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.
Two weeks ago, our good friend Joedaniel (JD) Horne was found dead in a hotel room. It wasn’t a suicide and no foul play is suspected; he had been in poor health for a while, and a combination of factors finally overwhelmed him.
Joe forwarded me an email that had the subject “JD Horne died.” I thought it was a crazy coincidence that this guy who passed away had the same name as our friend JD — who, obviously, was not going to die any time soon. I read and re-read the details that spoke of the same person we knew, that would seem to confirm that this was indeed our friend, but I could not get my brain to process it. JD had enough life in him for 10 people. He was more energetic and charismatic than anyone I knew. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I think I thought he’d live forever.
JD was the one who started clown night, and it was exactly the kind of thing he would do. The rest of us boring people might suggest going out for a drink; JD was the kind of person to whom it seemed obvious that if you’re going to go out for a drink, might as well bring 40 of your closest friends, dress up like clowns, and rent a yellow school bus for transportation. He and his friends liked to play golf, so he organized a yearly golf tournament which took place in various locations throughout the country and involved dozens of people.
It always made me nervous when he and my equally intense husband got together, since I never knew what they were going to come up with. A couple of months ago Joe contacted him to say that our son was interested in doing a canoing trip, and he wanted to know if JD and his kids were interested. JD said he needed to think about it, then immediately replied saying he was in, and had a plan in which they’d make it a massive, days-long event and raise tens of thousands of dollars for his favorite cancer charity in the process. Joe called and asked me if I could pick them up if they did a practice run in the spring. I asked where I would need to go, and he gave me directions to a place on the river that’s a six-hour drive from our house.
JD was also a brilliant lawyer, and was for a time a partner at the top law firm in Austin. He was also a loving dad to his three young children. In the week leading up to his funeral, I experienced a pang of confused sorrow every time I looked at my calendar. There, on Saturday, it said JD funeral. So many times over the past decade there had been Saturday items on our calendars that began with JD: JD clown crawl, JD golf tournament, JD party (must dress as pirate to enter). Some sort of event bursting with life and interest and activity always followed the appearance of his name on my calendar. I could not process the juxtaposition of JD and funeral.
Then, as many of you probably know, Barbara Curtis died yesterday.
If you had asked me at the beginning of this month to list the top 10 people I know who are intense, crazy-in-a-good-way, unforgettable personalities, both Barbara and JD would be on the list.
Barbara, like JD, was a friend I looked up to for her fearlessness and for the fact that she was so unapologetically herself. She didn’t compromise her values to conform to the status quo — not when she was a radical in San Francisco, not when she made the “crazy” decision to adopt three children with Down syndrome when she already had nine biological children, not when she converted to Catholicism amidst no shortage of public criticism. She never made herself out to be a saint, and was as brutally honest with herself as she was with others. Yet, as she demonstrates beautifully in her powerful letter to her oldest child, she had an unfailing sense of hope, and a great trust in the power of God to bring good even out of our biggest mistakes.
Though I never met her in person, I considered her a friend. We would email fairly often, and our correspondence often started with her sending me a kind word of encouragement — often at the exact moment that I most needed to hear it. She was a mentor and a role model for me; I always wished I could have even a fraction of her unique brand of joyful courage.
At JD’s funeral, they ended the service by playing a tender song called Terry’s Song that Bruce Springsteen wrote for a dear friend of his who died. It was a hidden track on one of his albums, as if meant to be private and personal, not meant for wide distribution. I bought a copy as soon as I got home that day, and have listened to it about a hundred times ever since. I’ve been going on long walks and listening to that song over and over again, soaking in that mournful refrain, When they built you, brother, they broke the mold. Sometimes I weep openly, tears streaming down my face as I plod down the sidewalk, trying to comprehend it all.
And now when I hear this song, I think of Barbara as well. We knew she wasn’t going to make it when it was announced on Monday that she had a massive stroke, and I’ve been trying to prepare myself that yet another friend is no longer here; yet another person who seemed so strong and so full of life has, incomprehensibly, been taken from this earth. I look forward to seeing JD and Barbara again in another life, and it gives me an odd kind of comfort to think that these two people have paved the way for the rest of us.
Until we meet again, I’ll pray for them, and I hope they’re praying for me. And every time I hear Terry’s Song I will hold their images in my mind as I sing loudly and totally off-key, When they built you, brother, they broke the mold.
If you feel moved, here is a link where you can offer a financial donation to help Barbara’s family during this difficult time.
