by James Woodward
Where do you pick up recommendations for books these days? A half-hour in Waterloo station recently yielded a couple of books from Foyles, tempted of course by the special offer! A trusted source is the Marginalian which is broad, grounded and stimulating. I have appreciated its range of engagement with some of the contemporary questions that face us all. Mortality, failure, love, desire, dreams, the life of the soul, history, poetry and always, art. If you have a moment, take a look — I would be surprised if you were disappointed!
Try Softer: A Fresh Approach to Move Us Out of Anxiety, Stress, and Survival Mode – and into a Life of Connection and Joy by Aundi Kolber was in the Marginalian top fifteen (2023) list and captured my attention. Don’t attempt more but less – is a coaching tip in teaching and learning the craft of good conversations. The title was so provocative I had it delivered within a day.
Here is Kolber’s invitation:
“Dear reader, there are truly times when the best, healthiest, most productive thing we can do is not to try harder, but rather to try softer: to compassionately listen to our needs so we can move through pain—and ultimately life—with more gentleness and resilience.”
As I travelled back from London that weekend and finished reading the book, it struck me how distracted many of my fellow passengers seemed to be. Their attentions were almost wholly focused downwards and fixed on their mobile telephones. Travelling can often be boring and we seek distraction to get us to our destination as comfortably as possible. This picture of scrolling and texting seemed to act as a visual reminder of one of Kolber’s main themes in these early chapters.
She shows us how we are all trapped in a ‘try harder’ ecology. We make lists. We keep going. We ignore that which does not suit us. We keep on pretending that we are all just fine. Too often in the gaps between our busyness, we feel exhausted and overwhelmed. How are we to get things done? What does survival mean?
Perhaps some of these experiences and questions and perplexities have found a clearer focus post-pandemic. We know that so much has changed both around us and in us. We have all been faced with uncertainty, fragility and even mortality. It certainly doesn’t seem that the shape of our living will quite ever be the same again. We learn that fewer people have returned to Church and indeed to many other groups and voluntary activities. We know that businesses are fragile, and some of our friends have even lost their livelihoods. And we see daily pictures of the devastation that war brings. The world does feel different, less easy and possibly more threatening. Work seems harder and less fulfilling.
Kolber, in the 244 pages of this book, makes the case that it does not need to be like this. Informed by her Christian faith, she puts to work her counselling and wisdom together with her specialism in trauma and body-centred therapy. Her thesis is clear and focused – God specifically designed our bodies and minds to work together to process our stories and work through obstacles.
Her well-organised 10 chapters are divided into two parts. The first – the process of becoming – open up the dilemmas through story, scripture, psychological theory and personal stories. Throughout Kolber offers a number of practical exercises to allow her thesis to be embodied within the readers’ life experience. They are meticulously well-crafted.
We are invited to learn how to set emotional boundaries, to consider how we attach (or don’t) and to dig deep into some of the complex influences and experiences that have shaped or misshaped the geography of our lives. Dealing with our inner critic, and growing in self-compassion, are key parts of trying softer.
At a very deep level, this is a poetic, practical and psychological invitation into the sacred work of redemption. We are asked to consider how we live, breathe, move, feel and connect with life. Attention is a golden thread that weaves its way through these chapters.
“The work of paying compassionate attention is, in a sense, learning to steward for ourselves what God already believes about us—that we’re valuable and loved.”
The writing is skilled: it is both brave and bold; it is clear and informative. It is grounded in a firm Christian faith which is gently expressed. My own copy is littered with coloured markers to help me come back to bits which need further thought and could be put to work. I found many parallels with my work in pastoral supervision and journalling. The exercises at the end of each of the chapters are particularly helpful.
The text inevitably poses some perturbing questions too!
While Kolber speaks into human condition with skill and insight it might just be possible that a reader needs more than just ‘wise self-help’. Working with trauma, pain and unresolved life experience is sensitive and skilled work not without its dangers. In these vulnerabilities all of us need holding and skilled support. In the area of trauma, that support may need to be skilled and professional. While Kolber is careful and sensitive sometimes we need to be in a space where others make the diagnosis and offer a framework of treatment. Sometimes this work is best done in facilitated groups.
My second question is perhaps more focused. While I believe that faith is life-giving and has huge potential to help human beings flourish – God (but put more bluntly religion) can sometimes be the problem and not the solution. Religion can never be immune from danger or destructiveness. We only have to look at how the Christian tradition has dealt with gender, and especially the place of women to be reminded of structures and theologies which diminish and even traumatise. The gender politics present in some of Western Christian theology and practices continue to make faith a less than safe space for many. Try Softer may not be the way to deal with some of these human complexities!
However, I recommend this book. It is carefully written. It is useful. It is radical in its proposal for our flourishing. It is a window into the life-giving capacity of those who contain, notice, show, listen, and invite us into a softer mode of human being. Thank you Aundi, for such a beautiful piece of writing.
The Revd Canon Professor James Woodward is Principal of Sarum College.
This article was adapted from the original which appeared in James Woodward’s website.
Explore this subject further through Sarum’s short course programme:
16 to 18 Feb 2024
Yoga and Christian Practice Retreat
19 Feb 2024
Benedictine Spirituality with Rowan Williams