Guest Blog Post for Crossroads: The Worthwhile Art of Careful Listening

In an incredibly noisy world – particularly for us introverts – the art of careful listening proves to make all the difference for my family friend hospitalized in the ICU who had only one silent but extraordinary way left to make his voice heard.

My short Crossroads blog post for The Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine explores this vital concept.

You can read the post here.

you can find me here

In true introvert fashion, I needed to jot my thoughts down before a phone interview of sorts so that I wouldn’t stumble so much over on-the-spot questions. A contributor to the newsletter for the hospital where I work had emailed me, asking if she could talk with me about how my interests in writing and photography help me relieve my work-related stress. Here are my thoughts, on writing at least. They echo some sentiments I’ve expressed in previous posts.

As an introvert who loves quiet days more than gold, I find it somewhat ironic that I work in a profession that involves constant and often competing interactions with people for 12 straight hours in my normal work day. This, in a typically high-energy, noisy, stressful environment.  I am listening to everyone else’s story, processing all that I am taking in, and making decisions based on all of the external feedback I am receiving. My mind is in overload, but it’s about everything and everyone else. I know I’m stressed but I also know there are many, many more layers to that stress than simply being very, very busy.

Writing is the space I have to untangle my own thoughts, before they entangle me to the point where I start acting out without knowing what’s going on inside me. It is the space for me to identify my emotions: Anger at the injustice of child abuse? Anger at the person who spoke too sharply to me, when I was only trying to do my job? Frustrations with an imperfect healthcare system? Sadness for a child? Confusion about the reasons for such suffering?  It is the space for my own voice, after I have left the hospital, and all the other voices and alarms and sounds from my work slowly dissipate. Writing is also the place for me to express the hard things I feel at work, the things people honestly don’t always want to hear about in an in-person conversation. Sometimes they’re too hard, too uncomfortable, and frankly too morbid to verbally share or hear. But in writing, I can give voice to these things in a way that won’t bring a conversation to an awkward silence, thus freeing my reader of the pressure to find the “right” response, and freeing myself of some of the sadness I feel that I should probably change the subject now…even though the subject affects and shapes so much of me. For one who is constantly meshed with others’ stories, and often highly complicated ones at that, writing is the place where I can pull myself out and tell my own story, recollecting, growing and protecting my sense of self. You and I, we can find me here.

what denying oneself is not

I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking and processing with certain people about some of my deeper heart issues that have been arising from my counseling sessions and from some of the current life situations I find myself in. Tonight, I feel that some clarity is finally starting to emerge from the vast swarm of thoughts and emotions and issues that I’ve been trying to sort out. And I think, no, I know, that God is doing something deep and profound in healing my heart in ways that I have needed for a long, long time. I think a great deal has to do with unlearning certain things about the denial of self that I used to label as “Christian,” “godly,” or “Biblical.” That is what this post will be about. What denying oneself is not. Hopefully, as I continue to process this under the authority of God’s Word, I can get a better sense in time of what true Biblical denial of self is.

Denying oneself is not being ignorant of one’s inner desires, passions, or preferences in the name of being God-centered or other-centered.  For example, consider the basic and common question of, “Where do you want to go for dinner?”  It is not somehow more godly to say, “Umm…I don’t know…wherever you want is fine” in comparison to “I would love to eat Afghan food right now.” Sometimes I think that we confuse dying to ourselves with losing ourselves and our God-given uniqueness completely. To apply this to a more important scenario beyond choosing a place to eat, I would say this also applies to how one feels about things such as large, loud conferences and ‘cold-contact’ evangelism. It took me so long, and so much deprogramming, to realize that not every godly and mature Christian ought to love and be passionate about those things. I am an introvert. I do enjoy conferences a great deal and have gained invaluable treasures for growth through conferences. But they make me very tired, and there is always a point during the conference where I deeply crave solitude. I don’t want to be in a loud crowd, 24-7. I don’t want to be jumping from session to workshop to small group to workshop to session. At some point, the introvert in me becomes completely saturated and I need to be away from conference activities and people so that I can actually take in on a deep heart level what God wants me to take in from the conference. I am an introvert. I am terrible with chit-chat, small talk, in-your-face conversations, i.e. cold-contact evangelism. I thrive on trusting, established friendships where I can share about my faith and my relationship with God in a way that is much more me. Generally speaking, outside of times when God, (not another person, mind you) has clearly asked me to step beyond my comfort zones in faith, I am doing everyone a disservice by trying to be something other than who God has made me.

