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Returning to Grace

I grew up with a mother who yelled when she got mad, who seemed to be mad a lot of the time. She also threw hairbrushes and slammed cabinet doors to express her frustration. She seemed to need a physical release valve for her anger, so much so that she slapped me across the face one time when I got smart with her. But she grew up with a mother who was much worse, and she’s gotten a lot calmer over the years. Mom’s worked on her anger issues and sought forgiveness from her family; and her hormones have settled down a lot since we were kids. When my own kids were little I determined that I would not be a yeller, but I did my fair share of screaming, and punching walls, and generally losing control. Turns out it’s hard to be a mom—much harder than I thought it was when I was growing up.

But you know what else is hard? Having a brain that doesn’t work well under pressure. I think that’s the thing I have in common with my mom and my grandma, and I've seen it in other relatives, too. Some of us have grown up, and our coping mechanisms are stronger than they once were, but we’ve always struggled to keep our minds and bodies under control when we get overwhelmed. And we get overwhelmed more easily than most people. Too much sensory information sends us over the edge, as well as too many different sets of instructions, or too many people and too many expectations.

Those who love us try to make life as simple as possible, but we still have to be on our own sometimes, and I worry about our ability to cope with an unpredictable world.

I wish there were more things we could control in this world, but friends get sick, people disappoint us, and our own minds and bodies can be very hard to understand, let alone take charge of.

So what are we to do when life gets messy and we feel completely out of control? I mean, other than yell and punch and kick and scream? How do we behave the way we want to? The way we wish our parents had, the way we want our kids to remember us? And is the answer any different for those of us who struggle with mental illness, anger management, or sensory processing issues?

Many people will suggest techniques like surrender, or prayer and meditation, along with mindfulness, discipline, and exercise. Some doctors can prescribe medications that soothe the tired grooves in our minds and increase the flow of “feel good” chemicals so our brains can work the way they’re supposed to, (more like “normal” or regular brains do). Still others will say that we need more vitamins, or supplements, or regular chiropractic adjustments.

I’ve tried all these solutions with varying degrees of success, and I’m a fan of most of them. In fact, I’m committed to using whatever tools I find helpful. (I thank God for Lexapro at least once a week.) But the thing that’s impacted me more than anything else over the years has been sharing my failures with another person. Whether that was through therapy, or calling a trusted friend, or even writing about it on my blog, the ability to receive grace from another human when I don’t measure up is more healing than anything else I’ve tried.

Yet here’s my dirty little secret: I stink at doing this for other people. Too often I’m quick to give people advice, telling them my own experiences and recommending they try this or that to solve whatever it is they’re dealing with, when most of the time they just need some empathy and a listening ear.

Because it’s hard to live well in a sick world. It’s hard to be light when we’re surrounded by darkness. It’s hard to remember there’s more to life than what we see, smell, taste, hear, and even touch. We’re all so small minded and now-focused that we forget about the bigger picture and the world beyond this one.

And maybe you don’t even believe in that other world like I do, but perhaps you can relate to my feeling “less than” or “broken” or “not enough.” If so, I just want to tell you that I get it. I know what it’s like to live with regret and shame. I know how it is to feel stuck and useless. I know those days that knock you out before noon and leave you weeping all night long. Sometimes you just have to take a breather and give yourself a break. Because you’re only human, just like the rest of us, and no one expects you to get it right all the time. And if they do, they’re the ones who are wrong. They’re the ones who don’t get it. But I do.

So here’s what I want you to do right now. Take a look at this painting below and imagine you’re the man kneeling in the middle. Now imagine your best friend is the one who’s reaching out and holding you. Or if you don’t have a best friend, pretend you do. Pretend he or she is the kindest, most wonderful person you’ve ever met. Pretend she laughs at all your jokes and thinks you’re the best cook in the world. Pretend you’ve got years and years of memories and heartache and laughter together. Now, close your eyes and listen to the words he is telling you. “You’re doing the best you can, dear friend. And that’s all any of us can do, okay?”

Now take a deep breath and try to believe him or her. Just for a minute. Then you can go back to whatever feeling you had when you first started reading this post. And the next time you lose it, go back to this moment. Because your value doesn’t come from what you do or don’t do, what you say or don’t say, what you think or don’t think, or even what you feel or don't feel. Your value comes from the fact that you have this friend. That you are capable of being this kind of friend to someone else. Because that’s what you were made for. Of all the creatures in this world, we humans are the only ones who carry this capacity for grace. So let’s give more of it to each other, shall we? Even to ourselves.

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn: The Return of the Prodigal Son, 1666/1669 Oil on canvas, 262 x 206 cm, St. Petersburg, Hermitage (detail) Mehr Infos:

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