Friday, January 5, 2018

The Forgiveness Myth

I do not enjoy forgiving people because it makes me feel like a doormat. I would honestly rather get all Carrie Underwood/Miranda Lambert up in their faces flaunting a shotgun or a gossip column or a skilled shade-throwing rapper or some other medium of revenge. Essentially, I don't want to act like nothing is wrong because something is wrong and I would be deceiving the world to pretend there isn't. Honesty matters.

Additionally, people I love and I have been lied to, cheated, manipulated, scandalized, and verbally abused, to our faces and behind our backs. These are unacceptable behaviors that I never want to excuse. Consequences can impede the offender from inflicting further hurt. That's a good thing.
But I also don't want to be accused of "playing the victim" (even if I happen to be one), ruining someone's reputation, or judging someone solely for their mistakes. There are often explanations (not necessarily excuses) for the behavior of others that I may be unaware of. I am a mature and gracious 22-year-old woman who can handle herself. Sometimes.

The dialogue above usually leaves me stuck in a nebulous mess of emotions wondering what to do whenever I am hurt, thinking that forgiving = being a doormat but resisting = being a bitch *ahem* unkind person. I call this the forgiveness myth. So, to alleviate some of that confusion for myself and others, here are a few forgiveness myths that trip me up when I'm processing painful situations, which I have become a bit better at recognizing and refuting. Hopefully you can find some clarity from these reflections, too.

Myth #1: Forgiveness means restoring the relationship to the way it was before. 

100% FALSE. Forgiveness and reconciliation are two separate things. None of my relationships with people who hurt me stay the same after I've truly forgiven them. Keeping things the same is a sign that I'm burying the problem instead of working through the forgiving and healing process. When a friend or family member does something wrong, one of two things needs to happen, depending on the offense and on the degree to which remorse is expressed. 

If the injury was less grave, and/or if the person shows true regret (key word shows, not says) then after an honest discussion and an offer of forgiveness, plus whatever amount of time I need to heal, the relationship will usually grow stronger. This is a result of the increased honesty that comes from confronting a conflict together and the increased trust that comes from seeing that person strive to treat me better. I call that reconciliation and it is obviously the preferred outcome.

Yet in some cases, the person has hurt me so deeply or has shown such a lack of respect or empathy that the relationship will suffer. This is the case especially if someone enacts a pattern of harmful behavior rather than an isolated instance. I will then choose to invest less time and trust, avoid one-on-one encounters, or even cease contact with the person all together. Minimizing or ending a hurtful or abusive relationship does not mean you aren't being forgiving. Forgiveness is not an arbitrary virtue; it has a purpose. The purpose of forgiveness is to treat all human beings with respect and love for their intrinsic value, and to put an end to the cycle of hurting them. If I withheld my forgiveness from someone, that would be reducing them to the sum of the bad thing(s) they did to me instead of treating them like a person with inherent goodness, and in my bitterness I would be wishing for or even instigating further hurt, this time directed at them and not me. I can instead choose to wish for or instigate healing for that person. But I am a person too, so I owe respect to myself as well. Therefore if I have reason to believe that a someone will continue to seriously hurt me by staying in my life, it is in keeping with the value of forgiveness to cut off that relationship. Healing the trauma, vices, and destructive habits of others is not my responsibility in every case.

Myth #2: Forgiveness is a one-and-done deal.

Usually, FALSE. Human existence is about progress, not perfection. I think a large portion of my reader demographic is familiar with the biblical advice of Jesus to forgive people "not seven times but seventy-seven times" (Matthew 18:22). I used to interpret that as Jesus advocating for giving individuals second and seventy-seventh chances. I still think it can and should be read that way (God knows I've messed up more than 77 times in my life and could stand to have Him cut me a little slack,) but I also read it in a new way now. I think sometimes you need to forgive the same incident more than once, that it can take 77 times before the forgiveness really sticks. You have to come back to it and take it a layer deeper each time. I've thought I had reached complete forgiveness before only to grow in an unexpected way later in life and find out that the old wound is radiating a new pain now that I see situations in my past differently. It takes some reflection and self-awareness over the course of multiple growing periods, not a eureka moment of magic and grace, to heal some of the worse hurts in my life.

Myth #3: Forgiveness makes you feel better.

FALSE. (Unfortunately.) Forgiving people is not nearly as satisfying as throwing eggs at their houses. If forgiving someone feels crappy to you, it does not mean you are a terrible person. It means you have a conscience. Consciences come with a desire for justice. You might really want someone to make amends or suffer consequences for their mistakes if they hurt you. That's natural and even justified, and is not incompatible with forgiving someone. The neighborly old man forgives Johnny for breaking his window with a baseball, but Johnny still has to pay up for a new window. It's good for Johnny, even, because in theory it teaches him to be more careful in the future. If a not-so-neighborly old man whacks Johnny with the baseball bat and tells him to go drown in a creek, that's a different story. Wanting justice is one thing, wanting evil or harm for the other person is a whole other ball game.

Note: You may not get to see Taylor Swift and the Justice League show up to dish out a healthy serving of karma, because that's not always your job. You get to impose consequences in some cases. but in others you will feel a disturbing lack of closure. Forgiveness, however, is still your job no matter what. I'm still working on accepting this one. It's hard to love somebody who got away free in your eyes. It's hard to love somebody you aren't speaking to anymore. Personally, I have to ask the man upstairs for help regularly and trust him to sort things out for me. I also have to mind my own business and put my energy into the things I want and need to do instead of into uncooperative people beyond my control.

