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PHYSICIAN, HEAL THYSELF

Written By: Fiona - Mar• 23•16

My positive psychology story started when I was introduced to the science six years ago. It’s where I first learnt about character strengths, and how, by using your top strengths in a new way each day, or simply by being conscious of using your top strengths to continually foster your wellbeing, that the nasties of depression, negativity bias, pessimistic thinking – whatever makes up the mix of our own personal languishing – can be avoided.

So with my long history of recurrent depression, I continually applied the science. Whenever I felt an emotional downward spiral hovering on the edge of consciousness, I’d be intentional and resourceful and strap on the armour of my top strengths. I’d grab my camera and look for beauty at a macro level: the dew on a gum leaf, the stamin of a white rose, the toothy smile of my dog, the tungsten glow of a candle. I’d take myself out of myself and look at life through a lens.

Or I’d watch a Ted Talk, tackle a crossword or play Scrabble on my phone. Have a relaxing bath. Read a book. Savour my morning coffee. Run. Listen to music. Find a friend to laugh with. Give a stranger a bunch of flowers. Write gratitude letters: to my children, to my best friend, to my husband.

It worked, time and time again. The black dog would heel, then silently slip away.

Given I was living proof of the benefits of positive psychology, I figured the science was worth pursuing at a deeper level, and wanted to help others who wrestled with depression build their resilience and conquer the beast like I had.  In 2013 I graduated with a Certificate in Positive Psychology. My positive psychological life became my life’s work.

Then in 2014 I decided to dig deeper into the science by studying full time for a Master of Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP) at the University of Melbourne. I was honoured and excited to be accepted into such a prestigious program.  My year of post-graduate study began!

It didn’t take very long for the excitement to wear off and the reality of the workload and high intellectual engagement to set in, and very quickly I began to feel overwhelmed. Learning and navigating the technology was complex, and the reading list was insurmountable. And as someone who’d failed miserably at maths in the 70s, I couldn’t get my head around statistics at the same rate as others who seemed to breeze through it.

In hindsight, I realise now that the study goals I set for myself were a little too grandiose as I struggled to keep up with the study demands; I even began to question my intelligence, believing I wasn’t as smart as I thought I was up against the academic knowhow of my fellow students. The pressure kept mounting; my thinking became fuzzy and insomnia once again reared its restless head. The more overloaded I became, the more incompetent I felt. Fertile soil for depression…

Needless to say, before long I was smack bang in the pits and fits of major depression. I couldn’t focus, couldn’t sleep, and couldn’t translate thoughts into words. There were many days that I simply couldn’t function: even showering took enormous effort. As did conversation. It took super human effort for me just to get through each day. I cried a lot.

The irony of the situation didn’t pass me by: me, a ‘master’ of positive psychology? What a joke. I felt like such a fraud.

As the months went on, and my depressive state continued to plummet, I questioned the science and research that validated positive psychology interventions as a treatment for depression. Over the years I’d read many studies supporting the theory. Hell, up until recently, I was living proof it worked! So why was I now such a failure at the thing I believed in the most?

Through all this, I continued to practice every proven positive psychology intervention I could find. I wrote gratitude letters, did random acts of kindness, played music to and from class, continued my daily yoga and meditation practice, journaled, jogged, walked, treated myself to massages. I even watched comedies.

Nothing helped. In fact, the interventions just made me feel worse, because I knew they were supposed to make me feel better – yet they didn’t. Little by little, depression robbed me of all pleasures: yoga, meditating, writing, baths, massages, laughing, crosswords, photography, Scrabble. Each precious nugget of my joyful past self was stripped away.

Fast forward two years, and I can say that at last, I’ve come out the other side. I’m back to my resting state of okay-ness. The journey was long and hard. It took many health-care visits, a plethora of vitamins and minerals, good and bad therapy, many trials of anti-depressant medication and some left-of-centre approaches before I finally stabilised. (In all of this, I still managed to successfully graduate the Masters program.)

I’ve learnt a lot on this journey. One thing I now know is that for me, major stress is the trigger for depression, which is borne from feelings of incompetence and insurmountable challenges.  If I reflect on the darkest and most challenging times over the last few decades, always at the forefront is major stress: the birth of my twins, becoming a step-mother to six, and most recently, full time post-graduate study.

