limen, meaning threshold – any point or place of entering or beginning. A liminal space is the time between the ‘what was’ and the ‘next.’ It is a place of transition, waiting, and not knowing (source).
Liminal space is where all transformation takes place, if we learn to wait and let it form us.
Author and theologian Richard Rohr describes this space as: “Where we are betwixt and between the familiar and the completely unknown. There alone is our old world left behind, while we are not yet sure of the new existence. That’s a good space where genuine newness can begin. Get there often and stay as long as you can by whatever means possible…This is the sacred space where the old world is able to fall apart, and a bigger world is revealed. If we don’t encounter liminal space in our lives, we start idealizing normalcy. The threshold is God’s waiting room. Here we are taught openness and patience as we come to expect an appointment with the divine Doctor”.
When I think of Easter I think of the disciples, the ones that have been left behind. Imagine their distress. They didn’t know the end of the story. They had no idea that Christ would return from the dead. All they knew was the man that they had lived with, done life with, hoped in and trusted in was gone. They were traumatised. They had watched him brutalised, tortured and killed. Then he died.
He was their great hope.
He was the one who would save them from the oppression of the religious leaders and the enslavement of the Roman Empire.
How could this possibly happen now?
He was dead?
Imagine the disillusion, the disappointment, the pain. Friday night, Saturday and Saturday night would have felt like forever.
In the ‘in-between’ space. The now and not yet. We live with the paradox of life and death. The promise of a new way to live and a new life within the parameters of a broken, frightened and hurting world.
Where is God?
He is here, He is right here in the muck, in the mess, in the pain, in the anger. Quietly sitting beside us, comforting us, holding us.
Who Is the Jesus of Easter? by Lisa Hunt-Wotton
I hope that you have a beautiful Easter weekend however you chose to celebrate and remember it. I love Easter Sunday. I love the message. I love the man – Jesus. I don’t mind the chocolate either.
Who is this Jesus?
Easter is the oldest and most important festival on the Church calendar. It is the remembrance of the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ. But most of all it is about the hope that Easter brings. The fact that Jesus conquered death by love.
This is the message of Jesus, He is alive and He is alive in me. He brings freedom and life and joy. He is safe and He breathes forgiveness. He doesn’t just forgive;
HE IS forgiveness.
There is nothing to be afraid of in the risen Jesus.
We have in him the perfect icon of a God who is safe and a universe that is safe. We have a God who does not blame, does not punish, does not threaten, does not dominate. We have a God who breathes forgiveness (Rohr).
The Resurrection of Jesus tells us that there is no victory through domination. There is no such thing as triumph by force. By his life, death and resurrection Jesus stops the cycle of violence and challenges the notion of dominating power.
This is a power that seeks to change things from the top down, from the outside in. Instead, Jesus invites us to relational or spiritual power, where we are not just changed but transformed. And not transformed from the top down but from the bottom up, not from the outside in but from the inside out. Transformed into God…. (R.Rohr).
“You have to trust that inner voice to show you the way…You know that inner voice. Only by attending constantly to the inner voice can you be converted to a new life of freedom and joy” (Henri Nouwen)
Meditate on these words. Say them to yourself. Say them out loud.
Jesus is the one who speaks lovingly ‘I will never leave you. I am with you always’.
I will love you forever. My love NEVER fails.
I am faithful, I am righteous. I am just and I am truth.
Following Christ is both the safest and the most exhilarating thing that you will ever do.
He is: comfort, compassion, love, acceptance, forgiveness.
He is: good, peace, hope joy, gentleness, freedom.
He does NOT: reject, abuse, abandon, condemn, dominate or control.
HE IS: gracious, kind, merciful, creative, wondrous, ingenious.
He is rest…………..
He fights for the oppressed. He hates injustice.
He came to set prisoners free from every trap that they have been caught in. Every addiction, every bondage, every fear and terror. He has the power and He can free us.
He knows the beginning from the end. His love NEVER fails. When we fail, he lifts us up. By HIS power we can stand.
He knows us intimately, He knows we weep and grieve and that we are frail.
My hope is in Jesus.
My trust is in Jesus
My hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus Christ, my righteousness;
I dare not trust the sweetest frame,
But wholly lean on Jesus’ name.
On Christ, the solid Rock, I stand;
All other ground is sinking sand,
All other ground is sinking sand.
He is alive and He lives in me.
