Thursday, April 15, 2010

Fool Me Twice... (pt 2)

Christian College Student Concept #1: "I’m going to shut out negative emotions, because I want to encourage everyone around me, and there’s no way I can do that unless I’m cheerful and pleasant."

(If you are tagged in this note, it is because you are a part of the story, and I want to thank you for the influence you've had in this step of my life. The list is by no means all inclusive, just the ones that stand out in my memory of the events recalled in this particular portion I've written about. I'll only tag you once, in the series of notes I'm writing, but know that your influence carries on - it's just going to be a LOT of writing, and I don't want to clog up your facebook wall. So, yes, thank you.)

(Also, if you want this to flow more cohesively, go back and read pt 1)

The funny thing is… I can go right back to that way of thinking. Why is it that we can learn something so profoundly and genuinely… and forget it so quickly? Human flightiness? Perhaps.

I came back to school the day after the funerals. And I knew that I had a reputation – I was smiling Bethany, who always had a lighthearted comment or encouraging remark, totally focused on cheering up the people around her. (Friends – this is by no means your problem. It’s all on me). I couldn’t do it at first. I could barely even think, let alone feel anything. It became a problem academically. One of my professors summed it up like this:

“Everything seems pretty trivial now, doesn’t it?”

Yes, Professor Bouw, it certainly does.

And then I was advised (by a different professor) to engage in school once again by training my mind, again, to look for the good in those situations, to understand God’s purpose, to see what I was gaining out of this situation, so that I could once again have a cheerful outlook and be able to encourage the people around me.

And I tried it. Because I am an idiot and never learn a lesson the first time around.

I was still sad. But not nearly as often. In fact, I was pretty happy for a couple of weeks straight through. And then I dipped down again, and was very unpleasantly reminded that grief is not something that can be taken care of quickly, or that can be ignored.

But I still didn’t see any connection to the way I was trying to deal with it. And really, it was very effective most of the time. When I was only thinking of pleasant things, I did tend to have pretty positive emotions.

And then, the night before I was to leave for spring break, I received a text from my hall director, telling me to be in her apartment in 15 minutes, with the other PA’s (RA’s for non-Taylor people). And when I arrived, I was told that our housekeeper, Amy, who I had known and had many conversations with and enjoyed immensely, had been taken hostage and then killed by her estranged husband that day. I was stunned. I was feeling my own very real, raw pain again, and then also thinking of Amy’s daughters, one of whom is a student in our hall…

And… the memory is hazy… I honestly don’t know if I was expected to do this by other people or if I put this expectation on myself, but I got the impression that I, as a PA, was supposed to be walking around the hall, comforting and encouraging the students.

And I couldn’t do it. I knew I couldn’t. My pain was too real, and that new pain was also digging up the suppressed pain I still had for Brandon and Amanda.

And then the next day, a professor who I hold in very high regard, gave a lecture. About cheerfulness. And how it was the mark of a mature Christian.

And I argued with him. For the first time. I was offended. I asked what he could possibly see in the situation with Amy and her family, that he could be thankful for. And he said that I should think about what I could gain from the situation. Look for long-term positive effects in how God would use that situation. I was told by various members of the class that I needed to recognize God’s ultimate control over the situation, and that this was all a part of His plan. And that I needed to look longer at everything, so that I could see positives.

I felt a little bit like I was in the middle of The Stepford Wives… or in Camazotz, for those literate in Madeleine L’Engle. I still argued – the idea of concentrating on what I could gain from others’ pain seemed completely self-centered. My professor argued that the Bible instructed us to think that way, and I asked for scripture references to look up.

And I did. And I read some more scriptures. Within one of the references he gave me, there was a verse that said to “grieve, mourn, and wail. Change your laughter to morning, and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and He will lift you up.” My professor also gave a list of verses in the Psalms, singing praises to God, as support. But when I looked at the Psalms, there were also a huge number that began “Hear me, O Lord, as I voice my complaint…”

So now I’m here. This concept of continual self-constructed cheerfulness doesn’t feel right, doesn’t follow logically, and isn’t supported by a cohesive view of scripture (as far as I can tell).

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice…

So now I’m done. I still have that joy. I can still feel it. But I in no way am going to go back to this idea of needing to train my mind to be constantly cheerful. Or believe that I cannot be an encouragement to people around me if I am not cheerful.

I came across an article I wrote as a senior in high school, which seems like ages ago, but I know is not actually that long… in which I prompted this question.

