I have been thinking about stories a lot lately. (By a lot I mean even more than usual because I have had stories on the brain for as long as I can remember.) Specifically, I have been thinking about the importance of stories, and just as significant, our tendency to forget them. An 18-year-old boy named Michael Brown was killed by a cop in Missouri a couple of weeks ago. People peacefully protesting his murder are being shot with rubber bullets and tear gassed in the streets by a militarized police force. A few nights ago the police raided a church that was supposed to be a safe haven. They’ve arrested reporters and photographers who were trying to honestly cover the story.
Suffice to say, I know many people who are shocked by these events. “How is this happening in America?” “I can’t believe this!” “What decade is it!?” I am less shocked than I’d like to be because Michael Brown was black. This is part of a bigger story– a story dating back hundreds of years, a story in which the color of your skin grants you less dignity and humanity than other people. I will never understand the full extent of how horrible this kind of oppression is. My skin color renders me privileged enough that if a cop killed one of my brothers (which would likely not happen to begin with) he would lose his job and probably go to jail. He would be deemed psychologically unstable, but there still wouldn’t be a fund to support him. But knowing that other sisters have very legitimate reasons to fear that their brothers will be killed by people meant to serve and protect– and that if they do lose a brother, there will likely be no justice– breaks my heart.
I am not shocked. But I am pained and disturbed and I don’t know what to do. I want to listen to the stories of people who protest, who do not accept injustice and face the abuse of power head-on. I want to make sure that these stories are heard and connected. I want us to see how all of our stories are woven together, how far they go back, how there’s no such thing as an isolated incident. I want justice and I want us to remember. It’s so dangerous to forget.
In that spirit I urge you all (especially my fellow privileged folks) to seek out the truth not only in present events but in our history. Shock doesn’t help us move forward the way understanding does. Because I have very little intellectual authority on this matter I will stop talking now because it’s not my voice that needs to be heard, but please follow some of these links and hear the stories of others. Please do not allow history to be forgotten, because that is when we give it the power to repeat.
Some stories that have been on my mind as I have followed Michael Brown’s death and the protests in Ferguson:
(Author’s note: I am not here to argue about particulars or discuss politics. I am reflecting upon these events honestly and earnestly in the context of history and the power of story. I know that I do not know everything about these events, but I do know that I do not believe that anyone deserves to be killed in the street and I do know that this event is symptomatic of something much bigger.)
My brother, Noah, was born a month and a half after I turned one, so I literally cannot remember a time when I wasn’t a big sister. Isaiah was born a year and a half after that, so by age three the title “big sister” was very much ingrained into my identity. This, combined with strong values of inclusion taught to me by my parents, has lead to a life of being a big sister, not only to my biological brothers, but to many brothers and sisters whom I have encountered.
This theme has become increasingly apparent in the passed 8 years. During my teen years I walked with friends (some younger than me, some not) through situations I could never have imagined dealing with at age 12; such as pregnancy scares, drug and alcohol abuse, abusive partners and parents, date rape, suicidal tendencies, depression, anxiety, as well as situations almost everyone faces during adolescence; crushes, low self-esteem, break-ups, etc. As a 12-year-old who didn’t even know what a blow job was, I couldn’t anticipate becoming the go-to peer guidance counsellor for half a dozen people at any given time during my teen years. To be honest it used to exhaust me. As a 13, 14 and 15-year-old I would lie awake at night trying to “fix” everyone’s problems or come up with the perfect advice that would make everything all better. I would cry to my mom because I had over-empathized with three different friends that week and I was feeling EVERYTHING. I would get frustrated because I didn’t know the answers to the questions people asked. I would wish they would talk to someone else, because I didn’t feel capable of dealing with their situation.
