I’m sitting 30,000 feet above the earth as I write this. I was elated when the American Airlines flight attendant poured my plastic, clear cup mostly full of ice and one quarter full of ginger ale and then, to my delight, passed over the entire can full of sugary goodness for me to enjoy. What an indulgence. I don’t normally drink soda, but my guilty pleasure is a nice, cold ginger ale, and I only drink them when I’m in the air, flying above the stretches of green and blue below. The distance between myself and the earth as I soar across the darkened North American sky creates a real sense of daredevil-ness, so I delight myself to one ginger ale. (Maybe this feeling is why my sister is becoming a pilot). I watch the dissolved carbon dioxide in my sugary elixir bubble up to the top like the joy I feel within myself. I rejoice in this feeling, because it may be fleeting, and I want to hold on as long as I can.
I’m convinced life is a series of catching the bubbles of joy, laughter, and happiness when they rise within us. They may be fleeting, but simply indulging in the goodness of life can bring them back.
I was reminded this past Sunday of an image I had a few weeks ago, in the midst of my medical school interview season. I was at Ethos church one Sunday when we were given some extra time to reflect and spend time in prayer and communion with God. In a moment of desperation to hear from God, I was given a powerful image that still lingers with me.
Last year I had a dream that I was in a small, wooden sailboat that had a beautiful orange and red sail that carried me through a little lake. The water was peaceful and calm and a dark, deep shade of blue. As I went along easily in this beautiful little serenity, I looked up to see – not physically see more than simply understand – that God was pulling my sailboat along the river. That he was the grand designer of all the adventures in my life, even the simple and mundane. Even the exotic and chaotic, he was the grandeur creator. I tucked this image away in my heart to grasp onto when I felt like I was aimlessly sailing my boat into the uncharted sea; someone greater than me already knows both the path and the destination.
Later that year, in the spring or summer of this year, I had another vision that I was walking through a series of wooden rooms with variously sized doors and windows. Except that it wasn’t really me more than I was just a set of big feet (it sounds strange) but it became clear that the purpose was for me to hone into these feet, the manifestation of our physical foundation. The things that carry us from place to place. In this image, I looked down to see God holding, gently, the tops of my feet as he picked up each one and set back down through the house of rooms and doors. Some doors we came to were closed, but I would glance over to see an open window filling with sunshine – and God brought me to that closed door for a reason. Had I walked through it, I would have never seen the beauty coming through the window. I continue to see this image of an omnipotent, kind God leading me gently and thoughtfully through the maze that is my life.
Finally, I had a vision within the last few months of another God moment. This one perhaps more connected to my feelings at the time. Early this year in the semester, I was dealing with some unwanted questioning about my life. I felt misplaced and out-of-order. I grappled with these feelings for a few weeks, always wondering where they came from and why I felt so odd and unfamiliar to even myself (the Queen of Self-Reflection!), but I did. I felt, maybe depressed? Maybe anxious? Maybe fearful of my uncertain future? Maybe scared of leaving a place like Belmont and the routine of my life? Who knows. I carried these thoughts with me into church one Sunday. As I sat in prayer, a time I’m so thankful Ethos gives us to have, I had a vision of myself standing along the edge of a beach. I was all alone, no one else was on the beach except me – desolate for miles to come. The vast ocean lay before me, always active while simultaneously calm. The stretch of shore expanded behind me. I thought to my previous images, and expectantly, I looked up and down the beach to see Jesus walking toward me or looking for me or something. But to my surprise – I saw nothing. No spirit. No person. Not a single movement. I stared ahead toward the ocean, thinking to myself, God, where are you? I expected him to show up. But then I looked down and saw the constant crashing of the ocean waves against my fragile human legs. The waves continued on, constantly washing across my feet, removing the remnants of sand that lingered from before, and immediately I heard, “Mary, I am the ocean. Constantly washing you anew. I’m always here, even in places you don’t expect me to be.” God painted this beautiful image in my head, and I rolled up the canvas to carry with me forever.
May your boat sail on, footsteps continue on, and waves carry on, washing you anew every day.
