Water, Binaries, and a God-Sized Hole

On a drive this morning, I passed by several churches of different denominations all with a giant cross extending from the roof into the backdrop of blue sky. I thought about the people who say that humanity invented God out of a desperate, pathetic attempt to make meaning and find solace from suffering. It’s an attempt to fill a hole, they argue, that does more harm than good. But I wonder why such a hole exists in the first place. If we were not made for something else, why do we so desperately crave something else? Something we can’t exactly name. Why do all our human attempts at filling this hole inside of us with earthly things (booze, drugs, food, fame, money, achievement, and people) fail us every time? Why do we always end up disappointed at best or devastated at worst? It’s like the saying: you can never have enough of what you don’t need.

So, did we invent God as a mythical idea meant to merely soothe our weary souls? It’s a reasonable question. Or were we born with a God-sized hole because only God can fill it? If God could be fully understood, would God be worthy of worship?

To me, faith is both balm and fire. My faith can be medicinal, yes, as it does soothe me. It provides me with the kind of peace and assurance nothing else in the world ever could. But it’s also fire. Something urgent and untouchable. A call to action and a call to serve. Not to bury my head in the sand. If I believe Jesus is who He says He is, then I have an obligation. If I am willing to receive this gift of grace, then I am obligated to share that gift of grace with everyone with whom I cross paths. And I don’t mean through ministry. I don’t mean through politics. I mean through humility and empathy.

This thought led me into thinking of the binary between scientific and spiritual. The seen and unseen. The logical and creative. Order and chaos. The irony is that they imply separation or mutual exclusivity, but indeed one cannot exist with the other. Male cannot exist without female. And vice versa. Order is insignificant without chaos. Science and faith are dependent upon each other.

So, I think about the question: are you more of a creative type or logical type? Sure, most of us have genetic propensities for one over the other. But I think it’s a moot question. We are whole people, made in the image of a God who embodies every shade of every spectrum. The tension we feel, I believe, is self-imposed from the lie that we must choose sides. We must be one thing over another. Why can’t we accept we are all of it? All at once? Why are we so uncomfortable with gray in a world that tells us to think in black-and-white?

The danger of binary is why we feel guilty when we experience joy during grief. Or melancholy on a beautiful, sunny day. It’s why we struggle to reckon with historical figures who did both immeasurable good and committed horrific injustice like slavery. Or when we tell our sons that boys don’t cry and tell our daughters to keep quiet and stay small. We are trying so hard to fit the human experience into neatly tied boxes. It’s like when Francis Collins writes: “The pure, clean water of spiritual truth is placed in rusty containers, and the subsequent failings…should not be projected onto the faith itself, as if the water had been the problem.”

The water is not the problem. It’s our attempt to contain and label it. And I wonder what might happen if we let it run freely? If we made more space for nuance. If we welcomed shades of gray. If we could tolerate paradox. Maybe we’d stop fighting so much. And stop yelling in comment sections and stop hating each other. But perhaps such a thought is idyllic and impractical. Perhaps that is why only God can fill this God-sized hole in each of us.

Want to Get Ahead? Stop Hustling

One thing many of us struggle with is being still. We find ways to make sure we don’t slow down for long. We use something to keep us moving, busy, and avoiding our fears and feelings. Maybe it’s a career, a side hustle, hobby, or general life goals. But whatever “it” is, it’s in the future. And so we spend the present focused on what’s next.

Me? My thing was education. I spent the first 25 years of my life working toward the next degree. High school diploma, Bachelor of Science, Master of Education, Doctorate of Philosophy. Being a full-time student was my job, but it didn’t feel like enough. To fill my limited free time, I held down jobs as a nanny, hostess, advocacy intern, and graduate research assistant. 

If the drug was being busy, I was a junkie. Doing one thing at a time was never enough. I hustled in a culture that told me hustling equals success and respect. I chased resume lines like they would define my worth as human. As if, at a certain point in the future, I would finally feel like I made it. Like I had reached the mountaintop and conquered life at its own game. 

