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.
I went down to Texas this last week to attend the funeral of one of my uncles. He had struggled for the last couple of years with T-cell lymphoma, a dreadful autoimmune cancer that caused him to itch relentlessly. Eventually, he was overcome by constant infections, kidney failure, and congestive heart failure. I tried to work things out so I get could to Texas just before he died, but I missed it. Thankfully, I was able to talk to him on Facetime and tell him that I loved him while he could still hear me. He died early on the morning I was planning on starting the long drive from Indiana to our family ranch.
My cousin/sister was my uncle’s full time caregiver during his battle with cancer. During that time she and I had so many conversations about death, about what quality of life means, and when it’s time to stop fighting and just rest. We talked about all of the family dynamics that have shaped us and influenced how we feel about death, about our loved ones, and our ability to grieve well. In the few weeks before my uncle’s death, I was apprehensive about how the end would play out, and I didn’t know what I would encounter when I arrived home. But to my surprise and joy, what I came home to was better than I could have ever hoped for. This hard, scary thing of death seemed to show what it truly can be, behind all the outer trappings of fear and suffering and unknowns…it was a calm, gentle river that carried my uncle to the other side, and members of my family to a new place of unexpected peace and acceptance.
During the days before my uncle’s funeral, my cousin and I discussed logistics of the services that were planned for him, as well as how we envisioned our own funerals one day. We both agreed that we want to be cremated, and our ashes spread over some place that is meaningful to us. Neither of us judge those who want a traditional funeral, casket, and graveside burial, but we know that we want to take up as little space as possible when we leave this world. Also, my cousin couldn’t bear the idea of her decomposing self ruining the inside of a coffin.
My cousin remarked that she wants her funeral to be a time of celebration of her life, not a time of crying and mourning. She made the absurd suggestion that we fill a hackey sack with her ashes and get after it. Or better yet, fill a bunch of bean bags with her ashes and have a rip-roaring match of corn hole. I nearly spit out my coffee when she threw out these suggestions, laughing so hard, but I thought they were brilliant ideas. My cousin and I can regularly border on the edge of morbid in our conversations, but underneath our ridiculous banter is a serioius undertone. In our jokes about being entirely irreverant with our ashes, we aren’t belittling our lives or the sanctity of life. We weren’t saying that we don’t matter or that dealing with death and grief should be silly and superficial. We are saying that we know our lives have held tremendous meaning, that we have overcome so much, and that death is just a transition to the next thing. It is not the ultimate finality to us. It is a moving on that can be accepted, and even welcomed, without terror and despair.
Now that I’ve joked about death, probably in a very inappropriate fashion to some, I’m going to switch back and say that I take death very, very seriously. In fact, I think that a huge part of life is learning how to prepare for death.
During the last six months, death has been on my mind even more than usual with the appearance of COVID. When I have sat next to dying patients in the hospital, separated from friends and loved ones by isolation rules, death did not seem very funny at all. It was no joke to feel sobered by the hope that by me holding the hands of these people…maybe I could serve as a shoddy substitute for the ones that they really needed by their side. It was no joke that I was hoping and praying that I could hold them up to the Light in my own individual way and have that be enough to carry them over the threshhold in grace. It was no joke having to call family members to tell them that their loved one had passed. And it was no joke to walk in on a patient in isolation, just to discover he’d died alone within the short time you stepped out to check on your other patients.
I may joke about death, but death itself is not a joke.
In recent weeks, graphics have been ciruclating around FB that attempt to visualize the overall impact of COVID on the United States using absolute numbers. Here’s are two examples:
May I just say that images like these freaking piss me off to no end. Not because I don’t like a good graph or statistics, but entirely because these posts reduce the value of life down to numbers, monetary value, and impersonal percentages. I’m all for showing people how their misperceptions of data can lead them to overblown conclusions, but I’m not OK with it when the data is spun in such a way that it causes further minimization and marginalization of hurting people.
It’s like that line in You’ve Got Mail where Joe tells Kathleen that “It wasn’t personal” when his mega bookseller pushes her small bookstore out of business. She responds with “What is that supposed to mean? I am so sick of that. All that means is that it wasn’t personal to you. But it was personal to me. It’s *personal* to a lot of people. And what’s so wrong with being personal, anyway?”
These kinds of graphics impersonalize COVID. They ignore the literal deaths and other deaths that coinicde with physcial deaths and can cause just as much trauma: loss of jobs, loss of housing, loss of social networks, loss of safety, loss of anticipated gatherings/life rituals/memories, loss of long term health…and very importantly, the ambiguous loss described by Pauline Boss on the On Being podcast. All of these deaths MATTER and they are all personal.
These graphics, and this way of thinking, allows us to cavalierly say “COVID has not yet affected me in any significant way, therefore I will minimize it’s impact in my mind, and I will continue to live the way I want with little regard for how your life has been shot to hell or very much has the potential to be shot to hell by my actions or lack of concern.”
Note: the episode included below is an amazing chat with Pauline Boss on the trauma of ambiguous loss and the myth of closure. I welcome you to take the time to listen to it.
I’ve chatted with so many old folks who knew they were nearing the ends of their lives. When it feels appropriate, I often ask them how they look back on their life. Was it a good life in their opinion? Are they satisfied with what they’ve accomplished?
The answers I tend to get don’t expound on amazing adventures or huge successes or how they knew and interacted with powerful people. No one seems to mention the money they’ve made. Throughout my life, when I’ve had these kinds of conversations with people, they usually describe their lives in terms of who they loved, how they treated people, and whether or not they had done things (jobs or hobbies) that gave them joy and made them happy. The people that were able to tell me that they had loved well and been loved well seemed to be the most ready to go…the least afraid.
Death is complicated to talk about because of the complexity that surrounds it. Some people welcome death, while others feel it snatched away loved ones before it was their time. Some deaths are peaceful and calm, others are violent and horrific. And how we deal with the deaths we face can be paradoxical. On one hand, we need to celebrate lives well lived, and recall fond memories with laughter and joking. On the other hand, we need to hold space for ourselves and others to be able to grieve what we lost in those deaths, or the pain that those deaths represent…and we need to be able to grieve as long as necessary. As Boss said in the On Being episode, to hurry or pressure another through grief because of our own discomfort or impatience with it is nothing less than cruel. We must absolutely remember this wisdom in the time of COVID.
Life and death are a cycle, and grieiving is a cycle, and we must learn to accept each as they come to us, and let go when it is time for them to pass. But I totally believe we need ritual and grace for ourselves and others to accomplish this.
We need to allow ourselves to integrate within ourselves all that comes with death and not feel like we have to comparmentalize what is going on within us to make ourselves more palatable for those around us.
I’ve been to a billion funerals in my life. Ok, a bit of hyperbole there…but, I’ve been to A LOT. And it always seems to me that people are allowed to be really sad during the wake, during the funeral, and maybe even the mealtimes that follow a funeral, but then it’s time to snap out of it and rejoin the current programming of our lives. It’s like an on/off switch. You’ve cried…ok, now it’s time to put that stiff upper lip back on and jump straight back into the tasks of everyday life.
I’ve spent some time in West Africa, and one thing that they often do there that I like is postponed funerals. This used to kind of boggle my mind…like, why would you have a funeral a year after someone died? And, really, how could all of the people in the community come to a funeral so far after the fact and actually cry and wail and mourn the person? Well…I think it’s because, unlike many native-grown Americans, they understand that grief doesn’t end right after the funeral. And more importantly, they realize that grief is not only individual, it is collective.
I am very concerned about individuals in this time of COVID. The families that weren’t able to hold funerals because of location….the ones who couldn’t attend funerals because they personally were in the hospital with COVID…the families that were able to hold services but not in the way they really needed to, the way they hoped.
At some point, when this pandemic has subsided, maybe when a vaccine is available….we will so direly need a time of national and collective mourning. If we emerge from this pandemic and rush straight back into our mindless way of doing things, I’m afraid our country could in many ways be done for. If we can’t mourn in a meaningful way for those who have been devasated by COVID and recognize all that they have lost, then we have lost our collective soul as a nation.
I’ve returned from Texas now, following my uncle’s funeral, and I’m so grateful to have been able to go. Yes, there were annoyingly frustrating moments, like people wearing ill-fitting masks, or refusing to embrace my need for social distancing and forcing themselves upon me. But I was reminded that while the months and days leading up to death can be so scary and uncertain, death itself is just a crossing over, just a walking through a door, just a slipping through a veil. It can be a terrible event, but it can also bring about redemption and reconciliation in a family that is struggling with old wounds and hurts.
Life and death are so complicated. I think that’s all I can say with complete certainty after this long, meandering post.
