Check out my guest post on the blog Being In Community:
Check out my guest post on the blog Being In Community:
Check out my guest post on the blog Being In Community:
This morning, my almost two-year old son, holding up his arms to me, nestled his head against my neck as soon as I picked him up. For a moment, I savored the sweetness and the peace. It was a simple moment, like one experienced by many souls past and present on this earth, and it was priceless.
But then the day flooded in. Syrian children and other innocent civilians being bombed to death, or starving underground in order to avoid being bombed. Angry and worried gun-owners insisting that we need guns to protect us against the bad guys. Oh, and parents who less than two weeks ago lost their teenagers–teenagers!–and somehow managed to contain their mourning enough to go and plead to their governments to act, for this is not the first massacre.
The world is full of evil. There is also good in the world. And innocence. The goodness and innocence, small and pale in a world that is always competing loudly for our attention, are easy to miss.
But maybe the evil is too. Not the evil that makes itself known in blood and flesh spattered across sidewalks and high school lockers as kids run screaming. Not the evil that threatens people with their lives, or brazenly steals from them. That is evil we all recognize for what it is.
But there is also the evil that whispers to our fears, fanning them. The evil that blinds us to the way our own thoughts are fueled by self-preservation. Or pride. The evil that steals our peace, our churning malcontent bruising those close to us.
For Christians, this is the season of Lent. In the Orthodox church, it is a season of close examination and testing of our spiritual state, of repentance and a drawing near to the Source of Life. It couldn’t have come at a better time for me. It is only by drawing near to God that I can regain my perspective. While I cannot eliminate evil from my world–none of us can–I can seek God’s wisdom in how to recognize it. How to respond to it. How to love even those who bruise us. I can ask Him for the sustenance that the world in all its wonder cannot give. I can ask for peace. And I can have faith that God will answer.
A typical day in my life doesn’t usually go according to plan. But one morning last week was an exception. I fit in a workout and shower before 7am, the older kids got dressed and did their morning chores without extra prompting, and the day was off to a positive, earlier-than-usual start. It stayed that way all day, too. Hi-fives and feel-goods all around.
Here’s the issue: whenever I have a day that good, I expect every day to be that good. Just like I expect the kids to always be good just because they’ve demonstrated that they can be. Just like I expect myself to always be super-productive in every way. (You’d think nine-plus years of motherhood would have beaten that out of me, but I am, by any indication, a slow learner.)
And then, when the day’s not so smooth–and it usually isn’t–I am hard on myself, hard on the kids and impatient with pretty much everyone and everything. That person is not the person I want to be and this daily pattern it is not the way I want to live.
The older I get, the more I am convinced that the things we would wish for if genies were real are things that cannot be wrapped and put under a tree. Improved health. Restored relationships. Peace. Freedom from worry. A job we love. We all have something. And for many of us, the fact that we don’t have this thing can easily lead to frustration and, well, impatience with ourselves and with the world. There is a restlessness to our humanity that no amount of consumerism or distractions can satiate.
There is a well-known passage in I Corinthians, Chapter 13 of the Bible that lists love’s attributes, and among those attributes is patience. I’ve read or heard this passage approximately 783 times in my life, and I think I’ve always understood “patience” to mean doing things like waiting for a slow walker, or, I dunno, listening to your grandma tell the same story for the tenth time. It’s only recently dawned on me that this is a very superficial understanding of patience. Patience is kindness is forbearance is love is patience. It is seeing the flaws and failings of another, and of myself, and accepting the person anyway, being gentle anyway. Not because you don’t see the flaws or don’t expect better, but because you know how hard life can be on each of us, and because a gentle response has never done the harm that an impatient one has.
