I’m not usually into resolutions or words or yearlong challenges, but on New Year’s Day, I found an inspirational article on one woman’s “no spending year.” She didn’t buy anything other than necessities — not even gifts. She didn’t even window shop.
“Let’s try it out for a month!” I suggested to my husband, because we’re fun like that.
Then we did our budget for the year.
“Looks like we’re doing it all year!”
I’ve got embarrassingly mixed emotions on this. I never considered myself rich, certainly not after getting married right out of college, but I never wanted for anything. This is partly because I’m a Scrooge with my money. I’ve never felt comfortable purchasing expensive items or updating items just to stay in style or top performance. I rarely buy things for myself.
Proof: My cell phone plan has no data and poor cell service. My cell phone itself is cheap and has a weird virus that makes it open up apps when the brightness is turned up too far. (Wut.) My computer is a sad, slow, frustrating, falling apart piece of tech with a cracked screen. We don’t subscribe to any streaming services or buy books or movies or music. We rock whatever fashion is trending at Goodwill. I brew my own coffee at home.
But I can’t toot my horn very loudly, because, frankly, those are all choices well within my desired lifestyle. I’ve never wanted something and couldn’t have it due to tight finances. Never. The thought of denying myself a material good that I do actually want scares me. If I can’t purchase whatever I want, whenever I want it, I don’t feel financially secure.
This has absolutely nothing to do with trusting God for provision or watching miracles happen on our behalf or anything spectacular like that. It’s all about recognizing the overwhelming abundance (excess?) we already have stuffed away in our closets — and that even frugal gals like me struggle with materialism.
Deep philosophical insights aside, I’m excited just as a creative exercise to see what we can come up with as alternatives to adding non-essential items to the cart. Just this past week, we needed (wanted?) a 2020 calendar. I was resentful at the thought of hanging an ugly Microsoft template on the wall all year long. I like beautiful and interesting print calendars.
A quick Google search later, I printed out a pretty calendar on scrap cardstock, completely free. Then my husband came home with a free nature photo calendar from work.
Also exciting: no more shopping anxiety. You know what I’m talking about? No? I get major anxiety when shopping. Too many decisions, too many options, none of them exactly what I want. If you want to get me crabby, task me with internet shopping for a toddler dress shirt in a particular maroon color. If you want to see me melt down, set me loose in a loud, crowded mall with the objective of finding a gift for my brother. I have to shop with people who are more decisive and opinionated than I am just to avoid a mental breakdown. (“I don’t care what shirt you pick,” my husband said kindly, by way of empowering me to trust my decision-making like the awesome feminist he is. “YOU HAVE TO CARE!!!” I screamed back. “I’M FREAKING OUT OVER HERE.”)
The thought of shopping only for the same old familiar grocery items fills me with joy.
So we’ll see what happens this year (and if we can/will strictly abide by this challenge, which…I doubt). Operation Spoiled Middle Class Girl Learns the Difference Between Wants and Needs at an Embarrassingly Late Age is on.
It’s winter, and I’m pregnant. Only five weeks left to go, but they’re still a whole five weeks.
These are my two least favorite seasons in the entire world. I shouldn’t have to explain why winter gets me in a funk, but here you go anyway: IT’S FREEZING. And for pregnancy: IT’S UTTER , ALL-CONSUMING EXHAUSTION.
Nobody told me about pregnancy exhaustion. You hear about the morning sickness — a bane that passed quickly for both my pregnancies — but not the exhaustion.
Surprise: It’s a whole thing.
I was chatting about it with my sister a trimester go, the trimester where your body’s supposed to hit an energy spike. Am I exaggerating? I wanted to know. Am I just a wimp? Is it possible that pregnancy is really this tiring?
Bailey, she said. I would take the sleep deprivation of having a newborn over pregnancy exhaustion anytime.
And she had two under two at the time. She knew a thing or two about tired.
I, like all women, possess the unique talent of being completely incapable of recognizing just how exhausted and burnt out I am. I err on the side of guilt and comparison. Other women get through it — with more children, tougher pregnancies, and cleaner houses! Slog it out, girlfriend.
And I do, usually, but I’ve been slogging more slowly lately, checking behind my shoulder to see who’s policing my pace and my output. Is anybody? And if they are, are they right to do so?
I just want to sleep. Forever. Or at the very least lie horizontally on a comfy couch with my two gigantic pillows and the cozy red throw.
But I haven’t been letting myself, because I’ve got a toddler. And I’ve got guilt about all the things I should be doing with him and for him. Mainly, I’ve got major guilt about not getting him outside everyday.
A couple winters ago, I got sucked into the wonderful world of nature-based play. We went outside almost every day, rain or shine, for two winters. I rhapsodized about all the fun we were having splashing in slush puddles and running around in freezing rain and hauling a sled in a real, actual blizzard (okay, that wasn’t such a fun time at all). I even started my own hashtag for all our nature adventure photos: #rainorshine365.
This winter, I was having none of it.
I remember sitting on the front porch, already too pregnant and tired to stand on two feet, and feeling the shift in the weather. There was this melodramatic, WINTER IS COMING moment, and there was my feeble, Nope, and then winter unleashed itself halfway through fall.
Not here for this.
Neither was my toddler. I’d take the ten minutes to bundle us both up, and I’d hunch on the porch, unmoving, and he’d sit on his tricycle, staring into space, and then he’d echo my heart’s cry of, “In! In!” Thank goodness. Whenever I asked him if he wanted to play outside, he’d say no. Praise Jesus.
It took me a good long time to let go of my #rainorshine365 goal this winter. Just today we won’t go out, I reasoned. Okay, just on days below 20 degrees we won’t go out. Just on gray dreary days we won’t go. Just on weekends we’ll get out, if the weather is nice.
But here I am, on a beautiful, sunshiney holiday day, temps in the 30’s, fresh white snow on the ground, and we are not outside.
The reason for this severe shift from hippy nature mama to couch potato is obviously because I am a wimpy, selfish, sad excuse of a mother. That’s the “fact” I struggle against daily.
I don’t why it’s so difficult for me to say, “Hey, I’m five weeks away from giving birth. I’m huge. I’m tired. I’m getting ready to recede into post-partum hibernation anyway. This is just a season. My spring is coming, but right now it’s winter. So curl up on that couch and nap away.”
Actually, I do know why it’s difficult for me to say that. It’s because our culture is not a seasonal culture. It didn’t teach me to connect with, much less honor, the ebb and flow of nature — of my body, of the day and night, of the four seasons. I didn’t run with the seasons — I honed an internal drive to motor a linear path through every. single. obstacle. Tiredness? Sickness? That time of month? Just temptations for laziness.
Life is about balance, I thought. It’s about habit. You figure out the middle ground between vice and virtue and carry it with you all day, every day, or you are a terrible failure of a human being.
My feasting was marked with moderation. My resting was marred with work. The seasons of my life and of nature all bled together into one overwhelming, never-ending thing to be overcome. The slog.
Fortunately, being a short-lived wildschooler put me in contact with a whole community of nature lovers and cold dwellers who encouraged living with and listening to the seasons.
Winter is not a season for any sort of plowing ahead. It’s a resting season. Nothing grows. Nothing is produced. It’s not the time for harvest or output or even getting things ready. Everything is dead, sleeping, waiting for resurrection. It’s a time for enjoying the abundance of what we have and what we’ve worked for. It’s a time for conserving resources, energy, light, and warmth, huddling closer to share them, curling in on ourselves to maintain them.
And here’s the thing: spring always comes. But first, winter. Always. Our ecosystem depends on it.
Pregnancy is my winter season — especially in winter. (I’ve only ever had winter babies.) I can’t motor through anymore. I don’t have much to give. Shutting the doors. Settling down. Curling up. Snuggling close. Sleeping.
I’m not giving up. I’m not failing. I’m hibernating.
This winter pregnancy, I’m trying to follow the rhythm of my body, the rhythm of nature, the rhythm of the life within me, and the rhythm of the seasons I’m in — seasons that might not be my personal favorites, but seasons that are critical for producing life.