I’m only 40, but I have lived a damned good life. I have loved others fiercely, and I have been loved fiercely. I have failed miserably so many times, but I’ve also triumphed over things that I thought would always conquer me. I’ve forgiven, and I’ve been forgiven to a greater extent. And while I’ve got alot of stuff left that I want to do, I’m OK when death says it’s my time.
My cousin and I talked about what we would want said at our funerals. I told her I thought it would be great to have an open mic, not just so that people could recall all the things they like about me, but also so people could talk about how much they disliked me, or how I had hurt them, or what a moron they thought I was. My cousin laughed, but I was serious. I want people to process any trauma I’ve caused them, be able to have their say without anyone arguing with them about why they shouldn’t feel the way they do, maybe remember a few of the good things about me….and then go out afterwards and kick a hackey sack full of my ashes…knowing that all is well, and I am well.
Someone told me today I that I was spewing bullshit.
And it probably seemed like I was to this person. But the thing is, I know I wasn’t.
I may be really stupid in some areas of life, but I don’t think I’m stupid in the things that matter the most.
If I’ve learned anything over my life, it’s that people are capable of way more than they think they are. And what they are capable of doesn’t end just because people on the outside say they’re done. It’s very much a mind game. I know this because I’ve let my mind push me around so many times. I’ve neglected to question my thoughts and beliefs and allowed myself to be held back so many times by voices external to me, as well as my own internal voice that used to scream relentlessly at me, telling me how pathetic and useless I was, how unseen by the world I would forever be.
But, the thing is, I had enough people in my small world start spewing on to me what I too once thought was bullshit…that I’m capable of whatever I set my mind to, that I’m smart, that I’m creative, that I’m worth something. And when you come to believe wholeheartedly that you ARE worth something, you can’t help but start to believe that everyone else is freaking amazing, too, and it’s impossible not to share it with them.
Sometimes I wish that people could see how I used to see myself, how wretched a person I believed myself to be, and how desperately low my self-esteem and self-confidence once was. Then maybe they would understand how I’m so completely convinced that if I can transform my life, there’s a very good chance that they can, too.
Maybe I AM just a huge spewer of bullshit. But I wouldn’t be where I am now if all those many people out there hadn’t spewed their own bullshit on me….bullshit about how amazing I am, bullshit about what I have to offer, bullshit about how other people’s stories about me are not my real story. These people’s bullshit, even when it made me angry to hear it then, even when I wanted them to agree with me about what a victim I was…these people were the catalyst of change for me.
One thing I’ve learned over time, that I believe in my gut, is that I can see potential in people even when they can’t see it in themselves. It’s like a sixth sense. And while I may be freaking annoying when I remind them of what I see, I just can’t stop. I won’t let people give into beliefs that they are hopeless, that they are a lost cause, that everything that matters is gone forever, that they were never or will never be loved. Nope. I choose to hope for people when they’ve forgotten how to hope. Call me a Pollyanna, call me naive. I know what I see.
I”m listening to A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson, this week. I adore his writing, and I love this book in particular. To anyone who says he is not a science writer, I say, “Posh!” I personally think that if every science class was taught by him, many fewer students would come away terrified of science because of his fantastic storytelling abilities. Right now in the audiobook, I’m in the section where he is talking about Einstein and the development of the theory of relativity. Einstein was such a cool person…especially in the fact that he once mentioned he seldom had novel ideas…but as we all know, when he had them, they were freaking fantastic. In his work, along with the famous formula E=MC2 (darn..I don’t know how to do a superscript in WordPress), Einstein showed that the speed of light is supreme and constant. There’s nothing else that we’ve discovered that has the power to overtake it.
Naturally, listening to this section of the audiobook reminded me of the words of Jesus in the gospel of John.
John 1:5 – “And the light shines in darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it.”
It’s really easy to get stuck in the short term. To not see the big picture. To only observe what is right in front of us that looks impossible to deal with. But we are also caught in space and time and so have a warped view of what is going on around us.
As Bryson described Einstein’s formula, he put it this way: energy is liberated matter, and matter is energy waiting to happen. And their relationship is joined together by light.
This is what we are! We are humans, boundaried and sometimes beaten down by hard things…things we’ve never asked for or wanted…things that are dreadfully unfair… but when the Light gets in, we are liberated. And how does the Light get in? It seeps and then floods in when we stop and look at our brokenness and hurting and despair and ask what it has to teach us, and when we allow it to have its way with us.
“Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.” – Leonard Cohen
Here’s another science metaphor: The law of conservation of energy – energy is never created nor destroyed but simply changed from one form to another.
I believe this about life. Nothing that is really real is ever truly lost. The only things that are lost are illusions, dreams, or our mistaken beliefs about reality.
I’ve quoted this from Richard Rohr many times before, so much so that I had it tattooed permanently on my arm: Everything Belongs. Because only the real things belong. I believe this because I believe that the dark can’t overcome the Light, and that Light will prevail in the end. If that’s the case, then nothing can be lost, nothing can NOT belong.
Maybe I’m full of it. Maybe I’m just bullshitting myself. But this is the way I see it; either I’m crazy and delusional, or what I’ve experienced in my soul is real.
I’ve been surprised by hope, where I once carried only despair. And it’s one of those things where when you’ve seen something…truly seen it…you can’t unsee it, no matter how hard you might try.
So this is my life intention, made clear today: I choose to be a spewer of hope, of Light, of goodness, of love… even when it is perceived as bullshit. I won’t get it perfect all the time, and sometimes the things I say probably really will be bullshit and it will be worth everyone’s while to tell me to shut up. But I refuse to stop believing in people, even when they can’t believe in themselves.
“to love life, to love it even
when you have no stomach for it
and everything you’ve held dear
crumbles like burnt paper in your hands,
your throat filled with the silt of it.
When grief sits with you, its tropical heat
thickening the air, heavy as water
more fit for gills than lungs;
when grief weights you like your own flesh
only more of it, an obesity of grief,
you think, How can a body withstand this?
Then you hold life like a face
between your palms, a plain face,
no charming smile, no violet eyes,
and you say, yes, I will take you
I will love you, again.” ― Ellen Bass
I’ve had so many conversations with a variety of people in the last few months about feeling “stuck”. The conversations range from people feeling stuck in dead-end relationships, to wanting to move forward in their careers but not knowing where or how to proceed, to people who feel like they’re living inauthentic lives who want to the find their true selves, to people who can’t seem to move past events that wrecked them or threatened their identities, to people who literally feel physically stuck by the stupid COVID situation.
I totally know what it feels like to be stuck. I went to therapy for years complaining to my therapist about how stuck I was. A mental image had developed in my mind over time, where I envisioned a bird trying to fly and explore, but there was a rope tied around its leg, keeping it from being able to move beyond a very small circumference of existence. Looking back, my mental metaphor was spot on….I had a very real leash holding me back that was built with multiple threads… self-doubt, critical voices (both real and perceived), controlling relationships, no sense of my true identity, and incorrect beliefs.
Fortunately, I no longer feel tied down and restrained by this invisible leash. My belief in my own self-agency has increased by leaps and bounds. This week, as I had some more conversations with several people about feeling stuck, I began to make a list of the things that I did that really made all the difference in radically changing and transforming my life. Maybe some of them will resonate with you, if you, too, are feeling “stuck” in life.
*Note: I recognize that traumas in people’s lives and mental illness can play a significant role in a person’s ability to get unstuck. My opinions here are not a substitute for quality therapy and mental health resources. I also recognize that I have a certain amount of privilege related to my ethnicity and socioeconomic status that I in no way want to minimize by what I write here.
So, here, in no particular order except for the very first step, are my 10 ways to pursue ‘unstucked-ness”:
1. Grieve what you’ve lost, and grieve what you needed that was never given to you.
It is SO easy for us to stay stuck in the past….to live off the exhaust fumes of our memories and all the what-ifs, what-could-have beens, and what-should-have-beens. The fact is, the past is dead and gone, and when we insist on dwelling on the past, we are just dwelling with ghosts – nothing real. The past can never be changed; it is what it is.
That being said, I understand the frustration of wishing that things had been different. For years I struggled with wishing I could have a complete college do-over. I was depressed so much during my undergrad years that it was really all I could do to put on a brave, happy face most days and try to get my schoolwork done. One of my greatest frustrations was my mediocre performance in organic chemistry. I wanted for years to retake that class and kick its ass. I wanted to redeem myself, show that I really did have the smarts to apply for medical school, and prove that it was just my dumb brain and low self-esteem that held me back.
I’ve also kicked myself so many times for decisions I made years ago. Why did I get into that relationship? Why couldn’t I have been brave and done that one thing that I really wanted to do? Why didn’t that person love me the way they should have?
