Times like these prove to me that a life of what our win-at-all-costs culture would consider “mediocrity,” practiced in love, is still something worthy of pursuit. I’ve only ever been a writer – a writer often times striving or struggling to be something additional. My life has always been anchored by my writing, with other stuff sandwiched on top and sprinkled with what occasionally looks like “seeds of having it together.” But from kindergarten on to now age 37 years, 6 months, I have only ever been a writer. Not a Pulitzer winner. Not a famed journalist like I once dreamed. Not a New York Times bestseller. I’m just practicing this thing day in and day out.
But days like today, weeks like this week, months like this month, years like this one make me feel so unqualified. Who am I? Who am I to even begin to scratch my finger loudly on the dried, sticky coating of suffering that has seemed to grab onto our world? It crept in through the cracks, flowing ever more freely (shades of Ghostbusters II), suffocating good will and Our Better Angels and clogging up the gears of it all. Who am I? More importantly…who are we?
The two words – through scripture and reading and podcasts in the background and a generalized, desperate rumination – that keep coming back to me are these: Lament. Surrender. Surrender. Lament. They tick in my head like a deathwatch beetle clicking towards…well, I don’t know yet. Destruction? Or maybe the ever-illusive “Something Better?” Either way, we have no choice but to keep moving forward. We can do nothing but simply find out. There’s something biblical and cleansing and sanctifying about these two simple words I keep turning over in my head. And believe me, if anyone is need of sanctifying, it’s this gal. My inequities are many, my failings known, and if some poor detective had to solve my murder, there’d be no confused rambling, saying “I can’t think of anyone who would want her dead.” Not that I’m thrilled about that. It’s just that with 7 billion folks on the planet, you’re gonna piss off a few. It is what it is.
A year ago, for a variety of reasons, I made three big changes in my life. First, I stepped back from “the church.” I did not step away from my faith. But I intentionally isolated myself. I didn’t go into it thinking it would be permanent, and I find myself still just as confident that it is indeed a temporary journey. The time is nearing where I will step back into it, but it will look different than it did. The first telling thing that I noticed at the onset of this new thing was that people who supposedly “loved” me began to receive me very differently or not at all. Let’s just say that it was a spritz of Windex on what had become a cloudy window. I don’t count that discomfort as being wasted at all. I’m actually kind of thankful for it.
Deconstruction is a hot button topic right now. Many people are feeling unsettled in their spiritual lives, and lots of people have church hurt or religious abuse that they cart around with them. I’m not here to convince anyone of the validity of that or the righteousness of taking a different path for awhile. Or forever. Some people do it and they leave the faith forever. I’m not qualified to speak on that. I can only say that my deconstruction has led to a reconstruction, and while I won’t ever be the person I was before this journey, I’m happy for that. I haven’t fallen away. I’ve sat down and rested for awhile.
The second big change I made was that I began trauma therapy. I’d been in therapy for years, somewhat on and off, but had not yet taken the step into actual trauma reprocessing. And most of my “trauma” was random, not rooted in family issues or domestic stuff, but rather just a big nasty bouquet of beliefs I’d formed about myself over the decades. Most of the stuff I’ve been processing has actually been what I’d call very “run of the mill,” the stuff that doesn’t cause you to crack up or break down in super explosive ways, but more that it shapes the essence of who you are and guides your reactions. But MAN…still so potent. It began to feel over the past few years like those run-of-the-mill things were building up inside me, like a blockage in an artery. The problem was truly that I wasn’t moving further away from these things as time passed. My little hurts were staying right in lock step with me. Sometimes they were coming up to the surface even more than they had in years. It just wasn’t working anymore, and it was becoming increasingly obvious to everyone around me that I wasn’t okay. So I took a step towards truly cleaning up those things and changing how I reacted to them, rather than just venting with whoever would listen. And let me tell you…this shit isn’t fun. Sure, it’s easier than a lot of other things I could be doing, but it’s not a pleasant process. I think maybe this is why a lot of therapists and authors refer to it as “the work.”