But the most profound thing I have learnt – after extensive research and reading – is that positive psychology interventions, though effective in improving symptoms of non-clinical and/or mild depression, are not as effective – or in my case, completely ineffective – for severe depression. ‘The majority of positive psychology and wellbeing interventions have all been conducted with the non-clinically depressed to the mildly depressed individuals.’ (Layous et al 2011). More specifically, of the 27 studies I researched of almost 6,000 participants, only two studies – totalling 70 participants – were experiencing severe depression. (I wish I’d known this sooner.)

It’s only now, after reaching a level of stability, that I can experience the benefits of positive psychology interventions, with the intention of feeling more than just okay. I no longer endure yoga or tolerate exercise: both are pleasurable. The beauty of the world – which used to be a colourful, miraculous and awe-inspiring place – has once again come into focus.

It’s time to get the camera out.

SOURCE: Delivering happiness: translating positive psychology intervention research for treating major and minor depressive disorders. Layous K, Chancellor J, Lyubomirsky S, Wang L, Doraiswamy PM. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, Volume 17, Number 8, 2011, pp. 675-683

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Random act of flowers

Written By: Fiona - May• 13•15

As I bought flowers for the office this morning, I realised it had been a while since I’d bought a bunch of flowers for a stranger. I wondered why it had been so long since I’d committed this random act of kindness. Was I too self-absorbed? Had I pulled back on being kind? But then the truth hit me: the last time I gave flowers to a stranger I was rejected. The lady I offered them to said in no uncertain terms that she didn’t want flowers and didn’t need the flowers and left me standing there gaping like a fish. I took the flowers home and gave them to myself.

But today, I decided, I was going to start my mission again. No looking back. However, as I began to walk through the shopping centre with my flowers, looking for someone to give them to, I realised I was scared of being rejected again and looking foolish. I got all the way to the carpark, still holding those flowers, got into the car and drove towards home.

As I neared my local precinct, I decided on a whim to pull into the supermarket car park and give my flowers away. An elegant elderly lady was walking towards me, and as she approached I offered her the flowers. “Oh that’s very kind of you, but no thanks. I’ve got too many at home.” My heart sank but I kept the smile stuck to my face as the lady walked away.

Okay, I’d given it my best shot and it’s obvious that the world is full up of flowers, so perhaps there’s been enough kindness passed around for one millennium. This is how I justified my actions, as I walked back to the car. But then something made me turn around and try again, foolish or not.

There was a lady lugging a heavy shopping bag in one hand, leaning to the side for counterbalance. I figured the flowers would help. ‘Excuse me,’ I said, ‘would you like a bunch of flowers – for no reason in particular? I’m giving them away to a stranger.’

The lady looked at me and curled her lip. “No thanks. They’ll just die anyway.” I asked her if she knew anyone who would like flowers and she said “June, who works in the chemist could do with some flowers today after her bad news. Why don’t you give them to her?”

So I went next door to the chemist, asked the shop assistant to give the flowers to June (‘who worked out the back’) and tell her they were just a random act of kindness flowers for a stranger, from a stranger.

I left the store and drove away as fast as was legally possible, glad my flowers had at last reached a destination.

Which got me thinking: did I just use my strength of kindness? It didn’t really feel like it. Then it dawned on me: the two strengths I used were persistence and courage – as was evident of my quickly beating heart in my getaway car.

And yes, there was kindness too, but I think the flower giving this day was more about me than the recipient.

I hope she liked them anyway

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Integral integrity

Written By: Fiona - Mar• 19•15

The word integrity has been a common theme for me this month. For me, integrity simply translates to: ‘being who I say I am and doing what I say I’ll do’. This means that if I value arriving on time for meetings, then I’ll be there at the agreed time. If I am telling the world ‘I am a kind person’, then it only goes to say that it is a rare thing for me to be intentionally unkind. Integrity also follows the golden rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. If you want respect, be respectful; if you want honesty, be honest; if you want friendship, be friendly; if you want kindness from others, be kind to others.  It’s pretty simple, really.

Sometimes, however, our integrity can be a little slippery and we can feel a bit of a ‘tit for tat’ when someone treats us unkindly or inconsiderately. I witness this in traffic all the time. A driver lets in someone into their line of traffic with a friendly wave or flash of their lights that says, ‘after you’. We want this act of kindness acknowledged, so if we aren’t thanked with a reciprocal wave of thanks, we say ‘that’s it! I’m not letting anyone else in!’. So by living in our integrity and being kind to another driver it then becomes apparent that this kindness is conditional. My tip for this frustration is to just keep letting drivers into the busy traffic until you do get a wave! By being close-fisted about being kind and courteous toward other drivers, be who you say you’ll be and if this is kindness, or generosity, or compassion, you are living out of integrity with yourself.