[F]or a season, no had to be the answer to almost everything. But over time, when you rebuild a life that’s the right size and dimension and weight, full of the things you’re called to, emptied of the rest, then you do get to live some yes again. But for a while, no is what gets you there. — Shauna Niequist, Present Over Perfect: Leaving Behind Frantic for a Simpler, More Soulful Way of Living, pg. 51
It’s been occurring to me (slowly) that there a million different ways to live a good, meaningful life — and I can choose what to prioritize so that my everyday matches up with what I really believe is good and meaningful. There’s no one way to be a woman. There’s no one way to be an adult.
Over the past few years, I’ve started openly admitting to myself what I do and don’t like, what I do and don’t believe, what I will and will not prioritize. I’ve been incorporating these things and rearranging my life to get those priorities to the forefront.
And you know what?
I haven’t found a single shred of peace because I am so dang exhausted all the freaking time.
That is a (slight) exaggeration. Some things have stuck. But most things haven’t. There are too many learning curves and lifestyle changes required to “live my best life,” and beyond that, never-ending to-do lists clutter the way. Factor in my years of being depressed, pregnant, and/or sleep-deprived (which are quite a few in the college and early parenthood years), and the good stuff never gets done.
I began to suspect I was not made for a good, meaningful life…just a stressed-out, scraping-along one.
Then I read that Shauna Niequist quote. This, I realized, was my problem: I kept adding lots of good things without cutting out anything else. I kept trying to sustain a lifestyle that was exhausting and stressing me out while simultaneously transforming it. And perhaps the biggest revelation of all was that the person I needed to say no to the most was not work or friends or family or random acquaintances. It was…me. Me and my ideas and ambitions and callings.
Not a permanent no. Not a dismissive no. Just a realistic, not-until-you-eat-your-veggies-and-learn-to-go-to-bed-on-time no. A not until you make space, time, and energy no. A not right now, not this year no.
I am always brimming with ideas. I am a perfectionist. I love aesthetically pleasing, ethically sound, people delighting things. I just don’t have the energy, know-how, talent, and/or time to put all those beautiful, meaningful things into action right now.
And this is why the holiday season is a nightmare for me. It involves so many wonderful things that tax my extremely limited domestic skills. Look at all these cute kids’ crafts! How fun would it be to make and deliver cookies to my co-workers with my adorable toddler in tow? This Thanksgiving pie looks delicious. I bet we could copy those decorations into our living room arrangement!
I get excited and inspired and make a to-do list one night…then spend the rest of the season feeling guilty and dull because I keep procrastinating and procrastinating until finally the holiday has past. No cute crafts. No homemade cookies or pies. No coordinated decor. Nothing.
I’VE RUINED THE HOLIDAYS.
If there’s one thing going for me, at least I give up now. I rarely reach the extreme holiday burn-out other moms feel just because I am finally at the point where I wave my white flag before I’ve even begun to fight. I’m too busy wrangling my anxiety to force my way through decorating 4 dozen sugar cookies. Progress?
But I don’t want to do just nothing. I love the holidays. I love holiday traditions. I love good food and pretty decor and fun activities. I want to make meaningful, joyful memories with my family. No matter how tired and burnt-out I am, I don’t just want to bury my head in my pillows and just survive. (I mean, I do, but my soul doesn’t. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.)
I had a Great Awakening over all this when I bitterly observed how my husband experienced none of this stress or pressure to make the holidays happen. If I, the wife and mother, was dead, I grumbled, we wouldn’t have any holiday cheer! He doesn’t have a Pinterest page. He’s never picked up Parents magazine. The kids would grow up without Sunday Advent readings and salt dough ornaments and paper chain Christmas countdowns and Hallmark movie marathons and Christmas light-seeing and matching Christmas jammies!
And then an ornery part of me said…So?
Would anybody even care if they grew up without those particular things? Would anyone even notice?
I was like the reverse Grinch: Maybe Christmas, I thought, doesn’t come from a store. Maybe Christmas, I thought, means something more.
If I and my stressed out plans that never came to fruition anyway OR ended up turning Mama into a Stress Monster were out of the equation…what would happen? Only the things my husband wanted to do — because he, a simpler soul than I, is motivated not by ideals and mom guilt but by what genuinely brings him and others joy. What would happen? Only the things our kids wanted to do — the things that mattered so much to them that they pestered Daddy to do them, the things to which they brought their own energy and planning and joy.
That sounded like an amazing holiday season to me. It hadn’t occurred to me (no, really, it hadn’t) that I could choose to opt into only a few good things and leave the rest I didn’t like or couldn’t fit in. I didn’t have to choose between a guilty fetal position and a non-stop stress fest. It wasn’t all or nothing. I just had to say no, nope, not this year to all the lovely, brilliant, meaningful ideas that whirred through my brain one day and left me depleted for the rest of the season.
I said no to almost literally everything. Even the things I said yes to, I had to say no to more traditional (re: elaborate) ways of doing them. My criteria was no longer, Isn’t this a gorgeous, fun, awesome idea?! They were these, in this order:
(1) Do I want to do this?
(2) Do other people in my family want to do this?
(3) Do I have time and energy for this? (E.g., does this involve planning, shopping, and decision-making? Will this event or activity occur in close proximity to other fun events?)
If there was any sort of hesitation, weariness, or “Hmm, maybe this could work if I…”, I nixed it right then and there — no matter how great of an idea it was.
And our Christmas was lovely. Because while I did cut out a great, great deal, I said yes to things that really mattered in ways I could actually enjoy them.
Basically, I mooched off the energy and planning of other people by showing up to and going along with things instead of offering to host them or plan them.
I caroled with my choir. We attended special church services. My in-laws put on Christmas movies for the toddler and made a yummy German-themed Christmas dinner. Relatives invited us to cookie decorating.
We cut down and decorated a Christmas tree per tradition because all three of us wanted to. Decorations were whatever we pulled out of the Christmas box and placed around the dining and living room. I did all my stocking stuffer and gift shopping online. I only gave a gift if I wanted to and had an idea for. I imperfectly wrapped them in store-bought paper without affixing fresh pine branches with red twine.
We opened presents and stockings on Christmas morning, just us three. No special breakfast…just Cheerios and orange juice in a snowman mug. We hosted a simple Christmas brunch for local family — a charcuterie board, deviled eggs, a couple sweet breads, all prepared by my husband, bless him. The toddler and I napped a ton that day, and we took a cue from him when he asked to go home and play with his new trucks instead of visit with family longer.
We all immensely enjoyed this Christmas — all of us, even me, the tired, super-pregnant, Grinchy mom and wifey. I enjoyed everything we did, instead of resenting it halfway through. I didn’t miss the things we didn’t do because I was too busy being present with the things we did do.
Is this how I want every Christmas to be? Is this how I’m advocating everyone’s Christmas should be? Well, no, not in the sense that a Christmas devoid of crafts and movie marathons and special meals cooked with kids over a beautifully decorated table is inherently superior. But yes, in the sense that everyone’s Christmas ought to be the size and scope that everyone in the family actually wants and can handle that particular year.
I am not hating on beautifully wrapped gifts or elaborate decorations or kids’ crafts or anybody who just couldn’t have Christmas without them. Those traditions and activities are immensely enjoyable to certain people and in certain contexts and seasons, and I love seeing my Facebook feed filled with families in matching Christmas jammies and detailed gingerbread houses and Advent lessons and St. Nicholas Day celebrations. There are so many traditions I loved as a child that I can’t wait to share with my babies, and many that I want to borrow from Pinterest, Parents magazine, and Instagram. Beauty and goodness are beautiful and good even if they can’t fit onto this year’s itinerary. I don’t need to personally squeeze them all in until I’m a hot mess in order to appreciate them.
That’s all I’m saying: they can wait until next year. Or the year after that. Or after that one. Or maybe never, and it’ll be okay. There are so many joyful things to do during the holidays — but they will only be joyful if we say no to the other good things we don’t actually have time, energy, and real interest for.
