Change your story
Change your story
1 September 2021
It’s National Adult Learners Week in Australia (1-8 September). In this up-close-and-personal article, PETER McGUIGAN writes about what it might take to break free from the past and realise a new normal for our lives.
Of all my childhood and adolescent memories, the clearest is of my father watching television after dinner. We called it tea in those days, a hangover from my mother’s English roots, I suspect. Dad didn’t have one favourite show. His was a nightly ritual that began with watching the news and continued to bedtime.
With the washing up done, Dad retired to the lounge room, turned on the television and eased into his lounge chair with a footrest in front of him for premium comfort. It was like Dad entered another world free from the day’s routine and the pressures of his work tending to the needs of anyone and everyone as a Salvation Army officer. Some nights he would be out on Salvos business as well, but when he wasn’t, there’s little doubt where you could find him.
For those few hours at night, except that we were in the same room watching the same shows on the same screen, it seemed to my young heart that Dad had not only escaped from the world for a while but also from us. Often, he would doze off, and we dared not disturb him. If he woke and we were in the room, we needed to be ready with an answer to his inevitable question: ‘What’s happening?’
When I was eight years old and, by then, possessing a more developed capacity to remember, I made quite a discovery about Dad’s nightly ritual while on holidays in the southern New South Wales town of Goulburn. This was the town of Dad’s birth, childhood and youth. Every three years, we spent our entire annual vacation in Goulburn, catching up with relatives on the McGuigan side.
We stayed with Nana McGuigan at 168 Sloane Street. It was the same house where Dad was born and raised, one of four two-story terraced homes opposite the Goulburn Railway Station. Grandad McGuigan, a lifetime railways worker, had died relatively young from the long-term impact of injuries he sustained during World War One, so I never met him. But I remember Nana McGuigan’s house was like Central Station in Sydney with people coming and going all day long, even after dark.
In 1968, we visited in October during the Mexico Olympics. I recall my sister and me running off to the local park as often as possible and pretending we ourselves were in the Olympics, racing each other and giving the playground the biggest workout you can imagine – at least for an eight- and six-year-old.
At night, with no television at Nana’s house, we would sit around a radio in her lounge room listening to replays of events broadcast by ABC announcers, one of whom was the legendary Norman May. I remember feeling like I was poolside in Mexico City, my heart pounding while listening to their call of the 200m freestyle final won by Australia’s Michael Wendon. It was different from television, given that you were listening only. But gathering in one room to share the same experience was similar.
I cherish this memory from my eighth year on planet Earth, one that includes a child’s observations of each person in the room. In my mind’s eye, I can still see Nana McGuigan, my father and my Uncle Colin listening intently but then breaking out in true comedic McGuigan style when there was a lull in proceedings. And sitting close, you couldn’t miss the likeness of their appearance, especially the openness of their faces, the soft dreamy look in their eyes, and how their smiles and laughter seemed to come so naturally and set you at ease.
However, the most striking aspect of this recollection is of watching them fall asleep during the broadcasts and, when either or all of them awoke, my sister and I brought them up to speed on whether Australia had done any good.
It was decades later that this ‘like-mother-like-sons’ observation from 1968 leapfrogged out of my childhood memory bank and into my adult consciousness as a clue to understanding who I was and a catalyst for seeing the changes I could make to be a better me or, as we might say now, to change my story.
My father’s nightly ritual did not begin with the purchase of our first television in the mid-1960s. It was a product of his own formative years in the 1930s and 1940s that stayed with him for the rest of his life. I doubt whether he ever considered there might be something better or more productive to do with his evenings, and I imagine the same could be said of many other mums and dads since the onset of broadcast technology.
The science is in!
Aristotle once said, “Give me a child until he is seven, and I will show you the man.” In recent decades, knowledge accumulated through research at the intersection of the sciences of early childhood development and neurobiology confirms the ancient Greek philosopher’s assertion to be true.
The research, upheld by Harvard University’s Centre on the Developing Child, tells us unequivocally that by the time a child turns three, their brain makes one million neural connections every minute. These connections form the brain’s mapping system based on a mix of nature (genetic influences) and nurture (outside influences). Of critical note is that a child’s rapidly growing brain creates a foundation early on for how they communicate and interact with the world around them. Particularly impactful in this developmental process is the child’s perception of how people respond to them.
In other words, how we spend our lives is largely modelled on the human interaction, routines and priorities we observe and engage in day in, day out from the moment we are born. As a child, we absorb like a sponge that which appears to give life its meaning from those who are closest to us – our parents, their close friends, our older siblings, aunties and uncles and grandparents, and later on our teachers and peers and the prevailing culture of the community in which we live. A combination of these influences often becomes our own rule of thumb for how we engage with life and the lifestyle we choose.
