I don’t do suffering well. Some generous people said that they thought I handled the pulmonary embolism thing gracefully, but a) they would have retracted all of that and slowly backed away in fear if they could have heard my inner dialogue, and b) sitting in a quiet hospital room and listening to my iPod didn’t exactly make me St. Josephine Bakhita. Also, it’s usually the little trials that throw me for a loop more than the big ones: I can kind of go with the flow when major medical procedures go awry, but getting interrupted 50 times when I thought I might actually get ten freaking minutes to write a blog post (no idea where I came up with that example!!!!) sends me into an abyss of despair that makes me angrily question whether there is anything good in the human experience.
Needless to say, when I’m in these kinds of situations, I don’t tend to make great decisions. For example, I have this stupid sinus infection that I (and Augmentin) can’t seem to kick, and the presence of constant pain in my left cheek combined with a baby who wakes me up many times per night has left me in a not-great mental state. (Yeah, I have a neti pot. Hasn’t helped, but I use it anyway because I look so glamorous doing it.) It’s easy to let times like this trigger the beginning of a downward spiral in which I decline opportunities I should probably take, give up on activities that were good and fruitful, and open up my calendar and CANCEL ALL THE THINGS.
To inject some much-needed sanity into my decision making process during these times, I often go through a checklist of questions that my old spiritual director would ask. This post is kind of a rerun since I posted this list a couple of years ago (and I also have a new and wonderful spiritual director now who also asks great questions), but I thought I’d put it up again since these ideas are helping me keep the crazy-think at bay.
6 Questions My Spiritual Director Would Ask When
I Had a Tough Decision to Make and Was Being Crazy About It:
1. Have you prayed about it?
It’s hard to believe that this question is even necessary, but with me it usually is. With embarrassing frequency I’d come to my old spiritual director, Christie, and pour out my angst about some conundrum, ending with shaking my fist at the heavens and wondering why God wasn’t helping me. There were more than a few awkward moments the resulted from her gently asking, “Have you prayed about it?”, and I had to find a way to avoid seeming like a spiritual vegetable while offering the honest answer of “no.”
2. How does it impact your primary vocation?
I can’t overstate the importance of this question. It’s brought more peace to my life than any other thought exercise. The Catholic idea of vocation is that the meaning of life is to serve others, and your vocation (e.g. married life, religious life, priesthood, etc.) is the main way that God intends for you to serve. It’s his primary path for you to find peace and fulfillment — therefore, no legitimate call from God would negatively impact your vocation. God would never call a parish priest to do something that made him feel burdened and resentful of offering the Mass on Sunday, he would never call a father to something that made him feel tied down and frustrated by his wife and kids, etc. It doesn’t mean that the only things you ever do are directly related to the duties of your vocation, but that those duties are your top priority.
Whenever I’ve started going down a path that introduced tension, resentment, or other bad vibes into the family, it’s always turned out to be the wrong decision. This isn’t to be confused with short-term sacrifices that may be difficult, like when Joe was studying for the CPA exam and it was super stressful at times but we were both ultimately on the same page about it; it’s more about choices that fundamentally put you at odds with your spouse or your kids. Over and over again, I’ve found that if a call you hear is really from God (and not just your own selfish desires doing their best imitation of the Holy Spirit), one sure sign is that it will ultimately end up strengthening your work in your primary vocation.
3. What does your spouse think?
Like with #1, I often get so caught up in analyzing things that I forget to ask for Joe’s input, especially if it’s a small matter. My spiritual director would always hone in on this question too, since the Holy Spirit often speaks through our spouses, especially when we’re not doing a good job of listening to him ourselves. (For people who are not married, an alternative might be to ask your parents, siblings, or a trusted friend.)
4. Are you taking care of yourself?
At one point I’d been in a rut and was trying to figure out how to get my life back on track, but it felt like my discernment process was going nowhere. My prayer life was nonexistence, and, worse, I found that I didn’t even really care about praying. When I came to Christie to complain about it, and she immediately asked if I was taking care of myself. I explained that if tearing through entire bags of junk food at a time, drinking too much wine, never exercising, and staying up past midnight to surf the web could be considered “taking care of myself,” then yes, I was doing a fantastic job.