Ethical conundrum: How much of their toddlers’ Halloween candy can parents eat?
Related: How much of their own Halloween candy should toddlers eat?
Last Halloween, we guiltily ate most of our baby’s trick-or-treating haul. He was under a year, most of it was a choking hazard, and at the time, we erred on the side of not giving him much sugar.
This Halloween, we’d given up banning sugar, he knew what treats were, he had his molars, and honestly, we wanted him to participate fully in the holiday — and that meant candy. Since he was getting candy, little sibling would want candy too. (This, of course, complicated ethical conundrum #1. I told myself that Snickers were still a choking hazard — the nuts! the caramel! — and hoarded them all for myself.)
Our game plan was Ellyn Satter’s advice.
For everyday snacks and meals, Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility prevents parental tantrums and anxiety over our toddlers’ weird eating habits. Eats FOUR cheese sticks in one sitting, then refuses to eat them for weeks after that. Can’t get enough bananas one week, can’t throw them off the side of their tray fast enough the next. Eats so much pasta that I almost don’t get a decent serving, eats little to nothing for the next few meals. One of our toddlers regularly consumes nothing but milk at 1 or 2 meals a day, even when we offer tried-and-true favorites. WHY. The double whammy of food waste and potentially starving children is too much for my soul to take.
In comes DOR to restore sanity. The gist of DOR is this: Parents decide what, when, and where kids eat. Children decide what and how much (if anything) to eat of that selection. No coaxing, no threatening, no force-feeding, no little airplane spoon rides to transport peas into a determinedly closed toddler’s mouth. It’s all based in trusting children to regulate themselves and to learn to enjoy various foods through time and structure.
When he comes home from trick-or-treating, let him lay out his booty, gloat over it, sort it and eat as much of it as he wants. Let him do the same the next day. Then have him put it away and relegate it to meal- and snack-time: a couple of small pieces at meals for dessert and as much as he wants for snack-time.
Harrowing advice, I must say, but we’ve been using DOR since Day 1 and we’ve liked the results so far. So we decided to stick to it and trust it, no matter what happened. And if it all exploded in our faces, we’d do something different next year.
I was okay with the initial night of celebration. Trick-or-treating ended at dinnertime (with meltdowns all around, Mommy included — do you know how exhausting it is to chaperone a tripping-prone child who insists on either meandering slowly by themselves or being carried around the block, no exceptions?!). They got to pick treats out at dinner, but honestly, the toddlers ate more of their auntie’s chocolate chip pumpkin muffins than their candy. (Excellent choice, by the way.) They enjoyed dumping out and throwing their candy at Daddy even more than eating it.
On Day 2, interest in eating treats appeared with a vengeance. Nonstop whining, tantrumming, and/or asking for treats all morning long. Hello, Terrible Twos. One of them skipped over their peanut butter waffles, thinking I’d offer Skittles for breakfast instead. I didn’t, and a packet of Gobstoppers went flying into my coffee. I know Ellyn said to give them free reign over treats the day after (probably to avoid this very post-Halloween cryfest), but I didn’t feel comfortable doing that because I still felt all judged and uncertain about toddlers indulging in unlimited sweets, and it’s a hassle to wipe sticky fingers and faces all morning long, and I planned on giving them as much as they wanted at snack time…if we all survived until 10:30 AM.
We did survive. I gave them full cups of milk and total control of the pumpkin treat bucket (minus choking hazards). I felt like I unwrapped hundreds of candies. I was shocked at how much anxiety was flooding my system. Hey-o, never knew I had this many negative associations with sugar. Didn’t know childhood obesity was a deep dark fear. Who’d’ve thunk that watching my toddler stuff their face with candy and — oh, horror! — enjoy every carefree bite could trigger so much worry? It felt like this would never end. It felt like their appetites were bottomless. It felt like I’d failed as a mother because my kids liked candy. We will never recover from this! They’ll never eat vegetables now!
It’s really sad that my anxious adult lens dampened my experience of their pure joy over trying new treats for the first time. In all actuality, one ate about five pieces and the other ate about six pieces, plus they chugged two cups of milk each. (I didn’t even bother offering an alternate snack.) They both stopped when their bodies told them to stop. We had a few conversations about treats after that, but even the Gobstopper-throwing child graciously accepted that treats would be served at meals and snacks only, and there was no more whining about candy for the entire week after Halloween.
They ate all of their lunch an hour later. I was genuinely shocked, what with the conventional wisdom that sugar before meals spoils the appetite. But I guess, in hindsight, we really hadn’t done anything differently: I let them eat their fill at snack as I always do. Snack just happened to be Halloween treats.
At afternoon snack, I offered a non-treat snack plus their Halloween treats. Along with some non-treat snack, one ate about four pieces, the other opened a bunch of candy to try but only ate a few pieces. Dinner was uneventful, both accepting that they were allowed only one treat at meals.
On Day Three, they ate snack on the wagon ride home from library storytime, so the treat bucket was unavailable. I told their babysitter they could eat one piece at lunch, but neither asked for one even though the bucket sat smack dab in front of them. I don’t remember afternoon snack or dinner (probably a couple treats at snack and one at dinner), but since the excitement of Halloween was dying off for them, I stopped offering treats as snack options and dessert on Day 4. Zero complaints.
The treat bucket now sits on my nightstand, where I have sadly eaten all the Snickers and am selflessly reserving the last few Reese’s peanut butter cups for my husband. The last time a toddler ate candy was yesterday, when they interrupted my nap by waking up early from their nap, and I said, yes, yes, eat the Skittles pouch you found between the couch cushions; sure, of course, watch some dad play with Disney trucks on YouTube; do whatever you want, JUST LET ME SLEEP. (I am a desperately exhausted pregnant woman, people.)
Regarding Ethical Conundrum #1: I’m not sure. After all, Snickers are on the line.
Regarding Ethical Conundrum #2: How much of their own candy should kiddos eat? As much as their bodies want — which, it turns out, isn’t as scary a proposition as I thought.
Help! I feel like I’m going through the same process you articulate here. I only just encountered the term “deconstruction” and I think that’s what’s about to happen to me. My faith has been “presenting itself as a mental illness” for a while now (I have to be Right About Everything or God will hate me), and I’m slowly realizing that a lot of my beliefs are inconsistent with each other and with what I know to be true about the world, and that Rightness-About-Everything might be a lot less accessible to me than I always thought it was. But that’s the most scary thing I’ve ever admitted to myself. What does your faith look like now, “post-deconstruction,” anyway? Do you have any faith left? How did you make it through the crisis with your sanity intact? Sorry for all the questions…
Hi, M! I am excited for your journey. It can lead to so many good and wonderful things you could never ever imagine. I’m also so sorry you’re going through this. Deconstruction was one of the most psychologically, emotionally, and spiritually anguishing times for me, and I would never wish it upon my worst enemy.
What does my faith look like now? My faith is a lot less labelled nowadays, so bear with me. It’s not that I don’t appreciate labels; it’s just that I value nuance, and that makes it difficult for me to fully embrace a term or the community most associated with that term.
At the core of my faith now are love of God via the love of others, and wisdom. I express my deepest faith in Christ through sharing his love with others and receiving his love from others. I deeply, deeply believe that God is love and that there is no fear in love. I relate to God as a parent — a gentle, confident, supportive, firm authority that meets me where I’m at, loves me no matter what, and scaffolds learning so that I’m always pursuing growth without shame. Everything I write here on how I strive to parent — that’s what I believe God to be: no punishment, ever, but steadfast, unconditional love that woos, honors, teaches, models, and in the end transforms our will and desires towards goodness, truth, and spiritual healing.
As I am no longer filled with shame or fear of God, nor do I view my status with him as the accused standing before the accuser, I rarely find the dominant Western narrative of being redeemed or justified through Christ’s blood sacrifice helpful. I’ve soaked in the Eastern Orthodox narrative of sin as sickness and Christ’s death and resurrection as victory over the power of sin and death. That’s the narrative of salvation that produces life, growth, and peace in me, and compassion, understanding, and love for others. Especially as I learn more about early childhood psychology and the effects of trauma, neglect, and experience (the good, the bad, and the ugly), I find the Orthodox perspective most psychologically accurate as well.