One spring afternoon during my Master’s program, I’m sitting in the office of my clinical supervisor, Oliver.

“I’m going to apply to Ph.D. programs,” I say. 

I expect this might shock him since most students in my program become licensed professional counselors. But it doesn’t seem to.“Tell me more about that,” Oliver says.

  “Well, I don’t want my career capped off as a therapist seeing clients from 9 to 5. I want a degree that will allow me to teach at a university and make me credible enough to write books and deliver large-scale presentations on mental health.”

  “Do you believe you won’t be credible as a writer or presenter without a Ph.D.?”

  I actually have to think about that question for a moment.

  “No, not necessarily. I just might not have the same reach. Or as many opportunities. I’d have a harder time securing a teaching position at a university.”

  “What area of psychology are you interested in teaching?” he asks.

  “Well as you know, my experience is mainly counseling and clinical work. But I’m also considering social and personality psychology programs,” I say.

  “OK. And what kind of research would you want to do?”

I glance over at his bookshelf. There are textbooks on psychotherapy theories, substance abuse and addiction, multicultural counseling, the DSM-IV, works by Carl Jung, Carl Rogers, and Aaron Beck. There is so much. Too much. I’m interested in all of it, and none of it at the same time. I don’t have a focus. Just a misguided desire to achieve what other psychologists and academics had before me.

  “I guess I view the research part as the means to an end.”

  Oliver raises his eyebrow, looking puzzled for the first time, and asks me what I mean.

  “Well, it’s not conducting research that excites me. I know I’ll have to do research, but I see it more as the prerequisite needed to become a professor. Research isn’t what I want to do for the rest of my life.”

  There’s a long pause. I watch him forming his thoughts to be deliberate, concise.

  “You know,” he begins. “When I was about your age, I considered getting a Ph.D., too. I told my own supervisor this, and he was very encouraging. His only piece of advice was to be prepared for the culture of ‘publish or perish’. Are you familiar with that?”

  I nod. I often hear the stress-inducing stories from the doctoral students in my classes.

  “Then you’ll know there is immense pressure on graduate students to publish as many research articles as possible. The quantity of publications in high-impact journals exceeds everything else when it comes to being competitive on the faculty job market. And once on the job market, the ‘publish or perish’ mindset is critical to maintain for a tenure-track position. My supervisor suggested that unless I was very passionate about research and open to a competitive environment, I might want to consider a different path. 

“So, I thought long and hard about my motivations and realized what I really love is working with people. I stopped after my Master’s, so I could begin counseling people as soon as possible. Now every day on the job looks different; I attend task force meetings, mentor graduate students like you, have my own supervisor, and work with clients on mental health and substance use. I love my roles.”

  He takes a sharp inhale before continuing. “Now, Taylor, you’re a high achiever. You might not think of yourself this way, as many high achievers don’t. But you’re clearly very driven and motivated. I’m sure you could excel in a Ph.D. program. If you want to be a tenure-track professor, you’re right; there is no other way. If you’re passionate about research and want to publish articles in scientific journals, then this path would make sense for you. But I’d be wary of discrediting yourself or your ability to succeed without a doctorate. I want to be supportive and helpful in any way I can.”

  I sit back in my chair and swallow hard, digesting everything he said. I can’t articulate a burning desire to conduct research or publish scholarly articles at a high volume. All I want is a continuation of the work I’m already doing: attending class seminars, discussing case studies and grounded theory research, counseling college students, and writing about and presenting on topics in mental health. 

I want to use existing research to help other people, not pioneer research to advance my career. I just don’t know that yet. 

  I leave his office feeling supported and confused. Up to this point, my self-worth came from a strong work ethic and big career ambitions. My identity was based on solid academic performance. I wanted to be a writer and educator without realizing the ways I already was. In retrospect it’s clear this is what Oliver was trying to get me to see. But I’d have to learn the hard way.

When our ambitions and accomplishments take precedence over our joy and creativity, hustle culture wins.