This has become manifestly apparent in my parenting. Between encountering a new preadolescent in my oldest child, scooping up the 30-some pound angry acrobat that is my terrible-two-ish youngest, and not neglecting the middle child, I often lose whatever cool I may have once had. And when this happens, I doubt my skills as a parent and worry that I am ruining my relationship with them and scarring them for life. A little more self-restraint and patience with each of them and myself would make all the difference. Of course, a change this fundamental is easier declared than made, but it is still January, and it is not too late for resolutions. (Not that it ever is: resolutions are made when you are ready for them, not when the calendar dictates.)
So, patience. It’s my resolution for the new year. Patience with the kids when they act like, well, kids. Patience with myself, as I am a less-than-perfect mother and human being. Patience for this messy, imperfect life that we all live.
In the months leading up to my birthday this year, the big questions have often and repeatedly pushed into my thoughts: am I living the life I want to live? The life I was meant to live? Have I accomplished all that I should have by this age? (What is it, by the way, that I should have accomplished?) This was, you see, the year I turned 40.
Even just typing those two digits is surreal. Forty-year-olds can’t claim the hint of youth that thirty-somethings can claim (and that twenty-somethings possess outright). And the evidence is there. My body doesn’t recover as easily as it used to from exertion and injury. Also, forty is the age that women are supposed to begin getting yearly mammograms–how’s that for a sign of aging?
On the flip-side, I have less fear of people’s judgement of me, but more fear for the fragility of life. Fewer things make me panic, but when I do worry, it’s a can’t-sleep-at night kind of worry. The way I respond to life’s surprises has changed, and I hope it’s for the better.
I realize I’ve traveled many miles when I look back at the last decade: my belly has swelled and deflated three times with the growing of three new lives–well, not fully deflated, but that is a topic for another day. I have nursed those three infants for a total of almost three years. My family has suffered, and survived, the sudden loss of my father. I have completed a professional degree, accomplished some work missions that I am proud of, and written my first book. I have learned immeasurable lessons about forgiveness, bravery, kindness, love, and a number of other things that make us human.
The time for textbooks and swaddling blankets is behind me. Turning forward, I know that many personal and professional opportunities for growth and failure await me, as do more lessons in humanity. Looking forward, I also know that my mission, along with my husband, is to lead those three lives in our charge through childhood and adolescence and nurture them towards the best of themselves.
Forty is in part a look back at one’s life to see if any of those 14,610 days have been wasted, but it is also a reckoning that my life, assuming God grants me a long one, is half over, more or less. And do-overs are not guaranteed. Time is fleeting; you can neither pause nor repeat it.
If I miss enjoying my kids at a certain age, that chapter is gone. They keep growing and cannot revert. If I miss the opportunity to do something new, that opportunity may never come again. If I decide to give the markers of our lives (birthdays and holidays, for example) a pass one year because I just don’t feel like it, that occasion is gone. If I have the opportunity to lift a stranger or friend up in their time of struggle, and I do not, for whatever reason, I forgo that gift. The place for those memories is empty, and I think one of the things I fear most is to look at my life, both at its end and in the after-life, and find that where those riches should be, there is only emptiness.
So the question I have to ask myself is this: what do I consider riches? When I am old or gone, what will give me pleasure and pride to remember? What kinds of memories will allow me to say that I have lived a good, rich life? What memories are worth storing up? Whatever those are, that is what I have to pursue, earnestly, in the present.
Forty-year-olds are supposed to have it together and be settled in life. They are supposed to know themselves and have answers to all the big questions. I for one don’t have it together and the answers to the big questions evade me as much as they ever did. OK, maybe not as much, but neither do I have it all figured out. And in a way, I hope never to, because when you think you have all the answers, you stop asking questions. When you stop asking questions, you close yourself off to all the mysteries that remain unanswered in this wild ride called life. And this ride is one I very much am still on.
A buzz is in the air. I see, even as they go through their routines, people attending to work or school with a light touch and the gleam of warmth and turkey in their sights. It is Thanksgiving week.
