Breaking out of empty and hollow feelings – design your life!

I have been learning and realizing some things over the last few months.

After the initial excitement of being back in South Africa and sharing with family again, I have found a dramatic drop in my levels of feeling energetic. I had to pause and think again and again at what was missing. Was it hope? Why was my energy lower? I seemed lack-luster, sapped. My addictive behavior had spiked upwards quite dramatically.

I checked my food and drinking habits… I don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t do drugs. What was going on? Why was I reacting like this? Good things also happened.

After years of being poorly treated in Australia, I was now master of my own ship and enjoying the freedom that usually comes with democracy. I’m able to speak without people telling me I can’t, I can make friends with whoever and wherever and whenever I want.

Breakthrough to emotions… getting the juices flowing

I finally came to a moment when I finally cried deeply and vented my sadness at what I had experienced, the people I had lost and especially at the relationship I wanted to have with one particular person which was never allowed/permitted to happen. I cried. I wept. Then a few days later I felt deep hatred and wanted vengeance for what I had been put through.

Denial-anger-grief-acceptance (a more limited version of the full Kübler-Ross grief model) is the normal cycle to go through when adjusting to trauma and loss…

  1. Denial“I feel fine.”; “This can’t be happening, not to me.”
  2. Anger“Why me? It’s not fair!”; “How can this happen to me?”; “Who is to blame?”
  3. Bargaining“Just let me live to see my children graduate.”; “I’ll do anything for a few more years.”; “I will give my life savings if…”
  4. Depression“I’m so sad, why bother with anything?”; “I’m going to die . . . What’s the point?”; “I miss my loved one, why go on?”
  5. Acceptance“It’s going to be okay.”; “I can’t fight it, I may as well prepare for it.”

I felt led to read the psalms and saw so much of David’s own anger and desire for vengeance in his writings. So many psalms spoke to me, the one that He spoke directly to me Psalm 35 had the identical feelings in it as I had.

1 Contend, O LORD, with those who contend with me;
fight against those who fight against me.

2 Take up shield and buckler;
arise and come to my aid.

4 May those who seek my life
be disgraced and put to shame;
may those who plot my ruin
be turned back in dismay.

5 May they be like chaff before the wind,
with the angel of the LORD driving them away;

6 may their path be dark and slippery,
with the angel of the LORD pursuing them.

7 Since they hid their net for me without cause
and without cause dug a pit for me

8 may ruin overtake them by surprise—
may the net they hid entangle them,
may they fall into the pit, to their ruin.

9 Then my soul will rejoice in the LORD
and delight in his salvation. – Psalm 35

Before reading this, I had not realized how much anger (and even perhaps hatred) that King David had felt.

And as you would expect there were some psalms were from the Lord telling David to forgive. Sigh. Always with the forgiving. For the first time I really saw the humanity of David, and of course the compassion of God for human beings.

Anger. Hatred. These are all normal human emotions and this time was a sign of me healing. Sadness and loss… to have these feelings is better than to NOT have them. To not have them is to not be human. To have them is to function as a real live person who has working emotions.

Embrace your emotions about what happened in your past. It’s ok. When these feelings are felt and they pass you will experience new thoughts, new dreams, new hopes.

Going back to old patterns

I think that facing my suppressed emotions created an openness, an opportunity to connect with other aspects of my thinking and feelings. I really wanted to deal with the addictive behavior and the emptiness… I needed to understand them and to learn how to stop them. I did another inventory… I checked my faith, my prayer life, my thought life… all seemed ok. And yet I felt an intertia. Why?

And then it came to me. Being around my family had reminded me of the patterns of my youth. I looked at them more closely. Do these people live? Really live? I don’t mean party, I mean do they connect with people? Do they know about community? How much warmth is there in their lives? Do they have a sense of self… a self that needs to be protected? I noticed a strong and unhealthy fear of authorities, an unhealthy desire to avoid conflict, a desire to have peace at all costs, seeing isolation as a solution to many problems.

Everything you know, you learned from someone

Just think about it… babies start like this… with nothing and no concept of anything. They are empty. Emptiness is a very common feeling in modern society…


blood_diamond_father_sonAnd everything they learn about themselves, someone told them. If they got told the wrong thing, then that is what they learned and now they think it. Child soldiers in war simply do what they are told.

They get abducted from their families and they get retrained and told new “truths” and they become warriors. The movie Blood Diamond showed some of that retraining taking place. In the picture to the left, the father has found his son and rescued him from the guerrillas who had retrained him into being a child warrior.

The fact is that until we take charge of our lives, until then we are the product of what was put into us as children and young adults. Taking charge means assessing who you are, what you are good at, what you want to do.

Everything you think you know, you learned from someone. You learned it from wonderful people, from abusive people, from the bible, from fire-and-brimstone preachers, from religious teachers, from warm kind caring pastors.


Children have to be taught how to live. Food, identity, warm clothes, emotional warmth, feelings of safety – it all has to be PUT into them. They can’t do anything for themselves.