Myth #4: Forgiveness is selfless. 

FALSE-ISH. This is one of my favorites. This is where the forgiver gets the good end of the deal in spite of the nasty painful stuff we just talked about in #3. Forgiving others is actually a form of self love, because being merciful to others forces you to be merciful to yourself. When you are extremely hard on others, you are likely to feel the need to apply the same severity to yourself when you make a mistake. But avoiding the habit of using mistake-making as a measure of personal worth can reverse some of that unnecessary emotional violence. You are more than your own collateral damage. You are not perfect. You may have done as bad as or worse than the people you are angry with. You will at times be angry with yourself. You deserve forgiveness, too (even for not being good at forgiving). You should be challenging and pushing the limits on your ability to forgive because it is good for others AND because it is healthy for YOU.

Another cool "selfish" thing about forgiveness is that when you are the injured party you get to make the rules. You know the situation and the harm inflicted the best, so you should be the one to choose what will best allow you healing. People will try to tell you that you are not forgiving enough or not forgiving correctly, or will even say you are "too forgiving." These people do not see your injured heart from the inside. Listen carefully to advice from people who know you well and whom you trust, but ultimately only you can know what is right and appropriate as far as the future of a broken relationship goes. You do not need to explain to everyone why you are ending a friendship, or why you are rebuilding one. Those who care about you should follow your lead in caring for yourself after a painful experience.

CHRISTIAN BONUS-- Myth #5: God doesn't forgive you till you forgive others.

First, God is outside of time, you puny human. In all seriousness, God doesn't forgive- he IS forgiveness. He enacted this integral part of his identity by sacrificing himself on the cross and that sacrifice is an eternal umbrella that covers every moment wherein you have screwed up and every moment wherein you have sought his forgiveness. God doesn't change. He exists as a constant source of love and mercy. What changes is our openness to those graces. 

Also, as I said before, forgiveness and reconciliation are two different things. God is always forgiving, but this is only the beginning of who He is. He also longs for reconciliation with us. He wants us to let Him back into our mistakes so He can help us to heal. This is a strong desire, not a condition. God's forgiveness is perfect and ours is human, which means that "forgive us as we forgive" is only half the story. God challenges us to forgive the way He does, but don't put God on hold because you know he expects you to forgive and you can't yet. Let him be a part of the process.
Love to you all,

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Ready, Set, Collide

She said, "The dangerous thing about that mindset is that it projects fear onto outside forces, when in reality, the demons are inside us." 

Have you ever heard just one line of poetry, one piece of advice, one song lyric, one aphorism that rearranges the whole system of your thoughts?

The quote above, courtesy of my therapist, did just that for me.

I was going through an excruciating breakup, trying to get a grip on my newly-identified anxiety and depression, and to top it all off, dealing with that phase of growing pains right between adolescence and adulthood.  I wanted to be independent and make my own decisions, but at the same time adult life was already hurting me, and I was afraid of it. I was pretty much ready to hide under my blankets and never come out.

Instead, I was sitting in her office on a red couch that was trying so hard to be comfortable that it almost swallowed me, pouring out my woes as casually as possible and trying not to reach for the very obviously placed box of tissues. I didn't have the right to cry. I was 20, I believed in God, I had a loving family, I shouldn't need to have an emotional breakdown.  My life should be under control.

She was good at noticing all those "shoulds" that have consumed me for years. I absorb them everywhere.  I existed half in a world of cookie-cutter Christians that all went from homeschooling to Catholic colleges (except me) and had strong opinions about what kind of clothes and music were appropriate in churches, and half in a hectic family of eight dealing with the death of a grandfather and two male toddlers who had no low-volume setting. It was a hot mess, so I knew I couldn't be one, too. There was no room for my inconvenient needs or mistakes. The fact that I even had to be here made me a failure; I had messed myself up badly enough to need special treatment.

I explained to her how I had taken the risk of dating someone from outside the "fortress" of the Catholic homeschool community despite their skepticism, and the whole thing had fallen apart, making me doubt my own judgement and feel the need for childlike reliance on my parent's wisdom more than ever. I explained that as frustrating as it was, the most obvious course of action for me was to try to forget my pain ever happened and retreat back into the safe zone under the protection and guidance of other smarter, holier people.

She listened with this intent, almost frowning look on her face, nodding slowly. Then it was her turn.

"I used to homeschool my kids," she started. "And I met some very good people with good intentions, but I couldn't help but feel out of place once I put my kids in public school. Because you're right, that culture tends to be very fear-based and the dangerous thing about that mindset is that it projects fear onto outside sources when in reality the demons are inside us."

She was right. I may be confused about where I'm going. I may not be safe.  I may be messed up. I still deal with a lot of the problems I brought to her on a daily basis, but I refuse to die inside yet. I also refuse to believe that hiding under the blankets will solve it. I learned from Lecrae Moore that "You can't be part of the healing process if you run away at the sight of blood." I learned from Miguel de Unamuno that "una fe que no duda es una fe muerta." (Translation: Faith that does not doubt is dead faith.) I learned from Pope Francis that a church soiled by the mud of the streets is preferable to a church suffocated by staying isolated indoors (Evangelii Gaudium, paraphrase).  I learned from myself that the only way to survive the world and still have a heart at the end is to collide head-on with it. That's why I chose the title of this blog. I write because I am outgrowing my hiding places and I am trying to bring you out into the open with me before I let my demons kill me.

