This is what the past few weeks have felt like.

Sand Traps and John Milton

This is what the past few weeks have felt like.

Imagine me clawing my way up out of a particularly deep pit of sand, spitting grains of grit every which way. *ptuey, ptue ptuey!*

Blech. It’s been a hard, intense last couple of weeks in Real Life World. My mom was back in the hospital a bit (but is doing much better now!); potty-training is in full-swing (almost there!!); married life continues to demand a lot of focus and effort in order to grow and thrive (and plenty more difficult conversations–that being said, though, they are getting easier!!); my own internal demons continue to nip away at me; I’m singing in the choir for a local orchestral production of Verdi’s Requiem, which we perform this Friday; I’m trying to get my poetry workshop in order for June and continuing to teach Latin; family has been in town for visits; we’re getting back to house projects that we’ve let languish for weeks; we’ve started to hunt about seriously for our next house; and I continue with volunteering commitments for She’s Somebody’s Daughter and our church’s meal ministry. And we FINALLY got some beautiful days of spring weather, so the boys and I have spent a lot of time outside lately.

All that being said, my online life has waned dramatically.

Which, arguably, isn’t a bad thing, given the priorities that I’ve cut back on it for. But I’m still discouraged that I haven’t kept up very well with most of you reading this, or your blogs. There are a lot of wonderful people out there that I want to continue to build ties with, and it’s just sad that the nature of reality stands in the way of my ideals of perfect connection with everyone I encounter, online or in person.

So I hope you know I’m thinking of you, reading what I can as time permits, and praying for you as the occasion arises.

I have all these ideas that I want to blog about, too–but encouraging my 4-year-old’s newfound interest in FINALLY trying to write numbers (not letters–he’s still opposed to that–but he can and WILL happily make number shapes now, after I’ve suggested he try to write ANYTHING here and there for a year!), practicing how to share my emotional state honestly and openly with my husband without being combative, and getting my house into a lesser state of disarray–efforts like these are more important to me in this moment.

There have been very hard-won victories of patience, self-awareness, and persistence in the face of low-reward outcomes… outcomes that, in the grand scheme of things, really are remarkably important. They just feel rather like a let-down when they arrive because the amount of work to achieve them feels disproportionate to me somehow. But there my high expectations lead me astray again.


 

Ever tried to peel one of these--with a vegetable peeler? Bad idea.

Today, for example, has been an endless exercise in releasing expectations and their accompanying fears. It feels just like skinning an overripe avocado with a vegetable peeler–wholly unnatural. Who would do that?!

It’s so much easier to believe my broken ways of feeling and relating really aren’t a problem–they’re just part of what makes me different. It’s hard for me to think of them as wrong or anything like the source of destruction and heartache under the surface of my awareness.

But that describes so much of how we relate, mistakenly, to life: if we haven’t thought of something ourselves, it solicits every ounce of our skepticism.

Just because I don’t naturally, easily, readily think of my hyper-vigilance and senseless anxiety as anything but normal, healthy, and good doesn’t mean they ARE those things.

It means I take bad things for granted–bad things I could otherwise ditch.


 

Emotions exist in our brains. That doesn't make them more or less real than any other part of our existence.

Now, one conscious rejection of broken thought patterns does nothing–and, let me be clear, *NOTHING*–to re-write the neural pathways that solidified them to begin with. Not in that moment, not perceptibly. My subconscious can, and often does, draw me right back again to the nameless, reasonless worry that my consciousness formally rejected ten seconds before.

Christians will call this influence Satan’s work, or the work of my sin nature, and that I simply need to reject it repeatedly, firmly, or else distract myself with something else. Portions of this approach may be effective in some situations; but taken all by itself, I think this understanding is outright wrong and harmful. Spiritual warfare/moral mastery simply isn’t all there is to it.

Regardless of what prompts them–the devil, the sin nature, the Spirit of God, or any number of ethically neutral experiences and awarenesses–emotions are biological phenomena. Neural pathways house the electrical impulses that we experience as emotional sensation, which manifests itself in our bodies (if you not so sure, go talk to Dr. Laura Markham). I believe I heard this first in grade school; as a good fundamentalist cadet, I rejected the claim wholesale because it didn’t jive with my concept of emotions as a wholly spiritual ballgame–something completely disconnected from physical reality.