I would desperately explain to my parents that I didn’t go looking for this and I didn’t know what to do. Of course, as he often does, my dad had helpful insight into the matter. Turns out that this is another way in which I am very much my father’s daughter, and as something he’d dealt with from around the same age he’d wisely point out that if being a big sister is part of who I am, then the people who need big sisters will find you and you can choose to “accept your mission” or reject it. It’s not about being capable of fixing people, it’s not about making it all better, it’s about choosing to love people who need love, whether they are the easy people to love or not. This was something I felt called to. However, loving in a healthy way takes a lot of work and a lot of learning. To be honest, I feel like some of the most valuable things about my teen years were the lessons I learned about loving people and being a big sister. Such as:
1. As counterintuitive as it may sound, distancing yourself from the emotional center of the crisis is incredibly helpful if your goal is to love and support the person going through it. You can’t carry someone else’s emotional weight, trust me, I have tried, it simply can’t be done. The only outcome is that now you’re both exhausted and nothing has changed. One of the most useful things about being the person outside of the problem is that you don’t have the emotional weight so you are able to be calm, supportive and pragmatic.
2. Sometimes (read: often) people just need someone to talk to who they know will be supportive and caring, not someone who will try to fix them. A quote that I often remind myself of while caring for others is, “You cannot save people. You can only love them.” Which not only serves to remind me that the full responsibility is not on me and is, I believe an accurate summary of how Jesus showed us to live. As human beings we cannot save anyone, we can only love them and there’s a lot more power in that than we realize.
3. You have to be able to take space. You cannot be constantly available, physically or emotionally, it’s not healthy for you or for the people you care for. It’s very easy for boundaries to become blurred when someone is going through a crisis, but it is important for you to realize when you need space and to take it. This doesn’t necessarily mean simply taking alone time, I am very extroverted, so for me taking space means making time for my friends who don’t need me to be a big sister. Learning what taking that space means for you is very a very important part of being a healthy big sister. Nurture yourself as well as other people. Trust that you take time for you and the world won’t come crashing down.
4. Honesty is the best policy. Telling people what they want to hear isn’t helpful. Gently communicating, truthfully, how you’re reading the situation is more helpful then simply confirming everything people say. Sometimes an outside perspective is incredibly helpful.
5. Google is your friend. Yes, I know this one sounds out of place, but believe me, once you are as skilled at looking up the symptoms of viruses or where the nearest teen crisis shelter is, you will feel so much more prepared to offer solutions and resources when people need them. Plus, soon enough you will be able to answer questions like, “How does the morning after pill work, exactly?” and “Why are my lymph nodes swollen?” Which comes in handy a whole lot more than you’d expect.
6. Learn when to ask for further help. I’m not a doctor, I’m not a therapist, I am not a teacher or a parent, and sometimes there comes a point when I am not equipped to deal with the situation and just being a loving friend isn’t going to help this person anymore. That’s when you a) recommend a professional or b) contact a safe person who has the skills needed to help. You are NOT solely responsible for this person’s well-being.
7. Take your own advice. This is one I have to work on. It’s much easier to remind people to drink water, ask for help when they need it, eat enough food, try something new, allow themselves to feel their feelings, let people care for them etc. than it is to do that stuff yourself. But if you’re expending energy to care for others you deserve to care for yourself. In this same vein, be as kind, caring and loving towards yourself as you are to others. You truly believe they are beautiful, loved and that they will be taken care of? Great, guess what, the same is true for you. Make sure to remind yourself of that as well as reminding other people.
8. Remember that you don’t know everything. Sometimes, as much as we love people, we don’t know what’s best for them. People go through things that we don’t understand, things we can’t give advice about. However, people always need to be heard, so, listen, learn and love.
Accepting my big sister tendencies, including even the fact that I seem to draw people who need big sisters into my life, has definitely been (and continues to be) a journey and a learning experience. I have ceased wishing that I didn’t have to deal with it. However, embracing my role as a big sister doesn’t (as a previously expected) mean being “on duty” 100% of the time. It means learning to be gentle and care for myself as well, and learning to trust that I don’t have to save people, I just have to love them.
