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Growing by Shrinking

In these final months of my 20's, I find myself reflecting a lot on how much I have changed in the 10 years of 20's.  While I have very few regrets, there are more than a few things that hindsight has been a humbling 20/20 to accept as part of who I am and where I come from.  Maybe you can relate.

At age 20, I was convinced I'd go to grad school and then likely onto a doctoral program to become a famous musician.  My entire identity and self-worth was wrapped up in being an accomplished musician.  God definitely gave me some talent, but what really fueled my achievements was pride and some entitled self-righteousness.  I just wanted to be good to prove to myself and others that I deserved recognition.  As that dream unraveled and then all but disappeared later in my 20's, what I'm left realizing is that it was never about the music or the achievements themselves.  All I was after was the recognition -- the acknowledgment, the confirmation that someone (anyone!) had seen me, heard me, and liked me.  Music was just an outlet for bigger questions inside.  And a positive reward is addictive to personalities like mine who are eager to please and who hate causing conflict.  It took 10 years of not being a "real" musician to get to the root of it all: I want to be seen and heard for who I am.  That's not wrong, but it wasn't worth building my life on either.

Similarly, in my mid-20's, I tried a whole slew of jobs over the course of a couple years: missionary, bible teacher, worship leader, youth worker, preschool teacher, gym teacher (HA!), daycare owner (have mercy!), and eventually ministry assistant.  If you've known me prior to that season, you know how odd it was for me to be so scattered and unsure after the first 20 years of my life were so structured and "perfect." (A-student, oldest child, total nerd... you get it.)  But at my core, the question was never really, "What job should I work?" It was always, "Do I fit here?  Do I have influence here?  Do my skill sets and giftings matter to these people or am I just a placeholder?  (And can I sustain what's expected of me here?)"  Again, it was only partially about the job, and more about answering the questions, "Do I matter?  If so, to whom and in what capacity?"  We all crave and need belonging and attachment.  Again, not wrong, but definitely misplaced hope to go looking for that in the workplace.

Over time, what I've come to realize is that our culture is screaming two things and they don't necessarily agree with each other:
1) Culture today says "You do you -- go do whatever fulfills you.  Grow, flourish, be who you are no matter what anyone says.  Find your happiness and revel in it because life is short."
2) And then, almost in the same breath, culture says things like, "We need balance.  Don't go too overboard-- don't be radical.  Make sure you don't turn heads for the wrong reasons.  Be reasonable."
So to summarize: turn heads for who you are, but don't turn heads if it makes other people feel awkward.  Turn heads, but don't "turn heads."  Weird.  No wonder the younger generations are riddled with anxiety -- this is impossible to define!

But actually, as a Christian, I wonder if there's something to this.  As I've grown up in this last decade, what I've noticed is that some of the healthiest people in my life are both growing and shrinking at the same time.  That sounds impossible, but hang with me.  While I certainly don't mean only physically, I will cite exercise regiments as a good example -- when we are consistent with a healthy lifestyle, parts of us shrink and other muscles grow.  We are both bigger and smaller, older but healthier.  Progress or growth doesn't always mean that something gets bigger, faster, richer, or louder.  Progress is simply forward motion.  Therefore, growth can come by subtraction because if you don't need it to move forward, letting go allows you to move forward faster or better. Hebrews 12 talks about getting rid of the sin that clings so closely so we can run the race set before us.

The picture that best represents this I think is of a statue carved from marble.  All of us start out with a predetermined set of dimensions (family, personality traits, etc) and life has a way of contributing to shaping us (forward progress) by chipping away certain parts.  As a Christian, I fully believe that God is the one who ultimately allows the chisel to drop where it does, even when that means really hard things happen and really large parts of our life fall away.  It's not easy or comfortable and a LOT of days I would wrestle God for the chisel if I could, but it's not up to me to cast the vision for my block of life -- God knows which shapes fit best with this material.  Sculpture-making is as much about carefully removing what does not belong as it is about accentuating what does.  I can know more of who I am when God tells me who I'm not.

But I still have responsibility for how I live my life, even if I can't determine where I'm going.  When I was intentional about cutting out certain things or when some of the doors I hoped to walk through closed, I had a choice in how I reacted.  We either get better or get bitter when faced with hard circumstances or loss.  I definitely got bitter a few times.  If you knew me in a bitter season... I am so sorry.  I chose badly.  It's possible to shrink and get sick in our hearts and sometimes this happens without us hardly even knowing it.  But if we choose well -- if we see the "no" as a form of protection rather than a value judgement, it's easier to grow.  If we don't choose well, our shrinking impacts others, too.  I think one of the hardest places to accept a subtraction was in unexpected loss or grief.  Please hear me -- loss and grief are in a different category.  They need attention and our hearts just take time to heal after loss.  But I will also say from my own experience, it's entirely possible to get lost in grief and to stay stuck in sorrow.  And no matter how we deal, life just keeps moving.  And if we curl up in defeat, we are going to be left behind with our heart sickness. Been there. No interest in going back.

After the daycare debacle of 2016, I was determined to fail forward.  I didn't really know what that meant, but I knew moving forward wasn't going to be easy.  During unemployment, I found some resources that were unspeakably valuable for working through the pain and loss of this job transition.  Those resources became rungs on a ladder to climb to new heights in my own emotional and relational health in the coming years.  I finally had a vocabulary for naming what I felt, not just in this transition, but for some other really hard things earlier in life.  But once I could name them and really see it for what it was, it was SO MUCH EASIER to just let go -- to not keep holding all the hurt inside and to say with earnest belief, "God knew, He saw, He cared for me then, He carried me through, and He's with me now."  I also walked through the grief of losing my dear grandma in that season.  I was mad at God for taking her 3 days before I planned to visit her and without another chance to share my hope in Jesus with her.  But I couldn't get stuck there, either.  Nothing was going to bring her back -- and my life desperately needed some forward motion.  So I took the grief as it came, cried when I needed to, spoke my anger to God when I needed to, and then gradually let go of something I never had control of anyway.  It was really hard to let go of all the pain of that summer, but it was a very freeing step forward -- I'm a better person because of it.  My life shrunk and grew at the same time.

Some of the best progress in my life has been "shrinking."  It has helped me see who I really am and to not be embarrassed or ashamed of who I am not.  There's a cartoon out there, commonly shared among educators, that simply displays a line of animals and a tree.  The caption reads something like, "This is teaching."  And one of the animals (presumably a teacher) says to the others "Climb that tree."  You know how this plays out -- the cat does well, the bear manages, the insects take a while, but the fish and the turtle fail.  Yes, this is what being a teacher is like... but this is also a reminder of the diversity everywhere in this world.  It's a beautiful thing to be different as long as our expectations are right-sized and we are employ empathy toward the experiences of others.  I'm no longer ashamed that my life hasn't looked or functioned like "everyone else's" because in the end, it was never meant to. I wish we cared more about helping people succeed in their strengths than promoting the latest trends and patterns for "fitting in."

So today, regardless of where life has you, I wonder -- are you shrinking, growing, both, or neither?  Is the sculpture of you clearer cut today than it was yesterday?  What else has to be chipped away?  Where do you want more clarity?  And what will it take to get there? These are things I think about in the final days of 29, but they're worth a gander no matter your age.


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