I used to believe my love was like an ocean...I was young. I don't believe in love like that anymore.
This is a week about death and life.
It’s about the grave and resurrection.
It’s about re-animating what we had believed to be cold corpses.
This idea of resurrection has particular meaning for me this year.
A few years ago, I died.
I don’t mean that my heart stopped pumping blood through my arteries and veins or that the pathways in my brain shut down.
No, I died a different kind of death, a death out of the public eye. No one was there to mourn. No services. No flowers. The closest thing to an obituary was something I wrote down in my journal one night as I reflected on what my life had come to:
I don’t want to feel anymore. I don’t want to be disappointed anymore. I don’t want to want or to yearn anymore. I want to be dead inside.
People who haven known me for a while know how significant those words are. How so far removed they are from who I am and have been since I was little. My whole life, I had dreamed of a great love. My heart has always been geared to burst out of my chest and spill over into everything I did, everyone I knew. I dreamed about it, thought about it, wrote about it, talked about it, sought after it and fought for it. I wanted passion and adventure in every aspect of my life.
But we’re led down strange roads sometimes. Rather than walking a path that led up the mountain toward the blue sky and clouds and breathless heights, I found myself wading through the lowland swamps of what would become the deepest, darkest valley I would ever encounter.
I was suddenly years into a relationship that turned everything I believed about love and life upside down.
Lower your expectations is what I heard over and over and over again. And so I did.
I lowered my aim from having a great love to having a good love.
But that wasn’t happening, either. Those expectations were still too high.
So I lowered it again from a good love to an okay love.
Still too high.
Over and over, my expectations dropped down the rungs until they were rock-bottom: I will survive this love. Even if this person doesn’t want to work on it, even if this person doesn’t want me, even if this person rejects me over and over and over again…I can survive it.
I went from fiercely declaring that I wanted a great love, a revolutionary love, to not wanting anything anymore. To put to death all of my desires. How far I had fallen. How shattered my dreams had become.
The only way I felt I could survive was to lay that dreamer in the grave and pour earth and rock over him until his cold body was completely covered.
That part of me died, and I left that dream for a great love and a great life to rot with me. I patted down the earth, I dusted off my hands, and I walked away feeling cold, like iron or ice.
Days passed. Months. Years.
The sun has passed over it hundreds of times. The moon has peeked at it with its pale gaze. Rain has come down and seeped past it. Snow has fallen and rested on top of it. Long grass has grown over it.
This week, though, something began to stir in the earth.
It was such a minute movement at first—a twitch, a tremble of the dirt.
But soon, the earth opened up, the grass parted, and light and air and hope rushed into the space only darkness had occupied.
God is resurrecting dreams for me this week.
It's been such a long night. It’s been such a deep grave. But I believe in a Jesus who destroys death.
I believe in a Jesus who reaches his hand into the earth, rips me from the mouth of darkness, and breathes air into my lungs.
I believe in a Jesus who resurrects dreams.
I believe he died and rose again.
I believe it because I’ve seen him do it with me once again.
In the book Love Does, Bob Goff talks about how he quits something every Thursday. The idea revolves around this: we pick up so much unnecessary stuff along the way—we can always benefit from cutting off some dead weight.
If you’ve picked up a bad habit of eating unhealthy food, you could quit that. If you realize you criticize others or yourself too much, you could quit that. If you watch too much Netflix, you could quit that. (Only after you finish the latest House of Cards season, of course.)
I know it’s not Thursday, but today, I’m going to quit something.
I want to quit caging my hope.
I want to quit putting chains on what’s possible in this life.
I want to quit extinguishing my dreams.
This is a simplified summary of the inner workings of my mind and heart: I have a dream, an idea, a thought of what some aspect of life could or should be. I envision that a relationship could be a certain way, or that a group of people could come together and create a certain kind of community, or that I could accomplish some task or purpose with a skill I have. Hope sparks inside me. As my heart beats faster, it fans that flame until it grows into a fire.
But it doesn’t stay that way for long. I have this funny habit of shutting down my hope. It’s like I go to the store and pick out a shiny, sexy dream I love. I bring it home, set it down on the living room floor, and just stare at it. Before I ever even take it out of the packaging, I convince myself it’s not for me. The next day, I’m in the customer service line ready to return it.