Hiding from imperfection is not avoiding evil; it's avoiding redemption. 

Choosing not to say anything when you know your friend is struggling is hiding from redemption. Giving up on forgiving someone after what they did hits you in the heart for the seventeenth time is hiding from redemption. Shutting down your blog because you feel like you say the same thing over and over and no one gets it (including you yourself) is hiding from redemption. Working your butt off so that you don't have to think about how much pain you're in is hiding from redemption. Holding yourself to an inhuman standard of perfection so that you never have to admit you're afraid God doesn't love you is hiding from redemption. Not allowing yourself to cry in front of people who seem to have it together is hiding from redemption. Spending time exclusively with an elite group of Christians who put up the same facade you do is hiding from redemption. Assuming you already know how God feels about you or about anyone else is hiding from redemption.

What God Actually Wants 101 (Don't get mad this is from the Bible not me okay): 

Person who dresses correctly, follows rules, gives donations, offers knowledge to others, surrounds self with like-minded individuals, is easily offended by sin, makes self useful, reads scripture and proclaims it to others= "brood of vipers."

Person who hurts self and others, doesn't understand rules, is cast out by community, asks for help, feels inconvenient, blames self before others, appears to be wasting time or resources, deserves to be punished, publicly admits shortcomings= literally all the people Jesus had meaningful and healing interactions with. 

This is why I don't understand God.  In fact I think most of us don't, especially the ones who grow up thinking we do-- like me. I am at a point in my life where I'm not really sure I know who God is or what He wants, because I'm finding out it is often the opposite of what I would attribute to him. I still assume I know. I still hurt people. I still don't take care of myself. I still hold grudges and neglect responsibilities and want my own way. And I still hide under my blankets.  I know I said that wasn't the answer, but I still do it.

The Catholic Church celebrates Holy Week this week, which is a week about not hiding from something terrible. This is when Catholics remember that Jesus was convicted of criminal activity, tortured and publicly executed by the Roman Empire at the request of those brood-of-viper-people, and then somehow miraculously was seen alive three days later.  They say that all happened because He thought it was important for you to know He doesn't like those perfect people any better than you. There's even an indication that He still loves you even though He knows about all those things you did and why you did them. But that's not my business or your mother's business or your boyfriend's business or even the Pope's business. That's between you and Him to determine whether it's true.

Honestly you don't need me to tell you why you're hurting or which part of you needs fixing or what the solution is. The real demons aren't out here in the world somewhere for me to pin down and write away. They're the ones you already know really well because you are dealing with them right now as you read. You might call them sins or addictions or bad habits or maybe illnesses or heartbreaks or failures. They're not all your fault, but they are still yours. You probably hate them more than anything in the world, when you slow down enough to feel their presence.

If you can relate to any of this, I'm sorry I can't destroy them for you but I'm here for you. I'm still trying instead of caving to anxiety and doubt and depression because of you, because I want to prove to myself and the world that we misfits are loved. We are the ones who are called the children of God-- whether we like it or not. We are the ones who Redemption is happening for. And it--He--doesn't need you to do this thing properly.

He wants you, ready or not, to collide with His messy, crazy love. That's the only way He ever uses to bring things back to life, and if it breaks you, he is strong enough to pick up the pieces.

That is the God I believe in.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Anxiety and Depression: 7 Things You Can Do To Help

I wish I didn't have to write this post. Unfortunately, I think it is needed.

People with mental illness have been accused of using their illness as a crutch.  They have been blamed for not trying hard enough to get better. We know so many people who think taking a medication for our illness is "unnatural" that we're amazed we ever talked ourselves into going to the doctor for a prescription. We've been told we just need to think more positively and that will fix our attitude. Our doctors make remarks like "everyone gets stressed in college," and we wonder if we're overreacting. We've heard family and friends talk about mental illness as if they are authorities, assuming that we just need to "deal with it."  Some people are willing to offer support to us only on the condition that we are not "using depression/anxiety as an excuse."  And last but absolutely not least, there is the classic religious response that anxiety and depression are a spiritual attack straight from the devil himself and that if we were holy enough we could just shake it off.

 The people who said these sorts of things to me are for the most part people who care about me and mean well. I believe that they intended to help, comfort, or advise me. The problem is that I have tried to believe almost every one of these perspectives and my anxiety has twisted them even further out of reality. I have convinced myself that all the suffering is my fault, that I am the problem and that I could be getting better faster if I wasn't so selfish and lazy and defective and problematic.  These beliefs have had such an unhealthy grip on me (and on others with mental illness) that I am writing this post to explain and defend myself to the world, something no one should really have to do.  I am writing this to convince myself just as much as to convince you.

This is what mental illness stigma looks like.  In fact, this is a really good example to illustrate that mental illness is not rational.  Anxiety and depression are different from stress and sadness and lethargy because they aren't proportionate to the reality of situations and they can't be cured or silenced by factual observations.

