Muck Fights, Immunity, Resilience, and JOY

 

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The Blue Hole                     Photo credit:  ME!!

I just returned from a long weekend in South Texas, where I grew up. Even though it was hot, with the temps reaching 95 every day, it was one of the best weekends I’ve had in a really long time. For three mornings in a row, my cousin/sister, my dad, and I sat at the breakfast table over coffee and talked for three hours about whatever came to our minds. Afterward, we headed out to romp across the ranches in the Dry Frio Canyon that are littered with countless memories from my childhood.  We each agreed that the weekend felt like nothing short of an emotional and spiritual retreat.

One of my goals for my solo trip to Texas this time was to hit up the Blue Hole, a fabulous swimming spot on the ranch that my dad manages. This was one of my all-time favorite places to go during the summer – a small length of river ranging from 8 to 10 feet deep bordered by two great rocks for jumping. This section of the Dry Frio is always warmed by the August sun, but because of underground springs and a good current, the water only five feet under the surface is ice cold.

While the river was running full and clear this particular weekend, there have been plenty of times in the past when a Texas drought was in full swing and the current wouldn’t be running fast enough to keep the water clean.  During these times, the surface of the river would develop a growth of brown algae/moss. This slimy stuff would line the edges of the banks and coat the underwater rocks.  If my brother and our friends/family swam in the river during these times, we would stir up this algae with our antics, causing it to break loose and float around us and down the river.  We called this stuff:  muck.

Being good country kids who didn’t mind a little dirt and grime, we embraced this grossness and engaged in raucous muck fights.  A big clump of muck would float by, and we would each grab copious handfuls of it to fling at each other. We would feel quite satisfied if we managed to slam someone in the face with a fistful of muck just as they were coming up out of the water for air.  Looking back, muck fights were yucky and I’m no longer game for them (even though my cuz tried really hard to get me to play with the little globs of muck that were present this weekend).

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Dry Frio River, Uvalde County, TX

As my cousin and I reminisced about our childhood muck fight days, we waxed philosophical about how that nasty algae, and all the other stuff we got into as kids, probably helped us develop the robust immune systems we currently both enjoy.  She has only thrown up two or three times in her life (a fortune on her part that I consider a little unfair to the rest of us), we’ve never struggled with asthma, allergies, or similar issues, and other than the occasional cold, we’ve faired pretty well overall.

My cousin and I are certainly not the first people to theorize about this.  In a 2017 book, Jack Gilbert, professor at the University of Chicago and director of the Microbiome Center, wrote a book called Dirt is Good describing the positive effects of letting kids get dirty and become thoroughly acquainted with their environments. In an interview with the New York Times, he suggests that early childhood exposure to microscopic critters like bacteria helps shape not only our immunity but also the various processes influencing our hormones and nervous systems.

Scientists have postulated for years that our extreme aversion to dirt, grime, and anything unsanitary in the United States has actually been a factor contributing to the development of some disease.  We have done a good job of avoiding some horrible epidemics, thanks to our advances in hygiene and sterility, but in our overzealousness, especially for new parents, we often remove germs that are necessary to help boost immune function in our children.

“Studies have shown that priming or seeding of the microbiome in the child is absolutely critical,” said Marsha Wills-Karp, professor of environmental health and engineering at Johns Hopkins’ Bloomberg School of Public Health. “While you don’t want to go out and expose your child to aggressive infections, you don’t want to create such a sterile environment that their immune system doesn’t develop normally; it puts them at risk of developing immune diseases.” (1)

So basically, a clean, perfect, safe environment is not always as good as what one would think for adapting well to life and the avoidance of disease.

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I can’t help but think that this same hygiene hypothesis applies to our spiritual lives and the process of building resilience. Our tendency is to try to make life as easy as possible, because…well….pain and hard circumstances hurt.  But what if the frantic maneuvering to shield ourselves from every hard thing really harming us in the long run, or is minimizing our ability to live the most abundant, meaningful life possible?

I was listening to a recent episode of the Rich Roll podcast, where Rich was interviewing medical doctor (and a billion other things) Zach Bush. In this discussion, Zach mentioned something that scared him: the US has not had a war on its soil in a VERY long time.  Say what?!  Why would that worry him?  Sounds a little messed up, eh?

His point in saying this was that he fears Americans have become too inoculated against the hard situations, need for frugality, and the general paradigm shifts about life that occur when the reality of war is in your face on a daily basis.  (I paraphrased his ideas here). Truth be told, we are groomed here to pursue comforts and luxury, endless choices, constant frigid air conditioning, the latest and greatest toys, etc. We lack a solid wisdom culture in our country’s young life to teach us that suffering is necessary to grow us and build resilience.

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If I’m completely truthful, it’s all the hard things in my past that have gotten me to where I am right now and have made life ultimately meaningful.  Every time I look back through memories and recall the things that I hated, wished I had done differently, or wished I’d avoided….in almost every case, an erasure of those events would have potentially dramatically altered my trajectory in life.

-I didn’t want to do all that public speaking for school events or play the piano every week for church services, but doing so over and over again made me so much less afraid of getting up in front of an audience.

-I wish I hadn’t gotten so depressed in college or struggled with anxiety and panic attacks, but now I have so much more empathy for others, and in some cases, can help show people a way out

-I wish I hadn’t walked away from a PhD program in a field I loved because I was afraid another marriage offer as a young adult wouldn’t come along….but doing so brought me three fabulous boys, some tremendous life experiences, and the knowledge that I could be really brave when the time came and I needed to be.

-If I hadn’t been such an eccentric child with a crazy bent for all things God and spirituality, I would have been saved alot of hurt for internalizing teachings that brought shame, guilt and fear for years….but  now I can relate to others whose theological scaffolding has also crumbled, who are trying to find a God they can once again believe in and follow.

And on, and on, and on.  I can recall hard thing after hard thing that was terrible at the time, but it made all the difference for who I am now. Those little hurts and pains, the slights and wrongs done against me, my massive failures….they created a resilience in me that wouldn’t have otherwise evolved.

*************************************************************************************This process of building resilience has changed the way I approach pain in life.  At one time, when I was young, I avoided emotional and mental pain whenever possible. I certainly already had enough in my life as a child that I didn’t want to seek out more.

