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
Advertisements

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?

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?

Half Way There, Already Good

Yesterday marked the half way mark for my month-long challenge to write every day. So, of course, I didn’t feel like writing today.

I was tired, grumpy after a long weekend of travel, and altogether uninspired. The words I wrote about motivation two days ago had slipped away and seemed irrelevant. Why was I doing this again?

So I took some time to look through the journal I’m using for my year-long challenge to write more days than less. At least once each month there is an entry where I blubber about my lack of success and dissatisfaction with my progress.

Here is one from March 30:
“Once again I was not successful in writing more days than less this month. I can think of plenty of excuses, but the only judge listening is myself—and I don’t think I’m a fair judge.”

This is especially funny when I’m looking at a journal that already contains more entries than my journal from last year. I am definitely not an impartial judge, I am far too close to the subject.

After scanning through pages of self-criticism, I realized how it is possible to be over-concerned with self-improvement. I am never content with myself where I am, and I have a constant list of things I would like to work on. I want to do more sewing projects, cook more creative meals, exercise more often, spend more time outside, try to learn another language, read the giant pile of books next to my bed, and then read the ones I have on a separate list on my phone. More more more. This is the American Dream. And it is exhausting.

Some people don’t ever self-evaluate and actually need to, but I over-evaluate and need to cut back. This mindset causes other common problems like desperation for affirmation, deep fear of rejection, and perfectionism. If I’m being kind to myself I will admit that I’m less of a perfectionist than I was five years ago, because my confidence grew and my need to prove myself declined.

For those of you who can relate—we shouldn’t blindly accept perfectionism as part of our personalities. Being a perfectionist is not who I am, and that is a radical realization of God’s presence in my life. Perfectionism is a learned quality, not innate or natural.

I believe God loves us as we are, Christ died on the cross for us while we were still sinners (Romans 5:8), and we are freely given grace and forgiveness (Ephesians 1:3-14). Those things inspire us to pursue a life that is a better reflection of Christ, but they do not require us to prove that we deserve Christ’s love.

Nature's imperfections

Nature always reminds me of the beauty in imperfection

While reading through my journal entries, I also found days where I managed to defend myself and accept this kind of radical grace. I found this bit of inspiration from an entry in February:

“I can’t do everything I would like. The attempt is noble, and we should never give up on growth. However, there is a difference between seeking success as a necessity and seeking growth in opportunities. It is a balance between trying to prove or improve oneself. One is done out of pressure-filled expectation, the other is forgiving and accepting of any result.”

I have to be careful with all these challenges I give myself, remembering they are not efforts to prove myself or chores that I must do begrudgingly. Growth is important and necessary in our lives, but it shouldn’t be surrounded by a fear of failure or pressure to measure up. I love God, and I want to commit to pursuing a life that is a reflection of God’s grace. I love writing, and I want to commit to give it my best even when I don’t feel like it. The effort of trying counts more than the results. We can never be perfect, and we don’t have to be.

“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” – Romans 12:2

Perfectionism and over-concern with self-improvement are aspects of this world. God gives us the opportunity to redefine our efforts and renew our mindset to one of grace. Only in that way do we realize that God is the only kind of good, acceptable, perfection we need.

Do you struggle with constantly wanting to improve?
How do you handle it?

Killing and Kindling Motivation

“Oh you can just take today off” she says to me. I smile at her, knowing I can’t. That is the whole point of this 30 Day Writing Challenge. No excuses.

So I close myself in my room and let my visiting family members go enjoy the jacuzzi without me.

But then I think I should wash my face.
Might as well change into something more comfortable.
My room needs organizing.
I haven’t checked Facebook in awhile.
Cleaning out my inbox would also be good.
And I could use a snack.

I grumble that I’m not feeling very creative and I can’t think of anything worth saying. Most of the time, I cave to those reasons and don’t bother trying. I say I will wait till inspiration strikes next. Two weeks later I still didn’t write anything and I get depressed thinking I was completely uninspired for two weeks.

