I started 2016 off the way I start every January – full of drive and optimism with a carefully color-coded planner and a pile of books to read. I know I’m not unique in this, almost everyone I know becomes more ambitious, dedicated and idealistic as January 1 draws near.
I went to Florida last January for a training retreat with a direct sales company I was working for at the time. I was only working the business on the side with no intentions to try to grow it to a full-time income, but I live in Wisconsin and it was an opportunity to go to Florida in January. Reason enough for me.
There were lots of encouraging and empowering talks, mostly about how to grow your business and be more intentional with structuring your time. My biggest takeaway though was finally feeling determined and confident enough to finish filling out my applications for seminary – which I had been halfway kicking around in a Word document for about three years. Being away for the weekend also meant I had time to devote my undivided attention to completing the essay portion of the applications.
My fingers trembled as I wrote. Once again, I felt myself get swept up in that all to familiar wave of self-doubt and uncertainty. Who am I to think I can do this anyway?
Lots of people talk about following your dreams; some will even tell you about how much work it takes to achieve them, but I’ve found it’s rare for people to talk about how pursuing your dreams can unleash all kinds of ghosts from your past and skeletons long since buried in your closet.
In A Wrinkle in Time (which I read for the first time in June of 2016, I know.) Madeleine L’Engle compares our lives to sonnets: “You’re given the form, but you have to write the sonnet yourself. What you say is completely up to you.”
I know myself well enough to know the general form my life has always bent toward, but I struggle sometimes to pick up the pen and write it. It’s embarrassing to admit, but I often operate in such a way that it’s as if the things which are supposed to happen in my life just will – without any effort or alignment on my part at all.
It’s silly to think this, of course, but opening yourself up and actually working to shape your life the way you want it – “writing your sonnet” – requires some level of vulnerability.
If I never actually say what I want out of life; if I never spend the time and energy and work for my dream, then I can’t be broken if (when) I fail.
Again, from A Wrinkle in Time, L’Engle writes: “To love is to be vulnerable; and it is only in vulnerability and risk—not safety and security—that we overcome darkness.” I have long approached life with a degree of care to not open myself up to too much unknown (or at least, to make sure that God and the universe understands that I am very displeased when my “unknown” quota has been breached).
What if loving yourself and loving this life you’ve been given comes about only through living life with authenticity and vulnerability?
What if self-preservation and image management isn’t the answer, and – in fact – is actually the biggest threat to you living a fulfilled and happy life?
My fear of failure, or of things just turning out differently or less than I imagine them to be will always be present, but that fear doesn’t get to drive my life – or write my sonnet. In 2016 I learned to put fear in the backseat (to borrow from Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic), and to embrace the unknowing of opening yourself up.
Over the summer I had the opportunity to practice this openness to unknowing again, when both of my paternal grandparents passed away. I grew up next door to them, and their presence is almost as much a backdrop for my childhood as that of my parents.
Losing my grandparents opened up all kinds of questions about who I am and what kind of legacy I want to leave. If my fear of failure pushed me to answer “what kind of sonnet am I writing?” the loss of my grandparents pushed me to ask “am I writing my sonnet fast enough?” and “is it worth writing at all?”
Grief is often the gateway to the parts of ourselves we had otherwise forgotten. Like a child stumbling into a long-lost secret garden, what we do once we find ourselves thrust through the gateway of grief is crucial.
I chose to dig deep. I started seeing a therapist again. I started writing more, and writing things that it will be a long time before they ever grace the internet – if ever. I learned that perhaps I hadn’t made as much progress as I’d hoped in my personal growth.
It has been a sobering journey to say the least.
I had been operating under the assumption that I as I worked toward self-knowledge and development, that as I grew spiritually and became more mature that life would somehow get easier and less confusing. The events of 2016 convinced me otherwise.
I found myself thinking over and over again of Farandolae. In L’Engle’s A Wind in the Door these fictitious creatures are beyond microscopic, and yet the fate of the universe rides on their survival. The Farandolae are distracted though, enchanted by the ease and fun of a life skimming above the surface. It is imperative, for the survival of all things, that the Farandolae settle down and “Deepen” but this is the more difficult choice for the tiny creatures. It requires stillness and time, and virtually everything that is not fun or sexy.
I’m coming to realize that growth is less like a flight plan with a determined place of arrival, and more like a Farandolae Deepening – a still, silent, slow journey downward and inward…then outward again.
I’m learning that to grow roots mean that sometimes you have to dig up the hard ground in which you’ve been planted, and that sometimes that process is painful.
I’m learning that leaning in to the wholeness and healing God offers also means becoming acutely aware of where all the missing and wounded pieces are in your life – and that part sucks.
I’m learning that Jesus wasn’t kidding about the denial of self, the carrying of a cross, the losing of life to find it.
It’s all so much less “up and to the right” than I expected grown-up life to be, but somehow that’s still okay.
2016 had many moments that left me swearing under my breath (or not so much under my breath) but it also had so many moments that took my breath away, and pulled me deeper spiritually, mentally, intellectually, emotionally and relationally than I’ve ever been before.
So here’s to both:
The “f*ck its” and the Farandolae,
The discouragement and the Deepening,
and the life that is present in all these things.
Thank you, 2016.