What gets in the way of joy? Some thoughts on fear, guilt, and “fleshly desires”

Friday, after a full day of work and a couple of juicy conversations with faraway friends, I headed to my hammock, tucked under two giant maple trees in my newly landscaped backyard. The late afternoon sun peeked through pinholes between the canopy of leaves, bouncing across my body now and then when the breeze rustled through. I hadn’t planned to stay long (there was supper to cook and other mom-duties-as-required), but after a few deep breaths helped me release the day, it was too comfortable to leave.

I texted my daughter (inside the house) and asked if she’d be so kind as to bring me a glass of wine. A short while later, she came with a full glass, letting me know that she’d been painting in the basement (she’s an art student) and had come all the way upstairs to fetch the wine and bring it to me. I thanked her profusely and grinned. Then I sipped slowly, read my book, and decided we’d be having supper late.

Eventually, I dragged myself out of the hammock and cooked supper on the barbecue, eating with my daughters on our new patio. Once they’d gone back inside, though, I turned on the twinkle lights and returned to the hammock. When it was too dark to read, I propped my phone on the small table beside me and watched Netflix until bedtime. Only then did I go inside.

If you’ve been following me on social media, you know how much I’m loving this new backyard. It was nothing but weeds bordered by a fallen-down hedge until a few weeks ago. Now it’s a sanctuary and I plan to spend as much time here as I can before the snow flies. (I’m currently writing this in the backyard – it’s my summer-office.)

As I’ve been enjoying this space – both alone and with friends and family – I’ve been contemplating my relationship with joy. This backyard brings me pure, unadulterated joy. It was something I’d been dreaming of for years, but only this year did I feel like I could justify the expense.

Though it seems strange to admit it, joy doesn’t always come easily for me, and just as I’ve had to justify my backyard, I have to justify my joy. And when it does come, I don’t always trust it. Sometimes I hold it at arms’ length because it makes me nervous. And sometimes I’m so convinced that I’m not worthy of it, that I don’t dare let myself sink into it. And sometimes I spend more time bringing other people joy than myself because that feels like a more worthy pursuit. (It’s like trying to convince myself my backyard is more for my kids, when the truth is that I’ve been back there far more than any of them.)

Even as I’ve been enjoying my backyard, I’ve had those moments when the joy of it feels like too much goodness. “Should you really have spent so much money on this?” my gremlins ask. “Weren’t there other things that would have been more worthy uses of your money? And is it fair that your former husband still pays child support and lives in someone’s basement when you’re enjoying this beautiful space? And should you be lying here in a hammock when there’s work to do?”

There are many reasons why joy and I haven’t always been trusted companions.

For one thing, as Brené Brown says, we often short-circuit our joy as a defence against vulnerability. Joy feels risky, because it can be taken away in a moment, and when we feel it deeply it means that we open ourselves to feeling grief equally deeply. If we only open ourselves to moderate joy, then perhaps we can fool grief into thinking it can only show up in a moderate way as well.

To avoid the risk of feeling any emotion too deeply and getting knocked over by it, we numb ourselves and shut down our vulnerability. But… “We cannot selectively numb emotions. When we numb the painful emotions, we also numb the positive emotions.” (Brene Brown)

Related to that is the unworthiness piece. Surely I haven’t done enough and am not valuable enough to deserve a beautiful backyard like this, the gremlins in my head like to whisper. This is the kind of space that IMPORTANT people get to enjoy – not mediocre people like ME. The moment I discovered a crack in my basement that will require part of the patio be temporarily dismantled, for example, a little voice in my head told me that it was inevitable – I didn’t deserve such a nice patio, so it would have to be destroyed to keep me humble.

And then there are the lessons we learned about joy from the social conditioning that shaped us. I had a relatively joyful childhood, but we weren’t supposed to be TOO joyful, because that might lead to ecstasy and ecstasy was the gateway to sin. Physical joy was the most dangerous, because our bodies too easily fall into temptations and can’t be trusted. Dancing was taboo, laziness was ungodly (ie. hammocks meant for nothing but lying around), alcohol was sinful, and only wholesome sex within a committed male-female marriage was permissible. To this day, there are still echoes of this messaging reverberating in my mind whenever joy and I get too acquainted.

Recently, I answered the door to two people who’d come to share their version of the truth with me and I was reminded of these old scripts that still pop up in my subconscious now and then. When I opened the door, one asked where I turn to for my marital advice (clearly a segue meant to direct me to the Bible). “I don’t,” I said. “I’m no longer married.” “I’m so sorry,” was his response. “A lot of that goes on because of our fleshly desires.” (I brought the conversation to a fairly abrupt halt, not wanting to listen to further implications that I should feel shame for my divorce.)

I was caught off guard by his comment about “fleshly desires”, but I understand what’s at the heart of it for him. He can only see divorce as sin-related. We’re meant to be husband and wife under God, in his view of the world, and when we deviate from that, it must be because of our “sins of the flesh”.