We are all God’s children, no matter what we do. We all deserve and need love, understanding, and redemption and healing from past hurts that fuel our impulses and choices. We all must face our humanity, including our brokenness and finiteness. We must all accept and work through what our humanity entails, including the consequences of our own choices and the choices of others that affect us. We must all make changes where we must, and work towards peace, healing, and restitution for others, whether we caused their hurt or not. This is both grace and justice, and God is there with us, now offering rest when we suffer, now strengthening us when we must press on, now firmly setting limits on us when our weakness results in harm — but always for our own good.
Right now, I am not praying or doing daily Bible reading, and I don’t relate to God via a “personal relationship with Jesus” as it is typically presented. I don’t know how to describe this part of my spirituality, and I don’t claim this as an orthodox Christian practice. It’s just where I’m at right now.
I connect to God via sacramentalism, through visual and tangible aids, most especially in community (at church and through my friends and family). But that connection is rarely emotional or “felt,” and it doesn’t feel like I’m relating to God as if he were another human being. I don’t hear him or speak to him like I would with another human. I’m not “in love with Jesus” in the way that people who say they are in love with Jesus are. That feels phony to my experience.
The best way I can describe my relationship with God is how an Orthodox priest described his relationship with his beloved, deceased wife: He can’t “see” her if he tries to “look” at her directly. But when he looks at her slant, she’s so very much there. That’s how I feel about seeing God: I see him when I look at him slant, primarily through another medium. “To love another person is to see the face of God.”
I was confirmed into the Episcopal Church last January. I love Eastern Orthodox theology, worship, and practice, but I am human, and needed a church community that was more accessible to me, a Westerner. Celebrating important feasts and holidays out of sync with our friends and family and in ways that were beautiful but entirely unfamiliar with the things we associated with those holidays, and trying to develop a sense of community when we were the only ones not raised Orthodox or not born into the same culture…it othered me too much at the time, and I couldn’t do it, not with all the other spiritual transitions and questions, not with all the other struggles I was having finding community. Plus, given my specific history with complementarian and patriarchal theology, it was essential to me to belong to and raise my children in a church where women were given full access to serve God as he has called and gifted them.
As for approaching belief, I am forced to be “progressive” and wisdom-focused, as that’s what an honest reading of Scripture and knowledge of church history leads me to be. I do believe in absolute truth. I do believe that beliefs matter and have real consequences. That’s why I’m still passionate and opinionated about what I believe! I also recognize that we are finite, that God is infinite, and that what’s best and right in any given circumstance — that is, wisdom — relies just as much on time, place, culture, and impact as it does on abstract morality. That is to say, I don’t think we can approach absolute truth without our limitations and contexts, and the less we acknowledge our human limitations and contexts, the further we are from absolute truth. To that end, I embrace the Episcopalian understanding of the three-legged stool as a guide towards wisdom and truth — Scripture, tradition, and reason are the legs, and they must all even out.
I value mystery, paradox, nuance, and truth accessed through storytelling. For me, no longer must Biblical accounts be literally true to be true, meaningful, and authoritative. No longer must “divinely inspired” mean “absolutely without historical, scientific, or even moral and theological error.” (Did you know parts of Scripture are written with the assumption that other gods are real, for instance? Or that it assumes morally repugnant things out of line with Christ and basic human decency, like slaughtering enemies’ children or imposing religion by warfare or treating women like property?) Yes, I understand that many fundamentalists will read that and hear, “SHE’S ABANDONED THE FAITH!” instead of hearing what I’m actually saying. And that’s okay with me, because I don’t base my faith or salvation on their doctrinal beliefs that I reject, mostly, because of my earnest study of Scripture.
Besides, I do view Scripture as divinely inspired, authoritative, and essential. I am shaped and guided by Scripture in a way that I’m not shaped and guided by any other text. Like I said, I’m not doing a daily Bible reading — not because I don’t value Scripture but because I haven’t figured out how to study Scripture in a life-giving way — but I studied and memorized so much in the past that it’s with me. It challenges me, corrects me, encourages me, moves me. I love hearing familiar Scripture set to song or reinterpreted in song, or presented in other creative and theological mediums that encourage me to look at it from a fresh perspective.
Those are the details of what my faith looks like now. But the biggest thing I’ve gained through deconstruction is peace. I am at peace with my limitations — primarily that I cannot know everything absolutely or do everything perfectly, and that a God of love understands that and works with that and doesn’t offer me salvation based on that.
I am at peace with truth, because I no longer fear finding it in unexpected places. I no longer see truth-seeking in the secular world as at odds with truth-seeking in the spiritual world. “All truth is God’s truth,” as Augustine said. I no longer fear being wrong — not when I am now able to look at things as objectively as possible without God’s judgment breathing down my neck. I am not saying I’m no longer wrong — I am, often. But I am growing in truth more quickly and painlessly because I can more quickly and painlessly admit when I’m wrong.
My faith isn’t predicated on me being right, or certain, or able to convince a skeptic. Mystery, paradox, and the understanding that nobody can ever be 100% certain are built into my truth-seeking process now, so it’s not surprising or discouraging to me that I get things wrong or can’t figure something out or be completely sure. There’s no pressure to get it all right or burn in hell otherwise. Learning can be an actual process now, with room and time for questions, confusion, mistakes, and do-overs. I can know what I know and wonder at the rest, without worrying that I don’t know enough or that I believe the wrong things.
Says Kallistos Ware, an Orthodox theologian, “…[I]t is not the task of Christianity to provide easy answers to every question, but to make us progressively aware of mystery. God is not so much the object of our knowledge as the cause of our wonder.”
The more I know, the less I do, and the more there is to explore.
Most importantly, I am at peace with God. Do you know what a beautiful, joyful, transformational thing it is to be fully confident in God’s love? I didn’t until I deconstructed. I can live now! I can grow. I can accept and give grace. I can be honest with myself. I can suffer and sacrifice and push myself and do all those Christian things, because at the core of my being, I believe that I am beloved by God’s grace alone, that there is absolutely nothing that will stand in the way of him loving me — certainly not my brokenness and hurts and faults and inadequacies. This love challenges and empowers me to be better every day while taking all the pressure off to be perfect.
Please understand that when I say things like, “I’m not certain” or “It’s okay to be wrong” or “Here is where I’m at,” I am not just shrugging my shoulders and advocating for an “anything goes” theology. I care very much about what’s true. I care very much about what counts as Christian. And in that regard, I care about “getting it right.” But I am being honest: I do not know everything, even if it’s possible that I could know all the right things. I am learning. I am a novice. I am young, I am in some ways starting my Christian walk over again from a place of love rather than fear, and I am human. I have grief to walk through, questions to ask, baggage to unpack. Truth-seeking is a process, and I have not finished it.
There are absolutely things I believe to be true — things that I stake my faith on and operate from (like the idea that God is love and that I am beloved because of his grace alone, period). And there are many areas where I don’t know what to believe or how to proceed, but because truth matters, I am taking things slow, like with prayer. I am not forcing myself into a belief or cobbling together a doctrinal statement just to alleviate the fear of being wrong or of not knowing. Sometimes things are so important, they must be approached carefully and slowly, with plenty of time and experience and thought sunk into exploring them. I’ve been hurt and I’ve hurt others through hasty, easy answers that ignore my own doubts and other people’s valid critiques. Never again.
