“She believed she could so she did” – a mantra one can find on signs throughout my house or posted on my social media platforms – is an ideology in which I fully believe. This statement propels me towards being the best version of myself, and these seven words empower me in indescribable ways.
Recently, a good friend of mine used this phrase with the female athletes he coaches. Listening to him use the expression with these young women gave me pause; in fact, it unsettled me. My heart pounded. Hearing someone say these words out loud to young women made me wonder if his audience truly understood the virtue of the statement or even what the mantra looks like in action.
In that moment, it occurred to me that the lesson may be lost as we rush to understanding, or worse, to application. Too often, we use an important statement such as “She believed she could so she did” as if it magically happens – as if saying it makes it true.
As they sat in their locker room, I asked the team which word was the most important in the phrase. Almost immediately, they uniformly said “believed.” My response shocked me. “No. It’s she. She is the one who believes in herself.” Since then, my quick reply has been sitting loudly with me – not because I don’t believe it, but rather because it revealed clarity to me I had not anticipated.
I imagine most people would respond similarly as the young women. On first glance, believing seems to be the key, and yet, without the subject – she – the action doesn’t take place. She must be the one to do whatever she knows will transform her life or the life of others. She takes ownership of the action. It really has nothing to do with believing; it has everything to do with the doing.
What does this mantra look like in action?
She took control of her health, focusing on her mind, body, and spirit.
She has maintained a 120 pound weight loss for nearly six years.
She empowers young people to understand their own influence.
She ended a 31-year marriage in order to live an authentic life – to honor her spirt.
She helps her daughter navigate living with stage four brain cancer.
She works with educators to change the world for children.
In the end, the message is not about believing. The power fully rests in the the action she takes. She does not need to believe she can; she needs to do what she says she can.
On December 28, I posed a challenge to my Facebook friends. Along with with Eleanor Roosevelt’s quote “Do one thing every day that scares you,” I asked “Who’s in?” It wasn’t important if I had others join me; after all, the post was more for me – a declaration – a promise to myself. If I intend to continue on this journey of untangling myself, of living an intentional life, of being present, then I really must understand the importance fear plays.
In a few of my previous posts, I have talked about helping my daughter navigate stage four brain cancer. Over the past year, I have faced the greatest fear of any parent, the fear of losing a child. Before she was born, I loved Elizabeth with an intensity I had never experienced. Watching her grow into an independent, driven, intelligent, compassionate human often took my breath away.
Parenthood, I confirmed with the birth of my second child, is indeed breathless moment upon breathless moment. The thought of losing either of my children can still choke me with trepidation, but this is nothing new. I found myself in deep conversations with myself convincing myself not to follow them on their first solo bike rides around town, and I often held my breath as they sauntered to the idling car which held their waiting friends.
Elizabeth’s diagnosis with a brain tumor just after her 21st birthday forced her to wrestle with her own mortality, and in turn, it begged me to do the same. The gift in this obligatory introspection shifted the way I think about fear; it invited me to embrace fear. Over the course of a few years, I recognized that if I allowed fear to paralyze me or if I chose to live in fear of what loomed on the horizon or hid in the shadows, then I would miss important moments. I would miss life.
Not long after this epiphany, I ended a 31-year marriage to an amazingly loyal man, an intelligent, kind-hearted human. I had spent nearly a decade feeling lonely in the marriage – disconnected – unfulfilled. Fear had restrained me in an unsatisfying marriage – fear of hurting our children – fear of disappointing my family and friends – fear of looking like a failure – fear of living independently – fear of the unknown.
As family and friends found out about my divorce, I was often taken aback by their response. While I am sure many hid their disappointment or disapproval, overwhelmingly, the response “you’re so brave” caught me off guard. In retrospect, I had not considered the courage it took to end a marriage. For so long, fear had held me hostage. When I embraced fear as a natural element of life, I freed myself in so many ways.
“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it,” wrote Nelson Mandela. “The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.” As I began to practice facing my fears, or at the very least peeking around the corner at them, I understood Mandela’s insight. Whether the future involves figuring out how to winterize the house or take ownership of my finances or it demands conversations with my daughter about living wills or life celebrations, if I acknowledge the fear, i take a great step towards courage.
My advice: start small. Choose something in life that creates anxiety: shopping for a car on your own, eating dinner out alone, calling a friend with whom you haven’t connected for some time. You decide which fear you want to play with, and then chip away at it. As you practice acknowledging what scares you, you take its power. And then, before you know it, you are standing boldly in the midst of what scares you most: courageous, brave, upright, and resolute. #MakeRoomForJoy
With New Year’s Eve upon us, many of us will flirt with making resolutions, a 4,000-year-old practice once employed with hopes of pleasing the gods. Regardless of the purpose, making resolutions on the cusp of a new year requires reflection, purposeful identification of our mistakes or debts, and determination to make amends – changing our behaviors to pursue the best version of ourselves.
