Most nights, I lie down with Engelberta in her bed, and we read a few books before I turn the lights out. Then we lay there in the dark, and I have to tell her “Be still and be quiet” at least a gazillion times while she squirms and talks and performs daring feats of flexibility. I will pat her back or rub her face while I tell her things I love about her or things that were fun to do together that day. Occasionally I skip this step in our “FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THAT IS HOLY, GO TO SLEEP BEFORE WE BOTH DIE” routine. Engelberta is quick to remind me, “Mommy, you forgot to tell me how good I was today.”
Even if it was a terrible day, even if I am sad and exhausted beyond words, even if I am mad she won’t go to sleep, I will find something good to tell this tiny human. I am far from a perfect parent, but this is one thing I can get right; I can always tell her that I love her just for being her, and she needs to know that I love every moment I spend with her (whether I enjoy them all or not). She needs to know that she is good and loved and valuable and precious, and I need to take every opportunity to fill her up with good and kind words. Because the world will whisper the opposite. Because sometimes I yell when I’m mad at her. Because no matter how much I want to shield her, terrible things are going to happen in her life.
Because I think we all need to hear wonderful words whispered to us before bedtime. I know I do. I thrive on words of affirmation; it’s the love language I respond to best. If I were to sum up my life’s goals, they boil down to three things: to know God, to make him known, and to hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant,” when I get to heaven. Every single thing I do, every role I inhabit falls into at least one of those summary statements.
Some days, knowing that I have done well even when no one else recognizes it is enough because I know that God saw it. Some days I struggle through the thankless tasks of cleaning the never ending dirty dishes, picking up all of the things from all of the places they land, dressing a squirrely tiny human who would much rather be dancing naked… I want desperately for someone to pat my back and tell me how good I was today. I want someone to acknowledge that I worked hard, and I what I did was enough. Most of the time I unfairly expect my husband to fill this void. I’m not saying he should never encourage me, but it is not his job to make me a whole and fulfilled person.
When I am struggling for affirmation, I am struggling with my value as a person and as a child of God. As a person who also fights depression, this is an uphill battle. I have a few coping tools to pat myself on the back and tell myself I was good today. I look back over the day and acknowledge what I got done or a special moment or something that made me laugh, and I try to keep all thoughts of what’s left on my to-do list at bay until the next morning. I keep a few special notes that people have given me over the years so that one exceptionally bad days I can remind myself of nice things people have told me about myself. I take a break and do something that makes me happy for at least a few minutes, like crocheting or a hot bath or reading a good book. And, probably most importantly, I try to encourage other people.
Specifically, I work hard to build up the women around me because I know we all have an inner critic that doesn’t stop for much. Women particularly struggle not to compare themselves with other women, and we tend to think we can just work harder to be perfect. Men tend not to have the unending inner voice; I used to think my husband was lying whenever I asked what he was thinking and he said, “Nothing.” I’m taking that response on faith, because it’s never quiet in my brain, and I know I’m not the only woman with a brain that veers too often into the weeds of criticism. I do what I can to encourage other women, so maybe together we can keep each other out of the weeds. I’ve also learned that when I work harder to see something good to encourage in someone else, I look past their faults. If I can look past someone else’s faults, I can extend myself the same grace; it’s not always easy, but it’s definitely a skill I’m improving.
Do you have some good coping tools when you need affirmation? Do you have at least one friend you can trust to be honest with about your needs and who will lift you up when you need it? What actions do you need to take to develop a coping toolbox and at least one solid friend? If you’re struggling with that and need some help getting started, please e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org. When you’re bogged down in the thankless daily grind, remember before you go to sleep to pat yourself on the back and tell yourself, “You did good today.” And don’t forget to affirm someone else; we are all tiny humans at heart who need to be filled up with good and encouraging words.
Invisible made visible;
Impossible and unimaginable
Sprung to life and speaking,
Writing volumes of theology
About the Creator –
Words scholars have yet to discover.
