Butterfly, Caterpillar, or Dementor…which are you?

This week I found myself thanking God for my pain. I found myself thanking him for the suffering I have lived through. I found my heart overflowing with gratitude that he didn’t leave me in my comfort and mediocrity, thankful that he had pulled me into the deep and submerged me in a sea of suffering.

I’m not a masochist or anything. I hate pain just as much as the next person, but I have learned something about pain.metamorphosis-012

It’s our cocoon.

It is the key ingredient in our metamorphosis.

It is through pain that we emerge either in our splendor or…in a crippled and warped version of ourselves.

And the difference is all in our attitude.

One of my friends always throws a big halloween party, and I was excited to go this year as a bunch of my old gang, many who I hadn’t seen in over a year, were going to be there.

One of the things I hadn’t thought through was the fact that, the intervening year had been one of the hardest and most humiliating of my life. And of course, every single one of them was going to ask me how I was doing.

That was a loaded question.

How was I doing?

Anyone who knows me knows that I’m not one to just answer with the lame (and typically untrue) “fine.” One of my core beliefs is living with my life wide open. I don’t mean emotionally vomiting all over people (be honest, you just had someone’s face or name flash though your mind. We all have that one person). I mean being authentic and real.  Admitting to my struggles and open with my failures. No photoshopping my life to make it look better than it is. Just being me, in all my imperfection.

So if I was going to answer how I was doing and be real, I needed to do some real reflection. How was I really?

With a little bit of surprise, and a feeling of intense gratitude, I realized I was good, really good.

Wow.

Last year at this time, I was still feeling the ache (and sometimes sharp agonizing pains) of betrayal. I was still fighting the battle of humiliation. I was still battling (sometimes hourly) the fear of how I was going to make it as a single mother in an expensive city with zero child support.

Last year was a battle in faith. It was a battle in truth. And it was a battle of trust.

I put my stake in the ground, my hands up in surrender, and I threw myself in the arms of my savior.

Nothing made sense. Nothing was what I had planned. I didn’t know how tomorrow could possibly work.

But I knew my God. And I trusted that He had a plan.

god in the stormNot despite the devastation I was experiencing, but through it.

There were times I begged God to take the pain away. Times when I thought this life was just too hard. Times when the very idea of living made me feel weary.

But, beneath those times, and far deeper, was my knowledge, my unshakeable faith that, if I let him, the work He would do in me would be well worth the pain. All I needed to do was hold on. And hold to him with everything I was worth.

And here, only a year later, I realized that I had come full circle.

His promise to comfort was filled. His promise to heal was answered. His promise to provide was fulfilled.

And I found myself filled with gratitude for my suffering.

Because here I stand, not just a survivor, but an overcomer. Stronger than I ever imagined. Independent. More sure of who I am and whose I am than ever before. And it never would have happened if He hadn’t led me through the fire.

hidden strengthMany people have often told me how strong I am. But, I don’t think that my strength is exceptional. It’s just that suffering and heartache have burned away my weakness and revealed what was already there–I just didn’t know it.

I’m not stronger. I just let pain do it’s work.

See, growth is often not about growing, as much as it is about chiseling away the excess and revealing what is already there, buried beneath the surface.

The Bible calls it the refiner’s fire, burning away the dross.

And we have so very much dross.

We tend to see the fire as an attack from the enemy, or an injustice, or the unfairness of fate, but I believe that God is not just in the good parts of my life, but also in the storms, the disasters, and the darkest nights of our soul. They are a holy fire, a gift, yes a gift, and an answer to our prayers to be more like Him.

So many times, when I tell someone about Serena and what I lived through with her loss, they say they could never have done that, they never could have survived such a loss. But here’s the thing, I would have said the same thing if I hadn’t been forced to live it.

We simply don’t know what we’re capable of until we’re forced to it. Until we’re stretched and pulled and thrown into the fire we just don’t know what we’re capable of. Only then do we find out just how strong we really are.

If I have learned anything from this crazy, and heart-wrenching journey called life, it is this: Though our instinct is to run from pain, we should meet it with our arms open wide and embrace it, knowing that, if we let it, transformation is on the other side.

If we fight it, if we run, or if we hide, pain warps and it cripples, but when embraced, we are re-made.

The thing about pain is, it catches us all. There is no escaping it. It is part of the human experience.

No one gets to stay a caterpillar.

The decision we each have to make it who we want to be on the other side of it.

dementorThere are no short cuts when it comes to pain. There is no getting around it. Not tunneling under it. No hiding from it.

