Life Skills
by Paul Hazelden


Introduction

  Background

The work we do at External Link - Crisis Centre  Crisis Centre Ministries involves helping a lot of people with very difficult and complex needs. Many people will have problems with many of the following: physical health, mental health, learning difficulties, childhood abuse, adult abuse, addiction, criminality, family breakdown, marital breakdown, unemployment, debt and homelessness.

Given the range of problems, where do you start? Actually, that is usually an easy one: you start where the client is. You listen to them, and find out what they are concerned about, what they want help with here and now.

But it is easy to get lost in all the complexities of these inter-related issues. I don't believe in a mechanical model of psychology - the idea that there is a 'root' problem, and if you can fix that, everything else will sort itself out, or at least, be much easier to fix. But it does seem to me that some issues are deeper, more fundamental than others.

I'm not suggesting that these issues are easy to deal with, or that they should be addressed first. But if we are helping someone with a practical area - such as addiction, benefits or housing - then maybe we can keep these basic issues in mind, and touch on them when we get a chance.

I am also suggesting that these are good principles to bear in mind when seeking to help people whose lives have not yet fallen apart.

The issues fall into three groups: the things I need, which are under my control as an individual; the things I need, which I need the cooperation of other people to achieve; and the things I don't need, but without which I cannot be happy and fulfilled.

  Contents

  1. The World
    1. Real
    2. Complex
    3. Uncertain
  2. Individual
    1. Responsibility
    2. Cause and effect
    3. Boundaries
  3. Community
    1. Relationships
    2. Partnership
    3. Love
  4. Fulfilment
    1. Children
    2. Spirituality
    3. Work

1.   The World

1a.   Real

This sounds terribly obvious, but the world we live in is real. My preferences, wishes and desires do not change the way things are. They may change they way things will be, but my starting point has got to be the way things really are, right now.

My understanding of the world is incomplete and faulty - I don't know everything, and some of the things I think I know are wrong. So I need to test my understanding, to find out where it is incomplete or mistaken.

Many people live in a world of 'shoulds' and 'oughts' - they should be given a nice place to live or a decent job, other people ought to be nice to them. The world ought to be different. Well, maybe it should. But it's not.

Accepting the fact that the world is not what I want it to be is the only place to start.

1b.   Complex

We live in a complex world. Things are not all in black and white, easy to categorise. And, even when you can put things into categories, that still doesn't tell you all you need to know about them. Some Coppers are not bent and some Social Workers don't have it in for you, even if some are and do.

They will often be in despair because some dreadful event is all their fault. Then, after a while, they decide that it wouldn't have happened unless Bert had done his bit, and then suddently it is not their fault at all, but it is all Bert's fault. But in the real world, things are rarely all down to one person: we have to share the praise and the blame with others. Accepting responsibility for our own actions does not mean taking the blame for everything that happens subsequently.

1c.   Uncertain

People find it really hard to live with uncertainty. Some things are obviously stressful: did I get the job? What will the medical tests show? But minor uncertainties are also difficult to handle, whether they affect you personally or not. For many of our clients, when they hear the story of the woman caught in adultery, they want to know what Jesus was writing in the dust. If someone suggests a possibility, they will believe it.

The sequence is a very easy one: this is possible, this is what I think happened, this is what I believe happened, this is what I know happened. If we don't hold firm on to truth and reality, the pressure to remove uncertainty pushes us down this path, and we end up believing lies.

And when things go wrong, it is even more important for us to know what happened, as we need to blame someone. The false certainty about what happened turns into criticism, and sometimes into hostility and broken relationships. All because we can't live with uncertainty.

It doesn't only work like this when finding someone else to blame: our clients will often be in despair because some dreadful event is all their fault. Then, after a while, they decide that it wouldn't have happened unless Bert had done his bit, and then suddently it is not their fault at all, but it is all Bert's fault.

Back in the real world, things are rarely all down to one person: we have to share the praise and the blame with others. Accepting responsibility for our own actions does not mean taking the blame for everything that happens subsequently.

2.   Individual

2a.   Responsibility

You have to take responsibility for your own actions.

This is so basic, it is hard to know what needs to be said, and where to stop. We all try at times to avoid blame. When something goes wrong, it is normal to try to get the fault pinned on someone else. But without responsibility, there can be no learning, no achievement - nothing else works.

You cannot take responsibility for your actions unless you are honest about what actually happened. Responsibility means you are prepared to tell the truth, and are starting to face up to reality.