But this is what I realized: there are so many lessons we can learn from the past that will help guide our future, but to constantly wrestle with the past wishing it were different is an exercise in futility and it only causes us unnecessary suffering. However, we can’t just walk away from these things and pretend they don’t matter. We must still take time to grieve them, which is different from arguing with their finality. It’s OK to mourn and cry over people and relationships that are broken and gone, it’s OK to be profoundly disappointed by opportunities that passed us by, it’s OK to recognize areas where different actions would have served us better.
In fact, I would say that the primary, foundational step in getting unstuck is to identify all the areas from our pasts where we hurt, face them head-on as we are able, and grieve the hell out of them. This is so especially true when we weren’t given the love and nurturing we needed from our parents and other loved ones. Determining the areas where they failed us, and mourning those, is OK…it’s not blaming them. It’s self-care for us to realize where we were hurt, and move forward to find healing for ourselves.
2. Stop the comparison game.
Being victimized is one thing, submitting to victimhood is another. One way that we stay stuck is to dwell on our personal situations and then compare them with those of others who we think have it better than we do. This kind of mentality gets us into trouble for SO many reasons, including: 1) We don’t know all the details of other people’s stories or how they got to where they are now. To do apples/apples comparisons between our lives is sort of dumb. 2) We are each unique individuals with different talents and gifts that we can offer – the world doesn’t need exact replicates of other people. 3). When we constantly compare ourselves and what we have with others, we will always suffer – it’s inevitable.
The only way to get unstuck here is to refuse to be a victim. People may do horrible things to you, they may treat you unjustly, they may abuse you or ignore you or neglect you…but how people treat you does not have to dictate how you respond to them or to what life gives you. People who hold tightly to a victim mentality will always see themselves from a place of lack, and that’s a really hard place to move forward from.
3. Take stock of inventory.
COVID sucks, there’s no way around it. That being said, it has offered many of us a subtle gift because while much has been taken away from us as individuals and society, we are able to recognize so much of what remains that we never paid attention to before.
So many spiritual teachers talk about how if we can’t accept and be content with the present, we’ll never be content when the future comes, because the future always becomes the present. A perfect future is ALWAYS an illusion…an unrealistic dream.
To get unstuck, we have to look at all we have….REALLY look at it, and appreciate it for what it is: our belongings and possessions, our relationships, our strengths, talents, weaknesses, failures….all of it. This gives you a baseline to work from, and inevitably, you’ll probably discover that you do have some really good things in your life that you might have been taking for granted while bemoaning your “stucked-ness”.
4. Decide which voices to stop listening to.
Everyone will have an opinion about how you should live your life…literally everyone. But most of these opinions are misinformed and won’t serve you well. So you have to be ruthless in deciding who of your current relationships you are going to allow to speak into your life, and then you have to start constructing hard and fast boundaries.
Many of us did not have the most encouraging voices speaking to us as we were growing up. I would say that most of the time the people behind these voices were simply doing the best they could with what they knew, but it doesn’t negate the fact that those voices had an impact on how we came to view ourselves and understand the world. We usually love and respect the people behind those voices – but we must recognize the ones that were, or maybe are still, hurtful and stop listening to them.
There’s a saying in the Bible about how prophets can never be honored in their hometowns. This is a pretty obvious dynamic: when people watch you grow up, they tend to create stories in their minds about who you are, and when you start changing, it’s hard for them to let go of those stories. So, they treat you the way they always have, and interact with you the way they always have, even if you have become, or are becoming, an entirely different person.
It can be really, really hard to leave behind the voices that held you back for so long, but it is critical do to so. It doesn’t mean that you stop talking to certain people, or that you stop loving them – it means that you compartmentalize at some level, and disallow access to specific areas of your life. Unfortunately, some people won’t respect your boundaries as you try to grow and become unstuck, or they may become angry and manipulative with you as they see you grow and move forward. When that happens, choose yourself. Don’t be held back by those unhealthy voices, even if they are motivated by good intentions.
5. Find your people.
Continuing from the last step…as you’re moving from being stuck, you can’t just go at it alone. You’ve let old voices go….but you need to fill that gap with people that are moving in the same direction as you.
One of the biggest….the biggest….helps for me when I decided it was time for a life transformation involved changing the people I interacted with and listened to. This was actually kind of hard though….I started moving WAY out of my comfort zone to meet and talk with people that I formerly would have never talked to. This really made all the difference…I can’t emphasize it enough. Meeting and becoming friends with wildly different kinds of people served to broaden my mind about EVERYTHING, introduced me to new ways of thinking and living, gave me new experiences, and ultimately helped show me that the life and human experience is much vaster, nuanced, and beautiful than my tiny world had ever been.
In this day of Internet and social media, finding your people is much easier than it used to be. Sometimes, when I haven’t been able to find the “in-person” support I’ve needed, I’ve found it through social media. I have online friends who I’ve never met in person, yet we’ve resonated on some topic or experience, and as a result we are still able to encourage each other and speak into each other’s lives.
Either way, however you find your people….again, be ruthless about these new voices and who you allow to speak into your life. This is YOUR life you’re crafting…no one has the RIGHT to offer opinions about how you live without trust, respect, and a genuine concern for your growth and well-being. And likewise, you are not obligated to take in opinions just because they are chunked at you.
6. Question everything you believe.
It seems to my that our beliefs about life tend to steer the ship. Our emotions and feelings often stem out of our beliefs, and our belief systems shape our self-esteem, self-confidence, etc. etc.
Most of us, I think, grow up assuming that our beliefs are true. We usually believe what our parents tell us, because…they’re our parents. This is all good and well when we are youngsters, because we need a solid, safe container to grow up so that we can develop an identity that we feel secure in. However, we aren’t meant to live in those small, child-size containers for the rest of our lives. Doing so will keep us small.
The greatest disservice of my childhood was being taught by numerous adults not to ask the really hard life questions or to dispute pat answers that are given when those questions are asked. It took me until I was 30 to be brave enough to start asking those nagging questions that had lingered in the back of my brain since adolescence. But then, and I can remember it pretty clearly, I finally got the courage to peer over the edge of the belief abyss and just ask ONE of my big questions….and it literally, and rapidly, began a shift in my life when I started looking to new people for answers, instead of allowing in the same, tired old answers I had gotten for years.
I also started doing things that I had been warned against by so many people for most of my life…nothing illicit or really illegal, but things that pushed the boundaries of what constitutes a good, wholesome, Christian girl. As I’ve mentioned in multiple blog posts, I was very unhappy in the entirety of my marriage, but it took me years to be brave enough to do anything about it. Things started changing with one dumb little action on my part. When we were a little over halfway into our marriage, I went and got a nose ring, against the explicit wishes of my ex, and not just a stud, but a gold hoop. Now, this may seem like the most trivial action to you guys, but it was a huge act of rebellion for the “me” that I used to be. I almost expected the ground to swallow me up, at the time. But it didn’t, and that one little action started making me brave, and it made me start questioning the heck out of everything I believed about everything.
7. Don’t wait for the perfect path.
It’s so hard to move forward into the unknown when you can’t see where you’re going. I personally much prefer to have a path laid out before me, and as an INFJ on the Myers-Briggs, I like to have closure on things YESTERDAY. This is, to my consternation, not the way that getting unstuck works. This, I think, is because life is not about being safe. It is about adventure, and living your humanness to the greatest extent that you can – however that may look. (I am not negating here the need for good, conscientious, steady people…but I think everyone has to take some real leaps and get out of their comfort zones to grow).
Every once in a while, the stars will align and you’ll be presented with a very clear, long-term path. But, in my experience, this doesn’t seem to happen very often. Or, you have to take that one big hairy, scary, step first before the alignment and path are revealed to you. Most of the time life seems to give a clear path for two, maybe three steps…which you have to take and then trust that the next two steps will become clear as you approach them.
Getting unstuck is going to take a heck of a long time if you insist on knowing the entire path from the start – life doesn’t play that game. Furthermore, if we knew from the start the exact way our paths would look, we would probably stay stuck because we wouldn’t like all the twists, turns, and pain that await us on our way to growth and joy. Sometimes it’s better to learn to trust that life will take us to the places that we need, and will show us how to endure the hard places we have to travel through.
8. But…wait for the gut shift.
I’ve been struggling for the better part of a year with a situation that I can’t decide is good or bad, helpful or not, long-term or not. I’ve wavered in my mind, going back and forth about whether or not I should walk away and move onto something new, or wait and see if something will come of the situation. People have offered their opinions, many of which I have agreed with, yet I was still completely indecisive. I felt like I needed to wait for that gut feeling…where my intuition released me to make a decision.
