Gone Out

There are about six weeks left in this year, which is just nuts. Thanksgiving is next week, and yesterday we got our first real snow. A layer of white knitted the tree branches into delicate lace, while thick layers of white velvet draped on prickling pines. People complained. It was a great day.

This first snow filled me with a feeling of ridiculous hope. There was just something about the fact that something so beautiful can come from wind and cold, and that if that can happen, anything can.

These past few months, I’ve had a good season of writing. But I’ve decided I want to finish out the year being more thoughtful, more contemplative, than productive. I want the space to really notice the beauty and joy of these last few weeks, and to enjoy them without stress, without hurry.

There are some projects I’d like the space to to work on without an immediate need to share. And I want to get back in the habit of producing good work which I share because I love it, not producing just to share.

All this to say, I’m taking a blogging break for the rest of the year. It’s a little retreat, a self-conference. Have a lovely rest of 2018, as we look forward to the new year with joy.

Getting Shtuff Done: a Journey in Productivity

I’ve always had a hard time keeping good habits. I have lofty goals and good intentions, but these fall victim to procrastination and apathy. Soon I carry a string of failed attempts and a load of doubt that I could ever be successful again.

If you’ve ever read some of Gretchen Rubin’s research on human nature, specifically her Four Tendencies personality studies, my tendency is to be an Obliger, which means that while I dutifully meet the expectations of other people, I have a hard time keeping promises to myself. This rather self-sabotaging mindset means it’s incredibly difficult for me to stick to my goals, no matter how much I want them.

Writing, I’ve found, is a very risky career choice for someone like myself, because in writing, you have to make yourself write. You have to find that motivation. It’s not a job in which you clock in and out at a certain time and meet a defined list of expectations set by someone you fear and respect. No, it’s just me, and my thoughts, and a string of projects with some loose deadlines. (Loose deadlines, by the way, are Kryptonite to an Obliger).

Rubin’s advice to Obligers is to create external accountability, like deadlines in your work, friends who will join you for a morning run, or reading groups that will incline you to read. While I have found that advice useful, it also left a gnawing feeling that I wasn’t quite getting to the root of the problem. And this was the problem: I am afraid to commit to my personal priorities, because I am afraid they aren’t worthy. I am afraid to stick up for them, to say no to other things, to endure the hard times my priorities require.

Take exercise, for instance. I’ve never been very good at working out, because I’ve always been defeated before I finish. I don’t let myself start at a comfortable pace, my pace, on my terms. I let myself get swept up in someone else’s idea of good exercise, and then I get burnt out. And of course, I spend too much time worrying about how my body looks instead of how I feel.

When a few months ago, Alex and I restarted the habit of going to the gym regularly, I began this new habit differently than I ever approached anything before: I gave myself the freedom to do what I liked. Truth is, I don’t like being overly sweaty and in pain for a whole hour. But I do like running a mile at a time, and I do like lifting weights, and I do like yoga. So that’s what I did. I let myself set low goals, because even those low goals were higher than doing nothing. For a while I waited for the other shoe to drop; I’d started out so well so many other times, only to fail.

But this time was different; this time I actually enjoyed working out, which I’ve never in my whole life been able to say. I enjoyed it because it was my own goals on my own terms, and I was hitting those goals, week by week.

That’s when it dawned on me: I didn’t have to try to trick myself into meeting goals. I had discovered a simple, oft-forgettable truth: getting stuff done feels good.

I think we so often fall into a victim mindset, if even a little. If you’re naturally more inclined to it, like me as an Obliger, it’s even easier. You get used to the feeling of failing yourself. And I’m not sure why, but suddenly I just got fed up with it. I didn’t want to have to have some kind of external structure to do the things I loved and wanted to accomplish: I wanted to accomplish them because it feels good. 

It feels good to have a yoga habit. It feels good to eat salads. It feels good to read. It feels good to floss.

And I don’t mean “feels good” just on the surface level, the physical level. I mean it feels good on a deep, soul level. It nourishes my mind, body, and spirit. It makes me more of who I really want to be.

And I think you have to discover, for yourself, which lofty goals create that kind of soul-level good feeling for you. There are many good habits we keep that might not be the best for us, our specific personhood and calling. There are good habits that feed you on that physical level, but not on the soul level.

Realizing that made me narrow down my daily goals so I can meet my ultimate, long-term ones. It helped me carve out time for prayer and meditation. It helped me write 20,000 words of my graduate manuscript in a month (I still have no idea how that happened).

It’s not a fool safe, one-and-done process; it’s an ongoing one. It takes overcoming laziness and doubt and fear moment by moment by moment. But I’m learning that motivating yourself by fear or frustration, by competition or by other people’s values, is never a sustainable way to build your life. You have to figure out what you value, stick up for it, and run for it with abandon.