In the passed two years I have become increasingly aware that adulthood is something that you grow into very slowly. It’s a process. And often it doesn’t feel like you’re getting anywhere. I see posts from my peers all over social media sites making jokes about how bad they are “at adulthood”. “Eating ice cream for breakfast, because I’m an adult.” Or, “I didn’t realize adulthood would mostly involve crying into mac ‘n’ cheese while watching Frozen.” They joke, self-deprecatingly. Two semesters ago I took a Shakespeare class at college, the class itself was mildly disappointing, but one thing my professor said really stuck with me. She theorized that the things we joke about the most are the things we have anxiety about as a culture or as individuals. I think about this insight a lot, and I think that in this instance it’s true. People my age have a lot of anxiety about whether or not they are “doing adulthood” right. I am far from immune to this, I often worry that my choice to live with my parents during college will somehow stunt my adulthood and independence, even though I believe that I have made the best choice for myself. I worry that no matter how hard I work in college I won’t be ready to work hard at a job and that I am inherently too lazy to be a functional adult. These aren’t very well-founded fears, but they are fears nonetheless.
Recently I have been thinking a lot about why so many of my peers have this fear of not being good at being adults. Are our expectations about adulthood wrong? I think that is part of the problem. Books, movies and TV shows so often show adulthood as this glittering life of independence, adventure and romance. They do not highlight the loneliness, stress, and messiness of figuring out life on your own. But even more than that, I think a huge contributing factor to our adulthood anxieties is the myth of readiness. As a kid and teenager there were lots of things where I just assumed that when the time came I would be ready and I would know what to do. For me, adulthood has come with the realization that this is not the case. I think that for most of us there will always be things we don’t feel ready for, but that the actual adventure of adulthood lies in making the choices to do those things anyways.
Choosing to do things you don’t feel ready for is not the comfortable option. But I think many of us postpone finding meaning and doing what we are passionate about because we don’t feel ready yet, or because we’re afraid other people will think we’re not ready. I know that I struggle with this, especially in my writing. I constantly worry that what I have to say is of no value and that I am not ready or qualified to express my ideas as if they may be useful. However, I think that continually putting the things we want to do on hold often means that they never happen simply because we never feel ready. Of course, there is a balance, some things you do have to work towards, but even after working towards a career or a project or whatever it is sometimes you still won’t feel ready. For me, part of embracing adulthood has been embracing that lack of readiness and choosing to trust that if I am passionate and work hard then I am capable of doing the things I want to do here and now, whether I feel ready or not.
Today marks the one year anniversary of a fairly big life change for me; the end of a relationship, several friendships, a shift from one era to another. As I have been reflecting on the passed year I’ve found that though I have established myself in whatever this new phase of my life is, I don’t yet feel like I am where I am supposed to be. And before you point it out, yes, I know that I myself have said that I believe that by existing on this earth we are all where we are supposed to be, but it certainly doesn’t always feel that way. Which is very difficult for me. It’s hard not to tell myself that if I were doing the “right” things, coping with life the “right” way, then I would magically feel in place and at peace. It turns out that sometimes no matter how you try things are just hard, sometimes you’re just in transition and it’s not very comfortable. However, that doesn’t stop the voice in the back of my head from telling me that maybe if I were somehow better, life would be too.
I have been a perfectionist for my entire life. I distinctly remember bursting into tears on several occasions while trying to draw illustrations for the stories that I’d write as a kid. I couldn’t make the scribbles on the paper look like what I saw in my mind and it frustrated me to no end. Although I have since recognized that perfection is, in fact, unattainable in its very nature–and therefor have tried to train myself to recognize when my perfectionist side is getting the better of me–the same tendencies remain. I am one of those intolerable students who is actually disappointed when I get an A- instead of an A, so when life itself completely defies the “perfect” plan I have in mind it’s a rigorous physical, mental and spiritual challenge. Worse than actually dealing with imperfect situations is my unfulfillable desire to at least handle imperfect situations perfectly. “I should be able to accept this better, then I wouldn’t feel so upset”, “I should be able to trust more fully that I will be taken care of, I am a bad person/follower of Jesus for not being able to trust” and “I shouldn’t be angry, being angry isn’t the right way to feel, so I am not allowed to feel that way” are just some of the thoughts that go through my head in imperfect situations. Of course, the wiser part of my mind knows that even if I could deal with everything perfectly I couldn’t escape the messiness of being human, but my heart doesn’t always believe it.
