The Cliché Dice – For When You Just Don’t Know What Else To Say

Have you ever found yourself face to face with someone who was going through a hard time, someone who was struggling, maybe someone who had just poured their heart out to you and was now staring at you with wet, hopeful eyes? Have you ever thought to yourself, “What am I supposed to say here?” You don’t want to say the wrong thing, or maybe you don’t have any experience with what they’re dealing with. You’re out of ideas, out of words, and find yourself grasping for how to respond.

Fear not! The cliché dice are here! Now you can reply cleverly and earnestly to friends and loved ones with tried-and-true clichés, little nuggets of wisdom that will leave your pained pal feeling better, feeling like you really listened. But more importantly, just one nonchalant roll of the dice will leave you feeling like you helped, without all the hard work of actually having to empathize.

Ridiculous, right? I used to think so, too.

Struggle in our lives can bring out the awkward in those around us – heck, it can bring out the ignorance. Miscarriage, job loss, struggling with a child with special needs or even my own health, there is no shortage of dumb stuff and stale, incompatible clichés that people toss my way. I know I’m not alone in this experience. I’m sure you can think back to a time when you were struggling – or maybe you find yourself having a hard time now – and some (probably) well-meaning person said something just so utterly dumb, thinking they were helping.

Recently I had such a moment, crying to a counselor about a very big decision with regards to one of my children. I had just spend the last several minutes pouring my broken heart out, desperation spilling from my eyes, sharing my innermost thoughts and turmoil and insecurities. I needed this woman’s wisdom, needed her guidance, needed someone who could speak some truth to me that would help me, in any way. Instead, she rolled the dice.

“I mean, what have you got to lose?”

This was her response. Seriously.

MY CHILD.” Was mine.

She tried to backpedal, but the damage was done. She may not have ever been in the situation I was, and genuinely may not have known what to say. That wasn’t the way to fill the silence.

When we experienced our first miscarriage, people were rolling the dice left and right. “Let’s hope that one wasn’t a girl!” “At least you know you can get pregnant!” “You  must not have prayed hard enough.” “Eh, something was probably wrong with it.” “At least you have other kids already.” “Lots of people have miscarriages.” “At least you weren’t that far along.” “I wonder if you did/ate/breathed/looked at anything to cause it.” And the worse possible side of the cliché dice, the one you should never roll (but so many people seem to) – “I know exactly how you feel. Let me tell you about my experience instead of listening to you cope with yours.”

Guys, listen. There’s a time and a place for sharing our scars. We can grow together, empathize, relate, become vulnerable and find healing in each other’s pain. But right in the big fat middle of someone else’s suffering is not the time to share yours. It’s literally pouring salt into their wound. No matter how much you may understand from your own personal experience, listen to theirs. Unless you are asked for advice, keep your own experience to yourself. You can weep tears of understanding, cry prayers of compassion, but give the hugs you would have wanted and the listening ears you would have needed. Never, ever, under any circumstances, ever, EVER, roll the dice and say, “I know exactly how you feel.” Because you don’t. At all. You’re different people. You have different thoughts. You have different ways of processing emotions.  You may have an idea. You may have experienced the exact same scenario. But your experience is your experience, and their trauma is theirs, and whatever they’re in the middle of is really hard. Don’t minimize their feelings by trying to mix them with your own. Let them have their own upset.

“When God closes a door He opens a window.” “God will never give you  more than you can handle.” Nope. These aren’t even Biblical. There are no Bible verses to back these things up, and all they do is dismiss the current pain by telling the sufferer it will get better later. The truth is, you don’t know if it will get better. You don’t know if something else awaits. The truth is that closing a door sucks, and that’s what your friend needs to process right now. The truth is that God will absolutely give us more than we can handle. The truth is that sometimes we willingly risk more than we can handle. The truth is that God is near to the brokenhearted. That’s  Biblical. That’s something you can share. You have no idea what God has planned for this person before you, but you do know that God won’t leave them, God loves them, and their tears do not go unnoticed by God. Besides, doors are way easier to get through than windows, so why would the idea of God opening a window make anyone feel better?

I lied. I said the worst response you could get from the cliché dice is “I know exactly how you feel.” That’s inaccurate. It’s still an awful, awful way to respond to someone struggling, but it’s not the most awful way. The worst, most terrible, most horrible, most painful way to respond to someone in the midst of a battle is…  ”                         .” Saying nothing. Rolling the dice and coming up in the blank side. Sure, you’re not expected to have a sermon and a 9-point plan each time someone pours their heart out to you, and there is absolutely a time for quiet, for listening, for hugs and silent sobs. I’m talking about when you walk past the woman who is going through a divorce. When you see the man who just lost his job. When you walk past the parents whose child just received a devastating diagnosis. The person who has buried a loved one, the woman overwhelmed with the sickness her family has been sharing the last few weeks, the guy who you know is battling depression, and yes, the couple who just experienced a miscarriage.

Don’t. Be. Silent.

If all other words and sentiments escape you and you really just don’t know what to do, look them deep in the eyes, open up a text or email, and say, “I’m so sorry.” Really. Do not let them walk past you, do not scroll past their name on social media, do not let them come into your view and your mind without offering your sympathy, without asking them how they are. Ask them how you can help. Ask them what they need. Ask them how they’re feeling. Ask them about what they’re going through. Don’t pretend it isn’t happening. Don’t smile and hope it’s a bright spot in their stormy times. Don’t protect yourself from the discomfort of their pain by pretending it isn’t real.  Ask them.

I almost planned out a second, separate post on asking people how they are, and I still may, but this has to go here.  Ask people. If you know they’re going through a life change, a struggle, a battle, or just had a bad day, ask them about it. Don’t let them feel isolated. Don’t allow them to fall victim to the lie that they’re all alone. Even if you have no idea what it’s like or if you went through the very same thing last year, ask them. Take time out of your day, make them feel loved, and ask them.

Let’s be honest, a lot of the discomfort we feel that prompts us to roll the cliché dice comes more from us wanting to feel like we accomplished something rather than the pain we’re witnessing. Most people aren’t expecting an expert opinion when they’re sharing their struggles with you. They’re not looking to you for all the answers. They don’t think their success lies in whatever you say next. The pressure is off, y’all, you don’t have to have any solutions. You just have to make them feel heard, loved, and important. You don’t have to feel comfortable or accomplished when discussing someone’s battles. You will feel awkward and helpless sometimes. But don’t roll those dice and toss tired old terms at a person in pain. When it comes to broken hearts, uncertain futures, loss, pain, sadness, anger, desperation, and shame, clichés suck. 

Don’t roll the dice. Just care about people. If you’re worried about not knowing what to say, then say so. Tell this wounded soul that you don’t have words you think will help, but you have arms that can hug, a heart that can care, ears that can hear, and dice in the trash.

The Righteous Wrong – The Flawed Handling of Mental Illness in the Church

Before I get accused of hating the church in any form, and I know that’s the first reaction of some, a little background on me. I met my husband in church. I didn’t grow up in church, really, but I’ve been a Christian for most of my life now. When I met my husband he was a children’s pastor, and about a year later I began volunteering to help out in elementary services. He became a full-time minister  before we were married and has remained in full-time ministry ever since. The entirety of our 13-year marriage has been spent in devotion to God, His people, and the local church in the form of full-time ministry. I also hold two degrees – one in counseling, and the other in general ministries, both earned at a Christian university. I literally went to college to learn how to serve the church. I hate no one. I love the church. I love people. My passion for both have led me to learn all that I can so that I may help all that I can. The post you’re about to read is more concern than criticism, for the people who make up God’s church, for the people who have not yet walked through the doors, and for the people who may never come inside.

We have to do better.

Mental illness is a scary term. It encompasses a wide range of experiences, from anxiety to psychosis, so simply labeling someone mentally ill can conjure up a number of images and assumptions – most of them wrong. Whatever the diagnosis, whatever the terminology, the fact remains that mentally ill people are as deserving of the love of Jesus Christ as anyone else. I don’t think anyone could argue with me there, right?

Then why do we treat those who struggle as though they have chosen to suffer in place of salvation?

I will say this now, and likely hundreds more times for the rest of my life – mental illness is not a choice, mental illness is not a lack of faith, mental illness is not a sign of weakness.

I’m getting a little ahead of myself in my fervor, let me back up.

To understand how the church is getting it wrong, the church has to understand what it’s dealing with. Mental illness is just that – an illness. Sometimes it’s a chemical imbalance, sometimes it’s a miswiring or misfiring of the brain, but whatever the cause there is an organic, physical disorder that exists within the mind of the sufferer. It can’t always be seen the way a limp or wheelchair can, but it remains a struggle nonetheless. For some reason, the invisible battles that are waged are often viewed in the church as more spiritual than physical. Yes, we war not with flesh and blood (Ephesians 6:12), and there are often very real spiritual battles and oppressions that occur, but this has never been intended as a dismissal of all things unseen. One of my favorite professors in college told the story once of how he, while pastoring a church, was approached in loud desperation. A group of church members were carrying a woman and laid her at his feet, pleading with him to cast the demons out of her as she was surely possessed. The woman was writhing, moaning, foaming at the mouth… and had a seizure disorder. She was experiencing a medical emergency, but the church, in their ignorance of the psychological and insistence upon the spiritual, was of no help.

