Common Criticisms of the Church: What Many Say (and What Few Know)

I have started and stopped writing this post several times. I had to make sure each time that I was writing it out of a desire to educate and not to be passive aggressive. I am human, after all. But know that this post is not directed towards anyone specific, only intended to address some common criticisms – and memes – that I’ve seen.

In 5th grade I began attending a church for the first time with any regularity. I quickly formed a deep bond with the pastor’s daughter and we remained best friends for years. There were months at a time where I actually even lived with them, my best friend’s family, the pastor of our church. When I met the (super hot) man who would become my husband, I was 16 and he had recently become the children’s pastor at our church. We married when I was 19 and he was on staff full-time at a very large church. Now, almost 12 years of marriage later, we are still in full-time ministry. It’s all we’ve known as a couple, it’s all our kids have known as a family. My experience with ministry spans decades and denominations, positions and places. I’ve both witnessed it and lived it for the majority of my life. I also live in this modern society. I see the posts, the memes, the comments, the assumptions. I hear the complaints and the criticisms. I listen, I do. I don’t dismiss them as the ramblings of godless pagans (sarcasm font). As someone who passionately loves Jesus, it does me no good to write off an entire generation of people simply for having different beliefs than I do. But also as someone who loves Jesus, it does me no good if I don’t try to present the truth about what seems to bring up such strong negative feelings in so many people – the church. I don’t want to argue. I don’t want to taunt. And I certainly don’t want to use this platform as a chance to passive aggressively discuss how hard ministry is – I’ll openly tell anyone that, haha! I just want to take this opportunity to do my part to dispel some rumors and myths about churches and pastors, to the best of my ability. I obviously don’t speak for all churches or pastors, and there will of course be some who don’t adhere to the same beliefs or practices. There will also always be some bad apples in a bunch, regardless of profession or location. So I ask that you read this with an open mind and an open heart, willing to hear some truth about an institution you may have been hurt by or misinformed about. My intent is never to attack anyone, only to help.

Common Criticism: “Pastors don’t pay taxes.”

We totally do. I’ve seen the meme making the rounds for years now, images of Joel Osteen’s or T.D. Jakes’ or Ed Young’s enormous homes, pointing out the assumed hypocrisy of their wealth and not paying any portions of it to the government like everyone else has to. And while I understand how many, many people would be turned off by those pictures, I guarantee you they paid taxes on whatever they earned to buy those homes. Pastors are considered self-employed for tax purposes and have to put aside their own taxes throughout the year, they aren’t automatically removed from paychecks. We’ve written our share of checks to Uncle Sam in April, believe me, pastors pay taxes. CHURCHES do not. Churches are nonprofit organizations – they literally do not turn a profit. Every cent that is given to a church is processed right back out of it, like the ACLU, Doctors Without Borders, NPR, American Red Cross, ASPCA, St. Jude’s, Make A Wish, Ted Talks, Ronald McDonald House, Planned Parenthood, PBS, the Mayo Foundation, AARP, American Heart Association, the Humane Society, Susan G. Komen, Alex’s Lemonade Stand, Habitat for Humanity, American Cancer Society, Amnesty International, and countless others. These foundations and organizations work on behalf of others using donations to operate, the same as a church. Employees of these organizations all receive a salary, but their salaries are set and are not impacted by the amount of donations received… unless the donations stop coming in. Just like a church. Simply to add more clarity and definitely not to defend, Joel Osteen does not receive a salary from the church he pastors. He, like T.D. Jakes and Ed Young, writes books. Books that sell millions of copies and generate a lot of taxable income. To summarize, pastors pay taxes, all nonprofit organizations do not.

Common Criticism: “Pastors are preying on people, always asking for money.”

They do ask for money, in the form of tithes and offerings. As a nonprofit, a church cannot operate unless money is donated. Electric bills that ensure lights and air conditioning, phone service that allows people to call the church office, employees to answer the phones, clean the church, mow the grass, and, you know, minister. In addition to just the common operating expenses, churches GIVE. They pay bills for those who come to them in need, they support missionaries around the world, buy school supplies for single moms, foot the bill for enormous outreaches, food ministries, homeless ministries… the amount of people a church can bless is only limited by the funds they receive. Aside from the Biblical call to tithe, if a church member wants to experience church, they must acknowledge that it costs to run that church. If they want to see that church do more, someone has to give more. In our denomination – and I know not all operate this way – churches are autonomous. Our church does not receive funds from a central office or district manager. What our church brings in is what our church operates on. Many,  many churches are not supported by higher-up offices and do not have free reign or blank checks when it comes to spending, so if a church is going to pay a bill, it has to have the money in its own account.

Common Criticism: “Churches don’t do enough. They should spend all their money on the poor instead of giant buildings.”

It’s a proven fact – the bigger the church, the bigger the reach. A church that seats 5,000 can do more than a church that seats 30. Neither is better than the other, neither is more holy. But when a church is more visible, it reaches more people. When a church has more tithing members, it has more funds to give, to send, to share. When a church can hold more, there are more opportunities for people to find someone to connect with. When a church has a large operating budget, it can afford programs and ministries during the week. You don’t have to like them, you don’t have to attend them, but mega churches are not inherently, automatically evil. A room full of thousands of worshipers is a mighty thing for a community, not a symbol of greed. It’s crass, but the bigger the church, the more money it brings in, the more it can do. Jesus preached to thousands and it didn’t make him a sellout any more than preaching to one woman in the dirt made him ineffective. Christian crowds come in all sizes and shapes and numbers, and their reach is greatly increased when those sizes grow. The less a church receives in tithes and offerings, the less it is able to do. Electricity is not free. Food to hand out to the homeless is not free. Childcare for single mothers is not free. This is one of the most frequent criticisms I see of the church, a list of things people think the church should do, and every single time it is in the same breath as a complaint about pastors asking for money. EVERY. TIME. Divorce ministries cost money. Bibles cost money. After school programs cost money. Blankets, hot chocolate, gift baskets, anything kind you could think to hand out to someone – they all cost money. Counselors on staff cost money. Events cost money. Easter eggs full of candy cost money. Even filling up a baptismal costs money. Churches have to have money to be able to provide the things and services so many think they should, the things and services the Bible says they should.

Common Criticism: “Pastor didn’t come to my _(insert private event here)_.”

This is one of the biggest reasons people leave a church – offense at the pastor. I even know a few friends who are vocal atheists who have said the turning point in their faith was something a pastor did. It’s a big deal when people are hurt by their shepherd, and I’m in no way excusing or condoning the actions of some very flawed people. But I will address this frequent complaint, if you’ll allow me.

I’m just going to say it – attending graduation/anniversary/birthday/lawn clipping parties is not biblical. The Bible has some very clear guidelines for those in ministry, and modern society has added on a very long list of expectations. It is impossible, truly impossible, to meet them all, to attend everything, to keep everyone happy. In addition to the wants of the congregation come the needs of a family. The Bible makes multiple mentions of pastors caring for their families, this isn’t selfishness. I can tell tales of 7am Saturday phone calls demanding my husband attend someone’s game, of graduation seasons when I don’t see my husband for weeks. There is always, always something to do, which means that pastors can’t always, always attend. They are very busy people attending to the long list of responsibilities and expectations laid before them, and sometimes items just have to drop off the list. Not because they don’t care, not because you’re not special, but because they just can’t do it. So I ask you, when you’re offended or upset that a pastor hasn’t done something or made an appearance somewhere, ask yourself if your offense is biblical or personal. It’s a hard pill to swallow sometimes, but it’s a lot easier than holding onto bitterness and offense.

 

Common Criticism: “Pastors don’t do enough. They just read the Bible and play golf.”

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I had to take a break to compose myself, I was just laughing way too hard to type! Okay, I’m back.

