Category Archives: Lessons Learned

Getting Real about “Doing the Work.”

Seems like we’ve been hearing a lot lately about “doing the work.” This is meant to invoke personal growth and positive change and maybe even healing from whatever traumas you’ve escaped or dragon bellies from which you’ve managed to emerge. “Do the work.”

But what does it mean?  Sometimes a good starting place for definitions is to look at what something doesn’t mean. Here are some cheap imitations of what “doing the work” might look like:

  • It might look like hardening up, collecting memes and quotes about being a bad a** and demanding respect.
  • It might be sharing articles with titles like “Ten Red Flags You’re in a Toxic Relationship” and thinking yourself informed.
  • It might be using psychobabble in a just effective enough way to sound reasonable. (This will probably include the popular (mis)use of words like narcissist, OCD, PTSD, bipolar and “toxic” for everything a person just might not happen to like.) 
  • It might be surrounding yourself with cheerleaders who tell you how amazing and brave you are and cutting people out of your life who challenge your narrative, then calling it “boundaries”.

Those are all forgeries of what “doing the work” actually is. 

Doing the work isn’t just knowing the red flags of a relationship. Anybody can Google up some information about mental health. But knowledge isn’t change. Doing the work is about testing your thinking and modifying your behavior to protect and respect yourself and others, in order to live authentically in this 

world.

Doing the work isn’t just passively waiting for the healing season to begin and end. Honestly, time does NOT heal all things. Some wounds need prescription strength antibiotics! 

Doing the work means getting professional help—the right kind. Not from someone who is happy to earn a paycheck just by co-signing on the nonsense you’re tempted to spew. Not your friend who took a life coaching class online “that one time.” Get serious. When I was searching for my own therapist, I interviewed a few before finding the right fit. I didn’t want someone who would pat me on the back and tell me how wonderful and insightful I was. I wanted the truth. It’s critical to have experienced and wise help in noticing our own blindspots.

Doing the work means getting your hands on excellent literature, specific to the issue you need to overcome— whether it’s codependency, addiction, abuse, manipulation, or an eating disorder— and reading about it from reputable experts, not journalists or pundits. 

Doing the work means voluntarily exposing yourself to situations that are scary or hard or uncomfortable (provided they’re safe of course) because that is where the growth is. It’s reducing the intensity and frequency of trauma triggers so that they no longer master you but you master them.

Doing the work means not being afraid to challenge ourselves with honesty. It means having a relentless pursuit towards self knowledge and the integrity enough to confront our own flaws. So that when we turn a sharp corner and find ourselves in the dark, seedy parts of our hearts, we don’t run away. We don’t make excuses. No projecting, blaming, dismissing or denying the unsavory things that we find lurking there. We pause. Ask questions. Study the situation. And then pull out the damn sword to begin the conquering. 

Doing the work means having an appropriate estimation of oneself. Being able to confidently name your strengths and weaknesses alike. Having genuine compassion for yourself and all that you’ve experienced, while nudging yourself onward consistently. It’s about taking responsibility for your life and owning your story. Making practical amends where possible and repairing relationships that may need it. 

In short, doing the work requires humility, courage and perseverance. You won’t come out the other end feeling pain-free and drying up all the tears. Rather you’ll come out the other end with an appropriate balance of the head and the heart. You’ll still have issues, cry out in pain and otherwise live the drama of the human story; this is a lifelong process. But attaining ‘happines’ isn’t the moral of the story here anyway (though happiness may be a byproduct of the work). No. “Happiness” by itself is far too transitory to ever make for an excellent aim. The moral of the story is meaning and growth and adaptability. 

Some people may wonder if they are doing enough to battle their demons and correct their dysfunctions. Maybe you aren’t. Maybe you can do better. But know that at least. And own it. Ultimately, you will know you’re on the right track if you can live inside of this quote by M. Scott Peck:  “Mental health is an ongoing commitment to reality at all costs.”

 

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Head. Heart. Instinct.

Instinct. Now here’s the thing! “Trust your instinct!” “Listen to your gut!” (And please don’t confuse this with the “Follow your heart” slogan because that is dangerous and misleading…)  Seems like a really big deal these days to talk about trusting our instinct. And this is true on a lot of levels. The intestines of our 6th sense are really, really intelligent! Most intuitive people have certain, unnameable and unexplainable alarm bells that ring at certain times, in certain places, or with certain people. Instinct matters. Pay attention.

 But don’t crown it king.  