And this last week…I got it. I experienced a subtle but dramatic shift within myself that came with complete peace. The gut shift did not explicitly say “Julie, it’s time to shut this down and head out”, nor did it say, “Julie, you need to stick this one out for a bit longer” Instead, it gave me a clear “You can do whatever you decide to do and it will be fine, and you will be fine.” It has been kind of an amazing feeling actually, where I finally feel, with certainty, that either choice will be OK and good, and it is entirely up to me.
I’ve had this gut feeling at other times, and I’ve learned to rely on it. Because of my “I want closure” tendencies and impulsive nature, I can often jump into or out of things prematurely, even with unrest present in my soul. Sometimes I will do things with that unrest even when logic and people’s opinions all seem to agree with what I plan to do…but I’ve learned that doing the right or good thing at the wrong time is not always the right thing. Sometimes it’s good to stay in a situation a little longer simply because you have lessons to learn. This is where you must learn to trust and listen to your gut, to know if you still have learning to do or if it is time to move forward.
9. Start with the baby steps.
If you’ve been stuck for a while, it can feel really good to launch out and make huge changes all at once. But, if you’ve just started believing in yourself and are just starting to trust life a little, then these huge leaps can feel overwhelming and daunting. When I knew that I wanted to change my life trajectory, I started figuring out small things I could do to practice being brave and to build up my trust capacity in myself. Getting a tattoo and that nose ring were some of the first baby steps. Others were sending queries to those first magazines when I wanted to write and publish articles. I took my oldest son, who was 7 at the time, to West Africa by myself. I desperately wanted a divorce, but was scared that I couldn’t make it by myself, so I took the first small step of talking to a financial planner and meeting with a lawyer just to get information. And so many other baby steps….steps that got bigger and bolder as my courage and confidence grew.
Bravery is sort of like a muscle, in my opinion. The more you do scary things, the more you realize you’re capable of, and then suddenly, the things that used to terrify you are now as innocent as kittens. But when you start out, go easy on yourself. Pick baby steps where you might actually fail, but where the consequences of those failures won’t completely disillusion you from trying another step. A perk of this is that with small things, you’ll start to realize that it’s OK to fail, and that you won’t suddenly die or your world fall apart if you don’t succeed right away at everything you try. This beginning to feel comfortable with failure is a huge part of getting braver and braver.
10. Pick a theme song for your journey.
Music is and always has been a huge part of my life. Music and lyrics can have such a big impact on our emotions and motivation. You’ve probably all had experiences where the radio might play an old song that corresponded to a certain time in your life, and you were instantly transported in your mind back to that time and those memories, with accompanying feelings. There are those trigger songs, that you can’t listen to anymore because you associate them with an old love, or there are those songs that bring up nostalgic feelings about childhood. Then, there are those amazing songs that you incorporate on your exercise playlist because they are upbeat, make you feel like a badass for at least a few minutes, and encourage you to hang in throughout the workout.
About the time that I had that gut shift in my stomach, alerting me that it was time to move forward with a divorce, I discovered Alicia Keys’ song, “Girl on Fire”. It INSTANTLY became my theme song. I didn’t necessarily believe about myself all the things she sang about, but I decided to project them onto myself as a way to “fake it ’til I made it” in regards to bravery. I listened to this song non-stop over the next couple of months, as we prepared our house to sell, as I had difficult talks with my children about what was going to happen, as I worked to figure out where in Indianapolis I was going to move to, as I scoped out nursing schools, as I fretted about money and gulped at how expensive lawyers can be, as I made countless trips to donate stuff at Goodwill…I must have listened to it a hundred times, and sang it at the top of my lungs just as many.
Every time I doubted myself, I turned it on. Every time I felt guilty about blowing apart my family, I turned it on. Every time a friend or family member shamed my decision, I turned it on. And every time I made some badass decision and moved forward, I turned it on. And gradually, I found that I became exactly what Alicia was singing about.
When you’re moving towards unstucked-ness…a theme song is a MUST!
So, there you have it…10 ways that were essential for me getting unstuck. They’re not easy, and they can take time, but I’m pretty convinced they’re all worth it—no matter what kind of situation you’re trying to get unstuck from.
It snuck up on me again, as it does every year. I usually don’t think that I’m that great of a mom, so it feels kind of awkward and uncomfortable to be part of a day where I’m supposed to be recognized and gifted with stuff. If anything, I think Mother’s Day is a day where I should be buying my kids presents and cards and thanking Jesus they haven’t traded me in for another model yet.
This year is extra weird, though, because of the stupid coronavirus. My boys are staying at my ex-husband’s house since I’m working on a COVID hospital unit, and until we figure out a path forward since the COVID probably won’t be going anywhere anytime soon. I miss them like crazy. I even miss….oh my God….the incessant bickering that comes with siblinghood. I miss my 9 and 11-year-olds still trying to sabotage my sleep every night by asking if they can crash with me in my bed. I miss the messes and the smart ass comments and even the groans about whatever is ending up on their dinner plates.
My three boys are troopers and have put up with this whole ordeal so bravely. They haven’t complained, they haven’t thrown fits, they have never guilted me about making a really hard decision that disrupted their lives in addition to how COVID already had with their school and social calendars. Every time I see them and take them treats, they tell me how generous I am, how I’m the best mom in the world, and remind me as I leave…loud enough for their entire neighborhood to hear…to go kick COVID ass. I adore them.
Every time I leave a visit with them, me on the sidewalk and them sitting six feet away on the grass, I wonder if I made the right decision for them…wonder if the majority of the decisions I’ve ever made for them were right. No one ever gave me a manual for motherhood, and the darn part of it all is that I don’t get any do-overs. This baby just comes out of you, and they hand it to you all slippery and sweet, and send you out the door for home only a couple of short days later with minimal instructions on how to keep a human alive…much less how to shape and craft good people.
I have been a mother now for 13 years, and while it has been incredibly rewarding, mothering has been the toughest thing I have ever done in my entire life. My journey as a mother has been quite the rollercoaster, has taken place across multiple states, and has morphed through a progression of philosophies and ideals. The kind of mother I am today is so dramatically different than when my first son was born. That poor firstborn child…he deserves mad props for all of my growing up that he has had to endure over the last 13 years.
When I was young, I used to be jealous of my friends who had stay at home moms. My mom was a career woman – a physics professor and educator who frequently jet-setted across the country to attend this or that meeting. Most of the time she never came to my sporting events or academic contests while I was in school. I used to resent that, but now I realize she was just too freaking exhausted to be able to keep up with everything we had going on, on top of her own daily responsibilities. She woke daily at 5 AM, and went to bed by 9 each night, teaching, maintaining a household, and commuting an hour and a half every day, back and forth to the ranch we lived on.
Somehow I got it in my head, maybe from me missing my mom when she was so busy during my childhood, that the best kinds of moms were the ones who devoted their entire lives to their children…the stay at home moms who drove their kids non-stop to extracurricular activities, kept the house spotless, made every meal from scratch, were crafty, either homeschooled or were super involved in the local school systems, and were patient in every aspect of parenting.
Oh, wait…I know how I got that idea in my head. It’s because it’s the one that our society totally perpetuates, even if it isn’t always said out loud or expressed explicitly.
I tried really hard for a very long time to be this kind of mom. And trust me, I know some moms out there who rock this role….they are freaking good at it, it is their passion, and I give all kudos to them. I homeschooled for a couple of years, I got super crunchy granola for a while and made yogurt in my crockpot, I obsessed with whether or not my house was clean enough, I got the minivan, I joined mom groups at local churches, I read all the books on mothering, I tried to make sure my kids were only exposed to the most wholesome things life could offer, I let me own career slide because I was terrified that maybe I wasn’t a good person if I sent my kids to daycare even though I totally supported other working mothers doing so, I tried to be the best wifey so that my kids would have a stable household to live in….
And finally, at a certain point, I quite literally said, (pardon my French): “Fuck that shit!”
Because…none of those things were bad….they were great ideals. And for some women, that is EXACTLY the type of mom that they are genuinely meant to be and the conditions in which they thrive. But they weren’t me. And the more I tried to be the best version of that kind of mom, the more I felt like I was withering away and dying inside. I tried to be what our culture idealizes about motherhood…I even believed myself when I told myself this was what I really wanted….to be the absolute best stay at home mom and wife ever…but it wasn’t the authentic me.
