Suffering, heavy hearts, and Oregon

October 11, 2014

As an Oregonian, as a fellow 29 year old woman, as a girl who watched her dad die from cancer on November 1, 2012 — two years to the day before Brittany Maynard will end her life — I’ve been having a lot of feelings this week.

Every day, I find two or three (or more) new bloggers who have written counterpoints to Brittany’s story — and every day, I find myself a bit more disappointed with the blogging community as a whole, and the Christian community in particular, for its response.

I have just a few of my own thoughts to share — on suffering, on heavy hearts, and on Oregon.

On suffering

It has been said that, if Brittany chooses when and how to end her life, she won’t suffer. That her dying won’t be hard. That she’s missing an opportunity to show others what it is to suffer well. That she’s robbing her loved ones of the chance to walk this road with her.

These are all different ways of saying the same thing: that Brittany is selfish. And I simply don’t see it.

I can’t imagine that she isn’t suffering as we speak. Her dying will be hard no matter when or how it happens; that’s how death is. And I bet if you asked the people closest to her, they would tell you that she has walked this road with beauty and grace — and that they have been privileged to walk it with her.

This is also an occasion when people like to parade out the Christianese paraphrase of 1 Corinthians 10:13: God will never give you more than you can bear. But let’s look at what that verse really says:

No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.

First of all, this verse is talking about temptation — not suffering. And furthermore, it doesn’t say that you won’t be overwhelmed; the promise is that God will be faithful to provide a way out.*

On heavy hearts

The phrase that keeps showing up — on blogs, in comment streams, across Facebook feeds — is my heart is so heavy for her. And that’s not wrong, because this is heavy, this tragedy, and your heart should bear that weight. Like when I was browsing a moms’ Facebook group this week and saw a post from a fellow mom about her son who was stillborn six days ago, when she was little more than a month from her due date. I sat and wept for this woman, a stranger. A heavy heart — appropriate indeed.

These heavy hearts should elicit a response. They should compel us to pray for her and her family, to talk to each other about tough issues, even to grieve for her.

What doesn’t strike me as an appropriate response are all of these blog posts written as open letters to Brittany. Bloggers writing as if they know her (which, to my knowledge, none of them do) because they read 1,500 words about her in the Washington Post.

That isn’t to say that we shouldn’t be writing about these topics; to the contrary, I believe this is an important conversation and one that the faith community should be wrestling through on a regular basis (and not just when a beautiful twentysomething gets a national headline). Stories like Brittany’s should remind and inspire us to press in and unpack all that is messy and hard and incomprehensible about the human experience.

But we should be writing about what we know: our experience and our research. We don’t know her, even if it feels otherwise, and that’s what gives all of these articles a decidedly condescending, sanctimonious, presumptuous air.

If reading about Brittany inspires you to tell the story of how you made a different choice, that’s wonderful and beautiful and the world needs to hear your voice. Many of the stories I’ve read this week are compelling and powerful — or at least would’ve been had they not been cheapened by using a salacious literary device.

Some will say that, by telling her story, she was inviting criticism and judgment and commentary — that she should have expected it. And for all I know, she was, and she did. But that argument is akin to the one that Jennifer Lawrence has no right to privacy because of her celebrity. Very different stories, obviously, but they share an undertone: If you put yourself out into the world, you are responsible for how people treat you.**

On Oregon

When I originally read Brittany’s story, my first thought was that I was proud to be an Oregonian. I know that I stand in the margin on this issue: a Jesus-follower who advocates for such legislation. But I’m proud to live in a state that (at least some of the time) supports personal liberties.

My stance on physician-assisted suicide legislation has nothing to do with my own convictions or ethics. What it does have to do with are my beliefs about the role of the state in governing morality.

The government should legislate morality when it comes to someone having their rights violated by someone else — rape, murder, and theft all being obvious examples. But the government has no business legislating what you do with your own body. Because here’s the thing: Letting the government enforce personal morality seems like a great idea until their ideologies no longer align with yours. Then you’ve given them power that you can’t ever take back.