I keep thinking…why do I do this?
Our past experiences have a way of shaping our current perspective.
For a long time, I let a single relationship douse my dreams. I allowed it to cut off the oxygen from what I hoped for and wanted out of life. For such a long time and with such consistency, my hopes were put out like a cigarette butt ground into the pavement by an unforgiving heel. Soon enough, hoping and dreaming could barely move past the ignition phase. It was like trying to start a campfire in the rain with water-logged wood.
I started to believe the ways I dreamed life could be, the hope I had, the kind of relationships I wanted, the places I could travel, the accomplishments I could achieve, the depth of love into which I could dive…were impossible. Foolish.
They were either fairy tales, or they were for somebody else, not me. This is what was for me: small dreams. Safe dreams. Anything that could fit inside the thimble-sized cage that was my reality for so long.
I can’t accept that anymore.
Over the last couple of years, I’ve tasted just enough, I’ve glimpsed just enough of what’s possible for us in this life. It’s like I lived underground for years, stopped believing in things like the sun and daylight, and suddenly rays of light began to force their way through some cracks above (Kimmy Schmidt, anyone?).
So today, I’m untethering my hope. I’m expanding my vision for what I’m capable of and what is within my reach.
I’m quitting fear. I’m quitting doubt. I’m quitting safe and small dreams. I’ve limited myself for too much time, for too many dark and claustrophobic years.
I’m going to let the fire grow.
I’m going to step off the ledge.
I’m going to dive deep.
Last Sunday night at the Golden Globes, George Clooney accepted the Cecil B. Demille Award for lifetime achievement. In his speech, he talked about how he had lost much more than he'd won at award ceremonies like this. In fact, 80% of the actors and actresses in the room, he pointed out, don't win.
"And then, you are a loser."
Many of these actors would feel like losers, and many people at the after parties and work the next day would treat them like losers. Clooney went on to say this, though: "For the record, if you're in this room...you get to do what you've always dreamed to do and be celebrated for it.
And that just...it ain't losing."
I've been thinking about that idea ever since. That even when you feel like you're losing, you're not really losing.
You'd think it'd be easy enough for George Clooney to convince a room full of wealthy, talented people that they're not, in fact, losers. The truth, though, is that all of those people at the Golden Globes are mere mortals, like you and me. Despite the success and the admiration they've garnered, they still know what it is to feel defeated. They still bleed when critics pick at their flaws. They still try to claw their way out of the shadow of insecurity.
Nobody's immune to feeling like a loser. Not them--the glittering, glamorous gods of Hollywood--and not us--the ones who are fooled into thinking fame cures the fragile human ego.
No matter our backgrounds, our races, our genders, our socio-economic statuses, our careers, we all know what it is to lose.
We have all been losers.
We've lost games, matches, and races.
We've lost jobs, and we've lost money.
We've lost opportunities.
We've lost friendships.
We've lost our innocence.
We've lost our dignity, or our self esteem, or our confidence.
We've lost loved ones to the slow, measured sunset of aging or the blinding flash of tragedy.
We've lost sections of our hearts sliced off by lovers to whom we've bonded ourselves.
Like our keys, wallets, or phones, we've all lost ourselves in some crack or crevice or some field or forest of addiction, manic romance, or winding, confused pursuit of happiness.
We all know defeat. We all know discouragement. We all lose.
But what if life isn't about the amount of awards on our mantel? What if it's not about how many times we can get a "yes" from people or a prize when we scratch the ticket? What if it doesn't even matter if you've lost the battle but are winning the war?
I think that when it comes to life, if you lose, you're not losing. You're not losing because that's not how life works. It's not about fighting to keep the number of W's higher than the number of L's on the scorecard. We're not trying, like some of our teams, to fight our way to a playoff spot for a chance to make it to the Big One.
Life is not winning. Life is not losing. Life is mending, moving, and making.
Life is mending, about how we heal from our inevitable wounds. We rebuild our broken homes. We ice our strained self images. We rethread our tattered hearts. When someone passes away, we grieve and mourn and laugh and cry all manners of emotions from our eyes. When our hearts are broken, we lock ourselves away. We fight and grab for some semblance of control over anything. We drink wine or whiskey or the cold air of lonely walks at night. And then, time passes. And more time passes. And the bleeding stops, the ache downgrades from jet engine to portable fan, and we realize we're still here. We can still do this.
