I am so excited today to be featured over on Lindsey Smallwood’s fantastic blog, Songbird & a Nerd. Lindsey asked me to write about a time when I experienced something out of the ordinary – a time when novelty causes us to notice. I could almost have picked any day of my two years in Korea at random and found material for this, but I chose to write about a less-than-glorious moment and what it taught me about Failure, Shame, and letting Life shout the loudest.
“Perhaps the only thing Koreans love as much as kimchi and soju is singing karaoke, or norebang as it is called in Korean. Singing is such a deeply embedded part of Korean culture that it’s virtually unthinkable to be Korean and not sing (sort of like being Korean and not drinking, but that’s a different story for a different time). Much like golf in America, singing karaoke is a perfectly normal and acceptable thing to do as part of a business meeting or work event.
When we’d first arrived at the restaurant I’d scouted the room for the telltale sign of the cart with the microphones, speaker, and video screen and had been comforted when I didn’t immediately see one. I should have known there was always one in reserve.”
Read the rest of this post here and be sure to check out other stories on Lindsey’s blog!
I’m not a very “together” person and honestly, I’ve never tried to pretend that I am. I don’t have a problem admitting that I mess things up sometimes. But lately it’s felt like all the time.
There are dozens of things I know I’m not very good at. I don’t like failing at those things, but in a way, my expectations of myself aren’t very high. I’m prepared to deal with these failures. It’s so much more discouraging to find you’ve failed at something you like to think you’re good at. And I’ve been failing like a boss.
You know how sometimes you pray for patience and then God gives you lots of trying circumstances as opportunities for you to practice? And (if you’re like me) you’re like, “Yeah, not cool, God. Not what I meant.” I feel like that’s what’s happened to me lately.
At the beginning of the year I said, “Ok, God, I want this year to be about learning wholeheartedness. I want to live with intention, to connect, to be compassionate, and to live a life that isn’t ruled by shame.” And I feel like God said, “Ok, well here’s some anxiety, and here’s some loneliness, and here’s a heaping spoonful of shame. Go ahead and practice wholeheartedness. Sucker.”
Yeah…Thanks, but no thanks.
Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about what Brené Brown calls “shame resilience.” This is the ability to accept that you’ve made a mistake without letting it affect your sense of worthiness. It’s the ability to lean into those feelings of vulnerability and silence what Brown calls your “shame gremlins” by practicing self- compassion. This is how we can admit to our mistakes and learn from them without letting our mistakes define us.
I have been lonely lately. Not, “I have no one to hang out with” lonely. More like I don’t feel a strong sense of connectedness and belonging. This has made me self-focused and self-centered. I’ve spent more time feeling sorry for myself, thinking about what I wish I was getting from others instead of about what I could be giving. And this has led to some pretty epic fails on my part.
My shame gremlin sounds like a meaner version of Mushu from Mulan. (Hashtag Disney4Eva). “Dishonor! Dishonor on your whole family. Dishonor on you. Dishonor on your cow…” except more like, “This is why you’re lonely. Because you don’t deserve love and belonging. Because you suck.”
Yesterday I let my shame gremlin overwhelm me. It was one of those days when I went to bed at 8:00 simply because I couldn’t bear being conscious any longer. I woke up this morning feeling about the same and frankly, I don’t feel much better now, but I’m going to try to practice shame resilience. And I’m going to start by extending grace.
The thing about grace is, it’s always there for me if I just let myself receive it. The only thing standing between me and grace is my shame. I inked this word, “GRACE,” onto my body because I wanted it to mark me, but I still have trouble letting it pierce my heart.
When you’re not very good at something, the only way to get better is by practicing. So I’m practicing. I’m practicing extending grace. I’m saying, “It’s OK that you really messed up, here. You are already forgiven. You don’t have to beat yourself up about it. You can grow and you can learn from it. This does not affect your value or your worth.”
I’m still feeling pretty crappy. But that gremlin sounds a little quieter now. He’s still talking, but that doesn’t mean I have to listen.
Some days you wake up and feel like you’ve forgotten how to “adult.” You burn the toast and put on two different socks and let your kid go to school without brushing his teeth. Your soda explodes all over your pants, you’ve got deodorant on your shirt, and you realize after your big presentation that you had lipstick on your teeth the whole time.
