What Everybody Ought to Know About Self-Reflection

I don’t know what I’m like. I get glimpses of myself in other people’s eyes. I try to be careful whom I use as a mirror.” – Madeleine L’Engle, A Circle of Quiet

Last month I flew out to Portland, Oregon to speak at the Faith and Culture Writers Conference. Many of you know this. What you don’t know is that I almost said no to that opportunity. Here’s why.

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I didn’t think I was going to be the kind of person they would like.

I had never been to Portland before, never met many of the people I knew would be there. I thought maybe they would be young, cool, hipsters and I would be not those things. Maybe I’m the Kenneth Parcell to their Liz Lemon, the Jessica Day to their Nick’s-girlfriend-Julia, the Hallmark Channel to their HBO.

Maybe they write brilliantly about social justice and politics and living among the poor and other important issues. And I write from my home office in my quiet cul-de-sac about creating space for your soul to breathe.

On a good day I know what I write matters. But not all days are good days.

When I was invited to speak at the Faith and Culture Writers conference, I hesitated.

Is it possible for me – one person – to speak at both a conference hosted by the Proverbs 31 Ministries in the Bible Belt of Charlotte, North Carolina as well as the Faith and Culture Writers Conference in Portland, Oregon?

Where do I fit? What if I choose one group and they find out I’m not actually one of them?

What if I’m fooling everyone after all, including myself?

“Here we are, living in a world of ‘identity crises’ and most of us have no idea what an identity is. Half the problem is that an identity is something which must be understood intuitively, rather than in terms of provable fact.” – Madeleine L’Engle, A Circle of Quiet

As often happens when I’m wrestling through these kinds of things, I asked Kendra all of these questions (and many more) as I struggled with this inner tension. She listened and became a mirror for me. And somewhere in that reflection, I saw Jesus.

She reminded me that my job is to listen to Jesus and then to act. She reminded me my job is to be myself no matter who else is there.

The words I share are not only for one particular group, but for anyone who wants to come to the table and sit on my bench. And their words are for me, too.

I’m gentle by nature, I like funny TV, I think deeply about Jesus, faith, culture, grace, and people. I write to know what I think about things, but I don’t write down everything I think about.

I share my life on the internet. I am deeply private.

I often wish I was more naturally lighthearted. Instead I have to work at it.

As it turns out, I don’t have to define myself. I simply have to be myself.

“An infinite question is often destroyed by finite answers. To define everything is to annihilate much that gives us laughter and joy.” – Madeleine L’Engle, A Circle of Quiet

And so I said yes to speaking at this writers conference in Portland. I settled within myself that I belong even though I’m not a cool hipster or a rabble rouser or a policy maker but because I am in Christ. And the gracious people there, they proved those words were true.

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We came together from different backgrounds and life experiences, but isn’t that always how a group of people come together, no matter how alike we may seem on the outside?

I confess my tendency to try to see myself through someone else’s eyes. I also confess how terrible I am at it.

But every now and then you have the opportunity to do this, to see yourself through someone else’s eyes because they use words to say what they think of you.

That happened last week, as Faith and Culture Writer’s Conference attendee Esther Emory wrote a post about me.

That’s not actually true at all. Her beautiful post was about her; about her perspectives and impressions and her own spiritual formation. But there was some of me in there, too, and within the post she offered her honest opinions and impressions of me, some I understood and others that surprised me.

When I saw my name in the post title, I braced myself. I’ve been written about on the internet before. It isn’t always kind.

“But we aren’t always careful of our mirrors. I’m not . . . I’ve looked for an image in someone else’s mirror, and so have avoided seeing myself.”

- Madeleine L’Engle, A Circle of Quiet

I met Esther for the first time at the conference. When we spoke, I saw her as brave, grown up, confident, kind, and smart. (In her post she called me ‘bucolic’ and I had to look up the word — twice — because I didn’t know what it meant. Insert cry laugh face.)

