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Thriving -v- Surviving

by Rev Shelley Griffiths

A Pastor Shells Soapbox Sermon

3rd March 2024

Our eco-village journey started off a few years ago as an exceptionally hopeful adventure with a group of fellow vegans joining forces and sharing resources in order to buy a smallholding where we could grow food together and create a self-sustaining community. 

We started networking online back in 2018 and our vegan eco-village networking platforms on social media were immediately popular gaining thousands of followers all keen to create a new way of living and working together that could enable us to escape the carnist ‘rat race’, the ‘rent trap’ and the lie we have been sold that we need to work full time ‘to live’ until we are in our seventies. We were offering the dream; the ‘good life’ and people were attracted to it in huge volumes.

The first indication we had that people are generally just surviving and not thriving was highlighted at the very start of our eco-village journey when it transpired one of our founder members wasn’t vegan despite claiming to be but rather that she ‘wanted what we were offering’. We also had a 'cash ready’ family that came to view properties with us, but it transpired that in reality their equity was all tied up in their house which they didn’t even have on the market despite claiming to be ready to offer on something with us. Both were clearly desperate to find a way out of their current existence and as we represented that opportunity, it didn’t matter to them that they weren’t entirely honest. It mattered to us though! 

Whether it was a partner that wasn’t anywhere near as keen, a mistrusting parent suspicious that 'if it seems too good to be true it probably is', or an inheritance not yet passed on, the truth always came out in the end that people wanting what we were offering were not quite as ready to join us as they made out, but not before causing properties to be lost and dreams to be dashed. We must have tried around nine times to buy a farm or country house and land with other people, and most of the time it was either someone’s dishonesty or an unwillingness to commit that scuppered success. On the occasions we did manage to form a group who all had provable finances, other factors like missing title deeds or being gazumped all played a part in our failure to buy land that came with existing dwellings. 

In the end, we scrapped the idea that we needed a house to get growing and I used my personal savings to buy Cwm Caredig in 2021, a 36 acre valley so beautiful that I cried when I first stepped foot inside it. Our philosophy was ‘build it and they will come’ and boy, did they! They came and went and taught us so much about people that we are no longer anywhere near as naive or, dare I say it, as optimistic as we used to be. I could even say that the shine is gone along with my faith in humanity, but given that I’m still here trying, either though tenacity or stubbornness, I think it’s safe to say my abundant heart is still hopeful despite the troubles we have had.

It took us four years of continually searching for land to find Cwm Caredig and in that time we created Edenkind, our non-profit company (that we hope to take to charity status in time) and started three other permaculture CSAs ('community supported agriculture') on smaller plots and loaned land. Food sovereignty, veganism and lowering our carbon footprint went from being a lifestyle choice to our life mission. 

When we found Cwm Caredig, we became more careful with who we let in, not only because Vegan Valley is such a sacred space but because we learned the hard way that people will say whatever it is you want to hear to benefit from what you are offering. The thing is (and the biggest lesson learned) is that it wasn’t as simple as trying to discern who was ‘grooming’ us to benefit from sharing our beautiful land, because it turns out even lovely people are just as likely to lie because they have been in survival mode for so long, duplicity has been normalised. 

Rather than acknowledge issues with alignment that are often no-one's fault, my directness or tone of voice have been cited as reasons to dramatically flounce from our project, often with childish unkindnesses online or in group chats, clearly aimed to sabotage the project and undermine our altruistic intentions. 

As I am prone to take the blame, be the burden and always try to excuse the other, it’s been a strange series of events that has finally found me accepting the adage that their behaviour says far more about them than it does me. Not to say I am faultless of course; not least because my autism is a constant challenge - not just for me, but in particular for those asked to adapt their behaviours to accommodate my special needs but because the ‘why should I?’ narrative is strong in those in survival mode. 

The ‘why should I?' narrative is strong in those in survival mode. 

