Do we believe what we see or do we see what we believe? Jason Petty
This is such a packed question isn’t it? I heard this said a few weeks ago and haven’t been able to put it out of my mind since. What a powerful and necessary dynamic to explore - to question whether we explain things away with our certainties, or if we can stay open enough to see the truth as it opens before us.
While challenged by this question, I began to see the start of how we can end up in a place of certainty, and I think it often begins with our speech, and particularly, the way we name things.
When we’re children, we learn simple words by association. We see a circle, we’re told it’s called “circle,” we begin referring to all round bodies as circles. As we get older, we learn to name more abstract concepts and feelings and can reason deeper and more intelligently. Whether we’re children assigning the word “cat” to a quadruped with a long tail and whiskers or conceptualizing human emotions or philosophy, we are perceiving, processing, and assigning worth to create an interpretation of the external world. We assign meaning to everything we encounter, and when we name something - when we give language to an experience - we reduce the thing to a concrete definition, an expectation, a constant.
Words are supposed to frame our world with concepts, but what tends to happen when we name things, is that we define them instead. One cannot generically say “tree” and a mass of people create the same mental image. “Tree” is a concept that is universal to our cultural understanding, but not something concrete and exact to then stick in concrete and put on a shelf. The tree changes in size, shape, color, texture, and in various ways that we cannot totally predict. We’re meant to live our lives through experience, wonder and intuition, using language as a way to connect us to our surroundings but not to reduce our way of life to scraps.
I think of what Jiddu Krishnamurti meant when he said “the day you teach the child the name of a bird, the child will never see the bird again.” It’s much more interesting to watch a bird gather materials for it’s nest or to preen it’s feathers, than to just say “bird.” “Bird” means wings and feathers and can create a construct of the subject being spoken of, but it doesn’t even touch hearing it’s call or seeing it’s pattern of flight or the coloration of it’s feathers. So the trick is to be able to name things, yet also to hold that name loosely enough to let the magic breathe through them still.
I love how in Jewish culture the name of God isn’t written in its entirety. It is written YHWH or G-d and is not spoken at all. Sometimes God is called HaShem which means “the name.” Sometimes the name of God is replaced with pause and breathing. The essence of God is so revered and honored that they allow God to remain fluid and uncontainable. They don’t give him the concreteness of a name because they understand that they are actually incapable of knowing him and understanding him fully. So they let the name breathe and evolve.
The way God is conceptualized in this culture is horrifying. My own definitions have been from opinions formed from my finite mind: by speculation and poor translating. The collective conscience of the faith behind proselytization created and upheld a slave economy after all. God is rarely what we say or think he is because we are too busy trying to prove our interpretations right. Again, are we blindly affirming what we already believe, or are we open to the experience of God Himself? So while challenging my view of God, I had to start at the very basic question: who is God? Wanting to bypass my own interpretation, I went to the book of Exodus where God named himself to Moses.
Moses was having confidence issues about approaching the slaves and declaring that God was going to free them. He asked God, “Well...if they ask, who do I even say that you are?” And God replied, “I am that I am.” “I am that I am” is more accurately translated as “I will be what I will be” or “I will become whatever I may become.” It was not a very helpful definition in terms of specificity, but it was a big and bold promise that God was going to be everything they needed: water from a rock, clothing that never wore out, a parted sea, a softened heart, a pillar of fire, manna, freedom that looked like a desert. He is fluid, uncontainable, and ever-present. He’s everything and nothing specific. He didn’t define himself with an overload of adjectives, but told us who he was in relation to us: a very real promise of provision and presence. This is what we needed to know - a definition that created context and familiarity, while avoiding anything concrete that could box God into something less than. The rest, was to be left to the experience of knowing him and seeing his promise play through.
All through the desert, the Israelites grappled with this definition to the point of longing for Egypt - the very heart of what held them captive. Our certainty does that to us. It removes the mystery and the call to trust and replaces it with platitudes. Even when our platitudes are dull and lifeless, we still cling to them. Often times it’s easier to believe the pat answer than to remain in a state of vulnerability and just trust. The Israelites would rather have been predictably and routinely fed by their masters than to trust God to miraculously feed them in freedom. That’s what our certainty does to us, it tames us. It robs us of life and only lets us see the things that uphold what we already believe. They believed God had forgotten them because they didn’t have a kingdom of their own. All they had to do was believe what God had promised them, to let the miracles of their very emancipation and sustenance carry them through and they would have been able to see the miracle of their desert-life for what it was.