It may be somewhat true that my “fleshly desires” contributed to my marriage ending, but not in the way that he was implying. I ended my marriage because I’d learned to be more true to myself, to seek out my own happiness and not give it up for someone else, to trust myself when I didn’t feel safe, and to erect and hold boundaries when I was being emotionally and physically violated. My “flesh” desired a safe and joyful life without the anxiety, struggle and self-sacrifice that was so present for me in my marriage. That pursuit may fit his definition of sin, but it doesn’t fit mine.

That brief conversation has been on my mind a fair bit since then, not because it triggered me (it didn’t) but because I recognize how a belief system like that (which isn’t too far from what I was raised with) is a thief of our joy. In that line of thinking, it is better for me to suffer through my marriage than to be single and dare to feel joy. Marriage is considered a higher good than personal happiness.

While I hope that belief system brings peace to the people who rang my doorbell, I reject that way of thinking for myself. I choose this joyful single life and I feel no guilt about it. Personally, I think this is closer to the message of hope, joy, and grace that Jesus brought than a life of struggle and personal sacrifice would have been (but that may be my attempt to subvert scripture to my own gain).

There’s a third piece that’s coming up for me when I think about my relationship with joy and it’s related to what I wrote in my last post about my Mennonite lineage. Pure unadulterated joy, when you’ve been raised in a lineage of pain and martyrdom, can feel like a betrayal of the memory of those who died in the fire or moved from country to country in their search for peace. How could I relax in a hammock in a beautiful backyard without worries or struggles when my foremothers gave their lives for their faith? How could I choose a Friday evening under the twinkle lights when there is still so much injustice and pain in the world? How could I be so selfish when there are widows and orphans who need to be cared for? Surely there is a cross I must bear or a cause I must fight for. Surely I should feel guilty for enjoying so much abundance that I get to spend money on patio furniture and hammocks. These thoughts, though perhaps not explicit, are definitely part of the subconscious guilt that pokes through.

As activists and writers like bell hooks and Maya Angelou have reminded us, though, joy is a radical, revolutionary act and should not be associated with guilt. It tells our oppressors that they have not won. It lets our ancestors know that their struggle was worth it. It is triumph in the face of persecution. It is our way to survive and thrive in spite of the injustice. Joy goes hand and hand with our commitment to justice and peace – one fuels the other and both can live in harmony.

My ancestors may have died in the flames and/or been displaced from their land multiple times, but I don’t believe they’d want me to deny myself joy because of some misplaced duty to their memory.

There’s a fourth reason why joy is a bit of a challenge for me and that has to do with the “tortured artist” archetype that runs fairly deeply in my psyche. As a writer who has no trouble writing about grief and trauma and other deeply personal struggles, I have an underlying fear that I might become boring when I’m too happy. I run out of things to write about and I fear that people will see me as one of those social media influencers with a charmed, curated life. Grief is easier to tap into when I’m writing – joy leans toward the more frivolous and self-absorbed.

It’s been a pattern for me that some of you may have recognized if you’ve follow me for awhile – I write more prolifically when life is not running smoothly. I have more to say about that than I do about beauty, easy, comfort and joy. And I feel more connected to my clients when I can relate to their struggle.

As a result, I tend to look for the struggle because, in a somewhat unhealthy way, that’s what gives me meaning, what builds my relationships, and what makes my creative juices flow. I am, you could say, overly attached to the struggle because of the way it grows my work.

I’m trying to change all of that though – to re-examine who I am when joy is in my life and to question the old patterns and beliefs that keep me from embracing it. Because just as I have been unafraid to know grief, I want to be unafraid to know joy.

Grief has been my teacher for many years, and now I am embracing joy as my teacher too. I wonder what lessons I can learn if I dive into it with as much commitment and intention as I have into grief. And I wonder how my relationships might shift if I seek out people who can have great capacity for both grief AND joy.

Conscientious Disruptor: What it means to grow up Mennonite

When I was a young teenager, our family arrived at our tiny rural church for a special evening service to find a sign on the door. “It is illegal to gather here,” was the essence of the message. “Those who worship here will be tried for heresy and sentenced to death.” 

A church member greeted us at the door and whispered something to us about a secret meeting place in the basement of a nearby church member’s home. With a little excitement and perhaps a little fear, we made our way to the alternative meeting space.

We weren’t really in danger. This was a re-enactment of the early days of the Mennonite faith in Europe, meant to give us a sense of what it was like when our ancestors were tortured and killed for their beliefs and for their defiance against the all-powerful Catholic Church.

There’s a deep thread of martyrdom in the Mennonite narrative. We grew up on stories of how courageous the early believers were, how many of them died and/or were tortured for their faith, and how we, too, should aspire to have such strong faith. Those things our forebears died for (adult baptism, pacifism, a flattened church heirarchy, and a belief that the water and wine of communion wasn’t literally transformed into the body and blood of Christ) became the most salient parts of our identity. A good Mennonite was one who clung to these beliefs on punishment of death.

So deeply runs the narrative of martyrdom that the second most popular book in Mennonite homes (after the Bible) is Martyrs Mirror, a dense book of more than 1500 pages full of the horror stories of our lineage. The full title of the book is The Bloody Theater or Martyrs Mirror of the Defenseless Christians who baptized only upon confession of faith, and who suffered and died for the testimony of Jesus, their Saviour, from the time of Christ to the year A.D. 1660. (The word “defenseless” refers to the Anabaptist belief in non-resistance.) 

