I’ve been thinking a little lately about the churches that have continued to have services en masse in person, while this COVD-19 pandemic is raging. Part of me is furious at these church leaders for disregarding mandates and the wisdom and warnings from scientists and public health experts. However, on the other hand, I understand implicitly this need to gather in community and hold tightly to the traditions that we have trusted in and feel sustained by. It’s scary to be alone when it feels like the sky might be falling, and I know that many would rather bear the curse surrounded by a throng of loved ones than to suffer in terror in isolation.
It’s easy to think that maybe we’ll only see God in religious institutions, in the practices that externally define our faith traditions, in the rituals that we have carefully tended to for years and years. But, as far as I can see, this has never really been the way of God. Sure, I totally believe that all things are sacred and infused with God-being, but in my experience, and through what I’ve seen in many sacred texts, is that divinity shows up most powerfully in the quiet places, the dark places, the abandoned places, the completely unexpected places.
I’m listening to John O’Donohue’s book Walking in Wonder at a lightening pace this week because it is the most marvelous volume of words I’ve heard in a while. It’s a book to get soul-fed through. In one place in the book, O’Donohue references William Blake and Blake’s statement that “Christ is the imagination.”
Bam. Mic drop.
When we think of Christ and God as the boundaried vessels that often result from a literal reading of the Bible, it can sometimes be really hard to find them all around us, and especially in the dark, scary shadows. But if we choose to believe that maybe the most real things that exist are the art of possibility and good questions that rise out of imagination, then we can unearth the Christ in everything we encounter. It takes a bit of risk and bravery, to step out of our binary, superficial ways of thinking…to lay aside our scientific categorization and analysis of everything…to realize and believe that our fears stem from the stories we tell ourselves.
I’m unsettled by this corona pandemic, but I am not undone. This is because I’m gradually, over time, learning to use this gift of imagination to see the Christ in everything. Not the little Christ, the human that lived and died thousands of years ago, but the cosmic Christ, the consciousness, creativity, and love that infuses all things and sustains all things.
Here are specific places that I’ve seen God lately. Maybe they’ll resonate as God to you, maybe not. But I encourage you to stop, quiet yourself, and reflect/imagine through today and previous days where you have seen the Divine appearing…now here…now there. I guarantee you, if you stop and breathe and look carefully, you’ll see that God has not absconded. One of the easiest ways to tell if you’ve stumbled upon God is when you feel even the tiniest spark of joy over anything…or forgot your fears for a quick moment because something brought forth a belly laugh you couldn’t repress…or you were suddenly caught off guard, gasping in awe at a beautiful scene, or kind gesture, or taste of amazing food…or through your own tears, you recognized and held compassion for the tears of another.
Where I’ve seen God over the last few weeks – in no way a comprehensive list:
-when my manager called to tell me one of my elderly patients, who was terrified of dying in the hospital from not being able to breathe, came back as COVID-19 negative, and I literally could not wait to run down the hall and tell her the good news and get her out of there.
-when my firstborn, my little rock who always stands by me and makes me want to be a better person, called me to ask if he could help make face masks for all of the staff on my unit
-when a good friend offered to send me wine and soup from the other side of Indianapolis when I was having a dark day, even when she couldn’t personally bring it to my house.
-when a hospitalist/board member at my hospital recorded for the hospital staff the most moving video of encouragement and humility that I’ve seen in a long time, and I felt just the tiniest bit braver as a result.
-when I stood in the hallway of my unit last week, getting ready to gown up and go into a patient room, and I was frozen for a moment when I glimpsed, surprised, the brilliant pink-orange of a clear morning sunrise rising up over the horizon.
-when a friend saw a picture of me a few days ago in all of my tired, sunburnt, frazzle-haired, sweaty, post-workout messiness, and still said I am beautiful.
-when I’m rescued from the sometimes caving in walls of isolation from friends who say, “Let’s Facetime!”
-when the universe seems to hit me from all around for weeks with references to John O’Donohue, and I finally get the message to pay more attention, and his words bring me fresh life.
-when I see both people that I know and don’t know, rise up to the challenge of this difficult time, and offer the most marvelous, creative ways for us to stay connected on meaningful levels, bringing us the best of their hope and humanity
-when I see people who are scared and uncertain and concerned for their families, get up and go to work as healthcare providers, first responders, and essential workers anyway.
-when I see people, whose first thought is not to protect themselves but to remember the marginalized and disenfranchised among us who are usually the most forgotten.
-when I see people and organizations giving away free food, and coffee, or completely overhauling their manufacturing processes so they can help the causes, even when it will likely hurt their bottom line.
Where do you see God? Where is the joy coming from that is getting you through each day? What is the pain that you are holding and yet not being defeated by? What have you seen or heard that is giving you fresh hope? Help me see the Divine through your imaginations, too.
I woke up today feeling a little sorry for myself. Here in Indiana, like so many other places, we’ve been ordered to shelter at home unless we go out for essential activities or to be in nature maintaining distance from other people.
This morning felt lonely. My family lives states away from me. My significant other and best friends live in other towns. My kids are currently with their dad, and once I start being exposed to COVID patients at the hospital, the plan is for them to stay with him indefinitely so I minimize exposing them as much as possible. I boarded my dog over an hour away the other day, to make things less stressful (he is adorable but like having a toddler) and so he wouldn’t have to be penned for over 12 hours every time I work. I’m not entirely sure if a dog kennel constitutes an essential business, so I’m also wondering how easy it will be to retrieve him this weekend.
While I live on a cul-de sac, I don’t know my neighbors well and the old man at the end of the street literally thinks I’m a hillbilly because I sometimes leave my recycling dumpster on the curb for more than a day at a time, and because when the basketball goal gets knocked over by the wind, I don’t rush out to put it back up just to be blown back down again.