My husband put it best: When the state legislates how and when you can end your life, it’s the ultimate expression that you no longer own your body.***

Should we, as caring, compassionate, grace-filled people, put our time and resources toward helping people who we believe are choosing poorly? Of course. Should we provide things like hospice care as an alternative to euthanasia, or rehab for addiction, or support groups for sex workers? Definitely. But should we criminalize these people? Absolutely not.

A final thought

I haven’t read anything about Brittany’s faith, and that makes me hesitant to talk to her as one who is inside the church (which is what most Christian bloggers are doing, in my view). But for whatever reason, Zephaniah 3 was on my heart as I finished writing this post, so I’ll simply end there.

Sing aloud, O daughter of Zion;
shout, O Israel!
Rejoice and exult with all your heart,
O daughter of Jerusalem!
The Lord has taken away the judgments against you;
he has cleared away your enemies.
The King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst;
you shall never again fear evil.
On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem:
“Fear not, O Zion;
let not your hands grow weak.
The Lord your God is 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.”


* On a personal note, I absolutely believe that times of suffering and struggle are times to press into God and seek his face. And this is exactly what many people mean when they say that God won’t give you more than you can bear; what they really mean is God is with you, and for you, and his indwelling Spirit will enable you to persevere when your flesh cannot. But maybe we should say just that instead of offering platitudes and Christian catchphrases.

** Speaking of Jennifer Lawrence, there’s an article going around claiming that a man looking at her nude photos and a man looking at pornography is the same thing. But it’s very, very different. A woman who models for Playboy gives permission for her nude body to be seen by anyone who so desires. Jennifer Lawrence did not. It’s the act of theft that makes one a crime, and the other not.

*** As Jesus followers, we voluntarily surrender our rights to our bodies to Christ. But that’s completely different and separate from surrendering one’s rights to government.

The care and feeding of your new-mom friend

September 5, 2014

Over the last 12 weeks, I’ve learned what a terrible job I did of caring for my friends who entered motherhood before me. I’ve learned this by going through my own postpartum period, which I will forever refer to as the period when I was a bottomless pit of need. I’ve also learned this by seeing the disparity between how I cared for others and how others have cared for me.

To those who, in their wisdom, generously poured out incredible care that I couldn’t begin to deserve: thank you.

To those who, in their misfortune, suffered graciously through my misguided, rather useless attempts to care for them: I’m sorry.

I’m writing this to myself circa 2008, telling myself all the things I wish I would’ve known six years ago. Dear Allie, here are four ways to love your friends well in their early days of motherhood.

(This list turned out much longer and more verbose than I planned. I’m sorry for that too.)

Ask good questions.

If you ask vague, overly open-ended questions (“How’s motherhood going?”), expect equally vague, non-specific answers (“It’s challenging, but we’re figuring it out!”). I have a couple of friends who always ask insightful questions when we get together, and it makes me feel deeply cared for.

If you don’t have children yet, your friend is probably worried about boring you or oversharing; if you do have young kids of your own, your friend is probably worried about being judged by you; and if you have grown kids, your friend is probably worried that what she’s going through will seem insignificant to you. If she’s anything like me, she lives in fear of sentences that start with “just you wait until…” or “I thought that was hard until…”

Ask good questions, really listen to the answers, and validate the heck out of her. If you aren’t sure what to ask, some ideas to get you started…

Thoughtful questions:

  • What has been the most surprising thing — good or bad — about motherhood so far?
  • What is your biggest challenge right now? How can I support you in that?
  • What’s one thing that you’ve learned about the character of God through being a mom?

Follow-up questions:

  • When you were pregnant, you said that you were [scared/nervous/excited] about [specific aspect of motherhood]. What has that been like?
  • How have your expectations of motherhood compared to your experience so far?
  • I saw your [Facebook post/Instagram/Tweet/Vine] about [topic]. How is that going?

Questions with a specific timeframe:

  • What did the baby do this week that’s new or different?
  • What are you most looking forward to about your baby being [one month/three months/six months/etc.] old?
  • What was your favorite thing that happened this week?