Step out into the Word,
Into the God-breathed world
Of constellations and forests,
Living creatures and changing seasons.
View his eternal power, his divinity,
His immutable law.
Clap along with ocean waves,
Shout as loud as the rocks,
And skip with the mountains for joy.
I love the Coffee and Sweatpants Facebook feed. One of the illustrations posted last week said that if someone can live through something awful, you can at least bear witness. (This is an unartful paraphrase, so go web search Coffee and Sweatpants.) This idea has stuck with me since I saw it, and it reminds me of Job declaring that his redeemer would stand and recount his deeds, and he would be justified. I think this is what funerals are all about.
We gather to publicly mark the passing of a life, to bear witness to the agony of the loved ones left behind. We tell ourselves that we are comforting them with our food and our presence, and maybe we are. But our words fall hollow in a mourner’s ears; nothing we say is going to heal their broken heart. We can only bear witness to the tragedy and simply be present.
Death isn’t the sole cause of grief, so we must be present enough in our loved ones’ lives to observe the invisible losses that trigger a shower of casseroles and floral arrangements. Bear witness. Be there. “Share each other’s burdens, and in this way obey the law of Christ.” – Galatians 6:2
What does it look like to bear witness? I don’t know. I conjure mental images of the chorus in a Greek tragedy, but this seems wholly impractical and loud. As a practice in my life, I try to be what I needed when I was trying to cope with loss, but I also try to temper that with what I know of the person. If you are crying, I will most likely hug your stuffings out because when I cry, I want to be wrapped up and held. If I have never met you or don’t know you well enough to squish your guts out, I will go for the side hug and rub or pat your back until you can at least form sentences. I will not leave you until you tell me to go away or I know that you are feeling at least a tiny bit better, even if it’s awkward. I excel at awkward.
Bearing witness can be as simple as merely acknowledging what someone is feeling and validating their experience. “I’m sorry you are experiencing this. I know that you are feeling sad/angry/depressed. I’m here if you need to talk.” That’s it. Nothing fancy – just sincere acknowledgement that sometimes life sucks and we don’t know why. And then listen without interrupting when someone shares their pain with you.
You can’t fix it, and you won’t say any magic words that will take away the pain. We so often want to say beautiful words as a balm for wounded souls, but in my experience receiving those attempts, they generally aren’t helpful. So many of the “churchy” phrases we offer come out sounding judgmental or hurtful, even though our intentions are pure. To bear witness is not to testify, so be simple and kind: “I love you. I’m sorry this is happening to you.” If words are not your thing, offer a hug or a cup of coffee or a casserole; food is a bona fide love language in the South. Bottom line: be the witness you wish you had when you were experiencing tragedy.
A few months ago I had a tubal ligation. Pardon the bluntness, but I feel there is no point in beating around the bush, and I can’t think of a witty introduction. I effectively closed a miserable chapter in my life. The surgical notes regarding the reason for the procedure indicated, “patient desires sterilization.” I think “desires” is a strong word, but for the sake of insurance billing, I’ll let it stand. The truth is, I did desire an end, a decision, a finality.
We decided after Engelberta was born that we were willing to try two more times to have another child “naturally” before we stopped trying. Ni of ne months after Engelberta’s birth, we lost a baby, leaving us with one more try floating around in decision purgatory where it lingered for almost three years. I felt like I was living with a noose around my neck that tightened each time anyone approached the topic until I couldn’t cope with the thought of another miscarriage. The decision came down to emotionally and mentally unstable wife/mother or surgery, so we chose surgery. I talked all of this over with my therapist, and just making the decision to quit felt like a physical weight off of my body.
I thought I might have more feelings about the ending my fertility, but I have yet to look back with any regret. Maybe each miscarriage was a bit of a death of the opportunity to carry a child, and thinking about the procedure for months before we finally made a decision gave me plenty of time to mourn the loss before it happened. It has only felt like relief and closure in the post surgical weeks.
