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Can’t have one without the other

In recent months, I have been emerging from a complex season of loss and grief. The feelings ebb and flow, come and go, and mix and mingle with joy and gratitude. This grief experience is common to all humans, if we live long enough and are honest with ourselves. No one escapes. The catalysts are many – from the death of one we love, to failed relationship, to dreams unrealized, to watching people we love make self destructive choices, and on and on and on. But what we do with these experiences can take many a path.

I am slowly meandering my way through a challenging and insightful book by Brene Brown, author and researcher on vulnerability, courage, worthiness and shame. The Gifts of Imperfection is full of research-based information on people who live full and satisfying lives – something Brown refers to as a “wholehearted life”. I am finding this book both fascinating and hopeful.

One section that particularly caught my attention and has traveled around inside my heart and mind for weeks now is best summed up with this quote, “There is a full spectrum of human emotions and when we numb the dark, we numb the light.” The temptation and desire to numb the dark is a very real one. The methods of anesthetizing our painful feelings are myriad – busyness, substances, doing good works, electronic distractions, over-eating/exercising/spending…, and the list could go on and on and on.

As I’ve lived through recent months, the truth of this finding has shown itself. During grief’s most intense visitations, I sometimes fight back and just want the feelings to go away, NOW. When I battle them with a vengeance, I either wind up in a very anxious place or a very numb place – with the side effect of missing out on the beautiful gifts of peace and joy.

But when I am willing to sit with loss, give it space, be honest about the source and shed tears of sorrow, there is ultimate cleansing and healing power. It is exhausting yet freeing in its’ own way. It takes even more energy and anxiety to push down, hold back, or shove away such raw human emotion. Fleeing from and numbing the painful emotions resulted in the unintended consequence of also missing out and desensitizing myself to the beauty and joy all around.

In the realm of American Christian faith, there seems to be a prevailing attitude and hope that we can and should experience all of the beauty and joy of life without the sorrow and grief side. And if we can’t put on a happy face, then often our faith is questioned. I am not exactly sure where that idea came from – after all Jesus lived the entire spectrum of emotions. There could be no resurrection without crucifixion.

So I am learning that in order to deeply experience the joys of life, I must be willing and intentional to feel the disappointments, sorrows and grief of this journey. “Joy is as thorny and sharp as any of the dark emotions. To love someone fiercely, to believe in something with your whole heart, to celebrate a fleeting moment in time, to fully engage in a life that doesn’t come with guarantees – these are risks that involve vulnerability and often pain. When we lose our tolerance for discomfort, we lose joy”, says Brown. I have to say I agree. We can’t have one without the other.

Two faces of shame

Update on last blog, The soccer coach. Saturday, this well coached team won their first game. It was a genuine celebration mixed in with a message that “winning is not all important”. Experiencing this very first soccer win with our daughter was a precious gift.

Now, onto Two faces of shame:

“A fact or circumstance bringing disgrace or regret” so says dictionary.com as the #4 definition for shame. This 5 letter word is a secret, hidden fire that burns deep within many a heart. It is often hidden under layers and layers of pain, coping mechanisms, and it silently and stealthily robs our joy and rightful place as beloved children of God. Its’ greatest ally is secrecy. It is most potently defeated by vulnerably sharing our shame dwelling stories with fellow life journeyers we know to be utterly trustworthy.

I personally know a thing or two about this silent thief. As a child, the dominant message I heard in church was one of right and wrong, with a heavy dose of instruction on how to behave in a way to avoid the flames of hell. This message seared my tender heart and contributed to making me a person full of fear and unacquainted with true grace – as the shame definition says, I lived in a state of dis-grace. I am grateful that this has not led me to reject God and faith, but I understand those who go down that road. Gratefully, through time spent in valleys of pain mixed with the hard work of climbing mountains of healing, I am getting to know a gentler Christianity that calls deeply to my hungry soul. The path to here has had many twists and turns and unexpected stops. Grace filled Bible teachers, life giving authors and books, a husband and true friends willing to share and receive deep hurt and vulnerability, psychotherapy, yoga practice, times of soul filling silence with fellow journeyers, time spent in God’s beautiful creation, forgiveness of myself and others and being thrown into a sink or swim situation in the world of therapeutic parenting: these are high on the list of places where God has shown up and been healer.

