I recognized something in my personality that has existed in me since childhood but was recently brought to my attention. It’s something that often impassions, challenges, inspires, torments, and often overwhelms me – empathy. For better or for worse, I have the innate ability to latch on to the feelings or attitudes of others, I see through to their motives and emotions and even personally experience them for myself. This became apparent during a vehement disagreement with my mom over differing opinions in which I became overwhelmed by emotion. (Now, I am naturally an emotional being, and pregnant to boot…but defending people is a common trap in which I find myself.) My entire being was reacting to the supposed thoughts and emotions of those that I was so passionately defending. It’s the same character flaw (or flair) that often got me into arguments with my older brother; I felt it was my responsibility to defend others against the tyrant. It’s also the same sensation that causes me to write emphatic blogs about the poor or down-trodden.
I’ve been reading a memoir this week and weeping over her descriptions of dying children and her own suffering. The problem is: I don’t know how to turn the empathy valve “off”. At times it can feel like a curse – like some fictional superhuman power that absorbs the feeling and emotions of anyone in a close proximity. Other times it is a blessing, especially when it comes to listening and comforting others. Perhaps it’s simply the product of an over-active imagination. Yet it’s unbridled and untamed, and can run away with me at any moment, catching me in an undertow of emotion. Some weeks I’m so emotionally thin that I have to avoid the nightly news, sad novels, and depressing movies for a time to recharge. I read an interesting article called “5 Gifts of Being Highly Sensitive” which isolated the positive and negative traits of having a sensitive personality. I’ve listed them here for you, but you can read psychologist Douglas Eby’s detailed explanations at the article here.
1. Sensory Detail
2. Nuances in Meaning
3. Emotional Awareness
5. Greater Empathy
He also gave five “curses” of being highly sensitive which are: easily overwhelmed or overstimulated; affected by the emotions of others; need lots of space and time to ourselves; unhealthy perfectionism; and living out of sync with our culture.
Would you consider yourself to be a highly sensitive person? Do you ever wish that part of you away? Maybe we should start asking God to shape this trait into something He can use and that doesn’t make us feel crazy emotional at the drop of a hat! Dear Lord, I hope so…but who better to ask for help, than the very Creator of human emotion and the Crafter of our souls and personalities?
The whole concept of picking New Year’s resolutions centers around achieving greater happiness. Some goals focus on a better you: a thinner, smarter, more generous you. Other goals target a better life for you: a better job, more money, a new relationship, new scenery. Usually all of these goals include a lot of doing…working out, budgeting, interviewing for jobs, dating, dieting. I feel drained just from typing this. All of these things imply responsibility and the pressure of succeeding is on no one but yourself. No wonder most people burnout before reaching their goals!
What if I found out a way to achieve greater happiness but took the pressure off of myself, so that the focus wasn’t on what I have to do, but what God has already done? Perhaps the secret to happiness is contentment. And contentment is nothing more than a by-product of gratitude, so why not start there on my journey to greater happiness? Have you ever expressed or felt thankfulness and then immediately experienced a feeling of being “full” or fulfilled? Isn’t that what everyone really wants out of life anyway?
Amidst all of my thinking, goal-setting and dreaming, my brain kept stumbling over the ideas of thankfulness and our daily bread. In Sunday communion I thought about how the act of taking the bread and the cup was such a contrived moment. Our church orchestrates this moment of remembrance and gratitude on a monthly basis, everything is laid out and everyone files down the aisles, eats, drinks, and returns to their seats. This act that we call the “eucharist” was originally a dinner between Jesus and his most trusted friends. They broke bread by sharing a meal – something most of us do three times a day. It struck me that our prayers over dinner plates can be so much more that a perfunctory tradition. It can be a daily eucharist. (Eucharist in the Greek means “thanksgiving”). Ordinary food, ordinary drink, ordinary house, extraordinary thanks for what Christ has done on the cross. Who knew that something that was taught to me as a child, now has the potential to revolutionize my life and bear the fruit of contentment and happiness if done correctly?
There’s a drastic difference between a family living below the median U.S. household income and a family living below the poverty line. At the Rayburn house, living under that median income means having to buy groceries at Aldi’s, not being able to repair a second vehicle, or utilizing the laundromat because an appliance breaks, but it doesn’t mean having to choose between buying groceries for our family and paying the electric bill. My heart goes out to families who make truly tough decisions like this everyday.
