The Lord is my Shepherd, it’s going to be okay (A Psalm for weary women)

Remember playing hide-n-seek as a kid, and after a countdown the seeker would shout “Ready or not, here I come!”? Lately I’ve been feeling like I want to hide away somewhere, too, but my calendar is shouting “Ready or not, here I come!” at me. It’s a crazy season, and sometimes I feel a rising sense of panic about all there is to do.
In the midst of this, I sensed an invitation to lay down my COO-Of-The-House mantle, and spend some time reflecting on being a sheep. The sheep in Psalm 23, particularly.My talented artist friend Corrie (who illustrated my poetry series and the trafficking awareness posts) knows the stress of a family calendar and the invitation of the good shepherd, too, and so together we want to share a virtual cup of tea and an invitation to God’s rest to you.
Psalm 23 for the Weary Woman
The LORD is my shepherd, he will take care of me.
He has me sit down, drink tea, and breathe a while,
     He restores my soul.
He helps and guides me in making decisions, because he cares about how his daughter is faring in this world.
Even though I stare down the shadowed valley of an overloaded calendar, 
     I will not freak out,
     for you are with me;
Knowing you’ll guide and guard me in this mayhem comforts me.
You provide ways for me to be nourished and flourished, even in the midst of life’s demands
You have chosen and called me your own;
       you’ve promised an abundant life, rich with your presence.
I know it’s going to be okay,
       because your goodness and kindness will be with me every single day in this life and this home,
       and for all the days in the next life in your home, too. 
Amen.

Is it okay to watch Game of Thrones? (some thoughts on freedom, fear, and viewer discretion)

 

“Dear Bronwyn,

 

Is it okay to watch Game of Thrones? I have Christian friends who want to get together and watch it, and other Christian friends who think it’s the Show Satan Made. Any thoughts?

 

Thanks,

HBgO or HBnO?”

 

Dear HBOer,

I don’t know if it’s okay for you to watch Game of Thrones (or any other show, for that matter). I’ve only watched the first episode, and I know it’s not for me. Here are some of my thoughts in trying to figure that out, though.

We like binary answers: black or white. Yes or no. Wrong or right. And for sure, there are things that are absolutely black or white: it is ALWAYS wrong to murder. it is ALWAYS wrong to steal (and that includes pirating movies, BTW).

But the Bible also has all sorts of things where the answer is neither black nor white. Rather, the situation calls for discernment. Take this frustrating pair of verses from Proverbs, for example:

When arguing with fools, don’t answer their foolish arguments, or you will become as foolish as they are.” (Proverbs 26:4)

followed by,

When arguing with fools, be sure to answer their foolish arguments, or they will become wise in their own estimation.” (Proverbs 26:5)

Huh??

And then there are the passages in the new Testament that talk about how for some, eating a certain diet and neglecting certain religious days is sinful, while for others it is fine (Colossians 2:16, Romans 14). So in other words: sometimes the answer to whether something is right or wrong is IT DEPENDS.

It depends on the context. It depends on your community. It depends on who you are and where you are at in life.

We are coming out of a generation in Christianity that has been bounded up with lots of rules, well intentioned (I think) to try and keep us from sin. Rules about clothing, dating, dancing, modesty, music etc have abounded in church culture, and I do believe for the most part this has in an effort to pursue holiness. But often it’s gone the way of LEGALISM.

In response, I’ve seen so much about Christian freedom: critique of purity culture and some very fundamentalist ways of doing church/discipline etc. But often it’s gone the way of LICENSE.

I think neither legalism nor license help us navigate the complexity of living well in our world. We need DISCERNMENT for the vast area between the “I don’t watch any TV at all!” and the “I can watch ANYTHING AT ALL!” extremes. I don’t know that we talk about (or teach) discernment enough.

Discernment has to mean more than a “do what works for you” policy. I think we do need to have better, wiser conversation on helping one another gauge these things. In between legalism and license, we need WISDOM. “Everything is permissible,” said Paul, “but not everything is beneficial.” (1 Corinthians 6). So the question is: how do you figure out what is beneficial?