We see in Jesus the divine being who is also the perfect human being. Jesus comes in a human body to show us the face of God, the One who is eternally compassionate and eternally joyous, who stands with us in our sufferings and our joys.
As Christians, our vocation is to unite with both Christ crucified and Christ risen. (Rohr)
When you think on these things you can feel hope rising in your heart.
Henri Nouwen: The Inner Voice of Love
This is Henri Nouwen’s “secret journal.” It was written during the most difficult period of his life, when he suddenly lost his self-esteem, his energy to live and work, his sense of being loved, even his hope in God. Although he experienced excruciating anguish and despair, he was still able to keep a journal in which he wrote a spiritual imperative to himself each day that emerged from his conversations with friends and supporters.
Where Are the Heroes?
The last decade has seen a rapid de-escalation of the publics trust of religious leaders, politicians, educators and community leaders. The Royal Commission has exposed unprecedented sexual abuse of minors by the church and other institutions. Politicians are argumentative, combative and come across as privileged and disconnected from every day life. Most pastors/religious leaders are out of touch with the post modern world and the institution of the Church in general is no longer trusted, nor is it held in the place of honour it once was in the community.
Issues of safety, gender, equality, privilege, power and the abuse of these trusts has led to a time in society where ‘the persons in leadership’, who once held high the moral compass, are now held in disregard, suspicion and with much cynicism. As my Nana used to say: “Oh how the mighty have fallen”.
The community at large is frustrated by inequality, mismanagement and fraudulent behaviour.
Where are our heroes? The ones we can trust to lead us. The ones who put the nation and community above their own agendas.
I have compiled a small list of Aussie leaders and their signature quotes which express what they stood and fought for. As John Howard famously said, “The things that unite us are greater than the things that divide us.” We must remember this.
CHIFLEY, BEN 1885-1951
He strove to better the lot of ordinary people with a combination of public and private enterprise. He said: “We have a great objective – the light on the hill – which we aim to reach by working for the betterment of mankind … If it were not for that, the labour movement would not be worth fighting for.”
BROWN, BOB 1944-
Born in Oberon, Robert Brown became a doctor and then a conservationist, leading the fight against the damming of the Franklin River in Tasmania and spreading environmental consciousness as far as Germany and the Greens Party. Australian of the Year in 1982, he shared in 1990 the US Goldman Foundation’s environment prize, the world’s richest. “Wild places connect us to the universe,” he says. “There are no answers written on stone. But in the stones, the trees, the skies, is fulfilment for humanity.”
DUNLOP, WEARY 1907-1993
His tireless work made him a hero in World War II, along with other doctors, on the Burma-Thailand “death railway”, where he defied Japanese officers to save PoWs. He promoted friendship between Australia and Asian nations and was Australian of the Year in 1977. He said of the prisoners, 50 years after the war: “To this day I feel uplifted and borne up by their unquenchable spirit and patient endurance of suffering.”
MABO, EDDIE 1936-1992
Born on Mer, in the Torres Strait, Eddie Koiki Mabo made up for his lack of education with tenacity and a formidable intellect. Upholding his claim for native title to the Murray Islands, the High Court overturned the doctrine of terra nullius, the legal fiction that Australia was unoccupied before European settlement. Mabo, pronounced Ma’bo with emphasis on the second syllable, died a few months before the judgment. He had said: “My family has occupied the land for hundreds of years before Captain Cook was born.”
STREET, JESSIE 1889-1970
Born in India, Jessie Mary Grey Street graduated from Sydney University in 1910, joined the League of Nations Union and feminist organisations. She joined the Australian delegation to the conference that established the United Nations and successfully lobbied for a charter for women’s rights. She campaigned for the 1967 referendum on Aboriginal rights. She quoted Emerson: “God offers to every mind its choice between truth and repose … You can never have both.”
WRIGHT, JUDITH 1915-2000
Was one of Australia’s foremost poets. She wrote biography, short stories and children’s books and campaigned for conservation and the Aborigines. She said: “The mateship ingredient in Australian tradition was always and necessarily one-sided; it left out of account the whole relationship with women.”
It is 2019 and across all areas of society women are still under-represented. The Chinese say “they hold up half the sky”, but relatively few made their presence felt in the distribution of power and influence until the last three decades of the 20th century. But change is slowly coming. So slow that if we continue at this present rate it will take 200 years for women to earn the same amount of wages as men doing the same job.