“So which is better then? To present a front that you don’t feel any pain so that you won’t burden others? Or to show that you’re just like them and that you feel?”

A teacher asked me about it. If I had an answer. I didn’t. Of course. I had no idea. I was 18 and hadn’t experienced anything significantly painful, to have to choose one of the two ways to act.

Now, at the wise, wise age of 21 (she said tongue-in-cheek), I have a little more of an idea. Pain is universal. Human. Every single person experiences pain of some kind going through life. Why put so much effort into pretending it doesn’t affect you? Shared pain creates a bond of understanding – a connectedness at a deep level of humanity. I don’t believe there is any greater satisfaction to be had from being superhuman, untouchable.

As my mom says (who is older even than 21 and actually is much wiser), "God created us with a whole spectrum of emotions... and I think He is big enough to handle any of them."

Myth busted? (I’m such a nerd.)

Thursday, April 8, 2010

That Small Seed (pt 1)

Christian College Student Concept #1: "I’m going to shut out negative emotions, because I want to encourage everyone around me, and there’s no way I can do that unless I’m cheerful and pleasant."

(If you are tagged in this note, it is because you are a part of the story, and I want to thank you for the influence you've had in this step of my life. The list is by no means all inclusive, just the ones that stand out in my memory of the events recalled in this particular portion I've written about. I'll only tag you once, in the series of notes I'm writing, but know that your influence carries on - it's just going to be a LOT of writing, and I don't want to clog up your facebook wall. So, yes, thank you.)

I smile a lot.

Which is fine, yes. It’s much easier to smile than frown, I’m told. Maybe I just have really wimpy facial muscles.

But it’s one thing to smile often and have a generally cheerful disposition, and quite another to train yourself to only process information in ways that create positive conclusions, and thus, positive emotions. I was recently taught, by a highly respected professor, that only if I am living in this state of continual intentional cheerfulness, is my faith in Christ mature.

I thought about this (for perhaps a fraction of a second), and then tried it out. And it seemed to work out quite perfectly! This state of eternal optimism was a pleasant place to be. It felt amazing – things that would normally be disappointing or upsetting just slid right off me. If someone was having a bad day, I was a bottomless well of cheerful outlook on the situation. And the best part was, every time I had a positive comment, I was moving closer to God. My faith was stronger – this was easy! Endless series of mountaintop experiences simply because of how I was training my mind. “Oh the cleverness of me!”

Do you see the problem? Well several problems, actually.

The first being that old friend of mine, PRIDE. Look at what I was doing to increase my faith. The scriptures tell us that it is by grace we are saved – we don’t do this by our own merit. And even when we are told to continue to ‘work out our faith’, it is with ‘fear and trembling’, to sum up – humility.

The first big problem that I was hit with though, was when my happy little version of reality around me crashed, and crashed hard.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010. I had just finished my morning class, and saw that I had a voicemail from my mom. I wondered why she had called when she knew I was in class – perhaps she was coming to visit, or my little sister had received good news about college applications. I wandered into the hallway to look at the printmaking projects while I listened to her message…

And that moment is locked in my memory forever, hearing her recorded voice start to shake as she told me that there had been an accident that morning… and one of my sister’s best friends, also a friend to me, a boy we had grown up with in our church and in our school, was gone. Later, I would learn that another student from their group of friends had also passed away that morning, in a separate accident.

As I heard her words, “one of the students… Brandon Replogle… didn’t make it…” I froze. The white walls and ceiling and tile floor around me all seemed to pulse as reality hung suspended in time. I deleted her voicemail as soon as it finished; I didn’t want to ever hear it again. But deleting the message in no way changed the reality of the situation.

I was in shock – I started screaming and crying in the empty hallway (was it empty? It was empty to me...). I didn’t know what to do or where to go. My phone started vibrating again, and I looked down to see my sister was calling me. And she was crying and screaming too, and in shock. And I made a quick decision. I was going home. As soon as I could.

And this was a conscious decision. I could have stayed at school, removed from the situation, in my happy little world on my happy little college campus, that I had created in my mind. But I knew, more than anything, that I needed to be in the middle of everything. I needed to know that it was real. I needed to be fully engaged in the midst of the pain, and the suffering, of my family and community.

And somehow (the prayers of friends and professors at school had something to do with it, I’m sure…) I made it back home, and instead of stopping at my house, I continued in to the high school, scared out of my mind of what I would see when I got there, but knowing I needed to be there. My sister was there. Her friends, and my friends, in her class were there. Our drama directors were there.