  “You can’t stop here,” anxiety whispers.

  “You must achieve more,” society adds.

  And before we know it, our dreams no longer belong to us.

I went on to attend a Ph.D. program in psychology. And one year later, disillusioned and burned-out, I withdrew. I took my time gaining clarity on my goals and purpose. And I found it. Eventually. Just not in the ways I thought. Sometimes if we want to get ahead, we have to stop moving so fast. 

Why Hustle Culture is Toxic

I once heard someone say, “If you don’t have at least one mental breakdown in front of your advisor, you’re not doing graduate school right.” 

Nothing about that sounded “right” to me. Why should the marker of success be poor mental health? Why do we glorify overworking ourselves to the point of exhaustion? I thought about times when I felt most effective at work. They happened to be times when I felt most socially connected, joyful, and optimistic. I was busy, yes. But I had a say over how I allocated my time, and I ensured as much of it centered on hanging out with friends, working out, traveling, and trying new things as it did on work tasks. My happiness wasn’t a result of the quality of my work; it was the prerequisite for quality work. 

When our sole focus is on all the things we still need to accomplish, we lose sight of how we’re already equipped to serve people. When our first priority is keeping our schedule full, we lose sight of what fulfills us. Hustling promotes quantity over quality, time spent over time spent well, scarcity over abundance, and competition over collaboration. 

Perhaps what’s most toxic about hustle culture is delusions of worthiness. If we believe we are only worth how much or how hard we work, what happens when we need a break? What happens when our body sends us signals of exhaustion through aches, pains, and irritability? We ignore the cues. We equate these symptoms to laziness and inadequacy. We believe we are less worthy. Even if it’s not ourselves who suffer initially, maybe it’s our significant other, our kids, our friends. Our colleagues. No one benefits when we don’t make the time to show up well in our relationships. 

Negative implications seem to arise from one of two things. First, you might be addicted to the chase of ambition like I was. When this happens, your purpose (your “why”) is unclear. You think to garner respect you must shoot for the stars even if you’re not sure what you’re aiming for exactly. Let me tell you: that’s a recipe for disaster. And burnout.

On the other hand, you might already be in the right occupation and feel certain of your purpose. That’s amazing. But if you don’t know how to rest or slow down, that can also be detrimental. Those in the helping professions like physicians, nurses, counselors, social workers, and educators have the highest rates of burn-out for this reason. It’s a result of high demands on both physical and emotional resources but limited opportunities for time off to unwind. What compounds this distress is our cultural glorification of hustling. It’s as if a lack of free time is a rite of passage to prove determination. But honestly, working so hard you hit a wall isn’t admirable. It’s not even productive.

So, what’s the solution? How can we move away from hustle culture and toward intentional rest? Because, believe it or not, doing so might take you further than you could’ve gone otherwise. 

How Slowing Down Takes You Farther

We all know the tortoise and the hare fable. The hare is so confident in his speed he falls asleep during the race. Meanwhile, the tortoise, moving slower but never giving up, ultimately passes the hare and wins the race. 

OK, so it’s a cute kids’ story about perseverance. But does that apply to adults in the workplace? Actually I think it applies best in the workplace context. I’m a living example that you can actually get ahead if you’re steady and deliberate as opposed to fast and furious. 

When I left the Ph.D. program, I didn’t have a backup plan. I didn’t have a job waiting for me. No ideas on how to spend my time. I let go of all expectations and decided to trust the process. Thankfully, just days later, my former advisor offered me a full-time remote position that provided me with flexibility, familiarity, and financial stability. This job allowed me the freedom to sink into stillness. To be OK with meeting expectations without overachieving. To get comfortable with extra time without trying to fill it. To stop comparing my productivity to others. I slowed down to a near halt and took it for what it was: a total reset.