There is only getting through it.

When we hide from our pain, ignore it, or when we allow it to consume us, it turns us into something ugly. It is a poison that steals and maims.

And these people never emerge as who they were intended to be.

In truth, these people tend to become inflicters of pain. In their brokenness, they leave pain in their wake. They suck life from those around them, a real-life dementor.

 

But here’s the thing, it’s totally up to you.

You are stronger than you know. Are you willing to find out how strong?

You are capable of more than you ever believed. Will you dare to find out just what you can do?

And you are more amazing, more beautiful, than you can imagine. Are you willing to be transformed?

I won’t lie to you. It won’t be easy.

But it’s worth it. You can trust Him. He’s got you, and He’s got this.

 

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We live in a Photoshopped Perfect, Plastic World

emotional vomitI have a cousin who is prone to emotional vomit.

Yes, she spews her emotions (typically rapidly changing from one extreme to the next) all over social media. I know every problem she has. I know when she’s not feeling well, when she’s angry at her boyfriend, when she decides that she HATES somebody–everybody (And boy! She holds no punches, dropping f-bombs and oozing hatred with every syllable), when she’s depressed, when she’s filled with self-loathing, and when she’s ready to give up on it all.

It’s all right there–in black and white–for the whole world to see.

Many times I have thought about saying something, but I know too well how she would respond, so I keep my peace. It’s simply not worth it. She will not hear. She’ll just point her anger and hatred in my direction, and frankly, who needs that?!

Apparently I’m not the only one who feels this way, because last week, when she posted something especially venomous, people started weighing-in. They told her (and there were many of them) in gentle, and not so gentle terms, that facebook was not the place to air all of her problems.

As I expected, she pointed her canon at them and started unloading. Most of what she said, does not bear repeating. But one thing was telling. “You guys don’t know the half of my f&^%$#@* life, So, until you walk a day in my d*$# shoes. . . Yeah sorry I don’t have 3beautiful kids an awesome husband and a family who supports me.”

Why was this telling?

photoshoppedBecause her assumption is based on a fundamental misconception: that who we are on facebook is an honest reflection of our lives. She honestly thought that the view she was getting of peoples’ lives on facebook was their reality, and when she compared that to her own life, she became angry and bitter.

I’ve blogged about this before (check out The Grass is Always Greener . . . ). Most of us do not do what my cousin does. We do not spew our worst days, our failings, and our heartbreaks all over facebook. We post our special moments, our successes and our good times. We post our best selves. We want the world to believe that we are doing it, that we are living the dream–that we’ve arrived.

This is a cultural failing that we have–this impossible grasping for perfection. Even our models, the most beautiful among us, are photoshopped, because even they are not perfect in their beauty. We, especially the women, live under a continual pall of insecurity because we cannot attain the unattainable–we cannot look like the     photoshopped images we see on a daily basis.

I absolutely love Meghan Trainor’s song “All About that Base,” because it addresses this head on. We are making generations of women feel as if they are inferior because they cannot be, what no one can be.

Facebook can have the same affect. We post only the pictures that make us feel beautiful, the moments that show that we are special, the events that paint us as successful. Our facebook selves are photshopped selves. They are the selves we wish we were, not the selves that we really are.

We are a disingenuous culture. We are rarely honest with anyone, even ourselves.

perfect familyTo the casual observer on my facebook page, I might look like I have it all together (with the exception of the loss of Serena which I am fairly open about). I have a handsome, intelligent husband, three beautiful children, a great house, and a great job. I get to have vacations every now again and do fun things. I look happy.

And sometimes I am.

But there is another picture. Another side.

Facebook knows nothing of my struggle with insecurity. It shows nothing of the days when I hate my body and feel too keenly my fading beauty.

Facebook knows nothing of the years of struggle with depression after losing Serena.

Facebook knows nothing of the shame I walked when Aaron lost his job and for six months we struggled to even pay rent–when, despite the humiliation, we found ourselves walking into the human services office to see about our options with public assistance. It knows nothing of the shame I felt every single time I had to scan that EBT card.

Facebook knows nothing of the resurgence of my temper in the wake of grief and stress. It does not see the ugliness I show when I am pushed beyond what I feel as if I can bare. The times I yell, the times I snap at my husband and children, the times when I end up sobbing from the weight of it all.

Fmom-chaosacebook does not see when my house is a wreck, and the dishes pile up in my sink, and the laundry starts to pile to the rafters. It does not see the relentless and endless drudgery of cooking and cleaning for a family of five. It does not see the times when I feel reduced to a cook and maid, a faceless, powerless drudge.