You try to “fake it til you make it,” because you’re embarrassed to admit that you don’t have it all together.
Let me break the ice for you.
I don’t have my s&*% together.
I woke up this morning and made a pot of coffee, but forgot the coffee grounds and ended up with a pot of yellowish hot water.
I fill an old milk jug with water every morning to take to school with me for the day. This morning I poured water into our actual milk jug which was still half full of milk.
I lost my thermos this morning. Twice. It was in the same place both times.
A few hours ago I sent Jonathan a message about a company that was “highering.”
It has taken me three hours to write this post because I’ve apparently forgotten how to string words together into sentences.
I think it’s safe to say that I did not bring my “A” game today.
And that’s OK.
Because we are worth more than what we bring to the table. Because real life is messy and imperfect in a thousand ways, but that’s what makes it REAL.
I don’t want to “fake it til I make it.” I want to change the definition of “making it.”
Some days, “making it,” is simply showing up. It’s about presence, not perfection. It is about being engaged with where you are and what is in front of you today, not about having all your ducks in a row. As Glennon Melton says, “A good enough something is better than a perfect nothing.”
Some days, “making it” is choosing to make your haves count for more than your have-nots.
Some days, “making it” is extending grace to the people who are on your last nerve, or extending grace to yourself because you’re human, and humans are pros at making mistakes.
Some days “making it” is admitting, “I don’t have it all together,” and using that as an opportunity to make much of God and the way he sustains you, even in your brokenness.
Some days “making it” is acknowledging that you don’t do it on your own, that you can’t do it on your own, and that there are people who pick up your slack, who forgive you when you lose it, and who love you even though you ate all of the ice cream (sorry, Babe!)
I don’t have it all together and I’m not going to pretend that I do. But I AM making it. Moment by moment. Day by day. Grace by grace. No faking required.
A few weeks ago I watched this video for the first time. I was a little late to the game with this one – the video had been circulating a few weeks previous, but for some reason, I hadn’t ever watched it. Until one afternoon, sitting at my desk, with my classroom full of hyper Korean kids (they’re not my class, they were just in my room). And it absolutely wrecked me. If you haven’t seen this video, watch it before you read the rest of this post.
“What is it specifically?” my mother asked when I sent her the link, weeping.
How to say, “It is everything”? It’s the words for what is wrong with me. With so many women that I know. It is the pain and the struggle of being a woman in a world that holds us to absurd standards. Expectations that fill us with righteous indignation because we know they are wrong, but still somehow leave us feeling unworthy that we don’t measure up.
This girl (her name is also Lily so it doesn’t really help to use her name in this case), is talking about traits and behaviors she saw modeled by and inherited from her mother. I don’t necessarily feel that I learned these from my mother, but from countless women who have come before me and surrounded me as I grew. These are my personal struggles, but they are the personal struggles of so many of us. We lead lives of violent inner turmoil, resenting and also being controlled by external images, expectations, and messages about our value that we have somehow internalized. These particular lines really shook me:
“And I wonder if my lineage is one of women shrinking, making space for the men in their lives, not knowing how to fill it up again when they leave…”
This made me think of my grandmother, who has lost herself in being my grandfather’s wife– a man who undoubtedly loves her, but also has her utterly convinced that she is dependent on him. That she couldn’t take care of herself if he weren’t around. She’s been schooled in her own incompetence all of her married life (and perhaps longer), even as she fixes his plate and irons his shirts. To any observer, it’s clear that she is entirely capable of self-sufficiency. She’s been made to feel less-than for the sake of his need to feel important – a strong leader in a household that no longer requires management. My grandparents are of a different generation, but still, I see the looks and hear the concerned murmurs from many younger people who look at my marriage and frown, unable to understand this relationship in which both of us lead and both of us serve.
“My brother never thinks before he speak, I have been taught to filter. ‘How can anyone have a relationship to food?’ he asks, laughing, as I eat the black bean soup I chose for its lack of carbs. I want to say, ‘We come from difference, Jonas. You have been taught to grow out. I have been taught to grow in…I learned to absorb.’”