Following Jesus can be hard. Temptations abound in a world that glorifies temporary pleasure over long-term happiness and quick intimacy over intentional relationships. It’s easy to fall prey to superficial, surface-level friendship on social media and to the black hole of beauty, trendy fads, and “aesthetic” that permeates our Instagram pages. It’s hard to remember to love your neighbor when your neighbor is someone who you feel alienated, victimized, or persecuted by and it’s especially hard to imagine loving our worldwide neighbors when we shut them out and make them feel neglected and orphaned. Remembering to focus on your inner adornments is forgotten when we aspire to look like Kylie Jenner and celebrities who battle the same insecurities that we do. Being a follower of Jesus Christ in a society of trendy, oftentimes hypocritical Christianity is especially challenging. People mistrust Christians because they’ve been hurt by us, whether because of some outspoken, radically conservative voices or because they see an absence of love and acceptance like they thought Jesus gave. Overcoming the mistrust that pollutes our society is our responsibility as Christians, to be vessels of Truth, acceptance, and compassion. But following Jesus can be hard, and the difficulty starts within ourselves.
I read in Colossians 2:12 this morning: “having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.” The words that caught my attention were “buried” and “faith”. Our societal burdens and insecurities can be easily buried with Christ through baptism, a literal washing away of all those things that bring us down. I imagine going under water in an act of commitment and proclamation to God and leaving behind my desire to be perceived a certain way online, by the ones I love, and to total strangers. Leaving behind any addictions or weakness. Burying the things that stretch and test you — in the worst of ways. That is what baptism in Jesus Christ offers. There is a second aspect to this relationship with Christ that is the hard part, the daily struggle that we face that I described above.
And that is faith. When we come up out of those waters of forgiveness, a lifelong journey of faith ensues. And no, it isn’t easy. It requires waking up daily to thank God for whatever will happen that day — when you are peeved at work, stressed by finances, neglected by friends, hurt by significant others — God wants thanksgiving for even those moments. It can be easy to think, why didn’t the God of the universe make it easy to be a follower of Christ? Why am I constantly being inflicted with temptations and tragedy that feel far from God? Is it even possible to be close to my savior in a society that separated from Him? Why is this so hard? I ask these questions like any Christian does, and the only comforting conclusion I can come to is one of love.
It’s simple: no one wants to be in love with someone who didn’t have to choose to love them back. Love requires sacrifice and compromise, commitment and compassion. Christ showed us the most radical act of love possible and simply asks for a fraction of that given back to Him. It may be hard, but it is worth it.
People talk about meditation as a new healing remedy, equivalent to the stardom of aspirin for heart attacks. Apps like “Headspace” and “Calm” lead users through a meditative practice, using words like “clear your mind, engage your senses, breatheeeee.” Sometimes this language feels foreign to those with busy minds and lives. It’s hard to see and understand the benefits of meditation unless you yourself experience it. I’m all for empirical evidence (and there is growing research on the benefits of yoga and meditation in cancer, post traumatic stress disorder, and substance abuse disorder patients) so I understand the skepticism that often greets what some consider “out of this world” experiences. Meditation is much simpler than that though. It is simply making space to think, pray, dwell, or stop. It is a way to create opportunity for the thoughts you need to have about life, not the ones life is forcing you to have.
Last week during yoga, the end of my practice neared as we nestled into the comfortable and long-awaited pose of savasana or more clearly put: dead man’s pose. This pose is the final resting pose after many rounds of rigorous and challenging poses, a place to rest your mind and body and collect yourself before jetting off to the next appointed place. Savasana is a place where I’ve had some of my best thoughts, prayers, and ideas. Like meditation, this pose creates space.
I believe that God can give us visions, thoughts, words, people, dreams, signs — anything — to send us a message. The world is His creation and His spirit lives within us, so it is natural that when I have an image or word come in my head that I didn’t conceive, and it is good, then it is from God. I’ll try to describe my meditative vision I had last week during yoga as clearly as possible, leaving out personal details. I think anyone can imagine themselves as the narrator of this story, so I pray God uses my vision to speak to you as well.
I was standing outside of a very dense forest, with my nose almost touching the wintery, woodsy pines. I breathed in the crisp air around me and immediately felt filled with life and renewal. Curious, I took my hands and pulled apart the lush, thick greenery to peer inside the forest. My eyes wandered around as I drifted through the greenery and I saw old versions of myself deep within the woods, to the right and to the left. These versions of me were of my past, and I saw myself grappling with the old demons that caused me heartache, pain, and questioning. There were 3 distinct versions of me that I saw, each heartbroken over something in life that I’m now distinct from — redeemed from. As I observed the brokenness and pain that those girls felt — in middle school, high school, and college, I looked back at my path through the trees. The roots on the ground were knobby and distracting, the trees obstructed my vision to where the light came from, yet the path I had taken to this point was clear. As I left the forest and the past with it in those densely shaded trees and darkened canopy, I entered the light. I entered the present. I looked at myself differently now, with gratitude and love. I felt the warm sun shine down on my face. Instead of seeing my current flaws and shortcomings, anxiety and fears, I saw the triumphant moments I had overcome. I saw freedom, beauty, and healing.