I have added two new scars to my collection, and they seem to mirror some new emotional scar tissue. I have talked about our lost babies in conversation several times in the last few weeks, and I noticed that a lot of the sting is gone when I mention them. One person apologized for bringing up such a fraught subject, and I heard this truth come out of my mouth, “It’s our history now.” It’s history that has finally started to feel more like a scar: tender to the touch, but not a gaping wound.
With each physical scar, there is a healing process; first scabbing, then physical therapy to strengthen and protect the weakened limb until it can function more normally. My mind and heart have followed much the same process, and just like my body, my heart will never look the same – it is scarred. It will never be what it was before the injury, but it is still somehow stronger, more able to recognize pain in another heart, more able to live in the moment because the past is untenable, more able to accept that I can’t control life.
Thank God for scars.
“Tax collectors and other notorious sinners often came to listen to Jesus teach.” Luke 15:1 NLT
My pastor has often pointed out that tax collectors were so hated by society that they needed their own label because even the “notorious sinners” didn’t want to be associated with tax collectors. Of course this draws a laugh because every culture has its pariahs, and we all love to hate someone. This verse in Luke usually sets my mind to thinking about who was in the crowd whenever Jesus taught. We know that religious leaders came because their questions are often part of the story – sometimes because they were outraged, sometimes because they were genuinely confused, and sometimes to set a trap to catch Jesus in blasphemy.
We know that regular folks came to hear Jesus, too, and some of them brought their whole family. Several accounts of Jesus feeding a large crowd make mention that 5,000 men were fed, not counting women and children. We know that Jesus blessed children and chastised his disciples for keeping children away from him. It sounds like the crowds that came to hear Jesus teach were a mix of every socioeconomic group and every type of profession (if you’re a Monty Python fan, you may know that Jesus had a soft spot for cheesemakers, though…), so I love that Luke felt he needed to point out that “tax collectors and notorious sinners often came to listen to Jesus teach.”
There are a lot of reasons I love this notation. I love that this bunch of people who were obviously not part of “respectable society” came to hear Jesus, and came often. Can you see the bunched up look on the prim and proper church lady’s face when “those people” showed up and sat down to listen? We all know someone who might fall into the “notorious sinner” category – today they would probably be unwed mothers, addicts, or divorcees; I imagine the categories were much the same in Jesus’s day. I love that these people didn’t give two hoots what polite society thought about their presence – they came to hear Jesus, maybe several times. They knew they needed hope of redemption from their situation – a source of rescue outside themselves. I love imagining what people thought of the notorious sinners and tax collectors coming to hear Jesus – “It’s about time that one got some religion…” or “How dare they show up to hear a man of God speak?” I wonder how many members of polite society were genuinely pleased and nonjudgmental about the notorious sinners’ presence.
I wonder how many of us are happy to welcome into our churches with equal joy the notorious sinners of our day. Can we really claim that the tax collectors and notorious sinners of our time come often to our churches? Or is it horribly uncomfortable for someone different to come in and then to come back? Do we share the love and healing of Jesus in a way tangible enough that notorious sinners are drawn to hear more, just like they were drawn to listen often to Jesus teaching? I love that one single sentence both comforts and challenges me because Jesus still offers hope and healing to everyone, and I need to be sure that I am not hindering anyone, notorious sinner or not, that is drawn to Jesus. I must admit that it is too easy to judge someone’s appearance or situation and assume that they will never change. And in the next breath I must admit that I must not really believe that God is all-powerful or the source of grace if I can so readily judge another human. I’m really no different from a notorious sinner because I am still a sinner. And maybe that’s what I love the most about this sentence in Luke: the irony that anyone who judged the tax collectors and notorious sinners who showed up to learn from Jesus is even more in need of that teaching and grace. Here’s to notorious sinners and tax collectors; may we be ever gracious to each other.