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fork in road

“Moving forward is as much about discovering what we must leave behind as well as embracing what we must keep. Never easy. Always necessary.” (Christine Caine)

This blog is for all those who have struggled with experiences of difficult relationships and continue to – who are in the midst of confusion, for those who have been left wounded – and for those who wound, for those trying to seek wisdom and divine intervention for one of the biggest decisions they must make in their life, and for those who don’t see the tragedy of haphazard-decision making for serious relationships.

It’s been a while since I’ve written (and I miss it!) – but it’s been a very exciting and jam-packed year of events… from preparation for our first Women’s Conference (see previous blog on more details) to visiting 8 countries in the past year for many theological/academic conferences (am so grateful for all those who invited and sponsored me– from Toronto to DC, Boston and NY, Oxford and Armenia…)

And now am back in London to stay (for now :))

Now to our topic.—-

I’ve been told by men and women that a young Coptic girl is to be taught to grow up to be ‘submissive’ (the all-fun catch phrase for many men who like to show their false superiority over women and misuse St. Paul as their scapegoat) – to not speak her mind and not challenge the status quo – especially when it comes to controversial topics (whatever we may consider ‘controversial’).

Many of us live in a post-modern-Western world, yet we still face such cultural anomalies.

It’s up to us –to distinguish what are some things that are unhealthy that our culture (or upbringing) may endorse –directly or indirectly – and to keep what is healthy and that which pertains to godliness, according to His divine knowledge and discernment He gives us through the grace of the Spirit (2 Peter 1:3).

Well, as for me, (lucky for some) I was raised with a resilient Armenian mother, who is a daughter of a genocide survivor, and a father who raised us to make our own choices and encouraged us to be free thinkers, to speak when the truth need be told (and not be a bystander when unrighteousness is lurking), and to not conform or mould into typical (Coptic) cultural “expectations”- you know the whole image-career-money-relationships pressures.

So here I am.

We live in a time where people are constantly living behind screens – people are afraid of being themselves lest their ‘true’ self be exposed and rejected; we are afraid of being vulnerable, open, honest and of speaking the truth.

Consequently, we often live our lives based on people’s perception of us, so we never fully live our lives in declaring what issues exist – such as: being forced into certain careers at a young age, or cultural/parental pressures of being married by early 20s, or treatment of inequality of women and men in the Church, or not talking about mental and emotional health in the Church, or hearing repeatedly stories where an abusive partner was warranted because the wife ‘bore her cross’ – and she endured the marriage because abuse was better than leaving her husband – since God allowed this abuse so she must carry her cross with joy and longsuffering.

How often are we taught bad and destructive theology because we have often conformed to cultural presuppositions rather than knowing God does not want us to be abused, mistreated and belittled- and that God is not sadist but wants us to be treated with respect, value, honour, love, empathy, compassion, faithfulness.

Thus, we sometimes ‘spiritualise’ things and say such tragic matters are God’s will (because we know ‘all things work for good’ – another verse we throw around without understanding God’s ultimate will for our lives) — because when I’m abused, or mistreated or demeaned – God ‘allows’ this because He is omnipotent, omniscient and controls all things in His hands.

Yes, He is all these things and infinitely more – but the tragedy of humanity (as many fathers say) is the abuse of human’s will against God’s. Of course, simply this is sin, but deceptively, people’s abuse of their will against the other – we sometimes label this as God’s doing and hold Him accountable and blame Him for sin and disaster and chaos in our lives, when it is us who have sometimes caused the havoc.

Does God desire for us to be abused, cheated on, mistreated, belittled? Or does He not countlessly validate our identity and value in Him (and in Him alone) being – ‘wonderfully made’ (Psalm 139:14), taking place in the palm of His hands (Isaiah 49:16), knowing our every thought and every move (Psalm 139:1-6), being the One who gave us life abundantly (John 10:10) and not abusively.

He is the ultimate source of all goodness – no evil comes from Him, let alone abuse or deception or any of such things.

God’s desire is for us to be “wise as serpents, gentle as doves” – we are to ask for wisdom from above (James 1:5-6, Wisdom of Solomon 7:7-8), to have wisdom bound on our neck (Proverbs 1) and for it to be our nearest kin (Proverbs 7)- and of course the list goes on (one can read the entire book of Proverbs and Wisdom of Solomon to get this clear message).

