What Do I Want To Do When I Grow Up?

On my way to work one morning this week, I was thinking about my professional life. I was late to the game of finding out what I want to do when I grow up. For years, I was a stay-at-home parent who loved the freedom and flexibility to parent the way I wanted. I also used the time to grow mentally, emotionally and spiritually, and learn how to best take care of me while also caring for my kids.

One of the things I did regularly during this time was meet a friend for coffee. It was cheap and the conversation was often enjoyable. I typically had coffee dates booked weeks in advance. My husband would say, “If you could get paid for having coffee with a friend, you’d have a nice side business.” As I considered his observation, I realized many of my coffee dates were with friends seeking advice. However, it did not seem right to charge my friends. “Judy, I enjoyed our time together this afternoon. That will be $65 please. Cash or check would be fine.”

As my kids got older, I continued to ask myself what I wanted to do professionally. I did not have a college degree or an identified passion to pursue, so it was not an easy question to answer. I went back to work, but soon learned it was not the job or the career for me long term.

Fast-forward 10 years. I have a master’s degree and am a Board Certified hospital Chaplain. My skills of coming alongside someone have strengthened with education and experience. I am now getting paid to have thoughtful, deep conversations. I love what I do, but it is not all that I want to do. Once again, I am asking myself, “What’s next?”

Some of the things I have learned about my professional self – strengths and growing edges (as we say in chaplaincy because “growing edges” sounds better than “weaknesses”):

1.       I love thinking about what is possible, how something could be improved, or ways to address an identified problem. While those around me often seem to respond with annoyance or disinterest, I become energized and want to jump right in. My husband will confirm, I have never met a scenario I did not want to improve.

2.       I am creative. This took me a long time to learn about myself. I married an artist and both of my kids have strong artistic talent. Therefore, I assumed my lack of drawing, painting or musical skills meant I was not creative. It also did not help that for years my mom would ask, “Where did your kids get their artistic talent from? I mean, it couldn’t be from you.” So I identified as the analytical one and left the creativity to the artists in the family… until I began to see that I, too, am creative. This not only impacted the way I see myself, but also how I express myself.

3.       I am an agitator. I do not agitate simply for the sake of being an annoyance. When something is not working to the point of creating dysfunction, I do not keep my mouth shut. I am going to say something. Probably more than once. To anyone who will listen. I am learning (AKA a growing edge) to do so more appropriately, helpfully, and kindly. I am also learning to discern when it is better for me to leave the situation than to address what is happening.

I think I have best used these skills as a parent. I love my kids more selflessly than I love others. I have their best interest at heart. I dose everything with a lot of love. I wish this was true in my other relationships, or more true. I’m working on it. (Growing edge.)

But this post is meant to be about my professional life. 

My current job delves deeply into the personal. My training has solidified healthy, appropriate boundaries and restorative self-care practices. Part of me wants to venture more into a professional space where I have a say on culture, function, vision and sustainability. And to be able to do these things with resources sounds very appealing. Would I be good at it? Can I build a healthy foundation professionally the way I have done personally with my kids?

I could have started school earlier and begun the process of building my professional self. But I now see ways I was working on who I am professionally. I did a lot of volunteering during the parenting years and honed my skills. I learned what I like and what I do well. I also learned what I do not enjoy and what I do not do so well. My professional path has been less like a race track, and more like a long walk in the woods. Come to think of it, that suits me much better.

What do I want to do when I grow up? Not sure. I think I’ll just keep walking. Meandering even. Seems to suit me well.

A Sabbath Practice

I grew up in a faith tradition that taught Sunday, the Sabbath, was a day of rest. But in my experience, there wasn’t much rest. We had to get up for Sunday School, then church followed by lunch with church friends. By the time we got home, I was so tired that I barely had time to rest from all the activity, let alone from the six days before.

