Hello dear friends,
This isn’t a typical blog post but rather, an announcement of sorts. I’ve decided to take a six-month hiatus from blogging to pursue the possibility of what I am calling a “longer-form writing project.” I know, could I be more vague? It’s not intentional, I promise.
The thing is, I’ve been feeling an increasing pull over the last couple of months to go deeper with my writing. I’m not yet sure what this will look like, but I do know that because of my work schedule at The Salvation Army, my bandwidth for creativity is much more limited. I realized that I can’t keep up the weekly blog and the monthly The Back Patio (my newsletter) and still have the time and space to pursue a longer-form project. So I figured, why not take a break from blogging/newsletter writing, and use that time to dig into whatever it is that seems to be tugging at my soul.
Will it be a book? Your guess is as good as mine!
What I do know is that I am going to try to write where my heart and the Spirit lead, and if they lead to a book, then we’ll figure out what to do with that when the time comes.
I don’t know if I will write about this new vague writing project over on Instagram, but regardless, I would be delighted if you would like to stay connected over there. I don’t spend much time on social media anymore, but I do still enjoy posting on IG a couple of times a week — mostly nature photos, quotes and random thoughts — so if that strikes your fancy, let’s stay in touch there.
Before I sign off, I want to express my deepest gratitude to you for continuing to walk alongside me this past year. Your comments and emails have given me much joy and peace, and it has been a great consolation to know that I have not walked alone through this wilderness. Thank you for your friendship.
The same verse — Deuteronomy 30:19 — crossed my path twice in two days last week, and when that happens, I pay attention. I first read the verse in Sarah Bessey’s new book Miracles and Other Reasonable Things (which I loved and highly recommend). Then I read the very same verse again the next morning in Christine Valters Paintner’s book The Soul of a Pilgrim (which I also loved and highly recommend):
“I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.” (Deuteronomy 30:19)
In other words, we have a choice, right? And, as Paintner puts it, “Each choice allows us to move toward the things which bring us life. If we don’t choose the path of growth, we can move toward that which drains us of life. The call of the pilgrim is to stay awake to our own patterns of life and death.”
Staying awake to our patterns of life and death sounds like a valuable and fruitful practice, but I know from experience that it’s easier said than done. It takes deep intentionality not only to stay awake, but also to awaken to these patterns — many of which are deeply ingrained in us — in the first place. So much can get in the way of both our awakening and our staying awake: busyness, distraction, expectations (our own and others’), depletion (physical, mental or spiritual), fear, self-protection and our insecurities.
I’m nearly 50. But only in the last year have I begun to figure out exactly what gives me life. I simply had never taken the time to stop mindlessly going through the motions in order to ask which ways of being made me come alive and which depleted me. Always three steps ahead of myself, always striving to accomplish the next goal or meet the next milestone, I tumbled from one project to the next without pausing for a breath. I didn’t ever stop to consider whether I was actually getting life from this tremendous expenditure of energy.
When I finally did stop to reflect, I realized most of my ways of being and doing – platform-building, speaking, social media, saying yes to things I didn’t want to do, striving, comparing – were draining the life from me and driving me farther and farther away from my true self.
Ironically, I think one of the reasons I stayed caught in the “death pattern” for so long was because I was too depleted to begin to make the hard choices and changes I knew I needed. I was simply too tired to care and in too far to know where or how to begin. It stands to reason that the more depleted we are, the less we are able to make the very choices that will begin to replenish and sustain us.
I remember during the first few days of January last year I read a verse from First Corinthians that resonated deeply with me. I had just released True You and that, combined with the holiday season, had drained me to my core. I was running on fumes when I read this:
“Let’s live our part of the Feast, not as raised bread swollen with the yeast of evil, but as flat bread — simple, genuine, unpretentious.” (5:6-8, The Message).
I could see that flat bread in my mind’s eye — light, good, warm from the oven, unadorned and plain, yet satisfying — and something in me knew that’s what I desired in the deepest part of myself. I yearned for simple. I desired genuine but ordinary.
These days my life looks very much like flat bread. I go to the gym with my husband and we spin side-by-side. I walk the dog in the Nebraska winter wind. I drop Rowan off at his viola lessons and return 45 minutes later to pick him up. I write fundraising copy for The Salvation Army. I take my vitamins and go to bed early.
