A month ago, the kids were in school, we were shaking hands and had no
awareness of social distance. Words like pandemic and global
recession weren’t on my radar. Coronavirus was this far away
thing on the news.
Last week, my next-door neighbor died from the
virus. His name was Alan. I didn’t know Alan really. We’ve
only lived as neighbors for not even a year. The busyness of life kept
the relationship to neighborly waves and hellos. One evening last summer
I remember sitting with my family in the backyard around a fire. From
time to time, we’d hear Alan’s hearty laugh as he watched a rerun of the
show Frasier. We smiled and chuckled with one another as Alan
unknowingly shared a simple pleasure of his with us all.
This week his wife, Ellen, grieves alone in the silence of her home
while under self-quarantine. She was with him at the hospital just before
he died. I can only imagine the precious words shared between one another
after 50 years of life together.
We’ve been sheltering in place for over a week
now. Sometimes all I feel is disbelief. I think, is this
really happening? Did Alan really die?Is the couple
walking their dog outside my window really going through this too?
Sometimes I don’t feel anything at all.
And every day I feel this foreboding sense of vulnerability –a low-grade
mix of fear, worry, dread and panic. I especially feel it when watching
the news. Less when I don’t.
Sometimes I feel sad over so much that has been lost, like my youngest
son’s remaining year of kindergarten. Such a beautiful, mystical year of
his education, now likely over.
Sometimes I just keep my head down and stay busy. Work. Get
something done. Stay productive. And it feels good.
Often, I feel worn down and exhausted. I struggle to peel myself
out of bed or off the couch to go to bed.
Sometimes all I want to do is watch an episode (or four) of Seal
Team. Such a good show. They know how to work a problem while
Sometimes I start sentences with, “You know what we need to do? We
need to…” And I feel certain and clear about my next steps.
Often though, I am confused. And I start sentences like that
because I don’t know what to do, and I don’t want to show it.
Everyday I worry about money. Every day.
Sometimes I pray randomly, “Come, Lord Jesus. Come.”
A few times this week, I opened the fridge and stood there looking for
something good to shove in my mouth. Preferably chocolatey. Then I
shut it without grabbing anything because what I want is not there. I
then do it again…12 minutes later with the same result.
Sometimes I feel on edge and cranky. I say things that are unkind
to people I love.
Sometimes I like home school, and I catch myself wondering, maybe
this would be better for us as a family. Maybe this is a
profound moment to reset our lives.
Sometimes home school sucks. And I’m like, W.T.F.
Sometimes I do stuff that is so simple, pleasurable and feels
revolutionary, like take a walk. During and for a time after my walk I
Everyday I feel mostly relieved that I’m not on social media. And
everyday I feel like I’m missing out on the latest.
Sometimes I do stuff I’ve never done before, like a workout video on
YouTube. (Check out Heather Roberston’s channel. She almost put me
into cardiac arrest yesterday.)
And sometimes I feel restful and calm, enjoying this chance to be at
home with my family. It feels like this surprising gift to connect and
feel safe, together.
And sometimes that peace is interrupted because I remember the Why.
Or, my kids are bickering over who gets to play their video game next.
These uncertain times are many things. And
that’s okay. Let them be. Let them happen. What we are all
going through is so disorienting. So unknown. And with great
uncertainty comes many varied and jumbled thoughts and feelings, and they seem
feel like conflicting experiences. But they are not. It’s all
normal. All true.
And it’s all heading somewhere.
Right now, so much is ending and being let go
of. And there is still this foreboding unknown ahead: we don’t know how
bad the suffering will get. And at the same moment, something is being
reordered. Though we are feeling the sting of discomfort, we are awake.
And we are beginning to do things like reassessing what matters now, and
potentially reprioritizing our choices and commitments.
Suffering and Discomfort. Pleasure and Possibility. Both are
true. Both ready to teach us if we will listen.
Don’t rush to concretize anything. That’s not the phase we are
in. Most of us are in triage mode, doing what we have to do with what we
have available to us, for that day. Take comfort in the fact that we are
in the midst of an ancient rhythm of life called transition. It always
begins with disorder. It always brings a reordering. And those that
stay attentive during transition become better humans. More alive.
Less fearful. More generous. More courageous.
So simply notice. Again, stay awake.
