When output is heavy

August 22, 2013

Last week, Sarah articulated so beautifully what I too have been feeling — always, to some extent, and the last several months in particular — in my attempts to publish content:

Meanwhile, the world is so beautiful and delightful, and I’m having epiphanies and not sharing them, because…output is so heavy. It’s hard to make something that’s good enough for you. (I mean me.) Being a perfectionistic entrepreneur is rather like being an octopus with 100 pound weights tied to each leg. Producing anything worth consuming has become painfully slow.

Why do I need to be so great, anyway? Is it because the world needs more greatness? If so, do I think I am personally responsible to provide greatness to the world? Am I really that enamored with my own significance, or on the other hand, am I trying to rebel against my relative insignificance?

This is why my newsletter subscribers haven’t heard from me since January. This is why my husband had to listen to me talk for two hours about all the reasons blogging isn’t sustainable for me. This is why Instagram has become my social platform of choice. This is why the only content I seem to post on Facebook these days are articles and videos — and I don’t even write my own captions for said links but merely quote the authors. It feels like 100-pound weights hanging from all eight of my legs, this business of output.

And I have a feeling that Sarah and I aren’t alone in this.

I wish I could tell you that I read Sarah’s post and immediately wrote out an eight-step plan to finding lightness in output. But that isn’t the case. I don’t even have a one-step plan. All I have are a few reminders that I’m saying to me and that I would say to you too.

Grace

Grace upon grace — that’s what you should extend to yourself. Don’t let anyone guilt you about neglecting your list. Don’t let anyone tell you that it’s simple and easy and you just need to write shorter and simpler and stop holding your output to such high standards. Don’t let anyone make you feel inferior by telling you how easy it is for them. Maybe your list does miss you, and maybe you could publish some messier blog posts once in awhile, and yes, output is easier for some people than others — but you have to start from a place of grace. Grace for who you are, for where you are, for how you are.

Truth

I would bet that all of us feeling this heaviness of output are actually producing a ton of stuff. It doesn’t translate to retweets and can’t be tracked in Mailchimp, but it’s happening and it is significant. For me, finding truth has required some objectivity. I’ve done just as much business this year as last year, even though it doesn’t feel like it. I’ve been writing a ton, even though none of it is published (yet). I’ve been building a ton, even though none of it is public (yet). Go to a place of truth, not a place of expectation.

Ideas

In the midst of this, I’m still musing on ways to make output lighter. One of my goals for this year was to live a less burdened life. Clearly, aspects of my output have collapsed under the burdens I’ve placed on them. What does it look like to unburden my output? Can I drop a few of those 100-pound weights? Do I need to develop more muscle in some of those legs so I can carry the weight more easily? Can someone else come alongside and carry one of those weights with me?

How is output feeling for you? If it’s heavy, tell me about it. If it’s light, tell me about it. What do you do when output that was light becomes heavy? How did you transform heaviness into lightness?

Grieving in real life

January 22, 2013

Too much. That’s what the end of 2012 felt like. Everything, everyone, felt like too much. I allotted myself a month to formally grieve and didn’t even fully disengage for that month of time and attempted to pick up where I left off 30 days later and do I need to tell you where this story is going? I hit a wall. Hard. I tried to give too much too soon and reached the true end of myself. Sometimes you have to reach the end, the wall, before you do what you needed to do from the beginning. To be quiet. To be gentle. To be messy.

That’s where I’ve been, and how my blog has been, too. As Cheryl Strayed writes in Wild, grief doesn’t have a face. It’s quiet. It’s messy.

In the middle of this quiet, messy time, I’m learning a few things. I’d love to share them with you.

Grief is not a linear equation.

I thought that I’d wake up every day and feel a little bit better than the day before. That simply hasn’t been true. It has been more true since I took a step back and created space for my emotions, but there are still days where I feel completely derailed, undone, bereft.

If you’re grieving right now, I’m here to tell you: It’s okay to feel like you aren’t making progress.

Beauty is important.

This is true all the time, but beauty becomes like oxygen when you’re drowning in sorrow. There are few things that inspire gratitude and demonstrate grace like beauty.

If you’re grieving right now, I’m here to tell you: Pursue beauty. Keep your eyes open and look for it everywhere, because it is everywhere and it’s there specifically for you.

The feelings have to go somewhere.

