Learning to Be Human

By Holly

LaughingRaven / Pixabay

I thought we were going to be the next big thing. Our yin and yang combo of poetry and prose would be the refreshing new blog that changed the world. Surely, we – my dreadlocked poet friend and I – would have thousands of followers and write best-selling books. (The Today Show may or may not have been mentioned.)

And:

Who was I to start a blog?  My formal education was the opposite of literature. Journal writing was my training. Who was I to click “Publish” in this world full of experts and gurus who have already said everything important? What business did I have calling myself a writer? Why would anyone be interested in my small words?

I was both Superwoman and subhuman in my approach to becoming a writer. A moment drenched in energetic self-belief was sure to fade into an episode of self-doubt fierce enough to paralyze. It was a vicious volley of more than, less than, more than, less than.

It is only now, three years later, that powerful adjectives like vicious and subhuman seem accurate descriptors of what went on in my head. At the time, each thought seemed, simply, true. In the brief spans when humility and bravery collided to free me to do the work of writing, I thought my fingers were typing out words despite my polarized self-beliefs. I thought more than served as motivation and less than was something to overcome.

This no longer feels true.

More than/less than is a pattern I can trace across my four decades of being. It shows up most clearly in times of transition or uncertainty. Entries into new things – social circles, college, leadership positions, jobs – swing from grandiose plans to hefty doses of self-doubt. Less than takes up more space in my head and thanks to Brene Brown’s well-known work, I have come to know it as shame – the feeling that we are inherently flawed or unworthy.

But what about the more than feelings? If I had to name them, I would call them the ugly fruit of pride. Until recently.

From TED talks and books, I learned that shame was about inferiority and a lack of worthiness. Friends, wise counselors and the media taught me that I was not alone in wondering if I was enough. So, when I first came across these words penned by shame expert John Bradshaw, I was skeptical:

Toxic shame, with its more-than-human, less-than-human polarization, is either inhuman or dehumanizing. The demand for a false self to cover and hide the authentic self necessitates a life dominated by doing and achievement. Everything depends on performance and achievement rather than on being. 

More than and less than human? And more than as shame?  I wasn’t so sure.

Looking back at my writing journey from this point in time, I feel sure of this: Authentic words come in the space between grandiosity and self-doubt, not despite them, like I once believed. For me, writing is not an act of overcoming unhelpful beliefs about myself. I do not spend time convincing myself that I will never be on air with Matt Lauer, nor do I positive self-talk myself into believing my typed words will matter. Where I thrive is in a space of surrender, not battle, and I find that space somewhere between more than and less than. I enter it open, curious, unsure about outcomes and with utter reliance on a power greater than myself. This truth leads me closer to a belief in Bradshaw’s words about shame: if being human is finding, embracing and living as our authentic selves, then anything that prevents us from doing this is not human.

Another certainty: I needed to believe I could do Big Things, that I could change the world with my words, because this was my path to worthiness. Such success would be proof that my humanness was not as flawed as I feared it could be. Ambitious goals can look a lot like dreams – even to ourselves – but a plan born from our own self-worth questions is more than thinking that distracts us from the work we are meant to do.

Shame wears many masks.

These days, I try out my growing belief in Bradshaw’s words with a prayer. It sounds something like this, “God, help me find the space between. Help me stay human.” I pray it in on my way to an uncomfortable social situation, before I speak in a work meeting, as I sit down to write a blog post. God, keep me human. With this prayer, I become more aware of my mind’s tendency toward extremes, I see my shame disguised as pride or dreams. I listen more, and better. With this prayer, I relax into the surrender that is being human.

Feel Like You’re Going Backwards in Life? Try this.

By Holly

LincolnGroup / Pixabay

Everything about my body’s movement felt backwards despite my intention to go forwards. Both hands braced on the machine’s railings, I checked my feet: forwards. This specific ramp/resistance setting on the new elliptical at my gym tricks me every time. Trying to make sense of these feelings, I watched as my feet continued, one in front of the other. Reassured, I looked at the monitor but immediately felt like I was going in reverse again. Only my eyes could tell the difference.

I decreased the ramp by one level; my body and mind synced again. I continued, undistracted.

Whether my legs were going forwards or backwards did not affect my workout goal. After all, exercise on a stationary machine is about activity, not direction.

However, I want to move forward – always, in everything. I need to feel like I am making progress.  Look ahead, grow up, power through and move toward are phrases I utter to myself. But when company sales decline, three weeks of sickness wrecks my to-do list, the needle on the scale moves to the right, and anxiety-driven habits resurface, a backwards feeling comes on fast, one that can’t be fixed by pressing a button.

Whether we are progressing in life or not, chronological time marches on. Humbled by the truth that earth will continue its orbit regardless of my accomplishments and the logic that backwards is not possible, I find comfort in this:

 There must be another way to look at time.