I listen to my instinct. I trust it. I pay attention. I believe it has saved me from dangerous situations/people. I have also suffered the consequences that come when I choose to ignore or dismiss my instinct, tightly blindfolding it and shoving it in a dark closet… following my heart instead or listening exclusively to my head that—if left to its own devices— is quite skilled at rationalizing away the reality that is right in front of me. And that’s all kinds of bad news. Indeed, coming off the repercussions of ignoring my instinct has left me somewhat skittish now. I’m easily alarmed when I get the first hints of Instinct trying to chime in on my life now. And I don’t want to be a person who is easily spooked; I want to be measured and thoughtful and deliberate in action. So, this has taken me some time to reorder, take Instinct out of the closet, help it get adjusted to the light of day, and figure out where it should live. This is a work in progress.

But I do think I’ve started to come to a really excellent understanding of its proper place in my life now. Today, Instinct acts its part in an organization that is not unlike the triumvirate of authority in my spiritual life—Tradition. Bible. Papacy. Or if you are among the three secular readers here who prefer more sterile analogies, we can use the branches of government: Executive. Legislative. Judicial. By this I mean that Instinct doesn’t get to wear a crown and dictate actions the way it seems a lot of new-age pop psychology articles want it to. It’s part of the team that includes the Head and the Heart. As with my faith authority… it’s part of—but not conflicting with— the personal guide that makes up the truth of who I am. As with the government, it serves as a power check to both the Head and the Heart but can not effectively exist independent of either of them.

No; Instinct is what contributes to making one a healthy Skeptic. I’m not talking about a cynic, mind you. No one loves the company of a cynic. His wry commentary on the banalities of life are enough to bore anyone who takes seriously the mandate to live. But I’m also not talking about the kind of skeptic that enjoys the popularity of a sort of agnostic skepticism that is demonstrated so often in today’s postchristian culture. It’s convenient and interesting and ‘cool’ to walk along the fence and doubt this and question that. Raise your eyebrows here and look askance there… “trusting your gut” so that one never moves decisively. But walking along a fence in perpetuity is no life worth living. 

There is a way to do Skepticism rightly. Rightly done, skepticism should have a reasonable half-life… never maturing to old age. It must be poked and prodded and wrestled with— and then be put to rest. This doesn’t mean we get to have all the answers in life. Often we are left with more mysteries! But it does mean that we aren’t content to crown ourselves rational kings and queens, too important to come down off of the fence, one way or the other. Putting instinct in its proper place, skepticism in its proper place, requires conviction and humility. To live fully and authentically, you are required to do the hard work of finding the answers. Of playing your instincts out… seeing how they fit with your head and heart. Test the evidence of your thinking. Test the veracity of your heart. And then run everything through a ‘gut check’ and act with conviction, not necessarily with expediency or comfortability. 

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Another Book Nobody WANTS to Read

Most of you know that I’m in the homestretch of getting my Masters degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling. The journey has been amazing and pushed me in so many ways. Obviously, the academic and clinical coursework has been necessary to consider myself any sort of up and coming professional in this field. And the hundreds of hours I’ve now spent working with people from all walks of life, are tremendously important as well. However, I feel particularly blessed going into this field, to have been given an insatiable desire for learning and I can say without hesitation that the books I have made a point to read in my own time have been instrumental in my therapeutic formation. These include titles on emotional and psychological abuse, childhood trauma, addiction, attachment theory, grief, depression, parenting and much more. I can’t wait to share some of these titles with you in my annual end-of-year reading digest! But one book that recently came across my path can’t wait that long. It’s called The Consent Primer. This is one of those books that no one wants to read… the likes of which I sometimes promote on this site such as Good Pictures, Bad Pictures and Primal Loss. (By the way, I’m on the hunt for a really fantastic and challenging book on talking about suicide, so if you know of anything to that end, let me know!)

Anyway, with The Consent Primer, I realized right away that no one had ever taught me about consent and I suspect this is the case for most people. Culturally speaking, we think of consent as something as simple as “Yes means yes and No means no.”  And this is definitely not the case. The book discusses things that can compromise one’s capacity for consent, power differentials, risk factors, non-verbal cues, and what autonomy means. It includes helpful talking points and things to do if there has been a breach in consent. I sort of conceptualize it as a more in-depth look at some of the topics presented in Boundaries.

What I appreciated about the book is that this stuff is applicable to areas outside of just sexual encounters. Everyone deals with issues of consent every single day of their lives!  Another thing I think was invaluable is that this book teaches about the topic of informed consent from the standpoint of both sides, the asker and the receiver, i.e. how to state your position clearly and how to understand the other’s position clearly.  It would be really useful for both young men and young women to read before heading off into the world. I think this topic is so important and so misunderstood! We see all over the news how many consent infractions happen and the consequences of them… from the Kavanaugh hearings to the #metoo movement and on, and on. I can’t help but wonder how many dollars would be saved in therapy if both perpetrators and survivors had a better understanding of the construct of consent! Obviously it’s not in a therapist’s business interest to have a world of clearly communicating, autonomous and free individuals, haha!  But I’m interested in arming our children with important, proactive information and resources on difficult subjects before they head out into a world which is often a very confusing place. 

