Monday morning. Alarm rings. I sit up on the edge of my bed. My first thought, “I don’t know how I’m supposed to work today.”
Monday was our first day of the school year. A day typically filled with excitement, optimism, and eagerness to greet hundreds of students coming through the door. Students whose emotions fill the spectrum as they cross the threshold: joy, fear, sadness, dread, anticipation, uncertainty, confidence—they bring it all in the building. This week my heart was consumed with family and friends in Houston and along the Texas Gulf Coast on the beginning of an arduous and harrowing journey. A short three hours from my home, people I hold dear were losing everything to Hurricane Harvey.
My mind spinning and lost, I knew I had to dig deep and put one foot in front of the other. We’ve all been there. Wondering how it will be possible to engage. In these moments, I’ve discovered the only way to press forward is to stay present. Stay 10,000% in the moment at hand. It’s easier said than done; I won’t lie about that. Here’s the thing though, the more you practice, the better you get. But where do you start?
Start with joy. Mine the hour at hand for the gifts within it. Focus on the joy and you bring yourself back to life.
It feels impossible at first. It can feel uncomfortable to see beauty when you feel heartbroken. It can feel insensitive to feel joy when others are suffering. If we examine that discomfort, we find that behind it there’s this idea that things have to be one or the other. But here’s the truth. To feel empathy, suffering, heartache doesn’t mean you don’t feel any bliss. And to embrace joy, doesn’t mean you ignore the painful feelings or turn away from them. Turning away from them can do more harm than good.
It took my own personal tragedy to fully understand that joy and pain can coexist at the same time, and that’s OK. It’s more than OK. It’s vital.
Take the hundreds of kids coming in the doors Monday for example. They need the joy no matter where they are at. If they are blissful, they deserve joy from others to keep them up. If they are experiencing anxiety they deserve joy to lift them up. It doesn’t have to be a fake it till you make it act. It’s important to stay genuine and honor yourself and others. It can start as simple as a smile. A genuine smile brings the giver and receiver to the present moment together and celebrates the connection and community they share.
When we are in troubling times, we all need to be lifted up. The most beautiful thing about life is that we can experience the full spectrum of emotion. It’s what makes us alive and passionate creatures who have empathy and come together in community.
It’s not about being an optimist or a pessimist. It’s about embracing all of life’s beautiful messiness.
So I went to work. I greeted the kids with smiles, warmth, laughter, and hugs. I was there for them since I couldn’t be there for my family and friends. And then they were there for me. Their joy lifted me back up. I didn’t forget my loved ones three hours away. I honored the loved ones right here with me.
I was reminded life is happening all around us, even when it feels like it’s not.
I always end with a song. This one is a beautiful reminder that we have permission to see the joy around us even in the midst of tragedy. Sometimes we have to push ourselves there.
There’s been a lot of noise lately. Whichever side you may find yourself on, it is emotionally taxing to hear all the negativity flying about. I’m not about to dive into politics or what’s right and wrong. My purpose here to look at what I can change about myself, and the polarized climate right now has really got me thinking about how I respond to it. Generally, polarization inspires people to speak some pretty hateful words to each other. It’s heartbreaking to hear how people are responding to each other because it casts darkness into a world in desperate need of more light.
In emotionally charged moments, we forget that each of us can make a choice to shine light instead.
I believe in the beauty of the human soul. I believe that no matter how angry you are, you can understand this heartbreak too. So why do we try to fight belittling language with more belittling language? We seem to be forgetting about grace. In my spiritual home this weekend, the message was about growing from the soil of grace. Grace was defined as seeing the masterpiece in others. When we experience others doing things that offend us, it triggers us. All we can see in that moment is the offense, and we forget that this person is a masterpiece. To be honest, we all do things that are triggering. Some days even my own actions look more like a landfill than a masterpiece.
But even in a landfill, you can find a symphony.
What gets in the way of seeing the masterpiece in others? I can think of a few things, but it tends to start with an inability to see the masterpiece in ourselves. When we respond in defensiveness and blame, we are protecting something within us that we haven’t resolved. A fear that we haven’t examined. It’s not really about the other person. What you may not think about is blame can be a form of emotional abuse. I see a lot of emotional abuse these days from both sides of the political sphere. I see strangers and friends engaging in discussions that are a steady stream of blaming, name calling, criticism, shaming, belittling, gaslighting, and refusal to communicate at all. All of this is emotional abuse. I’ve had discussions about this observation with friends and family, and I’m crushed when the response is, “It’s just semantics.”
It is semantics. But semantics matter. Semantics can bring us together or tear us apart. Semantics can shine light or cast darkness.
I don’t know about you, but I want to shine light. I want to love the masterpiece in someone else, even if that means they have a viewpoint or belief that I find hard to accept. Honestly, the viewpoint doesn’t make the person. The experience a person has had in life is what brought them to their viewpoint. When we tell someone they are wrong or they are overreacting, we invalidate the experience of their life. We wound them. Hearts don’t turn that way. If you want to turn a heart and make a difference, you have to lean in to discomfort and be more curious about the experience of a person. When two people feel understood they feel safe. Meaningful discourse can only happen from a place of safety. Change only comes from meaningful discourse.
That kind of vulnerability is scary.
In our culture our beliefs are so tied to our identity, we may feel we risk losing ourselves. But your beliefs don’t make you. Your beliefs come from your experiences. If they flex and change, you won’t lose yourself. You will gain compassion and grace and relationships that will enrich your life. You may even change the world.
