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Posts Tagged ‘authenticity’

I want to be a tree in the woods

Where my branches reach rough and tumble

            toward the sky

And tangle with the leaves of neighbors.

A tree with a child’s uncombed hair

Where vines climb

And moss points the way home.

Where survival is both fight and collaboration

In the struggle, we share all we have.

In a storm, the forest trembles together

The one shelters the other

And no tree quakes alone

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“There’s a problem with the baby,” said the doctor, pressing the ultrasound probe to my belly. It was 2002, and I was 16 weeks pregnant, at the hospital for a normal prenatal checkup. I looked over at Steve. I could tell from his face that he understood that “problem” was a euphemism. The baby was dead.

The next piece of news was almost as bad. I was too far along for a D&C. I had to go home and wait for labor to start. A midwife told me to try not to think about it. Right.

Not only did I fail to distract myself effectively, I obsessed about this dead baby I was carrying. I felt like I couldn’t grieve, couldn’t say good bye, couldn’t move on. I was sad, but what I felt most was out of control. I so badly wanted this ordeal to be over.

I didn’t put this into words, but looking back, I can see that somewhere deep down I believed that if I prayed hard enough and often enough, if I wanted it enough, if I used enough mental and emotional energy, that somehow I could end the torture of waiting.

For two weeks I agonized over continuing to carry my lifeless child. Then the doctor decided to try to induce labor. I spent the weekend in the hospital hooked up to an IV, waiting for labor to start. At one point I was weeping under the weight of it all, and a nurse told me, “Don’t cry. You’ll give yourself a headache.”

The induction didn’t work. I went home again, still praying and straining with all my emotional might, as if I could do something.

About a week later, something clicked. I realized that ending this ordeal was truly not in my hands. Instead of praying that I would go into labor NOW, I started affirming that I released the timing into God’s hands. I made myself a mix tape (yeah, this was a while ago) of songs about release, surrender, and God being into control, and I listened to it over and over. When the ache of not being able to do anything hit, I came back again and again to opening my hands in a gesture of letting go.

The last week of waiting was actually peaceful. One month after finding out the baby was dead, I finally went into labor. I had previously wondered how women handled labor when they knew there would be no live child to hold on the other side. That wasn’t an issue. My experience is that labor pains fill our vision and we can’t think of the future, whether beautiful or tragic.

We saw our baby. I remember how each tiny rib stood out under the purple-grey skin, how the eyes were closed and the head a little misshapen from too long in a temporary grave.

The waiting was over. We could say good bye to our baby, and life could go on.

In another post, I talked about how during depression, something beautiful is growing, hidden in the darkness. But this gestating beauty often has a twin—death that is waiting to be released.  The birth of newness and the letting go of death both create labor pains that eclipse the view of what’s ahead.

Though unseen during depression (as in labor), a future still exists. That future holds the relief of final good byes to parts of our lives we have been needlessly carrying, and the future holds the emergence of new life that would have been unimaginable before going through the depths.

To me, these thoughts are gifts from a painful experience. The hope of both release and beauty occasionally peeks through the darkness of depression and encourages me. May these thoughts encourage you as well.

Photo by Jon Ovington, CC License

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Gestation of Darkness
(This is a silhouette of a pregnant woman in case you can’t tell)

I have recently been in the midst of the most severe bout of depression of my life. That’s saying a lot, for those of you who knew me 6 or 7 years ago. Part of how I have been helping myself is to draw almost every day. I’m not sure I’d call it art, but it is therapeutic.

When we are depressed, our bodies and everything around us seem consumed with darkness. But, because of my previous experiences of depression, I believe that hidden deep in the blackness is beauty that is growing and waiting to emerge. (It took me about two months and a hospital stay to start believing this again, so I’m not saying hope comes naturally in depression.)