One of the main questions my husband gets from young people is, “What do you DO, like, for a job?” They all assume that he works somewhere in an office, 9-5, and is able to toss together a service in his spare time. In truth, I don’t know of a single day he’s worked 9-5. Pastors are really freaking busy. When I lived with my best friend so many years ago, I was so surprised at the number of messages on the answering machine any time we got back from an errand. People calling at all hours for prayer, for help with a bill, hoping for a visit in the hospital, wanting to tattle on and complain about another church member. Two of my husband’s favorite hobbies are golf and fishing, neither of which he’s been able to do in a few years. Budgeting, board meetings, counseling, hospital visits, staff meetings, sermon prep, video prep, service outlines, more hospital visits, meetings with church members, taking phone calls, meeting people at whatever utility office they have an unpaid bill at, mission trips, outreaches, camps, event planning, volunteer recruitment, volunteer follow up, begging volunteers not to quit, visitor follow up, praying, not to mention the pastors who are responsible for cleaning the church, mowing the lawn, and doing the work in the community no one sees – there is not enough time in a week to be a pastor. If ever you’ve driven past the church and not seen my husband’s car, it’s not because he wasn’t working, it’s because he was out taking the church somewhere it was needed. We get phone calls, texts, and emails on “days off”, on our trip to Disney World several years back, and even during family members’ funerals. The work of pastoring is never complete and rarely seen. Recently my family left a church event we were enjoying because a man no one had ever met came through the doors in need of money for a prescription. We all loaded up and followed him to the pharmacy and paid for his medications… only to drive past his car in the parking lot of a restaurant a few minutes later. Pastors are always doing. During the first few months of school my husband is so busy that our kids can go days without seeing him – despite the church only being 10 minutes away from our house. The number one fight among all of the married couples I know who are in ministry, by far, is fighting over how much the pastor is gone. Pastoring. It’s a never-ending job, shepherding the flock, and the sheep rarely realize that the pastor is not with them simply because he’s with someone else. Definitely not because he’s on the golf course.

 

Common Criticism: “Pastors only hang out with an elite group. If you’re not one of the chosen few, your pastor doesn’t care about you.”

This has a smidgen of truth to it. Not that anyone is elite, not that pastors don’t care, but that pastors are a little hesitant. First, there’s the time issue – pastors have very little, if any, free time. Nights out with friends don’t happen. Going to the movies doesn’t happen. Guys’ camping trips don’t happen. There really isn’t much time to hang out with ANYONE, so they often fall back to the friends who have proven to be understanding of their schedules over time. There is also a fear of being a status symbol. A lot of people want proximity to a pastor, not a relationship with them. The same for their spouses and children. The number of people who have declared devotion to helping my husband, who have proclaimed a dedication to praying for him and being his “armor bearer”, outnumbers the actual number of people in our lives… by probably 20 to 1. It’s just a fact that not everyone stays in a church, and it’s a fact that people hold pastors to an often-impossible standard. Add in the fact that people are imperfect, and you have a lot of hurt pastors who are lonely and afraid to let new people into their private lives. The statistics on pastors struggling with depression and loneliness are staggering. The numbers on pastoral burnout are worse – the overwhelming majority of people who enter into full time ministry will walk away from it, for good. Pastors have their own struggles and are often unable to share them with friends for any number of reasons – fear of judgement, fear of their confidence being betrayed, fear of being used to boost someone’s social standing. No one in church is elite. There’s not a list of the members who give the most money, and tithing doesn’t buy an audience with anyone. It IS hard for pastors to find friends among the congregation, but usually because they’ve been hurt before, not because you’re not rich/cool/young/old/involved enough.

Common Criticism: “My pastor didn’t….”

I once met a woman who left her church because her pastor didn’t approach her son with whom she was feuding. The pastor had no idea the argument was ongoing, the son didn’t attend the church so the pastor didn’t know him, and the woman never asked him to intervene. While pastors do hear from God, they can’t read YOUR mind. If you need something from a pastor, let them know before you criticize them for not providing it. Pastors have jobs, families, commitments, all the things anyone else is juggling, IN ADDITION to being needed everywhere all the time. If your hope and expectations are always in your pastor, you will always leave disappointed. The goal of a pastor is to introduce you to Jesus, not himself. Jesus is way more available whenever you need Him, too.

Common Criticism: “Pastors make so much money.”

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Okay, okay, stop! I can’t catch my breath with these jokes you’re making! Whew, that was a knee-slapper if I’ve ever heard one!

Yes, some pastors make a crapload of money. Yes, some pastors live well. But most live very, very modestly. An enormous number of pastors are even bi-vocational – they work a paying job in addition to the low-paying or volunteer position of pastor. Most denominations do  not offer parsonages – I’ve only ever met one pastor who lived in one. Our housing is not free, our bills are not free. There have been many times where we’ve had to collect groceries from the church’s food ministry or food bank. We rarely get Christmas bonuses. My kids qualify for free lunch at school. All of our bills are due the same time as anyone else’s, we definitely pay taxes, we experience the same raise in the cost of living, yet many pastoral salaries have actually DECREASED over the years. Because of the nature of his work and the hours involved in always being on call, my husband cannot get a second job, and he does not earn overtime pay. I read a hilarious satirical article I’ll link here, and it will tell you everything you need to know about the attitude often held towards pastors and money. Without going into too much more detail, we really, truly, do not get paid a lot. Our salary is set by the board and does not fluctuate with attendance – though a downward trend in giving and membership will absolutely lead to a pay cut, simply because the money isn’t there to pay the staff. No one goes into ministry for the money.

Common Criticism: “Churches are all full of hypocrites.”

Yeah, actually. We’re all imperfect, flawed, sinning people. We’re all doing our best. We’re all at some point in our spiritual journey – none of us are done. We’re all going to do the wrong thing sometimes, we’re all going to offend someone, we’re all going to stumble, fall, mess up, and look like the worst Christians alive. There is no such thing as a perfect Christian. So if you enter a church, be prepared to meet some seriously imperfect people. Me, especially.

Common Criticism: “My pastor’s wife….”

I’ll stop you right there. Homegirl is holding down the fort. She cannot be Your Pastor 2.0. Pastors have families, illnesses, bills, homes, tragedies, struggles, yards, laundry… they’re normal people. Just as the pastor can’t always be at everything, neither can his wife. Just as he will disappoint you sometimes, so will his wife. Just as he can’t always hang out with you, neither can his wife. They’re a team, no doubt. What he does couldn’t be accomplished without the help and support she offers at home. So again, examine your offense before you declare yourself to be wronged and ask if you had the same schedule and circumstances as she did, would you have been able to do what you expected of her?

 

Common Criticism: “This blog is too long!”

I agree. I’ve gone on way longer than I intended to (you thought pastors were the only ones to never stop talking?!), so I’ll leave you with this: Pastors are people. They struggle. Churches are trying. They’re made up of imperfect people. They do not erect walls with the intention to deceive or exclude anyone. Money is personal for a lot of people so I understand the reservations that come with writing checks. But please, what ever your criticism, what ever your questions, just ask. Pastors don’t go into ministry for the money, they go into it because they love and care about people. They want to help you. But because they are people, they can only give you what they have, in the form of time, money, or abilities. Please, ask. And if you’re a member of a church somewhere, remember that Pastor Appreciation Month is all of October. Wink wink. Your pastors could really use the boost… and a volunteer. 😉

 

 

 

The Bad Weather Friend

We all know about fair weather friends. We’ve had them, been them. We all have the the friend who is only a friend when times are good, fun, easy, carefree. Then life happens, the going gets tough and the fair weather friends throw up their deuces and are nowhere to be seen.

That’s not what I am.

I’m a bad weather friend. The friend you call when life gives you lemons. The friend you message when you’re broken-hearted, hurting, in need of some kind. I’m not the only friend like this, I don’t begin to be so prideful as to assume that, and I’m not always as available as I’d like to be during the storm. But us, the bad weather friends, we’re the ones in the background, the ones deep in the message inbox because your life has been going well and you haven’t needed us.

I used to resent it, being a safe place. “Don’t tell Betty Sue,” you’d plead to me, “She has no idea I’m going through this.” A week later I’d see you on social media out to dinner with Betty Sue, at the movies with Betty Sue, with nary an invite for me, the person you trusted in your state of vulnerability. “Please help me,” your message would start, “I don’t know what to do.” The next week I’d see the read receipt on my lengthy and well-thought-out response, the words I prayed over and poured into, and see that you’d read them days before without thanks. “I desperately need your prayers,” you cry, “my life is in shambles and I’m terrified of what is to come.” I hold you, cry with you, pray with you, and plead on your behalf at the feet of God, to hear through the grapevine later that everything worked out fine. This hurt me. I felt used, discarded, like a friend of convenience. I was who you turned to in times of need but not times of leisure, someone you knew would be a friend to you but not someone you were interested in being a friend with. I got bitter. I got discouraged. I got jealous.