A woman I knew from church was experiencing a mental health crisis. She was deeply depressed, overwhelmingly anxious, and her social media posts made it obvious she was struggling. Those who attended church with her reached out, with the best of intentions I’m sure, but instead of offering her help or hope, they only hurt and hardened her. Rather than approach her with empathy, those on the outside who enjoyed the good fortune of stable mental health began with the assumption that her struggles were chosen, were spiritual, were the result of a lack of faith rather than a lack of serotonin. None of these were true. She was battling mental illness, a chemical imbalance much in the same vein as type 1 diabetes. Yet the diabetic is not told their insulin is a sin, is not frowned upon for turning down cake at a birthday party. This woman who was struggling, who already felt weak and overwhelmed, was told by people who did not understand her illness how she should handle it. “Pray more!” “You should try fasting!” “Have you asked God to show you where in your life you’re weak?” “Do you have any sins or open doors in your life that would bring this on?” “Read your Bible every day!” “You should find some good verses to tape to your mirror that will uplift your spirit.” “Really go after God!” “Turn up that worship, girl, and praise your way out of this!” None of these helped, obviously, as she was facing a very real disorder that they were minimizing down to a personal faith issue or a simple bad mood. The woman, while absolutely in need of God, was not in need of clichés – she was in need of medication.

Here’s something else the church has to understand about mental illness – it gums up your brain. Someone who is mentally healthy does not and cannot think in the same way that a mentally ill person does. Just as you may breathe more freely than someone with asthma, you cannot expect a mentally ill person to think in the same “logical” sense that you do. To someone overwhelmed by invasive, pervasive thoughts, those thoughts make perfect sense. To someone paralyzed by fear or anxiety, every worry is justified. No person in the midst of a psychotic break, manic episode, or fugue state chose to act the way they do when affected. It is all too easy to view the dark posts of the woman wrestling with depression and think, “What does she have to be sad about? She’s so negative, why doesn’t she cheer up and ask God for some joy?” It’s all too comfortable to use your logic to negate an illogical mind, but it does nothing to heal or help them. We can pray for these brothers and sisters, and we absolutely should, but our listening ears will go a lot further than our “logical” advice.

Which brings me to another area where the church is failing the mentally ill: the lack of licensed professional counselors and the absolute overrun of well-intended laypeople. I know, I know, you’re mad at me for this one. You know of some fantastic ministries led by volunteers who offer “counseling” and see lives changed. The people are genuinely loving, wise, and want to help. But they are playing with fire. Biblical knowledge is not a substitute for mental health training. The best of intentions will never take the place of a license from the state board of examiners that says you know what you’re doing. I feel a mixture of fear and anger when I see these volunteer “counseling” ministries advertised or suggested – fear for the person who is placing their mental health in the hands of someone wildly unqualified to care for it, and anger at the rate at which the layperson offers their advice as counseling. It is not the same. Legally, it’s not even counseling. We allow Biblically-sound but psychologically-illiterate people to care for the most fragile of persons, and it’s a dangerous, dangerous game. Churches need licensed, professional counselors at the ready, and if no LPCs are available then they must be humble enough to pass on the number of one who is. Addiction, anxiety, and depression are some of the most common struggles that bring churchgoers to the altars, and every one of them is serious enough to need a professional’s guidance, not a church pillar’s good intentions. Financial advice, life wisdom, general encouragement, and testimony are all welcome and valuable services offered by church members around you, but when it comes to mental health issues, a professional is not only respectful, it is necessary. It does not matter what life experiences you’ve had, if you are not trained in mental health care then you have no business offering services in the field, and you are rolling the dice on doing more harm than good.

Now that I’ve lost a few friends after that paragraph, I’m sure to isolate a few more with this one: the church fails its mentally ill members by supporting the notion that mental illness is the result of a spiritual lack or physical sin. I once sat in on a very well-known conference, one that is held several times a year in churches all over the country. It has been around for years and comes with very high praise, and at the risk of pitchforks and lawsuits I won’t name it, but I still feel a fire in my belly when I hear it mentioned and consider every church that welcomes it willfully negligent. On the inside of the handout everyone receives, literally one of the first things anyone in attendance sees, is the image of a tree, with illnesses and maladies drawn into the leaves and the “causes” written into the branches and roots. You guessed it – mental illness was “caused” by a spiritual fault, by sin, according to this “ministry” that claimed to want healing for all. Very real, very quantifiable, very devastating diseases and disorders were reduced to the fault of the sufferer and assumed to remain because the mentally ill person chose to keep them.  I walked out.

Mental health is health of the mind, just as oral health is health of the mouth, or heart health is health of the heart. Being unseen does not leapfrog it past the physical and into the spiritual. Mental illness is a sickness. It is real. We can pray for all illnesses and all disabilities, absolutely, and we should believe for healing from a God who is still very much alive and able to offer it. BUT, we cannot and should not dismiss every sufferer of a mental illness as a sinner whose lack of faith keeps them suffering. We cannot toss some prayers towards a bipolar person and consider it enough. We cannot shrink away from the schizophrenic in fear and cannot offer verses in place of therapy. God can do it, but that doesn’t mean He does every time, and a lifelong struggle with mental illness is no more indicative of someone’s relationship with God than their height or hair color. It’s in their genetic makeup, a physical issue, and the sooner the church stops mishandling the mentally ill people the sooner they’ll stop leaving the church in droves.

Quick attitude check – when I mentioned the woman earlier who was struggling with anxiety and depression, I said she didn’t need clichés, she needed medication. How did you feel when you read that? In my work and my every day life I meet a lot of people who are faced with mental illness, either their own or that of a loved one, people who will take ibuprofen for a fever, Nyquil for a cold, and yes, insulin for diabetes, but will view medication for mental health struggles as weak, unnecessary, or even optional. “What a shame,” they think, brows furrowed, when they hear of medication, of therapy, “If only they could fight a little harder.”

Church, the mentally ill are fighting. They’re fighting harder than most. And medication is just one tool in their arsenal as they wage war against a disease that would claim their relationships, their jobs, their lives. The mentally ill have to work harder than we do to make it into church. They have to fight harder than we do to make it out of bed some days. They walk into a church full of people who don’t understand them, who judge them, who offer little real help. They get forgotten about or talked about. They’re prayed for but not visited. The mentally ill are those who need our help and love, not our opinions. We can and should pray for them, but we cannot dismiss their continued battles as lack of faith or time with the Father.

God is the Healer, He is Jehovah-Rapha. He can heal people, deliver them of their afflictions, and by His stripes we ARE healed… but what if that healing doesn’t come until we are made complete in His presence, if healing on this earth eludes us and some among us suffer until Heaven? Are they any less faithful? Are they any less Christian? Are we better, stronger, more righteous than those crushed by depression? Is our faith more prized than that of someone paralyzed by anxiety? Is bipolar disorder a lifestyle we’d rather not associate with because we disagree with the actions of the person with the diagnosis? NO! I cannot say it emphatically enough – NO! We are not granted only salvation or mental health – God’s children are allowed His grace in any mental state as much as they are in any physical. 

The church must stop viewing mental illness as sinful, optional, fleeting, or even nonexistent. We must implement real programs to help the people around us who are suffering, and if we can’t implement them then we must refer to those who can. We must up our empathy. We must be as concerned for the depressed as we are for the impoverished. We must cease to view any human imperfection as the fault of the imperfect running off the perfection of God. We must shut the heck up about our own opinions and experiences when faced with someone we can’t possibly relate to, and just love them.

Mental illness is in your church, friend. Don’t shudder, don’t judge, just go love.

 

Related Posts: Loving the Mentally Ill , The Church is Not Our Mirror

You’re Probably Wrong About Anxiety

Anxiety.

You keep using that word.

I do not think it means what you think it means.

“Anxiety” is a bit of a buzzword right now. I’m seeing it in a lot of memes, a lot of people are sharing their experiences and struggles on social media. I see it in headlines, in casual conversation, and in my own home. All of the talk has brought anxiety out of the mental health closet and into the more accepting light of the mainstream. People are more comfortable with admitting their inner battles and are acknowledging that they’re fallible. Anxiety has become increasingly discussed, increasingly common, and, I dare say, increasingly misrepresented.

In all of our freedom to discuss anxiety, we’ve watered the true meaning down from a diagnosis to a discomfort. 

So what is anxiety, really?  Well, first I’ll tell you what it’s not.

Anxiety is not just worry. It is excessive worry. Consuming worry. Worry to the point of terror or impending doom. Worry over situations that may happen, that haven’t happened, that will probably never happen. Worry over seemingly innocuous situations. Worry over the most catastrophic of situations. It’s dread. Anger. Hypervigilance. It’s not nervousness. Butterflies are not anxiety. Anxiety is being unable to stop the fear, oftentimes without anything having triggered the fear… or even anything specific to fear.

Anxiety is not stress. Anxiety causes great stress, and it is distressing. But feeling the weight of an upcoming project or bill does not an anxiety diagnosis amount to. Anxiety and stress are not mutually exclusive, but one can very much exist without the other. Whereas stress fades with the task at hand, anxiety is a chemical reaction or imbalance that will remain long after clicking the “submit” button.