As to how I made it through with my sanity intact? Oh, my. I barely did. Here are the important things: I got counseling from a licensed counselor. I quit identifying as Christian for almost a year because I couldn’t breathe or think from the weight of my doubt, fear, and internal conflict. (This was my first leap of faith toward the idea of a loving, merciful, understanding God.) I married a man who exemplified a slow, quiet, non-pressured faith, who was alternately shocked and amused by the toxic theology I used to believe, and who was always willing to listen to me rant. I joined an online community of people (“Living Life Unfundamentalist”) who “got it” and didn’t pressure me into or out of Christian belief at all. I needed to grieve among grieving people. I needed to laugh at and cry at and rage at and, yes, sometimes sneer at the beliefs that held me captive. And I needed hope that this grief wouldn’t consume me forever. I needed new answers and different angles. This group gave me that. I rarely need to grieve my fundamentalist past as intensely as I did then, so I don’t often find it helpful to immerse myself in that sort of community. But it was so, so, so critical that I found that group and walked with that group for several years until I found my spiritual footing again.
I took another leap of faith in exploring and embracing the parts of Christianity that I just couldn’t shake. I started attending an Orthodox church, and meeting for a Q&A with an Orthodox priest. I read all of Pete Enns’ books, and Sarah Bessey’s Out of Sorts — Christians who had deconstructed, didn’t sugarcoat or simplify any of my doubts and questions, and still re-imagined faith in Christ in a far more intellectually honest, faithful, traditional, Scriptural way than my former fundamentalist beliefs.
The funny, relieving thing about reconstruction is that you don’t need to build the whole building again to feel at home — that is, you don’t need to answer every question or resolve every doubt or come to a conclusion on everything. It’s a weird paradox: We don’t have to “arrive” to have arrived. We don’t have to get it all right to get it right. We don’t have to be certain to be certain. There’s a lot of clarity in not knowing. None of that would feel compelling or sensible to my deconstructing self, so I’m not sure if that’s at all helpful to you now, or if it’s just confusing or discouraging. But it’s what I know to be true.
What I’ve articulated here is a strong enough foundation for me to find belief, meaning, and peace, even when I worry, doubt, and feel lost. I sincerely wish that you’ll find those things too, M — sooner rather than later, but later enough that you have time to fully deconstruct and reconstruct everything that you need to find them.
My #firsttimeparent moment came when two-month-old e.e. started crying more than his usual contented self. After all the kinds and lengths of cries and screams we’ve witnessed in two years of parenting, it’s utterly laughable that we were even concerned about this particular cry — much less concerned enough that we felt it best to take him to the pediatrician ASAP. He was fine. Apparently we weren’t the first new parents to worry over newborn cries, and our pediatrician assured us that the worst was yet to come.
Toddlers cry. A lot. They scream. They tantrum. They wail. They sob. They reach humanly impossible pitches and intensities. It’s just a thing that they do, even if you check off all the Basic Needs boxes: fed, changed, rested, warm, entertained, attended to. Consistent routines and nap/meal schedules help to stave of hunger- and exhaustion-related meltdowns, but I still cook many a lunch with toddlers screaming, “MAHHHHHHH!” at me, as if I’ve never given them any food in their lives.
It’s my favorite part of parenting, for sure.
Before crying underscored my existence, I resolved never to do that horribly dismissive things parents do — telling their kids to stop crying!, as if they’re miserable because they’re crying instead of crying because they’re miserable. I’m still resolved, but my success rate is far from 100%. Sometimes, I just can’t take it anymore. The crying is so incessant, so loud, so intrusive, and from my adult perspective, so irrational. Nothing triggers compassion fatigue faster than a whiny scream over no discernible thing, with all offers of kindness, solutions, and juice refused.
It’s not irrational, not when I step away from the screaming and process what the heck just happened. Life just sucks sometimes, for all of us, toddlersandadults. It’s not about wanting Mama to get the cup of water instead of Daddy, not really. It’s about the fears we have of losing connection with someone we love, and how little control we have over people, and how much we need them, anyway, and how are we supposed to function, needing someone we cannot control? It’s not about tripping over their feet and falling on their butt (again) as they’re learning to walk. It’s about the frustration of wanting to get to a solid, steady place in life, but development and obstacles constantly hold us back, no matter how much we try. Some days, we wake up on the wrong side of the bed. The world looks bleak, we feel crappy, and it’s just too overwhelming to make it downstairs to breakfast.
Once, a parent tried soothing their daughter who had burst into inconsolable tears. “It’s okay,” they soothed. “You’re okay.”
“I’m not okay!” she snapped.
Toddlers aren’t irrational. Toddlers are honest. They’re honest about the jagged edges of reality that we try to smooth over with the lies we tell ourselves about being in control and everything having a meaning and life always working out in the end.
Toddlers know how to lament.
The impulse is to calm the child, to make things better. But the scream comes back, “Don’t even try to calm me down!” whether in words or equivalent. Why is this so unnerving? Doesn’t it evoke all the fear, resentment, frustration, which hasn’t really changed at all since our own childhood? And isn’t the impulse to get the child calmed down, by any means possible, an impulse to stifle this Pandora’s box? It’s an enormous challenge to really be with the child in its inconsolable state.
That child is ourself. We want love, which is always going to turn out to be less dependable than the infinite we hoped for. We want psychological security and it will never be enough. We want physical security. We want to continue as me forever. Our wants, and perceived needs come up bang against the wall of aloneness which wanting and hoping and grasping creates. Then, can we be with the sadness this evokes? Can we feel it, the impulse to run away from it, the absoluteness of it, the non-negotiable nature of our predicament as a vulnerable, scared human being? Perhaps if we truly perceive the fact that there is nothing I can do, then the child/adult may for the first time be free from an enormous burden of managing the unmanageable. — Anonymous, quoted in “When a Child Is Inconsolable: Stay Near”
I think that’s why we’re often deeply uncomfortable with crying children: they’re lamenting an unfixable grief. Why else are we still trying to get our children to stop crying when it’s obvious they feel a need to cry about something? Sure, we often get flat out annoyed and overstimulated and just want the crying to stop for our own sanity. But in other moments, we can’t deal with the helpless position we find ourselves in when our babies are sobbing, and we’ve tried everything, and nothing will fix it. We feel helpless, we feel guilty for feeling helpless, and we feel reminded of a deeply uncomfortable truth…that sometimes nothing can fix the hurts in this life, not in the way we want, and certainly not on our own timetable.
Sitting with a screaming toddler, it’s the exact process of sympathy, discomfort, and then avoidance I feel with people who’ve experienced adult pain. They’re single and they don’t want to be. Their family’s a wreck. They hate their job. They want something more out of life. The first few times, I knit my brow and listen intently. Yes, this is a valid pain. I get it. I’ve felt it myself. The next few times, when it gets clearer and clearer how badly this pain is affecting them, I get nervous. I don’t know how to help. I don’t know what to say. I don’t want to be in this support position anymore. Why are they telling me all this? I’m not a counselor.
The few times after that, I want to throw up my hands and tell them to get a grip — as if there’s a timeline on grief.
I find myself thinking of the story of Job a lot, how he drew the short stick in life just for being a righteous man, and how all his friends came, lamented, and sat with him for seven days and seven nights, holding space for his unspeakable grief. They must have got compassion fatigue from seven days of lamenting, because after Job starts verbalizing his grief in long, melodramatic monologues, the friends lose their empathy. They start trying to fix things: Here’s what you did wrong, Job; here’s what you can do; here’s how you can move on.
Just like me. I do that. I’m the obnoxious fix-it personality who’s quicker to Google possible remedies and analyze everything to make sure this never happens again. I do it to everyone, including myself. I haven’t learned to lament. I haven’t learned to hold space. I don’t think many of us have, even those of us who aren’t obnoxious fix-it personalities. We don’t know how it feels to have someone sit with us and let us scream or cry or rant for as long as we need, without judgment, without fidgeting, without Googling nearest counselors who price services on a sliding income scale.
There are, of course, things we can do to help. Sometimes someone needs a nap or a hug or a cup of juice to get blood sugar back up. Sometimes advice, a game plan, and counseling is absolutely critical to resolving or avoiding the issue in the future. But sometimes, at the core of the grief is an unfixable thing that just needs space to be.