Then I had to wonder – why would God honor my jealousy? Isn’t there totally something in the Bible about not being jealous? Whatever my experiences and emotions, jealousy is never holy or righteous on my part. Whatever Betty Sue has with you that I don’t, it’s not okay to be jealous of. Because you know what? Betty Sue obviously doesn’t have something that I do. Betty Sue may be fun and may get all the girls nights out, but she doesn’t get you at your worst, she isn’t who you turn to when you need someone you know will be there. Also, Betty Sue is a lot more available to go to the movies than I am – I don’t have childcare or spare cash lying around, so I’m glad you have Betty Sue. I couldn’t maintain the friendship that you and Betty Sue have even if I wanted to, so I’m happy to be your person, happy to keep your secrets and know sides of you that few others do. As for the unreturned messages, well, I’m glad you got them. Those words were for you and I hope they helped. I didn’t offer my help in exchange for thanks, and I’m sure that in the moment you read them you were experiencing the chaos you first messaged me about. Your life was obviously upside down in one way or another, so I couldn’t have expected you to behave as normal. You messaged me in desperation and probably read my replies in the same manner… or you just really hated what I had to say, haha! And when I prayed for you I didn’t do so to gain an invitation into your life. Yes, I would really like to hear the good news, or any news, to follow up and know how you are, because I’m genuinely concerned. But I also understand that I’ve just seen you at your worst – I know your deep, dark shames, I’ve seen you heave and snot and wail. I know about your husband’s infidelities and your boss’ activities, your addictions, your failings, your criminal record. I know things that you wish others didn’t, so it has to be hard to feel comfortable around me sometimes, when things are good and you don’t want to look in the eye of someone who knew you when they weren’t.

On any given morning, I wake to about 10 messages in my inbox, not including invitations to check out whatever direct sales company my friend has joined. It varies from car seat and cloth diaper advice to marital problems, mental health issues, secret cancer scares, legal problems, and more. I receive texts from many others. On any given day, I will most likely not be able to meet these friends for lunch, go out to eat, see a movie, or come hold them in their living rooms. But what I can do, what I can offer them, is being their bad weather friend. I don’t always know what to say and I don’t always have an answer, but they do always have a friend. They always have someone they know they can reach out to, and how humbled I am that they know it’s me. I could feel petty and jealous that they didn’t invite me to dinner, or I can feel honored that they did invite me into their struggles. I can marvel that sometimes after years have gone by without a word, someone will think of me when they need something, when they need encouragement or advice, and know that I’m the person they want. Because my friendship isn’t for sale – you don’t have to buy it with nights out or mani/pedi days or even “likes” on a Facebook post. I’ll keep doing my life and you’ll keep doing yours, and I’ll be happy to help each time you need me to. Besides, it’s just not possible to be best friends with every single person we know.

So we thank you, friends, we bad weather ones who are waiting in the wings. We thank you for trusting us, for turning to us. We thank you for your confidence you share with us and the confidence you place in us. Most likely you come to us because you know we will be there, because something in us wants to be there. We want to help, you’re not a bother. We’d like an update when you can manage and we’d like to share in some of your good times as well, but if we don’t get it we’re still happy for you. Sometimes, just sometimes, we may ask of you what you’ve needed of us – please don’t run. Sometimes we need a safe place, too. Sometimes we need a shoulder to cry on. Sometimes protecting everyone’s secrets gets heavy and we just need someone to sit with. Sometimes we really, really want to go out to dinner, too. So I ask, friends, on behalf of all the bad weather friends, don’t forget about us until you need us. Let us be all-weather friends. We may not be Betty Sue, but we’re here for you, we care about you, and we’re cheering you on from wherever you’ll let us.

This Blog is Not About You – Which is Why You Should Absolutely Read it

I like blogs. I like reading them. I long for the time to write more of them. I see blog posts shared multiple times a day in my social media feeds. A bunch of them are open letters, which I tend to skip most of, but blogs are an enormously untapped source of information, perspectives, encouragement, and personal journeys. Whether it’s renovating a home or educating on a childhood disorder, there are blogs by anyone and for anyone. They exist to share information, for free, quickly and easily. Yet they go largely unread.

A friend texted me a few months ago, a friend who has children with special needs and regularly shares blog posts pertaining to those needs. She asked if I thought anyone ever read the blogs she shared. I told her, sadly, that there were probably very few who do, because they think it doesn’t apply to them. Not having a child with those particular struggles, they see the title and move on, figuring there’s nothing for them to gain.

After a big news event, there is always an influx of blog posts (especially those open letter ones). Gorillas, guns, Miley Cyrus…. everyone has an opinion, and everyone wants to share theirs. Which is totally fine. They’re as free to share their opinion as I am to share mine. I won’t turn this into a rant about how many of these opinions are about assigning blame rather than dealing with the issue. I won’t. But I will address the issue I take with these opinion pieces: we’re not reading them. We see the title, decide we disagree, roll our eyes and move on. It’s not for us, so we don’t click.

Here’s the problem with that: we don’t learn. When we don’t read anything new, anything that is outside of our own perspective and experience, we fail to grow, we miss the opportunity to learn how we can support someone else. We cannot be so arrogant as to believe that our perspective is the only one and our opinion may as well be fact.

A major part of blogging for me is the catharsis that comes from giving my thoughts words, sharing my experiences, and hoping that someone else who is in a similar situation can find some encouragement in at least knowing they’re not alone. But another reason I do it is in the hopes that someone will read my words, stop, and think, “Wow, I had no idea that’s what it was like.” I want to educate others on topics that are important to me, topics that I don’t see discussed. When my friend shares a blog about children with mitochondrial disease, I read it. I can’t relate to it, but it helps me understand her struggle a little better. When my friend who lives in Australia shares links to the political happenings in her part of the world, I read them. I can’t vote down under, but it helps me gain an understanding of her beliefs, and keeps me abreast of world issues. And far more sensitive, when my friends of color share blogs about their experiences, about what it means to be black in America or the discrimination they face because of their religion, I READ THEM. And you know what else? I really, truly, learn a lot from them.

Unbeknownst to me, I grew up in a bubble. I was surrounded by people who believed similarly to me and lived similarly enough to me. I came of age at birthday parties where I was often the only white girl, and since I truly didn’t see color and my friends didn’t seem to mind my lack of it, I thought racism was dead. Because we got along I assumed we had similar lives and nothing was different for us. I live in a town now that is pretty devoid of melanin, but my feelings never changed, so when the term “white privilege” first started popping up I rolled my eyes. In my bubble, there was no such thing. Then a friend of mine, a brilliant sociologist, shared a blog that I thought I at least should check out. I gave a deep sigh at the title and prepared myself to come up with a biting defense, but the words were so…. true. I wasn’t racist, but my experience as a white woman was far different from that of a woman of color. I could not presume to know what it was like to grow up not seeing people like me on TV. I’ve never gone to a doctor’s office and been unable to communicate my symptoms because no one spoke my language. I get stereotyped and people make assumptions about me, but that doesn’t mean we’re the same. Equal as humans, yes. But our experiences are not the same, and me dismissing that fact was never going to help anyone. Not agreeing with it doesn’t make it go away, and acknowledging it doesn’t make me a racist. In discussing parts of the Black Lives Matter movement with a very dear friend, who is black, I went from annoyance to understanding. No one was saying other lives didn’t matter. No one said Black Lives Matter More. They just were saying, “SEE us. ACKNOWLEDGE us. REALIZE that our experience is not the same as yours.” Because every time we dismiss the notion, we tell them that black lives, in fact, do not matter. I’m not here to discuss riots or shootings, only people. People who are trying to tell us something that we are too entrenched in our own beliefs to listen to. Admitting that our experiences are different is not admitting to being a racist. It’s listening to someone and expanding your horizon. It’s caring about someone else and doing what you can to make sure they know they’re heard.

Your friend who shares a personal post about the struggles of parenting a child with autism – read it. You may not be dealing with special needs in your home, but it will never hurt you to learn what her experience is like. Did you realize how much she spends on therapies? Did you realize how many different therapies she schedules? Were you aware that some schools have no programs in place… or that some states will pay for private school if your district cannot meet the child’s needs? Do you know how little sleep she gets and how badly she needs a pedicure date? Do you know what a big deal it is that her son finally took a shower without screaming? It doesn’t apply to you, but learning these things sure do help you in empathizing with her, in understanding more about her experience. It cost you a few minutes to be a better friend, and she’s better for having someone who hears her.

Your cousin shares ANOTHER link to homeopathic treatments, or FDA conspiracies, or essential oil cocktails. Read them. They are sharing because they are caring. They genuinely believe they can help people, they have seen a change in their lives and want others to experience it. You don’t have to give up your ibuprofen, but you could stumble upon a nugget of information that could boost your energy, or give a name to a symptom you’ve been experiencing, or help you find an entirely new way to treat an ailment that you’re tired of dealing with. Just like when someone blessedly shares some glorious cheesy bacon chicken something or other recipe, they see something great and want to share it with others. They say, “This is AWESOME, I have to make sure everyone knows!” You may think they’re off their rocker, and sometimes they may be, but they want to help and are offering you tools to try something new.

