How did we get so lucky to live in a world where THIS happens?
Where so many millions of years ago a single bacterium and single archaea had an incredibly improbable love affair and the possibility for wild, abundant life sprang forth?
Where trees like this teach us every year how lovely it is to die, because nothing is ever really dead or lost forever, but simply hiding away for a time, waiting for the right moment to re-emerge and show us what resurrection is all about.
You ever hear a song for the first time, and it ends up being one that just rocks you…not because the melody is all that fancy or because the instrumentals are amazing, but because the lyrics are so deeply profound and resonate with your core somehow? And then, you listen to that song over and over, and have to sing it constantly to hear the words roll off your tongue because it feels like deep truth and the more you speak the lyrics the more you internalize them? Basically you work the song into yourself?
Maybe only I do this, and maybe I”m just weird. I dunno. Pretty likely. BUT, I first heard a song a couple of months ago that provoked this exact dynamic in me, and I keep listening to it over and over and over. I’ve thought about the lyrics so much that I felt like I might as well just go ahead and write about it, because there is so much to riff off. The song, A Little Bit of Everything by Dawes, is embedded here; give it a listen. Following the video are the lyrics.
With his back against the San Francisco traffic, On the bridges side that faces towards the jail, Setting out to join a demographic, He hoists his first leg up over the rail. And a phone call is made, Police cars show up quickly. The sergeant slams his passenger door. He says, ‘Hey son why don’t you talk through this with me, Just tell me what you’re doing it for.”Oh, it’s a little bit of everything, It’s the mountains, It’s the fog, It’s the news at six o’clock, It’s the death of my first dog, It’s the angels up above me, It’s the song that they don’t sing, It’s a little bit of everything.’
An older man stands in a buffet line, He is smiling and holding out his plate, And the further he looks back into his timeline, That hard road always had led him to today, And making up for when his bright future had left him, Making up for the fact that his only son is gone, And letting everything out once, His server asks him, Have you figured out yet, what it is you want?I want a little bit of everything, The biscuits and the beans, Whatever helps me to forget about The things that brought me to my knees, So pile on those mashed potatoes, And an extra chicken wing, I’m having a little bit of everything.
Somewhere a pretty girl is writing invitations, To a wedding she has scheduled for the fall, Her man says, ‘Baby, can I make an observation? You don’t seem to be having any fun at all.’ She said, ‘You just worry about your groomsmen and your shirt-size, And rest assured that this is making me feel good, I think that love is so much easier than you realize, If you can give yourself to someone, Then you should.’Cause it’s a little bit of everything, The way you joke, the way you ache, It is waking up before you, So I can watch you as you wake. So in the day in late September, It’s not some stupid little ring, I’m giving a little bit of everything.Oh, it’s a little bit of everything, It’s the matador and the bull, It’s the suggested daily dosage, It is the red moon when it’s full. All these psychics and these doctors, They’re all right and they’re all wrong, It’s like trying to make out every word, When they should simply hum along, It’s not some message written in the dark, Or some truth that no one’s seen, It’s a little bit of everything.
I think alot about what it means to be human. Why are we here on this planet, what is the point of everything, what are we supposed to learn, and how are we to learn those things? And, is the point to ever actually figure everything out, or instead, is it to just be and ask big questions and marvel at all that is around us and just try to learn to love the best we can while we are here?
Being human is hard. Life is hard. Sometimes it’s not any one big thing or event that threatens to topple us, but rather, the constant onslaught of alot of little things. The first verse of this song is about a guy (I always imagine it’s a high school or college kid) who is wanting to jump off a bridge and kill himself. The reasons he gives the police officer are really interesting, I think. It’s the mountains. It’s the San Francisco fog. It’s all the bad news every day. It’s the death of the beloved pet. It wasn’t just one big thing that was undoing him….it was all the little things that added up, along with the angel reference implying that he believed he lived in a universe that was either impersonal or didn’t care about him.
I remember back in college when I had some periods of terrible depression, including a week I just couldn’t get out of bed. I wanted to escape life so badly. I was miserable and felt so utterly hopeless. But it was never just one single problem that made me feel like life wasn’t worth living; it was a ton of little things that just kept piling up and when they all hit at once it just felt completely suffocating and insurmountable. I think one of the worst feelings when you’re struggling with depression or anxiety like this, is when you try to describe what is going on to someone on the outside, and they’ll only consider each individual component of your burden and ask you what the big deal is. That little thing isn’t that big of a problem! They aren’t able to see that, of course, it’s not that ONE tiny thing that makes you want to die. It’s the cuts and pain that come from ALL the little things that just won’t let up. And then people tend to add one more “little thing” to your burden with a bunch of really unhelpful and shaming platitudes.
Trauma is a huge buzzword these days, and I believe rightfully so. There are so many traumatized people around the world, and so many of them don’t realize that they are carrying trauma in their minds AND bodies. One of the latest advancements in trauma research that I think is so very important is the idea of microtraumas. A person doesn’t have to experience one huge, horrible thing for them to be wrecked on the inside, be triggered by words or scenes or noises, or to be paralyzed and unable to cope with certain situations that come their way. The summation of tons of little traumas, microtraumas, can have huge and lasting impacts on people. Sometimes it only takes a little bit of trauma from multiple fronts and people to really build up and create a significant core wound in one’s life, or a belief pattern that holds them in bondage for years, or contributes to symptoms of ADHD, or so many other unconscious ways that people can be affected.
A decade ago I went to an Amen Clinic and had functional brain scans performed. Insurance was willing to cover it, and I was desperate to figure out if I was actually crazy in a way that could be seen with empirical evidence, or determine if I was just inherently broken. Years later I finally realized (and was validated by an amazing psychiatrist) that I, in fact, was not and had never been crazy or truly mentally ill. I was just jacked up because of some serious core wounds, terrible theology, and childhood trauma. When my brain scans and electrical (EEG) studies were complete, the Amen Clinic clinicians asked me if I had ever had some major, horrible event happen to me. I couldn’t think of anything at the time, and inquired as to why they asked. They explained that the scans revealed that there was a function issue with a certain part of my brain which was typically associated with evidence of PTSD. At the time, I was flummoxed, and the scans only began to make sense years later when I learned about the impact of microtraumas , and also was finally able to come to grips with the fact that certain events in my life had actually been way more impactful and damaging than I thought.
So, big “what does it mean to be human?” lesson 1 from this song? Don’t discount the overall effect that can result when someone is slammed with a ton of little things. They may each individually not be substantial, but when they are all compounded together, especially when a person is lacking good coping mechanisms, those little things combine to become one massive burden.
On to the second verse…..things that bring you to your knees.
I think this is one major part of the human experience….the idea that most all of us, at some point in our lives or maybe many times in our lives, will have at least one thing happen that will just completely knock the wind out of us, completely wreck us, and maybe even literally bring us to our knees. I’ve kind of come to believe that these experiences can either be transformational turning points in our lives, or we can allow them to go the other way and they harden our hearts and ingrain us further into prisons of suffering. But, I do want to add a caveat here that I in no way believe that it makes us a bad person if we can’t move past things and end up staying stuck. This life journey is hard and complicated and nuanced, and I’m not convinced that we have as much free will and free choice as conservative religion would have us believe. We’re all (mostly) just doing the very best that we can.
I’ve been brought to my knees a few times. The first significant times this happened were early on in my adulthood, and my plan was always to distract and avoid as much as possible. My solution during these crisis times was usually to eat myself into a food coma and watch a ridiculous amount of TV. This worked really well every day for about an hour, and then I would just feel like shit about myself the next morning…ever in a constant battle with my weight, despising myself, and still being saddled with the same, unsolved, unaddressed problems.
Things began to change in my mid twenties when I discovered The Road Less Traveled by M. Scott Peck. I hardly remember anymore what the book was about; I just remember that when I read it all those years ago a light when off in my head and it finally occurred to me that I actually did have control over things in my life and spirituality, and it was the very first inkling that maybe just because an idea floated through my head I didn’t have to latch on to it. That book created in me the first real sense of self-agency I’d ever had. And, it made me start to recognize that to fix problems and to overcome pain and suffering, you have to look them straight on and sometimes sit in it for a while and learn that you won’t die. At other times, you just have plow straight through the pain, determined as hell as to reach the other side.
The last time I was really brought to my knees was in April. Things that I hadn’t been able to see, and in some ways, I was unwilling to see, just completely blew up in my face in the most breathtaking way. For about three days, I completely crumbled. It was a hot, ugly mess….I mean, like uncontrollable, panicky, sobbing, hunkered down in the bathtub with the shower pouring scalding water on me, kind of ugly mess. A huge big puzzle piece that explained so much of the pain I’d ever experienced in life fell into place because of one big massive betrayal. Everything was laid bare, and for a short while, I could not see my way forward. It also didn’t help that that particular weekend I was doing pediatric sexual assault nurse training and felt simultaneously triggered and traumatized by it.
No amount of food coma, booze, pot, shopping, or any other kind of distraction was going to fix that weekend. I knew I was going to have to sit with it and face it all, head on, and see if it would kill me. Fortunately, by then, I was getting to the point where I trusted life enough to believe that all these things coming to a head were for my own good, and if I could just stay present and not try to fight and distract myself, that I would come out on top and it would be a major transformation for me.
So, I managed to stay with it. And a surprising thing happened. Even though it took some time beyond that weekend, I came away from the experience more joyful than when I went into it. Logically, I think I should have been wrecked for a long time when I finally put all the puzzle pieces together and saw clearly how terrible the betrayal and years of events leading up to it had been. But somehow, in looking back over the hard road that had brought me to that place, and then not dying during those three days, something in my mindset changed. Instead of closing up my heart to love and deciding I was never going to trust anyone ever again, or determining to harden and protect myself…..the opposite actually happened. I think I was broken open….broken open into a space of being able to love more deeply with a greater capacity for joy. All from facing the pain and sitting in it and discovering that it didn’t kill me. And in fact, I was finally able to start viewing that pain and betrayal as a gift that brought me to a better place.
Life is such a freaking paradox and it is so freaking beautiful.
*************************************************************************************************************************Third verse: Musings about what I have learned about love:
The lines in this section of the song make me stop and think about how love works, and how my opinions of it have changed over the years. Here are a few of my takeaways, or associations with previous conclusions that this song elicits in me:
We make this matter of love so freaking difficult. Why do we do this? Love is about caring for and wanting the best for another person even if you don’t get that love reciprocated, or even acknowledged. And ultimately, loving people is a win for each of us individually, because when other people are benefited, doing well in life, and are happy, how can that NOT benefit and be good for us?
You can’t help who you love. It just is what it is. Sometimes we love people in certain ways because of unhealthy patterns or trauma that has affected our lives, and maybe by trying to love those people out of our own traumas we end up hurting ourselves. But that doesn’t make our attempts any less meaningful. Trying to connect with people, trying to meet our own needs, trying to make other people happy….there is nothing wrong with this intention. Maybe we need to learn better ways to give and receive healthy love, but I think there’s something meaningful that exists when we attempt to love in the best we know how at the moment.
A point on the line about the wedding and stupid ring: it’s NEVER about the wedding or the ring. And sometimes you have to go through a divorce and grow up a little to realize how they were never the point. Getting married or finding long term love with a person is never about finding the perfect person, having a fantastic celebration, and then staying in a static state of perfected union until one of you dies. That’s a pipe dream. It’s not about finding a person to fill your void and gaps and give you a ring so the whole world will know you’re not one of those pathetic people that is alone. The point is to find someone that you’re willing to grow with, to have all your own faults mirrored back to you, to be challenged, and to take in a little of everything that person has to offer….the good, the bad, the successes, the failed attempts….and to love them and want the best for them through it all.
Sometimes the most difficult, but maybe the purest way to love, is when you care about someone so very deeply, and you are able to learn to stay in that place of wanting the best for them even if you’ll never see it in return. I never really used to believe this kind of love was possible, except for maybe on heartbreaking romantic movies. But now, I think alot about the line “Let everything go; see what stays”. Because if you can do this, you’ll know that whatever stays or ultimately finds its way back to you was not forced or manipulated, and is REAL. Learning to love without attachment is hard, ya’ll, but it’s the best way. You and I both know this.
The last part of this song is what really gets me, because it’s about the uncertainty of life, the task of just doing the best we can, and the fact that no one has all the answers for everything.
The suggested daily dosage…..the psychics and the doctors who are right and wrong at the same time about multiple things…..
We can’t always say too much with absolute certainty. Science is always evolving and as we dig deeper and deeper we discover particles and bacteria quorums that radically change our understanding of the natural world. We detect dark matter that apparently makes up a higher percentage of “stuff” in the universe than the matter we can perceive with our senses. And as people learn to sit still and be present, we find that there is a deep magic, a Truth, an interconnectedness of all things, an ever knowable mystery that goes far beyond what our low level literal religion pontificates to us.
We’re all just doing the best we can to make it through this life in a way that we can overcome our fears and try to be happy. But I don’t think there’s one magic silver bullet that will get us all there to the “You Won Life” award. Being human, fully human, is about embracing and working with a little bit of everything that comes our way. And everyone is going to be given a different lot to work with.
I have learned to almost completely distrust and be suspicious of people who say they have everything figured out. The people who know EXACTLY what’s going to happen when we die, the people who seem to know EXACTLY who God loves and who God hates, the people who are always right about every topic, the people who are so rigidly dogmatic all the time. These are the people who I think maybe haven’t gotten out in life quite enough….maybe they still need to do some exploring and meet more kinds of people and figure out how to transform their own personal pain and discover the tiny things that can bring them great joy.
I mean really, isn’t this what life could ultimately be about? To taste a little bit of everything, to be completely present here and now, to learn how to love well, and to learn that in the end, it is all good?
I used to think that life was about finding the one path that was meant for you, getting on it, and taking it linearly straight to the afterlife without looking right or left. I know now that that kind of life is impossible, and we don’t give failure and mistakes enough credit. Sometimes, the absolute best thing for us to get where we’re going is to majorly screw up a few times along the way. All the twists and turns in life, all the things that bring us pain and bring us joy, all the ways we fuck up and then wildly succeed…these are what make us human. As Mary Oliver has said in a poem, I DO NOT want to just visit this world and life and barely get to know it.
I’ve learning to want all of life…the good, the bad, the joy, and the pain. I want to take up great, overflowing armfuls of it, to taste and see a little bit of everything. I never want to take any of the next years of my life for granted, so that when my curtain closes, I can look backwards and say that I had a wild, passionate love affair with this world, and it was good.
I’m not the same person I used to be. At all. Or, maybe I AM the exact same person, it’s just that I’m no longer trying to cover up the “real me” with facades to please or pacify people around me. As I’ve talked about this extensively in blog posts over the last four years, I have been working pretty continuously to unearth the most authentic Julie and to shift my life trajectory towards a direction that I really want to go. Because….I’ve discovered….life is actually worth living and I want to do it as fully as possibly and come to the end of my time on Earth with the conviction that maybe I messed up here and there, maybe I endured some pain, but I didn’t waste the time I have been given…..that I somehow left this world better than how I entered it…whatever that may look like.