She paused for a moment, then said, “I think we’ve found at least part of the problem.” Experiences of suffering can be amazing times of closeness to God…but if your suffering is self-inflicted due to obsessive attachments to the things of the world, it’s probably not going to lead you to any super spiritual experiences. Christie said that before I began looking into any deeper causes for my spiritual dryness, I needed to start taking care of myself first. Sure enough, once I started eating a better diet and getting some sleep I was able to take the first steps toward getting my prayer life back on track, which helped me in every area of life.
5. Are you making decisions based on fear?
If you hear an inner voice telling you that you need to do something because you’ll be a big huge loser failure and everyone will hate you if you don’t, it’s pretty safe to say that that is not the voice of the Holy Spirit.
Christie always had to remind me of this. For example, at one point I was discerning whether or not to homeschool, but all of my thinking was fear-based: I was tempted to homeschool because I was freaked out about something I’d heard about the local school and I had images of my kids getting bullied playing in my head over and over again. On the other hand, I thought I should send them to school because I was sure I would screw everything up and end up with teenagers who couldn’t read and had mostly imaginary friends.
Christie encouraged me to stop living in fear and start boldly asking what God wanted our family to do, to make a conscious effort to trust that he would give us what we needed when we needed it if we just followed his path. It took a while to silence all the trains of thought that were filled with fear and anxiousness, but once I did the discernment process went much more smoothly, and I quickly came to a decision that brought me a lot of peace.
6. Which path would bring you the most peace?
Similar to the above, Christie would sometimes ask me to imagine myself going through each of the various options that were before me in some dilemma, and to consider which one would bring me the most peace. Fairly often, I would find that when I actually took the time to do this, I was filled with anxiety when I thought of going the route that looked best on paper, and felt a perfect sense of peace when I considered taking the route that seemed a little crazy — and the peace-filled option always ended up being the right path.
I usually get a lot of great questions when I bring up the subject of spiritual direction, so here are some additional resources:
- How to find a spiritual director.
- This spiritual direction blog is a wealth of information on discernment and the spiritual life. Definitely worth bookmarking and reading regularly.
- This post called 9 Things to Do When Needing Direction has some great tips on this topic.
I’m now entering week 10,000 of this pregnancy, with only 40,000 more days to go until the April due date! (I don’t have a calendar handy, so that’s just a guesstimate.) Also, I just found out that I’m seriously anemic, which will help me fill out my “Blood-Related Issues that Make You Feel Like You’re Dying” punchcard.
I thought I’d take a break from my big afternoon plans of staring at a wall (and occasionally yelling utterly empty threats to the kids about what will happen if I have to get off this couch — as if that would happen) and put together a blog post. Can you stand another from the Wisdom via Pulmonary Embolism category? I hope so, because that’s all I’ve got right now.
None of these are earth-shattering enough to warrant their own posts, but here are a few little tidbits I’ve picked up as I reflect back on our Month O’ Doom:
1. Don’t let mixed motives stop you from following a call
In late 2011 I felt strongly called to make my health my number one priority. “Strongly” isn’t even the word. Short of having God hand-deliver a written message with my name printed in bold letters at the top, it could not have been more clear that I was supposed to do this and do it now, and that God was in fact telling me to do it.
I didn’t write much about it at the time, because I knew how it would sound: You want to fit into that cute pair of jeans you used to wear when you were 25, and you’re making it sound like it’s some exercise in holiness. (At least that’s what the voices in my head kept saying.) And there was certainly some truth to it: my plan to get healthy would inevitably involve losing weight and looking better, and there was no way that I could undertake an endeavor like that with perfectly pure motives. Of course vanity was going to come into play.
And so I came very, very close to giving up. This isn’t a call from God, it’s about you committing the sin of vanity, those voices said again. You’re being selfish, and you’re hardly even making any progress! A truly holy woman would give up and do something more worthwhile with her time. Ironically, it was those attacking messages that eventually convinced me to stick with it. I realized that I had almost never faced such severe spiritual attack, and decided that this endeavor must be something that would do some sort of good.