One of my toddlers woke up from a nap screaming. They didn’t want to be touched. They didn’t want to be spoken to. They flung themselves away from me at great risk to their physical safety whenever I moved toward them or opened my mouth. Finally I just sat there. They screamed full volume, full heart for thirty minutes. I timed it. My husband had to take over lamenting, because the other toddler needed me (which might have prolonged the screaming). After thirty minutes, the tears abated, I picked them up, gave them a kiss, nuzzled them, fed them a snack, and we went about our day relatively tear-free.
They just needed to lament, and they needed me to sit with them and let their feelings be unfixable.
If I’m honest, I need that. We all need that. We aren’t as free or in touch with our grief as toddlers are. We’re less egotistical; we’re more conscious of how perspective and time work; we’re more considerate of how our sorrow and pain affect others. But we still need to lament more than we’d like to admit. And we still need friends who will sit with our lament in silent acceptance for as many days and nights as it takes to feel okay again.
When I was younger, theology was my passion. That was the lens through which I saw and processed the world. That was my passion. That’s what I thought about, wrote about, lived for. I spent time and money on a Christian studies degree. I never had any set career plans with these interests (can you have a set career plan when you’re a woman with a degree in Christian studies?), but my life, I was sure, would involve at least an armchair, if not a platform, in theology.
I graduated with that Christian studies degree, deconstructed everything, and came out on the other side totally disinterested in theology proper. Do I care deeply about God, spirituality, and Christianity? Absolutely. Have I finished any of the theology books on my Goodreads list? Absolutely not. Have I revisited any of my old online haunts to ask or answer a theological question? Not at all. Do I have any interest in pursuing my teenage dream of writing bestselling theology books? Heck, no.
College taught me I wasn’t an academic — not like the true academics. It burned me out on books so badly that it took me a couple years to even pick up a light novel. I cannot fathom how anyone who valued their mental health went directly from graduation to graduate school.
So now I find myself looking back on a decade of my life and thinking, “Wow, self, we have nothing in common.”
Welcome to my quarter-life crisis!
I’ve been pondering for a while whether my enthusiasm for theology was a true passion, or more of a means of survival. If it was truly a passion, can it shift this drastically? Don’t true passions stick with you for life, don’t they make up the DNA of who you are, no matter what season you pass through or what other interests come and go? If so, me leaving theology on the bus after my last stop in deconstruction is proof that theology wasn’t really something I was passionate in. It took up so much room in my life, crowding out other things that I might be interested in, only because I felt that my eternal life depended on it.
It did. Theology was a matter of life and death. I genuinely thought that if I believed the wrong thing, God would burn me alive in hell forever for failing to follow his clear and obvious truth. That meant I had to be right, on every issue I was exposed to. It was a horrific catch-22: Someone who truly loved Jesus loved to study the Word. So I studied. The more I studied, the less margin of error I had, because someone as educated as I in the Word should know better.
When my beliefs became emotionally, spiritually, and intellectually impossible to hold onto, I had to start over. I started over with unconditional love at the foundation of everything I believe and do. I’m not afraid of God anymore. My faith doesn’t present itself as a mental illness. There is room to be who I am and follow the passions and vocation God gave me.
Theology and I parted ways when it became clear that our relationship was built mostly out of fear and necessity — a bond forged in a traumatic existence predicated on getting everything right, or else. That is what makes me question whether that decade of theological study was a true passion, much less a true (but temporary) calling.
Now my passions lie with something entirely different and entirely out of left field — children’s rights advocacy, particularly in the contexts of respectful, nonviolent, nonpunitive parenting, trauma-informed foster care, and — get this — play- and nature-based early childhood education. (Bailey and nature in the same sentence? Truth is stranger than fiction.) I see the world through a developmentalist perspective. I want to be an early childhood teacher in a needy area. I want to foster children. Whereas my brainspace was once taken up by minute, obscure, unwanted opinions on eschatology, now it’s crowded with minute, obscure, unwanted opinions on sleep training and baby-led weaning.
I want to say that this is my true passion. This is where I am called now that I am free to answer any call that God gives me. This is what I was born to do and what I choose to do out of love, not fear.
Interestingly, I’m only passionate about this ever since I landed a K5 job at a Christian charter school in the inner city (what else what I was supposed with that Christian studies degree?), got pregnant, and realized that I needed to get my act together before I passed on all my vices to the next generation. How much of this new passion is born out of necessity, circumstance, and, sure, a little (lot) of fear about screwing things up? Are those things the drive of passion and vocation? Will this passion last all the way through my kids’ childhoods? Even that long? Will I have to reboot and rebrand in another decade, in a new season?
And if I do, will that mean this passion wasn’t my calling and vocation? Or does it mean that calling and passion grows and changes organically with the whole person? Perhaps the person, her circumstances, her fears and her loves drive the passion and the calling just as much as the passion and the calling make up who that person is?
This is the gist of my quarter-life crisis. I haven’t quite figured out what to do with my past self and my past passions. I still want to write. I still ponder things about God and spirituality…just off-script from theology. Just the other day I was toying with the idea of writing about God and spirituality through the lens of motherhood, which is a very theologicky thing for someone disinterested in theology to consider. For Pete’s sake, I’m writing a whole article on how important it is for me to find out where the heck that Lost Decade of Theology fits into this new me who wants to write about behavior clip charts, eating healthy on a budget, and the best brand of diapers, all in one breath.
Living longer will answer those questions better than trying to puzzle it out now, I imagine. I’m not worried about it too much. I just like having an explicit, cohesive “point” to my existence.
For now, my friend suggested that my forte was speaking about the universal human experience from whatever vantage point I happened to be occupying at the moment…whether it’s from a nerdy, academic, snobbish place of fear or a page out of the life and times of a mom and preschool teacher passionate about children’s rights and a God of love.
There’s a lot of freedom and a lot of grounding in that vocation. I like it.
I was asking myself the other day whether I was lonely. Was I? Was I starving for human companionship that didn’t require me cleaning up half-chewed banana from the table? Was I pining for human conversation that didn’t involve one person screaming bloody murder for ten minutes straight while the other person played a rapid-fire 20 Questions (Is it an injury? An illness? An emotion? Do you need a third banana??)?
Yes, a change of pace is always welcome, but I don’t feel lonely. I don’t feel socially deprived. I am a low energy, introverted mother who wants a nap more than a night out.
Besides, I have friends. I have many amazing friends, some collected and kept from as far back as my high school days. I knew that if I truly needed someone to talk to, I could text any one of them and they’d say, “I can’t tonight, but after I get through this week of overtime and move to a new house and give birth to this baby and raise him to adulthood, we should totally get together!”
No, I truly do have amazing friends who would indeed drop things to at least call me if I reallyneeded them.
I don’t ever really need them, though, because they are busy, and I am busy, and I have learned to live life without being able to pick people’s brains in real time — thus resulting in a strange adult friendship problem that I will share with you now.
When I was in college, the longest I might have to wait for a friend to be available to talk was…not long. If I could just survive classes, I could crash in a cafeteria booth and spill everything. If I couldn’t survive that long, I could text after class and get at least a little bit of human interaction as they walked into their class.
Adult life obligations do not come in block schedule form. They are never-ending, with too few and too short breaks. Counsel and encouragement are often a day, a week, a month away. Obviously I can’t wait that long to solve a pressing issue. And so, I have had to learn to deal with my crises on my own. I have had to learn to self-soothe. I have had to learn to sit and think through things by myself (or post them to a sympathetic Facebook group and hope a helpful person responds with something more substantial than, “No advice, but solidarity” *heart emoji*).
These are all excellent adult skills to have, and I don’t resent the emotional growing up I did while learning to solve my own problems without hand-holding. It feels good to feel competent and self-sufficient, rather than a co-dependent puddle.
But connecting with others is a still a basic human need that doesn’t go away when emotional maturity blossoms. (And if it does, I don’t want to grow up anymore.) Even though I might not need someone sorting life out with me 24/7, even if I can wait until after work hours, I still would like to process things with somebody rather than monologue the half hour round trip to and from work. I don’t need to reach meltdown mode to justify wanting a friend.
