Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Numbers, Goals, and Things That Can't Be Measured

It is the time of year when people have set goals and are running out of the gate at breakneck speed to meet them. At the beginning of the new year we are so energetic. So eager. We have thrown off weariness of the old year and have set new goals to strive for.

The peoples out there tell us to make our goals tangible. Numeric, even. In business development. In physical health. In personal improvement. I get that. How do you know where you are without a mile marker? How do you know if you have crossed the finish line without a line to cross?

There are a few problems with these numbers, though.

1.) We can get competitive. And while that competition may be good at producing results, it rarely produces the inner growth and peace we are shooting for. Blow them all out of the water and you can perhaps think a little too highly of yourself when, in fact, the reason may be that you have better running shoes or a smoother path. Lapse behind and you can feel horribly inferior and like a failure, even if you made the best effort you can.

2.) We can begin to define ourselves and measure our value by our numbers. I know way too many people whose very identities are caught up in numbers of all kinds. What woman out there hasn't had her psyche crushed by the number on a scale? The number on the pants label? And yet we know that a number doesn't define something like health. An overweight person who exercises regularly and eats a reasonable diet is far more healthy than a super thin, smoker, couch potato who lives on Little Debbies and Mountain Dew.

3.) The numbers don't always measure the effort involved. In real estate we are told to set a goal for number of transactions closed in the next year. And I get that. You gotta shoot for something. There are, after all, bills to pay. But serving my clients well is not always reflected in more transactions closed. I think of the wonderful couple I worked with this past year who were trying to thread a very, very thin needle and, over the course of several months had two different homes under contract, only to terminate both contracts due to factors I had no control over. And then they decided to put off the entire purchase until this next year. I have no regrets for them. I have full confidence that I did my very best for them. But my effort cannot be measured by a number.

4.) Numbers can put quantity over quality. They represent the outside, not the inside. The surface, but not necessarily the core. The performance, but not the heart.

I got to thinking all this about numbers because of my own numbers game.

When I was a young mom with even younger kids I grew weary of the fact that nothing I ever did stayed done. A friend commented that when her kids were the age of mine, she got a lot of satisfaction out of crocheting for just that reason. It was the one thing in her life that stayed done.

Seeing how I had no skills whatsoever and seeing how I had been blessed with 10 thumbs instead of the usual two and a set of nimble fingers, I knew crafty handiwork was out. So I decided to do the only thing I knew I could do. I decided to read.

And so read I did. And every time I finished a book I wrote it down on a list. And at the end of each year I could look back and see I had done something that stayed done. Satisfaction at last.

But then I started counting. I would count how many books I read that year. Some years, especially the years when I was racing through the Newbery Medal winners, I read an impressive number of books. Other years, the number just wasn't quite up to snuff and I felt guilty. How unusual for me!

A few years ago I decided to set a reading goal. I don't remember what the original number was but for the past four of five years, my goal has been to read 25 books. For me that is a pretty manageable number to shoot for without being unreachable. Just enough push. Set obtainable goals, they say.  I am happy to say I reach that goal every year.

But I've run into a problem. Actually, a couple of problems. And they showcase the problems with numbers.

I can find a book I really, really want to read, but it is long. Really long. In fact there are three 600+ page books next to my bed right now. But I have lost the incentive to read them because they will only count for one book when I could be reading at least 2 for the same page count. And what if I get bogged down at page 435? I've spent all that reading time with nothing to show for it because I only write down books that I have finished. Remember?

The other problem is that I will often rush through a book just to finish it. So I can write it down. So I will be one more book closer to my goal. And sometimes I will read a book, a really, really good book. Perhaps a life-changing book. But I don't go slow. I don't ponder. I don't chew on the words and journal their implications. All because I don't have time. Because I have to move on to the next book.

Almost two years ago I wrote a blog post, The Numbers Game, where I fleshed out my thought on numbers. Two years later I have the same concerns. Only more up close and personal.

I've watched how I have chosen quantity over quality. I have wasted time reading a bad book just so I can write it down. I have avoided excellent books just because they are too long or too hard and therefor will impact my book count. I have read incredible books and stuffed them back on the shelf without giving them another glance because I have to move on to the next. The numbers are calling.

