Cultivating Healthy Awareness

In the month of June I wrote a blog post every day for 30 days. Then came July, then August, then September, and now October. The cobwebs built up and the blog remained empty. My journal got minimal attention, and my pen went un-clicked.

This absence was not because I forgot about writing. My excuse was valid and fair, considering I got married (yippee!) and that is a life event that deserves all my attention. But I thought about my writing, and its absence, frequently. The majority of those thoughts marinated in tones of disappointment and failure, leaving me with a pessimistic and critical attitude.

I consider myself to be a very self-aware person. In the United States dominant culture, this is a good thing. I always believed it was admirable that I was aware enough to not be an idiot or an annoyance. I thought being conscious of all my faults was important to make the necessary changes to improve myself. And there is nothing wrong with improving oneself right? Improvement is part of America’s blood.

But at some point self-awareness turns into self-consciousness. In that space fear, insecurity, and a lack of confidence breed like rabbits.

In My Utmost For His Highest, Oswald Chambers confirms this problem:
“Self-awareness is the first thing that will upset the completeness of our life in God, and self-awareness continually produces a sense of struggling and turmoil in our lives. Self-awareness is not a sin, and it can be produced by nervous emotions or by suddenly being dropped into a totally new set of circumstances. Yet it is never God’s will that we should be anything less than absolutely complete in him.”

If feeling lost is a consequence of self-awareness, then feeling found can only come from Christ-awareness. 

Christ-awareness results in the peace, love, and grace that can only from God. I tend to forget that grace is not only about forgiveness, but also a freedom from the wandering feelings of our soul when we are too self aware and insecure. It is grace that allows me to escape my insecurity and embrace a completeness in Christ that doesn’t require any form of improvement.

Those who are complete are not perfect, but when they look at their lives they see the goodness of God and are content with their place in the world. They still strive for a better life, but they do so in an effort to glorify God instead of worrying about proving themselves.

I’ve seen this truth as a newlywed who has a vision for her perfect apartment. I spent the first few weeks of my marriage focusing on what the apartment needed, whether that was internet, glassware, a chair, or pictures on the wall. The motivation to complete our apartment and make it perfect drove me straight into exhaustion and frustration. No home is ever complete, but I desired this dream because I knew completion in my life as a whole was a much harder goal. 

My life didn’t become any more complete when I graduated college, when I got a great job, or when I got married. The apartment didn’t become any more complete once we got internet or pictures on the wall. We search for fulfillment in the high points of achievements and the objects of materialism, but neither can give us the abstract satisfaction we truly seek.

I’ve spent the majority of my life trying to prove and improve myself. My self-awareness has never led to any accomplishment that was enough. Yes it is good to have goals, but our awareness of those goals should be full of the grace of God. Writing or not, married or not, finished apartment or not—I am complete in Christ.

This isn’t an easy mindset for me to change, and I know that even my faith in God may never be fully “complete” by worldly standards. I wrestle daily with being self-conscious, anxious, and insecure. But by  focusing on Christ-awareness I am one step closer to the true peace and rest that only comes from God.

“If we try to overcome our self-awareness through any of our own commonsense methods, we will only serve to strengthen our self-awareness tremendously. Jesus says, “Come to me… and I will give you rest,” that is, Christ-awareness will take the place of self-awareness.”
– Oswald Chambers, My Utmost For His Highest

When You Write For 30 Days

Today marks the last day of my 30 Day Writing Challenge, where I set a goal to post every day for the month of June. I only missed one day, for good reasons, so I’m going to call it a success.

Here is the list of every post for the last month:
And there you have it! I don’t love all of them, but I love what they accomplished as a whole. Each one is proof that there is always something to write about. These posts trace a trajectory of my life during this last month, as well as multiple significant events in our country during that time.

By challenging myself to post every day, I cultivated the skills of attention and reflection, becoming more aware of each situation and deeply considering what could be said about it. It is easy to walk through life without paying attention or thinking about it, the challenge is being present through the process.

How often do you take the time to reflect on a month of your life, or a week, or even the day? It is a powerful way to remember how God answers our prayers, how our surroundings have changed, and what we take away from those collective moments. It can also inspire us for the future. You can do this in ways other than writing, the point is simply to generate a posture of awareness.

Writing Tools

The tools needed for writing: good books, plenty of journals, random notes I jotted down and kept, pens, and yummy smelling candles.

