As many of you probably already know, the Dobrovits family lost their special little boy named Henry last week.
The story of his short two years on earth, and of how he ended up in their family, is an amazing one that needs to be shared. I had the honor of meeting Henry’s mother, Carla, at the Behold Conference both in 2011 and this year, and was profoundly impacted by the story of her discernment to adopt, and the journey they’ve been on since then. I’m glad Carla has been keeping a blog the whole time, so I can let her tell you their family’s story in her own words.
Here’s how it all started:
Usually I spend the first week of each January deciding what I want to focus on over the next calendar year. One year it was running – and I did a 1/2 Marathon. One year it was having my household run more smoothly – and I streamlined my laundry and cooking system to what works so well for us today (I really should add in cleaning one year though……)
But on January 1 of 2011, I did something totally out-of-character for me….I decided to let God decide what He wanted me to focus on this year. And as I prayed I thought it might be “helping orphans.”
Not knowing where else to start, Carla Googled helping orphans, and came across the Reeces’s Rainbow site. She saw the faces of all these beautiful special needs children in desperate needs of homes, and her soul was rocked. She continues:
I thought I had my mission. So many amazing families were raising money to pay the “ransom” to get these children home….there was NO TIME to save the thousands of dollars needed….these children had to get here to the US now!! So I resolved to give money to RR families in 2011. I was SURE that was what God wanted me to do in 2011.
But then, as I shared in my last post, I started looking at the “Waiting Children” listings….and I saw Henry.
It was like a lightning bolt.
He was the same age and at the same orphanage with a little boy called “Winston” who was missing part of his leg….Winston had a committed family with a few weeks. But Henry did not.
So I resolved to pray specifically for Henry to have a family. I prayed for him every day….often at Eucharistic Adoration (where Catholics go spend time in the presence of Jesus who we believe is present body, blood, soul and divinity in the consecrated bread)….and then one night….at 3 am….I woke up….and knew that God was telling me that WE WERE HIS FAMILY.
I did not hear voices. I knew this in the deepest part of my heart. I truly had no thoughts AT ALL of adoption before this. I was just going to pray and send money.
But God had other plans.
And then the thought hit her: how could she tell Paul, her husband?! Henry had severe special needs that would require extensive medical intervention. International adoptions are always expensive, international special needs adoptions even moreso — but this one would be a whopper even by those standards, not to mention the huge amounts of time and other resources this kind of adoption would require. Carla’s family already had six kids, so it’s not like they were sitting around with nothing to do. Carla was terrified. So here’s what she did next:
I was scared to death. Paul and I had been talking about how we were going to afford to send Brent (my oldest) to college in the fall and then Luke the year right after him…But we had also been talking about how to truly live our Christian faith in the very secular suburbs we were living and raising our children in.
So I prayed some more….asking God, “ARE YOU SURE??? I ALREADY HAVE 6 CHILDREN!!!” and also, “Please help me tell Paul. I am so scared.”
So on January 30 I presented all the information about Henry and Reece’s Rainbow to [Paul]. I told him that he is the head of our household and that I would not badger him about it but that I really felt this was what God was calling us to do in our marriage and family.
Then I did one of the hardest things I have ever done in my life.
I SHUT MY MOUTH for a month.
And over the next month their family faced severe, intense spiritual attack (yes, it’s real, and I will note that I’ve rarely seen it be as obvious and intense as when couples are discerning adoption). You can read Carla’s post for all the details, but let’s just say that pretty much everything that could have happened to make their lives difficult and put pressure on their marriage happened that month. Carla kept praying through it all, not badgering her husband about the adoption, but instead turning it over to God:
So I kept praying and Paul kept trying to keep up with the unexpected repairs and bills….and one Sunday…February 28….
Paul came home from an afternoon watching sports and celebrating his brother’s birthday with his mother and other brother….
and said we should do it. We should commit to Henry.
And we never looked back.
You can read her blog archives to get a feel for the roller coaster that ensued, with countless delays and frustrations getting Henry home. Finally, in September of last year, Carla was able to bring Henry home to meet his new family. Just a few weeks after they had him home, though, they found out that he’d been given the wrong diagnosis in his country, and that his disabilities were more severe than they’d realized. Thus began a whirlwind of doctor visits and therapist appointments and surgeries, sometimes far away from home. The medical bills and appointments began to pile up. Just last month Carla was writing about how desperately fatigued she’d become from yet another hospital stay full of complications and problems. But there was never any question of whether it was worth it, no calculations of whether the sacrifices the family was making for Henry were “paying off” for them. On November 3 of this year, Carla wrote:
When your adopted child rouses from post surgery anesthesia on a vent searching frantically with his eyes… And his meet yours… And his whole body softens and relaxes and he squeezes your finger and slowly and peacefully closes his eyes again.
Yeah, that moment…
Worth every penny, every sleepless night, every hardship.
