No box for me!

Another march this week. Another round of demonstrations, and people holding signs with angry words to get their message across.

What if we held people in our arms, instead of signs in our hands?

We’re a divided culture, in so many ways. Identity politics are everywhere, and personally, I’m just weary of it all.

We’re so flooded with messaging to stand up for this group, stand with that group, to self-identify by race, gender, nationality, cultural heritage, faith, political party, etc., etc., etc.

Can I just be human?

I’m a woman, a wife, a mom, a grandmother, a daughter, a friend, a college graduate, an employee, a writer, a Christian, a voter.

I’m all of these things, and more. I’m subtle. I’m nuanced.

I don’t like being pigeonholed, put neatly into any box.

Because I don’t fit neatly into any box.

I don’t want to compete with any group, or feel myself in opposition to anyone. I don’t see myself in a woman vs man world, in an “I win, you lose” life model. I hope we all win. The reality is, though the ideal is to make everyone equal, the words and attitudes displayed by militants in movements reflect more hate than hope. I hear angry demands and harsh rhetoric.

There was a time in this country, and in the western world, when marching for rights was important. Raising awareness was important. Workers’ rights, women’s rights, civil rights, children’s rights…there was an era when all those groups had to fight to be seen, to be heard, to be represented at the table of democracy, citizenship, and human rights.

And there are still many countries and cultures throughout the world that need to change, need to see all humans as people of value, of worth, and show that care of the most vulnerable in society is a mark of the strongest society. Because when we care for the weakest among us, we show how brave we really are. We show our integrity, as a whole, as a society, as a culture.

I don’t believe we in the United States of America, or in any western country, have it all figured out. We’ll never get it all right; we’re human, and we’re flawed. But can I just say, rather than encouraging people to march, can we encourage people to work?

If you want to make a difference for any group, do something more powerful than taking a day to march for your cause. Show up at a school that needs volunteers, show up at a retirement home that needs people to sit with residents, at a homeless shelter that needs help cleaning or doing of anything useful, at a park that needs cleaning up…you pick your place, choose your gift.

But show up to work.

Every time I see a group marching, I wonder what all that energy and those hours could do if the time was given to productive work? Volunteer work that didn’t charge for service?

What couldn’t we do? What couldn’t we change?

Or better than a one-day commitment, what about showing up every week?

You know, I never valued teachers more than when I subbed in school systems during our early years in Alaska. I saw for myself, first-hand, the struggles, the shortages, the responsibilities we put on the teaching community. I saw their world in a whole new way.

I never understood the world of health care, until I began to work in primary care clinics, and got to see, up close, the struggles, the shortages, the responsibilities we put on health care professionals. I saw their world in a whole new way.

What I’ve learned is this…you don’t march your way to understanding injustice and need.

You work your way to understanding.

You have to see to understand. You have to show up, get involved. You can read about all sorts of issues and problems, you can watch documentaries on TV. But until you see for yourself, you won’t really get it.

Want to understand the plight of immigrants? Find a way to work with immigrants. Want to understand the impact of illegal drugs on our society? Work with people struggling to overcome their addiction, and with families trying to survive the blows to their homes, to the children of addicts.

Want to understand the nightmare of the sex slave industry? Connect with organizations who are working to free people caught in that trap.

The point is, awareness grows when you get out in the community and see, for yourself, the hurts, the losses, the weak, and the vulnerable, the gaps in community and government.

Want to understand how building healthy families strengthens the whole society? Work with children bounced from foster home to foster home. Want to understand the health care crisis? Spend some time in under-funded, under-staffed clinics.

When statistics become faces and names, you’re beginning to understand.

I wish we were color-blind, gender-blind, status-blind, and kind.

I wish we were all just willing to be kind: to give a cup of cold water, to lend a hand; to understand that life is hard, and we’re here to make it easier. If we do that much, we’ve done so much.

