Gratitude

2017 Year In Review (Or What I Was Doing While I Wasn’t Blogging)

It may be cliche, but I honestly love the New Year. Not the trappings of the holiday (I rarely leave my house and almost never make it til midnight on New Year’s Eve), but the sense of a fresh start, a clean slate, and new adventures around the corner. I know, I know, there is nothing actually magical about January 1st, and there is no guarantee that starting a new habit on the first day of the new year will make you more successful, but I still love it.

Moving into 2018, I am anticipating some potentially big changes (though I don’t know exactly what those will be). I often find it difficult to be fully present where I am because my brain is always racing ahead to future possibilities. It’s important for me to pause and reflect on the past year and to recognize the moments that stand out in my memory, especially the moments I may not have realized were important while I was living them.

We started 2017 in Costa Rica where we traveled for my brother-in-law’s wedding to a Costa Rican beauty. This was a new country for us and a new adventure, though we were a little limited in what we could do by the fact that my husband had just had major knee surgery and was in a straight-leg immobilizer the entire time. It was a very special time to spend together with my in-laws who are very dear to me.

At the end of January, I experienced several significant disappointments with my job that left me feeling undervalued and discouraged. This came at the end of a fall where I’d been working 60 hours a week at my various jobs, taking care of my husband through his surgery, and, like many people, dealing with layers of emotions about the very divisive 2016 election and its outcome. I spent the majority of the winter in a deep depression that spurred my visit to the psychiatrist at the end of February.

In mid-February, we drove to Washington D.C.  where my husband attended a conference and I got to hang out with a friend of mine from elementary – high school who lives in D.C. While Jonathan conferenced, I ate and drank my way around D.C. with Rachel. We even went to a Valentine’s ball at the Italian Embassy. I even got to re-wear my dress from the wedding. Randomly, my parents happened to be in DC at the same time so I also got to spend an afternoon with them.

It was such great fun that it marked a turning period in my mood. By the time we got back home, things were looking up. Unfortunately, they were a little too far up and I had a brief episode of hypomania where I believed I could do ALL THE THINGS!

It was at the very end of February that I had my first meeting with my psychiatrist and was formally diagnosed with several anxiety disorders and bipolar depression. Which I have written about here. And here. And also here.

In March my mom flew up to visit me during my spring break and we spent a lovely long weekend in Charleston together. One of the highlights was our dinner at 5 Church which is one of the aesthetically coolest restaurants I’ve ever been to. Having one-on-one time with my mom is a rare treat and we had such a great time we decided to make an effort to do this a few times a year.

In April, surprise! We got bedbugs. If you have had bedbugs before, you have my undying sympathy. After several weeks of being covered in massive, painful and itchy welts, but never being able to find a bug, I spotted one on the box spring and captured it. The exterminators confirmed that it was a bedbug, confirmed that they are exceptionally resilient and difficult to get rid of, and then we gave them $1000 for the privilege of moving everything fabric in our house (clothes, curtains, cushions, etc) into a trailer in our yard which was then heated to a temperature high enough to kill any bugs. In the meantime we had to take everything off of our walls and all the books off of our shelves and have the house chemically treated ceiling to floor. And then moved back in again. I do not wish this on my enemies.

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May is always a busy month for people living by a school calendar. Jonathan finished his second year of grad school and some of my students graduated from high school and moved away.

In the last few days of May I flew to Colorado and then drove several hours into the mountains to be at my brother’s wedding at the beginning of June. It was truly the most scenically beautiful wedding I’ve ever seen, and the bride looked stunning. And the next morning we all went whitewater rafting together!

At the end of June I threw Jonathan a surprise 30th birthday party that was a huge success as far as surprises go. All of the gold is because it was his golden birthday.

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Part of the reason I was able to pull of the surprise so well is because we were leaving the very next day to go to Germany to visit my brother and sister-in-law who had moved to Germany after their wedding. We had never been to Germany, so while we were there we tried to get around as much as possible. We stayed with our family in Tubingen for a while, but also traveled to Berlin (rainy and dismal) and Munich (beautiful) and spent a long weekend in Prague (like a magical fairytale kingdom). We also spent two days in Lucerne, Switzerland where I got to meet up with one of my students and her parents who are from a village nearby. It was such a cool and rewarding experience to get to know her family and see her hometown. Also, they took us up into the Alps, and we saw this guy playing his Alpine horn. Like you do. Life made.