During this reflective period, I began to remember my “why”. For some of us, this question might be spiritual (e.g., Why did God put me here? What am I being called to do?) and for others, it might be strictly vocational (e.g., Why am I interested in this? Why do I gravitate toward this line of work?). We only remember our “why” when we take the time to quiet the noise and make space for our own voice to rise. You might be able to accomplish this in a 5-minute check-in with yourself before bed. But I have a feeling if you’ve been running on fumes for a while, burned out from nonstop grinding and feeling lost on the journey, it may take much longer. For me, it took about a year.

I waited until feelings of restlessness and curiosity began to emerge. This felt like my nudge; it was finally time to explore new career paths. This wasn’t fear, desperation, or insecurity. You can tell the difference based on whether your desire to move forward brings you peace and excitement rather than anxiety and immediacy

Ultimately, I found a job that fits my experience, professional goals, personality, and purpose. But what made the new position perfect wasn’t simply how well it fit. It was my new mindset: your identity does not come from your career. Your worth is not contingent on how hard you work

Releasing ourselves from this trap is the greatest gift of self-compassion. One thing they don’t teach you about obstacles is that sometimes they’re not put in your path as hurdles to overcome. Sometimes they’re there to signal it’s time to change course. But only you have the wisdom to know the difference. And it requires you to slow down enough to notice. 

Why Stories Work Better Than Advice

I’m on the phone with my dad. Again. We’re discussing the dilemma of whether to leave or stay in my Ph.D. program. Well, really I’m discussing it out loud to myself while he graciously stays on the line.

I’ve been seeking answers for months. Desperate for the perfect piece of advice that will magically clarify everything and point me in the right direction. I haven’t yet figured out how to listen to my intuition and not outward noise.

Presumably exhausted with my circular thinking, my dad eventually cuts in.

“Did I ever tell you about when I switched careers from broadcast journalism to finance?” he asks.

I pause. He proceeds to describe his early years of being overworked and underpaid, worrying about financial stability, questioning the vitality of the industry, and ultimately taking on a chance on his side hobby (the stock market).

He says only in retrospect is it clear that what we leave behind can serve us well in the next thing. For example, those journalism skills (research, writing, and speaking) landed him a radio show about investments that helped grow his client base.

Not once did my dad suggest I leave the Ph.D. program. He simply told a story and let me choose what I took away from it. Exactly like what I just did here with you.

So, is it true that stories resonate more with us than facts or advice? And if so, why?

Stories stick

Psychologist Jerome Bruner found that facts are 22% more likely to be remembered if they are part of a story. This is because our brains store and retrieve memories easier when there is emotion attached to the memory.

Effective storytelling elicits emotions such as sadness, joy, anger, surprise and stirs up virtues like hope and curiosity. Stories move us and even compel us toward action. They might influence, inspire, or inform. In my opinion, the most memorable stories do all three.

Emotions are critical in decision-making. Indeed, one study found that patients with damage to the part of the brain responsible for processing emotion had significant impairments in decision-making. It seems facts and advice alone won’t do much to move the needle.

Kendall Haven, an expert in the science of story structure, writes: “Your goal in every communication is to influence your target audience (change their current attitudes, belief, knowledge, and behavior). Information alone rarely changes any of these.”

I’d go a step further to say that your intention as the speaker or writer also impacts how well it sticks. My dad had no stake in the game when he shared his career change journey with me. It was simply an offering of empathy and support.

Have you ever shared a personal struggle with someone and they used it as an opportunity to air their grievances? Maybe you sought advice about work from someone who just got fired from the company or about martial struggles from someone newly divorced.

Stories stick when they’re told from healed scars not open wounds. Pay attention to the storyteller’s intention. The best ones will guide from love, not instruct from pain.

As Maya Angelou so famously wrote, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Stories are persuasive without trying to be

Another reason stories work better than advice is that they disarm the listener by taking down their defenses. We might not even know we have walls up when we ask for advice, but we often do.

When sharing my graduate school dilemma with a friend, he said, “You could pick a different research area” or “Maybe give it another year and then decide.”

These were valid suggestions. But since I already found myself wanting to withdraw, I subconsciously disregarded any advice on staying. I might have been more receptive had he shared a time when he felt disillusioned at work, sought support from a supervisor, implemented some changes, and decided that staying paid off.