I thought I could choose to be situationally “normal” and “okay” whenever I wanted. That I could turn the feelings off and on like a light switch. In reality, it was more like bending a garden hose. The water was still on even if nothing was coming out of the end of the hose. When the hose was straightened out — when I was alone — everything came gushing out — forcefully, dramatically. In other words, the feelings didn’t go away; they were just doubled up later. I went to social engagements and dinner parties, being my usual cheerful, friendly self — and then I spent the following morning curled up on the couch because I couldn’t stop crying. I traded being okay sometimes for being completely, inconsolably messed up other times. After experiencing three of these emotional swings in one week, I was done. I decided to just be a little bit messed up all the time. This is a much more sustainable way to live.

If you’re grieving right now, I’m here to tell you: People will surprise you with how much grace they have for your messed-up-ness. Extend that same grace to yourself.

No matter how deep and true your faith, grief makes you wonder if you will ever feel happy or whole again.

I will never forget the day that I had lunch with my husband and he shared with me that, in the months after his dad died five years ago, he wondered if he would ever be happy again. There was immense freedom for me in his honesty. He articulated the feeling that I was too ashamed to admit. Until that point, I couldn’t tell anyone that I felt like there would be a void, an empty place inside, for the rest of my life. I thought it was inappropriate for a person of faith to think these things. But, of course, that simply isn’t true.

If you’re grieving right now, I’m here to tell you: Distress and brokenness are not the opposite of faith. When David wrote psalms about flooding his bed with tears, about tears being his food, about streams of tears flowing from his eyes, he didn’t end with but it’s okay and I’m okay. He ended with God has heard my prayer and hope in God, for I shall again praise him — almost like a reminder to himself that you will get through this, even when it feels like you won’t. God is listening. Don’t give up hope even when it feels hopeless.

Grief impairs you in unexpected ways.

Maybe this shouldn’t have surprised me, but grief has been like a magnifying glass for my weaknesses. It has been a good (and humbling) reminder that all the things I thought I fixed in myself are still works in progress and are still my base tendency. With my emotions so raw, I lost my ability to ask for things, I found communication burdensome, and I was (am) paralyzed with indecision because I only want to please and never want to inconvenience anyone. To add insult to injury, I’ve also been finding many of my stronger suits just as challenging — things like multitasking and finding balance.

If you’re grieving right now, I’m here to tell you: You are still you. It’s okay to feel like you’ve lost yourself when the things you put your identity in no longer come easily. I can’t tell you for certain whether those things will come easily again later; this could be a time of transition, and you may be forever changed. But what I can tell you is that everything you were is being transformed — right now, in real time — into what you will be.

I am blessed to be a blessing.

Maybe not yet. Maybe right now, I’m still just blessed to be blessed by others. But someday, someone will need comfort, will need another person to walk through grief with them, and I will get to be that person. God never intended suffering or sickness or grief, but he can always use it.

If you’re grieving right now, I’m here to tell you: God never wants the hurt to be the end of the story.

We spend a lot of time worrying about things that will never happen. The things that actually change your life are the things you never see coming.

It sounds cliche, but this is one of my biggest takeaways from these last few months and from 2012 as a whole. One of the items that appears on my life list every single year is be more flexible. In 2012, be more flexible was joined by my theme word of surrender. Yet neither one is on my list for 2013 because I’ve finally figured out that surrender is the source of flexibility in my life. It’s easy to be flexible when I’m not worrying about things that won’t happen. And since I have no idea what will happen, I have no idea what I should be worried about, so I have no choice but to release worry. I never thought of myself as an anxious person, but I’ve realized that anxiety takes many forms. Control, fear of others’ opinions, perfectionism, and pride are just a few of its manifestations in my life.

If you’re grieving right now, I’m here to share Jeremiah 17 with you: “A tree planted by water, that sends out its roots by the stream, does not fear when heat comes, for its leaves remain green, and it is not anxious in the year of drought, for it does not cease to bear fruit.” Grief can feel like a time of drought, but do you want to hear the good news? The stream alongside you continues regardless. The things over which you have no control will sustain you. I’m finding immense peace and rest in that. I hope you do too.

Is empathy a weakness?

October 9, 2012

In July, Wired published an article about “training people to be compassionate” rather than empathetic. In quoting Tania Singer, an expert from the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, the author writes:

In order for [the emotion] to be empathy a person would have to see that another was in pain and share that pain, while knowing that it’s not their own emotion. However, empathy isn’t intrinsically good and pro-social… Empathy is “a precursor to compassion, but too much of it can lead to antisocial behaviour”.  …Empathic suffering is a true experience of suffering. In order to avoid this, we need to transform empathy into compassion.