So what does my understanding evoke and how can I escape the finality of such a large and unruly definition? I think this quote opened more questions in me then it did offer answers, but isn’t that the point? God will do the unexpected, he’ll lead me through deserts while making bold promises for my barren life. All he asks is that I follow and trust. So I follow and I try to hold loosely to the ideas I have of God while trying to let the experience rope me in and shake my beliefs down to the breath. The very place where God is closest to me. The experience and act of living itself.
”Are you willing to begin again today?”
This prompt really reveals the heart, doesn’t it? Because each moment is new and can be creatively reimagined, but the will must be given permission. I often need persuaded to let go of the broken things from yesterday. So, when asked what habits I will create today to become a better me, I’d say releasing is the priority.
In my last post I explained what the direction of this next year will be for me - deep listening. Over the course of the last few weeks, I have avoided the silence with as much intensity as I have deeply craved it. Similar to the way a person preparing for a fast subconsciously "stocks up" on calories beforehand, I have gluttoned out on everything overstimulating and fruitless. It's like I dove head-first into the media pool to make myself sick so I wouldn't miss it. I think I've succeeded.
I started reading a book called "Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less." While I'm almost weary from any sort of input from books (particularly nonfiction) and podcasts, I was really drawn to this book. It seems to be complimentary to the changes I wish to make in life. I have such incredible decision-fatigue that I feel I can no longer sort the essential from the non-essential. That was one of the main goals of this year of listening: to get some perspective about what to hang on to, and what to let go of. I'm too close and it all seems impossible to reduce.
The first lesson that really stuck out to me had to do with the power of choice. Specifically, that I actually have one. While I logically know this, the busyness of my life persuaded me otherwise. While life with a large family quantifies a laundry list of responsibilities and therefore reduces certain options laid before me on the daily, I have equated that with not having a choice at all. I have learned helplessness; feeling unable to control my time or options and always having to choose the best of what was presented to me instead of realizing I could simply reimagine the possibilities altogether. Having the freedom of choice and having reduced options are two entirely different beasts. Being reminded that I have the ability to take the lead in what and how I choose, is incredibly empowering (and incredibly simplistic, I know).
I used to be addicted to busyness, now I can hardly sit down when I want to. I have realized though, after starting this revelatory book (and this recent aversion to the silence), that I actually still am addicted to the busyness. I may not have large blocks of time to sit and do what I want, but I do have spaces throughout the day that are used foolishly. Instead of taking those moments as a pause from the chores or needs of children, I don't stop. I busy myself with more and more meaningless tasks that add to my agitation and overstimulation instead of unwinding, gathering my thoughts, processing all of the input I keep stuffing myself with. I busy myself with things that are non-essential burdens to my day that trick me into thinking that I don't have a spare second. And sometimes, I busy myself with the duties of life that, at times, need to take a backseat to my humanity, too.
So, while it seems insane to have to allot blocks of media-free/input-free time, it's necessary to the simpler life that I am after, and conducive to the "deep listening" that I had planned for this year. There's something freeing about designating times to allow myself to think or read the bible or just not feel pressed to make phone calls or answer emails or switch the clothes from the washer to the dryer if I have 10 spare minutes. It's freeing to remember that I have a choice outside of the ridiculous habits that I have formed.
Overall, I am incredibly excited to use the principles in this book to help me determine what I want to be priority in my life, and to know how to continuously reassess my wants and needs. I am hopeful that the details of my life will go from the erratic frenzy that they are now, to a true, life-giving expression of my deepest desires. That to me, is most essential.
This time of year creates an intense lure to silence. Winter is a naturally romanticized time of year that can make a mere mug of tea a spiritual experience. It has a gravity that pulls at the deepest parts of myself to be still and to listen. The snow creates a silence that's difficult to overlook. My focus instinctively repositions inward, and there seems to be a graceful permission to change pace, to slow down, to be present and enjoy what is immediately before us.
Of course, with 5 children, silence is a rare and cherished gift. While I typically long for moments of quiet, I'm not just talking about the kind of silence that is a mere soundlessness, but a silence that is deep and cultivated. Silence as an experience that opens up feelings and helps me to identify the noise that I carry within.
