Fractured Forgiveness

I have a habit of being in the middle of multiple books at one time. If one is a romance novel and one is biography of Mother Teresa and one is about the habits of highly successful people, I’m on pretty solid footing in terms of not confusing things in my mind. Books typically fall pretty easily into a category, and you can pick one up and dive right back in where you left off – almost right into the thought you had when you last put it down, just like when you turn off your car in the middle of a song and when you get back into the car you find yourself ready to sing the lyrics where the song left off.

My work book club just finished reading Leadership and Self-Deception, and it has me not on solid footing. Every time I picked it up, I felt like I was lost a bit and couldn’t find my place. It was annoying and irritating, especially for what’s a pretty basic tale of two different kinds of people: people who are in a box (bad) and people who are not in a box (good). The premise is that people who are in a box can’t be good leaders because they are self-focused and not self aware. They don’t view others as they are or view the world as it is, and instead view everything in relation to self. People outside the box appreciate people and see their value and see them as they are.

Today was our last discussion on this book and our group made lists of the character qualities for people inside the box and people outside of the box: inside people are limited and objectify and are judgmental, while outside people are listeners and are open-minded to new ways. As the character lists took shape something started to click in me, but it didn’t solidify and the annoyance persisted. So I left the meeting glad to see that book club end and glad to put that book on a shelf in my office.

It wasn’t until an unrelated conversation with a smaller group of the same work friends that a realization started to really take root. We were laughing and telling old stories, and I jokingly said something cynical – and it hit me like a toilet from outer space in the first episode of Dead Like Me that the word “judgmental” applies to me.

Mom Beth is outside the box. She encourages and praises and believes her girls can do anything. She does the same with all their friends – she wants these girls and everyone around them to believe that they can be and do anything. She has ways she likes to do things but she really works at letting her girls do things their own way and at their own pace.

Work Beth is outside of the box. She loves the people in her office and is excited when they succeed and when they have new ideas. Work Beth is Mom Beth. She can’t say that at the office because it might offend some people – but she is a smiling, proud Momma each time they meet a goal.

Christian Beth is outside the box. She loves different kinds of worship and talking about philosophy and she thinks that all different kinds of Christians will see each other in heaven – Baptists and Methodists and Unitarians and Catholics and Pentecostals and all sorts of others whose names I can’t recall right now. She believes the Bible and science can go together.

Work Beth is Mom Beth is Christian Beth. Beth is the same no matter where you encounter her, and she is outside the box.

But I realized today that that’s not really true recently, and that’s why I am annoyed at this book. There’s an Internal Beth, and that Beth is angry and that Beth is judgmental. Judgmental is an inside the box characteristic. The Beth that firmly believes a criminal deserves grace and can be forgiven cannot extend forgiveness to people who changed her children’s lives forever. The Beth that believes that all sin is equal in the eyes of God and the Beth that knows that she is not perfect and she is a sinner secretly harbors an equally firm belief that some people deserve lives filled with pain and misery.

Self-Betrayal is clearly defined in the book: when you know how you should act and you choose to act differently.

Coincidentally, I’ve been reading about and thinking a good bit about forgiveness. I just didn’t connect it all until today. I am well aware that I need to forgive. And yet, I am not there yet. And not only am I not there yet, I don’t even want to forgive certain people. So as awful as it is and as it sounds, the truth is that I am thankful for my own forgiveness and I don’t want to forgive all others. I only want to forgive as long as it’s within certain parameters and yet that’s just not how forgiveness works.

Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us…

My forgiveness is fractured. It’s like a bone that’s cracked. And we all know what happens when bones are fractured and not properly treated. Pain and swelling and discomfort.

I can’t decide if I think forgiveness is brave. Can something that’s mandatory also be brave? God calls us to forgive and so for me, words like expected and mandatory do not go with brave.

And yet brave or not brave, I have to do something about forgiveness. Because fractures heal one way or another with time – properly or improperly. Doing nothing is a decision to choose a lifetime of complications.

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The Stormiest Part of the Storm

Hurricanes. Tornadoes. Earthquakes. Landslides. Fires. Volcanic eruptions. Diagnoses. Divorces. Death of loved one. Car accidents. Addiction. A child in trouble. War. Oppression. Terrorism.

