The Subversive Power of Joy

paucal
Photo credit: Paucal
sub·ver·sive
/səbˈvərsiv/ – adjective: seeking or intended to subvert an established system or institution.
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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.

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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.

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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.

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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“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.”
― Rumi

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.

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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.

 

 

When The Resurrection You’re Given Isn’t The Resurrection You Were Expecting

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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Could it be that we have to be just as brave to resurrect as we have to be to die?

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EASTER BLESSING

“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.”

John O’Donohue
Dawn Mass Reflections at Corcomroe Abbey

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The Art and Science of Discovering Truth

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Photo credit: IBM Research; Phase-change neurons. A chip with large arrays of phase-change devices that store the state of artificial neuronal populations in their atomic configuration. 

*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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

Oneing and Walking Yourself Into Peace

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Photo credit: Alvaroreguly

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.

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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.

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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.

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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?”

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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.

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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.

 

Don’t Panic Until You See “Them” Panic

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My middle son came to me last night at bedtime, concerned about all that he has been hearing about COVID-19 at school, and worried that his school district might be closed like the neighboring district. His sweet worried face wrecked me, and I couldn’t think of anything that sounded good to say, because I’m a scientist and a nurse and I know this pandemic is not just going to go away.  So I said what I could:

“Graham, do you see mama panicking?  Don’t panic until you see mama panicking.”

He seemed satisfied with that answer and went to bed, waking up happy this morning and ready to go to school.  But as I went to sleep myself last night, I lay in bed pondering at what point I might panic.

As someone who used to have prescriptions for Xanax and clonazepam with a diagnosed panic disorder, I know what terror and panic feel like. I know what it’s like to feel like you’re sliding down a vortex of despair and fear and there’s no rationalizing your way out of it. Granted, my panic attacks have always been about irrational things, but even so, fear is fear.

Ultimately, I thought about how I am a solid place for my kids…I’m supposed to be that bulwark that faces the biggest scary things in life for them so they know how it’s done.  But, who’s parenting me?  Who do I turn to when the world looks scary and I’m so tempted to join in with mass hysteria and panic?  And then it came to me…I know exactly who will show me the way.  It’s the same people that have been showing me the way for years, the same people who have taught me to trust my own inner voice and connect with Source deep within my own self instead of always in external places.

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You know that story in the gospels where Lazarus dies, and Jesus shows up after the fact?  And Mary and Martha were seriously like, what the hell, Jesus? You could have gotten here on time, you could have fixed this situation! Why are you crying now about him dying when this could have all been prevented?

I think maybe the key point here in this story is not just Lazarus’ resurrection, but the fact that Jesus didn’t panic. He didn’t come running in, blustering around, ready to cast away Lazarus’ illness and imminent death.  Nope, he took his time in coming, and he held space for things to happen, so that he could show Mary and Martha and all the village of Bethany an even greater, reality…a greater glory than what they had asked for and hoped for.

How do we hold space when a pandemic is spreading and everyone is scared and uncertain about the future, and we all are kind of convinced that life as we know it has shifted forever?

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Ram Dass died several months ago, and I have thought alot about how he would handle this strange new happening called the coronavirus.  Would he be fretting or stocking up on toilet paper or all the other things most of us are tempted to do in situations like this?  He and a friend wrote a wonderful book about death not long ago, called Walking Each Other Home, that has changed me deeply.  This book has parented me because it has shown me the things that really matter in life, and that death is nothing to fear. By learning to live well and trust life, there is no sting in death.

I recall a story I heard of something that happened with Ram Dass in 2018.  I can’t remember all the specifics, but in 2018 a false alarm was sounded in Hawaii that a missile was coming their way. Ram Dass lived in Hawaii, and so heard the sirens, along with his caretakers who lived with him. But instead of panicking that their lives were going to end, they remained calm, and they spent the time they thought they had left meditating.  They just were.  They didn’t fight what seemed to be reality.  They allowed it to just be.