But, facts are still important.  For example, it's a fact that depression and anxiety are real chemical imbalances in the brain. It is a fact that people can genetically inherit these illnesses, and that they may need treatment- which for some people may be a medication to restore the chemical balance. It's a fact that even though they are mental illnesses, anxiety and depression have physical symptoms like fatigue, loss of sleep, cold hands, panic attacks, muscle tension, and more.  It is a fact that more than 15 million adults in the United States struggle with depression and more than 40 million struggle with anxiety disorders.  So, by extension, it is also a fact that there is likely someone in your life dealing with one of these illnesses and you don't even know it. It is a fact that that these illnesses are treatable...but there is a difference between "treatable" and"curable."  There is a difference between coping effectively with an illness and not having an illness at all, a difference between finding healthy solutions to a problem and not having a problem to begin with.

Finally, it is a fact that these illnesses are serious and need to be taken seriously.  It is a fact that depression can be lethal.  It is a fact that some people who do not get the help they need die from mental illness. It is not trivial, and it deserves more than a band-aid or a casual anecdote in the way of support.  I hope that if you have read this far, it means you care enough to want to help.  It can be hard to understand mental illness if you have never experienced it, and you may not know where to start.  I am here to help you help us.  My suggestions are not exhaustive and they may not apply universally for every person with a mental illness, but they are a good starting point and will hopefully help you to communicate with your friends and relatives about the support they need.

1. Remind us to take care of ourselves.
If we seem to be overextended or just plain hard to put up with, this is the best place to start.  Did we get enough sleep? Have we eaten anything healthy recently? Have we eaten at all? Do we need a cup of tea or a hot shower? When was the last time we took our medication? My best friend and I both deal with anxiety and depression on a daily basis and check-ups like these are one of the most important things we do for each other. We can easily get so wrapped up or bogged down in our anxiety that simple self-care slips our minds or at least takes a backseat to our raging internal dialogue. Depression especially can drain us of the motivation we need to complete these care routines. This can make us irritable, numb, and unyielding and we will probably not be able to appreciate any of the other help you may have to offer, however wise it may be, when we are in this burnt-out state.  You can show you care by offering that motivational nudge.

2. Be patient with us.
When you know you have a mental illness and you know your thought patterns are not always healthy, it can be very difficult to sort out your thoughts.  If you need us to explain why we are upset, why we are making a certain decision, or why we feel the way we do, try not to put us on the spot.  It takes time and space for us to sift through our thoughts and weed out the ones that don't make sense so that we can communicate what really matters to us about the situation. We want to open up, but it's challenging when we don't get the room we need to do so.

We also appreciate your patience because we know our moods or outbursts are difficult to handle, and we want them to stop just as much as you do.  It's okay to ask us to work on this, but realize we will again need time to develop the strength and the strategies needed for curbing these reactions.

3. When in doubt, ask questions instead of assuming.
It is okay for you to not understand us.  We are not offended that you are still learning about what helps and what doesn't.  We aren't disappointed if you don't have the answer to improving our health right away. But please, try not to assume you know everything about an illness you've never experienced. If you really want to become an expert, you will need to spend more time reading and listening than you do talking.  If you're like the average person and don't have time for that much extensive research, feel free to ask simple questions when you need to care for or understand someone with depression or anxiety.  You can start in the comments on this post if you want!

It's also good to ask questions because this both helps us open up and feel a little more in control.  We don't want to be spoiled or babied through our illness; in fact, we really like those times when we feel strong and capable. If you assume we need you to do things for us that we actually want or like to do on our own, it can seem like an insult to our competence even if it is well-meant. Try to steer clear of assumptions of all kinds and this will help us immensely.

4. If we confide in you, respect our privacy.
I have been very open about my struggles with mental illness, mostly because I know I have a few understanding people backing me up and because I think I can make a small difference by speaking up and educating others.  Not everyone with a mental illness is this comfortable talking about it...honestly, "comfortable" is a strong word even for me. It is very difficult to discuss anything that makes you feel vulnerable. The rushes of thoughts and emotions that come with anxiety and depression are tricky to navigate, and as I mentioned in #2 we don't always understand them ourselves, much less have the ability to explain them to others.  If someone talks to you about their anxiety or depression, you should treat that information carefully and respectfully. Except in cases of emergency, don't share what they told you without their permission. You may simply be looking for better understanding or advice about how to help your loved one when you consult others, but first recognize the courage and trust it took for them to approach you at all. If you still can't decide, see #3.

5. Don't joke about mental illness. Seriously, don't be that guy. 
Hopefully this one is obvious. Making us laugh, even at ourselves, is good.  Very good. Laughter boosts us up against anxiety and depression and we are all for that! Just don't use "humor" that criticizes or misrepresents our illness, even if we're not around.  (As we've already discussed, there is probably someone among your family, friends, or acquaintances that has anxiety or depression and just hasn't told you.) So, telling people to "jump off a cliff" as an affectionate joke? Not okay. Asking sarcastically if someone has taken their meds yet when they seem emotional? Also not okay. I think you get the picture.

6. Don't blame yourself. In fact, don't blame anybody. 
By this time you may be thinking to yourself, "Crap, I've done some or all of these things wrong!" Honestly, in that case, I'm proud of you. You're reading something to educate yourself on how to do better and you're willing to admit your mistakes. Go, you! You should know that it is not your fault that someone close to you is struggling with anxiety or depression. These illnesses often seem to worsen as a direct result of specific experiences or interactions and that makes people feel guilty that something they did or said made the illness worse. This struggle is often especially difficult for parents of individuals with mental illness. They can feel like they failed to recognize the illness soon enough, failed to get their child the right help, failed to prepare their child for certain challenges or to teach them to cope properly. They may even feel that their child is repeating their mistakes. I am here to tell you that taking your loved ones' mental illness personally will not help anyone. You will be a better support if you focus not on whose fault the illness is but on how best to support your loved one through their treatment. (Besides, science points to anxiety and depression being genetic, not just circumstantial.)