This challenge also confirmed what I wrote in my very first post:
Writers block more often comes from fear, not a lack of words.
There is always something to write about, the question is whether we are willing to show up to the page. Because I had to post something every day, I didn’t have time to overthink or fret about the quality. I did what I could and learned to be happy with the effort alone.

Obviously I still want to make sure each post is good quality, and this is easier to do when I have more time to invest in it. I hope to still write every day, but I will return to posting less often for the sake of quality and my own sanity.

Thank you to everyone who joined me during this 30 Day Challenge and read along. Thank you also to anyone who told me that they were reading and enjoying it. I probably scoffed at you in person, but deep down I really appreciate the encouragement.

We all have stories to tell and our own methods of telling them. We should challenge ourselves to explore these methods more, not because we have something to prove, but because we earnestly desire the resulting growth. I hope you are able to do that in your own way, and please share with me how it goes!

What was your favorite post from this month?
How have you challenged yourself before, and what did you learn?

Learning to Shut Up

We ran to the walk-in closet, hiding from her little sister. The giggles were absorbed in part by the leather shoes and fancy dresses, but they reverberated on the mirrored doors.

Still laughing I said, “Ssshhhh! We need to shut up!”

Her eyes froze at me, blinking wide. The clothes around us hung heavy, concealing us in. As a first grader, what I had just said counted as a bad word, at least in her family. She proceeded to tell me not to say the “s-word” again, especially not in front of her mom. I deflated, feeling awful, and spent the rest of the play date wondering if my friend still thought I was a nice person.

My family wasn’t the type to swear either, and shut up wasn’t necessarily something I picked up from them. But I had never been told it was a bad word, and it didn’t carry any negative connotation in my innocent brain.

I know now that we tell kids not to say this phrase because it is often used with a tone of animosity, and it isn’t a healthy expression of frustration at a young age.

But as an adult, saying “shut up” is a nonchalant occurrence. It means little harm, but it has also transformed in its meaning.

“Shut up” is a firm direction. It could be used harshly, but it can also be the strength of a loving command, made out of good intentions. As much as I try to be forgiving and kind to myself (see this post), there are also days when I need to be firm and tell myself to shut up.

I first noticed my tendency to talk too much when I began giving tours for the admissions office in college. To be fair, it was my job to talk a lot. But there is a delicate balance between blabbering out of pride and offering knowledge while still listening to the other.

Gradually, I learned how to focus on asking the prospective students questions and also allow enough silence for them to bring up the questions they really wanted to hear about. I cultivated a posture of listening first and speaking second.

This was lost when I moved to Seattle and didn’t have as many friends around to talk to. I joined a women’s young adult bible study, and quickly found myself blabbering every week, gushing with the excitement of a child who learned something new and wants to tell everyone with in earshot about it.

It was exciting to feel like I knew something they didn’t, simply because they hadn’t heard the campus pastor preach about this already like all of my college friends. I had unique knowledge, and I wanted to share it.

The voice inside me began to nudge, pointing out my habit of talking too much and listening too little. I noticed that I was thinking of my response instead of actually listening, interrupting others, and dominating the conversation. It was humbling to step back and realize I needed to shut up.

Thankfully this group of young women are all patient and kind, still accepting of me and my pompous mouth. As I began to shut up and listen more, I was able to recognize the wisdom that they each had to share. We were all recently graduated, newly employed, and altogether trying to figure out adult life. But even with these similarities, we all have unique backgrounds and histories that add valuable input to the conversation.

Once I had opened myself up to really hearing someone else, I was humbled to find I still had a lot to learn.

This is equally important in our relationship with God. Oswald Chambers wrote that “We have to get rid of the idea that we understand ourselves,” because “Jesus cannot teach us anything until we quiet all our intellectual questions and get alone with him.”

By over-talking and over-thinking, I create the false illusion that I know everything and I can figure everything out on my own. By shutting up, I am reminded of my foolishness in comparison to the great wisdom of God.

The truth is, I can’t ever fully know or solve my problems on my own. I need the wisdom of patient friends with different experiences. I need the wisdom of a God who understands the bigger picture. I need to shut up and be still.

The firmness of the words themselves usher me back to a hushed closet, a place of reverence and awareness. Shutting up doesn’t have to be negative, it can be about firmly redirecting one’s attention to what matters. The posture of listening is never permanent, we must fall on our knees again and again to relearn how to hear with our whole hearts.