As I grew older, in my twenties and early thirties, I began to see the wisdom of necessary suffering, how some things just won’t grow without a fertilizer of pain.  Still, it’s not like I sought it out.  Who would do such a thing, right?  Deliberately make their life harder?

Now, as a youngster pushing forty, I actually seek out difficult things, situations that I know will be uncomfortable and unpleasant.  But my perspective is completely different.  I don’t seek out suffering simply for the sake of suffering.  I have to interject a thought by John Piper here.  I know, I know, you’re pulling yourself up off the ground, entirely shocked that I would quote him.  Way back in college, I was on a big John Piper kick with his Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist book.

Here’s the central verse that his book is based on, making the point that it is OK to be motivated by what lies ahead in the future:

[Look] to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:2)

Now, I certainly don’t agree with all of Piper’s theology, but I love this principle theme.  Jesus did things because of the joy he ultimately knew it would bring him, and I believe that is just as valid a reason for how we should pursue our own lives.

“It is not unbiblical, therefore, to say that at least part of what sustained Christ in the dark hours of Gethsemane was the hope of joy beyond the cross. ” – John Piper

I do hard things and even set myself up for failure at times, not just because I know it builds resilience and makes me stronger, but because of JOY.  Jesus knew that the pain of the cross wouldn’t last forever. I, too, am being taught by life that my own pain and suffering won’t last forever.  It will eventually pass, and if it has been weathered well through hope and faith that the universe is benevolent, joy will remain.

While I can’t speak for everyone, I have found this to be true.  I have more joy in life now than I ever did when things were “easy”. In fact, I regularly have a deep welling up of giddiness inside me that can’t be explained rationally.  Much more than a superficial happiness that everything is just peachy, I think it comes from the same knowing that Jesus had, that “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” (2)

 

(1) Klass, P. (2017, April 17). Too Clean for Our Children’s Good? Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/17/well/family/too-clean-for-our-childrens-good.html

(2) Julian of Norwich

 

 

 

 

When You’re Raging in the Kroger Parking Lot

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Photo credit: Madstreetz

One of my kids and I ran to Kroger this evening to grab a couple of things for dinner.  It was just one of those quick in and out trips that should have been uneventful.  As we were pushing our shopping cart to the back of my SUV to unload the groceries, I looked over to see the guy parked next to me loading up his truck with his own bags.  And then, I saw that his open truck door was firmly smashed up against my driver side door.  The door that I JUST got fixed when a driver backed her SUV into mine a couple of months ago. The exact same door that I had to take back to the body shop and have them redo the decorative metal strip because they apparently didn’t know to use a level when applying it, and instead of being parallel with the ground, it crept upward at an annoyingly obvious angle.

Of course, as it would turn out, the paint on my driver’s side door was damaged.  Chipped, not just a paint smudge that could be wiped off.  I was LIVID.  Livid at the man for knowing I was watching him and actively ignoring me.  Livid that the man knew his door was hitting mine and refused to do anything about it.  Livid that he decided not to take responsibility and at least apologize to me.  And livid, because what the heck?!  Why does life give you these freaking exasperating experiences when your week is already stressful enough?  It’s like God knows you are teetering on the edge of losing your mind and he thinks it would be helpful to offer you the last little shove necessary to finish the job…

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I know, you are reading this and thinking, wow Julie, you need some serious therapy.  It’s just a little paint chip.  And yes, it is just a little cosmetic flaw on a 10-year-old SUV.   In the grand scheme of things, it is a piddling little problem.   Except…..I was already angry.  Like…really, really angry.

In fact, for the last couple of months, I have been furious.  Deep, dark, seething anger that has risen up out of nowhere….or so I thought.

Now, don’t get all upset on me…I’m not homicidal or anything, and I’m not about to go ballistic on anyone.  The point is this:  I’ve realized I had some intense pent up anger that built up over a decade, and I now finally have the space to deal with it.   At least, that’s what the universe seems to be telling me.

Anger is a tough emotion to deal with.  Growing up a good Christian girl, I was always taught that anger isn’t OK….you’ve got to eradicate it before you go to bed at night, and geez….who can really do that?  It’s not exactly possible to have all your frustrations and wrongs addressed during daylight hours.  As far as I understood for years, the only justifiable long0term anger is righteous indignation, like when you’re angry about injustices that occur in the world.   I’ve noticed, however, that people usually have limited patience when individuals feel angry about injustices or wrongs personally done to them, and they aren’t able to get over their anger quickly enough.  We tend to be uncomfortable allowing others to grieve or be angry for very long.  We want them to fix it or get over it.

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I have a super wise therapist friend who once taught me that anger is a secondary emotion.  It really is a front for four or five other primary emotions:  fear, embarrassment and shame, guilt, frustration, etc.   One of my kids was having real struggles with anger a few years ago and I couldn’t figure out where it was coming from.  Once my friend explained this concept to me, it was much easier to ask my son the right questions, dig deeper, and find out the underlying cause of his anger.  And she was right. He was usually embarrassed about something when he became angry, or afraid of looking incompetent.

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I’ve been doing some digging now into my own anger.  I don’t like it honestly.  The raw, human part of me wants to feel and flesh out my anger because anger makes you feel validated, and justified.  But anger burns you away from the inside.  Frankly, it is also exhausting.

It became clear that I carried years of pent up anger from my 12-year marriage.  Like, ALOT of anger.  For the first couple of years after I got divorced, I was trucking along just fine, and then BAM!, a volcano of all kinds of vile emotions started pouring out from the recesses of my mind.  As you recall, I grew up a good Christian girl and I still have enough of that in me that it makes me control my outward behavior and I can present myself appropriately to the world.  🙂  But my best friends know my struggle – they know how I want to yell and rage and stomp and throw things, and that I’ve used the word HATE on multiple occasions, and all the shame that comes with that because good Christian girls aren’t supposed to hate anyone.

But this is real life, y’all.  Which is why it needs to be written about.  Because we all have situations like this. And we all get angry.

So why all the anger now? I think that this is part of the healing and grieving that comes from going through hard things in life.  God knows the dark parts locked away inside of us that need to be dealt with, even if our conscious minds don’t.  And God clearly knows that I have some stuffed up emotions and a big pain body locked away within. And until I deal with them, they insidiously poison me and control other areas of my life, limiting me from being the best me.