Thus, we are all hold accountable for our decisions and actions we take – and when it comes to relationships, unfortunately, we often are unequipped when making wise choices, because we either are dictated by our parental/cultural upbringing of how or what a relationship should be (he should be a doctor and deacon, she should be passive and obedient and not one of stronger character)… or how society dictates us (whatever you ‘feel’ it must be true love – or we can use and abuse and recycle going from relationship to relationship until we find ‘the true’ – one who satisfies our needs).

(My dream is one day the Coptic Church will have a pre-requisite for all marriages to go through some sort of pre-marital Christian counselling as we all need to be equipped and understand what marriage truly is).

I don’t claim this to be a ‘five-step for relationship’ guide (no such thing can exist as every relationship and every human being is infinitely different), or to be a spokeswoman for Dr. Phil…

But I write here from numerous observances I’ve seen, along with my own personal experience of about 2 years ago– in hopes of showing how certain aspects of a relationship can be detrimental, unhealthy, and simply not being inline of what God has designed for each of us to have – sanctified, holy relationships and marriages.

With divorce and infidelity (let alone broken families) out of control, being almost the new ‘norm’ (yes even countless of divorces and separations are happening among our Coptic communities – among those even in their 20s to those who have been married for decades)… (If anyone has heard of the recent Ashley Madison scandal, a marital affair website, where about 4 million registered names were leaked and the majority of them being from the West – and some of whom are outwardly practicing Christians – are one of many indications there is a serious problem how we go about our relationships).

We must then constantly ask ourselves when dealing with relationships:

  • How do we view them?
  • Do we undervalue (or overvalue) them?
  • How do we begin them (or how do we end them), and
  • How do we sustain them (if we can)?

We must ask ourselves how each of us can prevent such events of affairs, abuse, and unhealthy relationships from happening in our personal lives and in the lives around us (we are all accountable too for those around us as the living Body) – and what are some red flags of prevention we need to be fully aware of.

Disclaimer: my purpose is to bring awareness about unhealthy motives and aspects of relationships. Above all, we need to be seeking careful spiritual counsel with a life of prayer – seeking God’s will and living a life in and with the Trinity. God is faithful, but we need to be faithful and do our work faithfully– and pray that He always reveals to us the truth in and for every part of our lives.

While reading this, it is often natural we think of what the ‘other’ person should be for our relationship, but a healthy relationship will never work unless both parties invest and contribute to healthy-relationships. So we must begin with ourselves most importantly.

Thus, below are some indicators we need to be mindful of in understanding what are unhealthy factors in a relationship (the list is by no means exhaustive):

The Intention. This is probably one of the most difficult ones to decipher from (in my opinion), unless of course someone approaches you and tells you his/her intentions (“I am lonely and all my friends are getting married… so here I am, will you date me?!”)

I read an insightful article on the biggest mistakes people make when they get married (thank you to my good friend Samantha Elbouez for posting- can be found here:

http://qz.com/474766/the-biggest-mistakes-people-make-when-choosing-a-life-partner/)

Some people marry to ‘fill their needs’, or because everyone else is in a relationship or getting married, so their reputation and embarrassed-singleness is at stake, or experience society/culture/family pressures (we in the Coptic world experience this often). Or they believe marriage will fix all their problems (with that mentality often the opposite occurs), or marriage will ‘complete them’ (Jerry Maguire was wrong), or they want to escape their parents’ home and the tyranny of their parents rules…

If we or our partner is coming from a place needing to be filled or spared from social embarrassment, inevitably this truth will come forward. A relationship incited by fear and self-satisfaction usually ends in self-destruction and devastation for the other person. Only God ultimately can fill us – yes we are definitely filled by other people and we are relational beings, being made in the image of the Trinity, who are Persons of relations (and God saw Adam needed a companion; Adam saw Eve as his own flesh) – but the problem lies whether we first seek to be filled by God, the source of all things and who is unchangeable and eternal, or whether we seek to be filled by temporal and changeable persons or things in this world. If our identity lies on the other, we are the most pitiable – because we seek to be sustained by something or someone that is bound by time and mortality.

