Building Bridges

Since I’m from Missouri and went to college in Texas, I’ve become accustomed to long solo road trips. I wanted to have my car over holiday and summer breaks, so I’d pack up the Tacoma and head 10 hours north a couple times a year. When I moved to Austin after graduation, I begrudgingly tacked on a couple more hours to the journey. If you can drive for 10 hours straight, what’s 12 right? 

Eventually my parents started spending more time at our house in South Carolina. Provided this would make the road trip distance home a whopping 1,00 miles and 15 hours from my new apartment in Houston, any sane person would buy a flight. But I recently adopted a Great Pyrenees, which means sanity took a backseat to my overwhelming need to be with this dog at all times. I’m not sure whose separation anxiety is worse. 

Anyway, it’s a couple weeks until Christmas amid the global pandemic of 2020 and I want to see my family. So completing this drive in one day seems like the only viable option. If you can drive for 12 hours straight, what’s 15 right?

I throw my suitcase in the truck bed and my polar bear in the backseat and hit the road. The first few and last few hours of the drive are in darkness. The route takes us along the southern coasts of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama then through Georgia and finally to the finish line in South Carolina. This leaves plenty of time behind the wheel to get lost in thought between various podcast episodes. 

It’s still early in the trip, and I’m crossing the Horace Wilkinson Bridge into Baton Rouge as the orange light from the rising sun dances off the Mississippi River. It’s the tallest bridge in Louisiana and rises at what feels like a 45 degree angle. I pull down the visor to protect my eyes from the blinding light and grip the wheel.

I’ve had this one recurring dream for the last decade where I’m driving up a steep bridge over a body of water. The bridge is getting steeper and steeper until I’m driving almost vertically into the sky. I press down on the accelerator all the way, but it’s no match for this 90 degree angle. The car starts moving backward. I look behind me and the road has disappeared. There’s only water beneath me. The car continues stalling back, back, back until both the car and me inside it are free falling. That’s usually when I wake up. Heart pounding, fast breathing. 

So, it’s hard to ignore the real sight before me is eerily similar to this dream. But the sunrise is so beautiful that I forget to be afraid. And the clouds I’m driving toward are so peaceful that I forget to hold my breath. And the road beneath my tires is so sturdy that I forget to fear a free fall. And the river I’m crossing–the second-longest in North America and only one that would take me straight home to St. Louis–is so familiar that I forget to worry. And something dawns on me as clear as the dawn in my rearview mirrors: beauty only resides on the other side of fear. 

The rivers that divide us can be crossed only if we have the courage to build the bridge. We must travel the distance if we want to reach people, even if the journey is long and tiresome. But if we allow fear to impede us from crossing bridges into new territory, we’ll never have the life we were designed to live. A life of connection, celebration of differences, and recognition of equal humanity. Bridges are the ultimate connectors.

Too often we grow comfortable and complacent on our side of the river banks. We throw stones to the other side trying to get them to understand ours. Stones covered in facts or data, stones loaded with blame and name-calling, stones stained with self-righteousness. We don’t understand how the other side can’t understand ours and rush to join us.

Instead of throwing stones, why aren’t we building more bridges? Yes, it takes more effort and time and energy. But the rewards waiting on the other side of fear are too great to ignore. It doesn’t have to be to communities across the country. It can be a small bridge to the other side of town. Or the neighbor in our backyard. Or the person in our household we feel cut off from by an ocean’s worth distance. 

The first step in laying the foundation? Telling honest stories.

You’re more likely to tune me out if I start rattling off statistics about how many people worldwide suffer from anxiety. But if I tell you what it feels like to have a panic attack, the inability to get a good breath, the conviction that you’re going to die, you’re probably more compelled to listen. Maybe you can even relate. I stop becoming a statistic and start becoming a person. You’re more likely to hear me out if I tell you what it’s like loving someone addicted to alcohol than if I list off the criteria for alcohol use disorder.

The stone is the data used to persuade. The bridge is the story used to connect.

I’m not suggesting bridges–the way we connect to others–can’t also be made of research and scientific data. Plenty of them are. But it’s probably because the data are being used to tell a story, not win an argument. So the next time you find yourself sinking deeper into the mud on your side of the water, searching for stones, look for the nearest bridge instead. Look for connection. The view might just be so beautiful you’ll forget to be afraid.

26 Things I’ve Learned in 26 Years

1. Fear is never a good enough reason to do — or not do — anything.

It has taken 26 years of life experience to draw the conclusion: what we fear most rarely if ever, comes true. No amount of preparation can fully mitigate the risks of living the life we want. If fear of the unknown is the only reason I have for not doing something, then I better find some other reasons. 