Having spent a life trying to be less so that other people aren’t uncomfortable around me, I now find I can no longer pretend to be someone I am not. Whether it’s burnout from a lifetime of masking my autism or menopause has left me intolerant to the falseness of society, I am unapologetically myself these days. 

Whilst I am now far more selective about ‘who I let in’ these days, I have to say that ‘letting my guard down’ and being honest about everything to people has led to experiencing the most rewarding relationships I have ever known. Of course being open will always weaponise the narcissistic personality types but those that would use my personal confessions against me only serve to highlight who they are. If you have good boundaries, the only real damage they can cause is a fleeting disappointment that they must be survival mode and not very happy to behave in such a way. Happy people do not use personal knowledge about another to hurt them. Hurt people hurt people is the general understanding. 

Happy people do not use personal knowledge about another to hurt them.

Without ego, you have the opportunity to truly be yourself. If we wanted it enough, we could all just be ourselves, flaws and all and forgive each other when we mess up. Because we all mess up. All the time. And that’s okay. Attaching shame rather than understanding why we do things seems to be a big issue with many. Healthy curiosity leads to better understanding and does not need to come with judgement or shame. Recognition that something psychological may need addressing should be as acceptable as seeing you need new shoes. It’s time to end the stigma around mental health and question why we do things. Why we do everything! 

My questioning can be intrusive to those not ready to ask themselves why they may have behaved a certain way and I have noticed questions around consequences can be very unwelcome to hedonistic narcissists who seek 'good vibes only'. Despite the fact that I am the most joyful person I know, I am often accused of being negative. One volunteer who visited us when we had a barn stolen (yes, a whole barn was dismantled and taken away overnight on one of our projects!) thought I swore too much. I did swear. A lot. It was a whole barn and the police did nothing. My cursing relinquished my rage but perhaps witnessing it was frightening to someone who was very much a ‘good vibes only’ kind of guy. These people are the types to bounce the moment it gets too real and sadly we have met way too many now. It's great to always look for the positives in every situation but if that is where your thinking ends, you are not only guilty of spiritually bypassing your core being which is both good and bad, dark and light, ying and yang but that your ability to think critically will diminish until you are no more than a shallow hedonist afraid of the dark. Being able to do the shadow work that comes with real self-reflection is the only way to reach a place where you can thrive and truly flourish.

People in survival mode fall into two categories: the first type often find they are unable to deal with someone else’s drama. They crave a more peaceful, emotionally-evasive existence and have to switch off any empathy they may have had in the past as they can barely deal with their own dramas let alone yours. I believe it's okay to admit it if you are currently in survival mode and I would love to see it normalised to tell a loved one when your empathy levels aren't operating at full capacity and not to take it personally.

The other type are the ones likely to take on the problems of others so much they become the archetypal wounded healer diverting their attention to others as a way of avoiding themselves.

I suppose that when you are in survival mode, someone preaching about kindness is often received as pious rather than inspirational. Being good, or making kind choices and then talking about those choices is not a good way to be well liked. Choosing truth over popularity means choosing isolation if the truth you speak is not welcome, so for those whose self-worth comes from relationships based on lies, their ego will never allow their core method of validation to be threatened by something as dangerous as the truth. 

Living in survival mode means living in fear. Fear of the unknown. Fear of being alone. Fear of change. Fear of the truth. The only way to thrive is to accept the truth and find a way to be okay with it. To forgive yourself for poor choices in your past. To forgive others for being as flawed as you. To find enough joy and gratitude that it can help you weather the less pleasant aspects of life and thrive despite adverse conditions. 

If it helps, please know the vast majority of us are all in survival mode and it’s the world that has put us there. It’s not our fault! We have become the product of our environment but it doesn’t have to be that way. 

The trick to moving from surviving to thriving starts with acceptance. Accepting your situation and looking at it under a spotlight with honest answers to questions like what part your choices have played in your situation. It helps to come from a spiritual angle, but if you are all about the science and not the more ethereal side of life, scientists have found brain cells in our hearts and guts. So listen to your heart and listen to your gut! 

