“Somewhere we know that without silence words lose their meaning, that without listening speaking no longer heals, that without distance closeness cannot cure.”–Henri Nouwen
A decade ago I worked in marketing management for a very large builder in the Washington DC area. There were many wonderful things about this company, but one of my favorites was the intentional way they encouraged employees and departments to set yearly goals and break them down in manageable ways to ensure we could meet or exceed them. Our yearly bonuses were partly tied to the accomplishing of these goals. I have carried their model into my personal life. Even with a mostly broken body and a calendar where best laid plans fall to the wayside for health emergencies and setbacks I have felt an empowered purpose through continuing this discipline.
Another way this company poured into building up those in management was evaluating our personality types to help us better understand ourselves and those we worked along side. We also participated in what are called 360 peer reviews. These are reviews from your bosses or people in lateral positions to your own and more importantly from those you manage. I have utilized this same idea less formally in my close friendships and relationships. I regularly ask my husband and children how I can be a better wife and mother. I ask them what they are missing or needing from me.
Most of my work reviews were very complimentary, but there was one specific comment from someone I will never forget. “Monica feels the need to be insightful on every topic.” In a corporate environment entrenched in a culture of meetings I often found myself around a huge boardroom table of mostly men discussing land development, zoning and big scale financial projections. I took notes. I tried to keep up. I also felt a pressure to add something to the discussion to validate my presence. I know for sure there were entire meetings I was just waiting for the opening to say something and missed the opportunity to just be there, listen and learn.
This is the fifth year I have chosen a word in January as a guiding focus for the twelve months to follow. I began this practice in 2012 directly following my first big brain surgery and fusion. My word was “Possibility.” In 2013 it was “Restore.” In 2014 it was “Play” and last year it was “Commit.”
2016’s word came to me early on. I began to understand God was calling me to a season of more quiet last fall. In early September I wrote to you about “going away” for awhile. Without the real or imagined pressure to continue to say something I began to understand my head and my heart were being flooded with an impossible number of images, memes and calls to action. My ministry of prayer and support to an ever growing number of people in my EDS and Chiari community was creating a compassion fatigue so real I could no longer decipher between my own suffering and that of the ones I was carrying so close to my heart. Social media was smothering me. The desire to read everything my new and growing group of writer friends were publishing on the screen or on paper became an ocean that pulled me under. I was also advised to be working on building a platform for my book. Every moment of self promotion felt wrong. As the book became a finished document needing a champion, an editor, a publisher and yes, realistically, an audience, I became less committed to it. The book is a hard fought chunk of my soul, painstakingly built as an offering, and I began to doubt it would or could matter in the tsunami of stories written and published. Was I wrong about Gauntlet all along? Did I misread God’s providential leading and what I thought were blatant nudges to write and publish? I ignored and pushed off emails of industry people pursuing me. I became more ill. I had a brain shunt revision in October, another long round of plasmapheresis in December and four weeks of intensive chemotherapy that ended last week. I didn’t want to talk about any of it. As Dani Shapiro so poignantly writes, “A Memoir is Not a Status Update.” As much as I felt a responsibility to all of you who have prayed and encouraged and donated for oh so long I began to realize the little blips of sharing here or there were merely drops in a very real ocean of pain I’d been dressing up as a beautiful fight for far too long. The battle cry “Our Hope Remains” lost meaning. What if the Gauntlet has more land mines than gifts, and I’ve been selling a lie I needed to tell myself to survive?
At the very core of all this angst was the truth I had become completely overcome by a cacophony of voices other than God’s. I had forgotten the world is not waiting with baited breath for my next words. There will be others to like and comment. There will even be others who will hand write a note or send a text to encourage. There will be others praying too. Beautiful stories of courage and hope will be written and published, and I might miss their launch. My dear friends will celebrate birthdays and lose loved ones. Without the Facebook scroll I might be too late to mail the card or send the flowers. Babies will be born, and I’ll not see the vernix covered miracle within minutes of it happening. I don’t need to weigh my life against the beautiful meal you made, the new bracelet you bought for the best cause or the inspiring quote or Bible verse that got you through your day. I needed to turn it all off, and I did.
My word for this year is “Listen.”
I am reading Adam S. McHugh’s new book The Listening Life: Embracing Attentiveness in a World of Distraction. I am reading slowly. I am reading well. I am blown away by the over 1500 times in the Bible God asks us to stop, be still, hear, pay attention, take heed and LISTEN to His words. I’m even more struck by the amazing Grace of His willingness and desire to listen to us. I know for sure this gift of intimate relationship with my Heavenly Father, my Savior and the Holy Spirit has been hijacked by even the good, better and best “noise” of this world.
I’ve said February 1st is my January 1st. I’ve given myself the freedom to just float. When we put away the Christmas decorations I left the majority of space empty in my home. I’m learning to be still with the quiet. I’ve re-tuned my heart to the hear Grace in the fount of many blessings. I’ve returned to the comforting disciplines of first things first. Sitting at the foot of the cross is where I’ll hear Him best. The Bible is open. This is where I know for sure He speaks. “You become a disciple by hearing…This is the pattern that life commands. Listen before you speak. Learn before you teach. Hear the call before you lead. Absorb the word before you preach it.”(10) If I could bow my head I would, instead He bends His ear to me. (Psalm 31:2; 86:1) I forgot. He wants to hear me too. I find myself “at the heart of the gospel mystery–that the heavenly King not only speaks but listens…”(35) My prayers have changed. I hear Christ’s voice in Mark 10 asking blind Bartimaeus, “What do you want me to do for you?” I don’t need to answer in a hurry. He knows already and still He wants to hear me ask in faith, believing. Beautiful Grace.
I will wear the word “Listen” for 365 days. I will write it on my doorposts. I will study it, and it will change me. I don’t know what this means for my book or my blog or Facebook, Twitter or Instagram except I will continue to be quiet for at least awhile longer. I’m resting. I’m waiting to hear and obey.
Do you have a word you want to claim for 2016? What do you want it to mean for your life in the coming weeks and months?
The image of my 2016 word was created by Traci Michele Little.
(Here is a quick health update: I finished four weeks of a very targeted chemotherapy drug called Rituxin following my latest round of plasmapheresis. I will have bloodwork next week to check levels. Our prayer is this drug will keep the infection that attacks my entire body, especially my brain and heart, away longer. The horrible pelvic pain and bleeding I was experiencing has completely subsided since treatment. I continue to have days of great pain, especially in my neck and spine. The winter is always hardest on my body. Thankfully my most recent shunt has been managing the changing pressures. Our financial stress grows with each new treatment and especially at the beginning of a new year when all our deductibles and out of pockets begin again. The total on my insurance explanation of benefits from December 7th through January 7th was $67,000. When we are tempted to despair we are brought back again and again to God’s faithfulness. Dayenu. Enough. Please pray for our Danica who has been complaining of frequent leg pain. Over spring break we will spend several days in Cincinnati at the Children’s hospital to have scans and see neurosurgery and orthopedic surgery. As she grows we will see how her body sustains the experimental hardware used in her fusion and watch her lower spine curvature. We are ever grateful for your prayers and especially the faithful ones who remember even when I have stopped sharing out loud. We live in a shelter built by years of love, sacrifice and generosity. Thank you.)