No Matter What

With a strong moral opinion, I was in the minority.

During a class assignment and subsequent class discussion, I became aware of one of my personal biases surrounding a very controversial topic. Just a few weeks into the semester, we have already discussed transgender issues, abortion, LGBTQIQA+ identities, religion, end-of-life decisions, and laws, among an array of other topics. With strong beliefs about numerous controversial subjects, I often speak up about my views and my reasoning behind them.

While describing the views that I hold close to my heart, I realized that the views of my classmates are just as strong and valid as my own. Our beliefs vary across an entire spectrum, and I found myself wanting to know more about the basis of beliefs of the people around me. I know why I believe what I believe, and I could discuss any of my opinions for hours, but I have limited understanding of views outside of my own. With this recognition, I requested feedback from those who bear views different from my own so that I could begin to understand and expand my perspective.

We all have biases, morals, and values that influence how we think and act. These are what help us navigate life and make congruent decisions that lead us towards self-fulfillment and self-actualization. If we didn’t have some sort of guideline to live by, life would be utterly chaotic! However, it often seems that everybody lives by their own guidelines and life is chaotic anyway, but by attempting to grasp the various outlooks that surround us, we can step outside of ourselves and relate to our neighbors wherever they are. We do not necessarily have to be the same to be respectful. Disagreeing does not mean hating, and different does not mean bad.

As a mental health counselor, I need to be able to work with any client who walks through my door, regardless of their past experiences or any of the qualities that make them a unique individual, including race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, religion, disability, and so on. My own personal beliefs can not impede, and I can not push my own agenda. No matter how similar to me or different from me someone is, it is my job to help them determine and achieve their goals.

To be completely honest, it has been difficult for me, as a person of faith, to consider how I will be able to approach clients who act contradictory to beliefs that I uphold. I have struggled with the idea that I may play a role in actions that go against what my faith teaches. I find it tough to remove my own biases from situations that affect my moral compass.

In saying that, as a Christian, I know that I am called to love my brothers and sisters. No matter what.

When Jesus said in John 13:34, “I give you a new commandment: love one another,” He meant it. He didn’t follow up by saying, “love one another, but only the people who agree with you,” or “love one another, except if they do something you don’t like.” Jesus calls us to really, truly LOVE each other. No matter what.

Authentic love requires us to embrace each other’s uniqueness, form relationships, and challenge each other to grow. We desire more than mediocrity, and support our fellow humans in finding ways to thrive in their lives.

So often I try to make my own life about me. I want to focus on my opinions, my desires, and my endeavors. But when I sit in a session with a client, it’s not about me. When I answer a phone call from a friend who needs someone to talk to, it’s not about me. When I pray with someone for their intentions, it’s not about me.

When we can sit with another human, really listen to them, validate their experience, and engage in discussion, we love them. Not with a fake or fleeting love, but a love that says, “I am here for you.

We are not better than our brothers and sisters who make different decisions than us, and we are not superior for upholding or not upholding personal moral values. We are called to love people who are different than us, people who disagree with us, and people who make different choices than us. In the grand scheme of things, we are more similar than we are different.

In Joy, Monica

If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, his religion is vain. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

James 1:26-27

Advertisements

Turn On The Light

I felt my heartbeat radiating down to my toes.

I sat in class waiting to share with my fellow mental health counseling students how I ended up in the helping profession, cycling my journey through my mind. I had the story down pat. I have the perfect, succinct answer that I recite when people ask me about my studies and career goals, a sensible mix of vulnerability and victory. It is true, but it is comfortable. While my classmates opened up their hearts about their diverse struggles and triumphs that ultimately led them to the same classroom as me, I knew that comfortable wasn’t going to cut it.

My stomach turned every time another student finished their story and I attempted to work up the courage to begin my own tale. The openness of the people around me who I view as strong, independent, and capable pushed me to realize and decide to tell the whole, raw, true story of how I really got to counseling. In a room full of current and future mental health counselors, I was nervous to expose my weaknesses, but the resulting response was one of support and acceptance.

My heartbeat gently returned back to my chest.

