“Be humble towards God and gentle with your neighbor. Judge and accuse no one but yourself, and ever excuse others. Speak of God always to praise and glorify Him, speak of your neighbor only with respect – do not speak of yourself at all, either well or ill.”
~ St. Margaret Mary Alacoque
Did you know that the origin of the word “humility” comes from the Latin word for earth? As in dirt. Ground. Humilis… humilitas… to be close to the ground. To know one’s place. To be firmly rooted in a reality of self. In preparation for a blog post that I was intending to write, I stumbled upon the above quote by St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, the patroness of my childhood parish. After reading her words, I abandoned my mental outlines. Do I know the truth about my weaknesses and appreciate the source and limitations of my strengths? Do I possess a healthy understanding of my nothingness? Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. It would seem that those questions are better meditated upon in private. Thus, instead of my typical soul-searching post, I leave you to reflect on her advice for yourself. Before I go, so that we all might have a little something to smile about today, here is one final pearl of wisdom.
“Humility is like underwear; essential, but indecent if it shows.”
One afternoon, about a year ago, my division chief at the time popped into my office for a spontaneous chat. Michael was an unusual character and the only person to ever directly ask me what it was like to experience life with an eating disorder. Such baldness was fairly typical of his manner, and our little dialogues often diverged down rather unconventional paths. On this particular day, he was specifically interested in discerning my degree of spontaneity. Why? Your guess would be as good as mine, but apparently, it was a personality facet that was of explicit interest to him.
“Hi!” Michael announced in that stark and sudden way that always caught me slightly off guard. He seemed to appear in my office from an empty void of hallway outside. I smiled, assured him that he wasn’t interrupting anything important, and waited to discover what exactly it was that he wanted. “If I asked you to go camping this weekend, would you say yes?” he asked, without prelude.
“Ummmm… Nooo,” I replied, drawing out the vowels of my response with an inflection that was intended to convey just how entirely inappropriate I considered his question. “What the hell?” I thought.
“Why not?” he persisted, taking a seat across from my desk.
Staring at him with incredulity, I blinked, wondering which of the 3,000 reasons coming unbidden to my mind would be best to verbalize first. “Well, to begin, I hate camping,” I started. Why Michael continued in the mistaken belief that I was some sort of hiking, canoeing, snowshoeing, campfire cooking, outdoorsy, person, I could not understand. Multiple attempts to impress upon him my strong attachment to electricity, hot water, flush toilets, and soft bedding repeatedly fell on deaf ears. “In any case,” I continued, “you’re my boss.” Working under Michael’s supervision was one matter. Though some of his leadership decisions were a bit questionable, and his personality was a bit eccentric, he was an engaged and responsible chief. However, he was difficult to read, and he was not someone I would ever want to encounter outside of the workplace in a social atmosphere.
By his direct but indirect way of approaching a topic, he had yet to hint that the ulterior motive behind his wildly irregular query was one of determining just how adventurous I might be. “Well, you like to travel. What if I asked you to take a trip with me?” he asked. “What if I told you that the trip was all planned, tickets purchased, hotel reserved… would you go to, say Atlanta, with me this weekend?”
“No!” I exclaimed, quite scandalized. At that moment, I desired nothing more strongly than for him to depart my office immediately.
What did my face look like as I spat out my response? He seemed to finally catch onto my consternation, and he finally explained himself. “Ok,” I thought. “Weird, but ok.I’ll play along.” He rephrased his question, inquiring whether I would jet off with a friend under the same circumstances. “If it was someone I knew well,” I mused, “someone that I trusted, maybe someone I traveled with before, then yes, I think I might. It would need to be a very good friend though – someone who knew all my idiosyncrasies and whose idiosyncrasies were known to me. Then, I would truly trust her if she told me that all the details were already worked out.”
Even from Michael, I didn’t expect what came next. “Idiosyncrasies?” he asked. “What do you mean?”
A real friend doesn’t judge you when she finds you sitting in the sink.
My puzzlement and amazement deepened. “What do you mean, ‘What do you mean?’” I countered redundantly. “My idiosyncrasies. You know, like my little personality quirks.” His expression was one of bewildered bemusement. “You know, like…” I racked my brain… “I prefer to shower at night, and I prefer to wake up early and go to sleep early. I don’t drink alcohol or soda, and I don’t like babies, or Mexican food, or most dogs. I really can’t stand cigarette smoke, and I go to church every Sunday, even when I’m traveling.” When put on the spot, it was difficult to quickly summon a list of idiosyncrasies that were appropriate for sharing with one’s boss. I certainly was not prepared to divulge any stories that might exemplify my more hard-to-tolerate eccentricities. My trustworthy travel companions were the people with whom I forged those tales. They understood me enough to never speak of eyeballs in my presence, they didn’t care what I looked like without makeup, and they didn’t mind if my feet smelled or if I snored when I was extra-congested. For my part, I didn’t particularly care what they looked like without makeup, either, or if their feet smelled, if they snored, or if they stole all the blankets when we bunked together in a room with only one queen. I didn’t mind if they wore socks with their Sperry’s, or if they washed their clothes in the bathroom sink of the hotel, or if they always burned the microwave popcorn.
