Jessie Ranae

An Exploration of Hope and Paradox

Looking down your inner ear

A conversation about what happens when we lose outside perspective

Awhile back, I woke up one morning, rubbed the sleep out of my eyes, set my earplugs on the nightstand, and immediately thought, “It feels like my ear needs to pop.” The feeling was reminiscent of having recently gotten off an airplane, but it had been months since I’d flown.

I’d gone to bed late the night before, so I decided I must just be extra tired. Whatever was going on would clear itself up as I got caffeine in my system and woke up. But it didn’t. Throughout the day, there was this small niggly feeling that my ear was plugged.

The feeling was there through meetings, during a conversation with my parents, and while I ate dinner. It persisted as I got ready for bed, and that’s when I picked up my earplugs and noticed something odd. One of them was missing the very tip piece. There’s no way something that size is lodged in my ear, I thought. The piece was small but compared to my inner ear, it was sizable.

I checked in the mirror as best I could, and there was nothing I could see—at least with the angle I could get at. I poked at it a bit and couldn’t feel anything in there. I would know, I decided. If an earplug tip was stuck in my ear, I’d be in much more pain than I am. I did a quick hearing test on myself. I can hear way too well to have anything lodged in there. I convinced myself that my ear was clear of obstructions and I would feel better in the morning.

After I woke up, it still felt off. And when a coworker started talking to me in the parking lot, I had to admit that my hearing was affected to some degree. I spent the morning debating as to whether I should leave work early and head to urgent care. Maybe I was coming down with something. When I told my manager, she offered to take a look. While it was a bit awkward to have my boss looking down my ear, it beat the alternative of heading to urgent care or waiting until later that night when someone else could take a peek.  

Sure enough, there was a small, gray, rubbery earplug piece sitting right inside my ear, just deep enough that I couldn’t see it or feel it with my finger, but not so deep that my manager couldn’t carefully retrieve it with tweezers. Looking at it once it was out, I was shocked that it hadn’t caused me more pain. As my ear got used to being clear again, I realized just how much my hearing had been plugged and how much discomfort this tiny piece of rubber had actually caused.

I share this story partly because I think it’s funny that I walked around for a full day and a half with part of an ear plug in my ear, but also because this is similar to what we often do in life. We walk around with pain, discomfort, disturbances and call them normal. We ignore clear signs of what might have caused our issues and say there’s no way they’re the root of the problem. We get used to the fact that we can’t hear and tell ourselves that our senses aren’t dulled.

I know I’ve done this before. I lost myself in an unhealthy relationship and worked to convince myself I was happy. When there was pain or discomfort, I told myself it couldn’t actually be caused by my relationship. If what I suspected was true, surely I would be in more pain. Surely things would be worse.

Metaphorically speaking, I let my hearing become so plugged that I couldn’t perceive sound advice. I got so used to the pain that I didn’t think it was actually that bad. I labeled large problems as small irritants that I was destined to live with. I continually told myself, it will be better tomorrow; it will clear itself up; maybe I’m imagining things. And I went on like that for years—walking around like things were normal, all the while carrying around broken pieces that needed to be removed.

With my earplug, I needed an outsider to tell me what was really going on. In life, we often need the same thing. We need someone with a different perspective who can see things we can’t. Even if it’s awkward or uncomfortable, we need to give them the space to take a good long look at us and say, “hey, you have something lodged in your ear.”

This can happen in many different ways. For me, the first outsider to get through was a stranger on YouTube who, having never seen my relationship, had all kinds of insight that spoke directly to my experiences. Their perspective and outsider knowledge allowed me to finally admit, “Something is wrong here.”

Later, a good therapist and a close friend who could look at my life without the blockers I had, helped me identify some of the other broken pieces I was walking around with. They helped me clear out some of the things plugging my hearing and get rid of leftover fragments that were causing me harm.  

For someone who can be fiercely independent, my earplug story serves as an important reminder. A reminder of why other people matter, of why I can’t do everything on my own, of why I need outside perspectives (from trusted sources).

There is a day when I would have likely tried to deal with the plugged ear situation on my own. Out of embarrassment or hesitation to ask for help, I would have continued to ignore signs that something was wrong. I might have gone another few days, inadvertently shoved the earplug piece in further trying to get it out myself, or wasted time and money at urgent care.

Accepting help not only saved me saved me a headache (or earache), it also allowed me to recognize what was really going on much sooner than I would have otherwise. And that’s why we have people in our lives—people we can trust. People whose perspective we value and whose insight we can rely on.

I wouldn’t have trusted just anyone to inspect my ear. I know my manager has good eyesight. I know she’s and cautious and wouldn’t poke around unnecessarily. Similarly, I don’t need outside perspectives and opinions from everyone who’s offering insight. Some people have their own blockers that may skew their viewpoint on my life. Some people won’t be respectful and will poke around in areas I haven’t invited them into.

That’s why it’s important to be selective in where we get out outside opinions from. When I was in that unhealthy relationship, listening to advice from the wrong people reinforced my own misguided outlooks and allowed me to continue ignoring real pain, real problems.

If you don’t have people in your life whose opinions you respect, whose perspective you value, work to build trusted relationships. Even if it to start it’s just with a therapist (or even a trusted YouTube stranger), look for healthy people who can see things you can’t. Then, as you learn who you can trust, grant those people access to peer down your inner ear and ask them occasionally, “do I have an earplug tip down there?”

The year we misunderstood narcissism

A conversation about acknowledging the real meaning behind the labels we use  

Recently, Politico published an opinion piece titled, 2022 is The Year We All Finally Got Tired of Narcissists*, and I had to read it because I too, have opinions on this topic.

Narcissism is a topic I’ve studied a bit over the past few years, and I think the term “narcissist” is one that is often misunderstood and overused. I get frustrated when I see it thrown around flippantly because calling anyone who has a shred of arrogance a narcissist minimizes what is a real and truly harmful mental disorder.

One thing the Politico article does well is to acknowledge that Narcissism is a spectrum and that we can all have narcissistic tendencies to varying degrees. It’s something I’ve believed for years but rarely heard talked about.

The other thing the article acknowledges is that narcissism can be a clinical diagnosis. And that’s where I deviate slightly from the author. I believe that the label of narcissist not just can, but should, be a clinical diagnosis. In other words, we need to leave the official label to professionals and stop throwing it around like we actually know what we’re talking about.

Since I’m not a therapist or psychologist, it’s not my place to diagnose someone with depression, bipolar, or any other form of mental disorder. So why would I think it’s okay for me to label someone as a narcissist?

Once we’ve studied the actual traits and behaviors associated with narcissism, I do believe that it’s okay for us to say someone is high on the narcissistic spectrum. In fact, it’s not just okay. It’s important. It’s important because narcissism is much more than suggested in the Politico article. It doesn’t just affect celebrities and high-profile figures, and it’s much more complex than wanting attention.

Being able to spot narcissistic traits is not about writing off people we don’t like or finding an excuse to label others as bad. Honestly, it’s about protecting ourselves and using wisdom when we engage with others.

And that’s where I disagree with the Politico author a bit more. I get that this is a short opinion piece, and they can’t cover everything, but I think they’ve left out some important aspects of the conversation.  

The article talks about the narcissist’s constant quest for eyeballs and acclaim, and it points to examples like Harry and Megan, Elon Musk, and Ye. Are these people narcissist? Maybe. Again, it’s not my place to diagnose. Several of the people listed in the article are certainly high on the spectrum. There’s a reason their names are brought up in the conversation.

What bothers me is that the article seems to focus primarily on a desire for attention and public recognition, as if only those who thrust themselves into the spotlight can be narcissists. There’s also an implication here that the reason we’ve gotten sick of them is because we’re tired of the spectacle these people make in the media.