Many of us will be seeing loved ones. Many of us are preparing for the holiday. Meals. Travel. The house for hosting. Something. There is an aura that surrounds people at the thought of the holidays. Busy-ness and anticipation. All most of us long for is to enjoy one another, yet these memories don’t create themselves. So as soon as Thanksgiving’s over, it’s full-on holiday frenzy. Gifts and Christmas parties and holiday greetings. I’m already drained thinking about it.
This year, I’m not in the spirit. And I know I’m not the only one. So to all the others out there who will work to put the festivities into the upcoming holidays, even though your heart’s not in it, know you’re not alone. Thank you for doing it anyway. In her book, The Happiness Project, Gretchen Rubin quotes, “It is easy to be heavy, hard to be light.” This little nugget of wisdom has burrowed itself in my mind, and it often comes to the forefront of my thoughts these days. So take heart, fellow non-jolly people. New Year’s will arrive. And then we can let winter be winter. And then, while we wait for March, I will do my daily work, then revel, in between the scarves and warm boots, in winter’s gift of cozying up in the early dark.
I shut my ears to the voices of discord and anger. I shut my eyes, searching for the peace that the God of all things bestows. Colors flow through my mind: ruby anger and amethyst death and obsidian fear and jade destruction.
In the face of darkness, emboldened and unveiled these past months, I find myself mute.
The fact is, I’m tired of being outraged, of watching greed and narcissism use power to oppress. I’m tired of being sad, of grieving for all the senseless loss of life and love and for all the pointless, useless pain.
‘Hug your loved ones close and appreciate the good in your life.’ We’ve all heard a variation of this message in response to life’s hardship. It is important, because gratitude gives richness to our lives. But is it enough? In the face of active corruption and cruelty, is it enough?
A still Voice reminds me that there has always been and always will be darkness in the world, but that there is also light. The Pantocrator urges me to keep my own peace in the world around me. Reminds me that this life exists for how I use it to prepare for what comes next. Urges me to be the light. And so I imagine what would happen if more of us tried to be light.
What does it mean to be light? With each oversimplified meme and soundbite I encounter, I am becoming more and more convinced that it means shining light on things as they are, not as they’ve been made to look. We live in an age of spin doctors–that wasn’t just a nineties band. Shining a light means looking beyond the spin: listening to or reading actual sources, not just someone’s interpretation of them, and evaluating them on their own merits. It means analyzing leaders’ messages and then calling out their inconsistencies, because too often the stories they tell change on a weekly basis, and it takes someone reframing what has happened for us to see the truth. Be that someone.
Yes, there are some diametrically opposed beliefs about how we should proceed as a country, and there are some very, very strong feelings about them. Feelings of anger, of defensiveness, of contempt, of hurt. These feelings are valid. And I’ll be honest. Speaking for myself, I don’t always know what to do with them, other than be aware of them, examine them, and when appropriate, direct the fire they ignite into a solution.
My point is this: there are proponents for every cause and every political stripe that use the same tool to their own ends. They use a broad brush with which they paint the “other” side, dismissing it as stupid or evil (the adjectives used are harsher), or with which they paint their stance as flawless. Those strong feelings we all have are exacerbated by those with the giant paint brushes who would convince us that the other side hates us and, if left unchallenged, will take away everything we value.
Can we leave the fear mongering and diversion tactics to our current head of state and his team of trusty sidekicks? (And by that I really mean call it out.) We the people are being played, and it is time to step away from the tweets and direct our attention to what the government is and ought to be doing.
We are, as I’ve said before, a big, complicated country. Healthcare, public education, gun control, welfare, emergency and disaster management, environmental regulation, tax reform, taking a knee and the NFL, name the issue. Now read something longer than three sentences about it, or have a respectful conversation with someone who disagrees with you. It doesn’t take long to see that the issues are multifaceted and often intertwined. If they were simple, smart people would have solved all the things.