I’ll write about all the details another time, but, long story short, after months of hard, hard, HARD work, I got in the best shape of my life. I weighed less than I did when I got married, and had more energy than I did when I was 18. My improved health helped me serve my family, and the sense of accomplishment had a great ripple effect in all areas of my life. So I figured that that’s what all the spiritual attack had been about: the devil didn’t want me to feel strong and capable, and to be able to serve my family better.
But now I think there may be something more.
The day I ended up in the emergency room earlier this month, one of the doctors saw the CT scan of my lungs before he saw me. When we first began talking, he repeatedly expressed his shock that I was doing so well — he had expected to encounter a patient in far worse condition than I was in. I mentioned that I had spent the last year getting in shape, and he said that it was one of the best decisions I ever made. My strong cardiovascular health made a major difference in my body’s ability to compensate for the clots in my lungs. Things would have been much worse if I’d been as weak and out of shape as I’d been just a couple of years before.
When I think back on that time of getting fit, I don’t think it’s only in my imagination that hindsight reveals a sense of gentle urgency to it. It is as if I hear the Holy Spirit whispering the words, “Something is coming on the horizon. The time to follow this call is now.” Yes, vanity did come in to play in the process; I ended up talking to my confessor about it more than once. But I am so glad that I didn’t let stop me from listening to what God was trying to tell me.
2. Your energy level will ebb and flow, and that’s okay
Someone reminded me of that interview I did with Brandon Vogt a while back, and I could hardly believe that that was me. Who is that woman with all her energy? What is that crazy talk about getting up early to achieve your goals? What those “goal” things, anyway? Sheesh. I would chase her out of my house with a stick if she came in here today.
This sort of thing used to bum me out: I would think back on a time when I was high-energy and clicking on all cylinders, and feel like it must be due to some kind of incompetence or moral failing on my part that I was now shuffling around like a big slob. (Obviously I have a good excuse now, but I have had plenty of other low-energy phases that were due to a variety of more “normal” issues like having a newborn, having three kids in diapers, etc.)
I feel like I’ve finally been given the perspective to really get what Hallie was saying in her famous “thriving through the seasons” post. There are seasons where “thriving” might look like what you’d expect it to look like: you’re getting tons of stuff done, getting out of bed when the alarm goes off, starting the day ahead of the curve, hitting the ball out of the park with your daily work, and generally living a productive, orderly life. And then there are seasons when you find yourself in circumstances where getting the dishwasher loaded once a day is, truly, an impressive accomplishment worthy of celebration — and that can be “thriving” too.
The thing that always trips me up is that there really have been times when I was just in a rut, and the main problem was that I’d stopped trying. But I’ve come to see that if I can honestly say that I’m doing my best more often than not, that that’s really something to be proud of — even if “my best” is a lot less impressive than I’d like for it to be.
3. You’re on the roller coaster, so you might as well have fun riding it
I think that one of the hardest things to deal with in life is having your plans derailed. Maybe it’s just me, but I love the feeling of being in control. I relish it. I am rarely happier than when I feel like I have everything all planned out, when I can admire my self-made crystal ball at ease and rest in the knowledge that I basically know what my life will look like a year from now.
And so it tends to knock me off my feet for a while when I’m blindsided by unexpected turns of events, and I’m left with my shattered crystal ball as a brutal reminder that I’m not really in control of much at all.
For a long time I resisted these situations. My reaction was to scramble to get back in charge, to wrestle with God for control of the universe. It only took me a few short years to clue in to the fact that I am me and God is God — i.e. not only is it impossible for me to run the universe, but I shouldn’t even desire to do so, because God’s plans are always better than mine, even when I don’t understand them.
I’ve come to see it like I’m on a roller coaster — only this one is so long and vast that I’ve never been able to see it from afar, and I don’t know where it’s going. Heck, I don’t even know if the thing is safe. It is not always fun to be on this trip. There are times when I’m screaming, “Dude, I just puked, do NOT send me over another huge dropoff AAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHH!!!!!” But I’m slowly learning to appreciate the fact that this ride was designed just for me, but a Creator who loves me more than I love myself. I can white-knuckle my way through it and fight against it the whole time; or I can relax in the knowledge that it will eventually take me to exactly where I need to be, and laugh at the thrill of all the twists and turns that come along the way.