In that same way, they have to be prepared for life. They can only learn and be ready for adulthood, if their parents consciously chose to prepare them. A baby is born with absolutely no knowledge and no skills. They can’t find the kitchen, can’t make food, can’t speak english and ask for what they need. Nothing! Everything that baby gets – food, warmth, skills – comes from the people around that baby and especially from the parents.

I’m thinking about how much my friend Caryn planned her preparation of her son for his entry into the public domain. She literally made a list of skills that he needed to have in place for him to be able to make it work. She made a list and she worked with him on it and ticked them off as he learned them. There are certain skills a person needs to make life work ad someone needs to teach them to us… or we have to go and learn them for ourselves.

Playing games like “The Sims” can teach some of these skills, like looking in a newspaper for a job and then applying for the job… because if you don’t, then you don’t have income… and if you don’t have income, then you will not have lots and lots of things needed for living.

But “The Sims” cannot teach hundreds and thousands of life lessons that people need to learn in order to live socially. That only comes by practise and experience.

Desensitised to life

And this was what I figured out. My family was not social. My father is not attached. My mother is not attached. Being conveniently near a person often enough to talk to them doesn’t mean you are emotionally attached to that person.

I also saw that I had not been prepared for life. Life lessons were not passed on. Things other people learn were not taught to me. It’s not just that I was emotionally and physically unsafe as a youngster, but I was uncared for. I know this because even now as an adult when I talk about the ghastly experiences I went through, few people react with horror… they simply don’t have that kind of emotional attachment. As a friend said to me about his lack of interest towards other people “I just don’t give a shit”.

One of the things I noticed in Australia was the level of care and concern people had for one another. Simple stories that get no reaction here – which is what I thought was normal – would get visible reactions of shock there. I was literally astounded as I realized that my stories were deeply upsetting to people. I didn’t know that before seeing their reaction, because I grew up in a family where you could tell the closest person to you that you have been abused and their will react with a one-line statement and never comment on the issue again.

So what had been happening to me after I returned? I was slowly adjusting back to how it was before. Less care for people. Less shock-and-horror reactions to things.

Yes there are real reasons for why South Arican society is so desensitized to what should shock us. In our society extreme trauma is normal to see. I grew up hearing bomb explosions in my suburb. I thought nothing of it. What is normal for us, is extra-ordinary for safe societies like Australia. So in Australia my personal stories seemed utterly shocking to my best friend Michael. I was fortunate that I could learn from his reaction, I had no idea what normal was.

I have returned to South Africa more sensitized to what is normal and ok in a healthy society.

But now being in close proximity to family members trapped in old behaviour patterns, I was being reminded of my former “it doesn’t matter” and “I don’t matter” – style of thinking. But it was more than that. Living with family was reminding me of the inertia that I grew up in. Our family didn’t have strong ties amongst ourselves, nor with the extended family around us. The warmth that I learned to experience with friends in Australia was absent in our family. I truly didn’t know about inner warmth until God healed me – and I’ve written about that on this blog site.

From OUTside to inside

Think again about that baby. All the arrows point inwards. As it lies there newly born, naked, it’s inner temperature is dropping… that has never happened before! It had come from a world in which the temperature was provided by the womb, but now it is outside the womb… the temperature is not guaranteed.

Now it has to be maintained by a willing care giver. And the baby has no concept of it’s own needs, it cannot figure out what cold is and pull the blanket over. That will take YEARS to learn. In the womb the baby’s emotions would have synched to the mother, but now outside, it synchs to her through cuddling and comforting. If there is no comfort, then the baby cannot moderate it’s own emotions.

Everything was automatically provided in the womb, but then it becomes available only when someone takes time to care for the baby. If the care giver is drunk or stoned or emotionally absent, then the baby has no capacity to care for itself. And as the years go by, the ability of a baby to care for itself will make all the difference. As a young boy and then a teen, the desire is usually there to do it for yourself. Abuse and lack of care in the home can upset this normal situation, and the inner drive for independence may not develop.

In a healthy family the normal and valid emotions of family members are accepted and acknowledged. Independance is encouraged as well as monitored to ensure it doesn’t go too far ahead of the emotional abilities of the young person. In a co-dependant family, emotions are not permitted. Self defense – a very useful life skill – may also be supressed and not learned. Many skills needed for life may not be learned in such a family.

If this happens, then a young person may hit adulthood without having learned the skills he or she needs to have in order to live a productive life, so they might be stuck in old patterns. If they learned passivity as a young person, they may remain passive as an adult – never really living a full life.

Basic life skills

The basic skills that an adult needs to live a healthy life may include some of these things.