I believed this because I was taught that emotions are *always* something I could have control of, regardless of my physical OR mental state (which I also oddly thought of as mostly disconnected from physical reality since my childhood also taught me that intelligence was something you could attain through sheer obedience and diligence, which are moral character traits). Why? Because emotions had moral values assigned to them–they could be good, or they could be evil–and if they carried moral weight, and I was expected to live in a completely morally upright way, then it must be possible to control my emotions in such a way as to only cultivate “good” emotions and to clear out “evil” emotions. To avoid experiencing the evil ones at all was, in fact, the ideal impressed upon me.

I don’t think it’s just me. My wide experience of evangelical Christianity in general tells me that we, as a culture, have no concept of emotions as biology. It seems to be a completely foreign notion to us. And yet it is broadly documented and demonstrable in every moment your breath quickens at the sight of a loved one; every occasion in which you clench your jaw or squeeze your fists; every episode in which the skin on your face and between your shoulder blades tightens because you are trying so hard NOT to let the “wrong” emotion show and certainly never at any awkward or perceivably inappropriate time because goodness knows Christians MUST NOT let emotions control them–and so instead they spill out over your body in ways you don’t realize and you begin hunching, cowering, craning your neck and suffering mysterious pains and aches and stomach upset…

Because by squelching your emotions instead of studying, understanding, and effectively expressing them, you have indeed let them control you–physically and pronouncedly, though never intentionally.

How’s that goin’ for ya, GM?


 

Comfort *requires* physical touch.

As you might expect, the whole experience has been severely debilitating for decades. Just endlessly “rejecting” Satan or the sin nature hasn’t helped a whit in the long-term.

What has helped, though, has been allowing myself to feel ALL my emotions–even the irrational, deeply unsettling ones–understanding what is behind them, and resolving the source of those fears, worries, and frustrations with truths grounded in trustworthy experience of goodness, love, and security. Falling back on that absolute truth that Jesus loves me *in all my sin and in all my mistakes* as evidenced by the countless kindnesses he blesses me with each day (sunlight/rain/children/shoes/gas in the car/fattening foods I don’t need but love/cats/hugs/birdsong/video games/laughter/the smell of garlic cooking/hyacinths/blogs/paintings/poetry/Latin/computers/shelter/listening ears/my mother/the smell of my baby’s hair/the softness of my bedsheets/my husband’s smile/ETC.) does a lot to physically demonstrate to my physical body that I am loved. I. Am. LOVED.

And all the tensions and nervousness and nightmares created by countless memories of being unloved and unwanted and rejected and neglected: they are not relevant to the present moment in which I physically experience the love of God. And I can let them go.

They are no longer as real as the present time of goodness and love which He has set before me.

Then, when the neural pathways/Satan try to pull me back into detrimental, habitual thought patterns, I *can* say with good reason, “Nope. I know exactly why there is no reason to go there. I’ll tell you all about it.” I allow the sponge in my skull to soak up all the reassurance and resolution available for the fears that triggered my fight/flight response in the past, the button for which my subconscious and the devil take turns prodding.

And–after many repeated iterations of this practice–the devil will leave me alone for a time, and my neural networks gradually make some headway on rewiring themselves into healthy, positive patterns of emotional thought.

It. Takes. Time. And the right approach.


 

five to ten seconds: the eternal perspective you need in a moment

The hardest part is feeling desperate for the good effects to take place immediately, or else to feel guilt over not doing it the “right way,” as I was taught. I.e., setting mental fire to those unwanted emotions and ignoring their existence–until they burst out violently and damage everything.

(I think Satan cleverly takes advantage of me there, especially.)

And this is where the patience the last several weeks have demanded of me comes in particularly handy. Patiently addressing the difficult emotions and complicated baggage that keeps dragging me (or others) down, in detail, without shortcuts. Patiently accepting whatever steps forward we make, however small. Patiently resting in God’s expectations for us–which are so, so much lower than mine.

Without this patience no real progress is made.

Without this patience, I run ragged, desperately searching for a peace that I could only find while holding still.

My favorite psalm came to me once again this morning:

Lord, my heart is not haughty,
Nor my eyes lofty.
Neither do I concern myself with great matters,
Nor with things too profound for me.