7. Let us experience our healing even if it's not what you expected. 

My favorite movie about mental illness is Disney/Pixar's Inside Out.  I highly recommend the movie to anyone interested in learning more, and I'll try not to spoil too much, but in the movie the main character Riley starts to struggle with depression.  At first, this consists of more sadness than usual, but eventually both the characters Joy and Sadness disappear, leaving Anger, Fear, and Disgust behind to hold down the fort (these three emotions are very prevalent in my experience of anxiety). Riley has to get back both Joy and Sadness to move forward. Sometimes, acknowledging sadness is essential to healing. The most common misunderstanding about anxiety and depression that I have encountered is that trying to be positive will fix everything. I think the bigger problem is that I feel obligated to put on a positive front instead of unpacking, understanding, and working through my negative emotions. Perhaps the greatest challenge of having anxiety and depression is finding the right people, places, and opportunities for doing this.
My healing process so far has become very personal, but sometimes I feel as if my solutions and decisions get put under a microscope because all those concerned for my health want to have a say about what I should be doing. It's really hard to heal under a microscope. I want to be able to find the best solutions for me through trial and error and sometimes my own intuition. The more my family and friends allow me to do this while standing by for me to fall back on when I need them, the stronger I will become.  Unconditional love and support as a backdrop to a personalized program of professional help and other remedies or coping mechanisms is the help I need.

I hope these thoughts and tips help you.



Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Heart of Gold

I have anxiety.

I started seeing a therapist this summer because the emotional breakdowns got worse, and I was getting so overwhelmed that I'd just procrastinate on everything, even simple tasks like replying to emails or doing my laundry.  I was brave enough to try therapy because of the influence of a few understanding friends. I've been learning why my hands are always cold (physical symptom of stress) and why I eat so much pasta (craving carbs = imbalance in serotonin levels).  I'm finding some comfort just in the fact that something really is wrong with me and it's not necessarily all my fault.

But I still have to struggle with the three-headed monster that is my mental illness.  The cascade of thoughts churning in my head is a familiar sensation now and I dread it. Some of the worries are rational, some are not.  Some come back over and over while others seem to pop up out of nowhere.  It's like Audrey Assad says: "Just when I think I've reached the center of my heart, I inevitably discover inside myself whole worlds and galaxies that terrify me." That's why I have to write- I am continually learning about myself and I write mostly about not what I have already mastered, but what I am currently learning and struggling against.  There are some nights I read my own words and feel as if a stranger wrote them, someone much smarter, stronger, and better than I am.  But it helps to know I have the power to express myself in a way that lets others relate and learn with me.  It helps to know when my thoughts get ugly that I can still create something beautiful.

The anxiety can be scary and painful, keeping me awake and overly involved trying to juggle the problems, but it doesn't threaten me quite as much as the other two monsters I live with.  In fact, the anxiety is sometimes what prompts me to put on the happy face and helping hands that a lot of people know me for.  It turns me into a sponge, absorbing the emotions and concerns of everyone around me.  And helping people makes me happy when I can manage it.

It's the depression that stops me.  The utter exhaustion after chasing every wild goose of a thought the anxiety throws at me.  The sudden and random surges of loneliness, both when I'm at home in bed in an empty room or when I'm at parties and public functions surrounded by people. The anxiety makes me cry my eyes out sometimes, but the depression makes me feel unable to cry, which is even worse.  To lose your heart, your capacity for emotions, your empathy, can make you feel like the monster.  It is strange to be so lost and isolated that you miss yourself.

Anxiety and depression are in a sense two sides to the same coin, despite how different they are.  I have slowly become suspicious that they are both symptoms of a deeper problem, minions of a more terrible monster.  At least for me, they stem from my perfectionism, which I've written about before both as my blessing and my curse.  I have too fickle an idea of perfection to be a good perfectionist.  I listen whenever my anxiety tells me what things in life to value and what things to cast aside.  It's like being King Midas-- you learn that gold is the ultimate treasure, so you start to fight all the raw, authentic little imperfections that make life and people beautiful, squeezing the life out of things, leaving them glittering cold and hard.  You give up on your desires to fill the mold of the ideal.  And eventually, you turn your own heart and everything you love to gold.

I am trying to learn how to get mine back.

I am trying to allow things to live and breathe in my life.  I am trying to love the fact that I'm human.  I am trying to teach myself that I don't have to be complete or "fixed" before I can be happy.

This probably seems different from my standard blog post.  It's a bit of a downer.  You may very well be wondering why I'm telling you all of this.  I'm not quite sure.  I think different people are meant to read this for different reasons.  I have often been surprised by the response my writing evokes.  I just know that I am supposed to write it because it is an act of defiance toward my fear and because it is dangerously honest.  And if I become more honest, maybe I can stop hiding from my imperfection and pretending to have a heart of gold.

"I will sprinkle clean water over you to make you clean; from all your impurities and from all your idols I will cleanse you. I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh." ~ Ezekiel Chapter 36 verses 25-26

Thank you for reading this.