I’m pretty sure I didn’t know I was angry for all those years, because I had developed coping mechanisms to survive.  We all do this at times in life.  If we are faced with difficult situations that we don’t think we can escape, we construct stories or ways of dealing with things to avoid the despair and frustrations that we don’t think can be resolved.  I know I felt this way.  For most of my life I thought divorce was wrong in pretty much every circumstance.  I knew I wasn’t happy, but I also knew if I was going to be married for the next forty years I had to figure out a way to make things work so I wouldn’t be absolutely miserable.

And so I justified, rationalized, created stories, overlooked wrongs, etc etc, etc, to try and cope with a life situation that I absolutely didn’t want.  I couldn’t be angry at the time because that certainly doesn’t help create an easy forty-year path.

But now, I am no longer in what felt like a seemingly hopeless situation, so all of that suppressed anger has come up.  And believe me, you can build up alot of anger over 12 years.

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Pema Chodron, a Buddhist monk who you should absolutely acquaint yourself with if you haven’t already, wrote a book on anger called Don’t Bite the Hook.  Actually, I think its an audio recording of a talk she gave once. ( I have it on audible). In this book, she talks about learning to see anger as a teacher, not as an enemy. She offers that if we learn to work with anger and be open to it, it can teach us to be more compassionate and wise instead of just escalating on autopilot into aggression and violence.

There is a concept she discusses called shenpa.  Literally, it means “attachment”, but the idea behind it is the same as the theme of her book title:  “getting hooked.”  A review of her book in Tricycle magazine describes it well.  Something happens to you that you don’t like, and a shift happens deep inside you, and you’re suddenly hooked.  Or, as Eckhart Tolle describes it, the pain body, that was lying dormant within, suddenly wakes up and begins to arise, taking over your thoughts and emotions.   A couple of possible examples to illustrate: My ex-husband says something that irritates me and suddenly I tighten up inside and feel snarky. A colleague drops the ball and I have to do extra work, but instead of just letting it go and doing what needs to be done, I latch on to the “unfairness” of the situation and seethe until my ego is soothed.  Or, I come out of Kroger and find that a stranger wasn’t diligent with his own property and allowed mine to be damaged.  And, instead of giving grace for it, I clench my teeth and latch on to the angry emotions arising.  This is shenpa.

I’ve been thinking about Chodron’s idea of working with anger alot lately.  Other Buddhist teachers discuss similar ideas, like inviting difficult emotions in like they are good friends, not fighting against them. Apparently, when this practice is done regularly, those emotions begin to dissolve and don’t seem to be quite the toxic invaders they once were.

There are many emotions that are easier to sit with than anger.  Give me some sadness, grief, joy…  But anger is harder because you either want to feed it with delicious fantasies of getting revenge on the person or thing that wronged you, or it makes you want to retell your stories to everyone who will listen and revel in their assurances that you were treated terribly and you poor thing and how dare someone do that to you and…..you get the idea.  Shenpa, as the Tricycle writer wrote, is very much an itch that yearns to be scratched.

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If there’s one thing I know about life, it is that is it is very patient and generous in helping one learn lessons.  God will keep bringing the same lesson around again and again in different forms for you to learn until you finally learn it.  It is really, really aggravating.

However, since I’ve learned this, I’ve also gotten smarter and recognized that if I want to decrease my suffering, I might as well learn the lesson early on.  God has no problem waiting me out.   But, I’ve also learned that you can’t be sneaky with God.  My first tendency is to pretend I’m not angry about anything and act all kum ba yah with the world.  God sees right through that and will promptly allow something to happen that proves to me that my anger is still ripe and ready for picking.

My second tendency is to run straight to therapy and try to fix my anger asap:  a little EMDR, a little talk therapy, maybe even a little primal screaming.  Yeah, nope.  While therapy is brilliant, it is not a quick fix.  We have to do the hard work, and the hard work insists on sitting with things, creating space, and just allowing things to be for a while.

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So, I’m totally writing this post from an unenlightened state. But I’m giving myself a billion points for at least being aware enough and willing to admit that I’m really angry about alot of stuff that has happened over the last 15 years.  But I’m also giving myself another billion points for knowing that my anger really isn’t all about my ex-husband, or the Kroger parking lot guy, or any other person or event.  My anger is really rooted in all the stories I believe about life and myself.  It is rooted in underlying emotions of shame and feelings of incompetence and fear.

Welcome anger, come in and sit for a while. Teach me about the deepest places in myself. Tell me about my fears and insecurities. Help me to become more compassionate and wise. And may I enjoy a deeper sense of connectedness with every other person who has also struggled with their own shenpa and anger.

 

When Maslow’s Pyramid Tips Over…

You know how when you’re sitting on your back deck, drinking coffee before the hot of the day, listening to your favorite podcasts and audiobooks, and all of a sudden…BAM!!!!…..an idea suddenly hits you….a convergence of the many different voices and ideas that speak to you on a daily basis…and it feels kind of mystical?

I had one of these moments today – when I was jumping back and forth between Richard Rohr’s The Univeral Christ: How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope for, and Beleive the latest Robcast episode, and reflecting on my job as a med/surg nurse.  This is a regular “spiritual practice” of mine; my ADHD daily races along the rails of words and ideas, trying to make obscure connections between the most seemingly unrelated things…all the while trying to balance my left-brain scientific side with my sometimes “woo woo” right-brain spirituality. I’ll try to explain in the next little bit the “aha” moment I experienced this morning while enjoying the cicadas, a cup of coffee, my beloved shade trees, and a comfy Adirondack chair.

Two of the things that are constantly on my mind are what it means to be human, and the underlying connectedness of all things. Taking these concepts further, what is our responsibility to others while remaining true to ourselves?  How do we live out our true selves in a temporary space-time construct, while at the same time loving and serving all creation and all sentient beings?  (This is a rhetorical question: there are no tidy answers to neatly wrap this one up. I’m skeptical of those who try).