My intention(s) must be truthful, honest, mature when establishing a life-partner, it cannot be self-centered and solely self-seeking, for that is exactly the opposite of what an authentic marriage is (and those who are in healthy marriages can vow for this); unhealthy marriages spring forth from selfishness and immature intentions.

Conflict-resolution avoidance. “What we can avoid we don’t have to deal with” attitude is dominant in people who often are not willing (and immature) to deal with real issues in their own personal life and/or issues in a relationship. Often people have this “no big deal” attitude in dealing with problems and ‘flight rather than fight’ when things need to be dealt with at hand. I have seen this too often than not in our communities – among both men and women (personally I’ve seen it more in men).

Anyone see the episode of How I Met Your Mother when Ted constantly is in fear and avoids his x-fiancé across Manhattan? He doesn’t want to deal with facing the brokenness of their relationship.

In relationships, problems are inevitable to arise- whether from one or both partners or just life problems that come our way. Those who are in mature relationships should learn how to build and establish their own conflict-resolutions. I’ve seen too often that when difficulty arises in a relationship, one (or both) people are inherently quick to leave the scene and not want to ‘deal’ with the situation. This is a sign of immaturity and unwillingness (not inability) to deal with conflict. When Christ dealt with issues with the tax-collectors, Pharisees, even His own family, you never see Him wave the peace sign and flee… Christ always dealt with the issue at hand – in a manner of wisdom, justice, and mercy. He never walked away in coward-ness or fear.

I’ve dealt with people who so easily can rip apart a person behind a screen – whether online, text etc (in my own experience)– but in person they become timid, fearful, and ashamed when dealing with those same persons. We’ve been accustomed to ‘hiding’ behind screens and ‘speaking out’ our minds whenever we want or however we want – without accepting the responsibility of dealing with the problem at hand.

I’ve seen people extremely outspoken and gregarious on social media, but when face to face with those same people – when a problem arises, they avoid it – not able to find a screen they can hide behind and stand up to the reality of life’s challenges. Such people can be teachers, preachers, and ‘messengers’ of the gospel but can easily contribute in treating people as demeaning as we do.

I’m not endorsing a relationship that has many conflicts because of the relationship itself, this needs to be dealt with in a healthy and proper manner – but we need to learn to be a generation to face and deal with things properly, healthily and face to face.

When we repeatedly avoid conflict-resolutions in our lives, this issue will inevitable revisit us in one form or another – over and over – and we will need to learn how to handle and establish such ways in our lives (when our boss is being difficult, or we are in a financial crisis, or we are dealing with chronic health issues…such things can take the precedence attitude of ‘flight’ vs. fight)

The unresolved past will always reappear and unless we learn how to form such healthy methods, we will constantly face issues without knowing how to ‘handle’ them.

Relationships that endure life’s challenges – whether they be financial, health-related, familial – or whatever life brings – if they learn how to support each other, they inevitably will bear the fruit of a stronger bond and a more intimate relationship. But if one or both partners check-out when any problem arises in a relationship, the relationship is bound to weaken and break; it is no longer (or ever was) based on self-giving, support, love, compassion, courage – things that we need to build an authentic relationship.

We can also see a person at his/her core when deep issues arise – as CS Lewis says “Surely what a man does when he is taken off his guard is the best evidence for what sort of man he is.” – how we deal with problems reflect a lot about our inner selves and we need plenty of room in revealing our weaknesses before God and asking for constant healing.

Poor Communication. This is a simpler indication of an unhealthy relationship, however, we all experience it sometimes too often.

Although men and women may ‘speak’ different languages (the whole Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus outlook), there are other things that contribute to weak communication other than general gender-set-up differences.

People who are willing to be in a relationship but unwilling to communicate and be vulnerable have failed to understand the basic essentials of connecting with another human being; in order to connect we have to be vulnerable. I’m not insinuating pour out every thought and every emotion to the other person, but we have to grow and build real and authentic relations with one another – and this can only be done by being open and honest with each other (and this state of being sincere – must be also done in all relations we have with friends, family, colleagues, strangers.. to whatever degree each relation calls for).

There is no one-way in being vulnerable and having healthy communication skills, but there are clear ways as when we are disconnected, distant and closed-off in our relationships. If your partner deals with issues (as also said earlier) poorly – s/he texts or messages you when dealing or communicating important matters – it’s a clear indication of poor communication (we were not made to have a relationship with a piece of metal but a human living being), or even when a person begins or ends a relationship via text or email – red-flag of poor communication (among many other things) and immaturity.

