How to Make a Difference without a Platform, a Pulpit, or Political Office

Last term, I had my writing class listen to a speech given by Elie Wiesel called The Perils of Indifference, which he gave as part of the Millennium Lecture series at the White House. While some students nodded off to the hypnotic sound of Wiesel’s  voice, he held me captive as he recounted what it felt like to lose hope as a victim of the Holocaust, to feel less than human, to feel God and the world had turned their back on his suffering.

In the speech, he speaks of his time in a concentration camp, saying,

“…we felt abandoned, forgotten. All of us did. And our only miserable consolation was that we believed that Auschwitz and Treblinka were closely guarded secrets; that the leaders of the free world did not know what was going on behind those black gates and barbed wire…”

He goes on to say that the Jews later discovered how many people in power and of privilege knew about the atrocities and did nothing. It was this doing nothing, this indifference to the pain of others, that helped perpetuate the wickedness of the Holocaust.

Wiesel says, “Indifference, after all, is more dangerous than anger and hatred…Even hatred at times may elicit a response. You fight it. You denounce it. You disarm it. Indifference elicits no response. Indifference is not a response.”

Indifference is not a response.

Indifference is evil’s accomplice: it dehumanizes and extinguishes hope when the suffering need it most.

Sitting in a stuffy classroom filled with sleepy-eyed students, this speech acted as a mirror to my own half-hearted approach to suffering. When I held it up to myself, I saw that I am guilty of indifference in so many areas of my life. It’s easy to abhor the evil present in the obvious–in the Holocaust or the Rohingyan genocide or any number of vile and violent crimes we see on our tv screens daily. I’ve convinced myself I would never be an active participant in obvious evil.

And yet, after listening to Wiesel’s speech, I had to ask myself, what am I supporting through my indifference? How am I allowing racism to take root or misogyny to flourish? Where am I lacking in compassion to the other, the immigrant, the poor? How am I hurting rather than helping?

Compassion is the antidote to indifference. It compels us to take action.

I’ve taken a hard look at my own lack of action and wondered where to begin. Over the last year, I’ve felt a sense of increasing urgency to resist the systems and places of power that perpetuate anything that is antithetical to the life of Jesus. This has been an uncomfortable unveiling of my own soul and also my illusions about the western church and my own country.

Where to begin?

I am tired of the pervasive evil I see on the news. I am tired of the endless debates on social media. I am tired of my own indifference. And yet, I’m not a natural crusader or eloquent speaker or political powerhouse. I’m a mom, a writer, a teacher, an introvert. I am, at times, timid. Can you relate? I don’t think I’m alone in wondering where I can make a difference.

I don’t have the “right” answers, but I do have a few steps that may help you take your first steps out of timidity and silence and into action.

Recognize our indifference

Listen to Wiesel’s speech. Hold it up like a mirror, and ask yourself hard questions about who stares back at you.

Lead with compassion

Compassion compels us to action. We need only look at the life of Jesus to know this is true.

Identify one area in which you’d like to move from indifference to action

What stirs you to tears? What makes anger rise up like a flame? Let these lead you. You can’t and won’t change the world overnight. What is one area of injustice you would like to see change? Take a step in the direction of your tears and anger. Like arrows, they will point you.

Start with small steps towards change

The weight of other’s suffering can keep us in a state of inertia. It feels overwhelming when faced with the magnitude of the problem. Rather than focusing on the problem as a whole, focus on what you can do. What small step can you take this month to invite change? Could you make a phone call? Sign a petition? Donate your pocket change? Could you tell a like-minded friend and ask them to help you discern your next small step? Could you have a difficult conversation? Write a letter? Create?

For those of us who won’t hold political office or stand in a pulpit or write a newspaper expose, let’s value the quiet, consistent work of compassion. We make a difference when we recognize the structure of systemic injustice, and we set about to dismantle it pebble by pebble, brick by brick.

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What Do You Want Me to Know About You?

“What do you want me to know about you?”

I slipped this question into a string of far easier ones. What’s your name, do you have a laptop, what are you into, then I asked them the question that unzips their chest, the one that reveals something of the heart beneath.

I asked the question after completing a semester in which one student repeatedly lied to me about his absences, another dealt with a recurring illness, and another sat buried under the weight of financial problems. Unaware, I scribbled grades in my ledger and shook my head at what appeared to be a lack of commitment. In reality, these students carried more than books into the classroom, they carried their secret lives and personal struggles in with them too.

I am good at making assumptions. In fact, I’m so good at it, I could teach a class on how to place my life experience like a mask over the face of everyone I meet. I forget that my privileged, white, well-loved existence is not the norm for many, many people. It’s easy to dismiss the hidden pain in others when I keep my own pain hidden so well, even I must take a pick axe to my soul to find it.

I rifled through the sheaf of papers, and the answers to “What do you want me to know about you?” fluttered about and landed on my desk. At eighteen, some kids carry more than I ever imagined. And these are just the answers they were willing to share with me. I know there are buried things. I know because I have buried things too.