In hindsight, it’s a pretty funny contradiction – teaching the principles Sabbath on the Sabbath to the same group of people pressured to attend, serve, and commune. It wasn’t until I left traditional church that I actually experienced a regular, weekly Sabbath.

Sabbath began as a Jewish practice. According to Genesis, the first book of the Bible, God created the world in six days and rested on day seven. God named the day of rest “holy” and instructed the people to follow suit. Jews practice Sabbath on Saturday. Christians changed the Sabbath to Sunday, since Sunday is the day that the resurrection of Jesus is celebrated.

It’s not that a Sabbath has to be a specific day of the week. But if we don’t dedicate a chunk of time to rest, it’s probably not going to happen. There’s too much to do and that list will never take care of itself.

For me, Sabbath is a practice of slowing everything down – my pace, my thoughts, my responsibilities. Our typically hurried state of being and intense stimulation tend to crowd the space we inhabit, making it difficult to hear and see within and around ourselves. Sabbath is an invitation to stop, look, listen, breathe, and rest.

I don’t practice Sabbath like the Jewish tradition of not working for 24 hours. And I don’t practice like many Christians do of going to church. Instead I devote one or two mornings a week to keep my schedule clear so that I can spend the time tending to all my senses. It is 4-5 hours of no expectation and no obligation. There are things that still get done, like taking care of my dogs. But I don’t ask myself, “What should I be doing?” Sabbath is my break from that question that plagues many of us day in and day out.

Rest can be difficult though, if we aren’t used to stopping. I often hear people express guilt over not doing something. Our culture values what we do/produce/accomplish. As for rest? Well, that’s for when the job settles down or the kids get older or we get older. Even vacations are busy for most of us.

Sabbath is sometimes painful. What I see and hear may not be what I want to know. The space created doesn’t always feel nurturing, but rather intimidating or lonely. Not returning to that To Do list is hard. Honoring Sabbath means saying no, sometimes to things I want to do.

However I have experienced many benefits because of my Sabbath practice. My resilience has increased. I feel more myself, fully myself, connected, content and focused. I have an improving awareness of what’s going on around me. My experience and understanding of what is sacred deepens. My values and priorities become clearer. And all of this, paradoxically, because I am not trying to do any of this.

Thank God for the Sabbath. Literally.

The Damage of Patriarchy

I grew up with a pretty strong sense of self. Confidence was never an issue. I had plenty of other issues – still do. But my default is to believe I have a right to be heard, a perspective worth sharing, and a contribution worth receiving. It’s not that I don’t question myself, but rather I don’t question my value. The struggle through my life has not been “Do I belong?” – but rather “How do I fit?” This perspective is presumptive, I realize. There are times I don’t fit, and that’s okay. Sometimes when I don’t fit, that hurts. And sometimes it makes sense. But my perspective is also empowering.

As a woman in a patriarchal society who grew up in a conservative culture where women were third in line (God – Man – Woman), my presumption made me bold. I ignored the glass ceilings. I was helped by a mother who rejected this nonsense, and a father who didn’t try to limit my contributions to the world. For many years, I thought I had avoided the trappings of patriarchy. I made my own way, and that was proof.

It wasn’t until seminary and a class on feminism and the Bible, that I realized how much I was influenced by patriarchal values. For example, until my 30’s I held a general distrust of women. I considered most to be petty and disloyal. As I sought to deepen friendships with women, I learned my assumptions were often not true. I began to wonder how much of my assumption had been based on experience, and how much had been absorbed by a patriarchal narrative. The more I thought about it and the more I heard how other women talk about women, the more I concluded that many of us were doing exactly what patriarchy wanted us to do: distrust one another; compete with each other; destroy one another. Patriarchy is strengthened when women do not come together.