There are so many kinds of storms.

People think I’m crazy for living in a place that’s prone to hurricanes. But I think it’s significantly more crazy to live in a place that’s prone to earthquakes. You don’t even know those are coming! Don’t even get me started on the level of crazy I think San Francisco folk have to be to leave their cars in potential cement death traps like parking garages. That’s just stupid C-R-A-Z-Y.

With Florence headed toward the east coast, I’ve been thinking a lot about storms this week – storms we can prepare for versus storms we can’t. And what is the definition of storm, really? Is it just anything that is unsettling? Webster tells us storms can be a variety of things.

  • a disturbance of the atmosphere marked by wind and usually by rain, snow, hail, sleet, or thunder and lightning
  • a disturbed or agitated state, such as storms of emotion
  • a heavy discharge of objects, such as missiles
  • a tumultuous outburst
  • a violent assault on a defended position

Perhaps the biggest storm of this week has been me. I am disturbed and in an agitated state and I have had outbursts. For the first time in two decades, I am facing a storm of weather that has the potential to greatly impact people I love and I have no one to rely on but me. No one to make decisions with. No one to second guess my logic or bounce ideas off of. No one to double check my list of to dos. If I make a bad decision about evacuating or don’t get enough food or water, people I love could really be impacted and it will solely be my responsibility and my fault. And that burden feels large.

And you know what’s really silly? I have always really relied mostly on me because that’s just how I am, even when someone is standing next to me. Even if I had someone else in this house right now to bounce ideas off of and check my to dos, I would go with my gut on what to do and then blame myself if something went wrong. I’m a planner and I’m an organizer and I know that’s not everyone’s thing – and because I’m a little neurotic about lists and spreadsheets and planning (maybe more than a little neurotic), if something is missed or goes really awry, I am serious about going back through my checklist to figure out what the heck I was thinking.

The one thing all storms have in common, I’ve decided, is that we truly can’t plan for them and they all kind of suck. OK that’s two things. Storms we don’t know are coming feel like a punch in the gut and that’s awful. But storms we can see looming on the horizon cause so much anxiety and stress that I think the knowing and waiting is actually the stormiest part of the storm. Is one kind of storm really any better than the other?

We tend to define and even categorize whole time periods of our lives by storms. Life before a heart attack. Life after the death of loved one. Life before a job ended. Life after someone makes it to the other side of an addiction. Life before “the war.” Life after 9/11. Today is September 11, and with looking at just a few images I am easily transported right back to that day of surprise and uncertainty and overwhelming sadness. All of our lives have changed since that day – everything from our country’s foreign policy to air travel to our sense of overall safety within our borders.

I tend to think of storms as an occasional small thing in the big scheme of things, but the truth is that storms are actually a pretty substantial part of all of our lives – and how we handle them and what we learn from them (or not) impacts the remainder of each of our lives greatly. One of the biggest lessons for me, and actually one of the great things about storms, is the way people come together to help and support one another. We see the worst of people in storms and we see the best of people in storms. Look for the helpers, Mr. Rogers would always say. Helpers are first responders, and helpers are family and neighbors and friends and teachers and doctors and nurses and counselors and people from Starbucks that we kinda know but not really, and even complete strangers.

I allowed myself to get sucked into a pity party for a bit today. Because I forgot for a bit that it’s also my job to be a helper in a storm – to be a sister and a daughter and a neighbor and a company leader and a friend. I probably can’t get your generator working (God Bless Mark from Starbucks who helped me!), but I can call a friend who lives alone to make sure they have a plan and enough medicine.

I allowed myself to get sucked into a pity party for a bit today, because I forgot for a bit that one of my jobs as a helper and as a Mom is to project calm and not add chaos. And in a moment of divine intervention at just the right moment today, I came across this gem – and I literally laughed out loud as I thought it might be easier for God to hush the waves of the sea than it is to still the Storm that is sometimes me.

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Brave Girls Need Help With Faith, Too

I hate cancer.

I really, really hate cancer so much. Today I read that someone I don’t even know received a breast cancer diagnosis, and it hit me like a ton of bricks. And there’s no real reason why, because it doesn’t impact me personally at all. I don’t know how to explain it except to say that I feel sad.