So I slept in, moped around, played the piano for a while, and then started watching Mad Men from the beginning season to distract myself. I couldn’t even find the internal umph to engage with a new TV show I’d never seen before. Halfway in the first episode, after my coffee had finally kicked in, I came to my senses. I am not going to sit around and waste this gorgeous day on reruns or feeling sorry for myself. So, I laced up my Altras, and hit the pavement.
I’ve been thinking alot lately about an idea that the mystic Julian of Norwich talked about hundreds of years ago.
“The love of God creates in us such a oneing that when it is truly seen, no person can separate themselves from another person,” and “In the sight of God all humans are oned, and one person is all people and all people are in one person.”
The thing about mystics is they see the world in different ways than the rest of us, and sometimes what they talk about sounds ridiculous. Until you sit with their words for a long time. And then, you understand that they are revealing bigger truths than you ever knew. What I’ve discovered is that with alot of these truths, you can’t mentally, cognitively work your way into understanding or believing them. You have to experience them, to live them, and to be OK with the fact that sometimes they will seem like nothing short of a paradox on surface level.
Our world has become increasingly smaller over recent decades, and in some ways it has felt like we’re seeing ourselves more as a global population than a bunch of separate national entities. However, at the same time, like here in America, there have been divides growing strongly and solidly between us. Nothing has revealed this more clearly than the election of our current President. There is still a great undercurrent in this country of us seeing and interacting with each other based on labels and “otherness”.
As I’ve grown older, I’m seeing more of Julian’s “oneing” when I look at other people. Sure, there are people that are hard to understand, people that I dislike intensely, or people that I’m gonna intentionally not do life with if I can help it. But when it comes down to who we are fundamentally, we are all one. I like the enneagram because it helps us see how we are all motivated by the same kinds of things. We all have fears and insecurities. We all want to know that we’re OK and everything’s going to be OK. And what I love, even when it looks like certain people could not be more different, are the words by Carl Sagan, that “we are all made of star stuff.” We all came from the same star dust, that initial universe expansion – the Big Bang or the Big Bounce or whatever physics description you want to refer to. We were all originally one, and I totally believe, that in a spiritual and metaphysical sense, we are still one.
Normally when I run, I turn to a playlist I’ve created that features alot of fast-beat, loud, empowering songs…ones that have the right cadence to get into a good running rhythm. Today though, I felt the need to shut off the words for a while and run the music itself. So, it was Beethoven and Aaron Copeland. As the fog faded, the sun began to peek out, and the temperature steadily rose, Appalachian Spring provided the right running mood to pull me out of my woebegone state, reminding me that the coronavirus had not canceled springtime.
I ran a few miles, enjoying the sunshine and sweat, and then thought about turning back toward home. But then I changed my mind. I decided I was going to walk the back country roads outside of my town until I had walked the peace back into myself. I was not going to go home still stressed and concerned; I was going to stay in this springtime until all was well within me again.
Nature itself is a mystic. It cannot be understood or experienced through words or scientific descriptions of how it calms the nervous system. Well, maybe you can try to talk about it in those ways, but just talking about it doesn’t do the trick. You have to get out in it for it to work. But the thing about nature is that it tells us alot about the “personality” of the universe. Jesus talked in the Gospels about the sparrows and lilies of the field… Here is the passage from Matthew 6 out of The Message translation:
25-26 “If you decide for God, living a life of God-worship, it follows that you don’t fuss about what’s on the table at mealtimes or whether the clothes in your closet are in fashion. There is far more to your life than the food you put in your stomach, more to your outer appearance than the clothes you hang on your body. Look at the birds, free and unfettered, not tied down to a job description, careless in the care of God. And you count far more to him than birds.
27-29 “Has anyone by fussing in front of the mirror ever gotten taller by so much as an inch? All this time and money wasted on fashion—do you think it makes that much difference? Instead of looking at the fashions, walk out into the fields and look at the wildflowers. They never primp or shop, but have you ever seen color and design quite like it? The ten best-dressed men and women in the country look shabby alongside them.
30-33 “If God gives such attention to the appearance of wildflowers—most of which are never even seen—don’t you think he’ll attend to you, take pride in you, do his best for you? What I’m trying to do here is to get you to relax, to not be so preoccupied with getting, so you can respond to God’s giving. People who don’t know God and the way he works fuss over these things, but you know both God and how he works. Steep your life in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions. Don’t worry about missing out. You’ll find all your everyday human concerns will be met.
34 “Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now, and don’t get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow. God will help you deal with whatever hard things come up when the time comes.
I really like the translation of that last verse: give your entire attention to what God is doing right now…He/She/They will help you deal with whatever hard things come up.
This is about being here now, about insisting on staying present, about living in the moment. I’m not one to sit here and throw platitudes at you that we should just pray and God will just fix everything for us. No, I absolutely believe that we have some hard roads ahead of us, we will have to make some difficult decisions, and we are going to experience pain and loss. I think it would be foolish to say otherwise.
That being said, I think it is also unwise to say that everything is doomed, and this is an area where nature has alot to teach us.
Life…this creative force that is pervasive throughout us as humans and this entire earth, has this remarkable, resilient, insistent urge to fight and claw its way back every single time. Something that I daily marvel at while working in healthcare is how hard our bodies work for us to keep us alive, keep us functional. We can throw shit food at our bodies, refuse to exercise, make dumb hygiene choices and more…and our bodies (the life surging through our cells) takes whatever we throw their way and provide the best possible results they can for as long as they can. Life is on our side, even when we refuse to be on our own sides.
Or think about areas where natural disasters occur…fires, volcanoes, whatever…and yet life manages to poke itself out of the dirt through some little creature of nature after everything has laid calm for a bit.
Or, like just today, on my run/walk, evidence of spring coming back again after a cold winter. What seemed dead and withered is suddenly rejuvenated. The springtime abundance is a reminder that COVID-19 has not locked down life. It has presented a huge challenge for us, yes, but it has not silenced life.