There’s that post again, the one about foster kids sleeping on the floors of offices. I don’t have foster kids, so I don’t need to read it. Except that children need homes, and you may be the one to offer it. If nothing else, understanding their heart-breaking circumstances can give you a new purpose in your prayer or giving. You may have thought foster kids just slept in bunk beds and carried everything in their backpacks. You may have thought it looked like Annie. But when you take the time to read about the plight of these children who did not ask to be in such dire straits that an office floor is preferable to home, your heart can grow. Those kids deserve to be known about. Clicking the link won’t get you a knock on the door with unruly teenage foster quads, but it will offer you a look into a life you know nothing about.

Your friend posts a blog entry that is going viral, you’ve seen it a few times already, and haven’t read it a single time because of the title. It’s political, and you can already tell you won’t agree. But let me challenge you – how do you know you won’t agree? Unless you read the words, unless you take the plunge and consider another perspective, how do you even know that your opinion is truly yours and not just a collective opinion formed by the people you surround yourself with? Until you’ve seen all the sides, how will you know which one you land on? One of the reasons we send our children to – gasp! – public school is because  I want them exposed to different people, different songs and ideas than they’d get at home. I want them to come home and talk about them with us, so that they can form their beliefs and KNOW WHY they believe them. I don’t want my children to blindly follow my opinions, I want them to think, listen, and form their own. So I challenge you, friend, read that blog. Read it even if it makes your blood boil. Know what’s going on beyond your own bubble, beyond your own viewpoint. You don’t have to agree with it. You don’t have to enjoy it. But challenge yourself to test your opinions against the perspectives offered by others. Because we do all have different perspectives. We all have our bubbles we’ve grown in and the internet has given us the amazing ability to pop them. Sometimes it’s shocking, sometimes it’s enfuriating, but sometimes it’s enlightening. Get out there and LEARN. Funny enough, the more you learn about another opinion, the more educated it can make you about your own.

I hate stereotypes. I hate assumptions. I hate being lumped together with a group of people based on the way someone else views me. The longer we resist learning about the experiences of others, the more we allow stereotypes to perpetuate. Having a child with autism isn’t just a kid who rocks back and forth and won’t look you in the eye. Having a kid with severe allergies doesn’t mean she has to live in a bubble. Having a gifted child does not mean the day is full of chess and math (I mean, there’s chess and math, but there are a lot of struggles that come with it, too). Having a parent with an illness doesn’t just mean a retirement home is in order.  Being black today is not the same as being white today, and ignoring that fact won’t make it change. A lot of posts about modern feminism aren’t for me, but I’ve learned a lot of facts that are. I’ve read new perspectives and theories and my mind has been opened to learn. People need and want to talk about what they’re going through. All they’re asking is that we listen.  Not every movement is one I want to join and not every political party is one I want to jump on board with (seriously, there are NO parties for me to claim now). But I can still learn, educate myself, consider other perspectives and strengthen my own position.

It’s hard having a newsfeed with so many differing ideals.   It’s hard to see those memes you hate and statements that sting. It’s hard to see yourself lumped into a group who someone just made a joke out of, and it can make you pretty rage-y when disrespect is paid towards a topic you are passionate about. But we’re also adults. I hope I never find myself back in my bubble, sealed up with only people who agree with me and concerned only with things that relate to me. My wonderfully diverse group of friends have introduced me to countless ideas, shows, songs, foods, perspectives, struggles… all because I was willing to read them. I still know who I am and I still know what I believe. I have not been swayed to join any dark sides and my head did not explode from reading about a presidential candidate I’m particularly fearful of. Debates have happened, and we’ve all survived. I don’t unfriend anyone for disagreeing with me, and I’m delighted that most of my friends don’t, either. We’re all so much bigger than one topic, anyway, it’d be a shame to lose out on what else I could learn from them just because we disagreed on an article. Surround yourself with like-minded people, yes… but be open to considering far different-minded peoples’ perspectives, as well. Just read the stuff. Learn the stuff. Be prepared to be wrong sometimes, or at least lacking in knowledge. Embrace your friends’ experiences. Take an interest in something other than your immediate surroundings. Push yourself to take it in, then prove yourself as an adult by loving them all anyway. The people with differing opinions, the people who are in very different places from you, the people who don’t share your beliefs and the people who bash your beliefs – love them anyway. They don’t have to agree with you, either. Though, hopefully they’ll have read this blog and will and least respectfully consider your stance.😉  In this age, in this climate, in this election year and this country constantly divided by one thing or another, be the one who is big enough to reach over. Don’t let yourself be part of a split. Don’t let your friends’ experiences go unnoticed. Read. Learn. Consider. And then move on and have a great day. Because it’s not about you. It’s about a better, more considerate, more educated, more sympathetic you. Go you.

Mind the Hazard Lights

I should be embarrassed to admit this, but it wasn’t until I became a driver myself that I knew what the hazard light button was. I remember noticing it for the first time in my stepmom’s little red Civic, the newest vehicle I had ever been in and thus the epitome of technological advancement in automobiles. I saw that red triangle button on the dashboard among dozens of other doodads and whatnots I didn’t understand, but the imagery of it was such that I instinctively knew it meant “DANGER”. This could only mean one thing, of course: an eject and/or self-destruct button. Like Batman. I was always very careful in the front seat, afraid that I might inadvertently hit it while changing radio stations and send us both flying into oncoming traffic. This story doesn’t really have an application, I just wanted to share it.

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I was reminded of it when my own daughter asked a few weeks ago what the red triangle button meant. “They’re for when you have a problem, ” my husband explained, “so people know to move away from you.”

This struck me.

My husband is the most selfless person you’ll ever meet, so this isn’t a reflection on his character, only on what the hazard lights have come to mean: when did “I’m in trouble” become “move along”? Hazard lights are intended to alert the other drivers that something has gone wrong with the car or driver, that they can’t go on as normal or at the same rate as the others on the road. Their distress signal has become an annoyance to others. Rather than pulling over to offer help, the other drivers see the blinking red lights and move off to the side in an attempt to get past them quicker. We see the trouble and worry only about how it affects our commute.

I once sat on the side of a highway for more than 6 hours with my hazard lights blinking. 6 hours. I’d experienced a tire blow-out going 70 miles per hour and miraculously maintained enough control to safely come to a stop on the shoulder, yet I did not have the knowledge, skills, or tools to change the tire. I made phone calls until my cell phone died (the car charger was still years away from being common), I missed all of my college classes that day, I was starving, exhausted, scared, frustrated, angry. I waited and waited while hundreds of cars passed me by, not one stopping to offer assistance. Could they have been a crazy axe-murderer who wanted to chop me into tiny bits? Sure. Those exist anywhere. But could they also have helped? Yes. But no one did. Despite the very obvious signs I was giving that I needed it.

“But Jennifer,” you say, “I don’t have time to stop and help a stranded motorist!” Well, friend, I can promise you that the stranded motorist probably didn’t have time to be stranded themselves. They had work and appointments and responsibilities still waiting for them, too. How much faster would they get to where they were headed, how much faster would the flow of traffic be restored if someone took the time out of their own schedule to just help?

“But Jennifer,” you say, “I don’t know how to fix a car!” Well, friend, sometimes just having someone there with you can ease the stress of a motor emergency. My stepdad was in a car accident a while back, a bad one. It was raining and he was alone, trapped. I can’t imagine how scared he must have been, let alone hurt. The wreckage made it impossible to reach his cell phone to call for help, he must have been there wondering if anyone saw, if anyone noticed, if anyone was coming, if anyone would help. Alone. Until some wonderful Samaritan took it upon themselves to climb in there and keep him company, keep him calm, until help arrived. Someone took a detour from where they were headed, got out into the rain, and comforted someone who was very much alone. Someone saw the hazard and responded.

You probably see by now that I’m not just referring to car troubles.

It applies across the board to life. The depressing social media shares, the mother juggling groceries and children in the parking lot, the elderly neighbor who can’t start their mower, the overweight first-timer at the gym who can’t figure out how to start their machine. People need HELP. Hazard lights are blinking all around us. Yet all too often we just rubberneck the wreckage, slow down long enough to see how bad it is, thank God it wasn’t us, and move on. We glare at the man whose car won’t start in the middle of an intersection, as though he didn’t already know he was inconveniencing the people behind him, when getting out to help him push the car would be much more impactful. We silently judge the single mother who can’t pay her bills when a helping hand, a tank of gas, or a night of babysitting would be much more helpful. We hate the way our depressed acquaintance makes us feel so down when they’re around, when helping them feel better when we’re around could be the difference between life and death. The mom you’re scoffing at for using formula – did you offer her breastfeeding support? The man you’re taking cell phone pictures of because his pants are slipping down – did you tell him and save him the embarrassment? The friend whose marriage is crumbling – have you offered an ear or just observed the wreckage? The relative who is battling a disease – have you visited, listened, helped, or just thanked God it wasn’t you?

