There is no way out of one’s inner life, so one had better get into it. On the inward and downward spiritual journey, the only way out is through. ~Parker J. Palmer1
Have you ever read the beloved children’s book We’re Going on a Bear Hunt? It’s the simple story of a family who sets out on an adventure to find a bear. During their hunt they encounter several obstacles (tall grass, mud, a forest) that they can’t go over or under. Instead, they discover they have to go through.
This story by Michael Rosen came back to me recently. I read this singsong story to Ella and Luke over and over when they were little. My cousin Kristen gave this book to us as a gift. She had read it to her children. Whenever I read the book, I always hear it in her suburban Chicago accent. The last sound of the last word of the last sentence, dragging on and downward.
“We’ve got to go through ittttttt.”
That had taken on a new meaning for me in the thicket of life I’d been facing. I’d been living through ittttttt for the past decade. Parents divorcing, deaths, a monumental move, estrangement, trauma, depression, and anxiety — everything we’ve been talking about so far.
Maybe you’ve been through ittttttt, or you’re currently going through ittttttt. The thing is, if you’ve been through some kind of personal hell, there is no such thing as it simply coming to an end. Because at the end of it there you are. And you are no longer the same person you were before it. There is now debris. Residue. Damage. Soul clutter.
You may even feel a stranger to your own soul.
I found it surprising that on the other end of a traumatic situation and life-changing event, I hadn’t necessarily gone through it — I merely survived it. The true going through often happens after the event itself — the sorting, the processing, the surrender, the forgiving, the acceptance, the growth, the healing. This kind of going through really only happens when we choose to travel into our pain. This means that we have the choice to do the healing work during difficult situations, so long as we choose to travel into the pain, the moment we recognize it as such.
The temptation, however, will always be to run, escape, or expect rescue. At least those are my go-tos.
The first time I tried to run away I was around ten years old. I remember marching into our very blue, very 1980s kitchen to declare to my mom, “I just want you to know that I’m running away!” Eyes closed, nose in the air, I marched back down the long hallway to my room. I suppose I wanted her to beg me to stay. Instead, she brought a suitcase and said, “Here you go; you might need this.” I was stunned. I could imagine a mom on TV responding like this, but not my mom. There was no backing down now. I got to packing and then promptly climbed out my window — everyone knows you don’t run away walking out of the front door; I wanted to do this right. I made it down the street but never left the cul-de-sac because I was afraid. My mom knew this about me, which is why she gave me the suitcase and sent me packing.
You Are the Guardian of Change
Although responsibility usually gets the last word these days, my penchant for running followed me into adulthood.
Down the street, to the park, across the Atlantic, into my closet.
However far I’ve made it, I’ve never been able to run away from God. He is a parent, and He has been parenting me through my reactive pattern of fixating on escape and running away (I guess I’ll just call it what it is: a coping mechanism). He’s even called my bluff a few times, once with a “Here’s your suitcase!” and off to London I flew.
Whether I’ve been holed up in my closet or across the pond, I’ve learned that we can never run away from ourselves (our problems, our pain). As the saying by Jon Kabat-Zinn goes,
Wherever you go, there you are.3
What isn’t always so obvious is that when we fantasize about escape, rescue, and running, we forget that it is, after all, fantasy. We cannot escape our own minds. So far, no matter how hard I’ve wished and prayed, no person has rescued me from my troubles. I’ve looked to my father. I’ve looked to my husband. I’ve looked to leaders. I’ve looked to friends. I’ve looked to books.
No one has the power to save us, except Jesus and then ourselves. He is the Savior of our souls, and we are the guardians of our own change.
You are the guardian of your own change. And nothing will (or can) change in you unless you make a decision to change. Unless you allow God to reveal and heal. Unless you take action to sort through and go through.
Change is messy and undoubtedly so much work, which we already know. This is why we don’t want to get into it. But, Dear Reader, chances are, how you are living is already messy. The lie you are tempted to believe is that not everyone has it as bad as you. Not everyone has as much (or as difficult) work to do to heal. Don’t be deceived. We can never fully know what someone has been through, is going through, or is working through — even when we’ve been given a glimpse into their lives. As much as people spill their stories all over the Internet, it’s never the full story. We just can’t know. There’s always a decade-long memoir of heartbreak and the hard work of going through behind the scenes.
- We cannot know what truly needs changing if we do not pay detailed attention to what is happening within us.
- Things often look worse before they get better.
- People may mistake your inner work for no work at all.