But that’s not true either. Inspiration is fleeting enough that we rarely catch it in time to do anything about it. When it shows up in the shower or the car or the grocery store, it takes a back seat to the current task and is quickly forgotten. Inspiration makes regular appearances in my life, but I squander it’s presence because I’m distracted by other things.

What kills your motivation is not a lack of inspiration. In my experience there are 3 main things that keep me from doing what I want:

  1. Distractions and shifting priorities: If I don’t make writing a priority it will easily get swept aside by other items on my to-do list. Even checking Facebook and watching Netflix can compete when I decide I’m too tired to write or it can wait till tomorrow. Chances are, it will end up waiting much longer than that.
  2. Low confidence and fear of failure: “Why bother if it’s not going to be good?” That question plagues all of us at some point. But imagine if we asked this instead: “What could happen if this turns out good?” Suddenly there is a reason to try. Don’t think of the reasons why you might fail—think of the reasons contributing to your chances of success.
  3. Lack of self-care: Little happens when I’m exhausted, anxious, sick, or depressed. If I am overworked, have said yes too much, or haven’t set aside time for rest, I have again compromised my priorities and forgotten about my own needs for general well being. I am in charge of my own well-being, even when that means asking others to help me with it.

When I find myself unmotivated I ask myself which of these three things is present. Sometimes it is all three. Once I acknowledge the problem I can find a way to resolve it. Simple right?

Unfortunately, it’s not always that easy. Some problems take much longer than a quick fix of food or a nap. Deep insecurity, the inability to say no, or even the need to work long hours in order to have something to eat at all. Sometimes there are other people or things that really do prevent us from doing what we want. But what we do to overcome those things and in spite those things is what defines our success. Tony Robbins, in his TED Talk on “Why We Do What We Do” says that “the defining factor is never resources; it’s resourcefulness.”

Every successful writer got to where they are solely because they showed up even when inspiration didn’t. They didn’t always have the resources or obvious amounts of time, but they found a way to make it happen.

The Renaissance scholar Erasmus said “The desire to write grows with writing.”

Stephen King’s blunt opinion is similar: 
Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.”
I would argue that even for non-writers, success comes from showing up to work hard even on days when you don’t feel like it.

The more you do that, the more you realize that success doesn’t even mean getting published or promoted or paid highly. Success comes from the reward of knowing you showed up in the first place.

What gets in the way of your motivation?
How do you find a way to motivate yourself again?

Finding a New Niche

It is common among bloggers and writers to feel pressured to fit into a certain niche. We are told to define the topic or realm we will focus on and write only things related to it. This makes sense when the goal is to grow your audience and platform, but those are two words writers hate to think about.

I have struggled with this for years, because I’ve never felt like I fit perfectly into one realm or that I want to write things solely based on one topic. I love reading and books, but I also love hiking and the outdoors. I love discussing Christian life and faith, but I also think it’s important to engage culture with our ears open to other perspectives. I know that I could pick one and I would probably be more successful at growing my audience around that specific world.

But, as you may have noticed, that isn’t what I’ve chosen to do. You may have started following this blog after reading an article I tagged as travel, or one related to books, or perhaps it was one about faith. If you only want to read about one of those topics, I suggest you find a different blog. My feelings won’t be hurt.

However, if you want to step outside your normal boundaries and dare to dip your toes in different rivers, I can promise you one thing: all those rivers eventually converge. No topic is exclusive or isolated from others. The book world, the outdoors world, the Christian world, and the cultural world all have valuable things to share with each other. They can also all be affected by the same things while simultaneously offering different perspectives.

The recent earthquake in Nepal showed me this. I follow a number of magazines and cultural sources on Facebook, meaning my newsfeed includes daily updates from the leading sources on outdoor recreation, Christian thought, books, writing, and popular culture. After the tragedy in Nepal, each one had a different perspective to offer.

I read about how avalanches had left several climbers and mountain guides stranded at the base camp of Everest.

I read about ministries providing emergency care and support in Jesus’ name, as well as how we can view God in the wake of devastation.

I read about writers from the area and the books they had written about Nepal’s delicate civil and social balance.

And I read about the United States citizens who were there and how communities from their home towns rallied in remarkable ways to provide comfort and support for the family.