Michael scrutinized me briefly before responding. “Oh. I suppose I never thought about that sort of thing,” he intoned. He tipped his head to one side, thoughtfully. “I would have to say that I don’t have any idiosyncrasies.” I nodded and smiled politely. I was pretty sure that I could help him identify one or two. He slapped his hands on his knees jovially and pushed off of the chair. “Well, have a great afternoon!” he bade me, vanishing from my doorway as cryptically as he appeared.
Blinking, I watched him disappear. As perplexed as I was by the exchange that just concluded, our conversation was directing my thoughts along a different tangent. Recalling numberless road trips, beach trips, Euro trips, and couch surfing expeditions spanning decades, I found myself swimming in delightful memories. I wasn’t recollecting perfect experiences, however. I cringed at reminiscences of my own foibles, and I smiled warmly at the patient tolerance of my friends. I grinned at their own unique peculiarities, and I laughed as I reflected on all the crazy, weird ways that the stress of the unexpected could manifest when our coping skills inevitably slipped. How blessed was I to be able to treasure those moments? How much did my life overflow with abundance to be loved and accepted by these trusted few and to be able to love and accept them in return?
“See everything; overlook a great deal; correct little.”
~ Saint Pope John XXIII
When my plane lifts off for Paris on May 19th, there will be no one waiting to meet me on the other side of the ocean. I frequently travel by myself for work purposes, sometimes living out of hotels for up to a month at a time, but my upcoming trip to France will be my first solo vacation. To claim that I don’t worry a bit about being lonely is a lie. What will it be like to stay in a foreign country par moi-même for seven whole days? I’m not sure. My nearest comparison was a two-day side-trip to München during a two-week sojourn in Germany, and I was very glad to return to Helene’s apartment in Stuttgart at the end of those 48 hours. Despite living on my own for over a decade, an underlying predisposition in my personality toward loneliness, isolation, self-pity, and melancholy tends to assert itself if I allow that to sprout and take root. If. The thing is, I am never alone. Wherever I go, I am known, and I am loved. With me, I carry all of the people I treasure in my heart. Inside of me, I contain every occasion we shared, great or small, exceptional or mundane. Deep down, in my center, there is a little nugget of God. Even when my vision is blurred by the sticky mire of loneliness, all it takes is a twinkle of grace to penetrate the muck of my soul, give my heart a bit of a polish, and remind me, once more, of all my beautiful connectedness and of the all-loving God who is holding me in his hand.
“To be loved but not known is comforting but superficial. To be known and not loved is our greatest fear. But to be fully known and truly loved is, well, a lot like being loved by God. It is what we need more than anything. It liberates us from pretense, humbles us out of our self-righteousness, and fortifies us for any difficulty life can throw at us.”
Over the course of the past day, I found myself pitched about on the brutal seas of a turbulent shame storm. When the unfortunately familiar physical sensations of burning in my face, muscle tension in my jaw, teeth clenching, and wincing began to crest, I was able to summon little desire to face whatever real or imagined iniquity lay at the eye of this hurricane. Who would want to turn into that torrent of painful emotions and cruel self-criticisms? Armed with a toolbox of distraction techniques and distress-tolerance skills, I weathered the intermittent surges of mental and emotional anguish with their characteristic accompanying bodily signs. I took a hot shower, caught up on some reading, and listened to an audiobook, all the while pushing back the recurring sense of mortification that told me I had done something terribly, abysmally, unforgivably atrocious.
A new acquaintance recently recommended a small book to me entitled God’s Tender Mercy: Reflections on Forgiveness by Sr. Joan Chittister, a Benedictine nun. This morning, I woke feeling restored after my first decent night of sleep in recent memory, but I recognized a persisting vulnerability – the raw sting that hinted at shame lurking nearby. I reached for the little book on my bedside dresser. It was only seventy-seven 3×5 inch pages long in its entirety, and I was up to chapter two, “Forgive Us Our Sins: Forgive Yourself.” With one hand stroking my ginger cat, I began to read.
“And sometimes keeping the rules, I came to understand, can be more sinful than breaking them,” the wise sister wrote. I placed the book on my lap and contemplated my shame. It probably rose from my impression that I violated some inviolable social mores. It likely originated in the idea that I committed some act of “rule-breaking,” though I wasn’t exactly sure which of a million, little, conflicting and mutually exclusive rules I broke. My tendency toward rigid, black-and-white thinking and my old striving to be perfect provided a ready substrate for self-imposed agony. It was my choice to remain stuck in that miserable place, I realized. “If we admitted our arrogance, faced our dishonesties, named our weaknesses – at least to ourselves – we would be consumed with kindness,” I read on. What exactly was I refusing to face? I returned to the events of the previous afternoon and revisited precisely what occurred before this particular storm started churning. There, I found myself afraid to look foolish in front of others, holding myself to such an impossible standard of decorum that the specific expectations of behavior defied definition. I saw that I was terrified of doing or saying something “wrong,” and I was telling myself that a few, minor faux pas were unforgiveable. Imagining rejection and judgment, my cheeks flushed and I reflexively scrunched my face, bowing my head and squeezing my eyes tightly closed.