When I met her, I immediately liked her. I walked away from our short conversation wishing we had more time to spend together but also questioning all the words I used. I’m an introvert. Why do I use so many words when I talk to people? Dear Emily. Say. Less. Words.

When I read her post, I saw her words as a vulnerable gift, as they reflect a soul that’s similar to my own even though our lives are different. I do what she does, too. I form other people’s opinions of me for them too.

I shut people out and lock myself in even though I know better.

This post is tough to write because it feels so painfully self-absorbed. It is that, I admit. But it’s also true I think many of you can relate. Don’t we all question where we fit and how we’re perceived? Don’t we all protect the lingering child, longing for security, acceptance, and love? Don’t we all hope for connection but often choose protection instead?

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“The people I know who are the most concerned about their individuality, who probe constantly into motives, who are always turned inwards toward their own reactions, usually become less and less individual, less and less spontaneous, more and more afraid of the consequences of giving themselves away.”

 – Madeleine L’Engle, A Circle of Quiet

Here’s one thing I know: sometimes self-reflection gets in the way. Not the kind I do in the presence of Christ – no that’s the important kind. But the kind I practice while I looking the mirror or in your eyes or at your reactions? That kind gets in the way of the gospel in me. If I spend too much time trying to define myself, it’s easy to forget that I’m free.

We are free to holler with the world changers.

We are free to ponder with the contemplatives.

We are free to campaign with the activists and be still with the liturgists.

We are free to be quiet and free to be loud.

We are free to live in the center, on the side, or in the back.

We are free to go.

We are free to stay home.

We are free to linger and to leave early.

We are free to dream big and free to dream small.

We are free to draw boundaries and free to change our minds.

There’s room at the table for Liz Lemon and Kenneth Parcell.

We are free. We are free. We are free.

On Learning to Leave Things Behind

Sometimes you need a lot more margin than you plan for and last week was one of those times for me. I went dark online as I prepared to serve at a conference here in my hometown.

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I fight this inability to multi-task better. I mean, I had two babies at once! I could make grocery lists and nurse babies and breathe all at the same time. I am a professional multi-tasker. But when it comes to writing a talk to deliver to local women I know and love, the preparation took on a life of it’s own. And that life was bigger and heavier and more all-consuming than I expected.

Part of it was that I was hopeful and the other part was that I felt afraid. Before I could embrace the hope part, Jesus and I needed to work through my fearful obsession with myself.

There have been some things I’ve been holding on to for many years, hurts and expectations of myself that, though I’m not sure exactly where they have come from, I definitely know they need to go.

One catalyst for this letting go came several weeks ago as I watched the live-stream, along with many of you, of Christine Caine speaking at the IF Gathering in Austin. Something she said poked  me awake.

“If the horse is dead, it’s time to dismount.”

I have many dead horses I’ve been trying to ride and when I heard these words, I sensed a quiet whisper – or, more accurately, the voice of a tiny Australian woman – inviting me to let some things fall gently away. Like the Dowager Countess on Downton Abbey said to Edith, “You must learn to leave some things behind.”

The last several weeks have been for me a tangible practice of learning to leave some things behind.

Now that the conference is past, I’m looking back thankful for the opportunity to speak, but more I’m overwhelmed with gratitude for the kind, talented, prayerful women who I’m a privileged to call friends here in Greensboro. I’m thankful for the lessons they have taught and are teaching me, about love, support, prayer, and friendship.

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I hope to settle back into a rhythm of writing and yoga and hanging my clothes up instead of flinging them all over my room like Nellie Olsen. And hopefully the movement will be a little lighter this week as I’ve decided to leave some heavy burdens behind.

How to Have Eyes Outside Your Body

We stand for the sending song at the end of the service and I stare down at my shoes, remembering how I’m wearing my son’s socks this morning. Reaching up to tuck a stray lock of hair behind my ear, it hits me: Everyone else has a better idea of what my hair looks like from behind than I do.

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You thought this was going to be a serious post, didn’t you?