We got back from Germany in early July and things started kicking into high gear for me at work as I worked on orientation materials and on finding placements for a brand new group of students. Unfortunately, after our return, I started a slow slide back into a depression that ate up most of the fall. The last weekend of July I squeezed in a long weekend with my college roommates up at my friend Anna’s family lake house in Wisconsin. This is a place with years of memories for us since we all started going there together during college. We’ve made it back almost every year since graduating even as we’ve moved and married and started having kids. It’s really pretty amazing.

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In August, school started back up just in time for the total solar eclipse. Our city was precisely in the path of the totality so it was an enormous event. It was one of the most moving and awe-inspiring things I’ve ever experienced and probably will ever experience. I ugly cried. I still cry every time I watch our video footage (I tried to upload the video, but my site won’t let me!)

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Over Labor Day weekend my mom came for another visit. This time we went to Asheville for a few days where we went apple picking and to a vineyard and stayed in a cozy cabin. At the end of the weekend we drove to Charlotte where we joined my sister-in-law to see Ed Sheeran in concert. I ugly cried. Perhaps you are seeing a theme here? I obviously adore Ed Sheeran, but also, he gives a fantastic concert. It is just him and his loop pedal and his adorable personality and it was so much fun.

At the end of September some of our best friends who live in Charlotte welcomed their first baby into the world. We spent several weekends in October kissing his sweet cheeks. (The baby’s, obviously). On one of those weekends, Nest Fest happened to be going on just outside of Charlotte. My friend Asharae (one of the dearest and most talented souls I know) was already there, so I felt destined to go. And I got to meet Anne Bogel (Modern Mrs. Darcy) and Tsh Oxenreider. And they signed their books for me. And took pictures with me. And I geeked out.

This fall I made a new friend at work who is one of those people I just clicked with immediately and it was like we’d known each other forever. She has been an unexpected blessing that has made many of my days brighter.

In November I came out of the depression I had been in since July. In celebration, I got a new tattoo. Daffodils are symbols of new life and Jonathan said I couldn’t get any more words. We also traveled to Ohio for Thanksgiving with my in-laws. My mother-in-law, sister-in-law, and I did our traditional Black Friday shopping with gusto. Sure it was shameless consumerism, but we did it TOGETHER so that should count for something! When I returned from Thanksgiving break, my students surprised me with a little Christmas tree they got for my office complete with hand-decorated ornaments that each of them had made for me. I died of cuteness.

At the beginning of December I turned 30. This boggles my mind as I still routinely do things like fall to the floor in a limp pile and cry because I am “too hungry to eat,” but the official documents say it is true. One of my students even made me a cake! In celebration of this milestone, we had planned a trip to Disneyworld and The Wizarding World of Harry Potter which we took as soon as school finished for the semester. It was, well, magical. We spent one day at Harry Potter, one day in the Magic Kingdom, and a final day at Epcot. The icing on the cake was that our final Disney experience was seeing the Christmas candlelight procession where they read the Christmas story from the Bible and sing all the great songs. The day that we were there, the celebrity host who was doing all of the narration was Neil Patrick Harris. It was Leg -en – wait for it – dary! (That’s a HIMYM reference.) (And THAT stands for How I Met Your Mother).

When we returned from Disney, we celebrated Christmas with my entire family who (amazingly) all came up to Columbia to spend the holiday with us. We were house sitting for some friends over Christmas so my family were all able to stay together at their house which was magical. I somehow neglected to get a group picture and just have this one with my sister Anni. Just imagine 3 more faces that look just like this plus my dad.

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This year was full of so many wonderful experiences and memories, but it was also a hard year in many ways, especially in regards to my mental health. When I look back on it though, I am filled with hope when I remember how much good there was in spite of everything, and I am encouraged that the things I remember most are not the days when I lay on my office floor doing deep breathing exercises. What I remember most were these beautiful moments with family and friends, the new experiences I had, the new students I came to love, and the new lives I welcomed into this world and into my life.

There are a lot of unknowns about 2018 and as much as I love adventure, I also love being in control. Reflecting on this past year has reminded me that even though there may be difficult days ahead, there will also be beautiful ones. There will be brokenness, and there will also be divine blessings. On to the next adventure.