Take for example, this quote: “For the worst of it, see Ye, whose perennial need for attention has evolved from outbursts at awards shows to wearing ‘White Lives Matter’ T-shirts and making antisemitic comments on podcasts.” What Ye did was undoubtedly inexcusable, but to call that the “worst of it” and then hold up Elizabeth Holmes and Sam Bankman-Fried as simple “cautionary tales” is to misunderstand the true danger of narcissism.

The true danger of narcissism, in my personal experience, is not simply the self-grandiose thinking and need for attention that could lead someone to make harmful and abusive statements (thought that’s part of it). The true danger is the ability and willingness to lie, manipulate, gaslight, and deceive. That’s what we see with Elizabeth Holmes and Sam Bankman-Fried.

Again, I’m not here to call them narcissists, but since the Politico article brought them into the conversation, I will agree that that they exhibit narcissistic traits. In my opinion, they exhibit some of the most dangerous narcissistic traits in their ability to deceive and manipulate on a grand scale and still not fully recognize or acknowledge what they did wrong.

The article also uses a great deal of real estate to talk about Harry and Megan, and it’s clear the author is bothered by the way they seek the spotlight. I’ll be honest that I don’t follow them enough to have a strong, educated opinion, but I was surprised to see them on this list. With some people who are in the spotlight, I believe there is more going on than what we see.

Seeking (and seemingly loving attention) might place someone on the spectrum, but it doesn’t necessarily make them a narcissist. For Harry and Megan, capturing their private moments or asking for millions of dollars for a book deal could be simple business savvy, as opposed to narcissism. Not to mention, Harry was born into the spotlight. While he’s left the royal family, there is a degree to which the spotlight will always chase him. The things he and Megan are doing could simply be an attempt to ensure the spotlight thrust on their family is as accurate as possible.

I mention this because it’s another reminder that we must be careful when and how we use the term. And I think it’s important that we acknowledge not everyone who seeks the public eye is a full-blown narcissist. Similarly, not all narcissists are in the public eye.

That last piece is critical for us to acknowledge. While we’ve seen the damage that can be done by individuals like Elizabeth Holmes and Sam Bankman-Fried, what we really need to look out for is people in our personal sphere who exhibit strong narcissistic tendencies.  

That sentence may sound ominous or fearmongering. That’s not my goal. My goal is that we acknowledge the fact that narcissism is a spectrum, and we could come across people in our personal lives who are high on that spectrum. At best, those people will be annoying and obnoxious. At worst, they’ll be manipulative, deceptive, and ultimately, dangerous.

That’s why this conversation is important. Having this conversation can help us protect ourselves and our children. It can help us spot individuals in our families, workplaces, and social circles with whom we might need to set boundaries (or possibly disengage completely).  

But first, we must understand what narcissism looks like. Again, the “narcissistic” label should never be used simply to write off people we don’t like or would rather not deal with. While I’ve studied narcissism for personal reasons, I am by no means an expert, so I’m not going to attempt to cover the characteristics in detail here today. Instead, I’d rather point you to a few of the professionals whose knowledge I found helpful.

If you truly want to understand what narcissism looks like, I’d encourage you to take a peek at these or similar resources that unpack how these traits actually play out. Simply Googling something like “top 10 traits of narcissists” will get you a nice, tidy list that barely scratches the surface. While moderately helpful, these lists miss some of the manipulative techniques used by those who are high on the spectrum and, in my experience, can lead us to think people we’re engaging with couldn’t actually be narcissistic.  

I think it’s important to include a note that we must always remember grace in these conversations, because none of us are perfect. If our goal in labeling someone narcissistic is anything other than calling a spade a spade and protecting ourselves and our loved ones, then we need to check our motives.

There is grace for even the clinically diagnosed narcissist who has caused personal or large-scale harm. But extending grace does not mean that we don’t set boundaries. It doesn’t mean that we don’t protect ourselves. (For more on that topic, read this 2021 post, Using Someone Else’s Shower.) I will always champion and encourage healthy boundaries and self-protection. Recognizing narcissistic traits can help us identify when we need to set those boundaries and understand the best ways to protect ourselves.

*If you’re curious, here is the Politico article. Read it with a grain of salt. It’s not wrong, but it is an opinion piece that, in my estimation, misses important parts of the conversation and attempts to diminish narcissism to a simple desire for attention and fame.

Photo by Caroline Veronez on Unsplash

Unboxing fear

Several months ago, after a long day at work, I opened my door to pick up a DoorDash order and discovered, underneath my freshly delivered dinner, a package that had likely been sitting there for hours.

It was a sizable box, stamped with Home Depot branding. Typically, I enjoy receiving packages, but I wasn’t expecting a delivery, and I hadn’t ordered anything from Home Depot. This must have been a mistake. Perhaps the delivery person got the wrong floor in my apartment building or the wrong building altogether. It’s happened before.

But when I leaned over and took a look, it clearly had my name on it. I read it twice just to be sure, but there it was: my name, followed by my exact apartment building and number. It appeared that nothing about this was an error.

Confused, I took the package inside and stared at it. I’m sure some people would have opened it right away, but I was suspicious. Either this was shipped to me through some bizarre accident, or it was sent to me by someone who knows where I live. Before I opened it, I wanted to know where it came from.

So I jumped into sleuthing mode, examining the package for clues. Up near my address, I found a phone number that wasn’t mine. Surely this number must be associated with the order or the person who had placed it. I wasn’t familiar with the area code, so I typed it into Google. And that is when things took a turn. That’s when my overthinking kicked into full gear.

The area code was LA. In theory, I don’t know anyone in LA who would ship me anything, and the few people I do know don’t have my address. But when I saw my Google search return Los Angeles, I started to panic. I panicked because there is one person I wouldn’t be shocked to learn had moved to LA since we last spoke. A person who would have undoubtedly changed their phone number to an LA area code to ensure they looked local for business dealings. It’s a person I hadn’t talked to in nearly two years, didn’t want to receive packages from, and most importantly, didn’t want knowing where I lived.

As I recount my line of thinking now, it sounds a bit ridiculous, even to me. But as I mentioned, it had been a long day, and I was tired. When I’m tired, I’m more prone to overthink. More prone to worry. The thought of this person having my address caused a pit in my stomach that I can’t really describe. In the past two years since moving into my apartment, I’d often comforted and prided myself in the knowledge that they didn’t have my address. The idea that they would have gone to the effort to find it and then ship me something was unnerving.

I knew it sounded farfetched, but I couldn’t find a better explanation. So, I put the package out on my patio (I didn’t even want it in my house) and somehow found enough peace to be able to sleep that night.

The next day, slightly more rested, I felt a little less creeped out by the whole thing. But it was confusing and there was still the chance that my worst fears would be realized. So, one of my best friends offered to come and open the package with me.

As soon as we opened it, I started laughing. Mostly from embarrassment, but also because it was genuinely funny. Inside of the box from Home Depot was a Swiffer I’d ordered off Amazon weeks earlier. It had been backordered, and I hadn’t realized it was finally set to deliver that week. I’d never received an Amazon delivery in anything other than an Amazon box. So, instead of jumping to the logical conclusion that this must be something I ordered, I allowed my imagination to run to frightening places.

I tell this story now because the more I think about it, the more I realize that the Swiffer isn’t the only thing I’ve done this with. It’s not the only time I’ve believed something that wasn’t true or worried about a threat that wasn’t real.

If we’re honest, I think we’ve all done it at times. Things come in packages we don’t recognize. They show up at times we don’t expect them to. They leave clues that can lead us astray. A job offer takes longer than expected, a loved one responds cryptically to a message you sent, or you wake up one day with a headache that won’t’ go away.

When these things happen, we have a choice about the stories we tell ourselves. We have a choice about how we respond. We can choose to look at things through a lens of fear and worry; we can choose to focus on the worst-case scenario, or we can look for hope and seek understanding.