We were made to be face-to-face, person-to-person, not person-to screen. We have often build relationships with the latter and then expect the person-to-person type of relationship to work when we are not willing to be fully a person but a person behind a screen.

Our unwillingness to communicate and become authentically vulnerable with our partners will never produce healthy and strong relationships. (If we are not vulnerable with our proposed-life-long partners, who can we be vulnerable with? Who can we be authentic or truthful with?)

Self-image. When anyone introduces themselves to me for the first time and their profession immediately follows their name, for me, it’s usually an indicator that their identity is consumed with their profession; their career becomes the basis of their image.

I often tend to avoid saying what I do when people ask what am I doing with my life– usually when people know I ‘do’ theology I’m at times automatically put in a box, labelled, and perceived as how I am to be – or how people want me to be.

We as humans are taught to label things and identify things when we grow up (part of our speech and learning skills). The sky is blue, the sun is yellow, the grass is green.

We often use this same method of naming and identifying things when we deal with people; we categories people by their careers, money, possessions, family – rather than identifying them for who they are as a person.

That deacon is a good boy because he sings front-row-mic on Sundays; that girl is a going to be a good wife because she sits humbly with her head covered and is obedient to her elders and teaches Sunday school. And so it goes with the lawyer, doctor, pharmacist, super-servant, preacher, Sunday school teacher, abouna’s shanta-bearer… and so on…

People have approached me solely because I study theology – and form me as a their ideal companion and ‘theology-trophy’ – where we can sit and chat about patristics till the sun goes up.

I do love my field (and yes talk about it from time to time in informal settings), but anyone who knows me, knows that I do not usually sit casually over a meal or coffee quoting Chrysostom – unless of course a poor chap brings up a heated topic on defending gender inequality or such matters 🙂 …

We love to box people in. That person is a liar. He is a cheat. She is untrustworthy.

We must learn what are healthy things to look for in a person based on who they are as a person overall and not on external characteristics (or one or two personal traits) and family pressures.

Which leads to my next point.

Parent-child relations. I have seen this unhealthy relationship dynamic too often than not in the past few years; my group of friends and I growing up in California never witnessed this in our own personal lives, so this was (and still is) such a foreign concept to me. But in many Coptic communities, it is a grave issue.

We can speak about of course the typical unhealthy mother-son/father-daughter set-up in many of our Coptic families (and other cultures of course as well), but besides this particular issue, I’ve seen and witnessed parents who control the relationships of their son or daughter, whether directly or indirectly.

A few years back when I was in a relationship, I was told by my priest that a certain parents decided to see what ‘type’ of person I was because of the mere fact my parents were divorced and called my priest to validate their concern; I found out this information much later (thankfully or I would have faced those parents at the time for over-crossing boundaries). Nevertheless, such an example, among many other examples I know of that exist in our community, are clear indicators of parents drive for control in their children’s lives (and also concern for the family’s image).

If we are to standardise our relationships based on our partner’s parents background – then we should also make a point of beginning to date the parents – how much money they make, how do they treat their children, are they abusive, are they emotionally available to their children, do they have any addictions, why they got divorced, why they lack intimacy in their marriage…

If boundaries are crossed, then there becomes no limit to disgracing and judging others.

Some youth growing up (even older youth) still believe that their parent’s decisions and outlook are nearly (if not) immaculate – especially when it comes to finding a life-partner. This girl is for me because my mom likes her, that person is not for me because the parents don’t get along (because a requirement for a good marriage has become that the parents’ become close-bonded friends), he is a good candidate because he fits the criteria of my parents in being financially-well off. All of a sudden, God’s will became a direct parallel with our parents will.

I’m not indicating that our parents input is not valid or invaluable; but often we are dictated by the biased, judgmental and cultural anomalies that our parents may pass into when making their ‘judgement’ (this can also sadly be said for some spiritual leaders – some who pressure youth to date certain typical tick-boxed characters in the church, thinking that such external things will build and sustain a healthy relationship and marriage).

We need to continue to seek wisdom and discernment from above to know what is healthy for us according to godly standards and not cultural standards.

Decision-making. This is also a difficult one to decipher, but with time and discernment this aspect is also revealed.

