Brave Enough to Keep Trying

Brave Enough to Keep Trying

Since I was in elementary school, I have fantasized about performing in a Broadway musical. It doesn’t matter that I have the vocal giftedness of a robot—a dream is a dream, and it was mine.

Blame my parents for taking me to see The Phantom of the Opera when I was ten. Everything about the performance was magical, inspiring me to spend hours locked in my bedroom pretending to be Christine Daaé. I played the soundtrack on repeat, singing along and memorizing every lyric—if a casting director ever knocked on my door, I would be ready.

It didn’t matter that I couldn’t sing on key to save my life. I was brave enough then to hold fiercely to a dream that stirred my heart, no matter what odds were stacked against me.

I tried out for our town’s production of Annie, singing my little heart out in the group audition and using my best falsetto to sound just like the professionals. I didn’t get a call back; it was the last time I tried out for a show of any kind. One rejection was all it took to squelch the shaky confidence that had given me the courage even to try.

If we let it, fear of failure will keep us from doing anything that matters. 

Rejection is devastating, even if it’s just perceived. As a kid, anticipating that I might not have what it took to get a part was enough to keep me from trying out again. Even though I’m all grown up now, insecurity still squelches my courage more often than I’d like to admit.

It’s been months since I’ve written anything here after losing my confidence as a writer when my world imploded last year. A series of events outside of my control led to a season of debilitating anxiety and depression, forcing our family to focus all our energy on recovery and healing. It has been excruciating and grace-filled and painful and beautiful—a year we would have never chosen, but one God has used to build greater freedom and deeper love than ever before.

Writing again now makes me wonder if my heart has really recovered enough to be vulnerable with my words again. It feels brave to offer my story back out to the world, unprotected from potential criticism, misunderstanding, or judgment.

I’m not a professional blogger. I’ve never been formally trained in creative non-fiction. I don’t know what I’m doing when my fingers start flying across the keyboard, but I know it makes me feel alive to put my heart into words.

More often than not, I read other writers’ work and feel inadequate in comparison. I talk myself out of the unique voice I bring to the world because it’s not as witty/deep/well-written/insightful/funny/inspiring/fill-in-the-blank as those I admire.

Even though I know better, I still catch myself using others as my measuring stick of enough-ness. I forget I’m not supposed to be them, I am designed to be me—imperfect, honest, insecure, passionate, dorky, hopeful—fully myself, just as I am.

Comparison steals the joy of discovering the irreplaceable beauty only we can offer the world.

I tell myself I shouldn’t even try to write because it’s not like I’m going to publish a book or make a living on my blog or do anything substantial with my words. It’s like I’m asking, “What’s the point of singing show tunes if I’m never going to perform on Broadway?”

Because I love it, that’s why.

Just like listening to Elphaba belt out “Defying Gravity” gives me chills and brings tears to my eyes (Wicked fans, am I right?!), writing awakens my soul and brings it to life like nothing else. And even though I may not be Idina Menzel, I can still sing the song I’ve been given at the top of my lungs with all the passion my heart can muster.

What matters most isn’t the performance I deliver but the bravery of offering my unique voice, no matter the response.

So I’m starting here, choosing to do one brave thing at a time, feeling vulnerable because it requires me to step out of the safety of my comfort zone. I may not be the best writer in the blogosphere, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t write anyway. I’ll never grow into who I was meant to be unless I try and try and try again.

Neither will you.

Your brave thing will likely look completely different than mine. It might be inviting someone over for dinner or applying for a new job or setting boundaries in a relationship or taking that class you’ve always thought about. But if you never attempt the thing lingering in the back of your mind, you’ll never experience the fullness of who you were meant to be.

Building courage takes practice, so let’s just keep trying. You will be braver for showing up, even if you don’t get chosen for the part. The world needs more people like you.

Since vocal performance is not in my gift set, I decided to audition for a new role last week. After months of training, preparing, and convincing myself not to quit, I gathered enough courage to do something new and scary: I became certified as a group fitness instructor. And get this: I will dance on a stage wearing a microphone!

It may not be Broadway, but it feels like the next best thing. And you know what? That’s good enough for me.

The Secret to Being Loved—and Why It’s So Hard

The Secret to Being Loved—and Why It’s So Hard

Today I know I am loved. Radically, abundantly, lavishly loved. And, maybe for the first time in my life, I’m not just trying to convince myself that I’m loved based on the evidence. I’m not giving myself a pep talk in the mirror, convincing my heart to feel all the things my head knows to be true. I’m not trying to convince anyone that I’m lovable by attempting to earn their approval through my good behavior. I’m not grasping for an emotional experience I desperately long for but fear I don’t actually deserve.