Nota Bene: There are case examples in this book that discuss some morally objectionable behaviors. Please, please read it before passing on to a teenager, then decide if you want to give it to them or simply distill the information for them.

Also… um, if you’re anything like me, coming from a fairly sheltered background, you’ll need to have a link opened to Urban Dictionary for certain… terms. 

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The Economy of Emotion

* Originally published in the Summer 2019 issue of Soul Gardening Journal*

Some years ago, a friend told me that she had given up her opinion for Lent. That’s it: her opinion. I laughed at the simple absurdity of it at the time, but it didn’t take but a few minutes for it to really hit me how profoundly difficult that must’ve been. To refrain from offering one’s thoughts on Facebook articles. To not chime in with one’s two cents at dinner parties. To defer to another’s preference on whether to get take-out Chinese or Mexican food. And on. I don’t know about all of you, but opinions buzz around in my mind like fruit flies on a spotty banana. I used to think that not offering my opinion (solicited or not) would make me a terribly boring person.

But life has a way of broadening my perspective and enough stupid things have come out of my mouth by now that I realize more and more how much wisdom and solace there is in simply remaining silent. Secondly, it’s taken a long time, but I’ve also realized that I don’t need to jump into every conversation that I know a fair bit about. Unless directly asked, I no longer go on and on to people about which baby carrier is The Best one or which homeschooling curriculum I liked the most. Or even about liturgical discussions or faith debates I see happening. Do I have things to say? Sure. Ought I say them? Usually…? No.

However, just as I begin to appreciate the value of keeping quiet on things more often than not, humbling myself enough to recognize that I don’t have all the answers for all the people at all the time (Sheesh, what a burden that would be!), I spent a lot of time with someone who simply had no opinion. And that changed me. 

I know this sounds strange, because I was suspicious at first too. “What do you mean you don’t care if people come over or not? If we grill chicken or have soup for dinner? Whether you go to this party or not?” As someone whose natural temperament has strong opinions on nearly everything, I didn’t understand. Was this her pious way of deferring to others just to be agreeable? Of being a martyr by dying to her own preferences? I tried to fish around a lot, asking if she was SURE, if she really meant that she didn’t have an opinion. And more often than not, she was. It wasn’t just a holy gimmick! This was unreal to me. After reflecting for some time on this and when I pressed to understand, she explained that she has trained herself to deliberately not have an opinion on things deemed to be smaller matters in her mind. The goal wasn’t to be a floppy, thin doormat. The goal was to save up her emotional energy for the things that were really important to her: “It’s just too much work to care about everything.”

Living an authentic Christian life requires fighting a lot of battles. It requires men and women to stand their ground in forming strong convictions on deciding what kind of spiritual, educational, medical and social lives they want for their children. In general, what kind of lifestyle they want in their family. By not investing her thoughts and energy into trivial things, my friend’s moral compass was made of cast iron. She’s as easy going and accommodating as can be on what’s for lunch or where to go on vacation. But she turns into a mother bear you don’t want to meet if you cross her on something important. Adding wonder to all this, my friend also happens to have a heart for ministering to others that is practically unparalleled. 

From her and my friend of Lenten silence (even if not giving an opinion comes with a wry, Cheshire cat smile), I’ve learned something about economizing emotions. One of the beautiful side effects of this came unexpected to me. Not only does being selective about where to put your energy and attention have extraordinary mental health benefits, but it offers something essential to others in our lives as well. By virtue of our baptism, we are mandated to respond to the call to evangelize others. Evangelization is not optional. For most of us, this is accomplished by simply living an authentic lifestyle rich in the works of mercy, rather than serving foreign missions. And do you know what the primary thing is that people in today’s post-Christian world are starving for, after genuine love?! Peace. We are a culture drowning in anxiety and chaos and arguments and noise. God can not be heard, seen or encountered in this climate. So few people anymore have the requisite calm, collected mental state that is necessary to minister to the emotional needs of others. Increasingly, so many of us are busy investing our emotional energy in everything else under the sun. By practicing a healthy economy of emotion… by surrendering large parts of our opinion, we free up space in our minds for others. If we are so busy putting our energy into little things, trivial things, we have no room at the inn of our hearts for others.  We don’t have to care about everything. We can fulfill our essential duties of evangelization by caring primarily for others, and freeing up some space in our hearts to make a resting place for them. Then, in that still, small space, Jesus Christ can be found. 

