What type of freedom do you choose?

These days we typically think of ourselves as “free” in our choices and how we live our lives.  However, for those struggling with mental illness and addiction the idea of freedom is often shaped by years of twisted thinking and recovery can seem an insurmountable obstacle due to fears of additional failure and the simple unknown.  Freedom sometimes comes to be seen in staying in the known entity of depression or addiction, choosing to be bound.

In these conversations I am often reminded of the following quote from Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale:  “There is more than one kind of freedom…Freedom to and freedom from.  In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to.  Now you are being given freedom from.  Don’t underrate it.” (p.24).  The quote is in a recollection by the main character of how her now fully controlled society was presented as she and other women were indoctrinated into their new profession as “Handmaids.”  The book is a first person narrative from a woman known as “Offred” (Fred being the man whose handmaid she is).  She shares this quote early in the book while considering the sharp contrast of the current society to her own past, when women lived in fear of rape or attack by men–a problem her society has “eliminated” by introducing extreme control.

This line always stood out vividly for me as a perspective on the different freedoms that one gains by avoidance vs. license.  In Offred’s current world, she is free of the fear of sexual violence, but lacks the freedom to be in any other type of relationship with men than as a handmaid (and faces serious consequences if she breaks the law).  In some ways she has adjusted, but when she is given a new taste of “freedom to,” she clings to it desperately.  As noted, the idea of “freedom from” becomes tempting for those dealing with mental illness, particularly when individuals become discouraged and begin to wonder if the fight is worthwhile.  There is a type of safety in the known aspects of the sadness, anger, fear, or broken relationships.  That perceived safety makes the unknown of change appear to be an overwhelming risk, leading to thoughts along the line of “at least I know what each day will bring if I stay here.”  The struggle with the illness can seem more daunting than the illness itself–particularly when the depression, etc. has been a part of daily life for many years.  Individuals can be tempted to draw back in to the pain and dysfunction, knowing they are losing other options, but choosing freedom from the struggle.

Returning to our example, Offred is torn at various points between the safety of status quo and her internal desire for a different type of freedom.  Ultimately, her desire draws her into the danger of pursuing it.  Likewise, though the struggle was difficult, I have yet to meet the individual who has tasted freedom from addiction or mental illness and was hoping to return back into the pain and bondage of the past.  Is a change scary if you have lived with this way for many years?  Absolutely!  Will working through your issues ensure you a perfect life?  No.  But it comes with the benefit of being able to experience life in a more full, connected, and (hopefully!) joyful way.

So what is the big picture?  No matter what your story is, there will be points where you will have choices about whether to press forward towards the hope of healing or to retreat into the familiar emotions and coping skills of the past.  There are certainly appropriate times for “freedom from,” but my hope is that you will trust those who have gone before you that change and healing ARE possible.  Change is not instant, easy, or even a straight line progression, it will have times of mistakes and feel strange, but a life with a healed outlook and managed illness is a worth fighting for.


Finding Your Quiet Space

What draws you to what you read?  I found myself pondering this with my nose stuck in Alexander McCall Smith’s latest 44 Scotland Street novel.  The books are quiet, winding stories around 10-12 characters who all live in Edinborough, Scotland.  They offer escape by allowing the reader to lose him or herself in the small-scale dramas of a “stolen” teacup or lying little girls in the schoolyard.  Problems and complications abound, but so do growth, restoration, and eventually solutions.

The book creates a calm and warm space, allowing a respite from the many true evils and tragedies in our world.  This is increasingly necessary due to the barrage of information our world daily places in front of us.  Even social media, which once revolved around sharing photos and connecting with friends, has become a highly efficient way to spread information about causes, issues, and seemingly unsolvable problems.  I would guess that for many, this barrage leads to anxiety and sadness over an overwhelmingly complicated world.

At times when anxious and depressive thoughts begin to well up beyond what is manageable, it is helpful to remember that the world is always full of pain and anger and you can choose how to engage.  Taking a time-out from the things that breed those thoughts does not mean that you don’t care or won’t do something in the future.  Be free to shut down facebook/twitter/Pinterest, etc. for a day or two and do something renewing.  Read a book with a happy plot, journal, go for a walk in nature, play with a pet, watch a funny movie.  Find what gives you encouragement and strength in order to re-engage with the realities of a broken world.