I just feel sad – maybe that’s for me and maybe that’s for her family, who I also don’t know at all. Their situation is not about me at all, and yet I can’t seem to rein in my feelings about it. Their situation conjures up this fuzzy memory I have of what it’s like to be processing that word for the first time when it’s in relation to someone you love. It’s like you’re underwater but floating and stationary, and you can see people above you talking to you and giving you guidance about coming up, and you look around and can see other people swimming around you pointing to the people above to ensure you listen carefully to the people talking, but all you really process is that one word in your head over and over and over again. Cancer. And you wonder why everyone around you continues to talk and point because nothing matters in the same way anymore.

It seems like yesterday, and yet it seems like another lifetime. Almost like it happened to a whole other person sometimes. And maybe that’s really a truth and that it was a whole other person, because the me before Audrey and the me after Audrey are kind-of two different mes.

In 2011, I was 8 months into a healthy pregnancy with my second child. Like most Moms, I was the biggest I have ever felt and I have ever been, and I was convinced that I might be having the Guinness Book of World Records most giant baby ever. So I went to a regularly scheduled appointment and convinced a young girl who was filling in for my real doctor to do an ultrasound and see how big she was going to be, with secret hopes that we could induce early and I could just not have to be pregnant anymore. And what that ultrasound showed was two things. First, Audrey was going to be over 10 pounds. And second, she had a tumor in her abdomen. And while many doctors couldn’t initially agree on what exactly was happening, the one certainty on which they all agreed is that she would be born with cancer.

Audrey’s birthday is on June 21 – the longest day of the year. She was a cuddler and she was hot-headed and some of her hair stuck straight up like Alfalfa and she was just comically bigger than all of the other babies in the NICU. And it was a really good thing she was so big because she was better able to deal with and recover from the major abdominal surgery that was to come on day 6 of her life. Finding out my child had cancer really threw me off balance, and so in those early days I stoically put on and held on to control-Beth, who I know from experience can manage in a crisis. I developed one plan after another and made bulleted lists of to-dos for each one.

Here’s what will happen: We’ll get a test result that she’s been miraculously healed.

Nope.

OK, next plan: the cancer will be in one tumor in one area, so we’ll get it out quickly and this will all be over in a few weeks.

No again.

During the surgery we learned that the cancer that was supposed to be removable was not contained – and not only that, it had spread to her lymph nodes and was manifesting in skin nodules we couldn’t even see or feel. And basically what that meant is that we weren’t going to be able to get it all out no matter what we did. Time for plan 3.

As Audrey recovered from that surgery over weeks and months, she had a series of radioactive injections and full body scans that showed us where the cancer cells were active in her body. And for someone who likes a plan, I thought those scans showed me exactly what I needed to be focused on. And I started to focus all my energy on research and trials and hospitals with the best cure rates. I read journal after journal and test summary after test summary and trial summary after trial summary. I joined online groups to compare research with other parents all over the world, and to just read their opinions about everything.

I focused all my energy into information, because information made me feel in control. And with information I could build and stick to a plan. But you know what the research showed? That Audrey had the right number of chromosomes and she didn’t have the super aggressive cells and the tumor make-up fit the type of some cases where the cancer could eventually go away. And so her doctors suggested something that was almost as scary as chemo. They suggested that we do nothing for a while – that we watch and wait and see what happened.

And that went against every instinct I had. That did not seem like a plan at all. And in fact, that was maybe a plan for really dumb people. I just wanted the bad stuff out and gone, and how hard could it be really, because we knew where it was and we could see where it was. The whole thing was so frustrating. I didn’t want her to have cancer at all, and I didn’t want her to have to have chemo, and yet I didn’t want to just sit around and do nothing.

And you know what was in an equal state of shambles and frustration? My relationship with God. While I’d like to say that I was a person filled with faith in those early months, the truth is I was not. I did not want to leave the life of my child to chance or fate or faith or anything that did not have firm statistical odds.

During that time, I stopped going to church. I didn’t stop praying and talking to God, and in fact I talked to Him all the time – but I did stop worshipping. The one thing I did do in church that year was have Audrey baptized. And I actually really struggled with my motives for doing that. Ultimately I did it because I still believed in God, but the truth is I also did it because I had become very superstitious. I wanted to cover her with some sort of protection shield – I was clinging to hope that if I had her dedicated, that baptism would provide a protection, which meant that nothing really bad could happen to her and that she wouldn’t die. And even as I had those thoughts, logical me knew that people much more faithful than I had sicker children. People much more faithful than I had lost a child.