I believe God gave me that vision to remind me to be thankful and to never forget how far He has brought me in this life. It was a simple, beautiful, and clear picture of God’s grace towards us in our brokenness, His love for wanting us even in those dark times, and the gratitude we owe to Him for pulling us out of the forest and into the light.
“Then Jesus went with his disciples to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to them, ‘Sit here while I go over there and pray.’ He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee along with him, and he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, ‘My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.’
Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.’” — Matthew 26:36-39
When I was little, Easter was when we made “Easter trees” by clamping string into plastic eggs and hanging them outside. I remember picking out the perfect Easter dress for church and waking to a basket full of chocolate goodies and a new springtime piece of clothing. I remember – with a little competitive love – the exciting egg hunts and relaxing Sunday afternoon meal at my grandparents’ house. Easter has always had a bright, enlivening aura around it – the promise of a fresh breath of air, a happy season as the dawn of spring is carried in on Easter’s arrival. Easter brings new life. As a child I never understood why, but as I get older I understand more.
The image of Jesus in Matthew 26:36-39 is not filled with sunshine, flowers, and pastel colored eggs. He isn’t rejoicing at the promise of new life for us; Jesus mourns his own death. This is one of my favorite images of Jesus, not because he is filled with sorrow and grief, but because it shows him experiencing feelings that are innately human and worldly. How many times have we, collectively as humans, felt “overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death”? At some point in our lives, we will feel the overwhelming, crippling grief that Jesus felt in the garden of Gethsemane. Maybe it will be the day our parents pass away, or when one of our friends gets a bad diagnosis, or when we feel immensely desolate. I’m not being cynical, but I am being realistic. We will likely experience these feelings in our lives.
This is the very reason why I love this image of Jesus. He was vulnerable, pained with the situation he was facing. How hopeless I would feel if I thought I had to go my whole life trying to live up to a Christlike figure that never felt the pain and sorrow of loss. Instead of viewing our own tragedies in conflict with the existence of a powerful, loving God, we should view them like Jesus did: painful, harrowing, but never the end of the story.
Jesus cried out to his Father to take the cup, to remove the tragic death he was about to encounter. I think we can learn so much from Jesus in this moment. First, it is okay to feel the heartbreaking reality of life’s circumstances. Jesus didn’t fake a bold, invincibility toward God. He accepted with humility his desperation and faced God with vulnerability and truth. Secondly, Jesus didn’t run from the Father. He didn’t try to evade God by turning to worldly promises. He turned toward God and prayed to Him. The realness of Jesus in this moment gives me hope that when I face hurt, tribulations, and defeat in this life, my response does not have to be trivialized; I don’t have to display false courage. While He is offering a behavioral response to difficult situations (if you can even call what Jesus was about to encounter difficult), He includes a didactic moment, too. That is, when times get tough (which they invariably will), the first place to go is to God. God will always meet us in prayer, even when we’re angry, unfaithful, and devastated.
While all of this seems sad and dark, there is indeed light that returns the vitality, beauty, and promise of new beginnings that Easter is known for. Jesus didn’t stop in this moment to lament indefinitely. He gets up and recognizes His fate – to save a world of sinners. He confidently says to his capturers in a scripture I love:
“Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way?” – Matthew 26:53-54
Jesus knew the implications of His crucifixion. He could have called on the Heavens and saved Himself from the pain He would encounter. But He didn’t. He embraced God’s will for His life and died to save the very man who hung him on the cross. It is a beautiful, overwhelming, incomprehensible love that he displayed for us.
Easter still has to me the excitement and fun that I remember as a child. I still love a good egg hunt and an elegant dress for church. I cherish getting together with my family and taking special time to remember why we celebrate this season of pastel-colored eggs and whimsical decorations. Now though, Easter is so much more than this. Yes, while the springtime flowers and sunny days are revitalizing, the promises that Jesus fulfilled on the cross will always be the most life-giving, hope-renewing, and beautiful treasures that I, and we, will ever receive.