Blogging every day for the last month is the opposite of shutting up, and that is ok because there is also a time when we need to speak out. However, I am grateful as this month comes to an end that I can return to a place of listening.

Writing requires me to have one ear to the world, one ear to God, and a heart that is willing to pour itself out on the page. Each one is important, but they need to work in conjunction, not in competition.

 Do you ever tell yourself to shut up?
How do you practice talking less and listening more?

Practicing Love

Growing up, the weight of deep obligation haunted me every week following Christmas and my birthday. My mom would provide the small cards, the envelopes, the stamps, even the pen. But what would I say? A lack of words left me with a lack of motivation.

This was the dread of writing thank you notes. I knew I needed to do it, but the only reason I had been given was that I wouldn’t get presents again in the future if a thank you note wasn’t written. Those kind of threats work for a period, but eventually it made me hate the task more. How dare you hold my presents for ransom? What kind of person does that?? Good, solid kid logic there.

I always imagined I would reach adulthood and burn all the thank you notes, refusing to do any more.

The practice is too deeply rooted though. It still is not something I enjoy or look forward to, but once I’m in the middle of it I am reminded of the value of the practice itself.

Thank You Notes

By writing thank you notes, I learned how to express gratitude. It conditioned me to find the good in something, even if it wasn’t what I asked for. Each note grafted writing on to my heart, teaching me how to use words and express myself with the diligent effort of putting pen to paper. As my writing ability improved, the notes themselves became a way to say the words I was too shy to say aloud. Thanks. I love you. You are important.

Now, when I write a thank you note, I try to intentionally do two things:
  1. Show my sincere appreciation.
  2. Affirm that person’s value.
We don’t do these things enough. Whether it be verbally, through text, or by physically writing it out, it can seem awkward to tell someone how you feel and praise them for what they have done. I know not everyone gives or receives love in this way, but perhaps that is because we haven’t practiced it enough.

Imagine a world where we practiced different ways of loving people and learned how to feel love in all those different ways. It requires understanding someone else’s needs, showing concern for their perspective, and being open to a different point of view. The world would be a much lovelier place.

Love, like gratitude, is something that needs to be practiced. It can feel like a burden at first, something you don’t know how to start and resent any obligation to. But those are excuses that create a distance of heart, guarding ourselves to the point that no love can get in and no love can get out.

The world is already dark enough, let us practice living a life that brings more light.

I dare you to do something out of the ordinary to express your gratitude and love for someone else this week. Write a thank you note, do the dishes, give a hug, buy a present. You may not know where to start, but by the act of beginning has a magical way of giving us the momentum to continue.

Practicing love intentionally grows love that then becomes unintentionally easier. Even when the effects aren’t seen immediately, it is always worth the effort.

How do you feel about writing thank you notes?
In what ways do you practice love?

Non-Conformist Nature

“I don’t like pine trees, they are so conformist.”

Her feet steadily followed one in front of the other, kicking up a minimal amount of dust, as she declared her position with a decided tone.

This was the beginning of the trail where the ground was still level, a straightforward and simple path.

Two miles later, we had began the set of twenty two switchbacks. The trail zig zagged in and out of the forest, becoming exposed for a few turns as we navigated across the rubble of a rock fall with delicate steps. I pondered how long ago it happened, guessing several years since there were plants thriving in between the cracks.

We returned to the shaded canopy and approached a dry riverbed. It looked like it should be crossed, but the trail was no longer clear. Could it be up that hill? It seemed unusually steep, and not well-trod. But going across the river would lead us on a downward path, the opposite direction of our destination. We paused.

Apparently there was an old bootleg trail here before the switchbacks were put in. It was steeper and undesignated, a rambling route created to throw off a scent. The trees alone know such secrets, sealed in sap and forgotten footprints.

As we explored the alternate routes, the ground surrendered underneath our weight with a slow depression. It held well, but the springy response hinted at another past. Awoken by the wind the trees began to clamor with an ascending rush. This is them at their loudest, but it remains sonorous to the point of peace.

The evidence of a louder occurrence was well hidden around us. It would have been a violent disruption, thundering down in a rolling tumble of split wood, dirt clouds, and the smack of granite colliding. The remains litter the floor, now reincorporated as debris from the generations that compacted over them. As the ground gave way underfoot it exhaled the breath of history, where a rock fall’s disruption was reincorporated back into a world of muted cracks and wind-rustled leaves.