As 2020 concludes, with deep intention or fleeting interest, many of us will identify a resolution (or resolutions for the more ambitious among us) for the upcoming year. We will secretly or publicly declare our intentions, even though we know we will most likely abandon our goals within a few weeks . After all, it takes at least three weeks for a behavior to become a habit, and three weeks is a long time even for the most resolved.
And yet, commitment or making up one’s mind to make changes can and does happen. Towards the end of 2014, I made a promise to myself to reclaim my health. At that point, I weighed over 125 pounds more than I do today. I had been too wrapped up in caring for my family, my students, my friends, and I had neglected myself. In 2014, the universe had offered me what felt like insurmountable personal challenges, as well as the realization that if I continued to ignore my health, I would be unable to care for those most important to me. Over the course of several months, I began a life altering transformation of mind, body, and spirit.
Looking back on that pivotal year, I now realize its gift. 2014 forced me to intentionally focus on unresolved issues – to prune parts of my life that sucked my emotional energy – to seek counseling for untouched wounds – to understand that living is a gift that requires action not passivity. 2014 also taught me the depth of my strength, and it mandated, yes mandated, me to shift how I understand my purpose. And ultimately, 2014 prepared me for 2020 and what awaits.
While a resolution is “a formal expression of opinion or intention made,” it also includes “the mental state or quality of being resolved or resolute; firmness of purpose” (dictionary.com). Firmness of pupose. Firmness of purpose. As I read this definition, my mouth first whispered the phrase, and then I heard my voice say it out loud.
Firmness of purpose is not a one and done resolution, but it is a way of living – an intentional step into understanding, and it requires grace, reflection, and definition. So for 2021, I will continue to whisper, shout, sing, dance, live these words: firmness of purpose. Firmness of purpose.
Earlier this year, I listened to a 2017 episode of the On Being podcast in which Krista Tippett interviews Dr. Atul Gawande, a practicing physcian, Harvard professor, and writer. The title of the episode, “What Matters in the End,” indicates why I might be drawn to a conversation with a doctor. In my quest to live intentionally, I find myself obsessed with reading and listening to how others make the most of their “one wild and precious” lives (“The Summer Day, Oliver, 1990).
Today, Gawande’s medical practice and writings are based on the question, “What does a good day look like?” – a question he now asks both terminally-ill and healthy people. This important question allows him to treat the whole person, and it makes a difference to his patients. Good days, after all, are moments we seek.
In the interview, Gawande recalls the pivotal moment when his philosophy of healthcare shifted. A patient, who would die less than 48 hours later, told him she was going to take her family to Disney Land. In that moment, he realized as a care giver, he had missed a critical moment. He realized the importance of asking earlier, “What does a good day look like?” With that important information, he could have helped her achieve that wish a month earlier.
This conversation reminded me of the quip I often say or post on Facebook: Today is a good day for a good day. While I often tweak the statement to reflect my own spirit with “today is a great day for an excellent day,” the message is important. Live the day you have in front of you. Don’t wait to live.
Dr. Gawande’s question is one we can, and should, each ask ourselves. If we start our days with “What does a good day look like,” we remind ourselves of how fleeting time is, and how important it is to fill our days with things that make us happy – people and events that fill us with joy.
Too often, the narratives that run through our heads or the messages society offers us force us to feel obligated stay in relationships or positions we don’t enjoy. We stay in social circles that don’t excite us, we continue to work in unfulfilling jobs, or we continue in unsatisfying marriages without fixing or ending them. Days slip by, and we crawl into bed unhappy, or worse, without emotion.
I am not advocating we bail on our friendships, quit our job, or end our marriages. Each of us has our own journeys and way of approaching things that do not fill us with joy. What I am urging us to do, however, is really rather simple. Before we get out of bed in the morning, we should consider envisioning what a good day looks like. What is on our agenda for the day that will make it a good day or even an excellent one? If there is something on the day’s schedule that doesn’t serve a specfiic purpose or will not contribute to our overall happiness, can it be removed or modified?
If we take a few minutes to ask these questions and monitor our progress towards creating a “good day,” we will experience a shift in the way we think about our lives, about the people with whom we interact, and about the world around us. The time to ask ourselves “What does a good day look like?” is now, while we still have time to make all of our days good ones. #MakeRoomForJoy
“You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them,” wrote Maya Angelou. A quote such as this requires some unpacking – and perhaps optimism and resiliency – but it also contains so much truth. It takes work to understand that we cannot control the world, and it takes even more work to realize the narratives we create shape our responses to events and people.