Even now, when I feel a bit lost and out of place, it’s not that I don’t know what I want. I still have that “perfect” picture in my head for how I want my life to go. However, more than ever I worry that my vision and my wants are not the things I should want. “If I were perfect I wouldn’t want anything but to do good in the world and I would be content to do my best and trust that God will bring the rest.” But, I also realize that wanting is part of being human, and that many of my desires are completely pure and reasonable, maybe they are even there for a reason. So I find myself struggling to find the balance between trusting that my desires–for meaning, for a sense of home, for inspiring lifework, to find love and family–are worthy of pursuit, and recognizing that pursuing them may not go according to my “perfect” plan, and that that may be for the best. This is hard for me to believe for myself, despite the fact that I have total faith that things will work out for the other people in my life. I never doubt that my friends will find happiness and love and meaning, even if they don’t find it where they expect to. I completely trust that there is a good plan for everyone else, but struggle to treat myself and my story with the same grace. That voice in the back of my head tells me that it’s different for me because, unlike everyone else, I have to be perfect; as if my imperfections are somehow less forgivable and less human than the imperfections of people I love.
I have been trying to learn to embrace imperfection as part of my experience as a human being. This spring I got a tattoo, just a little one, five tiny stars on the inside of my arm. The artist finished and asked what I thought and I immediately began scrutinizing every corner and line, after all this will be under my skin forever! After making a few of the tiny improvements I requested, she turned to me, “You know, tattoos are imperfect by nature, you could try to make it look better forever, but eventually you’d mess it up more than if you just let it be.” Now every time I look at my tattoo and notice the imperfections I think of those words. No, the stars aren’t uniform, no, that one isn’t as pointy as I would like it to be, I stare at them and I can feel a tiny part of me start to panic. But when I move my arm farther from my face and look at the larger design it is beautiful and meaningful, and exactly what I need it to be.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: I almost decided not to write this post because that voice in my head suggested that it would be self-indulgent to share something so wholly oriented around myself, something I couldn’t imagine would be of much use to someone else (and obviously “perfect Hailey” would only write things that she believes would serve others). But as part of my journey towards grace and embracing imperfection I have been trying to talk to myself the way I talk to my friends. I would never tell a friend that their struggle wasn’t worth writing about. I would tell them that there’s someone out there who would be encouraged by their story. I would tell them that vulnerability is a powerful thing to share.
Since writing my last blog post I have spent a lot of time reflecting on the implications of a greater belonging. What does it mean to place ourselves in a larger story? One thought that kept coming up again and again when I asked myself that question was, “it means there’s no such thing as ‘not my problem.'” By which I mean that if I truly believe in a larger belonging then I can’t ignore it when I hear about instances of injustice and suffering. I do not exist in a vacuum, nor does poverty, or hunger, or war. This doesn’t mean it’s always my job or my place to directly address every given instance of injustice in the world, but it does mean that it is my job to care.
Personally, I tend to have a fairly strong sense of responsibility about the pain I see in the world, especially when I feel particularly aligned with a greater story and sense of belonging. But even the simple act of caring brings up further questions. How do I put caring into action? How do I be of service to others in this given situation? How do I respect the feelings and stories of others while still offering my support? How do I reconcile my desire to help and see peace and justice in the world, when the privilege I have (as a white, middle-class, straight woman) may create a barrier between me and the people I want to be of service to? This last question is one I encounter almost every time I learn of an issue of injustice previously unknown to me. I have tried to learn what I can about how my privilege affects how I see the world in order to discern how I may best be of service to others and help to magnify their voices instead of playing the loud hero myself. It turns out that this is a fairly complicated discussion to enter. Thanks to centuries of racism, sexism, ableism, colonialism and a whole host of other “isms”, and the divides caused by those prejudices, many of us are prone to forget that we don’t always know what’s best for people in situations vastly different from our own. We often make judgements in order to try to find solutions instead of listening to the needs of others and attempting to understand them as people instead of just problems to be addressed. I believe that living into a greater story means listening to these smaller stories and understanding where, why and how they connect to that greater story (is my history major side showing yet?). Belonging means no such thing as ‘not my problem’ but it also means listening and trying to understand how we can serve, instead of assuming that our perceptions and therefore our solutions are the best ones.