No, this is different than in the past. Today, my heart and my head are aligned, and it’s no small miracle. Like turning my face toward the sun, I am holding still long enough to bask in the absolute goodness of knowing I am loved more than I can fathom—and I have done nothing to deserve it.

Why does today feel like such a victory? Wouldn’t anyone feel loved if they were surrounded by gracious friends, part of a generous family, and married to the best human on the face of the planet? Unfortunately, no. Just being loved (even when loved abundantly and well) is not enough to make someone believe they are loved.

Sometimes it takes breaking into pieces to experience the love that has been there all along. 

The last several weeks have been exhausting. Strike that—it has been a moment-by-moment battle for my sanity. Every single day for the past month and a half has been filled with some of the most difficult conversations, excruciating pain, spiritual heights, intimate moments, and crippling fear of my entire life. It’s been enough to make a person feel crazy—or at least worn down by intense emotions to the point of deep soul fatigue.

I’m sitting here writing for the first time since before all hell broke loose, watching the rain fall in torrents from the sky. Not even five minutes ago, the sun was shining and the sky was the brightest shade of blue. It happens like that in the spring, the weather changes quickly and unexpectedly. It’s a normal pattern each year, yet I’m still caught off guard when I’m outside without a coat and the rain pours down.

Pain always catches me off guard, too. Even though it’s a normal, expected part of being alive.

A few months ago, I had told a few close friends this was the year I wanted to be done with the insecurities and anxiety that had come in waves on and off for as long as I can remember. I told them I was ready to be free—I wanted to be my truest self, uninhibited by the old stuff I kept wrestling down, pushing it back below the surface of my heart.

No more working harder than I should because I am afraid of disappointing someone.

No more shaming myself for eating too much dessert or panicking if I miss a workout.

No more striving to prove that I’m competent even though I’ve been out of the professional world for several years.

No more hiding the pain of public humiliation from past failure.

No more fear of failing at whatever new thing I’m brave enough to risk trying.

No more longing for some other role that might satisfy my soul more than the humbling job of motherhood.

No more wishing to live any life other than the beautiful one I’ve been given.

No more pretending. No more hiding. No more performing. Only freedom.

I had no idea what freedom would cost. I didn’t realize it would require me to face every fear, forcing me to drag my husband, family, and closest friends with me through the muck and mire of my overwhelming emotions. I didn’t realize that in order to release anxiety, I would actually have to walk through it, allowing panic to fully surface in its various forms.

I didn’t expect freedom to cost so much.

But the miracle unfurled slowly, as my inability to hold myself together decreased exponentially with each passing day. I was falling apart, and I couldn’t hide it. Friends kept checking in, and I was too tired from so much heartache to pretend I was okay. The harder I worked to stop hurting, the more out of control I felt—I just couldn’t stop the storm from coming. But they never stopped checking in. They never stopped praying.

When I deserved it the very least, when I had absolutely nothing left to offer except my embarrassment over what a mess I was, my people just kept loving me. And because I was exhausted from my own battle with fear—my fear that if I couldn’t pull myself together, they would give up and walk away from my broken pieces—I finally couldn’t help but let their love in.

I needed to be loved, but I didn’t get to choose how—I just had to receive love in whatever form it came.

The rain has stopped now and the sky transformed back to blue, maybe even a clearer blue than before the storm. The air feels fresher from the rain, and somehow my lungs have a greater capacity to breathe in the gift of oxygen after so many tears.

I’ve never needed to know that I’m loved more than I do these days. Yet, the miracle is, because my heart has broken wide open, there is nothing left to keep love out. So I’m going to just keep letting it come. And maybe, just maybe, it will get out a little bit easier now too.

 

When Life Bursts Through

When Life Bursts Through

The snow finally just melted in our town for the first time since the end of November. To say it’s been a long winter is a bit of an understatement. My kids squealed with delight to discover grass on the lawns in our neighborhood, exposing its sad condition after many months of bearing a frozen topcoat. Sometimes it feels like endless winter is about to bury me too.

Over the weekend, the sun peeked out for a couple hours and we braved the chilly air so the kids could ride bikes in front of our house. I was sitting on the porch step when my son brought me something he had found in the dirt. “What this, Mommy?” he asked in his sweet little three-year-old voice.

I looked closely at the odd-shaped green thing he showed me, rounded on one end and flat on the other. Then it hit me—he was holding a bulb in his tiny hand. After months without any signs of hope, new life was sprouting through the dirt! After what feels like a never-ending season of dormancy, I’m spotting the first signs of new life in my heart, too. Hope bursts through just when it seems like the waiting will never end.