So many of our clients live in denial: denial of the facts ("It never happened! I was nowhere near!"), and denial of responsibility ("It wasn't my fault - I was drunk, he provoked me.") No real progress is possible until denial turns into acceptance of responsibility - yes, it happened, and I did it.

They will often be in despair because some dreadful event is all their fault. Then, after a while, they decide that it wouldn't have happened unless Bert had done his bit, and then suddently it is not their fault at all, but it is all Bert's fault. But in the real world, things are rarely all down to one person: we have to share the praise and the blame with others. Accepting responsibility for our own actions does not mean taking the blame for everything that happens subsequently.

2b.   Cause and effect

You have to understand the laws of cause and effect. You were thrown out of the hostel because you attacked one of the staff. It is not because they don't like you; it is not because they don't want to help you; it is because of your own actions.

Another common example: if you spend your week's benefits all on the first day, you will have nothing left to buy food and pay your bills with for the rest of the week. You are broke because when you have money, you spend it. Giving you more money will not solve this problem - you need to decide that if you don't like the effect, then you will not cause it.

Stepping in and bailing them out does not solve the problem, and can make it worse: if someone else pays my bills when I run out of money, I do not experiences the consequencs of my actions, and will not learn the lesson.

But this does not mean that we should not help. On the contrary: these people desperately need help. But they will not learn all the lessons they need overnight. The help needs to be measured and appropriate, so that they feel the consequencs of their actions enough to learn the lesson, but not too much so that it crushes them; and so that they are able to concentrate on one or two areas of change at a time.

2c.   Boundaries

You are responsible for your own actions; you are not responsible for the actions of other people. You are responsible for coping with the consequences of your actions; you are not responsible for making other people feel good.

As you learn to work with appropriate and helpful boundaries, you discover that other people cannot control you, and in order to live freely yourself, you have to give up your attempts to control other people.

3.   Community

3a.   Relationships

Human beings are social animals, so we need to form stable relationships with other people. Many of these relationships are hierarchical - you will sometimes need to do what someone else wants.

There is a hard distinction to be learned between the other person having authority over you, and the other person controlling you.

3b.   Partnership

When a relationship is not hierarchical, then you need to act in partnership with the other person. If you want them to do something, then you need to persuade them.

Friendships are incredibly important, but incredibly fragile. Neither of you needs to maintain the friendship: it is a free choice, and either of you could choose to walk away, to spend your time on other projects, other people. But the freedom and fragility is what makes friendship special, what makes it worthwhile.

3c.   Love

We all need to love and be loved. But this makes us vulnerable. This is really tough, and many people do not manage it.

All too often, 'love' is just a word. It can mean many things. It frequently means that I need this other person, and they need me. This may take the place of love in my life, but it cannot work as a substitute.

Love is about wanting the very best for the other person, whether they meet my own needs or not. In order to love, I need to understand the other person, I must get to know their needs and desires, their hopes and dreams, their preferences and irritations.

You can get all the way up to this point by learning principles and following rules. But in loving someone else, you discover another human being, and there are no rules that can tell you how to make this work.

There are rules, of course: honesty, integrity, openness, and so on. But these rules can only tell you how to avoid the relationship going bad: they cannot tell you how to make it go well.

4.   Fulfilment

4a.   Children

Deep within us is a desire to have children, to love those children, and for them to be successful. Whether it is programmed into our genes or a gift from God, few of us can avoid this - either having them and struggling to make a success of bringing them up, or living with the gaping hole of not having children or not having them around.

4b.   Spirituality

Whatever words you use to describe this area, we cannot successfully live meaningless lives. For our lives to have meaning, we need two things: a sense of purpose and a set of values. The purpose tells me what I am living for, what I am seeking to achieve with my life. And the values tell me how I can set about achieving this purpose - what tools I can and cannot use, what paths I can and cannot tread.

4c.   Work

As well as a long term goal I am working towards, I need to gather the resources required to achieve that goal. And that means I need to work.

I need to contribute something worthwhile to society, to other people. It is not just pride that makes me want to earn my keep: I need the satisfaction and fulfilment that comes from a job well done.

And, in the long run, if I have not worked, if I have just been given everything I needed, then even if my life's goal is attained, where is the achievement? All the work has been done by other people.

Yes, we are all tempted to be lazy. Yes, we need to relax and play games sometimes. But, as adults, we all need to work as well.

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Copyright © 2006 Paul Hazelden
 
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