I did what you asked,
and it wasn’t enough.
So, ask no more of me,
because you will be disappointed,
and I will feel demeaned.
I did what you asked,
and it wasn’t enough.
So, ask no more of me,
because you will be disappointed,
and I will feel demeaned.
A local summer tutoring program offers middle school girls the opportunity to visit college campuses so the girls can see themselves at college—literally. These girls will be the first in their families to attend college, and physically being on a campus helps them to visualize college as part of their futures. These visits plant a seed and create both a memory and a dream.
Growing up, college was not in my future. My parents forbade it, believing that education was wasted on a girl. In their worldview, the best I could hope for was to marry and have children.
When I moved to Virginia after high school and people at work asked me about two well-known universities in Michigan, I had nothing to say. I did not even know which school was where, because those schools were not part of my life and no one had taken me to a college campus to help me see myself there. I had neither a memory nor a dream.
When I was twenty-six, after working at the FBI for seven years, I enrolled in college to get my degree so I could become an FBI agent.
After graduation, my FBI plan fell apart, and I felt I was back where I had started—without a dream of what I wanted to be when I grew up. I landed in the nonprofit sector, which has been a good career that drew on my talents and developed new skills.
Last week, I was talking with my spiritual director about my future—as in what am I going to be when I grow up.
Ok, so maybe I am already grown up chronologically, but since my mother is ninety-four and still independent, I figure I may have another whole career ahead of me.
Some of my friends retired in their fifties or early sixties, but that was not financially feasible for me. Some of them are spending their retirement volunteering at nonprofit organizations that serve people who are marginalized and vulnerable. My work has been about helping people who are marginalized and vulnerable, so I feel like I have spent my working life doing what they are doing in retirement.
My spiritual director is encouraging me to discern my next steps with an eye toward where God is calling me and to ask, “What is it that only I can do?”
I am starting to dream about my future in a new way. I want to raise my sights and be open to the vocation God is calling me to, even if it seems farfetched.
I have started to pay more attention to what catches my attention—new words, phrases or ideas that give me pause or that inspire me to follow up. I am exploring options with the awareness that I have nothing to lose by reaching out and asking questions.
It is exciting to think about my future as a blank page, just waiting for me to dream a new reality into being.
About fifteen years ago, I got a bike as a Christmas gift. It is an expensive bike, with twenty-four speeds! It is not what I would have chosen—I would have picked one of those no-gear granny bikes with a wicker basket on front. I don’t even need hand-brakes. But this is the bike I got and still have.
I have thought of giving it away or selling it and buying a less-complicated bike, but I haven’t.
While riding last night, it occurred to me that I am resistant to this bike. I have not embraced it, appreciated it for the gift it is. Why is that? I wondered.
Resistance is a funny thing. Sometimes it can be so obvious, but other times it can be subtle.
My first spiritual director often made suggestions that she thought would be helpful. She suggested I pray for fifteen minutes at the same time every day, and she sometimes suggested books. I usually said, “No, thanks,” or said nothing and didn’t do what she suggested.
One of her book recommendations was An Interrupted Life by Etty Hillesum.
A year or so later, a women in my book club proposed this book. The title sounded vaguely familiar, but like most things I resist, I had blocked it from my mind and did not recall that this was the book my spiritual director had recommended.
The book was transformational (and I highly recommend it). At some point, though, I remembered that this was the same book that I had refused to read.
Why had I been resistant to this book? Why am I resistant to nonfiction in general? Am I afraid I will be invited to change?“Stubbornness is not a virtue,” my current spiritual director recently told me. I didn’t think it was, even though I often act as if it is.
Stubborn is just another word for resistance. There are others: obstinate, pig-headed, inflexible….None of which I want to be.
But, there I was last night, riding my bike, when it occurred to me that I am resistant to this gift. This resistance is much more subtle; it has taken me fifteen years to even see it!
I think the bike says something about me which is not true. I think the bike says, I am a serious bike rider, which I am not. The most I ever ride is five miles, and at a leisurely pace. When people invite me to go for bike rides, I decline. I fear I could not keep up and that I would be a burden.
And there it is—fear of disappointing.
How much of my resistance is connected to my fear of disappointing or fear of failure?God invites me to move against my resistance—to welcome, accept and embrace what is offered. To look at the world through eyes of awe, wonder and amazement. God invites me to say yes to all that life offers. Accept the bike, I told myself. Embrace the bike.
I think most of can relate to St. Paul’s “thorn” and have possibly even used the phrase “a thorn in my side” when referring to some troublesome person or situation.
It can be a family member, co-worker or friend who can get under my skin. Everyday situations and encounters—even a two-minute wait in line at the bank or grocery store—can feel like I am being pricked by a thorn.
When I am impatient, when I am reacting rather than acting or when I am rolling my eyes, I know I am having a thorn moment, that someone has done something that pushes my buttons.
What I find most helpful in those moments is to step back, take a few deep breaths and try to get some perspective.