The school was in a state of shock too. I passed my old principal in the hallway – his eyes were wet, and he was staring blankly down the hall. Students were wandering through in the hallways, though it wasn’t a passing period.

Overwhelmingly noticeable though, was the silence. 700 students. Teachers. Administrators. Present. But not speaking.

I literally ran into my sister, who guided me to the back of the building, where the drama directors had set up a room for the students to come, with huge sheets of papers laid out for them to write notes to Brandon and Amanda. Pictures of both students laid out. Music playing that they had loved.

I was met instantly upon entering the room, by these students, who I remembered as little kids, who I had performed alongside on stage, and who I loved and cared about so much, all in this shared pain. At various stages of anger, sadness, or disbelief. So many tears.

And we were encouraging each other. Holding on to each other to make it through. There wasn’t an ounce of cheerfulness in that room. I didn’t need to put on a happy face and concentrate on framing my mind in the correct way to be pleasant. None of us were shutting out our painful emotions, yet just this shared presence was in itself an encouragement to each other.

And later there would be laughter - when a humorous story was recalled about one or both of them. But that was experienced as it occurred naturally. It wasn't consciously created by the power of our minds.

I’m not saying that I had no hope – no joy. I felt the deep seed of joy inside of me, buried way down, but still alive, at the same time as I was feeling such pain. But joy and cheerfulness are not the same thing.

My reality had been completely shaken – my ideas and concepts about life. Everything I believed about God… I was down to three things that I believed to be true.

God exists. God is good. God is love.

And that is joy. That is the seed I had inside of me, ever present. It was buried deep… but it was warm. And it was there.

And this was the truest sense of community I had ever felt –

Can I honestly believe, after all this, that I must shut out negative emotions, and be always cheerful and pleasant, in order to encourage the people around me in the way that God intends me to?

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Thoughts for the Day

(many of them from people much wiser than myself)

“Love that will not betray you, dismay or enslave you. It will set you free! Be more like the man you were made to be. There is a design in alignment – the cry of my heart to see – the beauty of love as it was made to be.”

God is love.

And He will not betray you, dismay, or enslave you. (my yoke is easy and my burden is light)

It is so easy on a Christian campus to get caught up in the whole Christian college student thing. You know what I’m talking about. If you are a Christian college student or know someone who is. And I’m as guilty as anyone else - I'm completely describing myself right now.

And if you don’t happen to be or know a Christian college student, I’ll lay it out for you.

I may be texting my friends all through chapel, but I’ll for sure be there, closing my eyes and lifting my hands during the worship just in case somebody’s watching (but of course I'm only doing it for a better connection with God...). It makes me feel good.

I’m going to shut out negative emotions, because I want to encourage everyone around me, and there’s no way I can do that unless I’m cheerful and pleasant.

I’m going to find the good in every situation, because God makes everything happen for a reason, and God forbid it doesn’t make sense to me – I have to understand it all, or my faith is so not as mature as that other girl’s.

I’m going to drive myself completely insane trying to figure out God’s exact plan for my life – searching for His will in every tiny mundane choice I need to make. Because there is only one right choice. I need to be within His will, after all.

I am going to give and give and give and give – it doesn’t matter if I have a project due the next morning, or haven’t slept properly in days. If one of my friends needs a listening ear, then I will be that ear. Unlimited. For hours on end.

“Take every thought and make it captive to Christ.”

“Be perfect, therefore, as He is perfect.”

Those are my mantras.

So, are you following me? Do you see where Bethany was a few weeks ago? Do you see yourself in there?

I don’t think I need to address the first point – enough people have addressed the topic of worship – do we do it because it makes us feel better about ourselves or to give to God – what does it mean to worship – etc. etc. Mark Buchanan describes living as an act of worship in his novel, The Holy Wild. Check it out.

(and I still text my sister during chapel if I’m bored. True confession.)

The other points, though, could use some fleshing out. Later though. I have homework. Be prepared – there will be a plethora of notes coming to describe my thoughts/arguments. I’ve been through a lot this year… have played around with different theological concepts. Have adopted some. Have dropped others.

To make a play on the scripture “the grass withers and the flowers fall…”

Theological concepts come and go, but God Himself is constant. The same yesterday, today, and forever.

And it’s way cool that He’s always there.

So get ready for a rapid fire succession of lessons I’ve learned/thoughts and musings. And in the meantime, check out the Mumford & Sons release “Sigh No More”. It’s good stuff.