And then I started to think about all kinds of people – people with no faith at all, and people who had the “wrong” God, people whose children got a horrible diagnosis but they were healed – and people who had healthy children who were never even sick! And I started to wonder who did something right and who did something wrong? Why were some people’s children healed and some not? Was it luck? Was it something the parents did or did not do? I was frustrated trying to figure it all out.

I mean, I was a pretty good pregnant person – I didn’t eat junk all day, I didn’t smoke, etc. Yet people who treated their bodies horribly were having healthy children while Audrey was in the NICU with tubes and wires. People who didn’t even want children were having healthy children. So what the hell happened?

And what caused this? Did I party too much in college? Perhaps I was being punished for that. Was it the cheese I ate, the water I drank from the tap, the chemicals in my lawn?

Or here’s the really scary stuff. I have been a Christian my entire life. Not that anyone deserves a cancer diagnosis, but I felt angry – like “really, THIS is what I get?” Aren’t I owed something a little better than that? And when I wasn’t feeling so outraged I felt ashamed of that anger, like a bad child. I wondered if maybe I was not really as good of a Christian as I thought. Did I not have enough faith to please God? Was God disappointed in me? And if so, was THIS the punishment? Was my child having cancer my punishment?

The answer, of course, is no. The answer is pretty simple. We live in an imperfect world, and sometimes really crappy things happen. It just is. Some people lose their children and some people don’t. Some people have children with medical issues and some don’t. We all experience the unexpected bad stuff and we have to find the good when it happens and we have to find the lessons when it happens. It’s our job – and it’s our blessing – when we find the gift in the bad things that happen in our lives.

For 377 days, from the time of Audrey’s birth to the time she was declared No Evidence of Disease, I rode a roller coaster. (If you know me at all, you know I absolutely detest roller coasters.) Some of those days were long and slow climbs as we waited for weekly or monthly test results. Some of those days were fast and thrilling days as we got news that Audrey was stable or she’d hit some milestone that was good. Some of those days it felt like the roller coaster broke down mid-ride as we got unexpected test results.

For 377 days I tried really hard to lean on God more and lean on statistical facts and my feelings less.

For 377 days, I wanted so badly to hear she was healed.

For 377 days, I worked to let go of my attachment to my life plan and the life plan I had for Audrey.

For 377 days, I proclaimed out loud at least a dozen times a day and sometimes maybe a hundred times a day “I thank you Father that Audrey Grace is cancer-free.” Or “Audrey Grace is cancer-free.” I was going to speak it into existence.

I’d like to say I handled that year of uncertainty and waiting with grace and patience and trust. But the truth is I combined my praying and my out-loud-claimings and my faith with doctor recommendations and the consumption of thousands of pages of opinions and data that made me feel like I could have faith.

I am soooooo flawed. And maybe the truth is that hearing the word cancer just reminds me of how little faith I did have, and it makes me ashamed. And angry at myself.  Maybe that’s why a stranger’s diagnosis brings me down.

One thing I *can* say is that I learned something important as a result of that roller coaster ride. I learned a lot more about who God is. He is a healer. Sometimes He heals through a miraculous event and sometimes He does it through medicine and doctors (and sometimes He does it in the next life).

And you know what else? God made me a Type A planner. He knows exactly who I am, and I don’t think any of my questions or frustrations or doubts or even my spreadsheets! surprised Him or disappointed Him. He’s a parent just like I’m a parent. He loves me anyway, just like I love my girls anyway.

Ella: Do you remember the name of the kind of cancer you had?

Audrey: neuro-something

Ella: neuroblastoma

Audrey: Yeah, Dr. Owen fixed it.

Ella: Yes, he did.

Audrey: You know what? Actually, God fixed it.

Ella: God fixed it through Dr. Owen.

I hate cancer. And cancer makes me so angry and cancer makes me so sad. And yet, I smile when I think of the story of a brave little girl with a very big scar. I smile when I think of the faith and understanding that already dwell within that brave little girl with the very big scar.