Another person who has “parented” me is the Dalai Lama. I can’t even really say so much what words have come out of his mouth specifically that have changed me.  With him, it is about presence.  Back in 2014 or 2015,  the Dalai Lama came and spoke in Boston, and of course, I jumped on the train and rode into the city from where I was living so I could hear him talk.  There were thousands of us sitting in the stadium, and the environment was magic. We were all literally sitting on the edge of our seats, just wanting to hear the Dalai Lama laugh.  What he said was important, but what resonated the most was his laughter.  Because his laughter told us that all is well.  I’ve had a few people in my life, where when you sit at their feet you feel like you’re sitting with Jesus.  The Dalai Lama, even in a crowd of people, feels that way.  He laughs, and you hear divine love coming out of that laugh, and you know that everything will be OK.

I think of Eckhart Tolle and Byron Katie and Mooji and Rob Bell and Richard Rohr and Michael Singer and so many others who have parented me, who have shown me what life is about, what matters and what is simply passing.  I trust them, they’ve shown me the way; they are my great cloud of witnesses pushing me onward every day to be better, to love better, to trust the universe and its ultimate goodness.

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I was listening today to Glennon Doyle’s new book, Untamed,  – please run out to your nearest bookseller and buy this or listen to it on Audible.  It has wrecked me from the first paragraph, because it is wisdom upon wisdom upon wisdom.  About halfway through the book she talks about the Hebrew word Selah that shows up in the Old Testament Psalms. She describes it as a word that means to stop, be still, and hold space.  It often came after a line of words in Hebrew poetry, and perhaps indicated that a moment of stillness was warranted…a time to stop, and just breathe, and know the words that had just come before.

And then I also thought about my life mantra that I shamelessly stole from Richard Rohr….”Everything belongs”.  For my 40th birthday coming up I’m finally gonna get this tattooed on my arm because it is what I live by.  It is how I hold all things together that don’t seem to go together.  But today I realized that one thing about this tattoo idea I’ve had forever for my arm was missing….I can’t just leave it at “Everything belongs.”  It has to be “Everything belongs….selah.”  Trusting that all is interconnected, everything has it’s place and it’s time, there is good in all things and all people, and then…..hold….just sit and breathe the truth of that. Live the questions without striving to find all the answers, rest in uncertainty, listen for divine laughter – wherever or whoever it may come from.

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I don’t know how this pandemic will turn out.  I don’t know if it will just be an inconvenience in my own personal life, or if it will rock my world and dramatically affect how my children and loved ones and I do life. But I’m choosing to not freak out.  I’m choosing to look to the wise ones that have never yet failed me. I choose to trust the ageless words of Jesus, not to worry about tomorrow.  Just focus on now, be here now, trust in the goodness of the universe.

Maybe I’m naive, maybe I’m not grounded…that’s OK.  The ones I trust the most aren’t panicking.  So I choose not to panic. And hopefully my boys can look to their mama not panicking, and not panic, too.

I’ve Decided to Become Less Modest In Order To Protect My Boys

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Photo credit: Chris JL

*Spoiler alert: I’m probably bordering on controversial in this post, and might discuss things that make some uncomfortable,.

When I was in college, I took a graduate summer class called “Anthropological Insights into the New Testament.” This class was a mind-broadener for me, because it was one of the first times I had been taught how to view the Gospels out of an entirely new lens, one that was not a literal, Western reading of the text. The parables and wise sayings of Jesus, which I had heard since I was a toddler, came alive to me in fresh ways that were much deeper with meaning than the interpretations I was so familiar with.  One of the professor’s goals was to show us how to approach these parables through different filters or sets of cultural values that were relevant to that time so that we could get a better understanding of what Jesus was actually trying to say to the disciples and crowds he was speaking to.

One filter that I remember us talking alot about was the idea of honor/shame cultures.  Much of the Middle East is grounded in this paradigm of honor/shame, and to more fully understand the motivations, beliefs, and actions of people from this region of the world, we need to understand the dynamics of honor and shame in their family life, social structures, etc. I am not an expert on the Middle East, nor on honor/shame cultures, but I can now at least understand to a small extent how Jesus was attempting to address shame in the context of the Gospels.