Write things down that are true, both what’s hard and what’s good. My
family is doing this by writing things down on big poster-sized sticky
notes. Why? Because we don’t want to forget. Humans forget
easily. It’s all at the surface now, so pay attention.
I often reference the metaphor of trapezing when navigating through a major life transition. I’ve made it a living metaphor, having personal experience with what it’s like to leap from a platform 30 feet up in the air and feel my body hurtling toward another set of hands that I’m told are going to catch me.
“Legs off!” The instructor yells. What a terrifying and thrilling invitation.
Trapeze is quite an apt metaphor for transition, don’t you think? We are between “what was” and “what is yet to be.” It is a time in life when we feel the need to apprehend a future, but transition invites us to pause and hang out for awhile in the not knowing. The invitation calls us to discern – to “distinguish between things” – learning, I believe, what it means to live courageously whole and undivided lives. But that takes some time. It’s a natural process in life that doesn’t do well under demanding and rushed conditions.
Each of us gets to decide what to do in that space; it is a choice to say ‘no’ to the invitation. It saddens me greatly when I see a person say no or “not now.” And it inspires me deeply to see a brave soul let go and reach for a new story of wholeness, especially in a world where the choice to do so isn’t easy. Parker Palmer writes, “We are cursed with the blessing of consciousness and choice, a two-edged sword that both divides us and can help us become whole. But choosing wholeness, which sounds like a good thing, turns out to be risky business, making us vulnerable in ways we would prefer to avoid.”
The choice to transition is risky business, for sure. But the riskier choice is to cling desperately to the old bar, afraid to let your legs slip off. We just weren’t meant to live in small ways. Below I share with you the Parable of the Trapeze by Danaan Parry. As you stare down the space of “in-between” in your life, may you accept it’s thrilling and terrifying invitation to pursue a more wholehearted life.
Turning the Fear Transformation into the Transformation of Fear
By Danaan Parry
Sometimes I feel that my life is a series of trapeze swings. I’m either hanging on to a trapeze bar swinging along or, for a few moments in my life, I’m hurtling across space in between trapeze bars.
Most of the time, I spend my life hanging on for dear life to my trapeze-bar-of-the-moment. It carries me along at a certain steady rate of swing and I have the feeling that I’m in control of my life.
I know most of the right questions and even some of the answers.
But every once in a while as I’m merrily (or even not-so-merrily) swinging along, I look out ahead of me into the distance and what do I see? I see another trapeze bar swinging toward me. It’s empty and I know, in that place in me that knows, that this new trapeze bar has my name on it. It is my next step, my growth, my aliveness coming to get me. In my heart of hearts I know that, for me to grow, I must release my grip on this present, well-known bar and move to the new one.
Each time it happens to me I hope (no, I pray) that I won’t have to let go of my old bar completely before I grab the new one. But in my knowing place, I know that I must totally release my grasp on my old bar and, for some moment in time, I must hurtle across space before I can grab onto the new bar.
Each time, I am filled with terror. It doesn’t matter that in all my previous hurtles across the void of unknowing I have always made it. I am each time afraid that I will miss, that I will be crushed on unseen rocks in the bottomless chasm between bars. I do it anyway. Perhaps this is the essence of what the mystics call the faith experience. No guarantees, no net, no insurance policy, but you do it anyway because somehow to keep hanging on to that old bar is no longer on the list of alternatives. So, for an eternity that can last a microsecond or a thousand lifetimes, I soar across the dark void of “the past is gone, the future is not yet here.”
It’s called “transition.” I have come to believe that this transition is the only place that real change occurs. I mean real change, not the pseudo-change that only lasts until the next time my old buttons get punched.
I have noticed that, in our culture, this transition zone is looked upon as a “no-thing,” a noplace between places. Sure, the old trapeze bar was real, and that new one coming toward me, I hope that’s real, too. But the void in between? Is that just a scary, confusing, disorienting nowhere that must be gotten through as fast and as unconsciously as possible?