Where are the heroes? They are out there I am sure of it. They look a lot like you and me. The ones who will stand up and make a difference. Who are willing to wade upstream against the current and who are able to confront the status quo and make a change. People do not like change. They may acknowledge that it is needed but they rarely like it when it comes.
What makes a hero?
“A hero is someone who can be looked up to for their actions. Bravery is usually the biggest trait of a hero. This person has usually overcome huge obstacles to survive or to rescue others. Heroes come in all sizes. Sick children, grown firefighters, doctors, missionaries, philanthropists are all examples of heroes.”
What makes a true leader? Lets look at just three core values.
as demonstrated by a sense of humbleness, dignity and an awareness of one’s own limitations; open to perspectives different from one’s own.
as demonstrated by moral courage, ethical strength, and trustworthiness; keeping promises and fulfilling expectations. It still takes honesty and integrity to breed trust and credibility – the cornerstone of strong relationships.
as demonstrated by self-respect and respecting others regardless of differences; treating others with dignity, empathy and compassion; and the ability to earn the respect of others.
If we had leaders demonstrating just these three values the world would be a better place. Accompanying these of course is love, wisdom, courage, tenacity and endurance.
If you are a follower of Christ you have the greatest responsibility as a change agent. Jesus said ‘the Kingdom of God is at hand’. This means that it is here now. Not in 10 years or 1000 years but now. The presence of God is within us. The ability to love, bring peace, truth and justice is within us and is at hand. It is not a distant reality. The time that Jesus spoke of when the blind would see and the oppressed would be set free is now.
And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts.
This cartoon could say: Get Love, Wear Love, Fly…………
Brian Mc Laren says it this way:
‘The time has come today to cancel debts, to forgive, to treat enemies as neighbours, to share your bread with the hungry and your clothes with the naked, to invite the outcasts over for dinner and to confront the oppressor. Not with sharp knives but with unarmed kindness’.
Imagine if followers of Christ actually did what they were supposed to do and followed the way that Jesus loved, freed, healed and included people. The world would definitely be a better place. It’s time for the Christian to come out from behind the walls of the church and actually practice the gospel of Jesus to a scared and anxious world. Stop talking and teaching it and start doing it people. Be the hero your neighbour and workmate is looking for. Connect with your neighbours with unarmed kindness and NO AGENDA but love and friendship.
My poet and writer friend @joelmckerrowpoet has launched this brilliant podcast with film-maker @joyprouty this week. Its called, ‘The Deep Place: On Creativity and Spirituality’ and all about how creativity speaks into and flows out of the deep stuff of our lives.
It really is fantastic. So you should go to iTunes/apple podcasts and search for ’The Deep Place: On Creativity and Spirituality’ have a listen and subscribe. And join their insta at @thedeepplacepodcast
Podcast The Deep Place: On Creativity and Spirituality Launches on iTunes on Tuesday 5th of March 2019. You can find it HERE
Joy Prouty and Joel Mc Kerrow share some stuff from the podcast.
“Creativity is more than the words that we write and the pictures that we paint. Creativity comes from the deep places within”.
Joy and Joel met in Colorado springs.
Joy has a husband Don, five children and lives in Nashville. Joy is a storyteller and picture maker. At home, Joy is on the continual journey towards simple living.
Joel is a wild Australian poet and husband with two bouncy kids. Joel is a published writer, educator and international performance poet from Melbourne, Australia. He believes that words can change things.
This podcast is to help people understand that they do and can make a difference. To hold up a mirror to our truest identity and help us to understand who we are.
“Don’t forget who you are”. Don’t forget your true self, your true identity.
The goal is that through this podcast, people will see themselves as they truely are. That someday you can remember that through your art, redemption comes. Beauty comes. Being present always brings you out of your fearful place.
How can we be present to make art in the now and be continually inspired? Let Joel and Joy inspire and encourage you.
The Deep Place: On Creativity and Spirituality
Don’t let hatred be among you
Hatred always will divide you
There’s no hatred in Christ
Don’t let jealousy be among you
It will, always will divide you
There’s no jealousy in Christ
There’s no hatred in Christ
There’s no hatred in Christ
Let the same spirit, in Christ Jesus, be in you
If there’s confusion with your brother, show him love before the sun goes down
It will glorify the father as you spread his love around
I don’t often do a blog post on song lyrics but this song has been on repeat in my mind for the last three weeks. This is an Andre Crouch song called “Love Medley”. The words of this song speak the truth of the gospel. ‘Don’t let hatred be among you, don’t let jealousy by among you’. IF the same spirit that lives in Christ Jesus be in you and me then we need to act and live accordingly. Yet so many of us are disconnected from the spirit of Jesus. So many of us hate others and other groups. Trump’s wall is a monument to hate, Nauru and Manus Island also monuments to hate. Pornography and domestic violence, products of hate and jealousy. White supremacy – doctrine fear and hate. Homophobia – fear and hate.