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Mindful Mondays: Walks Without Destinations

One of the things I like best about living in the South is that winters are shorter and milder, but also less gray than they are in colder areas. Even more than the cold, the eternal grayness of winter is what tends to get me down. It’s been cold enough in South Carolina for us to get some snow flurries last week, but the sun has still been out most days and the sky has been clear and bright. Today it practically feels like spring.

I’m an on-again off-again runner. At different points in my life I’ve trained for and run half marathons and marathons, while in other seasons I’ve done no running whatsoever. I’ve been trying to get back into running for the past month or so with only limited success. It’s always hard to start again once you’ve stopped completely, which I suppose should be incentive not to quit in the first place, but it never seems to work.

In all the self-pressure to get my rear in gear and start running again, I forgot how nice it can be just to walk. On these clear and bright winter days I am content to walk for miles, wandering through neighborhoods I’ve never seen before and down streets I’m still learning the names of. Sometimes I walk while I talk on the phone to my sister or to my mom. Sometimes I walk with my husband and we dream about the houses we pass and an imaginary future where we might live in one of them. But sometimes  I walk with only my own breathing for company, and these are the walks I like best of all.

These are the moments when I’m not so focused on where I’m going or how fast I’m getting there, but simply appreciate where I am. On these walks I can go as slowly as I want to. I can pay attention to the way the roots of the oak trees ripple under the sidewalks, breaking through in some places, and to the chalk drawings left behind by little artists who forgot to sign their names. I walk until I find myself wandering back home, at peace with myself and with the world around me, knowing that even if it only lasts an hour or two, it will be enough.

My eyes already touch the sunny hill.
going far beyond the road I have begun,
So we are grasped by what we cannot grasp;
it has an inner light, even from a distance-

and changes us, even if we do not reach it,
into something else, which, hardly sensing it,
we already are; a gesture waves us on
answering our own wave…
but what we feel is the wind in our faces.

~”A Walk” by Rainer Maria Rilke (translated by Robert Bly)

And the Winners Are…

Hope you are all having a lovely Christmas with family and friends! Ours has been lovely despite being 80 degrees with 100% humidity and bouts of heavy rain in Louisiana. Feels like we are in a rainforest.:)

This is just a quick post to announce the winners of the giveaway (!) My sister Anni drew the names out of a bowl, so the results are completely unbiased. 😉

Drumroll please….

The fiction prize pack winner is Paige Nguyen. You will be receiving copies of The Way of Kings, Peace Like a River, and Station Eleven.

The nonfiction prize back winner is Ben de Wachter (בנימין). You will be receiving copies of An Altar in the World, Searching for Sunday, and Pastrix. (And don’t worry, these are all female authors but they aren’t geared towards women specifically).

To claim your prize please send me an email (lily.e.dunn at gmail.com) or Facebook message with an address I can send them to!

Congratulations to the two winners and thank you to everyone who participated and to everyone who is part of this community.

Merry Christmas!

 

10,000 Followers Giveaway!

Yesterday something kind of amazing happened. This blog hit 10,000 followers. To some of you that may seem like a lot and to others it may seem like a little, but to me it is almost incomprehensible and completely humbling, especially since the majority of these followers have come within the last year. I know that not everyone who follows my blog reads every post, but I am still overwhelmed by how many people at some point clicked that “Follow” button to show a measure of support.

When I first started this blog almost five years ago, I was right out of college working as a full-time nanny and needed a creative outlet to keep me writing. I wrote sporadically and without much focus and only about five people even knew about my blog because I didn’t share my posts on social media or even tell my friends about them. As I moved into a season of wrestling with my faith, I started to explore some of my questions, my doubts, and my revelations through blogging. I occasionally shared these posts on Facebook, but my audience was still very small.

After moving to Korea, I had a wealth of strange and interesting life experiences to write about and process through. At the same time, I discovered the spiritual memoir genre and found that blogging about my faith helped me sort through my jumbled thoughts and feelings. I started to connect with other bloggers who wrote about similar topics – what it looks like when the faith you grew up with doesn’t quite fit anymore and how faith can change and grow over time. I had opportunities to guest post and invited others to share on my blog. As I grew into this community, I became more serious about blogging as a means of working out my own story and my own faith while connecting with other people. I sought to present my authentic self with my questions and doubts and problems, and hoped that through my vulnerability others could identify with me and feel less alone.  I started to hear from readers who told me that these little essays meant something to them and I started making real life friends with people who read my words.