In recent years I’ve developed an affinity for lighthouses. Lighthouses guide ships on dark seas away from obstacles and safely to shore. I want to be a lighthouse, a safe haven, a source of light. I fail at this on a daily basis. So I’m going to set my intention this week to honor the masterpiece in myself and look for the masterpiece in others. I intend to speak life with all of my words. What if we all decided to speak life this week? We could create a world where we embrace others struggles and celebrate their beauty. This is a world where everyone would feel safer to be themselves.
I invite you to try it with me because “we can turn a heart with the words we say. Mountains crumble with every syllable. Hope can live or die. So speak life…”
I’ve always been drawn to the ocean. It’s as though a life force pulls me toward it. I’ve never been able to encapsulate why exactly. It’s just something I know. It’s a place where my heart is meant to be. In my most recent trip seaside I felt something I never have before: a need to define this pull and understand what it is.
Because then I would better understand myself.
The astrology-minded would offer an explanation from the stars: you’re a Pisces. A fish. Your soul was born of the ocean and that’s where it is most at home. Just as the waves simultaneously rush to grab at the shore and are snatched back out to sea by the pull of the tide, you are constantly pulled in opposite directions. In this way, the ocean may be the only force that understands you fully. You connect with its energy. This idea definitely resonates with me.
I am constantly pulled in opposite directions.
My younger, less self-aware, self would tell a different story. It’s the experience. The sensations. The grit of the sand on my skin sloughing off all the roughness polishes away the roughness in my mind and heart too. The richness of the sand turning from dry to wet under my feet allows me to sink in and just be present. The sound of the waves rushing in drowns out the doubt and worry in my ears. The sounds of laughter and music playing under umbrellas wake me up to the carefree nature of life and turn me away from the trouble. The vibrant contrasting colors of the sea and sand offer a reminder that sorrow and strife can be present in a joyful moment, and perfect beauty and bliss can exist during troublesome times. It’s easy here for me to be fully present.
Connecting to my senses and experience and staying in the moment is the best way to turn away from the nagging anxiety that always lives inside.
But this time I noticed an important metaphor. One that meets me right where I’m at with a lifelong internal struggle: the agony of possibility. Possibility is a blessing, but we all see it and handle it differently. Some believe they never have any options available to them and they need to catch a break. They are trapped. Waiting for their possibility to come along. If you are a person like this, you may feel that you are only ever faced with challenges. Insurmountable challenges. And just when you get one thing figured out, life knocks you over with another. It’s like looking out at the waves and seeing them as nothing but nuisances that will knock you down. Something to brace yourself for.
But look closely, or you’ll miss the opportunity in the challenge. A wave might knock you down, but you will learn something, grow stronger, and be better prepared for the next one.
Others are looking for the perfect possibility and wait for it. They see plenty of opportunities, but none of them are THE ONE. So they wait. Then the next, better opportunity comes along, but it’s still missing something. So they wait again. They are trapped. If you are one of these people, you may find yourself analyzing every chance that comes along, searching for the ways it will fall short. But every wave has the potential to knock you down, or not take you far enough. They all look the same and have the same odds. It’s not which wave you pick, but how you ride it that counts. There’s no perfect opportunity. If you spend your life waiting for the dream job or the perfect relationship, you’ll always be disappointed.
No matter what you start with, you have to invest in it to make it grow into what you’ve dreamed of.
To me possibilities are as endless as the waves of the ocean. They never stop coming. I can’t choose which wave to ride because they all look incredible, and I have a need to know how they each fit in a bigger picture of my life. I did this when I chose both my undergraduate and graduate schools. I had a hard time choosing which city to live in because I was trying to picture my whole life there and all versions of my life had potential. It took me awhile to choose a major and a career because I could see myself doing so many things, and I didn’t know which one would fulfill me for a lifetime. Feeling like I need to commit to these choices forever and plan out my life keeps me stuck. I’ve tried to solve the problem a variety of ways. Waiting for something to make the decision for me and close a door. Setting up a pro and con list and over-analyzing every aspect of the decision. Looking for signs from God to point me in the right direction. The result? Many times I end up missing out on the opportunities because I was paralyzed by fear of choosing. I’m trapped. My need to see the big picture and have a plan for everything stops me from jumping in. But watching the waves come into shore is a powerful reminder.
Life never stops to wait, but rushes onward with or without you
When I’m in the ocean, I don’t think about which wave to ride in. I watch them all, see one that looks good, and freely decide to try that one out. I don’t worry about injury or failure. I don’t try to picture what the outcome will be. I just enjoy the ride for what it is. I don’t expect it to last forever. When that wave ends, I just catch the next wave, the next exhilarating ride. I would benefit from living my life the same way. Not worrying about which path to choose, but just focusing on what feels right, jumping in, and going with the flow.
Tonight I had an opportunity to go salsa dancing and I took it without worrying that I should be preparing for the work week. I made three new friends. I connected with each of them over different things and now I have new doors open to me. One of them dances in competitions, and when he asked me to dance I panicked a little because I’m not at his level. He sensed my nerves as we took our first steps and told me not to worry about a thing. So I didn’t. It would have been completely alright if I failed and looked like an idiot, but instead he took my dancing skills and confidence in them to a new level. Yesterday I probably would have told him no because I worried about keeping up and it was later than I wanted to stay out. I would have gone home and missed out on an opportunity for growth. But today I took my own advice and jumped right in.
So here’s the message for all of us, regardless of how we approach opportunity.
Challenges are opportunities to open new doors, grow us, and make us stronger. Embrace them. Opportunity isn’t perfect. If you see one in front of you, take it. Don’t analyze it. Invest in it. You will be richly rewarded by investing in a flawed opportunity. It will take you places you’ve never dreamed you could go. And finally, there doesn’t have to be a plan to choose an opportunity. It doesn’t have to fit in a bigger picture. If it feels right it will take you somewhere you are meant to be and may never have seen coming.