The path to waking up (becoming the realest YOU possible) is not easy. And, more often than not, the path asks you to do what is counterintuitive, what feels the least comfortable. The path frequently asks you to do exactly opposite of those things that have been ingrained in you since childhood. In fact, I think this may be why so many people stick with the status quo and don’t try to find themselves or to heal the dark places….because the journey can really feel like you’re abandoning yourself and the YOU you’ve identified with for decades or more. This is very much the dying to oneself that Jesus and other spiritual teachers talk about….to live you must first die. You have to die to the identities you’ve attached to, to the belief systems that you took up from your earliest years….you have to come to terms with the fact that maybe the way people treated you or the things they told you about yourself were never really true at all. And so while you may be glad to rid yourself of certain belief burdens placed on you by others, letting those things go can still leave you in a place of wondering: “If I’m not THOSE things after all, then who am I?”
Sometimes it’s easier to stay in the dark places where you can grasp onto an identity….false as though it may be… in doing so, you know your place in the order of things.
So, speaking of order….Richard Rohr talks alot about the idea of order, disorder, and reorder. The idea that you have a container for how you do life….a paradigm for understanding how things work and how you fit into the grand scheme of all around you. But then, you start embarking on this path of asking the hard questions, of recognizing that maybe reality isn’t really the way you’ve always perceived or the way that others have told you it is. And so you start deconstructing your life scaffolding and question everything….your theology, your family dynamics, the way you approach institutions and societal norms/behaviors, the meaning of life….everything. After you’ve taken things apart, though, you can’t stay like that….you have to re-create a schema for how to approach life. (Side note: I think this is where some people can really get stuck….they begin to question everything in their lives and the world, but they aren’t able to put the pieces back together in a cohesive way, and so they become depressed or despondent). I am all about spontaneity, and impulsiveness, and magic…but at some level you’ve got to have a sense of order in your life, because sheer chaos without a sense of a foundation in anything…..I think long term might be just as horrible as hanging on to unhealthy belief systems.
I thought that I had examined everything deeply enough and thoroughly deconstructed my belief systems enough that it would be relatively smooth sailing from now onward, and all I had to do was to reconstruct well….you know, start implementing those strong boundaries that I now believe I deserve, starting to only do relationship with people that I WANT to be in relationship with, to paint in my mind a picture of the loving Universe I now believe in and leave behind the old images of an angry, spiteful, manipulative God.
I thought I had dealt with, or at least sufficiently acknowledged, the big traumas in my life that have jacked me up.
But as life so patiently does, it will bring things back around to you again and again and again until you learn the lesson you need to learn. And, it will make sure that you learn each lesson to completion.
I have realized in the last few weeks that I still have so much pent up anger within myself that needs to make itself known. I didn’t know the anger existed to the depth it still does. But, when you’re doing shadow work, you go layer by layer by layer to get down to the real you, and sometimes when you get to a certain layer, you peel it back and it’s like you unknowingly opened a pressure valve. Emotions that you had no idea you were suppressing just explode outward out of nowhere, and you usually are caught off guard and wondering where the hell this all came from. It can be really frustrating…..especially when you thought you had dealt with all those hard emotions a long time ago and they were resolved.
Then, you are faced with the choices: 1) am I going to pretend like “Everything’s fine, I’m fine!” and suppress them again, 2) allow them to completely take me over and create a bitter, ever-raging monster, or 3) am I going to face these emotions, listen to what they are trying to tell me, and learn their good lessons so I can move forward in joy and freedom?
I’m always trying to choose choice number 3. But sometimes…that pressure valve can burst so hard that its like an oil well that can’t be capped and the anger or sadness just keeps coming and coming and you feel like it will never let up. I’ve recognized that I’m in that place this week. I pulled back layers on some memories, and feelings that I have suppressed for decades just blew right up in my face. Fortunately, this isn’t my first rodeo in shadow work, so I understand what is happening, but it sometimes “feels” like I might be completely undone and never recover.
It’s funny and yet tragic how stuff from our childhood can continue to hurt us decades later. When we’re smart and have fully developed prefrontal cortexes and can at least logic to a certain extent….yet the traumas and beliefs that were ingrained in us at a pre-verbal level can just continue to rock us to our core and unconsciously influence our actions, our relationships, how we show up in the world, and how we perceive everything around us.
***********************************************************************************************************************When I was growing up, I was generally taught that anger is bad. Of course, I learned there is self-righteous anger and indignation against injustices in the world that are justified, but those must be tempered in order to be effective. Ephesians 4:26 was an oft-quoted verse by adults in my life: “In your anger do not sin”: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry,” And even the ability to be angry without “sinning” seemed to be stifled…it was like, you can be angry, but go off and be angry by yourself so no one else has to deal with it.
I’ve since realized that I developed an unhealthy relationship with anger because I didn’t know how to be angry in a productive way, and I really didn’t know what anger was for. Why would we have this powerful emotion within us if we could only use it for a max of 24 hours (if you take the Ephesians verse literally?). I definitely developed a “stuff and then explode” approach to anger. I would repress and push down all of my angry emotions, thinking that I was “bad” for being mad or upset, and then those undealt with emotions would eventually blast out everywhere in unproductive ways. Then, of course, my outbursts would be viewed as completely over the top by those who experienced them, and on more than one occasion as an adult, I would be basically be labeled as struggling with female emotional hysteria. That would usually piss me off even more, and then I would start crying, which of course, would make me even madder and…
I was so often told that I didn’t have a right to be angry, that my frustrations weren’t valid. I was also gaslighted very effectively while growing up, and so I came to believe that I was usually the core of whatever problem happened to exist at the moment. I became very good at being super apologetic any time I was genuinely upset, because, I reasoned, it was most likely my faulty reasoning and own inherent “badness” that made me feel angry in the first place.
I now know this is a load of bullshit. I have ALOT of good reason to be angry about my past. I’m not being hyperbolic or attention seeking when I say that some fucking horrible things were done to me, and they came with a healthy dose of shame…..the kind of shame that takes hold and messes with you for years.
Another thing I learned as a child was that you aren’t supposed to talk about the bad things that happen to you. You’re supposed to protect people’s’ reputations, not air dirty laundry, let bygones be bygones, all of that. I did just this for decades. I kept all of my secrets to myself….other than telling my therapists and a few friends a small smattering of the things that wrecked me.
I have since changed my view on this. There’s an idea that someone told me about, that they attributed to Maya Angelou. It basically goes like this: if people want to be remembered by you or spoken of by you better, they should have acted better. This was mind blowing to me when I first heard it. Of course!!! Why should I have to carry secrets, and make excuses for people’s bad behavior, and always give them outs, and sacrifice my own emotional and mental health just to maintain their reputations? When they are the ones doing the hurting and acting poorly?
I’m not into letting anger and rage run unbridled in such a way that I retaliate against people that hurt me and, in doing so, cruelly take revenge. I’m not into what could be perceived as outright slander, and I don’t want to ruin anyone’s life. BUT, I’m at the point in my life where I NO LONGER WANT to have to minimize myself or to be unable to speak about my own hurts just to help someone save face. I want to be able to speak my truth in a way that helps me heal and move on, because that is my right as a human being.
It was NOT OK to have iodine poured into deep arm cuts I sustained as a 6-ish year old when I got a hold of a razor and wanted to try it out….to TEACH me a lesson so that I would never touch a razor again. I was a freaking 6 year old for God’s sake! I can still remember exactly where I was as that iodine was poured on my bleeding arm, and I stood screaming as it seared , relentless burning pain, deep into me. I am so angry.
It was NOT OK for me to be slapped or hit out of nowhere as a child when perceived infractions on my part were suddenly remembered and imminent corporal punishment was deemed necessary. I am so angry.
It was NOT OK for my beloved kitten to be kicked and shot to death in front of me, to teach me not to play with unvaccinated feral cats, when I was a little girl who loved cats more than anything in the world. I am so wicked angry.
It was NOT OK to be given passive aggressive, shaming, silent treatment in public for playing a stupid Amy Grant instrumental piece on the piano at a secular function. How was I, as a junior high kid, to know that doing such things could potentially be offensive to God and makes me a horrible person? I am so angry.
It was NOT OK to be handed dark secrets as a child, when I was too young to be able to shoulder that kind of pain and responsibility for others. I am so angry.
It was NOT OK for me to be sexually, verbally, and emotionally abused by adults in my life and to be called a liar more times than I can remember. I am so incredibly angry.
It was NOT OK for the Church to use patriarchy and purity culture and really poorly exegeted Biblical texts to make me feel like shit about myself as a woman for decades, and to then manipulate me into allow myself to accept feeling like sexual property for years within the institution of Christian marriage.
It is not OK for these and so many other things that happened to me, to happen. It doesn’t matter if they occured as random isolated incidents. They still jacked up my life. It doesn’t matter that so much of my childhood was indeed privileged and idyllic. Sometimes that made it worse because people didn’t believe me when I tried to hint to them about the bad things that I didn’t know what to do with.
It doesn’t matter what happened in the pasts of those who did these things to me. We all have bad things happen to us, but that NEVER justifies the perpetuation of those bad things onto others. Just because I had shitty things happen to me in my own childhood does not give me a pass from trying to be the best parent I can be and not hurt my children.
Richard Rohr has been brilliant in helping me learn how to deal with anger, and understanding that anger is absolutely necessary at times. Sometimes you have to allow yourself to be so completely, freaking angry that you are finally willing to fight for yourself…..that you finally realize that you have worth and deserve to be treated well….that you deserve to exist in the world…..that you deserve to have you boundaries honored and respected.
But like anything powerful, anger needs to be harnessed appropriately in order to be effective and not steamroll other people in the process. It is through Rohr’s teachings that I’ve learned that I can totally be furious at something for a while and hold space for that anger all the while tearing that thing apart in my mind….and eventually the anger will cease and be replaced by love, acceptance, and a transcendence above what is no longer serving me while bringing along with me the things that do.
This is where I’m currently at. I am so completely angry about certain things right now, mainly the memories that I listed above that I have finally allowed myself to look at and feel completely, entirely to my bones…..angry .enough that when I think about them it is quaking emotion that is felt down to my core. But I know that I won’t be angry forever. I’m not afraid of my anger anymore because I know it is part of the path forward. It won’t consume me. Being angry doesn’t make me a bad person. I need to pay attention to my anger so that I can keep deconstructing certain places in my life and be able to rebuild them in a healthy way. And…learning to let myself be really angry about the past is what is helping me learn when to become appropriately angry at things that happen to me as an adult. This is a process…I’ve put up with some abusive shit from people as an adult, but as the years go by, I can spot it quicker and am tolerating it less and less.
But…I’m not only angry about things that have happened to me. I am angry because I have dear people in my life who are still enslaved by manipulation, and shaming, and lies that they believe about themselves because of abuse that happened to them starting in their childhoods. They are shamed into submission, shamed into secrecy, gaslighted constantly and convinced that THEY were always the problem…that THEY are the ones that need to be “FIXED”, to start acting better, to confess their wrongs. And then, when they feel their justified anger start to rise up within them, they become paralyzed because they too were taught that they didn’t have a right to be angry about anything. They aren’t able to take that step forward in the path of deconstruction and allowing disorder to happen, because they are convinced that expressing their own anger will prove that they are bad people.
This post is not really about me trying to air dirty laundry or gripe about things that have hurt me, even if it sounds like that. I’m trying to make the point that we can’t ignore the ugly stuff in life to move forward. We can’t label some emotions as good, and some as bad. They all belong, and they all are there to tell us about what is going on inside of us.
Maybe I’m trying, in my own small way, to be a bit of a bodhisattva……working to heal my own pain and broken places is a a good goal for myself, but more than that, I want to do the hard work and then talk openly about the journey so that others who have walked the same dark places know that they are not alone. Moving through life feeling alone and unheard and unknown and having your feelings dismissed, I think, are the true definition of hell. I don’t want anyone to feel that way.
The path to awakening and becoming our authentic selves requires that we observe and honor all the parts of ourselves….to not shy away from the things that feel uncomfortable or overwhelming. We can’t just embrace the happy moments, or console ourselves in our grief, or simply accept depressions as they arise. We must also acknowledge the hot, scary emotions and learn the lessons they have to teach us. They are also part of the journey, and if we ignore them, or try to tamp them down because they are not as socially acceptable or they may get us into hot water with people in our lives who want us to keep protecting secrets, then we are denying a significant portion of who we are, and are in effect, abandoning ourselves.
I will no longer abandon myself, or any of the parts of myself. I will show up for myself and welcome ALL of me….the angry parts, the sad parts, the joyful parts, the parts that are afraid. Inviting in each of these in and listening to their voices are what show me the way. They are the path.
When it’s over: I want to say, all my life.
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened, or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.
We toss out this word so much, in different ways, much the way we use the word “love”. I’m ready to go “home” after the baseball game in the same way that I “love” chocolate. Or, “home” is Texas just like I “love” but maybe don’t like that one family member. Or, YOU feel like “home” in the same way that I “love” YOU.
We apply “home” to many different contexts, but it seems to me like we’re all searching for the deepest, truest manifestation of it in our lives. And while we often know what it feels like when we catch glimpses of home, we can’t always put our finger on it, or craft the perfect algorithm to achieve it or find it when we want. Yet, the need for belonging and being accepted completely, for the us that we truly are, is our deepest desire, I think. I’m not even necessarily referring to the wish to be accepted by people, but also by our environments and the cosmos and the things that we hold most dear.
We have sayings about what constitutes home, and we write songs and books about it. But still, sometimes we really struggle to land in a solid space of “home” and what that means. Sometimes we think we’ve reached out and grabbed ahold of home only to have it just as quickly slip from our fingertips and we’ve lost it again.
This post is going to be a meandering hodge podge of my own musings on home and what that means, as well as what I’ve learned over my 40 some-odd years of journeying after it. I may be completely full of it, but I think that I’m finally….gradually….landing on an understanding of what true “home”: is for me….one that is more lasting and meaningful and is not quite so influenced by external factors and subjectivity. Maybe some of this journey of mine will also resonate with you.
“For the two of us, home isn’t a place. It is a person. And we are finally home.” ― Stephanie Perkins, Anna and the French Kiss
Yesterday my three boys and I drove up to the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore to spend a day on the beach, swimming and digging in the sand. We make a point of doing this at least once every summer; it is one of those important benchmarks that determines if it was a successful year or not in the way of vacations and travels. My first choice for beaches is almost always the North Atlantic; I love the coasts from Rhode Island northward to Maine and will always choose them over tropical destinations. Since moving away from Boston over four years ago, I haven’t been able to get back to the chilly waters and rocky coastlines that I adore. But I’ve discovered that Lake Michigan makes me almost as happy, and so away we trucked yesterday to plant ourselves in the sand and listen to blue waves crashing over a pebbly shore.
As we were driving to the lake, my boys and I got into a deep conversation about relationships. We talk about everything, and usually it’s free game with everything allowed on the table. (Side note: This I have learned, is a secret to parenting. Talk about EVERYTHING; yes, keep it age appropriate, but in general, never tell your kids that something isn’t their business. The more you talk over what they ask you about, the more they will come to you with their own life issues and troubles instead of hiding them.)