(P.S. Her answer to your question is almost definitely not an invitation for advice, a chance for you to give her some perspective, or an opportunity for you to talk about when you had a similar but more difficult/profound/impressive experience. It is an invitation for encouragement, a chance for you to tell her what a good job she’s doing, and an opportunity to validate how difficult/profound/impressive her experience is.)

Shift from “what” to “when.”

Whenever you have a friend who’s going through a big life change — moving, getting married, having a baby, grieving the loss of a loved one — you want to rally around her. But 90% of the time, you have no idea how to do that. So you ask what you can do. And 90% of the time, you get a really unhelpful answer.

That happens for any number of reasons. In the case of your new-mom friend, she’s spending her every waking moment (and, let’s be honest, most of her precious sleeping moments) trying to figure out what her new tiny human needs. She has no idea what she needs anymore because she hasn’t thought about it in weeks. Or, if she does know what she needs, she’s afraid to tell you because she doesn’t want to inconvenience you. Her whole life right now is inconvenient, so the last thing she wants to do is inflict inconvenience on anyone else because she knows (oh, how she knows) how it feels.

Or maybe she’s not used to needing to ask for things and has no idea how — even when someone invites her to ask. Or perhaps she secretly thinks you don’t really want to help and that you’re asking just to be nice.

Instead of asking what you can do, pick something that you want to do for her and ask when you can do it.

Picking something to do is simpler than you think. Because here’s the thing: your friend is still your friend. Yes, she’s a mom now, and that has added a whole new dimension to her person. But chances are, she still likes the same things she liked a year ago. And in fact, she’s even easier to please now, because what was once a basic everyday affair is now an indulgent luxury.

Let your experience and observation guide you. If you’re still stumped, there are some things that I can almost guarantee every new mom would enjoy:

Uninterrupted sleep. More specifically, a time when she doesn’t have to sleep with one ear open.

  • Good: Take the baby on a long (90 minutes-plus) stroller ride while mom stays home.
  • Better: While mom’s feeding the baby and getting him ready for your outing, make sure that the dishes are done, the living room is tidy, and the laundry is switched.
  • Best: If she’s pumping or bottle feeding, take care of the baby overnight. Bring an air mattress and your pillow, and spend the night in the nursery. (It’s one night of limited sleep for you, but you can catch up the next night, and you’ll feel so good in the morning when your friend can’t stop hugging you.)

Her favorite coffee, sandwich, cookie, etc. You’ve probably brought her one (or more) of these things before, and it’s even more appreciated now.

  • Good: Text her and ask her what time you can bring her lunch tomorrow. If she’s busy tomorrow, keep suggesting dates until she accepts.
  • Better: When you show up with lunch, also bring two treats: one for a mid-afternoon snack, the other for when she’s feeding the baby at 2 a.m. that night.
  • Best: Put a book or magazine and $10 in her hand, and send her to the coffee shop/deli/bakery by herself while you watch the baby. Her life is filled with can you hold the baby while I [fill in the blank: go to the bathroom, wash the changing pad cover, restock the wipes container]. An hour of can you hold the baby while I do something nice for myself is a true gift.

A long shower or bath. You know, the kind where you get to wash your hair and shave your legs. (This is one of the easiest and most rewarding things you can do for your friend. You get to sit and hold a baby for 45 minutes, and she gets to become a new woman. Win-win.)

Dinner that requires zero effort and zero clean-up. Don’t get me wrong — I loved the homemade meals that were so graciously brought to our door and that arrived in lovely ceramic dishes for baking and that provided leftovers I could stow away for lunch the following day. But I have to admit a certain fondness for the night that we were brought tacos from a nearby taqueria, or the night that someone brought us pizza and beer. The pizza box went in the compost, the beer bottles went in the recycling, and I went to bed.

A date with her husband. Your friend is now a mom all day, every day — and it’s an unfathomable blessing, but that role has (for now) eclipsed all others. She desperately needs to feel like a wife and a woman again — even if it’s only for an hour while she walks to Chipotle and shares a meal with this man she really likes but hasn’t seen much lately.