NO! What a wasted opportunity that would be. I have a sneaking suspicion that the transition zone is the only real thing and the bars are illusions we dream up to avoid the void where the real change, the real growth, occurs for us. Whether or not my hunch is true, it remains that the transition zones in our lives are incredibly rich places. They should be honored, even savored. Yes, with all the pain and fear and feelings of being out of control that can (but not necessarily) accompany transitions, they are still the most alive, most growth-filled, passionate, expansive moments in our lives.article continues after advertisement
We cannot discover new oceans unless we have the courage to lose sight of the shore. – Anonymous
So, transformation of fear may have nothing to do with making fear go away, but rather with giving ourselves permission to “hang out” in the transition between trapezes. Transforming our need to grab that new bar, any bar, is allowing ourselves to dwell in the only place where change really happens. It can be terrifying. It can also be enlightening in the true sense of the word. Hurtling through the void, we just may learn how to fly.
From the book Warriors of the Heart by Danaan Parry.
In the summer of 1983, a tornado cut its way through rolling hills of Holmes County, Ohio. It only took twenty minutes to gouge 15 acres of land, destroying a forest of magnificent, 100-year-old hard woods. Trees weren’t the only casualty that day. Four Amish barns were also leveled. As though the tornado had been given a mandate to destroy them, these four magnificent pieces of Amish craftsmanship were turned into nothing more than kindling. For the Amish farmer, or any farmer for that matter, this would have been devastating. To lose a barn means also losing the livestock, hay, grain and equipment they housed.
What happened next was astonishing. Gene Lodgson, a local farmer and writer in Upper Sandusky, Ohio had this to say about what happened after the tornado:
…what followed in the wake of the tornado during the next three weeks was just as awesome as the wind itself. In that time—three weeks—the forest devastation was sawed into lumber and transformed into four big new barns. No massive effort of bulldozers, cranes, semi-trucks, or the National Guard was involved. The surrounding Amish community rolled up its sleeves, hitched up its horses and did it all. Nor were the barns the quick-fix modern structures of sheet metal hung on posts stuck in the ground. They were massive three-story affairs of post-and-beam framing, held together with hundreds of hand-hewn mortises and tenons.
The Amish farmer who was the recipient of this new barn smiled. The structure, complete with donated hay, grain, and animals to replace all that was destroyed by the storm, cost him “about thirty thousand dollars, out-of-pocket money”–most of that funded by his Amish Church’s own internal insurance arrangement. “We give each other our labor,” he said. “That’s our way. In the giving, nothing is lost, though, and much is gained. We enjoy barn raising. So many come to work that no one has to work very hard. And we get in a good visit.
I can just hear it. As beams are being raised and joined, the conversations are
So, where were you when the tornado hit? Hey, did you hear Jacob and Beth are expecting again? (Ishmael – More nails!) So, what do you think crop yields will be like this year?
This is so wonderfully weird. Something terrible happens to one and many gather for a bit of work and a visit.
How does this happen? How does a farmer who just saw his barn reduced to scrap seem to be at ease about the whole thing?
The answer is they relentless participate with one another in creating a future. There is this covenant among them that sounds something like, “When your barn is leveled, I will drop everything to help you rebuild.” Even before the tornado finished its work he knew his neighbors had his back. His life may have been threatened, but not his livelihood. He knew no matter the damage, rebuilding would be a group effort. And he knew this not because it was written down somewhere in some book on Amish life (though I’m sure it is somewhere) but because he had seen this lived out since infancy.
If you’re Amish barn raising is mandatory. Young and old, women and men – everyone rolls up their sleeves to help in some way. Though all you see in the video above are the men hard at work during a one-day barn raising, there are dozens of women and children present. Everyone has a task to do. Whether it’s feeding mouths or pulling nails out of old boards to be reused, or serving as the job site gopher – everyone participates. And to this farmer’s point, no one is utterly depleted by day’s end, for it’s not on the shoulders of a few, but everyone.
At the end of the day, a farmer get a barn. But really, he gets something better: a future.
There is this verse in Jeremiah that Christians love to quote: For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Many are confused by this verse when unwanted change happens in their life. All kinds of unhelpful beliefs tend to seep in. Seven years ago, I feel off a roof and shattered my ankle. This event sent shockwaves through every aspect of life for me and my family. On several occasions, I heard people say to me, “Boy, God sure is trying to get your attention.” I remember thinking, Really? And he’s not yours? You think God needed to give me a hip-check off a roof to do that? Why do we so easily assume that God is authoring “tornadoes” in our lives? What if it’s just a powerful wind that destroyed a barn, or a wild fire that burned a neighborhood, or a tormented young man who ended the lives of 17? What if instead, God’s trying to do his best work in all us by embedding the learning and transformation we most seek for ourselves in the very acts that build a better future?