Research conducted with experienced lawyers and judges showed that stories (and the emotions they evoked) were more persuasive in their rulings than the facts of the case alone.

But unlike the courtroom pursuit of objective truth and justice, our daily lives are full of ambiguity. We seek advice for issues that rarely have one “right” answer. A well-told story leaves space for the listener to interpret their own meaning or course of action.

This is why stories have such persuasive power. One study argues stories disrupt “the ability to evaluate facts, rather than just biasing a person to think positively.”

This isn’t to suggest we avoid advice altogether. Sometimes honest feedback or data-driven arguments are exactly what someone needs. But there are additional ways to help others like asking how you can best be supportive, offering a past struggle as guidance, or simply listening.

Stories connect experiences across time and place

Anyone can share facts. Sally can tell you that 40 million adults struggle with anxiety disorders nationwide. But what if she tells you what it feels like to have a panic attack, the inability to get a good breath, and the physical sensation of being in fight-or-flight mode?

Maybe you can relate or utilize it to relate to others. She stops becoming a statistic and starts becoming a human. There is more emotion and vulnerability attached to one’s testimony than expertise alone.

Credibility matters. We find people more credible if they can demonstrate they’ve walked in our shoes. The benefit of receiving empathy is that we feel less alone. Stories allow the personal to become the universal. They help us normalize experiences that otherwise feel abnormal.

As Glennon Doyle wrote in Untamed, “Imagination is the first step on the bridge of compassion. It is the shortest distance between two people, two cultures, two ideologies, two experiences.”

Unlike advice to be followed or discarded, stories allow the listener to approach it from where they currently are. The listener can consider their call to action on their own terms. They might wonder: What resonated most with me? Would I have responded similarly? What would I have done differently in that scenario?

My dad’s story about changing careers illustrated that he could understand my predicament because he went through something similar decades ago. It also provided me a tangible way to envision solutions and find hope in unexpected directions.

How to tell a great story

So, how might you tell a story the next time someone asks for your advice?

1. Show, don’t tell

My dad didn’t begin with “I think you should leave your Ph.D. program because I left journalism and it turned out great…” No. He let his experience speak for itself.

Malcolm Gladwell is a master nonfiction writer, weaving story within story like a Russian nesting doll to build suspense and drive home a point.

Think about why your favorite novels resonate with you. They make you feel something without the narrator telling you how to feel.

2. Clearly define the conflict

This is most applicable in job interviews or large-scale presentations, but the STAR method (situation, task, action, resolution) provides a framework for responding to a question with a meaningful story.

Make sure the problematic situation(s) is apparent, especially if there is more than one. What made it so challenging? Did you have the tools or resources to address the situation? If not, how did you find them?

3. Failures teach us more than successes

Failure is our receipt for courage. Our failures show the world: “Hey, here is something or someone I took a bold chance on!” Not everything in life has to work out how we planned for the risk to have been worth it.

Failure forces a reset and encourages self-reflection, innovative ideas, and recalibrated goals. The only successful people I trust are those who know failure personally and don’t fear discussing it.

Samuel Smiles wrote, “We learn wisdom from failure much more than from success…and probably he who never made a mistake never made a discovery.”

The next time you find yourself in a position to advise a friend, family member, or colleague, tap into your storybook reservoir. What have you experienced — or failed at — that might help them? If you have a beating heart, chances are you have plenty of material.

Deciding When You’re Undecided

The older I get, the less my decisions feel like decisions and the more they feel like an uncovering and honoring of what I already know. I’m making the right moves when it feels like I’m returning to myself rather than becoming someone new.

I write a lot about my decision to withdraw from my Ph.D. program. That’s because it’s one of the most significant, life-altering decisions I’ve ever made.

And yet.

It didn’t feel much like a decision at all.