Another realization during this class was to see how I had tempered my strengths when working with men. I thought specifically of a time when I had served on a church board. I often went head-to-head with a man, a successful business man. My internal monologue always accompanied the external dialogue with this man: “Don’t get too far ahead of him.” “Don’t say something that will make him feel dumb.” At the time, I justified my actions by seeing him as the weaker one. But now I was seeing this as my felt responsibility to manage his feelings. Certainly I had a responsibility to be collaborative and kind. But I was going far beyond that as I sought to prevent him from feeling inferior to me, as if that was my responsibility.

Some changes I’ve made:

  1. I no longer use gender when I speak of or to God. I have learned how humanizing God, or worse yet making God male, only makes the idea of God manageable and safe. Now that God is not limited to my understanding of men or people, the idea of God has expanded significantly. God is not meant to be managed or manipulated.
  2. I no longer feel the responsibility to manage a man’s ego. I expect him to manage his own and instead focus on being my best self. This has been both freeing and empowering. I am still learning to identify and pursue what I need. But I am learning to build a life that is meaningful for me, not just for those around me.
  3. I support the right for women to make their own choices about their bodies. I believe there are important conversations to have about reproductive decisions, and that should occur between a woman and her doctor. Restricting those decisions is the same as saying women cannot make thoughtful, difficult decisions for themselves.
  4. I acknowledge the pain and damage patriarchy has caused other groups, and how I’ve contributed to their pain. I think particularly of People of Color and the LGBTQ communities. The more I have freed myself from patriarchal thinking, the more clearly I see their pain, and the better ally I become.

My experience has been that there’s an ongoing conversation among women about how fragile men are. And we use this perceived fragility to ignore our needs and wants. As gender and sexuality become increasingly fluid, I see the potential to not only water down the patriarchal nonsense, but to eliminate it altogether. Perhaps that’s why some are feeling frightened and reactive. What has long been considered normative is being challenged and replaced. And that is scary for those who don’t know anything different.

I’m not trying to hate on men. I am trying to point out the danger of unchecked power. Patriarchy is a system that has named “men in power” as the normative. And in this country, specifically white, Christian, heterosexual men. So we are not just talking patriarchy, but also Christian nationalism. And that’s for another blog post.

Power is seductive, and seems to cause most to use it selfishly. The best way to prevent the abuse of power is to share it with diverse voices and perspectives. With the recent US Supreme Court decisions, it feels as if we’re moving backward, not forward, by reducing that diversity. I hope it’s patriarchy’s final “Hail, Mary” attempt. They’re in a losing battle and I think they know it. For those of us who reject patriarchy, let us not lose hope.

2021: A Year of Escape

I posted only three times in 2021. It’s not that I lacked content. I have several unpublished posts, varying in states of completion. I have a journal full of ideas. I have started to write a post then deleted it multiple times. In 2021, what I seemed to lack most wasn’t what to say, but the energy to actually say it. I guess I could’ve thrown stuff out there, but that’s not my style. I like to take my time. I like to read and reread what I write before I post, just to make sure I’ve thoughtfully and thoroughly said what I meant to say.

I also felt like the world was already full of so much noise, and I didn’t want to add to that noise. 2021 was full of fights, heartache, fears and failure. I found with the heavy load that seemed to accompany the year, my respite and sanity came not in the usual way – clarity of thought – but rather in escaping my thoughts. I didn’t need to think more. I needed to breathe more. Walk outside more. Be in nature more. These are what helped me navigate this past year. And in doing so, I actually found some clarity.

We are a culture that stays in our heads. Everything is about what we think. And that seems to be slowly killing many of us. We are consumed by what we think: what we need, what we believe, what we want, what we fear, what we hate, what we love, what others think. So much time and energy is spent in our heads.

For sanity, for my survival, I had to get out of my head. I walked away from unhelpful conversations. I turned off the TV. I limited my intake of news. I strengthened work/life balance. I left behind noise and sought places of silence, space and solitude. I discovered my sanctuary and visited it regularly. I engaged in activities that pushed me physically. These are just a few changes I made in 2021.

