The other night we did something pretty remarkable with a group of friends at a Christmas party. Wedged in right between the overconsumption of some terrible red wine and a white elephant gift exchange, one of the guys invited us to share “desolations and consolations” from the previous year.
Between laughter and sober tears, couples went around the room and told their stories. I was struck by the humility and honesty the activity required, and also by the willingness to be vulnerable. It would have been easy to keep it light and surface level and I wouldn’t have blamed anyone for doing it, but no one did. Every person who shared did so from the depths, and it was pretty moving. Some couples shared stories that were already familiar. Others reached for stories that hadn’t seen much daylight, surprising the group with the weight of the load they’d been carrying.
It reminded me of something that is too easy to forget; that everybody has a story. And few of us know the details of each other’s stories. And any time you are entrusted with those details, good or bad, it is an honor.
I was proud of the men in the room for being willing to open up. There’s a range of different masculine personalities in our circle of friends, from frat boys to intellectual giants and everything in between, and it is so refreshing to see their willingness to be humble and real.
I was proud of the women in the room for being transparent and pulling off the masks most of us wear in real life, whether in the carline at school or on social media. Real women can reveal weaknesses as readily as they can reveal strength.
Something about the Christmas season – and yes, we are in Advent still – invites a kind of reflection that is so necessary and so cathartic for the human soul. I think that’s part of what can make this season hard for people who are grieving – reflection and recollection go hand in mitten with the yuletide.
I’m 36 years old today, and far from despising my doorstep-of-Christmas birthday as I did when I was younger, I absolutely love having my personal calendar turn a new page right around the time that the Church’s calendar and the calendar year do the same.
It’s like a trifecta of reflection on the past year, if I lean into it. And so I will, sharing just a few – not 36, don’t worry – of my own consolations and desolations from 2018.
My dad’s cancer diagnosis. From the moment I got the call from my mom, I had peace. I was concerned but not hysterical, and I had a deep consoling conviction that he was going to be fine. This was a complete consolation in what could have been an utterly desolating time. I am naturally anxious and prone to health anxiety, especially about my parents, being a dutifully neurotic firstborn. Also, I was 3 days postpartum when they told me the news. I was in the most fragile of mental states given my past history with PPD, but I felt enveloped in tranquility. I asked for prayers and I prayed a lot myself, and I truly don’t remember a time over this past year when I was terribly worried. Even while sitting for hours with my mom in the waiting room during his surgery, I felt sure he was going to make a full recovery.
And he has. He is approaching 6 months cancer free, and had a clean report on his last scan. He also miraculously escaped without nerve damage from the procedure, an unexpected and wonderful gift.
His presence at my sister’s wedding a few weeks ago, the fifth child he has given away in marriage now, underscored for all of us how tremendous this year has been, and how differently it could have gone.
I won’t take my parents’ and inlaws’ robust good health for granted. I pray for many more good years, grateful, in a way, for the conviction of that terrible diagnosis. The big takeaway for me was this: the only thing I can actually control is how I react to the circumstances and events that God permits in my life.
Easy for me to say when he’s healthy now, right? But this realization and the profound gift of an increasing capacity for emotional self mastery has been an unbelievable gift to me, a girl who has always defaulted to chronic anxiety and occasional panic attacks. It’s like this: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” ― Viktor. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
On a related note, another huge consolation this year has been the gift of a good counselor, an effective counseling technique, a good antidepressant, targeted hormone supplementation, and some profoundly efficacious healing prayers. I wish I could point to any one of those things and say definitively: this was the thing. The thing that changed everything! But I can’t. I’m a poor candidate for a double blind study because I am notorious for Trying All The Things until I find something that works. Chalk it up to being very results oriented. I’ve never felt better in my adult life. I have very little anxiety and a fuse that is about a mile longer (though Luke my verb still manages to extract a decent amount of maternal, um, energy).
Along with that longer fuse, I have realized, truly by the grace of God, this truth: you get to decide whose voice you’re going to listen to. For months after Zelie was born, I was working doggedly and without any evidence of results to lose the baby weight. I swam for miles and miles each week, counted calories, tracked my meals, got sugdar out of my diet, etc, etc, etc. And nothing happened. I mean, I’m sure it was good for my heart to do all that swimming, but no weight was lost.
My frustration would always, always peak while getting ready for Mass on Sunday mornings. I would whip myself into a frenzy of self hatred, glowering at my reflection in the bathroom mirror with piles of rejected items of clothing around my feet. The kids were dressed and ready, Dave was dressed and ready, and I would be resorting to tearfully stuffing myself into my stretchiest pair of jeans and caking makeup on my face to disguise my puffy eyes.
I have a vivid memory of almost growling to myself in the mirror during one of these pre Mass abuse sessions: “I hate you.” And it dawned on me like a clap of thunder: that is not my voice.
Using my impressive powers of deduction, I figured out that it wasn’t God’s voice, either.
I prayed, in that moment, for God to show me how He sees me. And He immediately pointed me to the Cross. He didn’t pat my head and tell me how pretty I was. He didn’t give me visual amnesia and cause me to suddenly see a supermodel looking back at me in the mirror. But He did correct my vision. “Love,” He seemed to be saying, “looks like this. This is love. This is what love does to a body.”
Once I put two and two together, that God sees the self immolation of motherhood with the same eyes of love that look upon His Beloved Son on the Cross, I correctly deduced that Satan hates me, personally. He hates God, and he hates whatever images God. He has a vested interest in making sure I hear that hatred coming through, loud and clear. And he’s not stupid. Women want to be beautiful. Women are drawn to beauty. Beauty speaks our soul language. And in my woundedness and sadness, he had gotten really good at leaning in close and whispering all the things I thought were true about myself: that I was fat, worthless, ugly, hopeless, ruined, repulsive, past my prime, never going to recover, never going to be an athlete again, etc.
The clever part is this: I’ve always struggled with self image, I have no memory of ever not struggling, and so I was pretty sure that the voice whispering all those terrible things, that constant refrain in my mental soundtrack, was mine.
I cannot possibly overstate how transformative this realization has been. Are the negative thoughts all gone? Nope. But knowing that they aren’t mine? Stunning, extraordinary freedom.
I can deflect those little slings and arrows as enemy fire now, no longer locked in a prison of self harm. The bad tapes I’ve been playing over and over again in my mind for decades are broken now, their tracks becoming more distorted and scratched with every effort on my part to resist and rewire and redirect them.
Neuroplasticity is real. What a gift! God loves me personally, and His and my enemy, the devil, hates me personally. What a revelation! The desolation of the first 8 months of this year was in my inability to accept my 5th-time postpartum body. The consolation has been not in the miracle of a little weight loss, but in this new ability to correctly identify different voices.
I feel like I’ve happened upon the secret of happiness. Discovered the fountain of contentment, the wellspring of peace. It makes me stupid happy, this new superpower. And it’s such a relief. I could cry right now thinking about the way I used to talk to myself, and I could cry in gratitude for no longer being enslaved to that way of thinking.
2018, you’ve been a year of real surprises. I never expected to look back on 35 and definitively put my finger on it as the year that God rescued me from myself.
But He did. And He has.
And He wants to rescue each one of us, personally. I’m sure of it. I’ve never been more sure of anything in my life. Here’s to another trip around the sun.
I’ve been praying these prayers daily for a couple weeks now, and I’m noticing that when I am faithful to the practice, it is much easier to remain in this place of peace. The negative thoughts are laughably easy to identify as enemy missives, and there is an overall lightness to life. I can’t recommend the practice – or the app – enthusiastically enough.