We can decide that the job offer is taking so long because they’ve gone in another direction. Or, we can remind ourselves that it’s also possible they’re just weeding out other candidates or deciding how much they should offer. We can tell ourselves that our loved one is pissed off and offended, or we can remind ourselves that they had a busy day and maybe didn’t have time for a longer response. We can Google our symptoms and decide our headache is a tumor, or we can recognize that it’s possible we didn’t drink enough water the day before and we might be dehydrated.

Am I saying to always look through rose-colored glasses and ignore indicators of bad news? Please don’t hear that. We need to deal with reality. When things go poorly (and at some point, they will), we need to respond accordingly. But we don’t need to decide that things have gone poorly before we actually have hard evidence and facts.

If the headache doesn’t go away, go see a doctor. If the job offer doesn’t come, follow up or move on. If the loved one continues to respond cryptically, have a real conversation and ask what’s going on. But don’t decide early on that you’re dying, doomed to be unemployed, or about to lose an important relationship. All you’re doing in that scenario is allowing the thing you’re focused on to steal your peace and joy.

That night I received the package? I didn’t enjoy my DoorDash order, and my evening was shot. I spent dinner Googling phone numbers to try to prove my crazy theory wrong. Once I moved on from that, I was still churning over in my head what could possibly be in that package and whether or not I should leave it in my house.

What would have been a better response? I could have called my friend that night and asked her to talk some sense into me. I could have admitted to myself that I overthink when I’m tired. I could have decided to just open the package. I could have reminded myself that even if this was the worst-case scenario—that it was from someone I didn’t want to hear from—I would ultimately be fine. I’m in a safe neighborhood and have a strong support system. Them learning my address would not be the end of the world. Through much worse, God has cared for and protected me.

Sometimes, we spend so much time worrying about what’s behind a door (or inside of a package) that we allow that fear to keep us from moving forward. Often, the things we imagine are worse than the reality. We think that if we have that conversation, if we open the box, we’ll find our worst nightmare staring back at us. And the truth is that we could. We could discover that the person we don’t want contact from has our address—that the delivery we’ve received is far from desirable. But more likely, when we open that box, we’ll find a Swiffer staring back at us.

Photo by Brandable Box on Unsplash

Breaking babies and organizing chaos

A conversation about the ways we surprise ourselves when we chose to try

I once told my coworkers that our job reminds me of working infant room a daycare. They laughed when I said this, but it’s true. When I worked infant room just out of high school, you were legally allowed to be with four babies by yourself.

Four babies is a lot of babies for one person. But it’s doable. The way you manage is to get everyone on a schedule—to plan out the day. Baby A eats at this time and then will be content to play while Baby B eats. About the time Baby B finishes eating, Baby C will be waking up from their nap, and so on. You get everyone on a schedule, you have a rough idea for how the day should go, and then, you’re dealing with babies so really, anything can happen. Someone won’t eat, and someone won’t sleep, and someone else decides to cry all day for no reason. It’s chaos but, because you started with a schedule, it’s organized.  

Well over 15 years since graduating high school, that’s still my job: managing organized chaos. I have a calendar, I make plans, I block off time for important tasks. And then, anything can happen. New meetings get scheduled last minute. Important meetings that need to take place get cancelled. Urgent Teams messages interrupt focused work. The project that was priority yesterday gets superseded by something else today. And hopefully, that schedule, that plan, I had at the start of the day helps keep the chaos somewhat organized.

I loved working infant room, and I love my job now. I enjoy the fact that unexpected things come my way. It gives me an opportunity to troubleshoot. To problem solve. It lets me try new challenges and build my resume. It gives me an opportunity to prove—both to myself and those around me—what I’m actually capable of.   

And what I’ve learned, really in all the jobs I’ve had, is that I’m capable of much more than I imagined. Much more than even the people around me believed I was capable of.

When I first started infant room, I didn’t want to do it. I’d done toddlers and preschoolers for years, but I was scared of babies. I thought I would break them. I’d had experiences where I couldn’t get a crying baby to stop, and I thought that would be all day in infant room. But when the opportunity arose, I did it anyway. I told myself I could do it, even though part of me didn’t believe it. I told myself I’d learn how to get a crying baby to stop, and I’d figure out how not to break them. And guess what? That’s exactly what happened.

I did a similar thing when I began my career and didn’t think that I had the capability of writing anything shorter than a 10-page essay. I took the skills I had and figured out how to apply them to write short articles and other copy.

When I started with my current company, they told me I’d need to hit the ground running and learn fast. The work they needed done was different from what I’d been doing for over six years. But I told myself I could do it. I committed to trying my hardest, applying the strengths I already knew I had, and learning everything I could. And here I am several years later, managing organized chaos for that team.   

Why am I sharing this? Maybe I’m sharing it because I needed to hear it. Right now, I have a whole new set of challenges at work. I’ve been handed new responsibilities, and I’m scared I might break a baby (metaphorically speaking, of course).  

I think I’m also sharing it because other people need to hear it too. Many of us have opportunities in front of us that look bigger than we can handle. And we all have more inside of us than we give ourselves credit for. We’re capable of things we won’t be aware of until we try. Those things we’re afraid of or tell ourselves we don’t have the capacity to accomplish, might just be our metaphorical infant room.

As we step into those things, we’ll realize we can rise to the occasion. We’ll discover things we love that maybe we didn’t even expect we’d like. And we’ll start to see how the things we’ve done in the past prepared us for where we are today—how they gave us skills and knowledge that we didn’t realize could be transferable. I never would have thought that feeding and rocking babies at 19 would prepare me to lead a team at 36. Yet here I am, applying some of those organization and management skills I learned to keep programs moving and help those who report to me be successful in their jobs.

The other reason I’m sharing this is because it doesn’t just apply to work situations—or even tangible skills and tasks. It applies to our interpersonal lives and mental health as well. In my personal life, just like my work life, I’ve done things that have surprised me. Things I didn’t think I was capable of. Setting boundaries, building healthy relationships, healing from intense trauma, finding good things and quality people I want to invest my time and energy in. If you’d asked me five years ago (even three years ago) if I could be where I’m at today, I would have told you there was no way. The person I see when I look in the mirror today isn’t one I even had the capacity to dream of back then.

Yet, I’m here. I’m here because I took steps to change and heal, even when I wasn’t sure I’d be able to. I found a way to cut out toxic people when it felt nearly impossible. I sought out others who could relate to my experiences and learned from what they’d done to heal. When I didn’t have a roadmap for what to do, I went back to therapy and chose to be honest in ways I’d previously avoided. When I was afraid of the outcomes, I had hard conversations anyway.

Just like when I started working infant room or jumped into my current job, I didn’t let the fear, doubt, or naysayers stop me. I chose to believe I could do it. I drew on past experiences and realized there were things inside me that I wasn’t aware of.

You might not think this is true for you and your circumstances. There was a time in my life when I wouldn’t’ have either. But the process of growth—personally or professionally—isn’t about knowing. It’s about trying. It’s about taking a step tomorrow that’s different than the one you took today. It’s about picking up the crying baby even if you have no idea what you’ll do to get them to stop.

You likely won’t see transformation overnight. Growth, I believe, is about time and process. And sometimes, it’s also like working infant room. You can put together a plan and establish a timeline. You can set a framework for how things should go and when you want to accomplish certain milestones. But it is life, so anything can happen. Circumstances and events you didn’t foresee will pop up. Factors out of your control will impact your progress. Some things will simply take longer than expected

And that’s okay. Be patient with yourself. It may feel chaotic, but ultimately, you’ll have that plan to fall back on. And if the baby won’t shut up, remember that sometimes, they cry all day for no reason. Your only job is to keep the chaos somewhat organized.

Watching people nearly drown

A conversation about what it really means to love

Awhile back, I saw a quote on Instagram that gave me pause. It showed the words, “Don’t cross oceans for people who wouldn’t cross a puddle for you.” But those words were crossed out with a big X, and below that it read: “No. Do it. Do cross oceans for people. Love people, all people. No conditions attached, no wondering whether or not they are worthy. Cross oceans, climb mountains. Life and love, isn’t about what you gain, it’s about what you give.”