Anxiety is NOT insecurity. Who knows if it’s the rise of social media, Photoshop, or the general public getting ahold of contouring, but we have become an image-obsessed and insecurity-driven society. Confidence has become such an exception that it’s often met with contempt. We have come to accept insecurity as such a norm that we joke about it, bond over it, and rather than build one another up we often resort to comparing our perceived flaws. This isn’t anxiety.

Anxiety cannot be turned off with happy thoughts. I cannot stress this enough. This is the main difference between situations that can cause anxious feelings and actual anxiety. Someone in the throes of anxiety cannot just “cheer up”, “find the silver lining”, “have a little faith”, “trust that everything will be alright”, or – and especially – “calm down”. When someone can’t breathe because their body is in the midst of an anxiety attack or when a child is overtaken by a fear they can’t explain, telling them to “calm down” is about as helpful as throwing a bucket of water on a wildfire. If only an anxious person had that kind of control over their reaction!

So what is anxiety?

It’s many things.

There are different types of anxiety. Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Social Anxiety Disorder, Panic Disorder, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, various phobias…. Did you know hoarding is an anxiety disorder? Did you know children can be diagnosed with any of these anxiety disorders? Anxiety is not one specific thing and is rarely the same for any two people suffering from it.

Anxiety can be triggered by anything… or nothing at all. Anxiety can be chemical, a misfiring of the brain – or even an imbalance of hormones – that causes an anxiety reaction. It can be situational, such as the fear of heights, crowds, spiders, germs. There are various techniques, therapies, treatments for anxiety, and results will vary by individual. The beginnings and ends are often unknown.

Your anxiety may not look like my anxiety. Some sufferers are able to calm their bodies with breathing exercises and distraction. Some are in need of medication to slow their body’s response to perceived danger. Some meet with professionals frequently, some require in-patient therapy, and some are so overwhelmed by the paralyzing fear that they have built their lives around avoiding any and all potential triggers. Some anxiety is eventually outgrown, some sticks around and wages war for a lifetime.

Anxiety often doesn’t look like what you think it does. My own counseling degree still left me completely taken by surprise when I encountered anxiety in someone who wasn’t just rocking in a corner, breathing and counting to 10. Especially in children, anxiety can manifest as anger, rage, irritability.  My son’s principal described him as walking through the halls looking like a wounded dog, ready to snap in defense.  What you see as a defiant child can be a kid whose body is telling him he’s in danger and he is instinctively lashing out in self-preservation. Where you see a pack rat, someone with a hoarding disorder sees all of the possible bad things that could happen if they let go of an object, all of the what ifs and eventualities they have covered by keeping something they may need or by giving in to their desire to acquire. What you may perceive as laziness, flakiness, or indifference to a friendship could very well be someone who is crippled by social anxiety or agoraphobia, who is terrified of going new places, crowded places, any places. Anxiety doesn’t always look like someone shrinking back against a wall or breathing into a paper bag. It looks like someone who feels a total loss of control over their world, like someone whose body is telling them to fight, like someone who feels the urge to run, or freeze, or avoid. It looks like someone who is exhausted, who can’t rest, who only wants to rest. Someone who makes frequent trips to the bathroom or who doesn’t want to leave it altogether. Anxiety can look like stomach aches, restlessness, rage, chest pains. It can look like a child who makes frequent trips to the nurse or the mom who can’t turn off her brain long enough to fall asleep. Anxiety is a shapeshifting, deceptive cloud that can masquerade as many things – no paper bag-breathing required.

Anxiety is one size fits all. While some populations and people are more likely to experience anxiety, none are immune. Anxiety affects men. It afflicts Christians. It travels down generations or pops up unexpectedly. Diet, age, weight, social class, gender, race, faith, level of education – none of these are safeguards against anxiety. Young people are often dismissed as “being too young to worry” or “not having anything real to worry about”. Wealthy people are often regarded as having nothing to worry about, as though you could pay anxiety off. Church members suffering from anxiety can be thought of as having little faith. Men experiencing anxiety can be viewed as weak. The reality is that anxiety can strike anyone, anywhere, from any background, and anyone’s opinion of their experience does nothing to help them overcome it.

Someone’s disbelief in the sincerity or seriousness of anxiety does jack squat. You can’t disagree someone’s anxiety away. You can’t tell them to stop worrying and expect it to work. Reminding someone of all the good in their lives doesn’t heal them, either. “Calm down” doesn’t negate anxiety. Listing off facts about non-venomous spiders doesn’t quell arachnophobia, nor do statistics about plane crashes when flying. Your words and beliefs can’t and won’t dismiss anxiety, but….

You can help. Someone who is overwhelmed with anxious feelings or thoughts is hurting. They’re panicked. They need to feel safe, grounded, and heard. Whether you understand their fears or not, it’s important that they not be made to feel like a sideshow for them. The best thing you can do for someone you care about when they’re in the middle of an anxiety attack is to say, “I hear you. I’m here. You can keep talking to me if you want.” Not everyone remembers their breathing exercises (in the nose, out the mouth) when they’re crippled by dread. Medication can take a while to take effect. If you can help the person leave the situation that is triggering their feelings, do it. Keep them talking, keep them breathing. Don’t force anything, don’t rush anything. If they need to stay and put their back against a wall, shield them from judging eyes. If they need to talk about their worst fears, don’t cut them off with your rebuttals and statements of how unlikely they are. If they need a hug, give it. If they need space, provide it. They won’t die from the fear, but they’re not always convinced of this, so stay with them, breathe with them, be an anchor so they know they’re not going to float away.

More than anything, anxiety is not weakness. It is not an inability to control oneself, it is not a lack of faith or gratitude, it is not a measure of intelligence. It is not the fault of the anxious and cannot be dismissed by the disbelieving. Anxiety is hard. It’s a battle, and those fighting it are warriors. To live in fear and still step out takes a lot of guts, a lot of work, and sometimes a lot of (perceived) risk. Be proud of those you know who are fighting their battle, who are honest about their feelings, who work so dang hard at just getting through the day sometimes. It’s not easy living your life when your body is convincing you it could end at any moment. Anxiety is not weakness. It’s not trendy. It’s not made-up, attention-seeking, or frivolous. It’s real, it sucks, and someone you know is suffering from it.

It Hurts to Listen to You Sometimes, Child

My dear, sweet, child, the fruit of my womb, the tapestry of my husband and I woven together with unique purpose, my mini-me, my legacy, my charge, my heart, my pride – sometimes it really freakin’ hurts to listen to you.

It’s not your voice – you sound like a heavenly harp (albeit sometimes a harp plugged into an amp turned up to 11). It’s not the adorable way you still mispronounce a few words (it’s one of my “fravorite” things about your stories). It’s not even that sometimes you want to talk 4 hours after you were supposed to be asleep and I’m still only 12 minutes into my 50-minute Netflix show (okay, maybe it’s a little bit of that). It’s that sometimes, as much as I truly, madly, deeply love you, I just really don’t care about Minecraft. Or cars. Or that YouTube vlogger. Or the nuanced differences between Shopkins. Or the Rubik’s cube algorithm you came up with that is just ever so slightly different from the one you used before. Or the combination of buttons and triggers that help you land an Ollie on that skateboarding game. I love you, dear child, but it hurts to listen to sometimes.

I spend all day listening. I listen to you. I listen to podcasts. I listen to the tv, the radio, the honking horns and squealing children in the pick up line. I listen to how your day was. I listen to how your dad’s day was. I listen to my family, my surroundings, my kitchen timer, and my gut. I am constantly listening. Spending so much time in the state of receiving audio input means that by a certain point in my day, I’ve reached my quota . I’m full. I’d like to talk. I’d like to sit. I’d like to be afforded the opportunity to listen to something of my choosing rather than remain in the state of vigilance that parental listening requires.

“Uh huh” won’t work. “Neat” doesn’t cut it. You are so deeply passionate about what you’re saying, child, that I can’t offer up half-interested automated responses when you pause to study my reaction. Your eyes are wide with excitement and your body is coiled with anticipation. You are so exhilarated by whatever paragraph you just monologued that an offering of “wow, that’s cool” may as well be a slap in your eager little face. No, your speeches require listening. Lots of listening. More listening than I want to offer, and seemingly more listening than I feel I can give.

Yet I listen.

There will be those who remark that the years are short, that someday you won’t want to talk so much, that I should treasure the Lego talk because too soon I’ll have closed doors instead of open mouths. I’ll be chided by mothers who would give anything to hear their child’s voice again and waiting mothers who would give anything to have a child at all. I’ll be met with criticism and judgement and disbelief, but no matter anyone’s feelings about me, it doesn’t make it any easier to listen to you describe – in detail – every single Hot Wheel you have that I can plainly see right before me with my own eyes.

Take note, child and naysayers, I did not say that I don’t listen. I said it hurt. I don’t ignore. I don’t dismiss. But I do give deeply of myself when the day should already be over and still I am asked to listen. It is a sacrifice to listen, yes. Whatever anyone thinks a mother’s ears should be for, they have a limit, and mine meet it every day. I can only feign so much interest in rubber band bracelets, and once I’ve given you all I have, you ask for more. It hurts.