Up until these past few years of my life, I lived in such fear of displeasing others that I could rarely express my own opinion. In the worst cases, I was afraid to express my opinion because I didn’t really believe I was entitled to one. The concept of “Authority” has always been strong in my family/school/childhood church, but in me the concept never rang true. Somehow the lines got crossed in my mind. Rather than learning what it truly meant to respect authority, I learned how to repress myself. To subjugate myself under someone else and call this good.
“Nights I hear her creep down to eat plain yogurt in the dark – a fugitive stealing calories to which she does not feel entitled. Deciding how many bites is too many, how much space she deserves to occupy.”
This makes me physically ache. For me, this isn’t about my mother – this has been the story of my own life. Possibly it started all the way back when I was 10 years old at summer camp and I overheard some boys behind me on the soccer field, “Hey, look! That girl’s butt jiggles when she runs!” Certainly it’s been my story since I was 15 or 16. Every day of my life. Frantically counting the calories. Obsessing over every bite that goes into my mouth and calling it “self-control.” Or not. Aggressively ignoring what I am eating. And later being consumed by a self-loathing that makes Hitler look like a saint. I don’t remember what it’s like to go through a day and not think about what I’ve eaten, what I’m going to eat, what I should be eating, what I shouldn’t have eaten, the size of my body, the way that I look, the way that my clothes fit, whether I can congratulate myself for having sufficient self-control or if I must shame myself into a better day tomorrow. I must force my unwilling body to run half marathons and then full marathons to prove I can be disciplined.
(I admit that there have been a few brief periods of my life when I had a short break from this – after the bout with salmonella that left me (unhealthy) but skinny, having lost 20 lbs in 10 days before my sophomore year of college. Right after I got married and found that the time I had spent worrying about my body pre-honeymoon was unnecessary because I was so unconditionally loved. And last spring after I lost 27 lbs and felt that I’d won a small victory over myself and my self-destructive habits. But that came crashing down quickly after moving to a country whose staple foods are rice, sodium, and all the meat is half fat.)
Unlike many girls, I didn’t learn to count my calories or call myself fat from my mother. From my mom I learned what I should be able to be – she has been thin for my whole life. She almost never indulges. She has always been able to say no to food with an ease that makes my all-consuming battle with it feel all the more humiliating . In my mother I saw modeled a self-control and a discipline that I simply lack. I felt that she was living proof that it was possible and I failed to measure up. Again and again and again. (And again today.)
“I asked 5 questions in genetics class today and all of them started with the word, ‘Sorry.'”
This is me. This is me. This is me. I have spent so much time apologizing for things I have no business being sorry for. Why should anyone feel sorry for needing to ask a question? Or sorry that someone else’s expectations of them weren’t met. Sometimes I think these murmured apologies that season my conversation like salt from a shaker is really me apologizing for what I feel is the inconvenience of my existence. Like my being here at all is a burden. It makes me furious that anyone should be made to feel that way. And so I am angry. But also, I am sorry for being angry.
“I don’t know the capstone requirements for the sociology major because I spent the whole meeting deciding whether or not I could have another piece of pizza.”
This made me laugh, even though it isn’t funny. I can’t tell you how many meetings, recitals, graduations, concerts, and events I’ve only been half-present for because there was a war being waged in my mind about the food. About what I could permit myself or not permit myself. My rationale behind it. “How much space do I deserve to occupy?”
Listening to Lily’s poem was like having words put on every inadequacy I have felt since I was a child and simultaneously exposing the inherently flawed basis of those inadequacies. I am angry at a world that has made me feel this way, but at the same time, this is so deeply ingrained that I don’t know how to shake it.
I shared these comments with my mother and she told me a story about herself – one she’d never told me before. The story of how 26-year-old her broke free from a life-long struggle for perfection. The struggle for a perfect body that made food her enemy and a perfect life that made her avoid confrontation by not having an opinion. The struggle to be perfectly likeable and agreeable that made her ignore her own wants and needs, pushing herself under a rug in order to please others (or often, let others stomp all over her). That at 26 (the age I am now except that she already had a 6 year old and a soft tangle of arms and legs and blue eyes that would be me in her belly) she realized that no matter how much she tried, she couldn’t change the way she felt about food or finances or keeping other people happy. And that instead of trying harder or trying to be more disciplined or more self-controlled (which inevitably leads to self-loathing), she learned to stop trying. She wrote to me, “I became humble. I had to become brutally honest with myself and admit to myself that I could not fix it/control it. I had no power over it and life had just become crazy. I realized that the ONLY person who could supernaturally ‘adjust’ me was God. But I had to let him.”