While I’ve always been a bit eccentric, with a bent toward spiritual and theological things,  I started out life like most people…trying to build a safe, secure world with comforts, toys, options, and defined goals to pursue. As Richard Rohr has so often said, the purpose of the beginning of our lives is to build up a “container”, to learn who we are and create an “external self”.   Rules, defined limits, and boundaries help create security and a sense of identity in life, according to Rohr, and are a necessary foundation to lay for the successful transition to the “second half of life”. (Side note: Rohr derived many of his ideas about the halves of life from Carl Jung).  As Rohr describes it, our first half of life, this building up all the things I just mentioned,  is a strengthening of the ego.  It is a way of grounding ourselves to this material world, which is a good and necessary step.  But, this ego and the first half of life can only take us so far. In the end, it offers only disillusionment because it is encouraging us to constantly chase what is really just vapor, simply the ghost of a non-existent reality, Only when we can begin to transcend our ego containers can we learn to taste what being a spirit-human is really all about.

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Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is pretty well known, I think. It was discussed in almost every introductory psychology or health class I’ve sat in, ranging from undergrad liberal arts to counseling courses to nursing school.  You’re probably pretty familiar with it yourself, but just in case you’re not, here’s a graphic:

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Basically, Maslow is making the point that we as humans have fundamental needs in order to thrive, and those needs must be met in a sequential order to be able to move on to more and more abstract ideas….or to become our highest, most actualized, most creative selves.

There are certainly exceptions to this hierarchy, but in general, it really rings true with what I’ve seen and experienced in life. One particular area that I’ve thought alot about is back when I was in high school and college and I would go with my churches or other groups on mission trips to third world countries.  There were basically two camps of thought among the various leaders of these groups:  1) preach Jesus and salvation as paramount importance, because being “saved” is better than physical or emotional security in this life, or 2) meet people’s felt needs, because a hungry belly isn’t capable of listening to talk about the sweet by and by or admonishments to radically change ways of doing life in the here and now.

I’m no longer trying to proselytize or get anyone “saved”, but I do believe this:  it’s disrespectful and unfeeling to preach to people about anything if we aren’t willing to step into the grime and horrors of their lives and try to help them with their immediate hurts.

So all this to say, I’m totally on board with Maslow’s hierarchy…..except for maybe the idea that sex is a physiological need. I’ve still never yet met anyone who died from not having sex, although there have been plenty among us who insist it is true. (Tongue in cheek here).  Sexual intimacy, on the other hand, does seem in my mind to be a legitimate need in the love and belonging category.  OK, away from that rabbit trail and back to building my primary thesis…

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…..which is:  Maslow’s Hierarchy as we traditionally view it is only the FIRST half of the story.

Having now reached my 39th year of life and having done a bit of shadow work, I believe that Maslow’s upward rising pyramid of needs is absolutely necessary to build the first half of life container, per Rohr and Jung.  But, it fails to explain the second, and maybe most important half of life that not everyone reaches…..where the pyramid flips over. The needs that were so fundamental suddenly become the least concern. When we were once so worried about and centered on our environment and relationships, we now learn that true meaning, wellbeing, and joy spring forth from within us; we don’t ultimately achieve them from what is on the outside.

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Ann Voskamp, author of one of my all-time favorite books (One Thousand Gifts), uses the phrase “the upside-down Kingdom of God”. I love this; I think it describes succinctly how the divine works in the world – directly opposite of much of the conventional wisdom that we hold so tightly to.  This alternative way of looking at life says that the most important thing is for us to know who we truly are at our core, and to move, act, and live out of that inherent knowing.  However, the wisdom that most of us live by tells us that we must first build an external life and hinge who we are on it. We judge the quality of our lives by what we own, what we’ve done, and who we do it with.

What is so interesting to me, and what most of the great spiritual teachers I have read say, is that to get to this upside-down kingdom, you first have to live in reality as we currently experience it,  where things, success, goals, and safety are the most important.  Then, as if by moving through a worm hole into an alternate universe, something causes our perspectives and paradigms to change….we suddenly see that what we once thought was so damned important for our happiness really isn’t so necessary after all.   Sometimes this happens to people by methodically moving up Maslow’s hierarchy through socioeconomic and emotional development.  Others shoot through the worm hole rather quickly because of some intense suffering they have experienced that brought them to the end of themselves.  A few, like Rohr admits about himself, have somehow made this transition for no explainable reason other than a great insatiable thirst to know the truth of Life.  Still, many others never reach this transformation, never know it even exists. As a side note, this is the salvation that I firmly believe Jesus was offering: to tell those who were desperate, hopeless, and willing to hear…..that this upside-down Kingdom exists and is accessible to all who will learn to see with new eyes and hear with new ears.

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As a nurse, formerly on an orthopedic floor, and now on a general medical unit, I love to watch and talk to patients.  I actually think I could never work on an ICU floor….patients on ventilators don’t tend to talk back to you. My interest in gabbing with patients and learning their life stories is my biggest time management issue: by the end of a shift I may be rushing to check off all of my tasks, but I can definitely offer a good commentary on my patients and their lives outside the hospital.

It seems to me that Maslow’s hierarchy is very tangibly experienced when people are in the hospital.  Here they are usually stressed, afraid, in pain, and overwhelmed.  As such, the level they are on seems to stand out.  If I pay close enough attention, I can tell which patients are most concerned with their physical environments and making sure their physical needs are met in just such a way. I can tell which patients are most craving solid relationships or struggling with how to do relationships well.  I can often tell which patients have deep-seated insecurities that are holding them back in life.  And then, there are the patients (usually elderly, but not always) whose pyramids have tipped over.  They know what is important in life and how to do life well.  They know what ultimately matters, and what is temporal and superficial.  These are the people I have the hardest time pulling myself away from; I may be nursing their physical bodies, but they are nursing my soul.

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I personally live a very wobbly existence.  What I believe to be true on my good days doesn’t always translate to my bad.  Some days I feel very in tune with the upside-down Kingdom, and other days I’m the most ego-driven, selfish person I know.  My pyramid will start to get a little top-heavy and tippy, and then some fear or insecurity of mine will cause it to come crashing back down with a resounding clunk, reminding me that there is much shadow work left to be done and that I have not yet fully escaped my first half of life container.

But I suppose this is the spiritual path.  Maybe instead of a one time all or nothing flip,  our pyramid of needs will turn back and forth like a magnet searching for true north. Rohr even discusses something along these lines: the stages of spiritual development, in his book, The Naked Now: Learning to See as the Mystics See.  Or as Ken Wilber, Don Beck, and others have described, spirituality and increasing consciousness is a spiral dynamic. Ultimately, I think the path is never a linear one, due to the extreme complexity of life.