Some days, it feels like the work is going beautifully. This work is subtle in how it affects you. You don’t become a different person overnight. But you find yourself pushing back against your reactionary patterns, finding that “stopping point” a little faster where you pull back, take a breath, find some grace or some calm, and maybe choose another path. Some days (maybe even most days), the work feels like the best thing I’ve done in years. But on occasion, the work feels like it has evaporated and I’m careening over a precipice into something much darker.
That’s not over-sharing, for me. I’m okay telling you that. One thing I’ve learned in the work is that your reaction to my reality doesn’t really mean much (no offense, it just…doesn’t). And sharing that reality is the single best way I can reach other people and hopefully turn on a little light in the darkness for them. It turns out, there are a lot more of us out here realizing that maybe we’re not okay than there are still pretending like we’ve got it all together. I kind of love these people.
The third big change I made was that I left my job last year. It wasn’t my first choice and I wasn’t happy about it and I felt like a big fat fucking failure and I hated a solid 80% of the process leading up to it. But it was 100 percent the right choice. I could probably create a whole other series of blog posts about the eye-opening process of navigating the months leading up to that decision, or about the people who left me feeling absolutely worthless, or the people who gave me loads of hope and built trust with me during the whole process. But the thing I know for sure one year later is that it isn’t incumbent upon me to help other people understand. It was my situation. It was a bad situation. So, I made a decision.
There were bad situations that led up to these changes and a few people who made those situations worse. But those were not bad people. Not in the church. Not in my past. Not in my workplace. Even the most direct blows that I can remember dotting the arc of each of these stories came from what I now see as hurt people, hurting people, who have in turn hurt people. Just one big waterfall of imperfection there.
The result of these three decisions and the changes they brought about, when I step back and observe now, is that they were all the right decisions. Sometimes, you can make the right decision and – get ready for this – it won’t make you any happier. Sure, it might help you grow, it might enlighten you, it might provide you some clarity or insight into who you are or what your purpose here is. But growth is almost never pleasant. I’m happy to report to you that I am not happier because of these decisions. I just grew. But these three changes were still the right decisions.
The thing I’ve learned is that being happy is a great thing, but it’s just something you come back to. It’s a tether point. If your life is absolutely never happy, that’s a disaster. But “being happy” is just…well, it’s not a real stasis. Being happy is a practice, like yoga or basketball, and you’re going to try to make it happen a lot and fail a lot. In fact, I’ve found a lot of deeper strength in accepting and embracing those periods when I do not feel actively “happy,” when things aren’t going right and I’m frustrated – you do not push past them, you work through them. It’s like falling out of a pose or missing 15 attempts at making a basket. You celebrate the wins and you learn from the failures. You get mad when you bust your ass and it doesn’t work out. And you blame your teammates when you feel like you did your part.
Oh, wait, but that last part?
Hi, America. Yeah, that was for you.
So now I’m back where I started. I can pinpoint some of what’s wrong. We’re incredibly divided. We’re incredibly angry. We’re also all pretty lost on what to actually do. Yell at each other on social media? Okay. Pray?
An aside: During this year or so away from my “church life” but diving into what my spiritual life really means, I spent a lot of time unraveling what prayer meant for me. I’m terrible at reciting the Lord’s Prayer (I always forget that bit about daily bread), and this is probably because I learned to pray in my treehouse as a child. These are out-loud, let’s-talk-while-I-drive prayers that God and I meet in. I used to struggle not to think of prayer like a Go Fund Me. Like if you put enough in there, you’re going to get where you want to be, you’ll reach your goal. Right? Now I realize that isn’t the value of it at all.