Your life experiences unquestionably define who you are and guide where you belong in the world. We are each given unique stories – challenges, triumphs, memories, passions – that aid us in figuring out what type of life we are to live. Since I’ve been in college, I have met people from SO many different walks of life, and it has been one of my favorite aspects of moving out of a small town and into a more culturally and ethnically diverse city. The people I’ve become very close friends with come from all over the world and from every background – Russian, African, Indian, Egyptian, Irish, Ukrainian, American, Muslim, Christian, Hindu, atheist, agnostic, poor, rich, sick, and every quality or descriptor in between. The love I have for each of these people is specific and unique to the friendship that we share, and I’m so glad that I’ve come to know them and their story. Along this journey though, I often found myself asking “Who am I? Where do I come from? What characteristics define me?” and yesterday I again happened upon this internal self-discussion after a conversation I had with a friend in my lab. He very casually told me, “Mary, I can finally hear your Southern accent!” which lead down a rabbit hole of conversation on the lifetime struggle of talking with a “twang” and how “cute” it is (Ha). I told him that sometimes people assume others with a Southern accent are less intelligent, less capable, or have certain ideologies. For this reason, I had become accustomed to avoiding phrases that make me sound more Southern. What I have learned though, through encountering others that embrace and welcome their cultural identity, is that I am Southern and I do have a Southern accent. I was raised in a small town and my identity is comprised of those memories that I created as a child. I had this unnerving feeling when I entered college of not having an identity at all, not belonging to a defined “group” with certain values. I often felt like others were very different from me (because, well, they were and still are in many ways) and didn’t share a lot of the experiences I had while growing up. Instead of shaming away from this I began to cherish my own culture. I shared with people what it was like growing up in a small town in Tennessee (as compared to Chicago or Memphis or New York City). I delighted in the fact that I had (and have) certain challenges different from others and that those things make me, me. This acceptance and confidence has permeated into other aspects of my life. Previously at work, I sought to make myself very . . . uniform. I dressed simply and didn’t feel comfortable sharing the intricacies and details of my personality. This was largely in part because I worked with male supervisors and male colleagues and didn’t want to be perceived as less intelligent or less focused on my career. I’ve learned though, by being surrounded by team members that fully accept and cherish who they are, that who I am doesn’t negate my abilities but encourages them. Speaking of my passions and my childhood memories, wearing the clothes that make me feel confident and feminine, and accepting that I am an empowered, capable female, has strengthened my work ethic and confidence, not taken away from it. Yes, I wear eyeliner and like to do yoga. I didn’t take ten AP classes or go to a private, preparatory high school, but I do have the capability to learn and to succeed just as my peers do and have demonstrated that learning is more important than formal education. This is so important, because I really feel like people who may not fit into certain groups need to be encouraged to come from a position of strength instead of weakness. Don’t let the influence of those around you – their maleness (or femaleness), intelligence, appearance, or success – alter the way that you view yourself. What I have learned since accepting that I have a past that makes me better, not worse, and a future that is as bright as the person next to me, is that people love me and appreciate my work for exactly who I am. They like that I can have a conversation about growing up in a small town and how I like to enjoy myself in Nashville. Just because I wear makeup and have my hair fixed doesn’t mean I don’t get called on during meetings to answer hard questions or given hard tasks to complete. I no longer feel like I have no identity because instead of trying to create one that didn’t exist, I accepted the one I already have. There is great power in knowing who you are, growing in who you are, and loving who you are. Not only is there power, but there is indefinite peace.
“Literature adds to reality, it does not simply describe it. It irrigates the deserts that our lives have already become.” – C.S. Lewis
My life feels particularly desert-like in this respect right now. While I love my science courses and really find them fascinating, I deeply miss writing and reading literature and philosophy. When thinking about how I feel a little unbalanced because I am so focused my other passions, I decided I would share some books that are my favorites and encouraged me to have deep reflection. Some of them are autobiographical nonfiction, some are simply fiction, but they are all incredible and close to my heart. Here are 5 books you need to read and think about! I offer some of the thoughts that followed my reading of the books that maybe you would find helpful if you read decide to read them. Try to reflect on the passages and glean some of the important messages that ruminate throughout them. And just like I have to remind myself, remember that in life, balance is everything. Never let the other things you love fall to the wayside in pursuit of your dreams.