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As a final thought here regarding all my pontificating in this post….

I am SO glad that my pyramid is tipping and threatening to permanently topple one day.  It is so freaking liberating to not be quite so tied up in all the things that I used to believe made life meaningful.  It is SO good to have experienced that being married, or having alot of money, or owning a nice house aren’t things that automatically bring happiness.  It is SO good to have learned, even if only to an extent, that having strong relationships is more important to me than my own safety, or looks, or possessions, or physical comforts.

However, I am equally grateful that I had people in my life that helped me build a strong first half of life container.  I am grateful that I’m learning to transcend and leave behind the things that haven’t served me well, and yet include those things from the past that are still serving me.

And most of all, I’m grateful that I have the freedom and time to sit on my deck under a canopy of shade trees to drink coffee, listen to some great teachers, and ponder life.

Expectations for Life and Why God Loves Rock Bottom

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Photo credit; Hugo Bernard

*I use a masculine pronoun for God in this post simply out of convenience.

A couple good friends and I closed down a Starbucks the other night, catching up after not being together for several months.  These are two of my people – the ones I can get REALLY real with, ask the deep questions with,  and speculate about the point of ALL of IT.

One theme that each of us has struggled with at different points in the last few years is having our expectations for the way life works completely thrown back in our faces.  We thought that if we only worked hard enough, played by the rules, were nice to everyone, and sacrificed ourselves….then, the kinks of life would unravel, we would suddenly find our true purpose and financial security, we would be treated well by all, and would live out the rest of our lives in relative ease and happiness.

Along the way, my friends and I have each discovered that life doesn’t play by the rules, at least not the rules that we were raised to believe. Rather, the best-laid plans can fall apart before our eyes. The people we struggled to understand and love often turned their backs on us or remained just out of our grasp.  Many goals we worked so hard to reach were finally achieved, but with a bittersweet taste left in our mouths as other troubles rose up to join the ones we thought we’d left behind. And when the quiet moments come, we wonder when the other shoe will drop. Was all of our striving for naught in the end? Is life only, as the author of Ecclesiastes wrote, a mere chasing after the wind?

We have each fought hard to cling to life, to let it dance us, to doggedly pursue hope time and again.  But as one of us asked the others, if working hard and doing all the right things doesn’t get one anywhere, what else is there?

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I once heard Anne Lamott say somewhere that God loves rock bottom.  Part of me hates this.  Like, what….God needs us to get suicidal before he can work with us? We need to be beaten down again and again as “punishment” for all of our good intentions and hard work?  And why is life so timely?  You barely start to crawl up from one clubbing only to be throat punched by some other trouble.

I guess if God loves rock bottom, he’s either absolutely hateful, or there is something good that can come from it.

But if I’m honest, the more God bloodies me, the more resilient I’m becoming.  It’s getting harder to knock me back down, and takes bigger blows to get me there.  This kind of battling makes one see what is really worth getting upset over, and it reveals my ego’s own pettiness in the past for getting so riled up over the dumbest of things. Every once in a while I get a little brave and Captain Dan-ish, screaming: ” Is that all you’ve got?  You really think that’s gonna bring me down?”, with a belligerent yet still timidly respectful middle finger held out in my mind.

Remember that praise and worship song from a couple decades back, Refiner’s Fire? I used to like the song, but now I laugh when I hear it because of how superficial it is.   It’s a lovely melody always sweetly sung about how we are simply delighted to be refined in God’s fire to become holy and pure. I can’t help but wonder if the writer of that song had ever suffered.  Suffering is not sung about in major chords to an audience of swaying and softly sobbing onlookers.  Real rock bottom with God feels like a shit-hole, like you’ve been abandoned and there’s no hope for much of anything. When God burns away parts of you that you thought were necessary for your identity and security….that freaking hurts like hell….especially in the dark nights when you’re not sure if he will rescue you when he’s had his way with you.  I think appropriate music for what God often takes us through is much more along the lines of minor chords and death metal, followed up by some mourning bagpipes once he has successfully broken us to pieces.

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Having expectations has never really helped me out much in life, though I still seem to latch on to them. Very few things or people have actually turned out the way I’d expected or hoped.  In fact, the more expectations I have, the more disappointed I end up being all the way around.  But we cling to our stories, don’t we, as though we had such great control over much of anything in the first place?

As I get older, expectations around fairness seem to be absolute folly even though I haven’t been able to rid myself of them.  Life isn’t fair, never claimed to be fair…yet we always put that demand on it. Where did we get that from?  Even the God of the Gospels wasn’t fair in how he treated people.  Maybe he was just, but he wasn’t fair.

It’s like that line from the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe….Aslan isn’t safe, but he’s good.  God isn’t safe, but he’s good.  Life isn’t safe, but it’s good.

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How do we know that life is good, that the Divine big picture is working in our favor and not against us?

Though I hate to admit it, I’m coming to realize that rock bottom part is the only thing that can truly show us the inherent goodness of all things.  But it’s really hard, because if we fight against rock bottom, we are so blinded by our suffering that we can’t see anything but ourselves and what we “think” we’re losing. But if we breathe through rock bottom, and let the suffering shake us hard and then pass through, we can find that something pure, something real, remained. Our real selves. The divinely infused core that is connected to all things, is loved completely, and is well.

Even if it seems silly, I believe that from rock bottom springs forth deep magic.  It is the same resurrection magic that transformed the suffering of Jesus into hope and transcendence. Didn’t Jesus say all along that to truly live, to truly understand what is real and lasting, we must die to ourselves? (Or, in Julie’s commentary, we must die to who we think we are – our identities, our stories about ourselves and others, our illusions about the permanence of what is around us).

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So, maybe God really does love rock bottom…not because he wants to see us in pain, but because he knows it is the one place where we can finally be freed of facades, and all the games we play, and all the belief systems we construct, and all of our expectations for how life should work.  Maybe, as Don Miguel Ruiz says, we are born into this life and fall into a dream…and maybe we need a hard shake (or many hard, gut-wrenching, strip-us-bare shakes) to wake us up again.

My 2019 Must-Listen-To Podcast Picks

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I am addicted to podcasts.  In my opinion, the podcast is the best media form that has sprung up in recent years. Not only are they an avenue for disseminating quality information on various subjects, they are also an easy mechanism for even the most amateurish to generate conversation and introduce the world to people and ideas that we simply need to know about.

