There’s Methodism in my madness

Photo by Barbie Robinson from her beautiful new book of poetry 'That Looks on Tempests'
Photo by Barbie Robinson from her beautiful new book of poetry ‘That Looks on Tempests’

In a comment on my last post, my dear friend and author of the incredible As the Lonely Fly, Sara Dowse, exhorted me to ‘forget the Methodist upbringing’ and rest big. That reference to my distinctly Protestant Christian childhood hit me like a B-Line bus barrelling down Pittwater Road. I’ve never considered myself a blamer but if I had to point the finger at the root cause of my own personal work addiction madness, I’d blame the Methos and the Scots. Allow me to explain.

Methodism is not a term one hears too much anymore in Australia, thanks to the 1977 formation of the Uniting Church, an amalgamation of the majority of Methodist, Presbyterian and Congregational dominations. I say ‘majority’ because not all of these churches joined the gang. Some, mostly Presbyterians, stayed out and there was a great deal of disquiet at the time about (presumably) loss of individual church identity. I remember this because my mother and father rushed to have me and my older sister confirmed about a month before the Coorparoo Methodist Church became the Coorparoo Uniting Church.

An offshoot of Anglican Protestantism, the Methodist Church was established by John Wesley and his brother Charles in mid-1700s England. Unlike other strains of the Christian faith at the time, the Wesley brothers believed the Lord’s salvation was, or should be, available to everyone (lower socio-economic types and even people not from England) as opposed to a select, predetermined few. Furthermore, John Wesley argued that salvation could be achieved in this life by doing three things:

  1. Loving God and one’s neighbours
  2. By maintaining ‘meekness and lowliness’ of the heart and,
  3. By abstaining from all appearance of evil.

Traditional Methodists, at least the ones in my family, seem particularly attracted to point three of this doctrine. Roughly translated ‘abstaining from all appearance of evil’ means no drinking, dancing, having sex or anything even remotely approaching a physical desire, gambling or even playing a humble game of cards.  On a family holiday many moons ago, my well-into-her-eighties Aunt told my children, both under ten at the time, that cards were ‘the tools of the devil’. I’ll never forget the look on my kids’ faces before my daughter piped up and said, “But we’re only playing Go Fish.” Indeed. Go Fish is hardly a gateway-drug to poker and Black Jack but there you have it – a lifetime’s adherence to Methodism expressed in one simple comment.

Even though they put the kibosh on fun in general, the Methodists did get one thing right – their hymns, many of which should come with a ‘may cause dizziness’ warning.  Who can forget such greats as ‘Immortal Invisible’, ‘Rock of Ages Cleft for Me’ and ‘O God Our Help in Ages Past’. The latter was the official hymn of the Presbyterian Methodist all-girls school where me and my sisters completed our secondary education. On average I’d say we sang ‘O God Our Help in Ages Past’ at least twice a week which could explain why all four McDonald girls have excellent lung capacity and can talk underwater!

The Methos were also big on doing ‘good works’ for society’s less fortunate, no doubt spreading the word of the Lord as they went along. I suppose that’s one reason why UnitingCare Australia is among the largest not-for-profit community services organisations in this country today. ‘By thy works shall ye be known’ was something my grandmother used to say a lot when I was growing up. Overlay this with the grim resignation only the Scots, with surnames like McDonald, can bring to the concept of the Protestant work ethic and och aye! –  it’s a perfect storm for work addiction.

Years later when Parkinson’s Disease had robbed my father of his fine motor skills so that even turning the page of his beloved Economist was a challenge, he confessed to my nursing sister sister that he was worried about his ‘idle hands’.  He didn’t need to quote another well-used platitude, ‘the devil finds work for idle hands’, my sister knew exactly what he was trying to say. Furthermore, she construed the reference to mean that, as far as Methodists are concerned, even a degenerative illness is no excuse for doing nothing.

During my formative years I heard and saw countless examples like this, implying that ‘work’ is literally the be-all-and-end-all to life and, certainly, the only path to righteousness and redemption. As a five year-old, my aunt made me spell the word ‘p-i-e-c-e’ correctly before allowing me to accept a piece of cake. She thought she was teaching me to spell but the take home message for me was one has to work hard in order to be offered, let alone given, anything.

On a family holiday at the beach, I heard my mother mutter ‘it’s just a change of sink’ as she plunged both hands into the washing-up water. I took this to mean that work, paid and unpaid, is a constant particularly if you’re a mother, and that holidays are for other people to enjoy.

My father, a man who went into the office six days a week for his entire working life, frequently berated himself as a ‘loafer’ for passing out on a poolside lounge for just a few minutes, after Church and before Sunday lunch. And what did my tiny mind extrapolate from this? That working hard is good and resting is bad, even if you’re completely exhausted.