“The fact is that we are all made of the same thing: clay, the dust of the earth, the frail, fragile, shapeless thing from which we come and to which we will all return someday. We are all capable of the same things. Our only hope is that when we are all sitting somewhere bereft, exposed, outcast, humiliated and rejected by the rest of society, someone, somewhere will ‘reach out a hand and lift us up.’”
~ Sr. Joan Chittister, God’s Tender Mercy
What makes me so special that I think I should never make a mistake? I asked myself. It wasn’t a new question, but I required some gentle reminding. Who am I that when I make a mistake, I am excepted from compassion and understanding? It suddenly occurred to me that accepting compassion required a strong knowledge of self. It demanded true humility. To accept compassion, whether from myself or anyone else, would mean acknowledging my need for that compassion. Why would I need compassion unless I was deeply flawed? Facing those flaws, how could I deny that I deserved the gentle grace of forgiveness? After all, if I could not embrace my inner demons, then how could I ever hope to make enough peace with them that I might embrace others? How could I move beyond the past I could not change into the future I was called to live?
“Arrogance commits us to a community of one. There is nothing to be gained there. Don’t confuse weakness with sin. Most of us struggle with something we never quite conquer. It is precisely that struggle that can become the stuff of compassion with others.”
~ Sr. Joan Chittister, God’s Tender Mercy
Shame was trying to keep me isolated in my own ego, ruminating on the blunders of yesterday, and not in a healthy way that might lead to self-improvement, but in a self-castigating way designed only to inflict punishment and pain. Shame was telling me that I was unforgiveable, and beneath it all, shame was presuming that I was better than everyone around me, because I was fixing a standard for myself that was unreasonable for any human being. I peeled back all the layers, and staring up at me was my own, stubborn pride. It drove me to care so much about how others perceived and judged me that it sucked me into an unwinnable struggle to control the uncontrollable and secluded me in my own fear and self-defensiveness. With a great sigh, I accepted that this would not be the last time I would fall victim to the myth of self-reliance. I was refusing to allow for the graciousness of others. In my narrow, condemnatory, wounded little heart, I was denying that others might be more charitable than I was in overlooking my faults and reserving judgment. Could I admit that I was too caught up in my own self-importance, hand it all over to the God whose mercy surpasses His justice, and then simply let it go?
The driving winds of the tempest began to abate. The rain fell more softly. I started writing, and I discovered an odd gratitude. If I never went so far astray, upon what would I reflect? How would I grow?
“The only thing we can offer God of value is to give our love to people as unworthy of it as we are of God’s love.”
Everything now is preparation for something else. Nothing is as it seems. I cannot help but wonder how it will all fit together in the end. Where am I going? Where will I be in a year? What will amount from the events of these disparate days? It is all building to something more, something else, something that I cannot grasp. To paraphrase St. Paul, I see only in shadows and mists, in fragments of the whole. I see splotches of color and flashes of light, but I have no concept of a sunrise or of the full brilliance of day. I am reminded of a great Monet waterlily painting that once captivated me in the gallery at MoMA. It was so expansive that it could only be best appreciated from a second-floor landing on the opposite side of the vast room in which it hung. It is as if I am staring at it with my nose pressed to the thick globs of paint and my feet cemented to the floor. I have no scope of the complete masterpiece, its majesty, or the transcendence of its beauty. It isn’t even within my power to step back, that I might survey the wholeness of the work. To do so would require an omnipotence and omniscience that I can’t even pretend to possess. If I clenched my fists, shook and heaved, screamed, shouted, and wailed, I would only exhaust and frustrate myself in futility. If I pummeled and clawed at the canvas, pulled at my hair, or cried, I would only hurt myself and further obfuscate the image. The only logical conclusion is to… relax. Let be what will be, though I am flooded with curiosity and intrigue.
Plunged into the simplicity of the void of the unknown and the complexity that my imagination creates there, I try to surrender. I cannot help but remain intrigued, perplexed, captivated… There is an eagerness inside me that isn’t quite the same as impatience. It is more like a sublime excitement. The status quo is blissful. I soothe myself with the expected, which allows me the delusion that I am masterfully in control of my little sliver of the universe. Excitement is about as unwelcome an emotion as anxiety. The energy and intensity that surges from novelty and anticipation upsets my equilibrium in a way that once provoked binges and furious activity – anything that would allow me to numb and avoid the discomfort of my thoughts and feelings. Now, I exercise tolerance of that empty hollow contained in my chest that resembles breathlessness. With practiced patience, I watch the energetic tides of enthusiasm, bewilderment, and fretfulness roll in and gently recede.
On Tuesday, I woke early and set about my morning routine, with a few notable exceptions. By the front door, my well-traveled suitcase was packed and my new backpack stood ready. It was not just any travel day. With my tickets for Paris purchased and the hotel booked, every trip now offered targeted opportunities to train myself for that next adventure. As a frequent flyer and someone who both values efficiency and cherishes the coziness of the familiar, my traveling was steeped in rather exact habits and routines. With every trip, I discovered some new pearl of an insight that allowed me to tweak my preparations for my next journey. Unfortunately, my methods evolved to suit domestic jaunts. An international expedition was going to require some radical departures from my comfort zone.
