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Your wellbeing: at home with our limits

Revd Chris McDermott, Lead Chaplain for the University of Sussex.

Some time ago I was made aware that certain former co-religionists – from a previous era in my life, I must add, and ‘a galaxy far, far away’, – had been chatting among themselves on social media about my current wayward life and theology. The rumour was that I was ‘backslidden, lost in sin and deep in doctrinal error’. When this was brought to my attention, I thought how wonderful it would be to have a tee shirt made up with those words blazoned across the front and, on the back, the additional phrase: ‘Join me!’

Of course they knew nothing of my real imperfections – of which no doubt my real friends will have awareness. (Certainly my wife knows them?) And I have them in abundance, I am sure.

But I want to say here that I celebrate my imperfections, my occasional failures, my flaws, and my limits! Yes, and I am happy and willing to own them.

Does that sound reckless? Lazy perhaps? Lacking in ambition to do and be the best one can be? I don’t think so. Nor do I mean that we are to accept our defeats in a fatalistic sense that leads us to simply roll over and succumb at the feet of failure, allowing it a final word on who we are.

The reality is that no matter how able we are, how clever, or how talented - each of us will at times hit the brick wall that represents a limit. This limit will be attended by emotions – anger, fear, anxiety, frustration, disappointment, and bewilderment – with accompanying thoughts about how bad we are. Self-doubt, unfavourable comparisons with others, and maybe such questions as ‘what am doing?’, ‘why did I try this in the first place?’, ‘what am I doing with my life?’ and ‘do I even belong here?’

Perhaps we felt powerless to get through to a student or colleague who really needed support; or discovering that we had actually been inconsiderate and thoughtless in some instance or other. Or we received feedback from a piece of academic work that had been flayed and in which gaps of reflection and thought had been mercilessly exposed. Or perhaps we had a piece of creative work that we thought was quite good rejected. We all discover to our chagrin at times that we have fallen short of our own and other people’s expectations. And it hurts.

But we can celebrate such moments as opportunities (albeit uncomfortable when they happen) rather than wallow in the experience or allowing it to define you. I am hearing echoes in that last sentence of the Chancellor’s repeated exhortation to students at graduation ceremonies not to let failures or bad experiences define them. But such counsel is easier heard than actually done. We have so much invested in sustaining and presenting public images of ourselves – scholar, poet, clever-clogs, teacher, wise woman / man, brilliant writer, and so on.

When we hit our limit it tells us our current shape and provides us with a moment of self-awareness – if we are open to it. These moments are worth celebrating as opportunities for growth.

After nursing the discomfort and hurt invariably following a less than sterling performance, take the learning from it and enlarge those boundaries that are our current limitation. See them as challenges and opportunities and signs that you at least tried. I remember Sylvia Plath producing an armful of rejection letters from publishes and commenting to someone; ‘These are proof that I am a poet.’

Allow your failures to be evidence of what you aspire to be – not definitive of what you are! And do not allow others to define you by their own particular – even, peculiar at times - lights.

As for me, I’m off to get that tee shirt made.

By: Sean Armstrong
Last updated: Thursday, 13 February 2020