A few years ago, I did a graduate program at Johns Hopkins in science writing.  We briefly covered podcasts, and I remember one of the professors commenting that podcasts would not be a long term, viable option for generating enthusiasm and communication about science.  I scoffed at that statement then and still do. If anything, podcasts are a way to draw people into topics and ideas that maybe they’d never otherwise take a listen to.

So, without further adieu, the following list contains my favorite and go-to podcasts. Some I’ve listened to for years, others I visit only occasionally, and a couple are either new or ones that I recently stumbled upon and find fabulous.  I encourage you to give these a listen, and pass on any podcasts that I need to add to my listening queue.

  1. The Robcast – What can I say?  I love Rob Bell and his podcast for SO many reasons.  He started this podcast kind of as a lark based on someone’s suggestion and records in the “Back House” in his back yard.  He covers basically everything that delights and intrigues him, from theology to music to people he finds fascinating.  Some days he interviews people, other days he waxes poetic on whatever he is currently chewing on, and recently, he’s done a three-part running commentary series on all the books he’s written.  Bell’s ideas were a theological game changer for me starting about six years ago, and he’s just a crazy fun person to listen to. I am also beyond excited to see him live on his Introduction to Joy tour next month.
  2. Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me  – If you listen to NPR, you should have heard about this radio show/podcast.  If not, go immediately listen to an episode.  WWDTM is a news trivia show featuring some of the best comedians like Paula Poundstone, Mo Rocha, and others.  The show producers manage to find some of the most fantastical and ridiculous news stories to ask the panelists about. Some famous person is interviewed and then pulled into the trivia game as well.  This is my favorite lawn mowing and road trip podcast because it keeps me hysterically laughing for a full hour at a time. One day I will be so lucky as to make it the Chase Bank Auditorium in Chicago for a live taping.
  3. Newsworthy with Norsworthy – This podcast is hosted by Luke Norsworthy, a Church of Christ pastor in Austin Texas, who I happened to go to college with. I didn’t know him well at all, and honestly thought at the time that he was a never-serious, white boy with dreads, youth pastor type. Well, he has impressed me well with this podcast. He’s pulling in great people for interviews, covering a lot of Christian and theological perspectives.  Richard Beck, Shane Claiborne, Rob Bell, Richard Rohr, on and on and on.  And while Luke can be goofy and joke around on his show, he is definitely a deep thinker, and I humbly stand corrected about my first impressions of him.
  4. Sounds True-Insights at the Edge – This is one of the podcasts I’ve listened to for the longest.  I don’t even remember how I found it, but Tami Simon’s ability to bring in diverse spiritual teachers from all walks of life has really worked to stretch my mind. Some of the spiritual teachings that have most helped me were from people featured on this podcast. Pema Chodron, Don Miguel Ruiz, Caroline Myss, and so many others were first introduced to me here. Some of the interviews on this show can get pretty deep, and every so often I’ll listen to an episode where I just don’t buy the teaching at all.  But I very much credit Tami Simon with presenting us with so many spiritual paths to investigate and learn from.
  5. On Being with Krista Tippett – This podcast is another that is actually a radio show. Krista is a journalist who pulled away from her conservative Christian roots to find a broader, more encompassing spirituality.  She interviews theologians, artists, poets, journalists, social justice activists – all in the search of wisdom, meaning, and evidence of our greater interconnectedness.  If you want a podcast where spirituality, culture, and art intersect, this is a good place to visit.
  6. The Rich Roll Podcast-Rich Roll is an ultramarathoner and triathlete with an amazing story.  He was an alcoholic and unhappy lawyer who let the athleticism of high school and college go, finding himself overweight and out of shape. After an epiphany struggling to walk up a flight of stairs one day, along with the encouragement of his wife, Rich turned his life around. He became a vegan and began pursuing some amazing athletic feats, which he talks about in his book, Finding Ultra.  (I recommend reading or listening to this book….it’s really good).Now on his long-form podcast (think 1.5 to 2 hours per episode), he dives deep into conversation with others about fitness, nutrition, spirituality, leadership, self-development, sustainability, and so many other topics. If you want to be inspired to get off your couch and start making some serious life changes, check this podcast out.
  7. Good Life Project – This podcast has something for everyone. Jonathan Fields interviews basically anyone worth listening to these days.  I mean, SERIOUSLY. Brené Brown to Liz Gilbert to Seth Godin to Scot Harrison to Michael Pollan to Courtney Carver to Matthieu Ricard, and a BUNCH of other people that I still need to become aware of.  It’s a show that mixes inspirational stories with motivation to get out and the things that bring meaning and purpose in life. Ya just can’t go wrong with this one.
  8. You Made it Weird with Pete HolmesI first learned about Pete Holmes through Rob Bell.  The two of them are great friends. A couple of years back I was lucky enough to see them on tour together in Boston, and my small claim to fame is that I sat in like the third row of the audience. Pete is a comedian, and a quirky one at that – BUT, he has a deep side, too. He left the conservative religion of his youth but is reconstructing his spirituality now along the same spiritual teacher lines that I am – he name drops Ram Dass, Alan Watts, Richard Rohr, etc, all the time.  And yes, I’m jealous because he’s like the billionth podcaster I know who has gotten to meet and talk to Richard Rohr.  I think I’m going to start a podcast simply so I can try to bribe an hour of Rohr’s time.  Pete interviews a range of people, from theologians to comedians.  His style and sense of humor might not sync with everyone, but he’s worth giving a solid listen to.
  9. Awaken with JP Sears Show– I loved JP from the very first silly YouTube video of his that I saw. He makes fun of everything from eating vegan to using essential oils to “Prancer-cizing”, all to make very good points.  He points out bad logic or our inflexible ways of thinking through a ridiculous persona.  But, also like Pete Holmes, he has a serious side that he likes to express in very non-serious ways. Last year he started an Awaken with JP online community, consisting of weekly videos and a Facebook group.  I was a part of the group for a while (but left only because I needed to divert the membership fee to some other life crisis) and it was really good!  In fact, if you’re gonna join an online group to pursue spiritual awakening in the real world, I totally recommend it. I recently stumbled upon his podcast and have found it to be just another delightful outlet of his personality and what he has to offer the world.  Definitely check him out!
  10. Dance Floor Podcast– I go to a Mennonite church in Indianapolis, and this summer we suddenly had a new guy leading worship. As it turned out, his name was Clint Reed and he and I discovered we used to attend the same church for years but had never met. He and a friend of his, someone I also had mutual friends with but had never met, Larry Mitchell, started up this podcast.  This is a local goodie that opens up the conversation about our doubts, finding connection and meaning, and seeing what God might be up to.  May I especially recommend the episode where my friend, Bob Brown, talks about smashing the patriarchy.
  11. The MinimalistsThe pursuit of minimalism has dramatically changed my life.  And no one can pursue minimalism these days without hearing about Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus.  They’ve written books, they go on tour, they have a documentary on Netflix, they have a podcast.  On their show they discuss all different aspects of minimalism, from philosophy to tangible tips to help reduce our consumerism.  The best part: they aren’t the minimalism police.  They’re real people who live in the real world who just want to show others that it isn’t “stuff” that makes us happy.
  12. Main Street VeganAnyone who eats plants should listen to this podcast.  Victoria Moran literally covers EVERYTHING about plant-based eating and vegan living. She talks to medical experts, plant-based athletes, theologians, chefs, clothing designers, animal rights activists, etc….basically every possible nuance of the vegan world.  If you’re plant-based already, or curious about it, give this how a listen.
  13. Another Name For Everything In honor of my birthday this year, Richard Rohr started a podcast.  Just kidding, I tell myself that to pretend like he even knows that I exist. I hope there really is a heaven just so I can finally meet him, since it doesn’t look like it’s going to happen in this life. Richard Rohr is probably one of the greatest single influences on my life, and he has no clue. If you haven’t read his books, like Falling UpwardEverything Belongsetc., you really, really need to.  I’ve been listening to his latest book, The Universal Christ, on Audible and think it might be his pinnacle work. However, if you don’t delve into his books, introduce yourself to him through his podcast, which is a 12-part conversation about the book.