I’ve heard many people say that the United States is not a shame culture, and that the West, generally speaking, does not operate off of honor/shame dynamics.  I’m not entirely sure that I believe this anymore.  Yeah, maybe we don’t engage in honor killings, or go to great lengths for family members to save face, or have formal societal constructs to deal with shame and maintain honor….but I think we all carry around alot more shame than we know.  I don’t intend to prove this here, because all of Brené Brown’s writing will do it so much more adequately than what I can. Shame is pervasive and universal.

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I reached adulthood carrying a ton of shame baggage. This is due to a couple of things: I’ve had some shitty things happen to me in the past, many of which I’ll just keep to myself because, thanks to shadow work and alot of therapy, speaking them out loud just isn’t so important anymore. Second, I apparently have the perfect combination of personality and temperament to soak up shame without much effort on anyone’s part. Finally, I grew up within a faith tradition, cultural setting, and a worldview belief structure that inadvertently and very unintentionally, I believe, supported shame’s ability to stick on to me.

One of the greatest struggles with shame for me personally has been with my body. This shame grew out of a whole complicated mishmash of things that people have said to me, done to me, my own ignorance, and the deeply ingrained belief I held for decades that I was broken and wrong and not OK…as though I didn’t have a legitimate right to be alive and on this earth.  This sounds very melodramatic, but I’m sorry to say it’s true. Thank God I’ve since come a very long way in letting go of all of that crap.

Suffice it to say, due to my body shame, I have been extremely modest in the way I dress and act from my childhood up. I remember in gym class all the way through high school even, I hated changing in the locker rooms because God forbid, someone would discover that something was wrong with my body and I was different from everyone else.  I had no clue what that thing might be, but I was sure whatever it was,  when it was found out, I would be shamed for it. I went to the gynecologist for the first time at age 25, because I was too terrified to go before then and just have someone tell me I was “weird’ or “different’….again, how, I had no clue.

I could never feel comfortable in my body and wanted to remain as invisible as possible. I always liked my shoulders and arms, but that was about it.  As such, I took to sleeping in my bra at a very young age, and always wore shorts when wearing a swimming suit…sometimes with a tank top as well.  The less people saw of me, the less chance they would see the shameful self that I was.

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The thing about having babies in a hospital, especially when you have to have emergency C-sections, is that your body shame protection gets ripped off pretty darn quickly.  The advantage here is that you’re so tired from hours of laboring and so grateful to finally be numbed up from your chest down and you so badly want that baby OUT!, that you suddenly don’t care who sees your nether regions.

Maybe this was God’s way of pulling off all the bandaids I’d applied to protect myself:  I had to have three C-sections, 2 of which weren’t planned and each came after 30 hours of med-free laboring.  I think by the time I actually delivered those two boys,  I’d had a minimum of twenty people seeing me in all of my glory.  Having kids did wonders for helping to melt away my tightly held modesty.  And as weird as it is to say, and maybe really silly to some, having those babies in the hospital gave me alot of healing. No one thought I was weird, no one thought my body was “off”, no one looked at me with disgust.  All of these lies I had carried so tightly inside me since I was a very little girl began to lose their grip on me.

There’s a line in the New Testament that really pisses off alot of people because of how they interpret it to depict women and their role in the world.  I totally get their anger about it; the value of women does not solely lie in their ability to grow babies and be mothers.  But, the verse means something entirely new for me now.  1 Timothy 2:15: “Yet she will be saved through childbearing…”  I really was saved in a way through giving birth….not because it validated my existence on this planet or fulfilled me in the eyes of God, but because my boys’ insistence to enter into life forced me to face one of the darkest, shame-filled beliefs I held that was really keeping me from being fully human and alive myself.