Life is moving, about oiling our creaky joints and using our limbs again to step out of our static, stuck, self-pitying positions. We move, and we must move forward--because the world is moving, and time is moving, and the people who love us and need us--the ones we know and the ones we've yet to meet--are all moving, and none of that goes backwards. We regain our bearings, we rediscover our goals and dreams, and we begin to walk in that direction. It may feel like we're simply moving from loss to loss, from disappointment to disappointment. I'd like to think we move through losses and disappointments to something better. Something more beautiful.
Life is making, about exercising the power to build and mold the shape of our experiences. We can look at each rejection, each bit of bad news, each slip and fall and fracture and see a discouraging arc. We can see a story whose every scene clubs its audience over the head with this theme: "Count the losses--you are a loser. This is life." If we do that, we make our losses into monsters that grow bigger and deadlier every time we experience them. We'll build a life that buries us much earlier than we should be buried. We'll build our own coffins, box ourselves in panels of pine, and seal ourselves in the dark.
But it doesn't have to be that way. When you experience a loss, when a plan falls through, when a door is shut, when you lose a job, when someone whom you love tells you that you are not worth the fight, when your losses threaten to bury you under the earth--
--you can build stairways to the surface. You can make skylights to let the sun shine on your battle-worn face again. You can create life from loss. Because life is not counted and measured and defined by losing. Because you will heal, and become stronger. Because you will move forward through defeat and toward hope, and love, and all that is better. You can make a life that is made of sturdier material than winning.
You will lose in your lifetime, but you will not be losing at life.
You will move. You will mend. You will make life more than that.
I've been to the school nurse many times as a kid. On most of those occasions, I simply wanted to get out of class. Once, I was there to get a physical, and I had to stand in my underwear with a bunch of other boys in their underwear. I didn't like that. A year and a half ago, a full-fledged adult, I found myself standing in the doorway of the school nurse yet again. "Hi. I need to lie down."
The nurse lifted her eyes up from her computer screen, and when she saw that it was me, she rose to her feet, pointed to the bed in the back of the room and said, "Okay. How about right here?"
I made my way over to the low bed and slowly slid onto it. My whole body was tense. My forehead was gleaming with sweat. My heart was beating hard and fast. My teeth ground into each other as I tried to control my breathing.
She asked me what was wrong. I explained that I had been standing guard at an assembly for our middle school students when I suddenly felt like I was going to faint. I told her about my heart. I told her about my trouble breathing.
I didn't tell her I had slid out of the assembly and gone straight to the bathroom, where I leaned against the wall and tried to fight for control over my body for several minutes before I decided to come see her. I became convinced I would pass out. Since I had locked myself in the single-person faculty bathroom, the potential scenarios concerned me--I could have hit my head off the sink and bled out. I could have fallen face-first into the toilet and had to explain to my students why Mr. Heggie looked like he went for a swim. (Also, in that scenario, I would have thrown up after I regained consciousness and realized where my head had been sitting.) Or, simply, I would have been sprawled out on the floor, MIA to everyone else for who knows how long.
It was fear--the fear of passing out in front of my students, of passing out in the bathroom, or of the faint possibility that something critical was wrong with me--that led me to her office and had me confessing even the little bit of information I had conceded to her. And it was fear that was having its way with my body.
She said to me, "It sounds like it might be an anxiety attack."
"Oh. Really?" I tried to fake that I was surprised by her suggestion, but I already knew what it was.
The first attack had come earlier that year. It was on my morning drive to work. My chest felt like it had collapsed on me. The experience was so bizarre and foreign to me, I thought I was having a heart attack. I pulled the car over, and in the darkness of that pre-dawn morning, bewildered and full of fear, I slumped over my steering wheel and gasped for breath. It wasn't the last time I'd have to pull the car over to fight for calm, to put air in my lungs.