My dad’s copy of Martyrs Mirror is on my bookshelf, though I’ll admit to an uneasy relationship with it.

I left the Mennonite church behind in my mid-twenties. Not only was I dating a Catholic, but I was having serious doubts about how much I could align myself with a Mennonite worldview and faith perspective. It wasn’t so much the early tenets of the faith that concerned me – it was the lifestyle restrictions it imposed (no drinking, card-playing etc.), the way it it seemed to sever my head from my body (by teaching that the body was the greatest portal through which sin entered, that dancing was wrong, etc.), and the belief that we had the true way to God and that others (even those who believed in the same God as we did) were headed toward damnation. 

I didn’t abandon faith entirely, but I sought a different version of God/dess – one that was less masculine, less exclusive about who had access, less restrictive, and more accessible to my LGBTQ+ friends. I also needed a faith that wasn’t so ruled by the fear of hell that we had to jeopardize relationships in order to save people’s souls.

It seemed backwards to me, this faith, and so I tucked it away and didn’t mention it often. There was some shame involved, I suppose, in the assumptions people automatically jumped to when I mentioned my Mennonite background. I could see in their eyes that their mental pictures of my childhood were that I’d been isolated in a Hutterite colony or that my family went to church in an Amish horse and buggy. None of those pictures were true for my background (we were of the variety of Mennonites that blended in and lived essentially the same as our neighbours, except for the no drinking/dancing/television part), but I got tired of having to explain the difference.

I left it behind and gave little thought to that part of my identity. I built a life around who I wanted to be in the world and largely ignored the part about how my lineage had shaped me.

It’s tricky to leave it behind entirely, though, because “Mennonite” is much more than just a religion. It’s a cultural identity, and, in some ways, an ethnicity. It’s the food we eat, the cultural practices we share, and the language we speak (ie. Low German, or “Plattdeutsch” – a derivative of German, Dutch, and English).

We’ve become a cultural group largely because our tormented history drew us together and turned us into nomads, moving from country to country in search of a place where we could live out our peace-loving, adult baptizing beliefs without fear of death. From Holland, Germany, and Switzerland, many Mennonites moved to the Ukraine and Poland (formerly part of Russia) when they were promised safety. But when the revolution rose up in Russia, they were tortured again and most left for North and South America. The nomadic nature of our past deepened the roots of tribalism and strengthened the cultural identity of what it meant to be Mennonite.

Whenever people ask about what nationality I am or where my family originated (as every settler in Canada is asked – because we all came from somewhere), I don’t know how to answer. Depending on who asks, I say some version of “I’m Mennonite, but I’m not sure what nationality I am. Likely a combination of Dutch and German, though we came to Canada via Russia.” Other than that, my roots were blurry.

Severed from my own sense of identity and rootedness, I became strangely fascinated with everyone else’s. I collected artifacts from the countries I traveled to, I visited other gatherings of faith and spirituality, and I practiced rituals that intrigued me. In a sense, I lived out the nomadic part of my heritage, wandering around and experiencing cultures and countries that were not my own.

Gradually, though, I became aware of a longing in myself that I hadn’t recognized before. I longed for a sense of belonging, a sense of my own indigeneity, a sense of place. I looked wistfully at those who had a strong sense of their lineage, and I wondered what that must be like. I attended cultural events and marvelled at the pride people had in the people and places they came from.

This longing showed up in my work too. As I deepened my understanding of what it means to hold space, I realized that there were other reasons why it was worthwhile to pursue a better understanding of who I was and where I was rooted.

First, I became more and more familiar with how trauma is rooted not only in one’s body but in one’s lineage. I learned about generational trauma and held space for friends and clients as they uncovered the trauma they’d inherited from parents who were residential school survivors or holocaust survivors. As I did so, I became increasingly curious about how centuries of trauma in the Mennonite people, as they ran from country to country to stay alive, might still be in our DNA as well. And I also wondered how that trauma had resulted in the strength, resilience, and resourcefulness that is part of what it means to be Mennonite.

Second, I became increasingly aware of how people who are not well rooted in their own indigeneity and spirituality, and do not have a strong sense of their relationship with the earth will culturally appropriate the rituals, artifacts, and spiritual practices of other people and will use spiritual bypassing to defend their actions. I saw signs of that in my own intrigue with other cultures and spirituality. 

Third, I wondered how my lineage had shaped me and how it might be threaded into my work on holding space. I contemplated, for example, that my ability to sit with a person walking through the darkest shadows or expressing the deepest pain without looking away might be related to the courage of my ancestors as they faced the gallows or the fire. I also wondered whether a history of being “the other”, both in my personal history and the history of my lineage, might have contributed to the fact that I have a surprisingly large percentage of close friends who are from marginalized groups (Indigenous, Black, People of Colour, Muslim, LGBTQ+, etc.).

With all of those reasons for deeper inquiry, I started a quest, a few months ago, to find out more about my roots. Then, as though the universe were encouraging me to step onto this quest, I was offered two opportunities in the coming year to travel to Holland, where my ancestors likely originated. It also seems like no accident that the people I’ll be working with there are experts in family systems constellations, who understand how family stories are threaded through our lives. 