My point is, when we focus on the numbers, we lose something.

When I focus on how many houses I'm closing this year, I cease to focus on caring well for my clients. I've heard from teachers that the focus on test results takes away their time and energy to teach well.

When my mother was dying, I kept watching her numbers. What was her oxygen level. What was her blood pressure. I wanted so badly to know how close she was to death that the nurse finally came in and turned off the equipment. I needed to focus on my mother. Not the numbers.

We love the concrete. It tells us where we are. How we've done. Whether or not we can pat ourselves on the back.

But life is so much more than numbers. And so is the Kingdom of God.

Love, mercy, kindness, compassion, justice, These are things that cannot be measured. And yet I think if we aim for these things, the numbers will take care of themselves. Or they won't matter any more.

As for me, I'm not setting a numbers goal this year for my reading. I am going to read to learn. I am going to read to grow. I am going to read to relax. I am going to read to enjoy. I may not have as much to show for it at the end of the year, numbers wise, but I hope that the things that cannot be measured will prove to be worth it.



Thursday, January 2, 2020

Be Excessively Gentle With Yourself

On New Year's Eve, a friend on Facebook asked, "If you could tell your past self something a decade ago, what would it be?"

My heart raced. My breath shortened. The thought of going back ten years struck terror in my heart.

I did not end 2009 full of energy and optimism. I was exhausted. Earlier that year my mother had entered the hospital with atrial fibrillation and never left. She died there 9 weeks later. Along with grieving, I took up the task, along with a sister, of cleaning out the house she had lived in for 55 years. I made 13 trips to Chattanooga that year.

In December 2009 I had four teenagers. In case you've ever wondered, four teenagers means that there is never a 24-hour period without a crisis. Four teenagers means exhaustion.

And still. And still. And still....the hardest was yet to come.

I struggle to find the words that describe the decade from December 31, 2009 to December 31, 2019. Perhaps because much of the hard of those years is tender and private. Much of the hard involves people I care about.

And while there is much good that came out of the hard of the past decade, and I so want to take an inventory of all that I have learned and all that has changed in the lives of those I love dearly and of the beauty that has come from the ashes, right now I am just tired. Really, really tired.

I.just.don't.have.any.thing.left.in.me.

It seems the past couple of years or so people have added to, or replaced, the New Year's resolution with a word for the year. I do like this idea. Instead of just a goal for self-improvement, such as dropping 15 pounds or running every day or even, in my case, reading 25 books a year, a word is a reminder to focus on some aspect of life. Last year my word was "acknowledge."

I have been so exhausted and cast down I hadn't even considered a word for 2020. But in God's providence, I recently came across a poem by John O'Donahoe:

A Blessing For One Who Is Exhausted 

When the rhythm of the heart becomes hectic,
Time takes on the strain until it breaks;
Then all the unattended stress falls in
On the mind like an endless, increasing weight,
The light in the mind becomes dim.
Things you could take in your stride before
Now become laboursome events of will.
Weariness invades your spirit.
Gravity begins falling inside you,
Dragging down every bone.
The tide you never valued has gone out.
And you are marooned on unsure ground.
Something within you has closed down;
And you cannot push yourself back to life.
You have been forced to enter empty time.
The desire that drove you has relinquished.
There is nothing else to do now but rest
And patiently learn to receive the self
You have forsaken for the race of days.
At first your thinking will darken
And sadness take over like listless weather.
The flow of unwept tears will frighten you.
You have travelled too fast over false ground;
Now your soul has come to take you back.
Take refuge in your senses, open up
To all the small miracles you rushed through.
Become inclined to watch the way of rain
When it falls slow and free.
Imitate the habit of twilight,
Taking time to open the well of colour
That fostered the brightness of day.
Draw alongside the silence of stone
Until its calmness can claim you.
Be excessively gentle with yourself.
Stay clear of those vexed in spirit.
Learn to linger around someone of ease
Who feels they have all the time in the world.
Gradually, you will return to yourself,
Having learned a new respect for your heart
And the joy that dwells far within slow time.