Surely I have calmed and quieted my soul,

Like a weaned child with his mother;
Like a weaned child is my soul within me.

O Israel, hope in the Lord

From this time forth and forever.

(Psalm 131, NKJV)

 

And I am reminded, as well, of this sonnet by John Milton (Sonnet 19):

When I consider how my light is spent,
   Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide,
   And that one Talent which is death to hide
   Lodged with me useless, though my Soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
   My true account, lest he returning chide;
   “Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?”
   I fondly ask. But patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, “God doth not need
   Either man’s work or his own gifts; who best
   Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is Kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed
   And post o’er Land and Ocean without rest:
   They also serve who only stand and wait.”

 

“They also serve who only stand and wait.”

This blog may have to stand and wait for a little while yet… but I hope you see why I’m finding it worthwhile.

Love to all.

–GM

 

Comfort *requires* physical touch.

The Necessity of Shared Sorrow

My son's heart wasn't the only broken one.

Heartbreak

When my youngest child was diagnosed with a (minor) heart defect, I held it together all through the four-hour visit to the specialist’s office and even after we arrived back home. I went upstairs to put the boys down for naps while my husband filled my mother-in-law in (she had watched J for us all morning and was anxiously awaiting news of Eyes), explaining that the need for a couple relatively non-invasive surgeries was a possibility some years down the road, but nothing was certain; and Eyes’ quality of life was certainly unlikely to be negatively affected. Really, this was the best news we could ask for after our pediatrician noticed his heart murmur.

All day I had worked hard to focus on this positive and not give in to grief. Why was grief necessary, after all? I had an obviously happy, healthy boy in every other respect, and the heart condition was so minor, it might not ever need treatment. And if it did, we had all the tools we needed to fix it, thereby eliminating what could have been, in a previous century, a sudden, inexplicable death at age 15.

I came downstairs, afraid to look at my MIL because I knew her compassion would give my fear and sadness an opening. I was right. She looked right at me, her face somber, and asked, “How are you doing?”

I looked away and started an explanation of how it really wasn’t too bad; it was manageable; really everything had every reason to be ok. I got maybe two sentences in before I choked up and couldn’t talk any more. The tears leaking between my eyelids scared me.

Mom came over and gave me a big, long hug. She didn’t say anything. She understood; she grieved with me.

We had suffered a loss–not of life, certainly, but of normalcy and security and stability. Pete Scazzero writes in Emotionally Healthy Spirituality about how losses of every sort need to be mourned appropriately. If you don’t, you haven’t acknowledged or understood the truth of the damage. And if you don’t acknowledge and understand the truth of harm done, as both Milan and Kay Yerkovich and Dr. Laura Markham point out, you will carry that harm around with you–physically, in your body–and allow it to further damage yourself and others.

Mom kept me from doing that by stepping into my unsettling, foreboding, intimidating emotional state. She entered my grief and took it up for herself. In that moment, I experienced the greatest possible comfort.


 

Comfort *requires* physical touch.

Shared Sorrow Allows Secure Relationship

I don’t know why the act of sharing sadness is so edifying–but it is. Perhaps someday I will uncover the mechanism behind the clock face, but for now, I’m just grateful to have discovered a reliable truism that fills an incredibly deep need in myself and others.

However, promoting the benefits of this way of relating, enormous though they be, is an uphill battle.

Shared sadness is an highly undesirable emotional state in modern America. We feel immense guilt over the idea of burdening someone else with a negative experience. Yet this is one of the the most powerful, effective ways to love another person–BOTH by sharing our honest internal state AND by absorbing that state into our own consciousness for the sake of authentic communion.

In fact, it sounds and feels much to me like the communal meal Jesus shared with his friends the night before he died. We perform the physical act of eating and drinking in church even today in order to attune ourselves physically to Christ’s emotional state the night before he died: his fear of death, his unstoppable love of humanity, his grief at parting, his security in his purpose, his conviction of the goodness in the divine plan at work, his disappointment in being betrayed… so many emotions distilled into bread and wine, served to his friends, meant to be shared. It was a symbolic representation of his sacrifice, yes, but I think it was also an invitation to know his heart in all its complexity–just as he knew theirs, knows ours.

