What do you do when life's circumstances hit you hard, when you feel like crap and you're not doing well?
Two Christian therapists, Dan Allender and Rachael Clinton, recently sat down to try to record a podcast on a new topic. Unfortunately, neither of them were in the state of mind to engage in what they had in mind. Luckily, their instincts kicked in, and they decided to talk about just that: what to do when we are not doing well and started the three-part "Not Doing Well" series on The Allender Center blog. The two of them sought to answer some fundamental questions:
"How can we continue to pursue the work we are called to, continue to seek healing and growth, and continue to love people around us when it feels like things are falling apart?"
Rachael is used to not doing well and "just having to get through it," as many of us are in our daily lives. Only a few lucky souls on the planet are fortunate every hour in the 9-5 work schedule, and that is just how it is. But sometimes, the feeling of "not doing well" crosses a line, and we persevere too much in circumstances that require us to halt for just a bit. "No pain, no gain" is an attitude that Rachael has had throughout her life, that urges us to just power through when he hit barriers, and is just a fundamental part of our culture. I feel this too, especially as a runner. I am a Boston-qualified marathoner, and during the race and runs of longer than 20 miles, you do not have the luxury to just stop when you want to.
The other option when we're not doing well is that we escape, isolate, hide away from the public so we don't feel any more pain.
Dan Allender acknowledges that there are few people that know when they're not doing well. How we're doing is not always an act of categorical perception, that we're either well or we aren't: we're usually somewhere in between. But in those times that we really aren't well, in the words of Allender, "it has to be almost catastrophic for us to know that we are not well." For us to be able to name that things just are that bad, everything changes. "Everything begins to, in some sense, collapse on itself."
Rachael expands on Dan's point, that it's just so exposing when "you only get to name that you're not well when it gets so extreme." I know that's how it is with me - when I actually acknowledge to my friends how poorly I've been doing or feeling, it makes me feel emasculated, vulnerable. And the two of them agree that when we're in that state of despair, we have that tendency to "remov[e] ourselves from others, convinced that our absence is better for everyone when we are unwell." The two of them agree that this is a "false nobility," a mixture of martyrdom and well-intent that ultimately just lead to "well-worn structures of addiction and sabotage."
When we're really not doing well, and it requires some sort of disruption, an "intersection of spirit and spirit -- our spirits with the spirit of God," that leads us to begin to change. We find new ways to go forward. Contending with the spirit of love is what happens - love from others, and love from God. When we acknowledge we're not doing well, "it can be an incredibly vulnerable statement and a window into our most formative stories and the most deeply entrenched message about ho we are." It disrupts us in our usual states of coping, and it makes us recognize that we need something that is different from "our spirals of sabotage and escape."
What are your venues of sabotage and escape? I know that I resort to isolation, sometimes I resort to obsession over work and surface-level accomplishments. And I know you may have different ones.
But it is in those moments where we don't ask for help and don't reveal our personal weakness. Admitting that we're not well allows us to do that. Rachael doesn't want us to blame ourselves for doing so, because "when something has harmed us...what kind of decisions do we make about ourselves, about God, about the world?" We have to tackle our unwellness in "new, courageous ways, [and] it will inevitably lead us back to our earliest stories and families of origin." So many of us come from homes where if we admitted we weren't doing well, people would just tell us to "get over it.' Did we have the space to be vulnerable?
Rachael acknowledges that exploring these roots "are painful places." We have to challenge our false beliefs that we have to be well all the time, "that the only options are isolation or to dissociate and fragment." Even when we're in this realm of battle, conflict, and confusion, we are also in this realm of hope. Think about how we feel when we hear someone say "I'm not doing well, and it's okay if you're not doing well too." Sure, life sucks sometimes. It can feel like everything is crashing in, but we will not be taken down "because we are not alone."
"In not being well, my heart is well," Dan says.
This is where we become people of the Spirit, people with deep souls. We aren't alone, now. We know "the Spirit contends with and for us, alongside the beloved community of resurrection people." These people don't shy away from death or minimize pain, because what we are going through now is a part of a larger story, one that is far from being finished.
"There is something of the glory of God that is meant to be a gift to one another," Dan says.
So how can we move forward when life still sucks, and circumstances remain unwell? Well, if there's one thing to learn from this article, it's that powering through when we're not doing well isn't going to work. My pastor, Lisa, gave an analogy of life being floating through a river with a bunch of rocks impeding our paths. We need to flow away from the rocks, but too often we try to jump crush the rock in front of us rather than finding a way around it.
Dan and Rachael then invite us to "have the courage and humility to be honest about we're at, and to open ourselves to the care of others." The problem is that the times we are vulnerable and the times we seek care are not always met with kindness. In these situations, we're not only dealing with not doing well now but "with a whole history of triggers and traumas colliding."
So how do we move forward toward being well when our circumstances don't reflect it, when "things are beyond our control." In these moments, we need to stop our usual cycles and take a step back. We need to retreat, and we need to regather, which isn't running away and giving way to isolation. It's "an act of humility, maneuvering to create space so that we can work on repair."
This, Rachael says, is beautiful, an intersection between faith and hope. We don't always believe God will be there when we take the time to stop and retreat. We sometimes think that God will only be there if we try to crush the rocks in front of us, "if we prove that we have the capacity in our own right." Retreating and regathering are acts of surrender, being vulnerable and trusting that Jesus will be present in the overwhelming flood."
And the question Dan asks us next is whether Jesus will greet us with kindness, which is what we reject the most from ourselves and from God when things are not going well. "Kindness will change my heart," Dan writes. "But...there's something in me that believes both that I don't deserve it, and that it's not true."
When we pause and surrender, it's not that everything in our lives is fixed. I know that when I do, there's still that part of me that is overwhelmed by daily life's rigors. Dan calls it rest, that we find grounding in the midst of a storm. "In that rest, we can begin to look for a new beginning, a way to move forward that is authentic, vulnerable, and courageous." And he doesn't stop there: once a relinquishment or surrender happens, there needs to be a new beginning.
Dan calls the new beginning a consecration, where he asks himself: "what does it mean to consecrate the next 90 seconds -- to life, to him, to beauty, to goodness?" I do this in a different way: I have a mantra in my head that says "trust God, no matter what," and when I'm faced with circumstances that leave me not doing well, I ask myself "what is God telling you to do?" I've written before about not knowing what God wants, and that being a fundamental part of what faith is. But somehow, someway, I'll tell myself to trust God, go to him, and make a decision and take a risk regardless, just feeling, for some reason, that it was the right one, regardless of the outcome.
Rachael closes the three-part sequence talking about the reorientation of identity in a way that grows faith. It is the voice that names I am loved when we're not doing well. It's the voice when we feel worthless and futile, that tells us "I'm meant for more than futility and struggle."
For a lot of this past year, I have been not been doing well, but I'm grateful for that, even though circumstances are largely still the same. I've navigated a crisis better than I thought I could and re-chartered my identity in ways I didn't think possible.
I close this article looking no further than Maya Angelou's famous poem, "Still I Rise." Downtrodden, written down in history, defamed by other people's "bitter, twisted lies," the narrator speaks up with a tone of faith, hope, and defiance, that like "dust, I'll rise." When we aren't doing well, we're dust, but through re-orienting ourselves, through God, we will rise. Rachael puts it beautifully, that when we go through an odyssey and journey of not doing well and surrendering and consecrating ourselves, we marvel, and say look what God can do with dust.