Once we have listened and learned sometimes it is very clear what we can do to address injustice, we can make changes to our every day lives to live in awareness of larger issues. We can be mindful in our consuming and support fairtrade organizations, we can be conscious of our impact on the environment and do our best to limit it, we can support local facilities that work to alleviate pain and poverty, etc. However, more often solutions to the injustice and suffering we see are unclear or seemingly non-existent, and the issues themselves are complicated to the point of being completely overwhelming. For the last week or so my Facebook feed has been overflowing with news from Gaza. Heart wrenching photographs of parents cradling their lifeless children, statistics showing the number of non-combatants who have be wounded and killed, arguments about who is at fault and who we should support and how we should pray… and all I can think is that men, women and children are dying. And there’s nothing I can do but pray that it all stops. It’s almost paralyzing, and sometimes I can’t help but feel angry that all I can do is pray. It doesn’t feel like enough, especially when nothing will undo the suffering that has already occurred. But what else can we do? As individuals? As a country? We see the injustice, how do we respond? What is our role in this larger story? How do we cultivate peace?
This post won’t have a satisfying conclusion, because I can’t answer any of those questions. I have been wrestling with them for a long time but any glimmer of an answer leads to more questions and more wrestling. At this point, I am simply trying to have faith that the story is far bigger than I can imagine and that somehow we are heading towards the world of peace and love that is so desperately needed.
When I was six years old, I distinctly remember knowing exactly what being a follower of Jesus meant to me. Our homeschool group held weekly “park days”, where a large group of moms would sit and chat while all of us kids ran around on a playground or in a field playing together. When I was six, making clubs became very chic among us youngsters: “girls’ club”, “boy’s club”, “vegetarians’ club”, clubs based on what books we liked or didn’t like, you name it. However, for some, part of the appeal of this fun, new trend was that some people were “in” and some people were “out”. This did not sit well with six-year-old Hailey; so I set out to create one, all-inclusive club that anyone and everyone could and would be part of. I called it “the Jesus club”, not because I had any desire to evangelize my fellow elementary schoolers, but because I truly believed that this was the kind of club Jesus would form–a club where anyone is welcomed, just the way they are, with no conditions or tests to pass in order to belong, no criteria to fit, just a place where everyone belongs. So I ran all over the playground, eager to make sure that everyone knew about my club that everyone could be part of. Of course, as a first grader, I had very little concept of who my audience was. I didn’t understand that you just don’t run around inviting people to your “Jesus club” in San Francisco. “Do you want to join my Jesus club?!” I excitedly asked one of the intimidating older girls (by older girl, I mean, she was 9).
“No!” She scoffed, wrinkling her nose in disgust and tossing her head, “I’m not religious.”
I was hurt and confused, but kept right on making sure everyone knew that they were welcome in “the Jesus club”. (Although, on the car ride home I did have to ask my mom what “religious” meant.)
As a six-year-old I had an unquestioned sense of belonging. I knew that not everyone would always like me, I knew that I wouldn’t be friends with everyone (as disappointing as that was), but I also knew that I belonged in the largest sense of the word. I had complete faith that my life fit into a larger picture, and that even though it may be small in the grand scheme of things, it mattered anyway.