I allow myself a minute to follow this childlike (childish?) train of thought and realize it’s not only my hair, but really everything about the way we look is more familiar to other people than it is to us. 

I don’t watch myself laugh in a mirror.

I don’t know what I look like when I’m angry.

I can’t recognize fear on my own face.

I’m still shocked when I see photos of my profile. Shocked, I tell you.

It’s why we get all weird when we see ourselves on video or when we hear our own voice on voicemail. I look like that? I sound like that?

Sometimes I’m surprised when someone comes up from behind me and says hi. I’m all, But how did you know it was me? I wasn’t even facing you!

Like a child playing peekaboo, I still secretly believe people won’t recognize me when I’m wearing sunglasses.

As familiar as I am with myself, I’m on the inside looking out. And though my knowledge of myself is thorough, it isn’t complete. I need other people to help me see myself fully.

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And so we sit across small tables in coffee shops and dare to ask curious questions. We let ourselves say what we really think rather than what we’re supposed to think.

We turn ourselves around and whisper expectantly, will you just tell me honestly what my hair really looks like back there? 

Our friends, they show us what we can’t see.

While we are the ever experts at highlighting our own weaknesses, shortcomings, and inabilities, our friends reflect back beauty.

They remind us who we really are.

They remind us we don’t have to do this alone.

They are the eyes outside our bodies.

I’m learning to trust what they see.

And just when that feels too risky and vulnerable, remember they don’t know what their hair looks like, either.

Oh, how desperately we need each other and how often I forget.

Join me on The Bench tomorrow where I’ll share in my monthly letter to subscribers how I’ve been suffering a bit from decision fatigue and how depending on the “eyes outside my body” have helped to ease it.

Choosing Connection Over Competition

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The trees on the left live in our front yard in North Carolina, as seen yesterday morning from our front porch. The trees on the right live in Fort Lauderdale, right outside my hotel window. I’m currently in South Florida for my last trip of the year, one I’ve been looking forward to for many months now – not necessarily because it’s my last, but because it’s here, among women I’ve been praying for for many months. It’s an honor to serve them and worth every bit of nervous twitching before I get up to speak.

Sometimes it’s hard to be with women, isn’t it? Growing up, people would have said that I make friends easily. My sister remembers a teacher telling my parents after we moved from Iowa to South Carolina that I make friends quickly with other girls because I was always complimenting them. (eye-roll) could I be any more annoying with my “I like your shirt!” and “Your hair is so pretty!” Sheesh.

In my defense, I don’t exactly remember doing that, but it sounds like something I would do so I believe it. Having friends was important to me. But that was back when the word ‘friend’ meant someone you’re comfortable sitting with at lunch or someone who will walk with you to the bathroom so you don’t have to go alone.

All that counts when you’re in seventh grade. But now that I’m grown, friend means something more than that.

When we consider the spiritual transformation of our lives, it often means being stretched beyond what comes natural and leaning hard into what is supernatural, those things that come from God. Learning to move toward community is often one of those unnatural-turned-supernatural things for me.

Nothing causes me to face my own humanity, frailty, and weakness than when I am in communion with others. Nothing causes me to see myself as I really am, to admit I’m not as great as I think, or to face my perceived entitlements than when I am in the midst of other people. I am easy to live with in a room by myself. But I don’t want to live in a room by myself. Except for when I do.

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When I walk into a room filled with women, I recognize in myself a tendency to ignore what God thinks of them and obsess over what they are thinking of me. Oh, dear.

I once heard Shauna Niequist say, “With people, you can connect or you can compare but you can’t do both.” And I think of Jesus’ mother, Mary, and John the Baptist’s mother, Elizabeth. These two women could have compared and competed with one another in all the ugliest kinds of ways – You’re too young! You were chosen to carry Messiah?! Why not me? or You’re too old! Why couldn’t God have given me someone my own age to relate with?

But they didn’t do any of that. Instead of competing, these women connected. Instead of trading fear, they traded praise.

May it be the same for us.