Tag Archives: fears

What we hear

In the early days of our friendship, Ted asked me to go out for dinner. The conversation went something like this:

“You probably don’t want to…you will probably say ‘no,’ but would you like to go to dinner with me?”

“Yes,” I said.

“That’s ok,” he said. “I didn’t think you would want to.”

“Ted, I said ‘yes,’” I countered, but he could not hear me. He was so certain I would say “no” that he could not hear my “yes.”

Over the next thirty years, Ted and I had many dinners together—always as friends.

He often returned to that initial conversation, saying, “Remember when I asked you out and you said, ‘no’?” I would remind him, “I said ‘yes.’” It became something of a joke among our friends, like a scene in a pantomime, because he loved to retell the story, “I asked Madeline out once and she said ‘no.’” They would say, “She said ‘yes.’”

That memory came back to me the other day when I was thinking about how open I am to hear God. I wonder if I predisposed to hear a message that may not be the message God is sending or if I shut down before something has a chance to take root. I sometimes wonder if I am exasperating God with all the times I say, “yes, but…” in the same way Ted’s retelling of our first-date conversation could exasperate me.

I know I can jump to a conclusion that shuts God out of the process, perhaps because of negative messages I have heard about what I can and cannot do, my low self-esteem, fears, anxieties, past failures, etc.

God asks us to try and try again, even when we don’t succeed at first or second or third. God asks for persistence (like the story of the widow who kept pestering the judge in Luke 18:1-8) and openness (let those who have ears hear, Matthew 11:15) to hear what God is saying.

Often these blockages are blind spots—we don’t even see them. What can help us become aware of our blind spots is to listen to what others might see in us and say about us.

Those conversations can be difficult to have. I remember the first time someone tried to tell me I was smart and capable. I thanked him, but he could tell I did not believe him, so he repeated it. “I heard you,” I said. “No, you didn’t,” he replied, and then he told me again that I was smart and capable. He could see my discomfort, because smart and capable were not words I associated with myself.

That conversation was the beginning of my questioning what I believed about myself and trying to see myself as God sees me.

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I don’t know how Ted and I would have gotten on romantically (mutual friends suggest we would have had a rocky relationship because we were both independent and strong-willed), but we never had the chance to try.

Creating a new life

Do not worry…, Jesus tells us in Matthew 6:25, but I find myself worrying more now than ever before.

Some of my higher levels of anxiety are connected to my mother’s health, but the pandemic has added layers of uncertainty.

Most everything has been disrupted—my daily routines, work schedules and social life are not what they once were. Even my dreams are filled with anxiety—late for a meeting, lost in a maze, missing a plane, etc.

Worry, like fear, is useless—what is needed in trust; but how can I trust our situation will get better when it just keeps getting worse?

It seems that every time someone tries to return to what life was like before the pandemic, there is another spike in new coronavirus cases.

We live in a new reality, and wishing and hoping for what once was is futile. We need to let go of how things used to be in order to move forward.

People who have had unexpected, life-altering events probably grasp this truth more easily.

I work at a cancer support center and have talked with many people about their “new normal,” a phrase people use for the time after they have moved beyond the shock of the diagnosis and settle into a world of medical jargon and treatment facilities.

Losing one’s hair because of chemotherapy is one part of the physical changes that cancer treatment brings, but there are many others, including fatigue, pain and weight loss or gain. People don’t ask for cancer or choose it, but they have to accept this new reality to survive.

How someone used to be before cancer is not how they are after, and grieving all that is lost because of cancer is an important part of the healing process.

I imagine the losses from the pandemic are similar, and we need to grieve what has been lost rather than wishing and hoping for things to go back to how they were.

Accepting the situation and moving through grief is the way forward. New life happens when we let go of what once was and create a “new normal” for our current situation.

We know the stories about how something needs to die in order for new life to happen—babies leave the security of the womb, seeds drop from pods to become flowers, etc. The pandemic seems to be inviting us into this same kind of transformation, asking us (or perhaps, demanding) that we let go of what once was and build something new.

Some of that is already taking place. Working from home has become the norm for many people who used to go to offices every day. We are driving less, cooking more and spending more time outdoors. Empty office buildings and vast parking lots have become memorials to a way of life that no longer exists.