Authentic relationship requires open emotional depth. The disciples might not have known what was going to happen, but I think they understood the evening was special, meaningful–and sad.

The act of sharing an emotional state--positive or negative--nurtures relationship and nourishes hearts.


 

Quiet company is essential for entering another's grief.

Practical Communion

When we do nothing but refer hurting loved ones to Scripture, the grand divine plan at work, or the abstract “goodness” of the Lord, we skip this indispensable step, and our attempts at comfort and edification fall apart. Instead of building up, we deconstruct. Many folk have examined the narrative of Job to explain this, but suffer me to review it briefly once more:

“When Job’s three friends, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite, heard about all the troubles that had come upon him, they set out from their homes and met together by agreement to go and sympathize with him and comfort him. When they saw him from a distance, they could hardly recognize him; they began to weep aloud, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads. Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nightsNo one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was.” (Job 2:11-33, NIV, emphasis added)

Job’s friends entered into his state of grief: they sympathized. They offered comfort–how? By tearing their clothes, crying aloud, and dusting their heads. Then they stayed by Job’s side for a week. All this time they didn’t offer a word of insight, commentary, criticism, or advice.

None of this looks at all like the modern American description of “comfort.” Usually, “comfort” is synonymous with “distraction” and “reliving the good times” or perhaps “alleviating the symptoms of distress.” But Job’s friends couldn’t alleviate a thing, and attempts to distract or recall the good old days probably would have gotten them thrown out of his house. What actually gave him any comfort and support was their empathy: their ability to experience misery alongside him. To weep with those who weep (Romans 12:15).

Did Job’s friends focus on comfort and sympathy exclusive to all else? The rest of the narrative tells us no. But they sure spent a danged lotta time and effort on it before anything else.


 

Let's examine academic explanations of comfort.

The Foundational Need For Comfort

In the talk my husband and I heard by Dr. Markham, she outlined three steps for responding to a child’s tantrum in an emotionally perceptive, helpful way. This is my summary:

  1. Calm — Soothe an upset child through physical touch; limited, quiet speech; time away from the problem area/people; and the reassurance of your affectionate presence (which is NOT the same thing as approval for poor behavior).
  2. Connect — Once the child’s emotions have settled down, he or she can truly hear you, so now is the time to discuss what prompted the outburst. ONLY gather information to understand your child’s inner state in this phase and relate to it; this is NOT the time to correct poor behavior or offer advice.
  3. Problem-Solve — Now that the child has had your help to physically calm his or her body and knows you compassionately understand and relate to the struggles that led to a tantrum, he or she is in a state to trust your guidance in resolving those struggles appropriately (and making amends where necessary). The focus is on helping your child live a more fulfilling, abundant life secure in love rather than merely curbing bad behavior–which, in fact, will decrease naturally as a child experiences your help and develops trust in your instruction.

My husband and I both thought this was brilliant–and, as he said shortly after the talk, it’s an approach with broad applications to relationships in general, including adult relationships. Milan and Kay Yerkovich think similarly when they describe the three necessary aspects of comfort that people–both children and adults–need to experience in order to develop a secure relationship (How We Love, pp. 15-17):

  1. Physical touch — “Significant studies have shown the incredible importance of touch on a baby’s development.² If you have a memory of comfort, was your parent hugging you or holding you? Was there tenderness, and were you soothed? Some parents touch and hold babies and toddlers but then stop offering nurturing physical contact as their children get older. Yet touch is and remains a vital component of true comfort.”
  2. Being listened to — “Second, was at least one of your parents able to listen and help you talk about what was upsetting to you? Parents who are good listeners ask questions so they can understand what is going on in their child’s heart and mind. . . . ‘You look sad. What’s bothering you?’ ‘I know you don’t want to go, but help me understand why not.’* These kinds of requests tell us someone is interested in our hearts. It’s even better when the feelings we then share are confirmed as appropriate, reasonable, or understandable.” (*Dr. Markham astutely notes that such examples of overtly recognizing feelings only work well with children up to a certain age; after that, it’s more appropriate to note subtly that something isn’t right and offer to listen, then relate.)
  3. Relief from conflict — “When we were children, if someone noticed we were having a hard time and offered us a safe place to share our troubles, we felt seen and valuable. Being touched and being listened to brings relief. If we felt sad and our parents listened to what was troubling us and held us as we cried, we felt soothed. If we were able to express our frustration and someone listened and responded, we felt relief.” And, on page 14, “How was conflict handled in your family? For example, was there a time when you were not getting along with one of your parents of when stress of a specific problem caused a lot of tension in the family? Did disagreement leave you feeling alone and disconnected to your parents or family? If you were fortunate enough to be part of a family that acknowledged problems and successfully resolved them, you learned an important lesson: when conflict ruptures a relationship, repairing it brings relief.¹ If, when you were young, you experienced the relief that comes with resolving disagreements, you will seek that same experience in your marriage as an adult. If not, when things go wrong in your relationships, you may have difficulty expressing yourself, finding solutions, and feeling relief.”