I struggled when I read this. Partly because the grammar and punctuation are off, but mostly because I desperately wanted to agree. In principle, I do agree. Or at least I think I do. I’m re-examining what I believe about compassion and generosity, and I think that’s why this quote gave me such pause. 

This belief—or at least a version of it—has gotten me in trouble. It’s caused me pain. It’s been one of my excuses for causing pain to those close to me. And I know I can’t blame this belief exclusively, but the idea of giving with no holds barred has contributed to loss of self-esteem, sanity, peace, possessions, and finances.

So, when I read this quote on Instagram, my gut wanted to agree with it. But as I was getting ready to hit the little heart in the lower left corner, my mind said, “Hold on a second. Can you really love that quote? Doesn’t that go against the narrative you’re learning to live? The one where you have boundaries and don’t let yourself get taken advantage of?”

I’ve spent some time thinking about this now. Trying to reconcile my beliefs about loving others the way Jesus would with my beliefs about setting boundaries and practicing self-care. And while, as always, I’ve left room for my understanding to evolve, here’s what’s helping me now:

In essence, the quote hits on a core belief of Christianity that I agree with 100 percent: Love everyone, no matter what—even if the subject of conversation is a disrespectful coworker or Ted Bundy.

The thing I believe is missing from the quote is context—and maybe a disclaimer or two. What we need to keep in mind is that loving Bundy looks very different than loving the single mom next door, which looks different than loving the homeless man outside the gas station, which looks different from loving your brother or sister.

A wise woman who has done the work on her own codependency told me, “Sometimes love means letting people hit rock bottom.” It might not look, or even feel, like love, but that’s the point of this conversation.

Maybe some people can hear quotes like the one I shared and automatically understand the different contexts. I’m analytical, so I had to pick it apart—spell it out.

I was taught to love; to share; to give. And it’s in my nature to want to help when there is a need in front of me—be it financial, physical, spiritual, or emotional. I like taking action, and I have a hard time not doing something if I know there is something that could, or possibly should, be done.

This type of thinking leads me to interpret quotes like the one shared here as basically saying:

“Paddle your ass across the ocean for someone who may not care that you’re doing so. Heck, swim across the ocean naked in icy cold water if you need to. Fight off sharks if that’s what it’s goanna take. Climb the mountain to get to them no matter what—even if your energy and food supply are low. Climb the mountain or die trying. Don’t stop to evaluate what you’ll lose or the price you’ll pay. Don’t stop to evaluate whether or not the person wants to be rescued. They can’t make it without you and you’re somehow responsible.”

Of course, written down like that, it sounds a bit extreme. But I operated with a mindset like this one for the first 30ish years of my life. And I have a feeling I’m not the only one.

After all, it was Jesus who said, “greater love hath no man than this, that he laid down his life for his friend.” And then, he demonstrated this.

When we look at the whole of Jesus life, we don’t see someone who was consistently climbing up mountains for people who didn’t want help. We don’t see someone who made himself responsible to immediately fix every single problem for every person he interacted with.

Instead, we see someone who was able to hold the dichotomy of being the Savior of the world, while also not forcing salvation on anyone.

Jesus died for Judas too, but he didn’t try to chase him down and keep him from committing suicide. He forgave Peter for denying him, but he didn’t coddle him or pretend like it was okay.

Dismissing Peter’s actions or forcing Judas to accept forgiveness would be codependent. Thankfully, Jesus isn’t codependent. And because of this, we can learn from him. We can take notes from how he interacted and apply that to our relationships with others.

Jesus healed people who came to him, but we don’t see him barging into houses and saying, “I’m here to fix you.” When Pharisees like Nicodemus asked for help understanding, he was honest and offered hope. But he didn’t try to shove that same message down the throats of Pharisees who weren’t ready to receive it.

Going back to the oceans and mountain metaphor, Jesus didn’t swim and climb to the point of exhaustion. He also set boundaries. He withdrew from crowds. He spent time with God, his father. When he needed food on the Sabbath, he picked grain and ate. He put Peter in check when his words were not beneficial. He didn’t let all disciples join him for every adventure.

Jesus knew that boundaries were essential, and he understood that love is contextual. The quote from Jesus is “greater love hath no man…” and so to understand that quote, we must also understand love.

If Jesus is the greatest example of love and even he set boundaries, then love leaves room for boundaries. In fact, I’d argue that it necessitates them. Boundaries are what will keep our love from becoming codependent.

If we go back to the quote that bothered me—the one about mountains and oceans—it also mentioned love. And I think that’s the key. When I read this quote with a broken understanding of love, I think it’s compelling me to give until I have nothing left. To take on other people’s problems—even if they don’t yet recognize them as problems or want help. Even if I’m not  currently equipped to assist them.  

What I think we as humans often fail to understand is that sometimes, love means not climbing the mountain. Sometimes, love means letting the other person nearly drown and hoping that in the struggle, they’ll learn to swim. Sometimes love means waiting for them to ask for help or telling them they’ll have to wait while you put on a life preserver and get some fuel. Sometimes, it means recognizing I don’t have the solution or the resources to fix things, but maybe I can just listen. 

It sounds harsh to say we might need to let someone nearly drown, but that’s why it’s critical we recognize that love is contextual. Jesus didn’t respond the exact same way to every person he came across, and as I mentioned earlier, he also didn’t force anyone to accept his help.

Like I said at the beginning, this is one I’ve been struggling with. Struggling because I’ve done it wrong and I want to learn to do it well. I’ve called codependency love. I’ve tried to fix people’s problems without setting boundaries to protect myself. I’ve been so frightened at the thought of someone drowning that I’ve haphazardly thrown life preservers their way. The preservers may have kept them floating, but my actions didn’t teach them to swim—or help them reach the shore. 

For me, learning how to love well is a daily process, but I do believe that the most loving thing we can do is to stop before we respond to any situation and ask God what is actually needed. He understands the context, and he’s the author of love.

Photo by Blake Cheek on Unsplash

Playing games with the future

What to do when “what ifs” come knocking

The game of “What if” is one we all learn to play as children. I don’t think it’s taught to us so much as picked up, but if you spend enough time around a kid, you will inevitably hear them turning over possibilities in their heads—imagining what their life would be like, if … fill in the blank.

This game is fun when we are young because the options are endless. We focus our “what if’s” on the future—a future that is wide open and largely unhindered by negative experiences, fear of failure, or doubt in our own abilities.

What if become a teacher? An astronaut? A writer? A dolphin trainer?  What if I move to another state –or country? Maybe I’ll live on a farm and own horses. Or, I’ll discover that I have a hidden talent for singing and dancing and then, I’ll become famous!  

One of the best things about the childhood “what if” game is that it’s malleable. If I wake up tomorrow and no longer want to live on a farm with horses, all I need to do is pick a new “what if.”

I think imaginative games like this are not just part of growing up, but they are key to understanding who we are and deciding what we want to be in the world.  As kids, and even young adults, the game of “What if” helps us explore our options and chart a course for ourselves.

Then, as we get older, an interesting thing happens: Often, our games of “What if” stop being about a future full of possibility. Unknowingly, we keep playing “What If,” but instead of asking “what could happen?” we often ask, “what could have happened?” In other words, we start focusing on the past.

What if I had traveled after graduating? What if I’d had more courage in high school? Or been less afraid of failure in college? What if I hadn’t met that person whose influence negatively impacted the course of my life? What if I’d set better boundaries in my early relationships? What if I’d made different choices with money in my twenties or thirties? What COVID had never caused global shutdowns ?

Similar to the game we played as kids, the questions—the “what if” scenarios—for this adult version of a timeless game are innumerable.

Quite awhile back, I caught myself playing a game “what if” with my past. I was sitting by the window on a quiet Saturday trying to read a book, but I couldn’t focus. Instead, I kept thinking about relationships. I thought about friends and family and other acquaintances. Basically, interactions with humanity in general, and all the ways I feel I’ve really messed up the important ones.