Then, last Wednesday, after fighting an infection that suddenly got worse after one of his many surgeries, Henry passed away. He was only two years old.
The same day that Henry was called home, this amazing article by Cristina Nehring was published in Slate. Nehring was a self-described career woman who never wanted children, and she writes powerfully about what she has learned since becoming a single mother to a daughter with Down syndrome who is also battling cancer (h/t to the Evangelista). The piece centers around Nehring’s response to a book by Andrew Solomon that examines parent-child relationships, often from a coldly utilitarian perspective. In response to the “what’s in it for me?”, “I want to have perfect kids that don’t interrupt my important goals” mentality that pervades the book (as well as so much of our culture), Nehring responds powerfully:
[Her daughter, Eurydice's] gifts are the opposite of my own: Where I am shy, she is bold; where I am good with (known) words, she is good with drama, dance, and music; where I am frightened of groups, she loves them, and the children in her preschool compete hard to sit by her side at lunchtime as the nurses in her hospital petitioned to be assigned to her room.
Am I “cheerily generalizing” as Solomon says of other Down syndrome parents, “from a few accomplishments” of my child? Perhaps I am. But one thing I’ve learned these last four years that possibly Solomon has not: All of our accomplishments are few. All of our accomplishments are minor: my scribblings, his book, the best lines of the best living poets. We embroider away at our tiny tatters of insight as though the world hung on them, when it is chiefly we ourselves who hang on them. Often a dog or cat with none of our advanced skills can offer more comfort to our neighbor than we can. (Think: Would you rather live with Shakespeare or a cute puppy?) Each of us has the ability to give only a little bit of joy to those around us. I would wager Eurydice gives as much as any person alive.
I kept thinking of that second paragraph as I mourned Henry’s death along with Carla and her family, and watched from a distance as they displayed such hope — and even a certain kind of joy — in the face of their circumstances. If there were a crystal ball that would have revealed how everything would play out with Henry’s adoption — that he would be on earth with his family for a painfully short time, that he wouldn’t live long enough to be able to say “I love you,” or even to lift his little head — worldly wisdom would tell the Dobrovits family to skip the whole thing. The cost-benefit ratio would tell them that this adoption wouldn’t be “worth it.”
But the Dobrovits’ understand something that the world does not: That you can’t run cost-benefit ratios when it comes to relationships with other human beings. It’s impossible. Because on the “cost” side you might have finite things like a dollar amount of medical bills, or missed deadlines on personal projects; but on the “benefit” side you are have an eternal connection with another soul that will last even after everything in this world falls away. You can’t compare dollars or time to love; one is finite, the other is infinite.
Carla and I were exchanging notes earlier this week, and she talked about the explosion of love and graces that came from Henry’s short life, that have had an impact far beyond their own family. At the end of one of her emails she said, “I just keep thinking how God truly uses ‘the least of these’ to do his most important work.” As Cristina Nehring said in her article, we walk around thinking our worldly ambitions are so important; we worry about other people inconveniencing us and preventing us from carrying out our oh-so-important plans. But to look at a life like her daughter’s, or Henry’s, is to be profoundly humbled, and to realize that none of that matters. The most important contribution any of us could ever make to the world is also the simplest, and perhaps the hardest: it is simply to love.
I received a copy of a new book while I was at the monastery this week. I planned to read it when I got home, but as soon as I glanced at the first page, I knew I’d been given something special. I ended up spending hours poring over its pages, soaking up its insights and nodding and just about saying out loud, “Finally, someone is explaining this in a way I understand!”
That book is Choosing Joy by Dan Lord, and you just have to read it.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with Dan, he was once the lead singer of a popular punk band and is now a devout Catholic. He’s the husband of Hallie Lord, a friend of ours, and the editor of Catholic Exchange. He’s also one of the most talented writers I’ve encountered.
To give you a feel for his writing, here is the beginning of Chapter 1 of his book:
Joy is not something you would expect to find in someone like my dad. His father abandoned him and his younger brother when they were both infants. His mother stayed, but she was hard-shelled and aloof. The three of them blew through the slums of 1940′s Atlanta like fallen leaves, moving to and from squalid apartments with gaping holes in the walls and broken plumbing. Everyone around them endured the same dreary poverty; one family they knew literally lived in a chicken coop. The males of this world were almost all like my dad’s father: human driftwood, coming and going as they pleased, pathetically lazy or darkly savage. My dad once described for me a fight he witnessed between two men which culminated in one of them slicing open the other’s stomach with a straight razor.
Would you believe that Dan’s father went on to experience profound joy in his life, thanks to his relationship with God? Using his father’s story as a launching point, Dan spends the rest of the book pondering that most pressing of human questions:
How do we find joy when our earthly circumstances are miserable?