Isn’t it remarkable how two different sets of professionals from different backgrounds and different areas of expertise came to exactly the same conclusion? I don’t think they even reference each others’ work! Despite differences in phraseology, the principles all match up. They also bear striking resemblances to the reaction of my mother-in-law as well as Job’s friends.


 

How does God comfort me in grief?

Where Is God In Sorrow?

I did not experience any part of these three phases of comfort for most of my childhood. Therefore, once I reached adulthood, I had no idea how to seek or receive comfort from another human being, much less offer it myself. It’s taken me over a decade to really start figuring it out, and it has affected all my relationships–including, very noticeably, my relationship with Jesus.

I’ve been a completely-inadequate-but-desperate-to-try God-pleaser most of my life, almost as far back as I can remember–largely, almost wholly out of fear. I didn’t experience comfort-through-conflict in relationships with humans until I was 20. Wouldn’t you know, though, that was through an internship with InterVarsity USA, and it gave me a rubric for understanding how God might have an interest in comforting me–and, more importantly, an actual capacity to do so all along through the messiness of my life. The details of how this realization worked itself out has taken ten years even to get to where I am now, and the lesson isn’t close to finished, so this isn’t a good time to elaborate on my progress so far; the cool thing, though, is that at this point in my life, I FINALLY have a way to understand HOW, when terrible things happen, God is still good.

This may seem unrelated to everything else I’ve discussed so far, but bear with me; it’s not.


 

The comfort we receive from our parents--or lack thereof--greatly impacts our understanding of divine comfort.

Experiencing Divine Comfort

I never experienced much, if any, sympathy from my parents when they allowed or witnessed something bad to happen to me–not for something I deserved that they inflicted, nor for something that happened to me outside of their control that I didn’t have coming at all. I was just expected to grin (or not, if I was in trouble) and bear it. Therefore, I naturally assumed God has the same attitude toward me.

He doesn’t.

When things go wrong–terrible things like cancer, chronic illness, death, abandonment, abuse, neglect, on and on–that Jesus lets happen or (shudder) somehow *intends* to happen, as with Job–he sits down with us in our grief over it. He throws the dust of our agony, our misery, our anger, and our despair over his own head; he tears his clothes; he mourns with us. As long as we’re in pain, as long as it takes. He knows us more intimately than we know ourselves; therefore, he intimately knows and understands and experiences every facet of our pain–and he neither shies away nor deprives himself of any of it. He listens.

Jesus also soothes us physically: he brings me the air I take into my lungs, one shaky, sob-ridden gulp at a time. The softness of a blanket, pillow, or furry animal. The warmth of my baby’s skin. The light of the sun angling through the blinds. The prickling of water on my eyelashes and the swollen capillaries in my nose. The taste of blood at the back of my throat when it fills with disappointment. The tender hum resonating in a loved one’s chest. The itch of my feet that reminds me I have them: my five senses and an entire world to regale them, reminding me that reality does not consist solely of this single aspect of existence–my grief. It consists of infinite other meaningful moments as well, so many of them life-giving, and so many others necessary vehicles for physically experiencing, acknowledging, understanding, and resolving the effects of grief upon my body and my psyche. Jesus calms.

Finally, after we have worked through our emotions, calmed them, and felt their worth and legitimacy has been recognized, Christ whispers reassurances, wisdom, guidance, and security to our hearts. Here is where Bible verses and theological truths or just the insightful words of a friend may provide a sense of clarity or resolution. Christ resolves turmoil.