I know that some of my you came here to read about my travel experiences, some came to read book reviews and recommendations, and some came to read about my faith-wrestling, but all of you have made my life richer and made my moments of vulnerability worth it.

To help express my gratitude to those of you who have joined me on this journey, I’m hosting a little giveaway. There will be two winners and those winners will each receive a book pack with 3 of my favorite books. One set is nonfiction books and the other is fiction. (It was SO HARD to choose just 3 books for each!)

The nonfiction book pack includes: Searching for Sunday by Rachel Held Evans, Pastrix by Nadia Bolz Weber, and An Altar in the World by Barbara Brown Taylor.

The fiction book pack includes: Peace Like a River by Lief Enger, Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, and The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson.

The rules are simple.

  1. You must be a follower or subscriber to this blog. (If you are not a follower all you have to do is scroll to the top of the page and look underneath the picture of a younger and svelter me with the little bio. There is a button right under that that says, “Click here if you’re awesome!” Click that button. All this means is that you will be notified when I post something new. )
  2. You must EITHER “like” my Facebook page, which I will link here. (Literally just click the “like” button) OR follow me on Twitter @lilyellyn. If you don’t have Facebook or Twitter just tell me that in the comment you leave.
  3. Finally, leave a comment below telling me either how you found this blog and why you started following OR what your favorite post has been. Be sure to include whether you are more interested in the fiction or nonfiction book pack if you have a preference.

This giveaway is open internationally so anyone can enter.Submissions are open for 1 week and will close on Wednesday, December 23rd at 11:59 PM EST. There is only one entry per person. At the end of the submission period I will collect the names of everyone who submitted and draw two names randomly. I will announce the winners here in a blog post on Christmas Day so be sure the check back.

You guys are seriously the best. Thank you for being a part of my life.

Giveaway banner image credit via StephanieHowell.com

Where Grief and Gratitude Meet

Last week felt like one giant win for Chaos, Fear, and Grief.  It was a week marked by terrible loss. Innocent men and women in Paris and Nigeria and Lebanon and Syria lost their lives to violence. Men and women in my country lost their sense of human decency to fear and self-preservation. A friend of mine in South Africa lost two of his friends last week to cancer. And Jonathan and I and the rest of the Wheaton College community lost two of our beloved English professors in the space of three days. I don’t have words for the collective grief of the world right now. I barely have words for my smaller, personal grief, but I feel that I need to say them anyway.

Grieving people talk about how to make sense of loss or come to terms with pain. I don’t know how to do either of those things. I only know how to say thank you.

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Brett Foster was 42 years old, a brilliant man and gifted poet with an extraordinarily kind and generous spirit. Jonathan and I actually met in Dr. Foster’s Ancient Literature class at 9:00 AM Monday morning our very first day of college. Dr. Foster, listening to you read The Odyssey and The Aeneid brought these epics to life for me in a way I’d never experienced before.  I can still hear your voice in my head when I read them today. Thank you for sharing your passion, your insights, and your love for words with me.

The summer after our freshman year at Wheaton, Jonathan did a summer study abroad program in England led by Dr. Foster along with a few other professors. One afternoon he announced his intention to see a special exhibit and invited anyone who wanted to to join him. Jonathan was the only student who showed up, so he and Jonathan went tot he museum by themselves and spent the afternoon together. Jonathan remembers how incredibly kind, genuine, and down-to-earth he was, even as a professor spending time with a student.

Thank you for seeing beauty in the world, but more than that, thank you for bringing beauty to the world through your words, through your authenticity, and through your generous spirit.

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Roger Lundin was dear to me in ways I don’t know that I can explain. Of all of my professors at Wheaton, he was perhaps the one who left the biggest impact. His death was sudden, unexpected and also much too soon. Dr. Lundin was big in every sense of the word – a tall man with long lanky limbs ending in large hands and feet, a huge, booming voice, a staggering intellect, and an enormous, tender heart.

He had a memory like no one else I’ve ever known. I once went to his office to discuss a paper I was having trouble with. “This is what I want to talk about, but I’m just not sure how to tie it in with the larger historical context.” He leaned back in his chair and thought for no more than 15 seconds before saying, “There’s a book I think you can find in the school library,” he named an obscure title, “and around page 140 there is a paragraph near the bottom of the page that speaks to exactly what you’re saying.” I left his office and went to the library where I found the book and the passage exactly where he said I would.