In my first significant experience of depression as an adult, I experienced a deep knowledge of God accompanying me in my suffering. In my second depression, which also marked the beginning of what I would call the Dark Night of the Soul, I found all the foundations of my life unravelling. But most significantly, what unravelled (and still is coming undone, honestly) was a lot of unhealthy and unhelpful ways of relating to God. This period of time started opening space in my life for new appreciation of mystery, a reluctant willingness to face uncertainty, and a new practice of courage and authenticity both with myself and with others. These painful periods of my life have changed me for the better. And I’m beginning to believe that good change is on its way this time too.

That hidden gestation of beauty in the darkness is what I was trying to capture in my sketch this morning. And I wondered if it might give hope to someone else as well. I would love to hear in the comments if it means something to you.

From my heart to yours,

Christen

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Who is that? I think frantically to myself. I’ve just come out of the store, and a woman completely covered in black has just called out my name. All I can see is her eyes. They say the eyes are the window to the soul, but I’m not sure I know this woman’s soul well enough to tell who she is. Of course she recognizes me—I’m a blonde American wearing an abaaya. I stand out. We kiss and exchange greetings, and I finally figure it out—she’s the oldest daugher of my neighbors, here visiting from Qatar.

Rather than seeing people out and about, I much preferred sitting in women’s homes with them and drinking tea. Then I got to see them without all the coverings. I got to see them be funny and passionate, exuberant or sad. I got to glimpse who they really were.

Relating cross-culturally, it can be hard to get to that place. Because once you get off the literal veils, which don’t really matter that much, you still have a lot of unveiling to do. Invisible veils cover who we really are. There’s awkward communication and cultural disconnects, trying too hard to adapt, worry about unknowingly offending, feeling like you stick out like a sore thumb, wondering where your commonality lies, and if you have any at all.

But this is not just a cross-cultural phenomenon. It’s true for anyone, anywhere. There are veils of who I think I ought to be and trying to please people. Veils of being ashamed or insecure. Veils of reactiveness and triggers. Veils of how we get what we think we need and what it takes to feel safe. Veils of our paradigm for seeing the world and how we mistake that for who we really are.

I heard a beautiful illustration this week. A woman sits in the middle of the room. Each participant reads a sentence about painful experiences in her life, and then drapes a scarf over her head. One after another they read and drape, until it’s impossible to tell who is underneath the layers of cloth. Then, when we interact with her, we see all those coverings, not who she really is.

If we could see it, all the people we interact with, and we ourselves, are walking around hidden by layers of scarves, or swathed in black like my friend inBahrain. But we know and believe that underneath is something beautiful. Underneath is the image of God, the person we really are, the beauty we were created with. I want to see through the veils and recognize that reflection of God in each person I meet. And I want others to see that in me too.

Photo by Emerentian, CC License

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What Makes You Come Alive?

http://www.flickr.com/photos/dariosanches/2045172172/sizes/o/in/photostream/

“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” –Howard Thurman

 

What is your gut reaction when you read that quote? Mine is joy and then fear. First, I feel like someone handed me the world, and I glimpse joy, gratitude, and freedom. Then fear grabs me by the collar and yanks me back, saying, “You’re not allowed to take that gift!”

 But my “word” this year is permission. That’s what I’m saying back to those nasty little voices that say “you’re not allowed.”

There are many mixed messages about the meaning of life, being a good person, what it means to follow God, what our lives are “supposed” to be about, and I could cite an authority, along with a Bible verse, for every straightjacket that we wear. So who says what is allowed?

I’m giving myself permission to go with what I believe in my gut. And that is that God created each person unique, not so that they can fit into a mold or live within someone else’s idea of what God wants us to be like. Not so that we fit into a narrow vision of what the world needs. But so that we can experience what is a gift to ourselves and a gift to the world at the same time, the gift of unwrapping the uniqueness inside of us, and of living authentically, even if that doesn’t fit with who we thought we were supposed to be.

I want to be fully alive. What does being fully alive mean for you?

Photo by Dario Sanches, CC License

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Too Many Options

I have a confession. I worry a LOT about getting things right. Sometimes I worry so much that I get stuck and don’t make any decision at all. For me, this happens most often with spirituality and with writing, but sometimes it’s when I have an hour free and I have so many things I want to accomplish that it takes me the whole hour to choose one.