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Everything Does NOT Happen for a Reason

One of the really common lies that gets told over and over by well meaning people is this: “Everything happens for a reason.”  Usually this is the response offered to people who’ve gone through or are going through very difficult times. It is said to offer hope and encouragement to sufferers everywhere. The only problem is… it’s not true. Additionally,  I think that deep down, there is something in the emotional response of humans that senses that this isn’t true. Who has ever drawn great comfort from this platitude? At best, suffering people think that they ought to feel better upon hearing that “everything happens for a reason,” but even the heart knows what the head refuses to acknowledge: things sometimes happen for no reason at all. And I wish people would grow a lot more comfortable acknowledging this.

Evil needs no reason. In fact, since God is a god of order and love, disordered things simply can’t make sense! Psychology and pathology aside, the devil is behind disorder, disunity, bitterness, hatred, and sin. Without reason. Try telling a child who has been sexually abused that it happened for a reason. Try telling someone who watched their loved one commit suicide that it happened for a reason. Try telling anyone who is enduring the scalding fires of sin, broken promises, fear, shame and abandonment that it’s happening for a reason. It’s not true. What’s more is that saying this invalidates the pain a survivor has experienced. The brain will then try to sell this awful distortion: “If terrible things happen for a reason, I have no right to be upset about this. Something is wrong with me.” 

This (ineffective) comforting line reminds me of a couple other truisms that often get told to people who are going through hard times. One being the “Everything is going to be okay.”  And that’s not true either! Somethings things just aren’t going to be okay!  (… and that’s okay) Finally, in efforts to console others we also like to say “God won’t give you more than you can handle.”  False. Patently so. People are just very unsure of what to say to people in pain… and sometimes these well-meant phrases can do more harm than good. Here are a sprinkling of more affirming alternatives to say to suffering people; the internet provides more with a simple search, I’m sure.

  • That wasn’t fair.
  • That should never have happened to you.
  • You won’t always feel this way.
  • God will see you through this.
  • I’m sorry you went through that/are going through this.
  • It’s okay to feel weak.
  • What can I do to support you?
  • Life is really hard sometimes. I’m with you.

At the end of the day, we don’t need to feel like our entire faith system has crumbled if we realize that everything doesn’t happen for a reason. This is very compatible with Christianity. God has a master plan, sure. But that includes true freedom that is born of Love. We are not predetermined to choose evil or to suffer evil “for a reason.” Indeed, we must suffer the consequences of our own poor choices and the poor choices of others and the incomprehensible, natural tragedies that no one can make sense of. God doesn’t promise us that there is a reason for these things. In truth… we should expect to not understand everything (Do you really want to be an expert in evil anyway?!). He only promises that all things will work together for the good of those who love Him (Romans 8:28).  He is a master, artisan weaver. And our lives will present to Him both beautiful, vibrant threads and the ratty old, ugly threads. He doesn’t just use the good in our lives. He also uses the evil to bring about His glory, and He will weave a stunning masterpiece if only we let Him.

 

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Hard Books Challenge

In the last Soul Gardening Journal issue, I wrote an article about something I think fairly important:  reading hard books.  I will copy and paste the full article below. But I thought it’d be interesting to see if the handful of readers here would be interested in doing a Summer Reading Challenge.  The goal is simple: read a hard book. If you are a super-biblio-zealot, read one of each three types of hard books I defined! My personal goal is to hit each of these categories every year and I’m exactly halfway there.  For the wildly curious, my “hard” reads for 2019 are:

The Long Book: The Lord of the Rings. I’m counting this as one book, as it should be counted. 1008 pages, not including appendixes. (I’ve linked to my aesthetically favorite edition of the first volume.) I read this in high school but it was about time for a revisit, and I am a better person because of it.

The Intellectual Book: Basic Economics. I’m actually listening to this book on Audible, which makes it more difficult for me since I’m not an auditory learner; I prefer ink on paper. But, bits here and there in the car or while folding laundry has been so incredibly eye-opening. I can’t emphasize the importance of this book enough. Sowell is an unparalleled thinker/writer in his calm, dispassionate nature. Now, while this book is written for the lay person and is pretty darn reader friendly, things like the stock exchange and regulatory bodies and rates of employment are just slightly beyond my intellectual comfort zone, which is what makes this book perfect for a bit of brain stretching. If I was still a homeschooler, this would be mandatory reading for my high-schoolers.