Be able to…

  • connect with other people in supportive communities (sharing food, communication, support, protection)
  • identify what you need and find a resource somewhere to meet that need (find money, physical or emotional)
  • know your strengths and weaknesses enough to be able to identify opportunities you can achieve at and avoid situations you repeatedly fail at
  • have a sense of hope and optimism that you can learn new tricks and new skills – and put this into action in daily life to develop new opportunities
  • identify all the basic ingredients needed to maintain a normal life, and the discipline to keep doing those things
  • learn enough about yourself to know your needs and wants, and to know what your own boundaries are, know how many people you want around yourself, how close, how intimate etc.
  • learn enough about other people to understand their needs and wants and their boundaries, and how to connect and communicate with them etc.
  • listening to your inner sense or intuition for signs of nearby danger or situations to avoid

In all of these things, these lessons are learned by LIVING life. We walk, we fall down, we learn, we walk a bit more, falling less because we learned.

training wheelsWhen we are a baby, all these lessons are GIVEN to us as advice from adults around us. As we grow up we are encouraged to figure them out for ourselves, caring people ask us “what do YOU think” and encourage us “give it a try”. We are able to learn in safety. Like with training wheels on a bike, adults watch us and remove the wheels when we can handle it.

To be a successful adult we need to do these things for ourselves without adult direction. Ideally we have already been doing them for ourselves for a while. Through repeatedly trying, failing, trying, succeeding – practise makes perfect – we come to a place of mastering the basic ingredients for life.

From INside to outside – outwards

But in adulthood we leave our parents and cleave to that special someone. Cleaving-and-leaving can be almost impossible if some of those basic lessons – boundaries, knowing yourself, reading other people, having intuition about impending trouble – without these we can’t find a suitable mate, we can’t communicate successfully with the person, we can’t find a balance between their needs and ours.

And because the demands of adulthood include caring for a family, paying a morgage, debts, growth, stress… we really need those skills to be in place. In adulthood the arrows don’t point inwards any more, they point OUTwards FROM you towards society. Unless you have the skills to find and connect into a caring community, you are not likely to be surrounded by positive INput.

But you are an adult now… you have to find the answers yourself and act on them.


They key is to understand that what used to come TO you from outside, now needs to come from INside you. So for example

  • Where you used to get good advice, you now need to give yourself good advice
  • Where other people calmed you and listened to you, you need to do this for yourself
  • Where other people told you what you are good at and encouraged you, you now need to do this for yourself

How many people aren’t learning life skills?

It’s more common than you think… take these 2005 statistics for South Africa…

  • In South Africa 41%, or 7.3 million children from birth to 17 years, do not live with an employed person in the same household – and therefore are not able to learn about job hunting and maintaining a CV and upgrading work skills
  • In the Limpopo province, for example, has a poverty rate of 83% – and this might mean that children and growing up without the ability to care for themselves. Yougn girls may not be able to afford to pay for tampons and other personal needs. Basic skills can’t be learned in poverty.
  • 22% of children were resident with neither biological parent – in this situation skills aren’t transferred from a caring parent. Identity and self image cannot be nurtured and developed.
  • Half of households reported having insufficient food at times – this is another time during which a young person learns negative lessons about life, safety and self care.


Is it any wonder that I pray so hard and so much for revival and a complete change to society through the outpouring of His Spirit? Nothing else promises to help us all as much as He is promising to. You can read more about this prayer here: Until the Spirit is poured upon us from on high

What’s the problem?

The problem is that if people don’t learn these skills, then they simply keep living as they did as children or young adults. Their hands remain open to receiving, their hearts always looking for people to speak INTO them.

But time has marched on, and they are at an age where they ARE able to make their own way in the world… if they can just develop the skills to do so.

For example, one successful strategy to survive an abusive household is to remain passive and hidden. Not many life skills will be learned while the person remains in this strategy. But as an adult, that strategy is no longer needed. The person can take charge and live a completely different and more assertive life. What is needed is for the person to abandon survival skills learned in childhood, and to adopt completely new and different ways of living.

And that can be very tough to make that change from a strategy that you used for 10 years, over to an unknown new behavior. The saying goes, a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. I’m saying to you, give up the strategy that you have in your hand – passivity, isolation, violence – and take the chance that you can learn to walk a completely new life and learn completely new things.

For sure you want to know about the birds in the bush… before you put down the bird in your hand. But the problem is, these new skills have to be learned, and they are learned by walking and falling and learning and then walking a bit better because we learned.

Going forward from here – consciously

Remain as you are OR change. Change means making a life that you want and like. getting to know what you want can be difficult. The exact phrase “I want” is biblical… it occurs 31 times in the New Testamant in the NIV and 63 times in The Message. Clearly people wanted things in the New Testament, so I’m sure it’s fine for you to want things too.

When you get in touch with what you want, then work on getting to know yourself and your inner world… in this way you will make new dreams, new friends who have the same energy levels as you, new hopes and new plans. And then go ahead and actually DO those things. 🙂

And let me leave you with this final and encouraging truth…

The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity and an understanding of life that fills them with compassions, gentleness and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.” — by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross

That is the same lady who made the Kübler-Ross grief model, also known as the 5 stages of grief.

Keep reading… more posts you may enjoy