How are you dealing with what you have lost? What are you grieving? What new routines have you created that will continue post-pandemic?

Expressions of love

This week is the lead-up to Valentine’s Day, a very busy time for chocolatiers, florists and jewelers. Cards and candy hearts bearing expressions of love are flying off the shelves.

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I remember this holiday from my childhood as one of dread because of the custom of giving Valentine’s Day cards in school. I worried that I would not receive any or many. I feared being excluded because I was not one of the popular kids. I feared the cards I gave out would be rejected or found wanting.

For me, this holiday was not a celebration of love, but just another way to touch my insecurities and make me anxious.

Even though I grew past those early feelings about this holiday, I have remained aware of the cultural expectation of it and of those who still may feel left out, those who may see it as a spotlight on their loneliness.

Several years ago, someone made a comment that reminded me of the impact Valentine’s Day can have on those who feel excluded. So, I decided to celebrate February as the month of love, and each day, I sent a little note to let someone know I was thinking of him or her.

Mostly I sent these notes to people who would not be getting Valentine’s Day cards or gifts, those people who look forward to February 15.

I so enjoyed writing those notes that I did it again the next year and every year since. It has become something that I look forward to, and it has helped me to be excited for the holiday.

Each day in February, I devote part of my prayer time to thinking of those in my life who may be particularly vulnerable or sad or lonely, and I send a note. The notes are usually just a few lines, expressing my gratitude for our friendship or my hope for their peace.

It is a small act, I know, but one that I hope brings a little light to someone’s life.

How do you celebrate Valentine’s Day?

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The gift of retreat

“What do you do all day?” several people asked before I left for my week-long, silent retreat. These were Christians who regularly attend church. There were asking out of curiosity; none of them had ever gone on a retreat.

All of them had gone away for other kinds of events—camping weekends or workshops related to a hobby—dedicated time spent on something they love. So why not retreats? Why not dedicate an extended time to God?

I asked my spiritual director about this during my recent retreat.

She suggested people may have a harsh image of God, so the idea of spending an extended time with God might not be appealing.

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My first retreat was in my early twenties. A man at work invited me to go on a retreat because he could see I was serious about my faith (I attended daily Mass and weekly Bible study, taught Sunday School, etc.).

I balked at the idea. Like those who were curious about my retreat, I found it difficult to imagine what I would do for a whole weekend.

I expressed my reservations to him, and he explained how the weekend would go. It was a structured retreat with talks and small-group sharing.

The word “sharing” was the kiss of death; I did not share!

My hesitancy about going on this retreat became outright resistance. Thanks, but no thanks.

My issue was not a negative image of God, but a negative image of myself, so talking about the ways I had let God down had no appeal.

This guy was persistent, though, and I finally caved in and agreed to go. My reluctance must have been obvious, because he insisted on driving me to the retreat. It was as if he had been reading my thoughts: “I will go, stay for the opening prayer and dinner, and then bolt.”

Beyond the sharing thing, I also feared I would have little in common with the others at this all-women’s retreat and that they would judge me. I was divorced, and in Catholic circles in the 1970’s, that was uncommon enough, but a divorced woman on retreat! I imagined lots of tsk-tsks.

But I allowed him to pick me up and drive me to the retreat center.

I learned a lot that weekend—about God, myself and the other people on that retreat. I found the women to be helpful and supportive—not judgmental. They seemed genuinely interested in me and my well-being, and no one tried to force me to share more than I was comfortable sharing.

I also learned that God provides—although most of the women were married, there was one other single woman, and we immediately connected.

In the end, I was glad I overcame my fears and went.

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It was a few years before I went on another retreat, but when I did, it was with anticipation instead of resistance. And then I started going every year.

As with any relationship, spending quality time with God is a gift.

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Becoming courageous

“I want to be you,” a volunteer at my work recently said to me.

“Me?” I asked incredulously.

I admire your courage and kindness,” she said.

Over the years, I have told other women that I want to be them. These are women who embody the virtues I aspire to—patience, compassion, kindness, wisdom and self-acceptance. I want to embody those same virtues.

So when I heard these words being said to me, I was surprised.

