Posted on August 31, 2021
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.
Posted on February 9, 2021
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?
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.”
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.
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.
So, how might you tell a story the next time someone asks for your advice?
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.
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?
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.
Posted on December 27, 2020
Like a lot of kids in the Midwest, I grew up going to church. My parents prayed over my younger brother and me every night before bed, read us stories from the Bible, and explained Jesus in a simplified way we could understand. This was a big part of my childhood, but it never felt like an overly religious household. And by all accounts, it wasn’t. There were no shame tactics, unattainable moral standards, or religious checklists to complete as the entry fee into Heaven. I didn’t have designated church dresses or know how to pray the rosary. All I knew is: God loves you. Jesus saved you. End of story.
The safest I ever felt was when my parents tucked me into bed and prayed for our health and safety. (When they closed their eyes, I usually looked up at the ceiling. I couldn’t be sure where God was hanging out since I couldn’t see him after all. I imagined Heaven must be something like Disney World in the sky).
“It’s in Jesus’ name we pray. We love you forever. Amen.”
For a child like I was—the timid, anxious kind—there is something magical and comforting about the existence of a supernatural being who’s looking out for you. Believing in God felt like believing in eternal safety and protection. This was indeed an appealing idea.
When my anxiety reached its peak in fourth grade, I’d excuse myself from class and scurry down the hallway to the bathroom. I sat in the middle stall and did the only thing I knew how to do to feel better: pray. And it worked. Every time. I learned when I asked God to show up, He did. Peace always arrived by the time I returned to the classroom.
As I got older, finding peace wouldn’t always be in the ways I expected or even wanted. I was no longer a worried child in a bathroom stall. I was becoming an adult who believed her ideas for the future were far better than whatever this God of Peace had in mind. My personal freedom was far too important to abandon in pursuit of a “religious identity” as I saw it. I was turned off by the so-called Bible thumpers on my college campus. They seemed self-righteous and judgmental and fun-sucking. Some were. Some weren’t. But who was I to judge their hangover-free Sunday mornings? We grew up in the same churches, didn’t we?
Just make me feel safe, God, that’s all I need from you right now. I got the rest covered.
And from the outside, it sure looked like I did. But on the inside, deep within my gut, I was restless and uncertain, never fully attaining the peace I so desperately craved. The general sense that “there has to be more than this” incessantly filled my mind. My prayers were full of requests and void of listening. I thought if I kept searching on my own I would eventually find “it”. Whatever “it” is. But all I ever found was a need to do more searching.
While I lived in Austin, this internal conflict became overwhelming. I began to operate from a social justice lens; the counselor-in-training part of me was acutely aware of the ways Christianity had wronged and shamed so many. I was increasingly disillusioned by what I saw as a religion that justified homophobia, misogyny, and other forms of oppression.
If Christians weren’t actively using division as a tactic, they were certainly silent when others were. Although I never abandoned my belief in the existence of God, the belief was undoubtedly strained. I stood on shaky ground, easily swayed by the slightest gust of doubt.
Frustration arose with the type of empty faith that runs on checklists, keeping score, and talking points without action. There were so many issues I couldn’t seem to reconcile. People close to me shared stories of being rejected by the Church and, subsequently, their own family for being gay. For being born how God created them. How could I defend an institution that used God as a veil to speak against equal human rights? How could they look at gay children and tell them we “love but don’t affirm you”? In no way could I picture Jesus treating people the way some religious leaders treated their congregations.
I noticed the many ways believers stayed silent so as not to rock the boat during instances of injustice. Very few of the Christians I knew were part of the conversations about racial discrimination in America. Why isn’t there more outrage at the police killings of unarmed Black men? Why aren’t there more people of color in our pews? How can we stand by politicians who spew hate, incite fear, and celebrate division while our pastors preach love and acceptance?
Why do religious leaders go on international mission trips but avoid addressing the poverty in their own cities? Why do so many pro-life advocates stay silent—and, in some cases, justify—when women and children who cross our southern border are separated and forced into detention camps? Why is the focus more on banning abortion than it is on the lives of the children who already struggle to survive in our communities? More on ensuring birth than ensuring equal access to contraceptives?
One afternoon, I’m sitting in a graduate school seminar. A classmate shares a story of overhearing a preacher angrily calling for damnation to hell for sexual sinners. Other classmates shake their heads, displaying a spectrum of anger and sadness.
“This is why Christianity is so dangerous,” someone says.
“It’s no wonder people don’t feel safe in churches,” another responds. “They’re full of outdated, discriminatory beliefs and practices.”
Before I can stop the words from exiting my mouth, I hear my own voice echo across the room. “But that’s not God.”
The room falls silent. I gulp, momentarily considering an exit strategy. Too late. Eyes are on me.
“That’s not God,” I repeat. “I know what it’s like to be frustrated—even outraged—by the Church as an institution. I know because I grew up in it. But thankfully, I had parents who encouraged me to ask hard questions. They were so confident that the answers would always point back to love and acceptance, not discrimination and fear. There were no shame or fear tactics. But I know that’s not universal, and it breaks my heart it’s not. It should be. Religion can be used for hate. But that’s because of hateful people. That’s not because of God.”
I’m met with some sympathetic looks. I don’t know where the words come from; I have no intention to speak up. But in this moment, it’s clear: I can’t base the validity of God’s existence on the actions (or inactions) of the people who claim to believe in God. That logic doesn’t add up. I’m spending so much time judging people who misread, misinterpret, and mistreat. But if I can find the Christians who don’t lead from love, surely I can find the ones who do. If my gut tells me what is wrong, surely it can also point to what is right. Instead of nodding along fervently at the criticisms of when Christians get it wrong, maybe I can look for the ways they are getting it right.
Political bias finds its way into our interpretation of God. None of us is an exception. Imperfect humans with imperfect agendas are destined to fail. And sometimes people even use religion to propel their own hateful ideologies. But that’s not a testament to God. That’s a testament to human bias, brokenness, and sometimes evil.
As I neared the end of graduate school, the ground on which I stood that had necessarily been shaken to its core began to solidify again. I understood that the true Jesus isn’t passive nor discriminatory. His life is defined by healing the hurt, sitting at the feet of the most marginalized and desecrated in society, and actively speaking out against all forms of injustice and evil. What breaks his heart should break mine. He cannot possibly side wholly with either conservatives or liberals. No party or belief structure has a monopoly on God; He transcends our broken, binary systems. He represents both unconditional love and restorative (not simply punitive) justice.
My heart inevitably softened for those who are well-intentioned but still get it wrong. If I want to receive grace when I slip up, I must learn how to give grace to others. If I’m calling for compassion for the oppressed, I must work toward compassion for the oppressor, whom too often has little to no awareness of the role they play in perpetuating shame. Although I may never find all the answers to all my questions (that’s why it’s called faith, after all), I did discover two that answer a lot of them.
Lead with love. Not doctrine.
Follow God. Not his followers.
This is not an easy pill to swallow. And it’s not a suggestion to sit back in silence and enable dangerous people to maintain power. If we listen well enough, God reveals to us when to act and when to be still. But fighting against blame and division with weapons of blame and division is not productive. As Audre Lorde so eloquently wrote, “For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.”
We cannot simply hand our LGBTQ+ children a Bible after they share their stories of shame, rejection, and violence. We must listen. We cannot simply pray for racial healing as a hall pass out of tangible action. We must have hard conversations. The God I’ve come to know calls us to love even the ones with whom we vehemently disagree while standing up for what is right. Love is what is right. Always. I’d venture to say we all need more of it.
Posted on November 12, 2020
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.
Posted on September 13, 2020
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 wondered: how 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:
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.