People all around us need help, every day. It could be as easy as sharing a post from a friend’s business or as involved as taking in a family.

“But Jennifer,” you say, “I’m having car trouble, too.” I know, friend. Depression and anxiety are all around us. Financial struggles, relationship battles, health troubles, existential crises, kids, school, work… we’re all struggling. I know. And sometimes all you can do is climb inside the broken-down car and cry together. Acknowledging someone else’s struggle does not negate your own. There’s no way to measure who has it worse, nor should there be. We’re all in this together, all traveling the same road, and we all benefit when someone in need is helped.

There’s an actual, documented phenomenon known as the Bystander Effect. In a crisis, individuals are less likely to offer help to a victim the more people there are around. Seriously. The MORE bystanders there are, the LESS likely anyone is to offer any help. Victims will wait and wait for help that doesn’t come because everyone around them assumes someone else will do it. It’s mass apathy. It takes someone taking charge and giving specific instructions to specific people to get anything done. You can’t just yell, “Somebody call 911!”, you have to point to a person and say, “YOU, call 911.” While I’ve seen this portrayed several times on the always-accurate Law & Order: SVU, I recently witnessed it first-hand. I was in a situation that required police interference, and people just stood there. Watching. Some were in disbelief, some had their cell phones out to video. I had to be the one to call the police, because the bystander effect was in full force.

This idea, this stopping to help when others don’t, it’s important enough to have made the Bible. In Luke 3 we’re told of the Good Samaritan, the man who stopped and offered assistance when so many others before him didn’t. Jesus Himself offered up everything He had for the good of all of us. You may not have riches, you may not have influence, you may not have extra time, but if the Son of God can offer Himself to help everyone, even the jerkiest jerks and the buttiest buttheads, who are we to just keep on driving by? When did “I need help”, when did “love your neighbor as yourself”, become open to interpretation, prioritization, and impassivity?

We cannot live this way. We cannot allow our dependency on others to rid us of any responsibility. We cannot see flashing hazard lights and shrug because they don’t affect us. People need help, WE need help. So what are you going to do about it?

I Just Want to Just

It’s been a hard day.

It’s been a hard week.

I’m texting with a friend who’s been having a hard month.

We both have kids who, for different reasons, have special needs, and it is EXHAUSTING. Don’t get me wrong, any parenting of any child is exhausting. But there is a different kind of fatigue I’ve come to know since I was introduced to the “norm” my children don’t fit into. It’s an ongoing fatigue, with no promise of anything ever getting easier. Today was difficult, and tomorrow likely will be, too. Today I worked my butt off to maintain a sense or normalcy or to meet my child’s unique needs, and it will do little to affect tomorrow, so I have to do it again. And again. I can never just…. JUST. I can’t just drive through a fast food restaurant and feed my children anything from the menu. I can’t just send my child to school and expect the day to go well. I can’t just take my child anywhere and expect it to be uneventful. I can’t just watch a kid’s movie with any deaths or sad moments (so scratch every single Disney movie ever). I can’t just watch Shark Week. I can’t just Google an answer and have the question be finished.  I can’t just eat at any place in the city, can’t just accept offers of casseroles when I’m ill, can’t just enroll my child in school or watch him play soccer or introduce him to someone new or go anywhere without needing a bag for an EpiPen and Benadryl. And with the limitless access we have to blogs, and the freedom we have to write them, we’re given the unique opportunity to get a peak into the lives of other families that may not look like ours… or to feel understood by families who look very similar. I’m not alone. WE’RE not alone. There are many, many parents who, despite their beliefs or location or socioeconomic standing, all want one thing.

Parents of kids with allergies. Parents of medically fragile kids. Parents of premature babies. Parents of kids fighting cancer. Parents of kids with autism. Parents of kids struggling with their identity. Parents of kids with emotional disturbances. Genetic disorders. Mitochondrial disorders. Eating disorders. Sensory processing disorders. Mood disorders. Attention deficit disorders. Kids with IEPs. Kids with diabetes. Kids with developmental delays. Kids who can’t travel anywhere without a piece of medical equipment attached. Kids who can’t travel anywhere at all. Kids who fight authority and kids who will likely never live alone. Kids with below-average intelligence and kids with above-average intelligence. Kids who teachers don’t “get” and kids who doctors can’t help. Kids who get stared and parents who are judged.

Parents who are misunderstood. Parents who are exhausted. Parents who feel isolated. Parents who spend their free time on research and their savings on co pays. On weighted blankets. On medical strollers. On home healthcare nurses. On surgeries. On treatments. On medications. On conferences. On books. On organic ingredients. Parents who have cancelled plans more often than they’ve kept them. Parents whose schedules are mostly ruled by their kids’ needs. Parents who have hung their heads in the gaze of disapproving strangers. Parents who advocate and fight tooth and nail to keep their child from falling between the cracks. Parents who never imagined their life as it is now. Parents who just want to JUST.

Just want to eat at a Chinese or seafood restaurant. Just want to be able to leave the kids with a babysitter. Just want to spend a few dollars on something for themselves. Just want to see their friends more than they see doctors or therapists. Just want to be able to leave their child alone with their other children. Just want to walk through a store without bringing attention on themselves. Just want to enjoy their child’s laughter without the interruptions of medical equipment beeping. Just want to hear their child laugh at all. Just want to go through a day without fearing – or getting – a phone call from the school. Just want to fill out paperwork without needing extra room for all of the conditions or medications to be listed. Just want an answer so they HAVE a condition to list. Just want to be able to meet new people without having to explain anything. Just want to know that the school is meeting their child’s needs. Just want to not live in fear. Just want to dream and plan for the future. Just want to be able to attend birthday parties. Just want their kids to make friends. Just want their kids to see how amazing they are. Just want the rest of the world to see how special and loving and wonderful they are. Just want to know that it’s going to be okay.

All parents want some silence from time to time. All parents want to pee alone, go on a date, and have a healthy child. All parents want different versions of the same things. But some parents, just for a little bit, just want to JUST.

Yes, there are plenty of parents who struggle with situations “worse” than food allergies or high IQ. But that doesn’t make the very real difficulties of parenting kids like mine any easier. We’re grateful to know our kids, grateful to have been trusted enough to care for them, grateful for the access we have to modern medicine, alternative medicine, doctors and forums and blogs and therapists and support groups. But we’re tired. And sometimes we want to just JUST.

Raising the Difficult Child – Consider the Dandelions

I wrote a concise little blog on this topic a few months back, but now I really feel like I can go a little deeper into the issue. I am no parenting expert, nor do I believe there is only one, specific, unwavering way to raise children. But I DO have a difficult child, and am learning quite a bit in the process of raising – and loving – him. I’m not naming names, but let’s just say it’s not the oldest one, and it’s not the youngest one. I’ll leave it up to your imagination. He has always been difficult. I remember our pediatrician trying to tell me in between my desperate sobs that some babies just don’t need as much sleep. He rarely napped and didn’t sleep very long. This was particularly frustrating when I compared him to my firstborn, who slept 14 hours straight at night and took 2-hour naps. I remember the night he discovered he could escape from his crib, because he did it more than 30 times. That one, single night. This was particularly frustrating when I compared him to my firstborn, who climbed out once and was so sad to have been in trouble for it that he never did it again. I remember the first time I punished him and he laughed at me. This was particularly frustrating when I compared him to my firstborn, who is so sad to have disappointed me that I rarely have to punish him. This difficult child of mine (who shall remain unnamed, remember, you’re still guessing at who it could possibly be) is stubborn, willful, volatile at times. He is easily angered, easily frustrated, and easily entertained by acting on any impulse he has. Covered in scars and dripping with swagger, he is unmoved by the concept of cause and effect. I’ve said it before that he knows about gravity, he just doesn’t care. He climbs walls, he leaps from furniture, he talks back, he gets into trouble at school, and he is extremely difficult to parent. This is particularly frustrating when I compare him to my firstborn, who is compliant, people-pleasing, a teacher’s pet, and pretty easy to parent. You can probably guess what the first thing is that I’ve learned in my journey of parenting a difficult child: you can’t compare. Comparison is the thief of joy. In parenting ANY child, comparison will only leave you frustrated and doubting yourself. One of the best days I’ve had as a mother was when the lightbulb went off, when it clicked that my two boys are different people. The more I compared the unnamed mystery wild child to the older, tiny-adult-like child, the more I was setting us both up to fail. He will never be his older brother, and that is a GOOD thing. He is unique. I don’t need two of the same kid. God spent a lot of time making him, with intention, and it was high time I started appreciating him for who he was, rather than getting frustrated at who he wasn’t. Milestones, demeanors, and reactions are as varied as likes, dislikes, and fingerprints between two same-gender siblings from the same gene pool. Wild.

