Look for the Love

Recently, there’s been this word…this Christian-y word orbiting me: Grace. The free love of God. That no matter what I do, I cannot add or subtract a bit from the love of God. I can do nothing and I am loved. And I don’t feel it. My spiritual direction supervisor has been on my case about grace, since I tend to be my harshest critic. The need for grace comes up in my most intimate relationships, where I play out a cycle of doubting their love for me and trying desperately to earn their affection. Which is exhausting and leads to more separation than connection between my loved ones and me. The insecurity and doubt goes to further loneliness. Then more insecurity and doubt, and the cycle continues. So the more I hear about grace, the more I am certain it is the monkey wrench to my cycle.

And yet grace feels like such a flat concept. Grace is the most played out word in Christianity. For the past month, I’ve been struggling to grasp it in a way that feels true in my inmost being, something that reverberates down in my gut, the way truth feels. I brought this to my own spiritual director, who gently told me it was going to be a long journey that unfolds over many years. Which both annoyed me and made me feel helpless. I WANT A QUICK PATH TO FEELING GRACE.

Over the past month, though, I have begun to feel grace’s presence. In small, subtle ways. Perhaps it was because I was looking for proof of it already existing in my life. But I am so grateful to notice the following shifts and moments that have occurred recently.

In a sermon at church I was reminded of the Mister Roger’s quote “in times of disaster look for the helpers.” That the helpers mean hope exists. As I reflected on my doubt of love’s existence, I adapted the phrase to “Look for the love.” That the love means grace exists.

So I’ve been doing a kind of daily “love Examen” — where I recount the experiences of love throughout the day. To be like a little kid and make SURE there’s a fair portion of love and attention for me. I light a candle, sit on the edge of my bed, and recount the acts of love that have been expressed to me by loved ones and strangers. In these moments cradling my head between my hands, feeling slightly ridiculous, I recount out-loud each one that comes to mind… noticing how the insecure layer of myself smoothly slides off when faced with the reality that I am loved. Shawn’s phone calls while on tour, writing dates with my roommate at local cafes, my coworker bringing me a doughnut on a busy day, morning greetings from the senior citizens and children who ride the 12 line with me, words of encouragement from a classmate as she clasps my hands in hers. More than anything, these moments feel relieving: “Oh love WAS given to me today. Whew!”

Grace is also becoming more of myself and loving that person. This has surfaced in my inner wrestling with my specific technique of being a spiritual director and a writer. In supervision yesterday, I stubbornly putting my foot down about an experience I brought, one that my school may have frowned upon my technique in, but that I felt really good about what I did. My supervisor pointed out perhaps this stubborn reaction is an indication that I didn’t do anything wrong, but that I am increasingly aware of who Dani is as a director. As an extrovert, as someone who contemplates in motion while holding a quiet interior, as someone who is rather intense, etc. This stubborn shift surfaces in my writing too. Shawn has pressed me to write more like I speak: with passion and direct language. But when I have sat down to write a blog post on this spiritual direction website, I sense an inner “should” that my voice needs to sound like what I imagine a spiritual director would: peaceful and flowery. These two moments have made me realize how strongly I feel “This is who I am, and I don’t want to be any other way.” For the past few weeks, I’ve felt this more than I ever had. Insecurity will surface, but for now, I’m enjoying this newfound ownership and love of who I am. That I can name my strengths and not take my weaknesses so hard. Finding that love within rather than only from external sources. Which feels miraculous. Man, I love rounding the corner on turning 30. Everyone was right when they said the 30s are more about knowing and accepting the self. Bring it on. I am so ready to leave the self-doubting 20s.

Then there is the potent experience of grace that happens on nights when I’m too angry, lonely, or anxious to do my love Examen. Instead God gets an earful. A few weeks ago the candle was lit for all of 60 seconds. I aired my frustration, told God I didn’t know what the fuck to do, and asked the Divine to please handle it. Because I’m tired. Thanks. I blew out the candle and crawled into bed. In the raw honesty of profanity, tears, and release of control, I viscerally felt secure in the love of God. I sensed the Divine giving me an eye-roll, maybe a smirk, but mostly a long steady gaze. I trust in that knowing gaze of parental love, wholly accepting and secure. Which for me means everything.