My boys have very strong feelings about a person I dated for a long while, a while back, and during the first leg of our journey they proceeded to tell me all the things they despised about him. In all fairness, I pretty much agree with their synopsis. He was generally an all around asshole, and I put up with that asshole-ish-ness for far too long. Explanation and point on that to come soon. (Side note: second parenting freebie – kids are often a very good judge of character. Keep this in mind).
I’ve gotten to the point in my parenting life that I would much rather embarrass myself and not seem like the completely put together parent that I would like to appear as, in order to save my boys from alot of the needless pain that I’ve gone through. So, I tell them about my stupid mistakes, I tell them about the childhood wounds I struggle with, I tell them about the insecurities I have in hope that it will help them understand why sometimes I probably come off as batshit crazy. I try to do this in a good way; I don’t want to cause vicarious trauma. However, I really want them to understand that I don’t consider myself to be a perfect parent, I’m not into authoritarian parenting, and I want them to learn and know the REAL me – not the fake parental facade that so many grownups present to their kids for decades.
We talked about this stupid relationship choice of mine and how it taught me so much about myself and reinforced other things I already knew but had ignored for a time. My boys’ primary question was along the lines of “Why did you put up with that shit for that long? You deserved so much better?!” And so, I told them the truth. I told them (in kid appropriate language) about the places in me that were wounded very deeply when I was little, and how it has taken alot of time, therapy, and some stupid relationships to heal those places. I told them that sometimes you can believe something in your head, cognitively, like the fact that you do deserve better….but it can take a while, and maybe some EMDR or brainspotting, to allow those beliefs to seep all the way into your heart and deepest core.
These are the two main takeaways from our conversation, and similar things that I have been thinking about alot, related to trying to find “home” in a person:
Don’t look for a person to complete you or become your home. My oldest has just started high school, and the conversation surrounding him starting to date has come up a few times. (I don’t have a ton of rules around my boys dating other than that I won’t drive them places or pay for their dates. I figure this one simple rule will buy me some time. They’ll need a car for most things, and a job to pay for stuff). Anyway, I explained to the boys that our society pushes a false understanding of relationships on us through movies and story….telling us that if we can just meet that one right person, suddenly everything will make sense, life will blossom, and we’ll live happily ever after. And it’s such a load of bullshit.
Now, I’ve met people in my life before where I wholeheartedly believe that some sort of deep magic was involved. I totally do believe that sometimes you can meet people that will radically alter your life trajectory, and you are meant to do life forever with them in some way. But….I don’t think it’s smart to plan your whole life around hoping to discover these people. Because….while you’re waiting to stumble across one of these people, you risk letting your life pass you by. There is also the factor to consider that sometimes you meet people in a certain space and time that fit you perfectly, and then, eventually, they either outgrow you or you outgrow them, and necessary endings arise.
Or….maybe you do find the perfect person, all the stars align, you fall in love…. and after some amount of time, tragedy strikes. They die, or develop dementia, or suddenly decide that you are not their person anymore, for whatever reason. It seems to me that if you look at things with this perspective it becomes clear that to base the stability and happiness of your own existence on these uncertain external variables is not smart. To be sure, I am totally in favor of being on the lookout for “my people” and the prospect of finding deep, genuine, enduring love….because I DO believe in and have experienced the universe as enchanted….but I am no longer prepared to risk the life I want to live by placing all of my hopes and dreams squarely on one, or a handful, of people. People cannot be our singular source of home.
2. Sometimes our perception of what home is…is a little jacked up. It only took me until about my third decade of life to realize that maybe I didn’t really understand what home is at all, and that maybe what I thought was home was actually based in a trauma response. Oof…this is a hard, but necessary, lesson to swallow.
Another, quite difficult pill to swallow, is that so many of my life responses up until the last several years, were trauma responses. This is not me whining about my life; this is me telling my therapists random stories about my life and having them respond with “OMG, Julie….you DO realize that that was not OK, right?” and “You developed that response as a coping mechanism for something you had no control over.”
Going back to my kids’ question about why I allowed a guy to treat me so terribly? Well, simple answer was that alot of the time I thought he felt like home, and I didn’t realize for quite a while that my perception of what “home” is was pretty messed up. Insert life lesson here: just because something feels familiar and normal, does not always mean that is is healthy or good.
For anyone who ever wonders why women go back to their abuser again and again, or why people deal with codependent, life-sucking family members for decades, or why sometimes we don’t make choices that would seem to be the obviously smart ones to the rest of the world…keep in mind that as humans we often tend to do what feels familiar to us, because in an odd way, that feels safer than branching out to do the unfamiliar, uncomfortable thing.
My whole point here is this: sometimes you might need to do a little trauma work if you keep trying to find “home” in people that treat you horribly or far less than how you deserve. Maybe they do feel familiar, and maybe they even feel a little safe, but if someone doesn’t treat you well and doesn’t legitimately try to make amends when they wrong you….I’d wager you’re probably acting out of old coping mechanisms and trauma responses.
And, if your kids ever look askance at someone in your life….that’s probably worth paying attention to.
“How often have I lain beneath rain on a strange roof, thinking of home.” ― William C. Faulkner
I’ve written about home as places in my past, before, in a handful of blog posts. Having grown up on a huge ranch in the hill country of South Texas, I fostered a deep connection to the land. My dad was the foreman of the ranch of my childhood, although we owned our own property a few miles down the road that butted up to my grandfather’s goat ranch. The land of my childhood was owned by a family from East Texas, but the land was really mine. Or, maybe I belonged to the land, I’m not sure which. But it definitely felt like home.
In that part of south Texas, the landscape has abrupt topography shifts. The hills of the canyon that these ranches were nestled in quickly smoothed out into miles and miles of flat, mesquite dotted pasture and farmland after driving only 15 minutes or so southward from my house. There is a county ranch road that winds deep into the canyon, starting as a 2-lane hardtop, then shifting into caleechie, and eventually dead-ending in a ranch at the base of a mountain at the far end. On the front end of the canyon, this ranch road begins as an intersection with Hwy 83, and marks the entrance to what I considered home. No matter where I traveled as a child….whether just the 40 minute drive to school or the grocery store….or a two week road trip to British Columbia or other foray into the Western United States….once I hit the beginning of that ranch road and the mouth of the Dry Frio Canyon….I was home.
Almost every single mile of that canyon holds memories for me. Those were all the water crossing that were flooded and impassable so many times. I remember all of the exact places where people flipped their cars, or drove into trees, or took out my dad’s barbed wire fence when trying to master a corner too fast. I’ve been on the majority of the properties in that canyon at least one time in my life, and in a huge chunk of the houses. I know all the bumps and turns on the entire stretch of road – when I was a child and riding in the car with my eyes closed, I could always “feel” how close we were to my house based on how the road “felt”. I know the families and the stories behind ranch after ranch in that piece of Texas.
I’ve now lived outside of Texas for almost two decades, and I’m losing the sense of home that comes with it. The house that I grew up in and returned to until I was in my mid -30s? It has been remodeled and a new family and ranch foreman live in it. My mother, who makes up so many of the memories of that ranch has been dead and buried for eight years, and my father moved to his own house on our family property five miles down the road. I no longer have any legitimate claim to the land of my childhood.
This realization used to make me despair. I felt that if I lost the land that raised me, it was as though I was losing a part of me. If I could no longer go “home” in the same way that I used to , I had an uncomfortable feeling of nihilism creeping up on me. Even as an adult, when my ex-husband and I used to move from house to house and state to state so frequently, the constant leaving behind of things and land dearly loved would undo me. In some cases, I would try to return those those places and recreate what was there before, usually to no avail.
Buddhist thought has helped me tremendously in this area. Nothing is permanent, everything is passing. I knew this to be true on some level, even as a child. The ranches and land that I grew up on are in some ways nothing like the way they were 30 years ago. Ranching families have left and new have arrived, folks that I’ve known since I was a baby have grown old and died or will soon pass. Barns have rusted and lay abandoned, fields that once grew hay and alfalfa now are overgrown with thistles and Johnson grass. New roads are constantly being changed and cut across the river based on the most recent flood. But, just because the land is always changing doesn’t make all that has happened before meaningless. It ALL means something, and all the unknowns that are yet to come will also be meaningful.
The last time I went down to South Texas I felt released in a way that I have never experienced before. My life is no longer there. The chances of me living in that part of the world every again are slim. But I no longer felt the need to grasp and claw and hang onto something from the past that is no longer mine. Of course, I took pictures of all the things I love, and went to the places that have always been special to me…but in less of a panicked way; it was much more of an appreciation that for at least one more time, life allowed me to experience these good and true things that I have always loved. And, perhaps this may sound silly, I felt as though the land was telling me that it had raised me well and had sent me off and it was fine to make my way in the world without needing to hang on to tightly to the past….and that all the lessons and love that I have brought with me will forever be meaningful, because they are a part of me now….and THAT is enduring.
“Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” ― Robert Frost
One of my cousins and I talk frequently about how what you’re taught about family can really influence you as an adult. We feel like we grew up with a very strong “respect your elders” ethic, one where family ties are extremely important, and the need to present to the world with a cohesive, unified front is paramount.
My grandpa and his father first bought land for our family ranch way back in the 40s….when land was cheaper and you could by hundreds of acres of rocky hill country and scrape out an existence with a small herd of cows, goats, or sheep. He and my grandmother moved out to that land in the Dry Frio Canyon in Uvalde County and raised four children. As young adults, three of those siblings moved away and worked elsewhere, though one remained. But now, over 40 years later, they have all come back home. Those siblings all live within about 8 miles of each other, on pieces of land that are all a part of or butt up to the original Monroe family ranch. My grandmother and grandfather have been gone for years, yet each of their children have doggedly hung on to the land…land that has become so much of a part of our family’s identity and what has tied us together for so long.
I love my family. They are tough, cantankerous at times, hard working, and rugged. They are intelligent, proud, and have been good caretakers of the land for all of these decades. And I suspect sometimes they probably wonder where the hell I came from. I’ve always been a bit of an outlier…the one that made them scratch their heads and ask “What is Julie up to now?” and “Why is she doing THAT?”
I used to really struggle with how I fit in with my family. While in so many ways I definitely hold to the good South Texan country girl mentality, in other ways I don’t fit in my family AT ALL. (Except for my cousin-sister….she is one of my people and “gets” me most of the time. Even when she doesn’t, she accepts me.) My family and frequently butt heads when it comes to politics or ideologies, definitely religion…and I guess like most families experience….there are certain conversations that just should never be brought to the table because they will always result in discord. Until well into adulthood, I felt like it was my job to figure out a way to “fit” into my family….to try to learn to see the world their way or to devise some brilliant plan to help them understand the beat that I march to. Because of the way this third generation of Monroes was brought up, I felt it was my responsibility to always please my family, to work hard to garner their approval and favor in all that I did, and to never push back hard when I disagreed with them on various topics.
I don’t think I am unique in this; I’ve met so many people who have struggled to decipher the dynamics that run through their extended families and figure out what their responsibilities therein are. And when we are taught from a young age how important the concept of family is, we can feel a strong urge to constantly try to foster the sense of home in our family. The idea of not having a strong foundation of family to return home to can feel like we’ve lost our base, our footing, our sense of origin in life.
Families all vary. Some families do relationship really well and provide a solid, healthy upbringing for their children that helps them launch out into the world successfully. And other families are…., well, let’s just say it…..rather shitty and abusive. Most families probably fall somewhere in the middle of that spectrum.
But ultimately, because families are not static and consistent and are subject to death, and tragedy, and varying dynamics between each contributing individual…..I don’t think it’s safe to rely on them as our ultimate “home” either. No matter how wonderful family can be, they won’t be there forever. At some point we will be separated….by distance, or disagreement, or death.
“Home isn’t where you’re from, it’s where you find light when all grows dark.” ― Pierce Brown, Golden Son
Have you ever been minding your own business doing whatever, or you travel to a particular type of place, or you’re engaging in an activity with someone or a group, and suddenly a sense of peace and “all is well” comes over you, maybe for no good reason?
These kinds of moments….I think they are wrinkles in time and space….where maybe we are touching a truer reality beyond the ones that we normally experience. I’ve decided that maybe these moments are a closer representation to what “home” really is.
I was talking with a good friend a month or so ago about how going to certain kinds of places….it doesn’t even necessarily have to be a specific geographical space on a map…really does something to us and helps us reconnect with our sense of what “home” means. For my friend, it is all about trees. She told me about a certain region of a state in the northern Midwest that feels like home to her, even though when she was growing up she didn’t really live in that particular area. But every time she takes a trip to that region, she feels home.
For this friend, it was more than an aesthetic…more than an appreciation of the landscape and the forests and foliage…..she remarked that she has become a literal tree hugger, because when she hugs these tree that she loves so much, she physically experiences a sensation of grounding, and peace, and home.
I feel this way about mountains. I lived in Denver for a few years, in the foothills of the Rockies. Every time I would drive toward my little village nestled in the base of those hills, and I would look out over the vista of pastures that lay before them, my breath would catch and I would marvel at how I had the opportunity, even if for just a short while, to live in such a breathtaking place. The Green Mountains of Vermont does the same thing to me. For multiple years in a row when my children were younger, we would go as a family to central Vermont to run a particular road race and spend a week in a rented VRBO house outside Waitsfield or Stowe. While running those mountains or driving through the lush countryside my heart would literally hurt with how beautiful it was and how it fed my soul. There are several other places in the United States and globally (Scotland….OMG….it undoes me like nothing else) that just wreck me and create that sense of home within me.
But this sense of home doesn’t always have to come from anything visual. Certain types of music and instruments take me home, every time, too. I’ve decided that the cello is my heart instrument. I dearly love other instruments….the mandolin, the banjo, the violin, etc….but when I hear a cello, especially when it builds to a crescendo in a beautiful piece of music and the deep, thick waves reverberate through my gut and my body takes on the music in a physical way……Damn. There is nothing like that. I know that to have music that is audible, there must be time and space, but I’m convinced that music, especially cello music, transcends everything. Change my mind. And while you’re considering how, listen to this:
“The desire to go home that is a desire to be whole, to know where you are, to be the point of intersection of all the lines drawn through all the stars, to be the constellation-maker and the center of the world, that center called love. To awaken from sleep, to rest from awakening, to tame the animal, to let the soul go wild, to shelter in darkness and blaze with light, to cease to speak and be perfectly understood.” ― Rebecca Solnit, Storming the Gates of Paradise: Landscapes for Politics
Depending on how you’re raised, and depending on what kind of religious or spiritual background you come from, you’re likely to differ in how ‘belonging” you feel on this Earth. If you’re raised with the beliefs that the physical world has been corrupted by sin and that in general humankind is a goddamned mess, you’re probably not going to feel the strongest kinship with all that you see when you look out the window. It won’t resonate as home.