Another thing I’ve learned while parenting my difficult child is that it sucks. This echoes my sentiments from the previous blog, yes, but allow me to elaborate: it really sucks. It’s hard. It’s exhausting. It’s EMBARRASSING. It’s isolating. I cannot tell you, dear reader, how many books and blogs and journals and wise sages I’ve sought in my attempts to tame the unruly beast, all spanning different belief systems, based on different foundations, and implemented in different ways. But the one common thread is consistency. Be consistent. If it was against the rules yesterday, it has to be against the rules today, no matter how tired you are. But oh, Lord, how tired we are. How truly, bone-achingly exhausted, drained, depleted, worn we are. Every single incident, every single day, in the hopes that it will someday *click* and he’ll get it. It can make a mommy numb. It can make a mommy dejected, make her feel hopeless. Afraid to leave him with a sitter because his behavior is embarrassing, afraid to go to the splash pad because he may act up, it leaves a mommy feeling alone. Tears over what’s happening and fears over what’s to come, parenting a difficult child is, well, difficult.

The final, most important, most incredibly hard thing to grasp that I’ve learned while parenting this difficult middle child of mine (don’t act surprised, you knew it was him all along) is that it is not my fault. No argument that was ever presented to me in college has ever made me think more about nature vs. nurture than raising a strong-willed child. Sure, there are kids who act a fool because of their parents’ foolish ways, but having this handful has given me a new, more sympathetic perspective. Not every kid who talks back or doesn’t listen or has a moment is the result of bad parenting. The mom you’re judging is likely nearing dehydration from all the exasperated tears she’s cried. We know our kids are rough, it’s not something that escapes a parents’ attention.  Not every difficult child “needs to be set straight”. How do I know this? Because I’m a good mom, dangit. I know I am. I do everything I’m “supposed” to and then some. He is loved, disciplined, fed well and put to bed on time. We engage and take an interest in him, he is physically active, intelligent, and socialized. And yet he acts like a real butthead sometimes. He will always have a consequence for his disobedience, yet he still chooses to disobey. This is particularly ENCOURAGING when I compare him to my firstborn, who is from the same gene pool, is of the same gender, and is raised in the same home with the same rules, love, and attention. Two wildly different fruits of the same tree prove to me that the roots aren’t to blame, it’s just how the fruits ARE. He just IS how he is. It is no fault of my own, it’s only up to me to adapt and learn what he needs and marry that with what is expected of him. And THAT is nearly as hard as not blaming myself for my child’s behavior. I’m a good mom. This is not a cop-out, it’s a revelation. The sooner we can let go of the guilt, the sooner we can address what REALLY is causing behaviors and deal with them with an appropriate amount of attention. It is not my fault. As I sit here, my face red and tear-stained, debating just giving him an iPad for a few minutes of peace, I notice a dandelion and feel God speak to me. Dandelions are weeds. Unsightly and dreaded by gardeners. They’re stubborn, unruly, and difficult to get rid of. The more you tug at them, the harder the fight, and the more likely you are to find more dandelions next week. Just like my difficult baby. He doesn’t fit into what would be considered ideal, pristine. No one WANTS dandelions, they just pop up. But consider them for a moment. Difficult, yes, but vibrant with color. They stand out instantly not because of our feelings towards dandelions, but because they are different, bright. Dandelions can provide healing and nourishment. They undergo marked transformations, and are the stuff of childhood wishes. They spread their seeds with the wind, quickly, and all too soon are gone. Just like our difficult babies. Stubborn, tough, and not “ideal”, but beautiful in their own way, quickly-growing, and valuable. My dandelion literally grows like a weed, but he is also incredibly intelligent, creative, talented, funny, thoughtful, and can be painfully sweet. I can compare him to roses, tulips, or lilies, and he will always fall short, because he is a dandelion. Or I can appreciate his vibrancy and his limited time with me and be happy I have a flower at all. What if we all saw our own dandelions not for the pain and hassle they cause, but for the wishes we can make upon them? Hang in there, you, me. We’re not alone, it’s okay to admit we’re struggling. Having a hard time doesn’t mean we love them any less, or that we’re not doing a good job. It just means our precious little ones act like buttheads sometimes

Loving the Mentally Ill

*originally published July 2016, updated June 2018*

I’ve written, deleted, and re-written this blog for months. It’s a tough subject, and it’s hard to be honest without offending, or encouraging while still being truthful. But in light of everything that’s being said about the recent suicide of a beloved actor, I need to write this. Again.

You see, not much offends me. Things anger me, confuse me, sadden me, sure. But not a lot hurts my feelings. But I’ll say it: I’m offended at some of the reactions to the death of Robin Williams. Straight-up offended. As if it’s our place to pass judgement on a man’s death. As if our opinions on the circumstances surrounding his life and death hold any weight. As if our own experiences give us any modicum of expertise with regard to the experiences of another. I’ve seen a lot of people who claim they overcame depression, so someone else should be able to, as well. As someone who has battled depression and anxiety for decades, I still have no ounce of justified judgement towards someone fighting a similar battle. I’ve seen even more complete misunderstanding and disregard for mental illness. The fact is, depression is an illness. Sometimes it’s temporary, like post-partum depression or seasonal affective disorder. Sometimes it’s based on circumstances, like bills or illness or difficult relationships, and can thus change with the situation. Sometimes, though, it’s chemical, it’s through no fault of the sufferer, and it’s STRONG. Chemical depression CAN be overcome with prayer, but just because it isn’t sometimes doesn’t mean the person suffering has no faith. It doesn’t mean the person is weak, just as requiring insulin says nothing about a diabetic, other than the fact that they’re diabetic. Depression is a symptom of a chemical imbalance that must be corrected and observed constantly, or else it will quickly overwhelm. Depression is an ILLNESS, not a choice, not a lack of appreciation or contentment, not a weakness or a fault, and it most certainly is not selfish.

Ahh, selfishness. This is what so many of the judgements I’ve seen seem to get caught up on. The selfishness of the sufferer who chose to end their life. Does suicide affect so many more people than just the one who decided to take their life? Absolutely. But how quick we are to forget that mental illness affects the family and friends of the sufferer in life, not just in death. The loved ones of those who are mentally ill have long been experiencing pain, yet we rarely – if ever – check in with them and consider how they’re affected. How quick we are to dismiss the suffering of the depressed or mentally-ill person, alive or otherwise. We overlook the lifetime of far-reaching pain until it makes headlines.

I’m not here to argue the theology of suicide, nor do I believe that death by one’s own hand brings about a poetic release or freedom, but I will say, LOUDLY, that mentally ill persons do not think logically. You and I can think logically, yes, and using our serotonin-producing, non-muddled-up brains we can look at the circumstances surrounding someone’s suicide and decide that it wasn’t worth it, it wasn’t that bad, or they were selfish cowards. But just because something doesn’t seem to make sense to us doesn’t make it untrue. Just because you’ve never been so overwhelmed by darkness that you thought death was the only life for you DOES NOT MEAN it did not appeal to someone else. In discussing mental illness recently with a friend, she said that mental illness “gummed up” her brain, and it was the best description I’ve heard yet. Your brain may work, firing on all pistons, using logic and reason and recognizing cause and effect and multiple escape routes. But a mentally ill person’s brain does not. I need glasses to see clearly and you may not. This does not mean that because I need help to see, your eyes are better than mine. It means I need help to see. All of us, mentally ill or otherwise, have the same need and dependence upon the same chemicals and hormones to maintain a sense of balance and happiness in our brains. Really, we’re all a slight shift away from suffering, so who are we to pride ourselves over those who need what we need but can’t seem to naturally produce what we can?

I’ve lived my whole life with mental illness in the form of a bipolar mother. Is it hard? YOU BET. Do my struggles with her illness change her? In no single way at all, ever. It’s been a long road, and a very difficult one. Sometimes she does things that just make no sense… but they don’t have to. Just because I cannot empathize with her suffering does not mean her suffering is any less real. My confusion does not heal her. My frustrations do not heal her. Even my hurt does not heal her. Because SHE CANNOT HELP IT. No matter how much I want her to not be mentally ill, it won’t change the fact that she is, so I can either love and embrace her as she is, or I can live life constantly disappointed. A few times, in her darkest of days, she has even tried to hurt herself, and as a young girl who did not understand mental illness, I was offended. My feelings were hurt, I was mad, and I thought her selfish. But just as a thirsty person will drink, a mentally ill person will do what their body is telling them to. Someone with Tourette’s or Parkinson’s cannot control every movement their body unwillingly makes any more than a mentally ill person can control every thought or action they take. Cop-out? To someone who does not have understanding or empathy with regard to mental illness, maybe. The fact remains that no matter how hard it is to love someone who is mentally ill (and it’s okay to admit that it’s hard), our suffering does not negate or outrank theirs.