2. The characteristics or hobbies that make you feel “weird” or “different” will end up being your superpowers.

As a child, I found solace from chronic anxiety through storytelling. It began by talking out loud to myself, making up stories, and playing different characters. Once I learned to write, these stories unfolded on paper. It wasn’t until I graduated from college that I began to see the skills/hobbies/passions that emerge in childhood are strengths to be shared, not aspects to be hidden. What makes you feel weird as a kid is usually what makes you admirable as an adult. 

3. You don’t always need to know where the path is going to know you’re on the right path.

There is something liberating about being present in the moment and surrendering control of the outcome. To quote Malcolm Gladwell, “Every option is open to you once you realize you can’t predict the future. It’s only our desire to predict the future that limits our choices.”

4. How to forgive others.

It’s easy to play the victim. Anyone can do that. But as Buddha taught, “holding onto anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.” Those who have wronged me rarely intended to cause harm, and ruminating on the ways I’ve been hurt only creates more pain. I feel physically and mentally lighter when I choose to forgive.

5. How to forgive myself.

One of the side effects of a life of hustling is an occasional lack of awareness of our impact on people. It’s important to take time to process and reflect on the ways we have unintentionally hurt others. Maybe these instances are romantic, platonic, racial, familial, or professional. Most of my interpersonal mistakes have been due to ignorance and selfishness, not malice. Although reflecting on mistakes makes me want to run and hide at first, diving deep into the places I’d rather avoid is the most meaningful experience. Self-awareness is the only way I can forgive myself for having hurt people.

6. When you show someone your vulnerabilities, they usually respond with empathy and vulnerability of their own.

I used to be afraid of vulnerability for the same reasons we all are: we can’t predict the outcome. What if telling the truth doesn’t go well? What if I’m rejected? What if I offend someone? Fair questions. But not good enough fears to avoid vulnerability. When I have chosen to be emotionally vulnerable with others, the responses are almost always full of compassion, gratitude, and reciprocal vulnerability. The key is to know your motivations for doing so. 

7. Writing is not only my passion but also my calling.

Sometimes we don’t view our passions as compatible with our career calling. I used to view my creative writing and storytelling as a side passion. Not to be shared. Not to be a profession. But my view has shifted because writing remains the one constant in my life. Now I understand that the thing I love to do most doesn’t have to be hidden behind the curtain. It can be front and center stage.

8. What it actually means to be brave.

Bravery is not an absence of fear. Bravery is showing up as your full self in the presence of intense fear. It is taking the leap despite every fiber in your body screaming to run back to safety. It is honoring yourself and your beliefs in the face of criticism and judgment. Bravery is honesty and authenticity.

9. How to listen to God’s voice.

You know that inner voice of guidance and wisdom? Some might call it your gut, the universe, the angel on your shoulder, or your intuition. I call it God. And when I’m lost and confused, it is the only voice I listen to. It is the only voice that is eternally reliable. I’ve learned to listen by silencing outside noise (including my own mental chatter) and make space for God to speak to me.

10. How to use my own voice.

I used to hesitate to speak up in class or meetings. But it’s better to speak up and have your idea shot down than to miss opportunities for your good ideas or thoughts to be heard. After learning how to advocate for what I want, stand up for what I believe in, offer an informed opinion, or admit a gap in knowledge, I’ve become more confident. I also recognize the importance of using my voice to amplify others’ voices who are being silenced.

11. The things that are most important in life.

It wasn’t until the 2020 pandemic that all of life’s distractions and interruptions were stripped away. I was left with only my relationships and my faith. And what I realized? Those two things are all I need to be fulfilled.

12. Life’s greatest rewards come from taking risks.

It might be a cliché, but life really does begin at the end of our comfort zone. For me, that has been delivering presentations to a couple of hundred people, interviewing for graduate programs and jobs, quitting graduate programs and jobs, sharing my poetry, and telling someone “I love you” first. Some risks feel smaller than others, but they all have the power to radically change us for the better.

13. How to rely on my emotions as much as — and sometimes more than — logic alone.

I became a master of compartmentalizing my feelings at a young age. I felt safer and more in control during conflicts when I didn’t engage in highly emotional reactions. But with any tactics we learn as children to function in our families, there are unintended consequences. Mine was a disconnect between what I thought and what I felt. I didn’t trust my emotional reactions; they felt primitive, unreliable, dramatic. I have since learned the importance of honoring and expressing my feelings. The best things in life — like falling in love — aren’t often logical anyways.