We have to start applying our minds and not only our anger to these issues. We have to zoom in and see the pixels. They are not just red, yellow, and blue; they are all the colors that emerge therefrom. And if we can’t each zoom in on everything –and none of us can–then we have to choose what we can zoom in on and let others do the same.
I love that so many people are talking about topics that in other days would have been obscure: gerrymandering and redlining, to name a couple examples. I believe very strongly that information and awareness among citizens are crucial to developing a truly democratic civilization. And I am realizing that forbearance and a willingness to listen before defending are also important–and skills I need to work on. I won’t ignore that there are those who will always hold their broad brush and only see red, refusing to see anyone on the “other” side as anything but a *#&^%#. But they are by no means the majority, and they cannot be the force driving this country. Our strength is in our many diverse experiences and voices, and we ought to allow each other the space to question, explore, and learn.
When I was in college, I attended a talk given by the outgoing president about the college’s motto: Lux Esto. He reflected that the Latin phrase actually had two translations: “be light,” the commonly used translation, and “let there be light.” In other words, shine your light and enable others to shine theirs. I don’t know why that message stuck with me, but I understand it now. I cannot think of another time in my life when it has been more important.
In the face of darkness, emboldened and unveiled these past months, lux esto.
Near the end of a charity ride I rode recently, there’s this long, steep hill. I know this because I’ve struggled up it in previous years’ rides. Without fail, each time I’ve ridden, I’ve seen riders hop off and walk their bikes up, sometimes before even attempting the climb. The memory of that hill filled me with dread as I pedaled through rural Ohio backroads that day. “If I can just make it up that hill,” I kept thinking, “I can enjoy the rest of the ride.”
The thing was, that hill was only five or six miles from the end, which meant that I wasn’t enjoying the first several dozen miles. So fixated was I on this one point on the road that I was not enjoying all that came before. Instead of taking in the scenery and basking in the sun and fresh air as I rode, and instead of enjoying zooming down then coasting up the rolling hills, I was thinking, “I need to conserve my energy to get up that hill. I need to slow down.”
So it goes with life sometimes. Mostly we don’t know when we will encounter obstacles in our path, but occasionally we do, and the tendency that I, like most, fall into is to worry about it. As if worrying will change anything.
We often confuse worrying and planning. I am a big believer in planning ahead, especially for obstacles or difficulties that will take skills or resources I don’t naturally have at my disposal. Planning, I believe, is a necessary component for success. And it alleviates, or at least reduces, worry. In past years, for example, I have followed a cycling training plan and, on the big day, been able to enjoy the ride, confident that I would make it up that hill. And I did make it up. But life isn’t always neat or predictable, and this year, despite my best intentions, I just wasn’t prepared enough for an obstacle I knew was coming. So even though I had planned, life had happened, and I regressed to worrying.
With age, I’m slowly learning that I must balance how much effort and time I put into preparation with the attention I pay to my immediate surroundings and what joy I might find in unexpected places. Life is beautiful, and it’s bittersweet, and yet sometimes, for all of us, it is hard and dark. And one thing I know is that we are not meant to live our lives in dread of those dark and difficult chapters. It takes deliberation to not allow dread to overshadow joy.
I like riding my bike. I love it, actually. I love seeing a stretch of empty road ahead of me, flat or rolling or curvy, and just pedaling. I like reaching that point where my cycling is rhythmic, and my speed fast enough to feel like I’m flying but slow enough that I truly see the surrounding scenery. It calms me and rejuvenates me. I shouldn’t have wasted a single mile of my ride worrying about that hill.
As it turns out, I did make it up, though I came within a hair’s breadth of putting my feet down and walking up the rest of the way. But you know what? If I hadn’t made it, it would have been just fine. Sure, I would have been a little disappointed. But I’d still have finished. And the funds that I raised would still be going towards a worthy cause, which is what is important. Next year, my goal will be to enjoy the ride. Be prepared as much as possible, but enjoy the ride.