I was so thankful that my mom shared this with me. I wish I had known these things about her as a teenager and young adult (well, young-er adult). I think something many parents have been missing with my generation and possibly the current one is how valuable it is to let your children see and understand what it looks like to struggle well. Because no matter what you do, your children will struggle. And if all they’ve seen are the victories, they won’t know what to do when the time comes to struggle. It’s like the physics teacher I had in high school who was great at solving all the problems, but who couldn’t explain to me how to do them. Life is lived in the process so much more than in the conclusions.
I’ll finish this post, then, by sharing something about my process. Right now, I don’t understand what the heck it means to “Let go” of something. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard some form of “Let go and let God” in my lifetime. Most of the time it makes me want to scream. Because often it’s just code for, “I don’t know what to tell you, but this phrase is something ‘spiritual’ people say and so it sounds like a real thing.” You see, I’ve tried “letting go” in so many different situations. I’ve knelt with my arms stretched as far as they can reach or spread myself across the floor with my face pressed into rough carpet fibers, trying to find the correct posture, the arrangement of limbs that will accomplish this mysterious goal, chanting prayers over and over like a mantra, “I’m letting go. I’m giving this to you. I don’t want to carry this anymore. I can’t do it on my own. I’m letting go,” each iteration more soulful and heartfelt than the last, only to find that, in fact, this changes nothing. It simply makes me a failure at letting go. (Ha!)
I value my mother’s story. I believe her words were genuine and described a true transformative experience for her. But I admit that I have yet to figure out how to “stop trying.” So far I’ve tried it in the shower, at my desk, while running, in bed, at a temple and on a mountain. So far none of this insisting I am “letting go” has been successful. I am being a little sarcastic here – I know it’s not a magical ritual or formula. But I am admitting that I can’t seem to figure out how to do something that sounds as simple as doing nothing.
Women, so many of us are broken. But I believe (I have to believe) that we can be whole again. That we can live lives free and unashamed. That we can learn to turn our amazing capacity for love towards ourselves. I don’t know how yet, but I am hopeful we can learn together.
For as long as I can remember I have been that nerd kid who absolutely loved getting new school supplies. I would burst with excitement over the sharp wood-scent of new pencils and the crisp bindings on composition notebooks (and later in college, slender, trendy moleskins) with all of their empty pages which seemed to me to hold whole worlds of possibility. I have always been a lover of the written word and even though most of my notebooks would soon be filled with notes on lectures and computations and random doodles in the corners when I got bored, each blank book seemed to me to hold secrets that I had the power to unlock by simply setting my pen to the paper. The beginning of a new school year was full of opportunity.
Cool thrift-store notebooks
Even in college, I loved the first day of classes when we’d get our syllabi and I would carefully copy due dates and assignments into my planner as though they were treasures just waiting for the right moment to be revealed. I loved the first lecture where I would use a new pen and have dramatic internal struggles about what the first worthy thoughts were to put on the page. (I was always a little anxious about marring the page with something silly or insignificant.) The first day or even first week of lectures would be preserved in careful notes written in my most precise handwriting and a mistake was like a horrible blemish on that perfect clean slate. I’ve even been known to tear a page out completely and recopy the whole thing rather than leave the ugly stitches of a crossed-out word on one of those first sacred pages. Of course after a couple of weeks my handwriting grew sloppier, my carefully printed words slipping into a crazy mixture of print and cursive, my full sentence outlines turning into bits of words and phrases scattered haphazardly across the page, my syllabus a portent of doom rather than the exciting excursion into knowledge it had once seemed.
My romanticized view of school supplies
In many ways, I have a habit of looking at a new year in the same way. There is the initial excitement of the fresh start, as sweet and clean as the crisp pages in a brand new notebook. There is the anticipation of the beautiful things that might be discovered in the coming days and weeks of this year. There is the hesitation over how to begin. How to place that first mark on something so pure. So altogether holy. Unblemished. But inevitably, it does begin. Usually with a dozen promises to myself, to God, to the world, of all the projects I will begin, the habits I will form or break, the ways I will be better, more, different. Things I want to accomplish. Things I want to change. The parts of me I want to discard like yesterday’s newspaper. The parts I want to sink more deeply into, attributes I desire to weave more deeply into the fabric of my being. The parts I want to take up and try on for the first time and see if they fit. As if any of these things could happen simply because one day rolled into another and we called it 2012.
