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.
The other day I was talking with a friend of mine about the spiritual challenges that we face on a day-to-day basis (which is completely representative of all of our conversations; we only ever talk about how we might grow in holiness, and would never, ever spend 30 minutes complaining about the annoying things we saw on Twitter that morning). She asked me what my biggest struggle was, and I came up with this:
Knowing the difference between difficult situations that are crosses that God is asking me to carry, and difficult situations that that are hard and bad because I need to change something.
The example I always think of is of a time back when we had three kids under age three. The baby didn’t sleep through the night, my heavy 18-month-old still wasn’t walking, my two-year-old was going for an Olympic Medal in the Terrible Twos, nap schedules were too critical to my survival to risk leaving the house, Joe was working 12-hour days, and I had no help during the week. Oh, and, to give me a little foretaste of what I would eventually experience with baby number five, our second child spent a large percentage of her waking hours screaming at the top of her lungs. A gust of wind blew her hair the wrong direction? Five minutes of screaming. I offered her green beans and she wanted peas? Eight minutes of screaming. She had been happily drawing on the couch with a sharpie and Mommy No-Fun took it away from her? Fifteen minutes of rolling-on-the-floor, kicking, thrashing, screaming.
Those were some long days.
I think I have told you before about the crazy moment when I was standing in the middle of my living room, begging God for help, and I heard a knock on the door. I answered it, and it was a new neighbor asking if I needed a babysitter. She was in between jobs, and looking for a short-term gig. Also, because she didn’t have a car and needed something she could walk to, she was willing to offer me a ridiculously low, single-digit hourly rate. (And I am not exaggerating when I tell you that she knocked when I was literally in the middle of saying a prayer.)
I stared at her for a moment, trying to take in the craziness of this situation. Finally I caught my breath, and I boldly answered: “I need to think about it.”
“You said what?!” Joe asked when I recounted the situation later. He added a request that “if Publisher’s Clearing House shows up at our door with one of those huge cardboard checks for a million dollars next time you’re saying a prayer, please do not tell them you need to think about it.”
I sighed, and put on my extra-weary voice as I replied (wishing he could see me gazing into the distance like a saint on a prayer card), “Alas, we can’t afford any help.” (I think I actually said “alas.”)
He pointed out that, at that low of a rate, just cutting back on groceries would mostly cover a few hours a week of this lady’s help. We could draw from savings to cover anything beyond that, especially since it would only be for a few months until she found another job. Then I responded that we didn’t know if we could trust her, and he countered that she had friends in the neighborhood and I’d be home while she was here anyway. We went back and forth like this for days, me offering a reason it wouldn’t work and Joe offering a reason why it would, until I finally ran out of excuses. And when I contemplated the prospect of accepting this as an answered prayer, I was mildly terrified.
I hadn’t wanted this prayer answered — not really. Maybe if God had arranged it so that Joe could work from home, or my mom could retire and move in with us and found that she wanted nothing more than to volunteer to watch the kids half the day, that would have been cool. But I didn’t really want help with my situation if it wasn’t help that was on my terms. Though I had been all ready to have a scribe document my sufferings for a future volume of The Lives of the Saints, the reality is that that suffering was easy for me in a certain way. Yes, my days were long and hard and pushed me to my limit. But I was in my comfort zone; it was a kind of struggle that felt familiar to someone of my temperament. It was a safe kind of suffering.
And — most importantly — I was in control. Sure, the kids and I were trapped in a house all day every day and we were kind of starting to lose our minds, but at least there were no unknowns. I was queen of my own little world. Granted, it may have been a little world that had all the vibe of a pirate ship about to teeter into mutiny, but at least I was queen of it.
But the prospect of accepting this answered prayer changed all of that. Accepting someone else’s help would mean introducing all sorts of question marks into my life. I felt almost suffocated under the weight of the unknowns: What if she and I didn’t click?! What if the kids didn’t like her?! What if she judged me for being a terrible housekeeper?! What if she was so shocked at our feral existence that she ran out the door, screaming while dialing CPS?!