Traffic is a good metaphor for life, I think, and I’ve come up against this three times recently. The first time was when I opened my car door too enthusiastically and hit the handle of the car door next to me, leaving a mark. My first thought was ‘Oh no! I hope nobody saw that. How stupid of me!’ My second thought was ‘If nobody saw me, then maybe it didn’t happen?’ (if a tree falls…). But just as quickly I knew I had to fess up and leave a note for the driver, apologising and giving them my contact details. After all, I get really annoyed when I find bumps and scratches on my car that someone has done and left no name or contact number. So I did: I wrote a small note apologising, along with my details. I was so nervous when I came back to my car, wondering if the person was waiting for me to berate me for my carelessness. But no. The car was still there, along with my note. I spent the next few days worrying each time the phone rang it would be to an earful of tirade for my marking their door handle. But no such phone call came. Perhaps the mark just rubbed off, and it was no big deal? Or perhaps the person appreciated my honesty and decided not to pursue the matter.

My next incident was in full public view, when I misjudged the width of my car, after lazily relying on sensors to beep if I was too close, and which obviously weren’t working.  It was loud, this one. Metal on metal (or is that plastic on plastic? Panels are so flimsy these days.) I must admit a few profanities left my mouth as I leant over in my car to see the damage. It didn’t look good. This person wouldn’t be happy, of this I’m sure. So out came the notebook, another shaky note of apology with my contact details.

As I was walking towards the shop, an elderly man who had seen the whole thing happened to call me over. I was expecting a berating or at least some criticism for my poor driving. But the man simply said ‘Good to see someone doing the right thing, leaving your details like that for the bloke’. I told the man that I wouldn’t do anything but the right thing – especially as I know how it feels to come back to a car that has mysteriously been scraped or scratched by an anonymous person.

When I came out of the shop the car was gone. I was nervous. The car I’d knocked looked like a tradie’s car: a shiny new ute and a personalised blokey sounding number plate. I was sure to cop an earful from this man. As I started my car, I noticed my hands were still shaking. A minute or so later my phone rang. For an instant I thought of letting it go to voice mail, but decided to be brave and cop the consequences.

It turned out that this man was flabbergasted and appreciative that I’d left my details, and accepted my apology with grace and good humour. Our insurance companies would take care of the rest. Such relief!

Instances such as this one is where my integrity lies. I could have easily left both cars with their damage ‘because that’s what others have done to me’. But because I want to be treated by others as I would treat them, it only makes sense for me to do so.

The third incident was to my own car by an anonymous driver. Something had been scraped along the bumper bar, taking the duco off. And no, there was no note of apology. I went straight to ‘it’s not fair that I do the right and good thing and others don’t!’ But that’s not the point, and is no reason for me to stop being who I am.

So the question is: ‘Where’s your integrity?’ Is it high, low, or middling? Is it slippery and elusive? Is it fixed and sure?

Be who you’ll say you’ll be in the world and do what you say you’ll do. The world will be a better place for it.

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Catching Enthusiasm

Written By: Fiona - Aug• 08•14

It’s not very often I receive testimonials like the one that was emailed to me recently. Please forgive my lower strength of modesty, in the sharing of the following feedback of our From Strength to Strength program from colleague and fellow-educator, Nicole Stottlemyer. Here’s her story:

“Imagine this: I’m in bed watching your DVD on my laptop.  My six year old nephew Alex walks in.  Climbs in bed with me and is enthralled.  A few minutes later my 59 year old dad walks in.  Climbs in bed with us and is enthralled.

Alex then requests that I read your book, Crackpot, to him.  Then, later that night, he comes back into my room when I’m reviewing the strength cards. He asks questions, and I explain: “Fiona is my friend.  She teaches people about their character strengths… she teaches people how to be good people.  I might want to do what she does.”  He asks questions about the cards.

“What’s that one? “

“Perseverance,” I tell him.

“What’s that mean?”

I explain, and he requests that I play the music for him. Within the first few beats he says “I LIKE IT!” and we listen to the whole CD!  He asks for the words so we can sing along! So I had to stop the music, put the other CD in, find the lyrics, and then put the music CD back in.