Denying oneself is not a self-righteous disregard for healthy boundaries in oneself and in others. Between Mary and Martha, Mary set boundaries for herself by saying no to the chores, the busyness of hosting, the running herself ragged, so that she could say yes to sitting at her beloved Savior’s feet and receiving all that He had to impart to her. Jesus said that between the two sisters, Mary had chosen the better thing. Jesus Himself had boundaries. He moved on from town to town even though there were plenty more crowds clamoring for His attention, His touch, His miracles. He loved them without doubt; after all, He would eventually go to the cross for them. But He also set boundaries with them and said no to many requests from a deeper place of wisdom than most people could understand, much less accept.

Denying oneself is not a lack of self-care. There is something very wrong when we find ourselves saying, “I don’t have time to exercise because I’m involved with this non-profit organization and that church committee and this mothers’ group and that support group.” Denial of self does not necessarily mean that we completely disregard our own selves as persons just because we are so fixated on caring for other people. The apostle Paul asked for a little wine to soothe his stomach while he was in prison. He didn’t say, “Oh, heck, I’m already wasting away in prison. Give that wine to someone else.” I think at some point, I became a bit invisible to myself and I forgot that I too was actually a person who needed care and attention. As a result, I would ignore or invalidate internal red flags trying to warn me when my own spirit was being sorely neglected. Tonight, as I was going on a much-needed long run, I suddenly had a moment when I sensed the Lord just telling me how much I mattered to Him. That all this counseling and the active steps I’ve been taking towards better self-care has not been so much about me becoming overly self-indulgent, but it’s been about Him wanting me to finally understand that HE. LOVES. ME.  He knows me. I matter to Him too, just as much as everyone else that I’m seeking to serve. And He delights in me.

And so I believe this transforms how we then approach what it does mean to deny oneself for the sake of glorifying Christ and loving and serving others. That will require more musing and more time in the Word. And quite possibly a few more tears of both conviction as well as freedom. I am hopeful.

too small for my own good

Life nowadays always seems to feel so full and often cluttered, both externally and internally. I suppose to a certain degree, that just comes with the territory of working full-time as a nurse and being married to a pastor. Alas, if my life and my heart didn’t feel full, it would probably mean to some extent that I didn’t care as much as I probably ought to about these contexts in which I live. All that being said, I am learning to value self-care more than ever these days, and so much of that involves the simplifying of all that is within my power to simplify.

So I’m trying to make changes, some small, some big, all significant in their own right.

–       I am learning to bite the bullet and take care of those things that seem like a hassle at the moment, recognizing that if I just take the typically less than five minutes to just get them out of the way, it will make my life much easier in the long run. For example: Putting things in their proper place at home before a bigger mess builds up. Untangling my IV lines at the start of a shift rather than mid-way through when I’m feeling as wound up as my lines are. This unclutters both the external, as well as the internal. I’m no longer trying to remember or keep track of yet another thing I need to take care of, saving my already tired brain from information overload.

–       I am cutting down on the time spent checking email and perusing Facebook. The iPhone was a terrible culprit in this. I realized it started getting really bad when I started to use my iPhone as my second alarm clock, in case my bedside one didn’t go off. This was fine in and of itself, but I kept the phone too close to me at night, and as a light sleeper, I could hear it buzz when a new email or Facebook post came through. Slowly I fell into the bad habit of checking it in the middle of the night, and I can hear all your eyes rolling at me now. Terrible idea, I know. I think I’ve learned my lesson and I’m keeping that phone out of reach at night now. The people behind the iPhone and Facebook know human tendencies and weaknesses all too well. They’re not dumb. They know what will sell, what will pull us in and keep us there, and why. The iPhone and Facebook make things too easy, reducing my life and entertainment and everyone else’s life to this gadget in my hand, a gadget that is too small for my own good. True life is bigger than this, and true life is quieter than this. I desperately need to regain life again.

–       Throwing things away. Still working on this one. Ugh.

–       I am going to counseling again. It is expensive, but this is by far the best financial investment I could make in my overall well-being at this point in time. I realize there is a stigma in some peoples’ minds about counseling and people who go to see counselors, but that’s ok. I believe deeply that everyone can benefit from counseling if and when they are open to it. I know I have blind spots in my life. I am not perfect. I find myself in life situations that are often beyond me – beyond my experiences, beyond my wisdom, beyond my own capability to sort through in healthy ways with a perspective beyond my own limited view. Other people, some whom I love very deeply, are affected by my responses to these life situations. Having a counselor speak into my life about areas where I am not healthy, about burdens that are not mine to carry (though I thought they were), about practical things I can do to guard my sanity, has been an absolute gift from God.

–       I am learning to sit still. This is hard. I am relatively quiet and mellow in personality but I am Type A nonetheless in terms of my compulsions to stay busy and be over-productive. But these ambitions to be over-productive can also be too small for my own good. Sometimes, oftentimes, no….all the time, I need to come back to what is better for my soul. To do what I need to do, but to rest when I need to rest. To pray and to remember that I am not God. He is.