I was hopeful at the start of 2021. In my head, I reasoned what the year could and should look like. Stupid thoughts. For 2022, I don’t know what this year will bring. But I know that I will keep practicing the things that quiet my thoughts and take me out of my head. I will continue to seek what refuels me and challenges myself physically. The shift is a subtle one, but important for me. For 2021, I wanted to know what the year might hold. For 2022, I want to be my healthiest version of me.

To 2021, I salute you with a resounding middle finger. To 2022, the jury is still out. And I will be too. Regularly.

Letting Go

I was hardwired to be loyal. I am not one to walk away. I realized at 48, which was only 4 years ago, that I didn’t even know how. I was in a difficult partnership at work and I was talking with my therapist about it. I had some boundaries I wanted to add to the partnership, and I suspected it would end the relationship. While I was not afraid to challenge someone, I felt a responsibility to never push too hard. I knew the boundaries I needed would feel like a hard push to my partner.

My therapist asked me, “Do you want to continue to work with this person as things currently are?” I couldn’t say no. I danced around the question by talking about how our strengths really complemented each other. I talked about how much I had already invested. I talked about the potential. My therapist was patient yet kept bringing me back to this question. Finally, once I was out of reasons for why I needed to keep trying, I started to cry. “No, I don’t,” I said. The relief I felt was immediate. Honesty, even brutal honesty, tends to do that.

We continued to talk about why I was having such a hard time. I felt responsible to make this partnership work. “If I could, I should” was clearly my motto. But the bottom line, I discovered, was quite simple. I was allowed to say, “Enough.” I was allowed to say, “I don’t want to do this anymore.” I needed to learn how.

I didn’t walk away from that partnership. He walked away from me. But I learned a big lesson through that experience. I don’t have to stay in relationships that are harmful to me mentally, emotionally or spiritually.

I’m still not one to walk away. But I am learning that I can and sometimes should. I have learned how to add boundaries earlier in the relationship rather than waiting until I’m so depleted that I’m withering.

We tend to walk away too quickly in our culture. Relationships end because we want something better. Jobs are traded because we feel under appreciated. Traditions are abandoned because they take too much time. But even still, I wonder: Do we know how or when to end things well? A coworker once described counseling couples whose marriage had died but neither was willing to admit it. “It’s like watching them drag this carcass around that is their marriage, this heavy rotting flesh of a carcass, as they continue to assert that they just want to make it work. There is no resurrecting that carcass.” That’s a powerful visual. And not just for marriage, but for any relationship. How many times have I been carrying a rotting, stinky carcass just because I felt the responsibility to make the relationship work? There is no “making it work” when the relationship has become that carcass.

Yes there are times we need to stay in something even though it’s difficult. But there are times we need to walk away because there is so much more at stake than the relationship itself. I’m learning to distinguish between the two. Because when the relationship has died, it does no good to anyone to keep dragging that carcass around.

Being Right

My son lives in New York City. He has a very small apartment that costs significantly more than my suburban home. He is surrounded by a seemingly infinite amount of people. He has never owned a car. He walks and bikes a lot. He has his favorite bodega and neighborhood bar. He has access to every style of food. He is excelling professionally by working among the best of the best in what is arguably the most competitive market in the world. He loves big city life and is taking full advantage of all that it has to offer. There is a rhythm to his life, like an orchestra of instruments that somehow, almost magically, creates this kind of symphonic experience.

I love to visit him and step into his world. I love to see the city through his eyes. It is busy, chaotic even, and beautiful. And after a few days, I am ready to return to my way of living. I miss the spaciousness. I miss the birds and squirrels. I miss my fire pit. I miss the quiet and solitude.

At his age, I think I could have adjusted and even thrived in his environment. By the age of 32, I’d lived in 11 states, 14 cities, and moved 20 times. At 52 and having lived in the same house for 20 years, I have come to love my life. We don’t have a huge house or yard, but we have more than enough of both.