Why is this particular person bugging me? What about a particular situation frustrates or upsets me? What is happening in my life that is unsettling me?I gained a deeper understanding of St. Paul’s letters to the Corinthians when I lived in l’Arche, where I lived very closely with people not of my choosing—people who came from different cultures and had different values. Clashes were bound to happen.
Facing disappointment after disappointment was disheartening, and it took me some time to see what was really happening—that that I was facing my unmet expectations. You are not in control, God seemed to be reminding me. Your way is not the only way. Those were tough truths to see and accept.
I learned many things in l’Arche, including the theory that when someone is pushing my buttons it is because they are revealing some part of me that I don’t particularly like and don’t want to see. Every time I was annoyed, I needed to stop looking at the other person and start examining myself.
The thorns in my life can reveal deeper truths about me, if I can be open and willing to face those truths.
The person I think is being stingy invites me to look at my own stinginess or lack of generosity. The one I see as needy invites me to look at my own insecurities.
The person who zips ahead of me in a line of cars reminds me that I, too, sometimes feel self-important. The person who exaggerates or even outright lies reminds me that I, too, sometimes may want to seem more accomplished than I am. The person who insists that her way is the right or only way to do something reminds me that I, too, like to have my way.
It can be easier to insist the problem is the situation or other person, but, I think, not very helpful.
With God’s grace—and lots of thorny experiences—I have come to see that every button-pushing experience, every thorn in my side, is really an invitation to growth in self-awareness and self-knowledge.
Accepting my weaknesses enables me to live in grace and to allow God to be in charge of my life.
Celebrating the Sacrament of Reconciliation is a regular part of my spiritual life. Reviewing my thoughts, words and actions, looking at where I need to make changes and admitting my shortcomings to another human being helps me live more intentionally.
One transgression I don’t ever remember confessing is envy—because I tend to be quite content with my life.
Recently, though, I heard myself saying words I regretted the moment they out of my mouth. I knew I needed to apologize, but before I did, I wanted to understand what had prompted this comment.
I prayed for insight.
Pondering the situation, I realized I envied the woman I had spoken to; I was envious of a part of her life that reminded me of what I used to have but have lost.
Five years ago, I moved “home” after having lived away for almost forty years. That move changed my proximity to some friends and the things we used to do together. I hadn’t realized how much I missed that part of my old life until I heard this woman talking about a trip she had recently taken with her friends.
I was happy for her and the fun she had, but a week later—and not even thinking or talking about her trip—I said something totally irrelevant and rude. I was speaking out of the past, a past I have lost and apparently still mourn.Understanding doesn’t change or fix what is wrong, but it helps me to apologize sincerely and to figure out what adjustments I need to make to act differently in the future.
In this situation, my words led me to reflect on developing more friends in my new home—or perhaps initiating more with my family and the friends I do have.
When I moved home, I decided that I would not expect people to accommodate me—to make space for me in their lives—because I did not want to have unrealistic expectations. I knew that their lives had gone on without me while I chose to live away.
Developing realistic expectations can be tricky because expectations that are too high can lead to disappointment and expectations that are too low can lead to—well, I think in this situation, loneliness.
I realized that a fear of disappointment or rejection led me to develop extremely low expectations.
As I look back on the five years since my move, I can see that some of my attempts at initiating have been rejected and I have been disappointed on occasion. But more often, family and friends have embraced me and responded positively to my suggested activities.
Building a new life has been a challenge, and even though I am deeply grateful to be living near my family, my rude comment tells me that I still have a ways to go before I am totally content with my new life. Admitting that is the first step toward changing it. Letting go of what was also helps.
I think that my blog post last week sparked my thinking about the ways fear has impacted my life. Since writing about love lost, I have been flooded with memories of other occasions when I made decisions based on fear rather than trust.
How many times have I lost love because I was too scared? How many missed opportunities for love have there been?
Fear is useless; what is needed is trust, I tell myself over and over. But living those words continues to challenge me.I recently watched Inside Out, an animated film about the emotions that influence our lives—joy, fear, anger, disgust and sadness. Riley, the girl in the movie, grows up in a loving family; when she is eleven, her father’s work takes the family from Minnesota to California. Everything changes, and she goes from primarily being joyful to being terribly angry. In her anger, she loses trust in her parents and makes decisions that are clearly misguided.As I watched the movie, I wondered about my own decision-making history. I wondered how many times my family and friends have watched me make decisions based on fear or anger—and stood by shaking their heads at my misguided choices.
After I had lived in l’Arche for about six months, I came back to Pennsylvania for a two-week holiday. My friends were shocked at my appearance. In those six months, I had lost twenty pounds or so and apparently looked unhealthy. I knew I was fatigued and generally unhappy, but my friends’ reactions were alarming.
“You can’t go back there,” one friend after another told me.
Not go back? I had to go back. I had made a commitment.
But, like Riley in the movie, I was having a really tough time. Change can be so difficult.
How could I admit—after just six months—that I had made a mistake or that I could not do what I had set out to do? Pride and fear paralyzed me.Going back meant my health would continue to suffer. Moving back after six months felt like a failure. Neither option held much hope for me; either way, I felt like I was a disappointment.