            I step out of the shower – my first after the initial three days of mothering sick children – and I feel as if I reemerge into a life that left me behind. My mind is adrift with thoughts like, “How will I ever catch up?” At the same time, I feel an unexpected certainty that I am exactly where I need to be. I imagine God’s view of time, so different than mine. I wonder if it is like the wacky dreams of my sleep, where I am an ageless version of myself, unsurprised by the convergence of friends and strangers from various periods of my life, roaming through impossible landscapes built by subconscious slices of real experiences. Time doesn’t exist in my dreams; only stories do.

Despite my faithful intentions to use time well, the ticking clock can feel more like pressure than opportunity. Dreams offer another way: they show me that the human brain is capable of experiencing time as something other than linear.

I become less sure of my forward-moving need. I become more sure that our timeless God simply sees me whole.

God did not intend for us to wrestle down time in constant pursuit of progress. Nor are we created to disregard our numbered days. There is a middle way:  we can choose to step back, to breathe in a big picture view of time, to take it in like a dream, to imagine how God sees it. We will see that our stories are made where long, barren stretches meet transfigured moments. We will be reminded that God is not linear.

Backwards is not possible.

Why It’s So Hard to Be Where We Are

By Holly

While traveling, I dream of home; at home, I imagine places I would rather be.

Anyone else have this problem?

Being where we are can be our greatest struggle. 

Over the past 3 weeks, I have spent over 40 hours in the air, slept in 4 time zones and wandered through 5 states. I traveled for business, vacation and a memorial service; I went places both alone and with my family. While working in San Antonio, I missed driving my daughters from my house to school. On vacation in Hawaii, I was homesick for my morning cup of tea, home-brewed in my ceramic hand-warmer mug. And somewhere around day 10 of restaurant eating, all I wanted was to cook a simple, healthy meal in my own kitchen. How can it be, that as we live out the extraordinary lives we long for, we crave what is quite ordinary?

When I arrived home in Seattle, a local journalist reported that we have experienced exactly 3 sunny days in the past 5 months. I scroll the forecast on my phone: all I see is rain. I dream of living in a sunny place. We watch the movie Moana; I am filled with a desire to return to Hawaii. When I return to my ordinary things, why isn’t it enough?

I can point my finger at virtues like contentment, gratitude, positivity or presence, and conclude that if I could just be better at one or more of these I would be better at being where I am. It is an answer that holds truth and can be helpful. But it is also incomplete.

We struggle to fully inhabit our earthly experiences because the human heart was created for more. We were made for longing.

In a discussion about why we love fairy tales and legends, Timothy Keller argues:

“…deep in the human heart there are these desires – to experience the supernatural, to escape death, to know love that we can never lose, to not age but live long enough to realize our creative dreams, to fly, to communicate with nonhuman beings, to triumph over evil.”

Deep in our hearts lies an ache for more than what we are living now.

When I miss my cup of tea or what the Hawaiian sun feels like on my face, it is a call to pay attention, not to scold myself for my lack of presence or failure to be content. There is something deeper going on in me. Something that was meant to be. Keller captures it well:

“Our hearts sense that even though the stories themselves aren’t true, the underlying realities behind the stories are somehow true or ought to be.”

What we strive for in presence is freedom from distraction, not desire. It is both what we miss while we are away and what we long for while we are home that make us who we are. Because what we long for represents what we know ought to be true. In other words: eternity.

We cannot be 100% where we are because of who we are: humans with hearts created for eternity.

What Happens When We Actually Listen?

By Holly

sbroady / Pixabay

When others repeatedly tell you that you are good at something throughout your life, strange things can happen. Of course, the door to the ego opens wide and it can go to your head.  More likely, the praise ends up buried in a mental compartment labeled something like “already good at – just like everyone else – so I don’t need to work on it.

We normalize our strengths and work on our weaknesses while the reverse would be much more helpful. This is what I did with listening.  Friends, family, teachers and coworkers told me I was good at it; therefore, becoming a better listener never made my list of self-improvement goals.

It was an unlikely event that changed this – dinner with friends at one of my favorite Asian restaurants on a rainy Saturday night. It was the kind of evening that you look forward to for weeks because you will be with some of your favorite people sharing wonderful food and adult conversation while the kids stay home.

As we slid into the ornately carved wood booth, my mood shifted to unusually light and happy. My typical reserved nature was overshadowed by an impatient desire to be the one talking. There were things I wanted to say, and, with conversation flowing steadily among four couples, it was hard to get a word in. Laughter, stories and a scrumptious family-style meal filled the table, time passed quickly, and goodbye hugs were exchanged with satisfied, mutual fullness.

On the way home, a familiar restlessness swept through my mind. I replayed the evening, wondering why I had been so focused on what I wanted to say. I recalled a specific moment – holding my drink in the air as shapeless words floated around it – when I appeared to be listening to a story but I was really listening for a space to tell one of my own.