My quest started in earnest when I dug up a few of my Dad’s books – a Plett history book (which tells the story of my family since our arrival in Canada in 1875) and Martyrs Mirror. Then I joined ancestry.ca, ordered a DNA kit and stayed up almost all night tracking my family tree as far back as I could (to the early 1600s). I learned that one of my great-great grandfathers had abandoned the Mennonite church, moved away from the Ukraine and married a non-Mennonite wife. I also learned that there’s a likelihood that I have some British roots along with my Dutch/German roots. 

I became most hungry for the stories of the women in my lineage, though. Who were they? Had they been as strongly committed to their faith as their husbands and fathers, or had they learned submission at an early age and simply went along with what they’d been taught? Had they suffered at the hands of the torturers as well, or had they been left behind to care for the children and live through the trauma? The Plett history book gave little clues, so I turned to Martyrs Mirror.

Though the stories of male martyrs far outnumber the stories of women, I was surprised to find quite a few women accounted for. Not only were they equally courageous and defiant, but they were articulate and well educated. Included in the book is more than one letter penned by women in prison, written to encourage their families and/or fellow believers not to waver in their faith even if they were put to death. And there are several accounts of the last defiant words spoken by women before they were slaughtered – always refusing to denounce their faith or give up the names of others in their communities. 

A number of times, while flipping through the pages, looking for names of women, I found myself in tears. There was the woman whose mouth was stuffed with gunpowder before she was tossed into the flames, the two sisters who were drowned together, and the woman who refused to recant even after screws were applied to her thumbs, fingers, and hips. And then there was the woman who was pregnant when first apprehended and who was allowed to go home until the baby was born. “She did not flee, but boldly remained,” and when they came back for her, after the baby was born, she surrendered and was executed by the sword.

The one that brought the most tears, though, was Maeyken Wens, of the city of Antwerp, who was burned with a tongue screw in her mouth. Her fifteen-year-old son Adriean “could not stay away from the place of execution on the day on which his dear mother was offered up; hence he took his youngest little brother, named Hans (or Jan) Mattheus Wens, who was about three years old, upon his arm and went and stood with him somewhere upon a bench, not far from the stakes erected, to behold his mother’s death.” When they brought her out, though, Adriean lost consciousness and didn’t wake up until his mother was dead. Afterwards, he “hunted in the ashes, in which he found the screw with which her tongue had been screwed fast, which he kept in remembrance of her.”

I don’t know whether any of these women are in my direct lineage, but I know that they’re in my tribal lineage, and so I claim them as my ancestors. Their courage, as well as their trauma, has been passed down through the centuries and now resides in my body.

What I take from their stories is a strong sense of a moral compass, a willingness to stand against the authorities, and a belief that they answered to a higher authority than the government or the church that was sanctioned by the government. Theirs was the social justice struggle of the day, challenging the version of patriarchy and supremacy that existed in their time.

What does all of this mean for me? I don’t entirely know. I know that I will continue this quest for a deeper understanding. I know that when I am Holland this coming year, I will try to visit the land on which my lineage was once rooted. I know that I will do my best to live in a way that honours the courage and the stories that have been passed down through me. I know that I will continue to explore what parts of my faith history still matter to me and what parts need to be released. I know that I will inquire more deeply into the way that my head has been disconnected from my body as a result of the trauma and the religious beliefs. 

A few weeks ago, the term “conscientious disruptor” landed in my journal when I was writing about how I often feel a strong sense of calling to “speak truth to power” when I witness oppression and injustice. The moment I saw it written down I realized that it wasn’t a unique thought – instead it was a reflection of the lineage I carry. My Mennonite people have always been “conscientious objectors”, standing up for pacifism and refusing to join the military even when they were persecuted or banished from the country because of it. 

The mantel of “conscientious disruptor” does not sit lightly on my shoulders. It’s a bold and dangerous thing to be. But I know that the courage of my ancestors lives in me and I will do my best to serve our lineage well.

What I learned about leadership and holding space from a floating unicorn

I was sitting at the beach with my journal recently, while on a private writing retreat with a friend. It was a perfect summer morning, with the kind of blue sky painted with white clouds that makes the world seem a little easier to navigate.

I was alone on the beach until a curious flotilla entered the scene from further down the shore. A man on a paddle board was pulling behind him two children – a young girl with purple hair on a floating unicorn, and, behind that, a younger boy on what looked like a plastic replica of Tom Sawyer’s raft. Despite his passengers, the man paddled and navigated with ease on the smooth lake and the entire flotilla soon landed on the shore where I sat.

As they approached the beach, I heard one of the children ask whether they could go further out from shore. “No,” said the man, who was clearly their father. “If we’re too far from the shore, we might get caught by the wind and drift all the way to the other side of the lake. Then we’d have to walk a few miles home.”

Climbing off their flotation devices, the children clamoured onto the beach for some play time. They explored the beach and the young boy tried to entice his sister to build a sand castle. “No,” she said, “not right now.” Instead, she followed her dad to where he’d discovered animal prints in the sand. “Deer,” she said, when he asked what she thought they were.