Facebook does not see the ways Aaron and I have wounded each other by both word and deed.

Facebook does not see the many times he and I have wanted to give up, to walk away, to say, “We’re done! We can’t do this anymore!”

Facebook does not know, cannot know, because I refuse to show it.

Facebook does not see–so you do not see.

barbieYou see the window dressing. You see the outer shell I choose to show.

Every once in a while, we give a window in, but it is only a window. It is a snapshot. Not the reality.

Do not compare yourself to these Facebook Selves, these shadow selves. They are allusions, projections, phantasms. They are not substantial, attainable or replicable.

Do not compare yourself to me or to anyone else.

Do not compare your life to someone else’s life.

Because, I promise you, you will be comparing yourself to something that does not exist.

How can I know this? How can I promise such a thing?

perfect lifeBecause no one is perfect, no matter what you think. And no one has a perfect life, though to an outward eye it might appear as if they do.

No life is without pain.

We all hurt. We all bleed. We all have moments when we feel as if we can’t possibly keep breathing, keep walking, keep standing.

Not one of us is untouched.

For some, the pain starts when we’re children, and we never know life without pain. For others, childhood leaves us untouched, and we enter adulthood with shining eyes and expectations of a perfect world, but at some point, somewhere on our journey, pain will find its way in.

People die. They get sick. They leave.

Sometimes, the ones we trust the most betray us. Sometimes the ones who should have our back, are the ones who slide the knife in. Sometimes our heart bleeds, it breaks, it shatters.

And everyone, every single person on this planet, will have these moments–because these moments are life.

The amazing thing, the wonderful thing, is our capacity to endure.

I've learned that you can keep going long after you think you can'tWhen we feel like we can’t keep going, we can and we do. When we feel like we can’t possibly take one more thing–when it comes–which it inevitably seems to–we find ourselves somehow battening down the hatches and fighting our way through. Sometimes we cannot run, or even walk. Sometimes all we can do is put one foot in front of the other, and that’s all we have. That all we’ve got to give. But we do it. One. Foot. At. A. Time.

How do I know we can do this, when life pummels us, and people fail us, when we fail ourselves, how do I know we can push through?

Because we exist. The human race is still here.

We live in the height of human existence. We live a life of plenty: plenty of food, plenty of the basic necessities (clothing, house, healthcare) and plenty of leisure/extravagances (entertainment, hobbies, options, etc.).

Historically, people lived in want. They went to bed hungry. They had limited, or no, healthcare. Death was a frequent visitor.

If anyone had a reason to give up, they did–but they didn’t. They kept living. They kept loving. They kept walking. They kept fighting. They gave us a future.

I am an anomaly having lost a child. Most people, at least in the developed world, do not have to bury their children.

In the past, they didn’t just bury one, but instead, usually several.

Men very commonly lost their wives in childbirth. Women lost their husbands, and, when they did, what options did they have to provide for their families? They either married again or were forced to walk paths that they never would have chosen.

keep goingLife was hard. It was ugly. It was survival–but they did just that–they survived. And because they did, we are still here today.

We need to end this delusion that perfection is possible. We need to stop hurting ourselves and each other with this endless striving for what does not exist–the perfect life and the perfect person. We need to stop pretending that it does exist.

We need to give others grace to be imperfect.

We need to give ourselves grace to be imperfect too.

My husband cannot be the prefect man that some writer has created in a book, or that some actor plays on tv. Those men don’t exist outside of words that were created by a clever person and put on a page. My husband can’t be that man. Neither can your husband.

Neither can I live the photoshopped lives that I catch on the pages of social media, the images I see in magazines, or the brief glimpses into others’ lives that I am allowed, when they choose to show me, what they choose to show me.

I can’t live those lives, and neither can you.

They don’t exist. They’re not real.

perfectPeople are not perfect. Our lives are not perfect. . .

And that’s okay.

Let it be okay.

Give yourself a break.

And give the people around you a break too.

 

 

 

The Sharp Jagged Edges of Reality

“It is strange that absence can feel like a presence. A missing so complete that, if it were to go away, I would turn . . . stunned . . . empty, when before . . . at least [there was] something.” Adapted quote from Crossed by Ally Condie.

