A few weeks ago, after I wrote those thousands and thousands of words about our ordeal with Sammy, both of my posts sat here, unpublished, for a few days. I felt sick about them. I called my brother Robert, like I do whenever I suffer (my many many) bouts of existential crisis concerning my self-worth and what the whole point of writing even is and why am I even alive or wasting people’s time with these stories? This is the stuff Robert gets hit with whenever he dares to answer my phone calls on a weekday. And if he (wisely) does not answer, then I leave passive aggressive messages concerning his role as a pastor and whether or not he cares for anyone outside his own stupid Boston church, etc etc. It must be such a pleasure to be related to me.
He did answer this time, though, and he told me like he always does to use my voice to tell my stories, because in the end that’s all we can really do for each other anyways. So I did, and I felt like an idiot sharing it. There I was, some 4,000 words deep into a small, albeit frightening, situation with my son. It’s not like he was diagnosed with a terrible disease or won’t make a full recovery; it’s not like other people aren’t going through deeper heartache at this very moment. Where do I get off taking up so much space with my own pain?
Our family lost a dear cousin the day after Christmas. Sam’s young cousin Arman, only 22, passed away. He was the youngest of his seven siblings. His death is a devastation that will continue forever in their family. As one of seven children I shudder to think of life as six, life with a hole in our dynamic and our order, our entire sense of reality shifted by the missing voice of a beloved brother or sister. That scares me to imagine, to allow myself to picture a different future than the one I foolishly project as absolute.
It all seems so permanent, doesn’t it? Until it’s not?
On top of this fresh tragedy in our family, there is on-going pain in circles small and big, in-house and global. Wrecked marriages. Angry sons. Lying politicians. Massacre in the Nigerian bush. Massacre around a French editorial desk. Children forced to be suicide bombers. This is the world we’re raising our children in, this is the hell that goes on and on and on. It’s heavy. It’s terrible. It’s the bad suffocating the good on an hourly basis.
And I dare to spend even a moment of time talking about my baby being sick? This not only feels insignificant in the big scheme of problems, it also seems selfish to write about it. I really struggle with what I ought to write about, if we’re being honest here. I have over 30 unseen essays from the last few years, essays that I’ve typed out and never published in this space because once the words are on the page they stare back at me with cold disinterest, mocking my efforts and with the devil in my ear, all I can hear is,
“It doesn’t matter. You don’t matter. This doesn’t matter. Stop being so selfish. Stop wasting people’s time. Your voice is stupid. Your thoughts are trivial at best, egotistic at their worst.”
This is, of course, all a raging side-effect of my raging people-pleasing tendencies, which burn through my blood and prompt most of my decisions if I let my guard down. I am so deathly afraid of being irrelevant. Most days I feel like I have one foot on the garbage heap and one foot in society, and the wrong word or act will shove me right off to the dump. So, I don’t say anything. I write an essay and hide it away. I ignore a hard phone call. I tell my dreams to wait until I’m more capable. I listen to friends and don’t respond like I want to, even when I know God is giving me something important to say, because I am afraid of being irrelevant. I wrote all of those words about my son being sick because I needed to sort through my feelings and because so very many people had prayed for us, and I wanted to share what happened. But once the words were out there, they seemed useless. Immaterial. Shouldn’t I focus on bigger issues? I berated myself and my feelings, recommending myself to a life of silence and fasting. I squashed my heart and shamed myself into embarrassment at my overreaction to a somewhat stressful but in all actuality fleeting moment in time.
When I went to Boston this fall with the kids, I met one of my mom’s friends, who has since turned into a dear friend of mine. Her name is Cynthia and we call each other every few weeks to talk and pray together. Cynthia is my opposite in a lot of ways. She lives in a big city, she is a working mom to one little boy, she teaches high schoolers in a failing, under-served school, she only recently became an American citizen and her family still lives in Kenya. She married a white man and deals with a lot of questions concerning their relationship; she is tall, black, strikingly beautiful, and shaves her head. She’s kind of a bad ass, actually. She is also obsessive and brilliant and slightly neurotic, breathless with the enormity of life and its many, many problems and decisions. She feels everything more deeply than anyone I’ve ever met, and I love talking to her. We can talk for an hour about the undercurrent of racism in poverty policy making, and then spend another hour debating the ridiculous culture of food and nutrition worship amongst middle and upper class mothers (don’t get me started about raw milk). I wish she would write because she is wise beyond her years, but since she won’t, I’ll just glean her knowledge and pretend I thought of it first. Recently she was encouraging my dreams for the future and my non-existent writing career, and I confessed to her my enormous fear of saying things that don’t matter. She guffawed and said, in her stern and loving way,
“Jessie. Here’s what I’m going to pray for you: That you would have a little courage to say a little more. Because that’s all you need, right? Every day, just a little courage to say a little more. God will do the rest, for goodness sake.”
Cynthia was right, she usually is. Because God gave me a very specific word for this coming year, and in complete vulnerability I’m going to share it here with you:
“Don’t Shrink Back.” That’s my mantra right now, the banner in my sky, the spiritual tattoo on my heart.
I don’t really know what that means. I’m not exactly a wall flower. In fact, I normally go way too far. I send letters I should not send. I make jokes that should’ve stayed in my head. I spew feelings. But what I’ve noticed happening as I get older is that I know myself and I know when I’m going too far, with an argument or my opinion, and I know that my ability with words becomes an easy weapon to fire, both written and verbally. So I pull back. I don’t want to hurt feelings, I don’t want to overstep my bounds, I don’t want to be a jerk. Cause I’ve done it so often already. But there is another step in this maturation process for me, as I try to learn the great lesson of being wise as a serpent and harmless as a dove.
Since I’m beginning to recognize when I’m going too far,
now I need to learn when to go at all.
Rather than operating out of a mode of self-protection and serving that monster in me that wants ALL THE PEOPLE TO LIKE ME ALL THE TIME, I want to serve the Truth. The King of Truth. I don’t want to shrink back when I know the right thing to say. I think the crux of the matter, for me anyways, for this passionate person with this wild imagination and big mouth and sharp edges,
is to say more as in: More meaningful. More thoughtful. More love. More understanding. Say more in kindness, say less in pride.
Not more as in, say anything all the time. Been there. Done that. Reaped the bitter rewards. Over it.
There’s a lot going on these days. There is always a lot going on, isn’t there? A lot of changes. A lot of pain. A lot of sorrow. A lot of good and a lot of bad. We’re here, we’re together in this big mess of a world, and I don’t want to shrink back anymore. I want courage to be kind, and courage to speak up. Courage to support you in your pain, and ask for help in mine.
Have a little courage to say a little more, guys.
But make your more count.
Make your more worth something.
Let’s not be voices in the wind; let’s be the trees. Standing tall, telling the truth. In the wind or the calm, in the storm or the still. Truth doesn’t bend or break- it just is. It will always become clear, and it will always speak for itself. So you can whip yourself into whatever frenzy of the day you want, shouting into the void, drowned out by all the other angry shouters.
But I’m gonna try to quiet down. And make my more mean something.