And — here’s what I loved — he first takes a hard look at what joy is. This is an important question for those of us whose default state is a spiritual dry spell, who don’t often have emotionally powerful experiences of God. For a long time I thought that that meant that I just wouldn’t get to experience the whole “Christian joy” thing, but I’ve slowly come to understand something that Dan hits home in his book: that joy is not the same thing as a surface-level emotion; that it’s possible to have all sorts of mental or physical tribulations on the surface, yet still have true joy deep within your heart.
It seems like a lot of folks I know are struggling right now. Some are having financial problems, others family problems; some are dealing with physical or mental health issues; others are just bummed out about the state of the world. Many of them report that the worst of it is the impact it’s had on their spiritual lives. “It’s one thing to face this endless stream of one problem after another,” someone I know said recently, “but by far the hardest part is that all of this has made my spiritual life like a barren wasteland.” She seemed to feel guilty as she lowered her voice and added, “My relationship with God doesn’t bring me happiness anymore.”
If you feel like this, or even close to it, read this book. It doesn’t offer quick-fix solutions (Dan points out that Christian joy isn’t an instantaneous thing that happens the moment we believe: “Joy is not a flag Jesus plants in us; it is a fruit Jesus grows in us”). There are no promises that it will make all your problems go away and leave you in a peppy mood for the rest of your life. It’s better than that. It’s a field guide for wading through the thorny trails of earthly life, and finding the only thing that is real and true underneath it all. It’s a detailed instruction manual for making your soul fertile soil for the seeds of the Holy Spirit, from whom all true joy springs.
This is one of the most needed books to have come along in years. It answers just the right questions, in just the right way, at just the right time. You won’t be sorry you read it.
Back in July of 2006 I wrote a post marveling at a family friend who always managed to be cheerful and loving, even though she worked five times as hard as I did and had significant problems in her life. I didn’t have a take in the post; I just relayed the story, and promised at the end that I would write a Part 2 with further thoughts. I have never forgotten that I didn’t write that second post. By Grabthar’s Hammer, when I say that I will write a follow-up to a post, I SHALL DO IT!
…Sometimes it just takes me six years to get to it.
I was reminded of this subject last weekend when my husband and the four oldest kids took a weekend trip to visit his dad. The baby spent quite a bit of time visiting her grandmothers, and so I basically had the house to myself.
When they first pulled out of the driveway, I walked through the empty kitchen, the quiet living room, and took in the situation. This was the setup I had spent so much of my life yearning for: No commitments! No noise! No obligations! Just me in an empty house, free to do whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted to do it. It was everything I dreamed it could be…for about two hours. And then it got kind of lame.
Back when I wrote that first post, this was still my ideal setup. I thought that a perfect life would mean having perfect autonomy. I loved my child and was glad to be a mother, of course, but I saw the work that came with it as a downside to be avoided as much as possible. As I said back then, I was acutely conscious of any effort I had to put forth, and the harder I had to work, the less happy I became. I fought and fought to resist any losses of freedom or control, making myself miserable in the process.
My husband calls that old ideal, the life of perfect ease and freedom, a “museum life.” It’s a good description. I didn’t think of it this way at the time, but I basically wanted to live in a museum: Everything in place, everything controlled, no noise, no chaos, nothing messy. Just a bunch of interesting stuff surrounding me that I could enjoy at my leisure.
But the thing about a museum is that everything in it is dead.
What I would eventually learn, that that friend of ours knew all along, is that a life lived to fullest will always involve service — and not just service like penciling in some volunteer work on your calendar, but melding your life with others on such an intimate level that you no longer have complete autonomy. Whom you serve may vary by your state in life (it may be family or your religious community or neighbors or a group of people in need), but whoever it is, if you’re doing it right, they will depend on you and you will depend on them to the extent that your life is no longer your own. When you think about it, it makes sense: Obviously there is no greater joy than unity with God, and we only need to look at a crucifix to see that the very essence of God is pouring out yourself for others.
On Sunday afternoon I heard the garage door open, and knew that my free time was over. An afternoon of toil was about to begin. Everyone would be tired and dirty and would need snacks and drinks and potty help and changes of clothes; the museum I’d had all weekend would be overrun by loud little people and transformed back into a crazy, chaotic home.
To be sure, it would be hard. I’d probably have to suppress the urge to scream “WHY CAN’T ANYTHING AROUND HERE EVER BE EASY?!?!?!” upon the second time I’d filled a drink only to have it spilled at the same time that someone knocked the tower of haphazardly stacked DVDs down behind the entertainment center. If my museum weekend meant experiencing pleasure on the surface but a dead hollowness underneath, this was the opposite: on the surface it’s sacrifice and challenges and the occasional feeling that I just might lose my mind, but underneath there is a glowing core of life-affirming joy. And as the kids came bursting through the door, tracking mud onto the carpet as they shouted, “Mommy! Mommy! Mommy!”, I was overcome with gratitude that I no longer lived in a museum.
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?