The Unwelcome Book: This isn’t set in stone, but I’m thinking I’ll be reading Harry Potter this year. Now, my aversion to this book isn’t entirely due to classic-literature-snobbery. It’s simply that my “to-do” list of books to read has so many other wonderful books on it that I don’t feel compelled in any way whatsoever to prioritize this contemporary piece of fiction. This, and morally ambivalent feelings aside, I feel like I have to read this book in order to at least have some sort of cultural literacy. Like it or not, Potterisms are everywhere and I really ought to have some context for things like Dumbledore and Hogwarts and Quidditch that I hear in the average American lexicon nowadays. So there’s that. Notice that I’m not linking it… because I don’t necessarily recommend it!

Here is the original Soul Gardening Article. Read something hard this summer! I’d absolutely be thrilled to see your choices!

Hashtag it #hardbookschallenge on Facebook, Instagram and whatever other e-life you live!

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On Reading Hard Books

Early into motherhood, I ran to books for diversion and interest. Any bibliophile reading this knows what I’m talking about: laundry piles and temper tantrums can be handled with grace so long as you have the salve of Pride and Prejudice or an inspirational Brené Brown book waiting for you offstage. In those initial, isolating years of limited adult contact, books become a woman’s best friend. This is good.

The past few years though, have forced me to reconsider my reading habits. When I began keeping a reading journal (and this is as fancy as a $2 spiral notebook where I write down the title of what I read and 2-3 sentences of my impressions of the book), I noticed the uneven distribution of types of books I read. So often, I was a consumer for the sake of consuming and binged on mind candy. And while I fully support the idea that motherhood is an important, sacrificial, all-consuming gift-of-self… I rather resented that my mind seemed to be increasingly unable to focus on anything more dense than memes and HuffPo articles. There were diapers to change, homeschooling lessons to write, and food sensitivities to research; who in the world has time for metaphysics?! But my reading journal has now developed into a personal challenge for myself in that it inspires (taunts) me to be more proactive in using my brain, developing my whole self. Because if any one of us thinks we’ve mastered the art of being educated—or even fully human— once we get a college degree or successfully raise a child to age 18, we are sorely mistaken.

So I seek now to graze from a more diverse literary palate and hard books is part of this. To me, there are three kinds of “hard.” My personal goal is to read one of each kind each year, along with liberal quantities of fun or purely interest-driven books.

    1. A hard book is a long book. With such technology-centered lives, our brains are literally rewiring themselves to skim and sort and turn away after 30 seconds of interest. We are Generation Click Bait. I once read somewhere about a study which predicted that the next generation of college graduates will be unable to read/comprehend something like Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Their brains just won’t have the processing power. I hope this is a dire, false prophecy, of course, but it does give me pause. This year I finally began and completed The Brothers Karamazov which has been on my list for over a decade. I faltered in and out of interest as I was knee deep in mandatory textbook reading at the time, but finally completed it as an audiobook on a long road trip— hearing the Russian pronunciations was quite helpful. What is considered a long book? Maybe something north of 500 pages…?
    1. A hard book is an unwelcome book. Sometimes, I think it is a good practice to read things that we don’t want to read. Yes! We risk living in a closed-off world of self if we only read things that confirm our own religious biases or lifestyle choices. Not interested in changing up your diet? No problem. But consider reading Michael Pollan’s books anyway. This year I read Primal Loss: The Now Adult Children of Divorce Speak, even though I already have firm convictions on the devastation of divorce. It’s a book I didn’t want to read, but did so anyway, just to be familiar with the experiences of this demographic (I recommend it for all people by the way, in troubled marriages or not). In a totally different vein, I think my next unwelcome book will be Harry Potter. I have zero interest in this series, but Potter-isms have become such a part of our cultural fabric now (what with rides at Disneyland, references to Hogwarts…  even my college professor quotes somebody named Dumbledore!) that I honestly feel a resigned sort of obligation to get a basic understanding of what the heck people are talking about.
  1. A hard book is an intellectual book. This is the type of book where you have to read the same paragraph three times just to understand what’s being said… when passages have your mind wandering to grocery lists or Facebook updates. Not everyone needs to read the Summa Theologica, but everyone should be challenging their own intellect wherever it happens to be, by reading something that requires discipline and focus. It can be theology, philosophy, history, foreign affairs. Whatever. The point is to push yourself to learn something from someone smarter than you and create new pathways in your brain to think. The book I wrestled with and conquered this year in this category was A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles.  I think it may have been the most difficult book I’ve ever read. Thomas Sowell’s language in this one is extremely academic. However, this book may also have been one of the most rewarding books I’ve ever read because it made me understand why there is such a gaping chasm between people’s political values. I feel far more understanding toward people  who have differing views from mine because of this book and am so grateful for this.