For me, engaging in a story that I know will eventually lead to (most) all being right with the world helps me build a space for quiet and renewal–what will your space look like?

The Capitol asks you to consider…

So, “The Hunger Games” is (are?) upon us, this time in film form!  I read the books over the fall and was taken with the characters, the story, and the way the story was told.  I could probably spend 20 blog posts considering various psychological elements of the book (and plan to dig in with a couple of characters over the next week) but what keeps coming to my mind today is the eerie similarity between the current excitement over the film coming out and the excitement in the book amongst the residents of the Capitol over the annual Hunger Games.  When we sit back and consider, the vast majority of us who read these books have more in common with the vapid and occasionally cruel residents who fill the capital than with the individuals fighting for survival every day in the districts.  This is interesting, because we all read the books and want to be identified with Katniss and her friends (did you see any halloween costumes of Peacekeepers, Game Makers, or President Snow?).  We want to be aligned with the righteously angry, those who rebel against injustice, and those who protect the weak among us.  This is why I love literature; it provokes us to examine our lives and assumptions and can drive us to change.  So, before you pre-purchase tickets to the Friday showing, let’s take a moment to ask some questions:

1)  Consider where the majority of your time, talent, and energy goes.  What does your use of time tell you about what you value?  Is it time for an adjustment?

2)  How does the relative comfort and plenty of the world we live in shape how you view your problems and the problems of others?

3)  We aspire to be people who are heroes to those who are hurting–what are simple ways you can be a “hero” to someone around you?  Are their opportunities to make a difference around you that you may be missing?

The point of this is NOT that being comfortable and content is bad–it would be wonderful if all were comfortable and content.  Instead, the point is to urge consideration of the world outside of ourselves.  There are various times where Katniss remarks on the self-absorption of the people she meets in the Capitol with their abiding focus on clothes, gossip, and the next Hunger Games.  Their downfall is not what they enjoy or the life they happen to have been dealt, but their lack of concern for others and understanding that others are struggling around them.  My readers of Christian faith will recognize that caring for those in need is a call and command in various Bible passages that encourage the church to look after the widows and orphans in their midst (Deut. 10:17-19, James 1:27).

Make sure that you aren’t missing places you can make a difference, even in a small way.  Talk to the quiet person at church or in the office, put some granola bars in your car to give the man on the street corner, use your couponing skills to enable you to give food to a local shelter.  Most of the time being a “hero” simply starts with opening our eyes to the reality of the world around us and having the courage to engage.

Take-out Version: Stay engaged with the world around you–how can you be a hero to someone in need?


Their end, her beginning

Miss Edith Carr.  If the reader finds his or her feelings regarding Kate Comstock confusing in A Girl of the Limberlost, Edith provides an equal conundrum.

We initially meet Edith through the eyes of her fiance, Philip, who has come to the town near Elnora’s house to recover from a long illness.  Philip is devoted her for her beauty and refinement and they have known each other for many years.  Though devoted, we see Philip’s definition of a quality woman expand as he grows to know Elnora and appreciate her vitality, hard work, and love of nature.  He does not fully recognize it himself, but the seeds of a love relationship are being planted.

When Philip returns to Chicago we begin to see Edith more fully and see how she has a carefully cultivated image of self as being irresistible to all comers and worthy of worship by the man in her life.  She occasionally will end the engagement with Philip in a fit, but he manages to soothe the temper and reunite them.  Their relationship is finally broken when she is magnificently dressed in a gown designed in the purples and yellows of the emperor moth for their engagement party and when a live emperor moth appears at the party, Philip leaves her side briefly to send it to Elnora.  Edith then (rightly) understands that there is a deeper connection there than she imagined and is angry that he would try to make her like the moth which represents Elnora to him.  In this she is rightly angry (in my opinion).  However, it seems that another root of her anger is in her pride being wounded due to her belief that she has full power over Philip and that his role is to cater to her every whim.  In her anger she publicly throws her ring on the ground, ending their engagement.