So today, what are some things you value? What are some goals you have? Why do you want them, and what has kept you from reaching for them?

And how will it feel to get them done?

Craving Color: Painting the World Orange

This time of year is dangerous driving weather for me.

There’s so much going on. The trees are all changing colors, and there are so many different shades within those colors. I can count five different yellows. Not to mention the flaming scarlet, orange tinged with pink, warm browns against ashy browns. And by the time one tree completely drops its leaves, another one’s color deepens, and so any given landscape changes multiple times within a week. It’s dizzying.

I’m usually someone who’s drawn to more cool tones. Blues and grays are my lifeblood. When I do my laundry, all the clothes match each other. So it’s funny that in this season of riotous color, I feel drawn to the burning orange and spicy red and melting yellow. I’ve even—gasp—bought a few pieces of clothing in bright, rich colors that are totally out of my character.

I first noticed this color craving several weeks ago, before the leaves had even begun to turn. I got this insatiable urge to paint everything in my life orange. It was weird; like I said, my belongings are a tidy collection of blues, grays, browns, and off-whites. Sometimes I’ll go crazy and buy something burgundy. But I kept being drawn to orange. I noticed it in everything, my eyes locked onto every scrap of it, and I savored it like I was eating a visual chocolate cake.

Again: weird. Soon I began to wonder if this craving for the color orange was a subconscious craving for something else. I don’t mean to get all metaphysical, but I do know that colors speak to us, across time, across cultures. Color symbolism and color theory are fascinating to me, because while we might all perceive color slightly differently, there is still so much meaning that is shared and universal. For all the things we disagree on as humans, we can all, millions of us, still agree that certain colors mean certain things.

So on a whim I did some research. Orange is commonly thought to symbolize balance, joy,  warmth, energy, and enthusiasm. It’s a fun color, not as aggressive as red but not as calm and laid back as yellow. In some cultures, orange has ties to spirituality and is reserved for monks or priests.

Learning all this was sort of spooky, because my theory that there was something more to being drawn to a color was proven correct. Orange, and all it represents, was what I wanted to be more of. I was coming out of a season of transition, restlessness, confusion, and stagnation. And suddenly I was waking up every morning wanting to feel different, wanting to literally paint my life orange.

With this in mind, I’ve been trying to cultivate more orange-like attitudes in the past few weeks. I want to have balance in my life between enjoying the moment and working for the future. I want to have joy and enthusiasm. I want to be warm in my heart and warm to others. I want to be connected to the spiritual side of things and not merely stay stuck in the mindsets of the physical. I want to burst with creativity, fun, health, and vibrancy. I’ve also been trying to create little pops of orange in my life by adding in new and unfamiliar experiences. This doesn’t come easy to me, but it does reap a lot of joy.

As autumn deepens and the world starts to actually look how I wanted to paint it, I find myself drawn to other colors too. Rich plum, brilliant emerald, and that delicious melting yellow. Perhaps I’ll do some research on those colors as well. Who knows what I could learn from them?

Thinking Generously: How One Mental Tweak Made Me Richer

One thing my husband Alex and I decided to do at the beginning of our marriage was to commit to being generous. As two newlywed college students, of course, this was a lofty goal. But we made the commitment to, at the very least, be a couple who tithed.

If you’ve never heard of tithing, it’s a practice in Christianity in which you set aside ten percent of your income to give away. Typically, this means giving to the church, although it can also mean just giving to someone in need. It’s a practice commanded by God to reinforce perspective about money: that it’s not the most important thing in life, that we are always fortunate enough to be generous to others, and that all our blessings—not just the financial ones—come from God and are important. Setting aside our money is a physical representation and reminder of these things.

Alex was especially excited for us to do this together, because he’s an incredibly generous person, and the chance to get in the habit of giving to others was a big life goal for him. While I wanted to be generous too, I wasn’t as enthused. I’m a worrier, a very practical person. I need to know how we’re going to accomplish what, and I have a hard time trusting that everything will turn out okay.

Our mission to give generously, even when it was hard for us, was a bumpy road at times, but thankfully we’ve been able to give the ten percent (and at times, even above) that was our goal. Even better, this mindset of being generous has bled into a few other areas of life, and I’ve learned several lessons from it:

Our culture operates on a scarcity mindset. This is the opposite of a generosity mindset. Scarcity says, “There’s not enough,” “We won’t be okay,” and “We have to gather and hoard so we have enough resources to spare.” This mindset operates well in the American Dream, which is all about upward mobility and increasing wealth. While those values aren’t necessarily bad goals, it’s interesting how our quest for abundance leads us to be obsessed with having enough, and how some of the most fortunate people in the world (us), end up so unsatisfied.