Slowly coming to terms with inconsistencies of modern Christianity I have been asking myself more and more where do I fit in this modern theological landscape.
I have come to understand quite clearly what I don’t believe, but have drawn a few blanks on where I fit now. What I have discovered recently is the meaning of feral. This is the definition that I identify with most at the moment.
The idea came from the title of George Monbiot’s book about the re-wilding of moorland areas – ‘Feral’, Monbiot’s definition of ‘feral’ being “in a wild state, especially after escape from captivity or domestication.” A feral priest is one called by God to escape the captivity of the institutional Church (Colin Coward).
I have escaped the captivity of the institutional Church, twice.
Henri Nouwen says it this way:
“The invitation of Christ is the invitation to move out of the house of fear and into the house of love: to move out of that place of imprisonment and into that place of freedom: “Come to me, come into my house, the house of love.”
The house of God ‘should’ be the house of love. But for many, it is a place of fear, control, oppression and rejection. Not all are loved, not all are accepted, not all are acknowledged and not all are free. This will always be a contrary system to the love of God. The apostle John tells us that “because perfect love expels all fear. If we are afraid, it is for fear of punishment, and this shows that we have not fully experienced his perfect love”.
The institutional church is still a patriarchal organisation that lives by rules and rigid doctrines. There is little freedom, little equality and little acceptance of ‘the other’.
As I’ve stayed on the journey to know God as revealed in Jesus Christ I’ve discovered that…
God is bigger
Grace is wider
Love is deeper
Mercy is greater
…than I ever imagined.
Which is to say, the good news keeps getting better.
The message of Christ is supposed to be good news. The word gospel means ‘good news’.
What is the good news?
The good news is that all are loved, all are worthy, all are accepted. There is a place at the table for all of us. Christ is not motivated by punishment, he is motivated by love. Richard Rohr tells us that: ‘Our proclamation of the lordship of Jesus Christ is at stake in our solidarity with the most vulnerable. If our gospel is not “good news to the poor,” it is not the gospel of Jesus Christ’ (Luke 4:18).
How we treat the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the stranger, the sick, and the prisoner is how we treat Christ himself. “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40). God calls us to protect and seek justice for those who are poor and vulnerable, and our treatment of people who are “oppressed,” “strangers,” “outsiders,” or otherwise considered “marginal” is a test of our relationship to God, who made us all equal in divine dignity and love (Richard Rohr).
How we treat ‘the other’, those different to us is the litmus test of our relationship with Christ. Jesus came to bring freedom as He himself says in my favourite bible verse Luke 4.
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour”
This is Good News. Freedom, love, vision, relief, favour, release, acceptance and joy. Oppression means this: misery, injustice, control, hardship. The opposite of oppression is: delight, help, blessing, kindness.
I was a prisoner and Jesus set me free. I was a prisoner of fundamental Christianity and the institutional church. I am a feral disciple of radical love discovering Jesus more and more in everything around me. Was once blind but now I see. It truly is an amazing grace.
Are you hanging on the edge of your seat?
Out of the doorway the bullets rip
To the sound of the beat
Another one bites the dust
And another one gone, and another one gone
Another one bites the dust
Hey, I’m gonna get you, too
Another one bites the dust
Janus frequently symbolised change and transitions such as the progress of past to future, from one condition to another, from one vision to another. He represented time, because he could see into the past with one face and into the future with the other (source).
These are the questions that are circulating my thoughts this January the 1st 2019.
As 2018 flows into the history books I come to terms with the death of a father and dear family friend. I look back in amazement and watch my heart expand with ferocious love toward a precious brand new grand-daughter. I look with admiration at my children who stun me with their kindness, generosity of spirit, incredible capacity and their ancient wisdom.
It is important to look back, to reflect but we cannot stay in that space. Many people spend their life looking back at what they deem are their best days. They spend far to many hours trying to re-create those moments. It is a futile effort. Looking back helps us to understand life but true living can only happen forwards. True life only happens in the creation of new moments.