In my ideal world, I would have decided to stay and graduate. I would have found my rhythm, churned out publications and presentations, and wrote a groundbreaking dissertation. I was looking for every reason to override what I already knew in my gut for the comfort of remaining in place. I wanted to choose comfort over surrender. Certainty over uncertainty. Even though I was unhappy.

It wasn’t until I quieted my mind (doubts, what-ifs, pros-and-cons) and the outside noise (advice, suggestions, research) that my intuition finally had space to rise and make itself known. I firmly believe that everything we need to make a decision already lives inside of us. The problem isn’t knowing what to do; the problem is that we don’t trust ourselves.

To remedy this, I’ve starting giving my fear the floor. I sit with a pencil and paper and let all my anxieties, concerns, and self-doubts speak up. I acknowledge my fear and show it gratitude for just trying to keep me safe.

And then I let wisdom have a turn. For example, if my fear said: “What if you drop out and everyone thinks you’re not intelligent or hard-working and you can’t find a job?” then wisdom might say: “What if you withdraw and end up in a career that fulfills you?”

Another example is if fear said: “What if you move to a new city but it doesn’t meet your expectations and you end up lonely?” then wisdom might say: “What if you move and the city exceeds your expectations and you find the adventure and connection you crave?”

Both outcomes are equally possible. Not all fear is irrational; it might have some important points worth considering. But one thing I’ve learned is that making decisions from a place of fear does not work. With fear guiding us, we might think we have control, but it always leaves us broken-hearted, disillusioned, more anxious, unsatisfied, bored, lonely, or complacent. It either sends us straight into things that aren’t right for us or keeps us from the things that are.

This is not to say that our intuition always tells us what we want to hear. That inner voice, God, the universe—no matter what you call it—only promises to show you what you NEED, not necessarily what you want.

When I was a grad student at the University of Texas at Austin, I would walk past the famous tower on the way from class to my car every day. Engraved on the front of the tower reads: Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free. What I didn’t understand then is that first the truth will scare the living shit out of you. You’ll try to fight the truth, ignore it, or run from it. The truth might force you to admit wrongdoing, face your biggest fear, acknowledge failure, and run straight toward the unknown. And that’s precisely what it takes to become free.

The scariest part of the jump is the anticipatory walk to the ledge. After the jump, we revel in the exhilaration and courage it required of us. No, not every leap of faith leads to a soft landing. But I can’t think of a single one I’ve taken that wasn’t worth the scars sustained.

Do you know that feeling when you fall in love? It’s hard to put into words. I think it’s why artists, musicians, and writers spend their entire lives trying. The closest I’ve ever come to describing it is this:

It wasn’t a thought. It wasn’t a feeling. It was a landing. A homecoming. An unexpected knowing.

It didn’t seem like a peek into the future of what we would become. It seemed like a quiet, inner acceptance of what we already were. Perhaps what we had always been and would always be.

Love is a mysterious force because it doesn’t require logical decision-making skills. All it requires is the courage to jump without certainty of a soft landing.

So, how to decide when you’re undecided? Ask a different question if you want a new answer. Allow your fear to speak. Allow your wisdom to respond. Then take the prefrontal cortex out of it. Get still. Get quiet. Pay attention to your body. What does returning to yourself feel like?

I once heard Bob Goff say in a podcast interview: “We don’t need more information. What we need is a safer place to process the information we already have. Not being told what to do…but who we already are.”   

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.

Why Predicting Your Future is Overrated

I’ve been thinking lately about how the plans we make for our lives rarely come true the way we expect. Of course, this is something people tell you as you age. We hear teachers, pastors, and parents constantly say things about expecting the unexpected, as counterintuitive as it may be.

“Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans…” you know, the usual clichés. But I don’t think we fully grasp what that means until we have enough life experience, or at least one major formative event, to look back and recognize just how true this is. I know with an unshakeable confidence now that God gives us what we need, not necessarily what we want.

One of the most beautiful things about childhood is the wild imagination. To create fearlessly, to dream tirelessly, and to imagine wildly are all markers of the innocence of childhood. You dream about what your life will look like as a teenager, then college student, then young adult, then parent, etc.