What follows is the humbling of Edith Carr.  In spite of being warned that Philip will not return after so public a break, she fully believes herself irresistable to him and demonstrates this in many ways.  When she fails to lure him back we see her begin to come to terms with the true nature of her attachment to him and how little she actually brought to the relationship.  Ultimately, she is broken to the point where she sends a message to Philip’s regarding Elnora’s location (Elnora having gone away to give Edith time to try out her plans to lure Philip back.  Philip at this point has been hospitalized for “brain fever” due to his distress over not being able to find her).  It is this action that shows that in her loss Edith has come to fully understand what it means to love another.

In an era that often sees love as something that you seek to get and earn we can learn from Edith’s struggle with her distorted view of what a marriage relationship should look like.  In her distortion, she believed that love was built on being something that others adored and expected that adoration to be shown in indulgences of all kinds.  When she has come to terms with her own imperfections we then see her wrestle with accepting that she is worthy of being loved.  Both of these are fallacies that many embrace.  The first is that love is about me having exactly what I want and desire and the second, that I have to be deserving of love to obtain it.  Both of these distortions belie the fact that healthy love is a gift.  It is not a commodity or something to be demanded.  It is not earned (if so, what infant could ever account for the depth of parental love).  Love requires the sacrifice of the giver–sometimes of time, sleep, comfort, or even sacrificing the safety of invulnerability.  In a healthy relationship there will be mutual care and sacrifice (we can discuss another day the difference between love and co-dependency) leading to both parties having their needs met.

Edith is at peace with herself, Elnora, and Philip at the end of the book–she is worn from her emotional struggle, but ready to move forward.  She struggled with whether she was still lovable after discovering that she was selfish because her original view of love was built on a concept that certain people earned it, fortunately we see her embrace a broader view and allow herself to be loved in a tender and deep way.

Take-out Version:  Love is something we should seek to give, not earn.  Take time to consider both how you give love in your relationships and your beliefs about who you have to be to receive love.

Free to dance

Its time for Part II of our Limberlost series!  I actually find Elnora’s mother, Kate, to be one of the most intriguing characters in the book.  Those of you who commented that you plan to read the book, this will contain some plot spoilers so you may wish to wait and read it in the future!

We meet Kate Comstock as she is sending her daughter off to her first day at the High School in the nearby town.  She is critical of Elnora’s appearance and we later learn has intentionally witheld information from her in hopes of souring her educational dreams with reality.  Her bitterness is mystifying for the reader.  We know throughout the tale that she lost her husband while Elnora was an infant and that she has memorialized him by refusing to cut timber on their land, keeping his clothing in place in her room, and on many nights weeping openly and loudly for him at the edge of the swamp where she helplessly watched him drown.  We eventually learn that her weakness from childbirth left Kate unable help her husband when he was drowning, leading to the wedge of grief between her and her child–a grief that she has nurtured and kept alive over the years.

The author does a wonderful job of allowing us to see that Kate is not merely driven by bitterness but also exudes strength as a woman who values self-reliance and wisdom.  Most likely she would always have been austere and practical in how she expressed emotion, spent money, and related with others.  We are given glimpses into the good parts of Kate–the woman who is secretly hurt when her daughter seeks out others for comfort, who is surprised at the magnitude of her daughter’s accomplishments, who is slowly softening towards her daughter, though she barely recognizes it in herself.  It is tempting to hate her and yet we see how not all that she does for her daughter is misguided, even when it stings.  The reader is not allowed to be comfortable in bitterness either.

The turning point in Kate’s life comes when her sister-in-law finally reveals the truth that Kate’s husband died because he was trying to avoid being seen returning from the house of another woman.  This truth shatters Kate’s glorified image of the man she was married to for barely one year and frees her to reach out and love the living.  We see Kate become free to enjoy life, enjoy her daughter’s talents, take pride in her appearance, and cease living in fear.

