self-awareness

Consulting the cards...

Consulting the cards...

I can remember the first time I saw Frankie read the cards. He was dealing with some questions about his own career path and life journey, and there in our bedroom, on top of a comforter gifted to us for our wedding, he laid out a spread. I was dealing with my own questions at that time, particularly about pursuing chaplaincy and ordination. So I asked him to read for me, and he proceeded to do so. But I had questions. Was he telling the future, or something else? How did he know what the cards meant? Where and how did he learn to tell the story? Was this divine (or demonic) inspiration? 

Inwards and outwards...

Inwards and outwards...

We all have fears, anxieties, insecurities. Most of us are scared to death of being alone. We all get angry, or sad, or confused. Simply put, we're all human, and that shared experience is worth remembering at all times, because when we forget it, that's when we go wrong. That's when we miss each other, stop listening, and resort to hurting each other deeply, violently, or maliciously.

Ashes 11: Harvest...

Ashes 11: Harvest...

In order to be healthy, we must develop the skill of telling the good truth from the bad, the nurturing from the infectious. When we do this, we grow into the kinds of people who know how to love more deeply, to accept others openly, and who can look in the mirror and see ourselves for who we truly are: people who are loved, valuable, and worthy.

Discrepancies...

Discrepancies...

The sad truth is most of us never even come close to that proverbial silver-backed glass with the intent of introspection. The idea of knowing ourselves is horrific. What if we hate what we see? What if we suddenly see what others see? Worst of all, what if we find out a truth we've been running from for a long time: the truth that the person we present ourselves to be to the outside world is not who we really are at our core? What then? What if our stories don't line up...

Crucifixion...

Crucifixion...

It's noon. If we were on Jerusalem time, we would be anticipating the moment where the lights go out, where darkness covered the land. We'd be approaching the beginning of the final three hours before Jesus spoke his last words and heaved his last breath. We'd be getting closer and closer to the moment where the veil separating the sacred from the profane. In short, we'd be nearing the end.

Silence and darkness...

Winter is here finally. After having major ups and downs in the temperature, things finally seem to be settling. The city seems quieter, and the nights are longer.

Silence. Darkness. Two things that previously bothered the hell out of me. I couldn't stand either. These days, it would seem I've fallen in love with both. I haven't been watching as much TV as I used to. Instead I've spent more time reading (and writing). I've also taken more time to simply just sit quietly and comfortable in my IKEA chair, you know, the one everyone seems to have. Mine is light birch with the more affordable red cushion. The same goes for the footstool. It's become my resting spot.

It's been getting darker and darker as well. We're past the point of the winter solstice, the longest night of the year, but it will probably be sometime before we start to truly notice the days getting longer and the darkness dissipating.

Personally, I've started to like the darkness. In fact, I might even call us friends.

For the longest time, I've struggled with symptoms of seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a form of mental illness that manifests in depressive symptoms during the winter season. As someone already diagnosed with clinical depression, SAD further exacerbates the symptoms I already experience. To put this in other terms, the cold and the dark take a huge toll on my emotional well-being.

This year seems different. Rather than coming home and turning on more lights than are contained in the NYC New Year's ball, I do something different. I light candles. Not a ton of them, but enough that the apartment feels cozy. And as they burn out, I don't rush to fill their vacancies. I sit quietly letting the room get darker and darker until the only light is the one coming from my relaxation fountain. Some nights, I even turn that off and just sit in the dark living room. No TV. No Spotify, Pandora, or iTunes. Just me and my thoughts. Something I couldn't have done last year or the year before. Last year, I was in the middle of grieving Nanny. The year before, I was still in shock from my first semester of seminary and stressed over taking Frankie with me to KY for the holidays.

This year, I'm resting. I'm sitting. I'm feeling and writing and thinking and not thinking. I'm being.

In the silence and in the darkness, I face someone truly horrifying: myself. And you know what? I'm not that horrible.

I've been working the last couple of weeks on papers for school, one of which will determine whether or not I graduate. One fifty-page first draft later, and my mind is feeling more at ease. I've spent the last two and a half months sitting, wrestling with, and facing many questions. Questions about myself, my family, my relationship, my career, my faith, and many other things. I let myself journey out into the wilderness of silence and darkness and face the truth about my life. I don't have the answers to some of the questions I face, but I do have answers to some. Some of them, I didn't like so much. But when we face the presence of genuine, irrefutable truth, even when we don't like it, we can't deny its validity, its reality.

