The myth of the self-made person and the true demand of discipleship

A week ago, I sat among a circle of women at the local county jail. The fluorescent lights shined brightly overhead as we discussed Bible verses and prayed together, as we marveled about the challenges of being good. We laughed, nodded and spoke vulnerably with one another about how tough it can be to be our best selves.

Then, one young woman stunned me with a confession. “I have been using drugs so long that I don’t really know who I am without them … I don’t really know how to figure out who I am really meant to be, either.” Her dark, thin face became emotional as she admitted her struggle.

All week, as our democracy once again seems to be corrupted by fears and accusations, by a lack of compassion and hope, I have been thinking about this woman. It’s an awful time for our nation, for democrats and republicans, for the pro-life movement and for those who are victims of sexual assault and abuse. It is an awful time for women, for advocates of peace and justice — for those who want every person’s dignity and story to be respected and honored.

We are all characters in this story and it’s a good time to ask: who are we really? Who are we becoming? Who are we made to be? And, what are the blocks that get in the way of us knowing the truth?

From my vantage point, it seems that a particular American myth is deeply enmeshed in the public and private pain: we can all become whoever we want to be. Anyone can make themselves.

All week, I have been thinking of the woman I met in the jail who said that she doesn’t really know who she is without her addiction, as I have been thinking about my discernment and growth. I realized after the fact, that I didn’t really respond the right way to her comment. I said “yes, it’s a struggle. I am still figuring out who I am … it helps to figure out what we’re passionate about; it’s good to think up dreams and goals and work toward them.”  It seems that although I haven’t struggled with a drug addiction, certain things have blocked me from coming to know the truth of who I am, such as false beliefs.

For example, for several years I believed in — and promulgated — the idea that every person can become who they want to be, that we all ought to dream up hopes and then work toward them. Somewhere along the way, I became convinced that this was the path to success and accomplishment, to joy and peace. I taught this to teens and struggling young adults. I insisted that they all make up lists of life goals and dreams, that they imagine who they wanted to be and then work to build up that life.

This is the privileged myth of the “self-made man.” This is the pursuit of the “American dream.” This is not in line with what it means to truly be following Jesus.

So, the Spirit got a hold of me, shook me down and taught me the truth. Eventually, I learned that life isn’t so much about what I want, but God’s way. “You may not do what you want,” Galatians 5:17 insists. For good reasons too. If I did whatever I wanted, I’d be a very selfish, greedy person who would probably not be so interested in serving the needs of others, in pleasing God. I am not saying I am scum, but I am, of course, a work in progress who struggles with being sinful as much as the next person. God’s ways are better than my ways.

Discipleship is about following, not creating oneself. Perhaps this is an impact of living a vow of obedience, of discerning with my sisters how my gifts and talents can best serve the common good, of trying to listen and obey the Spirit’s encouragements to move certain directions with my life.

Discipleship demands discovery, not the building of oneself. We discover who God is making us into and inviting us to be. We don’t have to assert our own agendas and dreams.

And amazingly, in my experience, following the Spirit’s invitations, saying “yes” to God’s ways, leads to more joy and self-discovery, to a deeper understanding of one’s own giftedness and struggles. Yes, knowing our desires and interests is important — those are parts of how God created us. But life is ultimately not about what we want, but God’s will. Life is a walk forward into the mystery, a submission to God’s designs — a masterpiece in process of which we somehow get to be a part of.

Put another way, it’s about listening and bowing to the beauty that is beyond us, to seeing how we are part of the bigger story, as Mark Nepo describes in this poem:

“Understory”
by Mark Nepo

I’ve been watching stars
rely on the darkness they
resist. And fish struggle with
and against the current. And
hawks glide faster when their
wings don’t move.

Still I keep retelling what
happens till it comes out
the way I want.

We try so hard to be the
main character when it is
our point of view that
keeps us from the truth.

The sun has its story
that no curtain can stop.

It’s true. The only way beyond
the self is through it. The only
way to listen to what can never
be said is to quiet our need
to steer the plot.

When jarred by life, we might
unravel the story we tell ourselves
and discover the story we are in,
the one that keeps telling us.

The woman in the jail and I are both coming to know an important part of being human: we can discover who God wills us to be by seeing how we are meant to be part of a bigger story, a story made up of more than what we want. Then, along the way, we will come to discover who we really are.

Photo credit: Callum Shaw, Unsplash.com

Bring on the darkness

I don’t know why it is, this time of year, that I gear up for action. Once Daylight Saving Time ends, I’m ready to go. Most people tend to simmer down when the cold weather seeps in, the nights get longer, the house gets cozier, and the soups just sound more delicious.

I’m ready to get OUT. Let’s lose some weight! Yes! Right before and during the holidays! Yes: that makes perfect sense! In fact, let’s get all the outside projects done while the night approaches and we work in the darkness. Because who doesn’t love not seeing what they’re doing?

Photo courtesy of www.freeimages.com
Photo courtesy of www.freeimages.com

Honestly, where was all this energy during the summer when it could be more useful? This flummoxes me every year. But what helps me feel a little more normal is that it nicely lines up with Advent. Maybe it’s a little earlier than the season, but you get the idea.

I get EXCITED when the nights get longer. It forces me to contemplate. It makes me go inside myself and do some really difficult work. Darkness lets me dream more, and my dreams are little messages from God helping me through that work. It helps me free up emotional and spiritual space for more adventures—lovely adventures that open your life up to the spirit of Jesus and never-ending possibility.