The thing is, now that FRANTIC AND IMMEDIATE NEED is not driving my get-togethers, it’s easy for me to say, “Sure, go ahead and raise your child to adulthood — I can wait until you’re free.” And I can. I can. I’m proud of myself that I can.
Here’s the problem.
I am tired, brain dead, low energy introvert. I do not want nor can I muster up much energy to have conversations about things I don’t find interesting. And I’m finding that I’m really only interested in crises and questions and thoughts as they happen in real time, rather than relaying them all in retrospect at a predetermined date. Texting my husband about how the toddler is screaming for ten minutes straight is a far more relevant and interesting conversation when the toddler is doing the screaming…but if I’ve already dealt with it, and had my ten minutes of screaming, and moved on, it takes more energy than I want to give to recap all those exhausting emotions and thought processes. I don’t need him to know about the toddler screaming. I need him when the toddler is screaming.
Same with friends. The days and weeks and months pass, and by that time, I have usually come to a solid, if not entirely satisfactory conclusion or course of action. Since it’s not bearing down on me, mom amnesia and exhaustion set in, and I find that I don’t really have anything interesting to say about my life.
I’m focusing on the negative things because this week has mowed me over, but this is true for happy things too, like vacations and funny memes and sweet anecdotes. I don’t care much about them a couple months after they occur, and even if I do, I probably don’t remember them. I have been trying for a month to remember to tell my husband about the cute elderly couple who ride their electric scooters to the duck pond on Green Bay St. every single evening, holding hands on the park bench and throwing bread crumbs to the duck with the huge cyst on his eyelid. If I can’t even remember to tell the man I see five minutes after I pass that scene, how am I supposed to remember and/or bring it up naturally in conversation with someone I only see once a month? (I did remember to tell him about the duck.)
So when a friend texts, “I’m so sorry to do this to you again, but something came up. Can we try next Monday instead?!”, I say, “Of course!!” Because I have learned to talk to myself in the car.
This has resulted in me not speaking to friends for a shamefully long time, which has resulted in me wondering if I’m lonely. I still don’t think I am — the simple existence of people I love and people who love me is buffer against that — but I do need and want to spend more of my life, the crises and the play time, with friends, instead of scheduling coffee dates a few times a year to catch up on all the things that are no longer a source of much frustration, joy, and thus, interest, in our lives.
Maybe I could just call people on my way home from work and talk to them instead of texting them after work to schedule a time to talk. But that’s weird, right? And requires that I get over my deal with talking on the phone.
Ah, well, no worries. I’m sure I’ll figure it out soon in one of those heart-to-hearts with the bathroom mirror.
Sharing the story of our hurt is healing. It’s healing to get it off our chests. It’s healing to take control of a narrative that ripped agency from us. It’s healing to be taken seriously and believed. It’s also healing to see how sharing our story impacts and empowers others.
The amazing thing about the internet is that this healing can extend beyond a couple in-person relationships. We can connect with others who’ve been through our struggles. We can start wide-reaching social media platforms without any middle-man policing our story. We can effect change and expose lies and abuse just through one viral tweet. That’s incredible. I’m eternally grateful for all the brave people who shared their stories publicly, forever changing my life.
The downside to this amazing phenomenon? There are a lot of injured, unprepared, easily triggered people thrust to the helm of important social movements and prominent platforms, and they are not healed enough to be there.
I’ve observed that there are many, many vocal people who subconsciously use their platform as a form of personal healing. They want the internet to hear them, believe them, and validate their experience, no questions asked. They fly off the handle at questions; they attack people’s character for using the wrong word or tone, even unintentionally; they want people to change their minds, but don’t want them to ask any questions. “There are tons of articles on that. Do your own research,” they snap.* They talk about how exhausted and done they are after one dissenting comment. Their patience and their skin is extremely thin.
I used to judge these people as mean and irrational, but now I understand that they’re just hurt and unhealed, and continued interaction with the insensitive and ignorant masses further compounds their pain. The stress of being questioned and not immediately believed, the frustration of hearing the same stupid questions over and over, the exposure of their deepest selves to a skeptical world — that’s a lot. They are burned out.
I’m convinced there’s absolutely nothing wrong with expecting people to accommodate our pain and adhere to our boundaries, but if we’re going to be speaking to people who don’t know us, who aren’t familiar with our type of experience, and who don’t agree, we’ve got to be aware of our needs and explicit about our boundaries. It’s essential for our own well-being and our movement as a whole to specify whether we’re looking to be heard and validated or seeking to educate others.
In my own online experience, I enjoy clearly-defined boundaries that set me up for what to expect as a participant. I don’t mind being in spaces where a particular marginalized voice is elevated or where I’m expected to listen and not talk. I appreciate when someone specifies which terms they do or don’t prefer so that I can discuss things sensitively. I’m okay with working around people’s sensitives and triggers. We all have them — even prominent, confident social media leaders. Just because someone is an internet celebrity doesn’t mean that their followers and detractors get to define or ignore the celebrity’s personal boundaries.
What does bother, frustrate, and confuse me is when people enter into spaces for open debate or set themselves up as a public, vocal advocate, and then not only refuse to accept questions, criticism, or the ignorance expected from beginners, but rage at others for daring to question their experience. Again, to be clear, there is nothing wrong or weak about admitting our triggers, acknowledging our areas that need healing, or setting up spaces and boundaries that are geared toward support and validation only. We just need to be clear about them. And we need to be realistic: it’s not fair to ourselves or others to set ourselves up as an expert, to start debates, or to attempt to change people’s minds if we’re not healed enough to patiently, kindly deal with the skeptics and the newbs.
This is where I see positive social media movements going off the rails. They start as primarily raising awareness about a problem, empowering people with similar experiences to speak up. It picks up steam as all the people needing the validation of being seen, heard, and believed hop onto the bandwagon.
Then, since it’s public and controversial, the dissenters start in with questions, comments, and criticisms — many outright trollish, meant to silence and intimidate; many genuine, meant to understand and to give a fair hearing, even if they cannot agree to agree beforehand. The movement, being designed more for awareness, not debate, and being comprised mostly of ordinary people who signed up for validation, not skepticism, who aren’t healed enough to hear a barrage of questions and a slew of the same old ignorant microaggressions about their very personal stories — the movement reacts as any hurt person punched in their wounds would: lashing out, withdrawing into itself, creating an insular echo chamber that demands unquestioning belief and perfect sensitivity, without any energy to educate even its own people on what that looks like.
This inability to engage with the public erodes the movement’s credibility with the crowd of reasonable but ignorant people willing to give it a fair shot. People get nervous or frustrated, unable to engage in a discussion without being told to sit down and shut up. Within the movement, people are too afraid of getting cancelled for unintentionally saying the wrong thing. People with valid concerns get kicked out for simply disagreeing. The movement fails to educate those trying to listen and learn, and it’s unable to handle the introspection needed to course correct or grow. All the leaders are off and on angry, burnt out, or unwilling to answer or tolerate questions, and finally, the movement implodes in on itself with infighting, because everybody’s sensitivities and hurts are unique, and nobody knows how to handle those differences in healthy ways.
All of this can be mitigated through self-awareness, self-care, and clear communication. We need to recognize with compassion and sensitivity that hurt people hurt people. They’re not irrational or mean or proving that their experience and their take on it is invalid. They’re just hurt. If someone is sharing something personal in a public sphere, we need to ask about their boundaries and respect those boundaries, offering validation if that’s what they want and we can offer, scrolling past if we can’t.
For those of us who put ourselves out there, let’s be real with ourselves. Are we looking for validation or for changing people’s minds? Are we sharing primarily for ourselves and our healing, for others’ healing, or for convincing dissenters? (All of which are valid reasons, in my opinion.) Are we sharing sensitive things only in safe places and checking in with ourselves before entering into potentially triggering debates? Are we aware of and clear about our boundaries — with ourselves and others? Are we setting ourselves up as an expert when what we really need is expert counseling? Are we setting ourselves up as an advocate when we’re still in need of advocacy? Are we setting ourselves up as an educator without any intention or ability to treat our students with respect, patience, and understanding?