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Rape culture is still very prevalent in our society. I’ve written about this elsewhere in my blog, and don’t intend to expound too broadly on this or prove that it exists.  This culture has led to so much shaming of girls and women, and caused us to carry the brunt and responsibility for rape, sexual assault, adultery, and so many other indiscretions on the part of men. We are told, either explicitly or indirectly, that the way we dress causes men to stray and sin. We are told to be benign and almost asexual at times, and then expected to suddenly become sultry, sexy seductresses at other times.  It’s OK for men to have sex on a first date, but for women, that’s just slutty behavior. Women ask to be raped, or whistled at, or groped, or whatever – by their behavior and dress, our culture tells us.

I can’t even remember how many times growing up and as a young adult that I individually or in a group of girls was admonished, especially in church settings, to “protect” the men and boys in our lives, to keep them from stumbling.  We are supposedly the weaker sex, but apparently, we hold all the power to ruin a man’s life simply by how short our skirt is or whether or not we show a little cleavage.  Ginormous eye roll here.

Then, we as women are the ones responsible for also protecting ourselves.  If we don’t want to get raped, then when need to behave ourselves.   Don’t ever drink too much, don’t run outside by yourself after dark, be very mindful of what you wear, don’t flirt if you’re not asking for it….  There’s a reason there is such a high percentage of unreported rapes and sexual assault in this country.  Women aren’t convinced they’ll be believed when they tell their stories of what has happened to them.  And if they do report, they know they’ll likely face unbearable shaming by naysayers. Thousands of completed rape kits just sit around in storage for years gathering dust, never getting the chance to serve as evidence to bring justice for the women who needed them.

There’s a ridiculous amount of responsibility placed on women:  we have to not only protect our own sexuality, but we also have to protect the sexuality of every man we encounter, maybe even we the ones we never even know exist. This is wildly unfair, unjust, and a huge contributor to the shame we as women carry.

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As a mom of three boys, I have made a huge effort to raise them in such a way that they have immense respect for women and girls. They have known since they could talk that if I ever caught them treating a girl or woman badly, in a disrespectful or dismissive or objectifying way, that they would have to deal with me and that they were not going to want that to happen. And somehow, so far, I’ve gotten this right.  My boys LOVE girls and women; some of their best friends are girls, and they notice when girls in their classes and social circles are being treated unfairly.

I’ve taken the boys to the Women’s March in Indianapolis, we have conversations about menstrual cycles and how they should never shame girls about these. We’ve talked about how girls and women are just as smart and capable as their male counterparts. We’ve talked about the struggles that women face to achieve equality, and my boys came to me with angry indignation when they learned that women often make significantly less than men for the same jobs. I’ve begun having conversations with my 13-year-old, about consent and all the nuances of that.

But, I have been realizing over the last couple of years that there is a significant area where I’ve been failing my boys, and through extrapolation, failing myself and the girls and women that my boys will encounter in life. By not dealing with my own shame, I’ve unintentionally passed on some of that shame to my boys, and I know that if I don’t address it now, it has the potential to affect their relationships, perpetuate shame through their families, and maybe hurt their future partners if they decide they are into girls.

This is what has happened:  while I’m much less prudish and modest to the extreme like I was in my teens and early twenties, I still act in ways that either suggest I’m carrying shame or really do try to cover some lingering shame that I still hold on to. Some of these patterns are just hold-overs from my conservative ways of being when the boys were younger; my entire worldview belief structure has changed radically over the last five to ten years, but my actual behaviors have experienced some lag in trying to catch up. I’m learning that all the “great talks”  we have don’t do nearly as much as me living out what I believe to be true, even if it is difficult and uncomfortable to me.

Here are some examples; sorry if they are embarrassing to anyone reading this, but I’m more concerned about being real and authentic than in embarrassing myself or other people.