Looking back on that time, I can now see options and possibilities that were not clear to me then.
Back then, fear was motivating my decisions. Fear of failure, fear of looking weak, fear of disappointing. My judgment was clouded.
Inside Out shined a light on how memories stack up to create a preference or inclination. If I have lots of joyful memories, I am more likely to expect joy and to look for it. If my memories are sad, fearful or angry, I am more likely to see through that lens.
Moving from fear to trust is a conscious decision, and I have decided to recall two joyful memories every time sad or angry memories surface. Hopefully this small exercise will help tip the scales away from fear and toward trust.
The perfection of brotherly love lies in the love of one’s enemies –Saint Aelred of Rievaulx, Abbot
In college, my Christology professor asked the class, “Do you think you will see Hitler in heaven?”
It was a trick question, but a number of my fellow students fell for it. “No,” they shouted, indignant that he would suggest something so horrific.
“But what if Hitler, at the very end of his life, repented?” the professor asked.
If God is love (1 John 4:8), then God’s mercy is limitless and certainly not constrained by our sense of who is deserving of God’s love and who is not. No matter how heinous someone’s crimes were, there is always the opportunity to repent and receive God’s mercy.“Who could listen to that wonderful prayer, so full of warmth, of love, of unshakable serenity—Father, forgive them—and hesitate to embrace his enemies with overflowing love?” (Mirror of Love by Saint Aelred, abbot.) I think Saint Aelred was onto something when he encouraged his brothers to look at how Jesus forgave those who put him to death.The very night that Jesus was betrayed, he gave thanks—and the next day, he asked God to forgive those who did him harm.
Being grateful and forgiving in the face of betrayal might seem to be the kind of thing only the Son of God could do, but…
Who of us does not want to be forgiven when we betray someone we love? When we make a poor decision that has unintended negative consequences? Who of us wants to be separated from our communities? Unforgiven? Unforgivable?I can tend to be more like Jonah than Jesus—wanting God to carry out his threats of punishment on people who are living in sin. Jonah was angry at God for relenting in his promised punishment of the people of Ninevah. He felt betrayed by God; he was humiliated and he sulked. But he did not die from any of that.
I wonder if Jonah ever came to a place where he gave thanks for God’s mercy. I wonder if he ever came to see his own betraying ways and was grateful that our God is merciful to everyone.
When Jesus was betrayed, it literally cost him his life, which makes my having been betrayed pale in comparison. I survived the times I have been betrayed and maybe even grew from them.
Lent invites me to reflect on my attitudes toward forgiveness.
Thinking of how quickly Jesus was able to let go of being betrayed, of how he could give thanks when he knew he was on his way to the cross, invites me to do the same—to turn around and give thanks and blessing when I have been hurt.
I imagine that Jesus had spent his life being grateful and forgiving—he had been practicing. The invitation to me is to practice letting go of betrayals, hurts and disappointments and readjusting my expectations of myself and others.
“…there were peals of thunder and lightning….When the Lord came down to the top of Mount Sinai, he summoned Moses to the top of the mountain.” (Exodus 19:16-20)
Imagine standing at the base of a mountain in a great storm—thunder and lightning, the mountain trembling violently—and God saying, “Come on up.”I have been known to tremble violently in the face of bad storms—thunderstorms, hurricanes and blizzards can send me into hiding until they pass.
But what about the storms of life—disagreements, disappointments and facing the unexpected. Those events can cause the same reaction in me—violent trembling.
And there is God, inviting me to step into the storm, to intentionally climb into the midst of it, not to shy away, but to actually face it head on. And there God will be, waiting for me, in the midst of the storm.
I envy Moses’ trust and courage to walk up that mountain in the midst of a violent storm.
If I were Moses, I am sure I would have said something like, “God, really? You want me to climb a mountain that is trembling, and walk right into the middle of a thunderstorm?” My fear of lightning would have been the first hurdle—and I don’t know that I could overcome it, even to meet God face to face.
But God waits patiently for me to change the narrative, the script that runs in my mind telling me to be afraid.
Like a toddler taking her first solo steps, God is in front of me, hands outstretched, waiting to catch me if I start to fall, waiting for me to trust Him.Changing the narrative takes practice. Like the toddler or an actor learning a new role, there are many missteps before the performance works. Trusting God is like that for me.
It seems that every situation calls for me to relearn how to trust God. Every storm takes me to some default position of cowering in fear, and I have to visualize God with outstretched arms, calling to me, Come on, Madeline, God encourages me. It is going to be ok. I would think God would get tired of it, but that has not happened.
Instead, with great patience, God keeps inviting me.
I have had several jobs that had ominous beginnings. In one of them, I went home sobbing every night for the first six months. What have I gotten myself into? I would cry out to God. Over time, though, things began to settle down and eventually I came to love that job. Leaving it was painful. Now, when I am facing storms in my current work, I recall the people and incidents from that other job. I remind myself that God is with me and storms do pass.
God invites me to look up, to the top of the mountain, and to take the steps I need to take to meet God in the midst of the storms of my life.