This personal toil, though, ulitmately leads to a liberation, a true empowerment. Too many of us spend a lifetime waiting for life to begin. We fall victim to believing life happens to us. Once we realize we can control our responses to people, events, and even emotions often surprise us, we nudge ourselves closer to authentic living – to living in the moment – to leading a life fully present.
The more I practice this philosophy, the more I experience its power. In moments that evoke angst, fear, or even anger – moments which often feel completely out of my control – I force myself to pay attention to my thoughts and my physical reaction. With this intentional focus, I shift my thinking, and ultimately my response. I choose not to be destroyed by the event. In this choice comes the freedom. ‘
This mindset doesn’t come easilty. I still have moments where I get sucked under by the waves of hopelessness and fear, but I have discovered two key strategies that help keep life in perspective.
First of all, I work hard at taking care of myself physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Feeding my body healthy food and keeping it hydrated gives me energy and allows me to focus. My daily practice involves exercise, typically 4-5 miles every day. I also spend periods of the year swimming or biking.
Besides journaling, listening to podcasts of spiritual leaders, and processing the universe’s lessons with my trusted square squad, I also make a practice of repeating the “Serenity Prayer” – a prayer that guides an ethos of redirecting responses to things I cannot control.
I find myself reflecting on the prayer as I walk, especially if my route meanders through nature, away from town. And I find myself repeating the prayer as I swim laps: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” Sometimes the prayer is reduced to “serentity, courage, wisdom” – a powerfrul mantra with each stroke.
Because I have learned to take care of my whole self, I have recognized the power in the second tool: mentoring. Over the last three decades as an educator, I have learned my role extends way beyond the content and skills I nurture in the young people with whom I work.
My teaching credo is deeply steeped in progressive education, a person-centered, inquiry-based way of learning to improve the human condition. As young people experience success in owning the learning process, they develop self-efficacy. As their belief in themselves grow, it spills into other areas of their lives.
Teaching, for me, has morphed into mentoring dozens of young people, often college students who are not even students within my department. No matter where it occurs, mentoring is a win-win. As I speak my truth – share my story – illustrate how I have shifted my thinking to reflect my understanding of the universe, I gain momentum in the practice of intentional living.
The other part of the equation comes in watching young people realize they, too, can shift their thinking. As my mentees begin to see life as something they do instead of something that happens to them, they are empowered in so many ways. The benefits they experience excites me – fuels me.
Again, none of this is easy, and I have moments of panic and fear, but they occur so much less than they did six years ago. And, more importantly, I know it works. Personally, I know I am in a different space than I was when I began this journey – a much different space. Occasionally, out of the blue, I am reminded that sharing my journey with others matters.
Recently, in less than a 24 hour period, I received texts from two different young women and a card from another. The first text was a young teacher who thanked me for making her a teacher. In the string of our conversation, she reflected on how hard 2020 had been for her, and she typed “And life is about perspetive. We can’t choose our circumstances, but we can choose if we are happy or not. As I type that it sounds very familiar, huh?”
The second text came from a young woman who is learning to navigate the world, and she wanted me to know she had realized the most difficult period in her life had brought important people into her circle, and she wrote “even in my worst times God was giving me the greatest blessings of friendship and companionship. That’s super weird to think about. My mind is blown right now honestly.”
And then the mail brought me a card from a young woman who recently lost her mother to colon cancer. The front of the card read EMPOWERED WOMEN EMPOWER WOMEN. Her note inside reminded me of the importance of believing in each other – of showing up – of living intentionally – of believing in each other.
So here is to empowering ourselves so that we can empower others. In the process, we come closer to living – truly living. We come closer to understand that living is something we do, not something that happens to us. #MakeRoomForJoy
“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to learn to love the questions themselves.” Rainer Maria Rilke
The universe has a cruel sense of humor, constantly reminding us we are not in control. To underscore this lesson, life is filled with moments of intense pain – physical pain that reminds us of our own mortality, and emotional pain that aches so badly we can’t breathe. Fear and sadness, anger and frustration, as well as disappointment and angst, weave themselves through our days sometimes so tightly we can’t move.
And yet, as conflicting as it sounds, when we lean into these darkest moments, we have the opportunity to find joy. Yes, find joy. Some spiritual practices believe that when we embrace the gift of suffering, we gain a heightened ability to delight in even the most simple moments in our lives. Within this recognition, joy, in its purest form, occurs.
Arriving to this space, though, and not getting hung up on the suffering or even the joy, requires patience and practice; when we finally achieve this balance, we are truly in the moment. It has taken me quite awhile to figure out this secret, and I certainly have not achieved some sort of euphoric state where I transcend all emotions. Instead, I have shifted my perspective to sincerely seek joy in even the most unimaginable moments of life. It isn’t easy, but it is important.