As I read the answers, I felt like Saul after his encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus. Saul, when blindness shuttered the light, but after the scales fell from his eyes, he was left with second sight. Revelation entered and he took on a new name, a new purpose, a new sight.

It takes second sight to see through the surface to the life pulsing beneath. I have found that the best way to peel the scales from my own eyes is to ask good questions, and listen for what is both spoken and unspoken in the answers. This is easier in the controlled environment of a classroom, I’m still learning how to ask good questions and leave space for the answers wherever my feet take me.

It seems like such a small thing: to ask the best and not assume the worst of other people. But, when I turn the question around to myself, I see I am an iceberg floating in still waters. To the untrained eye, I am serenity above, but so much of my life is submerged beneath the surface. What does it take for me to tell the truth and say, “This is what you need to know about me.” ?

It takes faith, and it takes good questions. This is a skill I am still perfecting, but when the scales of assumption and judgement fall from my eyes, I see clearly what was once invisible. I see we’re all waiting for someone to deep dive below the surface, and look on our submerged selves with kindness.

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A Beautiful Life: On Envy and the Search for Uncommon Beauty

“In what ways can you see that your unremarkable life is uncommonly beautiful?”

In the dark hours of early morning, I let this question roll around in my heart like marbles in a pocket. I sat with my devotional across my lap, overlooking the dim glow of my neighbor’s window, as I thought about my answer. While I often find my everyday life to be unremarkable, especially when I’m strapped in the driver’s seat of the family car or standing in the queue with a cart full of groceries, I also know it has been marked by uncommon experiences and exceptional beauty. I’d be a fool not to acknowledge it.

During our years living abroad in Europe, I spent weekends wandering the Louvre in Paris. I took afternoon tea at the local tea shop in my quaint London village. I ran miles and miles in the foothills of the Alps through deep conifer forests. Each long run culminated in the tiny village where Joanna Spyri wrote the book Heidi, where a view of white peaks scraped the sky from the cafe at Spyri Garten.

I stood in awe of my own life as my muscles twitched and my chest heaved. I breathed it in like a woman aching for air to inflate her lungs–lungs long deprived of oxygen.

I have lived uncommon beauty. I know the feel of it against my skin, the spark and stir of it in my soul. It was a remarkable life. Beauty-full. Filled with art and travel and history, and accompanying all of these treasures, the feeling that somehow I was living the life intended for me. It was unique. It was different than the unremarkable life I left behind.

I write this not to brag, not to say “look at me”, or to stir envy. I write this because the romance of beauty and the longing for a remarkable life is my great weakness. I often struggle to see the subtle beauty of the unremarkable life right in front of me because I know the difference between a weekend cleaning out my basement in suburban New Jersey and a weekend walking twisted cobblestone streets in England.

I am envious, and my envy is directed at a former version of me.

As I sat that morning with my thoughts drawn to uncommon beauty, I immediately returned to the times in my life when I have lived in places of the most tangible, physical beauty. But, of course, this was not the question. The question was where am I finding beauty in my unremarkable life, the life I’m living right now.

I scribbled down these words, “My unremarkable life is beautiful because it is a life marked by love.”

There is an ease, a peace, and a rightness that comes with knowing one is fully loved. I am loved, and this is the most beautiful thing about my life, regardless of whether my kitchen window frames a view of the Alps or the crushed brown grass of a winter-weary meadow.

Envy of my former self could blind me to the joy of today.

I’d like to ask this same question of you: “In what ways can you see that your unremarkable life is uncommonly beautiful?”

Sit with this for a while. Let it roll around, let the words clink and clatter against one another. Perhaps you will return to the time when your face held the fresh bloom of youth, or your physical strength was at its peak. Maybe your thoughts will wander to the time when you were still married, or you lived in the perfect home, or your job set you on fire with passion every week.

Feel gratitude for those days, the ones filled with such obvious beauty. But let the envy for your former life slip through the door and join those memories. What are the intangibles that make your life beautiful today? Right now, in the exact place where you sit and read these words. What are the tangibles, the things you can stroke with an eye or a finger?

Invite the questions, your curiosity, and your memories to join you. Beauty is sure to follow.

 

*Note: The devotional mentioned can be found here.

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Loving What Matters

The new year approached through a haze of fairy lights, family noise, and Nyquil. It fought through mounds of wrapping paper. It curled past feverish bodies and thick knit blankets. It rose with the flames licking the brick in the fireplace.

Everywhere I looked in my sniffling, sick state, the new year met me.

When I tried to grasp it, hold it up to the light, and turn it over in my hands, it disappeared. A moment of clarity and vision for the year would arrive, and then dissipate like smoke as soon as I lay claim to it.

To read the rest of the story about learning how to hold tight to the things that matter, join me at Grace Table.

Simple Practices for Reflecting on the New Year: A Guide for Dreamers

I’ve never been one for grand New Year’s resolutions or sequestered days of goal setting. The words “power sheets” make me want to curl up under a blanket and wait, cozy and hidden until spring. However, I do recognize the need to reflect on the past and dream into the future.