I love excellent fiction as much as any booklover. And I have read some works of enjoyable fiction that have taught me more about my faith than the catechism did (thank you, Elizabeth Goudge)! Similarly, I love reading little bits from Malcolm Gladwell and regularly dip into the self-help genre. So don’t get the idea that I’m trying to take away all the wonderful parts of reading. I’m just here to suggest that hard books are important. They challenge us. They inspire us. They sharpen our intellects. And they remind us that God gave each of us a beautiful brain to nourish and stimulate insofar as we’re able. So that after you read Plato’s Republic… you can cozy up to watching The Office reruns without any guilt.

-Ellie

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The Benefits of a Public Scandal

In a voice that carried all the way across the vestibule after Mass, the woman confronted me: “Did you go back to your husband yet?” And I had a brief storm of shame-filled fight, flight or freeze where my vision threatened to go black and my heart rate went up.  But I found myself just smiling and saying with what I hope was enough grace to mask the interior tempest: “That’s not a choice for me to make.”  This invited the upbeat suggestion to “Keep on praying!” (Me politely: “Yes, I won’t stop doing that.”)

Then I bolted.

My mind raced with anger and indignation for another 90 seconds while I got in my car. She has no idea … I rehearsed at least 3 other responses in my head that I wished I could go back and say: Things like “You know, unsolicited solutions are really unhelpful when you’ve never bothered to understand the problem.”  And well… ahem, other responses.

But at the end of it, I see this encounter as a blessing. It’s a reminder of the freedom I have. See, because my marriage fallout was so… public, there is much that I can’t control, including others’ perceptions. So, people are left to form their own conclusions. Despite claiming frequently that “It’s none of my business what other people think of me…” my heart isn’t always as quick as my reason. My pride took some painful blows in its early quest for exoneration. I wanted people to just know The Truth,™ and I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t misunderstood and that everyone knew I fought as hard as I possibly could to keep my marriage together and never aimed for its end. But when the fire alarms of life are going off left and right and everything around you is crumbling, there’s simply not enough time or energy to set up a full-blown PR campaign for justice. 

I have to surrender my image; thankfully, I do so willingly now. I have had to surrender many things along with my children, homeschooling, my home, my financial security and my social place. Interestingly, while some of these are griefs beyond words, the combined sum of these losses results in a positive. Flannery O’Connor said in a letter to a friend once: “We are all rather blessed in our deprivations if we let ourselves be, I suppose.”

One gift that has been given to me in this box of darkness is the freedom I have in knowing who I am and what I’m about. And when so much of your life gets stripped away, it’s like extracting a diamond from rocks: nothing is more precious and life-giving than knowing the origin of your dignity. It’s not from strangers making insensitive comments. It’s not from those who might say that you’re an irresponsible, cruel or unstable woman. Nor is it from those who might think you’re just a pious, veiled saint who can do no wrong. I reject all these. My dignity is from God alone, who knows every square inch of this blessed and flawed body and soul and loves me profoundly anyway. When you let go of allowing other people to define you (whether you’ve been forced to or can master yourself enough to), you are free to be little and to love your foolishness and to smile at the well-meaning but audacious voice that embarrassed you for a brief minute. Public scandals can be powerful teachers. And I am grateful to be an eager, imperfect, B- student.

 

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Truth Telling and Being Human

I woke up at 5 am, riddled with a sense of shame for my last post. I got online and deleted my Facebook link to it (hoping the few people who saw it before I did that wouldn’t notice). Then I went to my Instagram page to delete there too… but there was already too much interaction there; I didn’t want to “gaslight” those people and deny that it ever existed. The article will stay active on my site. So I forced myself to just let it be a lesson to me and move on.  Still working on that… which led to this.

What am I getting at here? Why was I embarrassed of a post called “Christian Music That Doesn’t Make Me Vomit”?  Because it wasn’t honest. It was a little bit loose and the tiniest bit incendiary (I went in and edited some of my more raw statements… ugh). I don’t want to be like that. I don’t want to use this platform to generate anything remotely inauthentic. The article content wasn’t so much the problem… but there are 100 other titles I could’ve used to be more considerate and thoughtful. Not just given way to my brash hyperbole that I know sounds more interesting.