Last fall when Jonathan was applying for graduate school, he asked Dr. Lundin to write him a recommendation. Being nearly five years out of college, he was apologetic and tried to remind him of who he was. Dr. Lundin wrote back, “Of course I remember you. I think of you and Lily often and wonder how you’re doing in South Korea.”  He said he would be delighted to write the recommendations.

Most significantly for me, though, he had a dear and tender spirit. Through years of classes with him, I was repeatedly moved by the way he spoke of his wife – someone he regarded as the best and most vital part of himself and whose wisdom and input he not only deeply respected, but found essential. During my senior year at Wheaton when Jonathan and I were engaged I started seeing a therapist. I was trying to come to terms with how someone as deeply afraid and distrustful of men as I was could possibly enter a marriage. I remember telling my therapist, “There are only four men in the world I’ve never felt threatened by or afraid of in some way: my dad (though I was deeply afraid of his disapproval), Jonathan, my friend Leigh’s dad who I grew up with, and Dr. Roger Lundin.” (I’m sure there were people I wasn’t thinking of, but that’s how I felt at the time. You get the idea, I had issues).

Dr. Lundin, I think I remember ever story you ever told. Thank you for making me love Emily Dickinson and Dostoyevsky, for introducing me to Milosz, and teaching me that literature and faith were inseparable. But mostly, thank you for teaching me not to apologize for who I am, and for making me believe that there were men in the world who could be trusted and that marriages really could be beautiful, equal partnerships.

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I confess that I don’t want to die and I think it’s brutally unfair that these men died last week. I am one of hundreds, of thousands, of students whose lives were shaped by these men and in a small way, it comforts me to know that I am just one of many who care deeply that these men lived and mourn deeply that they’re gone.

There is nothing I can say to make this sting less. All I’m left with is, “Thank you.” Thank you for sharing yourselves with me, and with so many others. Thank you for showing me how to live a life that matters. Thank you for being exquisite examples of lives well-lived.

The following is a poem that Dr. Foster wrote as he neared the end of his life. I want to finish with just this, Dr. Foster, you did give the sickness and the shivering meaning. And you and Dr. Lundin both showed us all how to go out singing. I’m deeply saddened that you’re gone, but I am profoundly grateful for the lives you lived.

Isaiah 43

I am making all things new! Or am trying to,
being so surprised to be one of those guys
who may be dying early. This is yet one more
earthen declaration, uttered through a better
prophet’s more durable mouth, with heart
astir. It’s not oath-taking that I’m concerned
with here, for what that’s worth— instead just a cry
from the very blood, a good, sound imprecation
to give the sickness and the shivering meaning.
Former things have not been forgotten,
but they have forgotten me. The dear, the sweet,
the blessed past, writes Bassani. Tongue is the pen.
Donning some blanket of decorousness
is not the prophet’s profession, not ever.
Not that I’ve tasted the prophet’s honey or fire:
I’m just a shocked, confounded fellow
who’s standing here, pumping the bellows
of his mellifluous sorrow. Yet sorrow’s the thing
for all prophets. Make a way in the wilderness,
streaming your home-studio-made recordings
from a personal wasteland. These are my thoughts.
I can’t manage the serious beard. My sackcloth
is the flannel shirt I’m wearing. But the short-circuited
months have whitened my hair, and it’s not
for nothing that Jeffrey calls me, with affectionate
mockery, the silver fox. It’s a prerequisite, finally—
being a marginal prophet, but a severe attention
to envisioned tomorrows must be present, too,
must be perceived as possible, audible, or followable.
There’s a hypothetically bright future for everything,
each wounded creature that is bitten, or bites.
And speaking of things overheard, you heard right:
if I have to go out, I am going to go out singing.

What’s Saving My Life Right Now: Update

Back in February I wrote a post called “What’s Saving My Life Right Now.” This question comes from Barbara Brown Taylor’s book, Leaving Church. Taylor tells the story of a time when she was asked to speak on this topic. At first it seemed like an unusual thing for a priest-turned-professor to speak about, but as she composed her speech, she realized it was powerful to reflect on the graces of a particular season. She made a note to ask herself this question from time to time.

