The Good, Bad, and Ugly of Goodbyes

It was late spring of 1992 and I was driving away from North Georgia College, as a recent graduate. It was the longest time this military kid had ever lived in one place. (This one was at least move number 15. I had so many, they are difficult to count.) It was the first time I

A few years ago, I took a stroll down memory lane. I love this place.

A few years ago, I took a stroll down memory lane in Dahlonega, at North Georgia College. I love this place.

had friends I knew that I would be connected to for the rest of my life. It was where Jesus and I began the conversation we continue to this day, where I discovered something of who I am and what I am on earth to do, and where my life’s trajectory shifted so profoundly, I am still in its wake today. It was the first time I had the opportunity to, and let myself love and connect to anyone or any place.

And I got about a mile away, on the other side of Crown Mountain, and began to ugly-cry so hard that I had to pull over and let the chest-heaving sobs works their way through my heart and body. Just for the record, at that time in my life, I almost never cried. In fact, I was such an accomplished emotional stuffer, that in the car that day,  I was actually having two experiences simultaneously: grief over leaving people, a place, and a season of life that I loved…and more than a little concern that there was so much emotion exploding out of what I thought was a rather neutral and numb heart.

Looking back, with the life story and professional knowledge I have now, there was quite a bit of profound information about how I am wired and my core brokenness in that one moment. The bruising in my heart around goodbyes is very, very deep and very, very tender. 

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While this photo shows my head at RGU, my heart got quite an education also.

Fast forward to this weekend, and another beloved season of life is coming to a close. I am receiving my masters degree in marriage and family therapy from Richmont Graduate University. It’s taken 3 long, busy, and stressful years to complete. My classmates and I have shared a beautiful and transformative part of our life’s journey. As our studies and experiences have surfaced our own junk and darkness, we created a safe place for us to explore our own hearts, share it with each other, and invite Jesus to heal it – so that we can be a part of the same healing process in the lives of others.  I am about to begin a whole new chapter of my life as a therapist and trauma clinician.

A lot of life has passed between these two graduations and life transitions. Marriage. Kids. Missions and life overseas. One more kid. Broken dreams. Settling into our permanent, yet unexpected home. Cancer. Heart breaking tragedy. Two teenagers in the house. Three years of graduate school and training. Re-found joy and hope and purpose in life.

And yet, with all of the change, growth, personal healing, and experience encompassed in the passing years, this graduation has surfaced and banged the same tender bruise from the last one so long ago – the one that is linked to goodbyes. I’ve had to say so many over the years. They hurt. In a way that brings up ugly-cries and chest-heaving sobs.

In my experience, I’ve found that if we commit to searching our hearts and seeking healing there,  we rarely unearth a lot of new themes – instead we circle around familiar core ones over and over… but at newer, deeper levels. Which is why my time with my cohort at Richmont has been so special. Because with them, as I’ve re-circled around this painful theme of mine, I’ve discovered that goodbyes, as awful as they are, aren’t all bad. In order to embrace new things, we have to let go of old ones. Grief allows us to release what we can’t hold, and would hurt us if we tried. The past can’t become the past without working through loss. Cooperating with our goodbyes, while painful, actually creates space for whatever is next.

And next can be awesome.

With my North Georgia friends, I learned to relate. With my Richmont friends I’ve learned to grow and become. And ironically, I can’t walk most fully into either of those gifts without leaving the ones who gave them to me. Without saying goodbye.

So this weekend, I’m doing this complicated, conflictive emotional dance of grieving, and celebrating. Of letting go, and looking forward. Of being sad and glad…all at the same time. It’s a good thing the years have grown my heart so…because this is an awful lot to hold.

Richmont Graduates

RGU’s Atlanta Campus class of 2016. There are some wonderful friends, amazing human beings, and gifted counselors in this photo.

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Same Spot…Different Day

It was one of those moments when, the only appropriate response was for my heart to squeak out an exhausted, “Really God? Really?”
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Context…

I am prone to bursts and gusts of despair and darkness. They blow up, sometimes unexpectedly, and sometimes very expectedly, with a ferocity that at times is crippling. Fortunately, with years of experience, with wise counsel, with some gentle and profound healing in the areas of my heart that generate the pain… for the most part… I am learning how to ride out the storms. I know they won’t last (even if they feel like they will never end), and I am often able to realize that there is an alternate perspective on my situation… that if I can just hang on for a while…I will eventually find the safe harbor of clarity. I am able to speak to my heart with words like, “This will pass. It isn’t the end of the world. There is hope. There is much to be grateful for in the middle of it all. Darkness precedes dawn. Jesus can be trusted with this.” I can usually find a storm cellar to climb in, just as the dust kicks up, the atmospheric pressure drops dramatically, and the funnel cloud appears on the horizon.