My husband and I both grew up in low-income families. Aaron learned to adapt to missed meals and some years, no Christmas presents. At my house, we have my mom’s creativity in the kitchen and programs like WIC to thank for keeping seven people fed in the tougher seasons. As a young child, I was blissfully ignorant to the financial status of my own family. Then one day, you reach an age where it becomes difficult to be labeled as the family that local churches bestow Christmas food baskets or people send your parents money so you can buy school clothes. It’s suddenly embarrassing to pay for lunch with a meal ticket that screams that your cafeteria hamburger and mushy green beans were free. The worst day of school is the first day back from Christmas break, when you have nothing exciting to report about your Christmas gifts that can compete with your friends. And talk about the torture of having to wear off-brand clothing and sneakers while walking the glaring halls of junior high. Oh, adolescence…how fickle and superficial you are. I know it must have been tough on my parents to listen to the wishing and hoping of five children knowing that more often than not, you would have to disappoint. My heart breaks for those younger versions of my parents. Nothing makes you appreciate the hard-work, patience, and resiliency of your own parents more than becoming a parent yourself. I am in awe of the tenacious spirit that allows them to be the sweet, caring people that they are even after continuous decades of financial difficulty. I know that they would give all the credit to faithful prayers, the help of others, and God’s faithfulness.
I am so honored to give our children the gift of wonderful Christ-following grandparents (and they are young grandparents, so Eyre and her sibling(s) to be should have many years to enjoy them!) I never would’ve guessed that as an adult, I would NEED my parents so much! I guess that is something you never outgrow. I continue to lean upon their support and wisdom as I navigate life, marriage and parenthood. They truly are a reliable, time-tested and approved source for encouragement. And as my parents celebrate 31 years of marriage this week, I pray that they can delight in that achievement! It is truly a special testament to their character, God’s healing, and their commitment to each other.
Yesterday I entered my 29th year. Believe it or not, I love getting older. Against the general human populace, I believe age holds holds the most valued gift – wisdom and wholeness. Maybe I strive to make up for the teen years of self-absorption, or simply want scale the heights of Maslow’s pyramid. I know that stacking life upon life will get me closer to the person that I want to be. This birthday I feel that people were lending me the building blocks I needed to get a little closer. The last couple weeks I have been flooded with such love, generosity and encouragement that it didn’t even phase me when on Wednesday, a look of horror on my sweet husband’s face made me realize that he had forgotten that my birthday was the next day. I was so saturated with the empowering sense of love and belonging that yesterday I felt joyfully whole. (And in case you were curious, my handsome husband spoiled me with a lovely dinner date and the gift of future pampering, so don’t chastise him after reading this!) Everything, big and small, has felt like a precious gift especially designed for me. I have been counting the gifts and feel so abundantly blessed this month. I recently ended a stressful 10hr per week job and started nannying 30-35 hours a week. Nothing can compare to the mental relief of less stress and the emotional relief of being able to be with my daughter while bringing in some income for our family. I finally received maternity insurance so that I have health coverage for the prenatal care and birth of our second child. And with some generous help from my parents, we are able to spend Christmas with my family in Pennsylvania. I would say we are wrapped in a warm, comforting hug of family and friendship and God’s sweet grace. ‘Tis the season to be 29 and joyful.
Motherhood is hard. If you’re a mom, you know. But why are women afraid to admit that its difficult? After becoming a mom, I decided that I would commit to honesty because when I share my personal experiences I feel like others are encouraged by that honesty – that if I feel that way sometimes, then they shouldn’t feel so guilty. Guilt – there it is. The answer to why women aren’t talking about it. I think we are afraid that if we tell someone that we’re struggling with elements of motherhood, that those sentiments will be interpreted as “Well, she must hate being a mom” or “She’s miserable, and its all the kid’s fault”. The same issue applies to marriage. As someone who loves being a wife and a mom more than anything in the whole world, I guess I feel a little safer in the honest confessions, because I know in my heart that I wouldn’t do anything differently. Friends, we all need to have a safe place to talk about the struggles of marriage and family. Find a trustworthy friend or an understanding group that can listen and encourage without fear of judgment or misinterpretation.