I Don’t Want to Should You

I once dated a man who every time he began to give unsolicited advice, would cringe and quickly say, “I’m sorry, I don’t want to ‘should’ you.” At the time, I didn’t see should as a harmful word and would quickly reply “Oh you have nothing to apologize for.”

Now, years later, after journeying with a handful of directees and mentees, an underlying narrative many struggle with is the ‘should’s of others, themselves, and culture (real or perceived). A should can be a terrible hindrance to people listening for the still quiet voice of the Spirit. The should often arises in direction when a directee shares some God wisdom that opens something new for her (spiritually, theology, perspective on life, etc.). She quickly brings up the should, as an argument against the new discovery. In direction training we call these ‘counter-movements’ and it’s a form of self-protection. Not only can it be a form of hiding, it can also be a way to inflict or re-live shame. The should seems always to be painful for the directee.

So, what is a should? It is removed from the person’s particular God-given personality and gifts. It may come from wisdom or a discipline that works for one person, but when applied to another, feels forced. It can, at times, presuppose that the ‘should-er’ is more in tune with the Spirit/wisdom than the ‘should-ee,’ when in reality “every human soul has a certain latent capacity for God” (Underhill, The Mystics of the Church). Many shoulds are offered in love, but often reinforce a less graced path of formation. Shoulds differs from Spirit-inspired invitation to obedience or an intervention from a trusted relationship. A few examples of how I see the differentiation between the three:

In college, an on–campus ministry leader said I shouldn’t date my Christian boyfriend because at 19 I didn’t have a clear mission or vision for why I was dating him. I ignored her, and we dated for three years. I learned how to love and respect another being, he challenged my limited theology and politics, and we both encouraged and named each others’ gifts and ministries.

Last month, my anxiety was high (again). During a work staff meeting prayer, I felt myself calmed instantly. Through discussing this with my therapist, I was inspired to attend morning prayer every morning at Grace Cathedral next to my office. Some mornings I am tempted to ditch prayer to attack my to do list 20 minutes earlier, but I go, trusting that this season I must prioritize self-care.

Four years ago, I was in a bad way: experiencing a lot of self-loathing and emotional volatility. Sitting at the kitchen table with my friend Lauren, she quietly and firmly told me that I needed therapy. We cried. I couldn’t have brought myself to that realization without her intervention. The intervention was rooted in my best interests and felt like wisdom when I heard her speak it.

The best way to identify the should vs. an invitation to obedience or intervention is taking it to God and the specific way you seek discernment. For me, I sense God’s wisdom in my gut. I know a should when I feel it: a tightening of the chest, a dropping of the stomach. It feels like a turn away rather than a turn towards. It feels like an escape from the new or unknown that terrifies me. It leans on black and white, for fear that I’ll make a mistake navigating the grey. I hear it clearly in my directees’ shares. They use the word should vs. “I want to”. Should is a reluctant word. Another tool for discerning the should is checking in with the trusted relationships: those in my corner, those fighting for their own wholeness, those who would want the best for me even if it goes against their particular outlook or ideology.

A should can also come from within, distilled from the narratives we perceive around us (I hear this is particularly difficult for mothers and all the strong opinions/blogs on parenting). There are ways I should myself as a sort of quick-fix to holiness — ignoring that I see it as a counter-movement in my directees, I am the exception to the rule. As I review notes from my spiritual direction supervisor (similar to the supervision therapists receive), the word “judgment” is peppered about the page, and I wonder if it’s as painful for her to witness my shoulds as it is for me to witness my directees’. Other times I should my current self with past self ideologies or practices. This discipline worked for my at 25, so why isn’t it working for me at almost 30? Am I less holy or intentional now? This internal conversation of mine ignores the reality that “there is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens” wisdom from Ecclesiastes. Each of us are dynamic and part of growth and development is moving through the different seasons and stages of life. So I can’t handle a truly unplugged 24–hour Sabbath right now because of my anxiety — I am enjoying the weekday morning prayer gathering at Grace Cathedral and the Sunday worship at St. Gregory’s. This is what God has for me right now: leaning into the communal and liturgical. Receiving rather than giving.

