A New Definition of Good

A friend of mine received bad news the other day. She has had a lot of bad, difficult, and painful things happen in her life. More than the average person for sure.

angryShe was angry. She was angry at the world, and most of all, she was angry at God. She publicly questioned the goodness of God. She pointed out the inconsistency, the unfairness, the disproportionate pain and difficulty even among Christians. Her conclusion, in that moment, was that God was not good.

Last week was my daughter Serena’s birthday. She would be fifteen years old this year. She’s been gone for fourteen years, and I still miss her every day. I too, most certainly have, at times, questioned the goodness of God.

Like my friend, I have not failed to notice the disproportionate amount of suffering some have to walk through when compared to so many others. Like my friend, it has caused me to question the goodness of God. But unlike my friend, despite the pain and suffering that I have walked through, that I am currently walking through, and that I, no doubt, will have to walk through in the future–still I say–God is good.

God is good all of the time.

It is our definition of what “good” means that has to change.

heroes_vs_villains_mediumAs human beings, we have an inbred sense of fairness, of justice. Jung liked to call them archetypes. It is the idea that if I do good things, good things will happen to me. Evil deeds on the other hand will be punished. If I treat people fairly, I will myself be treated fairly.

The problem is, despite these deep-seeded instincts, that’s not the way the world works.

And it’s not the way God works.

As I mentioned in my last blog, God is not all that concerned with our comfort. In fact, the Bible is abundantly clear that a walk with Christ is a walk of suffering. He talks of refiner’s fire, and he talks of needing our roots to go to deep to find the streams underground so that we can survive the times of drought. He talks of making a way in the wilderness–he doesn’t say he’ll remove the wilderness, but that He will make a way through it.

And yet, the Bible also says that God is good. His goodness is not altered, affected or diminished by the suffering we walk through.

How can that be?

Logically, it must mean that the suffering itself is good for us. Remember, God’s goal is not our comfort, our prosperity, or our happiness. His goal is our transformation.

Our transformation happens in the fires of suffering.

82e36afee241e4603f100c1355976f28It’s easy to say. It’s easy to preach the necessity of suffering. It’s easy to see the truth of it–but it’s mach harder to do it. To not only walk through it (often we have little choice in the matter), but to embrace it.

My personal world is in upheaval right now. The truth is, I was feeling pretty sorry for myself the other night. I don’t deserve what I’m going through. I was a good girl, who made good choices. I’ve always sought God’s will. I’ve never done drugs. I don’t get drunk. I didn’t have sex before marriage. I don’t lie, cheat, or steal. I am a basically good person who has tried to help people in need. Sure, I lose my temper sometimes, and sometimes I can be selfish, and sometimes lazy, but in the scope of things, I am a good person and I don’t deserve all this pain.

Like my friend, I was feeling full of self pity. My pain was unfair. Since I was twenty I have walked through one difficulty after another. It was unjust. Poor, picked on me.

But that same night, my daughter began to cry. She opened up about how her own struggles with the goodness of God. She didn’t understand why she had to walk through this, when her friends didn’t have to walk through anything. She always tries to do what’s right, and yet, instead of being rewarded, here she is have to walk through a season of suffering and her friends don’t, even though her friends so often make wrong choices. Such hard truths to struggle with at the age of ten!

It’s hard to explain what I felt in this moment. I felt a little bit like God had called me on the carpet. The truth is, I knew exactly what God would say to this–we should not compare our lives to the lives of others, because what God has for us is not what He has for them. That God is not concerned with our comfort or our happiness, but rather our transformation. That life isn’t fair, that God never said it was, and He isn’t concerned about the “fairness” of it at all.

Shame on me for wallowing in self pity when I know the truth!

And shame on me for not living it in a way that my daughter can see the truth through my life.

I held my daughter as she cried, and I explained these hard truths to her, and I prayed with her.

I didn’t pray for her comfort or for her protection, though my mother’s heart very much wanted to do just that.

I prayed for God’s will in her life. I prayed that God would give her strength in the difficulties. Faith in the darkness. And the eyes to see the goodness of God even when all around her seemed to call that very goodness into question.

Facebook-20140427-123611I prayed that God’s will would be done. And I know what that means.

But, I want the best for my daughter, not the easiest–just like God does for me.

The easiest is very rarely the best. The best takes work. The best is hard. It is often painful. Sometimes it’s downright awful.