Being open to looking at the lies you might have been telling yourself along with the lies that society has forced upon you means you start to see where unkindness, even cruelty has been normalised. It takes courage to even begin to accept you might be the biggest problem in your life and be willing to address it. You have to’ feel it to heal it’, so enlightenment is often an ugly epiphany where you come to terms with what an idiot you might have been. How selfish your choices might have been. When you understand that you have been living in a place of survival and you absolutely were doing the best you could with what life threw at you, you will also find self-forgiveness and love. Real love, not this narcissistic narrative that you are all that matters. True conscious awakening is a humbling experience that comes with compassion for all, not just yourself. 

To switch from surviving to thriving you have to be real. You may have to ask yourself some questions that might in turn turn your life completely upside down. Are you ready for that? 

True conscious awakening is a humbling experience that comes with compassion for all, not just yourself. 

You might find that the relationship you are in is based on you pretending to be someone who are not and when you stop pretending, it stops working. You might lose people that have helped you survive, but as you move towards thriving, you may not vibe with them anymore. Be warned! You might think you can change the people you are leaving behind but this is a step back into ego-led thinking. The narrative that you will ‘work on someone’ to bring them around to your way of thinking starts to look like devious manipulation rather than accepting who they are and that they might want something different to you, so be careful! Accepting people for who they are might also mean you no longer have the same connections but as we are all on our own personal journeys, where they are on theirs need not be disastrous for your evolution. 

You might find that you’re the only one willing to get real and whilst your loved ones might nod and smile and say they will support you as you go discover yourself, they may be secretly thinking you’ve lost the plot entirely. But here’s the wonderful thing about thriving instead of just surviving: your happiness is not dependent on them. It comes from within. It comes from accepting that if someone isn’t meant to be in your life anymore that it’s okay and you will be okay. Or that if a situation isn’t panning out the way you hoped, then it was never your story and accepting that means being open to something else that will enrich your life instead. Speak your truth and you will find your tribe.

I’ve stopped worrying so much now if people or situations are meant for me as it really does ALWAYS become apparent in time. Give it time. And so it is with this lesson being thrust upon me while we have absolutely no idea what is happening with the adjoining farmstead to Cwm Caredig that I am stepping back and waiting to see what or who comes forward. We have now had several offers to buy the whole of our beautiful valley but having looked around at what else is available, I find I am not quite ready to give on the hope of a vegan eco village at Cwm Caredig. But until we know who the neighbours are going to be we can't know if this route is a certainty. I’m always tempted to rush around finding solutions so this is a big change for me. Small steps and patience. 

The path will always be revealed if you pay enough attention and wait. My ADHD brain struggles with this, so do not assume I have mastered patience! My Spock-like logical reasoning skills from being autistic are in direct conflict with my ADHD impatience to move onto the next thing now this experience isn't so shiny. But fear not, I have a good system in place to deal with this (and all my decision making), but of course knowing what one should do isn't always the same thing as what one decides to do in the end.

My system? For each and every choice where I feel a degree of responsibility is required, I ask the catastrophist in me to imagine the worst that could happen, the optimist what is the best that could happen and the realist, or statistician to work out what is most likely to happen. I don't consider it 'over-thinking' to imagine every possible outcome. The trick to thriving is to look at the worst that could happen and decide ahead of the outcome whether you can live with that. It creates acceptance before even knowing the consequences and that's a powerful tool to have in your mental health kit.

If I apply this method of thinking to whether or not to sell Cwm Caredig and compare both the worst case outcomes it becomes easy to see why it might be best to wait. There's also wisdom in waiting to make big decisions until you know you are coming from a place of empowerment rather than despair. I feel despair when I think about the state of the world quite regularly, and I still have some healing around the way we have been treated; most recently by the neighbour who agreed to sell me my dream home next door to Cwm Caredig (I sold my cottage last year in good faith that the Old Dairy was 'sold subject to contract' and set to be my forever home). The neighbours chose greed over honour and allowed someone to gazump us. The gazumper has since dropped out, (after attending one of our open days in an attempt to sabotage our selling Cwm Caredig to anyone else but her, resulting in two buying groups dropping out after her diatribe about hunting and all her dogs!) so next door is up for sale again, only this time the owners are refusing to split the title deeds and sell me just the old dairy conversion as per their previous agreement.