When you put on a mindset of generosity, you feel richer. Like I said, I’m a worrier. I tend to have that scarcity mindset, and I justify it by telling myself that I’m thinking wisely. But a generosity mindset offers true wisdom by putting things in perspective. Generosity says, “I don’t need to scrounge and hoard; we’re gonna be okay.” Generosity says, “I am truly blessed, and I have abundance—however small—to give to others.”

Scarcity and generosity aren’t just about money. This is truly important. When I started challenging myself to think generously, it bled into so many other things. I learned to think generously about my time: when someone asked me to take time to help them out with something, a generous mindset helped me feel more rich in time instead of fretting that I’d not have enough time to get other things done. A generosity mindset also helped me with forgiveness: it reminded me that there is so much grace and love to give, and I don’t have to be stingy with it. In my relationships, I don’t have to worry about keeping score, thinking, “well you did this, so I do that, and because I did that, you do this.” No, with a generosity mindset, I can be lavish in my relationships, and leave the emotional math at the door.

Thinking generously actually helped me be more disciplined. You’d think that being really generous would make for a less than happy bank account. But miraculously, that’s not the case. Thinking generously takes the desperation out of managing my resources; it shifts everything into perspective. I am free to make decisions based on the needs I have and the needs I want to help others with, instead of trying to scramble to prepare for a theoretical famine down the road.

It may sound like a lot of mind games, but getting in the mindset of abundance, rather than scarcity, truly makes me feel like I have more at my disposal. Because I feel richer (and not just in money), I feel satisfied, more taken care of, and more peaceful. When we realize that every blessing we have, whether it’s time, money, relationships, skills, etc., is a resource and a form of power, we can feel better equipped to use that power for good. We don’t have to feel like we’re at the mercy of these things; we can think generously, and give willingly and freely.

Soon we find that generosity never reduces what we have; it only multiplies it.

Open Mind, Narrow Focus: Learning to Prioritize with Joy

In the past year, one concept that’s really latched onto me is the importance of prioritizing. We all know that life often feels crazy, beyond our control, that there aren’t enough hours in the day. And it’s so hard to choose those few things we want to focus on in our limited time.

Alex and I got married when we were still in college, so maybe the realization that I had to prioritize my time hit me extra early. I had to choose from the get go that when it came down to it, my relationship and time with him was more important than all the intricacies of a college education.

Of course, this doesn’t mean I totally slacked at my work, or that I considered my personal development not important. If anything, this new arrangement gave me more responsibility for my own priorities. I’m someone who has the tendency to throw aside my own agenda for others, especially people I love or respect. While I truly believe there’s a time and place for that, I came to a sobering realization:  I cannot let other people decide what my priorities are. That is my responsibility.

For me, as a newlywed college student, that meant two discernible things: first, that I could not let the expectations put on me as a student by teachers or coursework dictate the time and attention I spent on my husband; and second, I could not let my desire to be a good partner to my husband detract from the work I had as a student.

This may sound contradictory. How can partner and personal growth both be the most important thing at the same time? I spent the rest of my college career trying to figure out that balance, and I went on to grad school trying to learn the same thing, and every job I’ve had and will have is a challenge in trying to figure it out.

Because for me, prioritizing boils down to the daily questions of: What things are most important to me? and When must I say no to one important thing so I can say yes to another? 

This week, my best friend Jenny and I were chatting about this concept. We noticed how many of the people we meet seem perpetually rushed, with absolutely no time to spare. We noticed how it’s so easy to say, “I don’t have time to work out,” or “I don’t have time for self-care,” or “I wish I could do xyz, but I just can’t.”

Jenny has a full time job, a lengthy commute, various activities that all take time, and her husband has a demanding and time-consuming job as well. But the truth, she said, is that we all do have the time for whatever we want to do. We just don’t always use the resources we have wisely. As she put it, “The way you spend your time shows what your priorities are.” In other words, what we do with our time reflects the things we most value.

In pondering this, I had another thought: what if the priorities that people commonly feel that they should have, say working out or social time or whatever it is, aren’t actually priorities they want to have? But instead of admitting, “hey, that’s not something I value or even want, and I choose to spend my time elsewhere,” we frame ourselves as victims. “I don’t want to” becomes “I would if I could, but I can’t,” and that makes us feel better, more justified, in not doing what we feel pressured to do. But that also ends up making us feel more strained, more stressed, less free to spend our time as we like. And we feel constantly defeated, because we don’t meet those lofty goals we feel we should.

