Invitation to Your Life

Today I had the privilege of speaking to a group of more than 50 men who have worked hard to complete a substance abuse treatment program inside the local jail, 14 of whom were my direct clients. Many would wash their hands of the chemically-dependent, writing them off as the lowest of society. However, they are sons, brothers, and fathers, and I’m honored to hear their stories and help them see there is hope for a different future. This is what I said to them:

“I am currently reading a book called Love Does by Bob Goff. He writes short anecdotal stories that he relates to the action of love rather than love as a feeling.

One story was particularly interesting to me as I read it and thought of you all and the work you’ve been doing to change. He calls the chapter, There’s More Room, and says, “I used to think I needed an invitation to get into most places, but now I know I’m already invited.”

The shortened version goes like this:

He explains that he has been to the White House to visit on numerous occasions, especially around Easter because of the “swanky” Easter egg hunt happening on the White House lawn, but has never been invited to it. His family would show up and hide eggs along the fence that separates those on the “inside” from the rest of us. They’d dress up and pretend to be part of the “distinguished gathering.” He was always tempted to roll an egg under the fence to see if guys in suits might tackle him and talk into their sleeves. They would use a small area to hide eggs, so they were easy to spot, but his kids were young and probably just thought they were experts at finding eggs. He wanted them to know they were included in important things, that they belonged, that they were invited.

There are lots of events he never got invited to – the Oscars, Paul McCartney’s birthday party, or a space shuttle launch. If he did get one, even to the White House Easter egg hunt, he would definitely go. There is nothing like feeling included. He says there is only one invitation it would kill him to refuse, yet is tempted to turn down regularly. All of us get the invitation every morning to wake up and actually live a life of complete engagement, of whimsy, a life where love does. The invitation doesn’t come in an envelope. It’s ushered in by the sunrise, the sound of a bird, or the smell of coffee. It’s the invitation to actually live, to fully participate in this amazing life every day. Nobody turns down an invitation to the White House, but plenty of you have been turning down the invitation to truly live.

Turning down this invitation looks different to all of us. It could be using a chemical substance or any other number of addictive actions to numb some painful experience or memory. Someone called us a name or put a label on us, and we believe we aren’t worthy of the invitation. It could be distracting ourselves from seeing what isn’t normal because we have not been prepared to deal with it appropriately. It can also look like refusing to forgive or not being grateful for what we have or being chained to fear or envy. It could be fear of reconnecting with a friend because it’s been too long and we are ashamed to have allowed so much time to come between us. It could be that our friends have been participating for years and we’re ashamed to show up late.

We receive an invitation to live each day and sometimes we forget to show up because we’re just tired or have convinced ourselves that we weren’t invited. But we are invited. Every day. Over and over again. When you don’t show up, others will. And yet there is still room for you.

Two things happen when we accept the invitation to participate in life.

  1. Obstacles and hurdles that seem insurmountable aren’t. Things we believe disqualify us don’t.
  2. It’s contagious. Others watch and see that life is amazing, and start believing the invitation is open to them as well. There IS room for them, too.

So, you’ve spent about 18 weeks here, clearing your mind and your body of chemicals that are capable of damaging your body. Understanding that the choices you made are not who you are. Opening your eyes to the opportunities that are yours. This place is not a place to live your life. But this is a place to start again. This is your invitation to truly live a life of engagement. To fully participate in the work of showing up. Time to show up for the real party called life. Welcome to your amazing life.”

In reality, these words were not only for the graduates. Much of the content was also directed at me, as a reminder that I need not wait around for the perfect storm to put things in motion. I must get moving, taking each small step after another to create the life I want.

Goff, B. (2012). Love does: Discover a secretly incredible life in an ordinary world. Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

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Universality: Strength in Numbers

love-in-any-language-is-the-same…Often it’s the smallest little detail shared that makes me realize I’m not alone in my struggles, nor can I overcome or move through them single-handedly. In this post from nearly a year ago, I wrote about stories – everyone has one, and all should be heard before instead of passing judgment. Stories are a significant part of keeping us connected with other human beings, reminding us that lessons can be learned from everything experienced in life. But relating to others’ stories is not the end-all for learning life lessons and feeling supported.

I provide my clients with a worksheet about the benefits and concepts of group work, because that is primarily the venue that is used in my position as a counselor. (It seems like group work was originally promoted for it’s financial benefit of serving more clients by using fewer resources. However, the more I facilitate groups, the more I see the other benefits as the most critical.) The worksheet lists various terms that are familiar to the average person, such as hope, tolerance, feedback, and imitation, and explains their meaning related to group work. Other words are not as familiar – insight, cohesiveness, altruism, catharsis, and universality. Universality is a big word, and some struggle to even say it, but it has a very down-to-earth meaning. The worksheet’s definition – “others have my problem.” There it is. That simple. Others have my problem.

One of the reasons we struggle with a problem so much is that our thoughts lead us to believe we’re alone. Isn’t that special? I’m so unique that I’m the only one with this problem? I could be famous, maybe, because no one else in the history of mankind has ever experienced this problem? Maybe they’ll make a movie about me? But then no one would understand it and no one could play my part, except for me. Why do we struggle and isolate, thinking that we will somehow gain kudos for handling a problem all by ourselves? Will someone really believe we’re less of a person, whiny, or weak because we share our challenges? I drill this concept into my clients, having them share their stories, and watching as walls of pain and judgment come down. When a friend or a client shares their situation with me, I don’t judge them. And yet, I hold back and feel alone because someone would think I’m crazy for the feelings I have about a challenging situation.