I do not listen because I should. I don’t listen because I have to. I don’t listen because I’m your mom, I don’t listen because I have nothing else to do, and I definitely don’t listen because I care that much about different breeds of turtles. I listen because I love you. I listen, though it hurts, because you are special to me, though your chosen topic may not be. I listen because someday there will be topics you won’t want to talk about and I need you to know you can say anything. I listen because someday, as cliché as it is, you won’t tell me much. I listen because it helps me know you, because you are your own person and I want to encourage you to like what you like without any outside input telling you that you shouldn’t. I listen because I want to model for you, want you to see that caring about someone doesn’t mean being selective in your interest level. I listen because you have to know that we don’t have to agree to be kind, that you can sometimes learn things you never knew you never knew, just by staying quiet. I listen because it’s important to you, and because I remember the disappointment in your voice when you could tell I didn’t want to. I listen because children are not meant to only be seen and not heard, because you have unique things to say in the most magical ways sometimes. I listen, my dear, even though I don’t want to, because I know you want me to.

That last paragraph sounds a little more noble than it feels when I’m thick in the quicksand that is one of your stories. It amazes me how only 26 letters can combine to create so very many different words, how you can weave together a seemingly infinite explanation or take 5 1/2 minutes to answer a yes or no question. You have so many words, so very many words, and you’ve gone from the cooing little infant to the child who wants to make sure I hear all of your words.  I cannot imagine being interested in some of the things you are and I definitely don’t think Pokémon card trades are nearly as consequential as you do. It hurts to listen sometimes, baby, because sometimes your stories bore me. Sometimes they interrupt me. Sometimes they come at the end of the day when I have so far exceeded my listening limit that the line is a dot to me. Sometimes I feel my chest tighten in panic as I realize that your story truly does have no end. Sometimes I feel irritation flare up in my gut when you begin yet another discourse over American versus Italian sports cars. Sometimes I just want to sit in a comfy spot with a cup of caffeine and scroll mindlessly through Pinterest. Sometimes all 3 of you, dear darling children, want me to listen at once. And by sometimes, I mean every dad gummed day.

It hurts to listen sometimes. Pregnancy hurt. Delivering you hurt. Breastfeeding and first days of school and burning myself while cooking bacon this morning hurt, but these things were all worth it, and all were acts of service I took on as a way to express my love for you. I humble myself, don’t tell myself that everything I hear in a day is meant for my enjoyment, I suck it up and listen. I usually end up hiding in the closet for a while afterwards, but I listened, made sure you were heard.

So please, dear child, don’t take it personally when my eyes glaze over, when my breathing turns into sighs, when my face turns heavenward in a desperate plea to your Maker to distract you with something else long enough to silence your oration. I love you more than words can say – though I’m sure someday soon you’ll find enough words to get close – it just hurts, actually hurts to listen right now. Instead, appreciate that I’m trying, recognize the sacrifice that my love is offering you in the form of attempted interest. I love you, sweet one, and you often tell me the silliest, most interesting things. I love hearing about your day, love knowing what makes you laugh. I love your nerdy interests and creative ideas. I can only know you by listening to you, and I want to know you as deeply as I can, my child. It’s just that if it’s after around 10PM, I’m gonna need you to shut your pie hole because mama’s done for the day. Now go ask your brother about black hole theories.

 

What to Do If You Meet a Gifted Kid in the Wild

You’ve seen them on tv – Reid on Criminal Minds, Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory or Young Sheldon, the brothers Crane from Frasier. Gifted people, geniuses in layspeak, full of quirks and visible differences. We laugh, we marvel, we love their character… yet we rarely encounter people like them in our every day lives.

… or do we?

Statistically, no, there aren’t a whole lot of gifted people running around, forming packs in the library and taking over the local comic book stores. But they are out there, roaming, usually fairly well camouflaged. They don’t give away their locations with the tell-tale bowties and glasses you’re looking for, oh no. They’ve adapted and taken on a new form in order to better blend in with their surroundings – human being.

They look like regular people, regular kids even. They wear shirts that don’t button down and aren’t (usually) carrying briefcases, so it’s pretty hard to tell from a casual glance over the plain which solitary figures are the gifted ones. If you see a person running towards you, it’s a pretty good idea to step out of the way whether they’re carrying a travel chess set or not. It’s gotten pretty hard to spot the gifted kids, so it stands to reason that it’s gotten even harder to know what to do should you encounter one. That’s where this handy little guide comes in.

So, what should you do if you happen upon a gifted kid in the wild?

Freeze. They can’t see you if you don’t move.

Totally kidding.

Say hi. One of the reasons their human costumes are so effective at camouflaging the gifted is that they actually are human. They’re people. They’re not superhumans, they’re not freaks, they’re not innately arrogant. They’re people. They have friends and flaws and faults. They won’t ignore you if you don’t start the conversation off by quoting Stephen Hawking, so just say hi.

Since gifted kids can smell blood within a 4-mile radius, make sure you’re not approaching a gifted person without all wounds having been dressed. Also kidding.

Don’t quiz them. Seriously. If you know a kid is gifted, don’t make them prove it to you. They’re not endless trivia fountains and they don’t know everything. Giftedness has more to do with how a brain works than what a brain holds. Those brains can hold an awful lot of amazing stuff, though it’s usually not at all what you’d think to ask them about.  Converse, don’t quiz. My kids aren’t novelties, they aren’t there for your entertainment or your tests. Let them be more boy than brain or more girl than gift.

Get to know who they are instead of poking around for what they know. 

Immediately feel threatened by their gifted label. Also kidding, though this seems to be a horribly common reaction. Recognizing giftedness in one child does not negate the abilities or gifts in another. Gifted is a category, in some cases a diagnosis. It relates to IQ score and asynchronous development, not competition and elitism. The intellectually gifted are not an aggressive species, so there is no need to defend yourself or your children upon an encounter with one of their kind.

If you meet a gifted kid in the wild, don’t expect them to behave like Reid, Sheldon, or even the gifted kid you know next door. Because the pool of gifted people is so small and characterized by being so far removed from the intellectual norm, they’re all vastly different from one another. There are characteristics that can be recognized as typical, but remember that you are dealing with an atypical group. They don’t travel in pods or have a secret handshake. They can struggle. They can have learning disabilities, mood or personality disorders, sensory issues, physical disabilities, or none of the above. Some gifted kids get along fine in life and others wage internal battles. Some gifted kids get all A’s and some fail classes. Some love museums and some are so overwhelmed by anxiety that they can’t bear to visit one. Giftedness doesn’t look like a stereotype, so brace yourself to be surprised by the person you encounter.

Do not, under any circumstance, utter the phrase, “Every child is gifted”. This will be interpreted by the mother of the free-ranging gifted kid as a sign of aggression. Yes, every child is A gift, and yes, all children have gifts, but no, not every child is gifted. This would be akin to saying every child is dyslexic, every child is diabetic, every child is tall. Giftedness is a label applied based on IQ and how often it occurs relative to the norm. It is a quantifiable deviation, a measurable difference, and by definition cannot apply to everyone. Acknowledging the giftedness of a child is not an affront to your own precious jewels at home. Giftedness does not make a child better or worse than the neurotypical kid next to them. It’s just how their brain works, and it’s who they are. To dismiss their uniqueness by applying it broadly to everyone is to ignore the black-and-white data that proves they are different. And to be honest, gifted kids are one of the most underserved populations in schools, often dismissed as having no real needs or being “smart enough” to adapt themselves that they can be sent to a corner with a book and a high five. Gifted parents are tired of having to fight the stereotypes and feelings of elitism that get applied to their kids’ unique needs, so they’re likely to turn on you if you get snippy or dismissive.

Treat them normally. No really. Gifted kids are, in reality, kids. They get excited about stuff like Minecraft, princesses, farts, and candy. They also get excited about physics, coding, art, literature, architecture, engineering, paleontology, trains, plains, automobiles, and in my kiddos’ case, various local laws and ordinances surrounding exotic animals in the US. The odd duck still waddles like a duck. They’re not a typical kid, but they’re still kids. Intellectually they may be decades ahead of their age peers, but emotionally and socially they may be a little behind. Just because a kid has an adult brain doesn’t mean they have the capacity to know what to do with it. Imagine getting a Hennessey Venom GT as a newly-licensed 16-year-old (car reference provided by the automobile-obsessed kid). It’s a powerful, fast, expensive car that will catch a lot of looks and do a lot of stuff, but you, the inexperienced and even timid driver don’t know just how to handle it. No matter how cool and different your car is, you’re still a teenager who isn’t that great at driving it yet. These kids are in a similar seat – so much power under the hood, but little capacity to harness it yet. Let them be kids. Don’t scoff if they mess up or turn your nose up if they make a fart sound under their armpit. Having trouble tying their shoes or regulating their emotions doesn’t make them imposters, it makes them kids.