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the things in my life that are hard: missing Korea, experiencing constant rejection on the job front, continuing to struggle with a chronic ear infection I’ve had since July, having to pack up and move (again!) in a few weeks, the return of my panic attacks, and now this huge natural disaster in my new city.

I would be quick to extend compassion and grace to anyone else in this situation, but I find that It’s difficult for me to give myself that same measure of grace. I feel that it is not OK that I haven’t figured out a stable job situation, that I can’t get over this ear infection (which is costing a small fortune in doctor’s bills), that some days I am utterly overwhelmed by daily life when I am so very fortunate compared to many. Life is short and precious and I don’t want to spend mine feeling overwhelmed and hopeless when there is so much beauty I could be enjoying. There is a disconnect between the life I want to lead and the life I find myself living.

I wrote recently about my experience with the Lord’s Prayer — about asking for daily bread and receiving manna just for one day. Two days ago, manna came in the form of a letter from a reader named Steph who just moved to the middle-of-nowhere Texas after several years in South Africa. In so many ways, we are leading parallel lives. Like me, she moved to the US for her husband to go to graduate school. Like me, she is having trouble acclimating. Like me, she is unsuccessfully looking for a job that won’t kill her soul. Basically, we’re the same person. But in her letter she reminded me of the value of focusing on the things she loves about where she is and what she’s doing. She reminded me of some of the things that I love about being back in America. Her letter inspired me to do an update on what’s saving my life right now.

Here’s my list. Leave me a comment about what’s saving your life right now. I’m a collector of ordinary grace.

  • The library. The public library system in Columbia rocks my socks. It’s similar to Raleigh’s library system in which there are many smaller branches scattered around the county, but the full collection is extensive. You can easily request any book you are interested in and have it delivered to your closest branch so you don’t have to drive all over town to get a particular book. There is also an extensive collection of audiobooks (which I love listening to when I’m spending time in the car running errands) and dvds (including full seasons of TV shows). And it is all free!!!!

  • My bathtub. After two years of showering in a wet room where my shower head was connected to my sink, I am grateful for both a separate shower with a curtain and especially for a tub where I can sit with a book and relax.
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  • Fall candles. In the last year or so I’ve really gotten into scents, both in terms of perfumes and house scents. In my opinion, fall candles are the best of all the candles. My favorites right now are Leaves, Pumpkin Pie, and Marshmallow Fireside from Bath and Body Works and my Tobacco Vanilla one from Paddywax.
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  • My cats. I’d forgotten how much joy those little jerks bring to my life. Even when their demands for attention disrupt my day, I can’t help loving those warm little bodies curled up against me and t their ability to make a game out of anything, like systematically pushing things off the counter or stealing twist ties from the kitchen and later drowning them in their water bowl so they are good and dead.

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    If you try to take this twist tie, I will murder you in your sleep.

  • Friends. Being in Columbia has allowed us to see many of our friends more often than we did in Korea, but even more often than we did before in America. We’ve seen our good friends in Charlotte three times in the two months we’ve been here. I’ve seen all of my college roommates twice, my best friend from childhood once, and I’ll see another of my best friends from home this coming weekend. I’ve also started to make new friends in Columbia through my friend Lorien’s Bible study, through the church we’ve been attending, and through Jonathan’s program. These friendships are gifts and they make life brighter.
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Everyone should have friends to go to IKEA with.

The Unhappiness Project: Why I’m OK With Being Unhappy

A few months ago I read Gretchen Rubin’s book Happier at Home which is sort of a sequel to her uber popular book The Happiness Project (which I haven’t read). I wrote a mini-review of this book here, but the short version is that for me personally, I found her list of resolutions and things to do make life “happier” a little exhausting. More than that though, I found myself thinking a lot about the concept of happiness and whether or not pursuing happiness is valuable, worthwhile, or even right.

Many people, particularly in Western society, live with some idea that happiness is a right that human beings are entitled to. We act as though our default setting as human beings is happiness and that if we aren’t feeling happy, we need to figure out what’s wrong and adjust it so that we can get back to the state of happiness we are meant to be in. We view unhappiness and unhappy people as something to be avoided at all costs. So we distract ourselves with busyness, numb ourselves with medication or other substances, try to buy ourselves material happiness through consumerism, or drive ourselves to earn more, achieve more, be more social, take more vacations, cross more things off of our to-do list, often because we think these things will bring us the happiness we want and feel we deserve.