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Recently I spent several hours with a beautiful friend of 15+ years. Due to earthquake type circumstances in each of our lives, we don’t get to see each other very often these days. I am not a big fan of the term, “divine appointment”, but I can’t deny that this particular morning was a holy ground time. I unexpectedly showed up at her door with the intent to just drop off a birthday gift and quickly head home to a mountain of tasks waiting for me. The doorbell woke her from sleep yet she graciously invited me into her cozy, well-loved home. This friend has traveled a rough road. Chronic physical pain, a rip your heart out divorce, judgment from a pharisaical crowd, life as a single mom – just to name a few of the recent twists and turns in her life. She has a magnetic personality and is beautiful through and through – in both the internal and external ways. In our heart to heart conversation, her words shed light on the person I used to project to the world and words of grace were imparted about who I am now becoming. She doesn’t know a lot of specifics about my last 8 year journey, but she has a heart that KNOWS others. We were real and vulnerable as we caught each other up on our lives, challenges and joys.

As we were laying open our lives before one another, I sensed and spoke that there seemed to be something deep down in her soul that did not believe she is a beloved and precious child of God. She took a deep breath, the tears began to flow and then she told me the story of having an abortion when she was in college. She is the second close friend to recently share this same story – the incredible pain and suffering in their words and on their faces wrecked me. The deepest source of the pain seems to be in the shame of having such a dark secret with no one to walk alongside and bear the burden. This hidden wound has built up shame, and the kinds of churches that both of these friends are acquainted with are not places to receive grace on this matter. God forgive us and make us your grace bearers.

As I look inward to the shame bearers in my life, they too have festered in the dark, hidden places of life and flow from a place of doubt in my rightful place as beloved by God. But my “go to” armor looks different than that of my precious friends who have felt less than and not good enough as a result of their secrets. Same shame, different response. My shame shield has been much more about building up a wall of pride, arrogance, and self righteousness while trying to make myself and others fit into a legalistic system. I was a Pharisee looking down on things from the moral high ground. The list of boxes I have tried out is long – theological correctness, political affiliation, correct behavior in living, dietary habits, economic systems – you get the point. If I could set up a system where I am “in” and “right”, then anything outside of my box could be viewed as wrong and other. This led to a glittering but false image that I projected to the world. My heart was full of judgment toward others. I lived in a shameful place of great frustration as my inside longings and outside life didn’t match. God forgive me and grant grace to and through me.

As I get more comfortable with the gray of life and the mystery of God, I don’t feel pressure to have all the answers. Healing as well as a joyful pursuit of true abundant life flourishes. My desire is to be a person that can receive with grace and mercy the dark secrets of others, walk alongside without judgment or trying to save or fix , and points them to God as ultimate healer. I want to be a journeyer who can share my own shame and secrets with trustworthy fellow sojourners, embracing Jesus’ words, “you will know the truth and the truth will set you free”. I want to live life to the fullest.

Two books that I highly recommend on the matter of shame and the power of vulnerability to overcome it are: 1) Daring Greatly by Brene Brown if you are interested in compassionately communicated research on the topic. She also has a tender you tube video on same topic and 2) Carry On, Warrior ; Thoughts on Life Unarmed by the wildly popular momastery.com blogger Glennon Doyle Melton if you want a whole hearted, passionate page turner about a life lived in this manner.

We must first be honest with ourselves, God and then with others to get intimately acquainted with the shame that resides within. It takes courage. It will hurt. I leave you with a wish based on Glennon Melton’s writing: Life lived together is brutiful – a mixture of brutal and beautiful. Let’s walk side by side along this brutiful journey. When we do, the power of shame will be destroyed.