A few other podcasts that I’ve enjoyed immensely in the past and still dip into:

Invisibilia, Hidden Brain, and S-Town (I’m an NPR junkie, what can I say?)

The Enneagram Journey and The Road Back to You (great podcasts on the Enneagram, and Suzanne has the best soft-spoken Southern accent – I’d probably listen to anything she said just based on her voice.

The Fundamentalists with Peter Rollins and Elliot Morgan – Rollins is another great theologian (with a fantastic Irish accent) that I learned of thanks to Rob Bell

And finally……a podcast that I haven’t yet listened to but want to simply because the name is fabulous…….Persiflagers Infectious Disease PUSCAST!

What other podcats should I be listening to?

Coming Home to Yourself

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Photo credit: Tim Haynes

*I was inspired by the reflections of others at church today. This is my response to our collective conversation.

When I was young, I truly believed there was something wrong with me.  Something wasn’t right about me being here in the world. I recall, as a child, having moments where a feeling would pass over me – a tangible sense that I don’t belong here, that I’m not fully legitimate.  This feeling would come out of nowhere and usually last no more than a couple of minutes, but it was powerful and had a deep influence on how I viewed myself for a very long time.

A child isn’t usually well equipped to understand these kinds of phenomena, and I certainly wasn’t an exception.  I don’t think I ever mentioned these transcendent moments of gloom to my parents. I would simply try to shiver the feeling off like a chill up my spine and move on.  Eventually, and thankfully, these feelings stopped coming over me – probably about when I was in junior high.  However, beliefs about inadequacy and not fitting in were firmly entrenched in my psyche.

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In one of my last posts, I wrote about how it feels to lose one’s sense of home. You know that Bon Jovi song that was popular a few years back “Who says you can’t go home?”? The thing is, sometimes you really can’t go home back to a physical place, or even a group of people. Your family may move on from the house you grew up in. Maybe you’ve changed so much since leaving home that when you come back, there are only faint glimmers of recognition towards you in the eyes of those you once knew so well. Even those things that were part of “home” that once belonged to you might no longer be yours.

I’ve experienced this sense of “losing home” for years now, a little at a time, and then with increasing rapidity.  After moving around the country frequently over the last 13 years, I struggled to find a solid, physical home.  Who are my people? Where is my tribe? Is there a piece of land I can anchor myself to? Who am I without external labels of what constitutes home?

Others have told me that they consider home to be wherever their partner or spouse is, or where their kids are – physical locale doesn’t matter.  This has never been helpful for me – you can be married and still feel more lonely than at any time ever in your life.  Your kids can be snuggling up to you and telling you how much they love you, and still, you can feel lost and uncertain of where you belong.

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During this Lenten season, my church has been looking at the story of the prodigal son, from the Bible.  For most of my life, sermons I’ve heard about this parable have focused on the depravity and pure selfishness of the son who spurned his father and left home. The older son was always offered a mild rebuke for being callous towards his penitent sibling. However, as we took several weeks to take a longer look at this story, more and more grace rose to the surface as we threw the traditional interpretation of this story on its head.

As one of my pastors said so wisely today, sometimes you have to leave home to appreciate home. She recalled how, as a new college graduate, she was so eager to jump off into her own life and away from her family. It took being away for months to begin to truly appreciate where and what she came from.

These days, I don’t judge the prodigal son much at all.  The fact is, we all do stupid, thoughtless things when we are young.  We are driven by our egos and we can become enchanted with the systems of the world. We are compelled to strive after those people and things that promise us happiness and meaning. This is just what we do as humans; we just vary a bit on how extreme we go.  In fact, I might argue that the prodigal son was living out an essential component of authentic spirituality – he had to come to the end of himself before he could find who he truly was and what truly mattered. Call me crazy or a heretic, but I’m convinced that sometimes the greatest grace we receive is God allowing us to become completely wrecked at some point in our lives.

*************************************************************************************I think that more important than establishing a physical home, or finding where we fit among a group of people, we have to find “home” in ourselves. As the mystics have said, “I” and “me” is all there really is.  Everything outside of me is ultimately my stories about the world and about people, based on my own beliefs and projections.  But, “I” am the only one who will always be there for me, even when everyone else and everything else is gone.  As such, it seems to me that if that’s the case, I should probably dig deep and find out who I really am.  We’re going to be spending alot of time together.