One thing I found helpful in this process of refocusing my priorities was to look big-picture. In my life, what are a handful of things I want to be true? A handful of goals I want to accomplish? For me, it narrowed down to three things: I want to have a good relationship with God (and by extension, everyone else); I want to be physically healthy; and I want to publish a book.

With these big picture ideals in mind, I try to do something every day that cultivates those things. I spend time in prayer or devotional reading. I work out or do yoga. I read and write. Suddenly my days are very simplified; I don’t have to worry that I didn’t do enough or that I’m not succeeding enough. As long as I hit the three big priorities on my list, everything else is a bonus. And suddenly, life feels a lot more victorious, a lot more joyful.

On paper it sounds simple, but it’s not always fun, and it’s not always easy. For example, being physically healthy is one of my life goals, but it’s not a life goal that’s always joyful to pursue. I have to set aside time to work out, I have to endure the moments of pain that come with working out, and I have to be mindful about not stuffing my face with cake at every whim.

What keeps me motivated is realizing that this goal is mine, and no one else’s. I am doing this because I want to, even if in the moment I don’t really “want” to. It also encourages me to make my goals on my own terms. For me, this means I don’t run super fast or participate in insane cardio or go to hot yoga classes, because honestly, I don’t want to. I don’t completely abstain from carbs or sugar or dairy, because I don’t want to. My goal is not to win a bikini contest; my goal is to create sustainable, mindful health. I challenge myself according to my own ability and lifestyle, not someone else’s. As a result, I feel good not only physically, but mentally.

Despite the best of intentions, prioritizing is still a struggle, especially in a society that is perennially rushed and always comparing one person with another. But I keep coming back to that conviction I first put together in college: I cannot let other people decide what my priorities are. That is my responsibility.

I don’t have to be a victim to other people’s values. I don’t have to be a victim to society’s values. If each of us took back those reins a little bit, if we chose our priorities with mindfulness, I wonder how much society, big bad wolf that it is, might change little by little. I wonder if eventually, we might become more peaceful, more joyful, as a whole.

And it’s not something we can achieve with a snap. It’s a daily practice, one that will change with each season of life. I am still learning the balance between being married and following my personal callings, and I’m realizing its a daily mindfulness more than a one-and-done decision. But it’s a mindfulness we can each practice in little ways, little baby steps.

At first it might seem really hard, and it is! For the first time we’re going against the current; there’s bound to be some resistance. Ultimately, though, I am convinced that setting priorities leads to a more joyful heart, open mind, and narrow focus. It leads to more intentionally enjoying life, not just for our own sake, but so we can take the newfound peace we have and pour into others.

Masala Sauce: Anger, the Internet, and Indian Food

A few weeks ago I made Indian Masala sauce. It’s a tomato base with a blend of amazing spices: curry, garlic, cinnamon, nutmeg, red pepper. Butter and cream. It’s tomato-ey and spicy and cozy and creamy all at once. It’s called a simmer sauce, because you’re supposed to keep it on low heat for an hour or so, letting the flavors blend together.

The thing with tomato sauces, I’ve found, is that you can’t just let them have a pleasant, tiny-bubble simmer like you can with water or milk. The heat stays deep at the bottom, mingling with all the stuff you’ve put in the sauce, until suddenly, big bubbles reach the surface, pop pop, splattering red all over the stove. And on your clothes, if you’re unlucky (I am).

The masala sauce has become a metaphor for me, as most things in my life do. In this case, the masala sauce reminds me of myself, especially those feelings I tend to keep deep inside.

I don’t usually consider myself to be an angry person. I’m pretty even keel, keeping a straight face and feeling my emotions on the inside. This sounds pretty good, healthy even. But feeling all your feelings on the inside doesn’t mean they don’t exist; it just means other people can’t see them.

Take anger, for instance. I usually keep my anger close to the chest. It bubbles deep in the sea of my soul, making the waters bitter and murky, poisoning myself and the people closest to me. Now, I truly do mean well. I truly do love people. I truly am kind. I’m not one of those perennially angry people who get cut off in the grocery line and unleash a string of expletives. Out loud.

No, my anger is like the masala sauce. The blend of introversion and high sensitivity and empathy, my own personal curry, combine with the garlic of current events and the cinnamon of relationships, the nutmeg of tender memories, the red pepper of painful events. Butter of better judgement, cream of spiritual wisdom. And in the thick, murky tomato sauce of clouded perspective, all these things blend together. Add heat (the stress of really anything), and there’s my anger. It looks good and smells amazing on the outside, but if you get too close, it’ll sear and stain.

Last week I took an unplanned social media hiatus. It was only for a few days, and it wasn’t a straight fast, but it was a big reduction in how much social media I consume. While I didn’t experience a drastic change in my inner psyche, I did notice something: I wasn’t as perpetually, simmeringly angry.

