In times of decision there are many voices vying for attention. In the sinking ship of my current work situation, there is the voice of caution telling me to climb into a lifeboat and make my way back to shore. Then find a bigger, sturdier ship and attempt the journey again. A second voice suggests trying to steer our ship alongside a seaworthy vessel heading roughly the same direction – and take a leap. Yet another voice insists that the leaks in the ship are plugged well enough that by sheer determination and tireless rowing, I can make it to the destination. Which voice should I listen to? Does it matter that the first two are the voices of Captains? Sure, they command different ships heading in different directions, but they both are experts in sailing and have seen their share of sinking ships. Should I listen to them when I’m not sure if they are listening to me? It’s easier to listen to the one sitting in the chair beside me every day, the one in the little raft he scrapped together himself (after our captain pushed him overboard), paddling alongside our ship. He sees the destination, he knows the dangers and the cost of the seas, but he’s taking the gamble. All for the deep blue sea he can only explore in a shiny new ship awaiting at our destination.
I can’t start writing on the prompt “heal” without mentioning my dad. Three weeks ago he had a massive heart attack that easily could have taken his life. Four separate times he was spared, by the grace of God and the work of skillful doctors and nurses. He is still in the first 30 days of recovery, which is crucial in determining the extent of recovery possible. I keep praying for healing. Did you know that tiny new arteries can grow through damaged tissue, carrying new life, and helping it heal? Grow, arteries, grow!
Sometimes the need for healing is subtle. Especially if there is little or no pain. Yesterday I found that I have a bone bruise in my foot. Sounds painful but it isn’t. There is a small amount of swelling that causes some popping in the joint, which is at most annoying. Wearing athletic shoes prevents the popping, and so voila, nothing is “wrong” with my foot! Until the doctor massages deep into the tissue to touch the bone itself, and it smarts.
I had a phone call with my collaborator at another university yesterday. We talked shop until I realized she knew nothing about my advising professor deserting the lab, leaving my institution and trying to push me to finish my PhD in the next 1.5 years. With precisely zero guidance from him. Suddenly her tone changed and her message became “Take care of yourself” and “You deserve a good mentor” and more particularly “You can’t publish a paper or finish your PhD without a good mentor” and “You need to leave your lab now and get a good mentor even if it takes you years longer to finish and you have to abandon your project”. She means well, and as a side note, I’m not totally sure that she is right. There are plenty of students who have finished their PhDs with less than great mentors. But that’s another discussion.
Despite my desire to deny the truth of her words, somewhere deep inside, there is pain. A hurt that few circumstances can finagle down deep enough to massage, a bone bruise of sorts. A fear that she is right. That I’ll never amount to anything without the right guidance – in my career or in my life. A pain of what i have not been given. Yet a retort that no one deserves anything. How can someone tell me I deserve a good mentor/advisor now, when by the same logic, doesn’t every child deserve to be raised by loving and healthy mother and father? Yet the world is full of devastated childhoods. I have certainly not experienced the worst of what many children do, but growing up with a mentally ill mother will leave a mark. Growing up with a father who denied said illness will leave a question. Am I worthy of being taken care of? Ever….by anyone? Could I really deserve a good mentor for my career, when I’ve mostly lacked that for my life? Can I truly choose what I want/need now, in a situation where I do have power, when I could not choose then and somehow God was still good and in control? These questions are too deep for my emotional capacity, so I support myself with whatever athletic shoes I can find so that I can forget about that down-deep bone bruise. But the absence of pain does not mean there is no need for healing.
(Five minutes are up but the thought isn’t quite finished)…
As I’ve grown up, healing has certainly come in this area of my life. Often new seasons, new circumstances that poke the hurt spots are God’s gentle way of bringing us to the next level in a long journey of deeper healing. I have learned that sometimes it’s all you can do to experience the pain for a short time. Today, I have bravely sat with these emotions for 5 minutes, aware of the pain, most importantly with God in the pain. Now it is up to the Healer to do his work.