I shared this article with two fellow empaths, and both reacted as I did: badly. It’s because this article makes a number of troubling — and insulting — assumptions.

Assumption #1: Empathy is bad (for you) and should be avoided.

Or, in the language of the article, it has negative repercussions and produces antisocial behavior. While I agree that burnout seems more prevalent among empaths, I don’t agree that this makes empathy bad. Feeling for others can be exhausting, yes — but it can change you, and for the better. It can refine you, grant you perspective, give you wisdom, equip you for challenges that lie ahead.

Assumption #2: Empathy needs to be trained out.

At best, this article paints empathy as an annoying habit — and at worst, it’s seen as an addiction or disorder. But empathy is a gift. It’s a gift meant to be given, not made obsolete. The thought of giving of yourself to suffer aside another — that was once seen as generous. But as a society, we are (and have been for many years) shifting our focus to the individual, to how you can get ahead. Forget what you can do for others and how your empathy might change someone else’s life. Empathy doesn’t align with the goal of producing as much happiness in your own life as possible, and as such, we’re being told to train ourselves out of the habit. I think this is terrible advice.

Assumption #3: Empathy is a choice.

I believe that feelings are valid and true. It’s what you do with those feelings that matters. Your response is your responsibility, absolutely — but that doesn’t mean that the feelings behind that response are good or bad. Singer talks about shifting brain activity, but this just sounds like suppression to me. I would rather embrace my empathetic response and modify my behavior. Will that make me more prone to burnout? Potentially. But I would rather modify my schedule, building in more time for rest and rejuvenation, than program my brain to respond differently to the experiences of others.

Assumption #4: Sympathy is adequate.

The article associates sympathy with pity. When was the last time you wanted to be pitied? You want someone who has walked through what you’re facing — or someone who will walk through it with you. Empathy is exactly that. And I don’t know about you, but I don’t want my response to others to be adequate. I want it to be abundant. This article asks the question, what’s reasonable for me to give? But I’m not about what’s reasonable. I’m about passing on the abundant blessing of my life to others — whether it’s inconvenient and difficult or easy and natural.

What do you think?

Is empathy something that we need to unlearn? If you’re an empath in an emotionally demanding industry, how do you manage your response? If you aren’t an empath, how do you use sympathy to connect with others?

Intermission

June 12, 2012

I’ve had a case of writer’s block these last few weeks. In lieu of writing, I’ve done everything else. I completely reworked my intake process for the creative resources for new projects. I posted nearly 50 new Yelp reviews. I reorganized my Evernote folders. I set up an e-newsletter mailing list for my business. I made a list of a dozen blog post topics, waiting to be written.

But I can’t write about any of those things, because something specific is written on my heart. If I can’t write about that, I can’t seem to write about anything.

The whispers and the wonders

God teaches us in such abundant — and abundantly diverse — ways. Sometimes it’s in subtlety. We glimpse it through the murk, glittering like a diamond earring at the bottom of a deep pool, and when we pick it up, we are immediately changed. We experience what the man in Matthew 13 experienced: A man finds treasure hidden in a field. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.

Other times, there’s no subtlety at all. It’s in the whispers and the wonders. You can’t even get out of bed in the morning without seeing what he wants you to learn, to receive, to be transformed by. It’s a neon sign over your life. It’s a spotlight flooding directly over you, the light filling every room. Yes. This.

This isn’t a diamond-in-the-pool time. It’s a neon sign time. And the words on that sign are simple: God is with you.

I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.
For I am the Lord your God.

Isaiah 43:1b-3a

Living open

About a year ago, we sensed (and saw) that we needed to cut back. We were way too busy. We weren’t creating space and living open — open to people who might cross our path, open to things God might want to do, open to things that weren’t planned eight weeks in advance and rescheduled twice.

I had a lot of guilt around this. Busy is what I do. Filling my time is part of my identity.

To cope with cutting back, I focused my expectations on an (immediate) if/then outcome — if I remove some things, new things will appear in their place. I’m making space for this, so I’ll cut out that. In my mind, it was a formula where X is the number of hours in the week and I was solving for Y. It was a calorie counter where I’d just taken out bread and cookies and was then looking for ice cream.