I have a personality type that leads me to feel overwhelmed a lot. I’m ambitious but lazy; I have a latent perfectionist streak that comes out at unexpected times; I’m an Olympian procrastinator; and I’m so non-confrontational that I often find myself saying “Yes, I’d love to help with that” when what I should be saying is, “I CANNOT EVEN FIND TIME TO BRUSH MY HAIR RIGHT NOW, LET ALONE SIGN UP FOR ONE MORE FREAKING THING.”
Because God looks out for people like me, I’ve had some very wise counsel in this department over the years. For one thing, my husband is an MBA with a gift for managing difficult situations. Earlier in his career he wanted to be a turnaround CEO (an executive that takes failing companies and makes them profitable), so he gained a lot of experience wading into hot messes and getting things under control. Then there was my great spiritual director, who never failed to help me shift my view of any situation to see it through the eyes of Christ. Thanks to the two of them, I can usually dig myself out of overwhelming situations before I reach the meltdown zone.
I’ve gained a great perspective on how to parse through complicated situations, the details of which I once wrote up here. But I realized recently (when I found myself in over my head yet again) that the most important addition to my life toolkit is what I think of as the Burnout Emergency Gas Mask. If you were in a room that was filling with toxic gas, the first thing you’d do is put on a gas mask. You’d do it immediately, without any further analysis, to preserve your health and give you some breathing room (literally) so that you could calmly evaluate the situation and make prudent decisions about what to do next. Through my husband and my spiritual director, I’ve learned a set of steps to take when I begin feeling overwhelmed that function the same way: If I do them immediately, without any further analysis, the process gives me the breathing room to collect my thoughts so that I can make prudent decisions about how to remedy the situation.
Since we’re approaching prime burnout season with the Fall in full swing and the holidays just around the corner, I thought I’d share what I’ve learned:
The 4-Step Burnout Gas Mask
1. Get your physical environment in order
I find it to be critical to do this step first. I used to think that a messy environment didn’t bother me at all, but I’ve come to believe that living in chaos is objectively bad for the spiritual life. When I’m feeling overwhelmed, it goes a long way toward bringing me peace simply to get my house in order. I don’t mean achieving Martha Stewart levels of perfection, but just clearing out obvious piles of clutter and wiping off messy surfaces to get things looking basically orderly. (And yes, I turn to Fly Lady when I need inspiration in this department.) In situations where the whole house seems to be out of control and it makes me even more stressed to imagine dealing with all of this, I focus only on the kitchen and the bedroom: Waking up to a tidy room and making breakfast in a clean kitchen invariably gets the next day off to a much better start, no matter what else is going wrong.
2. Get some sleep
One of my husband’s biggest mantras is, “Don’t think about your problems when you’re tired.” I need to have this tattooed on my hand so I never forget it. As I’ve said before, I’ve been known to reason my way into believing that the entire universe is falling apart at the seams when I’m tired, only to find that I have a completely different perspective after a good night of sleep. Especially if you haven’t been getting good sleep for a long period of time, pull every single string available to you to make this happen. Even one solid night of catchup sleep can give you an explosion of energy.
3. Pray — preferably outside of the house
We should, of course, pray without ceasing. I know that when I’m overwhelmed, I toss up all sorts of scatter-brained prayers asking God for assistance (and, okay, making sure that he is aware of JUST HOW TERRIBLE everything is that I’m dealing with). However, in order to truly “put on the mind of Christ,” I need to shut the door on everything else that’s going on in my life, and give the Lord my full attention. In particular, I find it to be critical that I actually follow the A.C.T.S. model of prayer (Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, then Supplication); otherwise I tend to blather on and on about what I want God to help me with as if he’s my personal assistant, rather than listening for what he may be trying to tell me.
Also, it doesn’t work well if I try to do this at home. When I feel like I’m surrounded by chaos, it’s super helpful to pray outside of the house at least once, either in our church or at the Adoration chapel. If I try to do one of these “gas mask” prayer sessions at home, my prayers tend to go something like, “Lord, I praise you for your...laundry! Who knocked over that basket of laundry that I just spent an hour folding?!?!”
4. Talk through it
After I’ve gotten my house (or at least my bedroom and kitchen) in order, gotten a good night’s sleep, and spent some time in focused prayer, the final thing I need to do in order to set a path forward is to talk through everything with my husband or a close friend. I note from much experience that it is important to make this the last step, otherwise I tend to initiate the conversations with proclamations about how horrible everything is, then ramble for a while with an incoherent series of aimless, self-pitying statements. And, like with prayer, it’s also important to carve out time for this conversation so that both of us are calm, and so we’re not interrupted a bunch of times. (In other words: When I catch my husband at work when he’s late for a client meeting and I’m shouting over the sounds of five screaming kids, it tends not to be a very fruitful discussion.) But when we actually do have time to have a positive, focused discussion, it can work wonders for helping me test what I’ve discerned in prayer, think through new possibilities, and come up with a clear plan to bring peace back into my life.