Does that ever happen to you? Do you know what issues summon this paralysis for you?

I first hit on a solution in Quaker meeting. Our meeting is “unprogrammed,” which basically means that we sit together in silence for an hour. I love it, but as I mentioned, I worry a lot about getting things “right” spiritually. I was finding myself spending so much energy trying to decide what I was going to focus on, and then second-guessing myself once I had decided on something, that I never really focussed at all.  Near the end of one of those hours it hit me: I needed to start the hour with an intention and then stick to it.

So the next week I did exactly that. In journaling the night before, I noticed a theme that I needed to marinate in a bit more, so I summarized it in one question. I decided that I was going to keep asking myself that question throughout the meeting, and whenever my mind went off on a tangent, I would bring myself back to that question. No second-guessing allowed!

You know what? It wasn’t perfect. It wasn’t the most amazing experience of my life. But it was powerful. I started where I was, I made progress, and I didn’t have to wait until I found the yellow-brick road before I started off for the emerald city.

Intention-setting has become my new favorite tool in overcoming fear and perfectionism. In order for it to work, I have to challenge the feeling that life will come to an end if I don’t make the right choice. I also have to remove the option of questioning myself after I’ve made a decision. Not surprisingly, I’m a lot more productive when I settle on something and stick with it, whether we’re talking about prayer or what to get done during the kids’ swimming lessons.  

So now, when I start noticing that anxiety creeping up and threatening to paralyze me, I take a reality check on how dire the consequences of imperfection really are, and I just choose something.

Photo by brO, CC License

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On Thanksgiving morning I checked my facebook, as I often do. I clicked on a link a friend from the Middle East had posted, and all of a sudden I was face to face with pictures of a man whose head had been blown open during the Arab Spring protests. As I clicked the images closed, I felt almost as violently assaulted with the juxtaposition of this suffering and pain against cheery Thanksgiving messages.

All day I struggled. Physically, I was in the world of turkey and stuffing and apple pie, but mentally I was feeling guilty and ashamed to be celebrating in a safe place with my family when I have friends hurting in other places.

When I talk about this kind of survivor’s guilt, other people’s heads nod in solidarity. It’s a common experience, but not a road that ends well.

Here are some thoughts I have about survivor’s guilt and combating it:

Recognize dichotomistic thinking. When we see thousands of people dying, wounded, and homeless from an earthquake, our brains tend to go to a place where our lives are perfect and their lives are terrible—and why should we have it so good? We separate “our lives” from “their lives,” and we paint a sharp contrast between the two. Not only is the reality is less clear cut, but this automatic way of thinking separates us from those who are hurting rather than connecting us.

Focus on our connection rather than our separation. In truth, our lives are not all good, and their lives are not all bad. Though we may not have experienced the same disaster or magnitude of suffering, we do know pain. Whether we are faced with a large-scale tragedy or a friend who is hurting, opening our hearts to the common experience of loss and heartache allows us to replace guilt with empathy.

Accept our shared helplessness. I think feeling guilty is one way we cope with the terror of seeing the helplessness of the human condition. We cherish our sense of control and the related fantasy of fairness in life. When we are confronted by undeserved tragedy, it helps to allow ourselves to grieve over the powerlessness of both the sufferers and ourselves, rather than mentally fighting to maintain our illusion of control.

Choose actions carefully. Acting from guilt or from separation rather than from connection can do more harm than good. For large scale problems, we may desperately throw money at the tragedy without carefully considering the most helpful channels for those resources. For more personal problems, we may feel inclined to try to fix the problem or make it go away in order to deal with our discomfort. This often ends up coming across as “helping” from a position of superiority, rather than from a place of equality, and it belittles the sufferer. In either situation, slowing down, allowing ourselves to connect and be vulnerable enough to empathize, and waiting for wisdom can lead to more purposeful, calculated, and useful action.

Do you struggle with guilt when you see others in pain? What helps you overcome guilt and move to a more constructive place?

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