Search for the lesson: For six years, I have worked on living intentionally, on living an authentic, present life. These six years, as well as the decades that preceded them have been filled with traumatic moments, disquieting moments that have filled me with fear and uncertainty. Since December of 2019, though, some of the darkest moments in my life have occured as I have helped my daughter navigate stage four brain cancer. To say this has been my greatest test as a human is a gross understatement. It has, however, taught me a lot about who I am as a woman.
Sitting by Elizabeth’s bed in the neuro ICU at the Ohio State James Cancer Center, I repeatedly asked, and honestly, I sometimes begged, “What am I supposed to learn from this experience? How will these moments make me a better person?” If I’m not careful, I miss the lesson, distracted by the emotion of the moment: fear, angst, sadness. To live authentically, I have to intentionally seek the lesson.
Understanding often comes in snippets, when I least expect it. I may be talking to a college student working through his or her own journey, and my own experiences offer them solace or steps of action. Sometimes clarity emerges while I’m listening to my pastor deliver his weekly sermon, and my experience connects on a much deeper level. If I focus on the lessons, the difficult moments in life serve a distinct purpose.
Feel the emotion in its purest form: One of the hardest steps in seeking a joy-filled life is recognizing the emotion as it occurs. For someone like me who would rather support others as they experience their own emotions, identifying my feelings, especially in the moment, is hard. For example, if I feel lonely, I often fill that moment by finding people with whom I can connect. Instead of feeling the loneliness and identifying the root of the loneliness or my fear of feeling lonely, I fill it quickly.
Over the last few years, I have made strides in recognizing and feeling my emotions, even the ones that scare me or make me extremely uncomfortable. This has been one of the hardest exercises in my personal journey of untangling myself. Often, the emotion from which I run has a negative memory, or memories, associated with it. However, with practice, I am learning that every emotion is fleeting and based on my perception. Understanding this, and feeling the emotion as a fleeting emotion, is liberating.
Give thanks for the moment: Regardless of what is happening, giving thanks for it is important. Gratitude for even the most difficult moments reflect a life of presence – of living in the moment. As humans, we often don’t stop to think about each moment, and as a result, we end up feeling like life is happening to us. By giving thanks for what is happening, even the moments we wish would simply slip quickly into a bad memory, we are recognizing the power of being alive. Gratitude for each moment allows us to experience the emotion and to see the lesson the universe is teaching us.
Living a joy-filled life is not impossible, but it really takes intentional work. I often fail in this quest. I get caught up in the emotion of the moment. I forget to breathe – to see a purpose – to acknolwedge the natural ebb and flow of life – to embrace the biological rythm the universe offers us. With practice, experiencing joy most of the time, even in the hardest of seasons, is possible. #MakeRoomForJoy
The Universe has its gentle and not-so-gentle ways of speaking to me. On occasion, it offers me signs so incredibly loud, I dare not ignore them. Fortunately, I have a spiritual guide, a woman whose feet kiss this earth as an educator. As a third grade teacher, she helped my daughter navigate the global turmoil on the days that unfolded after that crisp September day in 2001. Instead of fear and revenge, she quickly shifted the focus to action – to peace – to understanding. In those moments, often learned through dinner-time conversations with my impressionable third grader, I felt connected to Anne.
Through her gentle spirit, she not only taught Elizabeth how to hold fear and hope simultaneously, but also, without knowing it, Anne modeled for me how to turn inward to understand the chaos of the world. I needed a friend like Anne, and the Universe knew it as well. Because our children went to school together, I work with her husband, and we had mutual friends, our journeys eventually merged. This relationship is what the Universe intended. The relationship has pushed me into new, vulnerable spaces.
Over the last two decades, I have learned to draw on Anne’s observations – her reflections – her musings long after our visits or phone calls have passed. Unintentionally, but out of necessity, my life has called me to focus on my spiritual journey. I have danced through most of life, often pouring myself into others, ignoring my own emotional needs. I lose myself in serving others, mentoring, loving. However, losing my grandmother, my daughter’s diagnosis with a brain tumor, a divorce, have all called me to turn inward, to spend time excavating who I am, to consider a world I cannot control, to examine my purpose in the world. This is where Anne has helped me, like she did my daughter in 2001, understand the importance of leaning into fear and hope at the same time despite the delicate balancing act it requires.
My spiritual journey has led me to understand the sacred is in every moment – every day – every uncomfortable experience – every instance that fills me with great joy. As I untangle my life – my heart – my purpose, I am realizing so much about this journey. The Universe, when I pause long enough to pay attention and to listen, has offered me important lessons. With help, I am learning to stay awake to the moments as they unfold, and because of that, I see the purpose of the journey.
I’m joining an open community of writers over at Sharing Our Stories: Magic in a Blog. If you write (or want to write) just for the magic of it, consider this your invitation to join us. #sosmagic