One of my favorite writers, Marion Fernandez-Cueto, once wrote an article called Surrender the Choosing that I’ve kept to review often (and possibly tattoo on my back). She says:
Most Christians are willing to suffer a cross, I think, but we want them to be crosses of our own designation, not Christ’s. Thus the saints have always taught that a small suffering imposed by circumstance and embraced for love for God can be worth far more than the strictest voluntary penance. However virtuous the latter, it is often marred by the stamp of self-will. In contrast, the unsought burdens of life present marvelously pure opportunities for grace; our self-will, which recoils from them, is utterly absent from their origin. In the vacuum left by our own designs, God waits to flow in. It is Him alone we must choose.
So I got the babysitter, and everything changed. As an introvert, it was initially a challenge for me to have an adult I didn’t know in the house during the day, but the way that situation stretched me was healthy, needed, and good. Now that I no longer had the excuse that I could do nothing more than survive each day, I looked around and noticed some seriously neglected areas of our family’s lives. I ended up being called to change and grow and carry plenty of new crosses, only these weren’t comfortable and familiar like my old, self-imposed one; with these, I actually had to rely on God since I had no idea what I was doing. (It’s also worth noting that the babysitter was a fallen-away Christian whose relatives had been fervently praying for her, and we ended up having some great, long discussions about religion. Maybe it was an answered prayer for her, too?)
The situation is kind of silly since it didn’t involve any dramatic, life-and-death discernment issues, but I think of it often since it was such a clear case of clutching my own, self-made cross rather than openly following Christ and accepting whatever sacrifices I encounter on the path. As I said to my friend the other day, I think this is an area of discernment I’ll always struggle with: I’d rather suffer more and be in control than suffer less and be out of control.
Unfortunately I haven’t come up with a clear checklist of Signs that You Might Be Being a Control Freak and Not the Glorious Martyr You Think You Are, but I’m learning to be better at discernment in this area. I’m certainly motivated to do so, because I have found over and over again that God’s burden is indeed the lighter one. The crosses he gives us come with the grace to carry them; the crosses we drag along on our own my have worn, familiar grooves that make them fit nicely on our shoulders, but ultimately, they are so much more heavy.
Tomorrow is a deadline for this latest round of book revisions, which is an exciting milestone as it marks the end of step 14 of ∞ in my publishing journey. But don’t worry, this is not a Writer Angst™ post! Nay, I actually have something interesting to share that you might find helpful and/or at least worth the time you spent blowing off more important things to read this post.
The other day I remarked to my husband that I was surprised at how smoothly the last re-write went (everything being relative, of course — by “smoothly” I mean “it got done and I did not, technically, die”). To him, this was not a surprise at all. He said he knew I’d get it done the moment I set word count goals and tracked my progress against them. “You get what you measure,” he remarked with a shrug, as if making a statement about the greenness of grass.
You get what you measure.
I guess this is an obvious statement to people with MBAs, but to me, it was revolutionary. I thought about other times that I have measured some aspect of my life, and realized that it almost always yielded results: When we started tracking our debt on a spreadsheet that we updated month-to-month, it went down at a higher rate than before. When I kept a food journal to track what and how much I ate each day, my eating habits improved. When I started noting how long I could run without stopping, my stamina increased significantly. I thought of a handful of other examples as well. In each case, the improvements occurred with little obvious effort on my part. The simple act of measuring this area of my life put it on my mental radar; and having clear numbers forced me take a hard look at reality, rather than letting the truth get lost in the ether of uncertainty.
Perhaps more startlingly, I realized that there’s a telling flip-side to this concept as well: If you want to see where your priorities are, look at what you measure.
Most recently, I was measuring wordcounts. But I regularly perform rough measurements in other areas of life as well, even if I don’t write them down: Each day, I’m acutely aware of my “Free Time I Actually Had” to “Free Time I Expected to Have” ratio (and I treat my husband to detailed analysis of this metric as soon as he walks through the door each afternoon). I know almost to the minute how much time the baby spent napping, and how much sleep I got the night before.
Now, ask me for those same detailed numbers about how many minutes I spent in prayer, or how much quality time I had with the kids. I could probably come up with the answer eventually, but I don’t know off the top of my head. I don’t measure it.
I intentionally didn’t make a lot of plans this summer, mainly so that I can have the space to re-evaluate, re-prioritize, and re-focus before we get back into the swing of things again in the Fall. I wasn’t sure exactly how I would go about getting things in order, but I’m starting to think it may be as simple as taking a good look at what I measure.
P.S. If you’re looking for more detailed and interesting thoughts in this area, read about what Modern Mrs. Darcy learned from keeping a time diary.