  1. I almost never go without a bra on around my boys. Since they were each toddlers, I’ve pretty much slept in one if they were around, and certainly have never gone around the house without one. This was clearly my issue not dealing with my own boob shame (there are stories behind this, but I’m going to table them right now), but I can see now that it has actually been a bad thing for the boys. I’ve recognized this when I see them being embarrassed about seeing a woman’s nipples through her T-shirt. And somehow through my extreme past modesty, they have internalized it themselves – they are often ashamed to go swim without a swimshirt on, concerned someone might see their own nipples. I somehow achieved equality between men and women here with them, but definitely not in the way that I meant to.
  2. As an adult, I hardly ever wear a swimsuit without shorts, and certainly never a two-piece.  This is mainly about my dissatisfaction about how my body looks…my tummy isn’t as tight as I’d like, thanks to three pregnancies. My belly button looks weird thanks to a laparoscopic gall bladder removal. My butt sports saddlebags that never seem to decrease no matter how much yoga or running I do. But then, I’ll hear my boys make comments regarding pictures of women they see, wearing two pieces, or showing their stomachs, and the adjectives that accompany their comments are words like “gross” or “weird”. Their statements are not coming from a place of being mean; what I hear in their voices is the sound of being uncomfortable, of unfamiliarity and unease….and realizing I contributed on accident to this hurts me deeply.
  3.  My boys are oblivious to alot of things.  It sometimes takes them days to recognize that I dyed my hair or chopped it all off.  But I have taught them to notice things that shouldn’t be an issue. In the past, I have found myself apologizing to them when they brush up against my unshaven legs. I cringe now when I think about these things because it is just teaching them to believe something completely arbitrary and inconsequential is a matter of right and wrong, good or bad, beautiful or ugly.

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I really, really want my boys to know and believe that women’s bodies are good and beautiful, with nothing shameful about them.  But I’m realizing that as the primary, most important woman currently in their lives, it is my job to live that out for them.  They are learning more from what I do or don’t do than what I say. And what I’m avoiding because of my own discomfort or shame is molding them in ways that could have lifelong impacts.

I DO NOT want to perpetuate shame from my own life into my boys’ lives, and I do not want to add new shame to their lives. I would rather do things that are hard for me than to avoid pain and end up hurting them. Which is why I’ve decided it is time for me to let go of more of my modesty. Contrary to all of the stuff I was taught growing up, I think that in many ways the way to have healthy relationships with our bodies is to normalize them, not just simply hide them away and make every single thing taboo unless you’re behind the closed doors of a marriage or committed relationship.  It’s too late by then…shame has already had a chance to catch hold.

Now for everyone reading this who is starting to hyperventilate, I’m not talking about living like I’m in a nudist colony, strutting around topless, or intentionally behaving in ways that will humiliate or mortify my kids. I’m talking about learning to be more comfortable with my own body so they know there is nothing about a woman’s body, or a man’s body for that matter, that is embarrassing or shameful or wrong.

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As a quick side tangent, since becoming a nurse I’ve decided that it would be a great idea in theory if everyone worked in a hospital for a short time.  The main reason for this is because an inpatient hospital setting helps to normalize things, especially the human body. I’ve seen so many people stark naked, I’ve seen every size and shape of penis, every size and shape of breast, every size and shape of body.  I’ve seen bodies that were missing parts, I’ve seen thin bodies, I’ve seen very large bodies.  There is more anatomical variety for nether regions than I ever once imagined.  Nothing much I see body-wise shocks or surprises me anymore. And I’ve learned this:  my body is just pretty darn average.  After all the shame carrying of my youth, I am very, very happy to just be average.

This is what I’ve concluded:  like so many other secrets, when you bring shame to the light, it begins fade away.  When you pull it out of the dark, closets, and hidden corners and show it the truth, it leaves…it has to…because there is no longer any way for it to keep lying to you when you’ve got evidence right in front of you proving otherwise.

Bodies are bodies, all different and unique. We may be drawn to some and not others because of our individual brain wiring and genetics, but when it comes down to it, everyone’s body is valid, good, and has a right to be here.

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I was irritated by the Super Bowl this year.  I actually didn’t watch it, and I only saw a few photos from the notorious half-time show.  What irritated me was the shame that I saw my boys pick up from watching it because of the comments of the people they watched it with, decrying it as inappropriate and bad.

There was alot of hullabaloo about the outfits and dancing by the half-time performers, and plenty of articles came out afterward discussing their impropriety and whether or not it was OK for celebrity moms to dress and act in certain ways, especially seductive and revealing ways.

