Thursday, June 16, 2016


"When we practice generating compassion, we can expect to experience the fear of our pain. Compassion practice is daring. It involves learning to relax and allow ourselves to move gently toward what scares us."
Pema Chodron, The Places That Scare You


I was probably 7 or 8 years old when I heard the word "divorce" as it related to a childhood classmate of mine. I can remember not knowing what it meant and then coming home to ask my parents about it. It was then that I remember the fairy tale glass-house shattering around me - two people who were married and promised to life happily ever after could no longer be married? How did that even work?

I was 12 when I had a serious discussion with my sister about divorce. She and I had spent multiple summers working on our best-selling novels about falling in love with our favorite boy-band members, and I remember her telling me that she didn't believe in divorce, and that if she were married and something went wrong, she would just go get counseling. Divorce was the easy way out, in her mind, and I agreed. 

I was 15 when I realized that abusive relationships weren't something just talked about in newspapers and health books in school. I told my sister that in a case of abuse, I'd go to family counseling; in a case of extreme abuse, I'd just leave, but remain married.

In other words, although I had never experienced it and had only seen about it's existence from the eyes of a child, I somehow knew exactly what needed to happen in each and every case.


"In cultivating compassion we draw from the wholeness of our experience - our suffering, our empathy, as well as our cruelty and terror. It has to be this way. Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It's a relationship between equals. Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others. Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity."
Pema Chodron, The Places That Scare You


I was 18 when I first realized that I was in an unstable, unloving relationship. I had been talking to this guy for over a year; we had plans to meet up at the end of the summer (he was flying from England to be with me for 3 weeks); we had plans to finish college, get married, have babies, live in England. We'd met online and he had seemed to be perfect. And then there was one moment when we were talking on the phone to each other and he had had an awful day. It had happened to be a day in which I found myself extraordinarily busy and couldn't take his call right away, so I called him as soon as I could, finding out it wasn't soon enough. He blamed me for not picking up the phone right away, for the fact that he biked to the bank in the rain, for the fact that his bike broke down, for the fact that I was in a play (months before) that involved me kissing another guy, for working at a summer camp so I wasn't able to take his calls all the time, and I remember taking all of that blame, trying to console him, and realizing that it wasn't working. Not just consoling him, but the relationship. It just wasn't working. He had almost shamed me into not taking the part in the musical, for not taking a job at a summer camp, and I had had enough.

When he and I had talked about marriage, we wouldn't even say the word, "divorce." It was just, "The d-word." 

"Always use the proper name for things. Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself."
Dumbledore, J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone


I was almost 23 when my ex-husband and I postponed our wedding due to "a problem with alcohol." He needed to spend time working on himself. I needed to spend time figuring out how to live in the agony of shattered dreams. We were still engaged, but church leaders encouraged us to wait no more than six weeks to decide whether we would remain engaged and set a date, or call the whole thing off.

Looking back on it, six weeks is nothing when it comes to alcoholism. The alcoholic isn't even fully sober at six weeks, let alone six months, and really shouldn't be making any big life decisions until a year of sobriety. But we were given six weeks. 

Six weeks after that meeting with our church leaders, we took a walk. He was barefoot and nervous. I had already crafted up the perfect plan. He wasn't ready, but couldn't tell me that. I was more than ready due to my whopping 2 visits to a local 12 step group (in which I had everything figured out. ha.) to marry him. He tried telling me in not so many words that he had cheated on me, and I didn't hear it. I heard what I wanted to hear - that getting married would make everything better.

Three weeks later we married.


"I think our first response to pain - ours or someone else's - is to self protect. We protect ourselves by looking for someone or something to blame. Or sometimes we shield ourselves by turning to judgment or by immediately going into fix-it mode."
Brene Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection


I sat in the home of my church elder not even a year later, tissues in hand. I had already wept for days before this, and so I was pretty well out of tears, but just in case, I had tissues. 

"I'm so sorry," I kept on repeating. 

"Tell me what happened," he said, his wife sitting next to him.

And so I told him. I told him everything. I told him why I hadn't been to church in six months, why I had been harboring so much anger and resentment towards the church, what had happened to me in my own home, the reason why I left.

"I don't even know what to call what I've been through," I said.

"Abuse," he responded.

"But how do you know?" I asked. "I had told him months ago that he was abusing me but he told me he never laid a finger on me and demanded I give him exact accounts of how he has abused me. I don't even know what it is anymore."

"That," he said, "that is abusive. You feel unsafe in your own home. You cannot say what you need to say. You feel guilty for doing things you want to do. You feel like at any time he's going to blow up for no reason and it will be your fault. That is abuse."