So back to where I was. Do we pray? Yes, yes, that’s a good start. So now we’re praying…but it doesn’t feel like enough. So let’s try to also yell people into understanding what you’re trying to tell them. That’ll work! Can you bully folks into following your lead? Like is that considered virtuous if it’s the right thing you’re screaming at them about? Certainly we can’t just pray. There’s something else we should be doing. But we can’t do anything. But what can we do? But we can’t…
That’s where lament happens. Do you ever pray angry? I pray angry sometimes – especially this year, for reasons personal and so close to me that I can’t even get into them. I get mad at God. I am frustrated by the choices and the will I see coming to fruition in the world. I don’t like this plan at all, God.
It’s okay, by the way, to be mad. It’s okay to be angry. It’s okay to feel with each passing day like another layer of stability has been ripped away or like you’re always living right on the edge of “I cannot take anymore.” It’s okay to blame liberals and it’s okay to blame conservatives, to blame Biden or to blame Trump or the blame whoever you want to. It doesn’t mean you’re correct or justified or right. But it’s okay to grasp for those straws of control in a world that is simply beyond your control or comprehension.
It makes me think back to college and lifeguarding in a 12-foot deep pool, and do you want to know what the most dangerous part of rescuing someone in deep water is?
They’re most likely to grab you and push you under and try to use you to float themselves for a little bit longer. That’s how we’re doing it these days in America. It’s almost so automatic that we don’t even see it. I used to say “We should be ashamed,” and maybe that’s kind-of-sort-of still true, but we’re also drowning and using each other as a float. So there’s that.
Lament, the intense expression of grief, struggle, pain, loss, simply has to include some expression of anger. Think about the stages of grief. Anger and bargaining. We’re right there, all tossed together in this messy salad and we’ve all – not at all mysteriously, cause God is like soooo not subtle – reached this collective point of anger and bargaining.
“If ______ was the President, this would not happen.”
“If ______ was the President and did this, people would lose their minds.”
“If you voted for ______, then there’s no way you’re _______.”
“There’s no way you can support ______ and still be a good person.”
“_____ voters don’t care about ______.”
Drowning. Gulping for air. Flailing for purpose. Grasping for one more chance to breathe. And pulling each other under.
Ah, but surrender. Surrender comes under the surface, after the efforts to keep your head above water have all failed. Surrender does not feel good. Surrender feels like failure, in my experience. It feels like accepting the slow march towards certain death and how small I am and how mediocre my capabilities are and how imperfect I am in every possible, conceivable way. PHEW. Surrender just sucks. 0/10 stars, friends, I do not suggest it.
But then again…it’s honestly the only way.
I learned this when I chose to take my ball and go home for awhile, wherever that was, from a church that had hurt me many times over my lifetime despite moving, changing, volunteering, getting more involved, trying to be the right kind of person. These were not bad people, these folks I grew up with or prayed with or sang alongside. Misguided? Yes. Mean-spirited at times? Oh, absolutely. The undercurrent of mean-spiritedness I started to see these past few years was probably the biggest factor that I just couldn’t tolerate anymore.
But these weren’t bad people. Just human. Just like me. Screwy and backwards and selfish and vain. Treading water and occasionally growing tired enough to crawl up on someone’s shoulder and push them under so that they could breath in deeply.
And then right back to treading. Lament, lament, lament. But these are still good (hurting, sad, angry) people. Surrender.
I learned this in trauma therapy this past year or so. I began to see the ways my little trauma had created this big sister, confidante, shirt-off-my-back, take-no-shit approach I have to life, the good and bad elements of it, and the unrelated personal trauma carried by the people who have hurt me. Suddenly I saw little children more often than I saw adults. They mean well. Most people are not completely evil. Most people are not “evil,” just screwed up. I’m not saying that there aren’t truly evil, awful people in the world – there absolutely are, and we’ve probably all encountered one in our lives. But most people are good and just kinda fucked up.
I learned this when I left my job last year. The further I got away from it, the more I saw the ripple effects from the top down, the pressure cooker that couldn’t do anything but crush everyone and everything in it, and the unfair belief systems that still underpin so much of corporate cultures. Again…not built by “evil” people, but certainly not doing anything to help people. Making money, but also generating loads of misery in the process. I made the (privileged) decision to opt out – maybe temporarily, maybe forever – and I’m ultimately better for it. Even if I go back one day. Even if I never do. But most people are good. And a lot of people who are wrong are utterly convinced that they’re telling you what you need to hear.