This is what I was reminded of as I walked mile after mile by the fields, over the streams, under the budding trees. You have to stop and be here right now to know what is true. There’s a great story in the Old Testament that illustrates this. Elijah was being chased by his enemies and holed up in a cave to escape them and rest. He was desperately trying to find where God was in the midst of his struggle. Here’s the story from 1 Kings 19:
11 The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.”
Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake.12 After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper.13 When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.
Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
The media and news are obviously necessary and can be very helpful as we try to regain our footing and find our way through these uncertain days. But when we constantly listen to them, it can be easy to panic, lose our way, and become shaky. When we frantically try to find the voices that will solve this pandemic or listen to the fearful voices that are so loud around us….these are what will unsettle us. We have to stop, calm ourselves, and listen for the whisper.
The whisper is not loud voices from the religious leaders that warn that the coronavirus is God’s retribution for us. It is not the politicians’ and stockmarkets frenzy about the economy and crashing stock prices. These are the earthquakes. These are the fire.
The Lord, or Source, or Spirit, or the Ground of Being, or whatever you want to call it, is the whisper that comes when we get really still, when we focus on what is handed to us right now, right here. And from experience, I can say that the whisper seldom comes with words. Instead, the whisper is peace…a peace we can be brave in, a peace that we can move forward from, a peace that springs forward fresh creativity to solve problems, a peace that is ultimately what we’re all really looking for.
It took me a little over 9 miles, but I walked peace back into myself. I had a keen, almost visceral sense, while walking of that oneing. I belong to the world, and the world belongs to me. And my fear of being alone, my fear of isolation fell away. I could never really be alone. I am connected to Source deeply, internally, and externally I am just the same as all of my fellow travelers…we are all stardust in this struggle together.
And I remembered that I know how to hold pain, traumas, and loneliness; I do not have to allow myself to be overtaken by it, overwhelmed by it. All the great ones who have gone before me and who have been my teachers have taught me for years how to do these things…how to move through pain without letting it consume me, how to live in joy through uncertainty, how to listen and empathize with others even when I’m afraid.
As a world, we are having to sacrifice personal freedoms, make hard decisions, and do things we would never have expected to be called to do. But I am already so impressed with how people I know are stepping up, developing brilliant ideas and problem-solving in fresh, intensely creative ways…people figuring out ways to serve others even while they themselves are in isolation…people insisting that all the things that make us human are still vitally important and cannot be given up even if we are physically separated from each other.
So this is what I’m leaving today with, having been reminded once again by the trees and the birds and the Sun…be here now, in every moment…do the next right thing in each moment without worrying about all the what-if’s that you have no control over…be merciful and gracious to those who are afraid even when they make dumb choices out of that fear…and learn to listen relentlessly for the gentle whisper that can calm your soul.
*This is a post I started two years ago, and am adding to with one new insight each year that I’ve learned about life.
A random assortment of things that I’ve picked up over 38 3940 years, from people, books, and my own experience. These are my rules to live by.
You can’t choose who you love; you either do or you don’t, and you are free to love whomever even if they don’t love you back. And you can be OK with being loved back or not being loved back.
It is never too late to stop, turn around, and go in the other direction.
Where you live doesn’t matter, and where you live doesn’t bring happiness. You can be just as happy in a little house in nowheresville as you can be in a big house in a happening place.
How other people treat you has little to do with you. They are dealing with their stories about you. Likewise, when you have a problem with someone else, it is really a problem within yourself. You are projecting your own baggage onto other people.
Eat less. Eat unadulterated food as much as possible. Plants. You’ll just feel better.
Try to never make decisions rooted in fear, guilt, or shame. Choose what you want in your heart and stand by your decision.
God isn’t angry. He/she was never angry.
You don’t have any problems right now. Your “problems” are either in the future or the past, and those are just illusions.
Do whatever necessary to protect your sleep rhythms. It heals you.
Don’t forgive people to make them feel better. Do it simply to liberate yourself.
Cut yourself some slack when parenting. The things that scarred you are not the same things that will scar your children. Stop trying to extrapolate how every one of your mistakes will ruin your kids’ lives.
Two glasses of wine in one sitting is enough.
Sometimes radical self-care looks like complete irresponsibility in the eyes of others. Just carry on. You know what you need.
Pay attention to your dreams; they can tell you alot about yourself, and sometimes offer glimpses into the future.
Let your children be your teachers: they reflect back to you who you are.
Welcome whoever life brings your way, but intentionally choose who you do relationship with.
Give away most of your stuff. Only keep what brings you joy.
Don’t wait for the perfect temperature; go outside and play anyway.
You can do more than you think you can; it’s all really just a mind game.
Your parents did the best they could with what they knew at the time. Generally.
Family is not always biological. They are sometimes found in the most unexpected people.
Find what you’re really passionate about and pursue it with abandon.
It is possible to find at least one commonality with every single person you meet.
Jesus was totally right when he said to find yourself you must first lose yourself.
Working in the hospital can freak you out. Healthy people get sick. Get the flu shot.
Cheese and corn syrup are in literally everything. Read the labels.
Sometimes you need to plan diligently, deliberately. And sometimes you need to be bat-shit crazy impulsive.
Community is important, whatever that looks like for you.
Sometimes the scariest option is the absolute best option.
Just buy the hammock.
Don’t avoid doing what you really want to do just because no one is there to do it with you.
Live your questions; don’t demand answers for everything.
Surround yourself with people of all ages. Babies and the very old usually have the most sense.
Don’t hit. Ever. It won’t bring the results you want.
Don’t punish yourself for making a bad mistake by living with that mistake forever.
People will exploit you only as far as you will tolerate their behavior.
There is enough.
Sit with a dying person, and really SEE them. It might be the most meaningful thing you ever do, and it might be the only time they’ve ever really been seen for who they are and not what they do.
The obstacle is the path, and the Gospel is not the ability to avoid pain; it is the grace and mercy we are given to be able to hold pain, both in ourselves and for others, without being destroyed by it.