I know life is always going to be busy and complicated to a certain, unavoidable degree. But I’m learning, or perhaps re-learning, how to slow down from the madness where I can –  because sometimes, especially in our society, I think we honestly forget that we actually can – and constantly remind myself where my heart’s true home is.

One thing I have desired of the Lord,

That will I seek;

That I may dwell in the house of the Lord

All the days of my life,

To behold the beauty of the Lord,

And to inquire in His temple.

For in the time of trouble

He shall hide me in His pavilion;

In the secret place of His tabernacle

He shall hide me;

He shall set me high upon a rock.

– Psalm 27:4-5

courage is a curious thing

Sometimes, we throw around phrases without really knowing what we are asking of ourselves or of others. Take courage. I have had a number of friends use that word courage with me in recent conversations.

It takes courage to live in community.

It took a lot of courage for those parents to withdraw life support.

That patient was so courageous in his years of battling his disease.

Courage is a curious thing. It is not quite like strength. It is more pliable, more dynamic. Strength takes on a more solid form regardless of its context. Courage, however, can take on new skin as its circumstances change. For many of our patients and their families, they take courage for weeks, months and years as they fight for the patient’s life. They take courage to undergo surgeries, to tolerate the debilitating side effects of strong medications, to endure agonizing hours of rehabilitation. But for many of these same patients, there sadly comes a point when they are challenged with what can feel like a complete undoing of courage itself. But in reality, it is simply a transformation. Going from the courage to live, to the even greater courage to die. Some families in our unit struggle deeply with this, and become stuck. Part of the reason, I believe, is because there is a moral aspect attached to courage, particularly in the context of a pediatric intensive care unit. (Or at the very least, there is a social aspect, because typically in situations where courage is required, other people are affected.) Purported courage without wisdom can easily slip into recklessness. Courage with wisdom does not come easily.

In another context, my artist friend Chia has a tagline on his business card, “Creativity takes courage.” I never fully understood this until I started becoming more aware of my fears. In my creative life, I began to notice that moment of hesitation, that quiver in my stomach whenever I finished a piece of writing, finished processing a set of photographs, or sat on the verge of playing an improvised melody. In the lingering seconds before opening these up to the world, I would feel those surprising yet familiar trembles in my gut. I began to realize there is a certain vulnerability that you open yourself up to when you share expressions of yourself to others. You begin a certain kind of dialogue with others when you begin to share your creative self, and in that dialogue, the door to criticism opens, whether you ever actually hear that criticism or not. But so too opens the door to exhilaration, encouragement, self-discovery, and growth.

It takes courage to live in community. This is not to say that we all need to become socialites, as Adam McHugh articulated so wonderfully in his book, which is gospel to introverts like myself. But introverted or extroverted, living in community requires creativity because we must learn how to define, accept and express our unique selves in the context of relationship. And creativity takes courage.

C.S. Lewis once said, “Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point.” True courage can feel, at times, terrifyingly elusive. But when it is found, its beauty and value are beyond measure.

more introverted than you know, more social than I realize

Not too long ago, I read this book by Adam McHugh called Introverts in the Church. As soon as I heard the title, I knew it was something I had needed to read for a long time. When I reached the last page, I let out a long exhale of relief as I felt for the first time that someone had helped put words to some fundamental aspects of who I am and why I operate in the ways that I do as an introvert. Not only does McHugh help articulate these things that I until now only vaguely recognized in myself, but he validates the strengths and giftings in introverts which often can go unrecognized or even be looked down upon in a society that truly does seem to be much more strongly geared towards extroverts. The guilt that I have experienced in feeling like I somehow had less of a “heart for people” because of my fairly strong need for solitude is slowly dissipating, and I find this both healing and liberating.

McHugh provides a wonderful summary of common attributes of introverts. I identified unhesitatingly with each one – some more than others, but definitely saw each of these in me to a fairly significant degree:

–       Prefer to relax alone or with a few close friends

–       Consider only deep relationships as friends

–       Need rest after outside activities, even ones we enjoy

–       Often listen but talk a lot about topics of importance to us

–       Appear calm, self-contained and like to observe

–       Tend to think before we speak or act

–       May prefer a quiet atmosphere

–       Experience our minds going blank in groups or under pressure

–       Don’t like feeling rushed

–       Have great powers of concentration

–       Dislike small talk

–       Are territorial – desire private space and time

–       May treat their homes as their sanctuaries

–       Prefer to work on own rather than with a group

–       May prefer written communication

–       Do not share private thoughts with many people

I am learning now to not only embrace but also cultivate my strengths as an introvert, and it has been wonderfully life-giving. I would even dare to call it exhilarating. I am more comfortable with silence, particularly with my patients and their family members. I used to feel as though I needed to always be able to talk it up with them to put them at ease. But I am finding that sometimes, they appreciate the space to think and rest after being inundated with so many people and so much information, not to mention the inner emotional and mental battles that come with being in an intensive care unit. I also feel that McHugh’s book sparked a new fire in me to write, take photographs, and write some more. McHugh talks about how introverts often appear calm on the exterior but our inner worlds are always “noisy.” Writing has given me a place to filter and share a bit of that noisy inner world in a way that comes more naturally for me. It has been encouraging to find that some people have been edified by my photography and writing, and I am grateful for those of you who visit and dialogue with me in this space.