Love, Sarah

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Why I'm Dating That Guy With Green Hair (or Love, the Receiving End)

" I guess it's true that love is all you wanted/ cause you're giving it away like it's extra change/ hoping it'll end up in his pocket/ but he leaves you out like a penny in the rain..." ~Taylor Swift (yes, Taylor Swift is in my philosophical reflective post; sorry not sorry.)

I started dating for the first time this past December.  The best word I can think of to describe it is: surprising. And no, that's not just because my boyfriend does things like dye his hair the color of the ocean or randomly buy me a HUGE bag of Reese's peanut butter eggs ( the middle of Lent. Luckily I didn't give up chocolate this year. Besides, it's the thought that counts, right?) It's because dating is nothing like I thought it would be. We go on dates sometimes and we love each other, but other than that I can't say it matches my expectations.

Perhaps the biggest surprise is that sometimes dating makes me feel terribleNot my boyfriend. Dating.  My boyfriend is a kind and awesome person who tries very hard to make me happy.  That is why sometimes, I feel like a terrible person.  Because often, I am not happy at all and my non-happiness no longer affects only me.

I am grumpy, irrational, and negative. I am irresponsible.  I am impatient.  I am anxious.  I am afraid.

He worries about me.

Kyle wants me to stop being so hard on myself.  He knows I need to take care of myself and he tries to take care of me, too.  And it's honestly confusing for me.  I am still unused to the phone calls where I can talk about and work through my anxieties, the offer of hugs or even a shoulder to cry on after a long day, the amused toleration of my grumpiness, messy hair, and weird food choices (why am I randomly obsessed with applesauce? nobody knows.) Sure, I do nice things for him just like I try to do nice things for everybody, but why would he pick me? 

People tell you often that loving the right person will bring out the best in you, and I think it's true.  My boyfriend doubles my enthusiasm, my goofiness, and my sense of accomplishment.  I also think he brings out the worst in me, which isn't really something people warn you about.  The truth is, trying to communicate and cooperate with another human being on a daily basis pretty much puts all your flaws you might be vaguely aware of (or avoiding completely) under a microscope.  I have a lot of issues.  Sometimes I'm tempted to call things off between us just because I'm so discouraged by my imperfections and worry they will discourage him, too.  I want him to be happy and I feel like I get in the way even if he denies it.

It's in my nature. I take care of people.  I have five younger siblings.  I have a lot of friends who come to me for advice because they're the kind of introverts who don't do the whole "feelings" thing or because they trust my empathy.  I have students now who rely on me to teach them.  There are younger girls at my church who look up to me.  So I take care of people, dang it.  I took the "it is in giving that we receive" part of that Saint Francis prayer to heart and gave away love like extra change, hoping it'd come back in my direction eventually but assuming it was only fair if it didn't. And when I felt I hadn't earned it, I pushed it away because I couldn't love myself enough to accept it.  I feel sometimes like I owe the world the straight A's, the service in my parish, the things that got me labeled "good".  Good example, good girl, good job.  In my mind, my worth depended on these things that I did and how well I did them.

I have become someone I can be proud of, but not always someone I can love.   Pride does not mean loving yourself.  Pride and love are two entirely different things, and pride has me trying to win the world record for perfectionist people pleaser.  I question whether I deserve to be loved, supported, and forgiven so much and so often-- in spite of the fact that I have learned to love, support, and forgive others. I'm uncomfortable with the idea of "deserving" anything, actually.  I didn't even have to exist; my whole life is a gift to me, so my whole life should be a gift back to the world. I do this to such an extreme that I almost threw myself under the bus and didn't date Kyle because I didn't know if my family and friends would like him as much as I do.  I do this to such an extreme that I still feel that it is a challenge for me to believe God loves me.  Unless I'm perfect, and I never am. 

I have tried so hard to give love, that I forgot how to receive it.

Until I started falling for someone who only tried harder after every mistake he made, who forgave himself, who actually believed me when I told him how amazing he was.  He has grown so much in confidence and accomplished so much just in the short amount of time we've been dating.  And I find the way he embraces being human and imperfect so inspiring.  Even better, he loves me whether I think I deserve it or not, just like they always told me God does. He's helping me understand one of the major flaws in the way I imagine God, and helping me heal it. 

God is okay with me being weak and imperfect like a little child.  He is happy when I get it right, and he cries with me when I get it wrong, and he holds me either way.  God doesn't expect me to drain myself giving away love that I don't have.  He's returning his own love to me so that I have a home to come back to when it hurts to love others.  He is teaching me, with the help of an amazing person who cares about me, that love is incomplete until it is returned. 

The scariest, most vulnerable part of love isn't throwing yourself under the bus and letting yourself break for others.  It's letting them come inside your heart to help you put yourself back together when you're a mess.  It requires admitting you are not always the capable person you want to be.  And it requires forgiving yourself and letting yourself be happy anyway.

I've decided it's worth a try. 

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Love, Actually (or I Hate Dictionaries)

Dear readers,
I hate dictionaries.
Actually, I'm an English major, so that's false. I get abnormal amounts of joy from learning what what words like "perambulator" and "clandestine" and "flossy" mean (yes, the urban kind counts, too. Sometimes.)
But the dictionary has no idea what poetry is. It can't define freedom. And it is absolutely clueless about love.