I’m not crafty. I have banned glitter and glue from my house. Baking drives me crazy ’cause you have to measure stuff. I spent a decade relentlessly cleaning my home as a married mom and am so sick of cleaning that I have since let my standards drop tremendously….and I just don’t care. I’m the furthest thing from an involved PTA mom that has ever existed. I let my boys swear occasionally according to a 3-tiered cuss word system we borrowed and adapted from The Simpsons. I stopped freaking out about every aspect of my kid’s education and instead focused on teaching them to learn to love to read and ask questions, trusting that those two skills will take them all the way. I stopped reading every parenting book that only led me to feel more neurotic and paranoid that I was screwing up my kids. And, I went back to school and back to work, picked my career back up again, and have a long term plan that I’m pursuing.
I feel, finally, like I’ve found the real mother in myself. My brand of mothering may look different from that of other women, it may be unorthodox sometimes, it may not always be squeaky clean and photogenic. But it feels authentic and real to me, and I feel like I’m finally showing and teaching my boys what is really important to me in life, rather than just mothering according to the prescriptions that I thought society and the Church had laid out for me.
It seems to me that being a woman and a mother are about two of the hardest roles out there. First, there are so many expectations on women from our culture…be sexy, yet not slutty. Make sure you’re feminine enough, but make sure you don’t come across like a ditzy flake. You’re pushing 30…why aren’t you married yet? Don’t you want to get married? You’ve been married for two years now….when are the babies coming? Don’t you want to be a mom? Don’t dress like that…it makes you look like an old lady. Don’t you know you’re pushing 40?- you need to bring that hemline down a bit. Don’t be a pushover, but don’t be too assertive and confident or you might be labeled an icy bitch.
And then motherhood. We are burdened with social expectations and because of the dreadful insecurities that are dug up in us, we engage in mommy wars. Oh my God…you use formula instead of breastfeeding? You’re keeping your kid out of preschool this year…don’t you know they’ll be behind when they get to kindergarten and ultimately fail in life? Then, the homeschool versus public/private school battles. The whispered conversations about how quickly, or not quickly enough, that woman went back to work after having a baby.
And on and on and on. Sometimes all of these shoulds for women and mothers are brazenly thrust into our faces; other times, they are subtle, whispered, but felt just as strongly.
There’s a verse in the Bible that I have heard so many times, referenced by certain people about how we should parent. “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he shall not depart from it.”
I kind of hate this verse, actually, because it’s been used to beat so many people over the head and shame them about their parenting outcomes. More times than not, this verse is used in relation to external parenting tactics….routines, methods of discipline, household rules, etc, and is treated as a cause/effect law. That is….if you mother properly, and do all the right things, your kids will turn out well. It’s like a social contract….you do x, y, and z as a parent, and voila! You have a perfectly crafted person as a result. Oh my word, the number of times I’ve seen mothers ridiculed and shamed by other people when their kids made big mistakes or “went wrong”.
Mothering is not a science. Not even close. It’s hard and messy and beautiful and terrifying and relentless. We don’t get to choose the kids we get, and our kids don’t get to choose us. We don’t get to know ahead of time if our personality is going to clash with that of one of our kids’. We don’t know ahead of time what challenges we’re going to face, what individual struggles each of our children might have, what emergencies and tragedies will pop up when we least expect it.
And we’re never trained for what might show up in ourselves after having kids. I thought I was fairly well adjusted before I had kids, and then that first one was born, and I realized that I was actually a goddamn mess with the emotional maturity of a five-year-old. How in the world could I do this kid justice?
Motherhood is not about being a put-together woman who wisely and calmly makes choices each day regarding her children from a place of confidence and contentment. (I”m very suspicious of people who are never, at least a little, afraid or concerned about their parenting abilities.) Nope, it’s a constant flying by the seat of your pants experience, recognizing that you are not equipped for the job, but by the time you’re a grandparent, you’ll finally…probably…know what you’re doing. Too late for your own kids. Oof.
It’s high time we collectively use our social imagination and rethink what motherhood is really about. It’s not about being the perfect woman who martyrs herself and loses her identity for the sake of her children. It’s not about having the perfect house or being a great event planner or chauffeur. It’s not about never yelling, or always making sure the kids get bathed every night. It’s not about ensuring that they never see anything even remotely disturbing or difficult.
In my mind, mothering is about providing a place of belonging for our children, a place of acceptance and love. It is about holding space for our children, knowing that they have alot of growing up to do but are already perfect as they are. It’s about meeting their physical needs, allowing them to face challenges in life, but protecting them fiercely when needed. It’s about helping them find what they’re passionate about and allowing them the freedom to pursue those things. It’s about allowing them teach US what is most important in life and growing US up as human beings.
Motherhood is NOT about getting caught up in all the externals or how we present to the world or having to get it right all the freaking time.
No mother is going to get it perfect, and all of our kids will likely need some therapy at some point in their lives. But, we need to let women be who they are without forcing prescribed roles on them, and then embrace all the mothering permutations that come out of that amazing diversity. I’m pretty convinced that when we women feel the freedom to be our true, authentic selves without having to apologize for what we want in life…this is when the best mothering will result. We will feel secure and accepted, drawing wisdom and love from our truest selves, and that is the best place from which to offer the same for our children.
The last little over a month has been tough for us in the US, hasn’t it? I remind myself, though, that this COVID-19 epidemic has been stretching thin the lives of millions of people around the world for much longer than it has ours. I’m, so far, one of the privileged ones who still has a job, whose family is healthy, who has a close network of loved ones and dear friends who check in on me daily, and who is well cuddled by two cats and a dog who seem to sense the crisis we’re in and insist on more snuggle time with me at day’s end.
I’m sure that I am no different from everyone else when I say that I’m bewildered by this whole pandemic. The logic adds up in my head about how it could arrive and throw us into absolute turmoil, yet COVID’s unexpected entrance didn’t seem to give us enough time to prepare and ground ourselves for what it was bringing with it. I daily get that odd sense of, “What if this is just a really extended weird dream, a Ground-hog Day-ish kind of experience, and tomorrow I’ll wake up and things will be completely back to normal?” But then I wake up, after sleeping in ridiculously late because suddenly I can on many days of the week, and we’re still here in the same place of isolation and uncertainty.
There is so much fear, tension, and irritability that is present around us right now. But, as someone who is an apocalyptomist ( a word Facebook recently fashioned that fits my personality pretty well sometimes – where I believe shit is going to hit the fan and yet everything will somehow still turn out OK), I simply refuse to throw in the towel and give in to despair, even when I look at the data and it feels like the most realistic option. I choose to find joy wherever I can, whenever I can. And I’m learning more and more, especially now, that sometimes joy doesn’t look or necessarily feel like you would expect. It can only be found when you’re watching for it, and when you, at a gut level, believe that it wants to be found. Joy is subversive, because it has the power to completely change a situation from the inside out, unexpectedly. It can take the most bitter of moments and transform them into something that may still be painful, but can no longer overwhelm us.
Last night, twenty minutes before shift change, I slipped into the room of a patient of mine who was dying, to see if the last dose of morphine I had given was lessening their air hunger and to see if they were comfortable. I was tired, as every nurse is at the end of shift, even more so these days because of the emotional and mental fatigue that happens with constantly changing policies, wondering if we’re doing good enough at infection prevention, and constantly watching the patient assignment board to see how full or empty our unit has become.
My patient was breathing rapidly, shallowly…but peacefully. I pulled up a chair next to the bed, slumped into it, and sat, just breathing with them, until it was time to go give report to the night shift nurses. It blows my mind, that time after time when I sit with a dying person, how I feel like I received a gift in some way. Like….who am I to be able to witness the closing of the curtain on the hours of this one person who has never existed before and will never exists exactly like this again? It’s similar in a way, I think, to when a baby is born, and you’re in awe at the miracle of life and wondering what kind of life this little one will lead, and what they will experience. Sitting with the dying…I usually have no clue what kind of life they led. I don’t always know if they were a kind person, or a bitter person, an over-achiever or someone content with an average life. I don’t know if they ever felt seen, heard, or were well-loved. But there is the gravitas of knowing that they were a small bit of divinity incarnated for the briefest of moments in time, and that their life mattered no matter what form it took. The life finale of everyone should be held carefully and with reverence. I firmly believe this.
Somehow, in these kinds of moments, I am often surprised by joy. Not a happiness that they are dying or leaving behind loved ones. Not a superficial emotion that suddenly makes me feel like everything is all better. No, it is a deep, gratitude-awe state that I was allowed to be here, now, in this one moment where the life/death veil thins.
I have belly laughed more in the last month than I have in the previous six months combined, which really says alot because I usually laugh all the time. I have friends on The Facebook who regularly post tremendous content, but everyone has upped their game lately. One thing that I am particularly enjoying is that so many of the wonderful memes and jokes being posted are entirely irreverent and often over the top, but it’s like people are even more willing at the moment to lay aside their social inhibitions and lay it all out there to soften the blow of the coronavirus with humor.