I am grateful for my family and friends. All of whom understand the importance of learning from life’s lessons. Who help me navigate and unravel the mess of the past. But more importantly, they help me realise the great value of being present. Of looking forward to future adventures, new memories and who encourage me to live life forward.
To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all. Oscar Wilde
Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma, which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. Steve Jobs
If you wanted to know how to support someone sturging with grief this article is bloody brilliant. It talks about ‘conversational narcissism’. Where we insert ourselves into the conversation instead of listening. Great read.
A good friend of mine lost her dad some years back. I found her sitting alone on a bench outside our workplace, not moving, just staring at the horizon. She was absolutely distraught and I didn’t know what to say to her. It’s so easy to say the wrong thing to someone who is grieving and vulnerable. So, I started talking about how I grew up without a father. I told her that my dad had drowned in a submarine when I was only 9 months old and I’d always mourned his loss, even though I’d never known him. I just wanted her to realize that she wasn’t alone, that I’d been through something similar and could understand how she felt.
But after I related this story, my friend looked at me and snapped, “Okay, Celeste, you win. You never had a dad, and I at least got to spend 30 years with mine. You had it worse. I guess I shouldn’t be so upset that my dad just died.”
I was stunned and mortified. My immediate reaction was to plead my case. “No, no, no,” I said, “that’s not what I’m saying at all. I just meant that I know how you feel.” And she answered, “No, Celeste, you don’t. You have no idea how I feel.”
She walked away and I stood there helplessly, watching her go and feeling like a jerk. I had totally failed my friend. I had wanted to comfort her, and instead, I’d made her feel worse. At that point, I still felt she misunderstood me. I thought she was in a fragile state and had lashed out at me unfairly when I was only trying to help.
But the truth is, she didn’t misunderstand me at all. She understood what was happening perhaps better than I did. When she began to share her raw emotions, I felt uncomfortable. I didn’t know what to say, so I defaulted to a subject with which I was comfortable: myself.
I may have been trying to empathize, at least on a conscious level, but what I really did was draw focus away from her anguish and turn the attention to me. She wanted to talk to me about her father, to tell me about the kind of man he was, so I could fully appreciate the magnitude of her loss. Instead, I asked her to stop for a moment and listen to my story about my dad’s tragic death.
From that day forward, I started to notice how often I responded to stories of loss and struggle with stories of my own experiences. My son would tell me about clashing with a kid in Boy Scouts, and I would talk about a girl I fell out with in college. When a co-worker got laid off, I told her about how much I struggled to find a job after I had been laid off years earlier. But when I began to pay a little more attention to how people responded to my attempts to empathize, I realized the effect of sharing my experiences was never as I intended. What all of these people needed was for me to hear them and acknowledge what they were going through. Instead, I forced them to listen to me and acknowledge me.
Sociologist Charles Derber describes this tendency to insert oneself into a conversation as “conversational narcissism.” It’s the desire to take over a conversation, to do most of the talking and to turn the focus of the exchange to yourself. It is often subtle and unconscious. Derber writes that conversational narcissism “is the key manifestation of the dominant attention-getting psychology in America. It occurs in informal conversations among friends, family and co-workers. The profusion of popular literature about listening and the etiquette of managing those who talk constantly about themselves suggests its pervasiveness in everyday life.” Derber describes two kinds of responses in conversations: a shift response and a support response. The first shifts attention back to yourself, and the second supports the other person’s comment. Here is a simple illustration:
Mary: I’m so busy right now.
Tim: Me too. I’m totally overwhelmed.
Mary: I’m so busy right now.
Tim: Why? What do you have to get done?
Here’s another example:
Karen: I need new shoes.
Mark: Me too. These things are falling apart.
Karen: I need new shoes.
Mark: Oh yeah? What kind are you thinking about?
Shift responses are a hallmark of conversational narcissism. They help you turn the focus constantly back to yourself. But a support response encourages the other person to continue their story. These days, I try to be more aware of my instinct to share stories and talk about myself. I try to ask questions that encourage the other person to continue. I’ve also made a conscious effort to listen more and talk less.
Recently, I had a long conversation with a friend of mine who was going through a divorce. We spent almost 40 minutes on the phone, and I barely said a word. At the end of our call, she said, “Thank you for your advice. You’ve really helped me work some things out.” The truth is, I hadn’t actually offered any advice; most of what I said was a version of “That sounds tough. I’m sorry this is happening to you.” She didn’t need advice or stories from me. She just needed to be heard.