Take one:

...Okay, "constant affection"? Ain't nobody got time for that! I don't care how much I love you, I will eventually stop feeling affection for you long enough to go get myself some food. And maybe read a book. And what about when you squeeze the toothpaste tube in the wrong place or eat the last of the ice cream without telling me?!?! Does my irritation mean I stopped loving you?

We're done here.

Take two:

...Well, the verb edition is always somewhat better. But the whole"desire" thing bothers me. Like, I think lust and love are two separate words for a reason. To think love means only to desire someone makes you selfish at best and a total creep at worst. Love goes so far beyond that. Moral of the story: don't get your life philosophy off of Google.

So. Where do you get it? Real, actual love isn't hiding in a book somewhere.  I spend a lot of time thinking and writing about it, but I learn the most from trying to do it, which is a growing process involving lots of trial and error.

Act I
Did I mention I hate trial and error?  Specifically the error part. In my idealistic fairy-tale-reading mind that started on this crazy journey years ago, love and errors had nothing to do with each other.  Love was the one thing that was supposed to be error-less, perfect. In fact I'll take this opportunity to apologize to the first one or two poor guys I had crushes on, because I'm pretty sure I drove them crazy emulating a princess or Taylor Swift or whatever.  The point here being not to dwell on that long gone awkward phase (that I take comfort in knowing almost every teenager ever has to go through), but that love can't be an acting gig, even if you really really want to be some character that you perceive to be perfect.  Hint: they're probably not.

Plan B
 And once you drop the act and start putting your real self out there...welcome to the minefield. You will have to unpack many myths about love in your mind, and each lesson will leave you more vulnerable than the last.  Letting go of your mask is certainly difficult.  After all, if there is no "constant affection" for the polished, presentable version of you, how could the one eaten alive by doubts and fears and anxieties be lovable? But believe me when I say the scary version is the best version, the real version.  I tried safe love, which wasn't really love at all.  It was mutual affirmation.  I was perfectly accepting.  I was the eternal optimist, seeing only the good in people, and waking up from the dream was crushing.  I had fallen in love with idols that didn't exist.  I think I had hoped others would do the same for me; I, too, could be a myth, a perfect human, at least from a point of view that was not my own.  Inside I knew I was still far from ideal, but I wanted to be held more than I wanted to be fixed.

 Battle Plan 3
Hate is not blind.  When you feel unloved and you hate yourself, you will see everything.  Each flaw noted in your character will engrave itself on your heart making you terrified of being seen.  But in order to overcome this fear, in order to be stronger than hate, love can not be blind. Not to sound too Freudian, but you can't just forever suppress your dark side.  In fact, the part of you that feels the most hopeless and unlovable is probably the part of you that will crave love the most and drive you out of hiding.
 But it's also the part that will destroy you or even kill you if you feed it.  It's the part that when "loved" just grows darker, obscuring the person inside.  It's the part that can turn a princess into a monster. Vices are vain; they like to be noticed and the more you notice them the more they demand your attention. They swell up inside you leaving no room for anything else to breathe, so when you love them you are only hurting and suffocating the person you tried to love.  You need your flaws to be understood, certainly. To see only the good is a lie and thus is not good enough.  Seeing the demons and not running away is where love starts, but it does not end there.   You think it is rare to bee seen for who you are, but there is something yet more difficult to find- perhaps because you almost don't want to find it.  

You need someone who's willing to die with you. 

No, not in the Romeo-and-Juliet sense.  In fact, I don't advocate suicide at all.  But there is more than one way to die, and you have to choose one or go crazy.  Either your pompous, swelling, poisonous vices will kill your hope, or you must kill them.  The battle has already begun within you and it must be reconciled.  This may seem impossible and chances are you have avoided the fight.  Most of us do, most of us are so afraid to fight ourselves (the worst enemy of all) that we think the Jekyll and Hyde conflict is irreconcilable. But we are only irreconcilable if we refuse to be crucified.  Figuratively.  Being loved is what gives us the bravery we need to see ourselves as we truly are.  When someone loves you, they know all of the wounds that drain your happiness from you.  They know your secrets and they know the truth that you are not okay just as you are- not because they've judged you and you're not good enough for them, but because they can tell you want more for yourself.  The way you are doesn't scare them, or if it does their love is stronger than their fear.  You might even try to push them away but it won't work.  You will have no choice but to choose whether to love them back...and whether to believe in yourself like they believe in you.

Love always requires sacrifice, love always imposes demands.  The best loves are the ones that gently demand that we kill what is harming us and resurrect into a whole new life.  Love will put arrows through your heart, if you let it.  And after that, you will never be the same. I would avoid people who think they can change you, that's usually an indication that they're stuck at the idealistic fairytale level.  But even more, avoid people who think you will never change.  I promise you, even warn you, once you truly fall in love there is no going back to the past versions of you that will begin to die.  Love will see you as you are and will not move.  You will tremble under its gaze.  You'll run out of places to hide.

But finally, you will surrender...and you won't mind it at all.  Someday you will be ready to give up everything you have for the one you love.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why I don't love dictionaries.