One of the hallmarks of growing in maturity is learning to pay attention to your own sweet self. Listening to your body, being aware of your emotions and thought patterns etc are all part of our journey in discipleship. We are not good at this. We need to be better at this. Rest (and with it, reflection and self-examination) are important parts in us helping live meaningful, intentional lives. We need to pause and take stock on how things are affecting us, what we’re learning, how we’re growing or being shaped by the choices we make… in order to make better and wiser choices.

It is simply NOT TRUE that what we can watch/listen/engage in whatever and remain neutral and unaffected. We absolutely ARE shaped by the stories we expose ourself to. In books, TV, movies, pictures and real life – each story we expose to leaves its mark in our formation. The stories in our lives shape the way we approach the world: they sculpt our vision of the “good life”, they spark our imagination, they make us want certain things and hate other things… and if we are not paying attention to what is being sparked, nurtured, or drowned in our desires, we can land up in serious trouble. Like Rom Coms with the underlying message that it’s the “proposal moment” (or the dramatic chase to the airport departure chase) that brings the moment of clarity that you’ve met “the one”. Or like porn giving us really messed up scripts for what to expect in sexual intimacy.

 

I think it’s a healthy practice to talk through our show choices with friends or family and think through questions about what the underlying messages and values of a show are, and how they are affecting you. Naming the issues is a big first step in being aware of the impression they might have. A deeper level of conversation needs to happen in then considering what impact those messages are having on you: how do you feel after watching the show? Turned on? Angry? Riled up? Triggered? Numb? Disappointed and disillusioned with your own life?

 

Here is how this has worked out with me in considering a couple of shows:

  • We started watching New Girl and stopped a couple seasons in – the room mate drama and sex were getting too much for me. I have a high view of sex and I was just getting tired of how often (and how poorly) it was addressed in the show. Sex shouldn’t be the butt end of most of a show’s jokes, and I don’t want to curate a jaded view of sex.
  • We watched 24. I couldn’t cope after season 2, but my husband was okay watching through the end. I think the show really showed how ALL of us are corruptible, but I just so desperately needed someone honest and reliable (a redeemer!) in that storyline. Also, I was continually frustrated that no-one ever seemed to need to use the bathroom or eat.
  • The Good Place has received critical acclaim, but I chose not to watch (and wrote about it) … matters of eternity are close to my heart.
  • I loved season 1 of Crazy Ex Girlfriend: so clever and funny. But when I realized she wasn’t just kooky, but that there were actual mental health issues at stake, somehow it just wasn’t funny to me anymore. I think I’ve just met too many people really hurting from mental health issues to engage that way anymore. I know, I’m a real party pooper. But I’m trying to care for people with these issues and a show which makes fun of them (and where no-one knows the problem is a problem) was a problem for me.
  • I watched all the Friends seasons, and felt aware of (and distant enough from) the very different relationship values in them. My husband, on the other hand, was perpetually frustrated by how the friends lie to each other (or conceal things from one another) as the center point of every episode’s drama. I hadn’t noticed it before, but he’s right. They really do hide things from each other. He didn’t watch.
  • We watched Parenthood. I thought it was excellent. He thought the family arguments had too many people talking at the same time (and shouting at each other) – it stressed him out. He was paying attention.
  • He watched Lost. I can’t. I know my imagination cannot handle the paranormal or big suspense stuff. It makes me anxious and weepy…
  • I didn’t watch (or read) 50 Shades of Gray. Jamie the Very Worst Missionary did watch it and she was fine. Her post makes exactly this point: you need to know what you can handle. And ask questions about what’s drawing you into the story again and again.
  • I watched Outlander, which has plenty of sex. I don’t think this would have been helpful for me to watch in my early 20s (age matters), or maybe if I was single (“don’t awake love before it desires”, is Song of Songs’ advice to young women). But as a now older, married person – it was okay. except for the violence parts, which I absolutely cannot handle. I skipped those parts in the book and the movie.

Which brings me to your question: what about Game of Thrones?