My middle son came to me last night at bedtime, concerned about all that he has been hearing about COVID-19 at school, and worried that his school district might be closed like the neighboring district. His sweet worried face wrecked me, and I couldn’t think of anything that sounded good to say, because I’m a scientist and a nurse and I know this pandemic is not just going to go away. So I said what I could:
“Graham, do you see mama panicking? Don’t panic until you see mama panicking.”
He seemed satisfied with that answer and went to bed, waking up happy this morning and ready to go to school. But as I went to sleep myself last night, I lay in bed pondering at what point I might panic.
As someone who used to have prescriptions for Xanax and clonazepam with a diagnosed panic disorder, I know what terror and panic feel like. I know what it’s like to feel like you’re sliding down a vortex of despair and fear and there’s no rationalizing your way out of it. Granted, my panic attacks have always been about irrational things, but even so, fear is fear.
Ultimately, I thought about how I am a solid place for my kids…I’m supposed to be that bulwark that faces the biggest scary things in life for them so they know how it’s done. But, who’s parenting me? Who do I turn to when the world looks scary and I’m so tempted to join in with mass hysteria and panic? And then it came to me…I know exactly who will show me the way. It’s the same people that have been showing me the way for years, the same people who have taught me to trust my own inner voice and connect with Source deep within my own self instead of always in external places.
You know that story in the gospels where Lazarus dies, and Jesus shows up after the fact? And Mary and Martha were seriously like, what the hell, Jesus? You could have gotten here on time, you could have fixed this situation! Why are you crying now about him dying when this could have all been prevented?
I think maybe the key point here in this story is not just Lazarus’ resurrection, but the fact that Jesus didn’t panic. He didn’t come running in, blustering around, ready to cast away Lazarus’ illness and imminent death. Nope, he took his time in coming, and he held space for things to happen, so that he could show Mary and Martha and all the village of Bethany an even greater, reality…a greater glory than what they had asked for and hoped for.
How do we hold space when a pandemic is spreading and everyone is scared and uncertain about the future, and we all are kind of convinced that life as we know it has shifted forever?
Ram Dass died several months ago, and I have thought alot about how he would handle this strange new happening called the coronavirus. Would he be fretting or stocking up on toilet paper or all the other things most of us are tempted to do in situations like this? He and a friend wrote a wonderful book about death not long ago, called Walking Each Other Home, that has changed me deeply. This book has parented me because it has shown me the things that really matter in life, and that death is nothing to fear. By learning to live well and trust life, there is no sting in death.
I recall a story I heard of something that happened with Ram Dass in 2018. I can’t remember all the specifics, but in 2018 a false alarm was sounded in Hawaii that a missile was coming their way. Ram Dass lived in Hawaii, and so heard the sirens, along with his caretakers who lived with him. But instead of panicking that their lives were going to end, they remained calm, and they spent the time they thought they had left meditating. They just were. They didn’t fight what seemed to be reality. They allowed it to just be.
Another person who has “parented” me is the Dalai Lama. I can’t even really say so much what words have come out of his mouth specifically that have changed me. With him, it is about presence. Back in 2014 or 2015, the Dalai Lama came and spoke in Boston, and of course, I jumped on the train and rode into the city from where I was living so I could hear him talk. There were thousands of us sitting in the stadium, and the environment was magic. We were all literally sitting on the edge of our seats, just wanting to hear the Dalai Lama laugh. What he said was important, but what resonated the most was his laughter. Because his laughter told us that all is well. I’ve had a few people in my life, where when you sit at their feet you feel like you’re sitting with Jesus. The Dalai Lama, even in a crowd of people, feels that way. He laughs, and you hear divine love coming out of that laugh, and you know that everything will be OK.
I think of Eckhart Tolle and Byron Katie and Mooji and Rob Bell and Richard Rohr and Michael Singer and so many others who have parented me, who have shown me what life is about, what matters and what is simply passing. I trust them, they’ve shown me the way; they are my great cloud of witnesses pushing me onward every day to be better, to love better, to trust the universe and its ultimate goodness.
I was listening today to Glennon Doyle’s new book, Untamed, – please run out to your nearest bookseller and buy this or listen to it on Audible. It has wrecked me from the first paragraph, because it is wisdom upon wisdom upon wisdom. About halfway through the book she talks about the Hebrew word Selah that shows up in the Old Testament Psalms. She describes it as a word that means to stop, be still, and hold space. It often came after a line of words in Hebrew poetry, and perhaps indicated that a moment of stillness was warranted…a time to stop, and just breathe, and know the words that had just come before.
And then I also thought about my life mantra that I shamelessly stole from Richard Rohr….”Everything belongs”. For my 40th birthday coming up I’m finally gonna get this tattooed on my arm because it is what I live by. It is how I hold all things together that don’t seem to go together. But today I realized that one thing about this tattoo idea I’ve had forever for my arm was missing….I can’t just leave it at “Everything belongs.” It has to be “Everything belongs….selah.” Trusting that all is interconnected, everything has it’s place and it’s time, there is good in all things and all people, and then…..hold….just sit and breathe the truth of that. Live the questions without striving to find all the answers, rest in uncertainty, listen for divine laughter – wherever or whoever it may come from.
I don’t know how this pandemic will turn out. I don’t know if it will just be an inconvenience in my own personal life, or if it will rock my world and dramatically affect how my children and loved ones and I do life. But I’m choosing to not freak out. I’m choosing to look to the wise ones that have never yet failed me. I choose to trust the ageless words of Jesus, not to worry about tomorrow. Just focus on now, be here now, trust in the goodness of the universe.
Maybe I’m naive, maybe I’m not grounded…that’s OK. The ones I trust the most aren’t panicking. So I choose not to panic. And hopefully my boys can look to their mama not panicking, and not panic, too.