I think sometimes we just stuff ourselves silly with the status quo of our lives. We keep our stuff because it gives us security and confidence, and we don’t want to ever waste anything. Some of this is completely appropriate, but I’m pretty sure there are areas in our lives that need to be thinned out. Are we scared to have vacancy somewhere? Does that make us vulnerable to … what … despairing need? Or does it open us up to more rewarding opportunities?

Sure I could wait until Advent to get started, but personally I think this process takes longer than 25 days. Clear out those cobwebs. Let’s REALLY get ready for Jesus this year, starting now.

My journey into my family of grandmas

What will I be when I grow up? It’s a familiar question. As a happy and energetic farm girl in Iowa, I frequently imagined what my life would look like as an adult.

While I helped my mother with chores or ran around exploring the woods and the farm buildings, I dreamed about how I might run a household if I ever were a mother some day. I looked forward to when I would be able to do adult things and make my own choices. I saw myself acting a lot like my own mother and grandmother: gardening, cooking and baking in a big farmhouse and offering care to a lot of happy and playful children.

I also dreamed about being a teacher, a writer or maybe a missionary in another country. I did have a vague idea that I might like to be a Catholic sister, based largely on my love of films like “The Sound of Music” and “Sister Act,” but my childhood dreaming never included the picture of me actually being a nun.

Photo credit: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0105417/
Photo credit: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0105417/

 

What remained a constant in my childhood thoughts about being an adult, however, was an experience of relating to a large, loving family. This makes sense. I never knew any Catholic sisters as a child, but…

[This is the beginning of my latest column for the online newspaper, Global Sisters Report.  Continue reading here.] 

 

encouragement

"glowing dreams" by Sister Julia Walsh, FSPA

it’s morning, I wake

in dreams and prayers, I roll around

overwhelmed, I wonder

gazing out the window, I sigh

“encouragement- thanks God,” I acknowledge

bowing to the beauty and mystery, I move into the day.

 

 

Tell us:  How has God encouraged you lately?

Joseph’s dreams and the meaning of life

When the magi had departed, behold,
the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said,
“Rise, take the child and his mother, flee to Egypt,
and stay there until I tell you.
Herod is going to search for the child to destroy him.”
Joseph rose and took the child and his mother by night
and departed for Egypt.
He stayed there until the death of Herod,
that what the Lord had said through the prophet might be fulfilled,
Out of Egypt I called my son.

When Herod had died, behold,
the angel of the Lord appeared in a dream
to Joseph in Egypt and said,
“Rise, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel,
for those who sought the child’s life are dead.”
He rose, took the child and his mother,
and went to the land of Israel.
But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea
in place of his father Herod,
he was afraid to go back there.
And because he had been warned in a dream,
he departed for the region of Galilee.
He went and dwelt in a town called Nazareth,
so that what had been spoken through the prophets
might be fulfilled,
He shall be called a Nazorean. -Mt 2:13-15, 19-23

A few years ago one of my seeking friends called me a lot to have discussions about the meaning of life.  “I just don’t get it Julia,” she would say.  “Why are we born, if our death is inevitable?”  Her insightful question is certainly valid, and undoubtedly common.  Because my friend is normal, I was embarrassed to admit that I had never really thought about the question before.

I don’t think that I have ever worried about the meaning of life because I made a choice when I was a child.  Early on I decided what life’s meaning is for me.  Now I know how to say it: the point of all this living is relationship.  It’s so true for me and it guides all my actions.  When I am lazy or selfish, a mantra bubbles up from inside, like a signpost directing me where to turn:  the point of life is relationship. It’s all about relationship.

Then, guided by the Truth and challenge of relationship, I turn away from my ego and my desire to hide.  I choose to relate.  I shut up and unplug and listen to God within and around and tell God my deepest secrets. We get closer and I am reminded that good relationships always take a lot of work and time.

My friendship with God then turns me out again; I orient toward the other in community, friendship, family, city, creation, neighbor.  I sit with my elder sister and laugh and love. I talk to my siblings on the phone. I listen to the stranger, even when I feel like I should rush.  I pray with my friends and cry with the suffering.  I ask my students questions. I gaze at the moon because I know she is my sister and I pray for the earth because she is certainly my mother, in a way.   Over and over, I struggle to let go of my agendas and notice how the moments of  my days beg me to pay attention to other beautiful elements in God’s kingdom.

Because I relate to all sorts of people I am forced to stretch and grow.  My perspectives change and I am required to leave the ordinary behind.  I let God give me new encounters and accept the fact that I never get to be the same.  I now understand that considering relationship the meaning of life is not only Christian and Trinitarian, but Franciscan.  And, as scientists are now discovering and teaching, it is human.  So, it’s a good thing I am one.

Joseph got this, it seems.  Because he was friends with God and was familiar with His voice, it was very clear to him when his dreams were from God.  Because he understood the language, he could follow the directions and then so lovingly care for the Blessed Mother Mary and the Holy Child Jesus.  He chose to obey, because the relationships with his wife and his Son mattered most.

Like Joseph teaches, when we let dreams direct us we aren’t picking what’s comfortable, or even about what makes sense. Even though it may seem impractical, when we let our relationship with God and others guide us, we’ll quickly realize that we are dancing with the holy and becoming a blessing to others.

There’s a great beauty in the blessing.  When we let relationships be our meaning we are free to be a holy family.  Thanks be to God!

Photo from Flickr sharing http://www.flickr.com/photos/davidking/2117259520/in/photostream/