There are a lot of “what if’s” for my mind to play with here. Both things I wish I’d done, and things I wish I’d avoided. People I wish I’d held onto and some I wish I’d let go much more quickly.

On this day though, my mind was preoccupied with one person in particular. One person who, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear to me, I can’t seem to shake from my psyche. So naturally, I started wondering, “what if?” What if things had gone differently? What if I’d been more confident; more in tune; more capable of asking the right questions? Who would I be? Would anything be different? Would my life somehow be better?

I caught myself pretty fast because this is a dangerous game. The scenarios we come up with when playing “what if” with our past are almost always hyper positive. Things go well—exactly how we would want them to—and it results in a better imagined present than the one we see in front of us when the game ends.

Here’s the other thing that makes this game dangerous: shame and regret will join you every time, and trust me, they’ll keep you playing much longer than you want to.

That said, if your past comes knocking and asks you to play this game, I’m not suggesting you ignore it entirely. There’s a reason it came knocking. It’s trying to tell you something. Even better, it’s giving you an opportunity.

For me, when I start hearing “what ifs” like the ones that came to me on that quiet Saturday, I know my subconscious is trying to process something in my present. Something that I wish were different or haven’t yet come to terms with.

To be upset with myself for decisions that I can’t change isn’t helpful. Nor is it an effective way to practice loving myself. What can be helpful though, is using what my past is telling me to play an imaginative game of “what if” with my future.

Here’s what I mean: the games of imaginative possibilities that we learned as children don’t need to stop once we’ve grown up. Rather, they can become more refined—more specific. I’ve learned enough about myself to know that I don’t have an undiscovered talent for singing or dancing. And that I would hate being an astronaut. I can still entertain big, bold “what if’s” for myself, but I know enough to keep those specific ones off the table.

My past comes knocking to give me clues for what to imagine for my future. In the instance I shared here, it was telling me that I was lonely. It was reminding me of how much I’ve learned about relationships—even if I learned some of those things through failure. And it was very subtly giving me an opportunity to change things. 

It’s so subtle that if I’m not careful, I’ll miss it. I’ll focus on the past so much that it robs me of my future. I mentioned earlier that shame and regret come to play these games with us. Their goal is to keep us stuck. To keep us spiraling with thoughts of what could have been so that we never ask, “what can be?”

The truth is that no matter how old you are, you can shift your reality. You can change whatever is left of your future. It starts with imagination. If we want something different for our lives, we first need to be able and willing to imagine it—very much like we did when we were five, eight, ten-years old, just a little more refined and specific to who we know we are*.

Since that Saturday quite awhile back, I’ve working to pursue new friendships. And because I’ve learned things about myself in past 30 plus years, I’m able to take an approach that makes sense for who I am. Even more, I’m able to draw from my past and better define what I want my relationships to be—and what I want them not to be.

In relationships, and several other areas, I’m using my imagination to ask, “what if?” And I’m using those “what if’s” to build something new. I’m listening to the past as it comes knocking. I’m looking at the friendship that my psyche can’t shake in order to ask what was so good about it—to imagine myself building something with those good qualities again, while refining what went wrong to not repeat the same mistakes.

It sounds simple in writing and yet, I think we often forget. We forget that our past is here to teach us, and that regret can become an ally.

If you’re having hard time with this idea; if it’s difficult to imagine any future at all or you feel like your imagination is dead, please read the note below about survival mode. It’s important that we are kind and patient with ourselves in this process.

To all of us: As we enter a new year, may we not be too old to ask ourselves, “what if?” And may we begin to define our dreams and then work to see them become reality.

*Keep in mind that understanding our limitations does not mean that we stop dreaming big dreams. Often, what we call limitations are really things we’ve self-imposed out of fear or things that have been projected onto us by the limiting beliefs of others. When playing games of “What If,” it’s important to understand the difference between real and perceived limitations.

Survival mode

For reasons I won’t go into here, I spent the better part of the past decade in survival mode, sometimes only capable of taking life literally one minute at a time. And here’s the thing about survival mode: It can diminish our capacity to look at the future, and sometimes, even the past. When we are in survival mode, we can often only focus on the present, and questions of “what if” are replaced by “how?”

How will I get through today? How can I avoid a breakdown? How should I respond if X happens? How can I minimize the impact of Y? (Insert your own “how” here; survival questions are usually very personal and specific.)

Because I spent so long in survival mode, I wanted to share something with anyone reading this who may be there right now, for any reason: Be kind to yourself. If you can’t look past today, it’s okay. It if was work just to get up and believe you’d make through today, it’s okay. In fact, it’s more than okay. It’s right where you need to be.

You are making progress, even when it doesn’t feel like it. If the idea of imagining a better future feels out of reach, or it seems like your imagination has completely dried up, please hear me when I say that survival takes imagination. You’re using it everyday. If you’re surviving, then for today, your imaginative energy was focused right where it needed to be. It might sound cheesy, but I’d encourage you to look in the mirror at the end of each day and thank yourself for this. Thank yourself for getting through the day; thank your imagination for showing up for you in exactly the places you needed it to.

And if you can find even one small, positive, future-focused “what if” that’s in reach, grab it and hold on tight. Even if it feels tiny or insignificant, it’s those little “what if’s,” those small promises, that can help you bust—or even crawl—out of survival mode.

Also, I would encourage you to not focus on the past right now. While we can learn from our past, and it is there to helps us, I believe that looking at it while we are in survival mode should only be done with a therapist or healthy support system. Shame and regret love survival mode and they’d love to keep you stuck there.

You won’t be in survival mode forever. The fact that you’ve read this far, demonstrates that you’ve a desire for more. That alone may be your “what if” to hold onto.

If you want to talk with someone whose been in survival mode—someone who thought they’d be there forever, please feel free to message me. I haven’t figured it all out by any means. Some days still, it’s all I can do to avoid a breakdown. If I have learned one thing though, it’s that we shouldn’t do this alone. So, if you need someone to listen, I’m here. Know I‘m rooting for you and there’s someone in your corner. 

   Photo by Josh Hild on Unsplash

Getting new sneakers

When uncomfortable emotions throw off your stride

My therapist loves to drop witty little statements that, taken out of context, would probably make listeners think she’s horrible at her job. Recently, I got hit with this one: “You’re the healthiest basket case I’ve seen all week.”

If you’ve never gone to therapy, don’t let this scare you away. Most therapists don’t call patients a basket case. At least not to their face. But I’d kind of asked for this. I was the one who brought up the term “basket case.” She’d complimented me on managing my emotions well, and I couldn’t let her end our session thinking I was more together than I felt.

Here’s what’s interesting though: we were both right. It’s a little paradoxical, but as we unpacked it, I realized that the reason I felt like a basket case was actually because I’m getting healthier. And right now, that’s foreign and uncomfortable.

If you’ve ever had a worn-down but well-loved pair of sneakers, you might know what I’m talking about. Those puppies are formed to your feet, and your feet are formed to them. They’ve gone everywhere and been through all kinds of things with you. They’ve probably even protected you from potential injuries. They’re comfortable. But being so worn down, they’re also not great for your body. Maybe your feet are wrapped in comfort, but your back hurts or your arches are flattening. The comfortable shoes are taking a toll.

The same is true with emotions. If we spend enough time with an emotion, it will form to us and us to it. Even if it’s a less than desirable emotion, it will become not just familiar, but comfortable. It will sit with us in our hardest seasons and maybe even serve to protect us. But that doesn’t mean we should let it stay. Just because it helped us for a season, doesn’t mean it needs to stick around forever. Emotions like anger, fear, and sadness can serve us, but if we wear them past their expiration date, they’ll start to wreak havoc on our body.

