Becoming Bethany

Observations on becoming and being

Month: October, 2015

Living Through Fear

Halloween was not a holiday I ever really celebrated growing up. Most of the places I lived had never heard of it. (Or if they had, they thought it might have something to do with football or roasted turkeys. Maybe Santa Claus was involved somehow?) I do not like scary or gross or spooky or creepy things. Despite my great love of cinema, I cannot watch horror films without squealing and looking away. I have been in one haunted house in my life – the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland – and even that made me jumpy. So I never really had the desire to seek Halloween out. Recently though, I have been thinking about how interesting it is that we have a holiday devoted to fear and celebrate by choosing to be afraid through scary costumes and decorations, horror films, and haunted houses, hayrides, ski lifts (the only fun scary thing I have ever enjoyed!) etc. We are seeking out fear for fun.

I have a long history with fear. From a very young age, fear made a lot of decisions for me. I have a gift for solving problems and I have a vivid and wild imagination. Before I even knew everything there is to fear in the world, I could imagine bad outcomes to any given scenario. It became my goal to avoid as many of these worst case scenarios as possible. This made me a very responsible but also a very cautious young person. When my siblings found an unknown dog to pet, I would wring my hands and worry that the dog would have rabies. When my friends found a great cliff spot to jump into the river, I would be imagining the huge rocks just under the surface that someone would break a leg on. When I walked the one block from my house to school in broad daylight, I would be prepared for each person I passed to kidnap me.

Fear can be helpful. It is an important human emotion. Fear itself does not keep you safe from what you are afraid of. But taking action in response to fear can sometimes prevent bad things from happening. Deciding not to pet the stray can prevent rabies. Checking the river for rocks before launching off the cliff can prevent broken bodies. Asking a friend to walk with you to your car at night can prevent unwanted attention. Ignoring fear is dangerous but not every bad thing can be prevented. Some fears become realized no matter how hard you try to prevent them.

None of those childhood imagined scenarios touched my deepest fears anyway. The fears that were so deep down inside of me, I barely knew they were there until something would poke them and my heart would shudder. Those deep down fears were things like: not measuring up, not being good enough or performing well enough, being unloved and disliked, failing, and being abandoned by people I trusted. I had very little experience with those things actually happening but it did not keep me from being deeply afraid of them coming to pass someday. I lived my life trying to prevent those things from coming to pass. I made sure I did the best I could at everything I attempted. I tried to be likable and lovable. I apologized immediately and profusely if I found out I had hurt anyone’s feelings. And though no one ever told me to, I knew I had to keep these deep down fears a secret. That I would be dangerously vulnerable if anyone every found out what I feared most.

I did pretty well for 28 years. I was loved. I did not have any enemies (that I knew of). I was pretty well-liked and I was good at most things I did. I kept my worst fears mostly hidden and at bay. But then everything changed and in an instant all of those deep down fears came tumbling out into real-life in the most horrific way. I was abandoned and declared unlovable and unlikable. I was told I was doing a terrible job at the very thing I was trying the hardest at and that there are no second chances or ways to make up for my failures. I was living my worst nightmare come true and I spent a year waking up every morning not believing it could all be real life. But it was, and I lived through it. I am living and breathing through it.

There is something deeply freeing about living through what you fear the most and finding that you are still somehow alive and breathing on the other side. My worst fears coming to pass did not destroy me the way I was sure they would. Realizing that emboldens me in a way little else can. When I lost what I thought I could not live without, I had little else left to lose. I can let my guard down and take personal and professional risks I was too afraid of before. I can let others know me in a way I was too timid of before because all of my deepest fears are already out in plain view. I have little else to hide. The place where fear used to live in my heart has been hollowed out and now I have a choice about what to fill that space back in with. I am left hurting and injured but I am left with the capacity to hope and heal – which have proven much stronger than fear.

The more I think about the ways we choose to enjoy fear through Halloween, the more I think it is less about the fear itself than it is about surviving those fears. When we watch a horror film or walk through a haunted house, we can experience our worst fears in a controlled setting and then they are over and we have “lived” through them. Just as we can simulate fear, we can simulate the relief and freedom on the other side of living through fear. That relief and freedom are powerful emotions. And though I still do not understand why we choose to seek out fear, I know why we choose to seek out the hope that lives on the other side of fear.

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Listening to My Heart (It’s Not Just For Disney Princesses)

I feel like the progression of my life experiences has been a little out of the ordinary. Some things have happened earlier in my life than most people experience them and there are other things that I have come to embarrassingly late in life.

– I took my first international flight at 6 months old but I did not get my driver’s license until I was 21 years old.

– I attended over 8 different schools over the course of my education but my first graduation ceremony was not until I graduated from college.

– I had friends who were Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, atheist, and agnostic growing up but the first time I truly experienced being personally disliked (maybe hated?) because of who I am was not until I was in my mid-twenties.

– I have lived in multiple cultures and countries including some with incredibly complex societal norms but I was 28 years old before I encountered a situation where I truly had no idea what the “right” thing to do was.

I like making good choices and following the rules and doing the right thing. I have developed strong critical thinking and creative problem-solving skills and I am comfortable with most of my decisions. It is also a life-long battle to keep this inclination from becoming perfectionism. I truly enjoy searching for the greatest good even in complicated scenarios but I want my choices to come from a place of true desire and not an external need to do the “right” thing.

Somehow I made it 28 years old before I found myself in a situation where I could not see any good choices. And the situation was not an easy one. It was seriously life altering and included a million smaller decisions that were all just as convoluted. All of the options laid before me and all of the options I vainly tried to think up seemed awful. I spent months stuck going around and around trying to figure out what to do. It was an awful carousel ride from hell. I just wanted someone, anyone to point out the right thing so I could get off the carousel and head that direction.