I suppose most of us carry around images of ourselves that focus on our insecurities, where we see ourselves falling short and not living up to our own standards, let alone expectations others might have. I know I do.God-wisdom-courageI used to move a lot and hanging curtains was one of the first things I did to help me feel settled into my new place. I remember after one move, a woman at work asked how I was settling in and I told her I had my curtains up so I was in good shape. “Who hung them for you?” she asked, knowing that I was single. “I did them myself,” I replied with both a tinge of incredulity that she asked the question and also a sense of pride. She considered hanging curtains rods a challenge.

But, I have been in my current house for five years and only last week put up the last of my window treatments. I was nervous about drilling into the plaster wall. Drilling into wooden window frames is easy, but plaster?

I googled installing curtain rods in plaster walls and then I called my brother for further assurance. He concurred with the You Tube video.

So I charged my drill, mustered my courage, measured and began. I even used the level to make sure the rod was straight.

The finished product pleased me.God-wisdom-courageWhy had I been so resistant? So fearful?Even though others may see me as courageous, I know my inner fears. I know how I can be paralyzed by the smallest thing (like putting up curtain rods).

When this paralysis strikes, I wonder if it is a matter of accepting my limitations or being challenged to overcome a fear.In my early thirties, my therapist encouraged me to do things scared.

Act as if… my therapist advised me. We had been talking about my fears, and there were many. He suggested I act as if I had no fears, with the idea that acting as if would lead to a change in behavior, that my fears would disappear.

I was doubtful, but it actually worked, and each time I did something that frightened (or even terrified) me, I gain confidence.

From another therapist, I learned is to ask, What is the worst that can happen? In most circumstances, the worst is not so bad. (In the case of curtain rods, it would mean some repair work before reinstalling.)

Doing things scared and weighing possible outcomes have helped me become less fearful and more courageous.God-wisdom-courage

 

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Reframing

Lately, I have been aware of the invitation to reframe situations and issues.

At the day of reflection I facilitated last month, one of the volunteers shared that she felt unprepared for the ministry she had recently begun. She lacked experience and feared she would not meet the expectations of her ministry site. She said she was “not good at” doing what she was being asked to do.

I suggested that she reframe the issue and instead of saying, “I don’t know how to” or “I am not good at…,” she might say, “I am learning to…” or “I don’t have much experience with this but I am willing to try.”

Reframing the issue and seeing herself as a learner changes her expectations of herself and also sheds light on assumptions she has made about others’ expectations of her.

I became aware of my need for some reframing when I stopped to pick up a package at a local store. I was impatient while I waited for my package, grousing as if I had been stuck in some limbo for forty days—or even forty minutes, when it was actually closer to four minutes.

My impatience stemmed from a lack of understanding the process, and that made me feel vulnerable. Rather than accept and embrace my vulnerability, I became defensive.

Step back, Madeline, I thought. Become a learner.

Being a learner presumes that I would not know how the process works—I am, after all, still learning. Being a learner shifts the focus from assuming I should know how things will go to assuming I don’t know and am willing to learn. It enables me to be curious and to wonder, and to ask questions of those who do know, allowing them to share their knowledge.

Not all situations that would benefit from reframing are that obvious or easy to discern another approach.

I am stuck in a negative loop concerning upcoming travel and am having difficulty letting go of my expectations based on past experiences of flights being cancelled and luggage being lost. The anxiety is not helping, but how to reframe the situation is unclear.God-Advent-trustAs we begin Advent, I feel invited to reframe my expectations around the ways God enters my life. I want to look from a different perspective and see with new eyes. I want to approach this season with a sense of curiosity and wonder and be surprised at the gifts God will bring me.

I want to make this Advent a time of holy anticipation and joyful waiting and be open to every experience of God breaking into my world.

The young volunteer last month taught me to be on the lookout for situations where I am limiting God’s intervention by my own closed mindedness, my fears and expectations. I hope that by stepping back to get a different perspective, I will be able to see the potential in every person and situation.

I pray for the grace to experience what is possible.

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A walk in the woods

Leading up to my trip to the Cotswolds, I watched multiple episodes of a British detective show called Midsomer Murders, set in a fictional English village. Although the murders are often gruesome, the detectives who solve them are soft-spoken and polite.