Later that night Alex tells me about a friend who was being mean to him.  At this point I began to cry, realizing how thirsty he is for this work, and how quickly he is learning it.  I can’t even describe how great it made me feel.  Big alligator tears came down my face, and I sobbed audibly.  He snuggled up to me, and I told him how happy I was…that they were happy tears.

THEN he tells me about wanting to do a backbend kick thingy, and I offer to spot him as he tries it.  I tell him that, just like riding his bike, if he practices he’ll eventually be able to do it on his own.

I asked what strengths would he be using to accomplish his goal, and he RAN over to the strengths cards.  Flipped through them, and called out a few.  Friendship, teamwork.  Yes, those are good (I was surprised… I hadn’t thought of those!).

“There is another one too,” I tell him. “If you keep flipping the cards I think you’ll see it.”  He kept flipping them, and then shouted out PERSISTENCE!

Oh, and one more thing:  He also wanted to look at the strengths cards disc. I flipped through each page, and read him the description of each strength. He was captivated.

My fears and self-critical beliefs about doing this work were totally interrupted yesterday when I got to see a glimpse of how life changing this work has been for my little Alex.

Thank you so much!

I feel very humbled and uplifted by Nicole’s animated, fun and inspiring feedback. Stories like these remind me of why I do this work.

Thank you, Nicole.

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Over the rainbow

Written By: Fiona - Jun• 13•14

For some reason, each time I see a rainbow, I think of the word ‘hope’. It’s a good word, and is a fine partner to optimism.  We need hope, especially in times of suffering.  I’m a good sufferer, too, so anytime I can latch on to hope, it’s a good thing.  …Which is what I did on a cold and wet morning last week when I looked outside my bedroom window to see a beautiful, perfectly-arched rainbow.  There it was: hope, in all its glory.

I needed that rainbow and its symbol, as the past six months have, at times, been difficult with too many funerals and oftentimes, too much grief. I know dying is the deal that comes with living, but still, when it happens, it can shake us to the core. This has led me to wonder:  Where is hope and optimism amongst sadness and grief?’

We all know there is no formula for grief, no code of conduct, and sometimes no rhyme or reason for how we are affected.   More than 15 years after the death of my friend’s father, he still mourns, and a lady told me recently that although her mum died four years ago, there are still times that she cries for her, and gets swept up in the loss all over again.  My grandmother died more than 30 years ago and yet I still miss her:  her warm hug, her loving heart, her strong hands.

Dr Russ Harris, psychotherapist and author of The Happiness Trap and The Reality Slap, and who has had his own share of grief says:  “The painful feelings are often like a tidal wave: they rise up and bowl us over and carry us away, often before we are even aware of it. And, you may be surprised to hear this, but there’s a time and a place to let this happen: to let ourselves be engulfed by the waves.” (from The Reality Slap, p 108-109).

Although friends mean well, there is no consolation in platitudes such as: ‘Before the darkness comes the dawn’, ‘It was for the best’, ‘But at least he had a good innings’, ‘This too shall pass’, ‘At least she died doing what she loved’.

Tal Ben-Shahar, in his book, The Pursuit of Perfect, says of grief – a subject he has experienced first-hand after the love of his life was killed in a tragic accident:  ‘It is impossible to describe the pain that follows the loss of someone we loved. The person left behind to mourn is often unable to contemplate the life without the deceased.’

In recalling that time Tal says the pain was unbearable – especially for the first eight months – and that it was so overwhelming he thought it would never end.  In his shock and grief, he called a good friend who had lost his wife in tragic circumstances a few years prior, who said: ‘You’re going to hurt; it’s going to be hell; but you will survive it.’  His friend was right: he did survive, and he did slowly heal. With the tragedy now many years behind him, Tal says the key to moving on is to give oneself ‘permission to be human’, and know that from this experience it is possible to emerge stronger and more resilient. This is hope.

In times of grief and loss I lean heavily on hope, and search for it in the nooks and crannies of day-to-day life. Like these past few days, when I was awed by the splendour and grace of a passing kangaroo; when a toddler blew me a kiss; and when bagpipes played in the background of a friend’s funeral.

And then there was the rainbow.

References:

Ben-Shahar, T. (2009) The Pursuit of Perfect, McGraw Hill

Harris, R. (2011), The Reality Slap, Exisle Publisihng

Linley, P.A.  & Joseph, S. (eds),  (2004) Positive Psychology in Practice, John Wiley.