So if anyone has a few hundred grand knocking around, (long shot I know but I do believe in miracles ) we'd happily put in up to £300,000 and buy the Old Dairy and land south of the track, leaving two farmhouses, stables, garage and around 15 acres for around £350,000. It's a bargain for an investor and we don't mind paying full market value if we can just secure me a home next to Cwm Caredig! I can't help thinking if I part with Cwm Caredig too soon, I may deny that ever being a possibility.

Using my system, the worst case scenario if I sell Cwm Caredig would be that I could regret it for the rest of my life if we never find anything as beautiful or perfect for our edible forest garden vision again. The worst case scenario if I don't sell: we are stuck with 36 acres of paradise.

The solution we are currently exploring is to sell off parts and keep parts of Vegan Valley as 36 acres is far too big for us. If we are prepared to wait for the right people, we have everything we need already regardless of whether we buy the house next door. I yearn for the security of a fixed address, but being technically homeless and flitting between Cardiff, the Ecohub in Llandysul and of course spending time at the land has not been as awful as I feared. It's great not having a mortgage anymore and I like the alternative lifestyle. I may do a masters in documentary film making at Cardiff uni later this year. If we have found our tribe by then, I could step back from running the land projects and just come and film it instead! Who knows?

What we do know is that we are ready to try again sharing what we have and letting people back in. More tentatively perhaps but that is no bad thing! The grow season is due to start soon so we were always going to get busy with volunteers and visitors even if we did sell up by the end of Summer. When I think about 'peopling' again, I must confess fear does start to creep back in again, but when it comes down to it, people reveal their true nature in the end. You just have to pay attention, and maybe not even to them or their actions but rather to pay attention to how YOU are around them or the situation.

I was often left feeling uneasy after interactions with people I later discovered were just about managing to tolerate me. The falseness of their narratives when they thought I was going to sell them a cheap piece of land was often revealed in unkind flounces and I must confess that after each one, I obsessed about what I might have done wrong or done better or differently, but I have finally come to the conclusion that the way I am is just fine and how I behaved was also okay. In fact if anything, my ability to bring out both the best and the worst in people could be seen as a useful sifting process, sorting the wheat from the chaff and discovering who operates empathically and who is ready for honesty. I’ve never pretended I am perfect, and in fact in my willingness to take the blame or put issues down to my disabilities means I have often offered people a perfect excuse to place all responsibility at my feet. It’s easier to be ableist than self-reflect. 

People in survival mode are more likely to hold onto their prejudices and assumptions because quite often the rage of their cognitive dissonance provides a useful excuse to hide behind. Directing internalised rage at someone else whether it’s blaming their tone of voice or that they used triggering vocabulary is so much easier than acknowledging an uncomfortable truth. People living a lie get defensive when their truth is questioned. They get angry. 

But that’s also okay, because if you’re not ready, you’re not ready and I no longer have any desire to educate someone who isn’t ready. Rage = not ready, so I’d say carry on raging and get it all out of your system, because weirdly enough, the angrier you get, the more likely you are to break through to the other side of that suffering and see yourself. Hear yourself. Feel your true feelings and the face the truth you’ve been hiding from. 

My writing regularly highlights where I still feel rage and where I may not yet be fully healed, so I am grateful for that too. Expressing our rage can be a healthy way to heal. 

If my way of being enrages you, or anything I have said angers you, you’re welcome! I will continue to hold that mirror up so if you don’t want to see how I might see you or explore my philosophies then you don’t have to. No-one has to.