Seven years ago, I was in the middle of one of the hardest seasons of my life. Anxiety had reached an all-time high, to the point where my body and mind were so overloaded I had to take time off of work to learn how to function normally again. Those two months of sick leave ushered in a season of rest that lasted longer than I’d ever anticipated; I haven’t worked full-time since.

Moving to a new town and learning (ever so slowly) to embrace my life as a stay at home mom forced me to stop spinning all the former plates of achievement, professional competence, and busyness that had produced such anxiety in the first place. These past seven years have been my training ground for the pace of life I actually want to live.

Instead of accepting stress and busyness as a normal rhythm of life, my babies have given me the gift of unproductivity. They’ve forced me to slow down, teaching me through their constant neediness that growing deep roots cannot be rushed. Growth is supposed to happen slowly—there is no shortcut for time.

Never has the picture of the vine and the branches meant more. As Jesus instructs those who want to know him, “Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.” If I want to grow, I must hold still.

I must remain. Remain in the place where I believe God’s love is real. Remain quiet enough to hear his voice whispering to my heart. Remain in the words he spoke for his friends to write down. Remain in the truth that I am loved. Remain in acceptance, whether I feel like I deserve it or not.

As I remain quiet and still, the vine nourishes me with its life. Hope floods my soul, just as nutrients flow from the vine to it’s branches, causing them to grow. I don’t produce the growth myself, I just hold still long enough to let love grow in me. Quit resisting, quit striving, quit squirming under the discomfort of being loved just as I am, not as I should be. A life filled with love can’t help but bear fruit.

I’m different today than I was seven years ago, and I only have one explanation for the change: Love changes everything. The work of holding still and learning to remain in God’s love has changed me from the inside out.

I’m not afraid of failure anymore, because I know I am loved. 

I don’t have to strive to prove my competence or worthiness anymore, because I know I am loved. 

I don’t have to worry about what others are thinking or saying about me, because I know I am loved. 

I don’t have to say yes when I don’t have the capacity, because I know I am loved.

While I was getting my haircut, my hairdresser and I were talking about how different we are than we used to be, especially before we both had kids. She told me something that has stuck with me: as new follicles grow over time, they replace what has fallen out so that every seven(ish) years we have a whole new head of hair. My hair is different than it was seven years ago. I am a different woman than I was seven years ago. Love has changed me, from my head down to my toes.

Life is starting to burst through. Just when the winter felt like it would never end, a new shoot of hope pokes its way through the ground. Love is growing–a new season begins today.

When Failure Leads to Freedom

When Failure Leads to Freedom

I love birthdays.  Everything about them. But especially the generosity with which people tend to shower you with love and adoration.  I especially like that part. I also like thinking about my birthday as a milestone, a flag in the sand marking the distance traveled since this time last year.

As I celebrate what my family lovingly calls my “birthday month,” I’m struck by how different my life looks today than it did just a few birthdays ago. I’m more myself, more alive, more secure in who I’m created to be, and more resolutely convinced that this life-long journey toward whole-hearted living is worth the hard work it requires.

I’m further on my journey than I used to be, but I’m still traveling one step at a time. And sometimes the steps are really, really hard. Remembering the journey gives me courage to keep pressing onward. Looking back, I can also see firsthand how nothing is wasted when surrender is the outcome. Because sometimes we have to fall apart to discover who we really are.

*     *     *

Five years ago, my world came crashing down.  It was the culmination of a lifetime of performing, achieving, working to earn my value in the eyes of myself and others.  I had always prided myself in my capacity to handle more than most people should, but my inability to see the danger of a lifestyle defined by busyness, urgency, and a need to be needed led to my breakdown.

For the six years before that point, I had been doing a job that I loved, but where my duties had gradually increased to a point that was beyond any one person’s capabilities.  I alternated between feeling inspired by the challenges of my role, gratified by the impact it allowed me to make on students and school culture, and feeling overwhelmed by the impossible weight of my responsibilities.

Stress was a constant.  I depended on adrenaline to get me through the days, and my mind would spin on overdrive during my workday and beyond. There was always too much to do and never enough time to do it.  It became more and more difficult to sleep, as if my body was constantly in fight or flight mode, trying to survive the danger of anxiety to my mental, physical, and emotional health.  I felt alone, as if the burden of changing school culture was mine alone to bear–prideful in my belief that I was even capable of such a mammoth undertaking.  But my passion and belief in the significance of my work made it easy to ignore the warning signs of an unsustainable lifestyle that was driven by a subconscious fear of failure.

I finally hit a wall midway through the school year five years ago when sleep deprivation and mental exhaustion forced me to deal with the limitations of being human.  I. Could. Not. Keep. Pushing. The job was too much for me.  My expectations of myself were too much for me.  I had reached my breaking point.