Now, if you’ve had that well-worn pair of sneakers and finally replaced them with new shoes, complete with arch support and all kinds of fancy features to protect your back, how did it feel when you slipped them on? Not so great? Did they feel too big or too tight? Did you worry they’d throw off your stride and cause you to trip? They’re better for you though, right? Shouldn’t they feel amazing?

That’s what was happening to me when I met with my therapist that day. Metaphorically speaking, I was trying on my new shoes. And it felt off.

I’ve spent years befriending emotions like loneliness, fear, worry, and anger. They weren’t upbeat or comforting emotions, but they were comfortable. I knew what to expect from them. I knew how to respond to them. Honestly, we’d been through a lot together and they’d protected me. They’d served to wrap me in comfort while I ran through mud and stumbled over rocks.  

But as I get healthier, I’m experiencing new emotions. And it’s good, but like the new pair of shoes, it’s not comfortable. I don’t know what to do with the feeling of being connected to people. I’m not sure where to put excitement or how to handle hope. These emotions feel too big for me. Or maybe too suffocating. I’m afraid they’re going to cause me to trip and fall.

I don’t know how to respond to these feelings, but I’m determined to learn. Just like a new pair of sneakers, I’m putting them on and taking them for a walk around the block. It might be awkward. I might limp for awhile, but I’m convinced that someday, they’ll start to feel more natural on my feet.

I share this because I have a feeling I’m not the only one who’s limping along, trying to get used to new emotions. Maybe you’re readjusting to social interaction after a year of quarantine. Maybe you’re opening yourself up to new relationships after facing a series of rejections. Maybe you’re finding yourself laughing after a season of mourning. The discomfort these things bring can be scary. It can make us feel like we’re off course. Like maybe we’re taking the wrong actions instead of the right ones.

Discomfort, however, is not always bad. Sometimes, it signals growth. Sometimes the fact that you feel like a basket case actually means you’re taking the right actions. You’re leaning in when you want to run away. You’re sticking with the arch-support sneakers when the worn-out ones are calling to you from the corner of the closet.

If you’re still wearing your old sneakers, that’s okay too. Don’t force yourself to get rid of them before you’re ready. There are some emotions that we have to walk all the way through. That we have to sit with for awhile in order to process and recover.

Just don’t forget that there’s a whole shoe store out there filled with new emotions for you to try on. Maybe walk the isles and window shop. Try to picture yourself in the new kicks. If you put yourself around it enough, maybe one day you’ll start to feel like a basket case and realize you’re actually getting healthy.  

Photo by Jia Ye on Unsplash

Shaking your fist at the sky

Responding to loss and disappointment without channeling your inner 2-year-old

When I turned 2, I received a shiny red trike for my birthday. As if the trike wasn’t an exciting enough gift for a small child, mine came with a giant mylar balloon of Bozo the Clown tied to it. I don’t know why Bozo, but it could have been of anything and I would have been just as thrilled. That balloon was bigger than my head. It was bright and colorful, and I had probably never been given—let alone seen—anything like it before. 

Now, imagine my little dimpled, curly headed face overwhelmed with birthday pleasure. Thrilled at the thought of her first trike, sure, but even more than that, enthralled by the giant clown face whose smile was bigger than hers. 

Barely old enough to know what a birthday is, I’m sure I was hyped up on some sort of sugar and the excitement of having so much attention directed at me. Even though it was August, it was gray and cloudy out, but clouds weren’t going to stop me from trying out my sporty new trike. So, we wheeled that baby out to the backyard, Bozo balloon and all. 

And that’s where it happened. The details are sketchy—it was 30 some years ago after all. I’m not really sure how long we were outside or what exactly happened to compromise the safety of my Bozo balloon. All I know is that one second, Bozo was chillin’, suspended above my new handlebars, and the next second, he was headed for the clouds, that big smile of his almost making it look as if he was laughing as he went. 

And I lost it. Maybe when you’re 3 you can handle these things with a little more grace and dignity, but at 2, the only thing you know is to let your pain and disappointment wash over you in a flood of tears. 

So that’s what I did. I cried. I cried for Bozo. Really, I cried for myself. For the loss of something that was mine for such a short, sweet amount of time. For the fact that an injustice had been done to me, on my birthday of all days. I don’t know how long the crying went on, but I can picture myself, 30 pounds of frustrated energy, shaking her tiny fist at the sky as tears run down her face. 

And it wasn’t the last time I would take that stance. Since then, life has taken a lot of Bozo balloons from me. It’s snatched up all kinds of stuff that I liked. Stuff that I thought I deserved. Stuff that brought me happiness. Stuff that I wanted to keep suspended above my life, if only just to look at and enjoy. 

I’d like to say that I’ve handled each loss better than that disappointment on my second birthday. But I’d be lying to say that I haven’t thrown tantrums, screamed, asked why, and gotten angry. I’m not 2 anymore, and my emotional intelligence has gotten stronger, but so have the blows that life has dealt me. 

When I look at life, including loss, disappointment, and my reactions, I’m reminded of my second birthday for a couple of reasons. 

The first reason is that I don’t remember this birthday as the birthday where I received my first trike. Instead, I remember it as the birthday when I lost my Bozo balloon. If my mom called me today and said, “Hey, I’ve been looking through old pictures. Remember your second birthday when we got you a trike?” I’m certain my automatic reply would be, “You mean the birthday when my balloon floated away?”

The loss, injustice, and pain are the main thing I remember. All the excitement of a 2-year-old birthday celebration and the ensuing moments of fun and enjoyment with a new trike, and I choose to remember the few seconds I spent crying over a balloon. 

I do that in life too. I look at the things I’ve lost and re-frame stories based on what was taken from me or how I was hurt. It’s easy to do this. When life deals us true injustices, it’s natural and sometimes even necessary to look at what we’ve lost—to grieve the things that were taken from us.

The question is, how long will we stare up at the place in the sky where something just floated away? When we’re looking up at a fading dot among the clouds, it’s hard to see the trike sitting on the sidewalk, waiting for us to ride it. 

The second reason this birthday reminds me of life is that my memories of it are formed by stories and pictures shown to me by others. I know I recounted this story in seemingly vivid detail, but in full disclosure, I don’t actually remember it. After all, I was 2 when it happened.

But the story has been recounted to me many times since. I’ve seen pictures of the Bozo balloon and of myself, smiling and testing out my trike before the fateful moment came. 

My parents have told me all about my disappointment and the pain they felt watching a 2-year-old “suffer” on her birthday. And I’ve taken on that pain with them. Even when I was 10 and 13 and they would tell me this story, I would frown and say, “I feel so bad for my poor 2-year-old self.” And that became the narrative of my second birthday. 

I let the stories and memories of others inform my own. And my second birthday isn’t the only time I’ve done that. At times, I’ve rehearsed the negative in my life. I’ve listened to the narratives of others who validate a victim mentality, who say it’s justified to feel bad for myself when I’ve lost something—or had something taken from me.

It’s easy to listen to those voices. Sometimes they’re right. Sometimes we do have legitimate reasons to be sad—or even to feel bad for ourselves. Sometimes it’s validating to hear someone else say, “It sucks that your balloon floated away on your birthday.”

I’ve had therapy sessions where that’s basically the conversation. Me saying, “This sucks, and I don’t like it,” and my therapist agreeing: “You’re right, it does.”

She’ll let me sit there if I need to, but she won’t let me stay there. That’s why I keep going back to her. She doesn’t spend her time telling me how messed up my life is or how bad I have it. She spends it helping find new ways to look at the things I’ve experienced. Gifts I’ve been given. Moments of joy. Things I can change.

I have a few round-table friends who do this too. And those are the friends I want in my life. The ones who will not just sit with me and cry, but also remind me that I’ve been given a new trike to ride. The ones who help me find fresh narratives, rather than just validating a “poor you,” mindset.