*Spoiler alert: I’m probably bordering on controversial in this post, and might discuss things that make some uncomfortable,.
When I was in college, I took a graduate summer class called “Anthropological Insights into the New Testament.” This class was a mind-broadener for me, because it was one of the first times I had been taught how to view the Gospels out of an entirely new lens, one that was not a literal, Western reading of the text. The parables and wise sayings of Jesus, which I had heard since I was a toddler, came alive to me in fresh ways that were much deeper with meaning than the interpretations I was so familiar with. One of the professor’s goals was to show us how to approach these parables through different filters or sets of cultural values that were relevant to that time so that we could get a better understanding of what Jesus was actually trying to say to the disciples and crowds he was speaking to.
One filter that I remember us talking alot about was the idea of honor/shame cultures. Much of the Middle East is grounded in this paradigm of honor/shame, and to more fully understand the motivations, beliefs, and actions of people from this region of the world, we need to understand the dynamics of honor and shame in their family life, social structures, etc. I am not an expert on the Middle East, nor on honor/shame cultures, but I can now at least understand to a small extent how Jesus was attempting to address shame in the context of the Gospels.
I’ve heard many people say that the United States is not a shame culture, and that the West, generally speaking, does not operate off of honor/shame dynamics. I’m not entirely sure that I believe this anymore. Yeah, maybe we don’t engage in honor killings, or go to great lengths for family members to save face, or have formal societal constructs to deal with shame and maintain honor….but I think we all carry around alot more shame than we know. I don’t intend to prove this here, because all of Brené Brown’s writing will do it so much more adequately than what I can. Shame is pervasive and universal.
I reached adulthood carrying a ton of shame baggage. This is due to a couple of things: I’ve had some shitty things happen to me in the past, many of which I’ll just keep to myself because, thanks to shadow work and alot of therapy, speaking them out loud just isn’t so important anymore. Second, I apparently have the perfect combination of personality and temperament to soak up shame without much effort on anyone’s part. Finally, I grew up within a faith tradition, cultural setting, and a worldview belief structure that inadvertently and very unintentionally, I believe, supported shame’s ability to stick on to me.
One of the greatest struggles with shame for me personally has been with my body. This shame grew out of a whole complicated mishmash of things that people have said to me, done to me, my own ignorance, and the deeply ingrained belief I held for decades that I was broken and wrong and not OK…as though I didn’t have a legitimate right to be alive and on this earth. This sounds very melodramatic, but I’m sorry to say it’s true. Thank God I’ve since come a very long way in letting go of all of that crap.
Suffice it to say, due to my body shame, I have been extremely modest in the way I dress and act from my childhood up. I remember in gym class all the way through high school even, I hated changing in the locker rooms because God forbid, someone would discover that something was wrong with my body and I was different from everyone else. I had no clue what that thing might be, but I was sure whatever it was, when it was found out, I would be shamed for it. I went to the gynecologist for the first time at age 25, because I was too terrified to go before then and just have someone tell me I was “weird’ or “different’….again, how, I had no clue.
I could never feel comfortable in my body and wanted to remain as invisible as possible. I always liked my shoulders and arms, but that was about it. As such, I took to sleeping in my bra at a very young age, and always wore shorts when wearing a swimming suit…sometimes with a tank top as well. The less people saw of me, the less chance they would see the shameful self that I was.
The thing about having babies in a hospital, especially when you have to have emergency C-sections, is that your body shame protection gets ripped off pretty darn quickly. The advantage here is that you’re so tired from hours of laboring and so grateful to finally be numbed up from your chest down and you so badly want that baby OUT!, that you suddenly don’t care who sees your nether regions.
Maybe this was God’s way of pulling off all the bandaids I’d applied to protect myself: I had to have three C-sections, 2 of which weren’t planned and each came after 30 hours of med-free laboring. I think by the time I actually delivered those two boys, I’d had a minimum of twenty people seeing me in all of my glory. Having kids did wonders for helping to melt away my tightly held modesty. And as weird as it is to say, and maybe really silly to some, having those babies in the hospital gave me alot of healing. No one thought I was weird, no one thought my body was “off”, no one looked at me with disgust. All of these lies I had carried so tightly inside me since I was a very little girl began to lose their grip on me.
There’s a line in the New Testament that really pisses off alot of people because of how they interpret it to depict women and their role in the world. I totally get their anger about it; the value of women does not solely lie in their ability to grow babies and be mothers. But, the verse means something entirely new for me now. 1 Timothy 2:15: “Yet she will be saved through childbearing…” I really was saved in a way through giving birth….not because it validated my existence on this planet or fulfilled me in the eyes of God, but because my boys’ insistence to enter into life forced me to face one of the darkest, shame-filled beliefs I held that was really keeping me from being fully human and alive myself.
Rape culture is still very prevalent in our society. I’ve written about this elsewhere in my blog, and don’t intend to expound too broadly on this or prove that it exists. This culture has led to so much shaming of girls and women, and caused us to carry the brunt and responsibility for rape, sexual assault, adultery, and so many other indiscretions on the part of men. We are told, either explicitly or indirectly, that the way we dress causes men to stray and sin. We are told to be benign and almost asexual at times, and then expected to suddenly become sultry, sexy seductresses at other times. It’s OK for men to have sex on a first date, but for women, that’s just slutty behavior. Women ask to be raped, or whistled at, or groped, or whatever – by their behavior and dress, our culture tells us.
I can’t even remember how many times growing up and as a young adult that I individually or in a group of girls was admonished, especially in church settings, to “protect” the men and boys in our lives, to keep them from stumbling. We are supposedly the weaker sex, but apparently, we hold all the power to ruin a man’s life simply by how short our skirt is or whether or not we show a little cleavage. Ginormous eye roll here.