I think we underestimate how much scrolling through the inner thoughts and opinions of friends and strangers can completely overwhelm us. If you’re like me, you have a wide variety of friends and people you follow, all from various social, religious, economic, and political backgrounds. My average day on Facebook is a mental Red Rover. As someone who has a lot of empathy, this is emotionally exhausting, and I want to scream, CAN ALL MY FRIENDS JUST GET ALONG? Social media often feels like one of those cartoon fights where everyone’s in a cloud of dust kicking and punching each other. It’s easy to feel like the real world is this way too, and then it’s easy to feel utterly, perpetually… angry.

So part of my fast was a simple act of removing myself from it all, to enjoy the feeling of thinking my own thoughts and making sense of my own experience, without the filter of others’ opinions. Even if your friends and followers aren’t actively attacking your viewpoints, it’s easy to feel that sense of judgement, that sense that you need to polish up your life and thoughts before presenting them. All this stress, real and perceived, mixes with our personal blend of anxieties and insecurities, with the pain of current events, the peppery taste of snark. And soon we’re all simmering, stewing vats of masala sauce, bubbling up at each other, searing and staining.

I’m still learning what to do about this. I think there’s a place for anger, if only as an indicator that something is going on under the surface that needs to be addressed. I think anger can be useful, but I also think that none of it are well equipped to handle it wisely. Anger attaches all our strong parts to our vulnerable ones, riddling otherwise righteous intent with selfishness. The pot boils over with so much stuff that we can’t distinguish the helpful from the unhelpful, the actions we must take from the actions that are reactive.

The only thing to do, I’ve found, is to turn off the heat. It’s only when the pot has cooled down that you can start to work with the sauce. That looks different for each of us, but I’d bet that for most of us it means stepping back and trying to relate to each other, and not merely attacking the issue at hand. It means challenging the way things are and asking how they got there in the first place. It means curiosity: why are we reacting this way? What do we all want? How can we really get to where we want to go?

For me, it’s important to remember that anger, whether it simmers (stays internal) or boils over (is externally expressed) is only useful if I do two things: think about it critically, and then once I’ve made sense of it, express it.

For someone who tends to fly off the proverbial handle, this means asking those deeper questions, and for someone like me, it means not stopping at those questions, but continuing on to share my feelings after those questions have been asked.

I wonder what would happen if we got more curious about our own thoughts and the thoughts of others. I wonder if it would look more like integration than division. Because the truth is this: no matter what your cooking methods are, all food has to cool down before it can be eaten. And eating—that act of communion and comfort and joy—is the whole point of food—ideas and emotions—in the first place.

I wonder what could happen if we learned to enjoy that meal together.

 

 

Learning to be Spicy

I’ve always had a hard time speaking up. Maybe it was a conservative upbringing coupled with my naturally quiet nature. I prefer to go with the flow, stay quiet even if I’m suffering, let others have their way so I don’t have to make a scene.

People have told me I’m sweet and flexible, and I like to think I am (thanks guys). But more often than not, my reasons are less than noble. I’m not always sweet and flexible because I want to be; it’s often due to the fear of conflict that I keep my mouth shut.

My senior year of college, I was in a play, and our tradition in student theater was that each senior would get a notebook in which everyone would write a parting note or thought. The note from our director stuck out to me:

“I know there is a little spice in there with all the sweet,” she wrote. “Stay spicy.”

Those words have remained in my mind ever since, and I’ve tried to figure out what they mean to me. It’s hard, as a shy person, to feel okay with being spicy. It’s hard to be okay with the idea that people may not like your flavor.

I think the internet has magnified my fears in this area. The internet, of course, is a place where everyone speaks their mind, whether it’s well-thought or not, and on the internet people form mobs and crucify each other while, in the real world, eating breakfast or pooping. On the internet, if you give a moderately controversial opinion, or even worse, your raw and unfiltered opinion, you get a bunch of comments from people who are supposed to be your family and friends, who all say things to you with varying degrees of anger or encouragement. These people say things, to you and to each other, that people would rarely say out loud, making vast assumptions about your motivations, your level of education, and your overall character.

Interestingly, I’ve found that this feature of the internet bleeds into my physical conversations, in that I’m so used to seeing bombastic opinions, terrible rhetoric, and knee-jerk reactions that I assume a real-life conversation will contain those too. I might venture that, “Fall is my favorite season,” and I expect a “OH MY GOSH YOU STUPID PREPPY WHITE GIRL WITH YOUR BOOTS AND PUMPKIN SPICE LATTES WHEN WILL IT ALL END?” in return.