Needless to say, my twenty-year-old self does not always find these truths as easy to believe. Twenty-year-old Hailey feels like she doesn’t quite fit anywhere, she worries that she’ll never find love, that her life doesn’t matter and that she will live with her parents forever because the idea of finding another home is terrifying. But, oh goodness, she wants to find that home. No matter how scary that longing is, she wants to find that larger sense of home so badly.
I am going to go out on a limb and guess that these fears and longings are not entirely unique to me. In fact, I would hazard a guess that they are very common, especially in my fellow young adults. This stage of life is full of searching for things, like one big life treasure hunt. This can feel very stressful and isolating. “Quick! I have to find important and meaningful work, a college degree that will be useful but that I am passionate about, a place to live, a significant other, a close-knit group of friends with whom I can create a support system…” The list goes on and on, as if we have to do everything we are going to do in life in the short and turbulent decade that is our twenties. This is, of course, not true. But sometimes it certainly feels that way, and I think that for many of us the anxiety about crossing things off of our life treasure hunt stems from a strong desire to belong. We’re in a hurry to find where we’re supposed to be in both a physical and metaphorical sense. However, I would suggest that the answer doesn’t lie in looking, but in creating.
For me, this means striving to be more like six-year-old Hailey. I want to be at peace, having faith in a greater belonging. I want to trust that I am part of a larger story, and that no matter how small, my part matters. And I want to be less concerned about finding where I fit in, and more concerned with creating spaces of belonging for the people in my life. In fact, I think shifting that focus is an important first step. For me, it is relatively easy to see how the people in my life fit into a larger story. I do not question their belonging the way I question my own. However, when I attempt to create spaces and situations that help them feel like they belong, I am forced to align myself with them and recognize that I, too, belong.
In case all of that sounds completely vague, let me clarify. Creating spaces of belonging is not some fancy, grand process. It doesn’t mean moving into a house with five people you want to live in community with, or hosting a regular gathering, or anything like that (although it could mean either of those things). When I say creating spaces, I simply mean making everyday choices and cultivating patterns in your relationships that give the other person a safe space and a sense of belonging. Make time for people, remind them that their feelings and struggles are valid, go the extra mile to make them feel loved, be honest with them, reassure them that they matter and belong, allow yourself to be a safe place for someone who may not have one. It sounds really simple, like cheesy friendship advice out of one of those American Girl books I had when I was nine. But treating everyone out of the belief that they are beloved truly does cultivate a greater sense of belonging in both you and them.
So, now, like the good college student I am, I will answer the “so what”? So what? Who needs belonging anyways? Are you saying that I am not an independent individual? Are you saying that I need other people to be happy? Well, in a way, yes. Sure, we are all independent individuals, but we’re also so closely knit that you simply cannot isolate your existence from anyone else’s existence. As humans we share everything. So, you have two choices: you can reject the idea that we all belong and live in a world where some people belong and others don’t (warning: this route leads to war, sadness, oppression and lots of other not-so-fun circumstances) OR you can choose to live into the belief that we all belong (warning: pain is a side effect of caring, so, sadly, there is no easy option). I believe that choosing to live into this belief and align ourselves with a bigger story helps us realize our full potential to create change, beauty and meaningful relationships.
Moral of the story: As a person on this planet, you belong just as much as every other person on this planet. You matter to the greater story and don’t need to match any criteria to prove your belonging. We all face times where we do not feel that greater belonging and struggle to accept it. That is okay. (But even when you feel this way you do still belong and there’s nothing you can do about it.) Living into that sense of belonging is what allows us to unlock our full potential and create meaningful relationships. Treat others with the knowledge that they belong just as much as you. And treat yourself with the knowledge that you belong just as much as anyone else.
I realize that I am falling behind in my blogging duties (again!). I just wanted to let you all know that I am working on a post which should be up in the next few days, however I have been very sick this weekend, thus the lack of timely posting.
In the meantime, I wanted to thank you all for viewing and sharing my posts so much in the past few weeks! I am delighted (and surprised) to find that people actually want to read the things that I write, so thank you, thank you, thank you.