14. How blind I could be to my own motivations.

For a long time, I wanted to be a psychologist and professor. This dream wasn’t all for the wrong reasons by any means. I wanted to teach, mentor, help people, and work with college students. But for all the honorable motivations I had for pursuing a Ph.D., there were plenty of inadequate motivations too. I wanted to be viewed as highly intelligent and important, to be commended and rewarded for my work, and to feel that rush of pride when I told people what I did for a living. Mostly, I was afraid of inadequacy and incompetence. It was only after I left my doctoral program did I see these hidden, misguided motives clearly.

15. The importance of recording memories through journaling and photography.

I took my first international trip when I was 16 to Guatemala. Since then, I’ve visited many countries, and I always keep a journal of my adventures. Years later when I reread my journals or flip through the pictures, I’m reminded of many memories, experiences, and feelings that might have otherwise been forgotten.

16. Listening well is the best way to love well.

I used to wish I was more outgoing and talkative. But as my grandfather once said, “I find you learn a lot more by listening.” This is true. You also love others better when you listen. Most of the time people just want to be heard, not given advice.

17. God uses our hardships to get our attention.

For most of my life, I kept God at a distance, on a shelf where I could pull him down just when I needed him. But God doesn’t want to just be dusted off when it’s convenient for us. Would my best friend or boyfriend or parents be happy if I only engaged with them in the privacy of my home but mostly refused to be seen with them in the real world? God got my attention through a dark season of confusion and despair until I realized He needed to be front and center in my life. To me, this is the most compassionate, merciful way to get someone’s attention. We don’t think we need peace and salvation when we’re happy and coasting through life. We only recognize our need for saving when we feel like we’re drowning.

18. How to rely less on outside voices and advice.

Opinions and advice can be helpful. But they can also cloud our judgment. Too many contradicting opinions can confuse us. When choosing between what others think I should do and what my gut tells me to do, I’m choosing my gut every time. You are the only person who gets to live your life. 

19. Family dynamics have long-lasting impacts.

Who we learn to be as children to function in our families is who we become as adults in the real world. This is developmental psychology 101. Patterns of how we learn to respond to conflict early on, express (or don’t express) our emotions, and offer and accept love are not easily understood until we become aware of our family history and dynamics.

20. Changing your opinion or worldview upon new information is the best sign of intelligence and maturity.

As I get older, I become more aware of how tightly many adults are willing to hold onto their beliefs, even in the face of contradicting evidence. It’s as though a threat to one’s worldview is a threat to their character. But the people I respect most are willing to apologize, admit wrongdoing, and do better once they know better. I strive to be one of those people.

21. Traveling alone is empowering.

My first solo international travel experience occurred as a junior in college. I explored pockets of London by myself regularly and flew to several cities in the U.K. alone. It was exhilarating, slightly scary, and empowering. These experiences help us see just how capable and independent we are. 

22. You attract what you think you deserve.

When we don’t have our values straight, we settle for situations and people that don’t recognize our value. I’ve been in relationships before where I mistook pain for love. Only once I became content being on my own did I become more selective about how and with whom I spend my time.

23. One of the greatest gifts to give and receive is honest feedback.

Being nice doesn’t equal being kind. Trying to keep the peace by brushing over conflict is only harmful in the long-run. My master’s program in counseling taught me the immeasurable benefits of offering constructive feedback (strengths, areas of growth, etc.) as well as being open to receiving feedback.

24. Real love isn’t just finding someone who brings out the best you.

Young girls often have a fairytale conceptualization of romantic love. It comes from the movies we watch and stories we read. We grow up believing we must find a “soulmate” who will become our “other, better half” as if we were born half of a person. But I’ve learned that true love is a deliberate choice we make to share our already-full life with another person. True love is finding the person who helps you return to yourself when you’re at your worst. It isn’t just about picking the other up when they’re down, it’s holding them while they’re down. And then rising together.

25. Quitting doesn’t equal failure.

I used to think quitting meant an admission of failure, that you got things wrong, or that you couldn’t accomplish what you set out to do. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Sometimes the most courageous and difficult choice we can make is the one to walk away.

26. Stillness moves us forward.

When faced with a difficult decision, my first inclination was always to research, make a pros-and-cons list, and seek advice. Sometimes these are helpful parts of the process, but ultimately you are the only person who can decide what you want. To establish inner peace and find my answer, I’ve learned to quiet my mind and sit still in silence for several minutes. I try not to think or weigh my options, rather I stay present in the moment. I strongly believe the answers we seek already live inside of us; it is simply up to us to stay still long enough to let it surface.