This week, I had a conversation with a forever-friend, and realized there are similarities in a specific struggle going on in our lives. As I felt comfortable to share and relate, my friend was free to share as well. I saw so clearly this lesson I work to help my clients understand. Others have my problem. The details are different, but the underlying issue is significantly similar and warrants the emotional stress it causes. And sharing it, getting it out, gave relief and a very personal understanding of what universality means. Someone else in my world understands from experience what this is like. (What a relief that I’m not crazy.) I would never wish similar problems on an enemy, much less a friend, but discovering that this is the case gave me a boost that I needed, as I hope it did to my friend.

I am not alone. I have friends all over the world and coworkers close by who lift me up and understand when issues are overwhelming. I am fortunate. I am blessed. I can get through the tough times, because I know someone understands what this feels like.

And knowing that helps me believe that others also have faith and hope and respect and kindness . . . and LOVE.

 

When What You Want Scares You to Death

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Yesterday was the end of the first week of a new venture for me. Just over one year ago, I had to begin the painful experience of making student loan payments. They really cut into the budget when you complete an undergraduate and two graduate degrees. So I started looking into part time side gigs that would offer a decent wage as well as use my education and experience. I applied for related openings as an adjunct at a local community college. It took nearly a year before I received any communication at all, which was frustrating and relieving at the same time. I know I’m capable, but new things are scary.

I was nervous about the interview, just because I always am, I suppose. Something about second-guessing myself, wondering if the interviewer will “get me” and what I’m passionate about. Unexpectedly, it went much better than I imagined, and I had an appointment to complete hiring paperwork by the end of that week. It was a pretty awesome feeling. When I realized it was my responsibility to complete the syllabus beyond the skeleton of expected assignments, the panic started, since I still imagine that I’m expected to be perfect, as I wrote about in this post. I was down to the wire completing it for approval, waiting with apprehension for the response, but it passed with flying colors. (I’m hoping the first time is the worst time!)

Because I have a full time position that I love, it was just in the week before school started that I was able to drop by the school, pick up copies, and ask a few last minute questions. Last weekend, I gathered up and organized all my materials to be ready for arriving early and getting settled in the classroom. Of course, nervous energy had me in  somewhat of a frenzy on Monday morning. I arrived at the classroom just ten minutes before class was to start with a plan in mind to get acquainted with students and help them feel comfortable with me on their first class of their first day. They were very gentle and accepting, completing an icebreaker activity, and asking a few questions, so the class itself went relatively well.

However, when I walked out of the classroom and across campus to my vehicle, rushing to get to my other job, all I could think of was the mistakes I had made. The computer in the classroom only had a blue screen and I was unclear as to how to reboot it without completely ruining something. (Of course, on Wednesday, I remembered that computers are generally hearty enough or have built in protections to withstand the inexperienced user.) I didn’t remember seeing anywhere about how to complete attendance, and because I hadn’t been able to use the computer, I had not been able to investigate where that should be done.

As I left campus, I got a text alert about my account balance, and my fuel light began flickering, reminding me that I had planned to leave the house early to fill up. At that moment, this venture that I had pursued eagerly suddenly felt like a failure. Would I be in trouble with the staff for not completing attendance? Was I expected to know where? How? How can I expect students to start taking responsibility for themselves if I was not prepared? What was I thinking, believing I was capable of such a task? My own negative self-talk had me calling in and quitting.

Fortunately, I began thinking about my purpose in pursuing this kind of task in the first place. How could I encourage the love of learning and inspire students to not just start, but continue on this educational journey, if I quit when I just feel like I failed? How will they learn that success comes because of perseverance despite failure? I don’t want to only tell them, I want to show them that small battles will be lost, but the war can be won. And besides, the first day has to be the most difficult and traumatic. For teachers and students. It has to get better from here, right? Besides, I told too many people what I was doing to back out now. (Accountability is uncomfortable, but it supports consistency between words and action.)

So, I punched fear in the face. I asked questions. I learned more about how things are supposed to go. I went to class two more days. No students threw rotten vegetables at me. And many are asking questions and making strong efforts to complete homework, leading me to believe I didn’t scar them too badly. I believe I even related to them by being real.

The coolest thing about Monday was a role reversal that was unexpected. At the end of my day, after I made it to the gas station on fumes and addressed my low account balance, I made my way into the restaurant where my daughter works. She rushed to give me a hug, asked about my first day, and offered me a free iced tea! She assured me that it wasn’t so bad. And when I asked about the cheesecake special of the month, she bought the slice of Caramel Apple Cheesecake for her mom for my “first day.” (I can hear Carly Simon singing “Coming around again” in my head.)

I’m looking forward to this semester and many more. And I’m hoping the journaling of this experience continues to be a reminder that one perceived failure is only part of the growth process. Not the end of goals and dreams. Success is not free of mistakes and failures, but enhanced by them.