I blame it partially on the wine. Drinking opens up thought channels and there’s often an thinner-than-gossamer thread I’m able to pick up that leads to some really productive writing. However, drinking also leads to the unfiltered side of people too (in vino veritas, after all) . And I think culturally, we like to celebrate that: “Be Yourself!” “Tell it Like it Is” “You Only Live Once,” etc. Society praises writers, artists, performers for being raw or uneditedas if we are trying so hard to get back to our liberated, primal selves. Virtue and Restraint get the finger and Crass and Vulgar get the red carpet and 5,000 “likes.” I reject this. There have been a number of writers I used to follow pretty closely that I can’t follow anymore. They sold out. They started using their voice to produce cheap, intelligent-sounding material that was more bitter-snark than gift-honoring. (To be clear, I love good snark! There absolutely is a time and place for it, but this is not what I’m referring to with these writers.)

While I’ve fallen prey to my ‘lower self’ a few times by publishing something I later regret, (usually, it’s fears of over-sharing that cause me to backpedal and delete… but occasionally, it’s because I’ve been more flippant or raw than I’d like to be), I only sometimes delete these things. I have left things up as a sort of “Badge of Shame” to myself on social media because I want to be reminded of my frailty in this regard. I can scroll through my social media feeds and think once or twice “Eesh… I probably shouldn’t have posted that.”

Why not? What’s wrong with being “real”? Well, in my opinion, being “real” isn’t about cultivating an artificial perception of yourself to people, but it is about putting forth your better side and not entertaining your lower side. There is no glory in being publicly unfiltered. The glory is in mastering ourselves, our inclinations and egos. Being authentic isn’t waving around your list of music that “doesn’t make you vomit”… or “10 fashion trends I’d like to violently kill.” (it’s not written but sits in the corner of my head…) Authenticity is about plunging the depths of who we are called to be. It is not about splashing in the shallow mud puddles of unfiltered thoughts and expressions.

Hemingway was spot-on when he said what he did about writing… only people can be drunk on more than just wine. They can be be drunk on anger, despair, lust, greed, pride… and the like. I normally have a 24 hour waiting period after I write something before I click “Publish” (there is a folder on my computer of unedited scraps that won’t see the light of public day until I have a chance to go through them) just so I can fine tune it and question my motives. By I bulldozed past that in my cheeky zeal with that last article.

We should all want to be fully and authentically human. Left to our own unfiltered devices, humans muck it all up with bravado or eccentricity and call it ‘being real’. But even if it’s “real”, it’s not necessarily true.  But by pausing, reflecting on our motivations for speaking, writing, sharing, etc… by making sure our hearts are ordered properly, we can access the most real and most true part of ourselves that were created in the image of the Father. That’s the authenticity I long for…

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God Will Probably Give You More Than You Can Handle.

They say “God will never give you more than you can handle.”

And not only do I think this is untrue, but I think it can be incredibly damaging. Very often God DOES give you more than you can handle. Telling someone that He won’t, will only cause them to feel inadequate or confused since they wonder why everyone is shouting out encouraging platitudes from a boat while they are drowning in the ocean: “Don’t worry! At least you can handle it!”

So… what if you can’t?

Oh you can’t handle it? Well, God certainly wouldn’t allow that so the problem must be that you aren’t faithful enough, not strong enough, not virtuous enough… etc. etc. etc.

What is left for an overwhelmed person to feel but utter discouragement?!

There is so much I have yet to learn. Each day I feel like I know less and less. Today the stars hide in the night sky. The wind chills to the bone. The very ground beneath me is uncertain. I have been given more than I can handle. Far more. On so many levels. And I rather resent hearing “God won’t give you more than you can handle,” because so very many of my days prove otherwise. What then, is my conclusion?! That God is a cruel and overbearing taskmaster throwing wrenches left and right at me just for fun?! That I’m not ‘good enough’ or ‘strong enough’ or ‘holy enough’ to handle it? None of these is a satisfactory answer. I know my power is in my weakness. My freedom is in my littleness. And my peace is in my surrender.

The only satisfactory answer left is that sometimes God DOES allow far more than you can handle!

But this is okay. We aren’t asked to ‘handle it.’ We are asked to be faithful. Plans might crumble. Hopes might be dashed to the ground. People might fail you. You might get sick. Life may be hard. And suffering may pitch a rather sturdy tent in your soul for a while…

Let it be done unto me.

Let it be done unto us. He never asked us to be strong enough. To carry the cross, perfectly, without faltering. He asked us to be faithful, even when—especially when— He gives us more than we can handle. His grace is sufficient.

“Jesus offers you the cross, a very heavy cross, and you are afraid of not being able to carry it without giving way. Why? Our Beloved Himself fell three times on the way to Calvary, and why should we not imitate Him?”