Even on my unit, when we’re rushing around, hot and sweaty in our personal protective equipment, trying not to think too hard about the fact that the majority of our patients are COVID – positive, I’m amazed at how much I laugh on each shift. There is nothing better than having hard stops for laughter during crazy days when we’re all tired and frustrated. It’s the joy that sneaks in with that laughter that has the power to change the mood in a room, to give us all just a little more motivation to push through the day, to pause our griping for just long enough to remind us that we’re in this together.
“Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how”. AND “Life is never made unbearable by circumstances, but only by lack of meaning and purpose.”
― Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
I’ve been thinking that the important ways to get through this COVID crisis emotionally intact are to reframe the way we see what is happening, to shift our perspectives, question everything, and fully embrace the silver linings when we find them. If we can only view COVID as an evil villain that has swooped in and is destroying our way of life and mercilessly killing us, then what else is there for us but to despair and be terrified of when the reaper might also come for us. But, best as I can tell, this is a very myopic way of looking at life, one that is devoid of the understanding of the power that joy can bring into any situation.
I’m a realist most of the time, and I don’t think I’m a Pollyanna. But I do believe almost everything in life is nuanced, and complex, and can’t be adequately described with simple labels. Although this may sound trite and horrifying to some people, I really don’t think that we can deny that COVID, despite its fury and swift progression, has brought us some real blessings if we choose to look for them. (I will also completely admit that I’m in a more privileged situation than many people, and am not sitting here having to worry about where my next paycheck or groceries are going to come from, or wonder if I”ll have adequate access to medical care despite my race or socioeconomic status. I, in no way, want to minimize the difficult and trying circumstances of others with what I’m writing here. ) Hasn’t it forced us to slow down from our breakneck pace of life? Hasn’t it forced us to reevaluate our priorities? Hasn’t it forced us to become very intentional about who we do life with and make us put real effort into finding ways to maintain relationships? Hasn’t it made us stop and look at those around us with a little more compassion and empathy? Hasn’t it forced us to become the best of our creative selves? Hasn’t it shown us that the world is small, we are a global community, and we must work together if we are going to get through this?
I don’t really understand life. I’m suspicious of anyone who says they’ve got it figured out. I don’t REALLY know why we’re here on this spinning ball in a tiny little spiral galaxy amidst billions of other galaxies. But I am convinced that it does us well to try and find meaning and purpose in what we experience. For me, this exploring everything I encounter for meaning is a very selfish pursuit…I want to find the joy in everything. This is, for me, what makes life worth living. And so far, there really haven’t been many places in life where I haven’t been able to find at least a little joy. The thing is, joy is abundant when you learn how to find it, when you figure out the secret places it lies hidden in plain sight. Maybe learning to find this joy is part of the task of growing up as a person.
And while I certainly don’t believe God sent us COVID as retribution for anything, there are lessons to be learned from this experience, and maybe we can all collectively grow up a little more as we face the decision to either give up from despair or daily seek joy and meaning, moment by moment.
Here’s an important fact: Joy is a function of gratitude. You can take that one to the bank.
If I’ve learned anything in life, it is that if you can’t be grateful and if you can’t seem to recognize any of the areas where you are blessed or given things that you don’t deserve, then it’ll be really hard to find joy in much.
I’ve referenced this before in a different post, but Ann Vosskamp’s book, One Thousand Gifts, is an excellent primer on learning to record the small things in life you are thankful for. The recognition of all these things, however trivial, have the power to spark joy. It takes practice, but if you look hard enough, you can find things to be thankful for in any situation. Gratitude is a wildfire; when you change your mindset to focus in on the little things that are good, the little things that make your heart beat a few paces faster, the little things that bring you a sigh of contentment and peace…then everything begins to change and you can spot things you are thankful for everywhere. And the realization that you carry more thankfulness than you had realized, and that good things exist all around you amidst the struggles….well, that’s joy.
In a recent On Being podcast, Krista Tippett interviewed the Benedictine monk, Br. David Steindl-Rast. During their talk, he described joy as the “happiness that doesn’t depend on what happens.”
This is exactly why joy has the power to change everything….because it can exist independent of circumstances. Joy can overthrow the tyranny and fear of institutions and pandemics through its existence as a choice. Life may seem like absolute hell, but we always have the freedom to find gratitude, and we always have the freedom to seek out joy. This is where the meaning in life is, and no one can ever take it from us; we can only choose to give those up ourselves.
“Sorrow prepares you for joy. It violently sweeps everything out of your house, so that new joy can find space to enter. It shakes the yellow leaves from the bough of your heart, so that fresh, green leaves can grow in their place. It pulls up the rotten roots, so that new roots hidden beneath have room to grow. Whatever sorrow shakes from your heart, far better things will take their place.”
Don’t waste this time of sorrow. Don’t come to the end of the COVID pandemic bitter and cynical about life. Let sorrow work its way through you, mourn and grieve what is being lost, and then choose to look up with new eyes to see the new things that are coming. Don’t just think about what is no longer here, what is being taken from you. Be overjoyed about the new spaces present within you, the new wineskins that are capable of holding big life and fresh joy.
The following is a song about joy, in my opinion. It was written as a song about faith, but I’m stretching the boundaries on it. Joy is the subversive power in life that can show us the beautiful, to fill us up again, to help us see everything with new eyes, and to experience a world that is bigger, deeper, and more meaningful than the superficial one we often limit ourselves to.
A couple of years ago, the pastor of the church I attended at tbe time gave a brilliant sermon about Easter morning. In a quite unexpected shift, he spoke of that glorious morning a couple thousand years ago, how the stone was thrown away from the opening of the tomb where the Lord had been laid to rest, trumpets blaring, angels rejoicing in boisterous song, all of creation roaring wild and exuberant praise at the resurrection of Jesus. This tale of Easter morning was quite the juxtaposition to the one I had heard all of my life. It was the story one would expect to hear about the God-Man being raised from the dead…with victorious, indignant, middle-finger raised to death and suffering.
But a resurrection full of fanfare and celebration and trumpet blasting wasn’t what happened at all. Rather, resurrection morning was quiet, secret, and revealed to only a small handful of people…and certainly not the people you’d think God would want to shove the glory of the resurrection into the faces of. In fact, it took alot of convincing many of Jesus’ followers that the resurrection had even happened, much less the Romans. In some ways, it kind of feels like death still won that day even though life managed to slip in through the backdoor, largely unnoticed. Whether or not you believe that an actual, physical resurrection took place…that question in some ways is irrelevant… why would the Gospel texts include a story of Jesus making a comeback that seemed so…lackluster?
I attended Easter services on Zoom this morning, gathered with a beloved church family I used to be a part of when I lived in New York State. I am now proud to be counted as a virtual member. The pastor of this group also happens to be one of my dearest friends, a person who is one of the wisest, kindest people I know, a woman who is fiercely loyal to me and constantly encourages me onward even when she sees me at my worst.
This morning she spoke of hiding, and how we who are staying at home instead of physically attending Easter church are in some ways similar to those who were hiding during the days surrounding Jesus’ death. Both of our hidings are rooted in fear…the fear of what might happen if we venture out too far beyond our homes. Just as the disciples and other followers of Jesus faced an uncertain future, so do we not know exactly where our resurrection from COVID will come from and when, even if there will eventually be a resurrection of new life that feels safe and good.
This “hiding” is dreadful and lonely. I’m trying to keep a stiff upper lip about it, especially considering that when all is said and done, my situation is far better than that of so many people in the world right now. But today…I broke down and cried. Cried because I hate feeling like a pariah among many people in my life because of what I may carry home from the hospital, who feel like they have to slather themselves in hand sanitizer after brushing something I’ve touched. Cried because the lack of intimate physical touch by loved ones completely undoes me. Cried because I don’t know if I’m making the right decisions for my children during these times. Cried because I daily have multiple people asking me my opinion on what they should do regarding this or that COVID-related issue and I hope I give decent answers but most of the time I just don’t know. Cried, because this hiding is a form of dying, something I write all the time about in this dumb blog that we need to learn to embrace so that we can wake up spiritually, but God damn, dying still hurts like hell and today I don’t feel like dying.
That morning, a couple of years ago, as I listened to my pastor talk about how we would have expected the resurrection to burst forth wildly instead of how it actually did in relative anonymity, my mind began to explore how we sometimes view our mini-resurrections in life.
If we are honest about it, we don’t always like the resurrections we are given. And sometimes that makes it really hard to want to die, because we don’t really know what we have waiting for us on the other side.
The author of Hebrews wrote that “for the glory set before him, Jesus endured the cross.”
