Jesus on Toast: A Paradigm Shift

Another two months without a post, despite working pretty feverishly. The broken bits of me have been so in control. So many days spent tending to my shattered heart blow after  blow.

“He wept because God was unfair, and because this was the way God repaid those who believed in their dreams… I’m going to become bitter and distrustful because one person betrayed me. I’m going to hate those who have found their treasure because I never found mind. And I’m going to hold on to what little I have, because I’m too insignificant to conquer the world.”

But, struggling or not, I continue to work slowly and deliberately toward a new and fresh sense of clarity. A shift in my own personal paradigm about what matters. About what makes life worth it.

“I’ve learned things from the sheep, and I’ve learned things from crystal, he thought. I can learn something from the desert, too. It seems old and wise.”

The big shift: I’m done with silver linings.

If I were running for president, you could call me a flip flopper. But good news! I’m not now and probably won’t ever. So… since I don’t actually have to worry about what the press and populous think of me,  I’m free to change my mind all I want. Also to inhale. And to have sexual relations with whomever I want.

I could have made much less boring choices…

But. Back to that change of mind, which was my point… change of heart, really.

“Listen to your heart. It knows all things, because it came from the Soul of the World, and it will one day return there.”

I started this blog on the premise of silver linings. The idea that, no matter how awful something seems, there’s always something good hidden inside — a pretty picture in the tapestry. And I believed it wholeheartedly. Mostly. For a while.

But there were some cases where it just didn’t fit. Like when I wrote about the death of my friend Nate. I said, even back then, that sometimes there really is no silver lining. The first crack in my neatly crafted narrative.

More recently, as I’ve struggled through infertility, miscarriage, hopelessness and depression, I’ve become less and less convinced of the master plan/pretty picture and looked harder, further, and wider for something else.

Even in this little video, where forest animals animate a snippet of Brene Brown’s TED Talk about vulnerability, empathy, and compassion, a silver lining comes up as kind of a gut punch… so in constantly looking for one, was I inadvertently delivering the punch to myself?

Jerk moose trying to paint silver linings in everyone's dark clouds. {Source}
Jerk moose trying to paint silver linings in everyone’s dark clouds. {Source}

I’ve never exactly been known for self kindness, but this seemed like a whole new low.

I was searching for something, but maybe I was searching for the wrong thing.

“‘Every second of the search is an encounter with God,’ the boy told his heart. ‘When I have been truly searching for my treasure, every day has been luminous, because I’ve known that every hour was a part of the dream that I would find it. When I have been truly searching for my treasure, I’ve discovered things along the way that I never would have seen had I not had the courage to try things that seemed impossible for a shepherd to achieve.'”

It started when my brother-in-law picked up my copy of Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning — a book written in two parts, the first a description of Frankl’s experiences as a clinical psychiatrist imprisoned in a series of Nazi concentration camps, the second a description of logotherapy, or the pursuit of meaning in life.

It’s a tiny book that packs a powerful punch. But in a way, I feel like the short length actually does it a disservice. When I was reading it, I was incredibly immersed, convinced it would change my life… but it didn’t take me terribly long to read, and I moved on relatively quickly.

As weeks and months went by and I slowly moved past the miscarriage and into another round of IVF, I felt really ready. But when I went through all of it again and still failed, I found myself back at the bottom of the pit, wallowing, binge eating, crying, so quick to anger, frustrated with everything and everyone — convinced that I am worthless, pathetic, and pointless. But also desperate to claw my way back out (and unable to run another marathon to do so).

Sometimes, like with the marathon, my desperation makes me almost manic. (I realize, of course, that I’m not using that term in a clinically correct way — but it is definitely a frenzied feeling, the need for action, to fix things and fix them NOW.) I thought about the book that Stu had ultimately taken home with him and chose that as my starting point. Because if the problem is that one lacks a point, then it seems as though the solution would be to find one,  to search for meaning, yes?