Of course, no one in real life says that. (If you do, shame on you. I wish an afterlife of Pumpkin Spice Latte Hell upon you. May you burn in 160 degrees Fahrenheit milk foam.) But the internet, which has succeeded in making so many people stupidly loud, has bullied me into staying quiet.

Of course, being too timid and people-pleasy has been a fault of mine for a while. As a shy and quiet teenager, I got used to coming up with excuses for what I didn’t want to do, because I was terrified of saying, “No.” I’m so busy with schoolwork. I have to watch my little brother. I wish I could, but I… can’t. Or, I went for a compromise: I can’t help with the whole thing, but I’ll help with some of it. When I didn’t want to do any of it.

A few weeks ago, I had an epiphany. Someone asked me if I would be willing to do a certain thing, and while, ironically, I actually did, I was so used to feeling pressured by my internal fears that I was trying to come up with an excuse for why I couldn’t do the thing. And in that moment, I realized how ridiculous and self-sabotaging this was. My fear of speaking up had slowly eroded my sense of what I liked and didn’t like, what I wanted to do and didn’t want to do. I honestly didn’t know, because I didn’t feel like I had the freedom to choose.

I can say anything I want, I thought to myself. I’m an adult. I can say anything I damn well please. I don’t have to come up with an excuse. I can say yes, or I can say no. I can make a decision for myself, and whatever I say won’t be met with an OH MY GOSH YOU STUPID GIRL SHOW SOME RESPECT, because real people don’t say that. Or if they do, well, they have their own problems and I can just turn around and go home.

So in little ways, I’ve tried being more honest with myself. I take the chance and say the thing I think, instead of pretending I agree when I don’t. I take the chance and say what I’d really like to do, instead of pretending that everyone else’s plans sound good to me when they don’t. These decisions aren’t ones I make lightly, and they often cause me a lot of pain.

But I realize it’s an important thing to do, because this is what builds character and integrity: living according to your convictions, even when you want to take the path of least resistance, to keep quiet, to not cause a scene. I’m learning that the voice inside my head which tells me people will be angry, or react like they do on the internet, isn’t telling the whole truth. Because I can be a kind person, and still have convictions. I can disagree with others, and still have friends at the end of the day.

I can be sweet, and still a little spicy.

Learning to Live with Question Marks

My least favorite part of any social exchange, (especially a professional one where I’m trying to make a good impression) is when someone asks me, “Do you have any questions?”

It’s a perfectly considerate thing to ask. But I feel put on the spot. If I do have questions, I feel like they may be stupid ones. If I don’t, it may seem like I haven’t thought things through enough. Should I have questions? I’m damned if I do, damned if I don’t.

So my typical answer is half casual, half flattering: “No, I think you’ve explained everything pretty well.” Or I take a rain check: “You know, I probably will down the road, but at this point no.”

Maybe someday I’ll pull a Kelly from The Office, and answer, “Yeah, I have a lot of questions. Number one: how dare you?” but unfortunately (or fortunately) no situation has called for that, and I doubt I’d be brave enough to say it anyway.

That’s what it all really boils down to: bravery. Or the lack thereof. I don’t ask questions because my goal in any given social exchange, particularly one where I feel the lesser of two powers, is to keep my head down and gather as much information as possible while causing as little a scene as possible.

I also don’t have confidence in my brain’s ability to come up with dazzling, insightful questions on the spot. It’s only later, at home, while I’m brushing my teeth, that I realize I’m wondering something and that that person earlier could have answered my questions. But at this point, of course, it’s too much of a bother to go back and ask, so I’ll figure it out on my own.

Figure it out on my own. The phrase is code, I’ve realized, for I’m too afraid to ask for help.

Or maybe, I’m afraid of the answer.

The second one isn’t usually my reason for not asking questions in, say, a job interview or a writing class. But it has, in the past, been my reason for not asking the deep questions of life and faith.

In my experience, this fear of asking questions is especially marked when you grow up as a Christian kid. In the church, you’re often subtly discouraged to ask tough questions, because even the existence of a question shows some level of doubt, and doubt is terrifying.

We become obsessed with finding the single right, godly, biblical answer that will be 100% correct 100% of the time. That’s why good church people squirm around the tough questions on things like war and miscarriage and poverty and addiction and divorce and sex. These subjects are not tidy; there’s no single, right, godly, biblical answer, and it’s easier to just make a blanket statement and move on.

It’s understandable. Questions make us all uncomfortable no matter who we are, because an answered question changes the status quo, and an unanswered question shows weakness in the status quo. Questions drive us deeper, make us evaluate the situation and ourselves, and sometimes we don’t like what we see. It’s easier to keep plodding along the way we’ve always been, to resist change, to be an object in motion staying in motion, instead of defying inertia for a moment and asking, “why?”