Did Jesus REALLY know the full extent of glory that would be waiting for him on the other side of death? Because I have a hard time believing he would have spent so long in the garden of Gethsemane praying, sweating, and reprimanding his followers for not staying vigilant if he had known that everything was going to work out well for him in the end.
We all want to know that our dyings will not be in vain, that they will be worth something and bring us to a better place. I’m not talking about just a physical death where we’ll end up in the great by and by or the ultimate mingling of souls or whatever…but our daily dyings…those places where we let go of our ego attachments, where we sacrifice for the betterment of others, where we do hard things with the hopes that we will discover our truest selves. And right now, we all as a collective want to be reassured that staying home, going untouched, wrecking the economy, and trying to love each other through social media will not be in vain.
There’s an old song sung by The Cathedrals, a gospel quartet that I grew up listening to, that I’m thinking of now. It’s called Sunshine and Roses, and while the tune is catchy, I used to get so annoyed at the lyrics. I’ll explain why in a second. Here’s the song if you’re interested in taking it back a few years:
I USED TO SING A SAD SONG, FILLED WITH GRAY SKIES AND RAIN
I USED TO SING OF NO FUTURE, SAD DAYS WITH ONLY PAIN
NOW AS I LOOK BACK UPON THEM, SEEMS TOME THAT I FIND
THERE WERE DAYS IN THE VALLEY, NOW I’VE LEFT THEM ALL BEHIND
NOW IT’S SUNSHINE AND ROSES, ONLY A THORN NOW AND THEN
COOL STREAMS, WARM BREEZES, SINCE JESUS TOOK MY HAND
GREEN MEADOWS AND LAUGHTER, HOPE WITHIN A CRUMBLING TIME
IT’S SUNSHINE AND ROSES, ONLY A THORN NOW AND THEN
I NEVER MISS THE OLD WAYS, YET THINK BACK FROM TIME TO TIME
TO THOSE DAYS OF NO PURPOSE, WHEN MY LIFE HAD LITTLE RHYME
THOUGH THE WATERS DRUNK BE BITTER, THEY MUCH SWEETER MAKE THE TASTE, OF ONE DROP OF GOD’S BLESSING, BLESSING
GIVEN BY HIS GRACE
Oh my word! Even when I was a kid, with little life experience, this song used to make me want to throw up in my mouth. What a misrepresentation of Christianity and spirituality, in general! Since when did following Jesus become about sunshine and roses, cool streams, and warm breezes? I really don’t think Peter was whistling this tune as he was crucified upside down. I doubt as brave as Polycarp was, he likely wasn’t dancing into the fire proclaiming, “Tis but a thorn!”
No, the real task of following the teachings of Jesus is a matter of dying every day, sometimes multiple times a day, and hoping to God that you’ll get a resurrection on the other end of it. And it’s a matter of trusting and sweating prayers, that the resurrection you get will make those deaths feel not in vain. Whoever is selling you “sunshine and roses Jesus” is feeding you snake-oil religion.
Years ago I visited a leper colony in West Africa. I remember walking down a line of men whose bodies had been grossly disfigured by the disease, shaking their hands and looking them each in the eyes. And I remember how after they each took my hand, they would touch their foreheads and then their hearts. I remember asking one of the local missionaries what this meant, and was told it was a traditional way of fully accepting one’s greeting into themselves. I thought at the time that it was poignant and sweet, especially among a group of people that so often do not receive significant physical touch. Now, after going for long periods without being touched and, when I am touched, feeling as though the people touching me are reticent to do so, I understand the need to accept fully into the body whatever touch is received…cherishing it….bringing it into the mind and heart and holding it carefully, recognizing that loving, meaningful touch should never, ever be taken for granted. Maybe I had to die in this way, to lose so much of the physical and emotional contact that I need and crave, to be able to never again underestimate the value of it for both me, and for others.
I wonder if sometimes we have the wrong idea about resurrection. Like, do we think that we are just supposed to be handed a nice resurrection as a thanks or prize for being willing to die to ourselves or for something greater than ourselves? Or is resurrection a process…not a one time event…that we are invited to be a part of? Maybe we are co-creators in our resurrections?
What if the resurrection of Jesus was not simply the moment breath entered his body and the stone was rolled away from the tomb? And what if our ideas about the nature of resurrection are all wrong? What if resurrection is not sunshine and roses, but it can still be resurrection even when struggle is present, when uncertainty exists?
What if resurrection is mainly about the springing forth of new possibilities that hadn’t existed before? What if it is life reimagining itself…not because it had been conquered by death, but because death was the gift…the catalyst…that was necessary for this imagination to blossom?
What if we don’t like the resurrections we are handed in life because we don’t see them for what they really are? We wanted to be handed a finite package of perfection and bliss, when really, we are handed something far greater….the open-ended expanse of possibility and “what will we create out of this”-ness?
I”m kind of excited now, as I write this because I”m seeing Easter morning in a whole new way. Maybe, just maybe….the calm, quiet, secret return of Jesus was from a God who was curious to see what we would do with this new possibility for life. If Jesus had burst forth from the grave in such a way that no one could ever doubt it, and everyone was suddenly compelled to fall before him out of fear and reverence for his power….that would be a good narrative climax. But an even better story is one where God offers a “create your own ending” by handing us endless possibilities wrapped up in a peaceful Easter morning, instead of a loud, triumphant, one-time event.
“On this Easter morning, let us look again at the lives we have been so generously given and let us let fall away the useless baggage that we carry — old pains, old habits, old ways of seeing and feeling — and let us have the courage to begin again. Life is very short, and we are no sooner here than it is time to depart again, and we should use to the full the time that we still have.
We don’t realize all the good we can do. A kind, encouraging word or helping hand can bring many a person through dark valleys in their lives. We weren’t put here to make money or to acquire status or reputation. We were sent here to search for the light of Easter in our hearts, and when we find it we are meant to give it away generously. The dawn that is rising this Easter morning is a gift to our hearts and we are meant to celebrate it and to carry away from this holy, ancient place the gifts of healing and light and the courage of a new beginning.”
Dawn Mass Reflections at Corcomroe Abbey
*This is a processing post, going all over the place…I do not claim to have an absolute handle on truth or how to get to it…so hang with me.
“Science is a way of thinking, more than it is a body of knowledge.” – Carl Sagan
Last week I was chatting with someone about our college days and what we majored in. He knew I had a science background but was unaware that I also had a degree in Missions from the Christian university I attended, eons ago it feels like. He asked what that major was about, and I told him it likely would not interest him because it was basically about proselytizing around the world and trying to bring people to Jesus, with a bit of humanitarian work added in for good measure. I frankly am a little embarrassed these days to admit I have this degree, mainly because while I totally think people should explore who Jesus was and the rich spirituality that can come from Christianity, the last thing I want to do is to manipulate people into thinking they’re going to hell in a handbasket if they haven’t been “saved”. That being said, the degree was a valuable resource for teaching me to become more globally aware and less ethnocentric. If I’m honest about it, the degree probably inadvertently helped lead me away from an evangelical bent because it encouraged me to be more open-minded and look beyond myself and the ways of living I grew up with. I gained alot of anthropological insights and cultural sensitivity out of those classes and “mission trips”.
The person I was talking with used to do research in a field called atomically precise manufacturing, and I’ve since decided after hearing him give a talk on the subject, that in my next life I am going to hunker down, force myself to take those additional calculus and physics classes that I avoided in college, and pursue a career in physical chemistry. Fascinating stuff, I tell you, and some of it dovetails with the analytical chemistry research I did as an undergrad. Is it too late to change career directions, AGAIN?
As we talked about his work on APM, and how doing good science is important to both of us, it occurred to me that maybe the rigorous pursuit by scientists, academics, and researchers to get people to pay attention to science….basically proselytizing people to science… is really no different than when people from a faith tradition go out and try to get other people to join them by means of persuasion, guilt, or shaming. I didn’t really like to come to this conclusion at first, because sometimes I think of science as a little mini-god…well-done science as an absolute that can’t really be argued with…like if people would just use their brains they would all come to the same conclusions. Then my self-arrogance-o-meter kicked in and I recognized that my thought train was a privileged one and that maybe I should think about this topic more.
There is good science, and there is bad science. But there is also good religion/spirituality, and there is bad religion/spirituality. While it can sometimes be difficult to parse out the differences, both of these require a determination to avoid laziness and quick answers. Good science is not churned out as quick responses when questions are posed, and good spirituality requires long spans of living out hard questions and refusing to grab on immediately to the fuzzy, feel-good platitudes of cheap, easy, and superficial religion.