Mentally, I ticked off all the differences I would face as I crossed national borders and that great expanse of the Atlantic. No rental car, only a theoretical understanding of the ground transportation system at my destination, a language barrier, no local contacts or support network, no fresh fruits or vegetables allowed through French customs… even cell service and a mobile internet connection weren’t guaranteed. I would need to be ready to navigate a foreign train system and metro with all of my luggage. This trip would involve more walking than ever before!
In December, I decided that I would ditch the duffle-like, Samsonite carry-on that served me so reliably on almost every excursion since I was sixteen. My Christmas treat to myself was a new, black, backpack from my favorite German outfitter, which could also double as a large daypack during my weeklong vacation. Last week’s trip was my first flight after the holidays. The time was come to break in my pack with an inaugural adventure! It didn’t fit nearly the volume of my Samsonite, but it was made for long-distance trekking in a way that the Samsonite was not. I faced a tricky decision. What was non-essential? I was under the impression that I whittled down my packing list to the absolute necessities long ago, but when I re-examined all the gear I was consistently lugging around with me, I confronted an unsettling realization. I was capable of greater adaptability than I allowed myself to believe. A word coalesced in the back of my mind, a word that creeped into my thought once or twice in the preceding months but which was not yet one I was ready to invite into my organized consciousness. Recovered.
Items that were once essential to ensure I could maintain my coping skills in any eventuality were no longer required. My flexibility with food and my trust in my ability to “make it work” in any situation meant I could pack fewer snacks and exchanges. As I pared the contents of my bag down to my new basic necessities, a knot twisted in my gut. No reassurance from the rational part of my brain could alleviate the gnawing pain that gripped my stomach. Just as so many times in the past, I needed to prove myself to myself. My destination was Denver, and my purpose was personal as well as professional. I was headed to yet another conference, but the focus of the three-day intensive was related more to the career I hoped to find myself in someday than it was to my current work. Before I left, I ordered new business cards and printed several copies of my résumé. From the forgotten corner of a bookshelf in my study, I rooted out my black, leather portfolio with the gold embossed seal of my alma mater. The last time I used it was when I applied to graduate school 10 years ago. Then, I checked my expectations, reminding myself that my experience would be imperfect, I would invariably say or do something I would regret, and I would not be surprised if I was plagued by self-doubt and self-criticism. “This is hard,” I reminded myself gently. “It’s ok to make mistakes. It’s ok to doubt.” I said a little prayer, and I put my trust in God.
During the conference, I met some wonderful people, gained a wealth of new information, exchanged ideas and business cards, and exercised an unprecedented flexibility around food. With so many networking luncheons and dinners, I ate more prepared meals in a shorter period of time than ever before in all of my recovery. Each morning, I descended the eight floors from my room to the street below, turned the corner, and picked up a coffee and croissant at the café halfway down the block. When I wasn’t dining with the other conference attendees, I stopped at the grocery on the corner for the fresh fixings of a lone supper. “What good practice for Paris!” I merrily applauded myself.
Will anything emerge from all of the goings on of these last days? Will any of the connections that I made develop into something more? Will I ever grow beyond Vanillasville and the little, under-fulfilling job I occupy here? It is good, but I cannot help wondering what better possibilities I am not yet imagining. Where will I go? And when? Is what I think I want really what’s best for me? All I can see are flashes of color and wet, sticky globs of paint. Reflecting, I can recall countless stages of my life when I stood ankle-deep in these waters of uncertainty. I remember all of the interviews that I went on during my application to college, then graduate school, and later my first job, always imagining “What if?” and wondering, “Is this the one? Is this the place? Will I be back here again? Or will I never return?” It’s unpleasant, it’s disconcerting, and it’s confusing… yet, I feel so alive! Oh, how grateful I am for this vast, uncomfortable, blind void. The greater sorrow is to sit in my small, windowless office, content but under-stimulated all the rest of my working days. I don’t know what is coming next, or whether anything is coming at all, but there is something breathtaking in the bewilderment.
“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”
“Sensations are not symptoms,” I tell myself as I place one blue-sneakered foot tentatively onto the concrete pavement. The words of my first psychiatrist return to me, though I can’t remember his precise phrasing. “How many times will you tell yourself you can’t do it before you do?”
“Anxiety and fear do not provide solace for our pain but aggravate it, leading us to a kind of breakdown in courage and strength because it appears that our pain has no possible remedy.”