As a child, I used to write because of the pure joy it gave me to tell stories. The prospect of using the exact same words and language as many others before me yet the story was new every time? It was pure magic. Stories are magic.

But as the years go by, some slower than others, walls form in our minds and our hearts. These walls are often cultural messages about who a young woman or man should be. They are societal messages about what success should look like. Sometimes they’re familial messages about what values you should have. Or internal messages about whether you’re good enough and why or why not.

Time passes and it becomes harder to create with abandon, to imagine without fear, and to dream out loud. I’ve come to understand it’s the walls, the barriers, within us that are often the hardest to overcome. They hinder our ability to tell honest stories.

How many of us have willingly settled for less even though we knew we deserved more? Or perhaps you made assumptions about others that led you to treat them worse than they deserved? Maybe you’ve doubted your innate abilities and gifts, pursued things for the wrong reasons, criticized yourself too much, or silenced your own voice out of fear? Of course. We’re human.

I’ve made plenty of mistakes and less-than-ideal decisions over the years. But from those decisions, I’ve gained important lessons, funny memories, and formative experiences. They weren’t experiences I planned. In fact, they were sometimes ones I actively tried to avoid.

Yet amid the difficult seasons, I’ve also gone after what I wanted by applying to and getting jobs/internships for which I wasn’t sure I was qualified. I’ve voiced my opinions in classrooms and meetings. I’ve been honest even when it terrified me. I’ve trusted God and accepted uncertainty. I’ve taken chances that paid off. I’ve apologized and forgiven others.

So, what I’m trying to say is the idea of life working out the way you want it to doesn’t even make sense. How could any of us possibly predict all the people we’ve met, lessons learned, heartbreak endured, risks taken, and experiences that have shaped us?

Of course we have some say in the direction our lives go. This is not suggest we must all roam aimlessly without plans for the future. It’s simply to argue that those in-between moments, the unexpected moments of pain or joy, are what make a life.

This takes us back to the best thing about a child’s imagination. Children don’t dream about their future to be certain of it. They dream because the uncertainty is exhilarating to a young mind. Their imagination is boundless. All the different journeys are equally promising, equally open to possibilities. Our imagination never abandons us. Rather, we abandon it. Often by accident, without ever knowing.

I’m at somewhat of a crossroads in my life. I suppose we all always are. We are always facing forks in the road. Different paths to take. We just might not have our eyes open enough to notice. We assume we’ve already chosen our path, so we can’t possibly change course now. But a child who dreams of becoming a doctor or a teen who contemplates becoming a scientist doesn’t suddenly feel locked into this proposition. No, they become liberated by it.

We aren’t supposed to become prisoners of our dreams. The moment our dreams begin to confine us is the moment we need to explore other ones. Nothing squashes a dreamer’s spirit more than feeling trapped. If breaking free from a confined life means quitting a job, packing up and moving, leaving an unhealthy relationship, or taking a chance on a new one, then by all means we must do it.

The only certain thing about life is its uncertainty. I know that’s not a new idea but accepting this uncertainty while holding onto our creative imagination for dear life is the only meaningful way to live.

I used to chase degrees and resume lines like they would ultimately define my success in the world. As if, at a certain point, I would finally feel like I made it. I used to view everything I did as small steps toward reaching “my dreams”. But looking back on the last 26 years of my life, my fondest memories occurred during the seasons of my life when I didn’t know where the journey would take me. My favorite, happiest times occurred when I gave in fully to the present and let the future remain a blank state.

I think that’s why I’ve been a writer since I was little. You quite literally give yourself a blank page and lean into it. You don’t know what will end up on the page when you begin—you’re not even sure while you’re doing it. You just trust the process.

And it’s only after you finish writing that you read over the pages and acknowledge what you chose to fill it with. If you don’t like the story it tells, you know there is always another page waiting. But, on those lucky occasions when the words arrive effortlessly, they become the lighted torch you carry when the sky darkens and the road dissolves.