There are alot of things about Christianity that I grew up believing that I now look back on with incredulity. How did I believe some of those ideas for so long, and let them intimidate me into living a life that didn’t always feel real or authentic to who I am, fundamentally? It isn’t just a matter of me not agreeing with some of my old beliefs; I look back now and feel absolutely silly for viewpoints I once held so strongly to. How could I have ever come to some of those conclusions? But I also realize that so many of those beliefs took root because in the area of spirituality and religion, I hadn’t been taught well how to think. I was unintentionally taught how to blindly believe, read sacred texts super-literally, and accept being shut down when I asked the hard questions. It wasn’t until I reached the academia of religion through college, where I was taught about exegesis, hermeneutics, use of biblical languages, thinking about cross-cultural contexts, etc, that I began to build a toolbox of new paradigms and ways of thinking about how life and God might work. I also had to go out into the world and experience more to gain understanding with different eyes and a different mind. So, looking back, I couldn’t do better spirituality because I didn’t know better at the time, and I didn’t have the tools I needed to do better.
It seems to me that doing science is much the same as the way I described my growing up spiritually process. I really like Sagan’s words about science as a way of thinking. I think alot of the world misses this, especially in this day and age of arguing about fake news and how “my evidence is better than your evidence.” Aren’t we so good at proof texting scientific studies just as we are with Bible verses? Well, this one study says drinking red wine leads to a decrease in relative risk of heart disease, so that clearly means it’s OK to down a bottle every day. Or, this study shows that this number of people lost weight eating an ultra-low-carb diet, so clearly, we need to down the fat-bombs and consume bacon with every meal to achieve optimal health. Or, to be a little controversial here, The President has a “good feeling” about hydroxychloroquine and there are some preliminary studies describing its use in COVID patients, so let’s just start throwing it like gangbusters at everyone who has tested positive.
It’s my study versus your study, my scientific news source versus yours, tit for tat, back and forth. As though finding real truth is just a matter of learning a few facts and lobbing them at people, claiming we have figured out life.
Going back to atomically-precise manufacturing guy. Yesterday, we talked for a bit about a piece that just came out in the New York Times, where a principal investigator for the federal government’s COVID clinical trials cautioned that employing experimental drugs too broadly and too quickly could cause more harm than help because we are treating emotion instead of doing good science. We need the well designed clinical studies and data gathered over time. My question to him, APM guy: is it morally OK to throw Hail-Marys at people at a time like this, or should we hold to the gold standards of research and wait until we have solid clinical evidence of safety and efficacy before we act? His opinion: sometimes you just need both. Sometimes you need to lob Hail Marys while maintaining the rigorous slower pace of good research at the same time…because at a time like this, people need answers and people need solutions.
Is there a place for bad science? Is there a place for bad spirituality? Can those two things be part of the bigger picture of TRUTH?
I think sometimes about that quote attributed to Karl Marx….”religion is an opiate for the masses”, which is apparently more accurately translated: “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people“.
I’ve heard people use this quote in a derogatory manner….like those of us who are drawn to religion and spirituality basically are looking for something to dope ourselves up with in order to avoid reality. I actually think that is incorrect, although I have to say I’m doing bad science with that statement because I’ve never actually done drugs or used any drugs like LSD or ayahuasca that are purported to offer spiritually enlightening experiences. But it makes me wonder…maybe bad science or bad religion have their place even if they aren’t perfect or always done well, because they encourage us to engage our imaginations, at least to an extent, and think beyond what we see right in front of us.
When I was in junior high, and then again in college, I was dreadfully depressed. There were so many times I just wanted to end my suffering, most of which I kept to myself. I wasn’t afraid of death, but at the time, because of my conservative Christian beliefs, I was terrified of the idea of having to get to heaven and stand before Jesus and tell him that I wussed out on him and on life. Looking back, I think my theology during those years was not so great, but bad as it was, it gave me something to hang on to when I couldn’t see any other great motivator to keep trying at life. That’s got to be worth something, right?
I try really hard to remember that truth, in whatever form, can be subjective and slippery. I’ve had people try to convince me that they knew certain things to be absolutely true; I’m always very suspicious and skeptical when I hear those kinds of things. I personally believe the only thing that I know to be absolutely true is that love exists. However, I’m also aware that that could be my own subjective reality, and I don’t really want people to believe it just because I said it and that I believe it.
There are so many things that have seemed completely true at one time or another, and then we figured out that we were sometimes dead wrong. The world feels flat from the vantage point of the earth’s surface, but we know that it is in fact, a big round ball of rock moving in an elliptical orbit around the Sun. We also used to take time for granted and assumed that it was a constant in life. Well, apparently not. In physicist Carlo Rovelli’s words, time is “part of a complicated geometry woven together with the geometry of space”. Or what about absolute zero…where we used to think the temperature was so low that atoms would cease to move. But scientists have been able to reach negative Kelvin scale temperatures in the lab thanks to quantum physics.
My whole point here is that truth about anything can be hard to put our finger on. Even if like, in classical physics, things seem true on a certain scale, that truth might not always translate to a different scale…like how the rules for physics seem to change on the quantum level. We should probably all remain sobered and respectful of this in our pursuit of truth and our compulsion to tell everyone else what we believe to be true.
Back to scientific proselytizing. So many times we are trying to force people to take our word for it when we share scientific findings or theories. We insist about DNA and quarks and dark matter and all manner of other things and shame people who don’t automatically believe us or our textbooks or our data sets. But we as scientists can also get very annoyed at people who try to push religion on us, who are recounting their own personal spiritual experiences and pointing to references in sacred writings that we might not be convinced actually hold any weight.
We all seem to try to insist that others believe what we have seen and/or experienced, whether it is about science or spirituality. And we all get annoyed with each other sometimes when we are asked to accept things as true with blind faith…some of us will get annoyed when we are just told to trust that vaccines are safe because alot of scientists have said so, and alot of us will get annoyed when we are told we should just accept Jesus as a redemptive savior so we can go to heaven because alot of people believe we are otherwise damned to hell.
OK, maybe besides love, one other thing that I believe is absolutely true is that we have to hold grace for each other, and we have to forgive each other. All of our individual pursuits to find truth are inevitably going to be on collision courses with each other. We have to recognize that for some people, pursuing truth is an art form, that needs to be felt out in subjective ways. Others are going to believe in their bones that truth is objective and can be unearthed through good, well-designed experimentation. And we have to be gentle with each other, and even amidst the frustrations that arise, honor that each person is on their own path and has the right the pursue truth in the way that feels authentic and correct to them. We are not entitled to get our own way by making everyone see and understand the world exactly as we do.
A slight caveat to what I just said above…..we need to offer grace, but we need to also relentlessly pursue showing people and allowing ourselves to be shown, how to do good science and how to do good spirituality. Maybe not in a manipulative proselytizing way, but through encouragement and with each other’s best interests in mind.
Didn’t Maya Angelou say, “When you know better, do better”? In my mind, science is a way of thinking, and spirituality is a way of being. Both can be improved upon, albeit in different ways. Both require us to lay aside laziness and acceptance of the status quo without ever attempting to engage or ask good questions.
This is the important part of truth-seeking that gives us the space and maybe permission to be able to offer our ideas to others. Personally, I have no desire to take advice or criticism from people who have refused to wrestle with life, who have insisted on always playing it safe, who have avoided suffering and pain at every turn, who refuse to consider that they might be wrong. But the people who have survived really hard things and allowed their hearts to remain soft, open, and engaged with life….well, they can pontificate to me freely and I will be so much more likely to listen, even if I ultimately don’t come to the same conclusions as them. The people who refuse to gloss over the difficult questions, who work relentlessly to unearth the shadow parts of themselves, who strive to think critically, and yet are OK with not knowing all the answers to life…these are the people I want to learn from, because somehow I believe they might have the greatest grasp on absolute Truth, whatever that is.
And a final thought: fear can never be the ground of being from which we seek truth. Maybe it is a necessary short term catalyst to get us moving, but it can never be the long-term motivation. I’m personally convinced, although I won’t insist on my correctness, that fear can never lead us all the way to Truth, either in science or in spirituality. This is because it always has us looking over our shoulders, staying guarded, reluctant to take this one risk or chance that might actually be the one step that is ultimately needed.
Nope, the art and science in the pursuit of truth are marked by bravery and courage that insist on moving forward even when the fear threatens to overwhelm us. Fear keeps us small, fear keeps us afraid of hell, fear keeps us from loving others well…fear keeps us from doing anything, everything to find what is real, genuine, authentic, and lasting.
This is why I don’t like proselytizing of any kind, whether it be of the scientific or religious variety. Invitations, free from manipulation and fear, are better. I think this is always true.
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.