It was a week of sleeping, eating, and breathing work. The last week before the semester’s commitments force me to plan and schedule and measure my time. A last attempt to finally capture that key result I’ve been grasping at all summer, which has slithered away each time I brush against it. A week ending in another confusing negative result and collapsing in bed discouraged and exhausted. I wasn’t prepared to be awoken early Saturday by desperate phone calls from my mother. Or to pack my bags and rush to the next state. I did not expect to be a brave, strong adult who picks up the phone at the doors to the hospital ICU and states “I’m here to visit my father in room 408.” I never imagined calling my baby sister in her first week at college to let her know dad had had a massive heart attack. Or sitting for days fixated upon a green line on a screen, worrying or resting based on the shape and number which represent the life in Dad’s heart. And as much as I was not prepared, life in the ICU quickly became routine. Dad miraculously recovering, becoming more himself, ever interested in small talk. A large event, which everyone said should have taken his life, yet he was still interested in the small. “Is it raining outside?” he would ask. We readily participate because truly, when you brush that close to losing your dad, when you see the strongest, healthiest man you know so vulnerable, you would do anything for him. One day he speaks words that run deep, at least in my heart. “Don’t you wish you had stayed in [math/engineering] instead of going into biology?” He is cut off by the nurse coming in, but his words shake me to the core. This man whom I love dearly and so nearly lost, is he proud of me? Does he approve of what I am doing? I remember years ago, the glimmer of pride in his eye as I solved difficult math problems he made up on the napkins at Dairy Queen. Or the academic awards of high school, the engineering internships at his company, or being accepted by his alma mater for a PhD program in engineering. When the grad school situation crumbled and I ended up 22, jobless, and directionless, I learned to listen to the voice of another Father who is proud of obedience and dependence and trust. A Father who holds power over the universe, yet makes sure that I get exactly what I need to step into his will. Ironically, his will was not for me to leave academia permanently, but to re-enter it as a missionary, this time in the biology department. My pride no longer needs me to have a PhD, but my Father does. And so in this emotional week, my earthly father’s words echo deeply. I almost want to throw this biology PhD away in order to make him proud of me again. But I am faced with a question of loyalty. While I can and will love and cherish and hold my father’s every day as a gift, my first loyalty is to my heavenly Father. To make him proud is the highest calling and most lasting reward of anything on earth.
I don’t typically write when things are going badly. I can write when they are sort of rocky, but my instinct is to shut down my emotions and my pen whenever things get too difficult. But lately, I’m experimenting with staying in the pain and searching for words amidst it.
So…Five Minute Friday’s prompt this week is “happy”:
What words can I find about happiness when this week’s predominant emotion has been grief? Can grief and happiness coexist? Maybe they can in the brief moment after waking before reality dawns. Sunlight, a new day, then…she is gone. Really gone. Yes, still today. And every day I have left on this earth. That hopeful, relieved feeling was just a dream, often a literal dream that everything had turned out differently and somehow her life was spared. Tonight I will sleep and dream and forget again, only to wake and remember and have my breath knocked out of me again.
Is happiness different from joy? Can joy exist in any circumstance? I have heard such ideas, but they fall flat as mere platitudes right now. Both joy and happiness spontaneously rise up from within, and when every day is a heavy, constant sinking, bubbles of joy or happiness are trapped far below the surface.
However, grief does not exclude all positive emotions. Gratitude is certainly much deeper than happiness – it is deliberate not spontaneous. It gives way more to contentment than happiness or joy. Even as I lost a friend two weeks ago, have spent the last six months in a chaotic work environment, and have struggled for 1.5 years with a silent syndrome that has sapped my strength and stolen many days, these past weeks and months have included many things to be thankful for, including recent major progress in the work and health arenas. I SO wanted to write about these good gifts today, but “happy” is such a completely foreign word that I just could not. I am able to appreciate and receive these as good gifts, while dwelling recently in the emotional land of grief. Is this the meaning of Job’s words?…”The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” (Job 1:21)
Sometimes you stay hidden. I want you and I need you but I just can’t find you in the exact way that comforts my soul. You make great and majestic sunsets each evening, and for that I am truly thankful. But where are you in the lonely places of my heart that ache when they hope, and ache more deeply when they cannot hope? Just a week ago, I wonder where you were in my friend’s moment of greatest need, she who had so long sought to glorify you even through her deep struggle. She fought on only because she thought that somehow she could bring you glory. But you were hidden late that night when her desire to be with you forever overcame her desire to glorify you in brokenness here. I desperately want to believe that you will be with her husband and children, will comfort them and help them to heal. But if you stay hidden even in my small griefs and needs, how can I know without a shadow of a doubt that you will be there for them? In all of this I am not doubting you; I am doubting myself and my expectations of you. I know you are here. Unveil my eyes to see you in and around each day, to feel you weaving into my hollow and empty and broken places. I planted morning glories in my vegetable garden because I want beauty to wind its way around everything – the tidy rows of plants, the harsh metal of the tomato cages, even the unruly weeds. So come into the open, but come into the hidden places, wind the tendrils of your love around the unwieldy places of my soul and let your presence blossom.