Before long, the dad asked if they were ready to go out again. “Yes,” they both said. “But can we go out a little deeper first so that it’s easier to climb on?” asked the girl. Her dad obliged.

On the way out, the boy asked if they could go close enough to touch one of the buoys that marked the edge of the swimming area. “It’s not easy to steer,” said the dad, “but I’ll try.” He was successful and the children both touched the buoy.

They disappeared down the beach, but a little while later, they were back within my view. This time, Dad was taking a rest from the paddling and was sitting on his paddleboard. Both children had joined him on the board, and they were trusting the gentle waves to do the work of bringing them back to shore. Soon, though, the girl was ready to climb back onto her unicorn and the boy followed suit, back onto his own raft. Dad stood up to paddle again and reminded them that they’d have to stay close to shore so that they’d be safe.

When a motorboat whizzed past and the wake rocked their flotilla, the girl said “boats are evil.” Sure enough, she was knocked off her unicorn into the water. She was wearing a life jacket, though, so she wasn’t in real danger. A man on a canoe close by called out, asking if everyone was okay. All three respond that yes, they were fine, but they appreciated the offer of support. Dad on his paddle board didn’t seem phased by his daughter capsizing – instead he watched as the young boy helped his sister climb onto his raft. They sat together for awhile, until the girl was ready to return to her unicorn

As I was watching this unfold in front of me, I became amused at the metaphor and started recording the scene in my journal. Here’s what it taught me about leadership and holding space:

  1. Know the limitationsof your team/community/family and avoid leading them into deeper water than you can navigate.
  2. If you remain under the right conditions, leadership and navigation can be smooth and easy.
  3. Don’t stay in the shallow waterall of the time, though, or you’ll miss some of the fun and discovery  and opportunity to learn (ie. being tipped by a passing boat). Take a calculated chance now and then, and know when it’s time to return to safety.
  4. Invite input about direction changefrom community members (ie. touching the buoy), be honest about your capacity to give them what they ask for, and then do your best to follow through.
  5. Allow each member of the community/team/family/etc. to maintain their own sovereignty and identity(ie. purple hair) and to function within the container that fits them (ie. unicorn or raft). Being tied together with a common purpose doesn’t mean you have to assimilate to a certain arbitrary norm.
  6. Provide proper equipment and resources(ie. life jackets and rafts) so that when the water gets unexpectedly rough, community members can rescue themselves and do not need to call in outside help (or the leader) to solve the problem for them.
  7. Allow the community/team/family to support each other, to problem solve for each other and themselves, and to care for each other in times of stress. A leader holds space for this to happen, but doesn’t need to take it all on.
  8. Once in awhile, invite everyone onto the same flotation device, take a rest, and enjoy the companionship. 
  9. Build a consent-based culture, where people can say no to building sand castles if they don’t want to, without fearing repercussions for their “no”.
  10. Be open to outside help(ie. a man on a canoe), but let your people feel empowered to figure things out on their own if they don’t need help.
  11. When you get scared(or wet from capsizing), there’s no shame in sitting in someone else’s container for awhile and letting them care for you.
  12. Ask for what you need(ie. slightly deeper water for ease of entry) and do your best to meet each other’s needs.
  13. Don’t forget to have fun!

What’s the poetry your heart wants to sing? And how might it liberate us?

György Faludy decided, at age nine, to become a poet because he was afraid of dying. Lying in bed at night, in terror of not waking up in the morning, he resolved to create a world with words where he could feel safe, a world of his creation that would live on after he himself disappeared.

Faludy was Jewish, and in pre-World War II Budapest, he was blacklisted and his poetry banned from print. Undeterred, however, he became a translator and disguised his own poetry as the poetry of the French masters he was translating.

When German troops invaded Hungary, Faludy was thrown into deportation camp with other Jews. He managed to escape and succeeded in crossing half of warring Europe to end up in North Africa, where he was captured once again and thrown into another camp. When the allied troops finally liberated North Africa, he emigrated to Canada and then to the United States.

Though he continued to work as a translator in several languages in the U.S., he never felt as comfortable writing in an adopted language when the poetry of his heart wanted to be sung. After the war, he returned to Hungary, hopeful that his poetry would finally be accepted. The new regime, however, was even less receptive to his poetry than the old had been, and he was arrested, tortured by police, and thrown into a Communist “punitive” camp.

Still undeterred, Faludy produced some of his best poetry under the harshest circumstances in prison camp. What’s remarkable is that none of this poetry was written down because he had no access to pen or paper. He memorized all of his poetry and then, so that it would not be forgotten, taught other inmates to memorize it as well. Toward the end of his captivity, he wrote a long elegy to his wife and each part of it was memorized by different inmates. Some of these prisoners were released before Faludy and went to visit Faludy’s wife to recite the part of the poem they had memorized.

When Faludy was finally released, he escaped once more to the West and published his prison verses, relying on his memory, aided by mnemonic devices. (For instance, he made sure the first poem he composed began with the letter A, the second with B, and so on.) After it was published, he received letters from all over the world, from Brazil to New Zealand, from people who’d been in prison camp with him, containing corrections to his poems. Most of these corrections were incorporated into later editions of Faludy’s work.