If we want the “poor you” mindset validated, we can always find those voices. There are plenty of people who would be willing to tell us how bad we have it. But if I listen only to the voices of those telling me what a raw deal I got, I’m allowing myself to become a victim. By agreeing with them, I freeze myself as a 2-year-old shaking her fist at the sky, staring at the space where the balloon just disappeared, while there’s a shiny red trike just waiting for me to hop on. 

It’s natural to be angry, and upset, and frustrated when we lose something. It’s normal to feel violated when something it taken from us. Those are feelings we need to acknowledge and find healthy ways to express. Once we’ve done so, the question becomes: Will I allow that anger and violation to define my perspective? Will I listen to those who tell me I have a right to be a victim, or will I choose to be intentional about how I respond?

Will I surround myself with people who acknowledge the reality of my pain without letting me wallow in it? Will I chose to ride the bike, even if it reminds me of the balloon that was taken away?

I get that it’s not easy. Trust me. I have nearly daily reminders of reasons I could choose to be angry—reasons I could cry and shake my fist at the sky. In the time I’ve spent doing that, I’ve learned that focusing on my pain only breeds more pain. However, when I’ve chosen to look away from the pain, I’ve learned that there’s always something better to focus on, even in the midst of legitimate suffering.

I hope I’ve made it clear by now that I’m not saying to ignore pain in some sort of Pollyanna move where you pretend that everything is good when you’re hurting inside. I’ve done that too, and while that’s a topic for another day, I’ll say here that this is not beneficial either. 

What I am talking about is acknowledging your pain and then choosing not to give it attention or power. I’m talking about letting yourself have a good cry and then looking away from the sky and down at the trike. I’m talking about finding a new perspective or something good you can focus on when life, or people, or simple memories send reminders of injustices.

It’s not a one-time thing. Like I said, it’s sometimes a daily choice for me to not shake my fist at the sky. But the more I surround myself with people who help me focus on what’s good, the less I want to stare up at the balloon getting smaller and smaller on the horizon.  

Using someone else’s shower

Earlier this year, I got kicked out of my own shower. It started when a minor leak was discovered in the half-wall between my shower and bathtub. To fix it, the maintenance crew needed to get into the wall. This meant not only tearing apart my shower, but leaving it torn apart for what ended up being two weeks so everything could dry out.

“That’s a long time without a shower,” I told them. I get that not having a shower for a short period of time is a first world problem. That said, hygiene matters, even when you live alone, and washing this much hair in the sink for too long might drive me to shave it all off.

Lucky, for the sake of my own nose and anyone who would have to look at my bald head, they kindly gave me access to a vacant apartment one floor above me so I could use the shower. “It’s one of my favorite units. You’re going to want to move in there,” the maintenance guy told me.

And when I accessed it, I could see what he meant. I don’t want to move, and I don’t need two bedrooms, but it was a nice unit. The two weeks I spent showering there, I couldn’t stop thinking about how odd it was to have basically a whole house, with two showers, and two bedrooms, and a fridge, and a stove, and laundry, all just sitting there unused. It was completely ready for people to move in, yet other than when I was showering, it just sat there.

It might seem like an odd place for a mind to leap to, but it got me thinking about the unused rooms in our lives—in our minds, our emotions. As humans, we all own real estate that can be shared with, rented out to, or even squatted in by others. Basically, your life is like an apartment, and anyone who comes in contact with you is visiting.

I think that’s part of the appeal of friendship—we get to share our rooms. When other people come into our real estate, it feels less empty. In much the same way that my presence gave some meaning and purpose to that shower for two weeks, people can bring meaning and purpose to the otherwise empty and unused rooms of our lives.

Once we’ve started to think of our life as an apartment with rooms, and space, and showers, and kitchens to share, the question then becomes, who gets access to that space?

Some people may not make it past the welcome mat—they’ll just talk to you through the peephole or say hi while you stand there with the door barely cracked. Others get into the entryway or maybe make their way into the kitchen for drinks. Then, there are some who get into your more private rooms. They get to see what you keep on the desk in your office, which pictures you have framed above your bed, and whether you hang your toilet paper roll over or under.  

The question of who gets what access is, I believe, one of the most important and challenging questions of relationships. How do we know if we should open the front door for someone? When is it okay to invite them to use our shower? What do we do if we discover they’re squatting in our space?

I think that the experience I had when I got “kicked out” of my shower can provide some insight. First, the maintenance folks at my complex aren’t giving out apartment keys to just anyone. They gave me access to a vacant unit because they knew they could trust me. I’ve been vetted. Before I rented an apartment here, the management company checked me out. Since I started renting from them, I’ve paid on time. I haven’t caused a disturbance. I’ve taken care of my unit.

They knew they could trust me with a unit that’s not mine because I’ve demonstrated trustworthiness. I didn’t just walk in off the street and demand that they give me access to a shower.

The same should be true in our lives. We don’t want to open the front door for just anyone. And even once we’ve let someone inside for a drink, that doesn’t mean we need to invite them to use our shower or hang out in our bedroom.

The idea might sound a bit outrageous when we talk about it in those terms, but it happens. Sometimes, people come in and demand access to our personal, private rooms without first taking the time to build trust. And sometimes, we give away that access without properly vetting them.

I know I’ve done it. And I think that sometimes, in certain circles, we feel like it’s not okay to vet people. We think that because they’re a leader, or a colleague, or a fellow Christian, or even a family member, we should trust them right away. Maybe we see other people trusting them and we feel like there’s something wrong with us if we don’t join in.

But here’s the secret that can save us a lot of trouble: It is always okay to ask people to first earn our trust. It’s okay to keep them outside of our front door or drinking water in our kitchen until they’ve proven that they can respect that boundary*. It’s okay to say, “you can’t use my shower” or, “I don’t want you looking in that drawer” without explaining or excusing our decision.

And it’s also okay to not invite them in at all, ever. Some people you just say hello to at the mailbox or chat with in the office breakroom (whenever those open back up). You don’t invite them over for coffee. That doesn’t make you a bad person, or even a bad Christian. It makes you a person with boundaries.

While we’re on that topic, let’s talk a little bit about boundaries. The people who deserve to be in our metaphorical apartments are the ones who respect our boundaries.

When I used the apartment upstairs, I had access to all the rooms. Technically speaking, I could have cooked a meal in the kitchen or thrown a party in the living room. But I only used the shower. That was it. That is what I’d been invited there for. To do anything more would have been to take advantage of the access I’d been granted.

This is something for us to watch for with the people in our lives. If you invite someone in for coffee and find them in your closet, trying on your clothes, they aren’t respecting your invitation. They’re demonstrating that they likely don’t deserve the access you’ve granted them.

Honestly, I feel like I’m the last person who has a right to be talking about boundaries. In the past, I’ve failed to set them, failed to enforce them, and watched other people dance all over parts of my metaphorical apartment I didn’t want them in. While I can’t say that I have boundaries figured out yet, the mistakes I’ve made have taught me a few things.

Here’s what I know: First, some boundaries should go without saying. When I used the shower upstairs, no one had to tell me not to throw a party in the unit or track mud through the freshly cleaned carpet. If I’d done these things, the management company would have had every right to take action—and I’m sure they would be less likely to trust me with another unit should I need it again in the future.

In our lives, with our metaphorical apartments, there are similar boundaries—those that we don’t state out lout to every person we meet but we can still expect them to uphold. Things like, “respect my personal space” or, “don’t lie to me.”

But here’s the other thing I’ve learned: Sometimes, for some people, those boundaries that should go without saying need to be said. There are people who have to be told not to throw a party in the vacant apartment. People who are just so oblivious that they don’t even realize they’ve brought in mud on the bottom of their shoes.

I think (and hope) that identifying those people gets easier the more in tune we become with our own boundaries and the more we value our real estate.

Sometimes, I’ve let people squat in my “apartment” because I didn’t actually believe it was valuable enough to protect—or because I was convinced that anyone who could pass a rigid screening process wouldn’t want to spend time there. Other times, I’ve let people in simply because I placed more value on their needs than my own. They needed to use a shower or take a nap, and I wasn’t in tune enough with my own boundaries to say, “I don’t want you doing that in my space.”