Although nerve-wracking in the moment, speaking up about my mental health and owning my story over and over again in different ways brings me abounding and profound freedom.

Shortly after, my university’s student body president asked me to join her in advocating for mental health awareness. After all my preparation, I eagerly and nervously awaited my turn to approach the podium to present our proposal to the student government. During this, I gained a vivid realization of the full circle that I have come, from someone once stigmatized and ashamed to someone now advocating on behalf of others. My struggles have a purpose, and embracing my flaws makes my voice stronger.

As Ephesians 5:11-14 states, “Take no part in the fruitless works of darkness; rather expose them, for it is shameful even to mention the things done by them in secret; but everything exposed by the light becomes visible, for everything that becomes visible is light.

With this mindset, even our deepest, darkest struggles can become a beacon if we allow them into the light. I have seen this in action in my own life and in the lives of the people around me, as we embrace our burdens and use them for good. It may feel conflicting to admit our faults in a culture so geared toward “perfection” (whatever that really means), but once we take our secrets out of hiding, they lose power over us. Courageous people who are not deterred by discomfort change the world one-by-one; they use their weakness to bring hope to others, and it becomes their strength.

I used to refer to my counseling sessions as a “meeting” and kept my mental health struggles behind closed doors. When I finally decided that I didn’t want to be ashamed of getting help, I began to refer to my therapy as casually as describing my lunch plans or visiting the dentist. I started to refer to my mental illnesses by name and accept that I wasn’t perfect, and I didn’t have to be. If my friends treated me differently for being authentic, then they weren’t really my friends in the first place. I actually grew closer to the people around me as they followed my lead and shared their own struggles. The first brave moment led to a flood of openness and sincerity.

In the entirety of this process, my faith in Jesus Christ constantly gave me the strength to conquer each obstacle and have that “first brave moment” repeatedly with new groups of people. I’ll be honest, it’s still tough every single time, but I have never once regretted being my true self, and He has never let me down.

Free yourself from the impossible idea that you must be flawless, because *newsflash* nobody is. Give yourself the ultimate gift of the opportunity to thrive and the chance to turn your weakness into strength. We must be ready to be humbled through the process of becoming aware of our own weaknesses, revealing our struggles, and embracing imperfection. Through it all, we become empowered by the strength we find in Christ.

In Joy, Monica

He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me. Therefore, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints, for the sake of Christ; for when I am weak, then I am strong. 

2 Corinthians 12:9-10

Into the Storm

The jam-packed northbound interstate paralleled an almost barren southbound road.

Over the past week, Hurricane Irma has rocked the world of all Floridians and our many neighbors scattered throughout the Atlantic Ocean just south of us. At the mention of a storm of Category 5 grandeur, cases of water flew off the shelves, plywood became the newest house accessory, and finding a stocked gas station was like winning the lotto (except you had to pay money). Overheard conversations and social media posts quickly transformed into almost 100% chatter of Irma and her impending doom. Although highly susceptible to change, when the center of the largest storm on record was predicted to pass directly over my city, people started to panic.

Everyone had two choices: stay or leave.

With advance warning and a safe place to go, I packed my life into a suitcase and hit the road. While driving away from the imminent disaster with everyone else that made the choice to leave, I realized that numerous people had made an incomprehensible third choice. Hordes of emergency vehicles, electrical trucks, and Army National Guard units drove in groves in the other direction, right into the storm. Against all survival logic, these brave people left their families and homes and forged ahead selflessly in order to bring aid to victims of destruction.

While locked inside because of Irma’s wrath, I deeply appreciated the first responders risking their lives for others. It’s easy to feel helpless watching the news on repeat and attempting to ration the food supply, but it’s important to know our individual place in this type of situation and what we are realistically capable of.

Not everybody can run into the storm. Not everybody should run into the storm.

We are grateful for people who do run into the storm.

Although I feel helpless in the brunt of a hurricane, I myself am preparing to run into a very different type of storm. As a mental health counselor-in-training, I study every day to ready myself to enter into the pain and suffering of my neighbors. When people suffer from stigma and live in crisis, or try to escape from turmoil, I will venture into the eye of their storm with supplies and equipment to help. This is a cause I will be ready and able to support.