Seriously, don’t be threatened. I can’t stress this enough. While not all entirely docile, they’re also not predators. The way the gifted brain is wired means that emotions and sensations are experienced differently, intensely. Whoa. There is no disappointment, there is devastation. There is no jolly, there is elated. These kids are intense, but they’re not threats. They’re not out to make you or your kids look bad. They just are what they are, and if a child makes an adult feel insecure, then the adult is who needs more self-examination. I can’t say it enough – they’re kids. Not threats. They don’t need to be taken down a notch or knocked off any pedestals. Don’t make it a personal mission to add gifted kids’ self esteem to your trophy room. Whatever they are is not representative of what you or your child isn’t – it’s just who they are.

Don’t armchair diagnose or assume different = disorder. Yes, there are a huge number of gifted people who are twice exceptional – who are gifted and have a learning disorder, mood disorder, or some other type of hurdle. A person can have an IQ of 170 and be dyslexic, hyperactive, autistic, or even incontinent. Gifted people are not immune to the misfirings and crosswirings of the brain. But they are also not all coping with additional diagnoses. I’ve been asked more than once, “What’s wrong with him?” Apart from your rudeness, not much. My profoundly gifted child is quirky and he has struggles that make some tasks or situations hard or even unbearable for him, but that doesn’t mean what you think it means. I’m really just beating around the bush – all gifted people are not autistic. Lots are, but not all are. It does an immense disservice to the autistic community to assume different always equals autistic, or autistic always equals quirky. You can’t lump a bunch of stuff together you don’t relate to and call it autism. For every time I’ve been asked what’s wrong with my child, I’ve been asked 30 times if he’s been evaluated for autism spectrum disorder. Yeah, 4 times now. Nope, 5. If autism is an interest or a concern for you, then please educate yourself via the immense resources and willing families available now. If you want to understand more about what makes a different person so different, ask them. If a child has a diagnosis, that is his family’s journey and not one you’re entitled to. Explore instead of stereotype. Get to know someone for who they are and not any labels that may pop up.

While not endangered or protected, please refrain from making a gifted child a trophy. Remember, they’re kids, not novelties.

I hope this guide proves helpful as you resume your interactions among the people around you. Remember that all people are people, all kids are kids, and all should be treated accordingly. The gifted children sprinkled around the edges of the herd are no danger to you, so allow yourself the opportunity to appreciate them in their natural habitat – childhood. Take in their creativity and ability to think outside of the box. Note their intense emotions and, while they can prove mercurial at times, how they inspire change and empathy and passion. Drink in their humor, their sarcasm, the language that far exceeds their years. It’s okay to laugh when one trips and falls, kids do that. But let yourself appreciate just how beautiful and unique and cool they are the next time you find yourself face to face with a gifted kid in the wild.

 

 

The Church is Not Our Mirror

I should have written this a long time ago. Back when I felt it stirring in my heart. Back when the words began burning in me so hot I could barely stay seated. Back when it first kept me up all night. I apologize for making excuses and finding distractions. I’m writing it now.

When I look around the Church – general church, not any specific congregation – I see something troubling. Or rather, it’s what I don’t see that troubles me. I see a sea of faces, similar to mine. Families greeting each other, all resembling one another. Friends hugging and chatting and relating to one another as they embark on nearly identical life journeys. This is not a bad thing  – we are the family of God, and fellowship is a powerful thing. What troubles me is how alike we all are, mostly two-parent, white families of comparable socioeconomic standing. Again, I’m not saying there is anything wrong with being a white, middle class family, no apologies are to be made for who you are. But I know that this fellowship, this flock, is not a representative sampling of our city, of our world.

Where are the families of different colors, cultures?

Where are the single parents?

Where are the single people?

Where are the addicted, the poor, the broken, the unemployed, the homeless?

Where are the gay people? Where are the trans people? Where are the families with two moms, two dads?

THIS is what our world looks like. THESE are the people we don’t have sitting beside us.

Why?

The Church is not our mirror – it’s God’s. It was never meant to reflect our own image back to us, it was intended for God to see His reflection in us. If we only fill the pews with people like ourselves then we have not furthered the kingdom, we have only created a mirror. If the only people you know live lives exactly like your own, then please, meet new people. More people. Hurting people. Different people. People Jesus died for and longs for. People who He created with as much care and loves just as much as He loves you.

Here comes Justification Jones, ready to argue.

“But Jennifer, they are living a life of sin!”

Show me someone who isn’t. Show me a parishioner who does not struggle, who did not come to Jesus as a sinner. If you think being a sinner precludes anyone from meeting Jesus then I’m sorry to say you’ve read your Bible wrong. God knows when sin is present, He knows what His Word says. He does not need our opinion of His children. He’s not interested in our judgement of them, He’s interested in their hearts, He’s desperate for their company. Becoming a Christian, as you as Christians will know, does not make us perfect or suddenly insulate us from a world full of hurt. On the contrary, becoming a Christian means we are called to go out into the world and make His name famous. His blood was as much for their sins as it was for ours, and we are cheating His sacrifice on the cross by keeping it to ourselves.

A few years ago I shared a story on Facebook, an experience that really opened my eyes. I was photographing two beautiful brides, the southern tradition of bridal portraits, stunning blondes in gorgeous gowns. They posed fantastically and created some of my favorite images to this day. They were young, happy, and in love. Unbeknownst to the onlookers and gawkers around us, they were also sisters. Their weddings were not far apart, and it was a unique opportunity to capture their friendship during this special time in their lives. But what I knew to be two sisters sharing a memory looked to outsiders to be two women in a romantic relationship. Let me tell you, we got some looks. Pointing. Scowling. People flustered with their disapproval, not knowing what to do with the judgement that washed all over them.  Ugly looks. Mean looks. Mad looks. Attention is normal during bridal portraits, it comes with looking like a princess in an ordinary world, and ordinarily every bride is greeted with smiles and congratulations, maybe a few inquiries as to the big day. But not this day. Only one couple stopped to admire these ladies’ beauty and offer their congratulations – two men, arm in arm, out walking their dog. I don’t hate the Church, don’t misinterpret me. I love my God and His people and have been involved in full time ministry for more than 13 years now. I just want better from the church. That day I saw that we as Christians had been getting something very wrong. None of those looks, those scowls, not one furrowed brow or pursed lip made me want to go to church. I did not feel invited, welcomed. I felt judged, felt outside. I could see the disapproval on their faces and knew our company was not anything that interested these people. Their opinions of us were more important to them than our souls. Friends, we cannot hate anyone into church. We cannot judge them into the altars. We can, however, shun them to the point of preferring whatever eternity awaits them beyond the arms of Jesus.

We’re getting it very wrong when it comes to the LGBTQIA community.

“That’s a lot of letters, Jen,” says Justification Jones.

And Jesus cares about every single person they represent. If a new letter is added tomorrow, I will learn what I can about it so that I may better embrace the person who identifies with it. If a single parent, a gay person, mentally ill person or an addict gives me the time of day, I want to embrace them with all the love I have. I want to be able to say, “Historically my people have not been too kind to your people. Please, sit by me and get to know Jesus.” If a person comes to me and says they used to be a man but now they’re a woman, I will say to them that I once was lost but now I’m found, welcome to our church.

At some point, someone somewhere took it upon themselves to categorize sin and create something Christianese calls “lifestyle sins”. I’ve got news for you – that’s not a thing. It has no Biblical basis. When we embrace the adulterer and tax cheat but turn our hearts against the gay community, it has nothing to do with “lifestyle sin” and everything to do with moral superiority and relativism. The moment we start to compare sins we have stepped outside of the word of God and into our own opinions. It is not and never will be our job to excuse or condemn. Justification Jones will point out that the Bible gives clear instructions about confronting sin within the church… within the church. What good is it to confront a nonbeliever with words he doesn’t yet believe? The Bible is not a billy club and the gospel is not to be earned. It is free, to all. Spread His love and let Him do the talking.

When the woman was caught in the act of adultery and thrown at the feet of Jesus, it was by judgmental men who rebuked her every step of the way. She was brought to Him not to save her, but to condemn her! You know from the account how well it worked out for those who brought her – they left in their own shame, having become aware of their own sins and how little the woman’s affected them. The adulterous woman, escorted in judgement, left in freedom; the would-be jury came in haughtiness and left in humbleness.

The Church is not our mirror – we are His. We are vastly underqualified to decide who should and should not come to church. The judgement throne is not our pew, friends. We need more of the people outside of the church, sitting in our church. We need to check our hearts and pray for theirs. We need to reflect Jesus and stop trying to be Him. Heaven isn’t hiring, it’s welcoming. The job we were offered wasn’t that of judge and jury, but of missionary and mouthpiece. There is not one single justification that anyone can muster which would excuse someone from being invited to church.

We need to reach His people and serve His people. We as the Church need better divorce care, better single parent support, better foster family respite care, better, qualified, professional counseling services (expect another blog on this in the near future). We need multicultural congregations and multieconomical outreach. We need more welcomes and fewer stares. We need Jesus to be famous. We need the world to hear His good news. We need to open our arms, shut our mouths, and just hug any person Christ would….

and that’s everyone.

Pause. Take a Breath. And Choose a Child’s Life Over Irritation.