After watching about a dozen episodes, I was left with one key question: “Why do Brits go into the woods?”

Many of the murder victims are just walking through the woods surrounding the village when disaster strikes.

I vowed that I would avoid the woods.

But, the truth is, I did go into the woods in the Cotswolds—it was the only way to get to the next village or to the gardens I wanted to visit—and I went alone.travel-trust-freedomVisions of Midsomer Murders accompanied me, and I was aware that this might not have been one of my brighter ideas, but, when in Rome….

Going into the woods alone is something I would never do at home. I avoid places that are isolated or secluded; I stick to the beaten (paved) path. But there is something about traveling—to another country and culture—that enables me to be more open, daring and trusting.

As I walked through the woods in the Cotswolds, I remembered a trip to Kruger Park in South Africa. I was traveling with two other women, staying at a lodge on the Crocodile River. One evening, three South African men picked us up for a night Safari. Off we went into the growing darkness, in an open safari truck. The men had guns—in case we encountered lions.travel-trust-freedom

Once inside the park, we drove on the paved road for a while, spotting a leopard, elephants and other wild animals.

Then our driver turned off the paved road onto a rutted path and past a sign announcing that the road was closed. Yikes!

Here we were, three women, heading into the deep bush with three armed men we did not know. I remember thinking that this would never happen back home. But, when in Africa…

We drove about a quarter mile into the dark woods and then stopped. The men jumped out of the truck, helped us down, and led us on foot deeper into the bush—until we reached a clearing about a hundred yards away.

In the clearing were three more armed South African men, standing around tables filled with food. Several types of barbecued meat (Kudu is the one I remember most clearly), a variety of salads, breads and desserts were set out for us. It was a veritable feast.

We sat at a table covered in a chintz cloth. We ate, drank wine and chatted with our guides (mostly about American pop culture). I felt incredibly blessed—and incredibly grateful.

Foreign travel is usually that kind of blessing for me. Once outside my comfort zone, I am open to new experiences and able to see things from a different perspective. I can let go of fears that usually hold me back.

The Lord’s promptings

In most situations, I have been reluctant to follow the Lord’s promptings, fearful that I would make a mistake or not measure up; convinced that I was mistaken in my interpretation of God’s call—why me?

Moses, Jeremiah and Jonah have been my brothers in questioning the call, and like them, eventually I give in and try to do what I believe God is asking. I let go of my fears—or push through them—to take the first step on the path before me.

Becoming a religious sister was one of those paths.

After college, I explored the possibility of religious life. I was fine with the exploring stage; I even enjoyed it. Having a spiritual director was a requirement, and that step has proved to be incredibly beneficial. But then one day, about three years into the process, the Novice Mistress pushed me for a decision. Was I going to enter or not? I said “yes,” and as soon as the word was out of my mouth, I knew it was wrong. I knew I could not go through with it, and I changed my “yes” to a “no.”

I stepped away, but with gratitude for the discernment process, which had revealed insights into my relationship with God and my spiritual journey.

My time with the Sisters deepened my desire to live the Gospel more radically, and l’Arche was the next step on my journey. That, too, proved not to be a good fit. But, it was also a great learning experience and helped me move further along my spiritual path.

Life post-l’Arche put me in a suburban parish with people who had heard of l’Arche but not seen it. They were curious, and their curiosity made me feel odd.

What was it about me that I was willing to leave everything behind and try something as different as l’Arche? And how could I explain that something that was so difficult, something I had failed at so miserably, was also a great gift? It was not logical.

Like Jonah, I wanted to hide, to be left alone. I wished a fish would swallow me! But, no such luck.

When people asked about my time in l’Arche, I demurred and suggested they go visit a l’Arche community to see for themselves.

God has continued to prompt me, and I have learned to narrow my path. I now know that everyday living has plenty of opportunities to live the Gospel in very radical ways. Small acts of kindness can make huge differences in the lives of people who are ill or confined. Practicing forgiveness and letting go can fill my days.

Where I believe God is prompting me now is to claim what God has taught me on my journey and to share what I have learned. I still have to push through doubts and fears. And I remind myself that in the spiritual journey, it is God who leads the way; my part is to show up and be open.