My husband had been watching me struggle, carrying the weight of my stress more and more in the previous months.  He agreed to let me submit my resignation, effective at the end of the school year, still several months away. The relief was indescribable, but so was my sense of failure. I ended up taking a couple months of sick leave, providing time for my body to recover from extreme fatigue and for my mind to slow down from months and months of constant spinning.

Even though I was desperate for rest, I couldn’t shake the sense that I was abandoning the students who needed me, the school I had poured my heart into, and my dreams of the positive changes I could make if I could just keep fighting. I was tempted to fill my time away from work with other stuff I never had time to do–but Corey kept reminding me to rest.  Don’t waste the gift of time, he would say. Just rest.

It was a fight, but a couple weeks into my sick leave I slowed down enough to start really sleeping again.  It was uncomfortable at first, but I finally learned to enjoy moments of stillness in my days. I was quiet and unproductive. I read books and attempted painting. I felt like I was wasting time, but in reality I was healing from years and years of spinning, striving, and working to earn the approval of others.

After my sick leave was up, there were still a couple months left in the school year. I went back to work with a new awareness of my limitations and with a much lower capacity for stress. I wondered with much trepidation, “Will I still have what it takes?”  It turns out that I didn’t.

I had changed for the better after two months of recovery time, but my job was the same as when I left it. I found myself unable to function at the pace I’d set earlier in the school year—it felt like I was sitting on the freeway while cars raced past and I was still struggling to start the ignition. I’d lost momentum in my teaching and credibility with my students, and I felt isolated and alone.  I just didn’t have it in me to keep pushing anymore, but I had to finish out the school year somehow.  I felt trapped. Stuck. Overwhelmed. Hopeless.

Depression set in quickly as I realized that my best efforts weren’t enough.  I was failing to live up to the standard of performance I had set for myself.  I was failing.  It was more than just a hard couple months at work, it felt like it was defining who I had become. My worst fear had become my reality—failure.

Somehow I managed to crawl across the finish line at the end of the school year, but things only continued to spiral downward. My confidence was gone, my energy was depleted, and I was finishing my Master’s degree as we prepared to move to a new town where my husband was called to a new job in ministry. Life was too much to handle.

I didn’t know who I was anymore.  I had always been Jillian the overachiever, the perfectionist, the hard-working one who can do it all.  Now I was just Jillian, the failure. What was I worth if I couldn’t do anything important? I could barely get out of bed in the morning anymore, let alone work to earn my worth in the world. I was spiraling quickly into darkness that felt consuming.

We moved and Corey started his new job, but I didn’t have it in me to even look for work.  Bless the man I married for seeing my desperate need for rest.  He told me again and again that taking care of myself was my job for the year. Even that was overwhelming some days.  I had lost hope. It seemed like this new version of myself was who I would always be now—paralyzed by anxiety and despair, believing that God had abandoned me and I deserved it.

In my hopelessness, I sat one morning alone in our living room, sobbing over the mess I had become. I finally cried out loud a desperate prayer for rescue, yelling, “God, don’t leave me like this!” I held nothing back. All my shame, anger, fear, and anguish came out in ugly tears as I realized that I had no hope of doing anything to change the way I felt. I could not rescue myself.

Freedom comes with surrender, and that was my moment of freedom.

Slowly, almost imperceptibly, hope started to creep back in. There were small glimmers at first, then moments of relief, then even days and weeks at a time when I started to feel like myself again. I was able to talk about how I was feeling without being overwhelmed by hopelessness.  My eyes were lifted from my own consuming pain to see the truth that I had never been abandoned by God, I had just stopped believing his promises were true.

Months passed, and I realized that the circumstances that had brought me to such a dark place were divinely orchestrated. God used my sense of failure to rescue me from a lifestyle of busyness, perfectionism, and endless striving for approval that would have killed my soul if I had continued in it. Someone once told me that the only difference between a rut and a grave is its depth.  I had been digging my own grave.

It took failure to break me free from the pressure to perform.

It took hopelessness to force me to examine where my hope actually comes from.

It took coming to the end of myself to realize that my identity is deeper than the things I do.

I would have never guessed it at the time, but my greatest sense of failure has since led to a greater freedom than I’ve ever experienced. It has come over the past five years of learning to be still and rest in God’s presence, listen to his voice, and believe what he says about me. Freedom comes as I continually fail to live up to who I think I should be and instead choose to rest in who he says I am.

My strength comes in recognizing my weakness.

My freedom comes in surrendering my fear.

My purpose comes in sharing my story so that others might know that God is exceedingly trustworthy. I am living proof.