(Source: The Evolving Self, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi)

What drives a man like Faludy to write poetry at such great cost and under such harsh circumstances? Surely he could have lived a reasonably good, risk-free life as a translator or high school literature teacher. If he had, he would have been spared at least one of his prison camp experiences.

But poetry wouldn’t leave him alone – it was both his vocation and his salvation; his siren song and his life raft. It compelled him forward, even into the harshest of circumstances. Then, when he was in those harsh circumstances, it gave him meaning and helped sustain his life.

What was the best thing I learned?
That after need
left my ravaged body
love did not leave.
– György Faludy

As Viktor Frankl says in Man’s Search for Meaning, “Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.”  Like Faludy, Frankl survived Nazi concentration camp and it was his conclusion that those who had the greatest chance of surviving were those who were the most determined to find meaning in their suffering. By turning his suffering into poetry, Faludy found a sense of purpose and personal sovereignty that kept him from being destroyed.

I don’t know how I would respond to prison camp, or even if I would, like Faludy, choose to return to a country where I was at risk just so that I could continue to write in my mother tongue. But I do have some sense of what it’s like to have a purpose that has such a strong tug at your heart that you’re willing to sacrifice a stable and easy life in your quest for it.

Eight years ago this month, I handed in my notice at my stable, well-paying management job for the insecurity of self-employment. Why? Because I felt compelled to. Because I knew my life would continue to feel incomplete if I didn’t follow the calling that kept whispering in my ear.  Because I knew that my own liberation was tied up with my sense of purpose.

Many have asked me how I stayed motivated during the lean years, and how I knew I was doing the right thing even when few were showing up for my workshops and the bills were barely getting paid. I hardly know how to answer them. I stayed motivated because I have always poured my heart into my work and, even when few paid attention to it, knew that it had meaning. It was the poetry that my heart wanted to sing.

That doesn’t mean that I didn’t have doubts and that there weren’t some days when I found myself deep in despair, not knowing whether the meaning I found in my work would ever translate into something other people would understand. There were days, in fact, when I wondered whether I was speaking a foreign language. But I persevered, not because I thought this work would ever turn me into a millionaire, but because that deeply rooted sense of purpose kept whispering in my ear, nudging me to take the next right step, calling me toward my own liberation.

I am writing this piece today, because I feel compelled to call you too to step forward and take your own next right step into the purpose that calls you toward your liberation. 

I believe that we are at a crucial time in the world when we need more meaning-makers to step forward, to take risks, to breathe their poetry into life, to answer the call. It’s an “all hands on deck” moment, when the storms are raging, the mast of the ship is threatening to break under the pressure, and the waves are threatening to swallow us. In this darkening moment, when the world seems to be diving deeper and deeper into chaos and humans seem intent on self-destruction, we need poets, artists, creators, resisters, leaders, space-holders, lovers, gardeners, explorers, and teachers to do what Faludy knew to do as a nine-year-old – create a world with words, art, and imagination where we can continue to thrive despite the mayhem around us.

I’m not saying that you all have to leave your careers to follow some mysterious quest as I did, or that you have to risk poverty or prison in order to do work that you love. But I AM telling you that the generous, unapologetic outpouring of your gift will make the world better for you and for the people around you, even if people think you’re a little crazy for doing it. It won’t necessarily fix the brokenness of the world or change the outcome of this trajectory we’re on, but it will make the struggle more bearable and will help us find liberation.

I am reminded of that powerful moment in Les Miserable, when the oppressed people rise up together to resist the source of their oppression. Together, they stand on the barricades they’ve built and they sing at the top of their lungs…

Do you hear the people sing?
Singing the songs of angry men?
It is the music of the people
Who will not be slaves again!
When the beating of your heart
Echoes the beating of the drums
There is a life about to start
When tomorrow comes!

In that moment, music gives them meaning. It gives them belonging and community. It gives them purpose and strength. It liberates them and makes them stronger than their oppression.

In prison, Faludy’s poetry may have done nothing to change the outcome for himself or the other prisoners, but it gave them all a way to look toward the light. It gave them a reason to wake up in the morning. It lent them strength, and it helped them claim their own sovereignty even within prison walls. He wasn’t the only one invested in the poetry. All those who memorized it with him became invested too – so invested that they sought out his wife upon their release and/or sent in poetry corrections years later. His poetry became THEIR poetry. His purpose became THEIR purpose. His liberation became THEIR liberation.

The outpouring of one person’s gifts can give meaning to all those who receive it, even in our darkest time. It can liberate us, even inside prison walls.

I urge you, friends – don’t let the gift die inside you. Don’t let the poetry remain unwritten or the songs unsung. Write it, sing it, paint it, dance it, teach it, plant it, grow it – do what it takes to nurture that which is growing in your heart.

Don’t do it for wealth or fame, but do it for love. Do it for the light it shines into the shadows. Do it for the way it transforms a prison cell into a classroom or a garden. Do it for liberation from whatever imprisons you.