The sentiment that was perpetuated by many when I was a child and younger adult? “This world is not my home, I’m just a passin’ through….” And things along the lines of “when Jesus comes back this world is gonna burn.” And lines from the New Testament like “Be in the world, but not of the world.” Meaning….you’re stuck here for the time being, so just deal with it as best as you can and bank on things being better after you die and make it to heaven….if you’ve accepted Jesus as your Lord and Savior. Never mind that a better English translation of such passages in the Bible would read something like “Don’t get caught up in the world’s systems and unhealthy, imperialistic institutions”, and never mind that much of what Paul wrote was more mystical in nature and not be understood from a blatantly literal standpoint.
I used to be terrified of the cosmos and living forever and wondering if I belonged (I’ve written about this plenty in other posts). During most of my childhood, I felt as though what I had to offer the world was pretty paltry, I felt shame from being part of the gender that allegedly destined all humankind and creation to the pit and fires of hell, and my authentic self quite often seemed to be too much for those around me. I sure didn’t feel at home on this earth, yet wasn’t too keen on hurrying to the next world (heaven) and discover that I didn’t belong there, either.
Thank goodness I have discovered thinkers and writers (many who are proudly Christian), who have helped me lay aside this fear of not belonging. Mary Oliver, Wendell Berry, John O’Donahue, David Whyte, and so many other people that I have encountered beyond the words on pages, have revealed to me that the Divine is so much bigger and greater and wonderful than the small, petty, angry God that I knew as a child.
I’m convinced that the cosmos is enchanted. That there is some great loving, impersonal but not less than personal energy that grounds it and sustains us. It’s the magic that happens at the intersection of science and all that can’t be explained by methodic questioning and rational data. But even if I didn’t believe in some sort of fundamental spiritual reality, the words of Carl Sagan and hard, literal scientific fact convince me that this galaxy is our legitimate home and that anyone who arises into this existence of space and time absolutely, without question, belongs and has been invited to be here:
“The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.” ― Carl Sagan, Cosmos
Referring back to my earlier point of art and music and physical settings that create a feeling of home, the way some people are able to use words can catch my soul. My favorite movie is A River Runs Through It, based on the book by the same name. Norman Maclean writes in such a way for me that words and cosmos intertwine, and every time I hear Robert Redford narrate this movie, I am overcome with a sense of belonging, and nostalgia, and peace, and connection with all things. It is weird, and pretty unexplainable. I call it magic.
Here are some of my favorite quotes, that stir up a cosmic or earthly sense of home for me:
“Of course, now I am too old to be much of a fisherman, and now of course I usually fish the big waters alone, although some friends think I shouldn’t. Like many fly fishermen in western Montana where the summer days are almost Arctic in length, I often do not start fishing until the cool of the evening. Then in the Arctic half-light of the canyon, all existence fades to a being with my soul and memories and the sounds of the Big Blackfoot River and a four-count rhythm and the hope that a fish will rise. Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of those rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters.”
“Many of us would probably be better fishermen if we did not spend so much time watching and waiting for the world to become perfect.”
“To him, all good things – trout as well as eternal salvation – came by grace; and grace comes by art; and art does not come easy.”
“As a Scot and a Presbyterian, my father believed that man by nature was a mess and had fallen from an original state of grace. Somehow, I early developed the notion that he had done this by falling from a tree. As for my father, I never knew whether he believed God was a mathematician but he certainly believed God could count and that only by picking up God’s rhythms were we able to regain power and beauty. Unlike many Presbyterians, he often used the word “beautiful.”
I have no clue what happens when we die and leave this place world. For many years I thought we would go to the great by and by….a traditionally evangelical or Protestant understanding of heaven. These days I think that the idea of reincarnation is just as likely and probably makes more sense. I cringe at the notion that the Divine would be so heartless to give us one lonely shot at getting life right and then base the rest of our eternity on whether or not we did in fact get it right or believed the right things. Never mind that he wouldn’t take trauma into consideration, or the fact that a billion people existed before the human Jesus ever showed up; and never mind that to deal with this problems Christians would have to contort themselves senseless to try and fabricate theories about how God would get the message of Christ to every single person in the world in some way so that they could believe, even if they never encountered anyone or any text from the Judeo-Christian lineage.
I’m pretty sure I don’t believe in nihilism. I honestly don’t like that option at all, and kind of wonder if 1)people that believe this have ever experienced magic or enchantment in their lives, and 2) if they have experienced these things, how do they adequately and scientifically explain their existence?
The place that I’m currently at on all of this….and I reserve the right to change my mind….is that when we die, the “stuff of our selves”, soul, spirit, whatever you want to call it….melds back into a great unity….the unity of all things. And maybe we get to choose if we want to come back and do life over to learn new lessons. I don’t know. I’m not honestly super concerned about this anymore.
But since there is no way for us to FOR SURE know what’s going to happen when we die, I don’t think we can base our understanding of “home” on it either. Mary Oliver asks us what we are going to do with our one wild, precious, and wonderful life? I don’t want to waste mine assuming that the good stuff only starts in the next life.
Along those same lines, I don’t want to waste this current part of my life by trying to hurry and get to the more palatable or easy parts that I anticipate might lie ahead of me…..the next relationship, the next house, when I’m an empty nester and no longer have endless piles of laundry to attend to, retirement…any of those things. None of what I can imagine about my future is guaranteed, except for the inevitable death part, and I don’t even know what the details of that will look like. But this is what I’ve learned in my first 41 years: getting that next bigger house does not make you happier. Bringing in that bigger paycheck does not make you happier. Driving the fancier, more expensive car does not make you happier. Some of the most miserable people I know live in fancy houses, drive fancy cars, vacation in expensive destinations, etc….and I wouldn’t trade my life with theirs for anything. And once again, ALL of those things can be taken from us.
“Home is neither here nor there. Home is within you, or home is nowhere at all. Every path leads homeward, every step is birth, every step is death, every grave is mother. Whoever has learned how to listen to trees no longer wants to be a tree. He wants to be nothing except what he is. That is home. That is happiness.”” -Herman Hesse
Now that I’ve sorted through all of this, all I can conclude is that “home” must absolutely be found within yourself. You are the only constant in your life; You are the only reality that you are able to understand at the deepest levels. Even when you feel incredibly close and connected to another person, you are still understanding them through your own filters, and they are mirroring back so much of you, to you.
Wherever you go, there YOU are. You are always with you. Therefore, YOU must become YOUR home.
This can be a scary conclusion, because alot of us don’t like ourselves, much less love ourselves. Or, we haven’t learned to be our authentic selves. We haven’t learned to dig inside and appreciate what’s there, acknowledging that there is work to be done but that we are fundamentally OK and good. But the thing is, if we can get to this place….a place of knowing that we belong and are enough and are all we need….then nothing can be taken from us.
Ram Dass and Mirabai Bush wrote a wonderful book called Walking Each Other Home. It is largely a book about death and dying, but it is also a book about learning how to come home to yourself. This, I think, is the ultimate point of all good religion and spirituality……to show us how to come back to ourselves…..to find the universe and divine and source that is within us. When we do so, then we can live outwards in love, with the ability to create real and lasting change in the world, with the ability to be a safe and welcoming person for others. And when we find that ground of being within ourselves, we will always be home. No more frantically searching for it or trying to create it outside ourselves. Then, whatever we are doing will be “home”. Whoever we are with with be “home”. Wherever we go will be “home”.
This, I think is the true way to live in the present….to be here now as Ram Dass always put it. To live eternity right now.
I’ve always loved my kids immensely, from the moment I knew I was carrying them. Which was always pretty quick, because morning sickness kicked in with each of them within about 3 days, and I knew well before those positive pregnancy tests that I was going to be a mom again. I loved their baby months, and hearing their giggles and laughs as toddlers and preschoolers, and all the growing phases of childhood. But I think now, when they are preteens and teens, is one of the funnest times in being a parent. They are really coming into their own identities and discovering what really makes them tick, and it is so amazing to watch. And….they make me laugh SO hard, all the time. I feel like we are constantly talking about the silliest things and laughing until our bellies hurt and tears are running down our cheeks. My children blow me away: I have no clue how I got so lucky.
On the daily, my kids teach me so much. And they share such good advice with me…because, clearly, I need some of it. Here are some solid words I received from my ten year old a few months ago (I don’t typically let me kids swear freely, but this is truth, he was very emphatic about it, and it is something every girl should know):
“Mom, if a guy treats you like crap and denies you of your basic rights, don’t take that shit!”
My oldest son surprises me on a daily basis with his wisdom, patience, and responsibility. He’s only 14, but he regularly is the one reminding me to calm down, to stop overthinking things, to remember good self care, and to get some things off my plate. Not all that long ago I was stressed about something in life, and as he and I drove around town running errands, he told me about a book that he had been reading that he felt like I could learn something from.
Xander: Mom, do you like audiobooks?
Me: I LOVE audiobooks. (Where is he going with this?)
Xander: There’s a book I’ve been listening to that I think you should also listen to. It’s called The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Duck.
Me: (familiar with a book with a very similar title). Is your DAD aware that you’re listening to this book? (My eyebrows raised)
Xander: No way. But it’s a good book. It’s about how you only have so many ducks in life, so you need to be careful about who you give them away to. It makes a lot of sense.
I love this kid so much. He cracks me up and yet straightens me out all at the same time.
Just last week I had a conversation with a friend about this same topic; however, since we are grownups, we used the original version that starts with an F, and is the basis of the actual book The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck. I still haven’t read the book, and am not sure if I will, but I think the title really says it all. If you are a people pleaser, or still paralyzed in various types of shame, or toxic beliefs…learning to not give a flip about certain people or situations is quite the endeavor. Because, as many of you will know, we kind of people want to be “good people”, and we inherited the belief early on in life that to actually be good people, we have to love everyone, be friends with everyone, be emotionally invested in everyone,…all of that stuff. We give way too many fucks about too much stuff. And so learning to not do that anymore is akin to an art form.
This friend that I was chatting with agreed with me when I told him that I’m at the age now where I realize that some things are just not worth wasting energy on. And looking back, there are some situations and people that I just spent WAY to much time and energy on, at my own expense. So many times certain people were very happy to drain me of my energy, resources, whatever I was willing to give them…and offer absolutely nothing in return. My friend told me that he feels like at his age, he is done playing games with people. He says what he wants and doesn’t want, and chooses intentionally where he expends his emotional and physical energy.
I think this makes ALOT of sense, but it’s still hard for me…a recovering codependent, people-pleasing, emerger from childhood shame. But, I am getting better at it and it is really liberating. It’s also nice to not feel exhausted all the time by this insane inner urge to be all things to all people….while trying to save the environment, and be a minimalist, and a super parent, and all those other things I’ve neurotically fallen into but are still good goals to strive for. This is where it really is a subtle art to learn not to give a fuck….because you have to learn yourself really well and figure out what is most important to you. Then you have to evaluate yourself and really understand your strengths and weaknesses. Next, you have to learn to parse all that out in the people and life circumstances that come your way. This is tricky, because most of the time you don’t just encounter a person and know from the very first moment that you are totally ready to invest in them for the long term and are willing to give them some of your precious ducks. (I have met about five people in my life, who I knew from the first instant I talked to them that they were my people, but this is a rare occurrence.) Usually, you have to try people on for a while, watch them in interactions with other people, see how they respond to different environments, etc, to determine if they are people you want to align with. And sometimes, you meet people that you are CERTAIN are going to be your people, and you start investing hard in them, only to be horribly disappointed down the road. Either they weren’t who they originally presented themselves to you as, or they decided you weren’t worth sharing their own ducks with. It’s an art for sure to figure this all out. And maybe a dance, too…the kind where you’re learning the steps only after you’ve gotten on the dance floor with a partner.
My goal in life is to try to love people as well as I can. I fumble this up quite often, and I know there are so many times when I’m really self-centered and short sighted. But, most of the time, I try my darndest to find commonalities with every person I meet, to truly see them as an individual human being even if for just a split second, and to do to my best to honor and recognize their inherent worth.
Something that is really interesting to me, though, is that so much of my understanding of what love is has been wrong….or maybe not wrong, but misguided…for most of my life. Many of my beliefs about love have largely been unconscious, so thank you God for therapy to help unearth all of this stuff that hasn’t been serving me so well. Some of this will be a tad bit hyperbolic, but in general, I thought that love was about always sacrificing or inconveniencing yourself for other people, never doing or saying things that would make other people uncomfortable, never ever saying blunt, direct truths, never standing firm to have your own needs met, never walking away from people even as they begged you to stay, letting you own boundaries slide in order to make other people happy, etc, etc. I believed that love was a verb, an action, but I definitely had a skewed understanding of it….the verb was always in relation to action towards another person, never an action in the direction of myself and what was actually best for me.
This faulty understanding of love is exhausting. Because it requires you to always be giving, always bowing down, always having to be hyper vigilant about the needs of others, always having to tell yourself to stop feeling resentful and selfish when people wasted YOUR time, YOUR resources, YOUR affection, etc.
I’ve been listening to a great audiobook lately called Not Nice: Surrender the Approval Quest. In one of the chapters, the author made the point that in most cases, being the nicest, most accommodating, pushover who is always deferring to the wants and needs of others is not, in fact, a very loving way to exist in the world. And, it actually comes across to others as repulsive at times. I was driving when I heard this line, and almost stopped dead in my tracks, but had the wherewithal to allow traffic to keep moving. It had never occured to me that the definitions that I had carried of love for much of life are probably some of the least loving ways to be in the world. Having firm boundaries, knowing your worth as an individual, and then interacting with people and situations out of that strong identity might actually be the most loving thing you can do in life. Mind blowing…..that maybe real love is not about giving away all of your ducks all the time to everyone, but in learning the art form of being very picky and deliberate with who you give those ducks to. Well, now.
I’ve been a nurse now for about two and a half years. It has freaking flown by. I remember five short years ago, trying to face the daunting task of getting divorced and starting nursing school at the same time, and it all seemed like an impossible task. And now, somehow I’ve done all of that and will be graduating with my masters degree in nursing in a few short weeks. Crazy how life just works itself out sometimes.
One thing that is really being pushed in nursing education is how nurses are to be empathetic and supportive, invested caregivers to patients. We are supposed to be advocates, educators, care coordinators, physical caretakers, hand holders, strong listeners, etc….all while being extremely empathetic. Nursing, as many have said before, is both an art and a science. Nurses do some fantastic work, and so very many of them are heroes in their own right and have literally changed people’s lives for the better.
That being said, I will never apologize for saying that some of what we as nurses are taught to be is not healthy and is comes at our own expense. It is strongly implied that we sacrifice ourselves for the betterment of our patients, that we calmly and patiently take abuse and manipulation and understaffing and that one extra responsibility because this is what nurses do. And, all these things that are strongly implied and encouraged for us to do and be comes with a side of ” don’t screw up because you could lose your license.”
A thing I’m convinced about nurses, and I’ve read this elsewhere so it’s not just me making up stuff, is that a huge chunk of nurses are already people-pleasing codependents to begin with. Taking care of people is what we do. It’s how we’re wired. So then, when we are placed into environments where we are told our job is to be superhero empaths that sacrifice our own needs for our patients, every time, we accept it…hook, line, and sinker. Because this is what we believe makes us good people, good healthcare workers. It’s even stronger when the American Nurses Association Code of Ethics gets handed to us in nursing school.