But, just as my prayer for Arabelle, God wants the best for me–for us.

And doing what’s right, even when it hurts, that is the definition of good.

I’m pretty sure it hurts God’s heart, just like it hurt mine, but he knows it’s best.

And yet again, I need to trust that my Father knows best.

So yes, God is good–all of the time.

God, help me to see your goodness, not as a measure of what you’ve done for me, not as a measure of what I have or do not have, but for who you are–a God who walks with me through my pain and through my suffering so that I can get to the other side and be transformed.

A Letter to my Students

child hospitalAs a teacher, I am continually exposed to the suffering of others. This year has been particularly bad. I hear of these kids struggling with real-life, grown up suffering well before they should be. I hear of their fights with cancer and cystic fibrosis and diabetes. I hear of broken families and death. I hear of rape. I hear of abuse. I hear of suicide. I hear the pain in the words they write, the things they share, and I see it in their eyes. They are too young for such pain. Childhood should not be shadowed by its presence. I wish I could take it away, make it better, do something. But I cannot take it away, and I can’t really make it better, though maybe by simply listening I do make it just a little bit better, because in listening, they know that they are not alone.

Dedicated-to-the-rape-victim--28502This morning as I was driving into work I was thinking of one of my students and what she has gone through. I see the effects of the trauma she experienced playing out on a daily basis. She is a sweet girl. A good girl. She did not deserve what happened to her, but we seldom do, do we?

I was thinking of what I would say to her if I could. What wisdom have I gained on my own road of suffering? What pearls of wisdom could I pass on?

I thought of my journey, my own pain. I remembered the heartache. I remembered my idealism shattering. I felt the echoes of the soul crushing agony and how my journey of childhood, naivity, came to a bone crushing halt as I found myself thrust in to the heartbreaking world of realism.

I reflected on the story we’re currently reading in my classes, Annie Dillard’s “The Deer at Providencia.” Most of my fellow teachers hate teaching this story. It’s not an enjoyable story, but I find that I love teaching it. I love it for its realism, for the lessons it has to share. And I know those lessons to be true, and I am glad that I get the chance to share that wisdom with my students. Those are the messages I would pass on.

suffering1We all, when suffering comes our way, ask why. Why me? Why God do you hate me? What have I done that you turn your face from me?

We feel alone in our suffering. But we are not alone.

There is very little that is guaranteed in this life, but one thing that is is the reality that you will suffer. Life itself cannot exist without suffering. For our continued existence, something must die. Even if you are a vegetarian or even a vegan, your life is sustained by the ending of something else. It is the cycle of life.

When that suffering comes, we must remember that, though we feel alone in our suffering, though we feel like no one has suffered like we suffer, we are not, in actuality, alone. The person sitting next to us on the bus has suffered. The woman in the car next to you at the stop light has suffered. That friend from high school who seems to have the perfect life on Facebook has suffered. We might not look like we have suffered to an unknowing eye, but don’t doubt it, not for a moment, we have suffered.

It’s not like we wear a badge that says “Yes, I have had my fill of suffering.” We don’t have bumper stickers to announce it to the world, and most of us don’t splash it all over social media. But we have suffered. We all have. You are not alone.

angryThe next thing that I think I would want to tell my student is to allow herself to feel the raw emotions. Feel the anger, the rage, the bitterness. Allow yourself to acknowledge the feelings of wrongness. It was not fair. It should not have happened. It was wrong. Life shouldn’t be this way. Those feelings are there, and they need to be acknowledged. We cannot ignore them, push them down, and pretend that they are not there. It’s only in acknowledging them, embracing them, that we can begin to let them go.

I remember after Serena died I had a hard time seeing couples with a little baby. I felt a surge of anger and bitterness. Why was their child allowed to live when my darling girl had to die? Why were they allowed their blissful parenthood when mine was shadowed with pain? Why, in this world of healthy babies, was mine marked to die?

It did not make me less of a person to feel this way. It did not make me a bad person or less of a Christian. I wrestled with my feelings. I howled at the sky. I cursed God.

stormBut the thunder storm quieted to a downpour, and the downpour dimished to a rain, and the rain faded to an intermittent shower which gave way to gray skies . . . and finally . . . I found myself in a place of acceptance.

Eventually I stopped asking “Why me” and I began asking, “Why not me?” In this world of suffering, why should I have been given a free pass?