And that was when it hit me:  We can listen for or listen to. I am pretty good at listening for things, and not just for my turn to talk. In a single day, I catch myself listening for what I expect my daughter to say when I ask her why her clothes carpet her bedroom floor, confirmation of the stories I make up about myself, criticism from a colleague, bickering sisters, grumpy cashiers and judgmental moms.

In The Listening Life, author Adam McHugh puts it this way: “In listening for, we are listening like a prosecuting attorney, trying to uncover a hidden motivation, catch the person in a contradiction or find something to confirm our suspicions. We are setting the trap, posed to say “aha!” at any second.”

It’s not hard to find what we listen for.  But what will we find if we listen to?

A couple of years have passed since that lovely dinner that changed my relationship with listening. Through trying and failing and trying again, I am paying attention to how I listen and learning what happens when I listen to:

Someone I find hard to love says something hard to hear. In my head, I roll my eyes, I criticize. Something stills me just enough to listen more, to listen to. Buried beneath his rough words hides a precious dream. My judging heart turns soft.

Listen to, it connects who you are to who you want to be.

     A group of friends is set to gather at my house.  A few people cancel.  I wonder why they’re not showing up; stories of being not-good-enough speed through my mind.  I pick up my phone again to glance at a text and read the words on the screen , instead of the ones inside my head.

 Listen to what IS, instead of for what may or may not be. 

     I show up at the gym with a goal in mind: calories to burn. I am determined. Halfway through the elliptical, the right side of my body screams, “stop.” With one foot on the machine, I pause. My number of calories seems more important than my pain, so I go on. Two days of fatigue and irritability follow.

Listen to your body.  It has something to say.

     I hear birds sing a winter morning into light. Later, a fog horn calls to life beyond land. Still later, the hum of my empty home’s furnace preparing for my family’s return.

Listen to your places, they speak the language of your heart.

     I interrupt my husband – again. I wonder what he was going to say as my mouth keeps moving. I’ve run over his words with some of my own; a faint, familiar emptiness sets in: a moment lost.

Listen, for fullness.

     Something triggers pain from the past. Suddenly, today is yesterday. I am who I used to be.  But, when I listen to what is happening now – words spoken from loved ones who are trying and changing, fresh silences born out of healing, sounds of this year’s rains tapping taller, stronger lodgepole pines – it brings me back into presence.

Listen to now.

What will you listen to?

When Good Ideas Seem Like Dead Ends

By Holly

jarmoluk / Pixabay

You know those ideas that seem good – so good that they could even be from God – but then they don’t work out?  I had one  just last month. It came to me unexpected but complete, like a sudden, clear vision. I saw myself as a volunteer mentor for a local nonprofit that I deeply admire.  The planner in me took over, and I thought of that Steve Jobs quote about life only making sense when we connect the dots looking backwards. I was sure this would become my story of pieces of the past falling into their perfect place in the world. Weeks of prayer, research, networking, emails and texts followed.

Then, I stopped to listen: Silence. Dead ends. Space. Not yet.

I didn’t understand. My idea made so much sense. It seemed so good. Pure. Selfless, even.

It’s weird when God doesn’t pave the way for our good ideas. What starts out as an “Aha!” moment can so quickly spiral into to self-doubt and confusion. I am not convinced we are meant to connect the dots of every “no” we meet in life, but I do love it when what seemed like a dead end becomes a breakthrough. And this is what happened with my idea.

More like a painting in process than a reverse connect-the-dots, my story is not about making sense of “no.”  It is not about the amazing things that never could have happened in my life because this one thing never did. It feels broader than that, like an unplanned brushstroke that causes the painter to reconsider her entire vision.

I knew things were going to unfold differently with this particular “no” because of the feelings that came with it.  Instead of questioning or becoming more determined to make it work, I felt surprised. I never expected it to go this way. It scared me too – how many other things in my life had I left unquestioned, charging ahead with a healthy dose of self-determination, because they seemed good and made sense? A truth was emerging that seemed bigger than an answer to why my idea wasn’t working out. It looked something like this: Becoming more of who we are meant to be requires less from us, but more of us.

There is a part of me that could have made my idea work. Made up of persistence, desire to help others and deep longing for the story of my life to be a compelling one, it is a sliver of me that is less inclined toward pride or fear. If God approved of certain parts of us more than others, this one would get a nod, wink and thumb.

But we break ourselves into pieces, not God. We separate into good and not good enough, disintegrating what was intended to be a whole surrender. And this is what makes our good ideas just as fragile as our bad ones.

It is also why we must listen. Not just for the answers to our questions or approval of our good ideas, but for all the divine whispers that pop up in a day, coaxing our pieces back together.

I still don’t know exactly why my idea didn’t work out. But hearing that surprising “no” made me a better listener. Or at least a more frequent one. And that is enough.

For now.