I’m a romantic, so my dreaming often takes the form of high and lofty (mostly unattainable) goals. Every year, I imagine our family moving to Paris where I become a prolific writer, fluent French speaker, and fashion icon. In Paris, my husband cooks an exquisite meal every evening, and we visit the Louvre on weekends.

In reality, year after year I find myself turning the calendar pages in New Jersey where I wear pilled and faded leggings, drive hundreds of miles through the sameness of the suburbs, and spend my free time roaming the aisles at Target. My husband asks pointed questions about the type of salt I’m using to boil the pasta and why I under-shredded the crock-pot chicken.

Clearly, there is an overwhelming gap between my imagined life and my real one. This gap, between the real and the imagined, is where I’ve learned to focus my energy over the coming year.

Power sheets aside, I do enjoy having a loose plan to help me move forward into a new year or new season. Without one, my default is a slow slide into acedia–a listlessness and dissatisfaction with life–which prevents me from accomplishing the slow, steady work of my hands.

If you find yourself at odds with the goal-driven, intention-setting, productivity-motivated people among us, you’re in the right place. If you find there is a disconnect between the romanticized version of your life and your real one, I’m here for you.

As January approaches, I follow these simple steps to help me envision the coming months for myself and my family.

Review the Past Year

Read through previous journals:

I look to the past before I look to the future. Sometime between Christmas and the New Year, I sit down with the previous year’s journal and skim the pages. I look for highlights, lowlights, and emotional threads. I pay particular attention to patterns of thought and behavior. If I continually wrestle with the same feelings or experiences, then I make note of this as an area where I need to consider change.

I take a deep look at my entries for the previous December and January, reading through my dreams and “goals” for the year to see where I hit the mark and where I missed it. Again, patterns often emerge (aside from the longing for an impossible life in Paris). Where I find myself dreaming of the same ideals, or struggling with the same problems, I pay attention.

Scroll through the year’s photos:

I’m a regular photographer of daily life, so I use my camera roll and my instagram feed as another form of remembrance and review. I’m aware of the tendency for many people to filter their lives in their photographs in such a way that it barely resembles the one they’re actually living, meaning it’s merely a highlight reel.

But, I become easily bogged down in the monotony of my daily activities. I need the highlight reel to remind me that I don’t live a life defined by the simple tasks I accomplish, but I live a life defined by beauty.

I’m always surprised at how beautiful my life is in photographs, and I suspect yours is too. The photos of my daughter celebrating graduation, my son running a race, my youngest smiling for her first day of school, and my husband snuggled on the sofa with our pup are just as real and lovely and full of beauty as the photos of our family posing amid the terra-cotta colored hoodoos in Bryce Canyon.

It’s all real. The mundane, the extraordinary, the capstone, the celebratory, the everyday: It’s all part of abundant living.

This year, I created an instagram story recapping my year in photos and it was one of my favorite mini-projects of the season. It served two purposes: reflecting and creating, two of my favorite pastimes.

Envision the Year to Come

Imagine:

This is my version of goal-setting for dreamers. I shed all of my pre-conceived notions and the limitations of my everyday life, and I dream on the page. I sit down and write what my life would look like if I could craft it from scratch without any of my current limitations (real or perceived).

In order to do this, I need to know what my dream truly is and what I consider limitations. My limits are almost always self-imposed–fear, hesitation, procrastination,etc. Sometimes they stem from budgeting issues, scheduling conflicts, or gender role expectations. I never consider my family life a limitation–it’s the best thing about my reality, and my family is present in my mind as I dream on paper.

Once I have imagined this state of utter perfection (see: husband cooking à la Julia Child in Paris), I begin to consider the things that actually do limit me from living the life I imagine. It is here, in the chasm between dream-life and real-life, that the New Year forms in secret and grows to fruition.

As I hold each limitation to the light, I ask how I can make small changes to help me live a life that holds the essence of what I imagine. While I may never write world-renowned works of fiction from an artist’s garret with a view of Sacré Coeur, I can take steps in my everyday life to live the life of an artist. I define what I desire most, using the language of my current situation.

Ask questions that lead to action:

What do you most desire? What is the essence of this longing? How can you define it in the language of your everyday life?

I ask questions like these to lead me towards taking action. Once I’ve defined what I truly want, I begin to see how it’s possible to make subtle and sometimes big changes that lead to a life of congruence–where my inside matches my outside. This isn’t a “drink more water, work out 5 times a week” kind of situation. It’s a look at the bigger picture, which in turn, helps me to start the New Year creating beauty right where I’m standing.

Prayer:

This may seem to be a small footnote, but it’s the most important part of the process. I invite Jesus to enter into my dreaming with me. I need the mind of Christ, a holy imagination, for the year ahead and the changes He wants to make in and through me.

A New Year’s Reflection for Dreamers takes time and intention, but it requires nothing more than acts of remembrance, your fertile imagination, and prayer. If the thought of smart goals, resolutions, and power sheets weigh heavy on your soul, then perhaps these simple practices I use will help you draw closer to a life marked by beauty, creativity, and dreams re-imagined for daily living.