~ St. Francis de Sales
On this blog, though I recount forthrightly my struggles with depression and anxiety and I unabashedly discuss my recovery from binge eating disorder, there remain one or two subjects so steeped in self-judgment and shame that I continue to carefully avoid them. These issues are important parts of my identity, and I process them in-depth with my dietician, my therapist, and in my personal writing. Otherwise, I keep the stories to myself, with the persistent belief that, “There are some things that people just won’t understand.” The way that my mind processes thought through physiologic responses in my body is one of those topics that I eschew. It’s hard to describe the stress-induced symptoms that I can develop. They aren’t manifestations of an overactive imagination or an overwrought psyche, and I don’t suffer from what is commonly characterized (and stigmatized) as “psychosomatic” illness. Over-worked neurons send misdirecting signals into the muscles of my body, which contract irregularly, and – voila! – a knot in my shoulder or in my stomach, a rushed trip to the restroom, or a flare-up of an old tendinitis. Did you ever have a lump in your throat, tightness in your chest, or butterflies in your stomach when you were particularly anxious about something? In some people, that mind-body connection is a little over-developed. Different people may experience this process in a manner of ways, but for me, it is just that easy… and complicated.
My response to stress through these non-specific physical manifestations didn’t emerge out of nowhere. When I was in sixth grade, I was the target of some fairly serious bullying. (Those were the days before cell phones and social media. I can’t even fathom what children go through today.) By the end of the year, I was suffering from such frequent stomachaches and nausea that my pediatrician was convinced I was lactose intolerant. When all the tests returned with normal results, the symptoms eventually resolved. I was always a sensitive child and easily prone to worry. As I transitioned from elementary to middle school, the dysthymic depression that would persist for the next 20 years settled more concretely upon me. I began to experience intermittent knee pains, which continued off and on throughout high school and college. I was diagnosed with patellofemoral syndrome, attributed to soccer and tennis. Before every tennis match, I lined up by the athletic trainer’s office so that he could tape my knees, but my ruminations about the sensation of pain only exacerbated and amplified the subjective experience. After college, I found my stride – literally and figuratively – becoming a short-distance runner and entering races. I completely forgot about my history of patellofemoral syndrome, and then I developed my first significant injury of adulthood. It was the fear more than the pain from the shin splints and possible stress fracture (I couldn’t afford the diagnostic test) that caused my depression and anxiety to spike. My thoughts lingered obsessively over my injury. In my fear and anticipation of pain, I could interpret almost any physical sensation in my legs as “hurt,” and my recovery extended beyond the expected six weeks into the range of six months. Eventually, when my bewildered doctor told me, “Either you are going to run, or you aren’t,” I screwed up my courage and forced one foot in front of the other. My mind reeled, but there wasn’t any inflammation in my extremities. When I forced my way through my dread and apprehension, both the emotions and their physical manifestations slowly melted away into… normalcy.
It wasn’t until nearly five years later, while I was recovering from my gastrointestinal illness and plantar fasciitis, that my therapist and I started addressing the role that my thought process was playing in my over-interpretation of physical stimuli. Anytime I noticed the slightest suggestion of a feeling in the area of my abdomen, I began to focus all of my attention on my stomach. As I over-analyzed every gurgle and squelch, I descended into self-blame, and my head swam with alarming and catastrophic thoughts. “Am I relapsing again? What did I do? I must have done something to cause it! What should I do? What if I really am getting sick again?” While my mood tanked, my stomach twisted into aching knots. At the same time that I was recovering from the terrible trauma of that prolonged GI disease, I was also in physical and emotional agony over a lingering case of plantar fasciitis, which made it difficult to enjoy many of the activities I once loved. The onset of the injury occurred during the peak of the colitis, at a time when I was weakened, malnourished, and desperately depressed. When my therapist and I discussed this history, I began to see how my anxiety and perseverations were understandable. It was so obvious when it was all laid out as if we were discussing the life of some stranger. Of course, I would be hyper-vigilant to any cues that might alert me to impending danger from these two conditions which, together, upended my entire existence! With my therapist’s coaching, I practiced responding to my pain and my fear with acceptance, gentleness, and self-compassion. “There’s that pain again,” I acknowledged. “There’s my brain worrying that something is wrong. But nothing is wrong, and I am ok.” As I gently closed my eyes and relaxed the little muscles of my jaw, I repeated to myself, “Deep breath. Ground myself in the breath. Ground myself in anything other than my stomach or my feet.”
Turning to principles of operant conditioning, I trained myself to act opposite my emotions. Rather than modifying my behavior to “protect myself” from further exacerbating the “pain,” I did exactly what I was afraid to do, within what a wise mind might consider moderate and safe. Instead of staying home from a bike ride, I would set out for a gentle cycle around the block, just to stretch my legs and prove to myself that I was capable of spending 10 or 15 minutes on a bicycle without hurting myself or causing some sort of massive GI upheaval. Instead of sitting on the couch and nursing my poor feet, lamenting my “disability,” I would tell myself softly that walking through the grocery store was not enough to trigger any sort of severe injury from which recovery was impossible, and off I went, frequently deep-breathing the whole way along while squinting my eyes tight and forcefully redirecting my attention again and again to anything other than the focus of my worry.
“The best way out is always through.”