A few years ago, during one of the hardest times in my life, I was questioning everything. It was terrifying. I was like a two-year-old, experiencing everything for the first time, asking why why why?

Why do we do things this way? Why don’t we question that? Why did I only ever learn that Christianity could be aligned with a single political ideology? Why didn’t I learn that art and culture can be beautiful things that point us to God? Why have I always learned to look at marriage a single way? Why are we so quick to make the Bible into a calculating list of appearance-keeping? Why do we treat some sinners worse than others?

For the first time in my life, I wasn’t accepting my world the way it had been presented to me. I was asking all the questions about all the things.

And you know what? God still found me. God wasn’t wringing his hands, lamenting about how Hannah had walked away from the faith with all her questions. No, God followed me through each dark thicket and shadowed forest, until I realized that God wasn’t following me at all: I was following him.

For the first time in my life, my faith was my own. I had wrestled with it, using the brain and words and thoughts and emotions God gave me. And that’s when I realized that God is stronger than our questions. Curiosity and faith do not exist on the opposite ends of a spectrum. God is never threatened by my desire to know more; he’s honored and loved by it. Because to love is to know. The desire to know is the desire to more deeply love.

Do I trust the Holy Spirit to guide me into all truth, which he promised to do? Do I trust that my questions are God tugging at the corners of my mind to pull me into a deeper knowledge of him? Do I trust that if I’m seeking the truth, I will find it?

And the answer is this: I must trust that these things are true, because God already promised these things to me. He has promised that his spirit will lead me into truth (John 16:13). He has promised that when I seek, I will find what I’m truly looking for (Matthew 7:7-8).

It wasn’t easy to question everything. It still isn’t, because I still am questioning. I’ve found that even believing some things for sure doesn’t mean other things won’t be in flux. I think that’s why the most powerful prayer we find in the Bible is “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief” (Mark 9:23).

God’s response to us wanting and needing to question our faith isn’t “Go to hell! (Literally and figuratively!)” God doesn’t turn his back on us and say, “Go have your hippie fun and come back to me when you’re good and ready.”

God pursues us, relentlessly, and delights in us, always. Especially when, like little children or angry teenagers or curious adults we ask questions about our Father. Filled with love and compassion, he looks for us, runs to us, and embraces us (Luke 15:20). All he wants, all he has ever wanted, is our companionship. All he wants is generous, lavish community and oneness and love.

Because plot twist: God was never concerned with our tidy answers anyway.

Rest in Solitude, Heal in Community

This summer has been a season of transition. Amidst moving, new living situations, new jobs, and new prospects for the future, I’ve found myself overwhelmed and suddenly unsure of everything. It’s interesting how when you’re in a life stage that has a deadline (i.e. school), you look forward to the time of endless possibilities, and then when the gate opens and you have the freedom to do anything, all those endless possibilities suddenly seem like too much.

I’ve noticed that I freeze up whenever I have too many choices. Just ask my husband how long it takes me to pick out cold medicine at Walmart. I’ll stand in the aisle, staring blankly at the shelves while my nose runs and my eyes water and I whine that my head and body and everything hurts. You know how they make fun of men for being bad at being sick? They never met me.

“Just get the DayQuil,” Alex says.

“But there might be another brand with more caplets in it for less money!” I cry. “I have to look at them all. Or I could get liquid medicine. But there are so many brands of that! Oh, I hate being sick! Oh, to be well again!” and I wring my hands.

Thirty minutes later, we walk out of there with a box of DayQuil.

(I’ve since learned that a store with less options, like Aldi, is a better bet for me.)

As with DayQuil, so with life. The choices and decisions pile up until I don’t know what to do, I don’t know what I want, and I don’t know what I even value.

My approach to overwhelmth is often to retreat, monklike, into my own space and where I feel comfortable and in control. Since I’ve started doing research on human behavior and psychology and have discovered the ins and outs of introversion, of which I am a subscriber, it’s become a little easier to excuse my monkish state and to be okay with excessive solitude. I’m recharging, I tell myself. I’m self-caring. I’m figuring things out in the quiet.

And many times, I am. I’m still a firm believer that we find rest in solitude. And that goes for all of us, not just those introvertedly-inclined. We all need a moment to be with ourselves, to tune into our inner minds and hearts. I discover a lot in prayer, in reading, in yoga, in writing. These are all things that pack the most punch when I do them alone.

But solitude is only one side of the equation. Self-care only goes so far, and self-care doesn’t always look like sitting alone on your bed with a candle (don’t do that; it’s a fire hazard). Human beings are made for community, too. We may find rest in solitude, but we find healing in community. It’s in community where I gain perspective, where I realize that the things which freak me out most in life are not things I carry alone.