In the silence and in the darkness, I am learning that I have made more mistakes than I care to admit. Simultaneously, I am learning about my worth, my value, and my character. About the goodness that is part of who I am as the Beloved. Neither of these realities is easy to accept. The former is hard to accept because I want to believe that I'm capable of being better than the mistakes I've made. The latter is hard to accept because I think the mistakes I've made are not only worse than they really are, but also that they define me in my fullness.

In the silence and in the darkness, I learn that reconciliation is possible. I learn that I am good. I learn that I am loved. I learn that I have something worth saying and something worth being heard. I learn how to listen to myself better so that I can later listen to others better. I've realized that the times I struggle with listening to others, I do so because I'm struggling to listen to myself. I can't listen to them as well as I should because the voice in my head is telling me that no one is really listening to me.

The next time you get a chance, when you get home, don't turn any lights on. Maybe just long enough to get into your sleep clothes and grab a glass of water. Once you've done that, light a candle or two, turn the lights off, and sit. Listen to your thoughts. Recognize them. Listen to your breath, your heartbeat. Listen to the voice of the silence and the heartbeat of the darkness. Hear what they have to say to you. Soak it up. Change.

Turn the lights back on. After all, you wouldn't want to trip over something in the dark.

Sabbath in the grey space...

sabbath.jpg

One of the most important topics for anyone in ministry is self-care...

When working in areas of tension and even conflict, it's difficult to not become burned out, cynical, disheartened, frustrated, and hurt. It's challenging to know when to take a break, to give yourself a sabbath from being in the trenches, as well as to know how to spend that time. But as my time in ministry progresses, I'm realizing more and more just how precious and necessary those sabbaths are to me and my personal well-being.

One of my goals for my time with the Marin Foundation this year is learning how to further develop healthy emotional and physical boundaries for my ministry context. Inherently, I'm extremely physically affectionate and emotionally sponge-like. I always prefer a hug over a handshake, and I often find myself taking on and soaking up the emotions of those around me. Not only could such relaxed physical boundaries cause issues for me professionally, but such consistent emotional vulnerability could be detrimental to my psychological wellness.

The past couple of months have involved both sharing my story with some and hearing the stories of others, either over the phone or in person. When a person's story resonates deeply with my own, it's hard to not let my emotions of my experiences surface, which in turn makes me a less effective listener, makes me less objective in times when I need to be just that. I've heard stories from other LGBTQ individuals about their experiences of coming out to their parents, of being a part of non-affirming denominations while feeling called to ministry, of coming to terms with their identity and having to wrestle with extremely difficult questions. I've listened to the stories of parents about their child's coming out, about feeling alone, about fearing for their child's future and holistic well-being.

Self-care and sabbath are challenging to me individually because I have a difficult time "shutting my brain off."

I am always thinking, feeling, wondering, and questioning. Even in my times of solitude, the voices and words of others run through my head. This makes hearing the voice and feeling the embrace of the Divine hard to do. It means being inundated with perspectives and opinions from all across the spectrum of human experience. It means not always knowing how I feel or what I think. Self-care for me necessitates knowing myself, which is challenging to do when I often don't truly feel alone.

Working with the Marin Foundation, I often encounter people who might look at me and my life and deem it unholy, sinful, or dishonoring to God, who share perspectives and presuppositions with many around whom I was raised. As such, my emotions and thoughts have a tendency to cycle back and forth between what I "know" now to what I "knew" then. My own thoughts and voice get lost in the mix. I lose my sense of self, my sense of identity, and I feel confused, disoriented, and fragmented, all of which make it difficult for me to do effective and holistic ministry. How can I help people become whole when I don't feel that I myself am whole? How can I share my understanding of the "good news" when I have such a hard time hearing and assimilating it into my own life? These are the questions that make me aware of just how much I need to take care of myself so that I can better provide care for others.

So what does my self care look like given everything I've shared thus far?