“Don’t aim at success. The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long-run—in the long-run, I say!—success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think about it” ― Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

When you hold space for someone with mental illness

(Trigger warning: suicide)

The first time it happened, I was five months pregnant with our first baby.

It started with panic attacks. My then-husband was starting a new job with greater responsibility and, coupled with the expectancy of fatherhood, he was feeling overwhelmed and anxious and started missing work. We tried to get him help – I took him to a psychologist and checked him into an overnight mental health facility when the panic attacks got really bad. I thought things were shifting, but I was wrong.

One morning, after a couple of weeks of stress leave, he got ready for work in the morning, kissed me good-bye, and headed to the office. I was relieved. Maybe this rough spot was finally over. I left for work, assuming we were shifting back into “life as normal”.

A couple of hours later, I phoned his office to check how he was doing. “He didn’t come in today,” his boss told me. “He phoned earlier and said he couldn’t do it.”

I panicked. Where was he? Why had he told me he was going to work when he wasn’t? What was he hiding?

The rest of that long day was a blur of phone calls and tears and hand-wringing that included a car ride out to his favourite fishing hole with my mom to see if he was there. He wasn’t.

Some time that evening, I got a phone call that he was at the hospital. After multiple suicide attempts (that involved a knife and bottles of pills), he’d woken up in his car, realized that, if all of that effort hadn’t killed him, perhaps he was meant to live after all, and drove himself to the hospital. He was rushed into surgery to patch up the damage he’d done and to make sure that none of his internal injuries would be fatal.

The second time it happened, I was “pregnant” with a different kind of baby – I was just about to quit my job to start my own business. Fifteen years had passed (years which included the births of our four children and the loss of one of them), he’d gone back to school to get a university degree, and was finally in a job that looked like it would be permanent enough to support our family while I launched a business.

Once again, a new job with new responsibilities caused the panic attacks to start happening. Once again, we tried to get help. And once again, I got the phone call that he’d taken a lot of pills and needed to be taken to the hospital. (This time, there was no knife involved.)

This time, instead of recuperation time for his physical injuries, there was a very difficult week’s stay in a psychiatric ward. And this time, I had to juggle the needs of three children, trying to keep their lives as close to normal as possible, while driving back and forth to the hospital to support him.

At this point, if you’ve been reading my work long enough, you might be thinking that I’ll be offering “tips on holding space for someone with mental illness”, but that’s not what this post is about. Instead, this post is about me, the former caregiver and advocate of that person with mental illness. And it’s about all of those who, like me, have had to hold space for people with mental illness.

Because when/if we hold space for people with mental illness, we have to practice radically holding space for ourselves too.

It’s taken me a long time to process the impact that those two suicide attempts (as well as the many times when I was worried it might happen again) have had on me. It wasn’t, in fact, until the marriage ended five years after the second attempt, that I finally acknowledged the toll it had taken on me.

Last week, when social media blew up over the suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, I, like many others, was triggered by the stories. They brought back a flood of memories, accompanied by grief, fear, self-doubt, anger, and all of those other big emotions that are part of what a caregiver/advocate has to carry. It’s probably a good thing I didn’t have time to write a blog post last week, because it would have been a more triggered version of what I want to say. This one comes with a little more reflection.

Both of the times my former husband attempted suicide, my adrenalin kicked in and I went into warrior/mama-bear mode. I protected, I nurtured, I fought flawed health-care systems, I ran the household, I negotiated with psychiatrists, and I made endless calls trying to get the right kind of support.

While most of us are familiar with the fight, flight, or freeze responses associated with stress/trauma, there’s another reaction that has recently been added to the literature, and that’s what I was experiencing (though I didn’t know it at the time). It’s the “tend and befriend” response that is found more frequently in females than males. “…compared to males, females’ physical aggression and fear-related behaviors are less intense and more ‘cerebral’–they are displayed in response to specific circumstances and are less tied to physiological arousal. So while both sexes share the capacity for fight or flight, females seem to use it less.”

Researchers found that, during tough times, stressed females spend significantly more time tending to vulnerable offspring than males.“They reasoned that the adaptive value of fighting or fleeing may be lower for females, who often have dependent young and so risk more in terms of reproductive success if injured or dislocated. And females of many species form tight, stable alliances, possibly reflecting an adaptive tendency to seek out friends for support in times of stress.” (Both quotes are from this article. And here’s a link to a research paper about it.)

There’s a tricky thing about trauma, though, that I didn’t understand back then. If the trauma isn’t adequately released at the time, it roots itself in the body and, from then on, whenever a stimulus brings up a body memory of the trauma event, the body responds exactly as it did during the trauma. In other words, though there were only two suicide attempts in our twenty-two year marriage, there were a LOT of stimuli that triggered my “tend and befriend” response (as well as my less prominent fight/flight/freeze). The mental illness of my partner didn’t simply disappear in the in-between times, so any time there were hints of it showing up, although I didn’t consciously think “he’s going to attempt suicide again”, my body responded as though that were true.