Seligman, E.P. (1991), Learned Optimism, Random House

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SWEET AND SOUR

Written By: Fiona - May• 13•14

“…A signature strength is a character trait that is deeply held – a trait that is part of defining one’s essence of being. It is a very strong tendency of thought, feeling, and action.  …Signature strengths are so central to a person’s psychological identity that suppressing or ignoring any of those strengths would seem unnatural and very difficult.” Neal Mayerson, PhD (www.psychologytoday.com)

Here’s the good news: When you play, live and work in the domain of your top signature strengths, you’re more likely to feel invigorated, energised and even a little happy. (Maybe even a lot happy.)

Here’s the bad news: If you play, live and work too hard and too long and too much in the domain of your top signature strengths, you’re likely to feel drained, frustrated and/or exhausted.

Like any muscle, your strengths muscle can be overused, resulting in weakness, just as an underused muscle can lead to atrophy. The downside of underutilising our strengths is a pretty easy concept to follow; however, the idea that overuse has a downside, isn’t as easily digested.

As acclaimed psychologist, Robert Biswas-Diener, says in his book, Practicing Positive Psychology Coaching, ‘Our strengths are often so effective and energizing that we fall into the trap of using them as the hammer with which we strike everything in sight.’ Just like the hammer of  inappropriate humour, or leadership to the point of despotism, or demanding excellence to the point of perfectionism, your strengths, overused, can work against you.

Take the strength of kindness, for example, with it oozing out of every pore and without restraint, ie: ‘have this/take this/let me do that for you/what do you need?/ how can I help?/ everything okay?/after you!/your wish is my command’ etc. Eventually, the over-zealous kindly person would feel burnt out and all used up.

The other downside of overstretching the kindness muscle is that it can also appear to others as being syrupy and compliant. This is a prime example of an overused strength.

As with the strength of curiosity. Overused and under-regulated, curiosity becomes an insatiable desire to know everything about everyone at all times, which is not only impossible, but tiring. The overly curious person can also be perceived by others as being a sticky-beak or snoop.

Here are a few other examples of strengths overused, and their flipside:

Overused Bravery – taking unnecessary and dangerous risks = Reckless

Overused Forgiveness – overlooking transgressions, ad infinitum = Pushover

Overused Prudence – being so cautious, the ‘spice’ of life disappears   = Killjoy

Overused Persistence – doggedness, at all costs = Fixated

Overused Creativity – outside the square, squared = Eccentric

Overused Enthusiasm – spinning like a Catherine Wheel  = Hyperactive

As with most things, moderation and regulation is the key.

So when you’re living in Top Strength Land, take stock now and again and ask yourself: ‘How’s this working out for me and others?’; ‘Am I on cruise-control or is my foot flat down on the strengths accelerator?’ ‘Am I feeling energized or burnt out?’

Are your strengths sweet, or are they turning sour?

 

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The Heart of Teaching

Written By: Fiona - Apr• 08•14

Teaching as a profession most often responds to an inner desire to contribute to the lives of others through education: to inspire, engage, and to make the lives of children valuable, memorable and transformative.  For the majority of teachers, this means they are responding to a calling, not just to a job or even a career; it is something they are called to do, want to do, and are committed to doing.

This is why teachers are one of our most valuable resources, and whose roles should be given greater respect and reward within our society.

Most of us can remember a positive pivotal moment in our lives when something a teacher said or did, changed the way we saw and behaved in the world, or inspired us to continue to do great things with our lives. These moments can be incidental or profound.

One of these moments for me was Mrs Coglan, when I was in years six and seven, when she acknowledged my efforts in my English classes. I’d never had a teacher show such a vote of confidence in my abilities, and I know now, looking back, that her acknowledgement gave me the confidence to engage more fully in writing, reading and grammar – aspects of my classes that I loved.

And then another teacher, when I was an adult studying English at night school, Mr  Kelvin Edwards. He was engaging, funny, adventurous and passionate about writing, poetry, plays, language and literature. He made learning fun and interesting, and nurtured my love of learning, curiosity and humour, inspiring me to do and be my very best.

I doubt Mrs Coglan and Mr Edwards ever knew how much their words and behaviour shaped who I was to become, both as a writer and as a teacher.

Committed, caring and passionate teachers work long hours, overcome personal and professional challenges, adhere to rules they may not agree with but are required to follow, put up with bureaucracy, vote for change, and support their fellow teachers in whatever way possible.