We want to be inclusive, but we also do not want to encourage the hedonistic ego-led cliques we have witnessed where connections are glibly based on falsely ‘bigging’ each other up and keeping it ‘light’ and fun. Fair weather connections are fine - and necessary when you think about it, as we can’t be all things to all people but as Cwm Caredig is such an exquisitely beautiful place, we would prefer to wait until the right time proven connections are made. 

Like the cultural normalisation of lying to get a job, people have been showing us how much they are in survival mode by the lengths they are prepared to go to to benefit from the amazing opportunities we have been offering in our unspoilt valley (and when we tried to buy next door to provide affordable housing of course). We are seeking a tribe of people who are willing to practice non-violent conflict resolution techniques and agree to a way of living and working together that meets the needs of the individual. In short, we are asking people to be willing to talk through any difficulties. It doesn’t seem like a big ask to me, but having watched people leave without so much of a goodbye or a ‘thank you for the opportunity’ we have come to realise it’s harder than we thought to find people willing or able to talk about things that might feel emotive. 

If I was not now coming from a place of compassion because I understand what it is to live daily in survival mode until it traumatises you into a false version of yourself, I would still be fuming at the appalling behaviour of some of the people we have met. But it’s hard to be angry when you understand why people behave the way they do. When you understand you stop taking it personally.

People in survival mode operate from their amygdala, and when you are in a constant ‘fight or flight’ mode that comes from living a life in fear, empathy dwindles and is replaced by thinking of people as a means to survive; as commodities - a means to get what you want. The endless emails and requests we had with extensive lists of what people wanted, rarely accompanied with what they could offer to support our project was overwhelming, and more than tripled when the pandemic started. It intensified the survival mode of many that were altered by Covid and the lockdowns. Division between those that had vaccinations and those that didn’t triggered a lot of people into their own fearful survival mode too. Add to that the political divisions of Brexit and the general election with its normalisation of lying, I feel like I have been watching our society collapse. The over-entitled, hedonistically narcissistic narrative of the majority of our society makes me fearful that our species is devolving. Critic thinking and the ability to self-reflect disappearing amidst celebrity worship and addictions that divert the attention to what is really going on. 

People in survival mode aren’t entirely without empathy but it is often a selective, conditional empathy offered only to a select few be that family or friends or perhaps a demographic, a nation even. Instead of pulling together, people in survival mode often compete against each other and with more and more people unable to share space with someone who dares to have different opinion to themselves, I have wondered if we have somehow forgotten how to disagree. I’m of the belief that it’s possible to disagree and it not turn into an argument. You do not have to believe the same as me for us to grow veg together!

Having a hyperthymesic memory and an almost obsessive need to understand better why people do things, I put together the evidence (often presenting it to Paul with all the options of what I think something might be pointing towards) and we always find compelling reasons for people's behaviour that leads to a place of compassion. I wish, wish, wish more people were willing to talk extensively about someone they care about in a bid to understand them, but we live in a society where such actions are not practiced generally. These often unwelcome conversations can be seen as ‘talking behind people’s backs’ or gossiping to some. For me, if your motive is to increase understanding and compassion it cannot be bad to talk about someone. If love forms your core being, then it isn't divisive to ask the questions that need to be asked.

... we always find compelling reasons for people's behaviour that leads to a place of compassion.

To truly thrive, one has to feel safe to be oneself. Unapologetically oneself. That’s not to say we shouldn’t all be learning ways to accommodate each other and adapt our behaviour if we are able. Helping each other to feel safe to be authentic would be a good start. Forgiving me my autistic tone of voice that can sound overly efficient would be great. Allowing me to thrive without being jealous also very welcome. Can I be inspirational rather than threatening please?

It might seem like luxury or privilege to think about thriving if you have kids to feed or can’t afford your electricity bill, but that shouldn’t stop you reaching out to others to see if collectively we can’t find ways to live that present the opportunity to thrive. There are people like Paul and I ready to share what we have so others can thrive too. The price? Your ego. 

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