We must do this when COVID comes back worse than before and we’re all about to eat each other alive over whether children need to wear masks in schools, or whether the vaccine is making your period get super weird, or whether horse paste is an ideal DIY cure for it. Sure, I have my opinions. But I’m just me. Just one person. Telling you that I think you’ve lost your mind isn’t going to help you. But lamenting with you? Oh, I got that. Yes, it’s dizzying right now. We all feel it. You’re not alone.
We must do this when 13 more American service members and countless civilians perish in a terrorist attack in a place loaded with symbolism, the Graveyard of Empires, a tribal, complex, dark, beautiful, frightening place where our way of life is as foreign as the UFOs that are (apparently) real after all. We’re so upset. We want to blame someone so bad. We probably haven’t even scratched the surface of how this all ties into the trauma leftovers of living life as an American in the days of 9/11, now approaching its twentieth birthday along with the war that led us to 13 more dead. It will totally fix everything if we chew each other up on social media, make broad generalizations, put the entire blame on one or two people or movements, and tell each other to shut the fuck up. Yeah. Do we feel better yet?
This is the practice of happiness that I’ve come to recognize. Not just in my own life, but in the world around me. The people I used to villainize. The leaders I’ve castigated. The movements I’ve clenched my jaw at in pure, desperate frustration. I’m not happy all the time, and none of us will be. But we have to recognize the spiritual process that is happening here. Lament. Surrender. And on it goes.
We can do something very simple. We can hold space. We can speak up for someone who is hurting. We can pray, we can witness the triumphs and pain of others, and we can resist the urge to find the angles of how we “could have done it different/better/easier.” Today, what has happened in Kabul is not over. The children being tossed to strangers to try to save them? Not over. Husbands, mothers, fathers, brothers, and sisters in uniform are still there, helping load people into planes and hoping to avoid the fate that befell their comrades last week. It’s not over. Pray for them. Donate to organizations serving them. Reach out to families with members deployed. Your anger is understandable…but this isn’t over. You could channel that anger into something with real grit.
There’s a friend I met years ago online who was in her first few rounds of IUI; all but one failed. That pregnancy ended in miscarriage, sadly. Then a round of IVF. Failed. Then a surprise random pregnancy. Miscarried. Then a last-ditch IVF attempt earlier this year. Pregnant. That baby was born last week. I prayed for her, in whatever small and helpless way I could, all the while thinking “I should prepare myself for the fact that this may not work.” But her son is here, healthy, and her dream is a reality. It’s not that I think my prayers did something to cause it, but just that I knew that it wasn’t over yet. So I kept hoping for her. Staying in that hope really means something. Right now, I’m having to do that with my country. I’m having to do the work and push away the anger and stay in the hope, cause frankly…it’s all a little scary.
There is more room to hope. We waste that on our righteous anger. Trust me, I have a famously short fuse, so I know you may be thinking “Oh, you have room to talk,” and you’re right. I don’t. But I’m learning that this isn’t over, and it’s not time to be angry yet. There’s still so much to save, so much to hope for, so much to seek.
There will be more to lament. While I can’t identify what schism is beginning to crack us down the middle, I know that there will always be more death. More sickness. More tragedy. More injustice. There’s always gonna be more, friends.
I can’t speak for you, but I know myself and I know that I will get angry. I will make generalizations. I will feel overwhelmed. I will cry out. I will say angry prayers in the middle of the woods, whispering the words “God, I just don’t understand.”
But I’m not gonna push you under the water to catch my breath. I’ll tread water beside you, and I might drown in the process, but I don’t want to do that anymore. And if you ask me why, you’ll find me doing this work and welcoming you to try working it out for yourself. In your own way. Owing me absolutely nothing.