What the Amish understand is that tornadoes happen. But futures don’t. Those get made – one bulky beam at a time, which are best lifted by many hands. They know that it’s in the many hands lifting that beam where the mystery of their faith and love for one another is realized. They know that the best plans to become better humans – that being more loving, creative and courageous – don’t get rolled out for us like blueprints. God doesn’t drop a future in our laps. God invites us again and again into an experience, a relationship of participation with him and one another, to co-create something better. Given that each of us are creatures charged with the responsibility and freedom to create meaningful lives, it would seem to take away from that truth if we weren’t invited to participate in being that for our futures. You don’t sit and passively wait with hope for a future you wish you had. You help create it. What a gift, really, to not be robbed of that opportunity to participate in future building.
Imagine how a community like the one in the video above feels at the end of that day.
Community through Transition
Let’s say Amos, another Amish farmer, wakes up one morning to his barn engulfed in flames. Scratch that. Instead, let’s say the story is about abundance, not hardship. Amos is skilled in the art of organic fertilizers and his crop yields for the last several years have been extraordinary. Seeing the need for more storage space, he decides it’s time to build another barn. But Amos does not want to inconvenience his Amish brothers and sisters for help. He decides that they’re all too busy with their own work and families. So, he shares nothing of the need. In secret, he hires outside contractors to build a new barn without anyone in his community knowing. Instead, Amos keeps it to himself acting as though everything is normal at monthly meetings and social gatherings.
How would the community respond to Amos when they find out? What it would not be is congratulatory slap on the back followed by an, “At a boy, Amos! Well done!” They would be in confused. Shocked. Devastated. Angry. And, I think, quite hurt. Why? Because somewhere along the way Amos forgot that a barn raising isn’t for him; it’s a visceral reminder to everyone that no matter what characterizes the season – calamity or abundance – a life is best lived in relationships that relentlessly participate with one another.
In my work with those going through a significant life transition, I often ask them to put together a coalition – a community of mentors, friends and colleagues who will help them see and tell the truth, identify and follow clues, provide encouragement and accountability, show up and really help, etc. Hands down, the number one response I get from clients after introducing this idea of inviting others to participate in this way – and I’m not even talking about relentlessly, just occasionally – is,
I’m hesitant to ask. I don’t want to inconvenience them. They have their own problems. They are so busy.
I live in a region where if you feel stuck, aimless or in any kind of pain the only real option is to hire a pro (e.g. a therapist, coach, pastor, spiritual director, etc.). Commiserate with those who love you, but don’t ask them for help. That’s what professionals are for. Which, at times, hiring a pro is good and necessary. Certain locked doors need the help of an experienced key maker. I think what many of us are needing though is a barn-raising, an experience within a set of consistent and persistent relationships that roll up their sleeves and build a future together – during times of calamity or abundance.
We love the narrative of rugged individualism, the freedom to help ourselves out, choose our own way, and make a future. There is a gift in that freedom of choice. But somewhere along the way that gift gets perverted when we believe that’s something to be achieved without help. No one person’s future is really self-made. To be viewed as such is in my experience more a statement about what kind of person he or she has become in relationship to themselves and to those around them, and less about what they’ve accomplished.
The Amish have this strange and wonderful word to describe an activity that combines the following three things: the celebration of community, hard work, and common goals. Any practice that satisfy these conditions are called “frolics”. For them, a barn raising is the most prolific frolic.
To feel everything from stuck and lost to progress and growth, are ordinary things; it’s what comes with being human. Wanted or not, seasons of change come and go. Some bring good. Others a lot of difficult. And many seasons serve up both. These turbulent experiences aren’t to be avoid at all costs or moved through as quickly as possible. Since they are going to happen, what if they could become that “transformational experience” to be engaged and frolicked through together? Navigating through turbulent times isn’t something we need to fix or correct. It’s something we need to engage and anticipate just what will happen. The tornadoes and “high yield crops” are not the problem to be solved. But learning to frolic during transition – engaging community in hard work and common goals – is the solution. A good frolic best honors the challenging season by going into the loss, pulling out the beams, and building a desire future.