Let yourself feel what you feel so that you can come to a place of acceptance. Those demons need to be acknowledged, confronted and wrestled with. They won’t go away just because you ignore them; they will just keep rearing their heads and poisoning your life until they are dealt with.

Acceptance. That sounds sort of trite. Optimistic. As if I am giving my approval to what has happened, saying it was somehow right or good.

Let me be clear. I will never give my approval to these horrendous moments of suffering. I will never say it’s okay. I will not try to say that the pain is outweighed by the “goodness” or the growth that comes after.

heartI will never accept the “rightness” of what happened, because it will never be right. What happened to you was not right;what happened to me wasn’t right either.

You don’t accept that you deserved it, because you didn’t. She didn’t. I didn’t.

But you accept that it happened–you accept its presence in your life–and you embrace it.

The only choice we have in suffering, the only power we have, is in how we allow it to change us.

Suffering sucks, there is no way around it. It it not okay. It hurts us and it breaks us. It tears and it rends. It’s agony. But if we embrace it, acknowledge it’s inevitabilty, and it is inevitable, we can become stronger, better versions of ourselves.

innocenceIn Dillard’s story, “The Deer at Providencia” she begins the story with the description of a deer that is caught and suffering, awaiting its death. She describes this full grown deer in terms that would resemble a fawn in the area where I grew up. It was delicate and frail. Small and “thin skinned.” Fragile. Breakable. Childlike.

I think that her description of the deer is symbolic of what we are like before we suffer. Though we may or may not be full grown, we are still as children. Fragile in our ideals. Breakable in our naivity.

It is in the very process of suffering that we grow, that we understand. It is a part of our coming of age, though we don’t really define it as such.

It makes me think of the process of weight training. To grow our muscles, we must break them. We stretch our muscles beyond their endurance causing little tears. These tears, when mended by our bodies, cause our muscles to increase in size and strength.

Suffering is like weight training for our souls–if we embrace it and let it do what it is meant to do. The little tears mend, and we become stronger, better, wiser versions of our selves.

Unfortunately, many never accept it, much less embrace it. These individuals become lost in the past, in the world of “could haves” and “should haves.” They continue to feel alone, singled out, picked on. These inidividuals become angry and bitter. Instead of their souls growing stronger and into something more intricate and wise, the wrinkle and shrivel like raisins in the reality of their suffering. They become the worst versions of who they could be.

Some tears, some breaking, is beyond what we can easily endure. Just as with muscles, sometimes we are pushed beyond what can  easily heal. We rip the muscle. It pulls from the bone. We injure it beyond the normal process.

In weight training it can take months for the body to heal these kinds of wounds.

It can take the soul even longer to heal. But it can heal from the greatest and most horrific of suffering.

WieselI think of Elie Wiesel. I think of what he suffered, what he endured, living through the Holocaust. As awful as losing my daughter was, his suffering was so much more. It is hard to believe that the human psyche can survive what he survived, much less become anything but a bitter husk in the aftermath, but he, and so many like him, are living proof that even the grossest of injustices, the most debilitating of suffering, can not only be overcome, but can also be transformative.

The power we have in our suffering is to embrace its transformative nature, to allow light to be shed on our misconceptions, to send its searching eyes into the darkness and imperfections of our own souls, and to see our inclusion in this mad story called the human existence.

We are all part of the story, and we all contribute to the song of suffering. It is unavoidable.

So my dear students, I so wish that I could take away your pain. I wish I could ease your suffering. I wish I could tell you that this world was different, gentler and kinder, than it is.

But I can’t. I can’t tell you that all your dreams will come true. I can’t tell you that you won’t know loss and betrayal. I can’t tell you that you will never be touched by injustice or the wild spin of chance. I can’t tell you that suffering will not come to your door. I can’t even tell you that it will come once, but never again.

rainbow-after-a-stormWhat I can tell you is that you are not alone. I journey with you. We all journey with you. We might not know what it means. We might not know why we suffer, why God allows it, but I can assure you, that it doesn’t have to cripple you. You can be transformed by even the ugliest this world can give you. You can become beautiful in a way that is intricate and real, not despite of your suffering, but because of it.

And I can tell you that though the world is ugly, it is also beautiful. The very ugliness brings the beauty into such sharp detail because of the very contrast. Don’t allow suffering to overshadow the beauty that exists, but instead to throw it in sharp relief. Allow it to make you, and your world, beautiful in a way that is more real, and more true, than it was before you suffered.

 

 

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.