It depends. From the brief part I saw, and from the bulk of what I’ve heard, this is a show with PLENTY of graphic (and unhealthy) sex, and PLENTY of violence. I think we are, in general, overexposed to those things, and thus in danger of being numb to the power of those stories’ shaping power. So there’s a caveat, and there’s a LOT of wisdom in erring on the side of caution in these things. One of the big dangers in movie and TV watching is that you can’t unsee things. So if it’s likely that you will see things you might wish you hadn’t (if you don’t want them turning up in your dreams or your fantasies), then maybe rather not.

But that doesn’t make for an automatic no. My questions for your consideration are: what impact is that show having on you? How do you feel afterwards? What does it make you want more of in life? If you think of God being present in the room with you as you watch, how does that change your awareness regarding the content of what you’re watching? What if you were watching with your parents?

 

As disclosed above, I’ve watched some TV that for others, is dangerous or damaging. I think in general GoT has a very high risk of being dangerous and damaging in how it kindles our imaginations. But that’s for you, the Holy Spirit, and wise counselors to wade through. I find the “it may be permissible, but is it beneficial?” grid to be really helpful for me to think this stuff through. I hope it is for you, too.

 

Best,

Bronwyn

 

Got a question you want to send my way? Find the Ask Me page… I’d love to hear from you 🙂

Is my child ready for Kindergarten? Should we start school early? Or wait a year?

I had the joy of being a guest on the Coffee + Crumbs podcast this week, talking about the difficult decisions we have as parents of choosing schools for our kids. Public? Private? Home school? Other? (You can check out the episode here… and if you don’t know about C+C and its lovely blog for young mothers, look here!) I got a couple emails after the podcast, with variations of this question:

“Dear Bronwyn,

My kiddo is smart (reading already!) and I think she’s ready for school. She has a (late summer/fall) birthday, and I’m not sure whether to put her in Kinder yet, or wait a year. If we have a choice, should we put her in? I don’t want her to be bored and she seems ready. Any thoughts?

-KinderKonfused”

Dear KK,

The year our eldest was due to start Kindergarten, they changed the birthdate requirements in our state. We had thought we would be waving her off with a tiny pink backpack that Fall, and all of a sudden the rules changed and she we weren’t. And I. Was. Mad.

She was an articulate, confident, smart kiddo… and we were all ready for her to start school. Given that her birthday was so close to the cut off, I looked into lobbying for her to start early, but got shut down fairly quickly. Apparently, I wasn’t the first Mom to feel her child was “special” and should be hanging with the bigger kids. The state then rolled out a “transitional kindergarten” program for those “extra young kindergartners” and I rolled my eyes and enrolled her. What choice did we have?

I mention this to say that if I’d had a choice, we would have enrolled her early. And, in hindsight, I think that if I’d had the choice, I would have chosen wrong. Here’s why:

We are now several years into our schooling journey, and I have never once wished my child were LESS mature than she is for the social challenges she is facing. If anything, with every new year that rolls around, I’m grateful she has that extra year. Academics aside (I’ll get to that in a bit), I think it’s easier to deal with second grade pressures when you’re 7-turning-8 than when you’re 6-turning-7. And in the middle school and high school years, an extra year of knowing-your-own-voice and the extra brain development that comes with growth which is proven stand them in better stead in maturity of decision making (read about teen brain here. Or for the science-heavy paper, read here.) In 100% of cases, 18 year old you was capable of more mature and complex decision-making than 17 year old you… which I think is a great reason to be one year older when picking colleges, jobs, and making your transition into independent adulthood.

But, you ask, what if your kid is smart and gifted and you think they will be bored—and worse yet, a disengaged brat—because class isn’t challenging enough for them?