They do all this because they care deeply about teaching, their students and the institution of learning. They go above and beyond the call of duty, day after day, year after year, and often decade after decade.

And as each year goes by it seems they are required to tick more boxes, deliver more material, comply with more rules and regulations and take on board new and different models and theories of learning and application.

All this can lead to burnout, to fatigue, and to feeling under-appreciated and over-stretched.  Instead of thriving, teachers are languishing.

Just as we want our children to thrive, we also want our teachers to thrive, given the pivotal role they play in the futures of our children’s lives.

When teachers thrive, students thrive; and when students thrive, classrooms thrive. And when classrooms thrive, schools thrive.

If teachers are ‘called’ to teaching, then we must do what we can to enable them to thrive – and ultimately flourish.

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TO INFINITY AND BEYOND!

Written By: Fiona - Mar• 06•14

There’s a famous Monty Python scene where the King, speaking to his son, looks upon his kingdom from the windows of a lushly furnished palace room and says with a flourish: “One day, son, all this will be yours!” The son, puzzled, looks at his father and says: “What, the curtains?”

Sometimes the role of leadership is thrust upon us, when it’s the furthest thing from our minds, as perhaps our tendency and preference is to either be part of a team, or to work in isolation. Can you muster up leadership qualities and take a team forward into a brighter future? Can the skills of leadership be learned?

 Yes, the strengths of leadership  can be cultivated, and with practice, you can become an effective    leader. However, if leadership isn’t your top strength – and indeed, if it is one of your lower strengths  – it has the potential to have you feel exhausted rather than vitalised. This doesn’t mean to say you  cannot be a leader. By bringing your top strengths into the role of leadership, vitality and energy can  be restored.

Each year, in schools across the world, leaders are elected by their teachers and peers. With this  mantle they represent their team, their class and/or their school in various roles and activities. When  a student is honoured with the role as leader, there are many ways they can develop their skills to be t  the best leader they can possibly be.

So how do we prepare our school leaders to live up to ours and others’ expectations? What and who do we want them to be, and what do we want them to accomplish? Perhaps we want them to know they have the potential to make the school community more cohesive, or to demonstrate their leadership through initiatives in fund-raising, or through camaraderie and engagement with others – not just their peers, but with all year levels.

There are four aspects to school leadership that I teach young leaders, forming the acronym: LEAD.

L is for LEARN: learning about ourselves and others

School leaders will be more effective and more engaged if they learn what motivates and de-motivates them, what energises them and what it is they stand for – in their school, in their family and in their wider community.

When leaders learn about others, it encourages connection, visibility and a sense of belonging. Every human being has an innate need to belong. Young leaders can be effective in making this so.

E is for EXPRESS: to express our uniqueness and our strengths

Each leader brings their own unique stance on the world, their own skill set and constellation of strengths. When a child feels comfortable expressing who they really are, they not only have a head-start in a world of unknowns, but they also allow others around them to express their own qualities.

When a leader knows and understands their top strengths (their ‘signature’ strengths), they can fully bloom and grow, declaring : “This is who I am at my best.“  When a child engages in their top strengths on a daily basis, they are more engaged, more fulfilled and are better equipped to handle adversity when and if it arises. They are also more attuned to the strengths of others.

A is for APPLY: apply our strengths and skills to the role of leadership

It’s one thing to know the theory and to have good intentions, but if leaders-in-training don’t put what they have learned into practice, nothing changes.  Leadership strengths, like any muscle, need exercising to become stronger and to avoid atrophy.

D is for DECIDE:  decide to be counted and decide to lead

When students declare to others the kind of leader they want to be, they must then decide to take action and be who they say they are. Perhaps they will decide to be kinder, to be counted, to count others, to be more compassionate, to take risks, to take up a cause…  Each moment of each day they make decisions about their behaviour, their reactions and their actions.

School leaders have the potential to bring who they are into the world with pride, confidence and courage.  Whether they come to the role self-appointed or as a vote of confidence from others, they can learn how to express who they are, apply their knowledge and decide to be counted as a leader.

After all, one day, all this will be theirs.

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COUNTING BRICKS AND COUNTING BLESSINGS

Written By: Fiona - Feb• 05•14

Summertime in Australia with its high risk of bushfires can be a worrying and stressful time for many.