I still occasionally gaze longingly through the bakery window at all the fancy loaves lined up on the cooling rack. The siren song of “more, bigger, better” still captivates me from time to time, tempting me to revert to my old patterns and ways. Mostly, though, I am working on staying awake to that which gives me life, and in the process, I am discovering that flat bread is much more satisfying and filling than I ever could have imagined.
Last weekend I read the story in Matthew 4 of Jesus’ call to Peter, Andrew, James and John to follow him and become his disciples. “Come,” Jesus said to the fishermen. “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”
Matthew tells us that all four men immediately dropped their nets, left their boats and followed Jesus, and I wondered, in that moment, what Jesus might be asking me to leave behind in order to follow him. My initial response was, “Nothing.” After all, I reasoned, last year was the year of leaving things behind. I quit book publishing, I quit writing my monthly column for the local newspaper, I quit speaking. I let so much go; surely there couldn’t be more to release, right?
In addition to the Year of Quitting Everything, 2019 was also a season of deep soul-searching. I read several spiritual and secular “self-help” books, re-entered counseling and filled journal after journal with questions and reflections. I was on a quest, a pilgrimage of sorts, to uncover my true, God-created self, and I was determined to leave no stone unturned. It was an exhilarating, gratifying, transformational season.
Research is my sweet spot, my comfortable place. Nothing makes me happier than gathering facts, evidence, knowledge and answers – especially, it turns out, when my research topic is my own self. I dove into my year of self-discovery with gusto. But here’s what I am realizing about my desire for knowledge, information, clarity and answers: it is, ironically, yet one more way I keep myself at arm’s length from my own self, from others and from God.
There is nothing inherently damaging about [most] self-help books (spiritual or secular). There’s nothing wrong with looking to the guru of the day for guidance and insights. Many offer a tremendous depth of wisdom and compassion, and I learned a lot from what I read this past year. The problem arises, however, when this quest for knowledge and insight becomes both another distraction – a way to avoid – and a means to control.
As long as I assume I can find the answer – the way – “out there,” I don’t have to sit with what’s right here in the deepest part of myself.
When I heard Jesus tell me to drop my nets, I realized he was asking me to drop what had become a safety net. “Come, follow me,” he said. He was asking me to leave my desire for clarity and direction behind in order to walk alongside him in trust, regardless of whether or not I know where we are going.
Jesus didn’t give the disciples any direction when he called them. He didn’t point out which way they were headed; he didn’t offer any clear insights or answers or even hint about where they were going. He said nothing other than, “Come, follow me,” along with the cryptic, “and I will make you fish for people.” Jesus’ presence was answer enough, and he asked his disciples to trust him with that single piece of evidence.
Nets can offer us safety, but safety is not always the better way. What looks like safety can end up entangling us. What looks like security can keep us from the true freedom into which God invites us.
It is good and right to be attentive to God’s movement in our lives, but it is also good and right to trust that he will make the way known without our grasping or pushing, without our seeking or striving – without, in fact, a lot of effort on our part at all. This is not complacency or apathy, but rather, a receiving, a yielding – a surrendering in confident trust that God is putting everything right with us and for us.
As I am learning, there’s always more to leave behind; there’s always something else to drop. Each time we release, we come closer alongside God.
I haven’t always been a writer. I wasn’t the kind of kid who scribbled stories or penned poems or daydreamed fantastical narratives in my head. I didn’t dream about “becoming a writer” someday.
When I went off to college I majored in English mainly because I loved to read and could craft a well-structured, articulate research paper. After I graduated I worked for more than a decade in both the corporate and the non-profit worlds, where I wrote annual reports and brochures, ad copy and marketing content, case statements and fundraising letters.
It wasn’t until I was in my late 30s that the process of excavating my spiritual and religious background ultimately led me to write my first book – and then three more books after that.
What I am realizing now, more than a year after publishing my last book and nearly a year since I stepped out of the publishing arena, is that I have always written to produce a particular outcome. In my corporate and non-profit jobs, I wrote to produce marketing and fundraising content. And as an author, I wrote for the purpose of publishing books. I even began blogging in 2009, long before I had an agent or a book contract, solely to build a platform for what I hoped would be my first published book.