A few thoughts on this (from someone who finished school at 16 herself. And I wasn’t bored. But in truth I suffered in other ways because of it…)

  • Teachers are fantastic. They have taught brilliant kids and challenged kids and everything in-between, and more and more I’m learning to trust their ability to find ways to challenge the kids in their class. My kid may be brilliant at arithmetic, but he’s never done geography/social studies/reading comp before and there are still many things for him to learn from this teacher and these peers.
  • There’s a world of things for kids to learn about beyond the classroom, and often the task of keeping kids engaged means cracking open new doors and letting them explore. The library is our great friend here. Supervised use of the internet is brilliant too (or if you have the courage, Pinterest. Shoot me now.) And there’s nothing like our great friend BOREDOM to cultivate creativity and imagination in kids, too.
  • For what it’s worth, if our kids want to go further and learn more, we try to encourage them in skills they are not going to learn in school already so that we don’t create or worsen the threat of boredom. Can they learn a different language? Tackle programming? Become the local tiny expert on fly fishing? We have one kid who is awesome at math… but we want to try and keep school math interesting to him as long as possible so we made it a rule that he was NOT ALLOWED TO DO HIS BIG SISTER’S HOMEWORK. Maybe that seems weird. But we put him in school at the same age as his peers (not early!) and we want him to be learning alongside his peers and from his peers as well as he can for as long as he can.

In short: I believe there’s a lot to be said for resisting prodigy-culture. Garrison Keillor’s famous line about  Lake Woebegon being a place where “all the children are above average” is funny because it’s so true. We live in a culture which wants and needs our kids to be above average. We all want to know our kid is going to do well in life—better than we did, we hope! We love our special snowflakes (I ADORE mine!) and no-one is better than seeing and knowing and wanting to develop their gifts than we parents are. BUT there is much to say for letting them be a kid. Letting them play. Letting them be bored. Letting them be average (or just a little above average), and if you have the chance… giving them an extra year to grow up before life throws all its non-academic curve balls their way. So much of early parenthood is about worrying your kid “meets developmental milestones” and if possible, exceeds them. I just don’t think it’s helpful to think about kindergarten that way.

That’s my two-cents worth, and if any of that is helpful or encouraging to you… I’m glad 🙂

Grace and peace to you, mama. You’re doing a great job.

-Bronwyn

Photo credit: Pexels.com

Still Flying

I just returned from an incredible week at the Harvest Island Wilderness Workshop: a week with 15 others on a remote island, learning about writing from Leslie Leyland Fields (a masterful writer, as you can see here), and Philip Yancey (!!!). I’ve wanted to go from the first time I heard about it, if we could wrangle the time and money. But there was one more concern: the question of the travel, since I am pretty much the most motion sick person you’ve ever met. In one of our writing exercises, I tried to explain….

A storm is coming in, they said, so we would need to be at the float plane six hours earlier than expected. I reached behind my ear to finger the dime sized patch—scopamine for coping with my ever-queasy-belly. Float plus plane. Two words more scary to me than biological plus warfare. Or kale plus anything. Please, merciful God, let these drugs work.

Before… (also pictured, the lovely Aleah with her trusty GoPro)

“It looks to be a pretty clear day,” our pilot says. The plane roars to life, and I aim my phone at the creamy flare of water fanning up from the fins. I am eye level with the black birches, with the eagle, with the clouds. I breathe in deep. I am okay.

“See in the river bend to our left?,” says Josh, “those are bears. A mama and her two cubs, I think.” I permit myself a smile, surprised to be able to look, to see, to enjoy. Mossy green mountain tips point up at us, mirroring our fingers pointing down at golf courses, at glaciers, at mountain dandruff I am told are actually goats.

The plane lurches and my stomach scoops deep into fear. My knuckles whiten. I swallow and wait. Look at the mountains. See the fjords? Are there any bears? Where’s the barf bag? How much longer?

At first it feels like heat, a sweat slick under my jacket, a longing for fresh air. I unzip a little, willing something cooler onto my body. But this is a well-worn path into the mire of nausea, and I know the stages well. Sweat. Cough. Cough again. Wipe my clammy hands on my knees and focus on the horizon.

Two inlets later, I reach for the baggie behind the seat. There are six people on this plane, four of whom will see and smell everything that happens next. We will live together for a week, and I would love them to think something of me other than “the one who threw up”. Years later, in a crowded conference hall with nametags obscured, perhaps I will say hello, and be met with polite pause as memory is scanned for association. “I’m Bronwyn, we met in Alaska. I’m the one who got sick on the plane.”