In The Quotidian Mysteries, a collection of essays which is just an excellent book that everyone should read, writer and poet Kathleen Norris talks about how the everyday routines we take for granted serve to ground us in reality. And part of this is spending time with others:

[We] need the daily love of other people to reassure us that our lives have value.

In community I find solidarity, and I learn to pay attention to other people’s needs and fears too. In community I can be honest about my failings and find some catharsis. And often, community even connects me with people who have answers to the very questions that are overwhelming me, from the family friend who knows of a job I’d be good at, to the new friend who’s doing good things in my hometown, to the best friend who understands how I feel and prays for me.

Engaging with community can be as simple as putting aside my work to chat with my husband, taking a day trip with my family, or socializing after church. Or it can be as complicated and challenging as introducing myself to someone I haven’t met or going to an event I’m nervous about.

Solitude is only good when it doesn’t become loneliness. When I’m lonely, I forget who I truly am and I forget that my life has value. I need my friends, my family, my community, to connect me with the world again. And the beauty of it is that they need me too.

Giving love away doesn’t deplete or decrease; it only multiplies. And taking part in community only multiplies and strengthens the ties we have to each other and to our inner selves.

When I do that, the wall of overwhelming life doesn’t see so scary anymore.

Fighting Vocational FOMO

This summer I have one overarching goal: to focus on my writing. There are several aspects of this in play: there’s the editing business I’m building, the book I’m writing with my best friend, the coursework for my creative writing MFA, and of course, the lifelong journey of learning to Just Write.

In many ways, I’m very well cut out for this life. I love thinking thoughts and exploring life through the written word. I enjoy both the solitude and the collaboration that this vocation requires.

But one sneaky part of my personality comes into play when I decide to Just Write: apparently, I have Vocational FOMO.

According to the kids these days, FOMO stands for Fear Of Missing Out. I don’t really have FOMO in the sense that the kids these days do; I’ll stay home while you party on a Friday night and I don’t really care about missing out. But show me your steady job while I’m building a freelance career, and hello, FOMO. Soon I am diverging from my own career path to follow someone else’s, and of course it doesn’t work, because, well, it’s someone else’s. Then I’m back to square one, knowing what I, me, myself, should be focusing on, and feeling guilty that I haven’t gotten farther, and guilty that I keep losing focus. Vocational FOMO.

In the Bible there’s a letter in which Paul, a writer in his own right, looks forward to the day the church is brought together in unity, not “blown aside by every wind of doctrine” (Ephesians 4:14). Paul is a very metaphorical writer, and this letter is no exception. Many of Paul’s letters to his friends talk about guarding against various false messengers. These evil people often bullied and manipulated Paul’s fellow Christians into losing focus, abandoning what they believed in favor of something that sounded true, but was actually a ticket back to mental and spiritual slavery. “Stop letting these heavy winds of doctrine blow you aside,” says Paul. “Enough with the spiritual FOMO.”

Some days I feel very much like Paul’s friends. I get excited by this opportunity, that job, this career path, that life philosophy. But they all distract me from what I know I need to do. It ends up taking me weeks to detox myself of all the mental noise, the you should be doing thises and why aren’t you doing thats. The fear that I’m not doing what I ought keeps me from doing what I must.

Luckily, I have a Paul. I have a best friend who is always telling me not to be blown aside by the winds of doctrine. She knows I am happier when I’m not giving into Vocational FOMO. She also, unlike Paul, has unlimited texting, so the message gets to me sooner.

This, I’ve found, is why community is extremely important for writers. We need Pauls to keep us focused, to use metaphors to keep us on our own unique career paths, to remind us not to be blown aside by the winds of doctrine.

I suspect this doesn’t just apply to writing, either. All of us, especially in our success-driven culture, give way to FOMO. We are always unconsciously sacrificing what we must do to chase what we feel we should do. The catch-22 is that society’s definition of success changes on a decade-to-decade basis. Luckily, I think we’re realizing just how important it is to have Vocational Joy, not Vocational FOMO. If we’re all different and unique, our vocations will be different, and that’s okay.

As a millennial, I grew up with a sense of insecurity in any given career path or economic system, and this is actually a blessing in disguise. The lack of surety is freedom, because it means I can follow my calling in my timeline. I don’t have to fear missing out. None of us do.

Knowing this, of course, is one thing, and putting it into practice is another. I have to remind myself daily that my pursuits are worthwhile, even when they don’t immediately pay off. I have to learn to quiet the noise, clear the table, and Just Write, and little by little the small voice that tells me what I truly need gets louder and louder.