*************************************************************************************The great journey of this life is to seek after one’s authentic, real self – to move past illusions of what are around us and appear to be real, down to the purest ultimate reality.’Most of my  own life has been spent trying to be what I thought others wanted of me, and then failing miserably anyway. I didn’t explore the deepest realms of myself because the spirituality of my youth taught me not to trust myself, not to trust my instincts and gut reactions. When you think about it, not being able to trust yourself is a dreadful way to live.  Everyone, I mean everyone, in the world, will offer their opinions and judgments on what you should do with yourself, how you should act, who you should be.  But how do you know which of those people to trust to make your decisions? How do you discover the right path outside of yourself if you can’t trust your own reasoning?  It’s all a very circular mess.

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Coming home to yourself is a recognition, a learning, that you’re OK and you have all you need within you. When we are finally able to accept ourselves, love every part of ourselves – even the weirdness and quirks and cellulite and crow’s feet and all of our epic mistakes -this is actually the greatest freedom we could ever attain.  Coming home to yourself also brings the life-changing realization that the Source of Ultimate Reality, God, or whatever you want to call her, is within you – not somewhere “out there”.

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I have never been the prodigal in the popular sense of the word.  In fact, I resonate the most with the son who stayed behind with his father. But like the older son, I didn’t stay out of altruistic loyalty but out of fear of stepping too far away, crossing the wrong boundary, and losing God’s love and good pleasure. But I think the sons were alike in that both of them were seeking external affirmation for their lives.  One, the older son, was bound to an honor/shame code of what it means to be family, and the second was lured away by all the illusionary glitters of life that he thought would make him happy. Both needed to come home to themselves, to discover what made them tick apart from anyone else’s opinions, and to find the steady love of their father no matter their actions.

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As I am, step by step, coming home to myself, this is what I’m finding: my oldest, biggest fears are gradually falling away.  The questions and concerns that created those fears no longer seem so pressing or relevant. I’m discovering that every time I make a decision based on what is truly “me” and not based on someone else’s opinion of what I should do, there is continual grace for the outcome.

The best thing of all is that I enjoy being with myself now.  I used to be embarrassed by my very nerdy tendencies, my lack of interest in things that intrigues so many of my peers, and qualities in me that set me in stark contrast to much of my family.  Now, having given myself permission to be me, I have settled into a delicious relief – no more exhausting struggles to be someone that I’m not.

Yesterday in church a friend of mine shared something that her son said as a two-year-old, years ago, when his father was putting him to bed one night.  “Daddy, you be you, and I’ll be me.”  I LOVE this. Yes! This is what it’s all about.

You be you, and I’ll be me, and God will be all in all and there is grace for everyone and every moment.   Stop being afraid of all the “what-ifs” – just come home.

To Myself On My 39th Birthday…Things I’ve Learned Over Nearly 4 Decades.

 

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Photo credit: Felix

A random assortment of things that I’ve picked up over 38 39 years, from people, books, and my own experience. These are my rules to live by.

  1. You can’t choose who you love; you either do or you don’t, and you are free to love whomever even if they don’t love you back.  And you can be OK with being loved back or not being loved back.
  2. It is never too late to stop, turn around, and go in the other direction.
  3. Where you live doesn’t matter, and where you live doesn’t bring happiness.  You can be just as happy in a little house in nowheresville as you can be in a big house in a happening place.
  4. How other people treat you has little to do with you.  They are dealing with their stories about you.  Likewise, when you have a problem with someone else, it is really a problem within yourself. You are projecting your own baggage onto other people.
  5. Eat less. Eat unadulterated food as much as possible. Plants. You’ll just feel better.
  6. Try to never make decisions rooted in fear, guilt, or shame.  Choose what you want in your heart and stand by your decision.
  7. God isn’t angry.  He/she was never angry.
  8. You don’t have any problems right now.  Your “problems” are either in the future or the past, and those are just illusions.
  9. Do whatever necessary to protect your sleep rhythms. It heals you.
  10.  Don’t forgive people to make them feel better. Do it simply to liberate yourself.
  11. Cut yourself some slack when parenting.  The things that scarred you are not the same things that will scar your children. Stop trying to extrapolate how every one of your mistakes will ruin your kids’ lives.
  12. Two glasses of wine in one sitting is enough.
  13. Sometimes radical self-care looks like complete irresponsibility in the eyes of others. Just carry on. You know what you need.
  14. Pay attention to your dreams; they can tell you alot about yourself, and sometimes offer glimpses into the future.
  15. Let your children be your teachers: they reflect back to you who you are.
  16. Welcome whoever life brings your way, but intentionally choose who you do relationship with.
  17. Give away most of your stuff. Only keep what brings you joy.
  18. Don’t wait for the perfect temperature; go outside and play anyway.
  19. You can do more than you think you can; it’s all really just a mind game.
  20. Your parents did the best they could with what they knew at the time.  Generally.
  21. Family is not always biological.  They are sometimes found in the most unexpected people.
  22. Find what you’re really passionate about and pursue it with abandon.
  23.  It is possible to find at least one commonality with every single person you meet.
  24.  Jesus was totally right when he said to find yourself you must first lose yourself.
  25.  Working in the hospital can freak you out.  Healthy people get sick.  Get the flu shot.
  26.  Cheese and corn syrup are in literally everything.  Read the labels.
  27.  Sometimes you need to plan diligently, deliberately. And sometimes you need to be bat-shit crazy impulsive.
  28.  Community is important, whatever that looks like for you.
  29.  Sometimes the scariest option is the absolute best option.
  30.  Just buy the hammock.
  31.  Don’t avoid doing what you really want to do just because no one is there to do it with you.
  32.  Live your questions; don’t demand answers for everything.
  33.  Surround yourself with people of all ages.  Babies and the very old usually have the most sense.
  34.  Don’t hit. Ever. It won’t bring the results you want.
  35.  Don’t punish yourself for making a bad mistake by living with that mistake forever.
  36.  People will exploit you only as far as you will tolerate their behavior.
  37.  There is enough.
  38.  Everything belongs.
  39. Sit with a dying person, and really SEE them. It might be the most meaningful thing you ever do, and it might be the only time they’ve ever really been seen for who they are and not what they do.