But there is no controlling this. I will be remembered as I am, not as I’d hoped to present myself. Humbled, I tumble my pride into the baggie. Once, twice, and once more for good measure. The clamminess abates and I see the island on the horizon.

And we are flying still.

A story and a prayer about Cake

Once upon a time there was a cake. Some travelers came upon the cake, and being hungry after their long journey, they cut it into even slices and shared it between them. Where they came from, the King ate most of the cake, so this was a real treat. Not long afterwards, some local people arrived and said “hey, who ate our cake?”, and the travelers shrugged: “Finders keepers, losers weepers,” they said.

The travelers liked this land with its good ingredients for cake, and worked very, very hard to make as many cakes as they could. A strong workforce was kidnapped imported to come and make cake. But the workers were not allowed to eat any of the cake. Not at all. Every now and then the workers would try to run away, or complain that they, too, liked cake – but those workers were punished and killed for their insolent cake-wanting ways. Some of the more heroic people who quashed uppity cake-wanting workers even had statues erected in their honor. Freedom, independence and liberty to eat cake. That was worth celebrating.

Many years later, some realized that women liked cake too, and some years after that, that black people should get to eat cake as well. The self-evident truths that all men are created equal needed to include all of mankind: men and women, people of all colors. This was a huge celebration.

But, in the years that followed, some of the original cake eaters began to complain that they didn’t feel the portion size of their cake was what it had been before. “We deserve 20oz cake servings,” they said. “Make our cake great again!” When others protested saying, “your expectations that you deserve the biggest slice of cake were set by a very flawed history…”, they got upset. “Are you calling me racist?” they said?

“No,” said others. “we’re just saying that we need to acknowledge that white people have always got the biggest pieces of cake, and that wasn’t right. That’s what privilege is: expecting a piece of cake without anyone questioning your right to it. We need to recalibrate our serving size. We need to make sure that those who have never had cake before get some. We need to watch out for bullies at the table who want to snatch others’ cake away. We must oppose leaders who fail to condemn militant whites-only-cake-eating-groups.”

There’s a lot of cake. There’s more than enough to go around. We don’t need to be greedy.

//

When Nehemiah asked for news of what had been happening in his home country, people told him of “great trouble and disgrace”, of “broken walls, and gates burned with fire.” (Nehemiah 1:3) When Nehemiah heard these things, he sat down and wept. He mourned and fasted, and prayed to the God of Heaven: “O Lord, who keeps his covenant of love, please listen. I confess the sins we have sinned against you. Even I and my father’s house have sinned.”  (Nehemiah 1:4-6, abridged from NIV and ESV)

I stopped still when I read these words earlier this week. Nehemiah was a generation later than those who were most directly responsible for the tragedy that had befallen Jerusalem: he wasn’t the rebel, surely? But Nehemiah knew something I—we—have been slow to learn: there can’t be any petition for help or any hope of praise until we have lamented the wrong and repented of our individual and group participation in it, both now and in history.

Even I and my father’s house have sinned. Even I have expected a bigger piece of cake. I did so because my whole life I’ve been told that I deserved cake. Work hard, and you will get cake. I worked hard, and I got cake… but I also believed that others who didn’t have cake maybe didn’t deserve cake, or didn’t work hard, or didn’t like or want cake. Their cakelessness was surely their problem, or worse yet – their fault. White people have always had cake, and we have teased and punished others for asking for a slice. We may not live in a time when it’s illegal for some to eat cake, but when we refuse to look at our portion sizes or to acknowledge that we’ve become fat from cake while others starved, then we continue to perpetuate skewed slicing.

I have been silent when people have pointed out inequalities. In my social media feed and in our churches, we have been silent, and the elephants in the room have left people trampled and bleeding.

And so, I’m lamenting and repenting.

Oh God, my failures in seeking justice have been explicit, implicit, and complicit. I have done wrong things, and I have failed to do the right things. I have benefitted from a system which gave us so much cake at others’ expense, without showing humility and gratitude and compassion to others. I have not listened to others’ stories, or I have nit-picked and found fault with them and in doing so, dismissed them when they pointed out the size of my slice. I have been ashamed to have the size of my slice noticed. We have been hoarding the cake. We have stayed silent in rebuking cake-stealers. 