Since when did women suddenly have to transform into asexual, tame beings when they become moms? Like it’s OK to be super cute and flirty and sexual before you have kids, but then you gotta suck on the mom jeans and act nurturing and proper all the time once the babies come.  I think the real issue with the half-time show is the labels and stereotypes we continue to put on women in this culture, and much less about what they were actually wearing, or not wearing, or how they were dancing.

I will admit that I think there are times and places for different kinds of behavior and dressing. But what I will not tolerate is grown men saying things like the half-time performance are going to cause them to sin, or that boys will be scarred for life is they see a woman in an outfit that reveals without any uncertainty that she has boobs and a butt.

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So here’s the whole point of me writing this post:  I’ve decided it’s time for me to change…to face the uncomfortable in order to protect my boys.  I want to protect them from carrying their own shame about human bodies, and I want to protect them from internalizing lies about women that would in any way propagate rape culture. I want them to be proud of their bodies, to respect and value the bodies of others, and I want them to believe that each of us has the complete and total right to do what we want with our own bodies as long as it does not infringe upon the rights of others.

I’m gonna get practical:  I’m going to suck up my embarrassment and make myself start wearing two-piece bathing suits.  Not because I have a ripped, hot body to show the world, but because I want my boys to see that I’m proud of this mom-belly that carried each of them for 9 months.,  proud of this rear end that gives me a soft place to sit every day, unashamed of cleavage and softness and the stretch marks that have multiplied with time.

And, I’m going to stop wearing this damned bra all the time so that they realize that just because I’m a mom pushing 40, I do have boobs that look like something other than nipple-less mounds stuffed in a bra under a Tshirt, and I’m never going to apologize to anyone ever again for unshaven legs – even though I do prefer to have shaven legs.  I’m also not going to heed society’s advice that women of a certain age stop wearing short skirts or other types of clothes…I’ll stop wearing them when I want to and not because I’m admonished by shame.

I didn’t create rape culture.  I didn’t create or ask for the shame that I’ve carried for years. And I’ve still got alot of work to do on myself.  But I”ll be damned if I’m going to contribute to the propagation and support of rape culture and body shame because of my own fear  My boys deserve better than that.

How To Live a Fragmented Life

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*Warning: this is a processing post. I’m disclosing with this preface that I may not come to any spectacular conclusions about anything, but I’m pretty sure I’m not in this boat alone.

This last week I was finally able to put my finger on something that has been driving me crazy for quite a while. I’ve been living with an underlying current of unease or stress, and could not figure out with actual language and thoughts what was feeling so off. But this week, as I was constantly changing gears and rushing off to the next thing, it finally hit me: my life is a mish-mash of disconnection that I have to figure out every week how to fit together into some semblance of a “whole” life.

Let me try to explain. As I’ve mentioned many times, I was married for just shy of 12 years. During that time I had three kids. I worked as a lab scientist part of the time during those early years of being a mother, but gradually transitioned into being a full-time stay at home mom, a role I functioned in for the better part of nine years.

When you’re married and a stay at home mom of children, everything in life just naturally becomes about family.  And everything feels pretty integrated. Other than the occasional girls’ night out or solo run to Barnes and Noble to try and regain some weeknight sanity through solitude and books, most everything I did revolved around my husband and my kids.  Even if they weren’t directly involved in what I was doing, there was still the coordinating of care for them, making sure that we touched based numerous times each day, and we came back together in the same house each night for bed….except for when business trips interfered and I was solo mom-ming it.

Even if life wasn’t necessarily “happy”, there was flow.  There was a pattern to things that I could generally count on. Where I went, the kids went.  Where the kids went, I went. All the different spheres of my existence somehow included my husband and my kids, and I felt like I understood my role as a person in those years because it was rather continuous and fairly predictable.

Those roles and that continuity have changed so very dramatically over the last several years.  It probably started five or so years ago as I began to gradually unhinge myself from my marriage, and my ex and I became roommates who shared kids, more than functioning partners in a relationship. But my responsibilities, and my kids, and my friends, and the things I did every day were constants that made me feel grounded in some sense.