I find the idea of New Year’s Resolutions too simplistic to be helpful. The idea that I, by sheer force of will and determination, could decide in one day to change the patterns and habits that I’ve been developing for years simply by resolving to do so. I mean, think about it. It isn’t as though I had a magical revelation on December 31 of all the things I wish were different and am now making my first genuine effort at changing them. I am constantly aware of things I want to change, from practical things like being more organized to heart issues like being less selfish. In most cases, they are things I have already tried (many times) and failed (many times) to change. Like my careful notes in my notebook during the first few weeks of a new school semester, I manage to keep some of my resolutions for a few weeks. But slowly and surely (or more often honestly, pretty quickly) I slip back into my old routine, my selfish habits, my less healthy choices, my overly busy lifestyle.
For me, New Year’s resolutions quickly become a reminder of new ways that I have failed. Failed to do what I said I would do. Failed to change things that need to be changed. Failed to keep that clean page of the new year free of angry ink-scarred blemishes. Over the past few years I have stopped resolving altogether, at least officially. But this year I am thinking something new. I am thinking that my failure doesn’t have to be such a negative thing. I’m reminded of another post I wrote many months ago about how ultimately, there is no such thing as ultimate failure, there is only feedback. And looking at it from that perspective I can see that my string of failures are valuable in several ways. At the most basic level, they help me eliminate something that does not work. A “solution” that did not have the intended result. But on a spiritual level failure is a stern teacher, a reminder of my brokenness, of my inability to fix myself, even when I can see what needs to be done. Failure gives witness to my sinfulness. To my need for salvation. And then I remember the great news. The news we celebrated just last week. Salvation is here. God with us. Hope is here.
So instead of making resolutions this year of things I will do or won’t do, I’ve decided to frame it in terms of hopes for this year. The greatest of which is that God would make himself known. That in my weakness, my utter inability to fulfill any of these hopes, I would see any progress as the work of the Giver of every good and perfect gift. That I would see any small successes as an outpouring of grace. That I would understand that in my weakness, I am utterly incapable of making the changes I want to see in my life. But my weakness is the perfect avenue for God’s strength. With that in mind, these are the things I am hopeful for in this year. These are not things I think I can accomplish and they are not items to check off like a grocery list. These are ways I hope to see God work in my life, but hopes I hold with open hands knowing that God’s desires for me may be different than my own.
My hopes in this year:
1. Develop a greater dependence on God and a greater desire to hear his voice and to obey it, both individually, and as a couple
Lily and Jonathan Swing. Courtesy of Asharae Marie.
2. Cherish and invest in the friendships God has given me
Scott and Sarah, some of our new friends. Who wouldn’t want to spend more time with these guys?! (This was at the state fair, by the way. There aren’t giant hotdogs just sitting around NC.)
3. Practice being a better listener. Be slower to speak.
Me listening. Also courtesy of the lovely Asharae Marie
4. Give more than I take. Especially with my husband.
5. Maintain a healthy lifestyle- eating well and continuing to run even after my half marathon is over
In case you never got to see this picture. So true.
6. Take time to write. Hopefully finish something I’ve started. It’s been years since I’ve completed something besides a blog post.
7. By this time next year I would like to be in a job or school situation that is more fulfilling, even if it isn’t my ultimate “dream job.” Take a step closer to understanding what God made me for.
I would like a path to follow. Any direction will do. 🙂
8. Bake more! : ) And practice the gift of hospitality that goes along with that.
Confession: I made these cookies like 5 years ago. But it was the only baking picture I could find today. So there.
9. Live an adventurous life, less hindered by fears that disguise themselves as “practicality.” Take opportunities to travel, to love strangers, to try new things, to learn from unexpected teachers.
Tintagel, England. Near Merlin's Cave. Photo by the lovely Jenny Hansma.
10. Find ways to spend time playing with little children (in the non-creepy way!)
Little guy I used to watch. Obvious why playing with kids is on my list. I have to get my baby fix or I'll start wanting one of my own.