Then, we as women are the ones responsible for also protecting ourselves. If we don’t want to get raped, then when need to behave ourselves. Don’t ever drink too much, don’t run outside by yourself after dark, be very mindful of what you wear, don’t flirt if you’re not asking for it…. There’s a reason there is such a high percentage of unreported rapes and sexual assault in this country. Women aren’t convinced they’ll be believed when they tell their stories of what has happened to them. And if they do report, they know they’ll likely face unbearable shaming by naysayers. Thousands of completed rape kits just sit around in storage for years gathering dust, never getting the chance to serve as evidence to bring justice for the women who needed them.
There’s a ridiculous amount of responsibility placed on women: we have to not only protect our own sexuality, but we also have to protect the sexuality of every man we encounter, maybe even we the ones we never even know exist. This is wildly unfair, unjust, and a huge contributor to the shame we as women carry.
As a mom of three boys, I have made a huge effort to raise them in such a way that they have immense respect for women and girls. They have known since they could talk that if I ever caught them treating a girl or woman badly, in a disrespectful or dismissive or objectifying way, that they would have to deal with me and that they were not going to want that to happen. And somehow, so far, I’ve gotten this right. My boys LOVE girls and women; some of their best friends are girls, and they notice when girls in their classes and social circles are being treated unfairly.
I’ve taken the boys to the Women’s March in Indianapolis, we have conversations about menstrual cycles and how they should never shame girls about these. We’ve talked about how girls and women are just as smart and capable as their male counterparts. We’ve talked about the struggles that women face to achieve equality, and my boys came to me with angry indignation when they learned that women often make significantly less than men for the same jobs. I’ve begun having conversations with my 13-year-old, about consent and all the nuances of that.
But, I have been realizing over the last couple of years that there is a significant area where I’ve been failing my boys, and through extrapolation, failing myself and the girls and women that my boys will encounter in life. By not dealing with my own shame, I’ve unintentionally passed on some of that shame to my boys, and I know that if I don’t address it now, it has the potential to affect their relationships, perpetuate shame through their families, and maybe hurt their future partners if they decide they are into girls.
This is what has happened: while I’m much less prudish and modest to the extreme like I was in my teens and early twenties, I still act in ways that either suggest I’m carrying shame or really do try to cover some lingering shame that I still hold on to. Some of these patterns are just hold-overs from my conservative ways of being when the boys were younger; my entire worldview belief structure has changed radically over the last five to ten years, but my actual behaviors have experienced some lag in trying to catch up. I’m learning that all the “great talks” we have don’t do nearly as much as me living out what I believe to be true, even if it is difficult and uncomfortable to me.
Here are some examples; sorry if they are embarrassing to anyone reading this, but I’m more concerned about being real and authentic than in embarrassing myself or other people.
I almost never go without a bra on around my boys. Since they were each toddlers, I’ve pretty much slept in one if they were around, and certainly have never gone around the house without one. This was clearly my issue not dealing with my own boob shame (there are stories behind this, but I’m going to table them right now), but I can see now that it has actually been a bad thing for the boys. I’ve recognized this when I see them being embarrassed about seeing a woman’s nipples through her T-shirt. And somehow through my extreme past modesty, they have internalized it themselves – they are often ashamed to go swim without a swimshirt on, concerned someone might see their own nipples. I somehow achieved equality between men and women here with them, but definitely not in the way that I meant to.
As an adult, I hardly ever wear a swimsuit without shorts, and certainly never a two-piece. This is mainly about my dissatisfaction about how my body looks…my tummy isn’t as tight as I’d like, thanks to three pregnancies. My belly button looks weird thanks to a laparoscopic gall bladder removal. My butt sports saddlebags that never seem to decrease no matter how much yoga or running I do. But then, I’ll hear my boys make comments regarding pictures of women they see, wearing two pieces, or showing their stomachs, and the adjectives that accompany their comments are words like “gross” or “weird”. Their statements are not coming from a place of being mean; what I hear in their voices is the sound of being uncomfortable, of unfamiliarity and unease….and realizing I contributed on accident to this hurts me deeply.
My boys are oblivious to alot of things. It sometimes takes them days to recognize that I dyed my hair or chopped it all off. But I have taught them to notice things that shouldn’t be an issue. In the past, I have found myself apologizing to them when they brush up against my unshaven legs. I cringe now when I think about these things because it is just teaching them to believe something completely arbitrary and inconsequential is a matter of right and wrong, good or bad, beautiful or ugly.
I really, really want my boys to know and believe that women’s bodies are good and beautiful, with nothing shameful about them. But I’m realizing that as the primary, most important woman currently in their lives, it is my job to live that out for them. They are learning more from what I do or don’t do than what I say. And what I’m avoiding because of my own discomfort or shame is molding them in ways that could have lifelong impacts.
I DO NOT want to perpetuate shame from my own life into my boys’ lives, and I do not want to add new shame to their lives. I would rather do things that are hard for me than to avoid pain and end up hurting them. Which is why I’ve decided it is time for me to let go of more of my modesty. Contrary to all of the stuff I was taught growing up, I think that in many ways the way to have healthy relationships with our bodies is to normalize them, not just simply hide them away and make every single thing taboo unless you’re behind the closed doors of a marriage or committed relationship. It’s too late by then…shame has already had a chance to catch hold.
Now for everyone reading this who is starting to hyperventilate, I’m not talking about living like I’m in a nudist colony, strutting around topless, or intentionally behaving in ways that will humiliate or mortify my kids. I’m talking about learning to be more comfortable with my own body so they know there is nothing about a woman’s body, or a man’s body for that matter, that is embarrassing or shameful or wrong.
As a quick side tangent, since becoming a nurse I’ve decided that it would be a great idea in theory if everyone worked in a hospital for a short time. The main reason for this is because an inpatient hospital setting helps to normalize things, especially the human body. I’ve seen so many people stark naked, I’ve seen every size and shape of penis, every size and shape of breast, every size and shape of body. I’ve seen bodies that were missing parts, I’ve seen thin bodies, I’ve seen very large bodies. There is more anatomical variety for nether regions than I ever once imagined. Nothing much I see body-wise shocks or surprises me anymore. And I’ve learned this: my body is just pretty darn average. After all the shame carrying of my youth, I am very, very happy to just be average.