There are ways I try to respond to the shoulds as a spiritual director. They are seemingly simple but feel difficult to do: be quiet, listen well, ask clarifying (not leading) questions, and mirror the exact language of the directee. It is in allowing space for her and God to look at her own words that she can begin to shift through and determine what are the shoulds, the divine invitations to obedience, or loving interventions from trusted relationships.

Watching the internal struggle with the should in direction session is painful to watch. I get tempted to add my own should to my directee’s already exhaustive pile, as a well-intended quick fix… that ultimately would add further to her confusion. But in only a year or so of practicing direction and keeping my shoulds (mostly) to myself, I have witnessed the movements each directee has made toward the holy in her life. I see the gentle tugging of the divine in each directee’s resilience to the should and gradual growth despite it. I sense a slow reflecting on and peeling back of the should as a necessary part of the inner journey. The best things are worth fighting for, as the cliché goes. So I hold this hope in each session, bite my tongue, and trust God and the directee to sort the shoulds.

The Gift of Goofing Off

My main “tell” with feeling comfortable is acting like a goofball — up to and including funny voices, tangential musings, and general physical comedy. If you haven’t seen what a giant dork I am, it’s because we aren’t there yet.

The more I dig into my specific ways of connecting with others, the more I realize how crucial it is for me to goof off around loved ones. That someone can see my silly, and either match me, or, as my friend Kat does, giggle and lovingly say “oh my god, you nerd” makes me feel seen and truly loved for my authentic self. My authentic self being Liz Lemon.

My tendency the past couple of years was to value seriousness above all else. I still appreciate that facet of me: being a deep feeler, an existentialist, a student of the human condition. Between spiritual direction studies, my own therapy explorations, recently joining a Brene Brown “Daring Way” group at church, the topics I read and write, and the general content of most conversations with friends — I am a glutton for self awareness and seriousness. And some days, it leaves me miserable, exhausted, and a little bored. So after a few years of Kat touting the importance of play, I’m finally beginning to understand.

In therapy, we’re exploring a lot of my childhood, and last week I told my therapist about Sheny. Sheny is an important person in my story: she raised me from age 6 to 12 while Mom was at work, introduced me to Christianity, and once saved my life from an attack dog. Despite daily responsibilities of both childcare and house cleaning, she was incredibly attentive and engaging with my sister and me. She would play pretend without hesitation, create inside jokes, and encouraged us to be loud and exuberant with our excitement. Often she’d be louder than us, which both delighted and overwhelmed me.

When I was 7, Sheny, my sister, and I would go into the backyard to the white alder trees and collect seeds from the branches. The seeds were actually hundreds of seeds tightly packed into one small cone-like shape. We’d roll the cones between our hands to release all the little seeds, then throw it all in the air, and dance around, yelling loudly as the seeds fell around us.

I ended up doing something very similar in high school at my flower shop job with the rose petals I’d sweep up from the floor. It got to the point that my coworkers would save rose petals for me in buckets, just so I could throw them in the air and dance around while everyone laughed. Then I’d be on sweep duty.

That freedom of expression, and the communal affirmation is something I’m finding at my job at the Episcopal Diocese. I make jokes, laugh with my coworkers over ridiculous internet memes, and sometimes weave humor into my designs (when presenting 3 options). I call my coworker on the phone and he answers with a faux “WHAT do you want?” Or when the next door Grace Cathedrals bells chime, my officemate and I pop out of our chairs and do a minute of lazy jazzercise. I get my work done, but throughout the day I feel seen and appreciated. In fact, my boss during our 3 month review of my work this week noted my intentionality with “play” as an asset to the office!

I have found myself in a renaissance of silliness — valuing it a spiritual discipline. For some, play is a means of escape and avoidance. But for me it requires intention to let go of my serious pursuits for a period of time, my concern with appearances, and my need for control. Play seems to point to the holy for me, particularly now.

I know when Jesus said “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” (Matthew 19:14) that he was speaking more to a matter of social justice: though children were considered lowly in the culture of that time (like women) they too were equal citizens in the Kingdom of God. But these days I also wonder if there’s a similar invitation to each of our childlike selves too. That my inner child —the part of me that chases the dog around the apartment or initiates tickle fights with my boyfriend — is welcomed into the Kingdom as well.