So, are you excited to go back to school?!

If I could remove one line from every single person’s list of things they say to kids, it would be this: So, are you excited to go back to school?!

Because let’s face it – most kids are not. Even the kids that are really good at school and who love education aren’t sitting around thinking ‘Gosh, I can’t wait to stop sleeping in and eat mediocre cafeteria food midday then go home and do homework for 2 hours.’

School only seems exciting to people who are no longer in school – real adults. Young adults early in their career miss the freedom of college schedules. Somewhat young adults who are now parents love school because even though they don’t want to suffer through their kids’ homework for 10 months of the year, they love the structure and schedule that the school day brings for the entire household. Not-so-young adults look back on school fondly as the good old days – the heyday time when they played sports and secured the county/district championship, before responsibility then bills then diapers then AARP.

But the real reason I want to remove this line from every person’s kid-friendly repertoire is because for many kids, school and all thoughts related to school are an absolute nightmare. That might be for a dozen different reasons – because they are bullied, because they have a learning disability, because they are an introvert, or because their parents put too much pressure on them.

I have two children who both do well in school, as measured by grades and not pulling fire alarms. One of those children is an extrovert who can’t wait to see all her friends and start using an overly complicated calculator. This is the child you all imagine when you ask, “So, are you excited to go back to school?!”

My other child is frightened of all the coming change – new teacher, new kids, new room, new noises, new crowds. She’s spent the summer surrounded by family and church family and friends and in a cocoon of consistency, and she loves that. She thrives in that cocoon. And probably a solid 4 weeks ago she began internally dreading the first day of school. It has disrupted her sleep and her thoughts, and made her edgy.

The real-real reason I want to remove this line from every person’s kid-friendly repertoire is because some kids are anxious about school. And one of those kids is my daughter. And every time a smiling adult with the absolute best of intentions asks her if she’s excited about going back to school, they have no idea of the tidal wave of feelings they’ve set off.

And all the things I’ve desperately done to make her life and her days the absolute best they can be are just washed away in that tidal wave of unsettledness. I’ve read dozens and dozens of articles about how to make it better. I’ve tried everything I can think of to make it better. We draw. We stay busy. We make crafts. We read. We pick out clothes. We buy light-up shoes. We choose folders and post-its. We hate those colors and we return them and pick different ones. We meet the teacher. We find the room. We drive the bus route. We prepare lunch menus. We buy our favorite pudding cups and fruit cups. We pray. We even talk about how to be brave.

Those things sometimes help momentarily, but they are no panacea. And part of me wants the last 24 hours of summer to last forever, while the other part is hoping to wake up and find it’s next weekend and we’ve all already survived the first week. But that’s not very brave, and it’s my job to set the brave example.

And so I ended today with a list of modified questions to try to get her to refocus her anxious thoughts about school: Of the kids you know in your class, who is the funniest? If you get to pick what the art teacher focuses on first, will you choose clay or paint? Which teacher are you most excited to see and hug when you walk in on the first day? Let’s make a bet – will the first pizza day be cheese or pepperoni?

In the coming couple of weeks when you see other children, or your grandchildren, or your nieces or nephews, or kids at church or in your neighborhood, please do lean in and talk to them. Show them you love them and give them a hug and ask questions that confirm for them that you are interested in their life. But instead of ‘how was your first week of school?’ you might consider asking who was the most fun to play with this week or what was their favorite part of this week or what is the most exciting thing they are learning about right now.

Nelson Mandela said, “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”

There are a lot of little ones out there looking to us – the big ones – to show them how to be brave. And showing kids how to be brave is more than just telling them you have to face your fears or pointing to helpers that wear uniforms and save lives. Part of showing kids how to be brave is simply helping them focus on positives.

If anyone in the 757 sees us in the coming few days and asks my daughter what was the best thing about this week, she is likely not going to mention school. My guess is she will say the bungee trampoline. I thought this would be a chance for her to be brave, but as it turns out she couldn’t wait and she loved it and she squealed with delight – and the whole ordeal was actually a chance for me to be brave, because when I saw how high the jumping got it took everything I had not to tackle the way-too-laid-back-in-superhip-overpriced-sunglasses-man that was running this thing and demand he get her down right that instant.

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