I enjoyed the work. Writing was invigorating and satisfying, and I was passionate about it. I believed it was my calling. But what I am beginning to understand now is that there is a difference between pure passion – engaging in your passion because you love it and because you can’t imagine not doing it and because it’s woven into who you are as a person – and passion driven by extrinsic rewards.
Psychologist Robert Vallerand calls these two types of passion “harmonious passion” and “obsessive passion.” And the difference between the two comes from how they are internalized in one’s identity.
According to Vallerand:
“Harmonious passion (HP) results from an autonomous internalization of the activity into the person’s identity. An autonomous internalization occurs when individuals have freely accepted the activity as important for them without any contingencies attached to it. Individuals are not compelled to do the activity but rather they freely choose to do so. With this type of passion, the activity occupies a significant but not overpowering space in the person’s identity and is in harmony with other aspects of the person’s life.” (my bold)
Obsessive passion (OP), on the other hand, “results from a controlled internalization of the activity into one’s identity. Such an internalization originates from intrapersonal and/or interpersonal pressure either because certain contingencies are attached to the activity such as feelings of social acceptance or self-esteem, or because the sense of excitement derived from activity engagement becomes uncontrollable. Thus, although individuals like the activity, they feel compelled to engage in it because of these internal contingencies that come to control them.” (my bold)
Scott Barry Kaufman and Carolyn Gregoire summarize Vallerand’s hypothesis in their book Wired to Create, concluding this:
“Obsessive passion is an indicator that the activity has not been healthily integrated into a person’s overall sense of self. The ego feeds on high performance, and the person may find herself pushing too hard with little improvement, sometimes leading to mental and physical injury. In a nutshell: harmoniously passionate people are impelled to create, whereas obsessively passionate people are compelled to create by more extrinsic factors.”
In other words, it all comes down to how a person internalizes their passion. Does their passion become part of them because they love it and they would pursue it no matter what the outcome? Or does their passion become part of them because they have connected it to their sense of value and self-worth?
Oh boy. Lightbulb moment: I fall into the obsessive passion camp.
Obviously there are many authors who are both impelled and compelled to write. In other words, they are successful and probably at least somewhat motivated by extrinsic factors (books sales, best seller lists, etc.), but they also receive deep joy and satisfaction from the creative process. Their scale probably tips generously toward harmonious passion.
My problem, it turns out, is that my scale tips heavily toward obsessive passion – always has. Yes, when I was writing books I desired to share stories that I hoped could help or at least resonate with others. Yes, I enjoy writing. But let’s cut straight to the chase: I was largely in it for the external rewards (publication, status, recognition, approval). And that, combined with the inevitable depletion that came from publishing four books in five years, thousands of blog posts and an infinite number of social media posts, led to a creative and professional breakdown of sorts (and perhaps a wee bit of a personal breakdown).
Which brings me to today. After a professional lifetime of writing for extrinsic reward, I am now learning how to write simply for the joy of it. As silly as it sounds, I am slowly teaching myself how to have harmonious passion for writing. I am learning how to pursue my passion without any contingencies attached to it.
I do believe harmonious passion can be learned, especially if a seed of it is there (however deeply buried it may be). And I know the seed of harmonious passion for writing is in me because of how I’ve often felt these past few months when I am writing. Whole hours slip by unnoticed when I am at my desk, fingers on the keyboard. I am relishing language – reveling in the simple but deeply fulfilling hunt for the perfect word or a gratifying turn of phrase. I am dipping my little toe into writing poetry, just because. And while I know journaling is, for me, a fruitful way to nurture self-awareness and growth, I also appreciate that writing in a public space helps me improve my craft and grow as a writer…which is why I am still writing here, rather than solely in the pages of my private journal.
That said, it’s not easy to break a lifelong habit. Writing for outcomes and extrinsic rewards is my default mode; it’s automatic. Which means every time I catch myself thinking about platform or “felt need” or whether a particular post will resonate with my audience, I have to gently redirect myself back to the reasons I write these days, which are all rather basic:
Because I like working with words.
Because it helps me figure out who I am and what I think about things.
Because it’s challenging but also (mostly) fun.
I haven’t ruled out the possibility of writing another book someday, though I can’t imagine doing so anytime soon. I do know this though: if I do step down the book-writing road again, the book I write will come from a deep place of harmonious passion in me.
What about you? Have you ever struggled with obsessive passion?