Who is living the best life, my son or me? The answer is, we both are.

We live in a time where being right is so important that we are willing to lose relationships over it. Better to be right than kind. Better to be right than loving. Better to be right than inclusive. Better to be right than generous. Better to be right than humble. 

All this rightness has made each of us experts. Our sources are accurate. Our allies supersede all others. Opinions have become truth and leaders have become prophets. In this reality, there is no room for disagreement. Too much is at stake. 

Beliefs influence my convictions and actions, the way I vote, prioritize, spend my money and time. I imagine the same is true for you. When did that stop being enough and being right become essential? When did your life in the city become my business and my life in the suburbs become yours? I get the perceived notion that there is much at stake. For example, I am a proud supporter of LGBT rights. Legislation that seeks to further marginalize the Transgender community angers and frustrates me. I tell myself that being right saves lives. And yet my anger has not changed one person’s mind. And there seems to be a thin line between righteous anger and self-righteousness. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference. Voting, supporting certain organizations, being an ally does help. I need to remind myself of what helps and what doesn’t help. 

When I talk with someone who holds very different opinions yet neither of us is trying to convert the other, we have a very different kind of conversation. We listen and feel heard. We often learn from the other. I love these opportunities, though they are becoming increasingly rare. More often, conversations with diverse opinions are more like verbal fighting. There may be a winner but there will definitely be injuries.

But I find myself coming back to the life that my son lives versus the life that I live. Arguing about who is right not only wouldn’t accomplish anything, it would actually get in the way of each of us living the life we want to live. Not too long ago, someone suggested that I had too much education and therapy, implying that my beliefs had been tainted by progressive sources. Initially I was offended. Now I see it more as a city person telling me that my suburban life is wrong. Maybe for him that is true. But I am quite happy with my life.

If we insist on seeing the world and its issues in black and white – one side is good and the other side is evil – we will continue to splinter and drift further apart from each other. And I don’t think we can be whole within ourselves when we live divided from each other. My son and I certainly couldn’t have the relationship we have if I insisted he emulate my life or I emulate his. We find common ground. We respect and often appreciate our differences. But then again we began with a sense of love and trust, both of which seem to be in short supply these days.

Limits

I am competitive. It’s the competition I love, not winning. Winning is fun, but losing can be too when the competition has been strong. Challenges energize me as I strategize to solve problems. With time and experience, my skills have strengthened and I rarely walk away from something or someone. Our culture feeds right into my wiring. With technology there is so much I can do. And advertising reminds me of all that I can have. I might forget that I have limits.

Recently I have been learning a lot about trauma and its potentially lasting impact on people. I became interested in the subject because I was encountering more and more individuals in my line of work who were living with residual trauma. I would hear heart-wrenching stories while noticing ways their lives were still being directed by the trauma. Feelings of fear, distrust, anxiety and isolation weren’t periodic experiences but were their daily realities.

There are many factors that contribute to how one will respond to trauma. My competitive spirit has been helpful. Not wanting to be beat, I honed in with laser focus on what was happening, identified what was needed, and got to work. The initial goal is to survive, followed by learning and making adjustments in hopes of not experiencing that same trauma again. Safety would return. Resilience grew. This stoked my confidence in what is achievable.

I never had difficulty acknowledging my physical limitations. I periodically enjoy a physical challenge but I never forget what my limits are. I cannot go 24/7. At the end of the day, I willingly go to bed in order to recharge. If I wanted to run a marathon (I don’t) I recognize that my body would need time to be conditioned. To train properly, I would need to push my limits thoughtfully but not too hard in order to avoid injury. There seem to be obvious parameters to how far we can push ourselves physically. I have a friend who, after running several marathons, trained for a 50 mile race. I cannot comprehend running 26.2 miles, let alone 50. But he did it and survived. If he kept going, training to run 60 miles, 80 miles, 100 miles, at some point it would be all he was doing. And I imagine eventually he would either run as much as is physically possible or die trying. My friend (or certainly his spouse) is smart enough to identify the foolishness of such an endeavor.