This is not at all a Julie rant against nursing. I LOVE being a nurse, and nurses fill at huge role at the healthcare table that is still being developed and explored in new and innovative ways. But…when nurses give up their own health and self care for others….ALL THE TIME….is that really loving, or even ethical itself?
A topic that has been coming up alot more in recent nursing research are the ideas of compassion fatigue, burnout, vicarious trauma, and stress injuries. Nurses know all about these on a practical level, but the research literature is really just starting to understand how impactful these things are. And while empathy has been touted as a big buzz word lately for teaching people how to interact with others, I have decided that the pursuit to be empathetic all the time is also not the most loving thing to do, and it can be wicked exhausting, too. Because…being empathetic with everyone you encounter, especially as a nurse, requires one to give away entirely too many ducks.
The freaking amazing Brené Brown has written and spoken alot about empathy. She gave a talk on the difference between sympathy and empathy, which was uploaded to youtube in the form of a super clevel animation. Watch this:
This video is really good, and it definitely distinguishes the difference between sympathy and empathy for alot of people that need to hear it. The problem is…when people that are already very far leaning on the empathy side of the spectrum, it just makes us feel even more guilty about not being empathetic and connecting enough with people
Did you notice that Brené referenced a NURSING scholar? Yeah, we know alot about empathy. She listed four components that are part of empathy: learning to take the perspective of the other person, coming to that other person in a non-judgmental way, recognizing emotion in other people, and being able to communicate in the recognition of that emotion. Or, as she then succinctly put it, empathy is FEELING with people. It is about reaching into yourself and finding that feeling within yourself that resonates with what the other person is feeling, and allowing that to be a point of connection.
I love empathy. I love it when people empathize with me. I love it when we connect on a deep level of “I totally understand the shit you’re going through because I have been there before.” But…NO ONE CAN EMPATHIZE WITH EVERY PERSON THEY MEET! Unless, of course, you want to die of utter exhaustion both from actually empathizing with everyone and then also trying to find some kind of connection with people you don’t understand AT ALL and are struggling to find that commonality that will help you to empathize.
There is a reason that nurses frequently crawl out to their cars after every shift and then sleep all day on their days off. It’s partly all the physical work involved, but it’s also because their brains and emotional selves are deplenished from having spent 12 hours straight trying to provide quality, unbiased, empathetic care to patients under the umbrella of a code of ethics that tells them it is their moral duty to do this.
A couple of months ago I took a quick weekend trip up to Chicago to see one of my best friends, who is a mental health therapist and also one of the wisest people I know. (She has also walked beside me through so many hard things in life….she is one of my people, forever) We ate some amazing food, hit up lake Michigan for some early summer kayak therapy, and talked about deep things. Because she and I don’t do small talk. We go straight for the good stuff , every time.
This friend has taught me so much about being authentic and learning how to love people well. So, after our bellies were full and our arms were worn out from rowing, I brought up to her my struggle with empathy, wanting to hear what she thought about it all.
My friend pointed out that empathy and sympathy are opposite ends of a spectrum, and when people only speak of those two ideas, they are leaving out a crucial concept: compassion.
Before she even really started to explain herself, it clicked in my head. My mind went straight back to the Gospels (the Bible was my native language after all, even if I don’t read it much now). There is a story in Matthew 9, where the translated text states that Jesus had COMPASSION on the multitudes. This is what it says:
“Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. 36 When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 37 Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. 38 Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.”
The connection that my brain made here was that Jesus felt compassion for the people, he understood their plight and struggles and pain, but he did NOT get personally involved with every single broken or hurting person around him. He recognized that it was not his task to save every single person, but that other people were meant to join in the job. (This may be the worst exegesis ever, but work with me here. Also, I know that the text says he healed every sickness, but clearly, he was not erasing every plight that the masses were experiencing).
As my friend and I talked, I recognized that there is a place in the middle….a very loving place….that is not completely detached and platitudinous, like sympathy can be…and yet it is not fully “all in” emotionally invested, like empathy requires. Compassion lies in between…in a space that is real and loving and meaningful, yet doesn’t require you to deprive yourself of self love and self care by demanding all of your ducks all the time. Compassion fills that gap where you wish you had something substantial to give, but you know you don’t. And yet, it’s so much more than just “thoughts and prayers”. Because compassion requires some mental and emotional effort, but it also recognizes that it is not your individual responsibility to single-handedly save the whole goddamn world.
So, I now think that compassion fatigue is a complete misnomer. It should be called empathy fatigue. Because compassion is about caring for people, and loving them at a fundamental level and wanting the very best outcomes for them, but at the same time realizing that you are not in the position to do a deep dive into their lives and pain and help them find a way out. Empathy fatigue is what burns people out. And while I am absolutely not an expert in this area, I think that maybe it is empathy fatigue that most often leads to vicarious trauma. Empathy, at some level, as described in Brené’s video, requires us to get down in the dark places with people This can be OK if we each personally have the resilience and emotional strength to not be overcome by that darkness and pain. But, if we haven’t worked through our own struggles in life or faced our own demons, or have a strong resilience and identity, I think that trying to be empathetic can just about wipe us out if we’re not careful. We can end up being traumatized by seeing or hearing about someone else’s trauma, termed vicarious trauma. There’s something about compassion as an alternative, though, that lets us maybe see what’s going on from a distance, and care very much about it, but not have to climb down into every person’s pain with them. It helps us recognize that we have the capacity to sit in pain with a few people in our lives and be able to survive, but we can’t do that with everyone. And then trying to do so would not be loving either toward them or ourselves.
As my kids let me know on a regular basis, I usually have too much on my plate. This mainly happens because life is so dang interesting and I want to do it ALL. Read every book, listen to all the music, meet all the people, do all the interesting research projects stored up in my head, try all the new adventures I’ve never tackled before. The problem is, when I try to do all of these things at once, I don’t do any of them very well. And when I attempt them out of a place of exhaustion, the results end up being even shittier.
I was thinking today about a freelance job I had several years ago. I was editing wedding photos and running a photo blog for a woman who owned a destination elopement company. And, OMG, if I ever get married again, that is the way to go. Have someone else plan an amazing, low key wedding in a fabulous part of California or Colorado, and all you have to do is look pretty and show up…..sign me up!
Anyway, I loved doing this blog, and I had a pretty good eye for picking out and arranging the best photos sent from the photographers for each wedding. But, because I was in nursing school and trying to do so many other demanding things at the time, my work and adherence to my client’s preferences started sliding. I didn’t have time to read all of her emails, and I missed cues about what she was wanting because I was so tired and stressed out about other things going on in my life. I was way too overloaded. So, she fired me from that freelance gig, rightfully so. It was a painful lesson to learn, to know that sometimes you have to only do a few things at one time in life to be able to do them well.
The same goes for people. Even though I am naturally an introvert, I have learned to be an extrovert. You know…actually, I might retract that here on the spot. Maybe I thought I was an introvert because of all of my shame issues, and maybe I”m just now learning that I’m really an extrovert since I”m letting that shame all fall away. I don’t know. It’s really neither here nor there. The point I want to make is that I want to be in deep relationship with all the great, fantastic people I know…which is alot of people. But I can’t do all those relationships well when I try to do them at the same time. I have a limited capacity both in time, physical energy, and emotional energy. I only have so many ducks to give.
So, the great lesson I am learning these days, especially when I am so tired from work, and trying to finish up this grad degree, and all the other great things going on in my life, is that I have to be intentional about when and who I give my ducks to. But, in rationing out those ducks, it doesn’t mean that I love all the other people any less, or care about their wellbeing and what is going on in their lives any less. It’s about seasons in life too, right? Like right now, certain people in my life need my ducks more than others (like my kids), and as life shifts, those ducks can be spread out to other people.
But most importantly, I’m learning that where I give out my ducks comes down to joy. Which people and things in my life bring me joy? Those are the places where the ducks should be directed. Because being a loving person in the world isn’t just about loving other people, but loving myself. Because I am just as important as every other individual in the world.
To the wise ones we lost, who slipped away quietly as the oxygen dipped, breath falling shallow. We remember you.
To the little ones, those who we thought were the safest, whose health was broken by young immune systems only fighting to protect them. We remember you.
To the health care providers who now can’t unsee and struggle to unfeel the fear, the unknown, the death and darkness of those early months, and now bear the exhaustion that follows. We remember you.
To those who feared every moment, not knowing who or what to trust, voices calling from every direction, saying, “Follow me, this is the way.” We remember you.
To those whose dreams shattered, irrecoverable, with no corporate grief available to be a salve for their souls. We remember you.
To the plans, and the trips, and the slumber parties, and the prom nights that were ripped away from children and young adults, who just wanted to live out milestones and rites of passage, but were denied these. We remember you.
To those who remain, we are still here. Still. Here. Not everything has been lost. Hope remains. Memories remain. Love persists. And grace carries it all.
May grace and love and hope be felt by all who have endured the weight of this pandemic, and may we seek to hold each other up, and never dismiss the pain of others.
My kids and I just recently returned from a week long road trip to Texas to my family ranch. Being that it is wicked hot this time of year in Texas, we made sure to hit up the best swimming hole of my childhood. It’s one of those great swimming holes that is fed by underground springs, so even when it hasn’t rained much in recent months, the water in that particular spot still flows with chilly currents and stays about 9 to 10 feet deep. It just so happens that this particular swimming paradise is bordered by a couple of great rocks for jumping off. And like I loved to do when I was a kid, my boys saw them and immediately wanted to jump off them, too.
There’s something about jumping off a rock or high dive, as a kid, the first time after having not done if for a long time. You remember doing it before, maybe the previous summer, but once again, the first jump of this season is scary. And even though you “know” you’re really only jumping a few feet into water, it takes a while to build up the courage to just go ahead and take the plunge. But then, once you finally do it, you remember that the jumping was totally worth the risk, and so you keep coming back for more.
One of my boys really struggled with that first jump into the swimming hole in Texas. He would just about convince himself to do it, and then shy away from the edge right before he was going to leap off. He wavered back and forth for a while before he finally worked up the nerve to do it. The whole time, as I watched him, I could see his mind working…trying to get rid of the fear so that he could jump. If he could just convince himself that everything would be fine, before he jumped, then the jumping would be easy. But he could clearly never talk himself out of not being afraid. Eventually, he committed, still scared, and half actively, half passively, fell off the rock. But the point is, he did it. And that changed everything.
I’ve been having alot of conversations with multiple people lately about fear, and the incessant inner urge to people please, and the self doubt that can really hold us back in life…from showing up fully, from becoming who we really want to be, all of that. As a recovering people pleaser, I am so intimately acquainted with these dynamics. The first several decades of my life were motivated so strongly by fear and the angst caused by disapproving comments or looks from people . Making decisions out of fear, constantly wondering if you’re measuring up, and incessantly calculating your risk of being abandoned by people….Is. So. Freaking. Exhausting. It is NOT a good way to live and I highly recommend against it. Do whatever you have to do…all the shadow work, the expensive therapy, cutting ties with specific people in your life, scrutinizing healthy people in your life to learn from them…..all the things that you must and have the resources to do to escape as much of that driving fear as possible.
Maybe I should back up a little and lay some groundwork before I start my pontificating so early on. I mentioned a while back in a different post that there are two types of pain. The first is wisdom pain, or the kind of pain that becomes the vehicle that will take you where you want to go. It is transformative and refining. The second type of pain is the pain that comes from avoiding difficult things, repeating the same defeating patterns in your life, allowing the same kinds of toxic people to manipulate and use you, and the kind of pain that convinces you that life is simply being done to you and you have no say-so about anything all that significant.
I also think that there are two kinds of fear that are directly related to these types of pain. Now, I’m not a therapist or psychologist, so I’m sure my thoughts here will be woefully simplistic, but they make sense to me so we’ll go with it. I also realize there’s a ton of nuance to fear, especially as it relates to trauma in one’s past, or histories of traumatic brain injuries. I”m not going down those complicated paths today.
The first type of fear is healthy fear. This is the fear that is rooted in our prefrontal cortexes, where we can logic out common sense and determine generally what kind of consequences might await us if we make certain choices. This fear is what keeps us safe and alive, generally. It tells us not to do certain stupid things because there will be unfavorable outcomes. I’m reticent to actually list examples here, because every example I”m thinking of…I’m like…nope, I know someone who chose to do that…with varying results. (Not everyone has a healthy sense of “this is what you do to stay alive” kind of fear). But I think you get my point.
The other type of fear is the one that isn’t rooted in lack of common sense or having an underdeveloped frontal lobe in your brain (aka, teenagers and young adults). It’s the fear that comes from deeply rooted beliefs about yourself that usually began to take hold during childhood…that you don’t belong in the world, that you aren’t enough, that you are too much, that you aren’t worthy, that no one will appreciate the authentic you, that you are inherently broken….all the beliefs that make you feel like the problem with the world is YOU.
This second type of fear is the most paralyzing, immobilizing fear. Or at least, it can be, when you identify way too strongly with it. Actually, I think we get into SO much trouble anytime we take on one of our emotions as who we are as a person, even if we do so unconsciously. A scared person. An angry person. A depressed person. A crazy person. I don’t like these at all. Because each of us, at our core, are so much more than our emotions or the things that happen to us.
The thing is, this kind of fear can be overcome. Maybe not all at once, maybe not to the nth degree in its entirety, but it is workable fear. It is not absolute, it is so very often based on subjective data and misinformation, and more importantly, it is not WHO WE ARE as our truest selves. Sometimes it takes years or decades to separate from the fear. This is where the writing of Eckhart Tolle and Byron Katie have been so invaluable to me. Once I learned that all the thoughts that pass through my brain are NOT ME, and all the feelings that I feel at any particular moment are NOT ME, then I could see how the fear was workable. Because I could watch, as an observer of myself, the fear within myself and how it influenced my thoughts and emotions, and vice versa.
This all may sound nuts to you….the idea that there is a real, unmovable, true, healthy YOU behind the you that you have known your whole life. Give it time. Sit with it. Question everything that comes into your mind. Make friends with the fear that is there.
The Fear Behind the Fear: As a short side note, I want to mention the problem of having fear behind the fear, or fear of the fear of something. This fear is the worst, mainly because it’s a ghost, an illusion, but it sure can be paralyzing.
Fear behind the fear happens when you know you’re afraid of something, and then when you think of that particular something, you become afraid of the fear you know you’ll experience when trying to do or confront that something.
Here’s an example: when I was about 9 years old, my dad was teaching me how to shoot rifles because I wanted to join him deer hunting. Up until that time I had learned how shoot a short, little .22 rifle and had no problems with it. It wasn’t that powerful and didn’t produce much of a kick when it was fired. However, in order to hit a deer at 50 to 100 yards, my dad wanted me to learn to shoot his .44 magnum rifle. He took me to the shooting range that was on our ranch, out on the edge of a hay field, that had targets set up on a wire fence about 50 yards away, backed up by a brushline. The first few times I shot the rifle, I was shocked by the powerful kick it gave to my right shoulder, but because of the adrenaline from getting to shoot, I didn’t pay it too much mind. But, pretty quickly, something in me began to fear that reaction kick…I’m assuming this happened because during one of my shots I likely didn’t have the butt of the rifle firmly enough up against my shoulder and it probably whacked me in the side of the face or something. Either way, I suddenly became afraid to shoot the rifle and would refuse to. No matter how much my dad reminded me that it wasn’t hurting me, or showed me once more how to properly hold the rifle to minimize the kick, I just wasn’t having it. I would sit there holding the gun, aimed at the target, trying so hard to work up the courage to pull the trigger. And then I would start shaking….that relentless, uncontrollable shaking that is seen by people going into shock or whose sympathetic nervous system is in overdrive for whatever reason. With that shaking I felt shame and frustration with myself for not being able to just shoot the damn gun, when I wanted to so badly and knew at a superficial level that I would be just fine.