All this takes time and practice, but ultimately, I think one of the keys is knowing our boundaries up front. If you’re going to let someone into your apartment, it’s important you know what rooms they’ve been invited to, what they’re there for, and how long you want them to stay. This makes it easier to recognize when one of your boundaries have been violated.

And what do you do if it has? This is one of the places where I’m still learning. Sometimes, boundary violations are so subtle that I don’t recognize them until after the fact. Until it feels too late.

One thing I do have resolve on though, is that people who consistently violate boundaries don’t belong in our real estate. If someone keeps tracking mud in your apartment even after you’ve asked them not to, you might want to consider not inviting them back—or even kicking them out if that’s what it takes.

As soon as my shower was fixed, I stopped using the apartment upstairs. I made sure the shower looked clean and turned the access back over. If I’d kept acting like I had a right to be there, the management company would have needed to take action.

If you’re like me and sometimes struggle with setting boundaries, perhaps it will help to think about your life like an apartment and yourself as the management company. You have not just a right, but a responsibility, to decide who comes in. To vet those who will be in your space. To ensure they earn—and keep—your trust. To require they show you respect.

What’s more, and what I don’t think is said enough, is that you have the right to say no. You have the right to decide that someone won’t get past your front porch—or your mailbox. Just because someone desperately needs a shower, doesn’t mean they have to use yours.

*One quick note about what this isn’t saying: This isn’t saying that it’s okay to keep everyone outside the front door forever, though I definitely understand the desire to do so and the fear of letting anyone get close. But taking time to build trust isn’t an excuse to never let anyone in. It’s a longer conversation we can have another day, but we do need people who we trust, and we’ll benefit from the vulnerability of letting those people into our more personal spaces.

Photo by Skyler King on Unsplash

Walking out of church

A conversation about context in an increasingly global age

Several months ago, my church had a guest preacher, and I walked out in the middle of his message. Okay, I didn’t really walk out. I couldn’t, because it was COVID, and I was watching church online. But I did shut down the streaming app on my phone, effectively leaving the service.

I don’t walk out of church—whether online or in person—often. And I’m not sharing this story today because I’m proud that I left in the middle of a message. But I’m not ashamed of it either. It was what I needed in that moment.

I needed to not listen to the remainder of the sermon because honestly, I wouldn’t have heard it even if I stayed. And believe it or not, this isn’t a commentary on the speaker’s message. Rather, it’s conversation on delivery and context. I’ve been thinking a lot about both since that Sunday I heard half a sermon.

I didn’t leave that day because what was said was offensive or unbiblical. In fact, I believe there was wisdom in it, and I have friends who later said how helpful it was to them. I left because the way in which it was delivered was triggering to me.

And ever since, I’ve been thinking about why. I don’t want to become someone who’s easily offended. I also don’t want to dismiss my own emotional responses as invalid.

Without going into too much detail, here’s an overview of what went down that day. The visiting preacher had just done a marriage conference over the weekend. That Sunday morning, he shared some relationship advice. For the majority of listeners, I believe it was good advice.

But it’s not advice that could be applied to all relationships. I know because I’ve been in a relationship where his advice could have been quite harmful. So, sitting in my virtual church seat from my kitchen table, I was frustrated.

I say that signing off was the right call because it gave me time to pause, examine my heart, and get into a better space. Then, I was able to look at the root of my frustration. I wasn’t offended so much as I was saddened.

Though I was momentarily triggered by the message, I was ultimately fine. I’m no longer in the relationship that could have been damaged, so the advice didn’t harm me. But it could have harmed someone. Chances are high that someone somewhere in a relationship like mine heard that message. And it breaks my heart to think about the confusion it could have caused.

So, what’s my point? Am I sharing this just because I was saddened, or frustrated? Why do I think this is worth talking about on a blog about hope, recovery, and paradox?

I spent a good deal of time debating about whether to write on this—and what to say if I did. Ultimately, I decided to write because of what I mentioned earlier: I haven’t been able to stop thinking about context and delivery and what this means in a global society.

I believe what would have helped that preacher deliver his message with more compassion is recognizing context. He could have given the same advice, while also acknowledging there are some whose context requires a different approach. That sounds simple, but the reason I’ve been thinking about it so much is because understanding context is increasingly challenging in a global age. Unless we’re having a closed-door conversation, our audience is no longer just people who look and think like us. It’s potentially anyone in the world. And that’s a good thing, but it comes with challenges.

Whether you’re a communicator or simply a listener, addressing those challenges matters for hope and recovery. It matters because conversations about hope and recovery should always be contextual. Hope is nuanced and looks different to each person—recovery even more so.

I like to analyze things and look for solutions, and after mulling this one over, here’s where I’ve landed: It’s the responsibility of both the communicator and the listener to care about context.

For those reading this who are speakers, writers, small group leaders, or even just people who occasionally share their thoughts online: To the very best of our ability, we must strive to communicate in ways that will be effective for the hearer. Please note, this does not mean watering down our messages for fear of being offensive or ruffling feathers. But it does include recognizing, whenever we can, that their context may be different from our own. It means acknowledging that we speak and give advice from a specific perspective and then working to understand the perspectives of others. This will make us more compassionate communicators.

So, where does the responsibility of the listener come in? It comes in understanding that in a global society, communicators won’t always do their part perfectly. The world is too big, and contexts are too vast. Like the preacher I listened too, they may sometimes fail to recognize all the nuances, all the different contexts in which their message may be consumed.

Since communicators won’t do this perfectly, it’s up to us, as listeners, to have wisdom for our own lives. Part of recovery, part of mental health, dare I say, part of adulting (even though I’m not a big fan of that word), is being responsible for what we take in—what we consume.

When we choose not to engage with a message, a blog post, a podcast, that doesn’t mean it’s bad or incorrect. And it doesn’t necessarily mean we’ve taken up an offense. It may just mean that particular message, and the context to which it was delivered, are not for us in that moment. And that’s okay. It might have been for our neighbor or the person listening half a world away.

Black and white thinking tells me that if I believe a message is unhelpful, I should condemn it, write it off, and tell others to stay away. Reality, however, can hold the paradox that while I may need to “walk out” of a message, it can be exactly what someone else needs to hear.

This is why it’s important for us to have grace*. In today’s world, it’s easy to cancel someone because they don’t understand something we’ve had experience with—to write them off or speak negatively because their perspective or context is limited or different from ours in an area.

You may have noticed that I’ve intentionally not mentioned the name of the preacher whose sermon I skipped out on. That’s because it doesn’t matter. His words had truth and wisdom, and his goal was to help. My point of sharing the story is not to speak negatively of him or his message, but to get us to think about delivery and context.

If I met him and had opportunity, I’d share my experience and encourage him to incorporate different perspectives into future messages. But even if he never changes his delivery, I know that his words bring value to the right context—and context is what matters.

If I had the chance to listen to him again, I probably would. I’d just go in with adjusted expectations, based on what I now know about his context and perspective. And that’s the other thing we can do as listeners. We don’t always have to remove ourselves. Sometimes, we just need to adjust the way we hear.

So, as we engage with others, as both communicators and listeners, let’s make it our goal to keep context in mind. Let’s stop and think about the context of those we speak to, and those who speak to us. Let’s adjust our messages where we can and adjust our mindset where communicators may fail to perfectly speak to our context.

If for us, that means “walking out” of a message, let’s make sure we do it with grace and in love. If it simply means not tuning into a specific communicator, let’s not assume that means everyone we know must tune them out.

In working to recognize the context of others, let’s acknowledge that they might not get ours.

*One quick note, this conversation changes if we are talking about someone whose words are directly harmful, include blatant lies, or are unbiblical. In that situation, grace still matters, but it looks different.  

Photo by mahabis footwear on Unsplash

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