Given the times we live in with turbulence and uncertainty felt at almost every level of society, there lies a profound opportunity to build a better future. Imagine how this kind of relentless participation changes a person’s heart and faith. No, not the guy who got the barn. Who wouldn’t be engorged with gratitude if you’re that guy? The harder and more rewarding thing for us to connect with is how this kind of participation transforms the heart of everyone helping raise the barn.
When we choose to go through a life transition without the help of others, we steal away from those around us the profound joy of building up a future – real acts of hope, faith and love in the world. To frolic through them reminds us of how we were created to be in the world: in relationship with one another, always connected, through all seasons. For all seasons, wanted or not, hold valuable lessons to teach us about what it means to be human. And hopefully along the way, get in a good visit.
On Thursday, September 28, we hosted over 42 guests at our annual fundraiser breakfast at The PIER Learning Center. It was an incredible morning of great food, mimosas, and inspiring client stories of transformation during some of life’s most turbulent life transitions.
That morning, our Liminal Space partners helped raise nearly $30,000 to continue our work in the coming year! As we close out 2017 soon we are incredibly grateful for those who continue to believe in our mission and who desire to expand our work in the world. Thank you!
A special thanks to all our volunteers who helped pull of this special event. We truly couldn’t continue to serve our clients and guide journeys of transformation without you!
The PIER Learning Center at Liminal Space is hosting a live simulcast of the To Be Told Conference with Dr. Dan Allender. Dan has been a story sojourner for more than 30 years. He brings his own vulnerability and kind spirit to his teaching as he challenges individuals, couples, and communities to do the important, holy work of entering their stories with grace, courage, and hope.
Our stories, in all their beauty and heartache, shape and influence every dimension of our daily life and relationships. Knowing the impact of our story and finding God’s redemptive work within it is vital for emotional, relational, and spiritual formation and health. Our culture often encourages us to focus only on the positive experiences and put the painful ones behind us. Far too often, when the true impact of our stories of wounding and heartache go unaddressed, we find ourselves bound to unhealthy and unfulfilling patterns without hope for change.
The To Be Told simulcast is a unique opportunity to bring Dr. Dan Allender to Liminal Space and experience alongside others how our stories shape our faith, understanding of self, relationships, and engagement in everyday life. This event will be a chance to delve into our unique stories and explore how life experiences have shaped who we are today. And by exploring the complexities of our story, we will discover the true goodness of relationships, delight, and love that God desires for each of us.
“Our own life is the thing that most influences and shapes our outlook, our tendencies, our choices and our decisions. It is the force that orients us toward the future, and yet we don’t give it a second thought, much less a careful examination. It’s time to listen to our own story.” – Dan Allender, To Be Told
DAN ALLENDER, PH.D.
Dr. Dan Allender has pioneered a unique and innovative approach to trauma and abuse therapy over the past 30 years. Central to Dr. Allender’s theory and approach are the categories of Faith, Hope and Love, and their converses betrayal, ambivalence, and powerlessness. Through identifying and engaging these categories in one’s personal narrative, healing and transformation can occur by bridging the story of the gospel and the stories of trauma and abuse that mark so many.
After receiving his Master of Divinity from Westminster Theological Seminary, Dr. Allender earned his Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from Michigan State University. Dan taught in the Biblical Counseling department of Grace Theological Seminary for seven years (1983-1989). From 1989-1997, Dan worked as professor in the Master of Arts in Biblical Counseling program at Colorado Christian University in Denver. In 1997, Dan and a cadre of others founded The Seattle School of Theology & Psychology, in order to train therapists, pastors, artists, and leaders to more effectively serve in the context of the 21st century. Dan served as President of The Seattle School from 2002-2009.
Countless times I’ve asked myself this question while watching the news and world events during the last year. I’m baffled. Concerned. Outraged. Confused. And I have found very little understanding amidst it all. I know I’m not the only one feeling this way.
We ask, ‘What will come of it all?’ What’s so unsettling is that we don’t know. While we may not fully understand where this turmoil will lead us individually or as a country, you personally can ask yourself this question – Who do I want to become in the midst of all this?
Why Do We Have So Much More Noise Than Before?
We, as a country, are in a protracted transition; a word used to describe the spaces between what was, whatis no more, and what is to come. It’s the ‘in between space’ in which all the noise is made. But what exactly is the noise? And why does it seem so much more incessant in the age of social media? The ‘noise’ is not only the daily reminders that we live in a messed up and broken world (terrorist attacks, global warming, corrupt governments, etc), but also the non-stop commentary on all of it.