Robin Williams, specifically, also dealt with addictions many times during his life, further proof of his suffering, his inability to control himself, his inability to behave like a “normal person” or think clearly. Robin Williams suffered a great deal more than any of us will ever understand, even those of us who have battled the demon of depression and stepped back from the ledge just in time. The truth is that we don’t know what he was going through. We don’t know what he thought or felt or lived or saw. We do know that he made us laugh and cry and quote a lot of movies, and we should be grateful for the impact he had on our childhoods. But we should not and CANNOT pass judgement on the very last choice he made, no matter how much that choice hurts us. Because it hurt him, too. Because it may have been, in his gummed-up brain that just wouldn’t submit, the only choice he had.

This has  been a bad week. Earlier in the week we awoke to the (far too detailed) news of designer Kate Spade’s suicide. Today it was celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain’s decision to take his life. Once again the comments abound – “What did SHE have to be sad about?” “He was rich and famous, why would he want to die?” “Her designs were so colorful, I never would have known she was depressed.”

Again I say, nearly two years after first writing this post, that suicide will never make sense to us, those who are left behind. It will never appeal to us, those whose mental state is not gummed up, clouded, those of us who do not hurt just being awake. Their reasoning will never make sense to us, but it doesn’t have to. We aren’t owed an explanation. We are expected to care and be kind human beings. Let Kate Spade’s bright bags and Anthony Bourdain’s zest (pun intended, he would have rolled his eyes) be a reminder that we cannot always see mental illness, we definitely cannot predict mental illness, mental illness is not a stereotype, and mental illness is real.

You know someone who is suffering, I promise you. You may not know they’re in pain, or you may roll  your eyes at their frequent posts you deem to be attention-seeking or overly dramatic. It could very well be the person you least expect to be hurting. That’s the thing about depression – it’s not just sadness, it’s pain. Having every comfort in the world doesn’t preclude someone from experiencing pain, and as you know, pain cannot always be seen.

No one is ever too rich, too bubbly, too healthy, too young, too famous, too privileged, too religious, too smart, or too anything to hurt. No one is ever too anything to struggle with depression. And none of us are ever enough of anything to pass judgement on any other.  If we continue to publicly pass judgement and name-call those who are suffering from mental illness, especially those who are no longer alive to explain their pain, we will make it even harder for someone who needs help to have the courage to speak up, reach out, and get what they need. Stop making it NOT okay for someone to suffer. Have some sympathy and maybe save a life.

 

Related: The Righteous Wrong – The Flawed Handling of Mental Illness in the Church, You’re Probably Wrong About Anxiety, Measuring Others’ Pain

Reasonable Expectation of Dignity

I don’t want to share this.

My hands are shaking. My heartbeat is visible through the skin over my collarbone. I’m so nervous and humiliated that I feel lightheaded. I do not want to share this.

But I have to. For a week I’ve been fighting this, and for a week I’ve tossed and turned and been awakened by my brain that seems to want to write this on its own. So while I don’t want to share this, I need to.

I love fashion. I hang out in sweatpants and Backstreet Boys t-shirts and revel in the no-makeup days, but I love fashion. I also love to laugh. It seemed a given that I would enjoy a marriage of the two, Fashion Police on E!. I DVR’ed the heck out of it, I wanted Joan Rivers’ job (and wardrobe!), I laughed, I looked forward to it. Until a few months ago when I read an interview with a random celebrity that I can’t even remember, but their words stuck with me. She said that she did not watch Fashion Police, because it was hurtful. The women they tore apart on that show left their house feeling beautiful, and those “judges” thought it was their place to say otherwise. Boom. I haven’t watched since.

Many of you know that I struggle with my weight. Yes, I say “struggle”. I’m still battling the irrational anxiety that has popped up in the last year. I went from fat and happy to fat and terrified. Terrified of what people thought, terrified of what people saw. Leaving the house means winning an internal battle some days. As much as I love to encourage others, I cannot seem to rally myself to hold my head up as often. Yes, my husband loves me and tells me how beautiful he thinks I am. Yes, I am HEALTHY. No, I never share this struggle with my children. Because this weight is beyond my control, I feel like I am grasping at nothing, drowning, falling down a well. I want to wear a sign that says “Yes, I know I’m overweight, but NO, I did not do this to myself.” I feel like I need to explain myself to the perceived disgusted public. It’s a truly overwhelming feeling to not have control over your body. Enter the hot tears. I can take captive every thought and make it obedient to Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5). But the outside? The part that people see? All I can do is shave my legs, do my hair, and put on some makeup. Well, it’s winter, so the legs can wait. I have literally had panic attacks in the middle of stores because I was so ashamed of how I looked and what I thought people were thinking. Again, I know it’s irrational. But again, grasping at nothing.

Last week, my worst fear happened: I caught someone taking a cell phone picture of me. This is where my hands shake and my heart races again. This person was trying to go unnoticed, pretending to check emails or Facebook, until the flash accidentally went off. I was sitting alone, just a bare wall next to me. When I climbed far enough out of my shame cloud to tell my best friends and husband what had happened, they all tried their obligatory encouraging alternatives: “Maybe it was your beautiful hair! Maybe they liked something you were wearing! Maybe this, maybe that…” Nope. Momma was having a ROUGH day that day. Ponytail, my black flats with the holes in them, glasses. Also, we had been chatting, so a compliment could have been offered up at any time. I also know that this person is a member of a very trendy gym, one that prides itself so much on fitness that the various branches host competitions for members to prove themselves. I’m not calling this gym out, I’m just saying that given this person’s trained way of thinking with regard to fitness, and my appearance that day, it is not hard to conclude why that person took a sneaky picture of me.

I’m fat.

As a fat person, I’m allowed to say that. It’s not the worst thing someone can be, so I’m okay with saying it. It’s just a descriptor, it’s not my identity. But when that’s all someone bothers to notice about you, especially as a woman, it hurts. You can’t tell by the picture that person took that I love my family and friends, that I’m a beast with a glue gun, that I can quote every episode of Friends, that I’m freaking funny and flippin’ awesome. That picture doesn’t show my dedication, my creativity, my desire to help other people. It doesn’t show the rivers of tears I’ve cried over pants that stop fitting, the number of doctors I’ve met with to find a cure, or at least a STOP. It doesn’t show the fear I have when I approach a folding chair, an amusement park ride, or when I pass someone leaving a restaurant. It doesn’t show the internal battle being waged by my hormones, how my body is turning against me, how I have no control and no end in sight to this horrible, horrible disease. But you know what it does show, that image of my outsides? It shows the insides of the person who took it.   

As a photographer, I can assure you that this person was within their legal rights to take my picture. Once you attend a public event, you lose what is called a reasonable expectation of privacy. As a human, I want to shout that they had NO right. I am a mother, a wife, a friend… not a punchline. I may not meet that person’s standards of beauty, but then again, I’m not trying to. I can call that person rude, judgemental, callous, a butthead… I can say whatever I want, but it doesn’t take away the shame. Again, I wanted to scream, “I didn’t do this to myself!” I don’t owe that person an explanation, but I was so humiliated that I felt the need to justify my measurements. Instead, I just hung my head. My worst fear, that a stranger was internally laughing at my appearance, had just played out in front of me. Me, the strong-willed, opinionated, loud, energetic force of nature, had been reduced to a lump of indignity. My friends and husband also gave me the obligatory accolades, but the facts that I’m caring, sweet, thoughtful, funny, or made of concentrated awesomesauce don’t show up in sneaky, malicious cell phone pictures. It hurt. Bad. It still hurts. Writing this has helped some, given me a sense of control over how I will react to it. Like I said, it says as much about the person who took that photo as it does about the way I look. But beyond a personal victory, I needed to share this so to offer my perspective, the person on the other side, the person who is likely in someone’s newsfeed with a crude caption.