There’s nothing wrong with being unable or unwilling to field questions or criticisms about our personal experiences, or to deal directly with those uneducated and unfamiliar with our movement. That’s a huge job for a specific skillset and level of healing. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to share our story for personal empowerment or the empowerment of others. That’s an important niche in truth-telling. But any decision to lead, educate, and advocate publicly needs to involve an honest, compassionate, realistic assessment of our wounds and our boundaries.
“Not many of you should become teachers,” James warns, “because you know that we who teach will be judged more so” (James 3).
I, as a teacher and a writer, used to freak out at this verse. Interpreted “judged” as divine retribution for getting something wrong. But that’s not what he means. He means it quite literally: the harsh, hypocritical, unrelenting scrutiny from followers and dissenters alike comes with the territory of teaching. People will judge teachers (or leaders or social media celebrities), whether we think that’s fair or not, and whether we can handle it or not.
Not many of you should becomes teachers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more so. For we all make mistakes in lots of things. (And the internet will let us know about it.)
Here’s a good check in for whether we’re ready to take on a public role: “Who is wise and knowledgeable among you? Let them show by their fine behavior that their actions are done gently, with wisdom. … [T]he wisdom from above is primarily holy, then peaceful, considerate, reasonable, full of mercy, unprejudiced, and without pretense. Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.”
And if our words don’t follow this pattern? Our words can set the world on fire — in an apocalyptic, dumpster fire sort of way that burns us and our movements to the ground, not the inspirational kind of fire that keeps our message going. “In the same way also, the tongue is a small body part and confidently says major things. Look how small the tongue is and how great a forest it sets on fire!”
Hence James’s advice that not many of us should be teachers — or tweeters or advocates or social media vigilantes, to put it in modern terms.
It’s okay — it’s totally okay and normal and necessary — if we’re not at a place to do any of those peaceful, holy, reasonable, unprejudiced things, if we still need to vent and rage and feel validated and tear down the dangerous beliefs of others in a safe, understanding place that doesn’t require us to watch our impact on those who don’t get it. I went through a two-year long process needing to do just that. I sometimes still need to do that for certain things, depending on where I’m at in my grieving and reconstructing.
But if we’re not in a place to be peaceful, considerate, reasonable, full of mercy, etc., we should be talking to those committed to our healing — a therapist, a support group, a loved one — and not the heartless, skeptical internet. Our souls and our movements’ reputations will be far better off if not many of us were to become vocal, public advocates before we’re ready.
*See Christian Janeway’s pointed remarks on this popular and frustrating dodge here. (Expletive alert, for those sensitive to that.) The gist: “I take issue with anyone who treats someone with honest questions or even honest ignorance about a ‘category of human’ as if the person with the question is a part of the problem for approaching a [expletive] public expert, who built a platform on that expertise. … If you have info that she didn’t have, it is yourjob to share it with kindness. That’s not oppression — that’s being a kind human being. … When I’m the expert, I fully expect and welcome people’s questions and mistakes. … People who are voluntarily giving up privilege because it’s the right thing to do are already deeply uncomfortable in a space they don’t know how to navigate, and will make mistakes. If you don’t have the patience and maturity to deal with someone making mistakes in a space they’re unfamiliar with, I truly don’t see why I should trust you to be any kind of representative for your group of humans.” Amen.
Last Saturday I told my husband that I just wanted to peek inside Goodwill for a pink sweater, and then we’d be done, I promise.
An hour and a shopping cart full later…..
I really don’t spend much on myself, besides medical bills, coffee dates, and the occasional cute outfit. Spending money paralyzes me. Shopping overwhelms me. Decisions in general make my head spin, so it’s not exactly my idea of a fun weekend to hang out at the mall.
But Goodwill’s low prices mitigate some of that fear. So much, in fact, that I’ve got a bag of rejects sitting in my closet waiting to go back to Goodwill.
That’s one of the weird things about being me. I freak out about spending money, and then when I do, I inevitably buy something I don’t even like that much.
Since I clearly have issues knowing my own mind and then making it up, I’ve had to develop some clothes shopping rules. They help me make a decision when I need to make one, and they keep me away from embarrassing impulse buys. (The cheetah print skirt….)
(1) It absolutely must fit. Perfectly. If it needs hemming or taking in, forget it. It’s an automatic hard pass if I find myself thinking, “Well, it’ll fit if….” I don’t like belts, I can’t sew, it won’t happen. This rule prevents 90% of all purchases because I am too short for most bottoms, too embarrassed to wear most shorts, and too skinny to fit into almost everything else.
(2) It needs to coordinate with with multiple items in my preexisting wardrobe. Last year, I decided on a color palette (olive, pink, denim, gray, tan, chestnut, bright white), a color saturation (muted, some pastel), and a style (looser shirts, skinny jeans/leggings, long sweaters, some slight, tentative ventures into boho/hipster/vintage worlds). I can pretty much pick any random pair of pants and any random shirt and throw it together with any sweater. Voila, an outfit! Several things don’t exactly go with the New Me (and to be honest, I don’t exactly wear them, either). While I can’t work up the courage to get rid of these un-matchy pieces, I sure try my darndest not to bring any more of them home from Goodwill. If I can’t match the article of clothing to at least a couple of my regular outfits, it’s going back on the rack with a wistful farewell.
(3) I need to be able to wear it at work or church. Gone are the college days where cold shoulders or super high heels could even remotely be appropriate. Gone too are the days when dressing preppy for class or, at the other extreme, lounging in sweatpants, was a daily probability. I get ONE singular Saturday a week to wear something not work-appropriate or church-appropriate. Since I’ve already got lots of competition for that spot (short shorts! ripped jeans! graphic tees!), I don’t buy anything I couldn’t wear to work or church. I know now that I just won’t wear it, no matter how cute it looks in isolation from my real life. In case you’re wondering, I can wear normal clothes to work — even athleisure.
(4) It needs to fit with and cover the bra types I already own. You feel me? None of these weird straps and cutouts and necklines that are made for braless prepubescents and recklessly marketed to adult women.
(5) It needs to be well-made but easy to care for. This is actually a new rule for me, developed after reading Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, by Elizabeth L. Cline. It should feel substantial, not thin or see through; be tailored well; include nice details; wash without turning into a permanently rumpled mess; and have no stains or holes. (Because, again, it’s delusional to think I’ll get around to fixing it.) I now try to avoid fast fashion brands that use cheap materials (even though my entire wardrobe is hypocritically Old Navy).
Last but not least: (6) It needs to be something I’ve wanted for awhile. I’ve got a running wish list: I’m on the hunt for a pleasantly colored yellow something in my life, a pink cardigan (maybe floral, please?), a white calf-length tulle skirt, a shirt with dinosaurs or hedgehogs or sloths or llamas (channeling my inner Ms. Frizzle here), those cute high-waisted shorts that tie in a bow, and maybe — the unicorn of petite clothing — a maxi skirt that doesn’t trip me onto my face. These are things I persistently find myself drooling over whenever I encounter fashion. They stay with me over the years and the Google searches. They are my true loves and my real style. And when I find them at Goodwill for $7.99 like a fated meeting — I feel absolutely no hesitation buying them.
Just last month I stumbled upon a leather jacket in exactly the color and style I’ve wanted since forever. It makes me happy in a way a leather jacket probably shouldn’t make me. I’m so glad I didn’t settle for the Target one that didn’t fit quite right, or the online one that cost a fortune. True love waits.
This rule also helps me make rational decisions when the price tag is high. If I’ve been wanting a piece for forever, I feel more confident spending a bit extra or buying it brand new instead of off the Goodwill rack. I know it’s not an impulse buy, so I’m okay forking over money for good quality and the exact look I want.
While I’ve got a lifetime of impulsive and disappointing buys to educate me, these rules really flow from that satisfaction of finding just the perfect piece for a price I’m willing to pay — and then loving it every time I pull it out of my closet.