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 think I had a mid-life crisis a few months ago.
It was a weird experience, because I didn’t see it coming. Ever since my conversion I’ve had this unshakable sense of peace at the foundation of my life, a sort of root-level happiness that I never knew was possible. Yeah, things are hard, sometimes really hard, and I whine now and then (okay, a lot), but all of that stuff has to do with day to day annoyances. When you look past all that, I’m actually deeply fulfilled with this crazy existence of mine — after all, life doesn’t have to be easy to be joyful.
So I was caught off guard when, one warm afternoon last fall, I found myself riddled with stress and panic at the thought of turning 36.
It was one of those moments when information that I already knew well suddenly struck me completely differently than it had the first thousand times I’d thought about it: a nurse at my obstetrician’s office asked how old I would be when the baby is born, and I answered casually, “Thirty-six.” She left the room while scribbling notes on my chart, and I was left stunned, sitting rigid in the chair as if I’d just received some grave diagnosis.
“Thirty-six? Thirty-SIX?!?! My thirties are mostly gone! Forty is just around the corner! I’M SO OLD!!!!”
Now, I realize the ridiculousness of a 36-year-old thinking that she is old, and I’m sure I will laugh heartily if I re-read this in 30 years. It’s not even that I think that 36 is old, objectively; I just didn’t realize that that’s my age. I guess I’ve been so busy for the past half decade that I never really noticed that I was out of my 20s.
But whatever. No big deal. I tried to brush it all off as soon as I left the doctor’s office, assuring myself that I must just be in one of those moods where everything seems overwhelming and horrible. (Just that morning I had called Joe to wonder loudly if life is even worth living anymore, which resulted in an awkward silence when it came out that the question arose because we ran out of butter.)
The hours turned into days, my mood improved, and yet I continued to be plagued by some unsettling feeling about my age. I’d be going through my routine, feeling fine, and then — boom — that I’M GETTING OLD! feeling would slam into me and leave me reeling.
I tried to get to the bottom of this weird new anxiety, but had little luck. I went through this mental process I often turn to in times of stress, where I think through possible explanations and try them out like trying keys in a lock. Yet this time, none of them fit: Anxious about mortality? Nah. We Catholics think about death all the time, and I’m fairly comfortable with the knowledge that my life on this earth won’t last forever. Worried about looking older? I’m not immune to bemoaning new gray hairs and wrinkles, but it doesn’t bother me that much. Missing the “freedom” of youth? Oh my gosh. I was never more of a slave than when I was supposedly living the high life in my 20s. Do not want to experience that again.
I walked around like this for days, maybe even weeks: stressed about my age, stressed about the fact that I was stressed, and stressed that I couldn’t analyze my way out of my stress about being stressed. (Yeah. It’s hard to be me.) Then, finally, it hit me, and I understood what was at the root of my anxiety.
The ah-hah moment came when I stumbled across an old DarwinCatholic post, in which Darwin makes a profound point about our little daily choices adding up to create a life – specifically, that if our choices are poorly thought out, it may not be a life we want to live. He analogized it to constructing a building:
The house or office you are sitting in was built according to a plan and a purpose, a purpose from which it is now only able to deviate to a limited extent. My house cannot suddenly become an office tower, though it has an office in it. My office building would make a very poor house. But they are built knowingly, according to a plan. And yet, our lives seem often constructed to a purpose without the architect knowing that he is in constructing something with walls and doors — an edifice which will suit some ends well, and other poorly. Individual choices pile up unto some particular type of life, and once that life is built people sometimes find it is not, in fact, the kind of structure they want to live in.
After reading that, I got it.
People probably experience mid-life crises for a variety of reasons, but, for me, what happened was that I looked up and realized that my building is well on its way to completion. Even though I am happy with the way it’s turning out, it was startling to realize how much of it is done. Last time I checked, it was still a bare foundation with endless possibilities; it now has a definite design, a clear trajectory. Many of the choices I have already made rule out other, future choices I might have once considered. As a 36-year-old mother expecting my sixth child, it’s extremely unlikely that I will ever be a top makeup artist or ascend the Seven Summits or become a professor of physics. It’s not that I care that much about doing any of those things, but when I was 20, they were all options.
Now, they are not.
It was when I internalized that fact that I realized that the pain of my mid-life crisis was, at its root, fueled by my attachment to options.
I’ve long given lip service to the idea that the secret to life is seeking God’s will on a day-by-day, even hour-by-hour basis. Ever since I read the (incredible and life-changing) book He Leadeth Me, I have been a big believer in this idea that the most important way to be fulfilled and have an impact on the world is simply to ask God what he wants you to do right here, right now; to rest in the knowledge that God always has something important that he needs you to do, no matter your age or your physical abilities or your circumstances, and that it’s probably more exciting than your own plans anyway.
But believing something and living it are always two different things, and it wasn’t until my little mid-life crisis that I realized just how much hope I placed in having options. Rather than resting in the life that God has given me, and trusting that he’ll give me whatever opportunities I require to do what I’m meant to do in this world, I still relied on having lots and lots of choices for the future in my back pocket (you know, as a backup, just in case God dropped the ball with his plan and I had to take over).
And when I realized that many of those choices were gone now, with more disappearing with each passing day, it was a startling moment of coming face to face with my own attachments.
As I would find out a few months later when my health took a dive, this happens in other areas of life as well: in addition to time, you often don’t realize just how much you rely on things like power, money, or (in my recent situation) health until you don’t have them anymore. I always thought that my hope for a truly fulfilled life rested in God alone. Now I see that the breakdown was more like: 30% hope in God, 30% hope in robust health that allows me to engage in activities of my choosing, 30% hope in having plenty of time to do all sorts of other stuff in the future, and 10% in having the resources to make it happen. As we age, those other commodities dwindle — a 110-year-old doesn’t have a whole lot of health or time or resources, for example — and only God is left.
At least for me, a mid-life crisis is nothing more or less than a realization that every day brings us a little closer to that point when all we have left is God, and that we may be closer to that point than we thought we were. It sounds kind of depressing, like something I’d shout into the phone at Joe at 3 PM when I’m exhausted and the baby won’t nap and someone just spilled yogurt on the wall (“ALL I HAVE LEFT IS GOD!!!”), but it’s really quite inspiring. To go through a mid-life crisis and to come out the other side is to go through a process of purification, in which you accept the things that are gone, and realize that they were were never the source of true happiness to begin with.
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.