I’m taking my own advice many times as I write this. It’d be entirely too easy to be accusatory, snide, and even downright rude when discussing food allergies and the classroom. I could quickly fall into my own emotional reactions and simply pen a piece that would only serve to anger the parents I’m trying to reach (though would definitely get some rousing applause from the parents who can relate). So I’m pausing. I’m breathing. I’m repeating.

Peanuts.

No other legume is so hotly discussed, so feared, almost legislated as the peanut. It is the stuff of lunches, candy bars, cookies, and dreams. It’s a cheap protein, an easy meal, a no-bake staple. Creamy, crunchy, mixed with chocolate… there really is no way to ruin peanut butter, AMIRIGHT?

It’s also absolutely deadly when combined with many, many children.

This is the time of year when millions of children are headed to school, many for the first time. Backpacks are being bought, teachers are being met, and, in some schools, policies are hitting parents smack in the face: no peanuts allowed.

Not every school is nut-free. Not every class is, either. But my plea is to the parents who find themselves surprised by this news: Pause. Take a breath. And choose a child’s life over this irritation.

I live in Texas, where the phrase “try and stop me!” was basically born. We’re a stubborn, proud, independent bunch, and we instantly bristle at any rule by nature. Pause. Take a breath. And choose a child’s life over irritation.

Yes, it’s frustrating. Believe me, the parents of the allergy kids are frustrated, too. They dream of pb&j lunches, peanut butter candies, and Cracker Jack. You’re not alone in scrambling to find equally easy and affordable lunches to send, it’s hard for sure. But pause. Take a breath. And choose a child’s life over irritation.

I know, I know, back in our day kids didn’t have all these allergies and rules. We ran the streets and ate whatever we wanted and classrooms were filled with treats of all kinds, with nary a sign warning you to turn back if you carried forbidden candy. Research is ongoing as to why food allergies are on the rise, but I promise you this: anaphylactic reactions are not made up and they aren’t for attention. Pause. Take a breath. And choose a child’s life over irritation.

Yes, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are the favorites of MANY kids. Yes, there are some kids with sensory or other differences who will only eat peanut butter sandwiches. Their parents will work out those situations with the administrators and find a way to keep everyone safe and fed. Not everyone likes turkey and not everyone can afford a lot of alternatives. I offer complete empathy, I know. But pause. Take a breath. And choose a child’s life over irritation.

Oh yeah, I saw that meme, too. The one with sea turtles from Finding Nemo that have absolutely no relation to the statement comparing peanut butter sandwiches to vaccines. I’ve seen it a lot. It gets a lot of shares and likes, because again, people don’t like being told what to do and don’t like feeling as though their parenting choices are being taken away from them. But if you stop and think about it, parents don’t like having their children taken from them, and that’s exactly what an exposure to peanuts could cause for some. Death. Real death. Not a meme, not a grasp at straws to connect two hot-button topics and feebly justify risking an innocent child’s life. An actual process that begins with peanuts and ends with a dead child. I won’t even delve into the fallacy of the “argument”, but will point out that a family’s choice whether or not to vaccinate is not the same as fluke genetics and how parents are afforded no such freedom of choice when it comes to food allergies. Pause. Take a breath. And choose a child’s life over irritation.

No, they can’t just send them all to a special school. Life-threatening allergies are recognized by the federal government as a disability, so accommodations must be made just as dyslexia or the need for a wheelchair would require. You can’t ship off all the kids who need hearing aides or insulin. You can’t demand that the kid with vision problems be moved behind your child so they can be closer to the front because they like it so much. There are needs, plans are made, and life goes on. Food allergies are no reason to ostracize the poor child who can’t control their reaction… or at least ostracize them any farther than already sitting them alone at a table in the farthest corner of the cafeteria. Pause. Take a breath. And choose a child’s life over irritation.

You’re not wrong to be irritated. You’re not wrong to be frustrated. You’re not even wrong to not fully understand it. You are wrong, however, when you know the risk and choose to break the rules, anyway. You are not wrong for wanting to send peanut butter. You are wrong for knowing that sending peanut butter will result in the grave injury of a child. You are wrong when you weigh the life of the little girl your child sits next to and decide the Nutter Butters are worth her life. You are wrong when you see your child’s disgust at yet another ham sandwich and decide you’d rather them witness their friend stop breathing, instead.

Pause.

Take a breath.

And choose a child’s life over irritation.

No one is saying it’s easy to leave peanuts out of the classroom. No one is shrugging their shoulders and saying, “Oh well.” Your frustrations are heard, they are real. But so is death. And death will always be more important than frustration. Always. If you have any response other than agreement to that, then please find another school for your child to attend.

Maybe you’re a parent whose school is not nut-free, but your child’s class has a student with a life-threatening peanut allergy. What a disappointment, I know. Pause. Take a breath. And choose a child’s life over irritation.

Seatbelts are irritating. They rub your neck wrong and come across your chest at weird angles. Sometimes they lock up right when you’re reaching forward to change the radio station and you feel trapped! But they’re there for a reason – to keep you safe. It’s easy to forget how necessary they are when they’re rubbing and twisting and inexplicably pulling your hair, but should you ever find yourself saved by one, you look at the simple strap with gratitude and don’t mind the irritation.

Allergy rules are irritating. They make lunches and parties and snacks difficult. They change your plans and cause some uproar in routine. But they are there for a reason – to save a life. Did you know that peanut oil can remain on the skin for up to four hours, even after washing hands? That’s why you can’t sneak it into your kids’ lunch. Did you know that simply being in the same room as someone eating a Snickers can cause an anaphylactic reaction that leads to permanent brain damage or death? That’s why you can’t bring them for all but the allergic kiddo.

Pause. Take a breath. And choose a child’s life over irritation.

Go ahead, mourn peanut butter. You’re allowed to be disappointed. I’d ask that while you are examining your feelings towards Jif you explore what the other side may look like – how terrifying it must be for the parents of the child who is the cause of this policy. Man, they can’t even eat peanut butter at home. Not on the weekends. Not after school. Not at all. Those articles all over Facebook sure did make it sound like those EpiPens he carries are pretty darn expensive. I bet all the birthday parties they go to are scary. They must have spent a lot of time communicating with the school and coming up with an allergy action plan in the event of accidental exposure. They must be scared beyond belief knowing that their child’s life is in the hands of the parents packing the other kids’ lunches. Pause. Take a breath. And choose a child’s life over irritation.

When my daughter was 4, yes, only 4, the parent of another child in her preschool class called her a “weak @$$ kid”. An adult man said this of a 4-year-old child who still needs straps on her flip flops to keep them on her feet. He’d just been told that the preschool class his daughter was about to start was in a nut-free room, and no peanut products would be allowed. Even after the immensely patient teacher explained that he would rather pack a different lunch than for his child to have to witness an anaphylactic reaction, he expressed his displeasure and frustration at the “weak @$$ kid”. My blood is boiling now just remembering it, and if I hadn’t been speaking so loudly I would never have heard my own words over the rush in my ears as I spoke up from behind him. No, she’s not weak – she’ll die. She did not ask for these food allergies, science cannot yet tell us what caused these food allergies, and she can actually die from these food allergies. I sometimes wonder if he still thinks about that moment, when he got caught name-calling a helpless preschooler because he didn’t like having to pack a different lunch. I wonder if he realized the weight his irritation carried when it came to an innocent child’s life and death.

Pause.

Take a breath.

And choose a child’s life over irritation.

Please accept my apology, I do recognize and sympathize that not bringing peanuts to school is difficult. I say that without an ounce of sarcasm, it really is tough. I am sorry for the inconvenience these policies cause, truly. But I will not ever – and I suspect you would say the same – ever apologize for keeping my child safe. If you find yourself at the end of this very long post and still have thoughts forming that begin with, “But…”, then please talk with your school administrators about how you can be either transferred to another classroom or another school without peanut policies. Seriously, it’s the only safe alternative. And if you can know that your rebellion could cause the death of a child and still feel okay with sneaking a Reese’s into your child’s bag, then I’ll be happy to help you fill out the transfer paperwork.

Pause. Take a breath. And choose a child’s life over irritation.

My Child Didn’t Take a Standardized Test Yesterday So Now He’s Basically Doomed

Across my great state yesterday, 4th and 5th graders gathered into hushed classrooms with bellies full of protein-packed breakfasts and sharpened pencils at the ready. Children in younger grades had their chairs removed from their desks so that the scraping sounds wouldn’t distract students rooms away, and parents were barred from visiting the campus: it was the first day of standardized testing in Texas.

My 10-year-old woke after a good night’s sleep, ate a big breakfast, and settled in with the book of his choosing. He played with his siblings, created with Legos, and even ASKED for veggies with his lunch. He had a great day… but was not at school. I opted him out of the test.

Being a 4th grader, he’s an old pro at the STAAR, the standardized test for Texas students. He’s taken the math and reading tests before (and totally crushed them, but that’s just the mom in me needing to brag on him). He wasn’t worried about the tests and he knew they didn’t define him as a student. He was proud of both his regular grades and his previous scores and shrugged off the idea that standardized testing was stressful.

Until it became stressful.

At the beginning of the school year his teacher bragged on his writing (insert proud mom puffing her chest out here). She was very excited by his ability, his creativity – he was a good writer. We began getting examples of what the STAAR test expected in a composition, and it was clear that my boy was doing well and would score high. He could use some tweaking to get the highest possible score, but that’s what school – and the next few months – were for, helping him grow as a writer and hone his skills.