"When we spend a lifetime trying to distance ourselves from the parts of our lives that don't fit with who we think we're supposed to be, we stand outside of our story and hustle for our worthiness by constantly performing, perfecting,p leasing, and proving. Our sense of worthiness - that critically important piece that gives us access to love and belonging - lives inside of our story."
Brene Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection


For the next six months, I fought like hell for our marriage. I gave him space. I supported him in any way that he needed it. I started counseling and became even more involved in my 12-step program. I worked on me. I fought like hell for me. I became my biggest advocate.

We started seeing more of each other and started dating again and I thought things would be OK. He started changing - in some ways, the change was welcome: he had become compassionate and thoughtful, and while I knew it would be a long road to sobriety, I saw him actually want it. He found a vision of a life he wanted and worked so hard to achieve it. 

So hard that his vision changed. He and I had some long talks about Christianity and he told me that he didn't think that he believed it anymore. I sought guidance and was told to stay in the marriage, to be a godly example for him. I stayed. He left to do a training for what he wanted to do, came back, and everything was different. He was excited about his future, but something seemed off. I didn't pry.

The next night he was in my apartment, telling me that everything he had told me the night before was to get me to tell him that we shouldn't be together. I had done the exact opposite, telling him that he should pursue his future, to find his passion, and that I'd be waiting for him.

So he told me the thing that he knew would end it. 
"I can't be with you if you still want to be a Christian. Our lives don't match up anymore and I can't put you through that. I'll pay for everything, but I can no longer be your husband."


When in doubt, choose compassion.


If there's anything I've learned over the course of these past five years, it's that we don't have the answers. The minute I say the words, "You should," I start 'should-ing' myself. 

"You should go to therapy."
"You should talk to someone."

It's so much easier to "should" people than it is to really hear what they're going through. I go into fix-it mode, which isn't compassion, and end up alienating the person who's come to me for a listening ear. I, for some odd reason, think that I know exactly what needs to happen in their lives - as though I am God and can tell exactly what the outcomes will be. 

I'm not alone in this.

Compassion is the farthest thing from easy. As Brene Brown is quoted earlier, it requires reaching into the darkest parts of ourselves, owning them, and sharing our humanity with other people. 

When we lack the ability to take responsibility for our darkness, we become judgmental shamers, unable to both give and receive grace. We place ourselves on a pedestal, saying to the world, "Look at me! I am exactly what you expect of me, and I do all things correctly!" We are so wired to competitiveness in this country that we have lost community. We have to be better, have a better job, have more money, have a bigger house. We cannot settle for "average." We all want to be the exceptional outliers, the 1%. 

It's a lonely place out there in perfect-land.

We cannot give ourselves grace for mistakes made. We brush them off, holding on to the secret shame that we are not as exceptional as we think we are, and then project that onto other people who are in the same stage of life as we are. It's why the internet is full of "mommy blogs" that tell you exactly how you need to raise your children. Not one of those blogs actually knows your children, so how are they qualified to tell you how to raise them? 

It's why I balk at the thought that there is exactly "one way" of doing marriage in Christian, especially Reformed Christian, circles. 

It's why I cringe when I see ads that promise, "swimsuit ready" bodies. 

It's why, when a freak accident happens in which there is a child affected, the parents are immediately blamed.

"They certainly don't know how to raise a child."

As if we make the correct decisions at all times and in all places and would never allow our children to be placed in potentially harmful situations. 

As if we are never distracted by something else in life and make a mistake.

As if the sign above the doors of our houses say, "Welcome in to the place where not a thing is ever out of place. We are that family you've been dreaming of. Now don't make a mess."

It's the reason we immediately apologize for "the mess" when we have guests over - even when there is no mess to speak of.

So we blame and we shame because maybe if someone else feels blame and shame we won't have to bear our shame alone. But we still keep our shame secret and so it continues to fester and then we continue to blame and shame and the cycle. keeps. spinning.

This is why it always takes me a few days after a tragedy before I write about it. Because I know that my first response will not be compassionate. I know myself well enough to know that I need to spend time taking inventory of my own pain and my own shame  before I can adequately pen a response to pain; to take a breath, to take a step back, and respond out of a place of love and compassion instead of a place of hurt and shame.

My mom once asked me how I became so compassionate because she knew that not a lot of compassion happened in my home growing up.  I laughed and told her I wouldn't put my worst enemy through the compassion training that I went through, because that training happened in the midst of an abusive, terrifying marriage. But compassion is still something that I'm working on. I pray that someday my first response will be compassion, but I know that in praying that, I'm signing myself up for some not-so-fun things.

But I'll keep working on it. I'll keep walking in it. I'll continue to own my mistakes and I'll own them out loud so that they will not have the chance to take over my life. I will not be a slave to shame.


"Fitting in is about assessing a situation and becoming who you need to be to be accepted. Belonging, on the other hand, doesn't require us to change who we are; it requires us to be who we are."
Brene Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection

Just as an aside, if you really want to do some good work on yourself around the areas of shame, compassion, and perfectionism, I highly recommend the book I've been referencing this entire time - The Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown. Two thumbs up.

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