This, of course, is not how it worked. The whole point of living open is to stay perpetually open, and I missed that at first (and I still miss it sometimes — I prefer things that can be checked off a to-do list). But as I struggled, God kept saying, I am with you. When you pass through the waters, and they feel vast and you feel lost, I am with you. And then he started to show me why I needed to make these adjustments — and why he directed them in the first place.

For our good, and for his glory

When God’s at work, there are always two acts to the story. Act I is where God works for our good. It may not feel like it at the time, especially when things are difficult and wrought with struggle, when things aren’t going The Way They Ought According to Me. But this is his promise, and it’s the guiding light in a world that’s painful and uncertain.

Make no mistake: This absolutely does not mean that every single thing that happens to you will be good. To the contrary. What it does mean is that God is faithful, he is present, and he’s in the business of practicing alchemy on your life — of taking the mire and the mess and pulling pure good out of it. Often, that good doesn’t fit my definition of good, in the short-term (and ultimately pretty self-centered) blissful-happiness way. But the good is always there. Always.

But this isn’t the end of the story — ever. As much as God loves us (and that’s a ton — more than we will ever comprehend), we aren’t the point. Act II is where we see how his working for good in us ultimately brings him glory. It’s where we turn our experience outward. It’s where we learn what it means to be blessed to be a blessing. And often, it’s where we finally get what that good actually was.

Intermission

Between acts, there’s an intermission — and this time of waiting can be long. At intermission, we’re confused. We don’t see any way that Act I can be transformed into good. The alchemist was on stage but it didn’t seem like he was doing anything. Whatever’s coming up in Act II, we’re pretty sure it would’ve been just as good (or, let’s be honest — better) without Act I.

Right now? The curtain is just falling on the first part of the story.

In April, my dad was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. In May, we found out that the tumor is inoperable, and we started hearing terms like localized advanced and six kinds of chemo. Now it’s June, and he’s in his second round of low-toxicity chemotherapy. We honestly don’t know what’s next.

The curtain is rustling, and I can see glimpses of the sets and characters moving into place for Act II. These are sneak peeks, and infrequent at that. As much as I want to, I can’t go back to Act I and change anything. Act I is complete, and God’s working it for good, right now, as we speak.

But for now, I’m in intermission. And God is with me.

The Lord your God is with you, in your midst,
a mighty one who will save;
he will rejoice over you with gladness;
he will quiet you by his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing.

Zephaniah 3:17

No wonder God loves you

May 1, 2012

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person — though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die — but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. …For while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son.

Romans 5:6-10

I love (really, love) used book stores, and it turns out that Lincoln City is a used book store mecca. Small stores where books share shelves with antiques; big, rambling stores with shelves from floor to ceiling and books piled knee-high down every isle; curated, manicured stores where the owner seems to know and love every book in the place.

We worked our way from south to north, and our first stop had a cart out front with $1 sale books. Most of them were written by or about politicians, or were about spirituality. I picked up a small devotional for women and read the back cover.

It started well, affirming that God created us as individuals with unique — and lovely — characteristics that are to each her own. But I stopped short at the end of the paragraph, which concluded, “No wonder God loves you!”

Wait… Really?

Don’t misunderstand me — I absolutely believe that God is in the business of creating extraordinary people. People with amazing gifts and talents, people who are dynamic and magnetic, people who are wholly, gloriously different from one another. In David’s words, we are fearfully and wonderfully made. As this beautiful song says, I believe that you marvel over me / Maker of the galaxy, marveling over me.

But this isn’t why God loves us.

God loves us because of his character — not ours. He is love, in his very being. At best, we try to be loving and gracious and tenderhearted and compassionate and selfless — and at worst, we’re a mess — but either way, we are still imperfect, and since God is perfectly just, he could never love us based on our performance. It only works if he loves us because of who he is.

One of my biggest traps is trying to earn God’s love. Intellectually, I know it’s impossible, but my actions tell a different story. When things are going well, this leads to pride — Look at how great I am! No wonder God loves me! When things are going badly, this leads to lies (and, really, another kind of pride) — Look at what a failure I am. There’s no way God could love me. I humanize God. I start to think that — like people — his love grows and wanes in proportion to my good behavior. But his love isn’t fickle and transient like human love.

His is the love that covers, love that endures, love that sacrifices — not just for good people, but for trainwrecked people too.

It really is no wonder that God loves us — because that’s truly how great and awesome and perfect he is.