~ Robert Frost
During these days of rewiring my mind-body connection, I developed several mantras: “Just because I feel pain does not mean I am injured. // Sensitivity is not the same as pain. // There is no way that this moderate level of (x,y,z) activity is causing permanent damage. // In the whole long course of my life, this will not last forever! I am ok, and I am going to be ok. // All of this is going to work out. // No matter what happens, God has a plan for my life.” I also expanded the vocabulary that I used to describe my physical sensations. From one word, “pain,” my lexicon multiplied to include pressure, twinge, niggle, rub, ache, sting, tenderness, smarting, soreness, prickle, tingle, pinch, throb, burn, and irritation. Sometimes, there was still no word that fit. “I just feel it. It’s just there,” I would tell myself. Just because I was aware of the presence of my feet, did not mean that there was anything amiss.
“Don’t trouble yourself. God didn’t make us to abandon us.”
So… why am I now reflecting on a desensitization process that I undertook almost two years ago? Well, I still develop physiologic responses to stress, and I still rely on the same tools and skills to redirect the automatic thoughts that alarm my mind with fears that my body isn’t right. With my trip to Paris quickly approaching, I am discovering that there is much more to this jumble than I originally perceived. There are some fearsome monsters still slumbering peacefully in a dark corner of my closet. Until recently, I didn’t even know they were there. Now, they are yawning wide, stretching their claws after their long hibernation, and showing their fangs. They are knocking on the door, and I am timidly letting them into the room.
The truth is, by God’s grace I am blessedly able-bodied, and I always enjoyed a very active lifestyle. I grew up running, jumping, and playing. At parties, I loved to dance! I lived in New York City and Washington, DC and constantly walked everywhere. Until a couple years ago, my job was incredibly active, and I was on my feet for 12 to 16 hours a day. Where did she go, that girl who used to clomp and shuffle and skip and scurry? She never gave her feet much of a thought. “This trip is going to be good for you on many levels,” my therapist predicted during our most recent session. She was referring to the myriad ways I was finding myself hurtled out of my comfort zone. Her underlying assumption seemed to be that I would emerge intact and healthy from my visits with the beasties in the closet. She foresaw us all pleasantly sipping thé and eating gateau at some Parisian sidewalk café in May. I reminded her that there were only four months until my departure – not much time to rehabilitate myself. “And here I was thinking, ‘Wow, we have four whole months! Think of all we can do in that amount of time!’” she replied.
Ironically, it was my mother who offered me the centering words of reassurance that anchored me in acceptance and self-compassion. “If it hurts to walk, just sit down,” she spoke to me over the phone. I was so overwhelmed by how much walking I would have to do after I landed in Paris, that I never stopped to consider I didn’t actually have to do any of it. “There will be so many places to sit! There will be places to sit everywhere! You don’t have to go everywhere and see everything. Just do what you can, and then take a break.” I was a little stunned that these words of balance and wisdom were coming from the same driven woman who instilled my perfectionistic, neurotic restlessness in me. This was the bold, fearless mother whose sense of adventure and curiosity could never be dissuaded until she explored every nook and cranny of every city, street, neighborhood, beach, field, house, museum, shop, or parking lot into which she ever stepped foot. She never saw a “Do Not Enter” sign that applied to her. As I contemplated her message, I remembered that she was also the same one who gently told me, “Let go of your pride,” when I blushed with shame as I maneuvered a motorized scooter through Disney World two years ago. In both instances, she reminded me that it was ok to be flexible, that I was more than I imagined myself to be, and that in the acceptance of reality, there was nothing to fear.
“If we are intended for great ends, we are called to great hazards.”
~ Blessed John Henry Newman
“Do what you can. It’s going to be ok.” Both feet are planted on the sidewalk now. I close the front door behind me, turn the key, and drop the little brass ring into my jacket pocket. Unravelling a set of earbuds, I jam them into my ears, wedging them in extra-securely. I thumb through my music and hit the “shuffle” button on the same playlist that comforted me during those early days of transition after my partial hospitalization discharge. Pat Benatar blasts into my tympanic membranes, reverberating down my auditory canals into my brain, drowning out any other thoughts. Off go my feet – one, two, one, two – and I consciously slow them as I count my inhales and exhales. Clenching my fists and singing softly along with the lyrics, I turn the corner, and I lose sight of the house behind me. “My body can do this! My body wants to do this,” I think. “It is my mind that is weak.” At the end of the next street, I turn back. The loop is about a mile, all-told, and I finish it in about 30 minutes. I am ok. “It’s going to be ok.”
“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”
“At present we see indistinctly, as in a mirror, but then face to face. At present I know partially; then I shall know fully, as I am fully known. So faith, hope, love remain, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”
~ 1 Corinthians 13:12-13
In the still, gray quiet of predawn on this January 1st, I turned off the background music which usually entertains me as I eat my breakfast, and I sat in silence. Gradually, my senses began to perceive the subtlety surrounding me. A candle flickered and crackled in a jar on the table, releasing just a hint of evergreen fragrance into the air. Across the living room, the blinds were drawn back from the heavy, glass doors, revealing the shiny, irregular surface of the frozen pond and the clear, mirrored reflection of the dark, leafless trees standing on the far bank. The wan light cast the world in muted, leaden tones, and dark clouds billowed on the horizon, but there was not even the hint of a breeze. The brass wind chimes hung motionless below the porch roof. Sitting there, at the dining room table that I inherited from my grandparents, the same table around which three generations of my family welcomed decades of new years, I leaned over a steaming cup of tea and a piping bowl of oatmeal, and I was filled with gratitude and hope.