"Be excessively gentle with yourself." Be excessively gentle with myself? I have never even been remotely gentle with myself. I have probably hated myself for as long as I can remember, always comparing myself to others and coming up short and wishing I could be something more. Something different. Something better.

My husband says I would never talk to a friend the way I talk to myself. I would never hold anyone else up to the same standards. I would never dare break out such a cruel yardstick for anyone else.

We live in a world of push, push, push. Challenge yourself. Discipline yourself. Reach for higher goals. Do the hard things. Set impressive goals and seek to attain them. Whether in professional life or parenthood or whipping your body into shape. I can't do it. I. can't. do. it. any. more.

My soul is so very weary. I need to slow down. I need to take time to ponder. To think. Or to do nothing at all. Like I said in my last post, perhaps this is just a season. But it is something I need so badly. I need to take time to be excessively gentle with myself.

And maybe this is what I would tell my past self a decade ago: buckle your seatbelt. You are in for a wild ride. Life is hard. Oh, so hard. Be excessively gentle with yourself.

Monday, December 23, 2019

'Tis A Season

'Tis the season, they say. Today I read an incredible post. A post about a season. That there is a time for everything. A season for everything. And I so needed to hear this. Because I am in that season.

It is a season where I need to sit quietly. Ponder things. Process things. Look at life from different angles.

It is a season where I have pried off the lid of Pandora's Box of some childhood trauma and am daring to peek inside.

It is a season where I am having to let go of so many things. Long held dreams. Deep longings. False securities. Youth. Physical beauty. A quick and agile mind.

It is a season of unbuilding. Of taking apart the relationship with God that I have had for 38 years. A relationship built too much on a foundation of fear and shame and all the "shoulds" of the kingdom . It is a season to start over from scratch.

It is a season of acceptance. Of being OK with being weak, broken, exhausted to the core.

It is a season of listening. Learning. Learning from one whose yoke and easy and whose burden is light.

It is a season to be quiet and soak in the stillness and the silence. To just be for a while.

Maybe one day I will have the energy again and the drive to get out and push forward and to pour, pour, pour into others, but for now I just can't.

Perhaps most of all it is a season of learning that it is OK to be in a season. And seasons don't last forever.

Friday, December 6, 2019

Winter

I have come to love winter. It just might be my favorite time of the year.

I love the colors. The faded russet of the oak leaves, some fallen and some clinging to their branches until spring. I love the light brown of the cornfields, harvested and sitting empty until ready to give life again. I love the deep green of a grove of pines poking through the mottled brown of the mountainsides. I especially love all of these colors against the backdrop of the gray-blue of winter cloud cover.

I love the crispness of the air. It makes me feel like I can breathe. I love the starkness of the landscape. I can see better. Every tree branch is outlined and out my front windows I can see for miles and miles, a view of the distant mountain peaks across the county and into the next. No other season can hold a candle to the sunsets of winter.

And then the sounds of winter. Winter is the quietest season.

There is a stillness to winter. A slowing down.

Winter, of all seasons, is a season of rest. Animals hibernate. Plants hunker down underground. Life seems to be reduced the the bare essentials.

I feel like I am in a season of winter. And I need this season of winter. I need the quiet. I need the pace. I need to be able to cut away to the bare essentials. I need to see clearly.

I know winter may not look productive. But, for the most part, it is a good and necessary part of life.

If you want to buy a piece of land, look at it in winter. That is the season when the vegetation dies back and you can assess what you have. The barrenness of the landscape allows you to see.

I seem to be in a season of winter, not just on the calendar, but in my life. I am slowing down. I am craving quiet. In the stillness of winter and in the barrenness of my own personal landscape I am able to take an inventory. I am able to see more clearly who I am and who God is and why he has me on the planet in the first place.

For everything there is a season....

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

A Severe Mercy

I've told this story before. Many times. And probably in previous blog posts. Who knows? I can't remember anything. I am indeed a brainless wonder.

But I tell it again today and for a couple of reasons. First I tell it because sometimes the healing is in the telling and the being heard. And second, I tell it because, in spite of the intense pain and subsequent damage, it had to happen. Bear with me and I'll tell you why.

Yesterday was the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. The Tuesday before Thanksgiving will always be a day that sticks in my mind. And in my heart.