It seems so often that those who appear to culture as less-than or imperfect are the very same invited into the Kingdom. I’ve heard this said in many lovely variations, feel all the warm fuzzies about God’s generosity, but when I start to turn this idea onto myself or those closest to me, it does not compute. One of the concepts in the Daring Way curriculum is “imperfection is what makes me lovable, not the opposite.” I deeply struggle to comprehend this concept. My default is a kind of friendly rigidity that I call an attempt at perfection. It all weaves into the ongoing narrative I allow to steer my life at times: you must earn love, it is not freely given. Yet that is not how God works, nor is the posture I’m invited to take. Being silly confronts this lie. My jokes won’t always land, a goofy face may involve a triple chin, and long arms in energetic movement sometimes knock things over. None of it looks like perfection, yet is what my loved ones celebrate about me. Anyone worthwhile isn’t going to count any of that against me.

I can intellectualize this all I want, but at the end of the day, I always check my gut. And in this season, trying to force old spiritual habits are NOT working. But when I lean into the silly — joking with a coworker, chasing the dog, or tickling my boyfriend— I feel released and content. This “frivolity” is a holy gift where I can trust God, feel accepted for my whole self, and not feel selfish while enjoying it. Which then reverberates out to how I see and care for others: loving them as they are, rather than my rigid expectations of who I think they should be. In terms of macro-life development and growth, I’m in a season of watering and waiting for sprouts. Being intentional with play helps channel my anxious, intentional, productive energy towards something that’ll help me trust and be patient with the process. I still bristle a bit at some of these ideas, but I sense the steady inner invitation of the divine in it.

And I roll my eyes, as I do sometimes at the Lord — who I trust gets some amusement out of my reaction.

[Banner photo by Emily Weiss, featuring Kat Schoolland.]

Each Day, a New Emotion

The Guest House by Rumi

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
As an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

I’ve been playfully tracking each day’s “new arrival” by the stripes on the blanket I’m crocheting. I began it as a way to use up my leftover yarn and to occupy my mind and hands on a particularly difficult evening. It’s been a map of my changing emotions ever since. The second red stripe was delight and peace. The third purple stripe was anxiety with a bonus of disappointment — feeling the pain of two steps forward, one step back with my inner work with anxiety. The recent black stripe was bravery and relief. Yesterday’s yellow stripe was a variety pack.

This is not simply an experiment in self-awareness or self-indulgence — it is a physical expression of the attempts I am making to integrate Rumi’s “The Guest House” wisdom into how I see myself. I struggle to welcome in each daily emotion because I feel each SO deeply, it’s overwhelming. Despite being told, critiqued, and celebrated for being a “deep feeler” I’m still surprised how intensely emotions can rock me. When I’m happy, I feel like a balloon filled beyond capacity, and frustrated because there are not enough words or emojis to properly communicate my joy. That’s the best part of being a deep feeler, though. It’s the other emotions that I struggle with: fear, sadness, shame, etc. When they sweep the house of all its furniture, my plans or projects get derailed. A few nights ago I had every intention of writing for a few hours, but then I snapped at my roommates, hurt their feelings, and sank into guilt (and my sofa/Seinfeld/crocheting). We made up quickly, but the guilt hung around for longer than the situation. It’s hard to welcome in the exhausting emotions with laughter, and see how they’re sent from beyond as a signpost when they stick around so damn long. My love of self-awareness enables their stay — when the guests arrive, I intently study them.

I know this is common human experience — some of my friends and favorite artists descend into the changing emotional depths, too. Feist bellows “I Feel It All,” Rilke lovingly echoes Rumi with “No feeling is final,” and my friend Jari decrees “Today I feel this way. Yesterday it was that way, so who knows about tomorrow!”

Tracking my emotions by the stripes on the blanket has been a step towards a lighthearted embrace described Rumi’s poem. Here are a few other steps that have helped:

  • First off, somedays the negative emotions get so large and I just don’t have it in me to deal. So I watch Seinfeld and trust that the next hour or day will bring a different feeling. It usually does, even if it’s just a slightly different shade from the day before.
  • On the days I can face the feelings but can’t sit still, I go for a walk without headphones. The movement helps channel the excess energy that the feelings build, especially walking up or down steep hills. The cityscapes bring a perspective beyond my own life and situation. I can sort through my thoughts and take notes in my phone on anything that needs further exploration. Bonus that this is when I begin to draft my blog posts.
  • At lunch I practice short bursts of still and silent prayer/meditation in the Grace Cathedral plaza. I set my timer each day one minute longer than before and let my mind air out. Some emotions exit the house, others stick around, and I’m able to look at the ones who remain. In those moments of presence I’m finally able to welcome them in laughing, which usually loosens their hold on me.
  • Mindfulness therapy helps me see the “signposts from beyond” wisdom of the emotions: that anger is a protective parent, sadness awakens me to change, etc. (Some emotional responses were developed from childhood that are no longer needed now. I can see them now as old friends that were helpful at the time, that now I can begin to transcend.)
  • In this whole process, it’s crucial to be gentle with myself, using the tone that I’d use with my friends and directees.

This is a very present topic, daily opening the front door with surprise and slight annoyance at who is there. I’d like to have a perfect concluding statement, but the reality is I’m in it. Right here, right now, feeling it all each day.

Fixating on Personal Growth

I have an obsession with personal growth. I tend to demand constant improvement of myself, my loved ones, and my whole life! I don’t have to do it “right,” but I do want to do it increasingly more fully, genuinely, and healthily. Which, at face value, is good. People who don’t settle but choose to press on — these are the people our culture celebrates. How could my desire to be the best version of myself be a flaw?

Like all elements of being human, a desire for growth is a coin with two faces. For me, it can translate into stratospheric heights to vault. Even if I leap over one, there’s always another a bit higher and out of reach. It can feel nearly impossible to feel a sense of contentment for the present version of myself. I can’t be satisfied with the progress I’ve made in therapy, the confidence I feel in God and my current season, nor the increase in my writing rhythms. The word MORE haunts the back of my mind.

God speaks through my loved ones when they say that I need to embrace life, myself, and others as they are, at this moment. To not run ahead. That feels incredibly out of reach to me, yet is exactly what is within my grasp. Richard Rohr challenges my desire for growth when he says:

Alternative consciousness is largely letting go of my mind’s need to solve problems, to fix people, to fix myself, to rearrange the moment because it is not to my liking. When that mind goes, another, non-dualistic mind is already there waiting. We realize it is actually our natural way of seeing. It’s the way we thought as children before we started judging and analyzing and distinguishing things one from another. As Helen Luke says, “The coming to consciousness is not a discovery of some new thing; it is a long and painful return to that which has always been.”

This invitation at face value is logical and alluring. I can be satisfied now? Great! Yet, it feels like a mixture of foolishness and vulnerability to be content with the present, trusting movement will come later. Perhaps it’s city life, but I feel compelled to have something significant to report to others. How would it feel to respond to someone’s “What’s new?” with “Nothing, life is pretty great as is!”? I shudder at how boring it sounds.

It’s ironic (or perhaps a gift from God) that I’m drawn to spiritual direction: a practice that meets people where they are, as they are in the moment of session. The focus isn’t on the external MORE (that would be coaching), but the continued internal unfolding of what currently IS. An often popular question a director will ask is “What are you experiencing in this moment as you are talking about this?”

Being present to the IS allows me to disembark the MORE chase, if only temporarily. Last night I paused while typing a draft of this post to look up at my yellow curtains — to see the early evening light still faintly shining through, giving my room a subtle yellow filter. Gratitude for me tends to spring out of this practice of presence. Grateful that my friend took me to Target to get the yellow curtains. Grateful that my boyfriend playfully decreed that I would never actually buy curtains for my room, but only talk about doing it. Grateful for the readers who will read the evening light description and savor it with me.

As I peel back the layers on this reflection the last two weeks, I realize that part of contentment is embracing both sides of the coin. (It’s moments like this that I roll my eyes in annoyance at the dark irony of being human).  I’m invited to look at, rest from, AND celebrate my fixation on personal growth.

I love that I am an intense person, open to growth, and unlikely to atrophy. I can delight in (by giggling at) my compulsive renting of personal growth books from the library, or that I have to hide my enneagram books under my bed sometimes. Being both lovely and messy is what IS for me. My therapist says that we live in a messy universe, that the big bang produced unequal parts matter and anti matter. That feels accurate to my experience: being more matter than antimatter, yet God made each of us from star dust. Here’s to each of us embracing our uneven glow.