Memories from my childhood, including observations of my parents’ routines and priorities, took on new meaning for me in the early- to mid-2000s. My world was being challenged as friends encouraged me to move on from the halting effects of a family crisis upon my life and future. One introduced me to a leadership and self-development course that helps participants trace back through their lives and identify both learned but unhelpful behaviours that you can change and false ‘truths’ you have come to believe about yourself that you can dismiss as untrue.
Often people call them blind spots, negative aspects of your persona that others can see even if you can’t. In my case, one of them was the notion that I was not as important as other people, a twist in my life that played out in various, mainly subtle, ways. The course helped me pinpoint and address these glitches in my life and gave me a powerful start to a new season of personal growth. I could let go of my inhibitions, change my story, and, with intentionality, pursue a better life and a healthier contribution to the world.
Hot on the heels of this shot of transformation, and in the interest of nurturing it, I began reading about ‘new’ science that we now commonly know as ‘emotional intelligence’, or EI. Psychologists Peter Salovey and John D. Mayer, who unearthed the concept of EI in 1990, describe it as ‘the ability to monitor one’s own and others’ feelings and emotions, to discriminate among them and use this information to guide one’s thinking and actions’.
Since then, behavioural scientists have researched, and further advanced the scope of EI. They include psychologist and behavioural science journalist Daniel Goleman whose writing has been seminal*. In his 1995 book, Emotional Intelligence, Goleman splits EI into five components: self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy and social skills.
Although initially discovered in the context of dysfunctional relationships and poor decision-making processes among business executives, EI now embraces social and cultural intelligence as well. It is just as accessible to home-based mums and dads and the community at large for personal and civic growth as it is to the HR departments of big business for their commercial sustainability.
Of course, EI is not really new. It is as old as humanity itself. If you traced back over centuries of leaders, you would note more EI in some than in others! The life and contribution of Jesus to the world is a good example. The whole record of his interaction with humanity is full of him sharing countercultural ideas for living, developing healthy relationships and experiencing a much deeper fulfilment in our lives. Often he challenged the norms of people’s thinking, particularly in relation to flawed ideas about religion and tradition and strata in society.
Even amid conflict and tense situations, Jesus cut through stereotyped thinking and ingrained bias on many levels – personal and community-wide. Perhaps this is nowhere better seen than in how he dealt with the crowd of people, including religious leaders, who wanted to stone to death a woman who they labelled an adulteress. “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone,” Jesus said to them. And the record from John’s Gospel in the New Testament logs their response, “Those who heard it, being convicted by their conscience, went out one by one, beginning with the oldest even to the last” (John 8:1-11).
Many of us during the COVID-19 pandemic have reflected on what a new normal might look like for our lives and our world, on how we could work towards a better life and a better world post-pandemic. Individuals and families have decided they don’t want to go back to the old routines and ways of living.
The good news is that all of us, as adults, can be set free from perceptions of who we are and of how to live that were embedded into our lives during our formative years, particularly the detrimental ones. Thank God that alongside the spiritual resources that come from above, there’s now a goldmine of personal development resources available to us that can fuel our new normal and help us break the mold**.
People tell me I’m so much like my father. Not only do I look like him, but I sound like him. I know this to be true. More than once, I’ve used my voice to impersonate my father and dupe family members into believing that it was Dad who was talking to them, even asking them to do something for him, before the ruse was exposed. Mind you, I haven’t tried that since he went to Heaven a couple of years ago, but confess to being tempted to give it a go!
Realistically, I’m me, and these days I’m striving to be the best me I can be! Sometimes it’s not easy. Most days, I learn something new. The journey continues …
* Short courses on emotional intelligence are offered at many learning institutions in Australia. Daniel Goleman’s books are available at bookshops across the country and through online purchasing. They include Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ (25th anniversary edition published February 2021), Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships and Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence.
** For all the resources available through National Adult Learners Week, go to https://adultlearnersweek.org/. Also, The Salvation Army’s Eva Burrows College offers Learning and Development courses for its officers, employees and volunteers. These focus on building capacity and capability. Go to https://evaburrowscollege.edu.au/about-us/what-we-offer/learning-and-development/ .
Peter’s writing on leadership, including leadership and self-awareness, was published in 2018 as a book titled The Leadership of Jesus: Spiritual, Incarnational, Countercultural (Salvation Books) – available in hard copy at https://bit.ly/3mBvwq9 or in hard copy and Kindle at https://amzn.to/3Drgw3W. Look out for his latest book A New Day: Writing During the Pandemic on Relationships, Responsibility and Spiritual Renewal, which will be available before Christmas.