I have not done as well with acknowledging my emotional limitations. I didn’t see the same parameters as there are for physical limitations. At least not for me. With proper training, I could keep going. With the right skillset, there was no reason I couldn’t “run” longer, faster each day. I became a seasoned hurdler of emotional challenges.

There are many ways residual trauma is manifested. I don’t live with fear, distrust, anxiety and isolation as daily realities. My trauma baggage looks much more admirable. But looks can be deceiving.

How I’m Finding Hope for 2021

What a year 2020 was. And 2021 isn’t looking a whole lot better. It’s been a shit show, and it appears the shit show isn’t stopping anytime soon. In the midst of that, I have been the recipient of important lessons and incredible gestures of kindness, love and support. I thought I’d share some highlights, if you’re interested. And I would love to hear what has been helpful for you.

Lately I haven’t felt much energy to write. (Lately, as in the last four years.) Some of that was because I felt my writing didn’t matter much and so I found myself feeling less and less inspired. My writing may not be my next budding profession, but I recently learned of someone who reads what I write and she encouraged me to keep it up. Her words brought tears to my eyes as she thoughtfully articulated what my writing meant to her. I tear up now as I think about her text. Two lessons for me:

  • Do not underestimate the impact of your actions on another, positively or negatively. Remember that with your words and deeds.
  • When someone does something that inspires or encourages you, say something. That affirmation might be exactly what he/she needs to keep it up.

These last four years have continually and painfully revealed our differences. We have felt them in this country on a collective scale. But we have also felt them in very personal ways, within friendships and our own families. Some differences I’ve encountered: the importance of character; political solutions; religious priorities; how we define “Love they neighbor”; who we see as the marginalized; what we define as true; which sources are reliable and maybe more importantly, which ones are unreliable… These differences have robbed joy, hope, community, connectedness. I know that these differences didn’t just appear, but they seem to be deepening. What continually pulls me through the awfulness and renews some semblance of hope is this:

  • Remember the humanity of the other. When I lose sight of your humanity, I lose a bit of my humanity in the process. When I remember your humanity, no matter how different you are from me, there is common ground to be found. And it is there that we might be able to build something, if you are also willing.

Convictions matter. What you believe should drive who you are and the legacy you build. But convictions have been at the heart of much of what we have seen in our divisions. And our divisions seem to be becoming increasingly toxic. Shouldn’t our convictions be making this world a better place, not worse? As I consider the work I have done and continue to do, I can see how I have contributed helpfully. But I can also see, when I take the time to be honest with myself, how I have contributed to the toxicity as well. There have been many times, exhausted or frustrated or a combination of the two, that I have deferred to behavior that ended dialogue rather than contributed to it. I can also see examples of my own arrogance and self-righteousness. Not an enjoyable picture, but an important one to see and examine. My next lesson:

  • Convictions have positive impacts and have negative impacts as well. A positive is that they provide clarity of meaning and purpose. A negative is that they create blindspots. We must continually seek to understand how we are contributing positively, and how we are part of the problem. If you can’t see both, you are more likely contributing negatively than positively.

My goal was to end 2020 with 11 days off AND two weeks of accumulated vacation time as a cushion moving forward. That cushion would provide me with a safety net if something unexpected happened. In a year of quarantine, the goal felt particularly important. In order to reach my goal, I went almost a year and a half without taking one full week off. I would take long weekends here and there, but that’s it. July 2019 was my last full week away from work. For those who don’t know, I work as a chaplain at a hospital that primarily cares for pregnant women and newborns. Note that they don’t call the chaplain for cases that go well. The grief I regularly companion others in is deep and difficult. Self-care, including time away, is essential to doing my work well and staying in my role longterm.