To save you the novel it would require to share all the details, it became a nightmare right after winter break. The students – 9- and 10-year-olds – were writing a new paper every day to prepare for the writing portion of the standardized test. A paper a day. Each time with a new prompt that required new creativity yet had to follow the same formula. If a child didn’t finish they were made to miss recess to keep working on their paper. The paper that was just practice. If they still didn’t finish they would have to take it home and finish it, because a new prompt awaited the next day. It started taking longer and longer for him to finish. He’d come home exhausted, in tears, stressed over not finishing a paper that was just practice, a paper that’d be thrown out in the morning so he could start all over again with another. Despite our encouragement and praises – from his parents and teachers – his self esteem took a huge hit. He felt like a terrible student that he couldn’t finish quickly. He felt like he had no ideas because it took him so long to come up with yet ANOTHER creative paper. He allowed his worth to be dictated by this repetitive practicing and completely ignored the A’s he made in all of his regular schoolwork. He has a tic disorder that only appears when he’s stressed or ill, and his face was so overtaken by tics that he struggled to make it through a sentence at times. My boy was broken. His writing suffered. Where he’d started the year bringing home papers with high grades and excellent imagery, he began handing over papers that were not finished, that were pieced together according to a formula, that had no vision, and that weren’t even a shadow of what he’d been capable of before. He handed these to me with his head down, because he knew it, too. My 10-year-old was burned out. In the 4th grade. He was exhausted, spent, suffering. I felt like a failure as a mother for having allowed it to happen, for having bought into the “Suck it up, it’s just a test” line. Not all kids respond this way, but mine did, and I had to remind myself that I am his parent, not the school district, and not the businesspeople making millions off of the test.

So I opted him out.

We spent the day together like rebels – one homeschooled kid, one kid opted out of standardized testing, and one too young to be a part of any of it. We got stares. We got smiles. And we got a lot of questions. When it became clear just how very many parents were not aware that they could opt their children out of standardized testing, I took it upon myself to post on Facebook about it. The only city in Texas that has a formal opt-out policy also has the highest percentage of families who opt out, so I decided to get the word out, as it seems the more empowered parents are the more action they take. I don’t judge those who sent their kids to school, I don’t think all kids are being damaged by the process, I just wanted to make sure parents knew they had a choice.

And, apparently, I wanted to make sure my son never succeeded in life.

There were a few comments – and some surprising “likes” on those comments – that expressed concern over his college career and his character as an adult. Yes, my 10-year-old. Who is in 4th grade. Whether those comments came from a place of well-meaning, judgement, or just being wholly ignorant, I would like to address the sentiment and make a few things clear.

He is 10. He’ll only be 10 for 6 more months, and then he’ll be 11. He does not need to be prepared for college right now. Because he’s 10. He may not even choose to go to college. But whenever that decision comes, it’s the better part of a decade away.

Not taking a standardized test does not teach a child not to take tests. They take tests all year long. They have homework and projects and book reports and quizzes, too. They must complete those and show mastery of the content. Not taking this one standardized test didn’t teach him that it’s okay to wimp out on something that’s too hard and it didn’t create a habit of avoiding tests. It was a standardized test that, at his current grade level, does not affect his grades. He’ll continue to take tests over the material he is presented throughout his school career despite having missed this one.

The idea that a single test is an indicator of future character is absurd. My job as his parent goes a lot deeper and longer than a single test. Me standing up for him when something gets to be too much does not teach him he doesn’t have to deal with hard things – it teaches him that his parents support him. It teaches him that it’s okay to say “no” to something that isn’t good for you. It teaches him that sometimes when everyone else is doing something, that doesn’t mean you should, too. It teaches him that he can come to us when he’s faced with another hard issue, and it teaches him that he can trust us to help him through it. Not taking one test out of hundreds will not make him a flake, it will not relegate him to a lifetime of looking to mommy to fix his problems, and it does not render him powerless against difficulty. Character is an ongoing education in our home, one that gets a lot more time and attention than a single standardized test.

It’s “just a test” to you, but your experience only counts with one person – you. There really are children with anxiety disorders. There really are children with the inability to write what their brains tell them. There really are kids who can’t sit still for 4 hours. There really are kids who don’t understand the instructions. There really are kids who can’t see the instructions. There really are kids whose stomachs growl with hunger. There really are kids who have failed to meet the requirements multiple times and are terrified they’ll be held back a grade. There are countless children – identified and otherwise – who have an entirely different experience when it comes to standardized testing, who approach the packet with hurdles already placed before them. Your great fortune in overcoming nerves or never knowing them at all does not dismiss their very real experiences.

This is not 1997. The tests aren’t what they were when I took them. They’ve gotten harder, are riddled with grammatical and grading issues, and come with millions of unseen strings that tie teachers’ jobs and salaries to students’ performance… on ONE test. The stakes are higher, the tests are harder, the prep is more intense, and it is comparing apples to dragonfruit when we try to compare our own standardized testing experiences to those of children today.

Nobody really asked you. That was harsh, wasn’t it? Sorry about that, but it’s true. At the end of the day, no parent needs the permission of another or the blessing of your opinion to decide if they want to opt their child out of a test. Really. You don’t have to like it – they didn’t ask you to. You don’t have to agree with it – you’re welcome to send your kids with their number two pencils to take any test you wish. You’re more than free to feel passionately – and I pray you DO! But your passions are not my guide, and I’ll raise my child how I see fit, thankyouverymuch.

Standardized testing has nothing to do with college. Nothing. Colleges don’t request STAAR scores. To my knowledge there are no scholarships offered based on STAAR scores (especially to 4th graders). Are there tests in college? Sure. There are also tests in elementary, middle, and high school, all covering the material that was taught… like college. In fact, those tests are much more like the ones college students will face than a STAAR test. Valedictorians aren’t chosen from STAAR scores, standardized test scores don’t get you extra cords at graduation, and I really hope there are no fraternities that base membership on a 4th grade writing test. I don’t even think Jostens has a STAAR logo you can put on your senior ring…

The same people who are saying it’s only a test are the ones making dark predictions about the weight of the test. If it’s only a test, then what’s the big deal about missing it? If it’s only a test, it can’t possibly determine what type of adult he’ll be, right? If it’s only a test, then there’s no way his college career will be completely derailed by it, right? If it’s only a test, then it’s nowhere near as important as my SON, and I choose him every time. And if you think that “just a test” dictates the entire academic future of a child, then what is the purpose of school? It can’t be something that’s both easily shrugged off and fatefully guiding us at the same time.

At the end of this very long post, he’s still only 10. He loves his Rubik’s cubes, drawing on graph paper, playing board games, wrestling with his brother, laughing at movies. He’s growing taller by the day and thinks the little blonde hairs on his legs are very manly. He snuggles me on the couch, his table manners are questionable, and farts are the funniest thing in the world to him (though I’m pretty sure that’s not age-specific). He’s 10. He’s still a boy. There is no need to prepare him for adulthood, for college, right now. There is no need to push him beyond where is healthy for him to go. There IS a need to stand up for him and protect him from what’s not okay, from what’s harmful to him. He has the rest of his life to be an adult, I don’t need to push him towards it when he’s just barely reached double digits. Not that standardized testing has anything to do with being a functional adult, only that there is no need to push him towards something that will happen eventually, anyway. Missing this one test does not disqualify him from future success or doom him to a lifetime of watching old 90’s FOX reruns in the dark while eating potted meat from the can. He’s 10. We live in a developed society that allows him to be 10 and not worry about tilling fields or getting the black lung down in the coal mines. He’s not being prepared for adulthood, he’s being allowed a childhood.

At the end of the day, he went to bed. He wasn’t fearful about his future, I didn’t get any recruiters calling to cancel their visits, and knowledge didn’t tumble out of his head. He didn’t take a test. A very expensive stack of paper sits in a box, leftover because he wasn’t there to break the seal on it. The world will keep spinning, he will keep learning, and everything will be okay. I don’t regret our decision – in fact, I feel more sure of it than ever. We will face tomorrow – and any other tests, academic or otherwise – how we faced today: together.

How to Treat Fat People

Airplanes, buses, trains, movie theaters – there are endless places where you may find yourself seated next to a fat person. I’ve talked about it time and again here – I’m a big woman. Plus-sized. Curvy. Overweight. I’m fat. We as a nation tend to shy away from using the word “fat” when we’re describing someone we love. We flinch at it, it makes us uncomfortable, we dismiss the word and tell them that of course they’re not fat. Just big. Or plus-sized. Or curvy. “Fat” carries with it a negative connotation, it’s used in comments sections to put people down, dismiss them, describe them, always in a bad way. It’s just something on a person’s body, literally everyone’s body, just in different amounts. Like freckles or hairs. But because weight is hard to hide and obesity is rising, I feel compelled, as a fat person, to offer the world this in-depth guide from the inside on how to treat someone like myself, a fat person.

Step 1: Treat them like you would any other human being.

That’s pretty much it. Taking up more space does not mean they’re worth less.