Decades ago, our world news was limited to what the newspaper reported about distant countries. The commentary was the Op-Ed piece or what we talked about around the water cooler and on our front porches. Now, 140-character thoughts shift what we all talk about for days. And with a finger scroll,, we have seemingly unlimited access to news and politics from around the world with a thread of everyone’s opinion on it. It’s assault feels never ending, especially when the commentary has been as derisive as the last 18+ months.
Much of the noise today is coming because there is so much uncertainty during a transition. Change ushers in uncertainty, and that’s too uncomfortable for me … and for most. The discomfort creates a great deal of noise both inside and around us. There is a lot of uproar eagerly clamoring for attention. And that uproar is often reactive and thoughtless. It’s in this protracted transition where we scratch our heads, shed tears, shout, pound our fists, and ask the really hard questions. It’s where voices rise with “I have to do something!” but exactly what we’re supposed to be doing isn’t so clear.
What Can We Do About It?
So, how do we express our thoughts and emotions healthfully? There are two common approaches to the noise – running away from it (i.e. putting our heads in the sand and ignoring it) or running in with fists a-blazing (i.e. starting social media arguments). Neither of these approaches is healthy or appropriate, unfortunately.
What if instead we actively chose to listen to the noise? I don’t mean interacting with Internet trolls who are out looking for an argument. But finding people who have a different understanding than you, and listening to them. Choosing to stay in the midst of it is something completely different. In fact, it seems in this day and age, it’s counter-cultural. Actively listening to learn (and not forming a new argument in your head as you pretend to listen) leads to understanding. And understanding is what we want most. The goal cannot be to win. Healthy communities, families, couples, or friendships that have journeyed through life together for some time understand this point well. There is something breathtaking about healthy relationships: their differences don’t divide them, they serve as glue. They do the hard work to understand one another because they believe that the best plots end with restoration, not fragmentation.
How we listen and engage—especially when it’s this loud and crowded—matters; for it will determine whom we choose to become.
A few years ago my family and some friends decided to go caroling. We bundled up, handed out song sheets and hit the streets of our neighborhood on a dark and rainy December evening walking door to door to spread Christmas cheer.
Now, most of us had never caroled like this before, actually singing to our neighbors. We really didn’t know what to expect. Walking to the first couple of houses we joked, “What if they don’t open the door, or worse, turn off their lights and hide!” That felt like a distinct possibility. It’s an awkward thing for a group to sing to one, maybe two people. But I discovered something that night: if you’re willing to wait in it, awkward – which is really another word for vulnerable – can be the precursor to holy.
The formula was two carols selected by whomever shouted their request first with the finale always being “We Wish You A Merry Christmas.” Then, on to the next house. One person would knock and we’d begin belting it out before they opened the door. You don’t slap someone with Christmas cheer. Instead, you let harking nudge them to investigate the clatter. And surprisingly, this happened at almost every house. The door would open, you’d see a friendly face emerge and they’d stand there listening and smiling. But not at the last house.
Everyone has this neighbor: Valentine’s Day, Easter, Fourth of July, Halloween, Christmas – for them these aren’t just dates on a calendar, these are seasons to be embraced, which means decorating their property to the hilt weeks in advance. This house was our last stop, an extravagant display of tacky that was truly something to behold. Imagine going to Walmart on December 26 for the last four decades and buying every Christmas decoration on clearance, and then each year putting that on display in your yard the day after Thanksgiving. That was this house. There was a little bit of everything from years past: plastic-molded Santa complete with sleigh and reindeer; dozens of candy canes strewn about the lawn; inflatable snowmen; inflatable Rudolph; inflatable elves; inflatable Santa; light everywhere; and to top it off, this foamy fake snow covering the bushes and grass.
All of our eyes widened as we approached the door. I fully expected the door to be swung wide open and all be invited in for hot cocoa and cookies. Far from it. The door cracked halfway, just wide enough for the porch light to reveal her. She was older with a small frame. She wore an old nightgown printed with pink and pale green flowers that trailed down to her slippers. Her eyes were tired and stern.