Week after week I met with a therapist who kindly and gently asked me questions like, “Putting aside for a minute what you think is right or wrong, what do you want to do?” “In your most idealistic image of an outcome, what does it look like?” “What is your picture of the life you want to move toward?” And all I could do was cry and answer, “I don’t know. It all seems ugly and painful and awful. I don’t want to choose any of the options.”

So finally he asked me, “What does your heart say? How do these decisions make you feel? Does thinking about one choice make your heart softer or harder? Does making this decision make you feel closer to the heart of God or further away?” I laughed and my first response was, “I don’t believe in Disneyland.” But then my second response was slower and deeper and took a little while to bubble up from deep inside me. My second response was a deep sigh of relief.

It is embarrassing to admit that it took me 28 years to allow myself to make decisions based on my heart response and not an analysis of pros and cons, right and wrong. Not that I did not include my heart and soul in decisions I made before but I always felt like I had to justify them analytically. I felt like my mind could be trusted but my heart and soul could not. Finally giving myself permission to make decisions (however difficult and painful) based on my heart response (while still including my mind and soul) has brought me such great freedom.

I am still exploring this new (to me) way of decision making. I still want to include my mind heavily in life decisions and situations but I am letting my heart lead the way more than I have before. It has been deeply contemplative and life-giving to stop for a minute from time to time and check in with my heart and ask: Is this making my heart feel softer or harder? Do I feel myself moving closer to God or further away? Do I feel more loving or less loving in this direction I am heading?

I am sure I will continue to grow and develop and integrate the way I use my heart, soul, mind, and even body in making decisions but for now I am enjoying learning to listen more closely to my heart. It is much louder and more sensitive and more passionate and truthful than I knew. I have found it to be just as trustworthy (and untrustworthy) as my mind. So why not give my heart a chance to lead the way for a while?

Home

Home. It is a word that I have always felt close to. The first part of my name “beth” comes from the Hebrew word bayit which means house. My parents chose my name (Bethany) very intentionally and repeated its meaning (“house of God”) to me often as a young child. And even as an adult, I was delighted when one of the first words I learned to read in Arabic was el beyt.

My favorite stories do not usually end with riding off into the sunset but with going out, finding and living an adventure, and then returning home again. I exhaled with relief when Bilbo was safe back home in his hobbit hole at the end of The Hobbit. I cried reading the last book of The Odyssey when after many years and many adventures, Odysseus finally returns to his family and his home ending his journey in his father’s arms. And the part of the Parable of the Prodigal Son that has always intrigued me the most is not his scandalous life choices but the fact that after all of his wild living, he still just wanted to go home.

Home. It is also a word that I have always been at odds with. My family first moved when I was six months old and since that time I have lived in at least 20 different houses (not even counting dorm rooms). When someone asks me to describe “home”, the word has very few physical connotations for me. I do not picture a red door or a wide porch or a yard. Instead, the word “home” conjures up mostly a feeling and a sense of belonging.

Like most people who spent their formative years in countries different that their passport country, I do not know the correct answer to the question, “Where are you from?” I usually answer with, “I live in _____.” And hope that people do not pry much further unless they really want to hear the whole story. Even so, each place that I have lived has felt “homey” and almost every home I have lived in holds warm, special memories. I have been sad to leave each one knowing that I will most likely never live in or even visit any of those houses again.

Most people hold much stronger connections to their homes than I do. Historically, people have had to defend their homes by force from invaders. When trespassers approach, very few people choose to just pack everything up and move so as not to deal with the hassle. People stay in their homes against better advice in the face of fires, hurricanes, and floods. Since this summer was the 10 year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, I listened to many journalistic accounts of why people chose to stay in New Orleans even when the evacuation was announced. I was moved and challenged by the personal responses.

A few years ago I traveled with a film about a community that had to leave their homes due to an incoming natural disaster. We asked all of the audiences who saw the film how they would feel and what they would do if they were in a similar situation — would they choose to stay or go? The vast majority of the people in each audience said they would choose to stay in their homes even if it meant potentially facing great personal harm. Each time we polled, I was surprised at the response. But then when I asked why they would stay, the answers were so emotional and profound that I found myself nodding my head along with them. Quite simply, it was their home — where else would they go?

There has been an a lot of debate about whether the hundreds of thousands of refugees who have been streaming into Europe this year really have no other option. There has been speculation about individuals exploiting compassionate countries’ resources and possible terrorist threats. Every time I hear these questions raised, I wonder, “Why would someone leave their home unless they have to? Why would they carry their infants and grandmothers across multiple countries unless they really have no other choice? Would you leave your home and your job and all your belongings and become a refugee unless there were really no other option?” I am sure there are probably some enterprising individuals taking advantage of the situation but I am also sure that the vast majority would much rather stay in the city or village or town they call home than sleep on the floor of a ferry or train station or in a tent in a refugee camp.

When I look into the faces of the refugees on the TV screen or scrolling across my Facebook feed, all I see are people looking for a place they can be safe while their former homes are looted and bombed; invaded and destroyed. I have never been in that place. Even though I have moved often (and sometimes under traumatic circumstances), I have never had to flee my home for personal safety. I see families who do not know if they will ever be able to return to where they came from. I see fathers, mothers, children, grandparents, brothers, and sisters all forced to leave their homes, relatives, and communities. Sometimes families get to travel together but most do not. They do not know if their family will ever be whole again.

I see people looking for home. And my heart breaks. Because even though our situations are so drastically different, I see myself in their faces. I do not know their desperation, but I know the ache for home. Don’t we all long for home?