We decide to trace our steps back down the trail a bit, only to find the switchback curve we completely missed when we walked straight ahead instead of rounding the corner like we were supposed to. As we resumed our uphill ascent, we passed a thick pine that had fallen at one point, then grown outward and curved back up, making a L-shape that stretched back towards the sky.

“This one is ok,” she declares, “it clearly isn’t conforming to anything.”

We stuck to the trail, and the trees continued to live as they do, independently reaching, cohesively existing, conforming and not conforming as nature tells its own story.

Teneriffe Falls

Teneriffe Falls, captured in the spring and much fuller than the dry trickle we witnessed today.

How Decisions Do and Don’t Define You

Anyone who has access to the internet is probably aware of a major decision that happened in the United States today. As the Supreme Court ruled that it is unconstitutional to prevent gay marriage, people across the country either celebrated or scoffed at the announcement.

Regardless of your position, there are some critical things to remember:
  1. This is still a free country. Just because other people get to do something you may not approve of, that does not directly infringe on your freedom.
  2. Jesus always, again ALWAYS, took a stance of loving others. That should be our first priority as Christians.
  3. This decision was not taken lightly. And it does not define you.
That last point is what I want to focus on today. Making decisions is hard, whether it effects a whole country or just you. But regardless of the decisions other people make, you always have control over your ability to decide who you are and what you believe in.

You may have noticed that I did not post anything on the blog yesterday. Even though I challenged myself to post everyday for 30 days, I am not perfect. A storm of everything going wrong spun through my day yesterday, leaving me disheveled in body and mind. By the time I had the chance to try and write something, I only had an hour before I was supposed to be at a book club. So I could either eat dinner and not post, then go to book club. Or I could eat dinner and then write a post, and not go to book club. Or I could skip dinner, write a post, and go to book club. And most likely break down afterwards.

Faced with this monumental decision, heavy with serious consequences (sarcasm font please), I sat down and cried. Anyone with anxiety knows that one of the greatest sources of stress is having to make decisions. It doesn’t matter how important they are, even the smallest option can send you into a tailspin.

After blubbering on the phone to my patient fiance, I resolved I needed to eat. There was decision one. Then, when faced with the decision between writing a blog post that would probably end up cranky and whiny, or going to be social and feel comforted by wonderful friends, I decided on the second one. And I don’t feel at all guilty about choosing people over my pride.

This may seem minor to you, but the way we make decisions, and the way we live with them, is important. 

Sheena Iyengar in her TED talk “The Art of Choosing” points out the many assumptions we hold about the importance of choices, and how her research on choice, both in the U.S. and in other cultures, suggests that having endless choices isn’t always a good thing. She says, “A number of my studies have shown that when you give people 10 or more options when they’re making a choice, they make poorer decisions, whether it be health care, investment, other critical areas. Yet still, many of us believe that we should make all our own choices and seek out even more of them.”

Iyengar points out that “the American standard of choice requires that everyone treat choice as a private and self-defining act.” So when the Supreme Court makes a choice that someone may not agree with, this feels like an imposition on his or her own identity and ability to privately define such things.
“For modern Americans who are exposed to more options and more ads associated with options than anyone else in the world, choice is just as much about who they are as it is about what the product is,” Iyengar says.

Following this logic, a nationwide choice made by someone else may feel like a direct affront to who you are.

I’m here to tell you it’s not.

Whether you are deciding between writing a blog post or going to book club, supporting gay marriage or speaking out against it, these decisions are part of the free will that God gave us all. Let me repeat that, God gave us ALL free will.  God did not only give free will to the Christians and then say they could mandate everyone else’s decisions. Whether you agree with the SCOTUS decision or not, free will enables us to make our own choices, as long as they don’t directly hurt anyone else.

We need to trust that the Supreme Court took this decision seriously, that they consulted and debated with everyone’s best interest in mind. This is democracy in action, and it applies to all of us. A decision has been made, and how we live with that decision will define us and the God we represent. 

Let us be people of love rather than people of hurt. Let our decisions be driven by fellowship, rather than fear. Let others make their own decisions, and know that it doesn’t change who you are.

Iyengar finishes her TED talk with this wisdom–“No single narrative serves the needs of everyone everywhere. Moreover, Americans themselves could benefit from incorporating new perspectives into their own narrative, which has been driving their choices for so long.” The American narrative of choice is still important, and your ability to make decisions isn’t going anywhere. However, we need to remember that our narrative may be different from our neighbors, and that is ok.