Though “tend and befriend” might seem like a more gentle, healthy response to stress than fight, flight, or freeze, I can tell you that it often is not, especially when it’s a triggered response and is unnecessary in that moment. When it showed up, for example, when I was exhausted and yet still had to go into warrior/mama-bear mode on behalf of my children, it drove me to burnout. And when it showed up at the expense of my own well-being (ie. protecting my then-husband rather than looking out for my own interests), it nearly killed me and left me vulnerable to abusive behaviour and manipulation.

It was so present, in fact, that it took several years longer than it should have for me to end the failing marriage. I was so afraid that the marriage breakdown would cause him to attempt suicide again and that my children would have to bear the grief of that, that I held the marriage together much longer than I should have. I was so used to assuming that I was responsible for his emotions and the way they impacted my children, that I couldn’t imagine the world functioning any other way. It took a lot of work for me to release myself of that responsibility. Even three years later, I can be unreasonably triggered by a simple text message from him.

Several years ago (before the marriage ended and after my mom died), I was diagnosed with adrenal fatigue. I was exhausted. My heightened state of alertness and responsibility meant that my adrenal glands had been overproducing for so long that I could barely function anymore. I started taking supplements and tried to change my diet and sleep patterns, but it wasn’t until my marriage ended and the stimulus was largely removed from my day-to-day existence that I finally started to feel like sleep was replenishing me and I wasn’t among the walking dead anymore.

It’s not gone, though. There are still stimuli that trigger the same response in me. When, for example, my children’s emotional meltdowns or panic attacks are similar to their dad’s, I get triggered into the same anxiety and the same tend and befriend response. I rush too quickly to fix things and I don’t always wait for those involved to take responsibility for doing their own emotional work. I’m getting better at recognizing it and finding ways to self-sooth so that it’s not destructive to me or my children, but I’m not foolish enough to think the problem is fixed. I’m still actively working to heal it and release it from my body.

How then, do we as caregivers and advocates stay in the work for people we love without burning ourselves out or resorting to destructive patterns? How do we hold space for ourselves when we find ourselves holding space for those with mental illness?

Here are some thoughts on that…

  1. Recognize the trauma/stress that you are carrying. Unfortunately, it can often be our own strength, and our internal narratives of how we “can handle anything” that contribute to our downfall. If we don’t recognize the impact on our bodies of the trauma that’s being caused by a loved one’s mental illness, it roots itself in our bodies and can become an unhealthy, subconscious response to even the slightest stimuli. This denial can cause burnout, addiction, and destructive behaviour if not addressed.
  2. Care for your body. This is important, because your body is the container that holds the trauma. Go for whatever body treatments help you to release what you’re holding – massage, reiki, craniosacral, EMDR, acupuncture, etc. And take care of yourself with healthy food and movement. Pay attention to the signals your body sends you, because your body may be letting you know that you’re carrying too much. (Take it from someone who’s wrestling with how my weight may be a signal my body’s been sending me about the trauma.)
  3. Resist the urge to take on responsibility for anyone else’s emotional or mental health. You can not fix them. You can not make them happy. You can not even ensure that a person will not attempt to take their own life. You can support them and hold space for them (if you are not becoming too damaged in the process), but the outcome is not on you. Even if, in your desperation, you said what you’re pretty sure was the WRONG thing just before the suicide or attempt (which I did), the outcome wasn’t your fault. Let that go.
  4. Get help. Don’t be ashamed to reach out to friends, family, professionals, etc. You can’t do this alone and you shouldn’t. Sometimes it’s as simple as having a friend who will let you cry in their presence so that you can release what’s bottled up inside. Or asking a family member to step in to care for the person with mental illness. And don’t hesitate to hire a trauma professional to get to the deeper place of healing (or look for social services support, if you don’t have the financial resources).
  5. Know when to walk away. For those of us with a strong tend-and-befriend reflex, it’s really, really hard to walk away from someone who’s hurting, even when we’re being destroyed in the process. But consider the possibility that the person you’re supporting may actually be better off on their own, learning to walk in the world without the crutch you’ve offered them. Consider that your triggered tend-and-befriend response, though it’s comfortable and familiar to them, might actually be to their detriment as well as your own. And also… consider that they may be manipulating you (knowingly or unknowingly) to get you to stay.
  6. Create and hold the boundaries you need in order to stay healthy.Again, this is especially hard for anyone caught in the tend-and-befriend patterns. We want to make sure everyone else is cared for before we care for ourselves, because that’s what we believe will serve our overactive nervous system. But an un-boundaried life will destroy you. Practice saying no to the small things so that you can work up the courage to say no to the big things.
  7. Pay attention to how seemingly healthy responses may actually be unhealthy ones. Whenever I kicked into tend-and-befriend response, I always thought I was doing the right thing, tending to and protecting those I was responsible for, and sacrificing my own interests for theirs. But those responses were masking what was going on underneath and they were setting patterns into play that have taken years to release.

There is nothing easy about this, and if you find yourself in a place where you must hold space for someone with mental illness, know this… I see you. I witness how hard you are working. I know the tears you cry into your pillow at the end of the day. I get it and I hope that you will find the support you need so that you will not be destroyed by this.

Please, take care of yourself. The world needs you.

* * *

Note: If this post resonated with you, check out the work that I do in helping people learn how to hold space for each other and for themselves. 

Pin It on Pinterest