She just looked at us. No smile. No warmth. It was so awkward. She was so small and old, and yet her presence caused all of us to feel off-balance. I felt relieved as we were singing our exit song wishing her a merry Christmas and a happy new year, which felt very unlikely given the look on her face.
Our singing stopped, and then something happened.
She spoke, and as she did her voice cracked and her chin quivered. Tears formed in the corners of her tired eyes. “My husband would have loved to hear this.” She managed to say and then paused. “He’s at the pharmacy right now. He’s not been well. Can you come back?”
It was such a vulnerable ask.
“Of course!” We said, knowing that even if he was gone for three hours this was going to happen.
It must have been only five minutes later though when we noticed his return while singing at the house next door. We wrapped it up, and made our way back, aware that there was so much more happening for this couple than just another Christmas.
For a second time we knocked and began to sing. I wasn’t sure what to expect as the door swung open. Before us stood a tall, older man with a proud, salty beard next to his bride. He wore a red turtleneck with a green and red Cardigan sweater with quarter-sized buttons on the front. Leaping white reindeer were knit throughout. It was quite something, and you could tell he knew it.
The whole time he just stood there cozied up next to her. He towered over her filling most of doorway. His arm was draped and tucked around her like an old tree branch fitting snuggly into position, a stance they’d done hundreds of times before. He smiled, his face and hers exuding warmth and welcome.
We broke from our formula and sang three or four songs, and as we did they both joined in. No one else that night had done that. Most just looked at us with a “this is weird and kinda nice” look on their face. Not them. They were so glad to have us there. As they sang they both were crying.
We ended as usual with “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” It felt like the most honest wish we’d made to any home or person that entire Christmas season or since then. And I’ll never forget what I saw her do. As she sang her voice and her body began to slightly bounce and move more with the beat of the song. She bent her free elbow, closed her fist and began hammering down with the beat of the song. Her voice raised louder and louder, eyes wet and her face full with defiance, sorrow and joy. She was such a beautiful contradiction given the story. They both were really. Even the house with all its tacky twinkle.
A few months later their home was empty. I presume the story she told us in the way she sang that night came to pass: her husband’s life stolen away by some disease. And yet, facing the year ahead with most certain death, sorrow and loneliness, they swung the door wide open that night and sang. With clenched fist, she sang.
Hope is that song of defiance, always a rousing blend of sorrow and joy. With things that are difficult to endure and painful to understand, hope keeps you human. It reminds you of a more true song inside you that nothing – not even death – can steal away. It reminds you that you were made for love, no matter what. It reminds you that this moment – your life today – is a precious thing not to be wasted. Hope invites you to voice an acheful wish, “My husband would have loved this. Can you come back?” Hope, if you’ll let it, welcomes others in, even in the thickest of darkness.
This is what Advent and Christmas means to me: in the darkest of times, the most absurd and mysterious contradiction surprises the world in the form of a baby making it possible for us to become more human. Most years I try to get to this truth by starting with the baby in the manger. This year it came through an extravagant display of lights, tacky inflatables and the tearful singing of this joyful couple at the end of their journey together.
Whatever you are waiting for this Christmas, whatever it is that you’re having to endure, whatever you’d want to write out of the story entirely, may hope find a place on your threshold. While you wait for whatever it is that you seek and are crying out to understand the why of it all, may hope rise giving you something of a voice for your feelings, desires and confusion. It doesn’t have to be sung with a cheerful heart. Just honest. Each threshold holds a choice: we can self-protect, stay rigid and guarded. We can push it all away. That is an option. Or, we can sing with a clenched fist.
Merry Christmas, friends. And I wish you a happy new year.
Think of a situation in which you’d ask (yell) ‘why me?’ It’s the unexpected cancer diagnosis, the loss of a job, car accident, singleness, divorced, underemployment and so many others. They are circumstances you feel are undeserved, mean, or if you look deep enough, maybe you think ‘you’re better than this’ or ‘I’m too good for this to happen to me.’
But why is a normal question to be asking and doesn’t always come from a selfish place, right? Who doesn’t ask it, especially after something disruptive has occurred? Amidst the sting of that kind of news, why is a holy, guttural cry.
The search to answer ‘why me?’ comes from a deep place that just wants to understand. It’s a good desire and an unstoppable inclination. But, I think it gets too much airtime and traps us in an inescapable cul-de-sac. What I think we’re really trying to understand is the what. What does this mean for my life now? and … Now what?