—St. Thérèse of Lisieux

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Plan B: Chapter 2

I’m beginning a new chapter of life. One that developed as a sort of plot-twist to the plan I had written out for myself. And it is filled with goblins and shadows. 900 different reasons to be afraid, to doubt and to run away. Starting in early May, I will begin full-time studies in a grad program working towards my Master’s degree and licensure in professional counseling. There has been well over a year of discernment on what exactly I ought to do with my life since it hasn’t gone how I anticipated. So I had to adjust. Per court orders, I had to get a job, wean my baby and find somewhere else to live. I have worked hard at the bottom of the ladder as a restaurant host for a year. It was humble work but I have been thankful for that paycheck… and getting paid to greet people and invoke in them a genuine smile is something kind of on the spectrum of wonderful. I learned a lot about the real world outside my stay-at-home, homeschooling mommy bubble and developed a genuine love for my coworkers. I am grateful it provided the stop-gap for me to make ends meet for my children.

During this time, I have been blessed in astonishing ways by countless people. Childcare that I couldn’t have otherwise afforded. Helping hands in repairing one home and setting up another while living with friends in the meantime. Anonymous monetary gifts that appeared at just the right time.  A three hour road-trip to bring my children to me for my father’s funeral. Homemade soup and a bottle of wine left on my front porch, a safe place to call home with generously reduced rent… the list of blessings goes on despite the continual onslaught of challenges during this time of transition. I have never known such kindness. And it hurts in the most painful, beautiful way. Turns out that people can be rather extraordinary…

And now, I am quitting my job and taking a massive leap of faith in God (and in the federal, student loan program), to devote myself full-time to these classes. The demands of solo-mothering seven incredible children and working part-time are already very challenging for me. Adding in a full academic load would make for an unsustainable lifestyle.

So I’m all in.

Regarding the counseling profession: many people go into counseling because they have a tremendous amount of compassion and empathy for others. That wasn’t my story at the outset. I have always found the human mind and heart intriguing… where people come from, why they think the way they do and how their experiences have shaped them. I used to pore over psychology textbooks in my early teens just to feed my curiosity. It’s been a fascinating study for my intellect. But a shift happened when my passion for understanding morphed from a purely scientific interest into a truly more genuine love for others. I have benefitted so much from my own counselor and the healthy thinking that has been offered to me through the past couple years of upheaval, that it has awakened in me a desire for helping others be restored to wholeness also.  Not that I have all the answers now (I don’t) or that I’m the perfect specimen of emotional-cognitive balance (Who is?).  But Peter Kreeft once said something to the effect of “I’m just one bum pointing out to another where there’s free food.”  And I like that thought. I don’t know exactly in what capacity I’ll practice this profession, but somehow, I want to point out bridges to wellness and authenticity for those struggling in their own minds or in their relationships too. There’s a part of me that is able to see and connect and love others through their own trials in a way I wasn’t able to before. I guess counseling for me is a career choice that began in my mind and perhaps only after taking a scenic route through the backwoods of trauma… did it find its way to my heart.

To be honest, what I choose to do to provide for my family is almost beside the point. Because above all else, I simply want to be as available and present as possible to my children. They deserve the best of me, not just me scraping by for the next 20 years trying to hold it together. I can do more for them. And through God’s grace, I will.

There have been many lessons for me over the past couple years… new understandings of what humility, love, mothering and friendship actually mean (and don’t mean) in practice. I know I still have so much to learn. Everything must be held with an open hand… all I can do is the next right thing—which is always providing what is best for my children. If I get the honor of helping others along the way, all the better. And so, this is the door that has opened in front of me that will provide a means to care for them the best way I can. 900 goblins being on the prowl and all…

So, yes; there are fears. Absolutely. But I can’t be a slave to those fears. There is an extremely questionable amount of “certainty” in front of me. Everything may not be okay for some time. However, I know that I’ve survived “not okay” before.  And I don’t expect my Jesus will abandon me now. I’m a great excuse for Him to show off His goodness to an unworthy woman who happens to be in very difficult circumstances. So to be courageous, for me—in this case— is an act of the will. I.e., there are so very many things that could go wrong, it is laughable in fact! But I’m choosing to not let that stop me. I am casting my net out into the deep and committing my will to my God, Whose ways are mysterious and Who can bring good out of even terrible situations. Because He is Love.

I know there is much unseen and perhaps misunderstood in all this. That’s okay. It’s not right to bare all the mysteries of the soul. And I don’t have time to agonize over that in the way I used to anyway. I am simply thankful for coffee, rain, juncos chirping in my yard and being Christ’s littlest idiot. May He do with me what He will.

Thank you all for your love and support.

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