And then…I began to fear the fear of shooting the gun…It was as though shooting the gun was scary, but being afraid to shoot the gun, and all the physical symptoms that came with that, was actually worse than the actual shooting of the gun. So, I finally refused to have anything to do with that rifle and I haven’t shot it since. Fortunately, my dad had mercy on me and went and bought me a little 223 single shot that had a minimal kick and was a reliable hunting rifle.
Here’s a second example: I’ve mentioned on this blog before that I struggle with a bizarre fear of eternity. If you want to know more about the strange inner workings of my psyche, you can read about it here. If you don’t want to, I can’t blame you. Anyway, I’ve had this fear of eternity and living forever since I was about seven years old. Since then, I’ve had periodic panic attacks….horrible terror-filled minutes of the worst imaginable fear….that grip me at night, usually when I wake up after a deep sleep and am still disoriented. When I was a teenager and in my 20s, I used to struggle frequently with these panic attacks, and I felt so alone in them because almost no one I knew could understand them or why the idea of living forever would be so troubling to me.
These attacks would usually last no more than 5 to 10 minutes, but they are the worst things I have ever experienced in life. Like….they are so bad you literally want to die to escape them, but then dying would just accelerate you straight toward the thing you’re panicking about. As a kid, I very quickly became afraid of the fear surrounding these attacks. I would be so terrified of my brain slipping and thinking about thinking about having a panic attack.
I call this kind of fear anticipatory fear. (Actually, I’m sure someone brilliant out there has already named this the same thing, but I haven’t read it yet so I’m claiming originality.) Anticipatory fear gets us into so much trouble because it frequently assumes that the future will always be like the past, which is certainly not true. It keeps us from being able to more objectively evaluate situations that we are in and make different choices than we did in the past.
Risk assessments. These are a big part of my job in infection prevention and control. On at least a yearly basis, I have to look at data from the previous years, our community demographics, hospital resources, etc, and determine our risk for things like tuberculosis cases showing up in the hospital ( or other potential epidemics/pandemics), issues related to possibly having too much cardboard in various areas of the hospital, etc, as well as our overall ability to mitigate these and handle infection-contributing factors.
While these risk assessments are somewhat subjective, they are put together by combing through data and our environment and critically thinking about our resources and what is in our power and control to change. Clearly, no healthcare facility can rid itself of all risk entirely, but we can definitely help ourselves by carefully examining data, best practices, and learning from other organizations.
The thing about risk assessments is that they only give helpful output if the data and facts you use to compile them are reasonable. For example, if I just wrote one up on tuberculosis based on my daily experiences, my risk assessment would be completely flawed. This is because I don’t typically interact with people who are at high risk for tuberculosis to being with. If I determined that the hospital was at a super low risk of having TB cases because I don’t personally interact with people that tend to fall into TB populations, then my conclusions would be all wrong. So, to create a more well-balanced, accurate picture, I pull TB data from the facility over previous years, I look at Indiana-wide TB data, I run reports in the medical records to see how many people were tested for TB by our organization during certain timeframes. And then I come away with a much better understanding of TB prevalence in the county, and the ability to make much better recommendations about how to move forward.
I have a point with this medical analogy, I promise.
I think we make unconscious risk assessments about our lives on a daily basis. And, if you’re anything like me, which I know some of you are, your risk assessments about your life or things that you really badly want to attempt, might sometimes be faulty. I’ve become much more intentional about my life risk assessments, and have learned to start asking myself questions to gather accurate data for making decisions, even if I don’t do so in a formal way.
Random Questions to Ask Yourself When Fear is Holding You Back:
Am I actually going to die from this?
This is not really meant to be a sarcastic question. It’s legit. Because, so many times we really FEEL like doing a particular thing, or talking to a particular person, or going to a particular place may actually kill us, even if we know on a cognitive level that it most certainly won’t. I’ve told my therapist on more than one occasion of scenarios in life where I literally would actually rather die than have to do a particular thing. And, fortunately, because I have an awesome therapist, she reminds me this is a trauma response, we work through it, and I eventually come to the conclusion that there are better, more workable alternatives than dying over something that I’m afraid to confront.
But this is an important question to ask, and sit with. Is this “thing” really….really….as bad or threatening as how it appears in this moment?
2. If I survive, what will the outcome be? Will this take me closer to where I want to end up?
Related to the last question, this is an important one to ask in a personal life risk assessment. Because just like hospitals know, you can’t mitigate all risk, and you always have to weigh in a cost-benefit analysis. Will the outcome you get outweigh the discomfort you have to endure right now?
I asked this question ALOT before I decided to move forward with a divorce years ago. I was so freaking terrified, and really couldn’t know what life would look like on the other side. But I could IMAGINE positive scenarios containing outcomes I wanted, and I could calculate that there was a reasonable chance that some of those scenarios might actually be able to come to fruition. I knew if I survived the divorce and the rebuilding time afterwards, that I might actually have a shot at getting to where I wanted to be…and that shot was so important to me.
3. Who or what am I most afraid of right now?
My problem in life is that I have mostly been afraid of hypothetical people that I haven’t even met yet, or I am afraid of people who had a really loud bark and not much bite. Or, they were people that I was told I should be afraid of or intimidated by. Fortunately I’m learning that hypothetical people are like anticipatory fear….they are illusions. They don’t exist in the now.
If you can pinpoint exactly what or who it is you’re afraid of, without ambiguity, the situation also becomes more workable. Usually because by concretely defining the problem, you can ask yourself super direct questions to get to the bottom of why you’re afraid of that person/thing.
4. What do I believe about the Universe, ultimately? Is it benevolent, ambivalent, or malevolent?
I will also insist that what one believes about the Universe will directly influence how live your life. It wasn’t until I made the conscious choice to believe that the Universe is benevolent did my responses to things and ways of living life changed. Making this choice didn’t suddenly erase all of my deep seated fears, and it has definitely been a process to peel away lingering harmful beliefs steeped in bad religion and toxic people, but when you start believing that an energetic life force is on your side, possibilities and hope burst forth.
5. If I get to the end of my life, whenever that is, and die without trying “…fill in blank….”, will I really be OK with that?
I used to believe in an evangelical Christian version of heaven. Now….meh…I don’t know. I think reincarnation is more likely than that small view of heaven. I’m pretty sure I don’t buy the idea of nihilism. Maybe we all just merge back into a great Cosmic oneness. Who knows?
All I know for sure is that we live this life and then we die. And I sure as hell do not want to waste this shot at this great and wonderful life. Because as much horror and poverty and hate and hopelessness as I’ve seen, I’ve also seen elegance, and tremendous hope, and undeniable mercy and grace, and exquisite beauty, and extravagance, and joy….and I want to keep getting and giving out as much of that as possible until I pass on into whatever comes next. I may fuck it all up in the end, but I’m going to do my best to heal my wounds and pursue life with abandon, and be able to die with as few regrets as possible. I DO NOT want to skimp on this life because I am afraid of the unknown that comes next.
6. If I could suddenly let go of my fear and voices yelling “should” in my head, what would my life look like?
My current therapist has asked me this question alot. I remember the very first time she asked me, and I was stunned into silence. All I could eventually say in response was that, if this was truly possible, it would be the most amazing freedom and liberation I had ever known….and it sounded like JOY. To just life my life….doing the next thing, and living out of my authentic self, and not having to apologize for taking up space in the world.
I’ve got a very long ways to go with this, but I’ve managed to tamp down many of the voices in my head, and I can say with certainty that I’m finally, finally, after four decades, starting to show the REAL Julie to the world again.
7. What are the small things that I’m afraid of that could be baby steps to propel me forward into tackling those bigger fears?
I’ve had a couple of people in my life over the years who have made comments to me that are similar to this: “I can’t do that like you, Julie, because I’m not brave enough, or I had this terrible thing happen, or because I have this situation in my life, or….”
I get it…I’ve done this to other people in my life, too. But, when people say things like this to me, I have to chuckle on the inside because they are accidentally making HUGE assumptions about me, and that I must have just been born into the world in the same package as I present now. SO. NOT. TRUE.
Which is probably why I’m too transparent sometimes, and tell people way too much about the shit I’ve struggled with or still struggle with. Because I want them to know and remember that it’s all a journey, and we are all at different places.
Here’s an example. I frequently have people tell me that they aren’t as brave as me to get up and talk to people in public, and that they could never do it. They just assume I was born with the confidence to gab away in the front of a room before strangers.
Learning to be comfortable with public speaking has been the longest journey EVER for me, and it was full of fear and pain along the way. I still don’t consider myself all that dynamic or charismatic of a speaker, either, so there’s more road here to travel down.
So I tell these people who think that they could never get to a place of comfort in front of crowds:
I used to tremble, literally, with fear, year after year during every piano recital; I was coerced into playing piano every single Sunday at church for over 5 years and I was terrified every week for the first four of those years; I was the worst debater in high school, but half chose to keep doing it and was half manipulated into doing it…even though I was nauseated before every single debate competition; In college I made myself try debate, and even though I sucked at it and probably lost every round, I learned a few things and knew I wanted to become as good at public speaking as some of my friends on the team. In college I had a great research professor who pushed me to give presentations of my research, and I gradually gained more confidence. I also had a great communications professor whose class taught me alot, even though my speeches that semester were so amazingly awful. Along the way I had jobs where I was forced to cold call strangers on the phone, and times when I had to make presentations before the higher ups.
The point is….it was a long hard journey to get to this place of being comfortable. I didn’t just wake up overnight, suddenly loving being in front of people. It took ALOT of baby steps, alot of failure, alot of really looking stupid and sounding incompetent, alot of boxes of Immodium, etc, to get to where I am now.
The absolute same happened with my writing and freelance success. I had to bomb really badly many times before I finally started trending upwards.
And so now, after all of that rambling, I finally arrive at my overall point.
Scott Jurek, the great ultramarathoner, wrote that sometimes in life you just do things.
I will add to that idea: sometimes in life, you just do stuff scared.
You do it because there is no way to make everything completely safe before you move forward, there will never be sure fire guarantees about everything, and because the most important lessons in life are learned when we come to the edge of ourselves and we choose to not let that be a boundary even if we don’t know if we’ll survive moving past it.
Doing stuff scared is usually (in my humble opinion) where you find the best stuff. The most meaningful stuff. The realest, truest stuff. The growth and progression that you want. The life without regrets.
I found a lyric the other day, from the band Colony House, that really resonated with me: “I found a life that gave me a reason to live.”
For me, personally, I didn’t discover this life until I started, in earnest, going after what I wanted even while still being terrified and very unsure of myself. Then I realized that attempting certain things, with the possibility of achieving them, might actually be more important than to me than worrying that I might die in the process.
I’m still scared of SO MUCH. But its way less than the number of fears that used to keep me small, and quiet, and so very apologetic, and mousey.
To answer Mary Oliver, and her poetic question: “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
I’m going to keep showing up for people. I’m going to keep pursuing authenticity in how I show up. I’m going to insist on laughter all the time, and pursuing what brings me joy. I’m going to keep learning about all the things that fascinate me, and keep digging away and healing the old wounds that still need tended to. I’m going to go places, and meet people, and do all the things.
If I ever come to visit you and I end up being late, it’s not because I got stuck in traffic or because I took too long getting ready. 95% chance it’s because I believed I was smarter than my GPS.
I’m a grown ass woman. I understand that in general computers give us good information. I know that GPSs are created to get us to where we want to go in the most efficient manner possible. I know it in my head, but I always believe in my HEART that I know the best, fastest ways to get places.
I’ll frequently plug my destination address into my GPS, look at the options it gives me, and then scoff in disdain, convinced that I have this brilliant route in mind or superior knowledge of the roadway system that will surpass any suggestions my GPS could offer. And EVERY SINGLE TIME, I’m wrong. But, I keep doing it. I know, insanity at its finest. I’ll probably keep doing it, too.
Now you’re forewarned for when you decide to invite me over. Probably tell me I need to be there 30 minutes before I actually do.
GPS foolishness aside, sometimes in life there is no clear path forward. Or at least, there’s not always a path that you really get excited about taking. Sometimes no matter what choice you make you’re going to end up hurt or devastated or heartbroken. These situations are the worst. Open door A, you get pain. Open door B, you get pain. Oh, and not choosing one of those doors is not an option.
Per my last post about part of my life blowing up a while back, I was presented with one of these super fun choices of pain, or pain. I saw it coming from a long ways away and tried to do everything I could to find a happy ending, a way through that while maybe not pleasant, at least wouldn’t wreck me. Even as I saw what reality was, like the stupid game of trying to fool my GPS, I kept thinking I could conjure up a brilliant backroads detour to avoid the imminent suffering I saw looming ahead.
Dammit. Reality is just like my GPS. I can’t outsmart it.
So, I looked at my two painful options, and I picked one, and everything fell apart, and I fell apart with it.
As my beloved “adopted” spiritual teacher Pema Chodron says, sometimes you just have to let everything fall apart. Although, if we’re truthful about it, things will often just fall apart without asking our permission first. This is the way of the world. So the real question then, is what are we going to do when everything does fall apart? When we feel like we are at the end of ourselves? When there is no hope? When we suddenly doubt everything about ourselves and are convinced we are unlovable and stupid and nothing good will ever come our way again, and we don’t know what to do next?
These are the places that terrify us, and we try desperately to run away from the horrible feelings that can overwhelm us when everything has fallen apart. We’re miserable but grasping and clinging for anything that can help us find our footing again, to ease the pain for just a moment. And so we drink, we shop, we binge watch Netflix, we search dating sites to find someone who might help us forget our broken hearts, we work relentless hours, we run too many miles when our bodies plead for rest, we ruminate in our minds and try in vain to change reality by thinking of all the should have’s, could have’s, would have’s – if we could just go back in time.
Staying in our broken places, with our hearts open, feeling our feelings and refusing to run away, is the hardest thing in the world, and the bravest thing that any of us could ever do.
When I was growing up, meditation got a bad rap. This was primarily because the people talking to me about meditation had no clue what they were talking about. In all fairness, they had also been educated on the subject by other ill-informed sources. I was taught that meditation is a New-Age practice where we are supposed to empty our minds, and that’s a bad idea because it just leaves room for demons to jump in. People would often proof text that story from the Bible in the Gospel of Matthew:
“When the evil spirit goes out of a man it wanders through waterless places looking for rest and never finding it. Then it says, ‘I will go back to my house from which I came.’ When it arrives it finds it unoccupied, but clean and all in order. Then it goes and collects seven other spirits more evil than itself to keep it company, and they all go in and make themselves at home. The last state of that man is worse than the first—and that is just what will happen to this evil generation.”