  • First, I have a therapist. I think anyone in ministry, especially ministry that has the propensity for emotional drainage should have a counselor of some sort. This should be different from the person one turns to for spiritual direction. Pastors and counselors are trained in two different manners and should therefore be seen for different reasons and with different goals in mind—at least that's my perspective.
  • Second, I have a close network of ministry colleagues with whom I can share my challenges and struggles and have them share theirs in return. We take time to support each other, to listen, and to encourage one another, especially in difficult times. I also feel it's important that there is a network in place, primarily so I don't end up venting to one person or being the sole person to whom someone else vents. We are to bear one another's burdens, and I believe it needs to happen communally. 
  • Third, I set limits based on what I know about myself. This means taking breaks (when possible) every 20-30 minutes when I'm doing draining work. This means letting my commutes and train rides be filled not with emails or school work but with music or simply being silent, with the occasional fiction novel thrown in. This means stopping work at a particular time of day so that I can rest, process, listen to music, watch some TV, read a book, play guitar, or spend time with my non-ministry friends. 
  • Fourth, I do my best to have a life outside of ministry, outside of my office, outside of the classroom, and outside of my apartment. This means saying yes to spending time with good friends even if there's something else work-related that I could (and sometimes should) be doing. This is a matter of awareness and choice. Being such a social person, I try to have a balance here. I go out with friends for dinner or drinks, but I make sure to be home earlier than I might have if I were still in my early 20s. I keep an actual schedule, and I plan accordingly. Most of the time, I stop work after 7pm and spend the rest of the night doing things to feed and nourish my soul. Put simply, I make space for me.

Are any of these ideas new or groundbreaking? I doubt it. Do all of these precepts get put into place all the time? Of course not, but they are good basic tools for helping me live a healthy life while engaged in ministry. Will these ideas work for every person all the time in every kind of ministry context? I would imagine not. Self-care is just that... self. I have to know myself, my passions, and my limits and live and work accordingly. I hope these ideas spark some for you wherever you are. Know yourself, know your limits, and know your heart. Even when you're in the grey space, living in the tension between worlds, take a sabbath, take rest, and take heart.

Simple words...

I talk to myself... a lot sometimes. Hell, every now and again, I even respond to myself. Sometimes the words I have to say are meaningless banter. Sometimes they're harsh criticism for something I've done, words I've spoken, or for simply just being me. But every so often, I speak kind words to myself. It's a rare (but ever-increasing) occurrence. After realizing just how hard I am on myself, I've begun to understand the value of self-directed affirmation. There are a few ways that I do this...

Last year, one of my dearest friends made a suggestion to me. I'd been struggling with both my body image and my intellectual capabilities. Additionally, my personal faith had been struggle. Her suggestion was a simple one, but more powerful than I would have thought. Every day, at least once, I was to look in the mirror and tell myself, "I'm sexy. I'm brilliant. I'm a Beloved child of the Divine." If speaking it wasn't enough, then I was to plaster my apartment with post-its filled with similar words. It sounded silly, and while I don't do it nearly as often these days, I'm able to discern when I need to reestablish this habit. When I do, it usually ends up being just as powerful.

Another way that I've learned to speak kindly to myself has been through solitude. It's easy for any of us living today to become caught up in the busyness of life. Meetings. Classes. Lectures. Homework. Relationships. Dates. Hookups. Bar-hopping. Dinner parties. Holiday gatherings. Shopping. You name it, and it can be used to keep us from spending time getting to know ourselves. Don't get me wrong, solitude often happens best alone. But even something as simple as riding the train without putting in the headphones or turning on the e-reader can make a difference. When we take the time to give notice to our thoughts and our feelings, we get a chance to know something new about ourselves, even if it's subtle and seemingly miniscule. It's a powerful thing when we make self-awareness a priority.

Finally, as odd as this may sound, I speak kindly to myself through taking care of my body. Admission: I am not a gym rat. I hate running. Lifting weights makes me awkward. But I enjoy taking walks with close friends, and within the past two months, I've developed a love for yoga. I stand close to the mirror in the studio, not so I can practice vanity, but so I can make sure I have proper form, but even more importantly, so I can spend close to an hour seeing myself for who and what I truly am. I'm able to see nearly every nook and cranny. I've learned to accept the reality of my barrel chest and broad shoulders, of my incapability of ever looking a particular way. As I reach the end of my yoga practice and flow into fetal pose, I often find myself gazing in the mirror with a smile. This simple gesture is a way of affirming the fight within me, the transformation I've allowed to take place.

We all need to hear kind words. Sometimes those are words unspoken. Sometimes they're written encouragement and affirmations. Sometimes is a smile seen in the mirror, the feel of one's heart racing and sweat dripping off of one's skin. The list is as long as we make it. This much is true: when we take the time to be kind to ourselves and to develop self-love, we're able to release that love into the world around us. When we let go of the busyness and the "stuff", we make it possible for our intentions and affections to be directed where they're really needed. The kindness we speak to ourselves becomes kindness we offer to the world.