It occurred to me the other day that my life is nothing short of fragmented. This epiphany helped to suddenly shine some light on this background stress frequency that permeates my life.  There is little continuity in my life these days, and that is something I keep striving for. This flying by the seat of my pants from one thing to another, day after day, feels so hard, and I’m constantly wondering which ball I’m going to drop, or which particular role I’m going to be shitty at on any given day.

Yesterday someone told me they think I’m very settled.  I inwardly rolled my eyes.  Stuck maybe, but not settled.  They later said I’m a very steady person.  That made me inwardly laugh really hard because I usually feel about as steady as a fainting goat at any given moment. My life is chaos all the time. And I’m realizing, especially through my “aha” moment, how much of it I do to myself.  The big question is: why?

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I have determined that I have at least five realms of existence in my life, and much of these realms don’t overlap. It’s a really bad Venn diagram of a life where the circles don’t touch, which makes going from one thing to the other a matter of alot of hard stops and abrupt changes of direction.  Here are some of the realms I’m alluding to:

  1. I have my kids only so many days each week, and every other weekend.  When they are with me, my focus is parenting, trying to hit off items on their to do lists, reconnect with them when I haven’t seen them for a while, and actually cook at least two decent meals a day. But, because of the weird dynamics I have with their father, it’s like when they’re not with me, I suddenly lose them and there are these big “kid-holes’ in my life…very abrupt snatching away of that realm of parenting. Thank God now they have phones and we can stay kind of connected through texting.  I hate this, though.  I feel like a mom half of my life, and the other half…I don’t know what I am.
  2. I’m in online graduate school doing a program that is relatively new to the discipline of nursing, so nobody else I personally know in life is pursuing or has pursued this degree.  I interact with my professors and classmates via email, text, and Zoom; they are a chunk of life I interact with a few times a week over the web. Nothing about this portion of my life interacts much with any other portion, so again, it feels very disconnected and abrupt when I enter and exit this realm.
  3. I go to work about 3 times a week at the hospital as a nurse. I love my job, where I work, and all the people I work with.  But this is another separate chunk of life.  Nothing about my job or the people that I know there spill over into my personal life…other than that my work friends post some freaking amazing FB content that gives me alot of joy.
  4. Most of my friends are spread out all over Indianapolis and surrounding areas. So I go to one town to see one friend, then another town to see another friend.  Up to 86th street to see that person, and down to Bloomington to see that person.  Straight into Broad Ripple to see that one person, and off to Chicago to see that one other person.  If I’m really lucky I’ll occasionally be able to get two of my friends in the same place at one time, and that’s just because I’ve been very rigorous about trying to introduce all of my friends to each other because 1) I know they’ll hit it off, and 2) I need a little more connection between the people in my life, and 3) I think I know half of the divorced women in Indiana and I recognize that we all need each other.
  5. I’m not really hitting up church on Sundays much these days, but for the last several years I had another chunk of life through a congregation I attended and was a part of. I valued it greatly, but it was just another disconnected aspect of my life; it was another hard stop and direction change to go to church and then head back to a different Venn circle in my life. It’s strange to pursue Mennonite values so hard when only a small piece of my life pays attention to those values in any real way.
  6. And then finally, at least I think, my actual extended family is a chunk in my life. But they are spread across Texas and Missouri and I probably feel most disconnected from them and un-integrated with the rest of my life. It’s hard to stay integrated with and know/be known by people you see twice a year.

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So, this is what I realized:  my life has become, not a continuous daily journey with the same people doing much the same things, but a constant jumping from one thing to another.  Something that has hurt me in this, I’m realizing, is that I don’t have very good processes in place to help me transition from one Venn circle to the other, and so I’m constantly feeling disoriented, and very…unsettled.

I don’t think this problem is unique to me.  I have several divorced female friends whose lives have been upended and are trying to piece together a meaningful and joyful existence as I am, while earning a living, parenting, and pursuing the things we are passionate about.  I also think some of these friends are also rocking it so much better than I am.