This is what I’ve concluded: like so many other secrets, when you bring shame to the light, it begins fade away. When you pull it out of the dark, closets, and hidden corners and show it the truth, it leaves…it has to…because there is no longer any way for it to keep lying to you when you’ve got evidence right in front of you proving otherwise.
Bodies are bodies, all different and unique. We may be drawn to some and not others because of our individual brain wiring and genetics, but when it comes down to it, everyone’s body is valid, good, and has a right to be here.
I was irritated by the Super Bowl this year. I actually didn’t watch it, and I only saw a few photos from the notorious half-time show. What irritated me was the shame that I saw my boys pick up from watching it because of the comments of the people they watched it with, decrying it as inappropriate and bad.
There was alot of hullabaloo about the outfits and dancing by the half-time performers, and plenty of articles came out afterward discussing their impropriety and whether or not it was OK for celebrity moms to dress and act in certain ways, especially seductive and revealing ways.
Since when did women suddenly have to transform into asexual, tame beings when they become moms? Like it’s OK to be super cute and flirty and sexual before you have kids, but then you gotta suck on the mom jeans and act nurturing and proper all the time once the babies come. I think the real issue with the half-time show is the labels and stereotypes we continue to put on women in this culture, and much less about what they were actually wearing, or not wearing, or how they were dancing.
I will admit that I think there are times and places for different kinds of behavior and dressing. But what I will not tolerate is grown men saying things like the half-time performance are going to cause them to sin, or that boys will be scarred for life is they see a woman in an outfit that reveals without any uncertainty that she has boobs and a butt.
So here’s the whole point of me writing this post: I’ve decided it’s time for me to change…to face the uncomfortable in order to protect my boys. I want to protect them from carrying their own shame about human bodies, and I want to protect them from internalizing lies about women that would in any way propagate rape culture. I want them to be proud of their bodies, to respect and value the bodies of others, and I want them to believe that each of us has the complete and total right to do what we want with our own bodies as long as it does not infringe upon the rights of others.
I’m gonna get practical: I’m going to suck up my embarrassment and make myself start wearing two-piece bathing suits. Not because I have a ripped, hot body to show the world, but because I want my boys to see that I’m proud of this mom-belly that carried each of them for 9 months., proud of this rear end that gives me a soft place to sit every day, unashamed of cleavage and softness and the stretch marks that have multiplied with time.
And, I’m going to stop wearing this damned bra all the time so that they realize that just because I’m a mom pushing 40, I do have boobs that look like something other than nipple-less mounds stuffed in a bra under a Tshirt, and I’m never going to apologize to anyone ever again for unshaven legs – even though I do prefer to have shaven legs. I’m also not going to heed society’s advice that women of a certain age stop wearing short skirts or other types of clothes…I’ll stop wearing them when I want to and not because I’m admonished by shame.
I didn’t create rape culture. I didn’t create or ask for the shame that I’ve carried for years. And I’ve still got alot of work to do on myself. But I”ll be damned if I’m going to contribute to the propagation and support of rape culture and body shame because of my own fear My boys deserve better than that.
I have a terrible habit that has lately become the subject of several conversations, which have forced me to stop and think about whether or not I’m ready to let go of it. I have a very strong tendency, when wanting to ask someone a question – particularly a personal or perhaps difficult question -to preface that I’m going to ask the question before I ask it.
I’ll say something like, “Hey, so I have a question I want to ask but don’t feel pressured to answer it ” or “Hey, so this is really nosy but I’m wondering….” or “Hey, I may be totally wrong about this, but….” or some other variation of a lead up to what I want to talk about. I”m excessively generous in trying to give people “outs”.
It drives me crazy when other people preface everything they want to say or give a ton of background detail to lay out a scene, and yet I do the very same thing. Because someone has told me recently to stop doing this, I have been thinking more about why I feel the need to preface these kinds of things and where this compulsion might be coming from.
For the majority of my life, I could not make any significant decisions without getting the input of others. I would ask tons of people their opinions about what I planned to or wanted to do, or simply did what a person I respected in my life told me to do. It took me until my mid-twenties to gain a little awareness about this. Turns out, I didn’t trust myself to make good decisions. I doubted my own logic and intuition and didn’t think my good intentions could cover over the sins of making a decision that resulted in failure, or humiliation, or inadvertently hurt someone else. If I deferred to someone else, there was a safety net, if you will…if it turned out that I made a bad decision I could simply point to another person and say I was just following their advice. Basically, it felt like a safe way to keep me out of the hot seat, and because usually, I trusted other people more than I trusted myself.
Last year I was listening to Rob Bell on one of his podcast episodes, where if I remember correctly, they were discussing something along these lines. I remember him using the phrase: “Stop consulting the committee”, and it really resonated with me because I knew that that is what I have the tendency to do and did for so much of my life. I struggled to get the go-ahead’s and OK’s from all the important people in my life before I stepped out on anything. And on the few occasions that I made big decisions without consulting those people, I would constantly second guess myself and worry that I would be found out as an imposter who thought she could do life but really couldn’t, and maybe she should in fact just do what others wanted and expected. In the times where I made bad decisions, I also couldn’t handle the shame doled out to me by those who seemed to relish in showing how I’d failed.
I remember a big change in my life that helped me stop consulting the committee about everything I did. About 8 years ago, when we were living in New York, my theological and worldview scaffolding began to crumble. I started allowing myself to ask hard questions that had previously been taboo. The biggest two were 1) Is there really a hell, and is God sending people there, and 2) Was God ever angry?