The attacks woke me up at night, too. Those were the worst. Being woken by an anxiety attack might as well be the same as being woken by a real person trying to strangle me. Yanked out of my dreams, I would be disoriented, panicked, and sometimes it was hard to tell what was reality and what wasn't. With a jolt, I'd find myself in darkness, unable to breathe, covered in sweat, grabbing hold of anything to root myself in reality again--my hair, a pillow, the blanket, the headboard.
In the span of about a year, I had a dozen or more attacks, the last one landing me in that nurse's office. Lying on the tiny, hard bed, I couldn't help but feel a little foolish, like I was back in third grade again.
Even though I'm far removed from my last one, I hate talking about my experience with anxiety attacks. I hate the idea of people knowing about this part of my past. Here's why:
People like me aren't supposed to have anxiety attacks. Let me summarize my views about them before I had my first one: Weak people have anxiety. Weak people have anxiety attacks. Strong people don't have anxiety or anxiety attacks. I am a strong a person; therefore, anxiety and anxiety attacks will never be my problem.
Anxiety is for weak people, and I'm not one of them.
Before I ever experienced an attack, I had zero empathy for people with anxiety. None. I couldn't relate. I never considered myself to be someone who struggled with any level of anxiety. I'd never been the type to worry or sweat the small stuff or fixate on a problem.
Until, that is, I found myself in the fight of my life for my marriage--a losing battle.
Every day, I thought about it. Every day, I thought about what was wrong. Every day, I fought the frustration that I couldn't seem to fix things. Every day, I faced the possibility of the end. Every day, I battled with the lack of control I seemed to have over the situation. Like an eclipse, it seemed to slide between me and the sun--my world became strangely dark.
I was running low on everything--sleep, energy, self-confidence, hope.
In other words, I was cooking up a perfect recipe for anxiety.
For a while, I was ashamed of those anxiety attacks. There was only one person who knew how rattled I was. It was all very hush-hush. I wanted so badly to maintain a brave face. I would have loved for people to see me only through idealistic, machismo-tinted lenses: I climb mountains. I scale buildings. I jump off cliffs. I explore caves. I go camping in the woods by myself. I don't fear heights. I don't always wash my vegetables. I don't need a night light. (Yeah, I have one in my room, but I don't use it--it's just for show.)
Paul Freaking Heggie does not have, should not have, can not have anxiety attacks. That doesn't happen to people like me.
Even with the weight of what I was facing at that time, I thought I could handle it all. I was David, and I looked at my burdens like they were Goliath. Sure, Goliath's bigger than me, but I'm going to drop him to the ground and take off his head. That's bravery. That's strength. That's me.
But try as I might to fight them, when those anxiety attacks hit me, they brought me to my knees. You can't "beat" an anxiety attack. I learned you can't even really prevent one. Once it strikes, there's no fighting it. You can only let it ride out in calm surrender. Once I had experienced a few, I started worrying about when the next one would come--and where. Rarely in my life have I felt that weak and powerless. That's not the David and Goliath story I was going for.
Those attacks feel like ages ago now. I've had a bit of time and distance from those experiences, and my perspective on anxiety has shifted since then.
What if being strong doesn't mean that we slay all of our Goliaths? What if being brave doesn't mean that we always conquer all of our fears? What if we're not meant to win every single battle?
I think being strong and being brave is simply showing up for the fight.
There are so many people for whom anxiety is a Goliath they can't fight against and win by themselves. They need backup. They need the support of family and friends. Some need the help of doctors, therapists, and medicine.
There are people who think that because anxiety beats them down sometimes, they're not strong. There are people who think that because they wrestle with anxiety, they're not brave.
I don't think that's true.
I think you're strong--you wake up every day and continue to fight. That's no small feat. Some days you win the battle, some days you don't, but that's true for even the strongest of people.
I think you're brave--you have the courage to keep going despite your anxiety. Plenty of brave people have fallen. Plenty of brave people have lost. All brave people feel fear. The bravest people are the ones who get up again and walk back onto the battlefield knowing what they have to face. That's you.
Those of who us who are strong, who are brave, we don't win every time. We simply keep showing up to the fight. We keep holding on to hope. We persevere through the battles.
Last week, I paid another visit to the nurse's office. This time, I had a splinter in my finger that needed to be removed. She sat me down next to her desk, told me I wasn't allowed to look, and went to work. Guys, I didn't even flinch or shed a tear.