And…

Sometimes my life’s experience hasn’t felt like a day-long ferocious blizzard, but more like a prolonged winter that goes on and on. We’ve all experienced seasons of life that, if they were a color, would fall into the muted, bland shades of gray and brown and weak yellow…those seasons when stuff just happens…and keeps happening. And just when you think you will get a moment to catch your breath…along comes another punch to the gut. The result is that some days (some weeks, some months), it can be a titanic struggle to get my body and heart to muster enough energy and momentum, to engage, to initiate, to smile, to care. Of course, I am describing depression. In the past few years, I’ve wrestled with both emotional/spiritual weather systems – seasons of depression, sprinkled in with bursts of despair, for variety.

Into all of this…

I was walking in Chattanooga recently, and enjoying a beautiful evening. I was praying, being present to my heart, eating some amazing ice cream, and resting in the quiet and joy of exploring a fantastic city, all of which I love to do. It was golden and I was happy. And then, out of nowhere, on a relatively smooth section of pavement, I stepped into the one dip, and twisted my ankle. One moment, I was enjoying a needed respite from my turmoil, and the next, I was on the ground, one knee bleeding, the other ankle swelling like a grapefruit, far from home, wondering what in the world had just happened.

And while sitting on my backside, experiencing the rush of sudden bodily pain, my heart uttered the words, “Really God? Really? With all I’ve been through, You couldn’t smooth my paths and protect my ankles from turning for one night?” Without going into the details, I spent the rest of my evening…trying to figure out where in the world I was in my relationship with Him.

The next day, I got up early to take another walk. Because I wanted to see a sunrise, because I wanted to exercise before sitting in class all day, because my time in Chattanooga was limited and I wanted to make the most of it, because walking is good for a swollen ankle, and because God and I had some unfinished business between us. I am a kinesthetic pray-er – He and I often talk while I’m moving.  So I went for a walk. Again.

And, without thinking too much about it, I inadvertently ended up in the exact same spot where, the night before, I had been hurt. This time however, the Chattanooga track club was there, handing out water.IMG_5612

One day, this place caused me pain. Twelve hours later, it was where I received a cup of cool water.

Same spot, different day.

It was a powerful picture for me of some of the ways that God works in my life:

…He takes the same things that hurt me, and eventually uses them to bless me, teaching me to not fear the dips, but to learn to reframe and eventually welcome them.

…Sometimes pain stops me in my tracks because I need stopping in my tracks…because it starts different and more meaningful conversations with God than I would often choose on my own… because He wants me to pay attention to Him or my heart in a way I can’t when I’m busy with my own agenda…because what He wants to give me is infinitely more valuable than what He takes away from me while I hurt.

…There are times when God mercifully repeats experiences for me. The first time, things may not go so well. Something gets squeezed out from the inside of me that I need to see, or need to own. But the second or third time… there can be a different outcome. I learn or grow or change. By repeating an experience, He allows me to see the progress I’ve made. It allows me to see more of Him, parts of Him that may be hidden the first time around, but revealed with repeated laps around the same places. And it blesses me with what we call in the counseling world “an emotionally corrective experience”. The first night, my pain revealed something of my go-to impressions of God. I experienced God as One who callously hurts me. The next morning, I saw and experienced Him as One who lovingly provides for me. The second experience was a healing one, correcting a bit of something that was broken deep inside of me, that was actually causing me much more soul-level pain than a sprained ankle.

…And when I keep showing up for our walks, even when I’m limping…when I keep engaging, even when everything in me wants to isolate and quit, He accepts my walk with Him as an offering. He takes it and does something with it. Something for my good. Something that I would have missed out on had I slept in, or decided that my ankle was too swollen to walk on. The conversations with Him about how He uses the “same spot, different day” dynamic to bless me continues to be a powerful shaping dynamic in my relationship with Him.

 

 

Living With “The Face”

I was talking with some friends of mine who have what we humorously called, “The Face”. “The Face” is how we described that intangible thing about a person that evidently invites people, sometimes friends, and sometimes people you don’t even know, to open up and begin telling you their stuff.  Sometimes their very personal stuff.  Sometimes at really awkward times.

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This photo captures a young me, learning something about the art of listening with a delightful German student.

