I’ve been on quite an Allison Vesterfelt kick lately. After multiple people had prodded me to read her book Packing Light: Thoughts on Living Life with Less Baggage, I finally picked it up and devoured it in a few short – but profoundly challenging – days. I finally understand why my friends were so persistent in recommending this book. They knew it would mess me up in the way only a good book can.
Allison – or Ally – and I have a lot in common. We both went to Whitworth University, we both studied English, we both have felt at home in weird cities (Portland for her, San Francisco for me), and we’ve both struggled to call ourselves writers. And yet, as both of us have discovered, we are because we do. We’re writers simply because we write.
In reading another one of Ally’s books Writing to Find Yourself, I’m finding so much encouragement to keep writing. Writing, like most things that are worth doing, takes effort and vulnerability. For me, writing is the process of putting little pieces of me on a page. Every word I type makes me vulnerable to criticism and has the potential to be misunderstood or to step on someone’s toes – I’m sorry if I ever step on yours! But these words also have the power to speak into someone else’s story, to allow that person, as Anne Lamott says, to speak the two most magnificent words you can say to another human being: “Me too.”
The power of the “Me too” statement is the recognition that someone else understands your mess because they too are messy. It’s, as Brene Brown says, the difference between saying, “Wow, what you’re going through sucks” and “Oh man, I know how dark is down there, because I’ve been there, so let me come down and sit with you in that mess.” When our messy humanity is mutually acknowledged, there’s more freedom to look at yourself in the mirror and look at other people and say, “It’s okay that you are the way you are. I feel it too. I think those dark thoughts sometimes too.”
This is what I love about all of my favorite authors: Allison Vesterfelt, Jen Hatmaker, Shauna Niequist, Donald Miller, Bob Goff, Anne Lammott, Brene Brown. They’re not afraid to say the things most of us think and feel. Actually, they probably are afraid, but they do it anyway. Why? It’s not just because they’re writers with book contracts and simply have to get words on paper to satisfy their publishers’ deadlines. No, I’m pretty sure it’s because – like me – they believe in the power of vulnerable, authentic writing.
Sometimes I get to that place of authenticity here – on this blog, in this space – but sometimes I cover up my messiest bits. I’m sorry about that. But you understand why I do this, don’t you? I know you do. Because, if we’re being honest, we all feel the fear – the fear that if we show who we really are to the world, we might be ridiculed or criticized. If we share the most bare, real parts of ourselves, we don’t know if we’ll feel guilt and shame or freedom and peace. The reason we fear a bad outcome is because it happens. People can use our vulnerability against us.
As Ally Vesterfelt writes in her book Writing to Find Yourself, “Anytime I tell someone what I’m really thinking or feeling, I give them a tiny bit of power. I hand them the gun. They can shoot me with it if they want to.”
I can vouch for the truth in that statement. So, it’s no wonder we want to hide. The problem, as Ally notes, is that hiding doesn’t protect us; it keeps us stuck. And when we get stuck, we tend to feel restless. We lack peace in our souls because we’re not being honest, we’re not free. We’re confined to the box we’ve let others and our inner critics place us.
When this happens to me – correction, when I do this to myself – my soul feels much like an energetic squirrel, running around in circles in a confined space. I’m banging against the walls, struggling to find a way out. But, as I’m learning, the only way out is to lean in. Lean into the discomfort and the sense of claustrophobia. Lean into the acknowledgement that my life doesn’t tie up with a neat bow at the end of the day. It doesn’t look like an Instagram feed or Pinterest board. It’s messy and confusing and full of loneliness and self-doubt. But, it’s also full of bright spots and joy and cotton candy pink sunsets and delightful conversation with wonderful friends. And that’s the tension we live in. We hold in one hand all the most beautiful moments of our lives and in the other the hardest, darkest, most confusing bits.
What if we brought those two hands together? I think that’s what we have to do. At least, that’s what I need to do to live authentically. Because when I hold both palms open in front of me, I’m saying, “Okay, God. Here I am. Here are my cracks and rough edges. Here are my softening surfaces and willing hands. Use all of it.” And when I do that, do you know what happens? I have so much more peace about my imperfect state. I’m willing to give myself grace and give God unending thanks. It simply doesn’t all wrap up perfectly at the end of the day like I’ve often wished it would. But I’m learning to be more comfortable with that.
“Most of us are looking for balance and trying to avoid resistance, but they usually come together. Resistance actually helps us establish balance,” Ally says. She likens this to leaning against a wall. It’s the resistance of the wall that holds you up, that helps you find your balance. I’m discovering just how right she is.
This week, I found myself rebelling against the resistance of small annoyances like a nasty cold and a broken computer – what, no internet?! – as well as bigger ones like another confusing doctor’s appointment, more unanswered questions, and a nagging feeling that I just don’t “fit.” These are the real struggles, the real thoughts. I know you have yours, and I just want to say, “Me too.” And I want to encourage you as well because here’s what I’ve found: if you lean into the resistance, you’ll discover why it’s there.
For me, when I stopped fighting my cold and just let myself rest, I actually recovered. (Go, figure, right?) And when I leaned into the questions about my health and my future, when I let myself cry about it and express my frustrations to God, I felt so much more peace because at least then I was being real. I let him know what I really thought about my situation, and he met me in that place and held me up and spoke to me. And do you want to know what he said?
See, I am doing a new thing!
Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
I am making a way in the wilderness
and streams in the wasteland. (Isaiah 43:19)
And he is right. He is making a way and providing for me in every season. And just like a tree planted by streams of water, I trust that my life will yield fruit “in season.” (Psalm 1:3) And while I can’t know for sure when that season will come and what that fruit will look like, I still know who I am – and whose I am – in the waiting. I’m still that same tree, providing shade and shelter in some seasons, fruit in others. In all seasons, if I stay planted by the stream, I’ll have all I need. Although, I have to be honest that it doesn’t always feel that way. It takes constant reminders and speaking the gospel to my soul, reminding myself of the good news of God’s grace and expressing gratitude for that greatest of gifts.
So, as I wait for God in this “wilderness” season, I will keep leaning into the resistance and the discomfort. Because when I lean on God and his understanding, then the confusing, uncomfortable resistance ultimately helps me find balance. When I lean in instead of fighting back, I feel the supportive weight of God’s presence. And then, my heart can finally rest.