“You will never be able to escape from your heart. So it is better to listen to what it has to say.”

And so I read. I read and read and read… and am still reading. (See book suggestions below.) But the most important thing that all this reading has done for me to date is to really shift my focus. Away from trying to figure out why the cloud is there, from trying to paint the inside of it silver… and instead, trying to find meaning in the storm.

Searching for silver linings can be a fruitful personal pursuit and I’ve done an awful lot of it; sometimes they even exist to be found. It’s shallow, though. And I have come to believe that the search for meaning is more consistently productive and more fulfilling in the long run. Not only because humans are hard-wired for meaning (Rorshach test, anyone? no? What about Jesus in toast?), but also because meaning is determined from within rather than without. As such, meaning is within my control and subject to my will, not the fickle will of a chance-driven universe.

{Source -- and the article it came from is interesting, too!}
{Source — and the article it came from is interesting, too!}

I know that to say meaning is in our control is contentious… and I was unsure of it at first. But according to the experts in logotherapy that I have read (manically, maniacially?) over the past several weeks, there are three paths to meaning:

  1. Creative (what you make)
  2. Experiential (what you do)
  3. Attitudinal (how you feel)

While all three are technically equivalent, attitudinal is the one of the three that is always at our disposal. No matter what. Even in a concentration camp. Even in the depths of the darkest pit. We always get to choose our attitude.

“That’s what alchemists do. They show that, when we strive to become better than we are, everything around us becomes better, too.”

Importantly, choosing our attitude is decidedly not the same things as putting on rose colored glasses or pasting a smile on your face. Because meaning is not the same thing as a silver lining.

For example, I truly believe that there is no silver lining to infertility. I am not going to wake up someday and realize that omg, it was so awesome that I spent five years unsuccessfully trying to start a family or that my miscarriage was the result of a baby that just “wasn’t meant to be.” I will forever grieve those things; they have changed me on a fundamental level. BUT I can find meaning in sharing my struggles. I can find meaning in supporting the women who struggled before me, alongside me, and will struggle after me. I can find meaning in the fact that the family I might eventually have someday will be intentional in a way that not many families truly are. I can find meaning in the education I received through the process — about how love changes hearts, about my own seemingly infinite capacity for hope, the necessity of equality in family building for same-sex couples, the universality of human struggle no matter what form it may take. And perhaps most importantly, I have been given endless opportunities to clarify my values and live an authentic life centered on the things that mean the most to me.

“The boy continued to listen to his heart as they crossed the desert. He came to understand its dodges and tricks, and to accept it as it was.”

After I miscarried, my dad told me that I’d find meaning someday — because the universe was teeming with it. It felt a little like a platitude, but I knew that it wasn’t, because my dad doesn’t speak in platitudes. He was just 10 steps ahead of me down this road, I think. Maybe that’s because it’s a road that can only really be known by experience. By crossing the desert, and listening to your heart as you go.

“‘Everyone has his or her own way of learning things,’ he said to himself. ‘His way isn’t the same as mine, nor mine as his. But we’re both in search of our Personal Legends, and I respect him for that.'”

Maybe you believe that meaning is to be found in a gift from the universe. And you can keep looking for your signs, omens, and silver linings. It’s ok if there’s where you think you’ll find meaning. But I know that I won’t. I can’t believe in meant-to-bes — because if I do, I have to believe that I’m not meant to be a mom. And I can’t believe in #blessed because what does that make me? #cursed? And I know now that silver linings are desperate and unfounded strokes of luck that seem like meaning, but really aren’t. Meaning is something more than that. And meaning is what I truly desire, in my heart of hearts.

Most importantly, when you find meaning in your life… you cannot also be pointless. A meaningful life is never pointless.

“No matter what he does, every person on earth play a central role in the history of the world. And normally he doesn’t know it.”