Know what I love to see in my FB feed? I love to see positive, to see people doing good, to see people being the change. I love to see people sharing their time, their faith, their talents, their money, their energy.

I challenge you to work rather than to march; to act rather than falling back on mere words; to contribute, rather than criticize.

There’s a story I love. Maybe you’ve heard it?

Once upon a time, there was a wise man who used to go to the ocean.

One day, as he was walking along the shore, he looked down the beach and saw a human figure moving like a dancer.

As he got closer, he noticed that the figure was that of a young man, and that what he was doing was not dancing at all. The young man was reaching down to the shore, picking up small objects, and throwing them into the ocean.

He came closer and called out ‘Good morning! May I ask what you’re doing?’

The young man looked up and replied, ‘Throwing starfish into the ocean.’

‘Why are you throwing starfish into the ocean?’ asked the somewhat startled man.

The young man replied, ‘The sun is up and the tide is going out. If I don’t throw them in, they’ll die.’

The wise man was stunned. ‘But, young man, do you not realize that there are miles and miles of beach and there are starfish all along every mile? You can’t possibly make a difference!’

The young man bent down, picked up another starfish, and threw it into the ocean.

As it met the water, he said, ‘It made a difference to that one.’

Adapted from The Star Thrower by Loren Eiseley (1907-1977)

The other thing you can do? Look for root causes. See what you can do that gets to the source of the problem. It’s great to throw star fish back into the ocean, or to help people with their most basic needs. But what if you took the time to understand cause and effect, to look for ways to make a lasting impact? That’s how you create real change.

I don’t do heroic things…I’m not saving lives, or teaching children who’ll be the leaders of tomorrow. I bloom where I’m planted, and for me, that means making a difference in small rural communities by helping with health care staffing, helping with loan applications, helping with grants, helping new people transition into the community. I encourage, I feed, I build up. And I write. I try to make a difference by planting seeds, and ideas, and by saying: I will not be put into a box, be made to feel guilty that I don’t embrace identity politics or focus on pieces of myself, as though I can be neatly sectioned.

I beg you, celebrate your life, and the lives around you, by working, not marching. By doing, not just speaking out. By seeing for yourself, first-hand, the issues and causes, before you judge what should be, or should not be. Open your eyes to the needs around you. They’re everywhere, and you don’t have to be a hero to make a difference. You don’t even have to risk much. You just have to be willing to work, to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly.

And please, don’t put yourself, or anyone else, in an identity box. That’s not who we are. We’re all so much more than “just” gender, race, ideology, profession, economic status, nationality.

We’re human. And humans don’t belong in boxes.

 

 

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My word for 2016

A few years ago I started choosing a word…just one word…to frame my intentions and goals for the coming year. I got the idea from a blog post, and it was a challenge to distill my thoughts, to be succinct.

I think it’s been a useful exercise. My past words have been:

  • 2012: Revision
  • 2013: Momentum
  • 2014: Consistent
  • 2015: Hope

This year…well, what one word could encapsulate the coming year?

I look forward to an amazing year of growth, surprise, challenge, joy, making memories, launching projects, writing, travel, being still, family, friends, work.

I look forward to thriving.

Thrive.

Thrive is my word for the coming year.

I feel on the brink, on the cusp. The last four years have ushered in a sea change for me, bringing so many unforeseen experiences, circumstances…some wonderful, some beyond difficult. Some days I felt like I was flying, others have been a struggle I wasn’t sure I could survive.

Tonight, thinking about what my word would be, I see my life bearing fruit in new ways. This year, I will thrive.

Does that mean there won’t be challenges? I’m sure there will be. What life exists without challenge?

But that’s not the point. The point is, I’m ready for the adventure life has given me. I have grown; I am growing into it!

Join me, if you’d like. I love to hear what word you would choose to describe your hopes for the coming year. It can be enlightening to consider what one word speaks to you. And that’s really the point of the whole thing…evaluate, find a word that will resonate, will capture your essence, where and how you find yourself in this very moment.