When we approach transition and change with not only the question ‘why me?’, but also ‘now what?’, we may be able to grapple with our circumstances in a healthier, more functional way and see hope in the new unknown future.
When someone is stuck in the why me?, struggling to figure out the now what? of their life, it is best not to barge in with advice like, “Follow your dreams. Just figure out what you want and go after that.” If they could, they would. What they need is real help. And what they want is what they lost. Until that’s acknowledged and engaged on some meaningful level, we’re only slapping them across the face with hope.
Emily’s Now What?
A while back I opened my office door for an initial consultation with a woman – I’ll call her Emily – who I had never met before and knew nothing about. There, in a wheelchair, sat a young woman in her late twenties. The wheelchair was motorized with a fairly sophisticated remote controlled by her left hand. Her pleasant smile accentuated a scar rounding her chin.
Several years earlier Emily was driving with her family when a vehicle struck their car squarely, instantly killing her parents. She and her siblings suffered various injuries including broken bones, punctures and lacerations. Emily’s injuries were the most severe; she broke her back making her quadriplegic.
Here is a young woman in the prime of her life and in an instant EVERYTHING changed.
As she spoke of the devastation it was everything I could do to keep from weeping. The injuries she sustained to her body and family, along with the death of her parents, seemed too much. How can so many calamities find one family?
She continued. It got worse.
She went on to share that prior to the injury she loved her job as a teacher, something she wanted to do since childhood. She shared about the children and what she loved about teaching. We touched on something I knew was so dear and precious—her felt reason for existing.
Loss of body.
Loss of loved ones.
Loss of career.
Loss of agency.
Loss of identity.
And there she sat, smiling.
Emily’s smile did not hide the reality of her circumstances. There was no real way to do that. The wheelchair gave that away every moment of her life. Her face was radiant and this came from a much deeper place. At 29 years old, she has drunk more deeply from the cup of sorrow and joy than most people do in a lifetime. I’m left undone by the defiance in her words and smile. She was determined not to let this injury steal and destroy her future.
In spite of rupturing change, she wants a life; and not just any life. She wants all the possibility for her future she felt prior to the accident to be true and worth pursuing. She wants work that provides income and allows her meaningful impact. She wants the loving pursuit of a man who’s willing to sign up for all that would be required given her circumstances. She wants experiences of adventure and play. She wants to live, not merely exist.
She has dark, dark days. But here she was, not seeking death, but answers to now what?
Now what? helps us understand what it means to moving forward. We are trying to recover a future that suddenly has become compromised, even if the change is good. Life is not going to go as we thought it would, but we must find a way forward.
It’s a difficult task to reconcile when a future has changed forever. For many, it’s an even more difficult task to reimagine a meaningful future knowing that ultimately it too may be lost.
Can you think of a change of life circumstance in which you asked why me? or now what?
Do you see the difference between the two questions?
In future blogs, I’ll be exploring the different between the two questions and how together they can lead a person to more courageous and creative living.
“I went in circles in my head, unhappy with my work circumstances but terrified of the unknown. I was stuck in a rut for too long, extremely frustrated at the situation and even more frustrated at myself for getting me in that situation. I desperately wanted to change, but didn’t know what or how to ask for help to do so.
By word of mouth, I heard about Liminal Space and PIER Group. PIER Group helped me process my frustrating situation and led me to a better place. It provided a safe space to express my ruminating thoughts and other PIER members helped add perspective to my struggles. Through it, I was able to pinpoint what aspects needed to change and which needed to be present for a happier future. Aside from the personal benefits, the experience also led to an unexpected bond between members because we were going through very similar situations and genuinely cared for each other.”
I have struggled for a significant part of my life trying to decide what I want to be when I grow up. When I heard about PIER group, I knew it was for me. As a group we listened, encouraged, and championed one another on behalf of our futures. PIER group will not simply be an armchair for encouragement. It’s a place to roll up your sleeves and get engaged!
If you are in a difficult place, struggling to find meaning and purpose in your life and work, looking for an experience with others who will hope on your behalf and help you to connect with the desires that may be long dormant in your heart, PIER group is for you. It just might change your life! It truly changed mine. I’m thrilled about the story I’m writing now and PIER group made all the difference.
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