A good number of people have expressed surprise when I tell them that I am an introvert, and a strong one at that. Some have told me that I am the most social introvert they know. What I have concluded is that I am more introverted than people know, and more social than I realize. It is both a good and hard tension to live in.

I have appreciated McHugh’s website a great deal, and I am excited that he accepted a guest blog post that I submitted about the introverted worship leader. I feel that he is reaching a significant number of people, and I feel very honored and humbled to participate in his dialogue in this small way. Please check out the post and his site, and I strongly encourage you to check out his book, for yourself and/or for the introverts around you.

the (he)art of conversation

I’m always fascinated by people who have a way of making anyone and everyone feel as though they have known each other for years. My roommate in college during freshman year was this way. This worked out rather well for me, as all types of people would come knocking on our door, reducing the amount of effort I had to make to meet new people. I was dismayed to find, however, that just because people showed up at our door didn’t mean that I was going to know how to connect well with them myself. Compared to my gregarious roommate, I was shy, awkward. There is something to be said about the art of conversation.

There is, in fact, much to be said about the art of conversation. But at the heart of every genuine exchange between two people, at least those exchanges that are free of hidden agendas, is the desire within a person that says,

Find me here, where I am, and know a bit of me.

I think of the deaf patient I met who could ‘listen’ by reading what people wrote out for her. A slight inconvenience for a busy nurse? Undeniably, yes. The temptation to dismiss the value of that extra effort was real. But it became so readily apparent that she was significantly more at ease when I took the time to explain to her what I was about to do with the syringe in my hand, or why I needed to uncover her and probe at her in such personal ways. The written conversations were important in recognizing that she was very much present, in her quiet world, fearful and anxious about her condition, needing as much explanation and reassurance as any other person would. Would it hurt? How long was this going to take? Is this ok? Am I ok? Her nods and brief written replies let me know that she was ok. Less anxious. Increasingly at ease with me as her nurse. And I in turn became increasingly at ease with her. I found out a bit more about her, as she did about me.

I think of the elderly woman I met years ago during my years of research in nursing homes. The one who meant to tell stories about her son’s new baby, who meant to say “It’s nice to see you today” or “I feel sort of lonely today,” but when she opened her mouth to form the words, all that ever came out, in varying inflections, was “Doh doh doh doh doh doh.” That fateful stroke robbed her of all vocabulary but this one solitary word. She was, however, sharp as a tack and could understand everything being said to her. And so we had our conversations. I told her stories that I thought she might find interesting. I tried to remember not to ask questions requiring more than a “yes” or “no”… or in this case, a nod or a shake of the head, accompanied by “doh” with the appropriately corresponding inflection of her voice. I flinched when she would clearly be asking me a question, “Doh doh doh doh doh… doh?” and held my breath when I answered yes or no, hoping I had answered appropriately. Her shock at my response to one of her questions told me I had clearly misunderstood what she had asked, and so I quickly corrected myself, and she seemed sufficiently satisfied. Oh the adventures those conversations were! She wanted to be found and known beyond her limited vocabulary. And she was wonderful. I miss her.

I think of the recent immigrants who were uncertain about visiting a new church, our church, for fear that their English was too poor to connect meaningfully with anyone. They wavered for a while about whether or not to come visit. They smiled and nodded politely at people who talked at otherwise normal speed, but the translation process in their minds could not keep up. The ways they subconsciously brightened up when people spoke slowly, simply, or with a few phrases of their native tongue, revealed their relief at being freed for even just a moment from that gnawing sense of isolation. Please find me here inside my not-yet-bilingual world, and know a bit of me.

It has taken me a long time to understand, much less appreciate, the ways I am wired as an introvert. I love to sit back and just listen to people talk, but don’t tend to interject very often. I am handicapped with chit-chat. I feel uncomfortable entering into large gatherings of people I don’t know very well. I get nervous when I tell stories in groups, even in groups of people that I know and love. I tend to be rather reticent about volunteering a lot of personal information on my own initiative, but curiously I love being asked questions and tend to warm up to inquisitive people much faster. I too want to be found and known a bit by others.

There is so much to be learned from the art of conversation.