It was November 1977. I had turned 14 a few weeks earlier and had a fresh set of braces (AKA the "Grill of Shame") gracing my teeth. I felt awkward and ugly, thanks to my newly found hormones and mouth full of metal. Fourteen is an awful age.

I was in 8th grade. My older sister was a senior. My oldest sister and my brother were away at college. Early in November my mother called my sister and I together and told us, almost casually, that she and my father were getting a divorce. I didn't think a lot of it and I certainly wasn't surprised. My dad had hardly been around for the past year and I had known for a long time that that there were other ladies in his life.

Over the course of the next few weeks I noticed that some of the furniture and various household items gradually made their way into our garage. And then on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, as my sister and I drove into the driveway from school, I saw it. Empty.The garage was empty.

That moment was the turning point for our family and for my life. It wasn't so much that I lost my dad that day. I had never really had him. But I lost my family. My mother broke down and didn't recover emotionally for years, if ever. We became fractured and scattered. Each seeking stability and love and happiness wherever we could find it. At 14, my options were limited. I was alone.

And yet....and yet it had to happen. Theirs was an unhealthy marriage at best. Each brought their own pathologies into the relationship. Each was so needy in their own way. But after years of living with an unfaithful husband my mother finally did what she had to do. She hired a private investigator, gathered the evidence she needed, and filed for divorce. I do not blame her for this. It was hard. It was devastating. It was shameful (at least in her eyes). But it was necessary.

And that is the point I want to make. Divorce is sometimes necessary. Despite all the collateral damage that comes from divorce, and I am well aware of such damage, it is still sometimes the lesser of two evils and oftentimes a severe mercy.

Yesterday, as I was pondering the day that shattered my family, I read that Wayne Grudem, the top dog, so to speak, in systematic theology in the Evangelical world, has changed his tune on divorce. Until recently he had held out that the only biblical reasons for divorce are adultery and desertion. Since getting to know situations where victims were incredibly damaged by abusive marriages, he has taken a second look and determined that abuse is also a biblical reason for divorce. Funny how, when the theoretical becomes concrete, laced with pain, your views of things can change.

Now I have read some other statements of his that greatly concern me, like how restoration of the marriage should always first be pursued, and I have my own thoughts on that that perhaps I will share in another post. But I was thrilled to hear that he had changed his mind on this and this is why: he has a tremendous amount of influence in theologically conservative circles. Many people, many leaders, take their cues from what he teaches and have thus kept victims trapped in abusive marriages or face church discipline for pursuing an unbiblical divorce.

So, yeah, that's huge.

I guess, what I am saying is that divorce, as horrible as it is, is sometimes necessary. And it is funny how, on a day that still brings a feeling of emptiness to my soul because of divorce, I was yet finding myself thankful for it.

It is indeed, at times, a gift from God. A severe mercy.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

On Rape and Slaughtered Lambs

I was reading this morning yet another powerful article about King David and what we have heard called for forever it seems as his "adultery" and how this "adultery" was, in fact, rape. This article brings to the forefront the very destruction of the abuse of power.

I was reminded again of when the prophet Nathan comes to David and tells him the story. There was a  rich man with a whole ton o' sheep and there was a poor man with one lamb. He nurtured and cared for this one lamb and loved this one lamb dearly.

Some dude comes through town and the rich man wants to serve him so instead of choosing a lamb from his own ample supply, he takes the one lamb from the poor man to serve up to his guest.

This is where the story of the lamb ends. Nathan tells the dim-bulb David "You are that man" and David falls down weeping and cries that he has sinned against God. That is where the story ends for us.  We are taught that ll sin is sin against God. Poor Uriah was the poor man whose sheep was stolen from him.

But the lamb? We don't hear about the lamb. It is almost like the lamb didn't matter. Like so many victims of abuse don't matter.

But I stopped and thought about the lamb. The lamb was taken. The lamb was used to satisfy the appetite of another.

The lamb was slaughtered.

THE LAMB WAS SLAUGHTERED. 

She was a lamb that was slaughtered. Those who are abused by power and by appetites, those are lambs that are slaughtered.

Jesus knows. He gets it. Because he was the Lamb that was slaughtered.