I finally came to the firm conclusion, after alot of theological deconstruction and soul searching, that nope…I do not believe in hell, and nope, I do not believe God has ever been angry. And amazingly…letting go of those limiting beliefs absolutely changed everything for me. Because – if the universe isn’t angry at you, and you’re not going to be punished for your mistakes in an eternal damnation sort of way – then there is alot of space and freedom to launch out, try new things, fail miserably, and possibly, succeed fantastically.
Suddenly I had the liberty to start doing what I wanted to do, listening to what my heart and mind were telling me, and moving forward without the obsessive compulsion to get everyone’s permission or opinions about everything. I could start asking other hard questions and critique things without being paranoid that I was wrong.
Something I’ve discovered over the last few years is that I actually have pretty good intuition about people and things. I used to have people tell me that I was extremely naive and gullible. That may have been true, but I’ve since decided that it was because I was listening to them and their opinions of how life works instead of trusting myself.
I’ve had bizarre things happen that have helped prove the worth of my own intuition, and I’ve had some pretty practical things fall into place really well as a result of me trusting myself at my core. Here are a few:
1) . I started paying attention to my dreams: I’ve always had a very active dream life, and in some cases, I’ve experienced recurrent dream themes. One recurring theme that I think is funny is dreaming that I was a runner…in the dreams I would feel compelled to get out and go for a run and I would wake up feeling an almost physical urge to go run, out of shape as I was. Ironic thing is, when I finally started running in real life, those dreams went away.
A second dream theme was a consistent one that played throughout the length of my marriage…I would dream that I would be taking off and moving to a new town, getting a new job or starting school, by myself. I would always wake up from these dreams so disappointed to discover they weren’t real and I was still stuck back in my unhappy situation. Again, funny thing….once I jumped ship and did these things in real life….getting out of my marriage and going back to school….those dreams abruptly stopped. I no longer have dreams related to feeling trapped.
Finally, I’ve also dreamed about things that then happened, or woke up with a sense of foreboding about something bad that was about to happen. I knew a week before my grandmother died that she was going to die soon, from a dream I had. I knew from a dream that something was wrong with a good friend in West Africa when he, in fact, was hanging between life and death one night. Another time, I woke up once in the middle of the night to a horrible sense of dread where I felt I needed to pray, and found out the next morning that a coworker had killed himself.
So, suffice it to say, I have learned to pay attention to my dreams and not just blow them off as mere brain defragging, as many others would.
2. I’ve been discovering that I can read people better than what I once thought. I always try to give people the benefit of the doubt and not force any expectations on them. But, there are some people in my life where I can predict with great accuracy ahead of time how they’re going to act or respond to something. I also have noticed that I can pretty much get along with everybody. We might not all have super warm fuzzies in our stomachs about each other, but I can carry on a conversation and find a commonality with just about everybody.
3. One of my friends tells me on almost every phone call that I’m making really good decisions and she’s really proud of me. I agree with her sometimes, but then occasionally I think she tells me this as a way of encouragement to up my game. But when I think about it, I have been making good decisions for a long time and I’m capable of making more in the future. I planned and executed about as smooth a divorce as I think possible in this day and age, I’m putting myself through school and multiple degrees as a single parent who was out of the workforce for a long time, I’m not just maintaining the status quo but constantly trying to learn and grow as a person and get braver… and the more that I do, the more I believe in myself that I’ll be able to do a whole hell of alot more.
There is definitely a place for good mentors and wise community in our lives. I have certain friends that I talk to about different specific things because I appreciate their intuition and wisdom. One friend is basically my “relationship with the other gender” guru, because when I tell her what I’m thinking or struggling with or just gobsmacked about, she knows EXACTLY what I’m talking about without having to explain in great detail what I mean. She just gets it. Another friend is my “let’s work together to get over our childhood traumas and wounds” guru….she’s got amazing wisdom on learning to wake up to ourselves and practically heal the broken areas of our lives. Then there are people I turn to for pragmatic things, like money matters, or how to fix “this broken thing in my house”, or a myriad of other decisions that I’m facing.
But, I no longer rely on each of these people to make my decisions for me. I no longer want them to. I want and value their opinions, but I’m much more willing these days to fail, and fail splendidly, than to outsource my life as I once did.
When I stopped consulting the committee, this is what I discovered: I’m living MY life instead of living one imagined by a bunch of random people that might not even know each other. The more I trust myself, the deeper I go and discover there’s a bigger, expansive, more interesting “me” than I had ever imagined. I’m the only one ultimately and completely invested in me, and I’m the one who has to live with myself forever, so it’s way better for me to make the choices that are right for me than to let other people steer the ship.
Finally, a life of nothing but consulting the committee is often a life of playing it safe, of adhering to the conventional wisdom that might not really be so wise, of staying small and close-minded, of not really ever knowing what you could be if you just started listening to that little, quiet gut voice inside you…
So, going back to my tendency to preface questions I ask of people….this is a lingering area where I still consult the committee. Is it OK for me to ask this question? Is it OK for me to say how I feel without trying to lay a ton of groundwork to make sure you’ll understand my motivations? Do I need to get permission to offer this opinion?
I know this is where my 2 on the Enneagram gets me into trouble. I’m a people pleaser, and unfortunately, I often sacrifice myself so that other people are comfortable. I’m almost always very transparent about myself with people, but then apologize for asking them to be transparent. I allow others to ask probing questions of me and I do my best to consider them with an open mind, but then I wonder if I overstep for asking hard questions of other people. These days, my committee consulting is much less about asking for opinions about making big decisions, but more like asking if it’s OK for me to have certain feelings or to have specific concerns or to be curious about different things.
I’ve since decided that just as making hard decisions without completely relying on others is a practice, so it must be a practice to let go of all of my prefacing. I need to stop asking permission to say things…and just say them. I need to stop asking if I’m making everyone uncomfortable, or I’m too much for them, or whatever….and just be. My right to be comfortable, and to have feelings, and to ask tough questions hoping for good answers is just as legitimate as those rights I try so hard to honor in others.