I’m getting there. To a point where, on more days than not, I can see meaning. I can feel it. And at the very least, that allows be to peek my head up over the edge of the pit.

Last week, on the brink of pregnancy, an implantation scheduled for two days away, I got a phone call from my clinic… canceling the whole thing. Nearly 60 days of drugs and injections, thousands more dollars, hopes as high as hopes could be over our 4 – 5 fertilized eggs and it all came crashing down one more time. I cried. There was snot. I had to call Seth. I went to the office next door to get kleenexes and comfort from a coworker. I worked late. I went home. I ate marshmallows and cried some more while my sweet pup licked tears from my face.

I experienced legitimate grief. Disappointment. Frustration. I dangled my feet over the edge of the pit and looked into the abyss. And then I took a deep breath. And another. Even thought it was nearly 8 pm, I got up, I went into the kitchen, and I cooked myself a nice dinner. I vegged, watched The Bachelorette while I ate. I snuggled Curly on the couch and went to bed. I knew my life wasn’t over. And by the end of it all, I knew we still weren’t quite done trying — because our hearts are broken, but they still beat family… family… family…

“The boy and his heart had become friends, and neither was capable now of betraying the other.”

When my dad told me that the universe teems with meaning, I thought of silver lined clouds and blessings-in-disguise. But I really understand meaning now and I’m letting it into my heart, day by day, little by little. It’s a better way… for me.

[All quotations above are from The Alchemist by Paul Coelho — with thanks to Nicole M. for the perfect and timely recommendation. This girl knows what’s up.]

 

Recommended Reading (if you like any of these ideas):

  • Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl
  • The Will to Meaning: Foundations and Applications of Logotherapy by Viktor Frankl
  • Meaning in Suffering: Comfort in Crisis through Logotherapy by Elisabeth Lukas and Joseph B. Fabry
  • The Alchemist by Paul Coehlo
  • The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk

6 thoughts on “Jesus on Toast: A Paradigm Shift

  1. Oh Rachel, I hate that you’ve had so much heartache and pain. But I know that you will be ok. Whatever your path, you will make it and shine.

  2. To say I enjoy reading your posts sounds wrong-maybe I enjoy hearing the way that you’re able to put into words things that I’ve felt or am feeling. But, that sounds selfish! Regardless, I am so grateful that you’re sharing. I have lost several babies, the last miscarriage began this past Christmas Day. Soon after, I realized that I no longer believe in the expression that everyone shared with me which was that “everything happens for a reason.” What reason would there be for a baby to die? What reason would there be for me to experience the heartbreak of another baby loss, followed a week later by my best friend setting me aside for good? If there was a reason, that made me feel responsible for the cause or the need for that reason. The death of babies is too much responsibility for me to take on, even though I’m always apt to blame my body. I decided ignore that things happen for a reason and believe instead that how I respond and change to what happens to me was what really mattered-as painful as that process is. You just gave me a new word for that: meaning. I have a lot to think about now, thanks to your post. A friend also recommended The Alchemist to me, so it looks like I have some reading to do, too. My heart truly does break from all of the disappointment and hurt you’ve experienced. I was in tears reading this all. But, again, I’m really grateful for you sharing it with us and do believe that one day, you will be a mommy. You won’t find a reason or feel good about all of this loss that you’ve experienced for the past five years, but you will find some healing through the love you’ll share with the child who eventually comes to you. xoxo

  3. I love you sweetie! We’re all on a journey, a journey into meaning, and if we fall, can only pick each other up, dust each other off and continue on the journey together.

  4. Really amazing read. I’m going to have to check out those book recs. The human experience is incredible in that even though I am not going through anything similar to what you are/have been, this post still resonates with me in a personal way.

  5. You are a talented writer with an amazing voice and positive outlook despite the mishaps along the way. I know you will find YOUR purpose and the meaning to YOUR life. Keep your head up, keep an open heart and mind and keep searching. You will find the truth to life!

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