We all are prone to making mistakes, and daily make decisions out of our own free will. But often, among our communities, ‘big’ decisions are often dictated (and at times have an ultimatum) by parents-to-children. Growing up without the freedom in making decisions on one’s own results in the child not being able to make their own decisions and great reliance on their parents or any elderly person’s outlook on life. Often, children become crippled by such forced ways and it becomes a form of abuse – parents misuse their parental guidance to parental avoidance – that is- the fear of loss control of their child, not allowing the child freely to make their own choices according to their right of free will (and I am not speaking of loss of control out of rebellion or such negative situations, but of life decisions and choices).

For example, someone who would rather choose a different career going into College other than their parents choice, the parents may manipulate or decide which College and which career they are undertaking – without taking into consideration the child’s desire for their own future.

This happens too often in relationships when parents become too deeply involved and have the ultimate say in many aspects of their child’s relationship. It becomes toxic and destructive to both parties, and will get worse if not resolved over time, especially when the relationship turns into marriage. The marriage then often involves the newly-weds parents decisions and brings division and conflict in the newly formed family; there no longer is trust or freedom to build a new family – but there is the unhealthy attachment and reliance to one of the partner’s family in many decisions they make. A parent’s mistrust and inability to allow their child to be guided by the right counsel and upbringing without force (as God never forces us in any decision) is abusive and unhealthy.

Abuse. This not only goes for physical abuse (which is grievingly high in our world), but verbal, psychological, and emotional abuse.

A person who belittles and demeans you in any shape or form – is a sign of abuse. This is not always so apparent, but often times, if one feels belittled, it’s usually a sign this person may be treating you less human. We often are not taught to identify such forms of abuse when it takes place because we ‘put up’ with treatment – probably a reflection that we need to re-evaluate how we view ourselves (for if we view ourselves as God views us – wholesome, valuable, worthy of respect and honour – we would not accept any less from another – especially when it comes to our life-partner).

If I am afraid to express myself – my fears, thoughts, feelings to my partner – this is a sign of not a full and wholesome bond. I’m afraid how s/he will react because I’ve been struggling with something in life, or I’m afraid to be open and vulnerable because s/he may reject me or devalue me and think less of me… such thoughts need to be exposed in the relationship and if the fears become a reality, then it’s something to re-consider whether to stay in that relationship.

A nourishing and fruitful relationship encourages empathy, compassion, support, healing, kindness, non-judgementalness, faithfulness, honesty,

Keys indicators for unhealthy tendencies:

  • criticism
  • fear to be oneself
  • deception
  • inability to deliver serious promises
  • belittling
  • disparage of treatment
  • partial treatment (‘special’ treatment towards the partner – but bad treatment towards others – ie strangers, friends, family – treatment of another person will eventually be passed on even towards your partner)
  • blaming others
  • inability to take one’s own responsibility for a situation

Indicators for a healthy partnership:

  • Compassion
  • Safe space to be yourself
  • Affirmation of self-worth
  • Encouragement, emotional support
  • Constructive growth (vs constructive ‘criticism’ – this type of growth accompanies compassion – not mere rebuke and demoralising which is linked often to criticism)
  • Healthy, respectful boundaries
  • Self-awareness
  • Emotional availability
  • Skilful conscious communication (don’t shut down and say ‘can’t handle this’ )
  • Taking responsibility for their own actions

We need to both be givers of such indicators for a healthy-relationship and receivers – one healthy person and one unhealthy person in a relationship still usually equates to an unhealthy relationship.

Unstable relationships. A person who cannot keep a relationship for a long period of time or is in constant need to be in a relationship – probably has an issue of their identity of the constant ‘need’ of being in a relationship –regardless with whom or when or how.

This instability usually equates to disaster; instability is a sign of immaturity and need for healing where one needs to find their own identity in the triune God first rather than in relationships. Their being is affirmed whether or not they are single, and such outlooks on life is dangerous and toxic for themselves and for those relationships they pursue (as mentioned earlier, see the article link above on why people get married).

And finally to my last point…

Sexual-centeredness. As Christians, we always hear to be sexually active is a grave sin.

But I am not only speaking about being sexually active in a relationship before marriage, but the focus of a gaining a relationship as a means to end, especially marriage where we think we have the freedom to have no control over our bodies and thoughts (and the bodies of our partners) and freely divest in our passions.