Joining as usual with Five Minute Friday
I am an artist. I can take a vision in my mind’s eye and use only pigmented goop and some brushes to make that vision appear on a canvas where everyone else can see and understand it.
I am a writer. I can take the ordinary words that the English-speaking world shares equally, and I can set those words beside eachother until their individual meanings give way to a combined meaning that somehow allows a piece of my soul to escape onto the paper.
I am a creator. I take normal everyday objects and use my mind and my hands to make them into something more, something that could never be made by those objects without me.
I am also a scientist. I study the world, the cell in particular. The cell is made of thousands of tiny proteins, nucleic acids, lipids, and water, all basic molecules, but working together to function like a city. One protein makes many copies which lay down into a tight spiral, forming a track, and another type of protein walks along the tracks with its 2 “feet”. Yet another protein holds on to the walking protein with one hand and a (relatively) giant vesicle with the other hand. This setup allows the vesicle to travel to a certain destination in the cell, such as to carry waste to the garbage-can organelle.
Proteins can and are often studied in isolation from the cell with many useful purposes; however, they are not alive or capable of doing what they normally do inside a cell. The track protein outside a cell exists as many tiny individual pieces without direction as to how to link arms with the other track proteins and lay down to form the spiraling track. They are just like the brushes of an artist or the words of a writer. Inert and ordinary. Even if we gather together all the necessary pieces, a functioning cell will never emerge on its own. It needs a creator.
After quite a hiatus, today’s five minute friday post, in true imperfect form, comes on Saturday and took closer to 10 minutes. The free-writing format still does wonders for the soul, and I desperately needed this today. The past months’ emotions and thoughts swirling in my head have finally started to find their way to my fingers, so they type once again…
The ship is sinking. For the last six months, I’ve known it was leaking uncontrollably, and yet to those of us on deck, daily life went along as normal. Gradually, the captain would disappear for long periods of time, sometimes leaving the ship at the mercy of the waves, and sometimes leaving guidance to a youthful, eager (yet unqualified) member of the crew. I continued to do my own job on the crew, working overtime to combat the erratic steering or the lack of captain altogether. Yesterday another crew member deserted the ship in what they could contrive into a lifeboat, marking half of the crew gone overboard since March. Deserted by our captain, ship sinking, who is there to protect us?
The ship, of course, is my life, my lab, my work. The captain is my professor who is giving up on getting tenure. I’ve watched half of my lab mates either give up or narrowly escape into safer labs. Those who remain are unmotivated. The offices and lab are hollow and lonely and often empty. Through all of this, I still have a captain. I am not an orphan, so I am technically not in need of rescue. Yet my captain is absent and no one is looking out for me.
A nerve is touched repeatedly in my soul. I’m still the little girl who grew up with a mentally ill mother. Yes, a mother who was there–except when she wasn’t or when she was a monstrous someone else. The child whose wise, strong father did not protect her from the ravages of her mother’s illness. I’m still a small, timid daughter whose veins learned to pump fear because she does not know how to speak or act in a situation, and she has no one to look to as an example. I’m the quaking teen stepping out into a life of dizzying height and possibilities, paralyzed by the lack of control, and afraid to step out because she is unsure of stability and security around her.
I’m still that girl, 10-odd years later, now finding my life’s work on a ship with a deserting captain, tossed in the waves of academia, unsure how to survive or if I even will. Who will protect me?
The answer that God will protect me seems too trite for the gravity of the situation. Destruction is bound to occur, both emotional and career-wise. It already is occurring. Resist as I might, in these last months I have been scarred, become less trusting and more cynical, and have given in to self-pity more than I’d like to admit. In fact, this is not the first time that all my grad school dreams have come crashing down around me, which seems just a little bit unfair. (Yes, life is not fair, but this PhD was supposed to be the redemption of everything wrong with the first PhD attempt!)
So I sit on a Saturday tapping out my disjointed attempt at Five Minute Friday, pondering what God’s protection in my sinking circumstances looks like. His protection must be a sort of soul-protection that can occur despite my career drowning at sea. Yes, that’s what I experienced the first time around. But more subtly, His protection is also the guarding of the spark, the passion, the love for the science I study, the ache for His revelation through creation. On the days when I have no motivation to get out of bed, I am guarded from despair by His whisper to my soul that He wants to reveal more of Himself today, and He needs me to be present fully in mind and body to receive that. It is the experience of being seen and known by Him and his desire to be known by me, that is the truest protection for my heart and soul, no matter what is swirling and sinking around me.