There was the time when I was in the express line at Wal-mart – and the cashier began telling me about her upcoming second marriage and how she felt about it, how the first one didn’t work out, how her mother wasn’t being supportive… and I seem to recall something about tattoos.  Did I mention I was in the express line? Which is not exactly the place where long-term relationships form. One friend, a former airline attendant, told us about her many stories of, what she called, “Jump seat therapy,” where passengers sitting next to her on take-off or landing spilled their guts…and then walked off the plane.  She would tell them, “Buh-bye,” in standard flight attendant speak, and think, “Wow. I know waaaaaay too much about you.”

We also shared stories of how, in our circle of friends, we would end up in the deep end of the conversational pool, often without even trying, sometimes when we didn’t mean or want to.  And how sometimes, we sort of felt used, even by people we loved, even as we loved the practice of being authentic with each other.

In light of all this, I have realized how my love for people and really great conversation (Which is the basis of all of this.) has, at times, had the somewhat ironic effect of turning me into an even greater introvert. (As if I needed a push.)  The reason?  If it seems most every conversation holds the potential to turn into a gut-wrenching, tearful sob fest, well…some days it is just easier to stay home. (And, side note, I’m finding that this tendency can make people begin to avoid me – which, because I love people, is something I would like to avoid.) We then chuckled a bit, relieved there were others like us out there, and wondered what it was that regularly led people to pour their hearts out to us.  Recently, I think I named part of the reason.

One of the greatest gifts we can give another person is the gift of being present with them.  Of our undivided attention.   When we tell someone else, with our eyes, our body language, our facial expressions, the stories we choose to share, with a well-worded and timed question…that says “I see you.  I hear what you are saying, even beneath the actual words you are using.  I am interested in you.  In this moment, you are more important to me than my phone, than watching what is going on behind you, than me thinking about what I’m going to say to you next.  I am here with you. And I am listening.”  (My friends and I called it “The Face, but we probably should call it “The Heart” because that is a more accurate description of what it actually is.) Some have a natural curiosity and affection for people…and it shows up in their face and heart. Bumping up against it can be a powerful experience for some.  As I’ve met people with this gift, their presence, interest in, and affection for me often surfaces deep emotion in me too.

When we are seen, heard, loved…hearts open up.  No wonder deeply personal stuff sometimes comes spilling out…even if it wasn’t the plan for either of us. When I pay attention to how people normally interact with each other, I realize that this type of dedicated and focused interaction can be kind of rare.  I find this sad, because I think God created us to communicate this way much more often than we do.

And so the next question my friends and I discussed was, if you’ve got “The Face,”…how do you survive?  Because, as much as we love people and interacting with them,  it isn’t always appropriate, or safe for every conversation to descend to the depths of one’s soul.  Besides being potentially inconvenient or awkward, (or sometimes even dangerous) it can be exhausting.  And we realized that people who are good listeners, who have something to give, sometimes attract unhealthy people who may use them for their relational gifts.

Therefore, here are some thoughts on how to walk the line between being a good listener, an interested conversationalist and decent human being who loves and enjoys people –  and staying healthy and safe while doing it.

1. Choice: We should always have choice in where our conversations go.  If you feel like you don’t, it is probably a conversation you should end, or a conversational partner you might want to avoid.  Some people are relational black holes…and their gravity will suck the life out of you if you aren’t careful.

2. Mutuality: Conversations should be two-way streets, with both parties giving and receiving, talking and listening.  If they aren’t, it isn’t a conversation, but a monologue.  (Or a counseling session, which is a completely different thing.) Except in those periodic circumstances when it is appropriate for the conversation to be about one person and their needs, if you find your dialogue descending into monologue, you probably want to find a way to end it.

3. Learn to turn it off: I am learning that, just because I am interested, just because I know the right “next” question to continue a train of thought into deeper places, just because I may hear the emotional subtext sitting underneath someone’s actual words, it doesn’t meant I have to go there with them.  I don’t have to ask the next question.  In fact, it can be a very freeing and healthy thing to learn to turn my conversational radar off and just be in a moment with someone – without looking for or trying to control where it might go.  This, however means I must continue to learn #4.

4. Learn the joys of small talk: I am not a natural small talker.  Most of the time, I would prefer not talk at all, as opposed to talking about nothing.  (Over the years, Sunday mornings at church has ruined me in this area – we go there to meet with Jesus and each other in authenticity…and we waste the time talking college football, the weather and the last movie we saw…I digress, and mini-rant over.) I continue to learn that small talk can be a beautiful thing for all involved, and is in no way an indication of being a shallow person.  It may just mean I am a “person.”  And here is a big lesson…hours of pleasant and healthy small talk are actually very valuable.  They plant the seeds of safety, of affection, of learning about one’s life and relational style, so that if or when a deeper conversation comes around, we are both ready for it.