I’ve been radio silent for a while. Bad blogging policy, I know. The thing is, August is hard. August is full of memory—the greatest of joys and the sharpest of agonies. August is always a journey of what was, what I wish had been, and a bitter contending with what is. August is the sharp reality that part of myself has died, and the overwhelming acknowledgement of the presence of loss caused by what should have been, but what isn’t.

I’ve been toying with ideas of what I could write for weeks. I’ve had several good ideas, but my heart wasn’t in it. I didn’t want to wear a brave face or find the silver lining. I wanted to feel the sharp, jagged edges of my pain and remember. I didn’t want to sugar coat, when I was tasting nothing of sugar, but instead the sharp, acridness of bitterness.

The truth is, I have lived for so long with my loss, that I can’t imagine life without its presence. It really is strange that absence can feel more tangible and more real than things I can hold in my hand. That pain can feel more like living than happiness.

One of my favorite songs, even before the loss of Serena, is the Goo Goo Dolls song “Iris.” “You bleed just to know you’re alive.” Pain, sadly, is what makes us feel the most agonizingly alive—it’s not just me, it’s the human condition.

When our heart is breaking, when our soul seems to be splintering into shards of brittle glass, the very agony of it seems to leave us wide awake. We are pulled from the monotony, the apathetic, the mundane drudgery of daily living, and we feel mind crushingly alive.

pain

When I was young, the concept of this intrigued me. I recognized the reality that our capacity for joy seemed to be in direct proportion with the extent of our pain . . . aka Great Sorrow=Great Joy.

What I, in my naivety and idealism failed to understand was the great chasm, that black void of numbness that separated those two places. I had no inkling of the “zombie” years that follow intense grief. How could I, never having experienced any real loss? I was blissfully ignorant and so could love the theory, the philosophy of it, without being touched by the reality. The philosophy seemed deep and wise, almost compelling. It had the allure of the bad boy to it–you knew he wasn’t good for you, but there was something so darn seductive about that very darkness . . .

Cathleen Schine puts it so well through the thoughts of one of her characters in her book, The Three Weissmanns of Westport.

As a girl, she had affected despair and emotional pain in an attempt at depth. Now she had no need of affectations. The despair was real, the pain was real. And depth? It no longer beckoned, that rich, worldly dimension of sophistication, of adulthood. Depth spread itself out before her instead, a hole, a pit, a place of infinite loss.

I’m a fan of “Vampire Diaries” and in one of the first seasons Caroline Forbes, one of the main characters, makes a comment of how she wants to be deep, but she’s coming to the realization that she is anything but deep. She makes the comment: “I’m worse than shallow. I’m a kiddie pool.”

That quote has always resonated with me. When I was young, I desperately wanted to be deep. I thought I was, but the reality is, until you’ve lived a little, lost a little, and hurt a lot, you don’t have much capacity for depth.

Now . . . now, however . . . it’s a different story. Now that I am old, my depth spreads out before me like the pit that Schine alludes to and a part of me would give anything to go back to the ignorance that was my kiddie pool self, but that wouldn’t be real. It wouldn’t be authentic. It wouldn’t be living. It would be pretending, acting, going through the motions without allowing LIFE to touch me, impact me, change me . . . transform me.

We hide our pain because others are uncomfortable with it. We don’t want to be reminded that life has a dark side. We close our eyes to it, until it is undeniable—until it sinks its teeth into us and won’t let us go. Only then do we acknowledge its presence, the very real fact that life is as much pain as it is happiness, as much ugliness as it is beauty.

We want to believe that this is not so—that if we do the right things, we can have all of the happy with none of the sad, but life isn’t a simple mathematic equation where A +B=C (A being-if I work hard, B being, if I treat others kindly, then C, life will be fair and give me good things). Sometimes A plus B is going to equal X or maybe Z. In the words of Dan Allender in his book The Healing Path

        Most of us presume that if we work hard, play fair, and keep on doing what is required, life will work out well. And if it doesn’t, then we simply need to find out what we’re doing wrong, correct it, and presto—life works. But that formula doesn’t always get the predicted results.

I often think of the line in “Princess Bride” where Wesley tells Buttercup, “Life is pain, Highness! Anyone who says differently is selling something.”

Pain is a part of life. It is the reality. Why do we try to pretend otherwise?

So for today, this is my nod to my own pain, and a nod to your pain. This is me not pretending that I am okay. This is me acknowledging that, though I heal, I will never be complete, for a piece of my heart and soul went with my darling girl when she left me. I will not pretend that that can happen and that I will not be forever changed.