I heard a few years ago that some Coptic marriages across the globe – are ‘rushed’ because the man (or maybe even the woman) ‘cannot wait’ so it’s better to have them married and avoid such a grave sin of fornication and seal it with the ‘right’ way of marriage.

I was utterly horrified (still am) at such a twisted and degraded way of thinking.

Firstly, when did marriage become about filling a ‘need’ because of my lack of self-control? When did it become degraded to fulfilling a sexual need because “I can’t wait” and I may fall into sin – so it’s better to mask the issue and seal it with a ring on the finger for life? How can someone ever think in such a way?? (and I can go on and on)

Do we risk a couple’s life of having a faulty marriage that is factored on a physical act to be so-called ‘satisfied’? Has marriage become from being an icon of the Trinity, from being an image of Christ and the Church (Eph 5) – to an icon of physicality and sex-centredness?

If anyone thinks that marriage will satisfy one’s lustful desires in such a manner, they have never been so far from the reality of marriage and understanding of one’s spiritual life. And if the ‘fear’ of the couple falling into sin before marriage is there – clearly, they (or one of them) have already deeply fallen into sin and are still there – have we forgotten that Christ was not metaphorically speaking when He said if you lust after a woman with your eyes you have already committed adultery? (Matt 5:28).

So we try to cover up a sin (fornication) with another sin (satisfying a lust- which is impossible because lust is never quenched) – and cover it with the sanctity of marriage and call it ‘acceptable’?! We’ve used marriage as a scapegoat for our lusts and lack of self-control and wonder why many marriages go wrong.

If such deep issues are not dealt with before marriage and/or during a relationship, it will just get worse.

I also must note – that even those who may not necessarily rush into marriage for this particular purpose – but are often thinking of ‘their wedding night’ rather than investing in a holy and healthy marriage – have also fallen into this trap, whether they realise it or not.

How often have I heard a person speak openly about their ‘wedding night’ in a sarcastic-comical manner – only just to show that they have just degraded it’s sanctity to a physical act (or those who are newly married speak about how great it is). We have come so far from the reality of marriage and reduced a wholesome relationship between two human beings to two human bodies.

As I said, I can go on – but will conclude (I will write another blog on ‘sex before marriage’ in the near future).

So then what?

Awareness is the path to freedom.

We need to be constantly evaluating how and why we pursue relationships – in hopes of seeking out healthy and living out wholesome ones in our lives. Self-awareness is utterly key – if we choose to contribute and maintain unhealthy relationships – it us and our partners who suffer the consequences. We also need to take responsibility if we contribute to those unhealthy factors and do the work in asking for grace and healing in such dark areas of our lives – so that we do not bring such factors into our next relationship.

Awareness, awareness, and awareness.

Without it, often we live in disillusion, especially when we are blinded by (unhealthy) emotional-driveness in our relationships.

We need to be cultivating healthy and wholesome relationships – in all aspects of our relations with people – we inevitably will bring forward how we treat the other into our relationship with our partner – something we need to be growing in our walk with the triune God.

We also need to pursue and fight for forgiveness; the death of a relationship is a success of an un-failed marriage; those who have caused hurt, pain, disgrace and other traumatic events – need to be forgiven – for ultimately forgiveness is for oneself not the other person.

I’ve seen too often broken-up relationships when either party continues to be destructive and careless towards the other person…it’s a sign of lack of forgiveness and wanting to heal their hurt by continuing to hurt the other (which is impossible).

People who have wronged or wilfully and immaturely harmed us offer a gift, yes a gift. A gift to grow in pursuing forgiveness, in growing in compassion and truly fulfilling what the gospel beseeches that forgiveness with God can only happen if we forgive each other.

CS Lewis knew what he was talking about when he said “Forgiveness is a nice idea until you have to do it.”

I pray that we continue to seek and pursue healthy relationships, become healthy-minded persons, understanding what God desires for us as worthy of respect, love, honour and value.

Much more to write…but I believe that is quite sufficient for now…

Come, let us return to the Lord; For He has torn, but He will heal us; He has stricken, but He will bind us up.. Let us pursue the knowledge of the Lord. (Hosea 6:1, 3)

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