By September of 2020, I was on course for achieving but seriously doubting my goal. I stayed the course while finding ways to practice self-care, though noticeably limping along as I did so. Part of what prevented me from changing my plans was the fact that many of my colleagues also seemed to be limping along. It didn’t feel fair to take more time off because they needed it as much if not more than me. So I kept my eyes on the prize and I finally reached my vacation. I finished 2020 with 11 days off IN A ROW and more than two weeks in my bank of vacation hours accumulated.

The day I returned, I was welcomed with a heavy and full caseload. I noticed I not only had energy for the needs of that day, I finished the day tired, but not depleted. My time off had accomplished what I had hoped. I was not only rested, but my reserves had been refilled. Lesson learned:

  • Self-care is essential to being one’s best self. Take time in small ways and big ways to care for oneself. Self-care is about knowing oneself, tending to oneself, healing and restoring oneself.

None of these lessons were new, though they have taken on new meaning. And they proved to be helpful in navigating these last few years. Each one has also helped make space to see and experience God in all of this, something that has been downright challenging these last four years. Too often the focus on faith has been about victory or blessing. I gave that up when I began to take seriously what Jesus had to say in the Gospels. But to learn what it means to love God with all of my being, to set aside what I want, to love especially when I don’t want to, to care for the marginalized – the lessons of faith, the point of faith – have been much richer in the darkness.

My hope in recounting what has helped thus far is that it might inspire you to explore what has been helpful for you. With how 2021 has started, I’m guessing we’re going to need all the help we can get. In spite of what the year brings, I hope that we can all finish 2021 saying:

  • I did my best.
  • I learned some things.
  • I honored and protected the dignity of others.

Feel free to let me know how I did. Godspeed.

Go!

For too long, stop signs permeated my faith. “Don’t believe this.” “Don’t do that.” “Don’t go there.” “Don’t listen to that.” And I grew up in a relatively comfortable home. I can’t imagine what a legalistic faith would feel like. These stop signs were sometimes fear-based. They were often a warning to prevent me from going where God didn’t want me to go. People who disregarded these stop signs weren’t serious about their faith. They didn’t trust that the stop signs were meant to keep them safe.

As I got older, the problem I increasingly grappled with was that the stop signs weren’t producing healthier individuals. People who followed these rules were just as screwed up, though perhaps in different ways. I began to question some of the stop signs and eventually cautiously move past them. To stay compliant to the stop signs would have been to become stagnant in my faith and eventually have it die altogether, like repeating freshman year over and over and over. There is only so much of that one can take, especially freshman year.

My Christian faith had taught me this idea that there is the letter of the law, or the rules one is meant to follow; and then there is the spirit of the law, understanding the greater intent of the law. Jesus was often cited as the example of one moving from the law to the spirit of the law. Did he break a rule by healing on the Sabbath? Yes. Was it wrong? Jesus said it wasn’t. Interestingly Christians would use Jesus as an example to shame Jews for getting it wrong. And yet this is exactly what I experienced from Christians.

When I began to venture beyond some of the stop signs, I encountered a number of people who cautioned me, who judged me, who bullied me, who shamed me. There is a lot of negativity in some religious systems. And it’s hard to not be impacted by it. It’s hard to not have one’s faith hardened by other people’s negativity. It’s hard not to have one’s faith soiled by constantly being told what’s wrong with you, with what believe or who you are reading or what you find inspiring.

I have had to learn how to be fueled by what is working. I now listen for the “Go!” moments in my life. I am still learning to quiet the voices yelling at me to stop. I try to relish the inspiration and I do my best to move past what would otherwise shut me down. It’s not that there isn’t a periodic “no” or “not yet.” Sometimes it comes in the form of “What about this?” or “Are you sure?” The difference is that the stop sign was put there by someone else. The “no” or “not yet” or “slow down” or “are you sure?” requires on ongoing engagement with my faith.