(Also, thank you to anyone who has been in my life and taught me anything about love, painful or otherwise I'm still very grateful. <3) 


Friday, August 21, 2015

Real Talk

I'll admit it: being a Christian is pretty irrational. Not entirely, I mean we have some pretty dang smart philosophers and theologians and even scientists in our tradition and stuff, but when it comes down to it, my faith is still a faith and not a proven theory.
So why do I believe? So many of my posts on here are founded on a worldview or a set of philosophical assumptions I haven't yet explained. Well, it's kind of hard to explain, honestly. There are many people smarter than me who have tried to account for questions like how do we know Jesus historically existed or what about scientific evidence that the miracles in the Bible actually happened: that type of thing is beyond the scope of this post.  And, I've met enough smart, kind, and good atheists and agnostics to know that there's still reasonable room for doubt. Heck, I do doubt sometimes. But I've never been able to abandon my faith completely.  So, for anyone who might be curious, here's not so much an explanation as a tour of the shape of my thoughts.

First, let's look at my dark side. So this thing called doubt happens. Like the rebel I am, I'll indulge in something like the following meditative exercise in denial...
You live in a vast, self-sustaining universe that can and does derive meaning from its own contents. You exist by a rather miraculous chance and you have one finite life. So, stop causing yourself so much pain worrying about this God thing and make the most of it.
My dear readers, I hope that bores you. Cause it bores me. I think humans have too great a sense of self to be impressed by the vastness or randomness of the universe. We have this nasty little habit of only taking interest or feeling passion if the thing means something. It doesn't matter whether you have a huge, vast box or a small, finite box- both are boring if they're empty, if you don't know what to do with them. So too with universes...and our lives.

No, this is not a "nothing-means-anything-without-a-God-to-give-it-meaning" argument. I'm a little too creative to go for that. I'm more interested in this desire for meaning, this obsession with turning lives into stories that make sense. Like, that seems pretty universal, right? To entertain my doubt a little further, could it be enough to just find yourself a purpose and live it to the best of your ability? I mean, clearly God isn't the only one who can assign meaning. I know tons of non-believers living intensely passionate and meaningful lives.  My atheist geography professor was wild about geography, more so than some Christians I know are about God. In fact, most people I know are very interested in something: their job, their favorite charity, their social life, their family, sex, drugs, donuts, watching documentaries on name it. I've concluded that we all find meanings for our lives. Granted, some are worthier meanings than others, but ultimately everyone finds one. And that bothers me. It bothers me because I think we feel like we have to find it. Like our lives are short and we'd better cram as much good stuff and meaning as we can into them or we don't get any.  We are charged with the burden of filling the vast, empty box in a fit of raging YOLO fever, or suffering from existential boredom. Which seems like a rather daunting and unfair task. Maybe this is just my overthinking brain, but I have this sense of indignance about the whole affair. Shouldn't life just be intrinsically thrilling? Shouldn't we get to say life is good just because it's life, without having to worry about making it good by adding to the package or through sheer willpower? These are the kinds of thoughts that really get me riled up enough to turn against the doubt machine. Like, what if I really could escape from the pursuit of happiness long enough to just be happy for once? What if, merely by existing we were all part of something bigger than ourselves, something we didn't have to earn or manufacture? This is where I find out I want not just meaning but a meaning so constant, so reliable, so much a part of who I am that I'd never have to be afraid of losing it, even with my crazy brain full of trust issues.

So I'm kind of like, "Sure, that sounds nice I guess but it also sounds very naive" which is something I hate to sound like. I have such an innocent good-girl persona that it gets to be both annoying and a lot of pressure, so out of defiance I've actually become extra skeptical in a world that already naturally infuses me with skepticism. I see the suffering and horror of this place where people die from each others' hatred and prejudice and pride, and wonder how just existing can be good when for many people it's more of a struggle than an adventure. I told one of my friends that if I wasn't into the whole Jesus thing I'd probably be a Buddhist. That's because the truth Buddhism is built on seems so freaking obvious: life is pain; pain is inevitable. Sometimes, I want what their spirituality claims to offer: an escape, a way to rise above and remove my soul from all the hurting and the dumb materialism.

But then. There's Him. There's this fascinating, irrational man who did this crazy thing that is the exact opposite of my temptation. He freely chose to come down from paradise in order to be tortured in the most excruciating way the ancient Romans could think of-- so excruciating, in fact, that the word "excruciating" is named after it-- the crucifixion. And the "reverse Nirvana," if you will, of this man on the cross leaves my head spinning. Either he was an idiot, or he truly has discovered the secret to turning everything I think I know upside down. (I think if there was a way to reverse all the pain in the world, that's a pretty stunning starting point.)
This, my dear readers (and yes you are dear to me if you've made it this far), is the root of Christian irrationality.  But it gets even crazier. What's crazier than the death of a God? The death of a God for love of the unlovable. Seriously, try asking somebody why they love you sometime.  They'll probably give you reasons: because you're nice or smart or attractive or interesting or you treat them well or whatever. Him? He doesn't love because of reasons; all our reasons change.  Sometimes we're not nice or funny or attractive; sometimes we're jerks. You know what his test of love was? "If you love me, keep my commands." (John 14:15) And we were all like "nope, uh-uh, YOLO LET'S GET TURNT" and kinda left him rejected.
So He came to us. "While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us." (Romans 5:8)
Before we gave him any hope, any sign of interest, any real reason, he simply loved us enough to die for us. Not because we earned or deserved it. Just because we were designed as His.
Just because of our existence.
Because I'm me, Sarah.
It's crazy. It's crazy and I love it. It's crazy enough that I don't need any more of a reason to believe it's real.

The Forgiveness Myth

I do not enjoy forgiving people because it makes me feel like a doormat. I would honestly rather get all Carrie Underwood/Miranda Lambert up...