Later in my own life, these beliefs bubbled to the surface in strange and irrational ways. In 1993 I tearfully confessed to my obstetrician that being pregnant was interfering with my ability to earn a living. My alarm at becoming a ‘cost centre’ as opposed to a revenue-raiser increased in tandem with my bulging belly. Being a consultant working in one’s own small business, that’s no joke – you’re only as good as your last gig and if you don’t invoice, you don’t eat. Indeed, my last conscious act before heading to the hospital to give birth to my beautiful baby daughter was turning off the computer in my home office.

Fast forward to Thursday 19 December 2013 at 2.30pm when I’m waiting to be ushered into the pre-op area for surgery to remove my left breast.  Laptop on my knee, I’m desperately trying to finish up some work thing or other, explaining to my ashen-faced husband what he’ll need to do to complete the task when I’m out of action. In a manner that I’m sure is the sole preserve of surgical nursing staff, I was commanded to ‘put that blessed computer away’ and focus on what was about to happen.

Before this current round of chemotherapy I used to think my clearly unhealthy attachment to work was about making a living or succeeding in a startup publishing business. Now, as I once again find myself physically incapable of working in the revenue-raising sense of the word, I’m attempting to view this preoccupation more gently, as a heritage-induced reflex if you like. Nevertheless, while my intellectual self knows that it’s ridiculous to believe one’s worthiness is under question if one is sick and unable to work, my emotional self is stalked by the fear that everything will fall in a heap if I don’t keep my nose firmly to the grindstone.

A wise kinesiologist once told me, ‘That which we fail to investigate ultimately controls us.’ Hence, I’ve embarked on this exploration as to why – when I have plenty of really good reasons to rest – doing nothing makes my flesh crawl and my mind race. Unfortunately, all this exploration and the writing about it, has made me very tired.

Now well into my third round of the chemo/hormone blocker combo, I’m starting to understand what my oncologist meant when he warned me about side-effects being cumulative. There seems to be more of everything – more listlessness, more body aches and pains, more headaches and more wooziness in the head and stomach.  On the emotional front, there’s also more anxiety. The only thing I have less of is staying power, I’m sorry to say.

So, dear readers, I must leave it here for the moment, borrowing comedian Steve ‘the Sandman’ Abbott’s regular sign-off  to an episode of his erstwhile Breakfast Serial on the wireless – ‘To be…continued’.

All the breast in the meantime.



  1. Sara Dowse says

    How chuffed I am to have prodded you into this investigation – which BTW is quite brilliant. But now, again, rest big, float on the cushion of love that all of us are sending you. Believe me, it’s a big one.

  2. Caroline says

    Reading this I felt like I was looking in a mirror – I didn’t have your Methodist upbringing but share your fear of idleness and have totally tied my worth to my work – I plan now to embark on my own exploration of how I can break this nexus and find new ways to value my time and myself. Thank you once again for a beautifully thought provoking and insightful piece. Embrace your relaxation for yourself.

    Love caroline

  3. Madge the Badge says

    Put a pillow under those feet Jen & grab the remote control for a good movie…. even if you fall asleep before “the butler does it….”
    You have already succeeded in your day because we all love reading you blogs – hearing your voice as the words rise up off the screen….. keep blogging; keep resting; keep the Methodists well away from the door… xxx

  4. Andrew Fraser says

    As a fellow (cultural) Metho, I know exactly what you mean. In retirement I feel guilty if I don’t plan the day, and like your father, castigate myself as a loafer if I stop to read a book or play music. But the Meths did give us a great series of hymns! I covered Jim Killen’s funeral for The Oz, and let ‘er rip during the old Metho hymns, so much so that my fellow journos said “I didn’t know Andrew was so devout!” And while not a man of faith now, it is a philosophy which holds you in good stead in the modern world. And re your own health, hang in there!

    • Warren Reed says

      Jen, a Metho background is no bad thing. Mine gave me a strong sense of purpose and a willingness to work hard. That in turn fed through into a world of creativity, contribution and productivity. Never an idle moment. Your mention of Go Fish (can’t imagine the Devil with a fly-fishing rod instead of a multi-pronged spear) reminded me of something that happened a few years back. I swim every morning at Balmoral Beach and as a weak swimmer do a slow breast stroke, without putting my head under. Often, schools of full-size fish swim around me, which blows me away. One morning I suddenly realised that for however long – maybe five minutes – I hadn’t been actively thinking about anything. I’d never recognised my mind being in “neutral” before. My Metho background almost made me panic and get out of the water and sit on the beach to try to work out how the hell such a useless blank could occur! I opted to stay in the water and relax!

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