Please consider this side the next time you do the same. People of Walmart can be hilarious and mind-boggling, and you KNOW there are people who dress that way intentionally in the hopes of a POW appearance (or the $50 gift card), but what about the innocent ones? The people who don’t have any fashion sense, the people who say “Screw it, it’s Walmart and I need toilet paper!”, the people who don’t have the money for nice clothes, or even a home to hang them in? What about the people who don’t have the mental capacity to arrange a Milan-worthy look, the people you see wearing holey clothes, too-tight clothes, too-short clothes, too-dirty clothes, too-ugly clothes, too-old clothes… what if those are all the clothes they have? Can you imagine how they would feel to see their photo on a website devoted to judging peoples’ appearance, to read the comments of strangers about how they look, when no one knows their circumstances? I myself am guilty of taking a sneaky photo of a cashier who was dressed exactly like Blanche from Golden Girls. But now I ask myself, “Why?” Why did I need the picture? Why was it my place to secretly tease this woman? And what pain and embarrassment might she have felt, what insecurities might I have unearthed if she’d noticed? When did our desire to judge and tease become greater than someone else’s right to dignity? If I am fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139:14), if I was knit together in my mother’s womb (Psalm 139:13), if I am God’s MASTERPIECE (Ephesians 2:10), then so are you, so is Blanche, so are we all. Taking pictures and laughing isn’t going to change that person’s life for the better. And it certainly won’t make you a better person. So please, stop.

Grocery Store Etiquette

In order to mark the momentous occasion that is my first official blog post, I decided to go big. Go exciting. Talk about something earth-shaking and mind-blowing and controversial that will make you glad you took the time away from playing Candy Crush on the toilet to read this.

Apparently grocery store etiquette doesn’t exist. At least not anywhere formal. There are sites dedicated to what NOT to do (wear) to the grocery store, but I’m not aware of any that tell you how to behave like a human. So I would like to make grocery store etiquette available to all who would Google it. Even though, let’s be honest, the people who are Googling “Grocery Store Etiquette” aren’t the ones who need it most, amIright?

Before embarking on one’s mission to the local grocer, there are several things to consider. Am I wearing the appropriate undergarments? Are said undergarments UNDERNEATH a layer of weather-appropriate clothing? Are all of these undergarments unseen? Am I wearing a recent application of deodorant? Have I showered recently enough to remember when? Only when the answer to ALL of these questions is yes are you prepared to exit the home and shop amongst the natives.

Upon entering the parking lot at a safe and appropriate speed, proceed up and down the parking aisles ONLY in the direction intended. If you have to bust a u-turn to get into your chosen spot, you are going the wrong way. In this scenario, we are in America, where drivers stick to the RIGHT side of the road. This applies later, as well. If you can see tail lights of the cars parked around you, congratulations on driving the right way. If you see headlights, try again. While browsing for your dream spot, heed the pedestrians. Yes, they walk like a herd of turtles. Yes, they intentionally spread out and leave no room for you to eek past in your parking quest. Yes, they load their groceries into the back of their SUV so slowly that it’s likely the expiration date on their milk will be reached before they finish. And you better believe they know what they’re doing when they sit in their idling car, updating Facebook and returning texts while you wait for their spot. But heed the pedestrians. Because it is REALLY awkward when you tap one with your bumper on the way to snag a spot, only to have them limp past you when you get out. Once that prime bit of real estate has been spotted and confirmed vacant, proceed at a speed of less than 20 mph. If you see someone else headed towards the same spot, it is not a race. I promise. Be the bigger person. ESPECIALLY if you see carseats or a pregnant belly. Let chivalry reign in the parking lot. Once you have claimed your spot, examine the lines on either side. Can you see them both? Are your tires free of any contact with them? Are your tires INSIDE both of them? Is your car angled to mimic those lines? The parking lot is no place to get fancy with geometry. Just park inside the lines. Can the customers and fellow human beings on either side of you comfortably enter and exit their vehicle based on the proximity of yours? If the answer to any of those questions was “no”, then go home. You have failed. If you can’t nail the parking thing, you’re probably going to be a turd inside the store, too.

Now you find yourself approaching the entry to your favorite store. You’re overwhelmed with choices – do I grab small arm basket? Do I need a motorized cart with a tiny basket? Do I select a shopping cart and risk  getting stuck somewhere behind the people who chose the motorized cart? Here’s how you choose: If you are getting anything other than a small bag of marshmallows, don’t get the arm basket. Groceries are deceptively heavy, and the metal handles hurt like a sonofagun when they dig into your arm. So just carry your two things. Plus, there’s always the awkward “Where do I put this basket?” moment at the checkout. If you’re buying more than 10 things, don’t get the motorized cart. You can see how small that basket is. They’re like actual denim blue jeans, not jeggings. No stretch. You can’t get away with shoving more than you should into them. Should you require the motorized cart, please, for the love of ALL things holy, drive on the RIGHT SIDE OF THE AISLES. The middle of the aisle is not conveniently open for your cruising. The bread aisle was not dreamed up for you to park and argue. Do your part to squash that crotchety-person-on-the-assault-wagon stereotype. If you tag a customer in the behind or take down a corner display, do the right thing and apologize. The grocery store is not a big whack-a-mole game of ramming legs. Look at me like it was my fault, and I may just grab one of your items and put it on the top shelf.

Obviously, at this point, we’ve deduced that the safest choice is a cart on wheels, a buggy, a doohiggy. Whatever. Maintain control of your cart at all times. Push your cart down the RIGHT SIDE OF THE AISLES at all times. If you get a defective cart with a wonky wheel, do not abandon it in front of the macaroni. Kindly return it to the shopping cart bay, or pull up your big girl britches and get your list checked off while dealing with it.

At some point during every shopping trip, I encounter someone. I’m not talking about the people I know. Not the people I prepared to see by putting on undergarments and deodorant. Seeing someone I know is inevitable. But so is happening upon THAT person. The time suck. The weirdo. The person of seemingly below-average intelligence and above-average loneliness. I’m told this doesn’t happen to everyone, but for me it’s as much a grocery store staple as milk. If you put off the same freak beacon as I do, you will encounter someone who wants to talk. And talk. Then ignore your attempts to back away or check the time. And continue talking. Be kind. My husband tells me it’s God drawing them near to me because I’ll listen and they need it. My head tells me it’s because I tapped a pedestrian with my bumper earlier. Either way, be kind. This trip may be their only interaction with people who don’t have tails. Since I believe in God, I have to believe that there is some divine reason, something I have to offer them. If YOU are the time-suck… for gravy’s sake, get to the point. You see my frozen items. You hear my cell phone going off. If you need someone to talk to, then maybe let’s walk and do it. Come to church and meet new people. Be efficient in your time-sucking, and I’ll be a lot more receptive. If you’re the old man who backed me into the Ovaltine and talked for twenty minutes about forcing uninterrupted eye contact on your children… just stay home and order out every night.

Your unwanted cheese does not belong amongst the Gain, so don’t leave it there.

“I seen” is not an English phrase. Do not refer to a sale you eyed on aisle 6 in this manner.

Place a jar of organic peanut butter and a bag of carrots on the very top of your cart to avoid being judged by the contents underneath.

Special considerations: Shoppers with children and couponers. Nobody WANTS to take their kids to the grocery store. Trust me. If you see a parent at the store with their children in tow, then their kitchen is BARE. They waited until they could wait no longer. As a hardcore-stockpiling-couponer-turned-casual-money-saver, I would ask you to extend couponers some courtesy. It took a lot of time and organization for them to haul their giant notebooks out. They’ve likely been there for hours doing countless math scenarios and coming up with back-up plan after back-up plan when they don’t find what they’d anticipated. If they clear the shelves, yes, they’re jerks. The world will keep spinning and gravity will keep working. And don’t worry, they’ll most likely encounter a really rude cashier who thinks they’re trying to steal from the store, so that will catch up with them REAL quick.

Have you ever noticed how the person who smells the worst/curses the loudest in front of your children/talks your ear off/walks the slowest always seems to have the same grocery list as you? Yeah, I haven’t found a solution for that one.

As this post has already gotten much more lengthy than I anticipated, I’ll try and sum it up: Be kind. You are not the only person in the store. You are not the only person in the world. Everyone is there because they need something. Grocery stores are great equalizers. Be considerate. Be kind. When someone inevitably wrongs you, let it go. Kroger is not the place to make a stand and prove a point. If you must be on a cellular device, do not speak loudly. Try and refrain from using salty language. When you reach the cashier, put your phone away, smile, and TALK with them. If you read People magazine while waiting, don’t set it on top of the Ice Breakers mints when you’re done.

And for the love of GOD, if you see someone you know and can’t possibly wait until a more convenient time to get caught up on the last 8 1/2 years of each others’ lives, then find a spot that DOESN’T BLOCK PEOPLE. Remember, we’re all here because we need something, so try and keep an open mind about what someone else may need – frozen pizzas, companionship, or uninterrupted eye contact.