- The inner work of heart transformation and the renewing of the mind yield outer fruit.
Inner work can sound daunting. Especially for those of us who are too much in our heads already. I understand that for a good many of you, the whole idea is to get out of your head. You overthink and underact. Me too. But what I’ve learned over time, and confirmed in Parker Palmer’s book Let Your Life Speak, is this: the way out of your head (your mind, will, emotions) is to get into it.
All of the inner work I was doing to sort through the clutter was not futile; it was purposeful. And the length of time that it was taking was no one’s business but the Holy Spirit’s and mine. As humans we build and review our lives around time — seconds, minutes, hours, days, months, years, but time is irrelevant to God — He does not live within its confines. He is not impatient with you or me. He is measured and thorough. I realized that the process of getting into my inner life was just that, a process. And processes take time.
The Way Through
When my family and I moved away from my childhood home, the one I had been so fruitlessly holding on to, relief wasn’t instant. It took time to ease into this change and sort through what had happened. A few months after moving, I crashed. As in couldn’t get out of bed except to feed my family, crashed. The adrenaline waned, and I was exhausted mentally, emotionally, and physically. It was summertime, warm and colorful, but for me everything felt cold and dark. My spirit was eager to sort through clutter, but my flesh was weak. I felt like I was stuck, immobile in the muck of depression. I had no solution. I couldn’t see my way through. One morning in a phone conversation, my mom read me a passage from Psalms:
I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in His word I hope;
my soul waits for the Lord
more than watchmen for the morning, more than watchmen for the morning.
O Israel, hope in the Lord!
For with the Lord there is steadfast love, and with Him is plentiful redemption.
—Psalm 130:5-7 ESV (emphasis mine)
“God has a thousand ways to set you free,” she reminded me. It was easy to believe that He had a thousand ways to set others free. In fact, we had been praying that exact prayer for someone that we both love. Yet I had never thought to pray it for myself. It’s easy to have faith and believe for others; it’s not as easy to believe for our own freedom and healing. Our vision is obstructed in the smog of our own mind, but God sees from end to beginning and He has a thousand ways.
How quickly we forget. Not only had I forgotten this scripture, I needed to be reminded Jesus is the Way. After that conversation I took to my journal and wrote out, in faith, what I wanted to see on the other side of this.
- I would like to see Stephen in a calling and career that he is fulfilled in. I can’t see a way, but You are the Way.
- I’d like to see us both in a good community using our gifts, thriving, with godly, growing friendships. I don’t see the way, but You are the Way.
- I’d like to know what You would have me continue to do. Write? Speak? Please make a way.
- I’d like to see my children with good friends and great opportunities for their futures — You are the Way.
- I’d like to see myself strong, mentally and emotionally. Happy — full of joy. You are the Way.
- I’d like to see my marriage strong and vibrant — I don’t know the way, but You are the Way.
- I’d like to see myself sharing Your Word — spreading hope, encouraging women. As I submit and abide, would You be the Way?
What would you like to see — even if you can’t see a way?
We don’t need to see the way, because as we are learning, Jesus is the Way. We must simply keep our eyes on Jesus. If He is with us — in us — then we already have the way, even if we don’t yet see it. It’s never been about us having to know the way (God can make any path straight — within the design of your inner life as well as in the outer steps we take to live out our every day).
Two things of note about the way:
- His way is gentle and humble. We learn His way by joining our life with His (Matthew 11:28-30).
- He will direct and make our paths straight and plain when we completely trust Him and don’t try to figure out everything on our own (Proverbs 3:5-6). Trying to figure everything out is exhausting and just works against us.
Whatever you’ve come up against:
_______________ [name your clutter]
We can’t avoid it.
We’ve got to go through it.
We’re not overwhelmed because Jesus is the Way.
1. Parker J. Palmer, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000), 85.
- Helen Oxenbury and Michael Rosen, We’re Going on a Bear Hunt (New York: Little Simon, 1997).
- Jon Kabat-Zinn, Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life (1994; repr., New York: Hachette Books, 2005), xiii.
Excerpted with permission from Unclutter Your Soul by Trina McNeilly, copyright Trina McNeilly.
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Maybe the temptation for you, too, will always be to run, escape, or expect rescue. Do you fantasize about running or escape? What are you avoiding going through or getting into? Jesus is the Way! Come share your thoughts with us. We want to hear from you about uncluttering your soul with Jesus. ~ Laurie McClure, Faith.Full