This last year my anxiety was omnipresent. I couldn't seem to escape it. It surpassed being situational, therapy only helped so much, nothing made it better, and most things made it worse. It's there in part because I have been exceptionally good at stuffing skeletons in my closet. It's there because I am not good at feeling my feelings, but thinking about them. While I'm not blaming myself for my anxiety or trying to oversimplify the causation, I do know that the visceral set of "facts" that my body has stored and lived by, need some attention. Silence is a quiet attunement to hear what my body and emotions have been trying to speak to me, and that I am finally ready to hear. There are several spiritual disciplines that have proven worthy of my time and attention, there are also some very practical ways that I can help myself not to feel so overwhelmed and frantic.
This is my tentative focus for the year:
While I don’t expect these practices to cure my anxiety, I do expect that they will enliven, rejuvenate, and help anchor me to the Spirit of life that keeps one hoping and whole. I need to practically relearn what I was created for, and the best way to know that, is to go to the source of life itself. These disciplines will help me to slow down, to make space from the chaos of human-stimuli, to disengage from the non-essentials, and to focus my time and energy on hearing the One who can lead me to freedom if I could just hear his voice.
• I could get used to the kinds of mornings when the world wakes up more slowly. Where the space between breathing and doing is a mighty chasm. Where I can sit in the dark, before the fog lifts, and witness my own rebirth.
• The warm mug against my palm always makes me feel like I am exactly where I’m supposed to be.
• The upside down letters written with a finger on the foggy window remind me that children aren’t worried about perfection as much as making their mark on the world.
• I’m learning that peace isn’t something you do, but a presence to know.
There’s something about this time of year - when Advent is upon us - and the silence the snow evokes can be felt deep in the bones. It’s the kind of silence that invites a richer life, a good look at the heart, the hope of what can be. It’s one of the few times of year that God-as-gift feels tangible, feels close. Like an expectant mother holding her rounding belly, I hold a heart that is swelling. My heart as the inn, emptying itself to make room for the coming king.
Tired mothers push their children in strollers with wheels that are coming off from overuse.
Mere children so afraid of gang violence and cartels that they're leaving their own families before they're in double digits. Walking a thousand plus miles with strangers just to have a chance at asylum. A chance to feel safe.
Mother's hearts breaking as children run off in the night to join the masses.
Pink eye from the dust stirred beneath their sore-covered feet.
Running from the kind of poverty we can't even fathom. Not the food stamp, homeless shelter, food pantry kind of poverty we know.
Afraid of their own government
of political unrest
of gang violence.
Blistered and dehydrated, the children still laugh and play and hope.
How desperate does one have to be to leave their homes, their families, their culture, familiarity, just to have a fighting chance at refuge?
Poor restaurant owners pass out beans and rice and bottled water. The people with the least helping the most.
Then we throw tear gas to those who are just asking for help. 1,243 miles later, and they extend their hands to us with high hopes and are met with poison and push back.
Denying Christ isn't just a verbal renunciation of belief, but the thousand different ways we trample the image of Christ in others.
We renouce Christ by ignoring the cries of the oppressed
by giving stones to those asking for bread
by spraying poison at children asking for peace
by protecting our way of life instead of the actual lives of others.
We deny Christ when we refuse to see his image in the lives of everyone around us: migrant, refugee, native, neighbor, and brother alike.
We deny Christ when we say we carry His name and act nothing like him.
Others will use our lives to define who God is. Do you look like Jesus? The one who offers peace and promise, or are you presenting serpents instead?
We are tabernacled by a holy God.
Filled with the capacity to hold the world within our hearts
to carry the oppressed, the voiceless, the marginalized, and to carry it all with grace.
So as mothers carry babies, and babies carry fear, let’s allow the love of Christ to enable us to carry them.
To respond to their vulnerability with understanding, to respond to their pain with aide, to allow others to jump on the same caravan of Grace that’s been carrying each and every one.
As the leaves are falling and the air is cooling, I think of her and how she loved this time of year. When the crochet hook could come out and there were pies to be made and she could sit a little longer without guilt.
I think of her as I sit in the wooden pew on Sunday. As the hymns are sung, I can still hear her alto voice, harmonizing.
For a fleeting moment when I pass her house I get excited and think I should drop in and say hello, and then I’m pained with the reality that I can’t.
I miss hearing the sing-song way she said “hellll-ooo-oh” when I opened her front door.
I love how she’d send me letters in the mail even though we shared the same tiny town.