This January 1st is my second in this townhouse apartment in Vanillasville. Rather, it is the second January 1st of this life in this apartment. It is my third January 1st, A.W. – After Walden. That is how I mark time now – Before Walden and After Walden. On my first January 1st, A.W., I was still residing in Boston. In another week, I would make that perilous transition back to life in Vanillasville, with my recovery hanging in the balance. I was still shattered into a billion jagged fragments, a fractured and broken person, but for the first time in my life, they were healthy fragments, and I was in the process of piecing them together. If I could tell that person one thing, it would be this, “Even though the future is terrifying, and you can’t see the way forward, and even though the risks are overwhelming, you are going to get through this, and it is going to be ok.” Maybe that person I was on January 1st, 2015 would tell the me of now the same thing. Though I am still in the process of becoming, I am not where I was on that day two years ago. Neither am I where I was on January 1st, 2016. It is sobering to recognize the truth of this reality.
The year of 2014 was filled with death. I was gravely ill with a serious gastrointestinal illness that defied every treatment my doctors threw at it. I was mentally ill with depression, and I sank deeper and deeper into despair. When my medical symptoms made it difficult to tolerate food, the disordered eating that percolated in the background of my life for many years suddenly seized control of my entire being as a full-blown eating disorder. I survived on the last feeble tatters of what were always slightly distorted, cynical, and disillusioned faith and hope. Yet, at the end of 2014, my life changed. In May, I underwent a new and still somewhat investigational intervention for my GI disease, which worked where all the other treatments failed. Finally, in November, I entered Walden to address my mental illness and my eating disorder. Through the intensive, multidisciplinary care I received, I finally began to rewire the twisted and misfiring circuitry in my brain. The big breakthrough came one day, in the midst of a group session, when the full impact of the following realization finally broke my steely, wounded heart: God LOVES me. God loves all of us, because He IS Love. God knows everything about me. He knows all of my sins, all of my failures, all of my faults, and all of my dysfunction. He knows how messed up I am, and he still loves me, with all of that stuff going on. Even though he wants better for me, he forgives me, and he loves me just as I am. I don’t have to change. I don’t even have to be sorry. He still loves me. AND, if God loves and forgives me just as I am, who am I to deny myself that same love and forgiveness? Do I know better than God?
That moment was not a cure-all for my mental illness, but it was a major turning point in my recovery. In the past two years, my life grew in ways I never imagined possible.
Now, here I am, on the threshold of 2017. I don’t know what the future holds, and I wonder at God’s plan for my life. What I don’t doubt is that there IS a plan. God saved me for a reason. As Bl. John Henry Newman wrote, “God has created me to do Him some definite service; He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission – I never may know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next…I am a link in a chain, a bond of connexion between persons…I shall do good, I shall do His work; I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place, while not intending it, if I do but keep His commandments and serve Him in my calling. Therefore I will trust him.” This year, I would like to increase in practicing an INTENTIONAL way of life. I would like to be MINDFUL and purposeful in what I think, say, and do. Thus, I would like to continue to grow in FAITH, seeking to do God’s will rather than my own and TRUSTING that all will be well, knowing that even when I struggle, face setbacks, or suffer, I am never alone, and an even greater good is being brought about by our Creator, who ultimately wants nothing for us but what is best.
“For I know well the plans I have in mind for you—oracle of the LORD—plans for your welfare and not for woe, so as to give you a future of hope.”
~ Jeremiah 29:11
In this vein, my additional intentions for the year are…
to grow in true HUMILITY. A humble person knows her strengths and weaknesses, and is honest about both. May I not be afraid to say “yes,” to take risks, and to move beyond my comfort zone, bolstered by a realistic understanding of my gifts and my shortcomings. May I have the courage to ask for help when I need it, and the strength to offer help when I can give it. May I not be afraid to admit my faults with integrity, accepting myself as I am, with a willingness to confront the often-challenging process of making personal changes. May I recognize and own my mistakes with a healthy sense of guilt but without shame, seeking forgiveness and making amends when necessary.
to grow in COMPASSION for myself when I fail to live up to these lofty ideals, understanding that nobody is perfect, and this process is the work of a lifetime. May I also grow in compassion for others, recognizing that we all struggle, though our struggles may take different forms. May I seek to look past those differences that I am so quick to use to separate myself from people out of fear. Instead, may I foster the courage and willingness to acknowledge our shared human connection and begin to see others not as separate or opposed to me, but as an extension of myself. May I remember that we are all made by the same Creator, we are all broken, and God’s love is given freely to redeem us all.
to GIVE THANKS in all circumstances. Even if it seems the whole world is falling apart around me or my life is unraveling at the seams, there are always blessings to be found. Sometimes, they are hidden and obscure, and often, they may seem to be barely any consolation, but every situation is an opportunity for grace and for growth.