Some decisions may be minor, but other decisions are a complicated bundle of pride, fear, anxiety, hope, and faith. The only way to trust in the decisions you make is to be confident in who you are. God loves you deeply, and the decisions we make don’t change God’s sovereignty or love. The decisions others make won’t change that either. 

How do you feel about the decisions other people make?
How do your decisions define you?

 

The Importance of Asking

The phone rang. Don’t pick up, don’t pick up, don’t pick up.

“Hello?”
“Hi there!”

My voice jumped up an octave. I smiled, though they couldn’t tell. I started by inquiring how they are doing, and laughed at any joke. This went on. I asked about how business was, what audience they were trying to reach, and how they have done that so far. Then it was time. Hey batter batter. Have I got a deal for you!

Then came the avoidance, the shifty tone of voice, the excuses, and eventually a flat no. I would hang up the phone and feel completely defeated. I never wanted to do that again.

Few people actually enjoy asking other people for things. I already felt that way, but after my job in sales I was even more averse to the practice of asking. Thankfully I got out of that job and found something I actually care about.

And then I realized I still had to ask people for things.

Every job involves asking something from others. As a teacher, you must ask your students to participate in learning. As a doctor, you must ask patients what their needs are and ask nurses or support staff to assist you. As an accountant, you need to ask people to trust you with their finances and about their goals for their money.

Outside of work, we also have to ask for things. We have to ask for help from friends when we are moving or need a ride to the airport. We have to ask for money from parents or loans from banks. We have to ask for dressing on the side or an extra plate. From the superficial to the serious—the things we ask for matter to us, which is why we must bother to ask at all.

My experience in a sales job was especially difficult because I didn’t believe in the product I was selling. But I already had a foundational fear of asking. I don’t want to be pushy. I don’t want to be a bother. I don’t want to be demanding. These are all excuses and lies about what it means to ask for something.

In the United States we glorify independence and self-sufficiency. Asking someone for something you want, instead of throwing all the tea in the harbor and declaring treason, seems weak. We should be pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps, and if someone else gives us a hand then our success is somehow diminished.

Again, this is a lie. Being self-sufficient is a good thing, but no one can really survive on their own forever. Everyone who is successful got to where they are because they knew how to ask other people for the things they wanted. The trick is doing this without being labeled pushy or needy.

So how can we transform the negative stigma associated with asking and move beyond the boundaries? The key is in asking well, and being well-intentioned.

It helps me to remember that the Bible encourages us to ask boldly of God and others.

“Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.” – Mark 11:24

“…in everything, by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God.” – Philippians 4:6

“If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.” – John 15:7

We aren’t always given what we want, but we are usually given what we need. And asking in the right way means being conscious of want versus need, as well as being open to hearing no.

Boldness is different than pushiness. One is done with consideration, the other is done selfishly. One is inspired by a greater purpose, the other is seemingly unimportant. 

We never know what is going on in someone else’s lives. We should never make assumptions and let that deter us from asking. Perhaps they will surprise us and say yes. Or if they say no, having a gracious and understanding response will preserve the relationship. People will always welcome you in when you show sensitivity to their time and space.

If you don’t ask, you won’t get. But if you ask poorly, you also won’t get anything.

The recent disagreement between Taylor Swift and Apple exemplifies how to ask well. Apple said it was going to stream music on it’s new service for three months free without paying royalties to the artists. Taylor Swift posted an open letter on her Tumblr calmly explaining why she would withhold her newest album from the service because of this. And Apple promptly announced a plan to change their policy.

Why did this work? It is not just because she is Taylor Swift. It is because she asked well.

Allison Vesterfelt, on the Storyline blog, summed up the reasons perfectly. Taylor Swift got what she wanted for three reasons:
  • “She focused on the problem at hand, not Apple’s identity.”
  • “She shared her thoughts and feelings but didn’t make it about her.”
  • “She acknowledges their desired outcome and offers a new suggestion.”

We all have to ask things from other people. Whether it be for work, in our friendships, or with God, asking well is an important skill to develop and not shy away from. To ask well, you should consider the other party’s position and show consideration for where they are at. Don’t only think about your needs or be possessive about what you want. Be open to a different outcome, but also take responsibility for your own position.

Ultimately we can’t control what other people do, or whether they say yes when we ask for something. But we can control the way we ask, and our response. Don’t let fear stop you from boldly asking, especially when it is something you believe in. You may just be the Taylor Swift in this case.