I’m trying even now not to roll my eyes at the weird ways people can use sacred texts to push their own agendas or bolster their own fears.
Anyway, I was leery of meditation until I was in my 30s and started looking more deeply into contemplative Christian prayer and then Buddhist teachings. I finally found out the truth, something that would have been awesome to have learned as a child, that meditation is in fact not about emptying your mind. That’s kind of impossible anyway, unless you cut out your brain or knock out your neurological circuitry. Meditation is about learning not to cling and attach to the endless stream of thoughts that come down the pipeline. It is about learning not to believe all the stories you tell yourself about reality. And very importantly, it is about learning to sit with whatever IS, learning to accept it, know that it will eventually pass, and that none of it will kill you.
Meditation is hard. It’s simple really, but the actual doing of it is hard. I think this is why so many religions at lower levels love the traditional notion of prayer. It allows us to talk and talk and talk to whoever we think is out there listening, and we can complain and offer our wish lists and beg for things to change – basically it gives us a sense that we have a little say so in our situations, or at least a little arguing power. Listening prayer is a step up….we do a little less talking at God and wait for Them to give us direction or a word or inspiration. The thing about meditation though, is that the whole trying to get God to change things or to tell us what to do is not the focus. This is what makes it difficult to do, because we don’t want things the way they are right now. We want them to be different. We want God to fix them, to make our bad feelings go away, to help us feel better and yet again have a clear path ahead of us.
Meditation is about sitting with the way things are right now, not trying to change them. The goal in meditation, especially when everything has fallen apart, is to not run or avoid what you’re feeling. It is about teaching you to stay with the uncomfortable feelings, riding their waves of intensity, know that they are impermanent and will pass.
I am very aware of the things I do to try to avoid pain, or things I can do to give myself that little pleasure kick of dopamine to feel better when I’m not happy with reality. During the morning it’s coffee, jolt after jolt. In the evening it’s a glass of wine to take the hard edge of sharp feelings off. It you see me post on FB a ridiculous amount within a short timeframe, it’s either because my FB friends are seriously curating quality content that particular day, or it’s because I’m trying really hard to avoid feeling something. I’m good at running non-stop with project after project so I don’t have to stop and feel the feels that hurt. I listen to podcast after podcast, or audiobook after book, to try to figure out ways to actively change my situation, instead of allowing myself to sit with it and accept it. None of these things are all that bad inherently, but they set me up for prolonged suffering and the illusion that I have control over more than what I do. And I usually just end up exhausting myself anyway.
I was talking with someone I know the other day briefly about active mediation versus passive mediation. Some people prefer to meditate while moving – doing yoga or walking or something like that – because sitting meditation doesn’t appeal to them or it seems too “Eastern” and unfamiliar. I’m all about active mediation. I feel like biking long miles is a good place for me to focus. Swimming lap after lap is cathartic for me, and feels very meditative, because there is so much focus on the breath. Inhale, exhale, all in a rhythmic pace…necessary to make sure you don’t lose your breath. Just you and the water and breathing.
I also think that sometimes certain “adventure” sports are great meditative experiences because you have to focus so completely on what you’re doing that you can’t pay attention to you brain’s thought pipeline. Rock climbing for instance. Probably not the best time for you to ruminate about the past when you’re looking for that next solid foot or handhold that will save you from crashing from a fall.
But in the end, I think that active meditation has its limits because it still allows input from the person doing it. It still gives that since of “you’re doing something to contribute to the situation, to change.” Maybe we don’t have to fully accept things as they are then, we don’t fully come to the end of ourselves, until there is nothing left for us to do but just sit and feel and allow.
Hmph. Listen to me, talking like I’m a meditation expert or something. I am most certainly not. I probably know just enough to get myself into trouble….but it also feels like I know just enough that it is helping to save me right now.
A few years ago I went to an 8 hour Buddhist-Christian meditation retreat. It was the first formal meditation I’d ever done in a group, and I think I slept for about four of the eight hours. I was very proud of myself, though, because I slept those four hours sitting up and I don’t think I ever let out any audible snores.
That experience was really painful for me though, because I didn’t know enough then about what can happen when you first start meditating. I didn’t know that when you first learn to get quiet, all the junk that you’ve been working so hard to stuff down for your entire life suddenly begins to float to the surface. I was so shocked when, sitting there peacefully before one of my intermittent naps, that memories and emotions were flying into my awareness like gangbusters, and it was OVERWHELMING. I left the retreat angry and agitated, and certainly not excited about meditation like when I arrived.
Later I learned that this was normal, and that meditation is all about letting whatever is going to arise, arise. You don’t fight it, you don’t try to figure it out, you don’t try to fix it. You just let it come, and then you let it go.
Pema Chodron tells a story in her book When Things Fall Apart about a childhood friend who had recurring horrible dreams where monsters were chasing her. In every dream she ran away from them, but was always pursued, and she would wake up after these dreams obviously upset. Pema asked her one time what the monsters looked like, and her friend replied that she didn’t know, she had never looked at them. Her back was always to them as she ran away. So, the next time she dreamed this dream, she turned around in the dream to face the monsters. They saw her turn, and stopped a ways away from her. They all looked different, just various monster types. And then, one by one, they faded away. And Pema’s friend never had this nightmare again after looking at the monsters head on.
This is what we are doing in meditation. We see what comes up, and we look at it headon. We don’t shirk from the feelings that come up in us. Because they will pass.
I meditated a fair amount in the past and then gave it up. It felt more like something I “needed” to do to become woke, to become more aware, to move farther down the spiritual path. But lately, I have been drawn back to it again as a matter of desperation. I no longer want to endure pain in vain. I want the pain that comes my way to be transformed into something that benefits me and benefits others. And so while meditation once felt like a chore, it now feels like a comfort, a respite, a place where I can compassionately allow myself to feel all the hurt and despair with soft hands and an open heart.
And part of it is because I trust others that have gone down this path before me. As the author Susan Piver calls them, explorers of the shadows, the patron saints of darkness. Part of what has gotten me personally into so much trouble is that I’ve spent most of my life doubting myself and not trusting my own inner wisdom. I’m learning to do differently now, but I’m also smart enough to know not to reinvent the wheel of how to deal with suffering. Do I absolutely believe down to my core that therapy, and meditation, and trauma work, and good self care and all of these things will heal my broken places and get me to where I want to go? No, not yet. But I know the people that I can trust…the ones who have been through their own dark nights of the soul and made it out, who were able to transform their pain, the ones who can now help show me the path. There are certain GPS voices that I know most of the time better than to argue with.
Ultimately, I think the scariest thing you can do in life is to sit in your darkness….to just STAY….and let it teach you. It takes a crap ton of courage to befriend the hard things and take on your own suffering when you really aren’t sure you know how to do it or when/if it will ever end.
But going back to the options of pain I mentioned earlier. There are two kinds of pain, usually. There is wisdom pain (aka GPS pain). This is the pain that will take you where you want to go. It hurts like hell at the time, but it will transform you and heal you over the long term. And then there’s the pain that comes from you trying to avoid hard things, negotiate with life, and causes you to habitually make stupid decisions over and over. It’s the pain of being on a hamster wheel of reliving the same kinds of scenarios like Groundhog Day, only getting short term relief here and there from your coffee and wine and Netflix binges and dating sites, because you’re afraid to look at your big life monsters once and for all. (Here I go again, totally mixing metaphors). It’s the kind of pain that results when you keep going back to the same kinds of people that have repeatedly hurt you, instead of stopping to figure out what core thing you believe about yourself that is compelling you to do that.
I’m trying really hard to sit in my “damn it, everything just fell apart!”-ness. To do it compassionately. I’m trying really hard not to find ways to distract myself. Although, I am a little miffed with the universe tonight, because I suspect it helped me unknowingly misplace my ID so I couldn’t buy the wine I wanted at CVS to take the edge off the big feelings I was feeling at the moment.
I am kind of proud of myself though. Because, for once, with something really important in my life, I took the route recommended by the figurative GPS. I picked the wisdom pain. I didn’t want this pain in the short term; I really wanted the other thing….the thing that I thought maybe I could manage to hold on to for a while by grasping and clinging.
But, I finally chose myself. And choosing myself meant choosing the right kind of pain. I decided at a certain point that I do not want to keep repeating the same life dynamics over and over and over, thinking that I could create a new ending, a new destination for the same roads I kept taking. I decided to stop and look at all the huge monsters in my life once and for all. I”m trusting all the great explorers of darkness that it is the right choice and that transformation will come if I just stay with all that has fallen apart, allow all the arisings, and remember that pain will come, and then it will go…right on time.
A post….in which… I am processing, meandering, and maybe not making a lick of sense. Here it is anyway.
Suffering is GRACE.
This sounds absurd…even more so as I type it out. And you’re probably thinking, Julie, that’s messed up. How can you say that horrible things happening to people is grace?
Well, first of all, I’m not the first person to say it. Maharaj-ji, Ram Dass’s guru, said it 50+ years ago in India, for one. And if someone can live in India and see the extremes of poverty and desperation that exist in places there and still say that suffering is grace, there must be some validity to it.
But…I don’t think suffering as grace is the end goal. I think suffering is the vehicle that moves us to greater freedom, greater love, and greater awareness of what matters…and because of that, it’s grace.
It sucks though. If I had been consulted in the beginning of all things….if there was a beginning to all things…I would have tried to pick a way to avoid pain and suffering to be the path creation must walk to awaken. That being said, I wasn’t consulted, so the best I can do is work with what appears to be the process and trust that there is a far greater intelligence out there that is wiser and can see the vaster picture of how everything is interconnected and everything belongs.
While I don’t necessarily like it, I agree with Maharaj-ji that suffering is grace. Because I have felt it in my own life and I’ve seen it in others’ lives. Granted, on the grand spectrum of suffering, I probably fall on the “lesser” side, but suffering is suffering, and trauma is trauma. It doesn’t matter what your external life looks like for you to be rocked to the core by things that happen to you, or PEOPLE that happen to you. It seems pretty clear to me that suffering is the trigger for transformation. If we didn’t face hard things….things that absolutely undo us….then we wouldn’t be so motivated to question the status quo, or search beyond ourselves, or be willing to do the necessary shadow work to get to a better, healthier place.
I don’t seek out suffering, though, for sure. And at some point, as Byron Katie teaches, I think that suffering (not pain or bad things, but chronic struggle can enshroud those things) is optional.
Not all that long ago, a major part of my life blew up in my face. And it has wrecked me.
I saw this blowing up coming for quite a while, I knew that it was going to happen, and I knew it was going to hurt, but the exact moment and context in which it happened….I didn’t see that coming. I was blindsided.
It’s been one of the worst things I’ve experienced in my entire life, and in some ways, it brought me to the end of myself. I literally did not know what to do for a while, moment by moment. It has manifested itself as weeks of not depression, but something better described as sheer desolation….a feeling of a heavy weight sitting on me that I can’t rid myself of. A feeling of walking around with the wind chronically knocked out of me. A feeling of wishing I could get in the shower and scrub away my insides and all the uncomfortable feelings and pain that I don’t’ know what to do with. And with it that feeling of a raw, oozing wound where your skin has been ripped away. Because this big blowing up didn’t just unveil the dysfunction covering a short time frame of my life….it ripped wide open a big, deep, tunneled wound that has been with me since I was very little….a wound that I never knew was as extensive as it is. THE wound that has been influencing the trajectory of my life.
It was that kind of ripping open a wound where you can’t just shove the skeleton in the closet and ignore it anymore. (I know I’m mixing metaphors here, can’t help it. Work with me.) It was the big wound ripping where you either have to face it and recognize that you need to get some serious healing and make some big changes in how you operate in life, or…..the less favorable option….you go into absolute denial about it all and keep operating as normal, trying to pretend like that ‘thing” isn’t there and isn’t bleeding all over the place.
For a long while, and still part of the time, this does not feel like grace. It feels like deep, soul suffering. The kind where all your hurts and insecurities from your entire life just bubble up to the surface and you can’t escape them, and you feel completely betrayed and alone and lost all at once, and you really just want to tell absolutely everyone who ever hurt you to go fuck themselves.
When I was a kid, I hoped and believed if I just stayed the course, did everything the “right” way, stayed out of trouble, and tried to give my best to the people around me, I would get to adulthood where everything would suddenly make sense. It was kind of a disappointment, then, when I finally reached adulthood and realized that grown ups had their shit together far less frequently than I had imagined. Being the perfect Christian girl until my mid twenties only served me up to a point, as well.
The kind of religion I was handed for most of my life was the “God in pretty boxes” type. I was never really introduced to a solid theology of suffering. OK…well, in youth group and summer church camp we had graphic details about the suffering of Jesus on the cross thrust into our faces that shamed us into running down the aisles to apologize as quickly as possible and beg forgiveness for torturing someone before we were ever born. I can still recall all the times people have felt the need to describe in graphic detail what the experience of being whipped by a cat o nine tails and nailed to a cross is like, and exactly how death would come about. (Can we say spiritual abuse, trauma, and horrible manipulation to try to get people to ‘come’ to Jesus?) The memory of altar calls after viewing of the Passion of the Christ make me want to vomit. That is a twisted way of introducing people to Jesus.
Sorry, sidetracked there for a second by things that still really piss me off. Where I was going with this is that we learned about the suffering of Jesus, but we were never given a solid theology for how to allow suffering and pain to transform each of us individually. The lessons were mostly about 1)just pray more, 2)figure out where you’re sinning in your life because that is probably the root of your suffering, and 3) hang on tight because once you get to the sweet by and by all of the stuff that happens on earth will suddenly be irrelevant and you’ll feel better.
I do not like ‘hang on until Jesus comes back” theologies. This is God in a pretty box that is minimizing, propagates abuse, and is disempowering to people….implying that they should just wait for a rescuer instead of realizing the divinity and resources within, allowing themselves to be transformed, and creating change right here and now and instead of just assuming this life is a wash and there’s no hope in bothering to try for better.
I’ve been doing ALL the things I know of to put myself back together…in a new way. Now that I know how big this life wound is, I don’t want to keep living with it. I’ve turned to my trusted spiritual teachers, my close friends and kindred spirits who have walked the difficult paths before and know the way, meditation, tapping, psychotherapy, improving my diet (OK, except there’s a little too much wine involved), exercising, sleeping, etc…all the things that I know to do to heal. I’ve found myself lately turning to the late teacher Ram Dass. His book Walking Each Other Home, which he wrote with Mirabai Bush, is one of my favorite books of all time. Now, this week, I just finished listening to his autobiography called Being Ram Dass. I was reminded of his saying about “Fierce grace”. Fierce grace is the grace that comes with it’s companion of pain, to teach you and radically transform you. It doesn’t come wrapped in a pretty box or a pill that is easy to swallow.