I love my husband, adore my daughter and can’t wait to meet our second child. But that doesn’t change the fact that life can be hard and living on one income is a challenge. Those struggles ebb and flow from day to day, but its our loved ones that make the struggle worth it. They are the daily joys that keep our hearts lifted and full of hope when things fail and bills pile up. So give yourself a break! You are doing the two most selfless things that you can do – you’re a wife and a mother. Every day you wake up and die to yourself, go to sleep and then wake and do it again. It’s uncomfortable and often painful. As a Christian, male and female, we are all called to “die to self” in the service of others, to sacrificially put others first, as Christ did. What a holy call. Don’t write off the worthiness of what you do, often unconsciously, every day. Know that there is loving Father in heaven celebrating your courage and children who will one day comprehend the beautiful gift that they were given.
Something as commonplace as receiving a birthday card in the mail became an extraordinary event in our lives yesterday. My Aunt Susie is as dependable as the sun rising when it comes to remembering birthdays and sending her love to her nieces and nephews, even if they are quite grown-up. This card was thicker than usual and contained much more than sweet sentiments and xoxo’s. On the outside of the envelope she had happily scrawled, “Go get yourself a dryer! Love you!” and on the inside was $400-worth of gift cards to Sears. Her thoughtful gesture brought tears to my eyes. I sat in a flood of emotions for a moment – first, overwhelming gratitude then relief, then a wave of humility. It is humbling to be on the receiving side of such an abundant gift.
My Aunt Susie belongs to a unique breed of the compassionate and generous of heart. When we were kids, we would joke that you could strategically mention something you wanted in front of her, and it would show up in a package on your doorstep a few days later. She is not only moved to action by the hurts and needs of others, but enjoys bringing joy to the people around her. When I spoke to her on the phone, she explained that she and my uncle have had kind things done for them over the years that she simply wants to “pay it forward”.
So I will swallow my pride and bless her with my gratitude and the pure joy that her gift brought to both of us – the giver and the recipient.
I know that my last blog post sounded a little bleak, but my current outlook is much brighter, and I was also so encouraged by those of you who sent me thoughtful notes and shared your own stories of struggle and personal suggestions! You are each a reflection of why it is better to share life with one another – to speak truth and love into our lives. I understand that we are often unaware of the internal struggles of other people because the surface can seem so “normal”. And yet, there is usually a small voice inside us saying “Let go…” Sometimes its let go of your anger, or bitterness, or self-righteousness, or selfishness, or resentment, or shame. And sometimes we even go through moments or entire seasons when our internal sense of joy is robbed from us and no matter how much we know it should be there, we feel nothing.
This reminded me of my bleakest season of life when God was working even when I couldn’t see or feel His presence. When I was a sophomore in college, a phase of depression and anxiety consumed me. It was a culmination of low self-worth from childhood issues and heartache from losing my first love. The loneliness and pain was aggravated by the fact I had been struggling with bulimia for years which I could not seem to overcome. I couldn’t “fix” myself – no matter how much I prayed, or read my Bible, or succeeded at school. My joy just gradually ebbed away until I couldn’t find it anymore. Yet there was something inside me that persevered, I knew that joy was promised to me in presence of Christ in my life. I clung to that for dear life. For whatever reason, I started looking up encouraging Psalms and scripture and emailing them out to everyone in my contact list at the time. It was like being in a black hole and sending these words out into the abyss – I don’t really even know why. Months later, I took a semester off of school to focus on my personal and emotional healing and met regularly with a counselor. While on was on hiatus, a former high school friend reached out to me. He gifted me a sweet and inspirational book of friendship that he has written personal notes and messages throughout. When he gave it to me, he shared that he had been struggling with thoughts of suicide, and that was when he started receiving my random emails of encouraging verses and thoughts. These words that I hadn’t even felt at the time had reached straight to his heart and “saved his life”. I have never been more amazed at the power of God’s word than sitting in the car listening to his story. God’s word never comes back empty! Truth and love can save us and even make beautiful things out of our brokenness.
There is a beautiful song that reflects this theme that God can use suffering to serve a beautiful purpose called “Beautiful Things” by the band Gungor. Lead singer Michael Gungor explained the inspiration behind the song in an interview. “My wife Lisa and I wrote the song together because we were seeing our friends going through suffering and pain. This song is an expression of hope that God will make beautiful things out of the dust in our lives, and God will somehow use us, use our obedience and love, our feeble human effort, and build Himself a kingdom. I see that God is using suffering to bring us closer to Him.” (Excerpt from Behind the Song with Kevin Davis at http://www.newreleasetuesday.com/article.php?article_id=384#_
You can listen to the song here.