I get the purpose of stop signs. They aren’t inherently bad. But if those stop signs are the point of your driving experience, you aren’t really focused on the experience of driving. I trust my acquired skills to navigate and stay safe. Feel free to disagree. We can even have a great conversation about that. But if all you are going to do is to yell at me to stop, to tell me I don’t understand, to point out how you know much more than me, then I’m going to have to keep on going.

Redefining “Living Well”

Part of living life well requires a definition of what “living well” means. What do you want from your life? What do you want to contribute to this world? What will your legacy be? What is important to you and how will you incorporate that into your daily life? These things don’t happen naturally. They require intentionality, sacrifice and decisions that reflect what you want.

In my 20s, “living well” included as many adventures as I could fit into my life and afford. The adventures were not just about enjoyment, but learning about the world and myself. Between the ages of 18 and 27, I lived in seven states. (I would add four more states to the list in the years that followed.) I lived on each coast and a few states in between. It was exciting to experience so many different parts of the country. Moving, settling, moving again were ways to learn and grow and be challenged and make decisions about who I would be as an adult. I met and married young. We were aware at the time of how atypical our lives were, but it felt right for us and we did our best to be faithful to our definition of “living well.”

In my mid 20s through my 30s, “living well” meant quality time with my kids. One of the greatest gifts my mom gave me was this bit of advice, “Jen, when you have children of your own, make sure you really take the time to enjoy them. I regret not having done that more with you and your brother.” I could see she meant her words and I was compelled to take them seriously. When I had children, I knew I would soak up everything I could in the time I would have with them. My husband and I sacrificed many things to live on one income. It was hard. But when I think back on that time, I can’t tell you how rich I feel. The time we had together is priceless. It would become the foundation of the deep and rewarding relationship I now have with both of them as adults.

In my 40s, my time as mom was beginning to wane and so I began to focus on what would come next. “Living well” shifted to include significant internal work on my well being. I had a lot of therapy, examined patterns and healed old wounds. At first I thought maybe I had failed in my 20s with the work I had done. But I don’t think I could do the work that was needed until my 40s. It took courage, time and patience. Being adventurous is not the same as being brave. It makes sense that the deeper work had to wait. It was painful. And it was freeing. It was scary. It was riddled with missteps. “Living well” broadened to include all of these descriptors, and maybe more importantly, my willingness to embrace them.

I now find myself at the start of another decade. Children are grown and my next career is well underway. As I think about what “living well” means now, I feel like I am somewhat returning to the beginning and the relationship with my spouse. I am deeply grateful for the companionship he has provided and the life we have built together. I am not an easy person to live with. (Neither is he, for the record.) As our lives simplify, we have more time for each other. Again, as we did in the beginning, but now with a rich history and the legacy of our two kids. The marriage could have broken a number of times because it can be so hard. But we did a lot of work to maintain as much health in our relationship as two dysfunctional people could muster. We are now enjoying the fruits of our labor. We still want similar things and we still make each other laugh. Wanting to come home, to lie next to him at night, to grow old together, all of this bleeds good things into every other area in my life.

My quest to define what “living well” means has been rewarding. It has helped sooth the hurts and mend the mistakes. (I could write a book on the ways I have messed up.) It has brought clarity, conviction and purpose. The point isn’t how I defined “living well.” This can vary from life stage to life stage, sometimes even day to day, and certainly from person to person. What is important is that I continued to redefine “living well.” The fluidity was forgiving and adapted more easily. The flexibility enabled each day to truly be a new day. I could incorporate my mistakes and the consequences into my new definition. Shame didn’t have a place or purpose in my framework.

I hope my reflections have sparked some thoughts of your own, and what “living well” has meant to you. Don’t get caught in the trap of comparing your definitions with mine. And if you have difficulty identifying how you have defined it in the past, that is okay. Reflection can be beneficial, but we don’t want to stay in the past. My question to you is:

How do you want to define what “living well” means today?