The reason I feel desolated (barren or laid waste) and not depressed, is that somehow I can see that this blowing up of my life is fierce grace. I didn’t choose it, it hurts like unbelievable hell….but, it has revealed the big thing in me that has held me back my entire life. This pain is showing me the path forward. And in a really bizarre way, as I look a the timeline of what has happened, and the “uncanny coincidences,” and the knowledge that I’ve finally hit the motherlode of my broken places., and even though I’m miserable, I feel strangely loved. Like God said, it’s time Julie. You’ve done some good work up until now. You’ve done years of therapy, you’ve asked the hard questions, you’ve looked inside. Now it’s time to go all the way.
Another example of how God does not come in a pretty box. They make you feel like shit and yet abundantly seen and cared for all at the same time. How’s that for a weird theology.
Working in infection prevention, I read about surgical site infections all the time. For one of my graduate classes, I did clinical hours in the wound care clinic of my hospital with my mentor and friend, our resident infectious disease doctor. The interesting thing about wound healing, is sometimes you have to injure to heal. You’ll find an area of tissue that looks suspicious, and you cut away the superficial layers to find necrotic, dying tissues underneath. So, you cut out the dead tissue. Wounds can get stuck in the first stage of healing and never improve, and so you have to cut away more, and even cause additional bleeding, to encourage new, healthy cell growth.
Debriding wounds is often painful. But it’s necessary for long term healing.
I feel this way with my life. God has been peeling back the layers, one by one, slowly, slowly…as I’ve been able to handle it…to show me the dead places, the places that had been damaged. And then, it seems, they decided it was time to just rip the last of it away.
It is time for me to bleed, so that I can heal. Paradox.
This is not a safe God. Or a tame God. It is the not the neatly wrapped God that is so often presented to the world, with the message “If you just accept Jesus, and pray more, everything will be fine and you’ll experience God’s blessings.”
Maybe this is the epitome of a loving God, though. A God that is not content to let me keep groveling along in the same hurtful life dynamics over and over and over.. A God that would rather see me experience excruciating misery for a short while so that I can get the real healing and security that I’ve always wanted.
When I was little, growing up in church, so much was about appearances. We had to look like we had it all together when we showed up on Sunday morning. I used to hate Sunday mornings, because so often we did NOT have it together as a family. But once we hit the church pew, you’d never know otherwise. It was such an ego trip…trying to appear as though as good Christians we were trucking along just fine and not struggling with our humanity or doubts or temptations.
The God in a pretty box that was handed to me so often when I was growing up is that you get to God by doing it right. I think this is bullshit. You get to God by doing it wrong. Also , Richard Rohr says that, so expert witness there.
You get to God by being wrecked, and coming to the end of yourself, and knowing that there’s not a damn thing you can do to earn their approval or love. But, you have to dig away at all of those wounds, too, to cut away the beliefs and lies and misperceptions that haven’t served you.
The funny thing about pain is that sometimes it (the bad pain, not the pain that comes with healing) becomes familiar, and so you learn to stay with it, because the places and people that don’t cause you pain feel unfamiliar, and “other”, and therefore uncomfortable. I used to wonder why women in abusive relationships kept going back again and again instead of kicking that guy’s ass to the curb. I get it now….if abuse and being treated badly is all you know, and you believe you don’t deserve better or that you won’t be able to make it on you own, you settle for that abuse. It is familiar and comfortable, even if it is painful. I’ve got my own familiar places….the ones that feel like home because that’s what I’ve always known, how I’ve always been treated by certain people in my life….but those places are death. Just because something feels familiar and comfortable doesn’t mean that it’s safe, or loving, or good. And sometimes it take the fierce grace of ripping open a wound to help move you out of your ambivalence.
Sometimes the horrible, unfamiliar pain…is the healing kind.
The thing about healing from trauma and emotional pain and abuse in your life is that at some point, you have to make a conscious choice to move forward. I know from experience that it is easy to spend years in therapy recalling every bad memory of every bad thing that happened to you, and every person who was behind it. But, this can only get you so far. I think if you’re not careful, and you insist on ruminating on these memories, or trying to conjure up every single bad memory you had for labeling purposes, it is too easy to self-identify as a victim. It feels good to the ego when you bring up another horrifying memory to your therapist and they sympathize with you and say how unfair that situation was. It’s a necessary thing for a while, especially as you are trying to figure out your core beliefs about yourself and identify your childhood wounds. But after a while, those memories are just memories, and hashing through each one and assigning blame, again and again, leaves you stuck.
One therapist I have seen in the past told me about a client she had (no privacy or patient identifier violations occurred) that had horrible PTSD from being in a house fire as a child. As they worked through her traumatic memories, sometimes the patient would go so deep into her PTSD that she would crawl behind and underneath the couch, completely reliving the horrible scenes from that fire. Apparently during one session, the client stayed behind the couch for an entire hour. My therapist told me about telling the patient that it was OK to go to that place for a while….to relive what had happened and try to feel safe in the midst of it, but she couldn’t stay there forever. At some point, she had to come out from behind the couch.
This is how I feel. The hurting part of me wants to cower and hide and not face the scary, painful things that have happened to me. I don’t want to look at the abuse. I don’t want to have to question my negative beliefs about myself. You have to pull things up to the light to do that, you have to cut away at tissue to bring bleeding and more healing….and that hurts.
But then I think about this idea of God or divinity or Source, or whatever the heck it is that I can’t seem to stop believing in. I remember many times as a child and teenager, praying fervently to my understanding of God at the time, to never let me pull away or stray. I would ask God to please help me stay close and pursue them no matter what happened in my life.
And while my theology and world views have dramatically changed, I cannot deny that there is this God-Being-Energy-whatever-you-want-to-call-it that has been with me relentlessly, who has shown up in the places that I least expected it. It has never been a God in a pretty box. Usually they show up with super painful circumstances in tow, and alot of hard lessons to learn. But I can say with certainty that they have honored my childhood request…they have always been there, and they have always offered me grace after grace….as undeserved and as fierce as it may be.
I think maybe the point to life is to take things apart, and then put them together again.
Either that, or it’s just my particular lot in life. All the things I once thought for certain in my teens and early twenties…..they’ve mostly all been torn down and are in varying stages of being recreated. I like almost all that I’m building, but dang, there’s usually a crap ton of pain and uncertainty that occurs in the tearing down and in between stages.
When I die and get to heaven or whatever happens after THIS, I’m going to ask God why they ordered things the way they did. Why did they allow immature people with little to no life experience give birth to children, and why do children have to spend the rest of their lives reacting to, healing from, and launching away from the hurts and patterns and beliefs they internalized when as little ones.
On one hand, it’s feels damned sadistic….another one of those cosmic games like the heaven/hell evangelical theology I’ve rejected. On the other hand, I can kind of get on board with the idea that to truly understand the Light, to truly love, to truly grow and become wise, there has to be darkness. And if I stretch my brain really really hard and squeeze my eyes as tightly as possible, I can almost imagine that maybe in the Big Picture….the BIGGEST PICTURE panned back as far as all things can go….maybe the darkness is not quite as terrible as it seems when we’re up close and personal. Like, maybe it’s the phrase that I love and tattooed on my arm….everything belongs. I think I have to believe that because if I didn’t, nothing would matter anymore. Ugh. It still feels cringy though.
I was talking with a mentor doctor of mine the other day. He’s wicked smart, but he’s also gentle and wise. And when he tries to retire I’m going to sneak into the HR offices and totally mess up his employee file and resignation letter in some brilliant way so that he’s forced to stay on as long as I’m employed there. Please don’t warn him or HR of this.
He and I were discussing the challenges of getting through life well, and moving past the hard things that hurt you. His response was that everyone needs a handful of people, anywhere from about 3-5, throughout their life, that really step in and latch on and help show you how to carry your pain and transform it. He didn’t say it exactly like that, but this is my paraphrase through a Richard Rohr filter.
I agree wholeheartedly with him. I actually think I’m one of the lucky ones, because I’ve had more than 3 fo 5. Somehow, I’ve had at least 2 people walking me home through almost every stage of my life. Some of those stages had more people, some fewer. But I’ve never walked alone. It’s these people, who won’t agree to be pulled down in your pain with you, but who will repeatedly hold a hand out to pull you up, or to shine a light for your next step, or to run ahead laughing in their own joy while calling back over their shoulder to you that all manner of things will be well…these are the people that have make all the difference in a life.
Every single time I’ve had to deconstruct something big in my life….whether it was my theology, or my marriage, or difficult relationships, or my inner wounds, or my prejudices….people have been there to help lead the way, rooting me on as I started to reconstruct, lego block by lego block, my new understandings of the Divine, my new belief systems about myself, my new ways of being in the world.
These kinds of people help show you its not the end of the world when it feels like the end of the world.
I have a bachelor’s degree from a billion years ago, in Missions….where I obviously took alot of Bible classes. One class that I took that completely rocked my world at the time was Revelation, with Dr. Ian Fair. Up until that time, I only knew of the premillennialist teachings of the Southern Baptist tradition that I grew up in….I just didn’t know the official term for it at the time. I remember the first day of class, and Dr. Fair told us to remember two specific names of Catholic theologians that had done tremendous work on breaking down Revelation and the Pseudepigrapha. A husband-wife couple, John Jay Collins and Adela Yarbrough Collins. Ha! Aren’t you proud of me for remembering those names from an undergrad class I took 21 years ago?
This class taught me that a literal reading of Revelation was only one basic way of doing it, and that there were multiple other views developed with ample scholarship behind them. I relished that class…it was fascinating to me. Mostly because I never completely bought into my church tradition’s understanding of Revelation…I thought it was kind of stupid and far fetched, but never had the guts to say so. As a result of this class, I quickly became an amillennialist with moderate preterist views. Or to put it succinctly….what was written about in Revelation wasn’t nearly as much about the end times for all of us, but was directly related to the plight of the Jewish nation under the Roman Empire.
Anyway, my view on Revelation is not at all why I bring this up. My whole point is that somehow….during this amazing class…I never retained the understanding that the world apocalypse, literally means “unveiling”. Oh. My. Word.
My friend Meagan pointed this out to me a while back at a point when I was literally coming undone. She referenced a daily meditation that was written by my beloved Richard Rohr. In it he talked about this unveiling, and how the apocalypse and laying bare all the things that really are as they are, can feel like the end of the world. Sometimes the truth is not soft and gentle and welcomed; it can hurt like a bitch.
But, what if this painful unveiling is really not the end, but the starting point. (Maybe also, this is what is meant about the idea of Jesus returning. Not that he’s going to separate the saints from the sinners, but the idea that when we think that all is absolutely lost and ready to burn, we will see the Big Reality, have understanding, and realize that nothing is lost and we’re just getting started.)
Richard Rohr always rocks my world, and he came through this time again. What if what I thought was an ending was really a beginning? What if seeing the truth about people and learning who they really are, or having to throw out beliefs that no longer serve you, or having to recognize that something you wanted is not going to come to fruition, are merely starting points?
I’m amazed, even at my age, at how fucking cruel some people can be. It’s hard for me to wrap my head around. Which is funny because I’ve been intimately acquainted with cruel people at multiple times my life. I cognitively know that people can be terrible, but down deep I always have to convince myself that it really can be true. It blows my mind on a regular basis.
I’ve been knocked down hard, several times, by people being absolutely horrible. Cut deep.. Wondering what the hell I did wrong. I’ve lain on the ground, thinking “I might not get past it this time. This is too big; the truth is going to kill me; I’m going to bleed out”. This usually happens because I naively trust people I shouldn’t, or ignore the warning signs, or believe that love and grace can dramatically change things. All because of my difficulty in accepting that people can be cruel.
But I”m finally learning. I’m taking apart the logic that no longer adds up, piecing apart the hope that everyone is trying to move towards the Light instead of away from it; I”m allowing the painful truth to finally be unveiled, and I”m looking at it head on.
These are the deconstruction zones. When cruel people try to break you and you choose to change the patterns that allowed them to hurt you in the first place. When your theology no longer adds up. When your head is spinning and you can’t figure out which way is up but you are determined to do life differently. But taking apart your life, even voluntarily, hurts. It feels like seeking the truth is a dying.
This is the part where you have to face the pain and sit with it (or lie on the ground with it). I think this is akin to John of the Cross’s dark night of the soul. When you don’t have any certainty about anything but you just make yourself stay…and keep staying….and finally learn that when you’re at rock bottom you will either be sustained or you won’t. And somehow, in a really weird way, you are sustained just by the fact of knowing that you have no control. You just accept what is. And you live. After a while of laying in that pain, you recognize that you can still feel yourself. Your breath is still moving in and out of you. You didn’t die. Despair paused at your doorpost for a moment and then passed by. And, you gain Truth that is bigger than the past little truths that your old life was built on.
According to Rohr this deconstructing and reconstructing life, or as he terms it “order, disorder, reorder”, is a pattern that has to happen again and again in life. Sometimes this idea makes me crazy, because it seems appealing to think about getting to a place of perfection. The disordering part of the pattern is so painful. I like the nice, ordered parts where I understand how life works and where I stand.
But then, at the same time, I look back on my life, where I started from, and where I am now. I’ve done some significant tearing things apart, working through the pieces, and putting them back together, and I like the Me now a whole hell of alot more than the me of even five years ago. I think maybe I’ve learned that as painful as they can be, this pattern of dying to live ultimately results in more joy, results in more meaning. Fear gradually is replaced by curiosity. Its like you are suddenly more willing to do hard things that ask alot of you because it is more worth it for you to see what is on the other side than to stay where you are and never engage in life. You start trusting that you will be carried through the dark nights and the morning will come again at some point.
I think anger plays a role in this cycle as well. When I was growing up, there wasn’t a space for anger. My anger was either minimized or I was patted on the head while someone laughingly said, “Look how cute Julie is, she’s mad!” Bible verses like “Don’t let the sun go down on your anger” further cemented the fact that me being angry wasn’t going to get me anywhere. And so I learned to cope in other ways when I was wronged or hurt. As a child you do what you have to.
But as adults…yeah, sometimes I think we have to get crazy angry at the injustices done to us, whether intentional or unintentional. I don’t mean raging in a way that harms others, but true, righteous, motivating anger. Anger that says you will no longer allow yourself to be treated in certain ways, anger that calls out hurtful and bad behaviors that were perpetrated against you, anger that is motivating and says you’ll be damned if you’ll let others or situations make you a victim any longer.
Sometimes its this anger that will help you start deconstructing old patterns in your life. And then, sometimes it feels like you might be angry forever….at those people, at those things done to you, at those societal values that were pushed on you and hurt you, at those institutions and systems that repressed you. But after a while, with the help of that apocalyptic truth you discovered when you thought you might die, you start building again. Creating patterns and relationships and belief structures that resonate with you….and you thank anger for helping protect you and for serving you, and then you let it go because you don’t need it anymore…..or at least not until your next deconstruction project.
It feels like the cycles we see in nature. You die, you lay dormant a while, then you spring to life after that time of being quiet and still. The cycle repeats. Then there’s spiral dynamics at play, because in our lives every time we allow ourselves to go through that painful cycle of order, disorder, reorder, we keep growing and moving forward to places we haven’t been before. And every single time we survive one of these cycles, it takes something so much bigger to knock us down…..and we recover so much faster, with increased resilience after every blow….because we have learned that we will be sustained, and that there is always light after darkness.