There is a beautiful image in the book where Kate asks Elnora to play the violin for her, (Elnora having hidden the talent she inherited from her father for many years), and we see Kate begin to dance in the moonlight.  Whether it is intentional or not, it brings to mind the well-known passage from Ecclesiastes 3 that contrasts the time for mourning with a time for dancing.  Learning the truth about her husband was a catalyst, but she had made many small changes along the way that had chipped away at her bitterness and had the humility to let go when she realized her grief was hung on a hollow image.

She stands as both reminder and warning to examine the grief and resentment we hold close to our hearts.  Grief is normal and will be part of certain seasons of life.  It is healthy to walk through the sadness and anger with the understanding that there is a new life on the other side–one partly shaped by the grief–but life indeed.  Kate chose to keep the grief alive rather than to walk through it and resume emotionally connecting with others.  Be aware if your grief begins excusing you from engaging in life and loving those around.  The good news is that there is always space for healing and for claiming the future years for many a dance in the moonlight.

Take-out Version: Grief is normal, grief is good, grief can bring change, but grief that isolates and embitters should be examined.



Struggle is just one part of the story

Did you ever read “The Girl of the Limberlost” by Gene Stratton-Porter when you were growing up?  The blurb on the back of the book boils it down to a tale about a girl with a harsh mother creatively providing for herself to obtain an education, but it is a tale of grief, pain, selfishness, and ultimately, healing.  I’m going to spend the next few posts considering the arcs of Elnora (the main character), her mother Kate, and Miss Edith Carr and how each woman struggles and grows through the story. 

Elnora Comstock falls in line with many quintessential “American” hero stories.  She comes from a difficult life and through creative thinking and hard work is able to be successful in the world, much to the surprise of her mother.  She is kind and always open to helping others, which quickly gains her the love of those who know her–her mother being the one exception.  She would be welcomed by modern women for her self-reliance and determination to find her way in the world on her own, but she then surprises the modern reader though in her eventual reconciliation with her Mother.  Our culture is often so greatly focused on leaving unhealthy relationships that we forget that there is the possibility for healing in certain circumstances.  The modern reader may also be surprised by Elnora’s personal faith and how this sustains her in difficult times.  We see her reaching out in prayer during times of need and being surprised at how God responds.

So what do we learn from this?

1)  Pain is a double-edged sword that can make people both stronger and weaker.  Elnora did not give up in the face of her pain and found strength.

2)  A little love and caring can go a long way in a hurting person’s life.  Elnora did not receive the emotional care she needed from her mother as she was growing up, but others in the community took the time to provide emotional comfort and to help her care for her other needs.  Though she may not have known it, this helped shape her into a loving person.

3)  Focus on goals rather than limitations.  This led to many opportunities for Elnora.  Certainly she mourned and occasionally despaired over how to achieve her goals, but she never fully gave up hope and (again) she engaged with those around her who were able to offer advice and assistance to help her keep moving forward.

4)  Keep your eyes open to see how God may be working, even in difficult times.  Elnora puts her faith in the Christian God and is surprised by how her simple faith is rewarded via answered prayers.  I realize not all my readers will believe there is truth to this, but I encourage you to be open and look for the influence of God’s providence in your life.

5)  Always remain open to relationships being healed.  Elnora’s mother eventually realized her misguided grief and anger and sought to reconcile with Elnora.  Because Elnora accepted this change in her mother they were both rewarded with healing and reunion.  (Note: this does not mean that all individuals who have been harmful must be accepted with open arms.  Elnora had come to an understanding of her mother’s personal pain and how it drove their separateness, therefore she was prepared to accept the change.)

Take these as points to ponder to see how they might apply to your life.  Is there a child you can give some extra care and support?  Is it time for you to allow healing to melt the resentment in a relationship?  Do you need to focus on hope to help you keep your eyes open for good opportunities?  Elnora’s world had many idyllic outcomes, but we can  aspire to emulate the hope and healing demonstrated in the book.

Take-out version:  Keep your eyes open for hope and healing as you walk through the pain, you may be surprised what you find.