So we are officially looking ahead to what our family will be like when it becomes a four-person household. We are only 10 weeks into my 40-week pregnancy, and other than the same easy early pregnancy and mild symptoms, not much is the same about the experience this time around. No nightly conversations and pouring over websites about fetal development and what to expect when you’re expecting. Even limited amounts of speculation about the sex of the baby, other than to mention how easy it would be to pop out another girl. If its a boy I will need to start gathering clothes and redecorating the nursery asap, all that pink has got to go! Its not that we’re unexcited, but the novelty certainly has worn off. A year of basically being a one-income family has left its stain. I spend more time worrying about our budget, me not being able to bring in a little side income with two kiddos at home, tweaking by on Aaron’s income, as if we’re not already scraping by as it is. I’m woebegone about the fact that those first four months of sweet, quiet infancy will be gobbled up by a babbling, running, jumping, laughing, hitting toddler. (sigh) Life was so easy the first time around – Eyre was an angel. We are destined to balance the scales with Baby #2. Sometimes I worry that I will never get out of the house for coffee or some time to write, because it will mean leaving Aaron with a toddler and newborn. Then I have to hit pause because I realize that I’m worrying about things that I can’t control and welcoming negativity into my pregnancy which is something I swore that I would never do. Having children is the best gift in life and such a blessing that there should never be an aura of negativity or a hint resentment around their birth, intentional or not.
The fact that I have been living in emotional survival mode the last several months has taken a toll, and I realize that living in a constant state of fear is no way to live, especially when we are living such a beautiful life together and have so much to be thankful for. A lot of unfortunate things have happened, mostly financial, over the last few months and I can see that I have been gripped by fear of the inevitable unknown and unable to control what is happening to our family. We had been living the insulated life of a two-income household long enough to get used to the security. And I don’t know about you, but I NEED my security blanket. It is the one area of my life that continues to be my struggle against self. I need to feel safe against life. Even if it is a mirage, its a comforting, assuaging mirage. So I am back in that place of self-modulation – shifting the paradigm back to a healthy place, off of my shoulders and back into God’s hands. I had forgotten the discipline of gratitude – that my thankfulness CAN transcend my circumstance. I heard a quote this morning by G.K. Chesterton that said “Gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.” I have let my fear inhibit me from feeling the awe of what God is doing in my life and the lives of others. My disappointment or feelings of being out of control made me often incapable of being moved by the beautiful love of my husband and the joy of my one-year-old daughter. As I begin to crack the surface again, I can see that this brief season has forced me to walk closer to path of others who struggle financially or feel like they can’t seem to get a break in life.
Even something so minute as our dryer being broken for months has put me into the realm of other families who live paycheck to paycheck and spend hours at the laundromat each week, dragging their kids behind them. I began to appreciate that I was doing life alongside people whom I might otherwise never come into contact – the people that sometimes fall out of view when people move to the suburbs or start shopping at Whole Foods. There was a moment as I was folding my bedsheets that I thought the woman talking on her cellphone and putting a dollar in the change machine could be thinking, “Why is everything going wrong? How am I going to pay for that?” and feeling forgotten by everyone, even overlooked by God. It takes being intentional to be close to the needs of other, but life without compassion isn’t worth living. I’ve been expending so much energy on worrying about myself that I haven’t been thinking about others. Self-preservation does nothing more that cause you to focus inward instead of outward. Its a tough lesson to learn – again. And Lord willing, when a day comes that life deals us a good hand, our family will already have learned the importance of keeping our eyes and our hearts open so we don’t forget what it is like to struggle.
Tasting the Sky: A Palestinian Childhood by Ibtisam Barakat
This book is a child’s box of beautiful and broken treasures. Ibtisam’s memories can draw laughter through a veil of tears as she paints her memories in the warm colors of a child’s mind. The author’s childhood innocence keeps the text fluid and even delightful, all the while recounting the most horrific and painful first-hand experiences of war. Chapter after chapter conveys the hard truths of war, relationships, family and humanizes war through a child’s psyche. I felt the isolation, fear and desperation of refugees – children separated from their parents and parents willing to “orphan” their children so they will have basic food and shelter. My heart seized up within me as little Ibtisam was accidentally left behind and ran until her feet were bloody, swollen and unrecognizable. I wept the relieved tears of a parents when they were reunited. Even in tragedy there are also many wonderful themes poetically woven through her story: the adoration of a loving father, the resilience of a family in war time, sibling loyalty and friendship, and the innate coping mechanism of a child’s imagination. This memoir is a beautiful and heartbreaking must read. Nothing shouts louder the inhumanity of war than the silent tears of an innocent child.