Let’s begin, shall we? I’ve got my one word, I’m ready!

~ Sheila

 

 

 

Stories I tell myself

Funny how pride can trip you up. Funny how it can blind you to reality, especially when part of what you’re proud of is that you always live in reality.

Well, does anyone? I like to think I do, and sometimes that’s true, at least as clearly as I perceive reality.

But not always.

Lately I’ve been looking at the ways I interpret my life, and choices, and I’ve realized: I haven’t always lived in reality. Oh, it looked that way. But it wasn’t true.

Here’s an example of what I mean:

From another life, years and years ago, when I was a 20-something and doing all I could to keep my head above water, holding life together with two little ones and weathering the challenges of life with a medical student husband, and then a resident husband, living 1200 miles from family, I told myself how strong I was, how mature I was. I was doing my part. I was brave.

No.

The reality was, I was foolish.

Why did I think I had to do what I did, largely without help, and trying to make it look easy? Who told me that was a mature choice?

No one told me. I just assumed that’s what adults did.

It would have been more brave to have admitted I needed help, I was in over my head. But I was so busy being strong, being mature, I didn’t let my guard down long enough to admit those needs to myself, much less to anyone else. I was so busy being mommy, being adult, I let go of being Sheila, and I certainly let go of being wife.

The reality is, I made it through those years. We made it. We survived. We even appeared to thrive.

But there was a toll, some of which I feel to this day. The coping skills I learned during that time of life weren’t always healthy. I learned to do a lot on my own, to shut out a lot. It’s not behavior that encourages partnership, and our partnership has suffered through the years because of habits formed when we were very young.

Oh, we moved on. We moved beyond. We didn’t stay totally stuck in that time. But we brought along some of the damage, some of the baggage, without really recognizing it.

So now, I see. I reflect, I think back to those babies, those 20-somethings raising babies, and keeping up with the challenges, because we didn’t know it was ok to show weakness, to ask for help. We thought it was brave to do it on our own.

Is it brave to stand without help? Maybe. Sometimes. It depends on how healthy you are, and what it takes out of you to do it. Some of the damage we created then we couldn’t see at the time. We were too busy being strong to recognize how weak we really were.

Some of these patterns I’ve seen, so many years later, and I look back and wish I could do over. I don’t exactly know how I would do it differently. But some things would change.

We ran a marathon that almost killed a marriage, left us shells of people who only knew how to keep going, keep being brave and strong and adult.

I realize, I told myself a story about what life would look like, about what adulthood meant, about what marriage meant. I didn’t know I was making it up, out of a lot of assumptions and vague beliefs. I thought I was living in reality.

One of the ironies of life is that in a time I thought I saw so clearly, I was blind. In a time I thought I had a lot on the ball, I was just juggling balls, not seeing how close I was to dropping many things.

In hindsight, and with clarity, I see so much that was hidden from me then.

I wonder what I’m missing now?

Life is a process, and each choice brings us to the next choice. I’m more thoughtful now about the stories I tell myself, the certainty I feel when I assess. I’ve learned that just because I can handle a situation on my own, that isn’t always the best decision. Sometimes the best choice is to invite others to join, to help, to help me see clearly. To help me live in reality.

Stories are fun, sometimes funny. They should teach us too, help us know the traps to avoid and the joys to embrace.

I don’t know what my story will do for others. Will it be a cautionary tale? Or a story of life reinvented, mistakes recovered, joy restored?

I hope it will be all those things. Let me caution you, don’t be like me. Don’t tell yourself you’re brave, when you’re only short-sighted. Don’t do without help when you really need it.

I’ve been given a great gift. I can’t turn back the clock, but the lessons of those days, and others, are living with me now, helping me see and right things that need to be righted.

I’m telling myself a new story these days. It is one of partnership, one of strength. But not strength from doing everything myself. It is strength from shared vision, shared goals, shared life.

Aaahhh…I think I’m finally living in reality.