I pontificate all the time that I’m so glad I’m not tied down in a marriage like I was before, but this is one thing that I’m recognizing:  I do miss some of the certainty, security, and stability that comes with having a family dynamic that is predictable and steady. It’s hard having completely different routines every single day because of the nature of my life and roles; it’s really hard going to sleep one night with a kiddo snuggled up next to me knowing that my other two are dreaming on the other side of the house, and then the next night, I”m sleeping cold and alone in an empty house…hoping maybe at least the cat will come and snuggle with me.

It’s hard trying to talk to people about things in my life when all of those people aren’t involved in other areas of my life and have little clue what I’m talking about and so struggle to relate. The last three years have really been the very first time in my life when the bulk of the people in my life didn’t fit into more than one of my Venn circles.

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I’ve started exercising like crazy again.  I was running, swimming, and cycling alot a couple of years ago, but pretty much dropped them when I started my first nursing job and did nothing but cry and think I was going to die for a solid six months. But, now, I no longer consistently cry and I’ve realized that I can, in fact, work out on days that I work, and it has become a real lifesaver.  I think I’ve figured out why: these long periods of running, or swimming (not biking yet because I haven’t worn a good enough callous on my hiney yet for long rides) are a way to help me transition during all of these hard stops and role changes in my life. It feels kind of like EMDR…that psychotherapy modality where trauma victims are helped to process traumatic memories through bilateral eye movements or bilateral body stimulation. The exercise becomes a meditative experience that helps me physically work out the stress and makes me feel like I can move on to the next thing in a more whole-bodied way.  That may sound really stupid, but I think its legit.  And probably why then, exercise has become so addictive over the last six to eight months….sometimes I feel like its the only thing that is actually keeping me grounded.

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So, what I’m trying to figure out now is how to live an integrated, whole life when you struggle with dissociative lifestyle disorder.  When the people, things that I’m involved in, and things that are important to me are so widely varied and unrelated to each other….how do I hold this all together?  Is it even worth it to try and hold all of these things together in one existence?  My great fear in life is that in the attempt to manage all of these things and people that I hold dear, I’m inevitably going to drop the ball and fail someone miserably. Or, in my whole-hearted attempts to do everything well, the end results will simply be alot of half-assed outcomes.  How do you really know what to keep and what to let go of?   I really hate it when people tell me to make lists and prioritize. My brain does not work that way. Everything, everyone….is important to me.

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I always feel a little self-conscious about the fact that I have some crazy and out of control ADHD.  This contributes alot to the fact that my life fragments so much – I get interested in everything and everyone and so constantly fly off in different directions and say yes to too much and try to do everything right NOW. In my crazy running around I make to-do lists and then forget I made them, I start projects that I hope I’ll eventually finish, and every day becomes a process of making up things as I go along.

My nursing career coach told me the other day that his own therapist’s opinion is that people with ADHD might actually be primed to be the most healthy people in today’s nutty world with too much information and stressors and activity because we can flit superficially over things and not get too bogged down.  I’m not sure I’m convinced, but I trust his opinion, so I’m tentatively going with it.

Maybe I’m looking at it all wrong. Yes, my life is fragmented, and definitely messy, but maybe it’s just because my life is big and I’m blessed to have good people and good things happening in every direction I turn. There are some adventure and thrill to the unpredictability of my life, and I am certainly never bored.  I’m finally getting to do things I’ve always wanted to do that I never thought were possible or would actually happen.

And yes, I may be a hot mess express the majority of the time, but I’m definitely not sitting back and letting life pass me by.  I’m not letting my fears control what I do or get involved in. I’m trying really hard every day to grow as a person and become better, and be more authentic than I was the day before.

But, it gets exhausting, feeling like on almost a daily basis I’m teleporting from one alternate universe to another.  It’s frustrating sometimes to be the only common denominator between a bunch of Venn circles, knowing that I’m doing all the transitions by myself, knowing that it’s up to me to hold my world and life together.

So, look, as I promised, no fantastic, helpful conclusions! But if anyone out there knows what it’s like to live a fragmented life and has somehow remained or achieved integration, please….please….share your wisdom.