Oftentimes, I find that merely knowing Jesus experiences my grief with me brings all the resolution I need to the swirling “Why?” and “What do I do now?” questions. This sentiment is reflected in my favorite psalm:

Lord, my heart is not haughty,
Nor my eyes lofty.
Neither do I concern myself with great matters,
Nor with things too profound for me.

Surely I have calmed and quieted my soul,
Like a weaned child with his mother;
Like a weaned child is my soul within me.

O Israel, hope in the Lord
From this time forth and forever.

(Psalm 131, NKJV)


 

I cling to Christ.

The Resolution

For whatever reason (I see good reason to believe God always has one, even if I can’t comprehend what it is) Jesus will allow senseless tragedy and provide no relief from any number of horrible trials, even to the point of death. But I believe each one of those heartbreaking incidents that I’ve experienced or heard from others or seen on the news absolutely, utterly rips him apart. God doesn’t always bring relief from trouble, but he does, always, offer us the most foundational form of comfort and relief:

The comfort of sharing our sorrows.

Just as he invited us to partake in his experience of deepest trouble, he partakes of every negative experience along with us, knowing it to its very depths. To the last draught; to the bottom of the bitter cup.

In this kind of communion, the comfort brought through shared experience underlies every sort of grief and pain. It is a deeper magic still.

That is the goodness of God that I cling to in my darkest moments: not the knowledge that he has a plan; that he gives me good things in other times and places; that someday I will find rest from trouble in Heaven–though all these things are true. But it is my confidence that Jesus knows my sorrow, hates it as much as I do, and takes it upon himself. He has not left me to suffer alone.

This means my God could never visit trouble upon us out of spite or indifference. It means that, when he sees fit to allow trouble, he visits it upon himself as well. Every. Time.

Can you imagine the infinite amount of sorrow Jesus must then carry?

This is why I worship him. He carries every sorrow that ever was and is and will ever be–and he is not defeated, despondent, or destroyed.

He is alive. He is whole. He is stronger than every evil thing combined. He will see them all undone at the end of time.

And until then, he will bear every sorrow for me.

 

The Five-Second Rule

five to ten seconds: the eternal perspective you need in a moment

I texted this to a group of fellow mom friends a few weeks back (we were sharing our struggles in parenting young, volatile, impressionable children):

“My number-1 targeted habit-to-improve these days is stopping and taking 3 seconds before reacting. If I do that, I give myself a chance to be intentional. Sometimes I’m not anyway… but if I don’t pause at all, I default to whatever knee-jerk reaction is in the queue without thinking.”

If I’m honest, I really need more like 5-10 seconds to take a deep breath, release my priorities, remind myself that my childrens’ emotions won’t kill me, and reset. When I take those five seconds, I give myself a chance to make better choices than my history-crippled subconscious would default to.

Five seconds = power to do good.

I went on for my friends:

“In those 3-5 seconds, I try to employ mostly-non-verbal self-talk like, ‘yes, I am angry. Yes, it’s understandable. Yes, it’s hard to be kind when I feel hurt and attacked. Yes, I can react to these feelings with frustration.

“Now, let me react to my kids differently, because they /= my negative feelings and experiences.

“They deserve a different response. It might entail consequences, it might not. But one reaction is for how I feel, and one reaction is for who they are.

“These are not interchangeable.”

 

One of my friends said she wanted to copy these thoughts into a text file to read later, so I figured I’d put them up on the blog for her convenience, and in case they help anybody else.

The amazing thing is, this concept that God was stirring up in my subconscious until it worked its way into more conscious, verbal thought is very similar to the techniques and teachings of at least one parenting and child development expert with way more credibility than I have: Dr. Laura Markham, founder of AhaParenting.com. My husband and I attended a seminar by her this past week, and we were both blown away–which is rather amazing in and of itself.

I’ll save that story and more on what we learned from Dr. Laura another time, but suffice it to say: Jesus, much like Aslan, is on the move in our little family. He’s preparing our hearts and pulling things together in ways we did not see or comprehend months, weeks, or even days ago.

It’s incredible to watch!