I wish we didn’t have to break. I wish we didn’t have to face betrayal, illness, and death. I wish life could be lived in the happy moments, without the sadness. I wish that the horrors of ISIS, the child sex trade, and abuse were not a reality in our world. I wish that there was no such thing as cancer or SMA.

But that is life. And life, despite the pain, is worth living. And I am glad to be alive—to FEEL alive—and to know, when I hug my son and my daughters, how lucky I am to have them here and healthy, and how incredibly grateful I am that I get to watch them grow.alive

Live Life with Your Arms Wide Open

            We’ve all been hurt. Sadly, it’s often the people we love the most and trust the most who end up hurting us the most. What we do with that hurt can actually be more harmful that the hurt itself.

            So many of us leave a trail of broken relationships in our wake. We’ve been hurt or we’ve hurt others and rather than working through the conflict, we let the relationship go. Sadly, it’s easier to let go than resolve the conflict, even if it is a mother, a brother or a best friend. What we often don’t consider is how every broken relationship, every unresolved “betrayal,” changes us forever.

            Many of us build walls around our hearts. In theory, the walls are supposed to protect us from getting hurt again, but in reality they do more harm than protection. It is these walls that keep us from living and loving to the fullest. When we allow the pain of our past to impact our present by putting us in protection mode, we are the ones who lose.

            For years I lived with walls around my heart. I was so scared of getting hurt that I didn’t let anyone close enough to hurt me. I was lonely and longing and I began to realize that not only were the walls I had built keeping the harmful relationships out, but also the very ones that I longed for the most. You see, the thing about walls, they keep people out, ALL of them.

           With lots of prayer, journaling and tears I tore the walls down.

            Some of the best friends in my life (including my husband) entered my life shortly after this. I would never have allowed those relationships if my walls had still been up; they were far too risky. Every one of these friendships was well worth the risk!

            I’ve been hurt over the years now that my walls are down. One friend hurt me repeatedly. But the thing about letting your walls down, well, they are DOWN. At least for me, it meant living my life with my arms wide open. Despite getting hurt, I can’t help it, I love unreservedly and I forgive without question, sometimes again and again.

            Recently I was going through an especially dark time and I called one of the people who is on that top tier of people. I was at my wits end. I was near to despairing and I needed to know someone loved me and I needed empathy. What I got was something very different.

            Instead of getting love and compassion, I got judgment. I was told that it was my fault, that all these bad things totally out of our control that were happening to us were somehow our fault. I was told that there must be something wrong with us that made us a target for all the bad things that happened. I was not only hurt, I felt betrayed.

            I didn’t yell or get angry. I didn’t defend myself. I listened and I let go, determined to not talk to this person until I received an apology for the truly terrible things she said. This wasn’t the first time she had hurt me and I have always forgiven and let it go despite the hurt she has caused, but this one . . . well, when I needed her the most she made it abundantly clear that she did not intend to be there for me.

            So I built a wall, for the first time in years, and I waited for the phone call of apology that would bring the wall down. But the phone call never came.

            I’ve spent the last 2 ½ months debating what to do. I don’t want to be a door mat. I don’t want people to think that they can treat me like crap and that I’ll just come back for more. I don’t want to be weak. BUT, am I willing to lose this relationship because of my pride and just because I’m right? Is it really worth that?

            I couldn’t get around it. Despite how justified my reaction might be, it is not worth losing the relationship. The wall has to come down. I have to call her, even if I never get my apology. It’s the right thing to do, even if I don’t like it.

            As I came to this decision I had an epiphany. In every single relationship we have, we are going to hurt people. We don’t mean to, we don’t want to, but we are going to do it despite our best efforts. It is part of being human. So often, those we love the most, we fail the most.

            However you feel about the Bible, you can’t deny the truth of grace. Grace is given, not deserved. I need grace from all the people I have hurt, as unintentionally as it might have been, I still hurt them. I want their grace. I need their grace. As much as I love my children, it’s inevitable, I will hurt them someday, maybe even fail them in some way. I need grace.

            If I want to receive grace and forgiveness from others, I also need to give it, freely, even when it isn’t deserved, because the very definition of grace is that it is not deserved.

            So how many times do I forgive my brother who has hurt me, seventy times seven. I forgive without fail. It doesn’t matter what they’ve done. Withholding grace does not punish the one who doesn’t receive it as much as it hurts us for withholding it. We become stingy and small of spirit. We become jaded and stunted. Grace is as much for us as it is for them.

            So I will swallow my pride, pick up my phone and CALL. I will live my life with my arms wide open. It’s worth any pain that comes my way.