While I get the occasional creepy Facebook message from guys who fetishize big women, I also get to see the thousands of comments every day all over social media left by people who are disgusted by fat people. Their actual words, they’re disgusted. Why? Because a human being dares to look differently than they’d prefer. Do you want to date or marry every person you’re kind to on a daily basis? The person you held the door for, are you harboring a deeply-rooted love for them? Did you profess your feelings to the person you smiled at across from you at the restaurant? Have you entered into long-term relationships with every stranger you’ve encountered without turning your nose up in disgust? No? Then why do people have to make themselves attractive for you to be nice to them? Why must someone conform to your physical ideals to not be reviled?

They don’t.

If you think your lower numbers on the scale or higher numbers in the gym make you a better person – or worse, assign you more worth – then the problem isn’t my weight, it’s your heart.

“Ah, Jen, I’m glad you brought up the heart. Obesity is so bad for you – ”

I’m gonna stop you right there. This is not a post to celebrate or encourage obesity. This is not a post where I justify my weight. Search it line by line, and you will find no excuses, justifications, or fact-ignoring celebrations. This is purely and entirely about treating people with kindness. If you react with anything that resembles a, “yeah, but…”, then you don’t get the point and should start back up at the top. Repeat as many times as necessary.

But since we’re on the topic, I’ll let you in on a little secret, something we keep hidden deep in the bowels of Lane Bryant – fat people do not have to justify their choices to you. Ever. Period. Not caloric intake. Not activity levels. Nothing. Overweight people are not dumb. They are not ignorant to the medical research on obesity any more than they are to your stares and snickers. (Yes, the snickers pun was intentional.) Every single time a fat person visits a doctor, for literally any ailment, they must first spend at least 20 minutes going around and around with their doctor over their weight. Truly. Got a headache? Well if you’re fat, good luck getting your doctor to look past your waistband. There is no greater population of people that must justify their right to be heard by a doctor. So we get it, we’ve heard it, extra weight is hard on your body. No one person in an internet comments section is the messiah of skinny news, you will not bring to them the sudden realization through your “concern” that losing weight would be healthier. Suggesting diets is not helpful. Asking an obese person if they’ve tried exercise is a lot like asking a person struggling with infertility if they’ve tried conceiving. Messaging someone about a miracle product you’re selling is just plain rude and bad internet etiquette. And heck, if you’re really so concerned about someone dying sooner, then be NICE to them with the little time they apparently have left. Shaming anyone for something on their body isn’t just cruel, it shows an incredible lack of intelligence. Really, the most obvious thing about me is the only thing you could think to talk about? Teach your kids to see the person and not the size, to describe people as, “That man in the blue shirt,” instead of “that big fat guy over there.”  They’ll be better friends – and writers – for it. While we’re on the topic, please don’t teach your children that eating too much will cause them to get fat. That’s really not the whole truth. Genetics, conditions, hormones, medications, injuries, depression, and yes, food choices, can all play a part in the amount of jiggle in someone’s wiggle. Diet and exercise are not secrets that have been kept from fat people. Most of the fat people I know diet and exercise more than the average-sized people in my life. Keep your regiments to yourself and don’t assume that just because a person looks a certain way that they aren’t working on it – or even that they don’t want to look like that.

J.K. Rowling said once, “Is fat really the worst thing a human being can be? Is fat worse than vindictive, jealous, shallow, vain, boring, evil, or cruel? Not to me.”

While there is more of me, there’s also more to me. I have two degrees, and graduated with a 4.0 GPA. I have three kids. I can quote a mind-boggling number of movies and every episode of Friends. My husband is my best friend. I get really excited really easily. I used to want to be a professional whistler. I love to laugh, write, create. I love costume jewelry and leopard print. I can sing the 50 states song in about 40 seconds. I’m terrified of aquatic plants. I am certified to SCUBA dive down to 60 feet in open water, and want to someday swim with sharks. I play the trumpet. In high school I sang with the men’s choir at UIL competition – and the women’s. I’m an insomniac, a history buff, true-crime fanatic, and a friend. I’m not the most interesting person in the world, but the outside of me does not even come close to how much more there is of me on the inside.

Do I have thyroid problems? Hormonal imbalances? Injuries, medications, genetics, or snacking habits that have led me to become overweight? I don’t have to tell. I don’t have to justify my size. For a long time I have, and out of insecurity I sometimes still will, but really, no one, from the petite to the pudgy, has to justify their size to you. To anyone. No one’s meals, no one’s choices need your approval. My weight does not define me, but your words do clearly advertise who you are. No one, not the most morbidly obese person in the stretchiest of pants with the biggest of plates, deserves to be treated with any less respect. You don’t have to marry them, you don’t have to date them, you don’t have to befriend them, but you are not entitled, ever, to elevate yourself over them with your disgust.

Treat everyone kindly. That’s really it.

So What Now?

I won’t lie and say this will be my one and only post about the election. If you’re my friend on Facebook then you probably just laughed at that first sentence. If you’re my friend in real life then you definitely fell off your seat in hysterics. I’m not interested in debating politics, the electoral college, candidates, or platforms. I’m not interested in who you voted for and I’m not going to announce who I voted for. That part is over. What I’m talking about, what is causing my heart to ache, what is flying around my head faster than my hands can type is the aftermath. What happens now.

Tuesday night a large portion of our country sat in disbelief, shock. Wednesday night a large portion of our country fumed in anger. And now on Thursday, I see an enormous portion of our country even more divided than they were on Monday. Relationships that made it all the way through the particularly vicious election cycle are crumbling. Respectable people resorting to name-calling. Hurting people being dismissed, innocent people being accused and attacked. The numbers don’t lie: our country is deeply divided. The arguments, words, fights, even violence that have erupted in the wake of our election are a more painful illustration of it.

But what few are realizing in their zeal to defend their vote is that either way we would be having these arguments. No matter which candidate won, our country was not going to be healed by the declaration of one person’s name.

Racism has been alive in our country for centuries. Sexism has been a problem always. In my white suburban bubble I was able to believe that racism really wasn’t around anymore, but after 8 years with a black president, countless terrorist attacks, and to be honest, a lifetime of living in a border state, I’ve had to admit something ugly: racism is very much alive. As a woman, well, I’ll tell you that I never doubted gender inequality and misogyny.

Racism and sexism do not happen overnight. Ableism does not happen overnight. Phobias and hatred are not formed overnight. And they are not cured overnight. No matter whose name was announced as our next president, these things were not going to disappear. One leader does not make those kinds of changes. WE DO.

We the people, we speak up. We the people, we defend. We the people, we make change. If we are willing to defend our vote then we must be willing to defend each other. We have to use the same determination we had walking into the polling booth to walk up to a bully and say “no more”. We have to have the same fire within us in person as we do on social media. It’s a huge responsibility, change. These cancers did not pop up because of a candidate and a president will not be the one on the ground to treat them. It’s up to us, regardless of who we voted for, of who we have in charge, the responsibility has not changed: we have to make this country better. Our job would be no different today with a different president. Our job today is the same as it was Monday, as it was in 2012, 2008, 1980, and before. A different president-elect would not lessen our burden to effect change around us.

So I beg of you, friends, accept your responsibility. My conservative friends, people are genuinely afraid, genuinely hurting, and just because you don’t understand or agree with it doesn’t make it any less real. My liberal friends, all hope is not lost and the country is not as hateful as you fear – someone’s vote is not all there is to them and is rarely about what you may think. My white friends, we have the opportunity every day to listen, extend a bridge, and stand up for those who don’t look like us. My friends of color, I can never pretend to imagine how you’re feeling, but I can tell you that you have allies and support, more than you may feel you have right now.

This is not intended to bash or endorse either candidate. This is my first election cycle I’ve experienced without having loyalty a political party, and it’s been awkward to say the least. I’ve mourned, grieved for our country, for months, as someone in between all the screams and ideas and anger and pain I have no answer but love. With feet in all political camps I can tell you that there is no one answer, there is no one candidate who would leave everyone pleased, there is no one person who will unite us. Fiscal policy, foreign policy, education policy, healthcare policy, guns, abortion, marijuana, religion, race, gender, rights…. we will never all agree on all of these issues, but we are all capable of love. We can listen with love rather than listen with comebacks. We can attempt empathy. We can quiet ourselves long enough to hear the other. We can not allow ourselves to stereotype or generalize or name-call. We can approach one another with love and correct to teach, not to win. We can make change happen.

Our job remains the same, regardless of the winner, regardless of our skin color, regardless of our religion, socioeconomic status, gender, or political beliefs. Our job is to rid our country of hatred. It has always been our job, and hopefully someday we’ll work ourselves out of it. Hopefully we’ll be so good at our jobs that our kids won’t have to inherit them. Let’s stop putting our blame and our hopes into a candidate and accept our own responsibility to make this a better place. Sexism was not going to disappear if a woman were chosen as our president. Racism did not disappear when a black man was chosen as our president. Ableism is only JUST becoming recognized. There’s a quote that is sometimes attributed to Benjamin Franklin: “The US Constitution doesn’t guarantee happiness, only the pursuit of it. You have to catch up with it yourself.”  We the people have a lot of work to do, and the sooner we stop fighting with each other, the sooner we can get started.