Wednesday, September 25, 2019

On Casseroles and Private Pain

Making its way around Facebook is an incredible article called The Casserole Rules which talks about the unspoken rules, so deeply ingrained, which determine what crisis warrants support. Or at least warrants a vat of lasagna or that steaming pan of chicken, rice and broccoli glop that everybody makes and nobody has a name for.

Death. Sickness. A new baby. Maybe a bad car accident or even a house fire. Public pain. Shameless pain. Polite pain. When these things happen, the troops rally and the fridges and freezers fill. Nobody goes hungry. Nobody goes it alone.

But what happens when the husband leaves or a child goes AWOL? What happens when the wave of depression comes crushing down and you can't get out of bed? What happens when you have to spend time and money and more emotional resources than you even thought you had in the lawyer's office? The therapist's office? The pastor's office? More often than not there is silence. No acknowledgement. No support. And certainly no casseroles.

I remember this well in my own life when my father left. There was no public acknowledgement of his leaving. No obituary of the marriage. No neighbors rallying around. No extended family rushing in. Because of the shame surrounding the whole thing we weren't even allowed to tell but one or two people from the time he left until 3 months later when the divorce was final. It was a death with no grieving. A burial done alone.

In the 1990s Kaiser Permanente and the Centers for Disease Control conducted a study looking into the correlation between childhood trauma and health problems across the lifespan and the association is staggering. They pulled together a list of 10 Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) and your ACE score is an indicator of your risk for all sorts of issues well into adulthood. You get one point for each "yes" to the following questions:

  1. Did a parent or other adult in the household often or very often… Swear at you, insult you, put you down, or humiliate you? or Act in a way that made you afraid that you might be physically hurt?
  2. Did a parent or other adult in the household often or very often… Push, grab, slap, or throw something at you? or Ever hit you so hard that you had marks or were injured?
  3. Did an adult or person at least 5 years older than you ever… Touch or fondle you or have you touch their body in a sexual way? or Attempt or actually have oral, anal, or vaginal intercourse with you?
  4. Did you often or very often feel that … No one in your family loved you or thought you were important or special? or Your family didn’t look out for each other, feel close to each other, or support each other?
  5. Did you often or very often feel that … You didn’t have enough to eat, had to wear dirty clothes, and had no one to protect you? or Your parents were too drunk or high to take care of you or take you to the doctor if you needed it?
  6. Were your parents ever separated or divorced?
  7. Was your mother or stepmother:
    Often or very often pushed, grabbed, slapped, or had something thrown at her? or Sometimes, often, or very often kicked, bitten, hit with a fist, or hit with something hard? or Ever repeatedly hit over at least a few minutes or threatened with a gun or knife?
  8. Did you live with anyone who was a problem drinker or alcoholic, or who used street drugs?
  9. Was a household member depressed or mentally ill, or did a household member attempt suicide?      
  10. Did a household member go to prison?
When I first read these questions I found it baffling that the death of a parent or sibling was not included. Or a major accident or perhaps a natural disaster. A dear friend had just lost her husband and I was well aware of the intense pain and trauma that she and her children were going through. The explanation is that the list comprises the most common traumas of childhood mentioned in the survey. But I think there is something else to it as well. The Casserole Rule.

Death and accidents and natural disasters are one time incidents that garner much social support. But look at the above list. These are all private traumas. Ongoing traumas. Shame-filled traumas. Traumas nobody wants to talk about. Traumas that, if talked about, make the conversation uncomfortable. And that is part of what makes them so very damaging. That a child enduring these kinds of traumas must do so alone. 

I don't have an answer, really. I wish we could talk about things. About the hard things we face or have faced in the past. I wish people didn't get so uncomfortable about it all. Shuffle their feet and laugh under their breath and change the subject. Or worse, put a smiley face on it. Tell you to be thankful. Pat you on the head. Find a way to tell you what you should have done. Or lob a scripture bomb your way. 

I wish that divorce, abuse, depression, wayward children, addiction, job loss, bankruptcy, special needs children got the same support as the more public and polite traumas. 

Perhaps it starts with being able to share these hard things in life openly, without fear of judgment or scorn. 

How can we do better?