Lord, you know I don’t hate people of color, but you know the ways in which our cake-hoarding has hurt people of color and I’m sorry I’ve been so slow to own that. We have been so slow, and so silent, and our passivity has perpetuated the problem. God, you have made and love all people. You own all the cake. You forgive and redeem the hardest of hearts and the worst of situations. Please teach us to share. Please give us humility. Please make us better listeners. Please teach us to lament wrongs and repent. Please dismantle our defensiveness. Please would you fill every plate and every heart and every stomach by your grace. 

 

Image credit: Pexels, common license C00

Eeny Meeny Miney NO (talking with my kids about rhymes and race)

 

My kids were figuring out whose turn it was to do something this morning, and instead of their usual game of rock-paper-scissors, busted out that ubiquitous kids’ rhyme to solve their dispute:

Them (chanting): “eeny meeny miney mo, catch a tiger by its toe. If it hollers…”

Me: Now wait just a minute. We need to talk…

My eldest understood fairly quickly why the rhyme was offensive: until fairly recently, “tiger” wasn’t the word in the rhyme, and she is sensitive to (and appalled by) the stories of slavery and oppression she has read. My boys were a harder sell. I told them that tiger kind of rhymed with a very hurtful and mean word people used to use to describe black people, and then thought of an example to try and make it relatable:

Imagine that a while ago there were a group of bullies who used to hurt you and tease you on the playground, and they had a special song they made up just to tease you. They would kick the ball at you and sing “Jacob’s a loser, Jacob’s a fool” over and over again. All the kids on the playground knew that horrible, teasing song. Now imagine you were at your new school and the bullying had stopped, but one day at recess you see some kids who also used to go to the old school, and they have are kicking around a soccer ball and singing that same old tune, but just with different words: “Bacon’s a loser, bacon’s a food.” How would you feel if you heard that?

Even my five year old got it. “Bad,” he supplied. “It would remind me of the teasing,” said the other.

What if the other kids said they were just joking and it was just a song about bacon? 

They looked perplexed. “My feelings would still be hurt,” said my son.

“Yeah,” I said. “And I think when people of color hear that rhyme, for some of them it reminds them of the yucky version of that song, even if people don’t use the words. And we don’t want to sing songs that make other people feel yuck, right?”

My eldest shuffled on her feet a little: her question unspoken between us: “If it’s so bad, why didn’t you tell us before?” I told them they weren’t in trouble, and after all they probably learned that rhyme from me because it was something I’d heard and sung as a counting rhyme all my life. And that, until recently, I didn’t know that it hurt people’s feelings. But now I’ve had some friends of color and parents of kids of color tell me their stories about how that song made them feel… so now I do know, and I want to do better. Mom is also learning. Unlearning. Relearning. Once we know better, we need to do better.

They nodded and got back to their game. “Rock, paper, or scissors?” my youngest asked, and the morning continued.

Honestly, I sometimes wonder what we can do to raise respectful, kind, compassionate kids in the cultural climate and privileged bubble we live in: it feels like a Herculean task. But we can nix that nursery rhyme, and that’s a small start.

 

 

Feelings are our Friends

I spent some time recently talking with a friend who was a hot mess over a situation. I recognized the symptoms of hotmessery fairly quickly, having been there myself just days before: the big feelings, the confusion about what to think and what to do, the desire to make sense of the bits of the story and respond well, the feeling-stuckness in the complexity of it all. And perhaps worst of all, the sense of disorientation about why this issue, which was admittedly not a big deal, loomed at the forefront of their mind all day. “I feel bad that I can’t get over this,” my friend said, “I know that my reactions here are much bigger than the situation warrants but I just can’t figure it out.”

Yep.

Me too.

As we talked, a couple of things began to crystallize for me: fragments of books I’d been reading and random notes in my prayer journal came together to form something of an 3-D picture, and I finally found the words I’d been scrambling for for a couple weeks:

Feelings are our friends.