Why I Left My Ph.D. to Rediscover My Creative Calling

When the coronavirus pandemic began, this new way of life required all of us to adapt. One thing the transition did for me was strip away all the distractions I used to avoid acknowledging my own unhappiness as a doctoral student in psychology. With most worldly interruptions gone, my focus narrowed on my work with data and research. Even on a good day, I was merely complacent.

Something needed to change, but I was looking for every reason to stay in the program. After all, I had worked my entire life to be exactly in this position. What else would I be doing? But I still wonderedhow do we know if we’re experiencing universal challenges that can be overcome with time or simply a deep disconnect between our purpose and our circumstance?

One day as I was reading Glennon Doyle’s book Untamed, four words on the page jumped out at me:

Be Still and Know.

Something inexplicably powerful came rushing over me. I burst into tears. My mind let go, and my body took over. I ran my fingers along my upper left rib cage, just below my heart, where I have those exact words tattooed in permanent ink. A realization hit me like a ton of bricks: I hadn’t been still. That was the problem. I hadn’t been still in over a year. On the contrary, I had been hurrying, consuming, seeking, researching, and doubting. I was looking for advice in all the wrong places.

At that moment, I sat up and relinquished all control. I surrendered, letting my shoulders fall away from my ears, my lower jaw release its tension, and my eyelids close shut. And what I discovered was that I did know. I had known all along but never stayed still long enough to let the knowing land on me.

My intuition spoke loud and clear: This is not meant to be your path. This is draining your creativity and confidence. It’s forcing you to hold values that you don’t share. It’s stifling your strengths and capitalizing on your weaknesses. It’s forcing you into a box that you were never meant to fit inside. It’s time to go another way.

I began to understand my doubts were never about being intelligent or capable or resourceful enough. It was never about self-efficacy; it was about self-preservation. I knew I could finish the doctoral program. But at what cost? Four more years of misery at worst or apathy at best? That is never a cost we should have to pay. The risks of ignoring what we know to be true are so much higher than the risks of walking away from the career path we’ve built.

Although there was now a deep knowing I needed to change course, the fear that accompanied it ran just as deep. Withdrawing felt scary and risky, while staying felt safe and predictable. So, what do most of us do when faced with a predicament like this? We put off action. We delay the uncomfortable conversations. We avoid the difficult decision because of the uncertain outcome.

Of course, avoiding our problems only backfires. Hiding gives fear more power. When we refuse to act, someone pays the price. Every lie costs someone something. But surrendering control of the outcome does not mean we must surrender control of our choices.

When we make the decision to listen to our intuition and take a risk, we are also choosing to relinquish control. We can’t be free and controlled by fear at the same time. We can’t make the jump while still clinging to the edge. It doesn’t work that way.

When I finally gathered the courage to share my official decision to withdraw from the Ph.D. program, the responses were full of compassion, understanding, and support. I returned to the creative endeavors I previously gave up in pursuit of academic prestige.

In determining your calling or purpose, there are some important questions to ask yourself:

  1. What makes you forget time?
  2. What inspires you to speak, to act, and to listen?
  3. What makes you fall in love and breaks your heart at the same time? What scares you yet excites you?
  4. Perhaps, most importantly, what satisfies your curiosity?

It might take some exploring before you find your answer. But I have a feeling it’s the answer that has always lived inside of you. It doesn’t have to be the thing that pays your bills. It can be what you do outsideof the job that puts food on the table.

The truth is there is no valid step-by-step process on how to easily discover your calling. There is no universal checklist of things that must happen before you can know you’re on the right path. Just like falling in love, the answer is found in a gut feeling.

It will require great risk to pursue, but the strength of your faith will outweigh the fear if you let it. It will bring peace, not confusion. Connection, not isolation. Stillness, not hustle. And just like we might fall in love with a few of the wrong people before we find the right one, we might have to take a few wrong turns on the journey before we take the right one.

After walking away from my dream career in academia, I realized with a renewed clarity that my answer to all those important questions is one word. It’s one word that was stitched into my heart before I even had the capacity to write.

Stories. It doesn’t matter whether I’m reading, writing, or listening to them. Stories breathe new life into me every time. I was designed to tell them. Our lives are stories, unfolding before our eyes every day like the turn of a fresh page. Some chapters we write, some happen to us, some we love, and some we can barely get through. But together they equate to a masterpiece of beauty and destruction, victory and defeat, pain and euphoria. And to write the ending all it takes is the courage to own them all.