5. Think about the greater love: There are people in my life whom I love deeply, and to whom I want to give the first of my relational and emotional energy.  If I know my resources are limited, then it is irresponsible for me to give away to others, what belongs to those in my closest circles.  Sometimes I need to avoid or shut down certain conversations if I know it will drain away energy I will need for someone or something else.

6. Find your “life-giving cocktail” and drink it regularly.  If one wants to have meaningful conversations, one must first have something worthwhile to say. (Unfortunately, this is an often overlooked practice in our conversations.) What is it that breathes life into you, that generates substance, character, depth, ideas, curiosity and love for others? For me, over the years I have found the practices (or cocktail) of solitude (which is different from isolation), intentional reading, and exercise do this for me.  Afterwards, I want to be with people more.  (And people seem to want to be with me more too.) When I am healthier, there is more of me to offer.  I suspect each person has a different “life-giving cocktail.” My point is not for anyone to copy mine, but to find their own.  And drink it regularly.

As I write these things, I find myself a bit torn.  At times, the idea of strategically thinking through this part of my life can seem kind of cold and calculating.  However, I want to be the best me I can be and I want to be a blessing to others in my relational circles.  And, as I age, I realize have less energy, less margin, and less time left on the earth with which to work.  In light of all this, I must learn to be a wise steward and manager of all God has given me…including my “face”.

Um, This Would Be Fascinating If It Wasn’t…You Know…Me

A year and a half ago, our lives changed forever.  In the morning, we suspected Jeff had an ulcer.  By the evening, he was in emergency surgery to remove a blockage in his colon.  It was cancerous.  When it was over, I was talking with his surgeon in one of the little rooms off to the side of the waiting room.  It was then, she asked me a question.

“Are you squeamish?”

Because, looking back, I was clearly in denial…and because I had no experience yet in what exactly a surgeon might possibly mean by this… I told her I was a former biology teacher who had done numerous dissections.  I had a pretty strong stomach.  So when she asked if I wanted to see a picture of Jeff’s intestines,  I said in that enthusiastically optimistic way Davises do, “Sure, I’ll take a look.”

I am not a TMI writer and I don’t want to gross anyone out but…his guts were so sick…so inflamed and infected that it looked like balloon animals were exploding out of his abdominal cavity.  I could go on with the description, but… sit with that image a minute.

And in one of those moments of unintentional clarity, I blurted out words that have stuck with me ever since.  I said, “Um, this would be so fascinating if it wasn’t…you know… my husband.”  And then, as my intellect collided with my heart and life, the gravity of it all began to sink in.  Emotion began to rise and my stomach started moving in that way that let me know it was time to look away.

Who knew… I actually was squeamish.

A season of life has passed and now I am in graduate school studying marriage and family therapy.  I am on my way to becoming a counselor who, hopefully, will walk with people when their insides are hurting and need attention…or when they are in metaphorical waiting rooms of their own, wondering just what the hell happened to their world…

My days are often spent learning about the many ways people and families can be wounded and broken.   I love what I am studying and could read and discuss it till the cows come home.  For the most part, I can’t wait to get out there and enter the world of helping. (Did I mention I can be enthusiastically optimistic?)

Sometimes, I find myself flashing back to my waiting room moment…where the consequences of something  on a piece of paper became very personal to me.

I see all the more clearly now that these things I am learning about…Dysfunction.  Shame.  Fear.  Loneliness.  Grief.  Unhealthy boundaries.  Anger. Emotional woundedness.  Trauma.  Painful memories.  These topics aren’t just ideas in books.  They are real things that happen in people’s lives.  And not just to others, but to me.  These are the things that, if I were to make the right incision, just might pop like balloon animals out of me too.  I am more fully awakening to the realization that I am living what I am studying.  I always have been.  And in these moments when I glimpse the reality of the spiritual cancer that lies inside of me, inside of all of us, these words are echoing through my heart, “Um, this would be fascinating if it wasn’t…you know…me.”

Coming face to face with the depth and significance of one’s (read “my”) mess can be a weighty experience.  Coming face to face with Jesus, not just on the pages of a book, but as a Person who is with me…in the middle of all the emotion and pain…it is fascinating and horrifying… and so absolutely fittingly beautiful.

While the messiness of it all sometimes scares me, it seems to energize Him.  Thank goodness.

Hopefully, a counselor who knows Jesus as Healer for herself, is a better travel companion for one who is hurting, than someone who has just read about the process and the Savior in a book.   Hopefully, I am on the path to becoming both book smart AND experienced.  That waiting room a year and a half ago was an important stop along the way.