There are times when we feel swamped and confused by a swirling mass of thoughts and feelings, and in times like that, it’s helpful to remember that these feelings can be our friends. Perhaps this is obvious to you, but it hasn’t always been obvious to me. For much of my life I’ve thought of feelings as powerful, but unreliable bandits: things to be quashed or, at the very least, treated with deep suspicion. But the idea that feelings could be friends and allies (rather than foes) in figuring out life and truth is something relatively new to me.

Feelings make frighteningly terrible masters: it is a terrifying thing to be at the mercy of one’s emotions (friends with anxiety and depression, I hear you). Feelings also make frustratingly terrible servants: which of us was ever able to stop feeling worried simply because we told ourselves to do so? But feelings—like our bodies—sometimes can give us information and tell us the truth about a situation which our rational minds cannot (or will not) attend to.

For example, we might be walking down a dark road and tell ourselves that we’re not scared and there’s nothing at all to be scared of… but our pounding heart and clammy hands tell the truth that we are, in fact, terrified.

Or, as happened with my friend and I, we might be sitting in a coffee shop and telling a story and saying “it’s fine, it’s no big deal,” but our churning emotions and the lurking sense of anger or shame tell us that there’s more at work here than we’ve admitted.

This is what Brene Brown so compellingly invites us to do in her (incredibly helpful) book Rising Strong: to notice our feelings and get curious about them. What is this feeling we’re feeling? Is it anger? Is it fear? Is it disappointment? Is it envy? And then she encourages us to get curious about those emotions themselves without rushing to judgement: what is it about this situation that is making me angry, and what does that tell me? She writes:

“The opposite of recognizing that we’re feeling something is denying our emotions. The opposite of being curious is disengaging. When we deny our stories and disengage from tough emotions, they don’t go away; instead, they own us, they define us. Our job is not to deny the story, but to defy the ending—to rise strong, recognize our story, and rumble with the truth until we get to a place where we think, Yes. This is what happened. This is my truth. And I will choose how this story ends.”
Brené Brown, Rising Strong

I have a couple friends who are reliable mirrors to me as I share stories about my life: they reflect what they’re seeing back to me, and it helps me to be curious about what’s really going on beneath my emotions. They say things like “you seem angry about that” when I’m telling a story, and then will sometimes gently ask whether I’ve done any thinking about why I might be angry about that. If, instead of just telling myself to “not be angry” about a thing, I can take the time to be curious about why I got so angry, it can give so much good information about the desires and beliefs that simmer so much deeper in my soul.

I may say, for example, that I don’t care about a promotion or a salary increase… but if I’m incredibly angry that Joe Bloggs over there got a raise, that anger might be a clue that I care more about money, or being recognized, or knowing that I’ve made a contribution (or whatever) than I recognized. My wise friend Jen calls this “sifting our desires”, and she’s right: I can do a devilishly good job of deceiving myself that I don’t care about certain things and do care about others – but my feelings (of gloating, envy, schadenfreude etc) will sometimes tell the truth despite me, and a little bit of courageous digging can reveal hurts or deep longings or idols or dreams that I hadn’t faced squarely before.

I re-read Marilynne Robinson’s beautiful novel Gilead this month, and fell in love once again with the tender and wise heart of John Ames, the elderly pastor whose voice tells the story. Writing of how he came to process grief and disappointment, he says this:

“I have never found another way to be as honest with myself as I can be by consulting with these miseries of mine, these accusers and rebukers, God bless them all. So long as they do not kill me outright.”  

He was a man who had befriended his feelings, even the miserable ones. Especially the miserable ones – for by consulting with them he learned to be honest with himself, just as I’m learning to be honest, too. I want to be a joyful, gracious, generous person; but then I have days when I’m grouchy and angry and irrationally mean-spirited. To dismiss those feelings and say to myself: “that was a bad day, I’ll try again with kindness tomorrow” is not a terrible route to walk; but there’s a better route still: to hold my grouchy, angry, irrationally mean-spirited feelings in my hand and look on them as allies: “well, hello there, little feelings – what has got you so upset? and how can we learn from this together?”

It’s messy, brutal, humbling work. But its truthful, and good, and the journey all the richer for the companionship of my hotmessery of feelings.