“In all circumstances give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.”
~ 1 Thessalonians 5:18
In our outcome-oriented, results-focused society, we are frequently reminded that effective goals are SMART – Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Timely. (Bonus points for you if you can craft your goal into an acronym.) My areas of focus for 2017 are more elusive, metaphysical, and infinite. Therefore, I am making them intentions rather than resolutions. I am not expecting to achieve success in 2017. I’m not attempting to accomplish anything specific. Rather, I would like to continue growing through this year and beyond. At the same time, I know that concrete practices are the way to foster this progression. I think it is healthy for me to begin with a few explicit objectives. As with all balanced habits, they will invariably shift with the changing demands of my life over these coming weeks and months, but they are a start.
Cultivate stillness and silence daily. Practice sitting still, breathing deeply, and accessing my five senses for 10 minutes after coming home at the end of the day.
Reduce the amount of time I spend mindlessly watching television or thumbing through my mobile phone. Replace this time with mindful activities, such as reading, writing, art, or meditation.
Give my undivided attention to whoever is with me. Listen attentively rather than planning my next response. Show my face, without turning away or engaging in distractions, such as checking my phone (or turning back to my computer screen when I am at work – a tendency of mine that I would like to work on).
Cultivate balance in mind, body, and spirit, by making time every week for activities that engage each level of my being. Read a few pages of a book at least once or twice a week. Exercise in a moderate, healthy way (I have a specific exercise plan worked out with my therapist and dietician). I may not make time for every activity every day, but I can maintain a flexible and consistent rhythm through the week.
At the conclusion of every evening, before falling asleep, spend 5 or 10 minutes reflecting on the challenges, the successes, the personal encounters, and even the mundane events of the day. Use these nightly examens to assess who I am in relation to who I aim to be and reorient myself for the morning to come.
Finally, I am reminding myself once more that the outcomes that I care about the most are not those that can be assessed by any measuring stick or scale. May we all grow in compassion for ourselves and others in 2017, and may there be an increase in peace in our world through our little, daily acts.
“Let us accustom ourselves to noting that the actions that seem most ordinary are secretly directed by the order of God and serve his designs without our noticing it, in such a way that nothing comes to pass by mere coincidence.”
My best gift this Christmas wasn’t the new yoga pants that my brother and sister-in-law gave me, though I picked them out, and they were exactly what I wanted. It wasn’t the set of practical (and safe!) blinking, clip-on, LED lights that I can wear when I ride my bike at dusk, though they were also on my list. It wasn’t even the Starbucks gift card that I received in the office white elephant exchange. No.
To be more specific, the gift was a charitable donation to the World Wildlife Fund in the amount of one polar bear adoption. I am reasonably certain that the money from the contribution goes to fund a variety of the organization’s conservation efforts, including measures to save polar bears and their habitats. In the mail, I received a form letter from the president of the WWF explaining that Margie, one of my college roommates, made the donation and adopted the polar bear in my name. The large package also included a photograph of “my” (or rather, “a”) polar bear, an official-looking certificate, a little card with some facts about polar bears, and the most adorable, soft, cuddly plush polar bear one could imagine.
On the radio this year, I heard some talk show hosts discussing “research” indicating that people generally don’t like to receive gifts of charitable donations for the holidays. I can’t remember the primary source of this information or where the results were published, but I can testify to this fact – though I recognize that Margie’s contribution to the WWF didn’t actually adopt a real, live polar bear for me, I LOVE MY IMAGINARY ADOPTED POLAR BEAR!!!!! I love knowing that this Christmas gift money went to an amazing cause rather than to the cause of amassing more stuff that I don’t truly need, no matter how purposeful it is or how much I really longed for it. I love the cuddly, little toy polar bear that accompanied the donation letter. I love the photograph of my curious (though I am sure, very ferocious) living polar bear in his native, snowy land. Most of all, I love how this gift tells me that I AM KNOWN, AND I AM LOVED. Despite all of my weird, often hypocritical, sometimes brusque idiosyncrasies, I am still loved.
You see, back in our college days, I thought that I was going to reverse the trend of global warming by convincing everyone I knew to reduce, reuse, and recycle. With alarming ideas about rising sea levels, disappearing glaciers, and shrinking ice caps in mind, I pictured the habitats of the polar bears slowly vanishing. While all of those factors were (and are) contributing to increased pressures on polar bears and declining populations, trying to convince my roommates to turn down the thermostat at night by exclaiming, “You’re killing the polar bears!” probably contributed little to improving the overall survival of the species. I can imagine that it was somewhat comical and frequently exasperating to live with me constantly declaring, “You’re killing the polar bears!” whenever someone showered for more than 20 minutes or left the water running while washing the dishes. “This from the girl who drives an SUV,” one of our friends once quipped after I made note of her excessive use of Styrofoam. In the interceding 10 years, life experience (and loads of therapy) buffered my all-or-nothing thinking and softened my approach. Yet, what this gift showed me was that Margie not only remembered this quirk of mine, but loved me in spite of it.
To be known fully, in all my imperfect messiness, and treasured just as I am… that is the best Christmas gift of all!