A room in her house that is both clean and tidy. If you’re already a mom of multiple kids, you might think this is just silly. Your house is a mess? Welcome to parenthood, you say. But think back to before you had a kid and how neat your house was. And then remember what the loss of that orderliness felt like. Right now, everything in your friend’s life is changing, and she’s desperately trying to hang on to some semblance of her former life. A clean house is proof positive that her world hasn’t spun completely off its axis (or at least hasn’t yet).

Anything and everything in this blog post. (This should be required reading for anyone who has friends who are having babies.)

There are exactly two things that a new mom wants to hear about her appearance.

They are:

  1. Wow — you look unbelievably well rested!
  2. Wow — you’re so thin!

That’s it. That’s the end of the list. If your friend looks exhausted and fat, you have exactly two options: lie or choose something else to compliment. (Baby flattery is acceptable. Approved remarks include: Wow — how do you have the time to have such gorgeous hair? Wow — how are your clothes always so clean? Wow — the pictures you’ve been posting of your baby look like they were taken by a professional photographer! Wow — your baby has the most stylish wardrobe ever!)

This is especially true if you see your friend at a social gathering of some kind. Let’s say that your friend had her baby four weeks ago, and you see her at a birthday party after work. You had to rush home at 5 o’clock, touch up your hair, throw on some heels and extra jewelry, and dab on some lip gloss at a stoplight on your way over. Your friend, on the other hand, used every single minute of baby nap time that day to shower, blow-dry her hair, find an outfit that doesn’t make her hate her body, and put on enough concealer and mascara to compensate for third trimester insomnia plus the all-night labor that preceded her 3 a.m. delivery plus the month since then of sleeping no more than 90 minutes at a time.

She walks into the party half an hour late but feeling pretty dang good. Look at me, going out on the town!

And then some very well-meaning person tells her how exhausted she looks and not only is she now incredibly self-conscious but, to add insult to injury, she feels like she just wasted an entire day of hard work.

Also: The longer it’s been since she had the baby, the more she needs to hear nice things. Deep down, she expected to be out of the fog of exhaustion and into her skinny jeans at six weeks. Actually, that was her worst case scenario; she really thought she’d be there at four. Now, she’s five months postpartum, has one pair of pants that fit, and her baby slept through the night for exactly three nights before hitting a sleep regression and now she’s back to nursing twice each night.

Check in with her.

Consistently. Often. And over the long haul.

This is a profoundly lonely, isolating, and depleting season for your friend. If she’s an extrovert, she’s missing the social interactions that breathe life into her spirit. If she’s an introvert, she’s both missing the connections she enjoys and she is never, ever alone — which, somehow, makes her feel isolated from herself.

She may not want to tell you that she cried more this week than in her nine months of pregnancy combined. She might not want to describe what it’s like to wonder how one distinguishes the line between stress/exhaustion/this is really hard and postpartum depression — or admit that, some days, she thinks she might’ve drifted over it. She may think it’ll sound too ridiculous if she admits she’s scared that her friends have forgotten about her — or that she’ll lose their friendship because she’s not able to be the caregiver/check-er-in-er that she’s accustomed to being.

Output may be heavy for your friend right now. Even the output of words might be too much. Because right now, every bit of output she can muster is poured out in love for this tiny person in her arms. This post (another must-read) puts it so beautifully:

The love you will feel is nothing like you have felt before. It will be foreign and familiar all at once. It will fill you to the very top of your heart, nearly spilling over. The thing about this kind of love, though, is that it can feel heavy. Disproportional. You may feel like you will nearly break in half from the top-heaviness… This love will crush your ego. It will destroy your capability to trust yourself. The fear that creeps in the shadows of this love will paralyze you… You may never feel like you will get the hang of carrying this love.

You can’t help your friend carry this love or trust herself — but you can make sure she knows, day in and day out, that she is loved and that your love for her can be trusted. It may sound backward, but when output is heavy, your input — those text messages and emails and notes that demonstrate your deep affection for her — lightens, and gives light, and is light.

Ultimately, that’s what caring for your friend is — no matter what that care looks like. Bringing lightness to her life. Making her feel seen, and known, and valued. Loving her well at a time when she finds it hard to love herself.

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.