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
This is undoubtedly one of the most moving books I have ever read. I even wrote an entire post about my thoughts from this book, and I suggest reading that post after you have treated yourself to this book! Dr. Paul Kalanithi was a Stanford neurosurgeon who was unfortunately diagnosed with late stage IV lung cancer. This book is more than a memoir by a doctor; it makes you experience and feel what it is like to face death. This is a man’s honest and eye-opening journey to the end of his life. It is poetic. It is reflective and deeply emotional. I admire Dr. Kalanithi’s diverse passions and the ways he catered to both his reflective, literary side (by pursuing study in literature and philosophy) and the inquisitive, mechanistic side of life (through scientific study of medicine). He writes beautifully. This is a must read. I couldn’t put it down!
Thoughts for reflection: If I was looking back on my life, what have I made important? Have I been happy with my life or have I lived in chase of something else? What would I begin pursuing if I knew the moments I had were limited?
Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain
Quiet is a book for introverts and extroverts alike. This book transformed the way I view my idiosyncratic behaviors. It made me realize it is okay to want to stay home. It is okay to want to work alone and prefer small friend groups. It is equally okay to be gregarious and love social environments. It made me realize that the qualities exhibited by introverted and extroverted people are all valuable. This is a nonfiction book full of thoroughly researched information about human behavior. It is amazing! It has some interesting pieces of psychology and sociology throughout. It shows the functional and dynamic world that we live in and the ways that all the different moving pieces work together perfectly. Highly recommend. (Watch Susan Cain’s amazing TED talk here: Susan Cain’s The Power of Introverts)
Thoughts for reflection: How can I embrace who I am without feeling guilty or bad? What type of environment makes me feel most comfortable and loved? What parts of me are introverted and what parts are extroverted? How can I encourage others to be true to themselves in a conformist society?
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Okay, I had to include this book because it is a classic read. Most people have read To Kill a Mockingbird, maybe in school for a class. For those that haven’t read, Harper Lee writes a book written from the perspective of a child named Scout about the struggles and perceptions of an unjust world. This book makes me feel childlike and more aware of the struggles within this world. For a child, Scout gives wisdom that we can all learn from. I think this book, published in 1960, can still give a powerful message to the society we live in today. Also, I have always had the biggest fictional crush on Atticus Finch, Scout’s father and the lawyer who fights for justice. Ahh.
Thoughts for reflection: What have I become okay with that Scout, a child, would even know is wrong? Is the world we are living in today actually any different than the corrupt world that Scout was in? How can we fight for and seek the Truth in this life?
The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch
Nerdy confession: I had to read a few chapters of this for a First Year Seminar class and I actually fell in love with it and had to read the whole thing (which took me a day). Randy Pausch writes an autobiographical book of important advice for living. Dr. Pausch was a professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University and had recently been diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer. A young professor with small children and a wife, Dr. Pausch pours wisdom into this book that I use and remember every day. And yes, it made me weep like a baby (and books don’t make me cry). Just read it. Circle, underline, highlight his advice, even rip pages out and hang them up on your mirror.
Thoughts for reflection: How can I start using the advice that Dr. Pausch shares? Am I being sincere to myself and to those around me? How can I love more deeply with the days I am given?
Suzanne’s Diary for Nicholas by James Patterson
This book is one of my favorite of all time. I generally do not prefer fictional books, especially romantic fiction books, but this is different. This book makes me feel safe, loved, and hopeful. This is one of the first books I remember reading as a young girl (which is funny because it’s a James Patterson book… I have always been older than my age), and I think it holds some sentimental value because of this reason. I grab for this book when I need to escape this frightening, stressful world. It is so comforting. Suzanne’s Diary for Nicholas is about the interwoven relationships of love, despair, happiness, hurt, and life. It moves to you Martha’s Vinyard to watch the lives of two playful personalities fall in harmonious synchrony. This book is a gentle reminder that the most beautiful things in life are sometimes greeted with pain and suffering.
Thoughts for reflection: If I was writing for someone, who would it be and what would I want to say? How can I invite the playfulness and simplicity into my life that Suzanne and Matt have in their own lives?
Well, there you have it! Five of my favorite books that I think everyone should read. Don’t just read them though, feel them, embrace them. Write about what you feel and think deeply about what the author is trying to give you. I am always welcoming book suggestions that I can curl up with and get lost in. What are some of your favorite books?