To be fair, these stories were all written with a specific audience in mind, and they each intentionally told the story from their own angle. We need writers who can do this. But that’s not the kind of writer I am, and that’s because I know one of my favorite things is to learn about someone else’s niche, and sharing those worlds with others.

I recently started asking people the following ice-breaker question: “What topic or random hobby (outside your job) do you know a surprising amount about?”

You would be shocked by the answers. I have a coworker who knows everything about Legos. I know someone who is well-versed in antique thrifting. I heard about a suburban mom who goes to every rodeo within reach. And I have a friend who can name almost any plant you walk by. The best part about all of those things: you would never guess it just by looking at them.

I love hearing about these things, where it all started, why they keep at it, and the random trivia they can share about a world that previously existed outside my radar.

Because of this, I like to think that people don’t always want to read within the same genre. We need to learn about areas outside our immediate interests and the place those things occupy in our world. Once we open ourselves up to that curiosity, we may surprise ourselves by learning things that connect to our own small worlds as well.

If anything, I can say my topic and realm is that of questions, raising them and answering them through experience. Thankfully, that means I can never run out of material.

What’s that? You want to know my random niche that I know a lot about? Check back tomorrow to find out :)

What topic or hobby do you know a lot about?

Tell Me A Story

After 8 days of writing every day, I encountered my first day of writer’s block. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to write, it was that words would not even bother to show up in my mind long enough to make it on the page.

Thankfully I know the magic cure for writer’s block: read something. Once I have soaked in a bath of someone else’s poetry, absorbing their eloquence and breathing in the steam of sophisticated prose, it is easy to write again.

This is why today’s favorite thing is not just reading, but a good story.

The book I chose as today’s medicine was actually the Nobel Lecture by Mario Vargas Llosa In Praise of Reading and Fiction, which my wonderful brother mailed to me a few months ago in a surprise care package.
Care Package

Favorite brother award goes to my (only) brother John. And another favorite thing: care packages filled with goodies like this one.

I have already read this book, but I return to it frequently as a reminder of why I read and why I write. Usually this is necessary after I’ve binged on Netflix for too long and forgotten how glorious book pages are.

In the lecture Llosa says, ““We would be worse than we are without the good books we have read, more conformist, not as restless, more submissive, and the critical spirit, the engine of progress, would not even exist. Like writing, reading is a protest against the insufficiencies of life.

Writer’s block certainly counts as an insufficiency of life. Beyond that, reading will also cure loneliness and heartache, complacency and boredom. Reading urges us to be better humans, to reach the full potential of our imaginative neurons and compassionate hearts. All of this is achieved through story.

People have feared the disappearance of paper books ever since the first e-readers hit the market, but people also worry that television and digital content in general will make novels and voluntary reading obsolete.

Such concerns are silly when you consider that human beings are wired to love a good story. Marketing professionals know this, pastors know this, doctors, lawyers, salesmen, inventors, producers, and businesses know this. It is almost impossible to motivate someone to change or adopt your way of thinking without giving them a powerful reason through relatable narrative.

Stories can protest the insufficiencies of life because they fill in the gaps and the questions, even if that is done through more questions. Stories give us permission to ask more of our situations, demanding explanation or purpose. Stories also provide us with the comfort of not knowing, consolation in the face of loss, and room to grieve or wonder.

Stories are one of my favorite things because they give unconditionally, teaching me to simply listen, to be open to the world around me. Even a bad story can be humor in itself. Stories are also a way for me to give back to others, the way we can serve others with the gift of a good story.

Another book I recently reread is The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. The ending is marvelous, and it speaks to the power of this gift when it says “You may tell a tale that takes up residence in someone’s soul, becomes their blood and self and purpose. That tale will move them and drive them and who knows that they might do because of it, because of your words.”

There is great power both in the giving and receiving of stories. They preserve our history and inspire our future. They renew us when life is insufficient and we can’t find our own words to say it.

As Llosa says in the Nobel lecture, “living is worth the effort if only because without life we could not read or imagine stories.”

Pay attention to the stories around you, they can bring any day back from the brink and leave you with something to give out in return.

How have stories affected your life?