I think of her as I enjoy the last of her homemade preserves. I enjoy each bite knowing that next year I won’t have any of the berries her hands have touched.
I miss pouring her “cuppa you know what” into her favorite coffee mug and watching her enjoy that long-drawn first sip.
I miss seeing her interact with my children. While I feel grateful they can say their great-grandmother was a special part of all of their lives, I feel greedy for more.
I miss the diaper coupons I’d get in the mail. Not because they saved me all that much, but because she was thinking of me when she took her scissors to the dotted line, just so she could keep the line between us connected. Intact.
Although she was a tender-hearted woman, she was always very tough. Maybe she wasn’t the person to console the crying, but she’d be the first to send a meal or money or an encouraging letter to remind you that God was near.
She’s not here, yet she always will be. She graces so many moments still, that’s how special she was. I am her namesake and I hope I wear it well. I hope to always remember to breathe her sweetness into those around me, so that I might keep her legacy going.
• I awoke while it was still dark outside. Making beds, opening curtains, waiting for the light I knew would come.
• Relaxing with the warm cup against my palm. I watched her from across the room - the one whose hands were a ballet while she spoke.
• I admire my collection of sunrise photos my 7-year-old has captured on my phone. Especially the ones where there is a bit of the windshield or a finger in view. He calls them a masterpiece and doesn’t even realize.
• I’m caught reflecting on the ways I might be building military bases on the holy sites of others.
Motherhood is such a beautiful ideal, and an extremely difficult truth. We have such difficult scales to balance - to nourish adequately, to help our children navigate their way out of their unkempt outpour of emotions. To teach them to be flexible and to share, to be kind and brave, and to steward their belongings with care. We feed and nap them, we give deliriously without asking for anything in return, except the hopeful anticipation that our children will be happy and love well in the end. We manage all of these aspects of their lives, while we, ourselves, are sleep-deprived, and have our very own emotional gardens that need tending.
In the midst of chaos - the no's and time-outs, the tantrums and upset, the whining and general non-cooperation - I can experience a lot of anxiety, especially when the delirium of sleep-deprivation sets in. Most days, I deal with the messes as they come. I can take one incident at a time, isolate it from the rest of the chaos, and move on with relative ease. But there are some days when my mind is overstimulated from multi-tasking, "exhausted" is an understatement, my fine motor skills are more like a joke, and my nerves are raw and exposed. I feel the anxiety creep through me like a sickness, and I internally implode over every rebuttal of my authority.
I don't check in with myself, I continue to justify every nuance of frustration until anger is born. I lose it in front of the very beings I am teaching to have self-control. I yell and I cry and I feel such an enormous amount of relief from unloading. I take all of the weight back when I realize the repercussions of what I've done.
I am guilt-ridden and overwrought with the fact that I am giving my kids life-tools. I am personally handing them mechanisms to deal with conflict and to navigate reconciliation and peace. I am the one that will set the standard for their lives. What I say and how I react in one moment, has the power and opportunity to settle into their personalities, and to become their inner dialogue.
So I take my children into my arms. I humbly ask them for forgiveness, and I vow not to behave so recklessly in the future, and a miracle happens, one that makes me realize that I'm doing alright at this parenting gig, despite my mishaps. My children embrace me right back, and through teary-eyes, they forgive me. They forgive me.
We can't be perfect, but we can be sorry. We need to sit with our children and let them see that humility and forgiveness have power. I realized in that moment that my children are understanding their role in conflict resolution - their very choice. Our home will never be completely conflict-free, but we can all make the individual choice to forgive. We love each other enough that we can make allowances for each other's mistakes because the safest place to practice...is at home.
So we move forward, safeguarding our hearts with practical ways we can diffuse our frustrations before they give birth to destruction. I promise to keep more careful track of my emotions, to keep better balance of chores and fun, to put down the dish towel or the laundry and to guard our relationships most carefully when the stress meter seems dangerously overworked. And above all, to have a little grace for each and every one of us.
I was able to teach my children a valuable lesson - albeit the wrong way - and they taught me one too: that love is messy and imperfect, and ALWAYS a choice. No matter what, we are there for each other, and that is what matters most. Love is a powerful motivator, and they are doing it right. It compels me to be a better person, to love harder, and to let go of the things in this life that pester and nag me into defeat.
(First published in The Village Magazine's blog in October 2017)