In my community – at the base of Kinglake where fires wreaked their most havoc back in 2009, when over 100 people lost their lives and hundreds more lost their homes –  we look for any sign of smoke across the ranges, and hold our collective breaths whenever fire sirens blast their call across our rooftops. Our fire apps ping and beep, and we remain hyper-vigilant until the weather has cooled and rain has come.

For many people already, however, it’s been a dangerous and heartbreaking outcome as fires ripped through various parts of our sunburnt country, destroying livestock, properties and homes, and in some cases, lives.

For our friends, Susie and Shelton, who live in the hills of Western Australia, they weren’t so lucky. As they took refuge at a friend’s house, their family home of 35 years burned to the ground. It was a tragic and very sad outcome.

Yes indeed, it could have been worse, but it is still bad enough, as loss and its ensuing grief are all relative. Unfortunately, there is no way out of the pain and suffering:  the only way forward is through. I can only imagine the amount of strength, self-care, support and compassion that must be summoned in order to survive the impact of such a loss.

Seeing Susie’s photos of the destruction has been shocking and sad, and has made it very, very real. I’ve been amazed and astounded by the courage, fortitude, tenacity and resilience she is showing in the face of heartbreak. She and Shelton have an insurmountable amount of emotional, hard and dirty work ahead.

Thankfully, friends and family have surrounded them with love and support. Working bees have been set up, and Facebook – despite its arguable shortcomings – has allowed them to reach out to their wider community: getting hold of tradespeople in short supply,  and finding hands short of work to come to their aid. A roster of volunteers has now been set up to help sift through and remove the mountains of ash and rubble.

Something that touched me deeply was of one of Susie’s recent Facebook postings that accompanied a picture of their ashen land. She wrote:

“…At one stage I was sitting, feeling hot and dusty and dirty and like I was out in a blackened desert, feeling so desolate and gloomy and it all felt too despairing, to austere, too miserable, too bleak, too wretched, too forlorn, and all too much. And then some part of me kicked in an I started counting the red bricks lining the edge to the path that was in front of me that are undamaged, and got to 64 and thought , “Well, I am grateful  for them.”  I needed to dig deep, and yes, there is always something to be grateful for, yes there is.”

This is a wonderful example of Susie using her strengths to carry her through turbulent and difficult times. Her words above show her strengths of hope, perspective, persistence and gratitude.

New beginnings are sometimes thrust upon us; we are not always given the luxury of choice.  They can be the best of times – and the worst of times.

Such is summertime in Australia.

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LOVE IN ACTION

Written By: Fiona - Dec• 19•13

I want to talk about love: love for our elders, for the aged, for the weary, for those fragile lives that rest within our hands – and our hearts.

I have a beautiful uncle who is wracked with, amongst other things, Parkinson’s disease, which means he is very dependent upon my Aunty to aid his mobility, speech and day-to-day care. Her commitment and her strength in doing this for him is nothing short of admiral.

But first and foremost, it is an act of love.

I also have a close friend whose mother just celebrated her 92nd birthday. Six months ago, her own fragility meant she was unable to care for herself at home alone, so her two adult children decided, as a family, to be responsible for her 24 hour care.

They, and her grandson, now share her full time care between them. The son stays three days and nights, the nephew for 24 hours, then the daughter for three days and nights.

Three more acts of love.

And although the act of love, in itself, is free, love in action, can come at a potential cost. This cost is not exclusively financial, and could also include the cost of the dignity of the one being cared for, as well as the physical and emotional cost to the carers. The cost may be measurable, but the value is not.

Since moving in with his now-92 year old mum three days a week, my friend has installed door bells at various points throughout the house so she can ‘ding dong’ him if he’s out of earshot.

And as she’s prone to falling, his mum needs help in getting in and out of the bed – sometimes all through the night. At first, they used an alarmed rubber mat, that as soon as she placed her feet upon it, activated a loud, screeching sound which both shocked and frightened her.

This inspired my friend to come up with an alternative: a motion sensor, that when activated, turns on his bedroom light and radio. Now, before she’s reached for her walking frame, her son is right beside her, gently helping.

There’s a lot of love in this family’s home. So much so, that the lady who comes every other day to shower his mum, now stays for a coffee and a chat, because, she says, ‘I love being around this family’.

So as we prepare in haste for this festive season, with our thoughts and hearts distracted by the maddening rush, take a few moments to give thanks for those you love, for those you are loved and cared by, and for those you love and care for.

This is love –  in action.

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