While no one can be helpful in every domain, everyone can be helpful in some domain. Maybe you can offer to buy groceries for a neighbor who is struggling, or perhaps you tutor a classmate who doesn’t quite grasp the new concepts. You may be able to donate money or time to a local non-profit, or even just strike a conversation with someone who seems to be having a rough day. While we all can’t drive into a hurricane with huge trucks, we can find ways to enter into the struggles of people around us and be a source of relief.

Against all reason, sometimes we drive in the opposite direction of the rest of the world. It may seem counterintuitive, but the human capacity for love and empathy in the middle of a storm is a wondrous phenomenon. To all the people who drove machinery, water, fuel, and rescue supplies towards my fellow Floridians, thank you. The materials are imperative, but selflessness, bravery, and compassion constitute the real fundamental armor in this battle.

In Joy, Monica

‘For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.’ ‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.’

Matthew 25:35-36, 40b

Picture Imperfect

If I had known the picture was coming, I would have smiled.

While at a lively amusement park, twenty-something other riders and I all braved the exact same rollercoaster at the exact same time. Upon arriving at the end of the exhibit and seeing the wall of screens bearing mid-ride pictures, I learned that we all actually went on a very different ride. A single, unanticipated snapshot showed one rider elatedly holding their hands above their head, while the person next to them held on to the handles with all their might, and the person next to them bore a wind-blown smile of glee.

The cameras captured one moment of an entire journey.

I didn’t know that a picture would result as an optional memorable token of my race through the park, so I enjoyed the ride authentically, and the resulting photo showed a fleeting moment of my genuine self. As a wild and new ride, I endured a multitude of emotions throughout the two-minute course. If the strategically placed cameras had been located at the beginning of the coaster instead of the end, or perhaps at a rest instead of mid-drop, the resulting pictorial outcome may have been quite different. Those same three patrons may have walked up to a very different picture.

At any given moment, we see only a small portion of any one person’s life. We often function like the cameras on a rollercoaster, only getting one image out of what makes up an entire storyline. Throughout our lifespan, if we are lucky, we will get to know the full story (or most of it) of a small handful of people. We will know significant portions of the story of a slightly larger group of people. However, with most people we encounter, we get only a glimpse into their detailed and significant life. We may only get one single snapshot.

While we walk along a city street, browse through a grocery store, or sit in a class, everyone around us is living a life that we don’t get to see. We see snapshots of a teenager rushing through a red light, a mother toting crying children through the cereal aisle, or a classmate misplacing the day’s homework. We see an elderly man carrying his wife’s purse past street shops, a cashier smiling through their shift, or a teacher explaining their passion. This snapshot tells us something, but it doesn’t even scratch the surface of everything.

It’s easy to come to conclusions based on one image of another person, but humans are utterly complex, and it would be an injustice to reduce anyone’s totality to our limited viewpoint. No one is just one thing! We are all a full story, not based on one event, one outcome, or one decision. We are a culmination of who we decide to be.

Sometimes we catch a snapshot of others while they are in the midst of their own personal metaphorical rollercoaster. Some of these pictures are raw, vulnerable, and imperfect. In everyday life, there is generally no way for us to know where someone is at on that coaster, and if what they reveal is authentic. And even if we can relate to someone and have experienced the same situation, or been on the same rollercoaster, we cannot assume that we fully understand their actual emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual experience. You never know, maybe they smiled for the camera. Even if numerous people go through the same exact situation, each individual’s experience is unique to them.

We can never completely understand what’s behind the array of varying emotions and reactions of our fellow rollercoaster riders, but we can come pretty close by riding alongside them and trying to understand the forces that lead them to the snapshot we are privileged to see.

In Joy, Monica

Finally, all of you, be of one mind, sympathetic, loving toward one another, compassionate, humble. Do not return evil for evil, or insult for insult; but, on the contrary, a blessing, because to this you were called, that you might inherit a blessing.

1 Peter 3:8-9