I was raised on pat little phrases like, “God is more concerned with your holiness than with your happiness,” so it’s always been somewhat ingrained in me that happiness is not a basic human right, nor is it something I’m entitled to. And while I struggle against the view I described above (because this is the world we live in and it’s easy for me to adopt some of those messages without even realizing it) my bigger struggle with happiness comes from something else I’ve been told my whole life. That happiness is dependent on your circumstances, but joy isn’t. That I can (and must) choose joy.

My struggle with unhappiness is compounded by the guilt I feel for not being happy. I’ve often felt that allowing myself to stay unhappy without actively fixing it or “choosing joy” in spite of it was both selfish and sinful. Not because I’m entitled to happiness, but because being unhappy in spite of the many good things in my life is wrong, ungrateful, and selfish. And so I try to fix myself. I try to create, or choose happiness in a season where it isn’t coming naturally. And I find myself discouraged by the weight of disappointment when I can’t seem to do it.

I don’t want people to think of me as an unhappy person. I don’t want my husband, who loves me and is constantly concerned with my happiness, to be burdened with a wife who can’t be pleased or who is chronically unhappy. But I am understanding more and more what it means that I am a Highly Sensitive Person. The traits of passion and compassion and emotional excitability that make up some of the best parts of my personality are the same traits that cause me to be deeply affected by sadness, and sometimes prone to anxiety and depression.

I recently saw the new animated movie, Inside Out (which is terrific, by the way). The movie takes place inside of a little girl named Riley’s head where her major emotions are personified as the characters Joy, Fear, Anger, Disgust and Sadness. Sadness gets a really bad rap because she’s such a downer and the others want Riley to be happy all the time. *Spoiler Alert* But in the end they realize that Sadness is an essential part of who Riley is and that Sadness actually creates opportunities for feelings of joy, comfort, and peace.

The message of this movie was exactly what I’d been wrestling to articulate about my own self-discoveries. I’ve been learning to accept that unhappiness is not the worst thing. In fact, sometimes unhappiness is the right thing.

Two weeks ago a girl I went to high school with lost her husband in a car accident leaving her a 26-year-old widow with 5 small children. One week ago there was a shooting in a theater in my hometown, the same theater I’ve been to dozens of times throughout my life, and two young women lost their lives through a random act of violence. A few days ago my best friend’s father died of cancer just two months before her wedding.

These days I find happiness more difficult to grasp. In the past when I’ve gone through periods of sadness I’ve asked these questions: How many times am I allowed to cry about this? How sad is it OK for me to feel on behalf of other people’s tragedies? How many days or hours am I allowed to get over my sadness before I owe it to God and to the people in my life to be happy again?

I don’t want to ask these questions anymore. The answer is, and should always be, “As many as I need. As sad as I feel. As long as it takes.” And that’s OK. Being unhappy is not the same thing as succumbing to utter hopelessness. It doesn’t mean that you don’t believe there is any good in the world. It (usually) doesn’t mean that you’ve decided to never be happy again. It simply means that you are human. That you live in a broken world. And that right now you are reacting to that brokenness with unhappiness. And that’s a good thing. (Also, it means you probably aren’t a sociopath).

More and more lately, when I recognize that I am unhappy, I try to identify why. Is it because of a choice I’ve made or am making? Is it something that could be easily fixed? (i.e. I’m unhappy because my clothes are too tight, and I can choose to exercise more and eat healthier). Is it because of something I am choosing to hold onto and obsess over that I need to let go of? (i.e. holding a grudge, getting worked up about small things). Is it a chemical/physical thing that I should seek counseling or medical attention for? Or am I unhappy because there’s something wrong in my life or in the world that I can’t fix or change? Then maybe the right response is to let myself feel unhappy. To lean into to the discomfort of that feeling even as I remember the beauty and the hope in my life. I can take my cue from the Psalms of David, from Jesus at Lazarus’ tomb, from Jeremiah the weeping prophet, who didn’t avoid or cover-up their unhappiness, but expressed it.

I am sad right now. AND I have a wonderful husband and I am two weeks away from moving back to America and seeing my friends and family, and I have more than enough food to eat and clothes to wear and I am thankful for these things.

I am not happy. And that’s OK.