So those are my four “gas mask” steps that I take as soon as I catch the first whiff of burnout in my life. What are your tips for when you’re feeling overwhelmed?
Oh man, was I in a terrible mood a couple days ago. It was bad. I’d had two nights in a row of getting very little sleep because the baby had been fussy, then had one of those days where even my smallest ambitions were thwarted: I wanted to freeze some leftovers, and out of the ten thousand containers and three thousand lids in my Tupperware drawer, I could not find a single matching set. I wanted to banish the stircrazy kids outside for a while, but it was 107 degrees. I wanted to get the mail, but it was 107 degrees. Did I mention that it was 107 degrees? Anyway, whatever. The point is that it was one of those days where everything that could go wrong went wrong.
So you know what that meant, right? I’m exhausted. I’m having the worst day ever. The weather is miserable. I’m miserable. Thus, it is obviously time to evaluate my entire life, as well as the state of the world, and make judgment calls about how it’s all going!
I went through the usual process: It started with creating a detailed list of everything that’s wrong in my life, followed by some ruminations about every time anyone has said or done something that annoyed me over the past six months. From there I went on to reliving all my recent failures, reprioritized my list of pet peeves, and closed the brainstorming session with a Top 10 list of people whose lives are better than mine.
My husband came home about the time I was wrapping up, which was perfect timing since obviously I had to share all of this with someone else. I was not content to wallow in my own misery. Nay, I had to make sure that I had agreement and confirmation from someone else about how horrible everything was. So as soon as we got the kids to bed, I sat down with my husband to give him my Why Everything Sucks presentation, stopping just short of including PowerPoint slides.
But here was the problem: I knew that he was going to think that I came up with all these negative takes because I was tired and in a bad mood. Obviously the fact that I had had five hours of sleep in the past 48 hours and had faced one frustration after another had nothing to do with my apocalyptic conclusions, but I knew I’d have my work cut out for me convincing him of that fact.
And so when we sat down to talk, I brought my intellectual A-game. I did not appeal to emotion once. I did not make a single statement that was not backed up by concrete evidence. When my husband offered counterpoints to make the case that life was actually pretty great, I always had a solid, fact-based comeback. I calmly crafted a careful step-by-step analysis of the terribleness of my life, including perfectly logical extrapolations about how said terribleness would only increase in the future. It was reasonable. It was evidence-based. It was linear. And it was completely wrong.
After we chatted for a while, my husband kindly offered to take on extra nighttime duties with the baby (despite having a busy work schedule the next day) so that I could get some extra sleep. I took him up on his offer, while assuring him that that wouldn’t matter AT ALL in terms of my outlook. Nope. I would stand by every single thing I’d said this evening. Catching up on sleep would make no difference — after all, all of my conclusions were based on reason.
I woke up the next day refreshed and energized. I got great sleep, went out for a quick jog before my husband left for work, and came back feeling in tip-top shape both physically and mentally. And, whaddaya know, I didn’t feel like my life was so terrible anymore. The problems that I had detailed the night before were still there, and they were legitimate problems, but their scale and scope seemed entirely different now. Though I still saw all the same details here in the light of day, looking at the from a new perspective changed my entire perception of the overall situation. In fact, I was perplexed at how I could have been so gloomy the night before.
When I looked back on those ridiculous ideas, what was most interesting to me about it was that I’d used reason to get there. It reminded me of the back-and-forth we had with PZ Myers and his atheist readers a couple weeks ago: one of the subtexts of that debate was, Is reason the only thing you need to deduce the truth? Myers & co. seemed to think that the answer is yes. But I think that what happened when I was tired and having a bad day is a good example of why the answer is no.
Granted, my conclusions about my life were far stupider than theirs are about religion (I actually don’t think atheism is stupid at all), but the same principle is at work: reason won’t get you all the way to the truth. Knowing the truth takes more than just intellect; it requires the right disposition of the heart as well. If your soul isn’t in a state of openness, it’s easy to unintentionally disregard some data, to fixate on the wrong angles, to be right on the details but wrong on the big picture. If you’re not seeking the truth with peaceful humility, you’re not seeking the truth at all, no matter how rational your thought process is.
I think this is an important lesson here in the age when reason is held up as the pathway to all wisdom. It’s certainly a necessary component of any good decision making process, but it’s not the only component. It needs to be accompanied by the right spiritual and emotional states. Because, as I found when I was lamenting my tragic first world life, sometimes you can be perfectly reasonable and still be wrong.